9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Chefs

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We think we know chefs. We eat out multiple nights a week, watch chef-centric reality TV shows, and consume gossip about their personal lives. But they aren’t all the hot-tempered characters we see on TV. In fact, the successful, high-profile ones rarely are. They’re in the kitchen to feed people, to surprise diners and make them happy. They’re there to work. Mental Floss spoke to chefs across the country to learn what really goes into their jobs and lifestyles—and why they all seem to love fast food burgers.

1. MORNINGS ARE THEIR QUIET TIMES.

Cooking in a restaurant kitchen is taxing, physical work—so many chefs start their mornings with exercise and a healthy breakfast to prep their bodies and minds for the day.

Daniel Humm, executive chef and co-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad in New York and Los Angeles, dedicates his mornings to getting outside, since he’ll spend most of the day under fluorescents. “Most days start with some activity: a run in Central Park, a yoga session, a bike ride around the city or along the Hudson,” Humm says. “It sets me up for success and gives me space to get away, to wander in my thoughts and clear my head.”

Chefs who do dinner service are usually working in the kitchen until midnight or later, and mornings provide the best opportunity to spend time with their families. Erling Wu-Bower, executive chef and co-owner of Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, spends mornings in the garden with his son Max. “Then I get in the car, roll the windows down and listen to sports radio while I drive to work,” he says.

Michael Solomonov, executive chef and co-owner of Zahav and CookNSolo restaurant group in Philadelphia, says every day for him is different. “But it consistently starts off by drinking too much coffee and then working out, or dropping my kids off at school and then working out,” Solomonov says.

2. THE HOURS ARE BRUTAL.

An overly busy restaurant kitchen
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If you see a chef in their restaurant, that's usually because they're out in the dining room, possibly delivering a theatrically prepared dish or shaking hands with VIPs. But that’s a tiny fraction of how they spend their days. Chris Shepherd, co-owner and executive chef of One/Fifth and Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, gets to his restaurants around 8:30 a.m. every morning and then works until closing time. Sometimes that means 16-hour days. (In the industry in general, 70-hour work weeks aren't uncommon.)

“I don’t think people know the hours that go into the job,” Shepherd says. “It’s long. It’s definitely a labor of love: the hours, the money, everything. I always feel like I’m running late for something.”

3. SUCCESS REQUIRES MUCH MORE THAN JUST BEING A GOOD COOK.

While expertise in the kitchen is obviously required, there are many other responsibilities and skills that go into being an exceptional chef: hospitality, time management, even communication skills. Wu-Bower says that now that he’s a restaurant owner as well as a chef, he’s picked up a variety of other roles: amateur plumber, handyman, and glass polisher, to name a few.

And then there's being a good boss. “A successful chef needs to be able to lead a team, to inspire, to critique and to praise,” Humm says. “It’s about managing people just as much as it is about putting together a menu and having the ability to cook delicious food.”

Wu-Bower says he focuses on being a mentor and teacher on a daily basis. “There is a team behind every chef,” he says. “I work with a big network of farmers, purveyors, designers, dishwashers, cooks, and so many more every day. They all contribute hugely to what our guests taste on their plates.” In other words, a chef's ability to cultivate relationships might just show up in your dinner—whether in the form of a difficult-to-find ingredient or an extra-sparkling plate.

4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT TIMING.

How do a chilled ceviche and a hot bowl of soup arrive to the table at the same time at the right temperatures? It's all a matter of communication between the chef, cooks, waiters, and diners, which is facilitated by an expeditor, or kitchen liaison. “The expeditor orchestrates the timing of everything that happens in the kitchen,” Wu-Bower says. “It’s a dance choreographed in the moment.”

Dishes are often prepared at different stations, or designated areas for certain types of food. The stations vary in required serving temperatures and length of cooking time; for example, a cook working the grill station needs a different amount of time to prepare a dish than a cook on a salad station. “Communication is essential between the kitchen and the dining room,” Humm says. “Without it our timing would never work. Our team knows the cues for when to get dishes ready, how long a dish may take to prepare, and there’s a constant conversation between the kitchen and dining room to ensure we don’t miss a beat.”

5. THEY DON’T MIND IF YOU SEND A DISH BACK.

A chef staring intently at a dish of salmon
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Chefs are perfectionists. If a dish arrives to a diner's table and he or she doesn’t like it, chefs don’t get angry; they want to make it right. “First is understanding why [they sent it back]: Did they dislike it? Was there an aversion? Was the temperature wrong?” Humm says. If a diner doesn’t like the flavor, Wu-Bower tastes the dish right away to find out what is going on. Then the chef decides if the dish can be recovered—cooked again, correctly—or if the diner would prefer something else entirely.

“It’s never a time to be defensive, but always an opportunity to make improvements,” Humm says. “We think of how we can recover that experience for the guest and get them back on track.”

Sending a dish back may actually affect tomorrow’s dining options. Solomonov says he encourages candid feedback from guests and servers so they can adjust their menus. “It’s an opportunity to assess our dishes and see what needs to be changed or improved,” Wu-Bower says. “We treat it as a learning experience.”

6. THEY TEND TO CARRY KITCHEN TOOLS AROUND WITH THEM.

Humm always has a fish thermometer. Wu-Bower has his peeler, fish scaler, and a mini spatula. Shepherd has kitchen spoons, palette knives, and blue tape. “Spoons for stirring, plating and, ‘hey, let me get in on that,’” Shepherd says. “Palette knives are for picking things up and moving them around. And you got to have the blue tape. You got to label everything.” Solomonov also has a good spoon and a small, offset spatula. “I think carrying a knife is maybe illegal?” he jokes.

7. THEY HAVE TO CONSCIOUSLY SCHEDULE MEALS.

A chef slicing pickles to put into a wrap or taco
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It’s hard to find time to eat as a chef. They may take meetings over a midday meal—Shepherd tries to have lunch with one of his chefs every day—and they taste items while the food is being prepared, using single-use plastic spoons to check seasonings, sauces, grains, and desserts. But that’s about it if they aren’t careful.

The hardest meal to schedule is dinner, because after 3 p.m., it’s usually crunch time at a restaurant. It’s hard for everyone to stop what they’re doing and eat, even the pre-service “family meal” that kitchens usually prepare for their staff members before the rush begins. (Such meals might feature new dishes, staff favorites, or simple, comforting food that might not be on the menu.) “Even if you bring food in for them, you see them run off real quick and jam it in their face and then go back to work,” Shepherd says. “That’s part of [working conditions] that need to be addressed at some point.”

8. THEY DON’T COOK AT HOME MUCH, UNLESS IT’S FOR THEIR KIDS.

Chefs have demanding schedules and are around food all day—and they’d rather spend their free time doing other things besides making elaborate meals.

Shepherd cooks breakfast at home a few times a week, but only cooks dinner once a month. “Not enough!” he says. He makes sandwiches, or rice and beans, or grills some chicken thighs, chars some corn, and tosses together a salad for himself and his girlfriend. “I always cook simpler at home because I don’t like making messes. I’m a one-pot guy.”

Humm travels a lot and doesn’t have much time to cook at home. “But when I do,” he says, “I enjoy a quiet meal of roast chicken or a simple pasta and salad. I also love to cook breakfast for my daughters when they’re visiting.”

Other chefs also enjoy cooking for their children. Wu-Bower and his son make pasta together. Solomonov says he goes through phases. “I really enjoy home cooking; I find it very therapeutic,” he says. “But also incredibly satisfying to get my kids to actually enjoy my food.”

They also need to be health-conscious. Chefs don’t have a choice in what they are tasting throughout the day, but can make their own dining decisions at home. “We’re not eating crap late at night after service,” Shepherd says. He’d prefer to just have yogurt after work. “Inevitably if you go have a couple of drinks, you’re like, ‘pizza sounds really good, doesn’t it?’ You always end up regretting it and kicking yourself the next morning.”

9. THEY STILL LOVE TO EAT OUT.

A group of friends clinking glasses over a meal
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When dining out, chefs aren’t necessarily looking for five-course meals, but they are drawn to cuisines they don’t cook in their kitchens. Humm likes to dine at Asian restaurants, especially sushi. “I’m really quite open, though I do like to order what’s in season or specific to a city or that restaurant’s specialty,” Humm says. “You want to get a taste for the place you’re in.”

Wu-Bower doesn’t need to go far to get a diverse dining experience. “I live in a neighborhood in Chicago—Pilsen—that’s really exploding with new restaurants and it’s been fun to try them all,” he says. His favorites? Thai and Vietnamese. Solomonov also reaches for sushi, Thai, and Vietnamese when he’s out. “And hot dogs,” Solomonov says. “Because America.”

Chefs also do have a reputation for enjoying greasy fast food when they get the chance. “I just slammed a corn dog and it was delicious!” Wu-Bower says.

But like any other restaurant guests, it’s the surprise on the plate, the hospitality they receive, and the time with others that they really love. “My favorite thing about eating out is enjoying a moment with friends or family,” Humm says. “The convivial spirit of sharing a table, hands reaching for dishes, and the conversation that ensues. That’s what I love."

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

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Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
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According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
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Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

13 Secrets of Tattoo Artists

A professional tattoo artist at work
A professional tattoo artist at work
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Tattoos have gone mainstream: what was once considered a mark of rebellion abhorred by grandparents has become more like a rite of passage. Today, about 30 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo, and among millennials the number jumps to almost 50 percent.

So it’s a good time to be in the tattooing business. But no matter how up-close and personal you get with your tattoo artist, there’s still a lot about the job you probably don’t know. We talked to a few seasoned experts about the intricacies of inking.

1. Tattooing is really hard to break into.

Today there are more than 15,000 tattoo parlors in the U.S., compared to roughly 500 professional tattoo artists operating in 1960. But while the industry is booming, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door. The first step is to get an apprenticeship under a reputable artist who will teach you all they know, but that can take years of persistence.

“I just now have an apprentice and he’s been bugging me about it for three years,” says Chad Leever, a tattoo artist in Indiana. His best tip for landing an apprenticeship? “Hang out, get to know us, get tattooed, but even then it will probably still be no. It’s really tough.”

Tattooing has been an exclusive and secretive industry for years. The “every man for himself” culture has roots in the early days of tattooing when an artist had to protect the tricks of their trade. Sailor Jerry, for example, was known for his vibrant ink shades and Japanese-inspired designs. Captivated by his work, other artists would ask him how he concocted such brilliant colors on the posters in his shop, and Jerry would tell them to add sugar water to the ink. The copycats would realize they’d been sabotaged when they found their posters full of holes—eaten by cockroaches attracted to the sugar.

“Everybody has their secrets and they don’t wanna tell anyone else,” Leever says. “You have to earn the right to gain the knowledge.”

2. Tattoo apprentices get hazed.

If you miraculously manage to land an apprenticeship, get ready to grovel. “Being an apprentice, we can make you do anything,” Leever says. During his own apprenticeship, Leever had to get his navel pierced. “They picked out the most ridiculous navel ring,” he says. “It was this colorful rainbow thing and I had to leave it in for 10 days and show every person who came into the shop. It was horrible.”

Rituals like these are meant to test how far an apprentice is willing to go for the job. “It’s tough but you’re gonna find out if someone’s gonna make it or not based on how much they wanna sacrifice for this career,” says Bang Bang, a celebrity tattoo artist in New York City and author of the book Bang Bang: My Life In Ink. “Do you love it or do you just wanna be part of the show? You have to prove you are just the humble, humble student.”

3. Tattoo artists practice on themselves.

It may be years before an artist-in-training gets to wield a tattoo gun. When they finally get their first shot at inking some real human skin, it’s often attached to their own body. “I just had my apprentice tattoo himself,” Leever says. “It was terrible tattoo. It turned out horrible. He messed it up and he’ll learn from that but now things will make more sense the next time he does it.”

Occasionally they’ll get to tattoo their close friends or even their teacher. Bang Bang says he was the subject of his apprentice’s first tattoo attempt. “If I’m not brave enough to get it, how can I suggest other people do so?” he asks. “I wanted to show them I believe in you, you can do this.”

Other non-human practice materials include orange peel, faux skin, and pig ears.

4. They agree with your parents.

Artist tattooing male customer's hand in studio
iStock.com/Portra

If you’re looking for support for your burning desire to get a neck tattoo, you probably won’t get it from your local tattoo parlor unless you’re older and have a steady job. A lot of artists flat-out refuse to tattoo necks, faces, and hands for young people because they know it could affect the rest of their lives.

“I don’t feel like at 18 you understand the risk of that,” Leever says. “That’s huge. I feel from a moral and ethical standpoint, I could do this and get paid however much, but totally change or ruin this kid’s life.”

According to one survey, 61 percent of HR managers said a tattoo would hurt a job applicant’s chances of getting hired. “People are like that’s money you turn away,” says Jeffery Page, a California-based tattoo artist, “but it allows me more time to do something more positive. Otherwise you’re screwing that person out of at least half of their job opportunities.”

5. A good tattoo artist will say no.

Whatever your age or employment status, there are some tattoos artists just won’t do, either because it’s not their specialty or they know it won’t look good or heal well. The professionals will be honest about this.

Small, intricate designs might not age well, and finger tattoos won’t last. A good artist will warn you about these potential complications and maybe even refuse the work. Because so much of their business relies on referrals, their art is an advertisement, so it better be good. “A good artist will tell you no because your money is not worth their name,” says Page.

But this isn’t always true, especially for less-experienced artists looking to make as much money as possible. “They probably didn’t train under somebody that taught them well,” Leever says. “It’s become this cash-cow industry where people open up a shop that know nothing about tattooing and hire a bunch of people who don’t know anything about tattooing and it’s just about making money.”

6. Tattoo artists hate it when you don’t look at their portfolios.

One big pet peeve of artists is when customers don’t even peek at examples of their work before asking for a tattoo. This is a little bit like hiring an interior designer to revamp your home without looking at their previous designs or at least checking out their Yelp reviews, except a lot more permanent.

“I want my work to sell itself,” Leever says. “I want you to look at this and realize, yes I am the one for you.”

This is also a sign a customer hasn’t done their research, another pet peeve. “If you’re in such a rush to get a tattoo that you can’t look up a person, then you probably shouldn’t be getting it done,” says Page.

7. They’re tired of infinity symbols.

A woman from the back with an infinity tattoo at the nape of her neck
iStock.com/_lolik_

Tattoo trends come and go, but this one just keeps hanging on. According to Leever, there’s been a huge increase in requests for the infinity symbol (which sort of looks like the number eight on its side) over the last few years. “A guy I worked with did four or five in one day,” Leever says. “It’s a poor, boring design. Maybe it’s on Pinterest or something.” Indeed it is, but it’s also on a lot of celebrities, including Kristen Stewart and Taylor Schilling. And celebrities have a huge influence on tattoo trends.

“When Megan Fox got lettering down her ribcage, it seemed like for a whole year we’d have girls come in asking for messages down their ribcages, saying it means a lot to them,” says Page. “But they never would have gotten the message on the ribs, because it’s more of a painful area, [except] the fact that she had it meant it was a cool summer addition to their body.”

8. They make mistakes all the time.

They just know how to cover them up so the customer never knows. “Every tattoo artist messes up,” says one artist on Reddit. “We just take the time to fix it as we go, adding a flourish here or there, a little bit more contrast. No client would notice.”

9. You can barter with them.

Not all tattoos must be paid for in cash. “I actually love bartering, because both parties involved always get what they want,” says Leever. “No money exchanged, makes it easy. The best barter I've been involved in would probably be when I received a 1977 Kawasaki KZ750 motorcycle with a sidecar. It was quite the deal.”

10. Men have the lowest pain tolerance.

A male tattooist at work
iStock.com/Glenofobiya

Women handle having their skin pricked with needles over and over again much better than men do, according to Page. “Usually the funny thing is, the more alpha male the guy is, the less of a pain threshold they have,” he says. Leever tells the story of a man who wanted a “tough guy Metallica tattoo” but who couldn’t handle the pain. He left the shop with a single line trailing down his bicep.

11. Cover-ups pay the tattoo shop bills.

The tattoo industry is self-sustaining in many ways. For example, people rarely stop at just one tattoo. According to the Pew Research Center, about half of millennials with tattoos have more than one, and 18 percent have six or more [PDF].

But there’s also a lot of cash to be made in covering up old designs. “I make more money from guys down the street than from new customers,” says Leever, meaning bad tattoos from his competitors. “There’s always a name to cover.” And speaking of names …

12. There are only three names you should ever have tattooed.

According to tattoo artists, if you’re going to get a name inked on your body forever, it should only belong to your pets, your kids, or a dead relative.

13. The bodies of tattoo artists take a beating.

A female tattooist bent over a drawing
iStock.com/PeopleImages

“If your back’s not hurting, you’re not trying hard enough,” Bang Bang says. “I have a bad neck now after many years of being hunched over. Back problems are really common, as are hand and neck and eye problems. It takes a toll.”

This article was first published in 2016 and updated in 2019.

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