Monday, November 28, 2005

Justice Pastiche


The webpage for the Iraqi Special Tribunal is online, which will be trying Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi former leaders. Most of the site is currently blank slate, but some interesting rhetorical choices have already been made by the site's designers:

1) Appeals to visual rhetoric in a "gallery" that features photographs of mass graves
2) A dated news roll that includes a sharply worded rebuttal of reports in the Arabic media regarding "aggression" used in the questioning of Hussein
3) A main graphic identity that features an image associated with the Code of Hammurabi from the Louvre museum, at the center of other emblems of modern, unified nationhood, such as a map of the country's borders and elements of the nation's flag. (The basalt stele is an odd choice, given the body language of subjection and hierarchy that the image represents, particularly since contemporary scales of justice are also superimposed on this ancient icon.)

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

At the Corner of Memory Lane and the Information Superhighway


Yesterday, I thought that I would visit my former employer, the California Youth Authority -- virtually, of course -- to see what kind of website they had built for themselves. I had fond memories of working for the CYA. In the years between college and graduate school, I directed after-school educational programs out of one of their teen centers. In this one-room schoolhouse in the city in which I now live, I had to cope with the challenge of working with gang members, but I had fun connecting "at-risk youth" to new technologies with a lab of donated Apples and PC's.

We even worked with PEN, one of the revolutionary "e-government" initiatives of the nineteen-eighties, which was designed to get local citizens wired into an incipient network that then took on a peer-to-peer life of its own. The gang members that I worked with had e-mail addresses long before many corporate CEO's! "Are the current CYA denizens building virtual lives of interest? " I wondered.

(There is a PowerPoint presentation about the history of the CYA with a lot of old-timey photos for those unfamiliar with the way the "camp" model replaced the older "reformatory" one . . . that is before "camp" became "boot camp" in recent years. Some of these camps were also linked to New Deal forest conservation projects. After the rioting of the nineteen-sixties, urban "delinquency prevention centers" were also founded, like the one at which I worked, but these were chronically underfunded.)

As cyberspace tourism, it was a depressing visit. The California Youth Authority has become the Juvenile Justice Division of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The image we see on the homepage is an officer's hat, a synedoche for armed authority. The needs of clients or their parents are largely underrepresented, and they are only directly acknowledged on the page for CYA Delinquency Prevention and in the Strategic Plan. There are some good techniques to engage young people with new media, such as those being promulgated by Ellen and Julia Lupton, but none are in evidence anywhere in the constellation of CYA websites that I visited.

Based on what I have seen on Streetgangs.com, Gangstyle.com, and sites on MySpace.com that reference particular gang affiliations, it seems clear to me that young people on the margins are discovering the potentials of the Internet for individual and group expression. But how that mix of creative and destructive energy will play out in relation to the larger public -- in both cyberspace and juridical space -- remains to be seen.

Many of these outlaw sites are being monitored by the LAPD, according to a 2001 article in The Los Angeles Times, "Authorities Watching Gang Web Sites." Ironically, some blame the "No Child Left Behind Act" for this new generation of web-savvy OG's.

As my husband likes to say, "You can't unsee the things that you see on the Internet."

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Alas, Poor Yorick!

Anyone interested in information design and bureaucratic instructions should note the recent redesign of the labels of prescription medicine bottles by artist Deborah Adler of Milton Glaser for retail behemoth Target. (Even printed warning labels on common products such as toothpaste and diapers can contain surprisingly counterintuitive information.) Adler said that she redesigned the bottles after her grandmother mistakenly took medication intended for her grandfather.

In contrast, the official guidelines on the website of the Food and Drug Administration were appallingly illegible, even on "new" over-the-counter labels. So many children die needlessly of Reye's Syndrome after taking aspirin to treat the symptoms of chicken pox, not enough can be done to improve the clarity of warning messages.

The www.fda.gov website has some other rhetorical idiosyncracies of note:

1) The dangers of birth control always get a prominent place on their virtual masthead.
2) The government information office in Pueblo, Colorado is still in business and will send you hundreds of booklets for free. (This was an outfit much beloved in my pre-WWW youth.)
3) The mascot for the children's page of the FDA is a loveable skeleton named Yorick!

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Friday, November 25, 2005

The New Pilgrims


While we are on the subject of being thankful, it's worth including thankfulness for being born a U.S. citizen, even though sometimes I may express discontent with our policies abroad. Certainly, those who are not born U.S. citizens must often complete a dangerous journey to reach American soil.

The Mexican consulate still archives the notorious official pamphlet, Guide for the Mexican Migrant, that acknowledges the dangers of unscrupulous coyotes, drowning, dehydration, and suffocation for those making the voyage. It's hard to believe that this little book caused so much consternation among U.S. lawmakers and pundits, given its scoutmaster-style prose and emphasis on law-abiding behavior, as non-Spanish-speakers can see in this translation of the text on an anti-immigration website.

1.5 million copies of the handbook were distributed in paper form. Now the Mexican government has a neutral "for more information" page that directs visitors to the proper consular authorities.

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Thankful for the Internet

In light of the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I found myself looking at the online version of the longstanding official newspaper of the U.S. Military, Stars and Stripes. Because so many U.S. military personnel are currently in combat, it is important for all Americans -- regardless of political orientation -- to consider a range of information sources from our armed forces. There were certainly plenty of Thanksgiving stories to be found there, like the following heart-warming item:

New toy, bad habit The children of western Iraqi border towns have a new toy since the Marines rolled through earlier this month: the MRE bomb. Local children here like to take the chemical heaters found in the Marines' Meals Ready to Eat and seal them off in water bottles until pressure builds up. "Eventually it pops," said Cpl. William Spangenberg, a 30-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., who works in a civil affairs unit here. Marines say they've seen kids all over town throwing bursting water bottles. "I guess that's for the kids who don't have soccer balls," Spangenberg said.

One could also find a series of items about army cooks engaged in international culinary competitions that ranged from improvising with the meager ingrediants of field cuisine in enormous pots to creating elaborate gourmet fantasies with ice-sculptures and molds.


Ironically, when you look at the print edition of Stars and Stripes, which actually reaches soldiers in the field, you see much more substantive content about terrorist cells and car bombs in comparison to the fluff on their website.

(While I'm at it, I have to point out the existence of something called Stars and Stripes Gamer, a special advertising section for soldiers who also enjoy virtual combat.)

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Better without the Stand-Up Comedy

Having recently completed my state-mandated Sexual Harassment Prevention Training, which was offered to U.C. Irvine employees online by Workplace Answers, I have a few observations, as someone who studies distance learning.

1) The two-hour program was limited in both vividness and interactivity: the scenarios were made more engaging only by illustrations with static cartoon characters and periodic online multiple choice quizzes. (See Steuer, "Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence," 1996 for more on the "vividness"/"interactivity" matrix.) However, one could argue that this approach fosters the necessary Platonic rationalism that such courses promulgate, so that it follows that supervisors should be disembodied rather than embodied learners.

2) The viewpoint of the learner was always assumed to be heterosexual and often implicitly male, despite the obvious countering of gender stereotypes in some of the hypothetical cases and the presence of gay characters in others. What do I mean by that? Well, the role-playing never presented a supervisor (dean, department chair, lab supervisor, or office manager) who was homosexual; such people only appeared as actors in the conflict, never as decision-makers in the resolution. Also, in the vignettes about "inappropriate workplace attire," only women were depicted as offenders. The one-sided regulation of clothing as a way to control female sexuality from the position of a gawking male gaze appeared surprisingly uncontested to me, especially since men can wear inappropriately sexual or revealing clothing as well. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her recent book Bait and Switch, rules for attire are exclusionary measures in corporate America, since it is more difficult for women to comply with norms of dress.


3) The curriculum was considerably less challenging than the other form of large-scale state-mandated coursework aimed at remediation of behavior, which can now also be satisfied online, by which I obviously mean traffic school. You see, one can actually fail traffic school, if test performance is poor enough. But my attentiveness or success at achieving particular learning benchmarks did not appear to be monitored. Completion of two hours of clicking buttons, practically regardless of which ones I chose, seemed to be enough.

As with traffic school, mandated sexual harassment prevention instruction is generally provided by one of several niche businesses from the private sector. However, traffic school perhaps more obviously should use available vivid and interactive technology, particularly since 3D driving simulations can accurately represent guesswork about speed, distance, and legality.

(And now, a digression. One summer, when I was home from college, I actually worked at a traffic school, in a minimum-wage job manning the phones. This was in the nineteen-eighties, and "comedy" traffic schools had just become popular as acceptable forms of "live" instruction. By the time I actually had to attend traffic school myself, in the nineties, various gourmet traffic schools had appeared on the scene, which offered ice-cream or goodies for "choco-holics." Why is it that "live" traffic school must satisfy bodily appetites or physical sensations? I understand why there are no "stripper" traffic schools, but why are there no terror traffic schools or tearful traffic schools, because pity and fear might more effectively deter accidents?)

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bend it Like Einstein


Imagine how impressed I was by the website of the national government of Germany that prominently commemorated the centenary of Einstein's "miracle year" and was already counting down to another year of science that would celebrate the Informatikjahr. Wow, I thought, how progressive the Europeans are to highlight science rather than faith-based initiatives on their prime real estate in cyberspace.

But today Angela Merkel replaced Gerhard Schröder as Chancellor, and soccer was substituted for science on the federal German website. Now visitors are directed to the site for the 2006 World Cup, and Einstein has vanished.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Imaginary Homelands

By way of contrast, the websites of governments-in-exile highlight features of the rhetoric of officially sanctioned government websites that are able to lay claim to legitimacy and manifest the ideology of an established nation-state.

For example, there are two sites for the government in exile of Tibet, which are interesting because they have different rhetorical appeals: www.tibet.com and www.tibet.net. The latter was hosted by Cyborganic, a utopian-commercial venture based in San Francisco that was important in the promotion of the Internet lifestyle (including the founding of Wired magazine). Despite its South of Market pedigree, Tibet.net contains the incipient apparatus of a Weberian "virtual state." (See the work of Jane Fountain for more on this term.) On Tibet.net, we even encounter links to three branches of government: the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission, the Assembly of the Tibetan People's Deputies, and the Kashag. The other "official" site, Tibet.com, appeals clearly to outsiders with its navigation bar that emphasizes the Orientalist exoticism of the would-be country (in its "food" and "shops") and concludes with a plea for "How You Can Help Tibet."

One of the remarkable things about countries included in the index of Unrepresented Peoples and Nations, is how low their virtual profile can be, despite the violence and global publicity of relatively recent conflicts. For example, Biafraland.com is still being maintained, but the political arm of Biafra, MASSOB, is not. Many of these websites from unrecognized entities do feature a national anthem that blares on the opening page, as Biafranet.com does. In contrast, most official government websites consign patriotic music to a more discreetly located link. Perhaps, without access to the cultural capital of national legitimacy, official websites of unofficial states can commit many of the gaffes in this index for creating the world's worst website.

Websites for Hawaiian Sovereignty or California secession also lack many of the features of a government website, despite their aspirations to provide the forum for public policy issues that would launch a virtual state. But such states' rights sites primarily occupy themselves with advocacy and argumentation rather than serve as portals for the specific mechanisms that facilitate the provision of civil services, the development of infrastructure, or other public goods aimed at the target population. Nonetheless, the issue of the distribution of wealth is sometimes discussed at length in seccessionist sites.

(This all assumes that a reasonable person would be persuaded by arguments for self-determination, although Princeton philosopher of international relations Charles Beitz is not.)

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

War Games

I've written elsewhere about Tactical Iraqi, a virtual reality game that is intended to teach soldiers Arabic. In Tactical Iraqi, the mission is to rebuild a girls' school using the avatar of Sgt. John Smith and, to complete the game's tasks, the learner must speak basic Arabic with village locals. It's also worth looking at Ambush!, a video game designed to train soldiers in how to locate IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices) by the side of the road. Ambush! is also interesting because its designers actually aimed to simulate "boredom" as well as the rapid, coordinated responses more conventionally associated with video games.

Both games were developed in conjunction with DARWARS, a series of DARPA projects that is intended to improve combat simulations by creating greater interactivity. Both games use existing game technology as a platform (from Unreal Tournament and Operation Flashpoint respectively).

If the nation's soldiers' identities are being mediated through game play, when are other activities of citizenship going to be improved by simulations? I personally am looking forward to Virtual Voter or Virtual Jury or Virtual Taxpayer games to assist me with the effective performance of my civic duties.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

If you can't say anything nice . . .

Often, it's true that this blog is a rogues' gallery of regrettable or unintentionally humorous things found on government websites. But I also want to pay tribute to some good government sites that serve citizens relatively well and follow many of the principles of information design presented by Edward Tufte.

So here are my Top Ten. (And I'm certainly not going to put the confusing official portal First.gov anywhere on my list or the Social Security website, which is a nightmare for navigation.)

1. Factfinder from the The U.S. Census Bureau

A researcher's dream! Easy to use and designed for a variety of potential queries, this site exemplifies how information can also resist easy interpretation, as its section on "data sets" acknowledges.

2. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Despite its stupid new "Astronaut Flight Lounge" Flash opening, this site still can't be beat for luscious satellite photos and rover cam shots.

3. United States Geological Survey

Sure, Google Earth is cool, and I've been known to spend hours travelling to Kabul and Pyongyang with it. But your tax dollars bring you this pretty neat, although somewhat buggy tool as well. Check out the Map Viewer. Fun for looking at recent earthquakes and volcanic activity, while you are at it.

4. The Internal Revenue Service

Okay, nobody likes to pay taxes, but this site is a model for what Jane Fountain has argued was the first priority for creating the Virtual State: access to downloadable forms.

5. The FBI's Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room

A great source of information about the suspect character of public figures from Gracie Allen to Richard Wright. I have used Bertolt Brecht's file in my own research and have found it invaluable from the standpoint of reception theory.

6. The Library of Congress

This is is site I've criticized before. And their glorification of Coca Cola advertisements or Yankees posters doesn't make it any easier for me to grapple with obvious gaps in the historical record of American Memory (like the McCarthy era). But this is a site that I use all the time in teaching students to find interesting visual materials, so it still makes it into my top ten. There is also a lot of good information on legislative history from THOMAS, but it is so arbitrarily organized as to be almost unreadable.

7. The National Archives

A good site for high quality photographic facsimiles of significant American documents. This site is also greatly improved by regular updating. (For example, today the site features new documents in Samuel A. Alito's Supreme Court Nomination.)

8. The Supreme Court

It's a modest site, but it presents information well. Legal terms and procedures are explained. Documents are presented in a logical fashion. Even the architectural details of the building are elaborated upon. The Senate has a comparatively incoherent site, although the gallery of busts of Vice Presidents is worth a visit.

9. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Although it's not as apparent how to file complaints or blow the whistle on government malfeasance as it should be, at least this site allows people to report safety and health hazards online with some degree of anonymity. (It's easier to find out where to submit a crime tip on the FBI site, but it's not anonymous, which is understandable, given the number of crackpot leads.) Much of this site, like the site from the Department of Labor, still relies on traditional handbooks as modes for distributing information.

10. The National Science Foundation (NSF), The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and other government funded agencies that support knowledge-building

As sources to locate research funds, government websites also serve an important purpose. So these all tie for 10th place.

(After you are done with this list, you may also want to compare our government to other governments in the world.)

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Essay Assistance from Ivy League Graduate

Those who just tuned in to today's live chat at the White House website might have missed the following exchange, which headed off the probing questions that the Deputy Chief of the Baghdad U.S. Embassy faced:

Amy, from River Falls, WI writes:

I am a Political Science student at the University of Wisconsin River Falls. I am working on a semester long research paper about Iraq. My question is: How are the rules for constitutional ratification in Iraq currently written? Please answer my question, I have been combing the Internet for days and cannot find my answer

David Satterfield

Iraq's constitution was ratified on the basis of Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law, a basic law that was drafted by Iraqi leaders in concert with the Coalition Provisional Authority. That law stipulated, in Article 61, that Iraqis would vote on their constitution in an October 15 referendum. The constitution would pass if approved by a majority of voters and if not rejected by two-thirds of the voters in three or more of Iraq's 18 governorates. On referendum day the constitution passed dramatically. Seventy-nine percent of Iraqi voters approved the constitution and 21 percent voted against it. Only two governorates voted against it by a two-thirds majority. And so, in accordance with the Transitional Administrative Law and the rulings of Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission, the constitution was adopted.


Thank heaven that young people won't be "combing the Internet" for days with the staffers of this President around! Wisconsin students won't need to go to EssayExperts.com, as long as our Chief Executive is leader of the Free World.

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Gobble the Vote


Yes. That was the heading on the White House webpage today. "Gobble the Vote." It turned out to refer to the annual White House turkey ceremony, rather than to any nefarious plans for new electronic voting machines. Visitors to the site can choose between "Democracy and Freedom, " "Blessing and Bounty," "Marshmallow and Yam," "Wattle and Snood," and "Corn and Maize" as monikers for the national bird. Now I hope "Democracy and Freedom" won't be cooked and eaten, since that's always the one I always cast my vote for. Probably the traditional "pardon" will be granted. This year the lucky bird and its "alternate" won't retire to "Frying Pan Park," the historic home for the White House gaggle. They will be going to the Disneyland Park in Anaheim where they will stay "the remainder of their natural lives."

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Make a New Plan Stan

As someone interested in government websites, I thought it might be useful to look at the officially sanctioned homepages of two resource-rich countries from the former Soviet Union that are currently aiding the U.S. in the War on Terror: one surreal (Turkmenistan) and the other formerly corrupt (Kyrgyzstan).


The official website of Turkmenistan (loads better in Explorer) originates in a country known to policy wonks as the personal fiefdom of megalomaniacal President Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov is the author of the nationalist text at the heart of the entire educational curriculum, the Ruhnama, a work that combines many genres (autobiography, ethnic mythology, and pseudophilosophy), which is helpfully available in translation in several languages on the website. (Click the image below to make it large enough to read!)


In fact, the "Holy Ruhnama" is given a website position considerably more exhalted than information about the economy, trade, demographics, or government. In Turkmenistan, the Ruhnama is the subject of several serious contests in which everyone from schoolchildren to judges must compete (and at least one parody competition).

Not so prominently explained is the fact that Niyazov or "Turkmenbashi," as he is also known, has placed a golden statue of himself in the capital that turns to face the sunlight as the day progresses. He has also named months after himself and his mother, banned beards, lip synching, and gold teeth (along with political dissent), and has made discussion of the plague illegal. For those who enjoy White House press conferences, there is a weekly blog maintained by the State Information Agency that is worth a visit if only for the aphorisms in the sidebar like "Victory with the smell of bread!" and "Only purity can elevate our people!"

The website of Kyrgyzstan is also a marvel of golden statuary and heroic views of the steppes. Former president Askar Akayev currently faces an F.B.I. investigation into corruption. (U.S. troops are stationed in Kyrgyzstan, thanks to a mysteriously generous Pentagon oil deal, according to "Pentagon Fuel Deal is Lesson in Risks in Graft-Prone Regions," which appeared in a recent New York Times.) The homepage makes clear that it seeks to attract online "members" from foreign communities to the website's special features, perhaps to better explain the nation's role in the Great Silk Road Region. Unlike the website of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan has a live "comments" section for visitors, although there are "0" posts in all areas, and this has been true for months.

(To learn more about both countries, you can visit the CIA Factbook, where the intelligence is agreed to be actually quite accurate. And while you are at it, you can check out the new website of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and enjoy ads for North Korean cars and MP3 files with folk songs, or you can visit the original North Korean site that is still being updated.)

In comparison to these august and glorious countries, the website of Prime Minister Villepin of France looks positively slapdash in its informality, with its tabloid graphics and news magazine style banners.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Both Party Websites Highlight Blogs

The influence of blogs on partisan discourse is nowhere clearer than on the official websites of both major political parties. The Republican Party website puts its blog on the right bar, higher up on the page than the Democrats. The blog actually indexes many headings conventionally associated with the opposition: "African-Americans," "Asian-Americans," and "Social Security" among others. The Republican Party site also uses multimedia more prominently on its opening page, and its current video offering features past clips from Democratic talking heads on the Iraq war. Irony is an important trope on the Republican Party site, as is appeal to external authority.

The Republican party chairman is considerably less visible in the cyber frontage than rival Howard Dean who dominates the Democratic page. As to the Democrat's blog, it seems to have fewer genuine links -- particularly to news sources -- than the Republican blog (which I would consider a tactical error, given the rising prominence of heavily linked blogs with less editorial content that has been recorded in recent research studies). It also highlights a technical feature that many blog readers use, XML, in keeping with the party's technocratic reputation. The blog roll of ideologically similar blogs is much more prominently placed on the Democratic page and individual posters seem to have a much lower profile when compared to the Republicans (which I consider another tactical error, given how important original content is to readers who are turned off by blogs of other blogs without fresh news).

And the award for most ironically named website goes to . . .


For those who missed it, lifeandliberty.gov is a website sponsored by the Department of Justice that defends the PATRIOT Act, congressional legislation designed to constrain certain civil liberties in the interest of national security. Don't miss the "Quote of the Day"!

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Alternative Reality on Skyblog
















Skyblog, the youth music and blog website that has faced prosecutions of three of its bloggers in recent days for content that allegedly encouraged French rioters is currently highlighting a new site that presents photographs of peace and prosperity in the urban banlieues that have been the flashpoints of violence and vandalism in the past. Bloggers are encouraged to submit images that counter stereotypes about urban decay and contradict the dystopian visions of ultra right wing pundits.

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Paris is Burning

The website for the ultra right-wing National Front in France has 3D CGI graphics of burning cars and urban destruction. Although the artwork of the website actually long predates current riots in France, website visitors can still have the virtual experience of being led through a dystopian vision that seems to reflect current events in which the city of light has been plunged into darkness. In these graphics, however, the enemies of the city (explained as "immigration" and the "explosion des banlieues") remain invisible.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Mahem on Madlibs

In continuing my theme of offerings for children on government websites, I have to point out that one of my most singular discoveries in years of web crawling has to be this fun-filled activity for children on the site for public service announcements from the Office of Homeland Security, which consists of a madlib to be filled out by children in preparation for a terrorist attack. As a form of Public Diplomacy, this seems particularly inappropriate, given the domestic audience addressed. (Click on image to enlarge.)



Considering that the most popular verb that children in my household use in madlibs is "fart," I fear to think how a real child would fill this out sight unseen.

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