About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

First the vagina, now the scrotum

Well, a few days ago the V-word got into trouble in Florida because some pious idiot objected to children knowing the names of their body parts. Now we are at it again, but this time it's the scrotum, and the controversy is nationwide.

Susan Patron is a public librarian in Los Angeles, hardly the revolutionary stereotype, you'd think. She wrote a novel for children aged 9-12, “The Higher Power of Lucky,” which was lucky (or, actually, good) enough to win the prestigious Newbery award. As a result, a book that had an initial run of 10,000 copies got quickly reprinted to 100,000 in anticipation of the typical demand that schools and libraries put forth for winners of the Newbery.

But not so fast. Many of the same schools and libraries have banned, or are considering banning, The Higher Power because the main character, a 10-year old girl, comes across the unthinkable word at one point of the story. She says: “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have a flu and cough too much, it sounded medical and secret, but also important.” Which makes sense within the context of the story, where our heroine is preparing to grow up, and in the process learning about body parts – as any healthy individual who is not blinded by stupid religious prudishness ought to do.

But Dana Nillson, a not uncommonly unenlightened teacher and librarian in Durango, Colorado, claims that “this book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment,” obviously having no idea what a Stern-type treatment is really about (perhaps Howard would be so kind as to give her a demonstration?). Another painful example of narrow mindedness is offered by Andrea Koch, an elementary school librarian in Brighton, New York, who – fearful of complaints from parents – said “I don't think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson.” Really? So, what exactly are you and your teachers there for, other than babysitting?

As one might imagine, the controversy has broadened to the proper role of teachers and librarians and the criteria they use to chose what to teach and read to our kids. The question, of course, is not that no restrictions should be applied by educators to what our kids are exposed to. Education is about presenting the best of what's out there, and – more importantly – about giving students the tools to make up their mind about what is trash and what is worth reading. But a book that wins the Newbery is not trash, it is in fact part of the best of what's out there, and shielding children from talk about body parts is an irresponsible abnegation of our duties as adults.

In fact, here is a good example of an educational use of the word “scrotum,” this one probably not for children, borrowed from Jon Stewart. A bit more than a year ago Stewart ran a four-episode special of his Daily Show on the controversy surrounding so-called “Intelligent Design theory” (another bit of religious nonsense to which way too many of our children are in fact exposed by well meaning teachers and librarians). As part of the “Evolution, Schmevolution” series, Stewart convened a panel of experts, including William Dembski, a pseudo-intellectual proponent of ID. At one point Stewart turned to Dembski and said: “Let me ask you this: Intelligent Design, the scrotum, the most painful part of my body. This intelligent designer chose to put it in a bag that anyone can walk across and hit with a baseball bat.” To which the dumbfounded Dembski could simply mumble that “ID is not committed to every aspect of reality being the result of intelligence.” You ain't kidding, Bill.

But I'm sure the Daily Show is as controversial among puritans as vaginas and scrotums are. Which reminds me of the immortal words by H.L. Mencken: “Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Or educated.

36 comments:

  1. A little off topic, but...

    To which the dumbfounded Dembski could simply mumble that “ID is not committed to every aspect of reality being the result of intelligence.”

    I remember that.

    I guess that makes ID the ultimate in non-falsifiable theories, right?

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  2. Once they know the names of their body parts, children may want to use them. Hence, the anatomy of the brain is as ignored as the vagina and the scrotum. We don't want children thinking for themselves. That only leads to democracy.

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  3. "To which the dumbfounded Dembski could simply mumble that “ID is not committed to every aspect of reality being the result of intelligence.” You ain't kidding, Bill."

    Could you have found anything sillier to discuss? But I guess I have to put it into perspective just because it's there...

    It's stupid to have any man answer the question in the first place. Men of any philosophy are just not going to be objective.

    I've had it out with Dembski once over his treatment of a certain James Randi. Any man who thinks this way, will never be good to ask sensitive questions of.

    Next time if it really matters, (& I'm a bit skeptical that it does)ask someone who cares.

    cal

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  4. Cal wrote, "It's stupid to have any man answer the question in the first place. Men of any philosophy are just not going to be objective."
    Sexist bullshit.

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  5. Come on Kimpatsu, Cal is the only inhabitant of earth to have the straight poop - on anything and everything. Or at least she was last week!

    Right Cal?

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  6. "Right Cal?"

    depends.

    That was something along the line of a rant. And probably more with regard to Dembski than anything. Maybe just like ignore it, ok?

    Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt that he does good work for his cause. Sometimes, in my mind, his work is a bit overshadowed by his general attitude.

    cal

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  7. Yes, Dennis. Just don't drink the Kool Aid.

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  8. Kimpatsu: Have never felt it necessary to take communion (as Kool-Aid or any other magical, fantastical, transmorgrifying juice)or to frequent those places where it is offered (I'm doomed, some would say).

    Besides I'm further saved from the negative effects of drinking Kool-Aid by the fact of diabetes; can't take the sugar. See - there's a silver lining to every cloud!

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  9. I guess Dembski does good work, if you prefer faith, to fact.

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  10. Dennis: "I guess Dembski does good work, if you prefer faith, to fact."

    No, really. He does have a very good mathematic background, from what I have heard. I, on the other hand, have almost none.

    One then is almost forced to kind of appreciate the work of someone who can accomplish a whole long list of things that you cannot, even if one doesn't agree with everything that person may do.

    Or am I thinking of Berlinski? Oh wait. They're both mathematicians, huh.

    cal

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  11. Cal, I never said he wasn't a good mathmatician. But his take on how we got here, how long it has taken, and where we are going is totally out of step with mainstream science. It is based on faith not on fact. That's a damned poor way to do science.

    An example: it is said that George W Bush was a pretty good airplane driver. But he was a terrible officer by all indications. And his is an absoltely abominable president (I know you think he is great [no doubt because he calls himself a Christian], but the evidence and the numbers of people that are now of that opinion are on my side). Bush is now face to face with the old saw that you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people ... but he is just too blind or too stubborn or too egotistical, or too power mad to see his folly.

    I was a damn good truck driver (over two million accident free miles) and before that, as a CG officer, was a good ship handler, but a lousy administrator. I too would be a lousy president (I wish Bush had come to that realization 7 years ago, but his ego precludes admissions of inadequacy, guilt or fault).

    Expertise in on field of endevour does not automatically translate into brilliance or even ragged edge competence in another. There are notable exceptions but they are rare and in the case of Dembski are pretty obvious. He has been taken down so many time in debates one would think he would be embarrassed to show his face again. But just like our incompetent president he can't imagine that he is wrong and wouldn't admit it if he did. So he just keeps blundering and stumbling taken the nation with him.

    730 more days.

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  12. As I read this post, I couldn't help but wonder, why is it that most of the north american society gets so easily offended or surprised by any reference whatsoever, no matter how small, subtle, or even hinted at any topic related to sex, sexuality, or the sexualization, if it is a correct word, of things. Aren't we human after all? Is everything sex-related directly linked to depravity? Or is it just a the revenge of the "unsexed" librarian/grandmother taking over?
    Sorry for the generalization.

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  13. intelligent designFebruary 22, 2007 8:38 PM

    Andrea Koch, an elementary school librarian in Brighton, New York, who – fearful of complaints from parents – said “I don't think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson.”

    I think Andrea Koch should find a grammar book in her library, look up "reflexive pronoun" and give herself a grammar lesson. Next she should realize that she can avoid the dreaded vocabulary lessons if she just pointed curious kids to a dictionary, which they can use to give themselves their own vocabulary lessons!

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  14. "But his take on how we got here, how long it has taken, and where we are going is totally out of step with mainstream science. It is based on faith not on fact."

    Dennis,

    Some creation interested folk are certainly not as egotistical as others. I think that one issue alone bothers more people than the actual evidence that he presents does. But it is entirely possible that if one has worked hard to get where one is, that person certainly must have the right to speak with authority on related subjects. And that is going to seem offensive to some people just because the whole concept of authority is going to seem offensive.

    And faith, I have heard it said, ' is (merely) a life without scheming' ...

    AND to scheme just implies that I am going to get what I want SOMEHOW, no matter what it takes, God's thoughts on the matter excluded.

    What is really so unscientific about that?

    cal

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  15. We end up talking more about Dumbski than anything else in a post about scrotum. Hmmm, there must be a correlation there...

    Anyway, whatever his math background, he does not use it very well, at least in his slides I've seen online.

    And he does not really try to disguise what he's really doing either. During the presentation he tries to utter all kinds of "scientifically sounding" stuff, and funny formulas that have nothing to do with life, and "we've gotta look at the evidence", "let's be scientific" type of talk. Then the last few slides... Christ completes science, no science can be right if it contradicts Christ, and other similar drivel. Great. How can anybody take such a guy seriously?

    J

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  16. "And faith, I have heard it said, ' is (merely) a life without scheming' ... "
    Then I guess there isn't a single person of faith in the world, because they're all scheming little *scrotums*.
    Faith is the belief in something without evidence, Cal. If you're going to arbitrarily redefine words, I'll start calling you Humpty Dumpty.

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  17. Samuel Langhorn Clemens (Mark Twain) put it ver well when he remarked that "faith is believing what in what you know ain't true"

    And is it really "scheming" for scientists to investigate, experimemt and independently come up with the the same results time after time, while always leaving the door open to advances in experimentation and methods of investigation that might change prior results. That's science.

    I'll take that any day over faith in things written by relatively primitive people who had no scientific knowledge, but created myths to answer the questions of how the earth came to be. This is not to say that these people were dumb - just lacking the knowledge and technology to accomplish things that have become commonplace in todays world.

    Every culture had its creation myth and that was ok - it made the unwashed content and it gave those creating and promulgating the myths the power over their underlings that they felt so essential. It may have even served the purpose of consolidating andstabilizing the cultures of the time. But are these myths relevant today. Not really. Oh they are interesting from a historical and anthropological viewpoint, but certainly not anything to use as a basis for life in our times.

    Could be that several hundreds or thousands of years from now the scientific methods of today will be seen as a myth but for now it beats anything that has come before.

    What possible reason can there be to accept primitive myth over scientific method. Perhaps we should revert to leeches as one of our primary medical treatments. Maybe we should ban aircraft, trains and other modern forms of transport for ox carts, the horse, or just walking (I'm not knocking walking - I do 3 to 7 miles per day), but it is a poor way to travel long distances.

    In short does anyone really want to regress 4 to 6 thousand years? That is precisely what is happening when espousing this silly creationism garbage.

    How did we go from vaginas and scrotums to this?

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  18. We got here because men are not particularly objective when it comes to discussing their own body parts.

    Anyway...

    How could a life lived by faith possibly make us more objective?

    Well, for starters, no one can see the future. If we cannot see the future, out of fear of what we don't know, (fear of things that may necessarily be outside of the realm of what science can address) we tend to make decisions based on what seems like a feasible idea at the given moment. That being, of course, something along the lines of pragmatism or at least some cousin of it.

    Take a moral dilemma like the fate of Anna Nicole's baby daughter, for instance. Common sense or pragmatic wisdom would tell us that she should go with any relative that can provide a home and manage her money reasonably well for her.

    But is that really good enough?

    I don't think so. And that is where pragmatism hits the limits of doing more than what is merely feasible and apparently practical. (I know this to be a fact, I was rescued out of a similar set of circumstances) There are so many other important things to consider when raising a little girl. Like, for instance, is this little girl actually safe with ANY of the men who hooked up with ANNA because of (a) her body and (b) her money? NO, of course not! That child is not safe with ANY of those people.

    Faith, on the other hand, makes an effort to defer immediate (or even future) gratification and does not try to interject self to the harm of others.

    The debacle that has occurred with this poor child is the epitome of a life of nothing but scheming.

    cal

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  19. And you know what else, Dennis? I am not absolutely convinced that we ARE better people because of technology. Medicine, sure. But there are even things in that branch of the sciences that really trouble me anymore.

    40 - 50 years ago, at least people kind of had to depend on each other. And that made us better people, as far as I am concerned. If we had some kind of whole scale crash of technology today, there would be a rather large % of the population that would hardly know what to do to begin to cooperate.

    That is not good.

    Dennis: ".. Perhaps we should revert to leeches as one of our primary medical treatments. Maybe we should ban aircraft, trains and other modern forms of transport for ox carts, the horse, or just walking (I'm not knocking walking - I do 3 to 7 miles per day), but it is a poor way to travel long distances."

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  20. In today's (2/23/07) Washington Post: Fake Private Parts Are No Joke, Myers Says.
    Delegate Wants to Ban Vehicle Displays of Plastic Genitals

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  21. Washington Post quote:
    His bill would prohibit motorists from displaying anything resembling or depicting "anatomically correct" or "less than completely and opaquely covered" human or animal genitals, human buttocks or female breasts. The offense would carry a penalty.

    A hunter could still throw a freshly killed and uncovered deer in the back of his pickup, though, because the deer's body parts would be real, Myers said.

    Myers, 56, said he's trying to match the standards of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has pledged to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. "We have a governor whose agenda is, 'Let's make us the best,' " the delegate said. "So let's clean up what our children are seeing on our roads."

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  22. American society must be one of the most hypocritical in the world, I'm afraid. Someone should study this for real, if they haven't yet. I mean, the biggest producer and consumer (so I've heard) of pornography in the world is paranoid about proper body part names or any "human or animal private part" depiction. Or what about all those "pro-lifers" who apparently are the same type of people who are so happy about a good war and its inherent big life losses? This type of hypocrisy can be found everywhere, I know, but USA is number one, as you like to say, here too.

    And now, great, we just started talking about that prostitute whose death is getting more media than anything else. Really important stuff indeed. Who cares that the consequences of the President's crimes against humanity get worse every day when Smith's money is on the line?

    J

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  23. J,

    And you don't care the tiniest little bit about the fate of Ms. Smith's baby girl?

    It doesn't matter to me what parents have done, children really do deserve a better chance in life in spite of. My parents families NEVER got along. They actually still totally despise each other. Lucky for me, someone outside of that wacky bunch of people did care.

    I wish that very thing for this little girl. That God make a way to sweep her away from that whole situation forever.

    Now the media coverage of the whole situation is more than a little ridiculous...


    "I mean, the biggest producer and consumer (so I've heard) of pornography in the world is paranoid about proper body part names or any "human or animal private part" depiction."

    In most cases, I doubt that would represent the same groups of people, those who are seemingly paranoid and those who interested in porn.

    Age appropriate material is not paranoid, btw. We don't generally throw college physics texts in front of five to seven year olds and expect authentic comprehension, why are we in such a hurry to reveal to them every potential detail about sex, sex organs and who can have sex with who?

    cal

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  24. "In most cases, I doubt that would represent the same groups of people, those who are seemingly paranoid and those who interested in porn."

    Actually, the data indicate that they probably are. Televangelists and pornographers like Larry Flint both target low-income, uneducated Americans for their products. Not to mention people like Ted Haggard who personally indulge in both practices.

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  25. Cal,

    if you really think that all the coverage of Nicole Smith's after-death is because people give a damn about what will happen to her baby, you have a serious detachment with reality. How about covering what happens to millions of children in Africa, if the welfare of the next generation is really what matters?

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  26. M,
    I totally agree with you about children in Africa, Asia, India and elsewhere. All these children are by no means less important than this little girl. It is just rather annoying to watch her life being subsequently ruined by all these idiotic people right before our eyes.

    And one can't turn on ANY news station without being confronted with some aspect of the case.

    The best thing Ms. Smith's former husband's family could do, is to withdraw the monies that she was going to court to win from them. Then, as in the time of Solomon, the world will find out who the "real" parents are.

    cal

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  27. That should read "...as in the legend of Solomon, Cal.

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  28. Tony,

    It'll take us rather far off-topic..

    Proof that biblical figures were real

    "As recently as a decade ago, some argued that Israel’s most famous king, David, was but a myth. The record of the Bible wasn’t good enough, they insisted; proof of his existence must be found elsewhere.

    In 1993 that proof emerged when Israeli archaeologists discovered an inscription that referred to the royal dynasty David founded. Recorded on a monument some 150 years after David’s death, the inscription commemorates the victory of the king of Damascus over the forces of Israel and their king, who was "of the house (dynasty) of David" (see "An Ancient Inscription Proves David Was Real," page 5).

    Over the years dozens of artifacts and inscriptions bearing the names of individuals mentioned in the Bible have been uncovered. In 1982 a cache of 51 ancient baked-clay seals that were used to bind papyrus or parchment scrolls was uncovered in a Jerusalem excavation. One bore the impression of the seal of "Gemaryahu (Gemariah) the son of Shaphan." This same "Gemariah, the son of Shaphan," was a scribe in the court of Judah’s king Jehoiakim as mentioned in Jeremiah 36:10-12,25-26.

    In 1975 another hoard of seals emerged, apparently uncovered in unauthorized digging in Jerusalem. One bore the name of Ishmael, the man who assassinated Gedaliah, the governor appointed by the Babylonians after they destroyed Jerusalem (2Kings 25:25).

    Even more surprising, another seal bore the name "Berekhyahu (Baruch) son of Neriyahu (Neriah) the scribe." This man was none other than "Baruch the scribe," trusted friend, confidant and scribe of Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 36:4-32; 43:1-6; 45:1-2).

    As if that were not astounding enough, another seal in a private collection in England was found to bear not only Baruch’s name but a fingerprint along one edge--apparently Baruch’s own fingerprint from when he impressed his seal into the soft clay some 2,600 years ago!

    These are only a few of the finds that prove specific people mentioned in the Bible--many only in an incidental way--were indeed real and lived at the exact time and in the exact location in which the Bible places them. A complete list of such finds would fill many pages of this magazine.

    Other finds foil critics’ claims

    What about the critics’ assertion that the Bible couldn’t have been written when it claimed to be because the ancient Hebrews didn’t know how to write at that time? This assumption was demolished in 1979 when, in the course of excavating a tomb in Jerusalem from the seventh century B.C., archaeologists discovered two tiny gray cylinders.

    The objects turned out to be silver foil amulets covered with delicately etched Hebrew characters. When deciphered they were found to contain most of the words of the blessing recorded in Numbers 6:24-26. This remarkable find proved that not only did the ancient Hebrews know how to write centuries earlier than critics said they did, but one of the oldest portions of the Bible was obviously in use at a time well before the critics maintained it had been written!"

    http://www.ucgstp.org/lit/gn/gn039/
    bible.html

    cal

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  29. We got here because men are not particularly objective when it comes to discussing their own body parts.

    I am entirely objective when I say I don't want a baseball bat hitting my scrotum.

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  30. Cal, what is your point? Whether people mentioned in a collection of Bronze Age myths is irrelevant, it's the claims made about them that matter. After all, no one denies that Mohammed lived, but that he flew to Heaven on a winged horse? And, FYI, the Judgement of Solomon is a metaphor for the division of the kingdom, not an actual baby. So, the core claim of Xianity, that the Bible is divine, still lacks any evidence or foundation.

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  31. k: "And, FYI, the Judgement of Solomon is a metaphor for the division of the kingdom, not an actual baby."

    Where did you hear this from?

    I never thought of the story as anything other than what it was. If I were to take the context of chapter and then the book as a whole into consideration, I still cannot imagine where one arrives at the idea that this is pointing to a metaphor.

    Please explain the methodology used to come to this conclusion.

    cal

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  32. Thanks for the answers, guys, that pretty much sums up what I'd say in response to Cal's questions, I think.

    Oh, and just for the records, or in case you're wondering whether I turned into some type of despicable moralist all of a sudden: I consider Ms. Smith a prostitute ONLY because that's my name for someone who's 20-something and marries an 89 year old multi-billionaire. Even if said multi-billionaire leaves nothing to said 20-something (haha). Well, there are other types too, but this one is pretty obvious. And it's not even necessarily a judgment of value either, by the way... If that was her cup of tea and she thought it all good, I don't have anything to do with her (or anybody else's) life. But it still qualifies as prostitution to me.

    J

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  33. Read her for yourself in this LA times Op-Ed by her.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-oe-patron27feb27,1,7080529.story

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  34. Bah, this librarian Susan lady is just a crazy liberal, with all this talk about learning and being intelligent and shades of grey... :O)

    J

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  35. You could have googled this yourself, Cal:
    http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0411/is_4_51/ai_106730952

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  36. The word Vagina and Scrutom may be used in science classes. But too early to be exposed to young minds in english literature at school. That would be the parents part sort of to expose their kids to those terms and explain where the baby came from.

    More and more 14 year olds and younger are getting pregnant. Not by adults but by their peers and with consent too. If you want to exponentially increase the number of these things happening, just go ahead and expose them early to sex. OK?

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