Sep 26

Words That Matter

jessewilliamsI rarely watch television. It took a friend in Norway, of all places, to alert me to Jesse Williams’ great speech this past June at the BET awards in Los Angeles. Hats off to Mr. Williams.  All that rubbing with celebs in tinseltown hasn’t dulled his edge.

Here, in case you also missed it, is the YouTube of his speech, followed by the transcript.  Williams is also active with QuestionBridge, a multimedia website on the Black male experience, and with the Advancement Project, a civil rights nonprofit.  He’s @iJesseWilliams on Twitter.

Transcript link

Aug 22

A Science Fiction Writer Looks at the Future


Author Kim Stanley Robinson

Science Fiction Author Kim Stanley Robinson (Mars Trilogy) has an article in the current Scientific American issue devoted to “the future.”  After discussing the various strategies that forecasters use to construct visions of the worlds ahead, he ventures his own prediction.

“The inequality of our economic system, the destruction of our biosphere’s ability to support us, the possibility of sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history being caused by us — all this will be well known to everyone alive. The necessity to change our technological and social systems to avoid catastrophe and create a just and sustainable world for all will be evident.  And because necessity is the mother of invention, we will invent.  The crux of the change will be in the laws we agree to live by, including the laws that define our economic system.  Capitalism as we practice it now is the Chelyabinsk-65 plutonium plant of contemporary technologies: dirty, brutal, destructive, stupid. It isn’t capable of solving the problems we’re faced with and is indeed the name of the problem itself.  So we will modify capitalism, law by law, until it is changed into a sustainable system.”

(Emphasis mine.)  Robinson sees also the alternative, namely that

“we will screw up, fight one another, cause a mass extinction event, go nearly extinct ourselves and emerge blinking out of holes in the ground decades later, post-traumatic and brain-damaged as a civilization.”

But he think’s it’s more likely

“that our intelligence and desire to do good for our children will see us through to the invention of a civilization in a stable relationship to the biosphere.  After which I predict things will get even more interesting.”


Aug 20

What to do about drunk lawyers

That lawyers have a drinking problem hardly comes as a shock.  Just go to Netflix and pull down any movie or TV serial about lawyers.  In the entertainment world, the expression “drunk lawyer” is almost as redundant as “lying politician” or “cheating husband.” So it wasn’t a stop-press moment when Patrick Krill told an audience of California State Bar overseers yesterday that his research showed rates of alcohol problems among lawyers at least twice as high as in the general population.  Not only alcohol, but also mental health issues and drug use runs higher in the legal profession.

Krill’s findings generally confirmed the numbers from the last study of this kind, done thirty years ago.  The neon finding in Krill’s work — something totally unexpected and counterintuitive — was that the highest rates of problem drinking, drugging, and depression/anxiety/stress are found among the younger lawyers.  No age bracket is immune, but the hotbed of the epidemic lies in the entry level, the junior ranks.  Moreover, Krill suggested, many new Bar admittees bring the problem with them. The monkey climbed on their backs already in law school.  Or before.

Studies of this kind trade in correlations, and correlations are not causation.  In the discussion after Krill’s talk, some felt that the State Bar might have an obligation to warn entrants that the law is a dangerous profession.  This on the theory that lawyer work is more stressful, more likely to drive you to drink, than any other.  But it may also be the case that young people who already drink, drug, and stress above average feel an attraction to the law because they see it as an environment where that’s cool.

Krill, as a professional researcher, didn’t take a position on that.  Correlation is not causation.  But as a licensed drug and alcohol counselor (his other hat) he pointed out that the private firms where most young lawyers start out typically have an alcohol-positive internal culture.  The firms put out alcohol at every social function. This subculture promotes drinking as the solution to every psychological and social issue.  No wonder that problems develop.

Krill’s audience included practically all the heavy hitters in the State Bar administration concerned with drunken lawyers. The panel, held in the San Francisco office of the State Bar on Howard Street, ran with a video linkup to a similar meeting at the Los Angeles office.  It included the administration and clinical staff of the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), the statutory twelve-member Oversight Committee of the LAP, members of the LAP Evaluation Committee, and representatives of the State Bar discipline programs, the Office of Trial Counsel, and the State Bar Court.

The occasion for the meeting was the release of a consultants’ report on State Bar operations generally, with a chapter on the Lawyer Assistance Program.  The LAP specifically addresses lawyers with alcohol, drug, and mental health problems.  The consultants’ report was not flattering.  It found that 76 per cent of the lawyers who enrolled in the LAP withdrew before completing the program.  Only eleven per cent finished.  Current enrollment is 136 lawyers.  Approximately 15 lawyers per year complete the program, just three more than the membership of the Oversight Committee.

California has about 250,000 active lawyers.  Taking Krill’s research as yardstick, at least 20 per cent of these have alcohol problems.  That would be upwards of 50,000 lawyers needing help.  WTF?  How is it possible that the LAP is enrolling about two tenths of one per cent of its client base?  And that the numbers who complete its program make up about one tenth of that two tenths of one per cent?

Given this perspective, it’s perhaps no surprise that the consultants recommended that the position of the Director of the LAP, who makes a Grade 55 salary ($105-155K), “should be eliminated or re-purposed.”  What’s more surprising is that the consultants refrained from recommending that the whole LAP effort be scrapped and rebuilt. To be sure, the recovery of even a single lawyer is cause for celebration.

How can the California State Bar do a better job helping drunk/drugged/stressed out lawyers and protecting the public?  Given Krill’s findings that the center of gravity of the issue lies with the younger cohort, the first question that needs asking is whether the LAP has been doing a good job marketing itself to the millennial age bracket.

The answer, judging by the contributors to yesterday’s panel, is a loud negative.  According to one veteran speaker, the LAP has long been in a “symbiotic relationship” with The Other Bar (TOB).  TOB is an affiliate of Alcoholics Anonymous and its support groups rely on AA’s twelve steps.  This approach was formulated 80 years ago.  It tells people they’re powerless over alcohol, that their addiction is a result of defects in their character, and that they have to surrender to a higher power to find recovery.  Every American court of appeals that has considered the twelve step program has declared it religious in nature.  See, e.g. Hazle v. Crofoot (Ninth Circuit 2013) 727 F.3d 983.

The “symbiotic relationship” between the LAP and TOB has meant, among other things, that practically 100 per cent of the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education presentations on Substance Abuse, which lawyers are required to attend to  keep their licenses current, feature speakers from TOB who present the twelve step program as the only path and the LAP as the doorway.  The speakers may wrap it in gauze, but the religious core of the appeal isn’t lost on lawyers, who are not dumb.

These religious appeals are pitched to an audience of millennials who are the least religious generation in American history. For the first time since records have been kept, those who answer “none” to questions about their religion outnumber those of every religious denomination.  Pitching the twelve steps to young lawyers is like pushing rotary telephones to smartphone users.  The white-haired veterans who run TOB and who have somehow wrapped themselves symbiotically around the LAP just don’t get it.  Twelve step programs are fine for some people — whatever works — but promoting this as The Solution for Everybody is guaranteed to lead to microscopic attraction and retention numbers.  Lawyers who reject this path aren’t in denial.  It’s the advocates who are in denial.

The symbiosis between LAP and the twelve-step group may be costly to the State Bar in more ways than miniscule participation and completion rates.  The Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals meets barely ten blocks from the Bar’s Howard Street office.  In its Hazle v. Crofoot decision, this court expressed sharp annoyance with state agencies (the Department of Corrections, in this case) who still did not understand that twelve step programs are religious in nature, and that conditioning any state benefit or penalty on participation in such programs violates the Establishment Clause.  That case settled for close to two million dollars. Unless the LAP-TOB symbiosis is broken, it’s only a matter of time before a LAP participant files a suit similar to Hazle v. Crofoot.  What an embarrassment to the State Bar that will be.  I mean, the State Bar is supposed to know the law, isn’t it?

There are other problems with the LAP, discussed in the consultants’ report.  But the key problem is that the LAP has allowed its brand image to be captured by a twelve-step group.  Such groups can do fine work in individual cases. But they were never intended as a universal solution, and their core appeal is radically out of sync with the younger generation.  And, if Krill’s study is correct, that’s where the heavy end of the problem lies, where help is most urgently needed.

Read the section of the consultants’ report on the California State Bar concerned with the LAP

Read Patrick Krill’s research publication on the prevalence of alcohol/drug/mental health problems in the legal profession

P.S.  Another interesting finding in Krill’s study is that the highest prevalence of drinking problems is among lawyers working in Bar Administration and Lawyer Assistance Programs.  Probed about this finding, Krill underlined that the figures are solid and that they represent current drinking practices, not past drinking by persons now in recovery.  Although the numbers are too small to allow statistical inference (N=55), they definitely raise eyebrows.  Krill declined to speculate about causes or remedies.



Aug 12

Which way for “Our Revolution”?

Bernie_Sanders_Facts_Debate_11232_8009 (Small)in a couple of weeks, Bernie Sanders will lay out specifics of his vision for “Our Revolution.”  He has been clear that his campaign for progressive social change did not end with the Philadelphia convention and will not end with the November elections.  He has not been clear about how that is to happen.  “Our Revolution” at the moment is a foggy concept.

Tom Gallagher, whose pre-convention articles I’ve reposted here several times, published a thoughtful analysis a few days ago in which he contrasted the American two-party system with the parliamentary systems common in European democracies.  If we ignored the party labels and looked at the core policies, he said, we would have five major parties in the U.S.  Namely, a Social-Democratic left party led by Sanders, a “Liberal” left-centrist party led by Clinton, a right-populist party led by Trump, and two conservative parties led by Cruz and Kasich, respectively.

You might quarrel with the labels on the right side.  There’s an emerging right-centrist bloc of moderate Republicans of the Bloomberg stripe, who are currently with Clinton.  And the lines between the Trump faction and other right-wing blocs are blurred and shifting.  But on the left side, Gallagher’s inventory looks solid.  While the “Liberal” Clinton party (the term is borrowed from the British spectrum) is the largest, Sanders’ Social-Democratic group is the second largest overall.  Sanders took roughly forty-five per cent of all elected delegates in a primary system that was heavily slanted against him.  He got more than twelve million votes.  He raised more than 228 million dollars.  Sanders’ successes defy historic precedents.

Given this new political reality, I can’t follow Gallagher’s conclusion that “Our Revolution” ought to set as its goal to remain within and to try to capture the Democratic Party.  “We want to control the messy Democratic Party,” he writes. I have agreed with Gallagher that Sanders, after serving in the Senate for sixteen years as an independent, was smart to enter the Democratic Party for the primary.  But in my view, what was brilliant before Philadelphia is less so in the aftermath.

Let me be clear.  I agree with Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton for November.  At least as a general umbrella guideline, subject to exception in states where the Clinton-Trump race is not at all close. The attacks on this endorsement strike me as at best reckless and at worst as paid for by Trump.  This is the time for a kind of popular front or democratic coalition against Trump.

But an electoral endorsement or coalition is a very different thing than a merger of parties. Remaining within and trying to control the Democratic Party, as Gallagher advocates, amounts to merging the Sanders revolution with the Democratic establishment.  The millions of people who grew enthusiastic about the ideas in the Sanders campaign will have no party flag to rally around.  The Democratic Party flag will remain at best an ambiguous, and in many ways a repellent standard.  Nothing beyond a string of Bernie Sanders email messages will identify progressive candidates down-ballot in races all over the country.  Building political allegiances requires, among other things, clear imagery for the public to identify with.  The strategy of trying to capture the Democratic Party from within situates the battle in the closed rooms where internecine conflicts take place, out of the public eye, and in a short time a mass of partisans becomes confused, demoralized, and passive.

With a single sketchy, passing historical reference, Gallagher dismisses the chances of a third party.  But Gallagher does not even begin to look at the history or the current chances of progressive moles trying to take over the Democratic Party. Assume that Clinton is elected. She will command unlimited financial resources and a cornucopia of patronage goodies to distribute to her party loyalists. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz will be on steroids. Clinton will have the option to boot the Sandernistas out or to keep them on leash inside the party kennels, and she can do either at any time.  Trying to take over the party of a sitting president, as Gallagher ought to know, is a borderline delirious notion.

Of course, if Clinton is defeated, the picture changes.  Sanders will be able to say, “we told you so,” drawing on the array of polls during the primary showing Clinton as the weaker candidate against Trump.  In the resulting chaos, a well-organized and disciplined Sanders faction might well make major gains toward party control.  But the money men that run the Democratic Party (like the Republican) will never give up ownership of the party label, and the Sanders bloc will have to break out, or be kicked out, before the dust settles.

My voice is not the only one urging Sanders (while continuing to endorse Clinton for November) to launch a progressive third party.  No less a pragmatic voice than Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor, wrote in the July 10 issue of The Nation:

The next move for Bernie Sanders’s political revolution is to set up a third party (shall we call it the New Progressive Party?), whose primary goal should be to get big money out of politics. Nothing else worth doing is possible unless we reclaim our democracy, and we can’t do that through our current Democratic or Republican parties, both of which are beholden to big money.

Reich thinks the launch of the new party should be delayed until after November 8.  Perhaps, but a serious ramp-up toward the launch, with the goal clearly in mind, needn’t wait.  I would argue that Sanders has already waited too long; that the moment to announce the project was in his endorsement speech in Philadelphia.  But better late than never.

Jul 20

Swedish translation published

IMG_20160720_113653 (Mobile)A Swedish translation of my book Empowering Your Sober Self has been published by LifeRing Sweden,  The translation was prepared by Project LifeRing run by Skyddsvärnet, a nonprofit social development organization, with funding from the Heritage Fund.  Sophia Olsson, project manager for Project LifeRing, acted as editor and Inger Bodal of City Text is the translator.  The title in Swedish, Viljan att Sluta, means Desire to Quit.  A Swedish translation of Recovery by Choice, the workbook, is in preparation.

Jul 19

On Rum and Revolution

Cover of Cheever's book

Cover of Cheever’s book

The American Revolution has come in for a beating lately.  Gerald Horne’s ground-breaking The Counter-Revolution of 1776, reviewed here earlier, shows that the colonial revolt was at bottom a rear-guard action to preserve a bastion of slavery in a world where England and other European powers had already moved forward to abolition.  Seen from London, where slavery was outlawed, the libertarian rhetoric of Jefferson came across as so much hypocritical gasbaggery.

Reflecting on this gap between words and realities, I wondered occasionally how it was possible for intelligent leaders to write stuff like “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” while keeping so many people in chains.  Along comes Susan Cheever’s new book, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, with a plausible answer: they were drunk.  The American revolution, she says, was fueled by rum. The chief constituent of rum was molasses that slaves wrung from cane in Caribbean sugar plantations.

James Madison drank a pint of whiskey daily.  John Adams downed a tankard of cider before breakfast every morning, just to get going, and drank whatever was available the rest of the day.  He wrote, “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.”  Two of his sons died of alcoholism, as did several of his grandchildren.  Jefferson, Cheever writes, penned the Declaration of Independence in a tavern.  He was obsessed with fine wine.  He ran for election in 1800 calling for repeal of the whiskey tax.

The Boston Tea Party was hatched in the Green Dragon tavern. The original plan was to nail the tea crates to the deck to prevent their unloading the next day, the last day on which the tea tax could be levied.  But that was too complicated because the raiding party had got drunk, so they threw the crates overboard instead, creating a major incident. That set off an unforeseen spiral of reprisals and escalations.

Paul Revere stopped at several taverns during his ride and fortified himself with rum. Drunk, he was captured by the British but talked his way out of captivity.  When the British infantry arrived at Lexington Green at five in the morning, they faced a ragtag assembly of locals who had been drinking since midnight in Buckman Tavern. The British fired the first shots of the Revolutionary War against a drunken mob.

Ethan Allen was a notorious drunk.  In a partnership with Benedict Arnold, he captured Fort Ticonderoga out of sheer drunken audacity.  He died of exposure on a cold night in 1789 after a night of heavy drinking.

George Washington won his first electoral office by distributing 144 gallons of alcoholic drink at the polling places. He motivated his soldiers by doubling their rum rations and getting them drunk. He drank with enthusiasm, favoring rum made with molasses from the Barbados.    After the war his slaves planted rye and corn on his plantation and built a distillery that produced eleven thousand gallons of whiskey a year.  It was one of the largest buildings in America at the time. He then added a vineyard and distilled brandy, and had a brewery built to make beer.  He spent his days drinking.

Cheever’s cruise through American history begins with the Mayflower, which stopped at Plymouth because it was running out of beer, and ends with Richard Nixon, who was drunk and unconscious at crucial moments.  Her thesis is that alcohol played an important role in the lives of key actors and in shaping pivotal events, a role that most writers of history ignore.

The book’s vibrancy dulls toward the end, when Cheever slip-slides into a hackneyed endorsement of Alcoholics Anonymous, as if that organization had made any salutary impact on American drinking behavior. Per capita consumption of alcohol only went up when AA was founded. The long and only partially written story of AA’s symbiosis with the alcoholic beverage industry belongs in a muckraking book of this kind, and Cheever’s failure to even glimpse the issue is a major lapse.  Still, for its earlier chapters, it’s well worth reading.

Jul 13

There’s Money In Homelessness — Review of the S. F. Homeless Project

Homeless-in-San-FranciscoBy Carol Denney

Reposted by permission of the author from the Berkeley Daily Planet 7/4/16

The San Francisco Chronicle spearheaded a blizzard of coverage in June 2016 on homelessness which included 70 news outlets by its own count, calling it the “S. F. Homeless Project.” And after a week of homeless-focused stories, the San Francisco Chronicle put an editorial on its own front page endorsing the status quo: more money for “services”, of course, and good luck with that. But the rest sounded pretty familiar; stricter tracking systems for the use of “services”, more enforcement of anti-homeless laws, and continued street sweeps of tent cities as a way to “ensure that the people who are offered this array of assistance are no longer afforded the option to flout the law with impunity.”

Flout the law with impunity. It sounds like a cool dance step you pick up in a hip hop class. But it’s the smear out of almost every Bay Area news outlet and the snarl on the face of almost every politician in close concert. It’s the best-known song about the housing crisis, and it helps to consider that some people benefit from homelessness. The average rent in San Francisco is $4,500 a month, which has a lot more to do with the creation of homelessness than drug abuse, mental illness, or the rest of the red herrings the Chronicle loves to flog combined.

There’s a clear mechanism in play at the San Francisco Chronicle, a mechanism recognizable nationwide. Chronicle reporters repeatedly savage the poor on the street for being in the way, for being messy, for inevitable and natural behavior such as defecating, etc. They continuously stoke animosity toward people on the street year round, promulgating deceptive but popular mythology, like the idea that homeless people prefer to live on the street. A few reporters, Kevin Fagan and Heather Knight in particular, manage to sneak relevant factual information into an article, but the Chronicle’s main focus has always been how hard San Francisco and its politicians work to end homelessness and how much money is wasted–whoops, spent in the process. The implication is that spending more money is not the answer — these poor people just need a strong incentive to change their attitude.

This is really handy for the San Francisco politicians who need a popular boost in the next election. Nobody ever loses votes in San Francisco for kicking around the poor. It doesn’t matter if the last anti-homeless law was a stupid, unenforceable, unconstitutional, counter-productive embarrassment even to a hard-working police officer — here comes another one! No need to honestly re-prioritize the budget if you can unveil another pointless, unenforceable anti-homeless law. People who pay attention can see where extremity meets levity; the towering pile of laws which make it illegal to pee while acres of handy dough shows up for the yacht race.

The new horsecrap anti-homeless law benefits the politicians who get public applause for doing something about the issue of homelessness whether its counter-productive or not. Then as the new pointless program with the cute name (Care Not Cash, etc.) hits the wall the Chronicle never does the story about why the program was a piece of …pointlessness. They do the story blaming the poor. Followed by the story about the next pointless program with the new cute name and the new well-meaning director standing next to the next politician who needs a pre-election boost in the papers.

Who benefits from homelessness? Property owners do. Landlords do. Most law is bought and paid for by property owners to benefit property owners who are giddy with the fact that they can legally increase their rent from $800 a month to $8,000 a month because some tech guy will just pay it. The American system of voting, after all, began in this country not just by excluding African-Americans and women — you couldn’t vote at all if you didn’t own property.

Berkeleyside put a picture of a man sleeping on concrete up on their website, apparently something from an archive. He had a sleeping bag pulled over him with his bicycle and backpack close by. He had no liquor bottle or beer can anywhere near him, but the photo was captioned “sleeping it off” as though he were drunk– as though one could pretty much assume anybody sleeping on the sidewalk was probably drunk or sleeping off a drinking binge.

That’s how assumptions are made in the Bay Area, and it doesn’t take long after unemployment, eviction, or serious illness uproots a life for people to begin making them. In a way, Berkeleyside’s editors did us all a favor by illustrating on a Monday, before their coverage for the S. F. Homeless Project began on Wednesday, that the tradition of stereotyping homeless people caught up in a planned and predictable housing crisis would continue to be honored.

It was an ominous beginning to a week of perhaps good journalistic intentions. But what ensued was no substitute for analyzing the numbers, something most publications find it politically convenient to omit. Developers, after all, are the deep pockets in town, often the primary producers in showy campaigns for anti-homeless laws such as the anti-tent law currently being promoted for November’s ballot by San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell, who coincidentally is running for re-election. Nothing positions a politician better for re-election than another unconstitutional anti-homeless law if the voting public, often honestly thirsting for a practical solution to decades of housing crisis, is fed enough daily, hostile anti-poor screeds by an obedient press.

Nobody went to jail on Wall Street for tipping the world into economic chaos. And not everybody who lost their jobs, homes, families, and health after the crash in 2008 ended up on the street. But it’s odd how little of that economic earthquake affected policy, both on and off Wall Street.

The Chronicle’s Heather Knight and Kevin Fagan are two journalists who are occasionally given space enough to write about the fact that the current policy on tent cities and street dwellers nationwide — jailing and chasing people in circles — is more expensive than simply providing and paying for housing. But such paragraphs, usually buried in the back pages, are no match for the flashy regular columnists whose stock in trade is emphasizing the horror people experience having to actually see others in need.

Powerful emotional experience is certainly part of persuasion. But it’s a curious kind of journalism that see-saws wildly between two opposing views of the inevitable poverty created by a planned housing crisis: the emotional toll on those who have to walk by visible poverty on the one hand versus the humanity of the human beings caught in the cross-fire of a political climate which hasn’t taken a practical approach to housing for decades.

“These people are human, many of them, on the streets and deserve to be recognized as such,” — Michael Krasny on KQED’s Forum program after a discussion of homelessness 6-29-2016.

People don’t mean to sound like idiots on live radio. But if Michael Krasny, the respected host of the Forum show on KQED radio can do it, perhaps it has something to do with lacking practice, not of hosting radio but of navigating a subject in which portraits of sympathetic poor people substitute for exposés of expensive, counter-productive, but politically popular policy.

We need to keep firmly in mind that there’s money in homelessness. Right now just about none of that money is being challenged and channeled to address community needs. Just about nobody is talking about real rent control, or linking rents to the minimum wage. Just about nobody wants to promote a tracking system for the wealthy to make sure they’re making appropriate choices with the profits they’re making off the rest of us. The developers have managed to monetize poverty, a feat that makes even the savviest tech guy buying Mission district property salivate–can I make an app for that?

The S. F. Homeless Project was a magic act poised to capitalize on already committed funding to create the illusion of political change without having to actually manifest any. Those who work in print know that the impressive front page editorial for Sunday’s Chronicle entitled “A Civic Disgrace”, the culmination of the week’s collected study and focus which re-committed to the status quo, was written well ahead of time.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The absence of political and moral will is the real obstacle to change. If a city had the will to address the housing crisis it would never allow developers to dedicate precious square footage to anything other than meeting community needs. Developers, after all, can go build luxury housing all over the world in places where their dollars are welcome. But the raw math of the status quo — allowing developers to chew through all the honestly affordable housing in neighborhood after neighborhood on the off chance they might leave behind a couple of units affordable to the new poor, the $80,000 to $100,000 a year crowd– is not only not sensible, it is not sustainable.

Playing games with high-end pet products, or cosmetics, or clothing are things investors and entrepreneurs can experiment with without necessarily ripping a culture to pieces. But playing games with housing, a human necessity, should be criminal. A community slowly and systematically robbed of spaces to live, spaces to make art, spaces to worship, spaces to gather, places to recreate let alone places to live has a deep poverty of leadership. The few reporters who notice need to write about that deficit, which is the real story.

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