“Healthy, vigorous, respectable: everyone’s favorite uncle.” How many of us hear these words and think of that most beloved of all American travel-television personalities, Rick Steves? Indeed, in the video above they’re spoken by Steves, though to describe a figure very different from himself: Adolf Hitler, who convinced his people not to tour Europe but to invade it, sparking the deadliest conflict of all time. How and why this happened has been a historical question written about perhaps more voluminously than any other. But the Stevesian method of understanding demands first-hand experience of Germany, the land in which the Nazi party came to power.
Hence “Germany’s Fascist Story,” a 2020 episode of Rick Steves’ Europe whose itinerary includes such destinations as Nuremberg, site of the eponymous Nazi rallies; Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden; the Gestapo and SS headquarters in Berlin. We’re a long way indeed from Steves’ usual circuit of cathedrals, markets, and bed-and-breakfasts.
Enriched with the historical footage and the reflections of German interviewees, this travelogue explains the rise in the 1930s and fall in the 1940s of a powerful European strain of fascism. This manifested in popular capitulation to race-based, nationalistic, and ultimately totalitarian state power, not just in Germany but other countries also once regarded as the center of European civilization.
We all know how World War II ended, and the blue-jeaned Steves sums up the relevant chapter of the story while standing atop the underground bunker in which Hitler killed himself. But such a defeat can never truly be considered final, an idea that underlies the continuing encouragement of tourism to places like Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which figures briefly into this episode despite being located in Poland. As any dedicated “Ricknick” knows, the pursuit of any given cultural or historical interest inevitably leads the traveler through a variety of lands. Hence a project like The Story of Fascism, Steves’ hourlong documentary on that ideology’s traces as found all throughout his favorite continent. As he himself has put it, travel is a political act — and it’s one necessary to understanding both the politics you like and the politics you don’t.
For those interested in how Steves built his travel empire, we’d recommend listening to Guy Raz’s lengthy interview with Steves, one episode in his How I Built This podcast.
As a younger person, I became enthralled with the art-historical novels of Irving Stone, especially The Agony and the Ecstasy, his fictionalized biography of Michelangelo. Few books live up to their title so well — Stone’s Michelangelo is a tumult of passion and pain, a Romantic hero tailor-made for those who believe artistic creation transcends almost any other act. Stone describes Michelangelo’s sculpture emerging from the marble fully-formed in a creation imbued with so much sexual energy, some passages may need adult supervision:
It was like penetrating deep into white marble with the pounding live thrust of his chisel beating upward through the warm living marble with one ”Go!”, his whole body behind the heavy hammer, penetrating through ever deeper and deeper furrows of soft yielding living substance until he had reached the explosive climax, and all of his fluid strength, love, passion, desire had been poured into the nascent form, and the marble block, made to love the hand of the true sculptor, and responded, giving of its inner heat and substance and fluid form, until at last the sculptor and the marble had totally coalesced, so deeply penetrating and infusing each other that they had become one, marble and man and organic unity, each fulfilling the other in the greatest act of art and love known to the human species.
Whether or not you’re moved by Stone’s prose, you have to admit, it does make sculpting sound enormously appealing. For a much less masculine take on what it’s like to carve a figure from a solid block of stone, see the National Geographic short film above, in which a three-dimensional portrait comes alive in the hands of stone carver Anna Rubincam.
This is a labor of love, but it is also one of careful preparation. Rubincam “begins her process by measuring and sketching the features of a live model,” the film’s YouTube page notes. “From there, she creates a clay version before moving on to carefully chisel the piece out of stone.” The entire process took three weeks.
Is there room for agony and ecstasy amidst the measurements? Indeed. “I always feel that you have to be a bit mad to become a stone carver,” says Rubincam, acknowledging that “this isn’t the Renaissance anymore. Stone isn’t a primary building material anymore. Why would anyone go into a profession” like this one? Rubincam’s answer — “there just wasn’t any other option” — cannot help but bring to mind the most popular quote from Stone’s novel: “One should not become an artist because he can, but because he must. It is only for those who would be miserable without it.”
Smells Like Teen Spirit is an unusual anthem because it refuses the role of the anthem. It’s perfect for the generation it represented because this was a cohort that was so ambivalent about any traditional values [or] conventional success. — music critic Ann Powers
They started playing the new song and people erupted. We were being slimed on by shirtless guys, just moshing. My friend Susan started hyperventilating, she thought it was so good: ‘I can’t, gasp, believe what they just played!’ It was just instantaneous; it was crazy.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was unreconstituted rock bliss to us…
…and perhaps not the most natural fit for a ukulele cover?
On the other hand, what better instrument for those “ambivalent about conventional success” than the ukulele?
Orchestra founder Peter Brooke Turner‘s tribute to lead vocalist Kurt Cobain helps nudge the needle past pure novelty into the realm of credibility, or at least a sophisticated understanding of all the ways in which the original works.
Plus, his “yeah” at 1:52 transcends the era of flannels, harkening to a time when the unconflicted preening rock god reigned supreme. (We should note that he serves plenty of ham alongside that sausage.)
Best of all is David Suich‘s enthusiastic headbanging. Clearly a fellow who enjoys putting his long hair in service of his art! (We refer you to the Ukulele Orchestra’s interpretation of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” below…)
Most American students in philosophy live on a diet of ancient Greek philosophy on the one hand, and then “modern” philosophy, which starts around the time of Descartes (the 17th century), with numerous schools and approaches spilling into the present day. If you get anything from between those ancient days and modernity, it’s probably some churchmen, i.e. Augustine (from the 4th century) and Thomas Aquinas (the 13th century), with perhaps a few Romans thrown in there and (if you’re Jewish) Maimonides (12th century).
But a key part of this lineage was the Eastward turn that the great works of Greek and Roman philosophy took during the so-called Dark Ages, when they were preserved and copied in the Islamic world, and this period produced a wealth of philosophy including two figures who became influential enough in the West that their names were Latinized: Ibn Sīnā (980-1037 C.E.) and Ibn Rushd, a.k.a. Averroes (1126-1198). Aquinas was very familiar with these figures and incorporated them into his influential works, and in the case of Ibn Sina, at least, important figures like John Locke had definitely known at least about his views, if not his actual works.
Peter was good enough to recommend some readings to introduce us and our listeners to this figure, some of which he actually wrote. Because of the volume, redundancy, and style of Ibn Sīnā’s writings, some sort of guide to collect and to some degree explain passages is essential for getting a handle on this idiosyncratic and brilliant thinker. He wrote at least three different versions of his all-encompassing system, which was influenced by and meant to supplant Aristotle’s. In addition to philosophical/theological topics, it included mathematics, science, psychology, and more. So instead of trying to read a whole work covering all that, it makes more sense to pick individual topics and then look at the various formulations he gave about these.
Our two topics for this discussion were a peculiar argument for the existence of God — with important implications for talking about metaphysics more generally — and an argument for the immateriality of the soul, which likewise tells us a lot about the way that Ibn Sīnā thought about knowledge and its relation to the world.
The argument for the existence of God was later called by Thomas Aquinas “the argument from contingency.” It posits that things in the world don’t simply exist, but that they require something else to support their existence. This isn’t a cause is the chronological sense that we talk about it: a prior event that gave rise to the thing. Rather, the material components of something in a certain arrangement make it continue to exist as that thing right now; for example, a house exists because its component wood parts exist, with nails and such holding them in place. And the wood in turn has its character because of its physical/chemical components, etc. If these component causes weren’t in place, the thing would not exist; the thing is thus “contingent,” meaning it might well not have existed were it not for those causes.
This picture of the universe thus includes a giant network of causality, but does that network itself rest on anything? According to Ibn Sīnā, there must be something that is not contingent that holds everything else up. But is this thing God (in the sense that a good Muslim of his time would recognize it)? Ibn Sīnā then has a long series of arguments to show one by one that just by being “the necessary being,” this entity also must be unique, must be all-powerful, generous, and all the other things one would expect God to be.
The argument for the immortality of the soul is perhaps Ibn Sīnā’s most famous argument, often called the flying or floating man argument. It’s a thought experiment whereby you imagine you’ve just been created, but fully mature, so you can think, but with no memory, and your senses are inoperable. You can’t even feel gravity or the ground under your feet (thus the “flying” part). According to Ibn Sīnā, you would still in such a situation know that you exist. Since your apprehension of self did not include any part of your body (you couldn’t feel your body at all), that is supposed to prove that your body is not an essential part of what you are.
Ibn Sīnā thought this argument definitive because of his theory of knowledge by which if you know anything at all, then you know about the essential components of that thing. If you know what a triangle is, you know that it’s an abstract geometrical figure with three straight sides. If you know what a horse is, you know that it’s a biological animal with a particular character that you can identify. And to know what you are essentially, you only need know that feeling of your own mind; anything else about that mind being associated with a particular body that lives in a particular part of the world and is just knowledge of contingent, relational facts about yourself.
From the hand of Leonardo da Vinci came the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, among other art objects of intense reverence and even worship. But to understand the mind of Leonardo da Vinci, one must immerse oneself in his notebooks. Totaling some 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, they record something of every aspect of the Renaissance man’s intellectual and daily life: studies for artworks, designs for elegant buildings and fantastical machines, observations of the world around him, lists of his groceries and his debtors. Intending their eventual publication, Leonardo left his notebooks to his pupil Francesco Melzi, by the time of whose own death half a century later little had been done with them.
Absent a proper steward, Leonardo’s notebooks scattered across the world. Six centuries later, their surviving pages constitute a series of codices in the possession of such entities as the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the British Museum, the Institut de France, and Bill Gates.
Other collections of Leonardo’s notebooks made available to view online include the Madrid Codices at the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the Codex Trivulzianus at the Archivo Storico Civico e Biblioteca Trivulziana, and the Codex on the Flight of Birds at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (Published as a standalone book, his Treatise on Painting is available to download at Project Gutenberg.) Even so, many of the pages Leonardo wrote haven’t yet made it to the internet, and even when they do, generations of interpretive work — well beyond reversing his “mirror writing” — will surely remain. Much as humanity is only now putting some of his inventions to the test, the full publication of his notebooks remains a work in progress. Leonardo himself would surely understand: after all, one can’t cultivate a mind like his without patience.
An observer once called the Mandelbrot Set “The Thumbprint of God,” the simple equation that led to the discovery of fractal geography, chaos theory, and why games like No Man’s Sky even exist. In 1994, Arthur C. Clarke, writer of both science fiction and science fact, narrated a one-hour documentary on the new mathematics, called Fractals: The Colors of Infinity. If that sounds familiar, dear reader, it’s because we’ve told you about it long ago. But it’s worth revisiting, and it’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack was created by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
To be honest, at first I wasn’t really hearing that Floyd vibe, just some pleasant synth-strings you could find on any number of documentaries. But then Clarke explains the implication of the Mandelbrot equation, ending it with “This really is infinity.” And then Boom, the acid hit.
Or rather, the rainbow computer graphics of the endless zoom hit, and it was unmistakably Gilmour—cue up 5:19 and be careful with that fractal, Eugene. This happens again at 14:30, 25:12, 31:07, 35:46, 38:22, 43:22, 44:51, and 50:06 for those with an itchy scrubbing finger. But stick around for the whole doc, as the history of how we got to the equation, its precedents in nature and art, and the implications only hinted at in the program, all make for interesting viewing.
The music will remind you in places of “Shine On Your Crazy Diamond”, “Obscured by Clouds,” and “On the Run.” When a DVD was released years later, a special feature isolated just Gilmour’s music and the fractal animation.
Gilmour has contributed soundtrack work to other programs. He has an uncredited performance on Guy Pratt’s soundtrack from 1995’s Hackers; incidental music for 1992’s Ruby Takes a Trip with Ruby Wax; and a 1993 documentary on the arts and drug use called The Art of Tripping.
There are no official releases of this soundtrack work, but one user has put up 16 minutes of the Colours of Infinity music over at SoundCloud.
Modernist architecture transformed the modern city in the 20th century, for good and ill. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than the former Soviet Union and its former republics. There, we find truth in the western stereotypes of the Soviet city as cold, faceless, and soul-crushingly nondescript — so much so that the plot of a 1975 Russian TV film called The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, hinges on a man drunkenly traveling to Leningrad by mistake and falling asleep in a stranger’s apartment, thinking it’s his own place in Moscow. Russians found the joke so relatable, they began a tradition of watching the film each year on Christmas, as the City Beautiful above video on Soviet urban architecture points out.
Once it had eliminated private property, the experiment of the Soviet Union began with good intentions, architecturally-speaking. Constructivism, the first form of distinctly Soviet architecture, was developed first as an art movement by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. Constructivists sought to balance the nation’s need to build tons of new housing under harsh economic conditions with “ambition for using the built environment to engineer societal changes and instill the avant-garde in everyday life,” points out the Designing Buildings Wiki. Drawing from Bauhaus and Futurism, the movement only lasted into the 1930s. Many of its finest designs went unrealized, but it left a significant mark on subsequent architectural movements like Brutalism.
The synthesis of beauty and utility would fall apart, however, under the massive collectivizing drives of Stalin. When his reign ended, public housing blocks known as “Krushchyovkas” sprang up, named after the premier “who initiated their mass production in the late 1950s,” writes Mark Byrnes at Bloomberg CityLab. This was “a distinctly banal architectural type” built quickly and cheaply when Moscow “had twice the population its housing stock could accommodate. Five-story Krushchoyvkas popped up in newly planned microdistricts.” These, as you’ll see in the explainer video, could be added on to existing cities indefinitely for maximal urban sprawl “in hopes of alleviating the severe housing crisis exacerbated under Joseph Stalin.”
As the popularity of The Irony of Fate demonstrates, Krushchoyvkas introduced serious problems of their own, including their grimly comic sameness. The film begins with an animated history lesson on Soviet urban planning. “The urban design was not flexible,” author Philipp Meuser tells Byrnes. “This was the first critique of them dating back to the early ‘60s.” Later versions built under Brezhnev and called “Brezhnevkis” introduced different shapes and sizes to break up the monotony. All of the housing blocks were built to last 20 to 25 years and were not well-maintained, if they were maintained at all. The earliest began deteriorating in the ‘70s.
At their height, however, Krushchoyvkas “were popular because it was revolutionary for housing politics.” One U.S. official put it in 1967: “What the Russians have done is to develop the only technology in the world to produce acceptable, low-cost housing on a large scale.” Cities around the world followed suit in buildings like the Japanese danchi, for example, and the infamously awful American public housing projects of the 60s and 70s, built along similar lines as the Krushchyovkas and the misguided urban design theories of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, another modernist who, like the Constructivists, reimagined city space according to a model of mass production.
The original Constructivist manifesto, published in 1923, promised art and building “of no discernible ‘style’ but simply a product of an industrial order like a car, an aeroplane and such like.” The reality of Constructivist designs — like the designs of cars and aeroplanes — involved a great deal of imagination and creativity. But the architectural legacy of what Constructivists touted as “technical mastery and organization of materials” — under the massively centralized bureaucracy of the fully realized one-party Communist state — created something entirely different than the idealistic avant-gardists had once intended for the modern city.
“We’ll always have Paris,” Bogart tells Bergman in the final scene of Casablanca, a line and film inseparable from the grand mythology of Paris. The city still inspires non-Parisians to purchase Belle Epoque poster art by the shipload and binge Netflix series in which Paris looks like a “city where the clouds part, your brain clears, and your soul finds meaning,” Alex Abad-Santos writes at Vox. It’s also a place in such media where one can seem to find “success without much sacrifice.”
Paris was the city where Hemingway felt “free… to walk anywhere,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast; where James Baldwin wrote in his 1961 essay “New Lost Generation” of “the days when we walked through Les Halles singing, loving every inch of France and loving each other… the nights spent smoking hashish in the Arab cafes… the morning which found us telling dirty stories, true stories, sad and earnest stories, in gray workingman’s cafes.”
The image of Paris has not always been so full of romance and escapism, especially for Parisians like Charles Baudelaire. “For the first time Paris becomes the subject of lyric poetry” in Baudelaire, wrote Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, a major, unfinished work on Paris in the 19th century. Like the expats, Baudelaire’s imagination strolled through the city, freed from responsibility. But “the Paris of his poems is a sunken city, and more submarine than subterranean.”
The Paris of revolutionary fervor, communes, barricades, and catacombs… of Rimbaud, Coco Chanel, the Situationists…. There are too many versions of the city of lights; we cannot have them all. For the past year, we have not been able to see any part of it but from afar. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, however, we can walk the city for hours — or watch someone else do it, in any case. The five-hour walking tour at the top may skip the places a modern-day Baudelaire would want us to see, but it does include “the most famous streets, monuments and parks,” notes the description,
You’ll also find here shorter video walking tours of Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower, and Luxembourg Gardens, where Hemingway would often meet Gertrude Stein and her dog, and where he found himself “learning very much “ from Cézanne about how to move beyond simply “writing simple true sentences.” We are unlikely to have these kinds of experiences on our video walking tours. But we can get a taste of what it’s like to briskly cruise Parisian streets in the 21st century, an experience increasingly likely to become a virtual one for future writers, poets, and expats and tourists of all kinds.
Not long after Nikola Tesla died in 1943, the world seemed to forget him. The first public tribute paid to his considerable research and development in the realm of electricity thereafter came in 1960 with the introduction of the tesla, the SI unit of magnetic flux density. But in the decades since Tesla has enjoyed an afterlife as an icon of under-appreciated prescience. Some of this reputation is based on interviews given in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was still a celebrity. Take the short Colliers magazine profile from 1926 in which he foresees the emergence of devices that will allow us “to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance”; a man, Tesla predicts, “will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
This article is one source of the words spoken in the Voices of the Past video above. In it, Tesla also speaks of a future hugely enriched by the “wireless energy” he spent much of his career pursuing. It will power “flying machines” in which “we shall ride from New York to Europe in a few hours.” A household’s daily newspaper “will be printed ‘wirelessly’ in the home during the night.”
Thanks to instant worldwide communication, “international boundaries will be largely obliterated and a great step will be made toward the unification and harmonious existence of the various races inhabiting the globe.” All the while, new generations of ever better-educated women “will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.”
Many will applaud Tesla’s views on the advancement of women, though here his thinking takes a turn that may give pause even to the most forward-thinking among us today: “The acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women, their gradual usurpation of leadership, will dull and finally dissipate feminine sensibilities, will choke the maternal instinct, so that marriage and motherhood may become abhorrent and human civilization draw closer and closer to the perfect civilization of the bee.” The inventor of alternating current has much to say in favor of apian society, “the most highly organized and intelligently coordinated system of any form of nonrational animal life.” And so why not restructure human civilization around a single queen?
This video also draws on a 1937 interview with Tesla in Liberty magazine, which features even more discomfiting propositions. “The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct,” Tesla insists. “The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture will be far more important in the cabinet of the President of the United States who holds office in the year 2035 than the Secretary of War.” Despite perhaps having crossed the line into mad-scientism, Tesla remained incisive about the persistent condition of humans under high technology. “We suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age,” he claims. “The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.” Here in the 21st century, of course, many of us would be content simply to gain mastery over the one in our vest pocket.
I often feel Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan has been misunderstood. When he shows up these days, it’s in songs like his creepy “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Season of the Witch,” in films and TV series about serial killers. This may leave younger viewers with the impression that the psychedelic folk hero went down some scary musical paths. But those who remember Donovan in his heyday remember him as the singer of “Sunshine Superman,” his biggest hit, and “Mellow Yellow,” which hit Number 2 in the U.S. in 1966. The following year, he urged his listeners to wear their love like heaven, in verses that rivaled Syd Barrett’s for their love of color: “Color in sky, Prussian blue / Scarlet fleece changes hue.”
Maybe it’s hard to entertain the sentiments of flower power in 2021. But maybe, also, Donovan’s sunniest songs have always had darker threads woven through them. Take “Sunshine Superman”: kind of a creepy tune, with its Lou Reed-like observation about “hustlin’ just to have a little scene,” and its hippie lothario’s confession that he’ll use “any trick in the book” on the object of his desire. Maybe it was early fans who got him wrong. Donovan has always been a weirdo’s weirdo, if you will. And so, it stands to reason that he would pick David Lynch to produce his track, “I Am the Shaman,” and to direct a video for the song for his 75th birthday this past Monday.
The song itself is not new, but was produced by Lynch in 2010 for the album, Ritual Groove, a collection of recordings, “some dating as far back as 1976,” writes one reviewer, held together by the “premise… that the planet is stuffed, the Goddess won’t care if we drift off into oblivion but wait, a saviour appears in the form of the previously humble minstrel Donovan, now a true poet.” (If fans of the cult psychedelic horror film Mandy are reminded of Jeremiah Sand, then we are in grim territory, indeed.) The collaboration gets even more interesting when we learn that “I Am the Shaman” was largely improvised, as Donovan himself wrote on Facebook:
He had asked me to only bring in a song just emerging, not anywhere near finished. We would see what happens. It happened! I composed extempore… the verses came naturally. New chord patterns effortlessly appeared.
This way of working suited him perfectly, as did the backwards-talking production Lynch applied to the track. “David and I are ‘compadres’ on a creative path rarely traveled,” he noted. It is a path that leads straight through the wilds of Transcendental Meditation, for which the video is intended to raise money and awareness. Despite its lack of color, another affinity shared by Donovan Leitch and David Lynch, “I Am the Shaman” shows both artists vibrating at the same frequency, which may either confirm or unsettle what you thought you knew about the mystical poet/singer/shaman Donovan.
Of the many things that can and have been said of Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon, one consistently bears repeating: it set a standard for how a rock album could function as a seamless, unified whole. There have been few releases since that meet this standard. Even Floyd themselves didn’t seem like they could measure up to Dark Side’s maturity just a few years earlier. But they were well on their way with 1971’s Meddle.
“Meddle is really the album where all four of us were finding our feet,” said David Gilmour. The observation especially applied to the 23-minute odyssey “Echoes,” the “masterwork of the album — the one where we were all discovering what Pink Floyd was all about.” All four members of the band learned to compose together in the rehearsal room, Nick Mason recalled, “just sitting there thinking, playing… It’s a nice way to work — and, I think, in a way, the most ‘Floyd-ian’ material we ever did came about that way.”
“Echoes,” indeed, was the band’s “first masterpiece,” argues Noah Lefevre in the Polyphonic “audio/visual companion” above. The song was originally titled “The Return of the Son of Nothing” because the band had gone into the studio with “nothing prepared,” Nick Mason remembered later that year. As they struggled to find their way forward after the experiments of Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother, touring constantly, they felt uninspired, calling all their ideas “nothings.” They expected little from inspirations like the “ping” sound that opens “Echoes.”
Instead, they created the most substantial material of their career to date. Inspired by Muhammad Iqbal’s poem “Two Planets,” Roger Waters “wrote lyrics to an epic piece” about being at sea, in every sense, yet glimpsing the potential for rescue and connection. Richard Wright wrote “the whole piano thing at the beginning and the chord structure for the song,” he told Mojo in his final interview, showcasing his serious compositional talents. And the range of tones, effects, and styles that Gilmour pioneered on “Echoes” have become legendary among guitarists and Floyd fans.
“Echoes,” says Lefevre above, changed the band’s direction lyrically and musically, helping them break out of the critical box labeled “space rock.” Instead of “another song about looking upwards to the stars, Waters looked down into the cold, strange depths of the ocean.” It wasn’t the first time rock and roll had visited what Lefevre calls the “psychedelic underwater.” Hendrix was there three years earlier when he turned into a merman. But Floyd found something entirely their own in their exploration. Learn how they did it in the stylish video above, cleverly synced to the whole of “Echoes.”
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