Counterflows: Issue #16

A weekly newsletter with stories, ideas and tools to feed your curiosity. Made with love by Lauren Razavi.

I’ve been connecting with a lot of newly-redundant journalists over the past few weeks. Most have been abruptly swept into freelancing through no fault of their own. Their first move is often to start pitching half-baked stories and accept any old gig, no matter how low paid. It’s an understandable response, but a terrible strategy.

Let’s be honest: few people make a living by writing the occasional longform feature for literary magazines like Joan Didion and co did in the heyday of the 1970s. Anyone who does probably doesn’t do it by writing listicles for fifty bucks a pop either.

My advice to frustrated former staffers is to take a step back and think carefully about what made you decide to write in the first place. Why are stories important? What does your work give you, on a human level? Next, I tell them to consider how their skills, knowledge and energy can be best applied in this new phase — and how they’ll use those things to create corners of the internet to thrive in.

People who’ve been on traditional career paths tend to think in very limited terms about their options, so this reflection time is essential. You have to identify what makes you unique, what you can do with it, and how you’ll create a “company of one” that’s meaningful to you and adds something valuable to the global conversation.

Journalists were once beholden to the whims of advertisers, but more of them will be accountable directly to the public in the 2020s. The talent that was locked away in newsrooms can now flourish in virtual environments. I’m looking forward to seeing what this fresh cohort of knowledge workers does with the opportunity.


PS: I wrote a Twitter thread last week (my first). People seemed to find it useful, and these emails are a bit like a scrapbook I hope to give my kids someday, so I wanted to share that little win here too:

Thanks so much to anyone who liked, RT’d or commented. This was a spontaneous (read: procrastination-driven) experiment, but it’s encouraged me to think about what else I can share in this format.


The Big Idea: Virtual Writing Communities

Writing might seem old-fashioned in the era of TikTok and YouTube, but the form is having a renaissance on the internet. With more people and companies turning to distributed work, mastery of asynchronous (non-instant) forms of communication like writing is now crucial to productivity, for individuals and teams.

So how can newbies get started with the craft of writing? And how can experienced practitioners keep developing? Enter London Writers’ Salon. Parul Bavishi and Matt Trinetti have created a virtual community of writers from across the globe, and it’s one of my favourites stories of the pivot to a digital operation.

Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, journalism, newsletters, blog posts or something else entirely, come to The Writers’ Hour on weekday mornings (UK time) and build your sustainable writing habit with the support of 100+ colleagues.

Learn more


Maker of the Week: Anna Codrea-Rado

Anna is a journalist, podcaster and activist who has published with titles like The New York Times, The Paris Review, Wired and Monocle. She’s also co-host of the Is This Working? podcast and an ally to fellow freelancers, actively campaigning for fair pay and better policy.

There are only a handful of writers who take me outside myself when I read them, and Anna is one. Her stories are carefully chosen and crafted; her words are sharp and powerful; her perspective draws you in, makes you think, and teaches you something valuable about the world.

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Anna’s courageous and creative, and she motivates me to be smarter and more ambitious. We’ve been friends and collaborators for eight years now, and we always seem to reconnect at important moments in our careers.

Sign up for The Professional Freelancer, Anna's weekly newsletter about making a sustainable self-employed living as a writer.

Anna's Substack


Handpicked for You

📅 Finding Your Niche for a Profitable Freelance Business

We have a handful of tickets left for this week’s masterclass, so I have a last-minute discount exclusively for newsletter subscribers: use code CTF25 to reserve your spot for just £15. There’s also an early-bird ticket option for all three July sessions here.

Buy tickets

🗞️ “The Writer as Influencer” by Allegra Hobbs

I became a Study Hall patron right away after reading this excellent culture piece from one of the collective’s staff writers. It asks whether we’ve reached the point where writers have to be influencers, or whether they have been all along.

🎧 Longform Podcast Meets Jeff Maysh

How do you tell winning stories every time? Longform writer Jeff Maysh — best known for this insane piece about the McDonalds Monopoly game, which is now a documentary series on HBO — deep-dives into pitching, writing and money.


Support Counterflows

Each week, I curate stories, ideas, tools and resources for curious people around the world. All the content featured in these emails and on laurenrazavi.com is available for free to everyone.

If you enjoy what I publish, show your support by sending me a virtual coffee from time to time:

Buy me a coffee

Here are some other ways you can help out:

  1. Forward this email to a friend and tell them to sign up.

  2. Spread the word about Counterflows on social media.

  3. Say hello! Hit reply to share your thoughts and feedback.

  4. Leave a comment on this week’s newsletter.

Thanks for reading 🙏

-Lauren

Counterflows: Issue #15

A weekly newsletter with stories, ideas and tools to feed your curiosity. Made with love by Lauren Razavi.

This month marks my 10th year as a freelancer. It's been a wild ride.

I started out as a lone wolf. I became a consultant in the music industry, then a travel writer, then a foreign correspondent, then a Google editor.

I reported from more than 30 countries in just three years — and somehow found time to get a politics degree and a creative writing MA on the side. I also ran Guardian Masterclasses and won Young Freelancer of the Year at the IPSE Awards.

This all sounds impressive, and it was good fun, but I had no direction in my career while any of this was happening. I was also a bit of a workaholic. But I was experimenting, and learning a ton about myself and the world. I yearned for something else, though — to build something.

So I started a consultancy in my hometown. I took on an office, employed people and went to local networking events. We won some awards and built up decent revenue. But I hated every minute of it. Who the hell was I to tell anyone how to work in a traditional company anyway? I had no experience of doing that myself. The whole thing was a disaster.

After this failed venture, I got depressed. I'd made poor decisions, and they'd cost me friends, opportunities and happiness. I questioned whether I still wanted to write and considered training as a chef. I was only 24, I told myself, and young people swap professions all the time.

In the end, I took on the role of managing editor for the future of work at Google. I became a subject specialist, and I built and managed distributed teams of freelancers to deliver ambitious research and editorial projects.

Working for a big tech firm didn’t ultimately fit with my personal mission or preferred pace, but all these experiences have led me here.

I probably wouldn't have started writing this newsletter or felt ready to tackle my first book if things had happened differently. I almost definitely wouldn't have had the confidence or skills to create what I have today: a "company of one" supported by a distributed and handpicked team of collaborators.

*NEW* Freelancing Masterclasses

A decade is a long time, and I've learned a lot. Next month, I'll be sharing some of that knowledge in three masterclasses alongside Tiffany Philippou and Jess Shanahan. Join us for the first one on Thursday 2nd July at 5pm UK time. We'll focus on helping you find the right niche for your own company of one.

Buy tickets


The Big Idea: Distributed Companies

Brands like Twitter, Facebook and Slack have recently announced they'll be operating as "remote-first" companies going forward. Borderless recruitment has been a big tech trend for years: they choose the best talent for the job, with little regard for location.

The public conversation so far has centred on how pay scales will work for employees based in different places, but the more interesting question is how this changes the status quo around business structures and how work gets done.

Companies in the knowledge economy will have to be distributed by design — with no centralised HQ to be "remote" from — to compete. That goes for smaller businesses and freelance "companies of one" just as much as bigger players.

There are so many questions about the uncoupling of work and location. What does distributed work mean for our lifestyles and identities? How will we live differently in future?

Leave a comment


Maker of the Week: Alix Bolle

Alix Bolle is responsible for EU policy and strategic partnerships at Energy Cities. I say “responsible for” rather than “in charge of” because Alix’s organisation is distributed, multi-disciplinary and flat.

That means the experts that make up the network come from a range of fields, they work from wherever they are, and there’s no system of hierarchy (i.e. nobody is anybody else’s boss).

Alix and I met while I was working on the Future Cities Scotland longform project with Nile earlier this year (we collaborated on this story about Aberdeen’s transition to renewable energy). I’ve been blown away by her fearless approach to living the future of work, even though her core focus is elsewhere — in coordinating city-to-city collaboration and facilitating transitions to renewable energy.

The Energy Cities team has found that distributed work is valuable too: many projects have blossomed from one person’s idea, shared in ways that wouldn’t be replicated in traditional structures.

Learn more


Handpicked for You

🗞️ “It’s Time To Build” by Marc Andreessen

The legendary venture capitalist Marc Andreessen argues the pandemic has highlighted the fractures in our systems of work, education and government globally. Now, he says, we need to establish future-proof infrastructure to unlock human potential and, ultimately, build a better and more prosperous world.

🎧 Distributed Meets Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp

Basecamp CEO Jason Fried speaks to WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg about the human challenges of running a distributed organisation, highlighting the importance of treating workers like adults. With reports of companies using surveillance software on remote employees during lockdown, Fried's thoughts are certainly welcome.

🖥️ Open Collective: “organising the internet generation”

Open Collective helps collaborative projects and community groups get organised, raise funds and work transparently online. It's used by a lot of prominent open-source coders whose work is behind products from Microsoft and Airbnb. If you’re interested in trialling distributed structures IRL, grab some friends and launch a collective.


Support Counterflows

Each week, I curate stories, ideas, tools and resources for curious people around the world. All the content featured in these emails and on laurenrazavi.com is available for free to everyone.

If you enjoy what I publish, show your support by sending me a virtual coffee from time to time:

Buy me a coffee

Here are some other ways you can help out:

  1. Forward this email to a friend and tell them to sign up.

  2. Spread the word about Counterflows on social media.

  3. Say hello! Hit reply to share your thoughts and feedback.

  4. Leave a comment on this week’s newsletter.

Thanks for reading 🙏

-Lauren

Counterflows: Issue #14

A weekly newsletter with stories, ideas and tools to feed your curiosity. Made with love by Lauren Razavi.

Folks in Silicon Valley are upset because they aren’t having as many chance meetings under lockdown. Poor darlings. Definitely the most pressing problem to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic so far, amirite?

Anyway, this led to an interesting Twitter conversation about how bullshit that idea is — of distributed work somehow removing serendipity from the equation — to those of us who have been living and working globally for the past decade.

Silicon Valley’s ecosystem is organised specifically to facilitate “chance” meetings. It’s not difficult to create or access that same serendipity online. Bonus: equivalent virtual ecosystems can include a much wider variety of people. Chance meetings already happen all the time in virtual environments. Think about how you came to be reading this email. I bet you can trace it back to a digital interaction.

Of course, distributed work doesn’t mean you won’t ever see or meet anybody in the physical world. Your professional interactions might be online, but you’ll still need to drink, eat, shop, socialise, and be entertained. That creates lots of opportunity for IRL human connection.

Instead of spending time with people just like you in an office, you become involved with the “watercooler chat” of your local community by visiting hubs like coffee shops and lunch venues. Freelancers and digital nomads have been doing this for years. The result? More encounters between people of different backgrounds and perspectives. That has so many benefits.

Silicon Valley’s models of work and business are beginning to feel outdated and irrelevant. So isn’t it about time for some fresh, borderless thinking?


PS: My pal and collaborator Anna Codrea-Rado is asking freelance writers to submit their recent assignment rates. She hopes to improve our understanding of the relationship between pay gaps, ethnicity and gender among freelancers. Participate anonymously below.


The Big Idea: Niche Celebrities

The days of everybody following the same stars in weekly gossip rags are behind us. Nobody can keep up with all the YouTubers, Twitch streamers, Instagrammers and TikTok users in 2020.

For example, have you ever stood next to a friend as they encounter an idol and had no idea who it was? These moments are a gentle reminder that everybody constructs their own universe through the information they access and the content they consume.

As more interaction moves online, people are creating small but global communities around shared interests. These communities come with their own characters and tastemakers. The concept of celebrity is fragmenting; niche celebrities are what comes next.

Advertising spends are already moving in this direction. Individual influencers with small but highly engaged audiences appeal more than media juggernauts haphazardly serving broader churches. Increasingly, specialisation is king.

Leave a comment


Maker of the Week: Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh is a bestselling writer of books and TV. He’s also a columnist for The Observer, editor of The Good Journal, and co-founder of The Good Literacy Agency — among a few other roles and titles.

TIME Magazine recently named him one of twelve leaders shaping the next generation of artists, he’s been shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights Award, and he was one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers in 2016.

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What I admire most about Nikesh is that he pursues variety in his work without ever compromising on quality or principles. His projects are always carefully conceived, and he consistently champions underrepresented voices.

If you’re not familiar with Nikesh yet, start with The Good Immigrant — a collection of first-person essays examining the British cultural conversation around race. He edited the anthology and wrote the introduction.

Buy the book


Handpicked for You

📺 TED Talk: Amanda Palmer on The Art of Asking

An early adopter of couchsurfing and crowdfunding, the outspoken artist shares her story of building a creative career and deepening her relationship with fans — by asking them directly for help, support, and cash.

🗞️ “1,000 True Fans? Try 100” by Li Jin

In 2008, Wired editor Kevin Kelly made a prediction: that the internet would enable people to make their living as online creators with just 1,000 fans. This article updates the theory and argues that, these days, 100 fans are all you need.

📖 “New Power” by Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms

How does the internet help spread ideas and spawn global movements? This book explores the question, with sharp commentary on the rise of Me Too and Black Lives Matter. Think of it as a crash course in how to market important ideas in the 21st century.


Support Counterflows

Each week, I curate stories, ideas, tools and resources for curious people around the world. All the content featured in these emails and on laurenrazavi.com is available for free to everyone.

If you enjoy what I publish, show your support by sending me a virtual coffee from time to time:

Buy me a coffee

Here are some other ways you can help out:

  1. Forward this email to a friend and tell them to sign up.

  2. Spread the word about Counterflows on social media.

  3. Say hello! Hit reply to share your thoughts and feedback.

  4. Leave a comment on this week’s newsletter.

Thanks for reading 🙏

-Lauren

Counterflows: Issue #13

A weekly newsletter with stories, ideas and tools to feed your curiosity. Made with love by Lauren Razavi.

On Saturday night, I tuned in for Laura Marling's livestream gig at London's Union Chapel. We all have that special relationship with certain artists or records, and Laura’s music always seems to soundtrack important moments in my life.

Watching her play to an empty church really brought it home how much the world has changed during the pandemic. I yearned to be there, haunted that I’d taken for granted sitting in those pews and witnessing life-affirming sets over the years.

Yet seeing Laura play up close in this digital live format — in real-time but physically far away — offered something new too.

Compared to an offline gig, there were some obvious benefits. The sound quality was spectacular, the close-range camera shots were great, and every audience member sat comfortably and saw everything (short people like me will especially appreciate that last part).

There were also drawbacks. There was an absence of a build-up and build-down, there was a lack of “in-the-room” atmosphere, and there was no opportunity for human connection between artist and observer. But there was another layer of interaction, and it’s one I hadn’t thought about much in this context before: online community.

Given it was a remote performance with a distributed audience of gig-goers, I was able to “attend” this gig with friends in four different countries. We watched the show simultaneously, and scheduled time to catch up before and chat after. For those with friends and family located globally — or just people who enjoy making friends online — livestream gigs offer the chance to connect around music as a borderless, internet experience. That’s exciting.

I don’t think livestream gigs will replace getting sweaty with other people in venues with sticky floors for the long-term. There’s just too much fun to be had doing that, as I learned working in the music industry early in my career.

But the model is established now: people are willing to pay money for tickets and attend digital gigs in their thousands. The choice between online and offline gigs could soon be standard for music fans.

It seems that the future of live music looks…kind of like the future of work.

💌 Subscribe Now


PS: Counterflows reader Jade Hammond of Rosa Foundation asked me to share details of this emergency fund to support women in need. The pandemic has caused an uptick in demand for vital services, so Rosa are raising £250k to distribute amongst the small, specialist organisations that provide them. Send them your spare change if you can.


The Big Idea: The Future of Living

So often when we talk about the future, we focus on work. Understandably so. It’s how most people spend 40 hours of their week — longer if you count commuting and out-of-hours emails — so it’s an area deserving of our scrutiny.

But if lockdown has taught us anything, surely it’s that we should move beyond talking about work alone and turn our attention to the future of living in general, as I said on Twitter last week:

Conversations around stuff like the usefulness of Zoom meetings and the morality of employee surveillance will continue, but let’s be honest: it all got boring weeks ago. Now it’s just incomprehensible news feed noise.

What’s the future of culture, art, play, creativity, travel, friendship, love, and human connection? Don’t these areas also deserve our attention? What does the future feel like? What will it be like to experience it?

I’ll delve into this in the coming weeks, but for now, I’d love to hear what you find most interesting about the future of living. Hit reply or click the button below to get in touch with your thoughts.

📤 Email Me


Maker of the Week: Lauretta Ihonor

Like most people, I pretty much fell in love with Lauretta within minutes of meeting her. She’s a trailblazing portfolio careerist with an incredible vibrancy about her.

Lauretta has changed careers five times. First, she graduated medical school and became a doctor. Then she decided to pursue work in the fashion industry, becoming a stylist with Net a Porter and L’Oreal. Then she started reporting for CNN, BBC and Sky News. After that, she became a nutritional consultant.

These days, she’s an entrepreneur and creator — and, of course, a proven master when it comes to climbing the career ladder and breaking into new industries.

Lauretta is awesome because she’s bold, fearless and intuitive. She’s a true portfolio careerist who proves time and time again that she can do anything she puts her mind to.

Now, she’s helping others do the same through The Ambition Plan, a media and learning platform aiming to guide people from confusion to clarity in their careers.

⭐ Visit Website


Handpicked for You

🎧 Is This Working: “We don’t want to go back to normal”

In their final podcast episode of the season, freelancers Anna Codrea-Rado and Tiffany Philippou review what they’ve learned about work, creativity and life under lockdown. From wellbeing routines and personal productivity to the pursuit of meaning and satisfaction in work and play, they conclude that lockdown has changed everyone for good. Things can’t go back to normal after this; the definition of “normal” has shifted forever.

🗞️ “We can’t breathe” by Gary Younge

Gary is one of the finest writers and thinkers of our times. Reading his work and talking to him has enriched my writing and perspective every step of the way. I worked for the Guardian when he was its editor-at-large and he generously helped me navigate decisions, apply for fellowships and dream big as a working-class kid from nowhere. In this longform piece for New Statesman, Gary reflects on his experience in post-Katrina New Orleans, the US race riots, and the impact of coronavirus on people of colour.

🖥️ Crowdcast - “interactive live conversations at scale”

Potentially controversial opinion: I love the webinar format and I really hope it stays popular beyond the pandemic. I’ve attended masterclasses in London over lunch and workshops over dinner in New York these past few weeks. I’ve spoken on loads and run one of my own. I’m super inspired by all the global conversations that are suddenly happening. But, damn, Zoom webinar packages are expensive. Crowdcast is a more interactive and affordable alternative that focuses more on creators.


Support Counterflows

Each week, I curate stories, ideas, tools and resources for curious people around the world. All the content featured in these emails and on laurenrazavi.com is available for free to everyone.

If you enjoy what I publish, show your support by sending me a virtual coffee from time to time:

☕ Buy Me A Coffee

Here are some other ways you can help out:

  1. Forward this email to a friend and tell them to sign up.

  2. Spread the word about Counterflows on social media.

  3. Say hello! Hit reply to share your thoughts and feedback.

Thanks for reading 🙏

-Lauren

Counterflows: Issue #12

A weekly newsletter with stories, ideas and tools to feed your curiosity. Made with love by Lauren Razavi.

One of the projects I'm working on will launch publicly soon. With that on the horizon, I've been asking myself: What does it take to start something new?

When most people launch a new project, they tend to tackle the challenge like this:

  1. Think of business idea

  2. Create 12-month plan

  3. Come up with name

  4. Design logo

  5. Launch website

  6. Claim social media handles

  7. Register company

  8. Start operating

Is this list familiar? We’ve all taken this approach to projects and experienced the disappointment of losing momentum. While some of these actions do need to be taken, focusing primarily on these eight steps can lead you down the wrong path. You run the risk of your enthusiasm for the idea waning by the time you execute.

This list of tasks doesn’t create a business. It produces a hollow brand instead. You probably have no idea what to do with it now it exists.

If you haven’t figured out what happens next, all eight of these standard launch activities are fundamentally unimportant. If you manage to haphazardly win your first customer, the real work begins there: figuring out how to deliver on the promise.

In this scenario, you’re likely to run out of steam before ever really getting started.

I think there are better ways. Here's an alternative step-by-step:

  1. Think of business idea

  2. Scale it down to a single project

  3. Sell it to someone in your existing network

  4. Run that single project to validate the idea

  5. Get feedback and figure out how to improve

  6. Create a case study to showcase what you did

The idea here is to put time and energy into high-value but low-effort actions and avoid low-value but high-effort actions at all costs. In essence, it’s about getting down and dirty — doing the actual work, not just the planning. Making stuff.

The worst potential outcome of this approach is that you end up with a portfolio of cool projects that tell a story about who you are and what you think is important. That’s a lot better than a long list of non-starter businesses.

Next time you want to launch something new, do yourself a favour and skip the unnecessary steps. Strip the idea back to basics, be self-critical, and simply get going.

As always, hit reply to share your feedback—I’d love to hear from you.

-Lauren


The Big Idea: Shanzhai Culture

I’ve had a few people ask me if it’s OK to copy my formats or adopt my strategies recently. The answer is almost always yes. I just want them to improve on it somehow and share it onwards. That’s how the internet should work.

These conversations got me thinking about an idea I covered in my column for Inverse a few years back: the Chinese copycat culture known as “shanzhai”.

The word literally means “fake” and was coined to describe knock-off phones with names like Nokir and Samsing. These were actually as good or better than the originals. After all, the same factory workers making them build the Nokia and Samsung phones for a living too.

Over the past decade, the technology company Xiaomi — simply “Mi” internationally, because X’s are hard — conquered the Chinese market with cheap iPhone clones. Then it entered the global market as its own brand.

A culture that started in the tech city of Shenzhen has spread across Chinese life. Apparently, there’s even a shanzhai Harry Potter. We see all this as piracy in the West, but in Chinese culture, originals are continually transformed and deconstructed.

What can we learn from this way of thinking? Is there potential waiting to be unlocked?

📰 Read Story


Maker of the Week: Xavier Damman

This week's maker hails from Brussels, Belgium but he spent the last decade working in the US, splitting his time between San Francisco and New York. A coder and entrepreneur by trade, Xavier Damman is founder of Storify and Open Collective.

He’s also a loud-and-proud Extinction Rebellion activist. He’s currently in an amusing a battle of wits with the municipality over the future of a community garden he and his daughter constructed in a parking space.

Working with Xavier over the years has taught me a valuable lesson: the person who acts first wins. If you spend too long convincing yourself that an idea won't work or discussing the details of how to go about doing it, you lose the energy and spirit. It might never happen. So cut the bullshit and don't hesitate — act instead.

🌐 Visit Website


Handpicked for You

🗞️ “The Many Lives of Sharon Van Etten” by Joe Coscarelli

Sharon Van Etten has released five studio albums, composed a film score, starred in a critically-acclaimed Netflix show, had one child and is currently working towards a degree in psychology. She’s creative and portfolio careerist in the truest sense of the words, and this New York Times profile from last year captures the excitement and struggle of her creative life perfectly. It should remind us: this isn’t just my work, this is my life.

📺 How To Grow A Resilient Freelance Business Talk

Last week, I collaborated with Anna Codrea-Rado of The Professional Freelancer on this webinar. We talked about how to build personal resilience, how to take your first steps in outsourcing, the importance of collaboration and the future of freelancing. We had 70+ people join us live and got great feedback, so I wanted to share the session here too. Watch it on YouTube (above) or read a full transcript of our conversation. I’ll try to write up a summary blog post for my website soon.

🎧 Freelance Pod Meets Parul Bavishi

In this podcast series, BBC broadcaster Suchandrika Chakrabarti interviews creative freelancers who are challenging the status quo to build careers on the internet. This episode meets book editor and London Literary Salon co-founder Parul Bavishi. She discusses writing and editing in a pandemic and how she accidentally created a global Zoom community under lockdown, with plenty of tips to strengthen your creative practice. You can also join Parul’s daily and weekly writing sessions.


Support Counterflows

Each week, I curate stories, ideas, tools and resources for curious people around the world. All the content featured in these emails and on laurenrazavi.com is available for free to everyone.

If you enjoy what I publish, show your support by sending me a virtual coffee from time to time:

☕ Buy Me A Coffee

Here are some other ways you can help out:

  1. Forward this email to a friend and tell them to sign up.

  2. Spread the word about Counterflows on social media.

  3. Say hello! Hit reply to share your thoughts and feedback.

Thanks for reading 🙏

-Lauren

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