Rebels (FYE #5)

The rebel. You’d think that a culture that gave us John Brown, Margaret Sanger, and Rosa Parks would be more encouraging of this proud American tradition. This week we examine why rebels get the short end of the stick. We talk with historian Jeanne Theoharis about how Rosa Parks’s rebellious life has been swept under the carpet of modern American history, examine Pussy Riot’s rebellious legacy with many of the band’s supporters, and chat with a rebel journalist about a mysterious shooting in Missouri and the pros and cons of assumption.


Robbie the Rebel

Have you heard the tale of Robbie the Rebel? We all know him to some degree. One last exiguous belch from the 20th century. But in this nine minute performance of an allegorical tale of a rebel emerging from the dregs of the 20th century, we establish a template for this program. (Beginning to 9:43)


Seeking Rebellion in Times Square

Times Square was once devoted to go-go bars, adult theaters, and other rebellious fixtures of New York City. But in 2013, rebellion is more of a commodity. In these series of street conversations, we ask people to tell us the most rebellious thing they have ever done. Some of our subjects are adamantly against rebellion. Others are on the fence. By sheer fluke, many of the people included in this segment are from the United Kingdom, and those from across the pond are more committed to spilling the rebellious beans than Americans. (9:43 to 13:03)


Callion Hamblin and the Case of the Rebel Journalist

In 2010, novelist Frances Madeson moved to Farmington, Missouri and became the editor and publisher of The Madison County Crier, where her rebellious take on the local biweekly newspaper proved alluring yet controversial. Madeson doesn’t see herself as a journalist, but a literary artist. In recent months, Madeson has concerned herself with a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about Callion Hamblin, a 32-year-old man on the run from police and bounty hunters and killed by the police during the early morning of February 20, 2012. Madeson believes the story to adhere to an official narrative that must be resisted. But because the facts aren’t all in, Follow Your Ears questions Madeson’s approach and engages in an unexpected examination of journalism vs. literary artistry, talking with Hamblin’s ex-wife and the local coroner, and wondering if rebel journalism is all that it’s cracked up to be. (13:03 to 38:28)

(Shortly after this program aired, the Associated Press’s Alan Scher Zager filed a new story on Callion Hamblin, with statements from the county prosecutor and more details about the autopsy report.)


Pussy Riot: The Legacy of Punk Prayer

On February 21, 2012, one day after Callion Hamblin was shot in Missouri, Pussy Riot performed “Punk Prayer” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to protest the Orthodox Church leader’s support for Vladimir Putin during his reelection campaign. Three members of Pussy Riot were arrested weeks later and held without bail, kept in custody on charges of hooliganism. Two of the three members were sentenced to two years in a penal colony, with this gross injustice attracting notice and support from around the world. During the print release of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer for Freedom, we talk with Feminist Press editorial director Amy Scholder, Zena Grubstein, producer for the documentary Pussy Riot: Punk Prayer, poet Eileen Myles, Laurie Weeks, Johanna Fateman, Barbara Browning, and Elizabeth Koke to learn more about how Pussy Act’s brave act of rebellion impacted the world at large. (38:28 to 47:16)


Rosa Parks: Not Just a Meek Seamstress

The historians and the statesmen describe Rosa Parks as a meek seamstress who boarded a segregated bus after a long and tired day of work on December 1, 1955. She refused to give up her seat to a white passenger when asked and, through one act of defiance, changed the course of civil rights. But as historian Jeanne Theoharis points out in her new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks wasn’t nearly as quiet as history has painted her. (47:16 to end)

Loops for this program were provided by alividlife, minor2go, JoeFunktastic, supersymmetry, Jadon, hamood, DubTek, MaMaGBeats, DubDelta, Psychotropic_Circle, and MejiaM.

Follow Your Ears #5: Rebels (Download MP3)

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Why The Onion Must Be Held Accountable for Its Vile Tweet

(2/25/2013 11:50 AM UPDATE: As Jim Romenesko reported, The Onion has issued an apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

During last night’s Academy Awards, The Onion, a well-known satirical newspaper operating in Chicago, decided to row its barge into choppy waters. The Onion called Quvenzhane Wallis, a nine-year-old actress nominated for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a “cunt” on its Twitter feed:


In less than 140 characters, The Onion betrayed and violated 25 years of satirical good will. For unless you are a sociopath, there is nothing funny about calling a child a “cunt” — especially when there isn’t any additional context to the purported “joke.” It’s possible that the tweet was meant to mimic some of Academy Award host Seth MacFarlane’s misogynist misfires such as the insinuation that Wallis would be ready for George Clooney in sixteen years. Still, if one doesn’t apply a modest dose of narrative artistry, a joke falls dead in the moraine. And it was this vital part of comedy that was clearly ignored by the nameless person at The Onion who concocted the tweet. Because of this, the tweet became nothing less than thoughtless hatred, an act of bullying where a Twitter feed with a very large pull used its power (4.7 million followers) to attack someone verbally.

Here’s what the Onion failed to do: When Hustler published a fake Campari ad of Jerry Falwell on the inside front cover of its November 1983 issue, the descriptive details were reasonable enough to be considered fabricated and absurd. A fictitious interviewer asked a fictitious Falwell about his “first time” and the result was a clearly ridiculous incestuous affair in an outhouse. Falwell sued, but he wasn’t able to win. Because the humorist behind the parody performed the basic professional duty of supplying a narrative. And because of these vital details, all clearly wrong and all clearly part of a joke, Hustler won an unanimous verdict from the Supreme Court.

Until last night, The Onion had maintained a commendable comedy reputation with narratives along these lines, although The Onion had been pushing the envelope more in recent months. One reads, for example, this commentary from “Joe Hundley” — a piece that the Onion‘s defenders (nearly all of them male) offered to those appalled by the tweet. But the reader immediately understands the irony of professed victimhood behind the act. Unlike the tweet, it is not mere invective, although there is unpleasant language conveyed for the sake of verisimilitude. Nor are any of the supporting characters in the story real figures. Whether you find Joe Hundley’s commentary funny or not, the piece takes on the qualities of Hustler‘s Campari parody and is defensible.

The Onion‘s tweet was especially troubling because the newspaper courts a largely male demographic, with 48% of its readership making $75,000/year or more, and there is undeniably privilege when a newspaper with a largely white, male, and affluent audience with just under 5 million followers on its Twitter feed picks on an African-American girl who is the daughter of a teacher and a truck driver.

As of early Monday morning, the offending tweet had been deleted from The Onion‘s Twitter feed. There was no acknowledgment in the Onion‘s Twitter feed that the tweet had been deleted, and there was no apology on the Onion‘s Twitter feed or its website. But there was a lot of understandable bile.

Now I don’t wish to suggest that the word “cunt” be prohibited from public speech. However, those who elect to use it in public dialogue need to understand the implications of the word, especially when it is directed at children. There’s a world of difference between what The Onion did last night and how George Carlin’s famous routine used “cunt.” Carlin was careful to illustrate the meaning of “cunt” and six other words. He was not using it to insult people, although people were insulted by his demystification of “cunt.”

But if someone is going to use “cunt” for hateful purposes — and there is truly no other interpretation of the Onion‘s tweet, whether the hatred was intended or not — then the organization or individual which employs such usage needs to be held accountable. As Gawker‘s Camille Dodero exposed last week in horrific detail, bullies with a power base can make an innocent person’s life quite miserable. Could not the Onion tweet, ratcheted up by others with too much time on their hands, be used to similarly hurt Quvenzhane Wallis? We take the risk every time we send something out into the universe, but sometimes we need a bit of forethought.

On Sunday evening, I put forth the proposition on Twitter that anyone who worked for The Onion and The A.V. Club, a print edition bundled with The Onion, should be held accountable for this tweet.

I called out members of The A.V. Club. Scott Tobias, film editor of The A.V. Club, claimed that because he and his writers do not write for the Twitter feed, they should neither consider the impact nor be held accountable for what their employer does. TV Editor Todd VanDerWerff, said that he “had literally nothing to do with the Onion.” I asked a point blank question to both Tobias and VandDerWerff:


VanDerWerff replied with a fairly straightforward answer and explained that he has no regular contact with The Onion, which I thought at the time to be a fair and reasonable reply, until I checked his LinkedIn page and discovered this among his job duties:

Planned TV coverage with a freelance staff of several dozen. Editing that coverage. Wrote 10-15 pieces per week.

No contact with the Onion at all while managing several dozen freelancers? Really?


However, the other striking aspect about VanDerWerff’s reply is that he had the decency to offer a direct answer to my question.

Tobias did not.


As a film editor, Tobias almost certainly coordinates with people who work at The Onion. But he suggests in this tweet that The A.V. Club, a print supplement that is bundled with The Onion not unlike a newspaper section, is a publication that is as discrete as a separate magazine. This is misleading. One does not typically get Entertainment Weekly folded into an issue of Time. Nor is The Onion on the level of Time Warner. Time Warner employs 32,000 people. It is believed that Onion, Inc. employs 70.

I pointed out to Tobias that he was quite obligated to the company that signed his paychecks. Unlike VanDerWerff, he could not put himself on the line and respond with a firm position. He finally did answer my question, but his response is quite telling.


So let’s break this down. Despite the fact that he works with people at The Onion, he is “not responsible.” In other words, Tobias has such lackadaisical journalistic standards that he could not care less about how the tone set by one part of The Onion (in this case, the Twitter feed) affects the section he edits.

Now it’s possible that I’m applying too much institutional value to The Onion‘s operation. But when I was on staff at a computer magazine, I learned very quickly the degree to which other editors and executives put pressure on you to adhere to the magazine’s standards and principles. As an articulated example of this, you can look no further than the very clear ethos adopted by The New York Times:

The company and its units believe beyond question that our staff shares the values these guidelines are intended to protect. Ordinarily, past differences of view over applying these values have been resolved amiably through discussion. The company has every reason to believe that such a pattern will continue. Nevertheless, the company views any intentional violation of these rules as a serious offense that may lead to disciplinary action, potentially including dismissal, subject to the terms of any applicable collective bargaining agreement.

Tobias doesn’t appear interested in such guidelines (if, indeed, any are in place), much less having a discussion about how an Onion staffer’s misogynistic breach might affect his operation. He’s “not responsible.” That’s how little he cares about The Onion and that’s how little he cares about the right tone.


As Laurie Penny argued in November 2011, “If we want to build a truly fair and vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline, it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour who dare to have opinions.” And it’s this unthinking idea of “not taking responsibility” and not taking a stand that allows casual misogyny to perpetuate. It is Tobias’s refusal to address challenges and this need to get approval from the people who already like him which kill the dialogue.

I’d like to think that The Onion and Tobias were better than this. I’d like to believe that they have it within them to do some soul-searching on what this failed joke really means for the work they do. But as long as The Onion circles the wagons, they’ll remain part of the problem that won’t go away, no matter how much they try to ignore it.

2/25/2013 11:50 AM UPDATE: As Jim Romenesko reported, The Onion has issued an apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

How Should an Essayist Write?

As the essayist’s hairline receded, expanding a pale crescent patch where no follicle would sprout for the remainder of the essayist’s natural life, the critic Adam Kirsch had already killed the essayist’s jocular efforts to confront this biological aspect of getting older. The essayist had deigned to entertain himself, with the idea that others might share his laughter, and was therefore a raging egomaniac. The essayist had squandered his potential. He could write a funny or even vaguely literary sentence — indeed, he was tittering over the idea of his head as a gardening region for hair when he wrote that first sentence — but that joy which the essayist wished to impart to his reading audience, whoever they were, would involve the audience “knowing the rules of the game.”

The essayist, not knowing which game was being played, consulted the instructions for Trivial Pursuit, the board game closest to his reach in the closet and discovered this paragraph under the heading Winning the Game:

Once you’ve collected one scoring wedge in each color, make your way to the hub and try to answer the game-winning question. You must land in the hub by exact count; if you overshoot the hub, pick the spoke you want to move down and answer the question in the category you land on; then, on your next move, try again to hit the hub by exact count.

The essayist had never intended to make his way to the hub. But instructed by Kirsch, he knew that even if he did collect all six scoring wedges, he would never be “truly confessional” or “never intentionally reveal anything that might jeopardize the reader’s esteem.” The essayist (hereinafter referred to as “the Playah”) never realized that he was actively engaged in confessing anything while writing an essay, much less living up Kirsch’s snobbish and antidemocratic ideal. And the Playah has never known any other Playah who has, during the act of baring her soul, looked upon the contents of her emotional cupboard and measured the very difficult ingredients in some analytical Pyrex measuring cup to be held up in relation to the audience. If “Love me” is the “all-but-explicit plea” that any Playah adopts in writing an essay, is this so bad? Doesn’t contending with feeling, especially difficult feeling, involve establishing some minimum camaraderie? Even if you don’t quite know who you’re connecting to during that exciting moment where you’re sifting through experience and trying to make sense of it and not really knowing how it’s all supposed to measure up?

Not if you’re an analytical and fairly humorless* critic who wishes to uphold measures (Philip Larkin from a 1984 book of leftovers, natch) that haven’t applied to essays for more than a hundred years. For according to Adam Kirsch, the Playah (hereinafter referred to as “the essayist”) is a narcissistic phony primarily concerned with what the reader will think! The present-day essayist was now “performing” and applying “motives of amour-propre.” And it was important to use amour-propre because it was fancy and French and was better than typing out “self-respect.”

Unfortunately for Kirsch, the Internet presents us with a method of ascribing author intention, that cheap harlot often plucked from the rabu hoteru of the contemporary critic’s lonely mind, that is more accurate than vulgar speculation:

Sloane Crosley, The Days of Yore, November 12, 2012 interview: “But that’s the answer for essays and reviews and journalism. A goal the larger sense? God, do I have to have one? I just wanted to write as well as possible as often as possible. That last sentence would not be an example of either. But it is, simply, what I want and have always wanted. ”

Davy Rothbart, The Rumpus, September 4, 2012 interview: “I try to find the notes that make me laugh the most or make me tear up. So I just try to find the moments with the most intense emotions or, you know, where the funniest and weirdest and saddest shit happened.”

John Jeremiah Sullivan, The Rumpus, April 4, 2012 interview: “I am trying to charm the reader because I want him and her to come with me deeper into the piece. If you can bring them with you there, things get more interesting.” (Emphasis in original.)

So with Crosley and Rothbart, we see the essayists in question rely upon an entirely subjective notion of why they write and select material. With Sullivan, attracting the reader is an attempt to bring her “deeper” into the piece. Now it’s possible that all three of the essayists who Kirsch diminishes are adhering to some subconscious method of being “accessible” to readers. And if that was Kirsch’s real beef, he may very well have thrown a legitimate yellow card on the field. But that’s not what Kirsch is condemning. This is a question of labels, of whether an “essay” published in the last few decades has the right to be called an “essay”:

What is gained by calling these yarns essays, and insisting that they all really happened to Davy Rothbart?…These essays are born of just the same impulse, to seduce the reader with a display of ostentatious soul-baring. Davy Rothbart may be pathetic, he seems to say, but he really, really feels. Even the nickname “Davy” contributes to the man-child impression.

But can’t one make the same case against Montaigne’s “Of Experience”? ““I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.” As a college freshman has argued and as should be evident to anyone who has read the essay, Montaigne is clearly using himself as a way to come to terms with the world. Yet in establishing the connection between Montaigne and the writers that Kirsch deems “new essayists,” Kirsch recognizes that the self “has always been at the heart of the essay,” even though he diminishes “new essays’ for being “exclusively about the self” (even though Sullivan’s “At a Shelter (After Katrina),” “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” “American Grotesque,” and “La Hwi Ne Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist” — which can all be found in Pulphead — are largely removed from the very solipsism that Kirsch sullies Sullivan for and are not especially driven by the “prose equivalent of reality TV” — but, hey, fill in that sudoku puzzle however you please).

The rules of the game here are really the rules set by Kirsch through the paleolithic prism of Larkin. And according to this hoary code, an essayist can write exclusively about the self only if it can be sufficiently demonstrated that she is writing about the self and the world at large. What Kirsch is really complaining about is that the essay (hereinafter referred to as “Eh-Saaaaaaaay,” which is ideally pronounced with an upper crust nsal inflection) is no longer a medium exclusive to the educated class. He sees an antidote to this in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, but is unwilling to entertain the possibility that Heti’s very representation of “Sheila Heti” is charmless in its “inventiveness” because Heti would prefer to bullshit like a superannuated bright young thing rather than confront the horrors of the “true” self in Eh-Saaaaaaaay form. Which I suppose puts Kirsch and me on the same team which desires writing that reveals genuine character. But why not more? And why confine the Eh-Saaaaaaaay to such stringent labels? Kirsch is apparently immune to the ironic charms that James Wood detected in Sullivan’s “Getting Down to What is Really Real.” Where Wood smartly identifies how “one can’t be entirely sure whether Sullivan is excitedly expressing his love for the show or is amusedly mocking his own fandom,” Kirsch is inflexible because the Eh-Saaaaaaaay, by way of not being fiction, is somehow forbidden from pursuing the same truth. Which is a doughty and needlessly conservative way of looking at literature.

It’s possible that Kirsch simply lives too sheltered or incurious a life to consider the distinct possibility that a person could legally change her last name to “Universe” (when, in fact, people have petitioned courts to change their names to to worse appellations). Maybe he doesn’t want to believe in Rothbart’s stories because he’s never met a hoodlum or a Mexican prostitute and has no sense of adventure. Maybe he lacks the imagination or the patience to entertain a liar in Eh-Saaaaaaaay form. He writes, “Story is what happens when the antithesis of truth and lie is reconciled in a higher artistic synthesis,” but isn’t willing to concede that readers who believed in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” don’t feel especially deceived after they have learned that the details aren’t entirely airtight.

When Orwell identified the reasons why he wrote, he was savvy enough to impart to the reader “how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.” He saw the act of writing as reconciling his likes and his dislikes “with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.” What is gained in condemning this natural process? What is achieved in dictating the manner in which an essayist writes when the critic in question lacks the capacity to consider a broader world and have a good time? Why confine the essay to the whims of an impetuous and imperious elite averse to the eclectic possibilities of the human condition?

In short, Adam Kirsch is living in the wrong century.

* — “There is a particular kind of humor,” writes Kirsch in sullying the “new essay,” as if any drift from serious and high-minded writing must be stubbed out with the ardor of Sen. Joseph McCarthy singling out anyone remotely “Communist” and destroying careers.

Aid (FYE #4)

Giving aid to nations and people who desperately need help has been an American staple for more than a century. Yet in 2013, aid has become more beholden to red tape and incompetence than ever before. This week, we go to Staten Island to talk with the organizers and volunteers of Occupy Sandy to find out how they helped people when others could not and get a sense of their philosophy. We talk with Jonathan Katz, the only full-time American journalist stationed in Hatii during the 2010 earthquake and reveal how billions of dollars given by Americans to help the impoverished and the homeless ended up in the wrong place.


The Very Mass of Facts

On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall said in his speech that “the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation.” But here at Follow Your Ears, we’d like to give a shot. (Beginning to 1:35)


Occupy Sandy — Aid to Staten Island

Occupy Sandy emerged in the aftermath of last year’s hurricane. Aid wasn’t moving fast enough. So Occupy Sandy stepped in and has been hard at work ever since. We made a visit to Staten Island to spend some time with some of the people behind this relief effort. We chronicle the origins of Occupy Sandy, its philosophy and functional ethos, learn how volunteers juggle their time, and peek in on a “data entry party,” where hard won and carefully collected data from a neighborhood canvassing campaign is being placed into a computer so that other individuals and organizations can find new solutions. (1:35 to 14:26)


Haiti — The Truck That Went By

Jonathan Katz was the only full-time American correspondent in Haiti when the devastating earthquake hit in 2010. His new book, The Big Truck That Went By, documents what happened in the quake’s aftermath and reveals how, despite $15 billion in donations, the aid didn’t always find its way to the people of Haiti. We learn discover how aid has greatly harmed the Haitian health services infrastructure, reveal how Bill Clinton’s best intentions are often guided by inflexible neoliberalism. (14:26 to end)

Loops for this program were provided by Joe Funktastic, hamood, The Psychotropic Circle, and builtmymusic.

Follow Your Ears #4: Aid (Download MP3)

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Cycles (FYE #3)

This week, we examine cycles. Are our lives and our culture locked within cycles? Are we aware of it? Should we be aware of it? Or is there a certain folly in paying too much attention? Our quest for answers has us talking with bike shop owners and a Finnegans Wake reading group. We reveal how Raiders of the Lost Ark caused two teenage boys to become consumed by a relentless cycle of remaking the movie they loved with limited cinematic resources. We also talk with Scottish novelist Ian Rankin about how he returned to Inspector Rebus and got caught up in cycles he couldn’t quite describe and Lesley Alderman, the author of The Book of Times, who shows us how being aware of time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from finding enticing new cycles of existence.


Like Riding a Life

We begin our investigation into cycles by wandering around Brooklyn on a cold Saturday afternoon talking with various bike shop owners about how the cycles of life relate to their passion for bicycles. Our gratitude to Fulton Bikes, R&A Cycles, and Brooklyn Cycle Works for sharing their thoughts and feelings, which range from calmness to restrained anger. (Beginning to 4:11)


Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

Every month, the Finnegans Wake Society of New York gets together in a Spring Street apartment and reads aloud a page of James Joyce’s cyclical masterpiece. And then they discuss the page, whatever theories they can find, for about two hours. Organizer Murray Gross tells us why it’s important to slow down. Other members tell us how they became unexpectedly married to the book. (4:11 to 10:09)


Standing in Another Man’s Cycle

Are cycles a red herring? I spoke with the novelist Ian Rankin to get more answers. Rankin’s latest book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, marks a surprise return to the Inspector Rebus series, which Rankin had closed out in 2007 with his 17th Rebus novel, Exit Music. Somehow Rebus eluded retirement and manged to cajole Malcolm Fox, the protagonist of Rankin’s new series, into the mix. This seemed as good a time as any to press Rankin on whether he’s caught in a pleasant cycle. Our side trips in this conversation include consideration of Anthony Powell, the A9 Motorway and its homicidal possibilities, Skyfall, 20th century policing instinct, and how men in their sixties get into fistfights. (10:09 to 40:15)


Pardon Me, Do You Have the Time?

We meet Lesley Alderman, author of The Book of Times, a collection of time-related data that will make your more conscious of the clock than Christian Marclay. But we learn how being aware of the time doesn’t mean you can’t find enticing new cycles hiding behind the corners of your complex existence. (40:15 to 45:51)


Raiders of the Lost Remake

It was 1982 and three twelve-year-olds in Mississippi decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was before the Internet, before the movie had been released on VHS. These kids had to hustle. What they did not know was that their ambitious project would take up their next seven summers. They would grow up making this movie. We talk with Chris Strompolos, who starred as Indiana Jones in the remake, and Alan Eisenstock, author of Raiders, a new book documenting the remake. Was all the fun and youthful ingenuity a mask? Can a cycle of remaking beget a new cycle of remaking? (45:51 to end)

Photograph by Steven Sebring.

Loops for this program were provided by Psychotropic Circle, DextDee, and HMNN.

Follow Your Ears #3: Cycles (Download MP3)

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