“500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art”

May 28, 2007 at 12:48 am | In just_so, links | Comments Off on “500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art”

This is an interesting video, in a very weird sort of way:

500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art

(via CultureGrrl, who adds a link also to “80 Years of Female Portraits in Cinema” — also on YouTube and from the same contributor, but you have to click through to her page to access that link…!)

Graduate, v. or n.

May 26, 2007 at 1:10 am | In education, ideas, just_so, offspring | Comments Off on Graduate, v. or n.

Jay Parini, in his article The Model Graduation Speaker, writes that he tends to cry at weddings and graduations, “though rarely at funerals.” Well, I graduated into some BS today, and what he wrote very nearly made me cry, even as it worked to repair reality. Especially that last bit:

For the most part, I think it’s good when scholars — or “public intellectuals” — give the graduation speech. Scholarship and the acquisition of knowledge are the point of academic villages. We should celebrate those who have lived their lives accordingly, putting aside the pursuit of great wealth or power. A graduation speaker is, implicitly, a model for the students to emulate, admire, acknowledge as good. If the speaker has done nothing but accumulate wealth at the expense of the community or become a “personality” in the media, that is not enough. I always find it discouraging when well-known people who mirror the worst values in society are given honorary degrees. There should be honor in honorary degrees. And the person chosen to speak to graduates should understand that he or she has 15 or 20 minutes to talk frankly about life as he or she sees it, asking important questions. What are lessons in the art of life? What does the effort to acquire an education mean? What obligations and responsibilities come with that amazing privilege — one that so many in the audience will take for granted, but which most people in the world will never experience?

Oh well. It’s not something that’s anything some people I’ve encountered will ever understand.

Some Monday links

May 22, 2007 at 1:35 am | In architecture, cities, ideas, links, sprawl, transportation, victoria | 2 Comments

Via an affair with urban policy, I just discovered CitySkip (the blog), which posted some uncanny YouTube videos.

First, there’s a film by Colourfield Productions (Dortmund, Germany) about Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic man characterised as an “art savant” and “human camera.” The film chronicles how he was taken on a 45 minute helicopter flight over Rome (which he hadn’t seen from the air ever before), after which he spent 3 days recreating the historic centre in its entirety on a 5 yards long piece of paper: At autistic man’s recreation of Rome. (Note: the video was removed from YouTube, but you can find it on this page.)

Next, there’s a film about City Repair Project‘s Village Building Convergence. The video is on the organisation’s main site, and also on YouTube: Transform Space into Place. At one point, Mark Lakeman (of City Repair Project) says, “you travel within the grid and you see where you’re going the whole time, there’s no subtlety or surprises.” The film at this point shows not just a straight road, but also the straight lines of the supermarket aisle. That was very clever (in a good sense).
Lakeman goes on to add a little history lesson about how the grid is based on Roman lay-outs, and that it’s designed not to facilitate interaction. I thought, “hmm, that sounds exactly like Edward Hall’s explication of Humphry Osmond’s work around socio-petal and socio-fugal space” (see my “proxemics” entry earlier this month), which is what I based my last article in Focus Magazine on. As it happens, I’m working right now on an article for the July issue that expands on environmental psychology (this time with a focus on Grant Hildebrand’s ideas — see The Origins of Architectural Pleasure) and possibly biophilia. (It’s pathetic — I only get 800 words per article, so I have to be very selective in organising my material. This should be a series, but then I have to consider how much I can reiterate — rehash — each month, for those readers who didn’t read the previous month’s entry… )

Third, there’s StreetFilms.org-The Case for Separated Bike Lanes in NYC (also on YouTube, but via CitySkip). It’s one of the best visuals (and “verbals”) I’ve encountered to strengthen the case for separated bike lanes.

Finally, via CEOs for Cities (blog), a link to a book review by Stephen Shapin in the New Yorker, What Else is New? How uses, not innovations, drive human technology. Shapin reviews military historian David Edgerton’s book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, which Booklist described this way:

The common view of technology as a matter of novelty, of invention and innovation accelerating into the future, is very limited, Edgerton says. To understand technology historically, consider technology in use, and some remarkable facts emerge. Highly touted new technologies, such as the Pill and atomic power, were derailed by unforeseen (AIDS) or unconsidered (nuclear waste disposal) developments and sidelined by the technologies they had supposedly made obsolescent. The huge twentieth-century surge in productivity depended on improving old technologies, and we see the effect in such places as China of the quick succession of technological revolutions that occurred over more time in the U.S. Maintenance consumes a much larger proportion of technological effort than innovation, nations a-building characteristically attempt to control certain technologies for nationalistic purposes, and war and killing are the wellsprings of the most consequential modern inventions. In short, the old ways–power by harness animals, nationalism, warfare, slaughtering for food–don’t fade away. They adapt, and that is the real big story about technology.

That really piques my interest. I checked our local library right away to see if it was available — and darn it, three people are in front of me in the queue to get the book.

Books. Another “old” technology!

Uses. That’s where I come in. Heh.

Posting glitch

May 18, 2007 at 11:51 am | In futurismo, just_so | Comments Off on Posting glitch

Melanie from Down Under alerted me that my blog entry from yesterday showed up in her RSS reader, but when she clicked through, it wasn’t there. Another person reported that it didn’t show up in RSS at all. So I did some checking, and lo!, I had for some reason marked it as “private” under the “post status” rubric (instead of published). Fixed that, and I hope that it’s now visible. So please visit …um, whatever it’s called, yesterday’s entry, which was about insects, science fiction (sort of), architecture, and urbanism. Just go. You’ll see. Vintage Yule, off on a rant of sorts. 😉

The insect and the caveman: science fiction, individualism, urbanism

May 17, 2007 at 5:09 pm | In architecture, cities, futurismo, ideas | 5 Comments

No, I haven’t dropped off the face of the planet again — although this long hiatus admittedly suggests something drastic. It is true, however, that I’m waiting for a proverbial other shoe to drop, which it should do by the end of this month, and that this state-of-waiting has compromised my agility. But soon I’ll know more, which will at least lend some real gravity (and provide rather acute pressure points) to what is currently a situation in limbo.

I’ve also been participating in essentially two other web-based communities, which in turn are tied to my real life in various ways. If I were more egotistical (she says, using a conditional to open this loaded sentence, whose second word is the personal subject pronoun…), I would be diligent about posting to my blog on a regular basis. After all, grooming is so important (ha). But I’m not, and have instead expended copious amounts of energy elsewhere, in conversations revolving around the place I live.

Living (its hows and whys) is so important, too, isn’t it?

Speaking of which…

Speaking of living, here’s my “linky” contribution for today: I came across a description of Norman Foster + Partners’ proposal for The Walled City of Masdar (Masdar Development, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates) in worldarchitecturenews.com. Looking at the pictures — and the fantastic (in the full range of that word) descriptions for this “walled city” — I was reminded of a few other recent articles, notably A New Curator Casts a Fresh Eye on Architecture’s Past at MoMA by Robin Pogrebin (New York Times, May 14, 2007). In particular, this:

Marginalized or ignored were 1920s and ’30s Expressionism and Organicism, whose swirling or biomorphic forms have influenced modern architecture up to the present day, Mr. Bergdoll [the “new curator” of the article’s title] contends. “There are things outside their field of vision in 1932 that are fundamental now — and fundamental to the collection,” he said. “I’m kind of critiquing the limits of their vision.”

In response, his show’s first thematic section, titled “Other Modernisms,” includes colorful drawings of Mies’s Eliat House (1925, unbuilt), whose long horizontal ribbon windows and flat roofs would become trademarks of Modernism, and Hugo Häring’s Garkau Farm (1922-6), which rejected geometric forms in favor of asymmetrical spaces that would suit the grouping and feeding of livestock.

“There are things that Hitchcock and Johnson essentially declared dead that went on,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “I picked buildings that would never have been buildings allowed into their show.”

“Urbanism,” another theme, highlights mid-20th-century solutions for traffic and overcrowding in modern cities. “Hitchcock and Johnson in 1932 were not interested in an urban philosophy,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “Their opening show emphasized the individual building.”

In the “75 Years” installation, Mr. Bergdoll also acknowledges another area that he says was largely skirted by the department’s early curators: “Visionary Architecture.” Utopian designs in general have made a strong comeback among architecture students, he noted, inspired by projects from the ’60s and ’70s.

“There’s a kind of nostalgia for the optimism that’s embodied in these,” he said, citing things like Ron Herron’s 1966 “Walking City on the Ocean,” a collage of a metropolis featuring tanklike vehicles with skylights. “Hitchcock and Johnson were wary of underscoring anything to do with utopian thinking,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “They worried that the American public would think Modernism was wild or crazy and would be dismissed as fairy-tale thinking or leftist.” (More…)

Leave aside the references to thirties-era Expressionism and Organicism, which isn’t in evidence at Masdar, and focus instead on the “other modernism,” the one that thematises “urbanism” and turns away from the “privileged” form favoured by Hitchcock and Johnson, which was the individual “heroic” building. Looked at in those terms, “urbanism” (many things to many people) could be understood not just as “vibrancy,” but as an ism that works to make you fit in, too… Urban form / con-form. Conform. Submit. The tall building, the skyscraper, the “heroic” structure: it stands out, calls attention to itself, and, in community with other “competitive” structures of its kind, embodies the vibrancy of competitive individualism or capitalism.

Is that too simplistic? But if there isn’t something to it, then why do so many people hate cities and tall buildings, which they “read” as pushy, competitive, not pastoral? Why do they perceive cities as akin to some primitive sort of hunter-gatherer jungle where everyone is presumably “on their own”? Why do other people (including me), however, get a visceral thrill from seeing a towering skyline? Are we primitives who thrill to vicariously carving out the nicest cave in the cliff-face, the one that lets us survey “our” domain? (Penthouse, anyone?) But in that case, what of con-forming to urban formalisms — utopias that propose to make us content, to place your feet sweetly on the ground, to focus your vision on the near horizon, humbly, to guide you to paths familiar?

Back to Foster + Partners’ Masdar Development: I’m especially interested in the image of the “city” seen from above. I understand (vaguely, with plenty of mental resistances) why it has to be so flat, but to my eye it’s quite repellent. It reminds me of science fiction dystopias, where people are organised like insects, burrowing into the ground or clinging, drone-like, to its surface. (The aerial concept rendering is on the World Architecture News webpage on Masdar, and also below.)

1064_4_1000 Foster Mascar 4.jpg

The other images also strike me as far too suggestive of social engineering: they imply a re-jiggering of human nature, to make it con-form to the architect’s vision. Is this any more benign than the much-criticised Edifice Complex of the rich and powerful, whose allegedly “phallic” skyscrapers penetrate city skies with overly ambitious (and individualistic — or corporatist) hubris?

You tell me, after looking at the renderings for Masdar’s “University,” or its streetscape. Note the walkways, especially in the latter image: “artistically” arranged, they don’t allow for short-cuts or individual choice, but instead direct the pedestrian along rigidly prescribed routes, which often converge in precarious pinch-points just begging to be the site of an unintended spill. Short-cuts are impossible because these walkways are at grade with attractive waterways. There are no railings, however, which to my eye is the biggest clue to the social engineering that’s proposed.

Are we to believe that there will never be any children running or people jostling or crowds milling to the point where someone is going to fall off the walkways and into the water? Where will these Wundermenschen come from, who won’t mind taking a plunge into the ditch? Who can waft through cities without a care, forever gliding through the ever-so artfully arranged public spaces? What kind of weird city is this supposed to be?

Abdul, saddle up the camel. I’m outta here. Gotta find me a tall cliff with a nice cave…


Postscript: Just as many people, disliking what they perceive as a competitive, individualistic drive in cities, hate its hugger-mugger density (especially its multi-family or condo-style housing), so do many urbanists hate suburban sprawl for its ostensibly selfish, if faux, individualism. Lately, both built forms have of course also come under attack for their allegedly “unsustainable” aspects. This is an old, and long, story, it seems.

Well that’s better than specializing…

May 1, 2007 at 12:29 am | In architecture, cities, jane_jacobs | 2 Comments

I love Trevor Boddy’s articles, whether they appear in national newspapers or in magazines. He’s an independent and smart thinker who writes fearlessly about urbanism, architecture, cities. One of his latest articles is in the Toronto-based Globe & Mail newspaper, ‘Design guidelines are uniformly lame’ — a title that reworks a quote, which in turn represents probably one of the few “nuggets of wisdom” that Jim Kunstler could offer audiences at a recent shindig in Kelowna, BC. I do like how Boddy manages to use the one thing that Kunstler said that clearly made sense to dash most of the other things that Kunstler said, which are obviously boiler-plate but get swallowed hook line and sinker by the masses… This Boddy guy is brilliant, like I said.

Since the link will undoubtedly deteriorate over time, I’ll just quote the article in its entirety, shall I?

James Howard Kunstler, an American writer on cities, may be the continent’s leading suburbologist. With books like The Geography of Nowhere and last year’s The Long Emergency, Mr. Kunstler has spent the past two decades building a sustained critique of the postwar suburb, and the energy-wasting, sedentary, under-stimulated lifestyle it promotes.

Those opinions brought him to Kelowna last week as a speaker to the annual gathering of British Columbia’s urban planners.

Mr. Kunstler did not blanch from proffering opinions about the much a-building Okanagan city after a quick walk and driving tour with local urbanists.

“Why does downtown hardly have any buildings over two storeys?,” was one of his first questions, quickly followed by “Why is the architecture so bad?”

My answer to his first question was quite simple: Kelowna is a 20th-century city, shaped by the automobile and an orchard-based economy that decentralized jobs, residences and shopping, and never had much use for a downtown except as a place that Edwardians parked a few banks, cafes and doctor’s offices. Because it is younger than Calgary or Vancouver, Kelowna has had an automotive strip almost as long as it has been a city, today stretching north to Vernon and beyond in an astonishing agglomeration of franchise businesses, shopping malls and low-slung office parks. In bluntly functional terms, the strip is more Kelowna’s real heart than those few brick blocks near the floating bridge.

As for design, I am not sure if Kelowna’s architecture really is worse than other cities in the Interior, and there are counters to Mr. Kunstler’s sour initial impression of its new arts precinct, where a public library, art gallery and other civic structures belie the ambitions of British Columbia’s fastest-growing city.

There is a downside to this rapid growth, however.

Kelowna recently passed both Calgary and Toronto for the dour distinction of having Canada’s second-highest average housing prices, behind only Vancouver.

Mr. Kunstler is skeptical about the power of design panels — such as Vancouver’s — to improve the visual quality of boom-time urban life: “Design review boards are dysfunctional, and design guidelines are uniformly lame,” he says. “By designing-out chaos, they create sterile buildings.”

The Okanagan urban policy that most impressed Mr. Kunstler is British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve. Building on the theme of The Long Emergency, he sees a not-so-distant future where energy is so expensive that high rise towers will be abandoned for want of electricity to run their elevators, and when food will of necessity only be local: “The ALR is very prescient for what it could do for food security.”

Mr. Kunstler is right only to the degree that future diets will consist of grapes and wine. The orchards that made the Okanagan valley Canada’s fruit basket are disappearing at a depressing rate, replaced solely with vineyards and backyards. The backyards come from a whittling-away of land from the ALR, and the massive housing estates now rising on reserve lands owned by the Westbank Band. These vast new subdivisions are not subject to the ALR or other outside land use controls, resulting in 9,000 of its current on-reserve population of 9,500 now being non-native.

Mission Hill Estate’s hilltop winery, designed by Seattle architect Tom Kundig for proprietor Anthony von Mendl, is a Xanadu, looking when new like a medieval French or Italian chateau. But five years later it has come to resemble a theme mall or religious school, its visual presence dulled by being nearly surrounded by Westbank’s pervasive sprawl.

Mr. Kunstler was less forthcoming with ideas on how places like Kelowna can stop sprawling and start shaping dense and lively neighbourhoods. His plenary talk was full of easy slams at the empty walls and banal functionality of modern architecture, and displayed a few too many nostalgic snaps of antique piazzas in Europe. ‘Make it Siena’ Mr. Kuntsler seems to be saying, or at very least, ‘make it Saratoga Springs,’ the 19th-century spa and racecourse town in upstate New York he calls home.

This revealing Europhilia and simplistic promotion of resorts as models for cities is rife among the New Urbanists, for whom Mr. Kunstler has been a prominent spokesman. The New Urbanism has found little purchase in Canada, in part because the Greco-Roman nostalgia much evident in Mr. Kunstler’s slides does not jibe with our multi-cultural realities, but more importantly, because the densities and urban layouts it promotes have long been the norm in our nation.

The radical alternative down south is old hat here. This is both because Canada never let its downtowns depopulate or racially stratify and because we lack such public subsidies to sprawl as the American’s tax deductibility of mortgage interest payments or the interstate highway system.

Some of Mr. Kunstler’s most apt jeremiads are directed at the environmental movement and the use of landscaping to camouflage the banality of contemporary city-building. He chides the Sierra Club and their ilk for only seeing nature for its scenic and recreational possibilities: “If they really want the natural realm preserved, they should have spent the last four decades lobbying for smart urban growth.” He also cautioned Kelowna against camouflaging architectural errors with shrubbery.

“The New Urbanism is a temporary correction,” he says, one having an imminent expiry date, because much more radical efforts will soon have to be launched to deal with an energy-hungry future. No matter how addicted society has become to this urban version of fast food, “Suburban life is coming off the menu.”

Since I myself have such disdain (if not outright loathing) for much of what Kunstler has to say (and perhaps more to the point, how he says it), I’ll just add: New Yorbanism (by John Lumea). And if that’s not enough, do please look through these Jane Jacobs links for more: City Views: Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy; as well as this Portland State University project, jane jacobs in portland, which links to a film by that group, called Jane Jacobs: Parting Words (an absolute “must see!”); and last but not least an interview Jim Kunstler himself conducted with Ms Jacobs in 2000, Jane Jacobs Interviewed by Jim Kunstler (done for Metropolis Magazine, but posted on Kunstler’s website), which goes on to a page 2, where she really gets some choice words in. Great interview.

JJ: … The notion — and I tell you this one even worries me that it extends into New Urbanism—the notion of the shopping center a valid kind of downtown. That’s taken over. Its very hard for architects of this generation even to think in terms of a downtown or a center that is owned by all different people, with different ideas.

JHK: We are starting to return to that particularly in the work of Victor Dover and Joe Kohl.

JJ: I don’t know them.

JHK: They are young guys who were trained at the University of Miami by Duany and Plater-Zyberk and they started their own firm about ten years ago. They have done two projects where they have taken dead malls and imposed a street and block plan over them and created codes so that the individual lots could be developed as buildings not just as a megaproject. So I think that’s definitely the direction the New Urbanists are going in. I think that we are leaving the age of the megaproject.

JJ: Here’s what I think is happening. I look at the, what happened at the end of Victorianism. Modernism really started with people getting infatuated with the idea of “it’s the twentieth century, is this suitable for the twentieth century.” This happened before the first world war and it wasn’t just the soldiers. You can see it happening if you read the Bloomsbury biographies. That was one of the first places it was happening. But it was a reaction to a great extent against Victorianism. There was so much that was repressive and stuffy. Victorian buildings were associated with it, and they were regarded as very ugly. Even when they weren’t ugly, people made them ugly. They were painted hideously. (…)

JJ: What was a really major bad idea about the Garden City was you take a clean slate and you make a new world. That’s basically artificial. There is no new world that you make without the old world. And Mumford fell for that and the whole “this is the twentieth century” thing. The notion that you could discard the old world and now make a new one. This is what was so bad about Modernism.


JHK: I’d like to turn to economics which is another principle area of your interest and I think perhaps one that is underemphasized in your career. I’m also interested in systems theories, but particularly the ones that address the great blunders of civilization. It seems to me that the American living arrangement, the “the fiasco of suburbia” as Leon Krier calls it, is approaching a kind of tipping point beyond which it might be difficult to carry on. I have a theory that we don’t have to run out of gasoline in order to throw places of Houston, Phoenix, San Jose, Miami, Atlanta into terrible trouble. All that’s necessary is a mild to moderate chronic instability in the world oil markets. it seems to me that we are sleepwalking into an economic and political trainwreck.

JJ: Well, I don’t’ know whether we will because of the oil markets or what. But I know things won’t go on as they are now. People who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line of more of what exists—they are always wrong. I am not saying how it is going to go. But it is not going to go the same. This is a continuation of what I was actually saying about the revolt against Victorianism. Here comes a generation or two that just can’t stand what the previous generations did. And for whatever reasons it is they want to expunge it. And they are absolutely ruthless with the remnants of it. But I don’t think of it as an economic or political trainwreck. I think of it as one of these great generational upheavals that’s coming. And I think that part of the growing popularity of the New Urbanism is not simply because it is so rational, and not simply because people care so much about community or even understand it, or the relation of sprawl to the ruination of the natural world. But they just don’t like what is around. And they will be ruthless with it.

JHK: I wonder if it will take an economic shock to prompt the majority of American to really reconsider their living arrangements.

JJ: I don’t think it’s that rational, that this is unsustainable. I don’t think that’s the reason. Suddenly they can’t stand what the generations before did. There was no reason for Victorianism to be so reacted against in these terms.


JHK: You say that you are not theoretical or abstract. As a practical matter there is such a thing called the Hubbert Curve, the petroleum depletion curve that says that we will reach a peak of world oil production and then we will go down the slippery slope of having less and less oil, having oil that is harder to extract, or oil that is less economical to extract. And of course this is happening in different regions and different parts of the world. The two places in the world that basically saved our asses in the last twenty years were the north slope of Alaska and the North Sea oil fields. They are scheduled to reach peak production in the next year or so. After which their production will decline. And after that most of the oil in the world will be produced by people who hate us. How does that work for us economically?

JJ: Well, you see all my life I have been hearing that the oil was going to run out. It never happens. They keep discovering new oil fields. The world is apparently floating in oil fields.

JHK: Well, it’s possible that my proposition is a fallacy. But what if it’s not?

JJ: I basically don’t think that the way we do things is that dependent on one resource, such as oil. There can be different kinds of engines for cars. I think that solar heating, wind heating can substitute for a lot of uses for oil. I’d like to see those things happen because they are more sustainable in any case. But I do not think that running out of oil is not going to bother us that much. I think we have got to be rescued by something or we really are going down a slippery slope.

JHK: If its not petroleum then what is it that is putting us in peril?

JJ: I don’t think probably any one thing. Nothing is so clear in history that is it happens for any one thing. It seems that a lot of things come together to make great changes. And I think that one of the things is a reaction against Modernism in this case and everything associated with it

JHK: But we are stuck with all this stuff?

JJ: Yes now that’s the next thing. I do not think that we are to be saved by new developments done to New Urbanist principles. That’s all of the good and I am very glad that New Urbanists are educating America. I think that when this takes hold and when enough of the old regulations can be gotten out of the way—which is what is holding things up, that there is going to be some great period of infilling. And a lot of that will be make-shift and messy and it won’t measure up to New Urbanist ideas of design—but it will measure up to a lot of their other philosophy. And in fact if there isn’t a lot of this popular and make-shift infilling, the suburbs will never get corrected. It’s only going to happen that way. And I think that it will happen that way.

JHK: I have the greatest admiration for the New Urbanists. The hardest work for them to do is the urban infill.

And here we have to stop and sound a great big “guh-roh-ahn!” I’m American (among other things), but here’s where Kunstler’s American chauvinism really rubs me the wrong way. So some American cities aren’t “doing infill” correctly — that doesn’t mean that it’s a universal problem. In my city, infill is the norm.

Here’s Jane Jacobs again, for a last word:

JJ: There are still an awful lot of intelligent, clever constructive Americans and they are still doing clever constructive things. Is it more necessary to be able to design computers or is more necessary to be able to manufacture computers. I think that it is necessary to do both. I think it is fatal to specialize. And all kinds of things show us that and that the more diverse we are in what we can do the better. But I don’t think that you can dispose of the constructive and inventive things that America is doing—and say oh we aren’t doing anything anymore and we are living off of what the poor Chinese do. It is more complicated than that. There is the example of Detroit which you noticed yourself was once a very prosperous and diverse city. And look what happened when it just specialized on automobiles. Look at Manchester when it specialized in those dark satanic mills, when it specialized in textiles. It was supposed to be the city of the future.

JHK: We have an awful lot of places in America that don’t specialize in anything anymore and don’t produce anything in particular anymore.

JJ: Well that’s better than specializing.

Theme: Pool by Borja Fernandez.
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