Being There

While I admit to not being here for about a year—apologies, but I’ve been having fun doing cool stuff—I tend to enjoy knowing precisely where I am at any given moment.

For example, about two weeks ago, I visited Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s an impressive old building, one of the few surviving ethnic community halls that provided comfort and culture to ethnic communities on the island. BNH has become the New York home of the Digital Hollywood conferences. This time, the focus was Virtual Reality, and its kin, Artificial Reality.

NYT VRThe New York Times now employs a Virtual Reality Editorial Team. They have completed about five projects, each involving high technology and a cardboard box. For the uninitiated, the cardboard box is used to house a smart phone, which, in turn, displays oddly distorted images that can be seen through a pair of inexpensive stereoscopic lenses. To hear the soundtrack, ear plugs are required.

VR is not 3DTV, but it shares some characteristics with that dubious invention. You are a camera with perhaps sixteen lenses. As you turn your head, the stitched-together video imagery simulates reality: you can turn from side to side, up to down, all around, and gain a sense of what’s all around you. (One of the new VR production companies showed off a home-brewed VR camera setup: 16 GoPro cameras set in a circle the size of a frisbee, with several more pointing up and down, all recording in synchronization, collectively requiring an enormous amount of video storage.)

VR provides is a wonderful sense of immersion, and a not-so-good sense of disorientation.

When there is something to explore, immersion is a spectacular invention. For example, diving in deep water and seeing all sorts of aquatic life. Or, walking in a forest. Or being in just the right place at the right time at a sporting event or political convention—you know, being there.

But where, exactly, is “there?” And precisely when should do you want to be there? I never thought about it much before, but the television or film or stage director makes that decision for you—“look here now!” And after that, “look here.” With VR, you can explore whatever you want to explore, but you are likely to miss out on what someone else believes to be important. There is freedom in that, but there is also tremendous boredom—that’s the point of employing a director, a guide, a writer, a performer—to compress the experience so that it is memorable, informative, and perhaps, entertaining.

Tidbits from the NY Times panel: “VR film is not a shared experience—each audience member brings his or her own perspective”…”the filmmaker must let go of quick cuts, depth of field, and cannot control what the viewer may see”…”how do we tell a story that may be experienced in different ways by different people?”…”there is far less distortion imposed by the storyteller”…”much of what would normally be left out is actually seen and heard in VR.”

In some ways, letting the viewer roam around and reach his or her own conclusions is both the opposite of journalism and, perhaps, its future. In an ideal sense, journalism brings the viewer to the place, but that never really happens. Is it useful to place the viewer in the observational role of a journalism, or does the journalist provide some essential editorial purpose that helps the viewer through the experience in an effective, efficient, compelling way?

Is all of this a new visual language and the first step toward a new way of using media, or a solution in search of a problem?

After a very solid day of listening to panelists whose expertise in VR is without equal, I left with a powerful response to that question: “who knows?”

Jenny Lynn Hogg, who is studying these and related phenomena, might know. “Imagine if the Vietnam War Memorial could speak.” Take a picture of any name on the wall, and your smart phone app will retrieve a life story in text, images, video and other media. Is this VR, AR, or something else? Probably not VR, not in the sense of the upcoming Oculus Rift VR headset, but probably AR, or Augmented Reality. What’s that? In essence, turning just about everything we see into a kind of QR Code that links real world objects with digital editorial content. Quicker, more efficient, and more of a burst of information that a typical web link might provide, AR is often linked to VR because, in theory, they ought to be great friends. As you’re passing through a VR environment, AR bits of information appear in front of your eyes.

Although AR was less of a buzz than VR, I think I could fall in love with AR—provided that I could control the messages coming into my field of view, I really like the idea of pointing my smart phone at something, or someone, and getting more information about it, or him or her.

VR, not so much, at least not yet. I’m not enthralled with wearing the headgear—even if it reduces itself from the size of a quart of milk to the design of Google Glass—but that’s not the issue. VR is disorienting, a problem now being deeply researched because the whole concept requires that your perceptive systems work differently. I certainly believe VR is worthy of experimentation to determine VR’s role in storytelling, journalism, gaming, training, medical education, filmmaking, but mostly, to discover what it’s like to be there without being there. We’ll get there (which there? oh, sorry, a different there) by playing with the new thing, trying it out, screwing up, finding surprising successes, and spending a ton of investment money that may, in the end, lead to a completely unexpected result.

Through it all, sitting in that beautiful building, I couldn’t help but wonder what its original inhabitants would have made of our discussion—people who were already gone by the time we invented digital, Hollywood, radio, television, the movies, the internet, videogames and, now, virtual reality. Wouldn’t it be fun to bring them back, to recreate their world, to allow me to walk down Third Avenue in 1900 and just explore? Yup. Fun. And in today’s terms, phenomenally expensive. Tomorrow, maybe, not so much.

 

 

 

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From Abe to Apple

Here’s an interesting new tool from the R&D labs at The New York Times. It’s a chronological graphing tool that maps search terms against dates from 1860 until the present day.

So: Abraham Lincoln—he appeared in 1 or 2 percent of all NY Times articles during his presidency (and in its aftermath), and long-term, he’s been a fair stable presence.

Abraham-Lincoln

George Washington preceded The New York Times, but the newspaper has been more interesting in George than in Abe about a century and a half. Lots of interest in the 1930s (I wonder why), but a good solid plater through the second half of the 20th century. Tall man, long shadow.
George-vs-Abe

According to The New York Times, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick didn’t produce much long-term interesting, so I tried FDR instead. I suspect there’s something wrong somewhere—FDR should have been represented with much more coverage in the 1930s and 1940s than the graph allows. I guess that’s why this is still an R&D effort—George should not outpace FDR during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Lincoln-Washington-FDR

Apple Computer made a splash in the 1980s, and seems to have peaked in the early 1990s, with the combination of iPhone and iPad causing a second peak just a few years ago.

Apple-Computer

How does Apple compare with Microsoft? Not even close—Microsoft’s coverage was much, much greater. If the graphs are correct—which, again, I question because Apple has been so prominent in the past two or three years, especially when measured against the snooze of Microsoft news.

Microsoft

Add Google to the mix (green line) to the mies, and things look about right. The orange line is IBM, which was, somehow, interesting around 1865 or so, more interesting than any time in the 20th century.IBM

These are percentages—the more articles the Times published, the less value for each individual article. So what about the raw numbers? Just for fun, I added Teddy and also John F. Kennedy. There isn’t a huge difference between the percentages and the raw numbers, not for this set of searches, but it’s worth flipping the $ / # switch for every graph to see anything there is to see.

So: next time there’s a rainy afternoon and you don’t feel like doing anything useful (or you’re deep in analysis of historical trends), The New York Times Chronicle is a tool worthy of your time and attention. And, by the way, if you click on any point on any graph, the Times provides a list of relevant articles that you can read online. For even the most casual researcher, this is a terrific tool, one that would be SO MUCH BETTER if every newspaper followed the lead of the NYT, and then shared their databases for combined graphing! But this is a wonderful first step.

My Favorite Rectangles

imagesThe old ratio was 3 by 4: a reliable compression of reality, the extra window in every household that looked out at the world. It offered a limited view, controlled by powerful producers and directors, versatile performers, intense journalists who learned the trade by explaining why and how the Germans were bombing the guts out of London during World War II. Very few people were allowed to put anything into that window: NBC, CBS, ABC and a few local television companies controlled every minute of the broadcast day. It was radio with pictures, a new medium that learned its way through visual storytelling when the only colors were shades of grey.

The new ratio is 16:9, and it seems to accommodate just about anything anybody wants to place in that frame. And the frame travels with us everywhere: on phones, tablets, on Times Square, on airliners and in half the rooms of our homes. In offices, too. There is little cultivation or careful decision making. If you want to make a video, you point your phone at anything you please, press record, and then, fill the frame with stuff that moves and makes noise.

The more video that YouTube releases—that would be 100 new hours of material every minute of our modern lives—the less I pay attention. I am overwhelmed. I cannot keep up with the two dozen new websites or apps or YouTube videos that friends and colleagues supply with the very best of attentions. I am fascinated by the range of material, frustrated because the lack of a professional gatekeeper means I must be my own programmer, and I just don’t have the time or interest in doing that every day. I want curation. I want the 21st century equivalent of a television channel, just for me. I don’t want to watch pre-roll commercials, and I don’t want to “skip this ad in 5 seconds.”

As curmudgeonly as this may feel, I think I’m happier reading a book. In fact, as media abundance increases, I find myself withdrawing into a very different series of rectangles—ones that don’t include advertising, don’t include pictures, don’t move or make noise. I’m now buying books by the half dozen—about as many as I can carry out of the increasingly familiar gigantic book sales that offer perfectly good volumes for one or dollars a piece.

I like the idea that the person who wrote the book is either an expert in his or her field—otherwise, the publisher never would have agreed to the scheme—or a superior storyteller—one that the editors, and the publisher, deemed worthy. I love the idea that the author writes the book and then hands it off to a professional editor, one with literary taste and an eye for clear, precise phrasing, and that the book then goes through yet another reading by a copy editor who makes sure the words and sentences are provided in something resembling proper English usage, and that, after the book is typeset, another editorial staff member proofreads the whole book and causes any number of errors to be corrected. When the book reaches my hands, I am confident that the work is, at least, well-manufactured.

Might it be any good? At a dollar or two, I’m not sure I care, but I do choose my books, and my authors, with care. Somehow, I feel that my side of the contract is to spend a bit of time selecting, just as I do before I decide that I should devote two hours of my life watching a motion picture.

When I find a wonderful film—not always easy, but always worth the effort—and it fills a 60-inch Samsung plasma screen with magic—I am thrilled. Most often, those wonderful films are made by people in other countries, or by smaller companies in the USA, or by animators. Just as it’s unusual for me to stumble into something wonderful in the land of books that is newly released, the films I watch are usually a few years old. Not really old, though those are fun, too, but old enough that I can get a sense of whether they had any staying power beyond the echo of their opening weekend. I was happily surprised by the depth of the storytelling when I watched Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks pretend they were P.L. Travers and Walt Disney during “Saving Mr. Banks,” for example. Do I care that a film was an Academy Award contender this year? Not really, but when I see the words Pulitzer Prize or Man Booker Prize on a rectangular book cover, I always give it a second look. There is a qualitative difference, I suppose, even if it exists only in my own prejudiced, confused, 20th/21th century mind.

What about flimsier rectangles? Magazines remain interesting, and it’s difficult for me to get on a train without finding something I want to read at the newsstand before boarding. Whether it’s The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper’s, MIT Technology Review, or a dozen others, I sense that I am reading the work of a well-organized editorial culture, and that is presented in a form that suggests substance. When I read an article on a screen, the medium itself feels temporary, and rarely impresses me with the gravitas, or the well-honed humor, that these magazines (okay, some of these magazines) routinely provide.

The other flimsy rectangle—very, very flimsy in its form, in fact—is the newspaper. Sadly, few local newspapers possess the resources or clarity of focus that they did decades ago. Their industry has been devastated by technology and wickedly poor leadership decisions. Then again, there is still nothing better than reading The Sunday New York Times for half of the weekend, often with enough left over for Monday, or maybe, Tuesday morning, too. Except, perhaps, a good fresh New York bagel beside the paper. In a pinch, I can find similar joy in the morning with the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, or whatever quality paper is nearby when I’m away from home. The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition is every bit as good; after I finish today’s Times, I will work my way through the remaining sections of my new Sunday habit.

Interactive rectangles are something else again. Tablets, and smart phones, are wonderful, and I use them every day, but mostly for media creation (I write this blog, etc.) than for reading (eBooks, HuffPost, etc.). If I want to read, to seriously read, I guess I’ve learned to prefer it in print. And if I want to watch a movie, or a TV show, unless I’m on a train or plane, I would just as soon watch it in a comfortable chair with a nice large screen to fill part of a family room wall, and not listen to it through dinky speakers or a less-than-comfy headset or earplugs.

Who cares? Not sure, but I thought I’d put some ideas on a digital screen that I, for one, would prefer to read in another medium. Since that other medium has gatekeepers, and because few print publishers would allow me to zig from media theory to watercolors to interest gadgets to public poverty policy, then zag to book reviews or notes about recent jazz CDs that I think you should buy, I’m happy writing into a glass box, and I hope that doesn’t cause you too much inconvenience or discomfort.

Sorry to go so long this time. Without an editor, or an editorial hole to fill (love that term), I just wrote until I felt I had made said my piece.

Done.

Say It Ain’t So

The above image shows a practice with a few members of the 1886 White River Base Ball Club of Conner Prairie Living History Museum. Pictured are, from left to right: "Thunderbolt," "Digger" (hitting), "Hay Wagon" (pitching), "Scooter" (catching), and "Steamboat."

The above image shows a practice with a few members of the 1886 White River Base Ball Club of Conner Prairie Living History Museum. Pictured are, from left to right: “Thunderbolt,” “Digger” (hitting), “Hay Wagon” (pitching), “Scooter” (catching), and “Steamboat.”

From a recent Sunday edition of The New York Times, just before this year’s baseball playoffs began, a comment followed by a quote from forever sportscaster Bob Costas:

Think for a moment about the very phrase, ‘national pastime’ now, in 2013. What sorts of images does it conjure? ‘It sounds like a guy sitting on a rocking chair on his porch listening to a game on the radio and maybe he’s whittling.”

Another concerning quote from the same article, this one from Mark Twain during the game’s early days, preceded and followed by the newspaper’s comment:

Mark Twain called (baseball) a symbol of  ‘the drive and push and rush and stubble of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!’ (From the Times:) ‘The 21st century, not so much.”

What happened? Pro football, mostly. Certainly, football more closely matches Mark Twain’s description of thrilling competition.

One more thought, first from the Times and then, from Mr. Costas:

When the post season rolls around and it’s time for baseball to take the national stage–well, it doesn’t unless the Yankees or the Red Sox are involved. (From Costas:) ‘If Tampa bay plays Cincinnati in the World Series, I don’t care if the series goes seven games and every game goes into extra innings, baseball is screwed. That’s not fair to the Rays or the Reds, but it’s true.”

It’s not easy to reinvent a sport, or a religion (where numbers are also down, except, as you may have read, among  Mormons and  Muslims). Their value is deeply rooted in belief systems, legacy and traditions. Clearly, building a new church or a new ball field suggests modernism and causes a bump, but neither solves the problem. Digital distribution of Rosh Hashanah services and every local baseball game will get you only so far. Eventually, the “what happened to us?” question must be answered.

Violence is the new American Way (as a rule,  prime time dramas feature at least one violent act, a corpse, and a conversation in a morgue).

Football benefits from simulated (and, on occasion, actual) violence. Baseball is  thoughtful, careful, complex, complicated, and not often violent game. Individual contributions and team competition elegantly balanced.

Unfortunately (for baseball, fortunately for many of us), baseball contains less action, fewer pile-ons. We like action. Maybe baseball players should run all of the time, and knock one another down? Maybe priests and school teachers should rap their lessons. Maybe every sport has its day.

Seems unlikely. But how do you reinvent a part of America? How do you reinvent schools, or church, or baseball, or cars, or suburbs? The 21st century is such a strange place, particularly in  “we used to be king of the world” America.

So where do we start? (How do we get to first base?) Long ago in the America of Mark Twain, we did things bottoms-up: town hall meetings, neighbors helping neighbors. Now, we do things top down (this being the basis of CBS’s “Undercover Boss,” where gap between boss and working stiff is vast). Traveling to and from the U.S. from other countries, it’s striking to see just how big the houses, the corporations, the school systems, the baseball leagues, the salaries have become. Big government, now shut down, in part, because of its own enormity. Big generates its own expectations and ecosystems. Big forces a universal top-down approach to problem-solving.

Small struggles to survive. We underfund small because big is more powerful. We underfund simple because the neighborhood playground lacks a business plan. We fix the interstate (because its traffic numbers are, you know, big), but the local street’s potholes remain, and there aren’t enough cops on the local beats. We ignore our local newspapers, and local news, because we’ve been led to believe that what happens in big Washington is more important than what happens in small Indianapolis. We don’t bother to vote, in part, because elections are, by and large, boring. Small, for the most part, and boring.

So? Baseball? Yeah, it’s a slower game than baseball, and no, it doesn’t attract the big celebrities like basketball or football does. Baseball competitive without the rough contact. It’s a game of numbers where a smart guy like Billy Beane can, in the words of Wikipedia, do well because of “the team’s analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite Oakland’s disadvantaged revenue situation.” The joy of baseball is local, and small, even if the business of baseball is big. Perhaps the same could be said of high school football, where community is illuminated by the Friday night lights.

If the point of baseball is a pleasant sunny afternoon, not too far from home, scheduled so that I can grab a few games a year and, perhaps, revisit one of the 19th century’s better inventions, that’s going to be okay for a while, at least for me. Better, maybe, than calling a championship a “World Series” while failing to invite all but one other country to participate in the big competition.

Still, a pleasant afternoon in Status Quo Stadium won’t sustain baseball, not in the long-term. Maybe we’re willing to watch baseball go the way of Kodachrome, bookstores and schoolteachers (oh, sorry, that one doesn’t happen until 2027), that’s fine, I guess. But I sure want to see the game back up on its feet, not through easy gimmicks, but because it lives up to Yogi’s quote about being ninety percent mental and the other half physical.

Welcome to the Times Machine

It’s taken a decade or so, but newspapers are finally beginning to get the hang of this new media thing.

Among the most impressive new offerings: The New York Times Machine, an online experience that allowed me, in an instant, to read a story, originally published on May 25, 1883, entitled: “Two Great Cities United: Bridge Formally Opens.” From the text:

The Brooklyn Bridge was successfully opened yesterday. A fairer day for the ceremony could not have been chosen.”

Train service was extended from Easton, PA, Long Island, and other just-far-enough-away places. The service was decidedly a Brooklyn celebration. The people in New-York (at the time, the hyphen was still in common use) were less ecstatic, but showed up in the tens of thousands to join the celebration.

I know all of this because I am reading the actual printed page of the newspaper, the story in its original font, in its original presentation. I can see what happened on that day by reading other stories. There was an uprising of Italian railroad workers in Philadelphia who demanded their pay before they went back to work. The French government is having trouble with their colonial subjects in Madagascar who seem willing to “fight to the death” for their rights (The New York Times is remarkably even-handed in telling this story.) General Grant arrived in Chicago, and will leave for Galena tomorrow (in fact, that was the whole story).

The interface is simple, and well-designed. On the left, which occupies about 3/4 of the screen, there is simply a picture of the newspaper. Click on a story, and it becomes large enough to read. (No way to copy contents just yet, but I hope that will be part of a future release.) On the right is a search window and a list of search results, each with a headline. Some stories are presented with a brief summary. Every story can be forwarded by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Google+, and more (this feature doesn’t work just yet, but it will soon).

After writing this initial draft of this article, I decided to explore some more. The Sunday New York Times for July 20, 1969 is filled with fascinating advertisements. I found a real zebra rug offered for just $195, marked down from $395, from Hunting World (“the sought-after high-contrast skins with the darkest stripes and the whitest backgrounds”). And now, the news… A judge in New Jersey determined that the conflict in Vietnam was, legally, a war. TV writer Jack Gould explained how television signals were transmitted from the moon. Bobby Seale led a Black Panther rally with about 3,000 people; most of them were white, and they shouted, repeatedly, “power to the people” while thrusting their fists into the air. Son House, Sleepy John Estes, Brownie McGhee, and Yank Ranchel were among the performers at the Newport Folk Festival (I wish I had been there!). Elsewhere in New England, last night, Ted Kennedy’s car ran off a bridge in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the yet-unnamed female passenger was killed.  Ted Williams was managing the Washington Senators, host of that year’s baseball All-Star Game, celebrating the 100th anniversary of professional league play. And, the Pope, still watching black-and-white TV, arranged for a color set so that he could watch today’s Apollo moon landing. It is SO cool to see these original stories in their original form. This particular edition included over 450 stories–plus a whole lot of interesting (and not so interesting) advertisements, mostly from department stores.

The current version is a prototype (Beta version), so the range of dates and stories is very limited. Still, it’s fascinating to see what The New York Times Machine will be–and soon.

Below, a sample image. It’s far easier to read the real thing (just click here).

NYTimesMachine NYTimesMachine2

Digital Warfare

20121012-224426.jpg

Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency (NY Times)

Today’s New York Times included an article that may turn some digital heads. The next threat may not involve guns and bombs, but stealthy data intended to destroy telecommunications and other essential infrastructure. This ultimate hack is especially nasty because it is so difficult to detect, faceless, instantaneous, and associated with many so many potential points of failure.

As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attempts to change minds and law, it’s worth your time to (a) stop dreaming of the new iPad Mini for a moment, and (b) consider the ways in which we could and should defend against 21st century cyberwar. Sounds like a science fiction novel, I’m sure, but this is becoming a powerful, significant nightmare scenario.

On his way in, Mr. Elbaz meets Mr. Smelie, on his way out

Gil Elbaz’s new company plans to collect, organize and distribute every fact on the face of the earth (and, presumably, above and below it). His company was featured on the front page of today’s New York Times Sunday Business Section.

The sum of human knowledge from a hundred years ago.

Colin Macfarquhar’s old company dates back to about 1770, when Colin and partner Andrew Bell hired William Smelie to put together the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Smelie was 28 years old at the time, and he managed to produce, with collaborators, over 2,500 pages in three volumes. This month, after 15 editions, and all sorts of contortionist moves to contain and present an increasing vast store of information, the old EB gave up. No more editions. They’re done. After more than 200 years of successful publication of facts in books, the task became overwhelming as the publication business was overwhelmed by the crowd sourced newcomer, not yet a decade old, called Wikipedia. And the old Britannica ceased publication.

‘Tis a sad day, I suppose, but neither the Encyclopedia Britannica, nor the World Book Encyclopedia (which was always easier to read and more enjoyable to browse because of its reliance upon pictures), nor Colliers or the others, were superior reference tools.

From the NY Timesarticle about the EB’s demise:

William Smelie was responsible for the first Encyclopaedia Britannica, a stunning accomplishment that lasted centuries, but never overcame the digital revolution.

(In) one widely publicized study, published in 2005 by Nature, called into question Britannica’s presumed accuracy advantage over Wikipedia. The study said that out of 42 competing entries, Wikipedia made an average of four errors in each article, and Britannica three. Britannica responded with a lengthy rebuttal saying the study was error-laden and “completely without merit.”

Early in my career, I wrote and researched questions for television game shows, where a contestant’s knowledge (and memory) of facts could be converted into thousands of dollars. We kept several encyclopedias in the office. Each one had a pad above it, where writers and researchers made note of errors. Each pad was dozens of pages long. There were lots and lots of mistakes, some stunning in their stupidity: Paris was the capital of Egypt, that sort of thing, resulting from too many pages being pushed through a manual system at speeds that made sense only to a publisher.

Gil Elbaz, founder of Factual.

Factual’s plan, outlined in a big orange room with a few tables and walled with whiteboards, is to build the world’s chief reference point for thousands of interconnected supercomputing clouds.” Based upon the NY Times article, it would be fair to assume that Factual and EB are looking at information differently–both in terms of process and scale:

Geared to both big companies and smaller software developers, it includes available government data, terabytes of corporate data and information on 60 million places in 50 countries, each described by 17 to 40 attributes. Factual knows more than 800,000 restaurants in 30 different ways, including location, ownership and ratings by diners and health boards. It also contains information on half a billion Web pages, a list of America’s high schools and data on the offices, specialties and insurance preferences of 1.8 million United States health care professionals. There are also listings of 14,000 wine grape varietals, of military aircraft accidents from 1950 to 1974, and of body masses of major celebrities.

There is reason to be confident in Mr. Elbaz’s vision and ability to execute: his prior company, “Applied Semantics software quickly scanned thousands of Web pages for their meaning. By parsing content, it could tell businesses what kind of ads would work well on a particular page. It had 45 employees and was profitable when Google acquired it in 2003 for $102 million in cash and pre-I.P.O. stock.”

So, say goodbye to yet another long-standing institution, acknowledge the intermediary step that caused the change, and welcome yet another new way of thinking enabled by the massive technology shifts that we’ve experienced in our recent lifetimes. Gee, this is moving along quickly!…

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