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Right This

Protesters outside Netflix’s headquarters on May 3 demand better pay and no AI in the writers’ room. Photo: Maya Pontone/Hyperallergic)

On Monday, May 1, the Writers Guild of America went on strike.  It’s the first time professional television and film writers have revolted against the entertainment industry since 2007.  That particular walkout last more than three months and alone cost the state of California $2.1 billion.  Back then the dispute centered on the growing internet market and material being downloaded for very little, if not for free.  The entertainment world’s corporate elites had, of course, remained profitable.

The WGA is still fighting for the usual claims: higher wages, better healthcare benefits and pensions, and – as in 2007 – more compensation when their work shows up on streaming platforms, such as Amazon and Netflix.  According to an industry bulletin, writer pay has fallen, as corporate profits have risen.  Production companies are also hiring fewer writers to do more work.  (Sound familiar?)

But now the writers are also targeting a new entity: artificial intelligence (AI) and in particular the ChatGPT program, which has emerged as a writing tool.  Launched in November 2022 by OpenAI, ChatGPT is still in its development phase, but has curious (threatening?) implications for writing, computer programming and even every day conversations.  In recent years AI has been used to create realistic fake photos and videos.

Didn’t Isaac Asimov warn about things like this?

Dr. Geoffrey Hinton certainly has.  Considered the ‘Godfather of AI’, Hinton has expressed concerns about AI’s rapid expansion across the globe, dubbing it an “existential risk” to true human intelligence and ingenuity.  A decade ago Google brought Hinton on board to help develop its AI platform, and his endeavors ultimately led to the creation of ChatGPT.  Now, perhaps channeling Victor Frankenstein, Hinton declares, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the kind of intelligence we’re developing is very different from the intelligence we have.  So it’s as if you had 10,000 people and whenever one person learned something, everybody automatically knew it.  And that’s how these chatbots can know so much more than any one person.”

Television and film writers still struggle for respect and profitability.  Britanni Nichols, who writes for the popular ABC show “Abbott Elementary”, noted that she could live comfortably off the residuals she’d receive from the network between seasons, since she’d get half her original writing fee.  But now, when those episodes are sold to streaming services, she earns a paltry 5.5% of that fee.

“You’re getting checks for $3, $7, $10,” she explains.  “It’s not enough to put together any sort of consistent lifestyle.  It can really be a real shock. … sometimes you get a stack of checks for $0.07.”

Music artists experienced similar woes with the Spotify streaming service several years ago.  Singers and songwriters found they were earning, on average, less than one cent per day, as the site’s patronage downloaded a vast array of songs.  The animosity grew so intense that singer Taylor Swift pulled her entire song catalog in 2014.  Other artists followed suit, thus setting the stage for a major overhaul of the music streaming concept and business model.  It was dramatic and controversial, but it had to be done.

Other creatives found themselves expressing similar anxieties.  In 2021 artist Jens Haaning caused a stir when the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark paid him the equivalent of USD 84,000 to create a modern art piece.  He responded with two blank canvases collectively titled “Take the Money and Run”.  It was his homage to (and protest of) the poor wages painters often receive for commissioned works.  “The work is that I have taken their money,” he said.  Like writing, painting and sculpting aren’t so easy to do.

Author Amy Joy once stated, “Anyone who says writing is easy isn’t doing it right.”  And I often recollect an old story involving the late actress Anne Bancroft and her husband, writer and filmmaker Mel Brooks.  After landing a movie role, Bancroft allegedly held up the script and lamented the amount of dialogue she had to memorize!” – whereupon Brooks replied by a holding up a blank sheet of paper and asked her to imagine putting all that dialogue down on it.

Several years ago, when LinkedIn was still somewhat relevant, I belonged to various writing and art groups.  In one the issue of financial compensation arose, and a handful of misguided souls had the audacity to question why writers – or any artists, for that matter – felt they had the right to be paid for their work.  “No one asked you to be a writer,” declared one visitor.  I pointed out that no one is asked to enter into any kind of profession, not including family and close friends.  (My parents wanted me to go into computer science, which I did when I started college, and quickly discovered how inept I was at it.)  The public doesn’t ask anyone to go into the creative arts – not directly.  But the average accountant, lawyer, architect, cashier or FedEx driver wants to be entertained in one way or another; try as they may, though, they don’t have the talent or discipline to create their own stories or compose their own songs.  Thus, in a subtle manner, they do ask for someone somewhere to do these things for them.  People like to read stories, listen to music and look at beautiful paintings.  Somebody is always ready to respond and create those pleasures.  Thus, they should be respected and be compensated for their endeavors.

All I can say to the WGA folks is to keep writing and keep fighting!  It’s worth the battle.  You and your work are worth the battle!

Bottom image: Dave Whamond


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Worst Quote of the Week – November 30, 2019

“Take photo, film, send it to an NGO (non-government organization), the NGO spreads it out, does a campaign against Brazil, gets in touch with Leonardo DiCaprio and Leonardo DiCaprio donates $500,000 to this NGO. One part went to the people who were setting the fire, right?”

– Brazilian President Jair Bolsarano, blaming environmentalists and U.S. actor Leonardo DiCaprio for the recent rash of wildfires that scorched the Amazon.

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You are on Indian Land: Acknowledging the Traditional Homelands of Indigenous People at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

For some 500 years the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere have struggled to prove a simple fact: they and their ancestors were the first human occupants of this massive region. They weren’t members of the wildlife and they weren’t features of the various landscapes. They were real people who constructed real communities with the resources available. It’s taken a while, but they’re starting to gain that recognition. As someone of part Mexican Indian ancestry, it’s significant to me.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert is a Professor and Head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. A member of the Hopi Indian community, he is also the author of a number of books on the Native American experience in the contemporary United States; most recently Modern Encounters of the Hopi Past, in which he analyzes the ways the Hopi operated within and beyond their ancestral lands, including their participation in the U.S. military, American film industry, music ensembles, and higher education.

It’s a mission and a challenge that may not be fully realized in our lifetime. When one considers the brutal scope of the ongoing discrimination and oppression faced by Indigenous Americans, it’s not difficult to see why.
In 1998, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, nationalist Brazilian politician told “Correio Braziliense” newspaper, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.” Bolsonaro is now president of Brazil.

What he and others of that bigoted mindset don’t seem to understand is that the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere never were completely “exterminated”; neither in Brazil nor here in the U.S. The colonialists and their descendants tried, but even after half a millennia, they still haven’t won that war.

Beyond the Mesas

[The following land acknowledgement was part of a keynote address I gave at the Annual Celebration of Diversity Breakfast at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The event, which had over 400 people, took place on November 9, 2018. Over the years, people have approached Indigenous land acknowledgements in various ways. This is how I did it, and I am hopeful that my approach will be of some help to others.]

You are on Indian Land

Good morning everyone. It is great to be here. I am so honored by this opportunity.

I was told earlier this week that I had about 8 minutes at the mic.

And so in true Hopi fashion, I am going to keep my remarks short and sweet.

In recent months, officials and others on campus have started their public gatherings (including this gathering) by reading an official statement that acknowledges the Indigenous people who were…

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Sendak Book Sales Skyrocket

Here’s more proof that art and literature have lives of their own.  The day after his death, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are jumped from #204 on Amazon’s bestseller list to #14.  The other top 9 are also Sendak books, including Higglety Pigglety Pop!: Or There Must Be More to Life, which leapt to #52 all the way from #315,110.  Here’s the complete list.

  1. Where the Wild Things Are (#14 from #204)
  2. Higglety Pigglety Pop!: Or There Must Be More to Life (hardcover; #52 from #315,110)
  3. Brundibar (#189 from #372,499)
  4. BUMBLE-ARDY (#36 from #50,046)
  5. Outside Over There (paperback; #90 from #89,042)
  6. Higglety Pigglety Pop!: Or There Must Be More to Life (paperback; #327 from #265,681)
  7. In the Night Kitchen (#309 from #134,501)
  8. The Sign on Rosie’s Door (#324 from #134,206)
  9. Outside Over There (hardcover; #199 from #65,546)
  10. Mommy? (#338 from #96,237).

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DOJ Files Antitrust Suit Over E-Book Pricing

Last month the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against Apple and 5 major publishers – Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster – alleging collusion in e-book pricing and sales models.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, acting Assistant Attorney General Sharis A. Pozen and Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen made the announcement at DOJ headquarters in Washington, D.C.  It’s surprising to see that digital publishing – a truly 21st century technological phenomenon – has fallen under the glare of the nation’s top law enforcement official.  But, it’s equally serious – and perhaps even warranted – as the number of publishing outfits diminishes.  It appears the 5 publishers named in the suit most feared the Amazon giant.

According to the suit, filed in the Southern District of New York, the 5 publishers “feared that lower retail prices for e-books might lead eventually to lower wholesale prices for e-books, lower prices for print books, or other consequences the publishers hoped to avoid.”  It also mentions “deflating hardcover prices” and charges that the “Publisher Defendants were especially concerned that Amazon was well positioned to enter the digital publishing business and thereby supplant publishers as intermediaries between authors and consumers.”

When the 5 publishers couldn’t force Amazon to stop selling e-books at such sharply discounted prices, they conspired to increase those very same e-book prices and thereby limit competition in the sale of digital books.  To accomplish their goal, the publishers teamed up with Apple, which had the same desire to restrain retail price competition over e-books.”

The lawsuit further alleges that Apple wished to raise the profit margin for e-book retailers above what Amazon and its competitors had been making.  The suit also claims that prior to negotiating with Apple, executives with the 5 publishers engaged in a series of meetings, telephone calls and other communications where they “agreed to act collectively to force up Amazon’s retail prices and thereafter considered and implemented various means to accomplish that goal, including moving under the guise of a joint venture.”  One e-mail stated that “without a critical mass behind us Amazon won’t ‘negotiate,’ so we need to be more confident of how our fellow publishers will react…”  It also charges that publishers sought to destroy evidence and conceal their communications, showing they knew their activities were illicit.

This conspiracy would make the Enron scoundrels proud.  And, the 5 publishers almost sound like the “five families;” a.k.a. the mafia.  It’s distressing for writers, whose first love is the written word, to see the creative world run smack into the brutality of corporate politics.  There are mixed feelings.  On one side, no decent writer wants to see their publishing choices limited to just a handful of conglomerates.  On the other is the leeriness of government interference in the arts.  But, there’s a reason it’s called show business.  It’ll truly be interesting to see how far the DOJ will go with this case.

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Amazon’s Trojan Horse

Count Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, among Amazon’s detractors.  In an essay on Paid Content last month, Milligan suggests that the publishing and book distribution giant’s business practices may pose a threat to American intellectual freedom.  He highlights the recent dispute between Amazon and the Independent Publishers Group over Kindle versions of some 5,000 titles IPG had in stock.  IPG refused to bow to Amazon’s demands for better contract terms.  It may be the first volley in a long battle to unseat Amazon’s increasing domination of the publishing world.  IPG is second to Amazon in book distribution.

“Amazon’s recent actions have already cut the sales of the small press I run by 40 percent.  Jeff Bezos could not care less,” Milligan claims in his editorial, speaking of Amazon’s CEO.  He lambastes Amazon’s efforts since 2009 to engage in charity by giving fairly large grants “to nonprofit organizations involved in literature and literacy.”  But, there is no application process; Amazon just asks for nominations.  Amazon says upfront that it’s looking for “innovative groups with a proven track record of success; an ability to work effectively with us to execute on the organization’s goals, including appropriate public outreach; and an established presence and voice in the publishing community.”  So far, these grants have appeared on the doorsteps of otherwise unsuspecting organizations.

Wings Press is a for-profit business and therefore, not eligible for grants – from anyone.  If Milligan sounds bitter, it’s understandable.  He publishes mostly poetry, a literary art form that’s often ignored by mainstream publishing houses.  If making a living from writing novels is difficult, poets embody the true spirit of the starving artist!  But, Milligan publishes works based primarily on its literary merits, not just to make money.  As a major corporation, Amazon, on the other hand, clearly is out to make a profit.  Offering “grant” money to charitable entities is a noble endeavor, but not if the giver is directing profits back to themselves.  Thus, is Amazon really just giving a proverbial Trojan horse?  It may be a matter of interpretation.  Read the rest of Milligan’s essay and decide for yourself.

Additional source.

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Why We Should Fear Amazon

Author Scott Turow apparently has a distaste for the Amazon giant and feels it’s dangerous for the world of literature.  As society develops an increasing fascination with e-books and more writers undertake self-publishing, Amazon finds itself in a prime position as a global entity.  Last month, however, the U.S. Justice Department warned Apple and 5 of the nation’s largest publishers that it planned to sue them for price fixing.  At issue is the agency model, a method of selling e-books via wholesale in which the publisher sets the retail price and the retailer takes a 30% cut.  Most print and many e-books are sold under the traditional wholesale model, in which publishers sell books at a discounted price, and the retailer can resell them for whatever price it likes.

On March 12, Scott Turow – the bestselling author of many legal thrillers and current president of the Authors Guild – posted a letter to members on the Guild’s web site.  He denounced the Justice Department’s actions as bad news for authors, “grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture,” and ominous for book consumers.

Laura Miller, a writer for Salon, interviewed Turow shortly after his letter appeared.


Miller: What are some of the Guild’s problems with Amazon?

Turow: First of all, so that I don’t get dismissed as an ingrate, I should say that Amazon has been a boon for bestselling authors.  Authors get paid on the basis of the cover price for a hardcover book.  By discounting, which is something that chain stores started and Amazon continued, they have lowered the barriers to book buying in ways that have been personally extremely beneficial to me.


Because you get paid the same amount regardless of how much the retailer charges for the book, and the discounting encourages more people to buy the book?

Exactly.  These are not personal complaints.  There are lots of things about Amazon for which they deserve credit.  They’re innovative.  There are lots of very, very happy Amazon customers.  I’m not here to dispute that Amazon has been personally good for me or to say that they haven’t been, so far, good to their customers.


So what’s the problem?

The concern is that they are getting so large and they compete so ruthlessly that there’s a lot of fear for what the world with Amazon in charge is going to look like.

The Guild’s beefs with Amazon became pronounced over the issue of the resale of new titles some years ago.  This was something that Amazon pioneered.  They would sell you a [just-released] book on Day One, buy it back from you on Day Two, and then resell it to another customer on Day Three.  This was legal, but certainly not what anybody ever intended.

Traditionally, in hardcover, that’s been basically a split of the proceeds between the author and publisher.  (An aside: That’s something we’re fighting with publishers about in the digital world.)  So Amazon decides to go into competition with the publishers by reselling the book they just bought.  The publisher gets paid nothing, and neither does the author. It’s a pure profit for Amazon.

Now, the reason you don’t see used bookstores within new bookstores is that the used books compete with the new books and the publishers supplying the new books would object.  Either you’re doing business with me or you’re competing with me.  I’m not going to sell you books so you can take some percentage of sales.

The problem of course was the Amazon had gotten so big that publishers were afraid to resist that.  It’s not the mere fact that they’re competing [with their own suppliers].  I can certainly understand that it’s good for consumers to be able to buy a book two days later at a lower price.  It’s the fact that the publishers were afraid to dismiss Amazon.


Which is what they would do with a regular retailer who was doing the same thing but had viable competitors?

Right, and of course, Amazon was undercutting authors in the process.  We tried to persuade them to just window this [delay making used copies of brand-new books available for a period of time, the way the release of the DVD of a movie is delayed until after it has played in theaters].  That didn’t work.  It was a muscle-flexing exhibition by Amazon, saying, “We’ve got so much market power, you guys can’t do what you’ve traditionally done and take your goods elsewhere.  We represent at least 30 percent of the book market.”

I don’t like losing sales, but the real problem is at the margins.  Midlist authors have been struggling to survive for decades now.  If you start eating into the publishers’ returns, then at the bottom of the food chain, those books are just not going to get published.  We have seen that happen.


Are there other examples of Amazon using its predominance?

They now control the print-on-demand market.  That’s when you buy a book and only then does a service print a copy — literally on demand.  [This is a method used by academic and small presses, as well as by authors with otherwise out-of-print books.]  Amazon bought a POD service called BookSurge.  Then they informed their customers — university presses and some other publishers who the Guild had organized to do POD for Authors Guild members — that they would not list their books on Amazon’s site unless they paid BookSurge more for their services.

I don’t know how they defend themselves on this one.  That’s another very ominous sign to the book industry and authors.


What about their history with e-books?

They deserve a lot of credit for the Kindle, for yoking e-ink with this nationwide wireless network.  It’s a great innovation.  And they said to the publishers, “It’s really important to us in introducing this platform that e-books appear at the same time as the hardcover edition.”  Publishers said, “Oh, we’ve seen your tricks before, Amazon!  Why would we ever do that?”

So Amazon says, “We’ll pay you the same amount we pay you on a hardcover.”  So publishers think that sounds fine, how can they complain about that?  They agree and are then stunned when Amazon announces that they’re going to sell every e-book at a loss, for $9.99.  That’s an average loss of $4 to $5 a book.


Why would Amazon do that?

I suppose they could argue they were doing it to sell devices and that may well have been one of their intentions.  It had the additional benefit of making it much harder for any of their competitors to enter the market.

For example: A lot of people have the habit of going into a physical store, looking at books and then turning around and buying the e-book wirelessly from Amazon.  Had it not been the case that you had to sell an e-book at a $5 loss, bookstores would have been able to say, “Sure, bring your device with you and we’ll sell you the e-book right here.”

Bookstores are pretty hard-pressed by book discounting as it is, and the idea of selling e-books at a loss made it impossible for them to enter the marketplace in competition with Amazon.


What about the proprietary format of Kindle? Didn’t that also make it hard for competing e-readers to enter the market?

You couldn’t read all those books you bought from Amazon on a competitor’s device – you can now, if you have an iPad, but you couldn’t then.


The nook is widely regarded as the better e-reader device, but if you’ve accumulated a library of Kindle titles, you can’t take them with you if you decide to switch.  [Technically, you can, but most users would find this quite challenging.]

Barnes and Noble developed the nook because they really had no choice but to compete with Amazon.  They were struggling at that point, and I personally don’t think they’d have been able to survive while losing $5 on every book.  There simply were not a lot of people jumping into that market to compete, not with the prospect of losing $5 on every book sale.  From the outside, it looks like the pricing was not just a loss leader on the devices, but a way to discourage competition.


How did Amazon’s e-book pricing affect authors?

One way that 25 percent of net became the standard royalty for e-books was because publishers said, “We all know they can’t go on selling e-books at a loss forever and sooner or later this pricing structure has got to change.”  They told authors they couldn’t agree to a different royalty because everyone knew that Amazon wouldn’t be paying them $14 to $15 per title indefinitely.


You’re implying that Amazon planned eventually to use the consumer’s habituation to $9.99 books to force publishers to charge Amazon lower wholesale prices for books.  They’ve tried to do that recently with some small presses, removing their titles from Amazon unless the presses agree to sell their books at rock-bottom wholesale prices.  And publishers would have no choice but to agree because every other competitor would also have been driven out of the market by Amazon’s predatory pricing?

Certainly, that’s what publishers assumed.  The other thing Amazon could have done once they had the market to themselves – and this is virtually inevitable – is that they would have raised prices to consumers.


That’s part of the less-known history behind anti-trust laws.  Once a large company has spent its capital to fund predatory pricing and drive its competitors out of business, there’s no reason to keep selling for cheap.  The low prices don’t last.

Right.  Look, if what they’re into is maximizing profits, then if they were to have a monopoly there’d be no rationale not to use the monopoly power to increase prices to consumers.  Now, if I were on the other side, working for Amazon, I’d say “Show me where I’ve done that.”


Presumably, they haven’t done it yet because they haven’t achieved the monopoly yet.  Historically, that’s what monopolies always do.

Correct.  That is historically what monopolies do.  There is plenty of precedent for that.  It’s only rational to fear what they’re going to do with this accumulation of power.

Again, the concern from the author’s perspective is that e-books are putting a tremendous downward pressure on the price of books in general.  That’s putting tremendous pressure on publishers to survive.  And I think a world in which online book selling is driving bookstores out of existence is a pity.


How did Amazon respond to the entrance of Apple and the agency pricing system?

Apple offered to sell books on the iPad using the agency model – which is what they use for iTunes – and the publishers one by one agreed to that.  Then they told Amazon they were going to follow this new model, and that they were going to produce the e-books themselves rather than Amazon doing so.

When the first publisher, John Sargent [of Macmillan], told them that, Amazon responded by removing the buy buttons not just from all of Macmillan Publishing’s e-books – about which you can say, yeah, there’s a legitimate dispute – but from their print books, too. Paper, physical books!  It was another demonstration of their ability to abuse their market power.  They used their market power over an item where pricing was not in dispute to punish a publisher for taking what Amazon regards as an unfavorable position in a different market.


Why should where their books are bought make a difference to authors?

New authors traditionally are nurtured by bookstore personnel, especially in independent bookstores.  These people literally hand sell books to their customers, by saying, “I’ve read this.  I think you’re going to love it.”  Not to mention the fact that a bookstore is a small cultural center in a community.  That’s definitely a loss.

Again, my concern is for the sake of literary diversity.  If the rewards to authors go down, simple economics says there will be fewer authors.  It’s not that people won’t burn with the passion to write.  The number of people wanting to be novelists is probably not going to decline – but certainly the number of people who are going to be able to make a living as authors is going to dramatically decrease.

When that decreases, the diversity of the literary culture decreases.  The store of new ideas and the richness of the discussion all decreases.


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Striking Back at Amazon

Last week the indomitable Betty White appeared on The Tonight Show and told host Jay Leno she doesn’t have a computer and planned to keep it that way.  She received a loud round of applause, surely from an audience filled with 20 and 30-somethings who can’t imagine life without a computer.  But, her comment proved that not everyone feels the same about something. 

Many people, for example, don’t care for the “Amazon Empire,” as Lisa Buchan of Sparkabook describes it.  Like Microsoft has done with computers and Facebook has done with human interactions, Amazon seems to have cornered a large part of the literary market – and won’t let go.  Amazon began its reign by siphoning off business from distributors and now it’s jumped into the publishing realm.  In effect, it’s become the Wal-Mart of publishing: selling its products at such incredibly low rates that other publishers just can’t compete.  Self-publishing started to gained prominence at the turn of the century with the rapid growth of both home computers and the Internet.  It’s now downright respectable.  No one looks at a self-published writer as a loser.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Writers who publish their own work are viewed as adventurous businesspeople; self-made types who thumbed their nose at the almighty publishing power houses.  Book agents and publishers aren’t laughing anymore.  They’re actually sweating out the future; worried that they’ve unwittingly positioned themselves for inevitable obliteration. 

In various groups on Linked In, I’ve encountered several writers who’ve taken the self-publishing route, frustrated (read: angered) with the old way.  And, many of them have turned to Amazon to help them realize their dreams of being a professional, published writer.  I can certainly vouch for the temptation.  It seems Amazon will publish and sell just about anything.  But, how long can it be before Amazon finds itself in the same worrisome spot as traditional book agents and publishers?  Apple and Google are now turning to e-book publishing, obviously hoping to garner some of that lucrative market.  But, it’s equally obvious that the publishing industry has changed altogether.  And, just like computers are no longer the cumbersome machines that people only used at work, publishing is no longer for the privileged few.  Whatever becomes of Amazon in the future, I feel that writers will reap the greatest rewards.

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