I am not a Luddite but . . .

 

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Upfront,  I want this very clear, I AM NOT A LUDDITE.  If you are unfamiliar with the label, it comes from 19th century English textile workers who protested the mechanization of their craft.  More generally it’s used for those who are against new technology.  I have a new computer (Apple laptop), shoot digital pictures (although I fear the loss of film), listen to music on CDs (a bit backward and I hold tight to my collection of LPs), I constantly use a cell phone, have a Kindle and I-Pad (although I still prefer books), order online, stream movies, use GPS, and just bought a Toyota Highlander with all kinds of high tech features. But I must admit I can get frustrated with “new” technology.  I emphasize “new” because pencils and chalk boards are technology, before smart boards and devices (Holy Ghost Prep is a bring your own device school — I wonder if a pencil or ball point pen is acceptable).

Although not a Luddite, I must use admit I can get pretty frustrated with new technology.  When I taught, I was frequently dismayed when September brought any number of new, better programs, tech in service, and tech related policies.  I remember different times asking our IT (what a funny designation) person (well,  Mike Jacobs) why we had a new operating system or program.  The answer never satisfied.  “Everyone was using it. . . or . . .  it was newer”   What about the old  “if it’s not broken don’t fix it . . . the  old system worked fine.”  Remember I am not a Luddite, sometimes the old system did work, not only fine but better.  But as General Electric often boasted “Progress is our most important product.”

Recent technology frustrations include when when the Comcast technician, installed a new phone service.  We had bought the triple pack — phone, cable and Internet.  The only problem, he left and the only phone that worked was the one tied directly to the tower.  He said something to Diane about buying phones that worked wirelessly!  A second technician did realize that our current phone lines had to be connected to the tower.  Months later our Internet began to drop out.  Diane spent hours online doing whatever the Comcast voice told her. It didn’t change anything.  I called.  The male voice.  Comcast voice acknowledged that we had done standard trouble shooting, would we do it again.  I think I shouted, “NO, send a technican.”  A day later the guy arrived and his first comment was, “these Comcast towers are junk,  buy another . .  it should only cost about $40.”  Ran it by the HGP tech person (second opinions are always valuable).  He upped the purchase to a $100 Linksys (is it a modem).  Hooked it up but I am not sure it’s providing any better connection than the Comcast tower.  Now it seems we have two poor Internet connections.  Diane comments that our neighbors connections come up, “Join.”  The grass is always greener . . .

Remember that despite setbacks and frustrations, I am not a Luddite.  Before Christmas I bought a new Canon printer.  WiFi capable.  I needed to hook it up to my new Apple laptop and I-Pad.  Opened the box and looked at the fold out set up picture directions.  Pretty limited.  But within minutes, I had removed packaging and was installing printer cartridges.  But the process stalled.  There I sat with new Apple laptop, new Canon printer and new Linksys modem.  But none of them seemed to recognize or communicate with each other.  One key was the Canon (online — no print)  directions told me to push the WPS button.  I searched and searched.  Canon failed to tell me that the WPS button was on the tower or modem not the printer or computer.  I guess that’s core knowledge these days.  I finally realized the location of the WPS button but problem, Linksys doesn’t have one. Consult the Internet for an easy connection.  I put the printer in the spare bedroom and got a book to read.

For Christmas, Diane gave me a Bose CD-Radio.  We tend to buy gifts that we want and give them to each other.  (I gave her a Expresso coffee maker last year and somehow it got shelved, but that’s another story).  The Bose system was (you guessed it WiFi).  I am still not sure what that means.  I believe it’s the ability to connect to your phone and probably set up additional speakers.  Needless to say I wasn’t excited.  Now I have two WiFi projects.

A week ago, Diane broke the proverbially ice.  She replaced our kitchen CD Radio with the Bose.  “Doesn’t it sound so much better.”  To be honest I have a, is it a wooden ear.  I don’t hear the subtle differences.  LPs are still fine for me; never though CDs were better.  But OK — maybe we will listen to more music.  Diane wasn’t satisfield. One morning she got the directions.  She was going to connect the system to our poor WiFi.  And after about an hour she did.  I think the system is connected to her phone and I quess we can buy additional speakers.

The most important outcome was that she inspired me (isn’t that an important part of marriage).  Out came the Canon printer and the Apple laptop.  An hour later the printer was connected to the tower (Comcast had an WPS button, a curse on your house, Linksys).  But now, how to get the computer to talk to the printer.  Or maybe it will be easier to connect the I-Pad?  I downloaded a program that would connect the Pad.  Nothing worked.  Finally as I neared meltdown, a breakthrough.  The printer was connected. i don’t know how.   I printed a page.   It worked.  Later that night, a miracle, the I-Pad connected and I printed a page.

There are glitches.  I tried to print a  photograph and it came out very  slow and wet.  Actually it never dried.  And haven’t tried again.  Maybe tomorrow.  I  am sure the problem can be solved.  Just need time and willingness to endure some frustration.  But I am so happy.  Diane and I both successfully navigated new technology challenges. It was  a high tech day.  And remember, I am not a Luddite.

 

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Great Books of The Western World

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In my sophomore or junior year of high school,  the  family had just returned from the traditional summer vacation week on Long Beach Island.  Positioned at our front door on Mill Street in Bristol was a salesman for the Great Books of the Western World.  A reader and budding intellectual, I had filled out a coupon expressing my interest in the Great Books.

The Great Books program dates to the early 1950s.  At the University of Chicago, Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins  (University President) developed a list of books (the classics  of the Western World), that they believed, were the backbone of a liberal education.  By 1952, the Encyclopedia Britannica company had published a set of 54 volumes, the “Great Books of the Western World.”  The series was color coded — Literature, History and Social Sciences, Natural History and Mathematics, Philosophy and Theology.  Authors included Homer, Sophocles, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aristotle, Virgil, Ptolemy (the Greeks and Romans); Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (Christians); Chaucer, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, Milton, Newton, Locke, (Europeans); Federalist Papers and Herman Melville (United States); Darwin and Freud (modern thinkers) — you get the idea.  Britannica market a faux leather bound set with  a  two volume “Syntopicon” – – an index to Great Ideas. Several colleges adopted the GB program as its core curriculum.

My parents were extremely supportive of education and reading.  So they purchased a set of the Great Books.  We already had the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I soon took off for a liberal arts education at Boston College.  I would be assigned readings from the Great Books authors but I always bought a paperback edition of their writings instead of using the tissue paper set sold by Britannica. After college the set  eventually migrated to my house.  I frequently said I kept the books and would read them in my retirement.  But before retirement, the books were lost in our first flood.

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice for a Great Books discussion group.  One of my New Year’s ideas was to get involved in a book discussion group.  I called.  To my amazement this GB goup had been meeting for decades.   Perfect.  Although GB discussion groups can follow the traditional canon of readings, the program also allows groups to choose readings.  Because of the holidays, the Langhorne group chose a short Inquirer article, “Liberal Arts Take a Wrong Direction” by Robert George.  There was also a short rebuttal letter, “Updated Curriculum To Shape a Better World.”

The article title and first paragraph gave me a strong suspicion about George’s point of view. “When many of the flower children and new-left activists of the ’60s became professors and university administrators in the ’70s and ’80s, they did not entirely overthrow the idea of liberal-arts education. Many proclaimed themselves it’s loyal partisans.”  The “wrong direction” was the “ACLU lawyers and Planned Parenthood volunteers and ‘community organizers'” — all those liberal types who according to George had a “mission to create soldiers in the battle for ‘social change.'”  And pretty obviously, according to George, they were totally wrong.

For  me the article was a right wing rant against the excesses of the 1960s and the presumed radicalization of college campuses (like the libeal-radical slant of mainstream media’ until there was Fox). George cloaked himself in the self righteous mantle of the Great Books.  That’s where students of the liberal arts should discover classical values, moral truths and true liberation.  Much like Conservatives who proclaim that only they correctly interpret the Constitution and the Bible. According to them,  liberal revisionists promote a do your own thing, personal auththenticity and lead students away from the truth.  This is  not a new critique.  Several years ago I bought a book for the Holy Ghost Prep Library.  The author went college by college, course by course, instructor by instructor, exposing liberal bias and liberal indoctrination.

Reading George’s article I recalled a leading Catholic theologian (probably John Courtney Murray) who lectured a room full of Boston College students in 1965 and pointed to a map with pins locating communist indoctrination camps where  young anti-war protesters were trained. My attempt to tell him that my “training” happened alone, reading and thinking on the banks of the Delaware River in Bucks County was not heard.

I checked Robert George on the Internet.  He is a professor  of jurisprudence at Princeton and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. He  has been politically involved in various conservative organizations after his views on abortion pushed him out of the liberal Democratic camp.  He is the former chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.  He drafted the Manhattan Declaration endorsed by various Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical church leaders.  The document promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against legislation that might implicate churches in abortion or same-sex marriage.  I don’t begrudge or want to deny George the right to his political views.  In fact he probably raises some good questions. My problem is that he doesn’t raise the questions for discussion (as would be supported by the Great Books movement).  Instead he has the correct answers; he holds the Canon.

I believe the questions imbedded in George’s article are (1) to what extent should there be a Core Curriculum, (2) to what extent can teaching be value free (i.e. not biased by the point of view or ideology of the instructor), and (3) when, if ever, do teachers (and parents) have truths that need to be taught.

My undergraduate degree in English from Boston College was seeped in traditional Liberal Arts (and the Great Books).  At the same time I was part of generation that said don’t tell me what I must learn, I will chose what interests me.  We fought required courses. When I looked at my own 40 years of Elementary, High School and College teaching, I think I tried to straddle the fence.  Although I never fully embraced E.D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy” or Howard Bloom’s “Western Canon,” I had my BC training and owned a set of the Great Books.  Even planned to read them in retirement.  And I went crazy when 90% of the students in a graduate education class could not identify Henry David Thoreau.  My eight year grandson Eli knows HDT from several great children’s books.   But I thought, memorization of core knowledge was insufficient for a real education.  Hands on, personal choice, exploration, John Dewey, the ’60s critique of authority were also important components to education.  The trick was how to reach a balance.

Number 2. To what extent can teaching be value free.  I guess I first faced this question in the early 1970s when I was teaching American History to 7th grade students.  I believed (oops, there is a value) that current events should be part of the course.  The Vietnam Nam was headlines.  I had strong views on Viet Nam, what, how could I deal with the war.  My first year I avoided the topic.  No mention of Viet Nam.  But I soon realized that wasn’t right.  In fact I also began to believe that my values were unavoidable — they showed themselves in the material I chose to discuss, the books I asked kids to read, the way I arranged desks, gave assignments, graded reports.  Very little I did as an educator was value free.

Afte 40 years of teaching I handle the value question in a number of ways.  I explain to students that my values will influence how and what  I teach.  I explain that history is interpretation.  We are never 100% sure we hold the truth.  In recent US History courses, I have students look at five different Columbus stories — one is a Soprano episode, “Columbus Day” that pits Italian Americans against Native Americans.  They have quite different interpretations of Columbus.  Students also read in our text book (fairly traditional book, The American Pagent).  They read a chapter in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”  I met Zinn decades ago when he spoke at anti-war teach-ins at Boston University.  “A Patriot’s History of the United States” is a counter to Zinn’s liberal interpretation.  And finally James Lowen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” compares traditional historical interpretation with revisionists texts.  The students’  assignment is to compare the texts and write their own Columbus story.

In any course and any topic, I try to provide students with alternative views, and always make them aware of Point of View.  Some times purposely and sometimes inadvertently, my own views become quite obvious.  In fact in teachers education courses, I usually ask students to evaluate my POV on a number of dimensions.  Some of them seem To  “know me like a book” but others describe a me I don’t fully recognize.

My final question.  Are there values we believe true and are obligated to teach students.  My answer is unequivocally yes.  I do not feel I am indoctrinating students in liberal thinking when I teach that racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are wrong.  These are American values enshrined in our Constitution, well in laws and Supreme Court decisions.  In teaching United States history, I spend significant time on slavery and its aftermath, Jim Crow, modern Civil Rights, and racial issues today.  In the aftermath of 9-11, I engaged student teachers in curriculum choices they would make  — to teach the facts of 9-11, hero stories, sensitivity to Islam and Arabs or not teach the event (some school districts made this decision).  Our choice reflects our values and something we believed to be true.

Before the meeting of the Langhorne Great Books discussion group, I joked with some friends that the discussion of the Robert George article would probably say a lot about the group.  When we met, no one seemed to support George and a few like me were pretty critical.  But in the GB tradition, our group leader attempted to keep us focused on the text.  What was said?  What did it mean?  And that is not always easy to do.  Our biases, point of view, ideology intrude.  What we read and hear is filtered through “our lens.”

I look forward to returning the the GB discussion group in two weeks.  We are reading several short stories.  I enjoy being pushed to read the text,  I believe there are classic works and ideas that should be part of a liberal education.  But I also believe in drawing on my personal experience and seeing knowledge through my personal filter.

I’ll end this (what might be my rant) with a quote from “Truth In History” by Oscar Handlin. “While the world of the elapsed past has it’s own reality, independent  of who attempts to view and describe it, and is thus objective, the scholar’s vision is subjective, at least to the extent that his own point of observation and the complex lens of prejudice, interest and preconception shape what he describes and therefore what he can portray. ”  I believe this mix of objective reality and subjective interpretation apply to all knowledge and learning.  And maybe suggest The tension between objective truth and subjective interpretation.

 

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Going to market

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I’ve been doing the grocery store shopping the past few weeks.  It usually happens on Tuesday — 5 % senior discount.  With store coupons, you can sometimes save 15 percent on the bill.  McCaffrey’s in Yardley is our standard.  About once a month we go to Wegman’s, Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s (all on Route 1 in New Jersey).  Each  has some special items that we like and they all have offerings not available in McCaffrey’s.  Shopping in these markets is more of an experience; an outing.

Even better are farm markets and speciality stores.  We regularly go to Non Such Farm in Doylestown, the Trenton Farmer’s Market (all NJ produce), the high end Stockton Farmer’s Market, and in summer a number of farm stands in NJ and PA.  There are also many great speciality stores we visit regularly — Earth Foods (Buckingham), Kimberton (Ottsville), Ely’s Pork Products (Upper Makefield), Griggstown Quail Farm (great pot pies), Gravity Hill Farm, the Brick Farm Market  (a great find in Hopewell), Tabora Farm and Orchard (great bakery), Solebury Orchards (apples, apples), Nassau Street Seafood and Buckingham Seafood ( both have items not usually available locally).  We recently purchased octopus at Buckingham Seafood. It was delicious, very similar to some we had last month at the Blue Point Grill in Princeton.  The secret: it was pre cooked.  Octopus can be very tough, the pre cooking took care of that.

There are any number of speciality stores — DiBruno’s (various locations now), Casa Casale (in Lahaska), and Lucy’s Ravoli Kitchen (Princeton) provide Italian specialities.  This weekend we discovered an Italian Deli, Pasqualina’s in Blooming Glen (small town in Upper Bucks).  A FB friend described it as “a hidden gem.” It’s a longer trip but I like to get beef at Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook and locally eggs from the Milk House in Upper Makefield.   There are a many more but these are some of our regular stops.  We can spend an entire day food shopping.

It was only today that I noticed the slogan on the McCaffrey sign– ” a supermarket experience.”  Maybe it is possible to look at regular food shopping as an experience.  Carrots, onions and potatoes are on my list.  Are there any interesting varieties?  The avacados look nice — get a few and make guacomole.  Philadelphia cream cheese in a tub is actually cheaper than the traditional block.  Soy milk, we haven’t had it in some time, get a quart.  Buying fish is usually fun.  I talk to Pete behind the counter and decide on the Haddock.  What kind of olives, dried fruit and nuts do I get.  We need juice and they have Solebury cider — buy local.  Get a big package of  chicken breasts and make pot pies this week.  Dried Navy beans are on the list (recently made Boston Baked Beans) but how about some split peas.  Buy a piece of ham from Ely’s farm and make some soup.

One of my favorite photography assignments is taking pictures in markets. So much color, texture and interesting display.    McCaffrey’s isn’t the 9th Street market or Reading terminal.  It doesn’t hold up to the European, Nicaraguan, or American markets I have photographed.  But why not, I shot some pictures today.   Maybe everyday food shopping can be an experience.  Imagination, questions and a camera.

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Journals – from Bristol to Walton’s Mountain

Journals

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In an interview about writing Earl Hamner reflected, “I think in any case if you can achieve some kind of serenity within yourself, then you can impart it to other people; and I think it helps a great deal to come to terms with one’s own self, if you can articulate to yourself who you are and what you are with honesty.  And one of the best ways I’ve found — and I did it when growing up — is to keep a journal, as John-Boy does.  It not only gives you a record of your own growth, but it provides you with a habit of writing.”

Hamner was the author of “Spencer’s Mountain,” the novel that became the basis of the movie “The Homecoming” and  the long running TV show, “The Walton’s.”  John-Boy (like Hamner) longed to be a writer.  My recent interest in Hamner and “The Walton’s” is the result of my stumbling on Earl Hamner’s house and a Walton Museum in Schuyler, Virginia.  It lead me to buy several Walton books. The first I’ve read is a biography of Hamner, “From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow,” by James E. Person.  Hamner was a prolific Hollywood screenwriter with TV credits ranging from  “The Twilight Zone to          “Falcoln Crest.”  And movie scripts  for Heidi (1968), Charlotte’s Web (2006) and yes, Palm Springs Weekend (1963) — which I just watched —  Connie Stevens and Troy Donahue — college kids on Spring Break, oh my.

Recently a former student (from my elementary school  teaching) asked me about how to become a published writer.  Should she just write; take courses; get a  degree.  About 50 years ago I asked the same question.  Father Francis Meenan, my English teacher at Holy Ghost Prep told me to write every day, keep a journal.  So in the summer of my Sophmore or Junior year I began journaling.  In a romantic way, I often sat along the river in Bristol with my notebook and wrote.  Fr Meenan’s advice also led me to Boston College as an English major.  I never did a lot of creative writing at BC — some awful poetry and a few short stories.  But as a substitute,  I got involved in film making (super 8 mm) and later still photography.

One summer in the early 1970s, we lived with Garrett and Melody Bonnema who had just just opened a pottery studio in Bethel, Maine. Diane threw some pots; I did a little carpentry.   I planned on writing that summer.  But August arrived and I hadn’t written anything (other than my daily journal).  I ended the summer by taking  a week long photography workshop with a National Geographic photographer, Bill Curtsinger.  The next summer, I returned to the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport and took workshops with Bruce Dale, from the Geographic and Ernst Haas, one of the most celebrated  color photographers in the world at that time.  All three workshops were fantastic.  Photography continued to replace writing (except for my daily journal).

In the 1970s and early 1980s I actually did some semi professional photography — stock agencies, a few weddings, a few elementary school yearbooks,  several photo exhibits.  But I continued to think about writing.  I filled up one composition book after another.  One year in Nantucket, I realized that no one was going to read all my journals, so I began a summary journal — the retelling of stories I had already  written about.  Diane also contributed stories to this  journal.

In the 1990s, I did begin writing, mostly local history features for the Yardley News.  In 1996, Yardley’s centennial year, I published an  article weekly.  That led to the only book to my name — an Arcadia Press collection of historic photographs of Yardley.  Not exactly the great American novel I had dreamed about in High School.

In subsequent years I not only wrote in my daily journal but started a number of journals.  The first was a restaurant log.  I collect business cards and record restaurant meals with cost and a review.  Its actually a quite handy record of  when and what we’ve eaten.  In the past few years I’ve also started a book and a movie journal (don’t know why I never did this).  And then there are the Grandpop journals — one for Eli and one for Viv — stories about things we do together.

My journals are writing in the rough, usually personal, not for publication.  Of course, one of my favorite journals is Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”  A personal journal turned into an American Classic.  Maybe there is time.  I will continue writing in my composition book daily journals.  I will continue to write in this blog and all my speciality journals.

On a list serve Brain Pickings I recently read:

“Many celebrated writers have extolled the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but none more convincingly than Virginia Woolf, who was not only a masterful letter-writer and little-known children’s book author, but also a dedicated diarist. Although she kept some sporadic early journals, Woolf didn’t begin serious journaling until 1915, when she was 33. Once she did, she continued doggedly until her last entry in 1941, four days before her death, leaving behind 26 volumes written in her own hand. More than a mere tool of self-exploration, however, Woolf approached the diary as a kind of R&D lab for her craft. As her husband observes in the introduction to her collected journals, A Writer’s Diary (public library), Woolf’s journaling was “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”

I think my advice to my former student (and to myself) is to keep writing, keep journaling.  As John-Boy said it’s  a record of your growth and creates a habit of writing; according to Woolf,  “a method of practicing or trying out the Art of writing.”  Hopefully I will keep journaling.  Good night, John-Boy…,

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Early Morning Walk

One of the challenges walking Mosley is attempting to take picture.  This morning we were out early with a soft light.  I tried to shoot the town waking up, lights, holiday, remnants of Christmas.

 

 

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Good Ideas: a new year

January 2015 — and already a week has passed. I read an article recently about why we don’t keep New Year’s resolutions. Usually too grand. I never make them anyway but I do have some ideas for the coming year. Not resolutions; good ideas. Diane and I have enjoyed just over a half year of retirement. As we proceed there are some things I hope to do. One of the first is regular blogging. I want to write and the blog is the easiest type of publication. Maybe something will follow (newspaper, magazine, book) but for the present the blog is fine. Just need to write regularly.

My walking routine is established and I can probably thank Moe who gets me out no matter how cold or wet. But I need to begin some other exercise — stretching to begin. Monday I finally attended a chair yoga at the Lower Makefield Library. If I can get into the routine, loosen up a bit, maybe I can go to some regular yoga classes. For now the chair is good. I also want to be more focused in my reading and more sophisticated in my photography. With that in mind I have found a photography club that meets here in Yardley and a Great Books discussion group that meets in Langhorne. I plan to attend and try out both groups.

Diane and I have begun to lay out some travel plans. A trip to visit Cousin Ellen in DC this month. Want to go to the Holocaust Museum to add to the story thread of our friend Ragna Hamilton in our lives. I have read several books about Ravensbrook and am ready to reread her memoir. In February John Paglione and I will head to Montpelier, Madison’s house in Virginia. For a week we will work on the reconstruction of a slave cabin. Check out the Montpelier website– an interesting project. We will add some additional days in DC and VA — a bit of serendipity. Diane has also booked 2 weeks at the Orleans House we have rented for the past two years in Cape Cod. Two weeks creates a much fuller, relaxed get away. More time with the kids. Several other trip ideas in the works — West coast, Maine island, Vermont (maybe go back to King Arthur). We talk about a trip abroad but need a lot more thought — where, when, how. And local field trips will continue — usually weekly.

One of the benefits of retirement is time to reconnect with friends. Sometimes people who you haven’t seen in years. It seems that has begun to happen more frequently. We will be having a number of lunches, dinners, and visits from a variety of ghosts from the past.

This year we must also continue to address the practical, a new will, house repairs, house appraisal, sell and organize stuff. My motto has frequently been “don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” But the day after tomorrow eventually comes. And as my Mother always said “Ideas are only good when put into action.” No resolutions; hopefully good ideas.

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