30 January 2006 - Monday

Last call for History Carnival

The next History Carnival goes up right here on Wednesday. Many people have submitted nominations, but there's still time to direct me to great posts!

I still particularly need entries in modern non-Western; modern Western (non-American); political/military/diplomatic; and religious history. I'd also like to see a few more entries from non-professionals.

Send them to JonathanWilson (at symbol) letu.edu.

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29 January 2006 - Sunday

Beyond the scope of their research

After a humorous conversation with my academic advisor -- inspired by Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America (Philip Dray) and Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America (Mark Perry) -- I spent a few minutes Googling. Here are the results:

Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz)

Tolkien and the Invention of Myth (Jane Chance)

Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America (Jason Goodwin)

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (Simon Winchester)

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (Margaret MacMillan)

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Jack Weatherford)

Newspapers and the Making of Modern America (Aurora Wallace)

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Mae M. Ngai)

Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (David T. Courtwright)

Henry Adams and the Making of America (Gary Wills)

Energy and the Making of Modern California (James C. Williams)

Sex, Religion, and the Making of Modern Madness: The Eberbach Asylum and German Society, 1815-1849

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (David Von Drehle)

The Alamo (A Day That Changed America) (Craig, Tanaka, and Winders)

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War (Fred Anderson)

The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World (Arthur Herman)

The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900 (John C. Weaver)

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (Mark Pendergrast)

Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization (Iain Gately)

And my personal favorites:

Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages (Bonnie Effros)

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Mark Kurlansky)

The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (Larry Zuckerman)

Criticism of the trend:

"ESSAY; The Subtitle That Changed America" (Ben Yagoda, at the NYT)

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28 January 2006 - Saturday


There is something apocalyptic about this campus in the nighttime.

We are located near a chemical plant and a heavy-machinery factory, so we get plenty of light pollution. On a cloudy night like this one, the southern horizon glows a dull red -- especially when the plant lights its flare.

Memorial Student Center

We also hear strange, inhuman noises. We often hear a sound like a far-off giant's front door slamming. I suspect it comes from the factory. Closer at hand, young men drive through our neighborhood with their car stereos at full power, rattling windows. Sometimes these cars backfire ... but sometimes the sounds we hear come from weapons.

I rarely notice the eeriness of all this during the work week. On a Saturday night, however, a trip outside becomes an adventure. Every faceless human shape that passes, inspires a sense of loneliness. Every locked building suggests wasted potential.

Then I return home and start reading. Tonight, Locke and Rousseau.

Tomorrow, I will go to church. The front wall of the sanctuary at St. Mike's is all glass; the congregation gets a splendid view of deep green pine trees. The altar is covered in white cloth. We recite the creed and pray together, thanking Christ for the morning.

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CFP: Interdisciplinary

I am posting this for the same reason I posted the UT Tyler call for papers -- it represents an opportunity for LETU undergrads.

"DaVinci to Derrida: Breaking Codes Across Disciplines"
***Open to faculty, graduates, and undergraduates***
EGAD (English Graduates for Academic Development)
15th Annual Interdisciplinary Symposium
Texas A&M University-Commerce
March 31, 2006

Now accepting proposals for papers and panels dealing with contemporary issues in academia. We welcome submissions from all areas of academic discourse including, but not limited to: English, History, Journalism, Political Science, Education, Psychology, and Sociology. Suggestions of possible areas of interest:

Critical Theory
Academia/Professional Issues
Graduate Student Issues
Technology in the Classroom
Foreign Language Studies
Composition & Rhetoric
Pop Culture
Creative Writing
Film Studies
Science Fiction
Writing Center Theory & Practice
Literary Studies

Deadline for Submission of 250-Word Abstract: March 18th, 2006
Electronic Submissions Encouraged
Panel Proposals and Workshops Welcome

Notification of acceptance and conference registration materials will be mailed electronically by March 20, 2006

Please send inquiries and abstracts to:

c/o Josue Aristides Diaz
Department of Literature and Languages
PO Box 3011
Texas A&M University-Commerce
Commerce, TX 75429-3011
EGAD2006 at aol.com

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CFP: Classical, medieval, Renaissance

I ran across this call for papers on the H-HistMajor list. I figure some of my fellow LETU students may want to submit abstracts, if they have anything relevant.

Plenary Speakers: David Bevington (University of Chicago)
Gordon Kipling (University of California, Los Angeles)
Paul Woodruff (University of Texas at Austin)

The 2nd College of Arts and Sciences Conference on Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies will take place on Friday and Saturday, April 7th and 8th 2006 at The University of Texas at Tyler. The conference is intended to bring together students, faculty, and the local community to discuss a range of issues concerning the Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance periods as well as their continuing importance for us today. It will provide a wonderful venue for those interested in earlier cultural traditions to interact and gain greater exposure to the richness and diversity of these periods through panels, presentations, roundtables, displays, demonstrations, and musical and dramatic performances.

Abstracts from undergraduate, graduate students, faculty, and interested members of the community are encouraged on all topics concerning classical antiquity through the Renaissance. Papers or sessions on drama are particularly encouraged, as are comparative studies addressing the later influence of the classical, medieval, and renaissance periods on more recent aspects of British, American, or World Literature.


Abstracts of 150-250 words for a 15-20 minute paper should be e-mailed (strongly preferred) to Victor Scherb at vscherb at mail.uttyl.edu or Edward Tabri at etabri at mail.uttyl.edu.

In addition to the abstract, please include a brief personal statement or Curriculum Vitae of less than one page, with full contact information and a tentative assessment of any audiovisual equipment required for your presentation. The deadline for abstract submission is Friday, February 17th, 2006. A faculty/student committee will review submissions and respond by e-mail by the end of February. Abstracts of accepted papers will be made available on the conference web site.

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26 January 2006 - Thursday

Advantages of tolerance

Reading from a collection of the Marquis de Condorcet's writings this morning, I came across a letter he addressed to his daughter. Condorcet wrote this in 1794 while hiding from the Terror. (He was on the run after publicly criticizing the Jacobin constitution.) The letter is full of fatherly advice, the advice Condorcet wanted to leave his child but doubted he would be able to impart in person. I especially like his admonition to be nice and "indulgent" whenever possible:

My child ...

If you want society to give you more pleasure and comfort than sorrow or bitterness, be indulgent and guard against egoism as a poison which ruins all its pleasures.

By indulgence, I do not mean the ability, born of indifference or thoughtlessness, to pardon everything simply because you do not feel or notice anything. I mean the indulgence based on justice, on reason, on an awareness of your own weaknesses, and on our happy inclination to pity men rather than condemn them.

This will enable you to find happiness in the many good but weak people who are not tiresome though they have no shining qualities, who can distract you even if they cannot occupy you, whom you can meet with pleasure but leave without pain, and who do not count when we view our lives as a whole, but who can pass the time and fill a few empty moments. ...

Because of your duties, your main interests and the things you feel strongly about, you may not always be able to associate only with people you have chosen to have around you. And then, situations which would have cost you nothing if you had been more reasonable and more just, and had made indulgence a way of life, will require painful, daily sacrifices. Instead of a slight constraint, they will become a true source of unhappiness.

Iain McLean and Fiona Hewitt, trans. and eds., Condorcet: Foundations of Social Choice and Political Theory (Edward Elgar Publishing, 1994), 288-289.

It's a nicely practical argument, founded on self-interest as well as the concept of fairness. This is what you would hear if your father were an Enlightenment philosopher who wanted you to play nice. The essence of the advice: overlook irritations, be charitable to everyone, and be humble. I like that advice; it could already have saved me a lot of difficulty in my short life, had I followed it more often.

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Democracy = peace?

Don't count on it.

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24 January 2006 - Tuesday

Looking forward

I submitted my graduation application today. In 101 days, barring any unexpected flunking, I will receive a BA in "history and political science" and a BS in business administration, with an English minor on the side.

I'm not sure when our "department of history/political science" (the name of the department when I entered) became the "department of history and political science." A couple of years ago, I heard rumors that such a change was being contemplated. I recall advising unofficially against it, pointing out that it would make our single major look even more like a double major. I admit, of course, that the name looks cooler now -- but also less honest.

At some point, I'll have an exit interview with one or another administrator. I already have a general outline for my side of the conversation; I'll begin with the fact that the "history and political science" department currently has only one full-time professor on campus -- the other one is on sabbatical-- and neither has a degree in political science.

I would also like to write an op/ed for the student newspaper (on a different topic) before I graduate.

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Texas at the World's Fair

Click for larger image (137k)

Yesterday, as part of some recent research concerning the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, I retrieved The Official Directory of the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1893) through an interlibrary loan. Browsing the pages of the hefty blue book, I ran across an article touting Texas' exhibit at the fair. The entry amused me because it exemplified a combination of characteristics that any present-day Texan will recognize -- effusive state pride, annoyance at the labyrinthine constitution, and frustration at the legislature's perceived inability to appropriate money to the satisfaction of its constituents.

More than anything else, the listing was an apology for the modesty of the exhibit, which was thought inappropriate to the great state of Texas. I have inserted paragraph breaks for the reader's ease:

Texas has erected a handsome building on the right of the north entrance to the Exposition grounds, and this notwithstanding the failure of the State Legislature to make an appropriation on account of constitutional prohibition. The money for the structure was raised by the Women's World's Fair Exhibit Association of Texas, with headquarters at Austin, the State capital.

General regret was expressed when the solons of the Lone Star State failed to make a suitable appropriation for the representation of the resources of that great commonwealth. Mr. John T. Dickinson, the efficient secretary of the National Commision, is a resident of Texas, and he did all in his power to bring about a more favorable and extensive exhibit from his native and beloved State. He wrote numerous articles for the Texas newspapers, traveled and spoke all over the State, induced other prominent Exposition officials to help him in the work of creating a sentiment which would crystallize into favorable action by the law-making powers, and was materially aided in his efforts by numerous prominent citizens of Texas, but to the chagrin and disappointment of thousands of progressive and enterprising Texans, as well as to [sic] their numerous friends all over the country, the appropriation failed to pass, and Texas, once an entire republic itself and now one of the finest, best and most progressive in the galaxy of the States of this union, is not represented at the Fair in such manner as becomes its grandeur. All credit, however, to the noble band of ladies of the Exhibit Association for what Texas has to show.

In the treatment of the design of the Texas Building the architect has not deflected from the history of the Lone Star State, which, from its foundation, has been marked by a Spanish tinge, whose architectural inclination and handsome botanical effects lay down a chain of thought far too beautiful to be forsaken for that of the present day; therefore, the building was designed for colonnades, grounds, fountains, foliage, etc. It contains an assembly room 56 feet square, 28 feet high, provided with art glass skylight in the ceiling, with a mosaic Texas star in the center. The rostrum, ante-rooms, etc., are furnished in the natural woods of Texas. One wing contains rooms for bureau of information, register, messenger, telephone, telegraph, directors, Texas Press Association headquarters, commissioners, historical museum and library, toilet rooms, county collective exhibits, etc. The main entrances are through vestibules, flanked on either side by niches and colonnades. The main vestibules terminate in a large auditorium, connecting with the rooms mentioned.

The Texas Building cost $30,000.

This contrasts dramatically with the bland entries of most other states (although host state Illinois, naturally, got a much longer article for its $250,000 building). I shall take Maryland's report, in its entirety, as a convenient example:

The Maryland Building is near the lake and opposite the Virginia Building. It is a handsome structure and is divided into reception hall, ladies' toilet, ladies' parlor, exhibition hall, woman's department, bureau of information and main exhibition hall, beside spacious porches on the first floor. Gents' toilet, office, smoking room, reading room, and three parlors which communicate constitute the second floor, and a gallery overlooking the main exhibition hall is entered from this floor. The flat deck roofs of porches and buildings offer fine points of vantage for overlooking the grounds of the World's Fair.
Wusses. I bet they didn't even have colonnades.

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22 January 2006 - Sunday

Call for posts: History Carnival

The next edition of the History Carnival will be hosted right here! I am asking everyone for nominations.

The purpose of the History Carnival is to highlight the best and most interesting history-related posts of bloggers everywhere. Contributors do not have to be professional historians. In fact:

History is an enormous subject, and we hope a wide range of blogs and topics can be represented so that there will always be something familiar and something unexpected for everyone. It must be stressed that it's not just for academics and specialists, that entries certainly don't have to be heavyweight scholarship. But they do have to uphold certain standards of factual accuracy and integrity in the use of sources. All submissions will be vetted by the host, whose decision is final.
I appreciate any nominations you can provide (a fuller list of rules governing inclusion is located at the site linked above). Please email me the URLs of your favorite recent history-related posts, preferably published since 15 January, by the end of this month. (You can also use this online form.) My address is JonathanWilson at symbol letu period edu.

By the way, a great place to look for history blogs is the list maintained by the group blog Cliopatria.

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16 January 2006 - Monday

Reading list

Blogging from Kuwait, Sgt. Chris Bray (US Army; UCLA history) has begun a series of posts to explain why he thinks the war is "probably unwinnable" and why our soldiers' position on the ground is "painfully untenable." Bray, incidentally, is arguing as a conservative. The introduction is here. In part 1, Bray explains why our soldiers and our journalists interpret the situation in Iraq differently (hint: the journalists know Arabic). In part 2, he questions the actual value of America's superior firepower.

Popular Mechanics is giving away a small earthmover. That's so cool. (Via Dave Barry)

Dahlia Lithwick provides Senate Democrats with a helpful, stereotype-free guide to the American federalist: "Once you acquaint yourself better with the federalist, it is our belief that you will come to love him as we do. You are free to pet the soft, luxuriant hair of any federalist you see here today. But Sen. Kennedy, please stop poking him with a pointy stick." (Via Volokh)

Translate a letter for a lawyer, spend 20 years in prison? (Via MeFi)

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15 January 2006 - Sunday

History Carnival XXIII

The twenty-third History Carnival is up at Old is the New New. Rob MacDougall has cataloged a full month of posts in a very stylish format. Here are a few of the entries:

Ed Podesta describes the philosophy behind the "grand" tradition of British school history, which emphasizes the transmission of a particular culture. >>

K. M. Lawson comments on an unusual history lesson at a Japanese high school. >>

James R. Rummel has discovered that the US government turned to the American Historical Association during World War II to help answer questions like "Can War Marriages be Made to Work?," "Do You Want Your Wife to Work After the War?," and "Will There be a Plane in Every Garage?" The AHA's Web site reproduces 43 of these pamphlets. >>

Nathanael D. Robinson proposes a list of ten events that students need to know in order to understand contemporary France. >>

Tim Burke describes the melancholy induced by tight security around historical landmarks in Philadelphia. >>

Mortimer Randolph is interested in Scotland's experience with bison. >>

The next History Carnival will be hosted right here on 1 February. Please send nominations for entries (preferably posted between today and then) to JonathanWilson at letu.edu -- or simply use the submission form here.

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11 January 2006 - Wednesday

Anonymous bloggers, beware

Law prof Eugene Volokh says yes, a new law's obvious problem is indeed an obvious problem.

According to Volokh:

This potentially criminalizes any anonymous speech on a Web site that's intended to annoy at least some readers, even if it's also intended to inform other readers. This is true whether the poster is berating a government official, a religious figure, a company that he thinks provides bad service, an academic who he thinks is doing or saying something misguided, a sports figure who he thinks is misbehaving, or what have you; so long as he's trying to annoy any recipient (whether the target, if the poster thinks the target is reading the blog, or the target's partisans or fans).
It's already been signed, folks. Federal law now seems to make it illegal to annoy people anonymously on the Internet -- an offense punishable by fines and two years in prison.

Apparently, this was an unintended effect of overly broad language in the bill, which was supposed to cover VOIP telephones.

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10 January 2006 - Tuesday

Public defender fired for defending Maye?

According to blogger Radley Balko, Cory Maye's appeal lawyer has been fired by the aldermen of the town of Prentiss, Mississippi, where he was public defender.

In the lawyer's words:

Just found out this a.m. that the Town of Prentiss has "decided to go another route" pertaining to my position as town public defender. In other words, they have now made official what was intimated to me back in December and have fired me.

The explicit and sole reason given to me by the mayor was that my representation of Cory Maye was not to the liking of the aldermen. I guess it wasn't to the mayor's liking either since, to the best of my knowledge, he didn't veto their decision. Of course, I have no doubt that it's a politically popular decision among the Caucasians of Prentiss.

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8 January 2006 - Sunday

Cliopatria Awards

The Cliopatria Awards were announced yesterday at a session of the AHA's annual meeting. The awards recognize excellence in history blogging. Here are the judges' choices:

Best Individual Blog: Mark Grimsley's Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

Best Group Blog: K. M. Lawson, Jonathan Dresner, and others, at Frog in a Well

Best New Blog: "PK"'s BibliOdyssey

Best Post: Rob MacDougall's "Turk 182" at Old is the New New (9 January 2005)

Best Series of Posts: Nathanael Robinson's "The Geographical Turn," Parts One, Three, at Rhine River.

Best Writer: Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted

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6 January 2006 - Friday

Reading list

You're a Surrealist. You have a Mexican jumping bean. What do you do with it? (Via The Valve)

Miriam Burstein examines the nature of truth-telling in historical fiction.

OCLC staff member George Needham thinks library fines should be eliminated.

The Economist is talking about the world's greatest pranks -- and asking for nominations for the best. (Via A&LD)

Rick Shenkman of HNN is bringing us highlights from the American Historical Association's annual meeting in Philadelphia. You can hear HNN's podcast interviews with leading historians.

The history bloggers at the convention, by the way, have a roundtable session all their own on Saturday morning.

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4 January 2006 - Wednesday

Yes, actually, I am

Watching the game, that is.

Go, Texas.

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2 January 2006 - Monday

Categorical imperative

I hesitate to post this, but I think I need to speak up.

The ticking-bomb scenario is frequently seen as a plausible justification for torture in certain circumstances. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently said it shows torture to be not only permissible but also sometimes "a moral duty." (You can find several Christian reactions to that article here.) The story goes like this: A terrorist act is imminent. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocent people will be killed. If a counterterrorist agent manages to capture one of the conspirators, would he not be justified in using torture to get information about the strike so that it can be averted?

Such a situation is rare, of course; usually, if the authorities already know that much about the strike, they have enough time to intervene with less extreme methods -- or else nothing would work anyway. But we can put that aside for the sake of the hypothesis. The point of the scenario is merely to show that torture does not have to be thought of as evil; it is theoretically possible for torture to be morally justified.

The scenario is based on the idea that one life (or one person's physical or psychological comfort) may be sacrificed to protect the lives of the many. This is a very common idea, after all; it is a key factor in most people's attitudes toward war.

I admit that this is a powerful argument. But now I would like to present my own version of the ticking-bomb scenario.

We begin, as before, with the imminent destruction of many innocent lives. Somehow our hero (let's call him Jack) knows that this destruction is about to occur, and that it is going to occur so soon that all normal methods of intervention are useless.

This time, however, none of the terrorists responsible for this upcoming carnage has been apprehended. There is no one to torture for information. There is no way for Jack to avert disaster.

But wait. Jack has been able to identify one of the conspirators. He not only knows who this terrorist (let's call him something foreign-sounding, like Nigel) is, but also where he lives -- although Nigel, unfortunately, is abroad. Furthermore, Jack has Nigel's mobile phone number, so while he cannot capture him, he can contact him.

In my version of the story, Jack still embraces the basic ideas of the normal scenario. He believes (a) that one life may be sacrificed for many; (b) that torture may be justified in a few cases.

Therefore, Jack goes to Nigel's home and takes prisoner the terrorist's family. Jack then sends Nigel a message promising that his youngest child will be killed if the terrorist act is carried out.

Nigel, unfortunately, is made of stronger stuff than that. First, he shares the belief that one life sometimes must be sacrificed for a good cause. "Collateral damage" is nothing new to him. Furthermore, he doesn't mind thinking that his child will join him as a martyr. He refuses to desist.

Jack, therefore, turns up the pressure. He tells Nigel that his child will not only die, but will die slowly and painfully. At regular intervals, Jack will send Nigel graphic evidence of his progress.

Eventually, Nigel, unable to bear the pain of his child, caves in and calls off the terrorist strike.

Which of you would condone torture this time? And if you truly believe that torture is justified in the earlier scenario, why not this one?

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1 January 2006 - Sunday

The Kite Runner

It's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.

Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner opens in Kabul in the years before the Soviet invasion. It ends in California in early 2002, shortly after the American invasion. The tribulations of Afghanistan serve mainly as a backdrop to the protagonist's search for individual absolution, but they lend his quest a broader symbolic meaning.

Amir and his lower-caste best friend Hassan grow up in Kabul in the 1970s. Amir is affluent; Hassan is a hereditary servant. When Amir betrays his devoted companion, he breaks families apart. The Soviet occupation soon drives Amir to the United States. Years pass.

In the summer of 2001, a telephone call summons Amir back to his country. The caller offers "a way to be good again." Amir races to rescue a remnant of his past. In the process, he stumbles into an old and powerful enemy.

Atonement is the central theme of the novel. Amir discovers his need for restoration -- discovers that forgiveness comes through his courage to face his memories, but also that only God can deliver him from his guilt. The protagonist must act, reverse his moral cowardice, yet in the end he lacks the power to rescue himself. Only God can grant Amir the final measure of peace.

The novel, I think, is an apologetic for Islam. Amir's search for redemption parallels not only the wars of his homeland but also the pain of Muslims who have seen their faith implicated in evil. The author mocks self-righteous, legalistic, and violent Muslims throughout the novel, but eventually forces his agnostic protagonist to his knees: "There is a God, there has to be .... I pray. I pray that my sins have not caught up with me the way I'd always feared they would."

The novel is excellent, heartrending work. It brought me nearly to tears more than once. Occasionally its symbolism is a little predictable, and the chief villain fits a familiar literary type, but these are easily forgiven as elements of an effective magical realism.

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