Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 29, 2008

Bookshelf

Is it possible to write interestingly about uninteresting art? Of course–good critics do it every day–but the real trick is to write interestingly about a style of art that the reader dislikes. A case in point is Erin Hogan’s “Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West” (University of Chicago, $20), which I read in a single delighted sitting despite the fact that I don’t share its author’s taste for large-scale minimalist art. Part of the reason why I liked “Spiral Jetta” so much is that Hogan, the director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, writes with the infectious gusto of the true believer. To hear minimalism described as “ambitious, beautiful, rigorous, geometric, engaged with questions of form rather than personality, aiming at the eternal without irony” is to wonder–briefly–whether there might possibly be more to Philip Glass than meets the ear. (Answer: no, no, a thousand times no.) But what makes “Spiral Jetta” so readable is not so much the art that is its nominal subject as the quirky, engaging personality of the woman writing about it.

“Spiral Jetta” is the story of an aesthetic pilgrimage taken for reasons having little to do with art. Hogan is a longtime city dweller who, by her own rueful admission, dislikes being alone: “I take comfort in being surrounded by a constant clamor of voices–of strangers, of friends–and el trains and car horns and music from passing cars and the rhythms of the boys drumming on overturned buckets on the sidewalk.” So she hopped in her Volkswagen Jetta, drove west and spent three weeks visiting such giant-sized landmark earthworks of monumental minimalism as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” not merely to see them for the first time but in the hope of “testing and challenging myself, breaking out of my nine-to-five routine and trying to find something in myself beyond the ability to answer e-mails, attend meeting, and meet friends for cocktails.”

As it happens, Hogan was disappointed by most (if not all) of the works of land art that she saw, and she tells of her dissatisfaction with charming candor. The trip itself, however, proved to be far more satisfying, if not infrequently frightening, and when it was over Hogan realized that she was the better for having plunged heedlessly into the wild:

While I certainly hadn’t managed to free myself of anxiety–getting lost, cougars, mechanical failures–I had come to enjoy the liberating feeling of solitude that had so far eluded me….The life of a drifter–minus the poor hygiene–was beginning to appeal to me. However, as an astrologer once told me, “You are not that kind of person.” He is right, but at least I had become the kind of person who could fully enjoy a trip like this.

In case you’re wondering what Erin Hogan’s neurotic dislike of spending time alone has do with art criticism, she offers this thought-provoking reply:

People visit the Museum of Modern Art to learn about modern art, not about themselves. But would more people come if they thought some sense of personal transformation were at stake? I set out on my trip wanting to learn about art, but I was realizing that the most significant thing I learned out in the west was via art, not about it. Does that make “Lightning Field” more or less valuable than analytical cubism?

No matter how self-evident you think the answer may be, it’s still a good question–and “Spiral Jetta” is a very good book.

Is it possible to write interestingly about uninteresting art? Of course–good critics do it every day–but the real trick is to write interestingly about a style of art that the reader dislikes. A case in point is Erin Hogan’s “Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West” (University of Chicago, $20), which I read in a single delighted sitting despite the fact that I don’t share its author’s taste for large-scale minimalist art. Part of the reason why I liked “Spiral Jetta” so much is that Hogan, the director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, writes with the infectious gusto of the true believer. To hear minimalism described as “ambitious, beautiful, rigorous, geometric, engaged with questions of form rather than personality, aiming at the eternal without irony” is to wonder–briefly–whether there might possibly be more to Philip Glass than meets the ear. (Answer: no, no, a thousand times no.) But what makes “Spiral Jetta” so readable is not so much the art that is its nominal subject as the quirky, engaging personality of the woman writing about it.

“Spiral Jetta” is the story of an aesthetic pilgrimage taken for reasons having little to do with art. Hogan is a longtime city dweller who, by her own rueful admission, dislikes being alone: “I take comfort in being surrounded by a constant clamor of voices–of strangers, of friends–and el trains and car horns and music from passing cars and the rhythms of the boys drumming on overturned buckets on the sidewalk.” So she hopped in her Volkswagen Jetta, drove west and spent three weeks visiting such giant-sized landmark earthworks of monumental minimalism as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” not merely to see them for the first time but in the hope of “testing and challenging myself, breaking out of my nine-to-five routine and trying to find something in myself beyond the ability to answer e-mails, attend meeting, and meet friends for cocktails.”

As it happens, Hogan was disappointed by most (if not all) of the works of land art that she saw, and she tells of her dissatisfaction with charming candor. The trip itself, however, proved to be far more satisfying, if not infrequently frightening, and when it was over Hogan realized that she was the better for having plunged heedlessly into the wild:

While I certainly hadn’t managed to free myself of anxiety–getting lost, cougars, mechanical failures–I had come to enjoy the liberating feeling of solitude that had so far eluded me….The life of a drifter–minus the poor hygiene–was beginning to appeal to me. However, as an astrologer once told me, “You are not that kind of person.” He is right, but at least I had become the kind of person who could fully enjoy a trip like this.

In case you’re wondering what Erin Hogan’s neurotic dislike of spending time alone has do with art criticism, she offers this thought-provoking reply:

People visit the Museum of Modern Art to learn about modern art, not about themselves. But would more people come if they thought some sense of personal transformation were at stake? I set out on my trip wanting to learn about art, but I was realizing that the most significant thing I learned out in the west was via art, not about it. Does that make “Lightning Field” more or less valuable than analytical cubism?

No matter how self-evident you think the answer may be, it’s still a good question–and “Spiral Jetta” is a very good book.

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They’re Everywhere!

I guess the whole Iraq war really was about establishing permanent Middle East bases in order to “make the world safe for Israel.” We can never underestimate the wily, hawkish, Jewish, neocon imperialists on their single-minded quest to serve the Jewish state. Using their insidious genius they’ve managed to place a Manchurian candidate in the heart of Mesopotamia. And he is none other than Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire covering Talabani’s Washington press conference yesterday:

“We have good success and achievements in training our Army and our police forces,” Talabani said in heavily-accented English. We still “need to have [an] American presence in Iraq . . . We need to have some – at least some – military bases as a symbol for preventing others [from] interfering [in the] internal affairs of Iraq.”

Military bases to secure the internal affairs of Iraq–wink, wink. Who’s he kidding? This has got Israel written all over it. Those Likudniks may have thought they were clever coming up with that “Talabani” name as a cover, but they can’t pull the wool over my eyes. This is an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a kreplach wrapped in a madgooga. This goes all the way to the top. I’m talking about al-Maliki, Sistani, Sadr, and the Zionist mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, himself hiding out somewhere in the tribal region of Pakistan. Some fearless journalist — and I mean you, Andrew — has got to get to the bottom of this international conspiracy to hijack U.S. foreign policy.

I guess the whole Iraq war really was about establishing permanent Middle East bases in order to “make the world safe for Israel.” We can never underestimate the wily, hawkish, Jewish, neocon imperialists on their single-minded quest to serve the Jewish state. Using their insidious genius they’ve managed to place a Manchurian candidate in the heart of Mesopotamia. And he is none other than Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire covering Talabani’s Washington press conference yesterday:

“We have good success and achievements in training our Army and our police forces,” Talabani said in heavily-accented English. We still “need to have [an] American presence in Iraq . . . We need to have some – at least some – military bases as a symbol for preventing others [from] interfering [in the] internal affairs of Iraq.”

Military bases to secure the internal affairs of Iraq–wink, wink. Who’s he kidding? This has got Israel written all over it. Those Likudniks may have thought they were clever coming up with that “Talabani” name as a cover, but they can’t pull the wool over my eyes. This is an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a kreplach wrapped in a madgooga. This goes all the way to the top. I’m talking about al-Maliki, Sistani, Sadr, and the Zionist mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, himself hiding out somewhere in the tribal region of Pakistan. Some fearless journalist — and I mean you, Andrew — has got to get to the bottom of this international conspiracy to hijack U.S. foreign policy.

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Bad Deal

The Israeli government voted today to release Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, alongside other prisoners both alive and dead, and hand them over to Hezbollah. In exchange, Israel will get the remains of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. I say the remains because Israel’s government now claims that the two are most likely dead.

It is a testimony to Israel’s standards and the IDF’s commitment to its soldiers that such a high price is being paid for the bodies of two dead soldiers rather than two live soldiers. it is also not the first time–and sadly, probably it won’t be the last. But the deal raises some troublesome questions.

When did the government know that the two soldiers were in all likelihood dead? Was it immediately after Hezbollah’s incursion into Israeli territory, on July 12, 2006? If so, the government launched a military campaign of 33 days, that cost the lives of over 130 Israelis, in order to rescue the dead bodies of two. Some explaining is in order, if that is the case.

Did the government find out aout their fate after the war was over? If so, how long ago? According to Ehud’s father, “There have been assessments for a long time,” “But none of this matters because it is not fact . . . They were alive when they were kidnapped and no one has provided us with evidence to the contrary.” The government now seems to think that this is not so, but has not provided the evidence.

Why now? If the evidence is conclusive, should the families not know for sure? Shouldn’t the nation as well, given the price exacted in return? And should it not be the case that Israel should demand more, not less, of Hezbollah, now that its captives are dead?

After all, Israel’s government has decided to return a monster like Kuntar, who killed an infant girl and her four-year-old sister in a brutal act of sadism after having slaughtered their father. At a minimum, Israel’s government should have told Israelis why two dead soldiers (for whose sake more than a hundred died) are now being exchanged for this criminal.

The Israeli government voted today to release Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, alongside other prisoners both alive and dead, and hand them over to Hezbollah. In exchange, Israel will get the remains of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. I say the remains because Israel’s government now claims that the two are most likely dead.

It is a testimony to Israel’s standards and the IDF’s commitment to its soldiers that such a high price is being paid for the bodies of two dead soldiers rather than two live soldiers. it is also not the first time–and sadly, probably it won’t be the last. But the deal raises some troublesome questions.

When did the government know that the two soldiers were in all likelihood dead? Was it immediately after Hezbollah’s incursion into Israeli territory, on July 12, 2006? If so, the government launched a military campaign of 33 days, that cost the lives of over 130 Israelis, in order to rescue the dead bodies of two. Some explaining is in order, if that is the case.

Did the government find out aout their fate after the war was over? If so, how long ago? According to Ehud’s father, “There have been assessments for a long time,” “But none of this matters because it is not fact . . . They were alive when they were kidnapped and no one has provided us with evidence to the contrary.” The government now seems to think that this is not so, but has not provided the evidence.

Why now? If the evidence is conclusive, should the families not know for sure? Shouldn’t the nation as well, given the price exacted in return? And should it not be the case that Israel should demand more, not less, of Hezbollah, now that its captives are dead?

After all, Israel’s government has decided to return a monster like Kuntar, who killed an infant girl and her four-year-old sister in a brutal act of sadism after having slaughtered their father. At a minimum, Israel’s government should have told Israelis why two dead soldiers (for whose sake more than a hundred died) are now being exchanged for this criminal.

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Obama’s New Iraq Policy?

John McCain met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and, at least from the pool report, it appears that there was a genuine expression of affection and understanding between the two. Meanwhile, Barack Obama seems poised for some reassessment on Iraq, or at least a political course correction. And there is a difference between the two.

The former, a true reassessment, would entail some real recognition that the changes in Iraq are significant both on the political and military fronts. (As Peter Hegseth points out, so far Obama’s utterances and official campaign statements remain frozen in 2006.) This would entail an understanding that the surge was responsible for these turn of events (they did not come about by magic) and that absent a continued commitment to aid the Iraqis’ progress much, if not all, of the progress could be lost. So far, we’ve seen none of this from Obama.

An Obama course correction that is mere political cover may be more likely. Obama may emphasize that he always left some wriggle room for the pace of withdrawal (paging Samantha Power!) and that recent developments simply allow him to push ahead with his plans to refocus our forces elsewhere.

The difference between these two options is not simply rhetorical. The voters are entitled to know if an Obama administration really will see through political and military challenges that remain in Iraq, resist calls from the Democratic base to adhere to his previous withdrawal plans, and express a commitment to Iraq in a way that projects certainly to both Iraqis and those who seek to undermine a unified and stable government. Absent a fully articulated policy pronouncement, all that seems a pipe dream. Granted, even if Obama managed a very deliberate and full-throated policy reversal, voters are entitled to wonder if this, too, will become another “never mind” policy shift a month or a year from now.

We will see in the weeks ahead if there is no change, an atmospheric change or a genuine shift in Obama’s thinking. And then voters will have to assess how meaningful and credible that change of heart, if any, really is. What we do know is that had Obama had his way — either when he was advocating a troop withdrawal on a monthly basis or when he voted to immediately cut funding — none of the progress we now have seen would have come about. That tells us something not just about Iraq but about his potential reaction to future, as yet unknown, crises.

Aside from all this, it is not clear how much this all matters in the presidential race. (Thomas Friedman may be right that it is on the economy and not Iraq or even the wider issue of Islamic terrorism where the race will be won or lost.) Whether the voters care about Iraq and whether they will consider Obama’s failure to support the most significant strategic turnaround in recent military history to be a fatal error remains very much an open question.

John McCain met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and, at least from the pool report, it appears that there was a genuine expression of affection and understanding between the two. Meanwhile, Barack Obama seems poised for some reassessment on Iraq, or at least a political course correction. And there is a difference between the two.

The former, a true reassessment, would entail some real recognition that the changes in Iraq are significant both on the political and military fronts. (As Peter Hegseth points out, so far Obama’s utterances and official campaign statements remain frozen in 2006.) This would entail an understanding that the surge was responsible for these turn of events (they did not come about by magic) and that absent a continued commitment to aid the Iraqis’ progress much, if not all, of the progress could be lost. So far, we’ve seen none of this from Obama.

An Obama course correction that is mere political cover may be more likely. Obama may emphasize that he always left some wriggle room for the pace of withdrawal (paging Samantha Power!) and that recent developments simply allow him to push ahead with his plans to refocus our forces elsewhere.

The difference between these two options is not simply rhetorical. The voters are entitled to know if an Obama administration really will see through political and military challenges that remain in Iraq, resist calls from the Democratic base to adhere to his previous withdrawal plans, and express a commitment to Iraq in a way that projects certainly to both Iraqis and those who seek to undermine a unified and stable government. Absent a fully articulated policy pronouncement, all that seems a pipe dream. Granted, even if Obama managed a very deliberate and full-throated policy reversal, voters are entitled to wonder if this, too, will become another “never mind” policy shift a month or a year from now.

We will see in the weeks ahead if there is no change, an atmospheric change or a genuine shift in Obama’s thinking. And then voters will have to assess how meaningful and credible that change of heart, if any, really is. What we do know is that had Obama had his way — either when he was advocating a troop withdrawal on a monthly basis or when he voted to immediately cut funding — none of the progress we now have seen would have come about. That tells us something not just about Iraq but about his potential reaction to future, as yet unknown, crises.

Aside from all this, it is not clear how much this all matters in the presidential race. (Thomas Friedman may be right that it is on the economy and not Iraq or even the wider issue of Islamic terrorism where the race will be won or lost.) Whether the voters care about Iraq and whether they will consider Obama’s failure to support the most significant strategic turnaround in recent military history to be a fatal error remains very much an open question.

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Al-Dura and French Journalism

One of the best pieces I’ve ever read on the al-Dura controversy appears in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard. It is by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet and is subtitled, quite perfectly, “Being a French journalist means never having to say you’re sorry.” Moutet tells a story of grotesque corruption and arrogance among French journalists, who simply refuse to countenance any questioning of their conduct or ethics. And who have mindlessly circled the wagons around Charles Enderlin, France2 television’s long-serving Israel correspondent, despite — no, actually, because — he has been exposed as a liar and propagandist.

The piece is appropriately titled “L’Affaire Enderlin,” and one suspects that the allusion to the Dreyfuss Affair is intentional; it certainly is appropriate. Read it all here.

One of the best pieces I’ve ever read on the al-Dura controversy appears in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard. It is by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet and is subtitled, quite perfectly, “Being a French journalist means never having to say you’re sorry.” Moutet tells a story of grotesque corruption and arrogance among French journalists, who simply refuse to countenance any questioning of their conduct or ethics. And who have mindlessly circled the wagons around Charles Enderlin, France2 television’s long-serving Israel correspondent, despite — no, actually, because — he has been exposed as a liar and propagandist.

The piece is appropriately titled “L’Affaire Enderlin,” and one suspects that the allusion to the Dreyfuss Affair is intentional; it certainly is appropriate. Read it all here.

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The New Obama

Well it’s not every week that one of the key purveyors of coventional MSM wisdom pronounces it a “dreadful week” for Barack Obama in comparison to John McCain. And the media coverage of Obama is toughening, although much of it takes an admiring tone, pointing out the tactical importance of moving to the center.

What the McCain campaign has not yet done is to put all the policy shifts and obvious departures from Obama’s New Politics together into a cohesive critique. Will they adopt Peter’s sage analysis that Obama really a Zelig character — blowing with whatever wind prevails? Or is Obama a closet Lefty, lying to the the public and ready to spring into action once he’s elected? And even if he’s not exactly the messiah of New Politics, voters may still give Obama the benefit of the doubt, hoping in some vague sense that he will be better than the usual cast of Washington characters.

The McCain camp would do well to figure out what its line of attack is (Are they saying that Obama a hypocrite? Wishy-washy? Unprepared?) and then relentlessly present that overall vision to the media and the voters. The public is not necessarily going to put all the discrete pieces of the puzzle together to reach a negative conclusion about Obama. The McCain campaign will need to make a persuasive argument for why all the flip-floppery shows Obama is fatally flawed in some significant way. So far they haven’t done that and McCain himself will likely need to get over his hesitancy to go right at his opponent if he will succeed in making more weeks “dreadful” for Obama.

Well it’s not every week that one of the key purveyors of coventional MSM wisdom pronounces it a “dreadful week” for Barack Obama in comparison to John McCain. And the media coverage of Obama is toughening, although much of it takes an admiring tone, pointing out the tactical importance of moving to the center.

What the McCain campaign has not yet done is to put all the policy shifts and obvious departures from Obama’s New Politics together into a cohesive critique. Will they adopt Peter’s sage analysis that Obama really a Zelig character — blowing with whatever wind prevails? Or is Obama a closet Lefty, lying to the the public and ready to spring into action once he’s elected? And even if he’s not exactly the messiah of New Politics, voters may still give Obama the benefit of the doubt, hoping in some vague sense that he will be better than the usual cast of Washington characters.

The McCain camp would do well to figure out what its line of attack is (Are they saying that Obama a hypocrite? Wishy-washy? Unprepared?) and then relentlessly present that overall vision to the media and the voters. The public is not necessarily going to put all the discrete pieces of the puzzle together to reach a negative conclusion about Obama. The McCain campaign will need to make a persuasive argument for why all the flip-floppery shows Obama is fatally flawed in some significant way. So far they haven’t done that and McCain himself will likely need to get over his hesitancy to go right at his opponent if he will succeed in making more weeks “dreadful” for Obama.

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Blaming the Victim

According to a German professor, Arnd Krüger, the 1972 Olympic massacre of eleven Israeli athletes was a twisted ploy to gain sympathy for the Jewish state. At a recent academic conference, the professor said “the athletes sacrificed themselves in Israel’s service.” Krüger’s prior academic work includes co-editing of The Nazi Olympics: Sport, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930s, which argues that “The 1936 Olympic Games played a key role in the development of both Hitler’s Third Reich and international sporting competition.” Given his most recent comment, and his academic interest in the rise of totalitarian regimes, one cannot help but wonder if his next book will argue that Israel massacred its athletes to gain international sympathy prior to its attack on Egypt and Syria in the 1973 war.

According to a German professor, Arnd Krüger, the 1972 Olympic massacre of eleven Israeli athletes was a twisted ploy to gain sympathy for the Jewish state. At a recent academic conference, the professor said “the athletes sacrificed themselves in Israel’s service.” Krüger’s prior academic work includes co-editing of The Nazi Olympics: Sport, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930s, which argues that “The 1936 Olympic Games played a key role in the development of both Hitler’s Third Reich and international sporting competition.” Given his most recent comment, and his academic interest in the rise of totalitarian regimes, one cannot help but wonder if his next book will argue that Israel massacred its athletes to gain international sympathy prior to its attack on Egypt and Syria in the 1973 war.

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Immigration Wars

Barack Obama and John McCain are going at it over immigration reform. On the list of all the things the pundits got wrong about the 2008 presidential race, immigration reform will rank high. It was supposed to be a central issue in the Republican race. It never was. It was supposed to kill McCain’s candidacy. It didn’t.

McCain, during the primary and even today, has walked a tightrope: expressing a recognition of the political reality that his party and the country want to see border control first, but vowing that ultimately we will have to deal in a responsible way with the illegal immigrants who do not through “attrition by enforcement” disappear from the country on their own. Obama by and large played the Democratic party line through the primaries — expressing skepticism over a border fence, excoriating the Republicans for anti-immigrant sentiments, voting with organized labor to help kill off immigration reform (some enterprising reporter should ask Ted Kennedy about that one) and avoiding obvious gaffes (although his answer on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants was as convoluted as Hillary Clinton’s).

Will this issue be any more salient in the general election than it was in the primaries? It is hard to see how, unless McCain can convert this into another issue in which he can claim to have done heavy lifting despite political risks while Obama hid in the weeds. The problem here however is obvious: the more McCain talks about his political heresy, the more he highlights a key point of disagreement with his base, which is has barely forgotten their outrage over his efforts on comprehensive immigration reform.

So the bottom line: I expect to hear even less about this issue in the general election than in the primaries. And once again, whoever wins the White House will have absolutely no mandate on an issue which has significant national security and economic implications and, for better or worse, arouses enormous political passion.

Barack Obama and John McCain are going at it over immigration reform. On the list of all the things the pundits got wrong about the 2008 presidential race, immigration reform will rank high. It was supposed to be a central issue in the Republican race. It never was. It was supposed to kill McCain’s candidacy. It didn’t.

McCain, during the primary and even today, has walked a tightrope: expressing a recognition of the political reality that his party and the country want to see border control first, but vowing that ultimately we will have to deal in a responsible way with the illegal immigrants who do not through “attrition by enforcement” disappear from the country on their own. Obama by and large played the Democratic party line through the primaries — expressing skepticism over a border fence, excoriating the Republicans for anti-immigrant sentiments, voting with organized labor to help kill off immigration reform (some enterprising reporter should ask Ted Kennedy about that one) and avoiding obvious gaffes (although his answer on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants was as convoluted as Hillary Clinton’s).

Will this issue be any more salient in the general election than it was in the primaries? It is hard to see how, unless McCain can convert this into another issue in which he can claim to have done heavy lifting despite political risks while Obama hid in the weeds. The problem here however is obvious: the more McCain talks about his political heresy, the more he highlights a key point of disagreement with his base, which is has barely forgotten their outrage over his efforts on comprehensive immigration reform.

So the bottom line: I expect to hear even less about this issue in the general election than in the primaries. And once again, whoever wins the White House will have absolutely no mandate on an issue which has significant national security and economic implications and, for better or worse, arouses enormous political passion.

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