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I'm new to PHP and most of my interactions with database have been through ORMs, though I do understand SQL. 

I was looking over this framework's "set" functions and noticed this syntax: 

    INSERT INTO ^uservotes (postid, userid, vote)...

Does the ^ refer to the "qa_" of the qa_uservotes table? Or is it simply a variable that's defined earlier? Regardless, where is this configuration defined in the app? 

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Yes, ^ refers to the table prefix, which is defined in the qa-config.php file.

You can see all the logic for substitutions (also $ and #) in the function qa_db_apply_sub() in the qa-db.php file.
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