The 9th [nearly] annual Christmas stuffing post

I didn’t do one of these posts last year because my campaign to have something other than turkey for Christmas dinner finally paid off — we had beef. But we’re back to turkey this year; turkey, prunes wrapped in bacon, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and two types of stuffing. Both stuffings, as usual, were made with a base of sausagemeat, bread, onion, and celery; one was chestnut and mushroom (again), and for the other one, I added pecans and dried figs steeped in Marsala. Which was very nice, though I do say so myself.

Followed by (shop-bought) Christmas pudding, which was alright, although personally I’d rather have trifle every year.

Also the Sri Lankan Christmas cake recipe I’ve done for the past two years, and a ham boiled in ginger beer and baked with a brown sugar and mustard glaze.

Garlicky herby creamed aubergine

A way of cooking aubergines I invented — although it’s pretty similar to various middle-eastern dishes that already exist.

This recipe starts by roasting and mashing three large aubergines (eggplants). So if you’ve never done that: basically just chuck the whole aubergines into a hot oven for maybe 45 minutes. They visibly collapse in on themselves. Scoop out the cooked interior and chop it in a colander to drain off some liquid, then mash it up with a fork or something.

That’s the base of the dish.

I fried three cloves of crushed garlic and a finely chopped shallot — you don’t have to cook them too hard, you just don’t want them to be raw — and mixed that in with the aubergine purée, plus a few spoonfuls of yoghurt and a bit of salt. Then heated it through, and stirred in chopped parsley, coriander (cilantro) and chives — perhaps a handful of each. And it was very nice.

My new vegetarian lasagne recipe

I don’t see veggie lasagne on menus as much as I used to — the chefs getting more sophisticated with their vegetarian options, I guess — but it used to be an absolute staple.

I was never very keen on it, though: the most common recipe was made with roasted vegetables, and to my taste it was just too sweet. It didn’t have the rich, savoury, earthy quality of a good meat lasagne. Too much treble, not enough bass. I have the same problem with a lot of meat lasagnes, incidentally: too sweet and tomatoey.

So for ages I’ve had the idea at the back of my head to try and come up with a better recipe for a vegetarian lasagne. The starting point was mushrooms, which are an obvious way of getting that savoury, umami, ‘meaty’ quality. Particularly if you’re generous with the dried porcini.

And the other thing I discovered recently was that spinach works surprisingly well in a tomato sauce or a meat sauce. I’m not keen on cooked spinach on its own, but if you chop it and incorporate it into a tomato sauce or a meat sauce, it really adds something.

So that’s the basic concept: a mushroom, tomato and spinach sauce to replace the meat part of the lasagne; layered with pasta sheets, bechamel and cheese in the normal way. And it was really nice. It had some sweetness, but not too much, and loads of rich savoury flavour.

The specifics were as follows:

Pour boiling water over some dried porcini and leave to soak for an hour (I used maybe 15g of porcini in a cup or two of water), then squeeze them out and save the soaking water.

Fry a couple of finely shopped shallots in a saucepan with chopped fresh thyme and rosemary for a few minutes.

Add chopped fresh mushrooms (I think it was a 300g box?), the chopped porcini, and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, and cook them down a bit.

Add a tin of tomatoes, the porcini soaking water, and half a glass of red wine. Simmer away for maybe 45 minutes to thicken it and give the flavours a chance to meld together.

Cook the spinach (I got a couple of bags of pre-washed supermarket spinach and cooked them in the microwave), drain it, chop it, and mix into the sauce.

And then you’re ready to layer it up with the white sauce and the pasta and stick it in the oven.

The 8th annual Christmas stuffing post (and trifle and cake)

This year: a return to the old standby of chestnut and mushroom for the savoury one, and apricot pineapple and ginger for the fruity one. If you really want to details of the recipe, check back to previous stuffing posts.

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And this year I made a trifle because I’m not a huge fan of Christmas pudding and it seemed like a sufficiently Christmassy alternative. From bottom to top, it’s chocolate sponge, cherries in syrup, grated chocolate, vanilla custard, cherry jam, whipped cream, decorated with glacé cherries, gold balls and iridescent sprinkles. A Black Forest gateau type thing.

To be really picky, it could have have less sponge and/or more liquid to soak it in (I would have added booze but I was serving small children), and more custard. But it was nice anyway.

IMG_1396 2

And I made a christmas cake for the first time this year. It’s a Sri Lankan recipe from Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Asian Cookbook, and it’s very much in the mould of a traditional European Christmas cake, but with more spices and a more interesting mix of fruit. I substituted ground almonds for the semolina for gluten-free purposes. It turned out really well, recognisably a Christmas cake but much better than the usual. Note, though, it is seriously rich: one slice is almost too much to eat at a time.

Salty salty goodness

I got a curry delivered tonight, and when I tasted one of the dishes (lamb shatkora, since you ask), I immediately thought ooh, that’s nice, and then a few mouthfuls later I realised that actually, it was badly over-salted.

And that in fact they were the same thing: my brain interpreted salt as ‘tastiness’, even though it was so salty that I threw most of it away.

No wonder the food we eat is unhealthy, when we are so easily fooled by salt and sugar and fat.

…mmmm, salt and sugar and fat.

» The photo of a traditional sea salt plant at on the Canary Islands is © the tαttσσed tentαcle and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Pumpkin and chocolate chip cookies

I roasted some slices of pumpkin (or technically some kind of green pumpkin shaped squash) as a vegetable, and there was some left over. So I invented pumpkin and chocolate chip cookies:

It’s a fairly basic cookie recipe with oats, chopped roasted pumpkin and chopped dark chocolate. They’re not the most amazing thing I’ve ever cooked, but they’re OK. Might have been better with a slightly sweeter chocolate, but I just used what was in the fridge, which was very dark.

The 7th annual Christmas stuffing post

It’s time for the most pointless Christmas tradition of them all! We’re having goose this year instead of turkey, but naturally I’m doing stuffing to go with it.

As usual I’ve made two versions using a base of sausagemeat. Normally they both have sausage, onion, celery, breadcrumbs and egg, but my sister isn’t eating wheat, so this time I skipped the breadcrumbs. Hopefully it won’t adversely affect the texture too much.

I was bored of doing chestnut and mushroom, but my mother insisted that the meal had to include chestnuts somewhere, so one stuffing is apple and chestnut. It has Bramley apple, chestnuts, parsley, thyme, some Calvados and the liver from the goose.

The other one is a repeat from 2007: cherry, apricot, almond and ginger. Dried apricots and sour cherries, some almonds, candied stem ginger, a pinch of mixed spice and some brandy. Oh and the cherries were a bit old so I soaked them in Grand Marnier overnight first.

Belated France follow-up, French civic geekery edition

I know I’ve been back for a while now, but there was one thing I’ve been meaning to blog about. The place we were staying was only a village, really, but in the best French manner it had a town square with a handsome town hall, in front of which was an obelisk-shaped monument that looked like it might be a memorial to the dead of the Great War, or just an ornamental drinking fountain.

But when I wandered over to look at a face carved into the top of the obelisk, it turned out to be Galileo. Which seemed a bit odd. Surely the great man had no connection to this little village in Languedoc? And on the other side was a portrait of Isaac Newton. But it gets better:

Yup, as a nearby sign explained, this is a monument in honour of the metric system, erected by the mayor of St-Victor La-Coste in 1888 for the centenary of the French Revolution.

Admittedly, given that the French revolution was, among other things, a brutal, blood-drenched clash of social classes competing for the chance to wield power, it might be seen as whitewashing to memorialise it as a rationalist Enlightenment project typified by a sensible reform of the system of measurements. But the French are hardly alone in being selective about the bits of their history they choose to celebrate.

And you know what, the metric system is a pretty great idea. Hurrah for the C19th French provincial bourgeoisie and their civic pride in the ideals of the Enlightenment.

On the other three sides of the obelisk, there are a list of the mayor and local council members who erected it, and some further details about the town. But my favourite bit is this:

I love that boast: ‘The metre adopted in France in 1795; the rest of Europe in 1872’. I’m just surprised they resisted the temptation to add a line saying ‘England: still in the dark ages’.

Originally there were also a thermometer and a barometer attached to the monument, but they have sadly gone.

Incidentally, I just love the typography.

The numerals and the Q are particularly pleasing, but the whole effect is very good; it’s a pretty standard Roman-style inscription but it has a bit of character. Perhaps it’s just the extra personality that comes with being hand carved by a real craftsman; we are surrounded by too much bland computer-generated signage these days. I miss hand-painted shop signs.

The cup that cheers but does not inebriate

I can’t tell you how much it cheers me up to know that coffee has never been convincingly linked to any terrible long term health risk. Unlike booze and salt and fat and all the other little indulgences. It’s a shame I don’t seem to be able to drink it after about 3pm if I want to be able to sleep, but you can’t have everything.

And yes, I know, ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’ was originally applied to tea. But despite all my other reflexive Englishnesses, I’ve always been a coffee drinker, really.

Blogging, Google+ and tangled networks

Dave Bonta’s post about Google+ had me thinking about my relationships with various social networks.

I remember being rather resentful of Facebook because I had carefully carved out a space on the web: this blog. I liked being able to change the way it looked, and to fiddle with the internal workings; and above all I liked being able to post to my own space, without someone else’s corporate logo at the top of it, and someone else’s advertising running down the side.

And having gone to that trouble, it annoyed me to have to set up a new, separate web presence in Facebook’s walled garden, where my stuff would be presented the way Facebook thought was best. At least it wasn’t as bad as MySpace, but it still had a shitty user interface, and a cavalier approach to privacy, and I had to jump through hoops to get the material I was posting to my blog mirrored inside Facebook, and it never quite worked the way I felt it should.

But, that was where my friends were. So that was where I needed to be. And since RSS feeds never quite broke through as a mainstream technology, if I did want any of them to read my blog, there had to be some way to let them know when I posted something. And over time I’ve got used to it and it doesn’t bother me much anymore… until I need to change a setting somewhere, when it drives me nuts.

So that’s Facebook: whatever its other faults, it’s the social network which actually has my friends on it. Perhaps they could use that as a slogan.

Then there’s Twitter. In some ways, Twitter is Facebook with all the crap taken out; no stupid games, no ads, just a string of status updates. Which I like. And I like the fact that the relationships are asymmetrical; you can read their updates without being their ‘friends’. It makes it sort of semi-social in quite a nice way.

But not many people I know are really active on Twitter. The people I follow are mainly a mixture of celebrities, journalists, science writers, nature bloggers and so on. So for me, it’s not actually a social network at all; it’s just an RSS reader with ADHD.

I don’t have a Google+ account yet, but from what I’ve seen it seems like a nice balance between Facebook and Twitter: it has less accumulated cruft than Facebook (so far at least), better privacy controls, and asymmetrical relationships. It’s somewhere between a streamlined Facebook and a beefed-up Twitter. Which sounds like it might be a perfect replacement for both. Except unless the whole world agrees at once to ditch Facebook and Twitter, it won’t actually replace either of them: it will just be another endless stream of stuff to distract us.

Which brings me on to Tumblr. I didn’t actually join Tumblr for its social networking; I was posting lots of links on this blog and wanted to spin those off into a separate site and leave this blog for longer pieces. And rather than create yet another WordPress installation, joining Tumblr seemed an easy way of doing it. But in fact I got sucked into the ‘social’ aspects of looking through other people’s posts, and liking and reblogging them. Not that it feels remotely like a genuinely sociable activity — there’s not much personal connection there — but scanning through other people’s posts is fun, and when they like or reblog my own posts there’s a little hit of positive reinforcement, so it’s quite addictive and a complete timesuck.

And I’ve been enjoying it, but I can’t help feeling that the result has been to weaken this blog and to fragment my online presence even further. I’ve even thought of posting a weekly Tumblr roundup here, of some of the more interesting stuff… which might work quite well but just brings me back to doing a manual version of the automated links which Tumblr was supposed to replace.

In some ways I do want to try Google+; partially because it’s a new toy but also because they seem to have learnt from the mistakes and successes of previous networks. It looks genuinely well-thought-out. But another part of me thinks it’s just madness. I’ve already got an RSS reader, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr on the go, not to mention Goodreads and Flickr: surely I have enough information streams to keep me busy.

And this continuing fragmentation brings me back to my initial objection to social networks: I already have a bit of the internet, thank you, one which I set up years ago and I administer. And I want to be able to put my own website at the centre of my online identity: not my Google profile, not my Facebook page, not my Twitter stream. I know it’s a terribly retro idea, but I like the idea of my own website being my ‘homepage’.

However. That personal preference of mine is hardly the point. I’m sure the last sad users of MySpace had a strong personal preference as well, but in the end they just turned out to be a load of Cnuts. And the number of visitors to this site has been slowly but steadily declining. That is no doubt mainly my own fault for not being interesting enough, but whatever the reason: it’s depressing.

So where does all that leave me? I don’t know, really. Dissatisfied with the status quo but without any good ideas for how to change it.

» The spiderface image is a combination of Hendrik Goltzius’s woodcut portrait of Gillis van Breen from 1588, and The spider, a lithograph by Lily Blatherwick from 1927. Both via the British Museum.

Oxford commas and other peevery

You may have noticed there was a bit of kerfuffle around th’internet [400 comments on Metafilter, for example] about the news that Oxford University Press were dropping their support for the Oxford comma (which they aren’t).

I’m always intrigued by the passion that people bring to this stuff. My feeling about the Oxford comma goes something like this: if a publisher as respectable as the OUP uses it, it’s probably acceptable. And since other equally respectable institutions like the Cambridge University Press prefer not to use it, that must also be acceptable. And since these two competing schools of thought have managed to co-exist for at least a century without doing any apparent damage to literature, journalism or anything else… well, it clearly doesn’t matter very much.

So where does all the anger come from? Why the fierce sense that, if there are two possible variants, one of them must be right, and, even more importantly, the other one must be terribly, terribly wrong?

» Comma (Polygonia c-album) is © Eco Heathen and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Say aaah.

I went to the doctor today about a sore throat; he took a quick look down my throat, made me go aah, asked me where it hurt, and recommended that I just wait for it to get better.

Which is both reassuring — I’m glad he didn’t take one look down my throat and gasp in horror Oh my God, what is that thing? —  and curiously disappointing. Because, you know, you want your doctor to do some doctoring.

He obviously understood this, because he offered to write me a prescription for antibiotics if I really wanted, while making it very clear that he didn’t think I should use it.

Ridiculous though it is, I almost would have been happier to be given some pills which I knew were a placebo and told to take them three times a day.

My [non-existent] Olympic tickets

Well, I finally got confirmation yesterday that out of the nine events I applied for for next year’s London Olympics, I received a total of zero tickets. Which is fucking irritating.

For those who don’t know, it was a ballot system: instead of being first come first served, there was a period of a few weeks when you could decide what to apply for, specifying particular sessions and price ranges, and anything that was oversubscribed was allocated at random.

And now, those of us who were unlucky in the ballot get first dibs on the remaining tickets, which go on sale next Friday. So I went to the website to check availability, and the first sport I checked was tennis; completely sold out. And not just the glamour events, like the men’s semi-finals; all sessions, all prices. All the swimming tickets are gone. And all the gymnastics, the diving, the track cycling, the BMX, the badminton, the equestrian events. There are a few sessions which still have tickets at the table tennis, archery, beach volleyball, rowing, fencing, but those are going to be immediately swamped when tickets go on sale again, I’m sure. There’s even a few tickets left for athletics, but then it is an 76,000 seater venue and they are for morning sessions when it’s all early rounds.

So it’s quite frustrating. I always said I just wanted to go and see something at the Olympics, to be part of the experience while it was in London… but it looks like I really might end up going to see something like greco-roman wrestling, or handball.

If an event is massively popular, a lot of people are going to miss out. Which sucks, but you can’t sell more tickets than there are seats. However: these games had better be played to packed venues, or I will be So. Pissed. Off. If it turns out that masses of tickets allocated to corporate bloody entertainment and the fucking sponsors end up going unused… grraah. I will go round to Lord Coe’s house and personally give him a stern talking too.

Um, what?

Just got this text from O2, the company which provides both my mobile phone service and internet connection:

We’re happy to tell you that your tariff New Allowance will offer browsing as well as text at £15 starts on 09/04/2011.

I rely on this company for much of my ability to communicate with the world. The fact they can’t make their website run properly or compose intelligible automated messages to their customers: this does not inspire confidence.

Hot trends in spam

It is fascinating to see the evolving ways in which spambots try to fool us into thinking they are real people. It’s like a very narrow version of the Turing Test.

In response to a birdy post which mentioned, among other things, ring-necked duck, someone submitted this almost-relevant piece of commentary:

Like the scaups she has a white crescent at the base of her bill although it is less distinctive than that of either the Greater or Lesser Scaup. The Female Ring-necked Duck can be distinguished from the scaups by the thin white eye-ring that trails back to her ear and the peaked shape of her head as well as by differing habitat. A generalized diet may allow the Ring-necked Duck to colonize new areas and habitats that other species might not be able to use and this may be why it seems to be faring well.

It doesn’t actually make sense as a real human response to the post, but at a glance I thought it might do. Although the fact it was posted by a website offering offshore banking services would probably have been enough to tip me off.

Culturally agnostic

It is census time in the UK, which includes a question about your religion. So I ticked the box for ‘no religion’; but my father ticked the one for ‘Christian’, despite the fact that he is certainly not a member of any church, doesn’t go to church except for weddings, funerals and the occasional carol service, and is not, as far as I can tell, a believer.

But, you know, he went to a Christian school, and he was even confirmed into the Church of England (by the archbishop of Canterbury, as it happens). Which suggests there was a period in his life when he regarded himself as Christian. So I guess it makes sense if he regards himself as culturally Christian — whatever that means.

And I do see the value of religions as cultural identities — I can see why Jewish atheists might still want to affirm their Jewishness and maintain the rituals. Or as I’m told people used to ask in Northern Ireland, ‘but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’

But as for me… I’m culturally more Christian than I am, say, Hindu — what religious education I had was mainly Christian in its focus, and I certainly know more about the culture and theology of Christianity than other religions. And at Christmas we have a tree, and presents, and a roast turkey. But those are just part of the ambient culture of Britain. Doctor Who plays a bigger part in my Christmas than Jesus. I’ve never thought of myself as Christian, so I don’t think of myself as a lapsed Christian, or a Christian atheist — if anything I’m a lapsed agnostic, since agnosticism seemed to be the fallback position amongst my peer group as a child.

The census can’t deal with such nuances, of course. Which is a pity, because that’s the kind of thing that seems interesting. We know that, because of people like my father, the census always significantly overstates the religiosity of the population:

When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.

Even more revealingly, less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.

The devoutly religious and the firmly atheist are straightforward enough; I’m curious about the shades of grey, the people who say their religion is Christian but that they are not religious. Are they mainly people who were brought up religious but don’t go to church any more? Are they defining themselves as Christian as a way of emphasising that they’re not Jewish or Muslim or whatever? Is it a generational thing? Do their children identify themselves as Christian? Perhaps ‘non-religious Christian’ can be a self-sustaining identity in its own right, comparable to secular Jewishness.

And the other side of that question is the people who tick ‘no religion’: are they mainly people who believe there is no god, or think there is no god, or can’t decide? Or are they just as likely to be people who have some kind of belief system of their own — something which they don’t think of as a religion but is not really non-belief either?

Anyway. I seem to have wandered off whatever point it was I was originally planning to make. Never mind.

» Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, by John Sell Cotman.

Binocular vision

I got some very nice new binoculars at Christmas, so various people have asked to try them; and it appears that if you give a pair of binoculars to someone who doesn’t use them much, the first thing they do is point them at the furthest object they can find. Or they ask ‘How far can you see with those things?’

Which is actually rather a bad way of testing them. Because if the visibility isn’t perfect — if there is any dust, or heat haze, or mist, or if it’s just a bit gloomy — you rapidly run up against the limitations of physics. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the lenses are, they aren’t going to magically make fog disappear.

The best way to get a sense of how good they are is to look at something close. You can appreciate the sharpness and brightness of the image much better if you look at a bird from thirty feet and can see every feather than if try to look at something half a mile away.

If I was more spiritually inclined, I’d be tempted to make a metaphor out of that — it’s not about seeing further than the other guy, it’s about seeing the things which are close to you more clearly — but I’m not, so I won’t.

» The photo was taken with my phone camera and the new binoculars. It doesn’t have much relevance other than that. I just like to have a picture to break up the rather austere design of the blog.

Ancient wisdom

Looking through one of those advertising-funded local newsletter things, I saw there was an ad for classes in the martial art of ‘sebek-kha’. Which I’d never heard of.

So I checked google and learned that it is an ancient Egyptian martial art, said to be founded by founded by Heru-Ur (Heracles), passed down over thousands of years by a secretive lineage of Egyptian priests, and now known only to a select few. Known only to one chap running classes in a church hall in Herne Hill, to be exact.

The whole thing has cheered me up immensely.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2011

It’s that time of year again. Time for some citizen science! I got off to a great start with two siskins, and ended up with a respectable 17 species:

Blue Tit × 6
Great Tit × 4
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Greenfinch × 7
Goldfinch × 3
Siskin × 2

Dunnock

Robin

Blackbird

Nuthatch × 2

Woodpigeon × 2
Feral Pigeon × 4
Collared Dove

Great-spotted Woodpecker × 2
Green Woodpecker

Magpie × 2

Collared dove is a new one for the BGBW; it’s a species that only turns up in the garden very occasionally. As always a few regular species failed to show: coal tit, goldcrest, jay and most surprisingly, ring-necked parakeet. But it was still a good year.

The 6th annual Christmas stuffing post

The annual Christmas stuffing post may be the most pointless of the arbitrary traditions that have accreted themselves onto this blog, but it doesn’t take long to do, and what better time of year for arbitrary traditions? So here we go:

As usual, two stuffings both made with a base of sausagemeat, breadcrumbs, onion and celery. The more savoury one has returned to the usual chestnut version, after a brief dalliance last year with pistachios. This year the fruity one is pineapple and ginger, using dried pineapple reconstituted in a bit of water and candied stem ginger.

Ham

I cooked a ham. Looks good, innit:

Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to taste as good as it looks, because I trusted the man who sold it to me when he said it didn’t need to be soaked before cooking, and the little bit I trimmed off to taste was VERY SALTY. Which is irritating, because it was quite an expensive chunk of meat. Ho hum.

It probably didn’t help that I steamed it instead of boiling it, but that’s how I cooked last year’s (after soaking it) and it was fine.

I also made an Italian Christmas cake thing called pangiallo, which was mildly stressful because of the not-very informative recipe and turned out to be a pleasant but completely unremarkable fruitcake of the kind I don’t like very much.

Bah humbug.

CHRISTMAS EVE HAM UPDATE:

I cut a few slices, and it’s certainly saltier than I would ideally like, but it’s not unbearably, mouth-shrivellingly salty, which I thought it might be after the little test bit I cut off. So let’s call that a partial win!

Christmas biscuits*

I did some baking yesterday.

There’s nothing especially Christmassy about the recipes themselves — ginger biscuits with candied peel and chocolate chip oat cookies — but I did make them sparkly.

It’s quite hard to photograph the glitter. It’s actually holographic rainbow sparkles, but in photographs it just looks silver.

* Note for Americans: not those kind of biscuits, obvs.

Bionic Cat!

One of those OMG I’M LIVING THE FUTURE!!! moments.

We have our cats microchipped, so that if they get lost, they can be traced back to us. But that isn’t the futuristic bit; no, the futuristic bit is that we have a new cat-flap which has a chip reader and an electric catch… so it’s a cat flap which electronically scans the cat and only opens for cats it recognises. Very Star Trek.

If I’d designed it, it would have flashing lights and a robotic voice that said cyberfeline identity VALIDATED when the cat came through. Which is just one of the reasons why I’m not an industrial designer.

» that’s not my cat, btw.  Cat with glowing eyes is © Random Tony and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

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