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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/28/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 18, Whole Number 1306
Table of Contents
Pulp Covers (site pointer):
The whole site is pretty darn impressive, but this page is an archive of virtually ALL science fiction magazine covers from 1926 to 1966 including list of contents if you go far enough.
Also a good place to practice your French. The same site has artwork by artist.
Another site, http://www.coverpop.com/visco.php, has a similar archive, but can only be accessed randomly. It is fun, though. [-mrl]
Astrology in the Classroom (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This appeared in the news just a bit too late to make it into my editorial of last week. A major advocate of the teaching of the "theory" of Intelligent Design, Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, admitted on the witness stand that by his definition astrology would also be considered a scientific theory. This gave his supporters second thoughts.
I suppose that one might argue that it would not hurt to tell students that there are those who do believe that the stars control our destinies. That there are people who believe such things may be something that students could usefully know. But it is not one of the most important facts that students could be learning. The advocates of Intelligent Design might well not be happy if what was taught was the fact that there are people who believe in Intelligent Design and people who believe in astrology. I am reminded that the same advocates of prayer in the classroom wanted the prayer to come from only certain specified religions and were horrified that neo-pagan prayers might be included alongside Christian prayers.
Details at http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8178. [-mrl]
National Novel Writing Month (comments by Tim Yao):
Tim Yao writes us:
I was wondering if you and Mark had run across NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). See http://www.nanowrimo.org.
It is a completely free contest with supporting (and very active) web forum that challenges people to complete a novel of at least 50,000 words in the month of November. I've met this goal twice (though, technically speaking, my second novel isn't complete though it is longer than the first) and I am a volunteer municipal liaison for the Chicago western suburbs this year.
Just thought maybe you and your readers might be interested in this (I think that most SF&F fans have at least thought of writing their own novels....). [-ty] We hadn't run across it but we have now. Thanks, Tim. [-mrl]
Your Horoscope (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
(Due to economy concerns we cannot provide complete horoscopes. Your cooperation is appreciated.)
Everyone: Last week I told everybody to go back to the sign they were born under. I think some clarification is in order. The star patterns have precessed since the horoscope was first made. People are not actually born under their birth sign. Some of you are trying to switch signs because you were not actually born under your sign. This is just a technicality. In fact, nobody was born under his or her sign. That is just the way things are. Deal with it. I am just sorry I started this whole mess. Go back to the horoscope sign you had a year ago. Surely you have brains enough to do that. [-mrl]
Without Power (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I read in the news that there are six million people in Florida without power. Is it only six million? I would have thought there had to be more people without power or Jeb Bush would not be governor. (Okay, so it is a cheap shot.) [-mrl]
Are Movies Better Than Ever? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last month I was at the Toronto International Film Festival. A week or so before the festival we go through a process of choosing the films that we wanted to see. For years I had been picking films by whether the film sounded good or not. Some turned out to be good, and some were stinkers. This year I had chose films in a sort of unorthodox manner. I was actually making the description of the film a low priority in my decision criteria. I had discovered in the past that they would choose some venues for the films they thought were worthy and I made the location much more important in by choosing algorithm. Choosing films by where they were playing I had dubbed "Feng Shui film selection." Evelyn and a friend who goes with us both tried to convince me that it was silly to choose this way. But I thought it was worth a try.
Evelyn would tell people about this choice technique if we talked to them waiting for films. Towards the middle of the festival I told her not to tell anyone else how we were picking films because we were very successful and it might kill the odds if too many people knew how to choose very good films. The simple fact was we were seeing one good film after another. Usually we were lucky if we got one or two good ones a day. This year we seemed to be getting a lot of good films. Usually you are lucky if you pick one film that impresses you. This year we were impressed by a lot. Rather than one film a day in my +2 range we would get maybe two or maybe three. Of 45 films, 22 where low +2 or better. That is a fairly good rating.
Eventually we realized that other people were telling us that they were also seeing more good films this year than in previous years. What I eventually decided is that our success may have had little to do with The Feng Shui of Film Choice. There really were better films coming out this year.
Eventually we realized that other people were telling us that they were also seeing more good films this year than in previous years. What I eventually decided is that our success may have had little to do with The Feng Shui of Film Choice. There really were better films coming out this year.
Then I started putting two and two together. This has been a very bad year for film ticket sales. For many years the film industry has realized that the engine that pulled the industry is the teenage audience, particularly the male teenage audience. This year that audience is not going to the movies as much.
The younger audience was not considered so important until that late 1970s. Blockbusters like JAWS and STAR WARS had really brought in a teenage audience in large numbers. These really are the people who spend a lot on entertainment. The industry chose to zero in on this audience. We got a lot of high action films. We got a lot of science fiction and horror films. We got films based on new media that spoke the language of teens: video games and comic books.
Serious films with intellectual content were not selling to the teen audience and generally retreated to be seen mostly in art houses. There was still an audience for better films and companies with names like Miramax, October, Focus, and Lion's Gate served that audience, but the major studios were not making that sort of film. As it happens to the film industry every few years, new technology comes along and shakes it up. First there was radio, then television, and then the video revolution. Now there are inexpensive DVDs that bring films to market not a long time after the films played in theaters. Speaking for myself, these days when a good film comes out that is getting good reviews I first put it on my Netflix queue, then I look to see if it is playing in theaters. I can always remove it from my queue later if I see it in a theater. The studio makes a lot less profit on me renting a film from Netflix.
So more mature viewers are not as dependent on the theaters. Meanwhile the teen audience is getting their fun cell-phoning to friends, instant messaging, surfing the Internet. They have something akin to movies on PlayStations and Xboxes, but there they get to participate in the explosions and chases and fights. The medium for them is going from being passive to interactive. The writing in the traditional sense is not very important to this audience. A teen on a PlayStation is not very concerned about the human condition.
Meanwhile, the theaters are becoming less inviting to mature viewers. The price of tickets has been going up each year. A generation brought up with less emphasis on manners has really hurt the theater viewing experience badly. Then theaters are trying to keep profits up by showing more non-film ads. They increase the prices at the concession stands. Theaters have been saving money by hiring inexperienced people to run the theaters. Incompetence in running theaters is taking a toll in the viewing experience with obvious and irritating errors in projection. Theaters are not being very well cleaned.
Some of the theaters in my area are taking some modest counter- action. They are lowering the price of admission at some times when the young crowd cannot come. They are having ushers come in to patrol the theaters and look for offensive behavior. They are trying to make the theaters friendlier to mature audiences. People over thirty may not be the target audience yet, but they are definitely more in the film industry's mind. With the teen dollar moving away from theaters there may be less money overall invested in films and a bigger proportion of what is there will be going after a more mature market.
One principle that the industry may be reminded of is that good writing may be a better investment than good special effects. Perhaps an investor knows he can put a lot of money into effects and it will get something nice put on a screen. But these days the visual effects alone will not guarantee success. Investing in writing and acting may prove to yield a better return. It may no longer be the greater gamble.
So as much as I would like to think that my wacko formulae was what got us better films to see at Toronto, it may well be that there are other reasons we had such a good year in Toronto. It may be that the film industry is trying to get its act together and make less flashy but better films. I hope so. [-mrl]
Intelligent Design (letter of comment by Gerald S. Williams):
Jerry Williams responds to Mark's article on Intelligent Design that appeared in the 10/21/05 issue of the MT VOID:
I haven't read "On Pandas and People" (if I have the name right), nor am I interested in the details behind that particular argument. However, I think that the scientists are wrong on this one. At least, they are wrong in the sense that their arguments are flawed. The main argument I hear used is that Intelligent Design is "Bad Science". This is a flawed argument on multiple counts:
You've probably heard it said that we no longer teach people how to reason in the United States. I think this is just another example. If we spent the time to teach science that actually stands up to criticism, it would stand up against questions such as this one. This type of debate should be welcomed.
So my answer to any scientists attacking Intelligent Design is that they should spend more time shoring up evolutionary theory than attacking those that question it. Such attacks are attacks on reason itself.
P.S. There are a few things that could be done (IMHO) in order to make Intelligent Design more palatable:
First, stop calling it a theory. If you want it to look like science, call it a refutation. I don't know whether it is the ID camp or its opponents that call it a theory, though.
Second, any time it mentions the possibility of an intelligent designer, qualify it as in the following example: "This strongly suggests the presence of an intelligent designer, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster." [-gsw]
Foreigners (letter of comment by George MacLachlan):
Been following your thread on slang terms for foreigners or outsiders. Your interesting observation that most start with a 'G' reminded me that the Japanese use the term "Gaijin" for foreigners. (I suspect you already know this, but since you didn't include it in your list, I thought I'd pass it along.) [-gfm]
I believe the Gaelic term for foreigner or outsider is "sassenach", which roughtly translates as "outlander".
[Mark replies on "gaijin", "Of course. My memory must be going. -mrl]
WAR OF THE WORLDS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a somewhat faithful but otherwise unsavory and highly unsatisfying updating of the H. G. Wells novel. Aliens conquer the world in six-legged crab-like war machines. The film has the impact of a Sci-Fi Channel film and the writing may not even be that good. Overall this is the least satisfying of the four film adaptations to date. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
There have been six major dramatizations of H. G. Wells's 1898 novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. It has been adapted as a radio play, a rock opera, and four times as a film. Of the films, one was released in 1953 and three were released in June 2005. This version was directed and edited by David Michael Latt. Of the six versions, Latt's version arguably ranks second in being faithful to the novel but dead last in entertainment value. Latt updates the story to the present, as do three of the other versions. But actually a fair amount of the content of the Wells novel made it to the screen, even if it is in barely recognizable form.
C. Thomas Howell plays Dr. George Herbert (cute name), an astronomer who plans to go on vacation with his wife and son. But what is this? There are strange sightings in the sky. They make him send his family on ahead as he investigates the odd phenomena. It is not long before the cylinders are falling and the explosions beginning.
The most striking thing about this version is that the film itself is not striking at all. If this were not based on the Wells, it would seem like just one more weak made-for-television monster quickie. The writing frequently is embarrassing. Because there would be little time for sex in the story, one of the first scenes of the film shows the main character's wife nude. It is almost as if the screenwriter had it on a checklist of required script features: "One scene with nudity. Check." Later as people look over the sandpit with the aliens--they are never identified as Martians--one of the women comments, "It smells like ass." Thank you, that was a piece of imagination I did not need.
The war machines are not what Wells described. They appear to be crab-like bionic machines combining biology and machinery. Making the machines more biological, beyond just using biology to suggest shape, has rarely been done even in illustrations of the books. That is probably the best point of this film. Beyond that the film is just not interesting visually. Digital effects are added trying to make it spectacular, but in very unimaginative ways. Inexplicably when the cylinders land they explode like missiles. That has to be hard on the aliens inside, but the filmmakers have not thought this aspect through. But a centerpiece of other film versions, a cylinder landing and crashing into a house, is shown instead from inside the house for a less expensive but also less impressive effect.
There is little reason to want to see this version of WAR OF THE WORLDS beyond the visualization of the Martian war machines. The updating to the 21st century in New Jersey and Washington D.C. is uninteresting. The film loses the majesty and the impact of the original story. It is one of two low-budget me-too production timed to correspond with the release of Steven Spielberg's adaptation. The other "me-too" managed a minor trump on Spielberg by setting the story in Wells's period and by using stylized effects rather than attempting photo-realism. None have captured the thrill of George Pal's version. This version is not really much worth seeing I rate it a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
(Available on DVD. Mark Leeper reviewed Timothy Hines's version of H. G. wells's WAR OF THE WORLDS in the 06/24/05 issue of the MT VOID, Steven Spielberg's version in the 07/01/05 issue, and the original in the 07/08/05 issue. Kate Pott also reviewed all three in the 07/08/05 issue.) [-mrl]
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Director George Clooney gives us a very fine film and David Strathairn gives a superior performance as Edward R. Murrow. This is a short but riveting account of a legendary journalist taking on the strongest forces of Red Scare politics and using the medium of television as a powerful tool rather than an entertaining toy. The only misstep is in the overuse of jazz interludes. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is a long overdue cinematic tribute to one Egbert Roscoe Murrow, known better as Edward R. Murrow, an American who achieved the status of hero in a field that does not generate many heroes, broadcast journalism. Murrow combined in one person an incisive mind that made him a superb writer, a deep voice that had a quality of always sounding like the Voice of Reason incarnate, a face that was eloquent of integrity, and the will and courage to do the right thing even at risk to his career. He also had a position that allowed him the opportunity to martial all these qualities where they could do a substantial good. Had he been missing any of these features--if, say, he had a voice like Truman Capote's--he could not have inspired in the American people the confidence that he did.
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is a concise film, only 90 minutes, about an important chapter in Murrow's life. In 1953 and 1954, while working at the CBS network, Murrow exposed government excesses during the paranoia of the Red Scare. He dared to take on both the military and Senator Joseph McCarthy in their red- baiting and exposed their hypocrisy. This brought him into conflict not only with both and also with his CBS management. His bosses were was less enthusiastic to take risks this cause, even if they sympathized. The film also looks at that network's willingness to compromise Murrow's hard-hitting, responsible journalism for safe political positions and more lucrative entertainment.
In the film Murrow is willing to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States, but not to compromise his positions. He soon is doing an expose investigating the story of Milo Radulovitch, an airman dismissed from his position because of a dubious legal case that he was a security threat. This brings Murrow to Senator Joseph McCarthy's attention and McCarthy strikes back. The senator attempts to use smear tactics on Murrow. In the attempt McCarthy destroys his own credibility.
George Clooney co-writes, directs, and plays a leading role in this succinct film about America's greatest broadcast news journalist. The script that Clooney co-wrote with Grant Heslov, himself more frequently an actor, is unusually intelligent. The dialog we hear in the newsroom sounds real and not simplified to make it more immediately understandable for the audience. The narrative is kept intense and compelling. The one flaw in the film, however, was the insertion of several jazz songs as breaks in the story flow. The songs sung by Dianne Reeves comment on the action, but they are superficial comments at best that do not really tell a lot about the action. Their interruption quickly becomes unwelcome.
David Strathairn plays the commentator Murrow who rarely smiled and even whose jokes seemed deadly serious. (The picture of Murrow at the PBS site does show him smiling but it is hard even to recognize a smiling Murrow.) Strathairn has the cadences of Edward R. Murrow's oral delivery down well, though not perfectly. George Clooney and Frank Langella are good as Fred Friendly and William Paley, but their performances are not quite as crucial as is Stathhairn's. Murrow's voice is the most important, because it was Murrow who was in front of the public and whose voice is still familiar to many from his World War II reporting from London and from his 1950s television broadcasts. The filmmakers decided not to have an actor play Joseph McCarthy and so instead used news footage of the Senator. It might have been nearly impossible to get an actor to play the Senator correctly. (In my opinion the same should be done with Richard Nixon in films, who always seems exaggerated when portrayed by actors in film.) The footage of McCarthy is in black and white and perhaps for that reason the entire film is monochrome. But this immeasurably improves the texture of the film. And the photography is sharp and high-contrast in a style reminiscent of 1950s Life Magazine photography. The effect is similar to what Martin Scorsese using the monochrome photography for RAGING BULL.
There had been a PBS documentary on Murrow, but never a film about this figure. Better late than never, this tribute to the great newsman and his struggle against the evil of the Red Scare is a quality film all the way. It is a film strong, intense, and steely. I rate GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. It is interesting that two films about standards of journalism are in release at the same time. It is worthwhile to compare Murrow's standard of journalism with that of Truman Capote in the film CAPOTE. [-mrl]
SEVEN SWORDS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Tsui Hark tells the story of seven defenders of justice standing against the minions of an evil ruler of the Qing Dynasty. An evil mercenary general named Fire-Wind has killed hundreds in support of the Qing Emperor's ban on martial arts. Now seven peasants, each a great martial artist, ban together to defeat the evil Fire-Wind. Yada, yada, yada. The story is just as comic-book-ish as it sounds with some interminable battle scenes. Your enjoyment will be limited by your capacity to watch people try to carve each other up. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
As many will be aware, Tsui Hark is one of the most respected names in Hong Kong action films. He is producer of three series of action films: A CHINESE GHOST STORY, A BETTER TOMORROW, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. The latter he directed. His latest is SEVEN SWORDS, shot as a four-hour epic film. The version I saw was 130 minutes and it felt long at that. The source of the story is the novel SEVEN SWORDSMEN FROM MOUNT TIAN, by Liang Yu- sheng. The story has already been produced as a television series in seventy-four chapters.
The setting is feudal China in the 1660s. The cruel Qing emperor has forbidden martial arts. His chief general is Fire-Wind who enforces the laws of the emperor with utmost barbarity and collects a reward for every law-breaker he kills. He has gotten quite rich this way. Heroes arise among the peasants to resist the evil rule. It seems there are seven divine swordsmen with divine swords on Mount Tian. (Well, six divine swordsmen and one divine swordswoman.) The seven defenders assemble and defend the people. (Why do heroes so often come in packs of sevens? Not six. Not eight.) One of the heroes, Chu, decides he likes the Korean woman that Fire-Wind is keeping as his private stock. She is Green Pearl--probably not her real name--and Chu decides he likes Fire-Wind's taste if nothing else. He steals Green Pearl. But as Green Pearl is a Korean, the Chinese peasants are lees than keen to welcome her. Each of the seven defenders of good has his own unique characteristics. One refuses to kill, for example. He defeats his enemies without the luxury of killing. Each of the swords is odd in some way. One of the swords slips through the hilt and then has a point at the other end, confusing enemies no end.
In Asia there are many viewers who are familiar with the novel that the film is based on and the TV-series. The story is difficult to follow. Western audiences will be more dependent on the subtitles and they do not give all the support that might be desired, at least in the print I saw.
Some of the visual effects leave something to be desired. A cannon that is pointed at the ground when it goes off floats away like Peter Pan. Some particularly obvious wirework is used to contravene those tiresome laws of physics. So the enhanced martial arts bear about the same relation to real martial arts that professional wrestling bears to Olympic wrestling. That is not to imply it does not require a great deal of skill and grace to look good at the end of a wire, but it should not be confused with real martial arts or real anything. Various visual stunts are used in the photography. There are scenes that are in black and white with one object in color, an effect familiar from ZENTROPA and from SIN CITY.
It is not clear whether this story will play better in Asia where audiences are familiar with the story or here where they are not. Rumor has it that the film is not doing as well as hoped in Asia and is getting a cool reception. Here it is over two hours of action that after the first hour becomes more numbing than exciting. The story is a little confused and hard to follow, though better subtitling might help there. Some of the plot is a little familiar and borrowed from better films including THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Still, there is some nearly majestic photography. This film may have a hard time competing for an audience now used to martial arts films of the beauty of those of director Zhang Yimou. I would rate SEVEN SWORDS a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
If you think that democracy and equality has come to Afghanistan, THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL by Asne Seierstad (ISBN 0-316-73450-0) may convince you otherwise. Asne Seierstad is a journalist who spent time with an Afghani family, and in this book tells of what she saw. While the head of the family, Sultan Khan ("Sultan" is a name, not a title), is finally able to sell all sorts of books without fear of the Communists, the Taliban, or any other government group, he still rules his house as a despot. His first wife is relegated to maintaining his house in Pakistan while Khan spends his time with his young second wife--when he's not badgering the rest of his family. And he is not atypical. Afghani women may officially be freed of the burkha, but whether or not a woman wears one is still the decision of her father or husband rather than her own. They can not work as teachers or nurses--but again, only when their male "controller" allows it. (The book is copyright 2002, so presumably the experiences are from shortly before that.)
GALLIMAUFREY TO GO by J. Bryan, III (ISBN 0-440-20775-4) is a medley (which is what "gallimaufrey" means). One chapter talks about half a dozen eccentrics, another has a set of quotations about Christmas and descriptions of various customs for it, and yet another has notes about nature. Each quotation or description is very short, making this an ideal bathroom book. There are two questions Bryan asks in the "Information, Please" chapter that I'll ask here. One is "When was the last time there was no airplane in the skies anywhere?" And the second is "Has any important invention or discovery ever come from the southern hemisphere?" [Yes, the discovery of the South Pole. -mrl] I know Sir Ernest Rutherford came from New Zealand, but he made his discoveries elsewhere, so they probably don't count. [Actually. Roald Amundsen came from Norway, but I believe he was in the Southern Hemisphere at the time he discovered the South Pole. The view of the Pole is much better from the Southern Hemisphere. -mrl] I think that Gandhi's civil disobedience in South Africa might be one (although not the type of invention/discovery that Bryan is thinking of), or the Australian boomerang. (I asked this at a discussion group meeting, and Charles Harris suggested Christian Barnard's heart transplant technique.)
MASTERS OF MYSTERY by H. Douglas Thomson (ISBN 0-486-23606-4) is a survey of the mystery field--written in 1931. As such, it understandably covers many writers whose stars have been eclipsed by other authors. Freeman Wills Crofts is not exactly a household name these days, while Dashiell Hammett gets only six lines--and Thompson makes a major error in them (he puts Sam Spade in RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE). There has been a change in critical attitudes towards mysteries (and towards literature in general) in the last seventy years, so this is valuable as an insight into the attitudes of the time, as well as a place where one can find at least some information about the lesser-known early mystery writers. And editor E. F. Bleiler's footnotes elaborate on Thompson's brief allusions, correct Thompson's errors of fact, and quibble with some of what he sees as Thompson's errors of judgement. Warning: Thomson assumes you have read all the works he discusses, so there are spoilers if you have not.
TRENT'S LAST CASE by E. C. Bentley (0-06-080440-8) is one of the classics that Thompson discusses. Bentley was tired of the "infallible detective", so his Trent is definitely not infallible. And as part of my on-going cataloguing of anti- Semitism in early twentieth century English mysteries, I'll cite one sentence from this 1913 novel: "In Paris a well-known banker walked quietly out of the Bourse and fell dead upon the broad steps among the raving crowd of Jews, a phial crushed in his hand."
And just to provide "equal time", I'll include this from DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS by Walter Mosley (ISBN 0-393-02854-2): The narrator is remembering his time in the Army and the liberation of one of the death camps, and says, "That was why so many Jews back then understood the American Negro; in Europe the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years."
INTO AFRICA: THE EPIC ADVENTURES OF STANLEY & LIVINGSTONE by Martin Douglas (ISBN 0-7679-1074-5) reveals more of the negative sides of the two explorers than most people know, while at the same time respecting their achievements. The revelation that the American Henry Morton Stanley was really John Rowlands from Wales will not be a surprise to many people--this has been somewhat widely known for a while. (Oddly, the index does not have any entry for "Rowlands, John"--not even a "see Stanley, Henry".) But the details of the political machinations, and their dealings with slave traders (by both Stanley and the staunch abolitionist Livingstone), and their interest in the local women are probably new to most people. (I have read Henry M. Stanley's THROUGH THE DARK CONTINENT as published by Dover, but Dugard says, "the emotions set forth in [Stanley's] books were often revised from his more honest journal entries.") Sidi Mubarak Bombay is mentioned often; in fact, other than Stanley and Livingstone, he is one of the people with the most index entries. Burton, Speke, Stanley, and Livingstone have all had reams written about them-- has anyone done a book about Sidi Bombay? (Quick answer--not that I could find in amazon.com.) [-ecl]
[I think Stanley found Livingstone in the Southern Hemisphere. -mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -- Philip K. Dick
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