Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Read: 5 December, 2014

Hiro Protagonist (no, really) delivers pizzas for the Mafia, and must never, ever be late. On a night where absolutely everything seems to be going wrong, it looks very much like the pizza will be late, until he’s saved by fifteen year old Kourier, Y.T. Thus begins a partnership that sees the rise, and fall, of a linguistic virus/religion transmitted to hackers through the Metaverse.

Snow Crash is a dog pile of interesting ideas. Reading, it felt like something new was being thrown at me every couple pages. While that certainly made for an interesting read that I suspect I will still be thinking about for a long time, it also means that there wasn’t much room for character depth – or even for me to grow to care for the characters. Sure, Hiro and Y.T. are cool, but they never got to feel like people.

The sheer amount of content and detail also means lengthy info-dumps, like the multiple chapters of Hiro sitting in his Metaverse office talking to the Librarian. The Librarian is explaining the whole backstory for the plot while Hiro occasionally interjects with a question or comment, and this goes on and on and on. The ideas were interesting, but I couldn’t help but think that there absolutely must have been a better way to deliver them.

I think that the pacing and style of the book would have worked much better as a movie, but then all those info-dumps would have needed cutting.

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    Wheel of Time #5: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

    Read: 28 November, 2014

    In The Fires of Heaven, the narrative is largely split between Rand as he returns from the Aiel Waste and Nynaeve’s struggles against Moghedien.

    I see that a lot of people didn’t like the focus on Nynaeve. She’s always been rather critical and negative, but she’s been something of a side character, so that she is only experienced through an intermediary. Here, though, we get a whole bunch of pure, unfiltered Nynaeve. That means near constant criticisms of men’s wool-headedness, abject hatred of Juilin’s hat, and her cattiness with Elayne.

    Personally, though, I actually appreciated it. Because while Nynaeve is certainly very negative, her character is also growing a great deal through this book. After her victory against Moghedien in the last book, she now has to deal with the fact that a member of the Forsaken has taken notice of her and has a rather big grudge. She tries to deal with her fear and guilt by transforming herself into a meek woman, only to be brought back up by her friends and to realize that she cannot be meek if she is going to do her part to save the world.

    Mat Cauthon continues his own transformation. I really didn’t like him when we first met him, but he is turning into one of my favourite characters. His constant cycle of trying to escape from his destiny only to be pulled back against his will is rather hilarious.

    The pacing is slow, and I agree with the complaint that it tends to be very slow through most of the book only to suddenly speed up for the climax, making the book feel rather uneven. That said, though, I appreciate how much depth the characters have, and how much they are changed and impacted by their experiences.

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      Bats in the Band by Brian Lies

      I only had a few minutes in the library and needed a Halloween-themed book to read to my son on Halloween night. After flipping through the shelves in vain for a while, I stumbled on this book with bats in it. It was a little long, which doesn’t generally make for very good bed time reading to a tired kid with short attention span, but I was out of time and desperate.

      As it happens, this was an absolutely wonderful little book.

      The rhythm and rhyme of the text has a great flow, so it was fun to read out loud and held my son’s attention despite the book’s length. It also uses words like “hibernation,” which is something we’ve been talking a lot about as the weather gets colder, so it was lovely to be able to show my son an example of an animal in a story doing it. There’s also a reference in the story to echolocation (though the word isn’t used), so we got to talk about that as well.

      The bats use a variety of instruments and make music in several different styles, so that gave us some more conversation pieces. The morning after we first read it, we opened the book again and, with YouTube, looked for examples of all the musical styles referenced in the book. We tried to match up the instruments being played by human musicians to the ones in the book, talked about the sounds they make, to beat, etc.

      In other words, the book has tremendous value as a learning launch pad.

      The artwork is lovely and very detailed, with a lot going on that we could talk about (in particular, my son loved the recurring image of the parent bat carrying a baby bat in a carrier). Unfortunately, it being bats, the images are a bit dark. If I had enough light to read by, the glare made the images a little hard to see. This may have been an issue with the texture of the pages, which is slightly matted. I’m not sure. But in any case, it didn’t detract from the overall wonderfulness of the book.

      I highly recommend it for the toddler and preschooler set.

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        The Dresden Files #9: White Night by Jim Butcher

        Read: 2 November, 2014

        Several women with magical abilities have been committing suicide, but Murphy thinks that all might not be as it seems. When she brings in Harry, it quickly becomes apparent that Thomas has been involved.

        This instalment may be the most referential to date. Several characters returned, and many of the plotlines that Harry has been juggling over the past few books finally get resolved (or, at least, seem to).

        Over the last few books – certainly since Dresden’s first encounter with Lasciel – things have been getting darker. It’s been clear for a while that, at some point, Dresden was going to have to take a long hard look at what he’s becoming. This is the book where that happens, and I’m glad that Murphy got to be a part of it (she calmly and kindly leads Dresden toward the introspection he’s been avoiding, as a concerned friend).

        Molly is an interesting sidekick, though largely untouched. She has a few hijinks moments, learns a few lessons, but largely stays out of the fighting. Which is not a bad thing. I think I might feel quite differently about Dresden if he brought her into things so soon.

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          Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams

          Read: 21 October, 2014

          The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King

          Howard Fornoy sets out to tell the story of what happened to the world – and the Messiah – in the little time he has left. I’ve only read a few of King’s works, but his voice is unmissable in this story. He sets it up early, complaining that the story deserves “thousands of pages,” but will get only a handful. As a result, much of the story is only hinted at. It was interesting and tantalizing, but I don’t think that it would have held my attention for much longer. I’m sure he would have done something interesting with more pages, but I quite appreciated that so much was left for me to fill in for myself.

          Salvage by Orson Scott Card

          Following a rumour of gold in the old Mormon temple, Deaver ropes his friends into helping him explore the flooded ruins. I have rather serious reservations about Card as a person, and was pretty wary of story of his putting Mormonism so front and centre. Despite this, I found it a pleasant read, and surprisingly non-preachy. Sure, Deaver is exposed to a lesson in respecting the beliefs of others (whether he learns it or not is another matter), but it worked, and it could easily have been the written from the perspective of any other faith system.

          The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi

          A somewhat surreal story in which humanity has been so changed by technology that they’re no longer recognizably people any more. The world is a much changed place, inhospitable to life, yet humanity has survived by changing itself. I found the story a little difficult to get into, perhaps because the people were so alien in many ways that it took me a while to figure out what was going on. Once I did, however, I really appreciated the snapshot of possible future humanity, and what it says about us.

          Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert

          An interesting little piece about some of the less savoury tactics used in war, and the guilt/fear reactions to refugees. It was a little more abstract than most of the other stories, and perhaps harder to see its place in the anthology, but it was well written and interesting.

          How We Got In Town and Out Again by Jonathan Lethem

          Two young people join a virtual reality stamina competition – the goal, as I gathered it, was to be the last person “standing.” For some reason, in this future world, it’s more entertaining for spectators to watch other people play games than to play games themselves. This seems rather odd, and especially fanciful when the author’s biography reads that this story is part of a larger series “railing against virtual reality technologies.” The characterization of the main character was quite interesting, and fairly complex for a short story, but it didn’t carry the story. Perhaps being a gamer coloured my reading, but the premise just seemed to absurd for me to take the story seriously.

          Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin

          A familiar enough story where off-world humans return to a destroyed earth to find a very different sort of human – in this case a subterranean one. Martin’s writing style gives this overdone plot a bit of new life, though the end twist should surprise no one familiar with his work. The story was entertaining, even if it wasn’t particularly thought-provoking.

          Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias S. Buckell

          Mara waits for a land-ship to take her away from an abusive home life. The story was sad, but ended on a (not uncomplicated) note of hope. I felt like there was so much more to tell, though, and it was frustrating to have the story end just as it should have begun. This felt like a kernel, perhaps an experimental hashing out of ideas meant to be used in earnest later on.

          Never Despair by Jack McDevit

          Chaka searches through the ruins of earth for an explanation of what was. Like Waiting for the Zephyr, the story felt like a brainstorm for a bigger piece, but, also like Zephyr, the ideas it presents carry it. It was significantly less polished than Buckell’s piece, though, as there were many questions that begged answers – how is the holograph (?) still running? Why doesn’t Chaka mine it for information when information is what she’s after?

          When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow

          Personally, I found this to be one of the most entertaining works in the anthology. Felix maintains the internet in Toronto, and it’s a late night emergency that saves him from dying along with his wife, child, and the rest of the city when the apocalypse hits. It’s a terribly sad story as Felix roots around for ways to process the loss of his family, set against the backdrop of a bunch of techies trying to decide if the apocalypse is a time for hope or for despair. On a more personal note, I particularly enjoyed the characterization of Felix, the way he processes the changing situation. Being something of an “android” myself, and having most of my social circle comprised of Aspie STEM people, it was a joy to see such familiar thought patterns in a fictional character.

          The Last of the O-Forms by James Van Pelt

          A somewhat interesting “behind the scenes at the travelling zoo” story with an entertaining (and appropriate) twist ending. While not spectacular, the story was a solid inclusion.

          Still Life with Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey

          I’ve mentioned that a few of these stories felt more like brainstorming notes than fully fleshed out stories, and it doesn’t get more true than for this one. Still Life isn’t even a story so much as a collection of thoughts about the apocalypse strung together without narrative coherence or internal logic. There’s an image of a horse being dragged out of a pit, a brief history of the main character’s post-apocalyptic career, and a description of his living situation. That’s it. At least at barely two pages, it didn’t take up too much of my time.

          Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells

          In this story, Arthurian legend is tied into a post-apocalyptic scene. The main character, Faye, is finally admitted to what appears to be a city in a biosphere, sheltered from the radiation of the world outside. There, she meets Artie, a charismatic boy who forms a sort of courier service bicycle cult around a moral code. I thought the story itself was interesting, and weaving it together with the story of King Arthur made it even more so. Even better, there was a commentary there on the role of stories in the creation of social movements that really made this story stand out.

          Judgement Passed by Jerry Oltion

          Astronauts return to earth to find it empty, completely empty of people, after Christ’s return. Having been left behind, the astronauts must figure out what to do in a post-Judgement Day world, all without Nicolas Cage to guide them.The story was interesting, though the repetition of the word “agnostic” got a little grating (not to mention that the characters never define the term and don’t use it in a sense I’m familiar with).

          Mute by Gene Wolfe

          Jill and Jimmy are on a bus that takes them home, but no one is there for them when they arrive. This story threw me off a bit because of its inclusion in this collection. I kept expecting to understand what the apocalypse was and trying to beat off the rather obvious hints that the children are dead and in the afterlife (I mean, come on, they try to leave the house only go pass through the gate and end up back on the inside – if that’s not “endless fog,” I don’t know my horror tropes!). I enjoyed the story – it had a lovely creepy tone – but I’m not sure why it was included in this anthology, except perhaps because of its “empty world” aspect. But I did find that my expectations of what the story was going to be about lessened my enjoyment of what it actually was.

          Inertia by Nancy Kress

          A disfiguring plague leads to modern leper colonies – largely abandoned and forced into self-sufficiency. But one doctor believes that the disease may have another symptom, a beneficial one. I really enjoyed this story about minds and how our behaviour can be shaped by factors like disease. The cutesy twist gave me a chuckle.

          And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear

          A courier must travel through a wasteland to deliver her package. On the way, she meets Nick at a crossroads. The post-apocalyptic setting seemed rather tangential to what was really a story about dealing with the devil and redemption. The story didn’t wow me, but it was decent filler.

          Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler

          A disease that induces stroke-like symptoms has overrun the world, leaving many “impaired.” Rye can still speak, but she’s lost the ability to read and write. And when jealousy over lost abilities leads people to kill, she cannot even speak for fear of her life. I found this to be an interesting story about the importance of communication, the choice many people make not to communicate even when they can, and the need for human contact.

          Killers by Carol Emshwiller

          A community of women has survived the war that ended civilization alone, their men all gone to fight. Some men return, but they are different, savage. Then, one night, one man comes home. Killers is a short, brutal story with a rather bludegeony political message. Though it was interesting and the ending certainly fit, I felt that the twist came too fast, as though the author had gotten bored and just wanted to finish it already.

          Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus by Near Barrett, Jr.

          This story didn’t wow me. I felt like a bunch of concepts were being thrown at me (androids! virtual sex! insurance sales! animal hybrids! tacos!), but the short story format didn’t allow any of it to go anywhere. It all just happened and then it was over and I never felt like I had been made to care about any of it. Perhaps because the characters were so neglected in the effort to pack the setting.

          The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey

          An interesting piece about the powerlessness of losing a loved one. This was a different approach to the other stories in the collection, and a little more meta. It also worked well as an allegory for loss in a general sense.

          A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg

          A musician just wants to play the piano. This was an interesting piece, though perhaps not particularly memorable. I think the author was trying to tackle the civilization/culture relationship, and the ending fit well into that discussion. It was certainly solid filler material, just not one of the stories that will stay with me in the long term.

          Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan

          Jackie is eight months pregnant and running for her life with Wayne, a comic book enthusiast who seems almost to revel in the apocalypse. There was a lot going on here that was never explained – where did the flowers come from? What is Wayne’s shadow? But it was an extremely compelling story. I was on the edge of my seat, and I found Jackie’s internal struggle very interesting. The only flaw with the story was the awkward format – particularly the use of mega, multi-page paragraphs that made reading extremely difficult (especially with a child, where I’m frequently being interrupted – finding my place again in a wall of text is an exercise in futility). The weird use of bolded lines and dashes took a while to get used to, but I found that they worked well with the pace of the writing.

          Overall, I found this to be a very solid anthology. There were stories that I slogged through, and there were some that were clearly filler material (though at least solid filler), and plenty of gems. I had to keep stopping as I read because I was inspired to write another short story of my own, or I needed to stop and mull over a theme.

          I’m not a terribly huge fan of the short story form, mostly because it takes me some time to ease into a world. As a result, reading short stories often feels like I’m just forced to go through that awkward, confused, unpleasant stage over and over again and, as soon as I’m comfortably settled in and ready to enjoy the ride, it ends. Despite this, I really enjoyed this anthology, and I think the selections were well chosen.

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            Wheel of Time #4: The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan

            Read: 20 October, 2014

            As per the pattern, the Goodie team splits up. Perrin and Faile head to the Two Rivers after hearing rumours of trouble; Elayne, Nynaeve, and Thom go to Tarabon to hunt the Black Ajah; Egwene goes into the Aiel Waste to study with the Wise Ones, and Rand goes along to chase prophecy; all while Min stays in the White Tower. Breaking tradition, each separate sub-committee gets their own climax rather than rejoin in time for Rand’s (though, of course, Rand’s comes last to serve as the Great Climax).

            New characters are introduced, others are promoted from C-list to B-list, and the world is further developed. While it was lovely to see main characters other than Rand get big climaxes of their own, the book wasn’t terribly different from the others in the series.

            There were a few issues that were largely present in previous books, but weren’t quite as explicit. For example, when some of the female characters try to help Rand learn how to channel, they describe the act as a submission for women, but an active riding requiring complete control for the men. It’s a tired stereotype of gender essentialism, and it would have been nice to see Jordan use a little more creativity (though perhaps dividing the use of the power along gender lines made it extra difficult for him to avoid evoking cultural assumptions about gender in describing difference). In this case, though, given just how much harm has come from the “power comes through submission” rhetoric, it really would have been nice for him to have tried something new.

            The same gender essentialism creeps up in the relationships between the male and female characters. Rand, for example, being unable to figure out why telling his girlfriend that he’ll miss her when she leaves is a bad thing (because, in his mind, she’d already decided to leave, so what would be the point?). The image of men as hyper-rational-and-therefore-unable-to-comprehend-feels is silly and trite and hurtful. The number of times male characters shrug their shoulders and say some variation of “bitches be crazy” was absolutely frustrating. I’ve read complains about the female characters always calling the men “wool-headed” and such but, frankly, it’s hard not to understand their frustration when the male characters seem to have so much trouble understanding that the female characters are people, not members of some weird alien race.

            I’m complaining a lot about the gender stuff, I know. And I want to make it clear that, so far, the Wheel of Time series has been absolutely fantastic in that respect. Not only have there been female characters, they’ve been active and powerful and have relationships between each other and their own goals that have nothing to do with the men and it’s just been absolutely fantastic. There are just these residual issues that are a shame.

            And since I’m talking about relationships between men and women, let me just say that Jordan’s apparent weirdness about sex is hilarious. This is a series with a great deal of violence, with women walking around practically naked and doing sexy dances to entice men, and with a level of complexity that surely must be a perfectly adequate access barrier for the vast majority of pre-pubescent would-be readers, yet we have Mat gallivanting around town trying to find a woman to “cuddle” with.

            The last thing I’d like to touch on is the Faile and Perrin sub-plot. It has its moments, plenty of them, but the stubbornness they both display is seriously testing the limits of my suspension of disbelief – even for characters who are supposed to be stubborn. Or, put another way, there is a difference between being stubborn and being idiotically childish, and this couple crosses that threshold far too often. It’s a real shame because I like Perrin a lot, and Faile has a lot of potential to be an interesting foil/companion for him. But, instead, we just get this advertisement-grade caricature of romance where the “playful establishing of boundaries” of a new relationship looks an awful lot more like mutual abuse.

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              Owly & Wormy: Bright Lights and Starry Nights by Andy Runton

              Bright Lights is a sweet story about two friends, Owly and Wormy, who want to see the stars and, on the way, they become friends with a family of bats.

              The story is told in a graphic novel style, except that instead of text in speech bubbles, there are instead more images. This made it great for reading with my pre-literate kid, because it meant that we could look at the pictures together and talk about what was happening – encouraging him to deduce from the visual cues how the characters are feeling, what they are saying, etc.

              Another thing I loved about the book is that it was just so very sweet. When Wormy was afraid of the dark, Owly brought out lights to make him feel better. When Owly lost the telescope, the bats helped to find it. The situations provided us with many opportunities to discuss things like friendship, helping, being afraid of the dark, and so forth.

              Overall, this was just a lovely, sweet book that provides ample occasions for the pre-literate crowd to flex their logic muscles.

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                Forever War by Joe Haldeman

                Read: 2 October, 2014

                In the war against an unknown alien, the battlefield stretches across light years. Conscript William Mandella fights for earth, only to find the planet much changed on his return.

                The writing style is one that seems common among classic science fiction works – it’s very journalistic, appearing dry and even monotone even while it conveys a great deal. And there’s certainly a great deal here.

                In a not-too-subtle retelling of the Vietnam War, Haldeman uses relativistic time dilation to explore the experience of the drafted soldier return to a country he doesn’t recognize and that doesn’t accept him. There’s also a lot there about fighting foreign (alien) cultures, not understanding the enemy, not understanding why the enemy needs to be killed, being compelled by propaganda even while recognizing it as propaganda, etc. In other words, the book is one massive smorgasbord of social commentary.

                The views on homosexuality are obviously outdated, as are the gender relations. Certainly, the approach to heterosexual sex early on in the novel is downright rape-y. I can chalk some of that up to the age of the novel, and there’s enough other stuff going on to carry me through the rest, but it bears saying.

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                  Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees

                  Giraffes Can’t Dance is a fairly typical story of a main character (in this case a giraffe named Gerald) who thinks that they suck at something, then discovers that they not only don’t suck, they are so good at it that it earns them public recognition. It’s a problematic narrative that I really dislike, in particular because it de-emphasizes the role of hard work and practice, and because it’s unsustainable (if anybody can be the best at dancing, how does that even work?).

                  In this case, the trite storyline is mitigated a little by having each animal have its own special dance, and the issue holding Gerald back is that he hadn’t discovered his special dance yet (in this case, the boogie). So I spun it for my son by saying that the important thing isn’t being great at dancing, but finding something that you love and can work hard to excel at. I’m sure that’s what Andreae meant too, though the message is undermined by having all the animals exclaim: “Gerald’s the best dancer that we’ve ever, ever seen!”

                  The storyline aside, Giraffes Can’t Dance has a great rhythm. There are no tongue twisters or sudden skips in the beat, so it’s easy and fun to read aloud. My son also loved the illustrations, which are simple enough to be easy to process, but complex enough to be interesting, and – of course – very colourful.

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                    The Dresden Files #8: Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

                    Read: 30 September, 2014

                    The tone is set when Dresden attends the trial of a sixteen year old boy accused of dark magic. The kid had stumbled into mind control without knowing the laws of magic, and now the White Council can only make one choice: the penalty for breaking the laws of magic is death. As Dresden leaves the trial, the Gatekeeper gives him a cryptic warning of dark magic being used in Chicago.

                    The first few books in the series were pretty campy, trying to be Noir and coming off more like the hammy versions of the genre. The last few books, certainly since Blood Rites, have felt a little like place-holders. Very little actually happens in Blood Rites, making the book feel more like just a vehicle for the big reveal at the end. Dead Beat had a lot more going on, but still seemed to be trying to get through a load of exposition.

                    Proven Guilty had some of the same feel to it, and we learn a great deal of background about the “Dresden Pack.” We also see quite a bit of pay off in Dresden’s character development as he deals with his strained relationship with the Carpenters, his connection to the fallen angel Lasciel, his “will they, won’t they” relationship with Murphy, his feelings about Ebenezar, and, of course, his rather difficult relationship with the White Council.

                    There were several difficult issues tackled in the book, perhaps the biggest being Molly, the Carpenters’ seventeen year old, having a crush on Dresden. While I understand that it’s a situation many would rather not read about, and I see several reviews calling Butcher some variation of “creep” for writing about it, I actually quite appreciated it. The fact is that this situation happens, and it happens a lot to young girls who have troubled relationships with their families (and are therefore already vulnerable in all sorts of ways). Acknowledging that the older man might be tempted, that the refusal might be difficult, just added realism to scene. Throughout, Dresden modeled the (mostly) appropriate course of action for the older man to take – he refuses, he sets explicit boundaries, and he never ever takes advantage of the situation (except, of course, for the impromptu lesson involving an ice bucket challenge).

                    I also appreciated how Dresden and Murphy handled their feelings for each other. While certainly not ending the “will they, won’t they” subplot, I was pleased to see them talking out their feelings and options like mature adults. Dresden also gains a new understanding of his mentor, Ebenezar, and begins the process of repairing their relationship. All in all, Dresden grows up a lot in this book, and seems set on a good course to repair all the damage that came to the fore in Dead Beat.

                    That said, there was a little “plot critical” silliness. The events of the book circle around a horror movie convention: SplatterCon!!! Yet despite two separate incidents that, collectively, led to several deaths and hospitalizations, it’s just assumed that the con will continue. Never is the possibility of cancelling the rest of the event seriously considered. I can understand continuing on after an incident that left an old man beaten up in a bathroom, but once someone dies, it almost seems in poor taste to keep on celebrating horror movies.

                    Butcher has gotten much better at setting up tricks that will come in handy later in the book. Early on in the series, Dresden would pick a few potions to make, seemingly out of a hat, only to find that they happen to be the exact potions that he needs. It was a little silly. Here, however, Little Chicago is introduced early on, but it’s given a firmly plausible purpose, even if it happens to be exactly what Dresden needs later on. There’s also some teasing, where Dresden thinks that he will need it, but then doesn’t, then later does for a different reason.

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