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Month: January 2017 (page 1 of 2)

Doomsday for Digiphiles

Wes Siler, an experienced outdoorsman, thinks that Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse all wrong. (This will probably make more sense if you read the article he’s responding to, although Siler’s post does a decent job summarizing. The really short version: Peter Thiel is not the only venture capitalist with a fortified luxury bunker in remote New Zealand.)

Here is the thrust of Siler’s critique:

Predicating survival scenarios on the successful execution of a complicated series of events is a recipe for failure. By their very nature, these big, hypothetical disasters would create chaos and undo societies. […] A powerful individual may assume the politicians he buys will be polite enough to give them advance warning of a pending disaster, thereby enabling them to flee in plenty of time. But, even if the political will is there, an event like a polar shift may come without warning.

Siler suggests that “[d]eveloping experience with a wide range of real-world capabilities is the key to effective survival preparation.” Unlike the cagey tech moguls, Siler keeps no secrets about his methods:

I’m happy to share my doomsday survival plan. I spend my time developing fitness, recreating outdoors, and making stuff with my hands. I know I can navigate through the wilderness, because that’s just a fun weekend for me and my dog. I know I can set a broken arm, because I’ve set mine. I know I can build a house, because that used to be my job.

(Before we switch to my commentary, I have a few more links for those of you who find this topic interesting: BuzzFeed on Trump-inspired liberal preppers, Vocativ on similar liberal preppers, Chicago Magazine on affluent suburban preppers, Slate on prepper fiction as Americana, and Wes Siler again, on his distaste for Bear Grylls’ advice. I’ve read more about this than I realized!)

Broadly, I agree with Siler. Learning how to be a self-sufficient backpacker is less glamorous than financing an opulent bug-out mansion manned by solar-powered Roombas, but it’s more likely to keep you alive in the event of a disaster. He’s also correct that camping skills can be useful on a day-to-day basis, unlike a cellar full of canned caviar and Soylent.

Of course, if you’re a billionaire, assembling a doomsday plan fit for Tony Stark is primarily a hobby. The techies interviewed by the New Yorker come across as earnest, but my guess is that the average prepper (from any economic stratum) is unconsciously optimizing for entertainment value rather than effectiveness.

Most of us don’t take preppers seriously. We tend to see it as silly when they spend time and money planning for a highly unlikely scenario, such as total economic collapse (in a First World country, anyway) or an earthquake so devastating that civilization is wholesale destroyed. Their priors on the plausible scope of various catastrophes are skewed, and they must be falling for Pascal’s Mugging.

On the other hand, I always worry about normalcy bias — the tendency to believe that things will always be the way they’ve been in your experience. How can you tell when you’re succumbing to normalcy bias, versus rationally judging that something is too unlikely to be worth preparing for?

Header artwork by Miram Eldisawy.

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Nothing Clever, I’m Just Scared

Warning: I’m only equipped to gradually wind my way around to the point.

I’ve been trying to write down my feelings all day. I reread Cat Marnell’s Amphetamine Logic columns and pondered oblivion. Did you know that I’ve basically never done drugs? It’s silly to be a teetotaling transhumanist, no matter how passive. Maybe shooting up would Show Me the Way. Perhaps I’d be a better advocate for total bodily autonomy (AKA trans rights).

My partner gave me the corner of an edible once and I just felt like I had a fever. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to “doing drugs”. Alcohol, on the other hand. Well! I do have an appropriately addictive personality, and my therapist is so concerned when I admit that I drink as much as any other formerly depressed twenty-something.

On the subject of depression, I felt more anguished today than I have in a long time. The SFO protest helped in the moment, but comedowns are always painful. Venlafaxine fixed my brain chemistry. But as far as I know, neurotic personalities can’t be fixed. BEING YOURSELF IS PERMANENT.

I reread Marnell’s essays, and I reread my post-election blog post. Then I second-guessed myself. Back in November I wrote, “I don’t believe we’re on the edge of a national apocalypse,” but what the fuck did I know? What the fuck do I know now? How can I pull away far enough to judge my own capabilities?

You could call this liberal tears. Please, feel free. Here in the United States, we’re close enough to my pre-committed “total resistance” threshold — the Muslim registry — that I’m pondering the best strategy of, uh, total resistance. Tips welcome. If you live in an authoritarian country you might be laughing at me, and that’s fine.

At the protest last night, I cried once, and wished the crowd would sing “This Land Is Your Land” even if most of us are colonizers because I need some kind of harmonious resistance in the present. I need an identity politics that is able to unite people instead of sectioning them off into boxes and imposing baroque rulesets.

Last year on Tumblr I coined the term “femmencholy” and that’s how I feel. I’m never more ladylike than when I’m sobbing. Not that I’m literally sobbing — it’s more of a symbol. A concept.

Image by @greatartbot.

Image by @greatartbot.

What does this have to do with techno-dystopia?! You may be wondering. It does and it doesn’t. You see, this is where we are:

As a result of many related factors — difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism — there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project.

They don’t mean the lefty type of liberal, they mean the “believes in representative democracy” type of liberal.

The “new era of communications” is what enables me to contact you and also what enables everything that scares me.

We’ve found ourselves here as well:

The Internet was supposed to liberate us from gatekeepers; and, indeed, information now comes at us from all possible sources, all with equal credibility. […] The belief in the corruptibility of all institutions leads to a dead end of universal distrust.

How very Russian of us, comrades!!!

Liberal tears, I know. I know, okay? I suspect many of you have an anarcho-libertarian bent, which is my preferred brand of radical. I hope you will forgive me for being partisan.

Header artwork by Magochama.

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No Escape from the Dreaded Content

When I started Exolymph, I thought about making it a links newsletter instead of a random-reflections newsletter. I decided not to do that for two reasons:

  1. There are also already tons of links newsletters, and far fewer newsletters that offer a five- or ten-minute shot of ideas. (Glitchet is an excellent links newsletter that also features weird net art.)
  2. As a person who subscribes to many links newsletters, I know that they can be stressful. There are more interesting articles than I have time to read.

However. I’ve come across so many incredible stories over the past forty-eight hours that I can’t narrow it down. (I did limit the Trump content.) Not all of these articles were published recently, but they’re all indicative of The State of the World, Cyber Edition.

Don’t click on anything that doesn’t truly grab you, just let the deluge of headlines keep flowing…

“Who is Anna-Senpai, the Mirai Worm Author?”

Brian Krebs, a respected cybersecurity journalist, investigated the botnet that knocked his site down with a massive DDoS attack last September. The result is a bizarre real-life whodunnit that takes place almost entirely online, replete with braggadocious shitposting on blackhat forums and the tumbling of shaky Minecraft empires. SO GOOD. (Also, buy his book!)

“Security Economics”

Spammers and hackers are just in it to get rich, or whatever the Eastern European equivalent is. (That stereotype exists for a reason. Again, buy Krebs’ book!) This is a quick overview of the players’ financial motives from an industry participant.

“Scammers Say They Got Uber to Pay Them With Fake Rides and Drivers”

The headline sums it up pretty well. Bonus: identity-theft slang!

“Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich”

Both hilarious and depressing, my favorite combo. Silicon Valley billionaires and multimillionaires are buying up land in New Zealand, stockpiling weapons, and getting surgery to fix their eyesight. Their paranoia — or is it pragmatism? — is framed as a reaction to Trump’s election. Here’s a more explicitly political companion piece, if you want that.

“This Team Runs Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Page”

As the wise elders have counseled us, “He who leads Brand… must become Brand.” Zuck is taking that ancient adage seriously. The kicker: “There are more than a dozen Facebook employees writing Mark Zuckerberg’s posts or scouring the comments for spammers and trolls.” MORE THAN TWELVE HUMAN BEINGS.

“Advanced Samizdat Techniques: Scalping Millennials”

Warning: authored by a notorious neo-Nazi. Everything weev does is evil. But also brilliant. Here we have an example of both, which is funny if you’re able to momentarily suspend your sense of decency. (I didn’t cloak the link, because it leads to Storify rather than a Nazi-controlled website.)

“World’s main list of science ‘predators’ vanishes with no warning”

Either someone is suing the poor guy who compiled it, or… threatening his family? Let’s hope the situation isn’t that sinister.

“Dictators use the Media Differently than Narcissists and Bullies”

Guess which self-obsessed politician this is about? (Granted, all politicians are more self-obsessed than the average person. But the MAGNITUDE, my friends, the magnitude!)

“RAND’s Christopher Paul Discusses the Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood'”

A counterpoint to the previous link.

“How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts”

Modern slot machines are expertly engineered to trick players and engender addiction. (The writer strongly implies a regulatory solution, which I don’t endorse, but the gambling industry is definitely diabolical.)

Lastly — most crucially — Ted Cruz totally clobbered Deadspin on Twitter. Aaand that’s it. Enjoy your Wednesday.

Header artwork by Emre Aktuna.

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Perils of the Connected Farm

Note from the editor: My friend Greg Shuflin posted the following story on Facebook. I asked if I could redistribute it here, and he said yes.

It was a pretty crazy day on the farm — the farm of the neocyberpunk 2040s that is, where cybernetically modified agrohackers wielded vast armies of AI-controlled smart tractors and fertilizer drones to eke their genejacked grain out of the dry soil of the post-Ogallala hellscape that was once a polity called “Kansas”.

Old Farmer Mauricio had programmed his cyberbrain to start nanofabbing caffeine molecules at 6am, and ever since then he’d been dealing with shit — some web bandits had exploited a quantum memory zero-day and broken into half of his private cloud’s namespace. Probably some fucking thirty-something LOMPs [low-marginal-product-of-labor proles on basic income] with nothing better to do than fuck with people, Mauricio thought to himself darkly.

Before the sun was finished rising, Mauricio had patched the vuln, killed as many of the malware AIs as he could find on his network, and had started to restore the water-recycler control AI from backup. He grabbed a quick breakfast of rice porridge and a Chinese doughnut, then woke up his lazy teenage nephew Chuck, who was staying with him during the growing season.

“Time to get up, Chucko,” he said, as the sleepy teen fumbled for his ocular implant on the pile of dirty laundry near his bed. “We’ve been hacked. I really need your help today.”

Chuck quickly brushed his teeth, threw on some work clothes, and went to the hovertractor in order to go do a hard reset on the network node out in field #3. But as he pulled the tractor out of the garage, he found that his way forward was blocked.

All of the AI-controlled wheel hoes that his uncle owned were spinning in circles and brandishing their spikes, in the most menacing fashion that their hardware allowed. Of course, the damn wheel hoes were behind the same firewall as everything else! So they had been infected and turned by the LOMPs’ fuckery too.

Mauricio let his nephew set out, with a word of warning: “Watch yourself, kid. These hoes ain’t loyal.”

You may be wondering, “Was that whole story really just build-up for a pun based on a Chris Brown song?” The answer is that yes, yes it was. Watch out for the LOMPs at work today, y’all.

Header photo by Michele Walfred.

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The Staid Side of Money

I interviewed my Twitter friend Marc Hochstein, who is the editor-in-chief at American Banker, about finance and technology. (He didn’t speak with me in a professional capacity, but I think his workplace is helpful context.)

Hochstein started his career as a wire service reporter at Dow Jones. He called it a “character-building experience” that involved a lot of cold-calling day traders. The upshot is that Hochstein has been reporting on banks and finance for decades, so his perspective on recent industry developments is interesting.

(Why you should care about this: Our world runs on money. The financial-services industry is hyper-entwined with government, and together they’re the base-level system that everything else is built on top of. That’s actually a simplification since “everything else” and “finance” developed concurrently, but you get the idea.)

I think this quote sums up a lot:

In the last two years — maybe three or four years — there’s been a lot more interest in technology as a potentially transformational force, than there has been in a very long time. You could argue that banking was always, in a way, a technological industry, or always a data industry. There’s a quote from Walter Wriston, who was the chairman of Citicorp back in the ’80s and ’90s. I forget the exact verbatim quote, but it’s something like, “A bank is nothing but a data warehouse, that’s always what it’s been.”

But the banks — financial institutions in general — have been slow to upgrade their core technology, and for some understandable reasons. Changing the core of the bank is a hard thing to do. […] When times are good, when they’re making a lot of money, there’s no real impetus to change anything. And then when times are bad, they don’t have the resources to do anything. Or resources are scarce, I should say.

Hochstein pointed out that the “Uber narrative” hasn’t played out in finance like it has in other industries. He told me, “The barriers to entry are higher. The stakes are higher, because you’re talking about people’s money.” Fintech startups can’t afford to beg forgiveness instead of asking permission. Regulators don’t take kindly to that, and users don’t either.

Technology hasn’t shaken up finance as much as people in Silicon Valley might have expected. Over the last few years, Hochstein explained, “The rhetoric changed from ‘fintech is going to eat the banks’ lunch’ to ‘fintech is going to make banking better at what they do’.” Still, “it’s a little early to say” whether fintech is actually improving banking, or what the degree of change will be. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a profound effect, but it’s there.”

On the bright side, “Transferring money is slowly getting faster.” The Automated Clearing House is finally moving to same-day settlement. “Part of the reason why they did that, why they finally had an impetus to go there,” Hochstein said, “is because of things like Ripple, and bitcoin, and cryptocurrency, as well as real-time payment systems that you see in a lot of other countries.” Hochstein noted that regulators and the Fed have also been pushing in this direction.

I find this slightly mind-boggling. It’s a big deal that ACH is moving to same-day settlement — not real-time, just same-day. In the year 2017.

I asked Hochstein which issues are going to dominate a lot of attention going forward, and he mentioned “open banking” and data portability. Basically, banks have a tremendous amount of lock-in because of all the information they’ve collected and stored about your identity and your account activity.

There’s some talk of forcing banks to provide this information to competitors — or whoever else might be authorized by individuals, e.g. money-management apps like Mint — via API. Guess whether the banks want to do that!

In conclusion, finance gonna finance. Big companies gonna rent-seek. They change when they’re forced to, either by regulation (Dodd-Frank Act, for example) or by the competitive environment. In general, these institutions move slowly. On balance that’s actually a good thing, considering how much havoc they could potentially wreak.

Thank you to Marc Hochstein for talking to me — follow him on Twitter or read his articles.

Photo of the Wall Street bull by Sam Valadi.

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Trust Not the Green Lock

Eric Lawrence works at Google, where he is “helping bring HTTPS everywhere on the web as a member of the Chrome Security team.” (I preserved his phrasing because I’m not 100% sure what that means concretely, but working on security at Google bestows some baseline credibility.) A couple of days ago Lawrence published a blog post about malicious actors using free certificates from Let’s Encrypt to make themselves look more legit. As he put it:

One unfortunate (albeit entirely predictable) consequence of making HTTPS certificates “fast, open, automated, and free” is that both good guys and bad guys alike will take advantage of the offer and obtain HTTPS certificates for their websites. […]

Another argument is that browsers overpromise the safety of sites by using terms like Secure in the UI — while the browser can know whether a given HTTPS connection is present and free of errors, it has no knowledge of the security of the destination site or CDN, nor its business practices. […] Security wording is a complicated topic because what the user really wants to know (“Is this safe?”) isn’t something a browser can ever really answer in the affirmative.

Lawrence goes into much more detail, of course. His post hit the front page on Hacker News, and the commentary is interesting. (As usual! Hacker News gets a worse rap than it deserves, IMO.)

I want to frame this exploitation of freely available certificates as a result of cacophony of the web. Anyone can publish, and anyone can access. Since internet users are able to choose anonymity, evading social or criminal consequences is easy. (See also: fake news, the wholly fabricated kind.) Even when there are opsec gaps, law enforcement doesn’t have anywhere near the resources to chase down everyone who’s targeting naive or careless users online.

Any trust signal that can be aped — especially if it can be aped cheaply — absolutely will be. Phishers and malware peddlers risk nothing. In fact, using https is not inherently deceptive (although it is surely intended to be). The problem is on the interpretation end. Web browsers and users have both layered extra meaning on top of the plain technical reality of https.

To his credit, Lawrence calls the problem unsolvable. It is, because the question here is: “Can you trust a stranger if they have a badge that says they’re trustworthy?” Not if the badge can be forged. Or, in the case of https, if the badge technically denotes a certain kind of trust, but most people read it as being a different kind of trust.

(I’m a little out of my depth here, but my understanding is that https doesn’t mean “this site is trustworthy”, it just means “this site is encrypted”. There are higher types of certificates that validate more, usually purchased by businesses or other institutions with financial resources.)

High-trust societies can mitigate this problem, of evaluating whether a stranger is going to screw you over, but there’s no way to upload those cultural norms. The internet is not structured for accountability. And people aren’t going to stop being gullible.

Anyway, Lawrence does have some suggestions for improving the current situation. Hopefully one or multiple of those will go forward.

Header photo by Joi Ito.

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Seeking Digital Citizenry

For years, Estonia has experimented with expanding their territory via the internet. You can become an “e-resident” of this small, friendly European country. But that’s not enough for Estonia — no, Estonia continues to innovate! Now they’re planning to export their brand:

We have built one of the world’s most advanced digital societies and are offering our country as a service. Estonia also means a clean environment, Arvo Pärt, our president and startup hubs, largest gender pay gap in the EU, UNESCO heritage and sky-high CO2 emissions — all the good and the bad. No logo would do us justice. Instead we have a lot of interesting stories and a clear vision.

Estonia's visual branding

Estonian visual asset.

I find Estonia’s eagerness charming, but also cringeworthy. The self-deprecating faux-pride about their gender pay gap and CO2 emissions is off-putting. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by Estonia’s effort just like I’m intrigued by seasteading and Liberland. More people and institutions should be attempting to invent less arbitrary forms of nationalism.

Estonia’s oddball expansion feels like the flipside of John Perry Barlow’s infamous vision for the internet:

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions. […]

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. […] Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

He was mostly wrong — but a little bit right. See “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” for my take on that.

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I Hope You Like the NSA Because the NSA Sure Likes You

Today’s news about the NSA feels a little too spot-on. I hope the hackneyed scriptwriters for 2017 feel ashamed:

In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.

Really? Expanding the NSA’s power, so soon after the Snowden plotline? A move like this might be exciting in an earlier season, but at this point the show is just demoralizing its viewers. Especially after making the rule that no one can turn off their TV, ever, it just seems cruel.

At least the Brits have it worse? I dunno, that doesn’t make me feel better, since America likes to import UK culture. (It’s one of our founding principles!)

Now is a good time to donate to the Tor Project, is what I’m saying.

In other news, researchers can pull fingerprints from photos and use the data to unlock your phone, etc. Throwback: fingerprints are horrible passwords.

Remember, kids, remaining in your original flesh at all is a poor security practice.

Header photo via torbakhopper, who attributes it to Scott Richard.

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Reclaiming the Panopticon

The following is Tim Herd’s response to the previous dispatch about sousveillance.

A tech executive was quoted saying something like, “Privacy is dead. Deal with it.” [According to the Wall Street Journal, it was Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. He said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”]

I think he’s right, for most working definitions of “privacy”. I think that security professionals, privacy advocates, etc, are fighting rearguard actions and they will lose eventually.

Less than a year after Amazon rolls out Alexa, cops pull audio from it to get evidence for a conviction. That microphone is on 24/7, and in full knowledge of this people still buy them.


Information is valuable. The same technology that lets me look up photos of your house for shits and grins, or to stalk you, is what powers Google Maps.

Privacy and these new technologies will, and have already, come into conflict. The value of the new tech is way, way more than the value of the privacy lost.

This can devolve into 1984 lightning fast. On the other hand, think about this: “Probably the best-known recent example of sousveillance is when Los Angeles resident George Holliday videotaped police officers beating Rodney King after he had been stopped for a traffic violation.” [From the Steve Mann paper.]

The same surveillance tech that makes us spied on all the time, makes other people spied on all the time. I can’t get up to no good, but cops can’t either.

It’s a tool, and it all depends on how it’s used.

Take me, for example. With a handful of exceptions that I am not putting to paper, there is nothing in my life that is particularly problematic. If the government were spying on me 24/7, it wouldn’t even matter. I have nothing to hide.

(I understand the implications regarding wider social norms. I’m working under the assumption that That Ship Has Sailed.)

The people who do have things to hide, well, we made that shit illegal for a reason. Why should I care when they get burned? That’s the whole goddamn point of the law.

(Aside: I believe that the more strictly enforced a law is, the better it is for everyone overall, because consistency of expectations is important. I bet that the roads would be much safer and more orderly if every single time anyone sped, ever, they automatically got a speeding ticket. Always. No matter what. No cat-and-mouse games with cops, no wondering which lights have speed cameras. Just a dirt-simple law. Here is the rule. Follow it and we are fine. Break it and you will always lose. So many problems are caused by people trying to game the rules, break them whenever possible, and follow them only when they have to.)

(Continued aside: Obviously shit would hit the fan if we started automatically 100% enforcing every traffic law. But you better believe that within a month of that policy being rolled out nationwide, speed limits would rise by at least 50%.)

The reason we care about surveillance is that a lot of things are more illegal than we think they should be.

Obvious example: In a world of perfect surveillance, 50% of California gets thrown in federal prison for smoking weed.

All of this is build-up to my hypothesis:

  • The fully surveilled world is coming, whether we like it or not.
  • This will bring us a ton of benefits if we’re smart and brave enough to leverage it.
  • This will bring an unprecedented ability for authorities to impose on us and coerce us, if we are not careful.

Which brings me to the actual thesis: Libertarianism and formal anarchy is going to be way more important in the near future, to cope with this. In a world of perfect surveillance, every person in San Francisco can be thrown in prison if a prosecutor feels like it. Because, for example, literally every in-law rental is illegal (unless they changed the law).

The way you get a perfect surveillance world without everyone going to prison is drastic liberalization of criminal law, drastic reduction of regulatory law, and live-and-let-live social norms that focus very precisely on harms suffered and on restorative justice.

A more general idea that I am anchoring everything on: A lot of people think tech is bad, but that is because they do not take agency over it. Tech is a tool with unimaginable potential for good… if you take initiative and use it. If you sit back and just wait for it to happen, it goes bad.

If you sit back and wait as Facebook starts spying on you more and more, then you will get burned. But if instead you take advantage of it and come up with a harebrained scheme to find dates by using Facebook’s extremely powerful ad-targeting technology… you will benefit so hard.

Header artwork depicting Facebook as a global panopticon by Joelle L.

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