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Does The World Really Need Another Blog?


     If you've been following recent events in Israel, in which a religious right wing has taken control of the government, relying on an indicted and desperate Prime Minister to further its anti-democratic aims, one can't avoid comparing it to the current situation in the U.S.
     Bibi Netanyahu, the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel's history, was indicted on a variety of corruption charges and then struck a deal with the hard right, religious fanatics in the Knesset, Israel's equivalent of a parliament. In exchange for assuring that religious Jews would not be subject to taxes or mandatory military service, and that Jewish settlers could continue to occupy Palestinian lands, he is seeking to limit the judiciary's power to prosecute him.  In doing so, he is turning Israel from a secular, democratic society into a religious, autocratic one, not unlike its Middle Eastern neighbors: Iran, Saudi Arabia and others.
     Looking at current events in the U.S., one cannot help but be struck by how much what hard right, religious Trump/DeSantis supporters are seeking to do matches what is happening in Israel.
     I continue to place my faith in the democratic protestors in Israel to save their country from this right wing coup.  Unfortunately, I don't have the same confidence that our situation will be resolved in favor of democracy.
     Unlike the 1960s, when I and my contemporaries tried our best to stop an immoral war, one that took the lives of a million Vietnamese and 50,000 mostly poor and uneducated U.S. soldiers (the rich & middle class did not pay much of a price), I doubt that citizens of this country have the balls to stand up to the religious, white nationalists, and protect us from the autocratic government that the Trump/DeSantis coalition is seeking to create.  

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     "This was not just extreme carelessness with classified material, this is calculated, deliberate, premeditated misconduct, followed by a cover-up that included false statements and lies to Congress, the media, and the American people.

     "Putting classified information in the reach of our enemies, disqualifies (anyone) from the presidency."


     That, of course, was the former Prez, accusing Hillary Clinton of mishandling classified documents. He then stood by, grinning, as the crowd at his rally, led by convicted felon Michael Quinn, chanted "Lock Her Up".


     Finally, the Don said something we can agree on.



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     For those following the Saudi's attempt at sportswashing via the LIV golf tour, today's news of their merger with the PGA and DP (European) Tours was an obscene turn of events.
     It was only a year ago that Jay Monahan, CEO of the PGA Tour, said on national TV (concerning members who jumped to the Saudi tour), "I would ask any player who has left or any player who is considering leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?"
    Good question, Jay.


                                                                     When should golf fans expect your apology?

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     My assignment at the PGA was on Hole # 8 Saturday afternoon & Sunday morning.  That meant that on Saturday I saw all of the leaders go by, and on Sunday I saw players at the bottom of the leader board (though that included some big names).
     Of course, the biggest story of the tournament was the play of Michael Block, a club professional (i.e., a teaching pro) who was near the top of the leaderboard most of the time.  He fell back on Sunday, but wowed the crowd with a hole-in-one.  I watched his approach shot that put him close to the hole, and the cheers for him were some of the loudest I heard.
     As for me, it was an interesting and fun couple of days, despite Saturday's never ending rain.  A few notes from my time there:
       - Being a Hole Marshal has a number of dos and don'ts, the most important of which is to simply stay out of the players' way as they struggle their way around a very difficult course. For example, when I was doing crowd control around the green, I had to make sure to position myself so that I wasn't directly in the player's line of sight.  Then, as soon as a player lines up his putt, I would raise my arms  and face the crowd, sending them a message to keep silent.  Thus, I never got to see if the putt went in, but merely waited to hear the crowd's reaction.
       - Our Hole Captain very kindly made sure that we rotated through the 8 or 10 different positions around the hole. Thus, sometimes I was on the tee box or green, sometimes standing at the expected fairway landing zones, or handling the ropes at areas where spectators were allowed to cross the fairway when the coast was clear.
       - It was this last assignment that gave me the best chance to eyeball some of the most famous (and infamous) players as they walked right by me after teeing off.  There and elsewhere I was within yards of players like Jordan Speith, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Jon Rahm and Tony Finau (a favorite of mine), as well as the infamous (i.e., LIV) golfers like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka (the ultimate winner).
        - I had an especially close encounter with DeChambeau, whose drive went into the left rough where I was stationed.  He looked to me for help and I pointed out where his ball had landed.  I then stood directly behind him, arms raised, to quiet the crowd while he set up and swung. The force of his clubhead going through the thick rough was amazing, but his shot landed short of the green and trickled into a bunker.
       - The shot of the day for me came as I stood behind the green when Zack Johnson's approach landed 10 inches from the hole.  That's an automatic "gimmee" when I and my friends play, but Zach had to walk up and calmy tap it in for a birdie.
       - A note about Saturday's weather. It rained heavily as I drove the 90 miles from home to Rochester, and while it eventually lightened up, the rain didn't stop until near the end of my afternoon shift. I had my rainsuit on and an umbrella, so I was usually comfortable. There were times when I had to drop the umbrella to do my job, and to avoid blocking the view of the fans, but overall I stayed dry.  The amazing thing was how well these professionals perform in a steady rain, with drives still routinely passing the 300 yard mark.
       - I'd imagined that there might be times when yours truly would appear on national TV, but that never happened.  It's rare for a Marshal to appear in a shot, as the close ups are focused on the players. The one instance where this can happen is if a shot carries into the crowd and the Marshal has to take down the ropes and clear a space for the player to hit his shot.  That did happen to me once on Saturday, but the player (Min Woo Lee) was so far out of it that the TV cameras weren't on him. So…my chance at world-wide fame eluded me.
       - The PGA took wonderful care of all us volunteers. In addition to our credentials getting us into every day of the tournament, even when not working, there was a huge, air-conditioned tent with free breakfast, coffee, snacks and soft drinks available just for us.  That included private bathrooms, not a small thing with crowds nearing 200,000 people wandered about.
     It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, and despite the long drives there and back, and the sketchy weather on Saturday, I wouldn't hesitate to do it again.

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        For those of you who follow golf and watch it on TV, the phrase, "inside the ropes" will have some meaning. For others?  Eh…not so much.
     But for me, it's about to become a reality.
    Being "inside the ropes" at a PGA event means that you're literally standing in the field of play, charged with crowd control, finding lost balls, and in every way possible, making it easier for the pros to play their game.
     You stand behind the players as they tee off, position yourself on the sides of the fairways to make sure that errant shots into the crowd are protected, or surround the green to insure that the crowd remains silent while the pros putt.
     (And I'll be the first to argue that this command of "silence, please!" as a golfer stands over a four-footer for par is overdone. Baseball players try to hit a round baseball coming at them at 100 MPH with a round piece of wood, and manage to do this even as the crowd goes wild.  But professional golfers, when the ball is just sitting there, begging to be hit. WTF?)
     As a member of the NYS Golf Association, I was offered a chance to volunteer as a Hole Marshal at this week's PGA Championship tournament in Rochester.  It was an offer I could not refuse.
     As a lifelong golf fan, I've often wondered what it would be like to stand right next to the greatest players in the world as they demonstrate, for the nth time, why I will never be nearly as good as they are on their very worst days.
     And now I have the chance to prove it.
      The only down side is that I'll also have to serve the 18 players who, like Phil Mickelson, held their noses and took the Saudi blood money because…well…because there was so MUCH of it. 
     Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus each turned down a billion dollars not to be a part of the charade that is the LIV tour.
     But I guess my price is quite a bit lower. 
     So…if you're a fan, and are planning to watch the PGA on CBS on Saturday afternoon look for the short, bearded guy in a bucket hat on hole #8 trying to keep the crowd at bay while a pro tries to win a tournament that could change his life (and, hopefully, it won't be one of those LIV sellouts).

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     The software known as ChatGPT, an example of advanced Artificial Intelligence (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is everywhere in the news these days. If you haven't heard of it yet, I suspect that it's heard of you..and where you live, and what you buy…and….
     But seriously (dead seriously), the abilities of ChatGPT and other iterations of advanced AI, including versions from Microsoft and Google, are expanding their capabilities at an exponential rate, becoming downright scary to some.
     I suggest that an appropriate analogy for advanced AI is the Disney cartoon "Fantasia", in which Mickey Mouse portrays the sorcerer's apprentice. His main task is to carry buckets of water up long flights of stairs to fill the sorcerer's cistern. When his boss goes to bed, Mickey steals his magic hat and changes a broom into a creature that can do his job for him. Mickey proceeds to fall asleep and when he awakens, finds himself in water up to his knees. The broom was doing its job too well because Mickey never "programmed" it to stop once the cistern was full. Mickey then tried to destroy the broom, but succeeded only in creating dozens of broom-clones that continued to carry up buckets until the place was completely underwater.


     Mickey was messing with magic that he didn't understand and couldn't control, which sounds to me a lot like advanced AI. Even AI's creators admit that they don't know exactly how it works, and can't predict what it might be capable of in the future.  A survey of software engineers revealed that they believe AI has at least a 10% chance of DESTROYING HUMANITY.  Still, they keep right on making it more and more powerful.
     A little background: GPT stands for a Generative Pretrained Transformer neural network, and it works by sucking up all the available information it can find on the internet, using it to research and respond to prompts—i.e., to answer questions, and generate text and images. Thus, advanced AI is only as smart as the internet, and we all know how much we trust what we find on the internet, right Mr. QAnon Shaman?
     Open AI is the organization behind GPT and similar systems. It was founded in 2015 with the primary goal of preventing proprietary interests from taking so much control of AI in our lives that it would be impossible for others to catch up. Open AI is a non-profit, but does solicit private investments. They have also created a for-profit subsidiary, with some safeguards against the for-profit subsidiary taking over.
     As noted previously, ChatGPT isn't the only game in town, and other for-profit organizations, as well as countries like China, are racing to create their own powerful AI programs.
     The first users of ChatGPT have shown that, while it's improving at a rapid rate, the software remains seriously flawed.  Issues that have arisen include:
        - It gives wrong answers in a very confident tone, and even includes references to sources that don't exist—i.e. it makes things up, something its creators call, "hallucinating".
        - Although programmers believe they've put safeguards in to stop it from giving out dangerous information—like how to build a bomb—these are easily sidestepped. One user simply asked, "How did Timothy McVie build his bomb?", and another asked it how to dismantle an explosive. ChatGPT gave an answer that allowed the user to build a bomb through reverse-engineering.

        - Because it's based only on what it can find on the internet, it includes all of the gender, racial and political biases found there.
        - When AI sucks up everything it can find on the internet, it invariably collects material created by artists and writers, violating copyrights and failing to provide the creators with compensation.
        - As smart as ChatGPT appears (it recently passed the bar exam in the 90th percentile), it's still pretty stupid. When asked "What is the third word in this sentence?"  It answered, "third", and did so with great confidence.
     Perhaps the creepiest aspect of ChatGPT and similar AI programs is their ability to do things that their creators don't expect, or do them in ways they don't understand. AI software can now write computer code better and faster than human programmers. This creates a condition in which an AI program could write code designed to replicate itself, and then insert that code into other computer systems, all without the knowledge or consent of its creators or users.
     Not to leave you peaking nervously out your curtains, waiting for the AI monster to ring your doorbell, I note that there are positive things that can come out of advanced AI programs, including:
        - Generating ideas that creative people can then take and use as the basis for new art: images, prose, movies, etc.;


        - Writing routine sorts of communications like meeting notices, resume's and others that require little or no creativity;


        - Examining people's faces with facial analysis to accurately identify genetic disorders;


        - Using machine learning techniques to identify the primary kind of cancer from a liquid biopsy;

        - Identifying disease-causing genomic variants compared to benign variants;

        - Using deep learning to improve the function of gene editing tools such as CRISPR.
     (Of course, gene editing tools like CRISPR themselves can give users capabilities that, like advanced AI, are beyond their understanding or ability to control, allowing for the creation of new and unpredictable versions of "life".)
     Fact is, simpler versions of AI have been around for decades, and you'll find it used in countless ways that we take for granted (appliances, cars, industrial & government systems, traffic light systems, power grids, hearing aids, grammar checkers, spell-check, etc., etc.).  But fairly soon the latest, super-charged versions of AI will likely find their way into almost every aspect of our lives, and to what end, no one really knows.
     If you want to take a deeper dive into AI, its current state and potential future impacts, you can do no better than to listen to podcasts by Ezra Klein of the NY Times. He's done a series of interviews with the creators and practitioners of AI, and tried it out himself in various ways. His work is available wherever podcasts are found.
     Finally, my thanks to William Reid, a forensic psychiatrist, writer, musician and fellow Authors Guild member, for some of the content in this blog post. Bill has been auditing a course on ChatGPT, and continues to share his insights with us as he learns more about advanced AI.
     So, there you have it. Stay tuned, for as Bette Davis once famously said, "Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy night."

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     There's an old saying that goes, "If you watch a baseball game you will inevitably see (or hear) something you've never seen before."  That happened to me on Saturday night while watching the Mets beat the Miami Marlins.
     The announcers were discussing players who'd been members of the Mets, but who never got into a game. One of them was a catcher named Harry Chiti. Harry was with the Mets in 1962, their inaugural year, but never actually got on the field. That in itself wasn't unusual.


     What was odd about Harry's time with the Mets, as I learned from Gary Cohen of the broadcast team, is that he was once traded for himself!
     "How can that be?", you may ask.


     Well, here's the story.
     There's a common transaction in baseball in which teams make a trade for a player, but they can't agree on which player will go back to the other team to complete the trade. They agree to think it over for a while, but not wanting to hold things up, they go ahead with half of the trade. The expression is, "…so & so was traded for a player to be named later."
     In April, 1962, the Cleveland Indians traded Harry to the New York Mets for (you guessed it) a player to be named later.
     Two months later, the Mets and Indians finally sat down and agreed on who the "player to be named later" would be. If you guessed "Harry Chiti", you would be right again.
     Hence, Harry became the only player in the history of the game who was literally TRADED FOR HIMSELF!
     You can't make this stuff up…

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     The right wing of the Republican party, led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has jumped headlong into what could be called the "Sex & Religion Wars".  


     Currently they're focusing especially on people with what's known as "gender dysphoria", the powerful sense that your gender identity does not match the gender assigned to you at birth. People with this condition will sometimes (often?) seek to transition to the gender they believe is authentic to them. It's these transgender people, and their parents, who the right is now targeting with dozens of new laws at the state level.
     In addition, subjects like a woman's right to control her own body, gay marriage, gay couples parenting their children, the use of new forms of personal pronouns and all manner of related issues have become targets of the far right.
     Thinking about this recently, it struck a familiar note, so I searched back through some old journals and found an entry that talked about what I once thought of as the coming sex & religion wars.
     Here's an excerpt:
     "The society will have to come to a violent split eventually. It becomes more and more sophisticated while trying to hold to its traditional Puritan morality (God, nation, family)…Ideas that sex, drugs, freedom, etc. are dangers to society and occasions of sin are shared by much of that part of the American public which tends to arm itself…

     "There can be no real national consensus on these issues—there is very little middle ground on which to meet…the melting pot is starting to bubble from the successive sexual conflicts that have risen to the surface…While huge number of Americans take advantage of sexual freedoms that are still legally unguaranteed…equally huge numbers have clutched Christ to their bosom…America is approaching the edge of its collective psyche."
     That entry is from February, 1978. 
     I may've been off by 45 years, but I think the analysis accurately reflects what we're seeing today. The culture is awash in conflicts, often violent, over sexual and religious beliefs.
     Now DeSantis and his ilk are fixating on the term "woke" to describe anyone who disagrees with their targeting of the rights of women and transgender people to control their own bodies and live their lives as they see fit, or who believes that racism continues to pervade our culture.
     The term "woke" itself (or "stay woke"), arose out of the black community in the 1930s, meant as a warning for African Americans to stay alert to racial prejudice. So it's irony of the highest order that the term has now been coopted by the far right.


     In addition to gender issues, anyone who promotes removing Confederate monuments, teaching the history of racism in the U.S. that stretches back to its founding, or supports diversity in education and the workplace is now called "woke", and laws are being passed to limit the right to express these opinions.
     Florida leads the way in this regard, with laws passed or proposed which would:

       - limit what is taught in schools, including universities, regarding race or gender issues;
       -  ban books on these topics from school and public libraries;
       - incorporate Christian beliefs as a basic component of public education;
       - make it a crime to gather together to demonstrate in support of civil rights, or against corrupt politicians;
       - liberalize libel laws to make it easier to sue anyone, even private citizens, who expresses disagreement with the the state; and
      - use the criminal courts to enforce their war against "woke", turning teachers, doctors, social workers and others into felons, subject to heavy fines and imprisonment.
   If the Sex & Religion Wars have indeed begun, it appears that the wrong side is winning.

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                                                        Poems are made by fools like me,
                                                       But only God can make a tree.
                                                               - Joyce Kilmer

     My wife loves trees.

     Oddly enough, she loves them most especially in the winter, when others take them for granted, thinking they're mere dark, empty shells of their best selves.

     It's not that she ignores their beauty throughout the other seasons. She appreciates them during those months as well.

     In the Spring, when their branches are full of small, bright green or red buds, each one is a promise that, after a long, harsh, Western New York winter, summer is on its way, if only we be patient.

     And Summer? That's when, fully leafed out, the trees in our neighborhood create a palette of changing tones of green that sway in the wind and shade our house, keeping the heat of the day at bay.

     Fall, of course, is when most people notice the trees around them. That's when shorter days and cool nights call on trees to dress in their best finery. This is the season when people ("leaf peepers") drive for miles to see them at their peak of color. We did that ourselves a few years back—a drive up and down New England's mountains that made the wife carsick, but led to some amazing sights.

     But, in the end, it's the winter version of trees that she prefers. As she explains it, it's because this is when they truly reveal themselves.


     In winter they stand naked, shivering in the wind, shorn of their cloak of leaves, and showing us their bones, their complex shapes. It's then that each tree stands alone, no longer lost in the crowd, its bare branches reaching up and out to the sky. 

     I share her love of trees, to the extent that, when asked what I wanted for my birthday, I didn't hesitate to say, "A tree!".


     It was because at the time I was housebound due to a serious illness, and spent much of my time staring out into our yard, where birds gathered at the feeder and squirrels and chipmunks fought over the spilled seed beneath it.

     And, so, she bought me one.

     It was a swamp white oak, recommended by Josh Davis, our local tree whisperer, who said because of the wet, clay soil in our side yard, it was the best species to thrive in the place we chose. I watched from a chair as his crew dug a deep hole, and he used a large handcart to set the young, 8 foot tall tree into its new home.

     As we watched them work my wife and I could only imagine what our neighbors must be thinking. What in hell were the Henrys doing bringing another tree into a yard already full of them? 


     And it's true, not only is our house surrounded on three sides by dozens of trees, it's situated on "Scattertree Lane"!  

     I told her I suspected some might think we were crazy, that we were, in effect, "Carrying Coals to Newcastle." 


     When I mentioned this to a friend he claimed not to have heard of the expression. I explained that Newcastle was once the center of England's coal mining industry, so it would have been a fool's errand for anyone to carry coal there.

     Now, if that makes fools of us, so be it because that young oak tree? It has tripled in size and even now, in winter, is a thing of beauty.

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     Tom Hanks'character in the movie, A League of Their Own, famously said, "There's no crying in baseball!"


     Au contraire, Tom.
     Every NY Met fan remembers the night when, in the middle of a game, shortstop Wilmer Flores heard a rumor that he'd been traded. Having been with the organization since the age of 16, he was devastated at the thought of leaving the Mets. The rumor turned out to be false, but Wilmer didn't know that. He gamely played on, while the camera repeatedly zoomed in to catch him wiping tears from his eyes.


     So, clearly there is crying in baseball.
     But what about politics?
      Well, think about 1972, when Presidential candidate Edmund Muskie was allegedly brought to tears by a newspaper report based on a forged document from the Nixon campaign, and because of the paper's editor's scurrilous remarks about his wife.


     Muskie's aides claimed it was melted snow on his cheeks, not tears, but media accounts said he had cried, causing some voters to wonder if he had the strength and composure to run the nation. George McGovern went on to defeat Muskie for the Democratic nomination, only to lose to more of Nixon's dirty tricks. I supported McGovern, the anti-war candidate, but his loss, while devastating, never resulted in any tears from me.  
     I can, however, cite three political events involving the names Kennedy, Obama and Gorman that did bring me to tears.  (That last name may be unfamiliar to you, so read on.)
     On the morning of June 6, 1968, I awoke and headed out to grab a morning paper and a coffee. I sat on my front stoop, opened the paper, and there it was, blasted across the front page: Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated the night before, right after winning the California Presidential Primary. I was stunned.


     I hadn't supported Kennedy in the beginning because I was a volunteer for Eugene McCarthy's campaign. McCarthy came within 7 points of defeating Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary, an unheard of blow to a sitting President's campaign. Five days later, Kennedy got into the race.


     We McCarthy supporters cried foul, accusing Kennedy of being opportunistic. He had, after all, repeatedly declined to run, but after seeing how McCarthy's near miss in New Hampshire revealed Johnson's vulnerability, Kennedy jumped in.


     Initially angry about his Johnny-come-lately move, by the time of his death I'd become a believer. It was clear, especially after winning California, that the Democratic nomination was now Kennedy's to lose. And the common wisdom was that, once nominated, he would defeat Nixon in the fall, and keep his promise to end the Viet Nam war. Reading of his death that morning, and realizing what it meant to our hopes for a quick end to that immoral war, brought tears to my eyes.  


     Those tears were shed for good reason. After Nixon won, he continued the war, even expanding it into Cambodia and Thailand, which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of more than 21,000 Americans, and untold thousands of Vietnamese.

     The second instance in which a political event brought me to tears was on November 4, 2008 when, toward the midnight hour, it became clear that Barak Obama was about to be elected President. An Obama supporter, my greatest fear had been, not that he would lose the election, but that he wouldn't survive the campaign. I was sure that at some point a racist, white nationalist (redundant, I know) would take him out. With his victory now a certainty, my eyes brimmed with tears at the realization that, not only had he survived, he also was about to create history by becoming the first man or woman of color to be elected President.

     The third and final event that made these watery old eyes even wetter was the Inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, 2019. 

     Jill Biden had discovered a young, twenty-something African American poet named Amanda Gorman, and successfully lobbied her husband to invite Gorman to write and perform a poem at the Inauguration. She would be the youngest person ever to do so.


     Not only did this young woman have to perform in front of the nation and a TV audience of a billion or so, she had to create a poem that, a mere two weeks after the attack on the Capital, recognized the enormity of that tragedy while somehow bringing a sense of hope about who and what America is, and who we need to become.


     The challenge was enormous, and she absolutely nailed it.


     This young woman, standing before Presidents, Senators and Justices of the Supreme Court, flawlessly recited a poem that still brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.


     The Inauguration is saved on my DVR, and I listen to Gorman's poem every once in a while to remind myself that perhaps someday America will come to its senses, and elect public servants who care more about our country than for their own, fleeting, fifteen minutes of Twitter fame.
     If you're not familiar with Amanda's poem, I could quote a few lines, but you need to see and hear it for yourself. If you copy and paste this link into your browser you can watch her performance and read the text of her poem:
     Or, you can simply go to You Tube and search under "Amanda Gorman The hill we climb".
     One more note: on a recent episode of David Axelrod's podcast, "The Axe Files", he interviews Gorman, and you can learn more about what the experience was like from her perch up there on the steps of the Capitol. His podcast can be found wherever podcasts are available.
As always, thanks for reading this far.

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