Monthly Archives: November 2011

Comic Book Movies

Frank Miller Is A Cryptofascist, You Say?

That Action Guy sent me a link this week which probably merits some discussion. It’s about Frank Miller and how he’s a cryptofascist, and how cryptofascism abounds in Hollywood.

The film 300, directed by Zack Snyder, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, is just what you would expect from the heavily freighted right-wing filmic propaganda of the post-9/11 period: the Greeks, from which our own putative democracies are descended, must fight to the death against a vast but incompetent army of Persians (those hordes of the Middle East), who are considered here unworthy of characterisation – in fact, every character in the film is unworthy of characterisation – and the noble Spartans (the Greeks in question) achieve heroism despite their glorious deaths on the field at Thermopylae, by virtue of the moral superiority of their belief system and their unmatched courage. Ruthless enemy! From the Middle East! Heroic, rugged individualists! A big, sentimental score! Lots and lots of blue-screen! Endless amounts of body parts spewing theatrical blood!

It’s a barely watchable film, but what from Hollywood these days is not similarly unwatchable, when so many high-profile releases are based on a medium, the comic book, made expressly to engage the attentions of pre- and just post-pubescent boys.

That sums up why I’ve lost a lot of energy recently when it comes to writing about film. Hollywood movies have become the refined sugar of the cultural staple we have. Now, I do confess I have that metaphorical sweet tooth – I like action movies. Yet lately, I’m kind of sick of the monotonous refinement of these action movies that aim to deliver the greatest adrenalin rush and spectacle. Talking about these films like ‘300’ or ‘Thor’ ends up being an exercise in differentiating the finer points of different chocolate.

Still, the article goes on to hammer how it is that Frank Miller is a fascist, which is to say, if you watch the films based on his comics, they’re bleeding obvious. The problem with post-modernism and the triumph of the thousand striated plateaus where everything is just text is that now we have to discuss McDonalds and fine cuisine alike, comics and Shakespeare alike, Rap Music and Mozart alike, and so on. On the one hand, if the flattening of the critical landscape allowed the proper appraisal of things I like that were poopoo-ed before, (like say, ‘Blade Runner’ and Frank Zappa), then I guess we’re going to have to endure the legitimisation of such intellectual non-luminaries as Frank Miller along the ranks of authors of great works.

And pardon me if this sounds like sour grapes but, come on. He’s a graphic artist who likes nasty turns in his stories. He’s the cultural equivalent of a Bogan, except we’re all egalitarian now and we have to at least give the ass hole his due and space in the public dialogue. To be blunt, I don’t mind Frank Miller is a cryptofascist, because I’m what you might describe as a reconstructed cultural technocrat and I think his cryptofascism is idiotic next to the true lights of our contemporary cultural space. Sure his stuff is fun, but it’s not like it’s profound. he’s just another guy toiling at what Woody Allen described as “the kids’ table”. He’s just the clown at the party to entertain the kids, putting on scary masks. he’s not even part of the moral decay of Western Civilization. Calling him a cryptofascist representative of Hollywood’s propaganda machine gives him way too much credit. Unless of course you’re the sort that thinks ‘300’ is great cinematic art.

He’s no Frank Zappa, and ‘300’ is no ‘Fight Club’. Everything else to be said is only deserving of a  jaded yawn.

Hanging Out At The 15th Japanese Film Festival

The 15th Japanese Film Festival finished on Sunday night. I worked the Q&A as interpreter for the panel discussion and watched the closing film. It was a pretty good festival this year except the glaringly awful ‘Space Battleship Yamato’. Afterwards at the wrap party for the festival and I ran into YK, a cinematographer I know from way back when. YK was incredulous why they even made the film, let alone showed it at the festival

I pointed out that it made money in spite of itself, but YK was for totally flabbergasted at how awful it was. He said he saw the original Anime in 1977 and it was great. So why did they have to make it again and then make a hash of it? Good question. some times the comic book sensibility leads the film industry into really bad decisions. I just want to point out here that it’s not just American Cinema that is contracting into some infantile state as it peddles its wares to the lowest common denominator.

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Either Way, Labor Wins

Politics, Australiana

I’ve been thinking a bit about how awful it would be if and when Tony Abbott should become Prime Minister of Australia. Yes, Tony Abbott, he of the strident Monarchist position, the aggravatingly negative Opposition leadership, the un-costed, retrograde policies, the morbid fear of progressiveness, the dodgy accounting. That Tony Abbott. I often imagine other blue-blood Liberal Party types must be squirming at the hectoring boy-gone-sourly-bad routine Mr. Abbott displays. So much so that even Peter Costello has pointed out that Tony Abbott isn’t genuinely a Liberal Party type; He’s actually Catholic and from the old Democratic Labor Party mold. That is to say, it is as if the right wing Catholic breakaway of the ALP of old, has somehow infiltrated the WASP establishment Liberal Party. Had things been a little different in his life, he might have been one of those conniving pragmatists of the NSW Centre-Right Faction down in Sussex Street. He might have been their bovver boy instead of the other side.

Then there are the Greens. As far as I can tell, the 10-12% who vote for them seem to be former communists and disgruntled ones at that. They’ve certainly broken off the left side of the Australian Labor Party and their economic policies seem about as credible as the Comintern announcements of old. But they’re unmistakably a breed of Labor gone bitter on the shelf as the NSW Centre-Right kept throwing them under the bus in the last two decades.

All of this is to say that Australian politics is moving into an era where even the right side is imbued with Labor Party thinking and the far Left is an off-shoot of the Labor Party. It’s as if the entire polity has basically become Labor. The blue-bloods must really hate that.

The Aftermath of Intellectual Elitism

Educational Elitism gets a bad rap. In the days of old, elites got good education. That is all gone now. So today the leaders of the world are coming to the world stage equipped with pretty poor general education. This is true of Australia as well as many other countries around the world. If there actually were intellectual elites that could step in to the spot and change things, they would be most welcome. Instead, the tenor of debate, say in the US Republican Presidential race is abominably low. Barack Obama looks like a genius next to those guys – and that might be why he would be felled net year in the election; he’s just too elite for the average, ignorant,  plumber Joe.

The Diet in Japan is filled with entitled fourth an fifth generation politicians who barely read a book in their varsity days. The bureaucrats who come from top flight universities are largely ineffectual and narrow-minded.Similar things are going on in France and Italy; and as for Greece, well, we’ve seen where that has gone.

The point is, the global crisis of economics and finance is partnered by a great global crisis and absence in intellectual courage and prowess by the politicians. And all of this came about because we thought things like classics and history were irrelevant so now we’re busily living the dictum where we’re fools, doomed to repeat history. There are big issues to be tackled, but what seems to consume our politicians is name-calling and idiotic prescriptions for immensely complicated problems.

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Instant Nostalgia

Somewhere as a kid I used to sit there and figure out the on-base percentage of my fave players. This is way before I was introduced to Bill James. It came about because I made the observation that a guy who walked with 2 outs and then came home on a homerun was more valuable than the non-credit in the Batting Average that would represent.

Fast forward many years, and I was handed the Baseball Abstracts by Bill James, from a guy who was totally delighted to find I was interested in drawing walks and hitting for power on a team of weekend warriors. I’ve been a lurker over at Baseball Think Factory since the days it was called the Primer, and I’ve absorbed as much of the advanced metrics as I can find. Sabermetrics is a wonderful area of scholarship if one can understand the simple premise that the traditional baseball stats don’t capture the whole story.

Michael Lewis’ ‘Moneyball’ came out at exactly the moment when sabermetrics and its advanced stats were being picked up by the mainstream media and caused a furor; it was more or less a book that was pitched like a high, inside fastball. Nobody thought it could make a good movie – but amazingly Brad Pitt has staked his clout and persisted with it. In some ways it’s amazing that it got made, but then it took a superstar like Brad Pitt to want to do it. Sometimes that’s all it takes, and in some ways, it is everything you need to get a big movie up.

What’s Good About It

The film is interestingly prosaic and discursive for a subject that is given to romanticism. In that sense, the film is just as dispassionate in its narrative as Michael Lewis was in his explications in the book. The cinematography has a rough and ready look which brings to life beautiful renderings of real locations; and if anything is reminiscent of the starkness of ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’. The shooting style is also understated with nary a moment of glossy, over worked establishing shots. It’s a very sharp film that tells a very sharp story.

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane is amusing as well as compassionate. It’s passable enough that the performance can evoke the real Billy Beane in every one of these scenes, real and created for this movie. The biggest challenge was actually on the shoulders of Jonah Hill (Mr. Superbad) to tone down his usual bumbling fat guy schtick and play a fictional foil to Beane’s largely intellectual concerns. He’s certainly no Paul Depodesta, but the difference allows us to watch the film as fiction-loosely-based-on-fact than as a docudrama.

The casting is great, although Philip Seymour Hoffman (as much as I love his stuff) was probably just not right for Art Howe. The point of Art Howe in the book was that he looked like a skipper more than he contributed anything. Art Howe has since gone on the record saying the portrayal was more betrayal and unfair and you can see his point. Art Howe didn’t resist Beane’s moves out of resistance to the new ideas; he simply didn’t get that they were new ideas or where they were coming from. So he wasn’t Joe Morgan; he was more a buffoon. And you would get upset if you got likened to a Joe Morgan-like anti-intellectual loud mouth.

Plus, Royce Clayton plays Miguel Tejada, which is just awesome. Royce Clayton of course didn’t played himself in ‘The Rookie’ about when he got struck out by Jim Morris as played by Dennis Quaid.

What’s Bad About it

It was going to be impossible to do the whole book, but some of the things are out of balance. The 20 game winning streak was awesome, but it hardly proved that Beane was right any more than the post-season failure that year proved he was wrong. (It’s called small sample size – any team could do anything in a month, just as a player could do anything in 60 plate appearances) The whole scouting for the draft got dropped in favour of telling the Major league club stories, but in some ways the most interesting lessons are in the 2003 draft.

I have quibbles but they are minor. I can understand the choices they made, and in telescoping the book into a movie, they’ve had to skip the more abstruse aspects of sabermetric analysis. It’s not a major bad, but it’s not a good thing for me.

What’s Interesting About it

O where does one start?!

This might be the first baseball movie that doesn’t end with a winning moment. The end credits trail out with a song about Beane being a loser and a postscript that his A’s are yet to win the World Series. Its closest meme might be revenge of the nerds but I don’t think that that is the point of the narrative – that the thinking types beat out the sports jock traditionalists. What the film does is in its own way illustrate the distance traveled by the public consciousness about baseball in the 10years between the 2001 playoffs and the 2011 release of the film.

Back in 2001, OBP was such a stand out stat that it necessitated the elevation of Scott Hatteburg as much as it over-emphasised the value of Jason Giambi. Because defensive stats were still in their early phase, nobody put real stock in them, while OBP was as tangible a benefit as they came. Yes, Jason Giambi’s bat was great, but he gave back a lot of runs in the field. In the 10years since, we’ve come to appreciate such notions as the marginal win and what that costs. We understand the strengths of various projection systems as well as the limitations; we now know more about batting averages on balls in play and to what extent that belongs to the batter who has hit line-drives and speed than the defense behind the pitcher.

And they’re just the baseball things. Since the book came out, the Moneyball concept has been taken up by Hollywood itself as they try to wrestle with the idea of which stars are worth the millions being paid and which ones are not.

Brad Pitt’s ‘Blind Side’?

There’s a popular opinion out there that this could be Brad Pitt’s answer to Sandra Bullock’s ‘The Blind Side’. Both are sports movies about nurturing talent, but also both are based on excellent books by Michael Lewis. They’re like book-matched movies where one covers Football, this one covers Baseball; the other features Sandra Bullock as a foster mother, this one features Brad Pitt playing a divorcee father trying to stay in his daughter’s life.

The problem – if such a thing is a problem (it sure isn’t for me) – is that this film isn’t so much heart-warming as ‘The Blind Side’ was, but more Brain-warming. The feverish intellectual excitement of the book is what is at the heart of this film, so I don’t know if it’s going to be enough to move the voting Academy members, who are in my humble opinion, always decidedly un-cerebral when it comes to movies.

I don’t know if Brad Pitt deserves an Oscar for this. I don’t know how such things come to be. Plenty of undeserving people have won them over the years. Should Brad Pitt get one, one of these years? Possibly. Should he get it for this film? That one’s stronger than just a maybe. It’s just so hard to tell with these things. The problem with stars being cast is you just can’t get around the fact that you’re always aware that you’re watching the star. It’s an interesting film that way, in that you’re made to wonder what kind of performance a star should put in to win an Oscar. No wonder they hand them out to stars who wear the ugly makeup.

Billy Beane As Unbeliever In Baseball

The character of Billy Beane is fascinating exactly because he is looking at baseball as both a business and a game from the inside, but with the eyes of an outsider. His failures as a player earmark the reasons for his decisions on many a player. In the book, it is stated that he picks players who are unlike himself in temperament because he believes his temperament contributed greatly to his frustrating non-career as a player.

In the film, this gives rise to a beautiful irony when Peter Brand shows Billy the footage of Jeremy Brown, a fat catcher who stumbles and slips having rounded first, only to discover he’s hit a homerun. The deep romanticism of baseball manifests itself for Billy, but Billy himself is largely a victim of that projected romanticism. His own cross, his suffering comes mostly in part from his experiences of other people projecting expectations on to him. It crippled him as a player, and he is unable to watch his own team play. The pent-up frustration of a man with a mission is palpable and fascinating.

The central myth of baseball is how important it is in the wider culture. Billy Beane in both the book and the film portrayed by Brad Pitt casts a great big stone at the myth, but at the same time affirms the myth by having such an interesting part in it. For every traditionalist baseball fan that hates sabermetrics, there’s a sabermetrically inclined fan who reveres Billy Beane’s A’s. That kind of irony is delicious to watch in a film.

Does ‘Moneyball’ Really Work?

There are in fact many ways to approach any kind of market. The way that Billy Beane and the A’s take in the book and movie is to quantitatively analyze players and find who is being under-valued by the market. The fundamental assumption implicit in this is that the market misjudges the value of players all the time, and this is made very explicit in the movie. To tell you the truth, I’m not so convinced that valuing players diverge as greatly as implied in the film. For instance, we all know that Albert Pujols is likely one of the top3 best hitters in baseball, and we knew that the likes of Barry Bonds and A-Rod were the ones keeping him company. It’s actually the players that you try to decipher values for from rank 100 down that people’s perception and opinions begin to diverge.

You can test this out in any fantasy draft. Nobody drafts a surprise player in the first 3-5rounds in a draft. It’s after the 5th round or so that people start surprising you with the dark horse choices. So on the one hand, there probably is a better way to collect the players on your team to fill out the roster but you actually need to have your superstars in place. If anything, I think the benefits of shrewd analysis in finding unloved gems in any market is overstated.

Historically speaking, the other 30 teams have incorporated quantitative analysis as part of their arsenal of tools so clearly Billy Beane has lost that advantage already in the years since the release of ‘Moneyball’. It’s hard to say if he’s been able to find a new inefficiency in the market.

Other Lessons From ‘Moneyball’

The more subtle lesson to be drawn from ‘Moneyball’ is in how to assemble a group of people for a team. One of the choices taken away from Billy Beane is that of paying big money for a free agent star player. In fact, his is a position to lose his star players more than getting any. This situation actually applies to many small companies in various fields, and the best lesson I can relate is that the equivalent of the draft – recruiting junior staff – becomes extremely crucial. You want your young staff to grow up and grow into their roles within the company. It feels a bit risky, but it’s not. It’s more risky to get the equivalent of that ‘star player signing’, and have some veteran screw up your roster.

From my own experience, I can say this: it’s more rewarding for the organisation to build teams from the ground up than to build them around stars you inherit.

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Movie Doubles – ‘Agora’ & ‘Thor’

Reassessing Faith

It’s a weird day when you watch 2 films back to back and you catch a theme that leaves you wondering. Today’s theme by accident is paganism and faith. On the surface, you have to say paganism is a lot more tolerant than monotheism in practice. This is because paganism is inbuilt with the tacit understanding that other gods might be around too, while monotheism kicks off with deny the other gods. It’s a weird thing from an outsider’s eye whether Yahweh of the Old Testament is one god amongst many who is denying the other gods access to human faith, or whether He really thinks he is only one and wants you to believe it too.It’s also unclear as to whether Allah, and God and Yahweh of the three Levantine religion who are the same deity actually enjoys the havoc that these religions unleash upon the world.

‘Agora’ deals with the rise of Coptic Christians in ancient Egypt who essentially displace Paganism first and the the Jews. ‘Thor’ of course is the Norse god of thunder, reincarnated so to speak as a Marvel comic book hero. What’s really weird is that in depicting ancient Egypt, there is a prosaic realism that eschews any kind of mysticism in ‘Agora’, and shows a world that is actually empty of any kind of divine act. ‘Thor’ on the other hand is set in the present day of some kind but a Norse God manifests itself in the story like some fish out of water and without really turning in to comedy proceeds to plug the audience right back into the Pagan belief system with gusto. The irony of this is hard to escape, for if Paganism is a kind of out-dated system of understanding in the ancient world, why are we suddenly inundated with the heavily meaning-laden pagan god Thor today? It is as if we haven’t moved an inch from the ancient world.

The Merits Of Religion

‘Agora’ is deeply concerned with the why of religion as much as the untenable nature of the social order in the ancient world. Rampant slavery makes any discussion of freedoms and rights and equality virtually impossible. Part of what perpetuates this social system we find is indeed religion, whether it be paganism or Christianity, and so the elite are happy with the pagan faith because it bolsters their social claim. the Christians swell in numbers because it spread through the lower classes of society where there are greater numbers.

Paganism seems to bolster kings greatly because most pantheons preset themselves as courts. This dynamic is  adopted so seamlessly in ‘Thor’ that we simply accept the royal ruler of Asgard, Odin, and all the claims of kingship. This is in contrast to ‘Agora’ where the Roman empire is clearly crumbling and the political system can no longer control security in Alexandria. In Asgard, what we see is a kind of Shakespearean intrigue of kith and kin. What is odd about ‘Thor’ is that these gods of Asgard are so human that we never come to terms with what their divinity means – but it is implicit in the text because, well, this really is meant to be Thor.

Perhaps the even weirder thing is that hyper-Israeli Natalie Portman is playing the romantic love interest for the Norse God. I mean, where’s the plausibility there? Or is Yahweh just another god? how does this all work? Okay, so that is a little too extra-textual, but one is forced to wonder even a little bit.

The Fable of Religion

At the core of the issue in Agora is the sense that morality emanates from God so what the religious patriarch says should be enough to bring to heel a political head. Prior to the notion of separation of church and state, a political leader had no way of combating the errant whims of a religious leader; the matter is made all the more complicated because there is no distinction between morality and law and ethics. This confusion – and it is really important to point out that it is confusion – abets the cause of religion and un-reason and general unreasonableness. Thus, we see today that Fred Nile essentially wants to confuse the water as much as possible between religion and state, morality, law and ethics, in order to find an ascendancy for his bogus claims for righteousness.

Even worse, the calls to fundamentalism in all faiths is essentially a desire to do away with careful distinctions between state and clergy, laws, morals and ethics in one retrograde swoop.

Counter to this is the largely post-modern fabulism of ‘Thor’. Thor posits the Asimov notion that any technology sufficiently advanced from another culture will appear like magic.  In ‘Thor’, we ca see that the mighty Thor might not be the kind of god we envisage but the beneficiary of a great technological edge. That he’s a kind of iron Man from another dimenstion. he merely appears to be godlike because we do not understand th technology he comes from.

Thus, in the ‘Thor’ text we see a subtle deconstruction of religion’s role in our society. As much as ‘Agora’ argues against fundamentalism, ‘Thor’ posits a possibility that religion is a great misunderstanding of natural, explicable phenomena. ‘Thor’ is just as eqally a text that is post-modern and sceptical as to religion’s claim.

Tolerance As Construct

On the face of it, paganism would be more tolerant than monotheism simply because in polytheism one is confronted by the possibility of a god for anything and everything. Just as there are gods for wisdom and war, it is conceivable under that schema that there is a god for stubbed toes and munps. Indeed, St. Paul sneaks in Yahweh as one of these gods that the polytheists may or may not know. The argument mounted in favour of monotheism essentially rests on the tolerance of polytheism.

Tolerance then is something that we create in order to entertain opposing views. It is then easy to understand why the intolerant rush to religious belief. If you could shut the door on the other, then what more joy could there be for the closed minded? The reason Paganism gives way to Monotheism in Agora is that people lose the capacity to entertain the thoughts of ‘the other’.

The Injustice Of Religion

Perhaps it is possible in the Marvel universe that ‘Thor’ exists, that Yahweh exists as a kind of yet-another-god who walks around telling other gods that he is the only god. This is all very Philip K. Dick. it is this quality that makes the universe of ‘Thor’ so odd. In ‘Agora’, there is an absence of god in any of the action on screen. people lay claim to gods and God, but everything that happens on screen is prosaic and human-induced. The absence of justice as practiced by any pagan god or single God leaves the audience as to no doubt that religion is a fantasy. ‘Agora’ offers up a world of devastation wrought by the stupidity of humanity, wanting to believe.

‘Thor’ on the other hand is a depiction of a god doing mighty things, but at the same time posits that there is no god at all – merely technologically superior beings. ‘Thor’ is fantastical, but it does posit an explanation for the stranger phenomena in the world. Or ore pointedly, we humans created our gods to satisfy our own idiotic needs for entertainment.

The beauty of watching these films back to back is that you get to watch two dialectically opposite films about how we come to be believers, in spite of the obvious injustices of the world.

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What The Hell Are They Thinking In Athens?

More Drama Than Drachma

I’m trying to get my head around the logic of why (oh why) the Prime Minister of Greece George Papendreou would propose a referendum on the rescue package.

First Mr Papandreou had to confront a hostile cabinet (although it has since endorsed the idea of a referendum). Then he faced the threat of a rebellion by his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok). And on November 2nd he will miss the opening session of a three-day confidence debate in parliament: Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, have summoned Mr Papandreou to emergency talks in Cannes. They will try to dissuade him from what one western European observer called “political suicide and financial ruin for Greece”.

Pasok lawmakers erupted in fury at the idea of a referendum, which may be held as early as December, but could not happen at all if the Greek government loses the vote of confidence. Two socialist backbenchers said they would henceforth sit as independents, reducing the party’s parliamentary majority to a bare minimum of 151 seats in the 300-member chamber. A third socialist deputy, former development minister Vasso Papandreou (no relation), said she had asked Greek’s president Carolos Papoulias to call a meeting to organise a government of national unity. It would push through fiscal and structural reforms, then take the country to elections. “Greece faces imminent bankruptcy,” Ms Papandreou warned. Separately, six veteran Pasok members urged the prime minister to resign, saying he was “taking Greece back to the 1950s”—a grim period in the country’s history, which was marked by widespread poverty and mass emigration.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle have joined the call for a snap election. Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, the conservative opposition party, said that elections are “a national imperative”. A referendum “would put the country and the future of Europe at risk”. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the leftwing Syriza faction, also called for elections, saying Mr Papandreou “is finally being dragged to the polls under asphyxiating popular pressure, but it will be an election, not a referendum.”

It’s a real head-scratcher as to what he thinks such a referendum would achieve, but off he goes, mouthing off this referendum. Naturally stocks took a nose dive everywhere, which is neither here nor there; although I really do want to point out that even if it doesn’t look like altruism, the European Union is going a considerable way towards trying to bail out a reckless Greek government that went and squandered what it borrowed. It might not look like it but Sarkozy and Merkel went to great lengths to hammer out an agreement to ave Greece from itself. Now Papendeou has taken that fragile agreement and tossed it to the dogs, so to speak. And by dogs I mean those people baying for a change in Greece just so it doesn’t have to go through with the austerity measures. It’s a bit like he’s gone and metaphorically spat in people’s faces, now that he’s secured agreements from them to save his metaphorical house on fire.

And I’m asking myself, what rational reason could he give for throwing all of that out the window? What the hell is he thinking? Is he seriously thinking it’s a realistic choice to let the people decide and if the people decide to default, then history would somehow absolve him? Because if that’s the idea, he’s not only out of his depth, he’s out of his tree.

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