Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘social web’

09 JUNE, 2011

The Internet Is My Religion: Jim Gilliam on the Divinity of the Web

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Startups, spirituality and why connectedness is next to godliness.

A lot has been said recently about the future of the internet and how it’s changing our lives. Meanwhile, the age-old debate about science and religion rages on. These two worlds, of technology and of faith, hardly ever seem to converge, but perhaps there’s more at this intersection than we dare admit.

At Personal Democracy Forum 2011, which took place earlier this week, Jim Gilliam — bona fide geek, founder of an ambitious startup building tools to disrupt a broken political system — gave a deeply personal and immensely moving talk titled The Internet Is My Religion, in which he shared the incredible true story of how the interconnectedness of the social web gave him, quite literally, his life back.

These are the best 10 minutes you’ll spend this week, guaranteed.

God is what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. [E]ach one of us is a creator but, together, we are THE creator.” ~ Jim Gilliam

Thanks, Juliette

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30 MAY, 2011

Summer Reading List: 10 Essential Books for Cognitive Sunshine

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The history and future of the Internet, algorithms vs. curators, reinventing education, and how to live with optimism.

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, which means summer has officially begun. And what’s summer without a good summer reading list? So here it is — a cross-disciplinary selection of the 10 most essential cognitive fertilizers for a season of creative and intellectual growth. (Want more? Don’t hesitate to revisit last year’s list, full of timeless gems to catch up on.)

THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD

The future of information is something I’m deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by iconic science writer James Gleick is easily the most ambitious, compelling, insert-word-of-intellectual-awe-here book to read this year, illustrating the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Full review here.

AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE

After life threw comedian Mark Stevenson a curveball that made him face his own mortality, he spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, looking for an antidote to the dystopian visions for the technology-driven future of humanity so pervasive in today’s culture. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future comes as an auspicious yet grounded vision for what we’ve previously explored in discussing the future of the Internet and what the web is doing to our brains.

Full review here.

LIVE NOW

Keeping with the theme of optimism — because, really, who wants to dampen sunshine and the summer wind with another dystopian downer? — here’s a lovely project born, just like Stevenson’s, out of a stark confrontation with mortality. When illustrator Eric Smith was diagnosed with three different types of cancer, he decided to start a collaborative art project inviting people to live in the moment through beautiful, poetic, earnest artwork that celebrates life. This season, the project was published as a book, the candidly titled Live Now: Artful Messages of Hope, Happiness & Healing — an absolute treasure of Carpe Diem gold in the vein of Everything Is Going To Be OK, full of stunning illustration and design reminding us of what we all semi-secretly want to believe but the cynics in us all too often discount.

'Live Humbly' by Mikey Burton

'Break Your Routine' by Mikey Burton

'Overflowing Optimism' by Chad Kouri

Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me — the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life.” ~ Eric Smith

Kirstin Butler’s full review, with more images, here.

THE INTERNET OF ELSEWHERE

Barely halfway though, 2011 has already been one of the most tumultuous years for global politics and civic unrest in modern history. And the most dramatic changes have taken place in societies where emerging technology is disrupting how citizen relate to their government and one another. While countries like Libya and Egypt have been the eye of the media storm, some of the most fascinating effects of these shifts have been in countries still off the mainstream radar. In The Internet of Elsewhere: The Emergent Effects of a Wired World, California-born, Germany-based technology journalist Cyrus Farivar explores the role of the internet as a social, political and economic catalyst through compelling case studies from four unexpected countries: Iran, Estonia, South Korea, and Senegal.

From how Skype was invented in Estonia to why Senegal may be Sub-Saharan Africa’s best chance for widespread public Internet access to what makes South Korea the most wired country in the world, the book offers profiles of local tech pioneers alongside insightful analyses of cultural context and what the “developed world” can learn from these countries, in some cases years ahead in harnessing the sociopolitical virtues of web technology. And, in a meta move true to the subject matter, Farivar successfully funded the book’s European tour on Kickstarter.

The Internet is not, in fact, a seed. It does not have the ability to bring about world peace and the elimination of the nation-state, any more than the telegraph did. It is but a tool that, when combined effectively with local political and economic realities, can have demonstrably positive and often surprising effects. However, this tool can be co-opted and/or fought against by regimes that are not ready for it to be used freely. Other developing societies, too, may not be completely ready to use the Internet effectively. This is why manifestations of the Internet remain so varied in different corners of the globe. This book is an attempt to tell the story of what happens when the Internet collides, head-on, with history unfamiliar to most Americans.” ~ Cyrus Farivar

You can sample The Internet of Elsewhere by reading the fascinating 15-page introduction for free online.

A NEW CULTURE OF LEARNING

Reinventing the broken system of today’s formal education is one of our era’s most pressing cultural concerns. And while most conversations on the subject can be redundant, navel-gazy and ultimately ineffectual, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown bring a refreshing perspective on the subject with equal parts insight, imagination and optimism. Besides being one of our 7 must-read books on education, their A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change is the most popular book featured on Brain Pickings this year, and for good reason — it makes a compelling case for a new kind of learning, one growing synchronously and fluidly with technology rather than resisting it with restless anxiety, a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson’s call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky’s notion of “cognitive surplus.”

We’re stuck in a mode where we’re using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we’re missing some really important and valuable data.” ~ Douglas Thomas

Full review, complete with video interviews with the authors, here.

THE FILTER BUBBLE

We live in a culture that puts a premium on customization, but this ultra-personalization has its price when it comes to the information we’re being served. That’s exactly what Eli Pariser, founder of public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org, explores in his fascinating and, depending on where you fall on the privacy spectrum, potentially unsettling new book, The Filter Bubble — a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we’re being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results you searched for?) Implicitly, the book raises some pivotal questions about the future of the information economy and the balance between algorithm and curator — something I feel particularly strongly about.

In some ways, I think the primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.” ~ Eli Pariser

Full review, along with a revealing exclusive interview with Pariser, here.

The app itself is free, with various language pairs available for in-app purchase. The first pair released is Spanish-English, with more coming soon.

FLOURISH

Martin Seligman is best-known as the father of the positive psychology movement — a potent antidote to the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. His seminal book, Authentic Happiness, was one of our 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness. This season, he has finally released his much-anticipated, and somewhat controversial, follow-up: Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being — a distinct departure from Seligman’s prior conception of happiness, which he now frames as overly simplistic and inferior to the higher ideal of lasting well-being.

Without being a self-help book, Flourish manages to offer insightful techniques to optimize yourself, your relationships and your business for well-being, based on empirical evidence culled from years of Seligman’s rigorous research.

Relieving the states that make life miserable… has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.'” ~ Martin Seligman

Full review, along with a primer by way of Seligman’s 2004 TED talk, here.

THE LATE AMERICAN NOVEL

The future of publishing is something I ponder daily. And while mainstream media was busy announcing the death of the book, The Millions founders Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee did something better: They assembled an all-star team of literary visionaries and asked them what the future of the written word holds. The results — funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking — are gathered in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, spanning a remarkable array of perspectives and styles, from historical context to comic relief to the difficult questions that have to be asked.

Are we going to have to find new ways to get noticed? Yes. Do we get to find news ways to get noticed? Yes. Is it trouble? Yes. But trouble is the stuff of writing and creation. Time to shut up and get to the making, get back to that sense of play where everything interesting, including the future, finally fast and soon to be here, starts.” ~ Ander Monson

Kirstin Butler’s full review, with ample quotes from the book, here.

RADIOACTIVE

Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout is an endlessly beautiful cross-pollination of art and science, in which artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but powerful threads of her life: Radioactivity and romance. It’s a turbulent story — her passionate love with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — brimming with poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in an obscure early-20th-century image printing process called cyanotype, critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep blue color. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Full review, with more images and a TEDx talk by Redniss, here.

GOD BLESS YOU, DR. KEVORKIAN

In 1997, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut pitched an idea to New York public radio station WNYC: He would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences courtesy of real-life physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, allowing the author to access heaven, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late. The producers loved the idea and Vonnegut churned out a number of 90-second segments “interviewing” anyone from Jesus to Hitler to Isaac Asimov. The interviews — funny, poignant, illuminating, timeless, profoundly human — are collected in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a fantastic anthology playing on the title of Vonnegut’s 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, some of the best cultural satire of the past century.

During my most recently controlled near-death experience, I got to interview William Shakespeare. We did not hit it off. He said the dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’ He asked if it had a name, and I said ‘Indianapolis.'” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Full review, with a rare transcript from Vonnegut’s original pitch for the series to WNYC, here.

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12 MAY, 2011

The Filter Bubble: Algorithm vs. Curator & the Value of Serendipity

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How the web gives us what we want to see, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Most of us are aware that our web experience is somewhat customized by our browsing history, social graph and other factors. But this sort of information-tailoring takes place on a much more sophisticated, deeper and far-reaching level than we dare suspect. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results you searched for?) That’s exactly what Eli Pariser, founder of public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org, explores in his fascinating and, depending on where you fall on the privacy spectrum, potentially unsettling new book, The Filter Bubble — a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we’re being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see.

I met Eli in March at TED, where he introduced the concepts from the book in one of this year’s best TED talks. Today, I sit down with him to chat about what exactly “the filter bubble” is, how much we should worry about Google, and what our responsibility is as content consumers and curators — exclusive Q&A follows his excellent TED talk:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.” ~ Eli Pariser

q0

What, exactly, is “the filter bubble”?

EP: Your filter bubble is the personal universe of information that you live in online — unique and constructed just for you by the array of personalized filters that now power the web. Facebook contributes things to read and friends’ status updates, Google personally tailors your search queries, and Yahoo News and Google News tailor your news. It’s a comfortable place, the filter bubble — by definition, it’s populated by the things that most compel you to click. But it’s also a real problem: the set of things we’re likely to click on (sex, gossip, things that are highly personally relevant) isn’t the same as the set of things we need to know.

q1

How did you first get the idea of investigating this?

EP: I came across a Google blog post declaring that search was personalized for everyone, and it blew my mind. I had no idea that Google was tailoring its search results on an individual basis at all — the last I’d heard, it was showing everyone the same “authoritative” results. I got out my computer and tried it with a friend, and the results were almost entirely different. And then I discovered that Google was far from the only company that was doing this. In fact, nearly every major website is, in one way or another. (Wikipedia is a notable exception.)

q2

In an age of information overload, algorithms certainly finding the most relevant information about what we’re already interested in more efficiently. But it’s human curators who point us to the kinds of things we didn’t know we were interested in until, well, until we are. How does the human element fit into the filter bubble and what do you see as the future of striking this balance between algorithmic efficiency and curatorial serendipity?

EP: The great thing about algorithms is that, once you’ve got them rolling, they’re very cheap. Facebook doesn’t have to pay many people to edit the News Feed. But the News Feed also lacks any real curatorial values — what you’re willing to Like is a poor proxy for what you’d actually like to see or especially what you need to see. Human curators are way better at that, for now — knowing that even though we don’t click on Afghanistan much we need to hear about it because, well, there’s a war on. The sweet spot, at least for the near future, is probably a mix of both.

One interesting place this comes up is at Netflix — the basic math behind the Netflix code tends to be conservative. Netflix uses an algorithm called Root Mean Squared Error (RMSE, to geeks), which basically calculates the “distance” between different movies. The problem with RMSE is that while it’s very good at predicting what movies you’ll like — generally it’s under one star off — it’s conservative. It would rather be right and show you a movie that you’ll rate a four, than show you a movie that has a 50% chance of being a five and a 50% chance of being a one. Human curators are often more likely to take these kinds of risks.

q3

How much does Google really know about us, in practical terms, and — more importantly — how much should we care?

EP: That depends on how much you use Google — about me, it knows an awful lot. Just think: it’s got all of my email, so it not only has everything I’ve written to friends, it has a good sense of who I’m connected to. It knows everything I’ve searched for in the last few years, and probably how long I lingered between searching for something and clicking the link. There are 57 signals that Google tracks about each user, one engineer told me, even if you’re not logged in.

Most of the time, this doesn’t have much practical consequence. But one of the problems with this kind of massive consolidation is that what Google knows, any government that is friends with Google can know, too. And companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.

Companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.” ~ Eli Pariser

I’d also argue there’s a basic problem with a system in which Google makes billions off of the data we give it without giving us much control over how it’s used or even what it is.

q4

Do you think that we, as editors and curators, have a certain civic responsibility to expose audiences to viewpoints and information outside their comfort zones in an effort to counteract this algorithmically-driven confirmation bias, or are people better left unburdened by conflicting data points?

EP: In some ways, I think that’s the primary purpose of an editor — to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

q4

Is it possible to reconcile personalization and privacy? What are some things we could do in our digital lives to strike an optimal balance?

EP: Well, personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly — and we should demand it of the companies we use. (They tend to argue that consumers don’t care — we should let them know we do.)

On an individual level, I think it comes down to varying your information pathways. There was a great This American Life episode which included an interview with the guy who looks at new mousetrap designs at the biggest mousetrap supply company. As it turns out, there’s not much need for a better mousetrap, because the standard trap does incredibly well, killing mice 90% of the time.

The reason is simple: Mice always run the same route, often several times a day. Put a trap along that route, and it’s very likely that the mouse will find it and become ensnared.

So, the moral here is: don’t be a mouse. Vary your online routine, rather than returning to the same sites every day. It’s not just that experiencing different perspectives and ideas and views is better for you — serendipity can be a shortcut to joy.

Ed. note: The Filter Bubble is out today and one of the timeliest, most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time — required reading as we embrace our role as informed and empowered civic agents in the world of web citizenship.

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21 APRIL, 2011

Tweets from Tahrir: Rare Record of a Revoltuion

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What Gladwell’s fallacies have to do with changing media models and political paradigms.

In the past year, we’ve seen the fall of political regimes, the crumbling of media paradigms, and the parallel evolution of decomcary and social media. And while certain pundits continue to hold blatantly misguided opinions about the sociopolitical role of social media in activism, the real world is providing ample evidence for these new modalities of democracy and dissent. Tweets from Tahrir, an excellent new addition to alternative publishing powerhouse OR Books‘ stable of progressive social and political commentary, is a compelling time-capsule of the revolution unfolded before the world’s eyes as young people used social platforms to coordinate an historic uprising, documented it with their mobile phones, and spread it across the social web — a revolution not only of political dogma, but also of media dogma as citizen journalists in the streets replaced traditional newsrooms to deliver rich real-time insight into the heart of a historical milestone.

I think we’re agreed: Without the new media the Egyptian Revolution could not have happened in the way that it did. The causes were many, deep-rooted, and log0seated. The turning moment had come — but it was the instant and widespread nature of the new media that made it possible to recognize the moment and to push it into such an effective manifestation. What happened next has already become legend. Lines and images from the three weeks that followed January 25, 2011 , have imprinted themselves not just on the Egyptian psyche, but on the memory and imagination of the world.” ~ Ahdaf Soueif

Edited by young activists Alex Nunns and Nadia Idle, an Egyptian who was in Tahrir Square when Mubarak fell, and with a foreword by Anglo-Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif, the book is everything the self-righteous, removed pontification of cultural theorists is not (sorry, Malcolm) — the lived reality of the revolutionaries, the raw core of a world history landmark the repercussions of which will shape textbook narratives for generations to come.

I have friends on antidepressants who, over the twenty days of the revolution, forgot to take their pills and hav enow thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian Revolution.” ~ Ahdaf Soueif

Fast-paced and relentlessly fascinating, Tweets from Tahrir is unlike any book ever written, much in the way that the Egyptian Revolution was unlike any uprising ever orchestrated. To miss it is to deny yourself unprecedented understanding of the sociocultural forces that shape our political and media reality.

Thanks, Kirstin

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18 APRIL, 2011

Quakebook: Twitter-Sourced Anthology for and by Japan

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What Yoko Ono, William Gibson and Kings of Leon have in common.

The March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan are among the greatest natural disasters in modern history, affecting thousands of lives in unspeakably gruesome ways. While we’ve been skeptical of designers, writers and other creators flacking their work as a way to “help” Japan by donating a small portion of the proceeds while trying to sell large volumes of posters or t-shirts or novels — such schemes tend to feel like piggybacking on tragedy, disaster-washing, if you will — a new ebook by and for Japanese earthquake survivors tells a beautifully different story.

2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake, also known as the #quakebook project, was put together in a little over a week by a team of professional and citizen journalists who met on Twitter and set out to raise money for the Japanese Red Cross earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in a thoughtful way that puts their strengths and talents to use. They collected essays, artwork and photographs from people all over the world — from ordinary people, from victims of the disaster, from journalists who covered it, from prominent writers like William Gibson, Barry Eisler and Jake Adelstein, who created original work for the book, and even from Yoko Ono, who captures the tragedy and turmoil of the moment in a poignant essay titled Awakening — and published them in an anthology the full proceeds from which benefit disaster relief efforts in Japan.

The idea for this book came out of desperation, desperation to do something for a country on its knees. As I write this, intense aftershocks still force me out onto the street with my daughter in my arms, even though we live far from the hardest-hit areas of the country, and far more comfortably than the thousands in refugee shelters.”

The book features 87 narratives, eyewitness accounts and essays covering — with raw and moving candor of lived experience — beauty, bravery, distance, escapism, God, morality, harmony, remembrance and everything in between.

Those of us who live in Japan are in a state of war. But not a war against a nation, or even nature. We are fighting defeat, worry and hopelessness. The question is: Are we strong enough to overcome? [F]or the many people around the world who care deeply about Japan, this book is a snapshot of a nation in crisis, told by the people affected, in their own voices.”

Besides the beautiful story of how the book came together and the profound bittersweetness of its goal, what makes the project unique is that 100% of the $9.99 you pay goes directly to the Japanese Red Cross Society. It’s the product of the sheer creative altruism of those involved, and of those choosing to support it — we urge you to join us amongst them.

via The Domino Project

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