Archive for ‘Politics’

Apocalypse 17: Brownie points for experimentation

By , 15 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I posted earlier this week that one of the few upsides of this economy is the cover it provides for newsrooms to make a bunch of necessary changes that everyone has known about, and postponed, for the last decade or so. Why does a media holding company need to pay for a White House correspondent or a film reviewer for each of its papers or magazines, instead of just funding one such reporter whose content can appear in all their outlets? Why does a small town paper need to bother with national or global news at all, since readers the world over can now get access to international and national information online, and even without the web, since the local paper can get that content from the wires? In the digital economy, it makes even more sense for news outlets to focus niches of expertise and aggregate the rest from other sites. But it means a permanent downsizing of newsrooms and that’s hard to do when the rest of the economy is growing. Still, even now that editors and publishers are ready to make these cuts, no one has figured out quite how the smaller newsroom will make money. Which brings us to the second upside of a recession for media–the willingness to take risks that comes when there’s really nothing left to lose. There’ve been a few recent stories highlighting directions the media could take:

–Walter Isaacson says we could charge iTunes-style for individual digital articles, but Mike Kinsley says no one would pay for that (Note that he doesn’t have an alternative, really)
–the NYT says it might try charging for select and archived content again
–Fox has a new ad model that charges buyers more per ad, but reduces the number of ads sold in total so viewers will have less incentive to forward through the shorter commercial breaks
None of these is perfect, but I applaud anyone who is willing to head scratch a bit about devising a solution. That’s why I was so thrilled to speak a few days ago with Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott. His hometown paper is on its last legs too, and Rep. McDermott has been inspired to try to save the American newspaper industry. His solution is the out-of-the-box idea no one IN media  really likes–that news just shouldn’t be a private sector enterprise to begin with, but a nonprofit venture funded either by the state or by charitable donations, or some combination of the two. McDermott is researching a bill for the House that would set up funds, akin to those that back NPR and PBS, to support nonprofit newspapers in American communities. Here’s what he had to say:

on newspapers as a public good: “I worry that we’re losing our democracy. I don’t know whether this is just generational, but if we lose newspapers [and] everyone is gonna get the news off the internet, then a whole slug of people is just off the game. If Jefferson was right and an educated electorate[is key], then you can’t have vast numbers of people without access. [Even if we expand access to broadband], you have to be more devoted to go in search of news on the web.”

on the downsides to digitization: “It used to be that Congress had roll call voting, and it took hours, and then they made it an electronic scoreboard, and now we can pass amendment in 15 minutes. Therefore we’re no longer inconveniencing people with new amendments, [which led to an] expansion of the number of those amendements that people insert. Now [there’s a] movement to vote from their offices. This isn’t a Congress, because Congress is a coming together. You can’t influence the opinion of others if you’re not in the same room. If I thought that investigative journalism was being preserved and just print costs were being cut, that would be fine. But the decision [about what to run online] is being made by accountants not professional editors.”

How much does news reporting really influence politics day-to-day?: “Without investigative reporting, I’m gonna get away with stuff. Gotta have somebody poking me in the eye with a sharp stick to find out what’s going on. Moreover, how are we gonna communicate with constituents? [The way things are going,] It’s all gonna be done by the president in uplifting (or not so uplifting) speeches? I just want to alert people to the change taking place—are we sure this is where we wanna be going?”

Is it the message or the medium?: “I get more engagement from constituents in web community meetings than I do in live ones, but I come from the city where every software maker has an office, the city which has highest reading and movie-going numbers per capita. I guess the way everybody twenty years younger than me is zipping things around on email, [it might be okay] if there was investigative journalism available on the web. “I myself read papers from Lebanon and India online, and I do my own winnowing process, and I have people that do it for me. Managing information has become such a process and many people have just given up or can’t afford to do it.”

I have a few bones to pick with Rep. McDermott’s argument, but I’ll save them for tomorrow. I’d like to hear your takes first: is the notion of the news media as a private sector, for-profit enterprise fundamentally flawed or eternally doomed? are there downsides to state-subsidized media? could the NPR model ever translate to print? is it more logical to bankroll transitions to digitization or prop up the older technologies? If there’s any way to test the value of new media, it’s by sounding out some of these tough questions right here.

Friday Night Stimulation

By , 6 February, 2009, No Comment

The Senate finally reached a compromise on the stimulus package and we should see it passed by both houses at some point in the coming week. I can’t resist the urge to have an I-told-you-so moment about the politics here: the final bill will probably pass without any Republican support, and it will emerge from aggressive back and forth on the Senate floor today, NOT from the “postpartisan” charm offensive President Obama was so psyched about last week. Obama gets points for fast learning, though: his tone was full of red meat today.

Obama’s leadership style was a topic of discussion at a panel I attended last night about the economic challenges we face. Common criticisms were
–Obama does not yet recognize that the rest of his domestic agenda is never going to happen because all political (and real) capital for his first term will get spent on the stim
–Obama trumps the previous crowd in the quality of the experts he’s got BUT he has a problem actually making decisions that use their expertise effectively because the experts are all competing prima donnas. We should thus expect a lot of waffling on his economic policy.

The panel was overall pretty impressive:
BusinessWeek’s Steve Adler
CNBC’s Steve Liesman
NYTimes’ Floyd Norris
Credit Suisse’s Neil Soss
and author Bill Holstein
and they made some good points:

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The End of Forgetting

By , 29 January, 2009, 3 Comments

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He’s really a poet in lawyer’s clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.

Women and the political transition

By , 22 January, 2009, 1 Comment




Now-official Secretary of State Clinton: when watching the inaugural, I noticed that the procession grouped dignitaries by professional designation–first the legislators walked down the Capitol steps, then the Obama cabinet designees, then the first family, then former Presidents and Vice-Presidents, accompanied by their spouses, and finally Biden and Obama. Hillary Clinton fit several of those categories: as of Tuesday, she was the junior Senator from New York, the Secretary of State designee and the wife of a former President. I found it telling that she did not walk out with her Senate colleagues or her fellow Cabinet appointees but as Mrs. Clinton on Bill’s arm. As an HRC supporter during the primary, I consider much of her time as First Lady relevant experience (part of the campaign’s core argument). BUT just like you list your most recent job at the top of your CV, it seems to me that on Tuesday Jan 20th, as the administration in which she is about to serve takes over, Hillary Clinton’s primary identity should have been as a member of the Obama cabinet. That it didn’t work out that way reminds us of the many glass ceilings that are still unbroken.

That is not to say that any woman who wants a job should be promoted to it. Or that family ties are irrelevant. My enthusiasm for Secretary Clinton is grounded in the fact that she was working towards a career in public service BEFORE she became a political spouse, BEFORE she had the dynastic ties. Caroline Kennedy, who thankfully withdrew her name from the race to fill Clinton’s Senate seat, is the opposite: someone who has never shown an interest in electoral politics, except for a few weeks this winter when she thought it might come with her name. The same women voters won over by Hillary Clinton are the kind of people irked by Caroline Kennedy because it seems she has never, and never could, put career first.
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Moreover, politically, she never made much sense. New York Democrats already have a big name, downstate (ie New York City) voice in Sen. Chuck Schumer, who gets plenty of press. As a Senator, Clinton’s value was that she ran from an upstate district as a moderate and thereby allowed Democrats to make a case for themselves to the more conservative voters of rural northern New York. That’s how the Dems finally managed to take control of New York State government in Albany. From Governor Paterson’s perspective, ensuring that electoral constituency as a base for his party, and his own reelection, is paramount. Which is why I’m thrilled that he escaped the Kennedy trap.Link
Women were one reason that trap was so effective. So long as it makes sense in our national psychology to see Hillary Clinton as Bill’s wife first, Senator and Secretary of State second, so long as the dynasty is seen as the most important thing on HER C.V., it is possible to make the case that anyone with such a dynasty on THEIR C.V. can also be the glass ceiling-breaking women’s pol.

Because there were many women whose support of HRC during the presidential primaries was driven mostly by her gender; I wasn’t one of them, but I was sympathetic to the gendered part of her appeal. And those people were clamoring for a woman to fill her seat, but it needed to be a woman who, like Clinton as her supporters saw her, had a professional identity independent of any hereditary or marital ties. I had my eye on Carolyn Maloney, who’s sharp as nails, a career politician, but also a downstate liberal. Paterson gave us one hell of a pleasant surprise today by inviting moderate, upstate Congresswoman Kristen Gillibrand to his mansion to discuss her taking the job. Indeed, given the upsate vs. downstate nature of NYPolitics, someone of Gillibrand’s moderate make up is just what NYDemocrats need.

Some Thoughts on Obama’s Big Day

By , 20 January, 2009, 6 Comments


For a man known for his soaring rhetoric, I thought the speech was comparitively flat, disjointed in rhetoric, and plagued by mixed metaphors.

From a vision perspective, he dropped a lot of his “change” rhetoric for an emphasis on the “era of responsibility,” but that’s a pretty innocuous and vague vision that has been used before. What does it mean? Let’s ask Gordon Stewart:
Like so much about the astonishingly gifted, directed, disciplined and composed Barack Obama — we don’t know. And my honest reaction listening to his inaugural address is that he doesn’t know either. Whether history comes to regard President Obama’s remarks today as a great speech will depend upon how it comes to regard his presidency. And that will now, for the first time in his career, depend more on the actions he takes than the words he speaks.

Refreshingly, unlike most of Obama’s campaign speeches, this one did have some actual suggestions about policy in it, and policies I rather liked. First off, he offered up a centrist economic agenda—a medium-sized, efficiency-oriented government that will cut failed programs. I’m with Mickey Kaus on this: it’s a pie-crust promise, but if he pulls it off, it’ll be a massive coup.

Secondly, he offered up a progressive foreign policy, in what was the only real killer line:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
As Howard Fineman reminds us in Newsweek, Barack Obama’s career started with this idea of dialogic foreign policy and the core merit of his election is the image, the brand, of America he presents abroad. The woolliness of “change” is perfectly suited to the figurehead component of the Presidency.

It is not so suited to domestic policy, though what I call woolliness President Obama calls post-partisanship. And my biggest problem with the speech was that moment where he, again, called anyone who doesn’t buy the post-partisan thing a “cynic.” Let me explain this again: a cynic is someone who has ideal A, but opts for action B because it seems achievable. In the case of President Obama’s vision, a cynic would say “post-partisanship sounds great, but I don’t think it can happen.” I am not that person. I paraphrase Gail Collins: “God forbid we ever have post-partisanship. I would hate that. Partisanship IS my ideal.”
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I believe great policies are often crafted in the ideological center. But they emerge from principled back-and-forth between two sides. Ex: Even if President Johnson could have passed the Great Society laws without threatening Republican Senators and fighting partisan battles I would not want him to have done so. By alienating and angering some on the Right, he ensured that they would spend a generation trying to find private sector alternatives to his policies. Which meant that when the 1990s rolled around and some of his policies were proven roaring successes [Medicare, education and arts funding], while others started to falter [ex: the urban renewal projects], ideas developed by Johnson’s wounded enemies were ready to fill in gaps. The result was welfare reform, the appropriation of some right-wing ideas by a liberal President [Clinton], without any claims to share a universal set of ideals. Clintonian “triangulation” had a sort of Hegelian dialectic logic to it; Obama’s post-partisan vision is different, and in my mind, worse.
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President Obama and his supporters have every right to disagree with me, or with Hegel, or with anyone else, but to dismiss my ideals as nonexistent, or to assume that I share THEIR ideals and am cynically settling for something lesser is presumptuous.

That brings me to the last point about this speech: there’s a lot of hubris in President Obama’s claim that the end trajectory of history is to some middle point where binary conflicts end and that he represents that path. He claims to speak for all of us, and expects us all to fall in line and march towards his professed goals. It’s a bit groupthink-oriented for my tastes. Mickey Kaus and George Will concur. Worse still, he claims that all past history was marching this way even if we didn’t know it. That bit about slaves and pioneers suffering “for us” was borderline offensive, especially since he brushed aside the very real history of racial struggle in one sentence.

It’s paradoxical in a way. President Obama professes to be all about bottom-up politics, but really he’s very top-down: he has a great man theory of history, in which he is one of the great men, along with all the former presidents [and a token reference to MLK] whose words were quoted in his speech. The rest of us matter so long as you believe, as he does, that everyone is—in their hearts—a believer in his postpartisan ideals. If you actively reject those ideals in favor of conflict-as-an-ideal, you don’t fit his worldview. The notion that processes drive history and that individuals emerge FROM those processes, conditioned by impersonal forces, and able to exercise agency within existing balances of power, is out of sync with Mr. Obama’s rather audacious sense of self.

Pompous, hyperbolic, and intelligent, however, is a welcome relief from pompous, hyberbolic and inept. Good riddance, good night and good luck.

Breaking News: People Like to Shop

By , 15 January, 2009, No Comment

In an oft quoted passage of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith once wrote “The propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is a necessary consequence of the faculty of reason and of speech.” In other words, every nation is a nation of shopkeepers and we are all innate consumers.

That would explain why those who aren’t asking for money so often adopt the language of commerce to make their case, and why biological analogies to evolution are so key to economic and social models.

Example: political blog FastTalkExpress lays out the five techniques that are prerequisite for building a digital persona, or a political brand: they are “Be A Character,” “Start with a Bang,” “Have a User-Friendly Website,” “Attract Traffic” and “Watch for Threats.” Translation: key principles are speed, access, personalization, simplicity, and interactivity. Google search those buzzwords and you turn up business stories and company websites, not political campaigns. I plugged similar themes myself in a series of articles aimed at business leaders in 2007.

It works both ways: business leaders can take lessons from other types of “sales pitches” to influence their decision making. Barack Obama’s campaign tactics have become case studies in B-school classes and story starting points for countless business journalists. The best dissection, however, is still Fast Company’s story on Obama-as-brand from last spring. That’s my pre-inauguration recommended reading.

Thank God for Leon Panetta

By , 5 January, 2009, 4 Comments


With his nomination today, the Obama team jolted this blogger back into her native state of righteous indignation, and so Cappuccino springs back into action.

I have expressed no shortage of skepticism about 44-elect, in part about his vision of government as driven by ideas rather than process [it’s not cynicism: I actively prefer the institutionalists and backroom dealers], but also about his rhetoric of change, of bringing “new players” to the “Washington game.”Link
Ironically, that rhetoric is among the least new things about him. It’s the argument that worked for Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton, and that’s just in recent history. Each of them campaigned as a Washington outsider, but where Carter and Clinton actually brought unseasoned folks into power, Reagan was just talking, and wisely re-employed all the old Nixon and Ford hands. If you’re a progressive like me, you probably didn’t like Reagan’s agenda, but you have to concede that he was able to push that agenda through. That’s because his staffers knew how to work the system. Carter brought a whole bunch of his buddies from Georgia in, and while his personal character, intellect and vision were fine when it came to finessing the U.S. image abroad or lending some good feeling to peace negotiations, on the domestic front (energy reform, anyone?) the approach was a giant flop. Clinton is the middle example: he came in with some friends from Arkansas, then found out they really weren’t up to the job the hard way. His party got walloped in the 1994 elections and by the following year, you had some older wiser hands running the Clinton show. Net result: success on big issues like welfare reform after some big staff reshuffles.

Obama represents a more unpleasant kind of middle ground. He’s trying to have both the goodwill that comes from promising “change” and the success that comes from tapping experience by appointing experienced people (ahem a bunch of Clintonites), but putting them in charge of policy areas they have no experience with. Hillary Clinton, health care, women’s rights and childcare expert, is in charge of foreign policy. Bill Richardson, erstwhile Energy Secy, has been born again–briefly–as an authority on commerce. And now Leon Panetta, Washington inside-baseballer and person-to-person expert, has been charged with managing our national intelligence with the outside world. Oh brother.

This is bound to create precisely the leadership structure Obama wants: each of these people will disregard their institutions and give the President direct advice on the issues they ACTUALLY know about, as individuals and friends. It will be character and idea based, and then 44 will call his own shots based on his relationships to those people and his assessment of their trustworthiness.

Even if he wasn’t such a spring chicken, I’d be mildly alarmed by that. The most effective presidents call their own shots based on advice that comes to them from their deputies NOT as people but as representatives of A. specific policy arenas and B. specific government instutions–the Fed, the Pentagon, the Department of Labor, say. The advice itself then reflects the institutional judgment and memory of those bureaucracies and the seniormost advisors have the experience WITH THAT SPECIFIC AGENCY to squeeze the best intel out of it.

This model isn’t romantic, for which reason the Obama folks won’t adopt it, and I seriously fear that the administration, the country, and the Democratic Party will pay for that audacity.

Journalism and Democracy

By , 29 December, 2008, No Comment

Fear not, cyberfriends. I have surfaced from Christmas-induced hibernation with many cultural reflections to throw at you before ’08 fades into ’09. To start with, this belated announcement:

Najaam Sethi, the editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times–has recently won the Golden Pen journo award, meant for reporters and editors who use their pulpit to promote and support free institutions and good governance.

Sethi has done much of that in his career, notably going to jail in 1999 for his criticisms of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He’s taken plenty of flack from the religious right for his hard line on terrorism. And though an initial supporter of General Musharraf as an antidote to both the corruption and the growing fundamentalism of the Sharif era, he was among the harder hitters when time came to expose Musharraf for the fraud he was. In a country where the press has historically not been free, Sethi certainly deserves recognition.

But it’s not a cut-and-dry case. First of all, Sethi’s more recent work in defense of the free press came at a time when Pakistani media in general was rising to new levels of bravery in response to new levels of suppression, especially after the imposition of martial law last November. Watch Kiran Khalid’s excellent documentary on this struggle and you’ll realize that Sethi has been honored to recognize, symbolically, the long way that Pakistani journalists, as a group, have come.

At the same time, Pakistani media has a long way to go. The most striking thing about the way Sethi’s own paper covered the award is the power given to the government to determine the interpretation. The story was titled “Award for Najam Sethi an honor for Pakistan.” The article focused on Minister of Information Sherry Rehman’s remarks following the Golden Pen announcement, where she presented his work as protecting the government from “regressive elements.” Given that the prize was given in part to honor Sethi’s “independence” and his willingness to be “at odds with Pakistani authorities,” this warm fuzzy treatment from the government, and the appropriation of that warm fuzziness by the press, is a bit uneasy.

It has me worrying that the zeal among Pakistani journos to really crusade for press freedom was particular to the struggle against Musharraf, but the check of public opinion on authority matters just as much, if not more, in democracies as in dictatorships: in democracies, exposing official sins has a clear impact of changing voter behavior. I hope Sethi and company know this.

Begging for Discipline

By , 20 November, 2008, 2 Comments

Here’s an interesting new phenomenon: executives going to Washington to beg for regulation.

C-suiters from Google, Starbucks, Nike, Sun Microsystems, Timberland and Levi’s are encouraging Congress to pass legislation (likely under Obama) that will force them to get more energy-efficient and bring us closer to a carbon-neutral economy.

Some of these companies have been hit hard for their social irresponsibility before: remember Nike and the sweatshop debacles of the 1990s? Some of them have great PR, but belong to industries that make a massive footprint on our environment–home electronics like computers make up 20% of our energy consumption. So this shift in rhetoric, if taken up by legislators, is notable.

But it strikes me as strange too: if all these executives recognize that consumers now care about the sustainability of the brands they buy, why not just dive in to the emerging market, instead of begging government to force all your competitors to come with you? I’m in favor of mild government coercion on this issue because I don’t think there are enough pro-environment executives in the big emission sectors (ahem, oil), but that doesn’t explain the behavior of those who do see the pot of gold and still need the government to push them over the rainbow.

It reminds me of this time in middle school when my kid sister bombed a test, knew she needed to study more, and begged my mother to ground her. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.

Natural Allies

By , 14 November, 2008, 2 Comments

Like many progressives, I’m thoroughly dismayed by the passage of Proposition 8 and its ilk in this election. And I’ve spent the 10 days since talking with gay and straight friends about the best way to move forward now that the state-level legalization approach is beginning to feel like a giant game of Othello (four tiles flip white, then eight tiles flip black).

It’s understandable when you’re the butt of prejudice to feel like yours is the shortest straw: a lesbian reader at the NYTimes tells Judith Warner that homophobia is the last and only socially-acceptable prejudice in America today. As a young woman in the boys club of business journalism, I beg to differ: sexism is alive and well too. And if anyone doubts it, they need only look to the coverage of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton in this campaign. Like their politics or not, there was an awful lot of gender-biased vitriol spewed at them, and no attempt by news organizations to apologize or correct the behavior. Put this together with Proposition 8 and you see that it’s sexuality itself that is the last acceptable fault line of prejudice.

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