Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On "Culture Crash" by Scott Timberg *****

Timberg's basic point is that the contemporary society is killing off middle-brow culture--the creative class--and in the process is destroying the very thing that makes society flourish. His idea of the creative class is related to Richard Florida's. Florida's book, which I haven't read but I've read about, argues that the creative class is key to the success of a city. For him, "creative class" means essentially anyone who creates--this includes then not just artists, musicians, and writers but also techies and the like. They are the innovators. Timberg takes a slightly different view of the creative class. He includes in it more of the support structure and less of the techie: that is, the bookstore clerks, editors, music producers, journalists, gallery managers, and so on. As these sort of jobs disappear, so too will our art, and society will be less rich for it. In fact, art will become the plaything only of the rich, as the middle class will be shunted out of making a living off it and will be forced to work long hours at comparatively mindless tasks, serving the rich.

I find Timberg's basic point to be annoying, anxiety creating, sad, and enthralling. The annoying part comes from the fact that I feel as if Timberg is playing the role of the curmudgeonly artist. A former journalist who is watching the death of newspaper reporting as we know it, he mourns for his job and the loss of professional news journalism. We are losing something in that, that is for certain, something that print newspapers did provide, and it is to be mourned, and in some ways it is alarming.

But technologies change, and so too do jobs. We don't need bookstore clerks in the numbers we once did or music producers or publishers. Timberg would say that these folks are what enabled the creative culture to exist. But I would say that on another level these hangers-on were also parasites of a sort. Still striving to become known for their art or unable to ever become known, they hang on at the edge of the scene, making a pittance to survive on because they love it, or conversely they become very successful and help to promote a set of artists they love, making larger amounts of money (instead of small amounts of money) off of them, much larger amounts than the artists themselves. Now, many of those art-supporting jobs are going away. But were those jobs necessary for the artist? I am reminded of something I read about how copyright first came into being not as much to protect authors (sure, that's the noble reason we always give) but to protect publishers. It was the publishers who took the financial risk but also who made most of the money. And I am reminded of how technological change brings about societal change--just as keypunch operators of yesteryear aren't needed today, so too some of the creative class jobs of today won't be needed tomorrow. But the world will go on, and art will still be made--just differently. (The idea that one makes money off someone else's art seems to me to be something somewhat odd anyway--something that really hasn't existed except maybe in the past two hundred years. Other models existed and worked: artists worked for patrons in the Renaissance times, for example.)

But I am admittedly part of the hanger-on class, and the idea that my kind of work is going away is also a source of anxiety. As it becomes harder and harder to make a living publishing books, it seems certain that the job of editor is going to become less easy to come by. I hope that I can hang on long enough to get to retirement before the whole business model collapses, or (better) that we can figure out a new business model that works better for the new Internet age. At one time, I worked in bookstore retail. Now, that kind of work too has become much harder to come by, and the idea of one day returning to bookstore work as a retiree, as I once thought I might, seems fanciful. I mourn the loss of these things just as Timberg does. And I mourn the jobs I like and liked and wonder what would I do if . . . I'm reminded of the father of a classmate of mine who made big bucks as an engineer but whose job came to an end with the Cold War's end and who because of his age and the relatively narrow field of engineering he'd been in for so long was unable to find new work; luckily, he knew a bit about cars and was able to get by as a mechanic for a while until retirement a couple decades later ("get by" also being an operative and important term here). Me? I don't know what I'd do. Our society has become one where any career one pursues seems bound to become outdated within a decade, where one has to constantly be returning to school (and taking out the attendant loans) just to keep a job, and where one is bound eventually to become defunct, as happened near the end of the Cold War to another man my father's age, who returned to school to learn a specific computer program for which jobs were plentiful--but by the time he graduated with his certificate a year later, the market was flooded with such people and no job was forthcoming.

And that of course is also why the book is enthralling, that concern with change and art. Timberg begins his main text by looking at scenes that worked for a time, how they came to be and why, and what made them special--the poetry scene in Boston, the art scene in Los Angeles, and the music scene in Austin. Boston poets could work jobs as teachers but also at publishers and other small venues; living was relatively cheap. However, as big publications open to poetry became few, most poets moved wholly into the academy. Los Angeles had no real art scene until the pop art of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, a set of artists happened to move to town with an aesthetic and a gallery or two opened that fit with that aesthetic, and for a short while the place burgeoned, with more artists and more galleries and more and more. However, a lack of museum space and other supporting materials led artists eventually to leave, and the art scene would go into hiatus until the 1990s when more of that infrastructure was present. Austin would become the mecca for alt-country, in part because Willie Nelson would reside there. As rejected musicians found a home in this cheap city, and someone else started a music venue for them, a scene developed that would eventually attract out-of-town talent. More venues, more artists attracted yet more venues and artists--it is a upward spiral when working correctly.

Each city had relatively low costs of living at the time and jobs that fit well for the creative professions and for those trying to do creative work. Hollywood provided day jobs, or the Ivy Leagues did, or government did. In each place, a college was nearby, allowing young people to take part in the scene and to make up a large portion of its audience. And finally, institutions were essential to keeping the scene going.

Next, he looks at where those jobs are going or have gone. He begins with retail clerks at media stores (bookstores, music stores, and video rental stores). Fewer of these are around. They were founts of knowledge, but now even that knowledge is something that is something of an algorhythm on a computer database in terms of getting recommendations. It IS sad. I miss those stores too. And as Timberg notes, they really were/are the life of a city--where people often go/went to hang out and to meet similar thinkers. Now, what's left are bars and coffeeshops. I miss the large big-box music stores, as well as the smaller stores (in Athens a number of indies still exist, luckily, though they mostly sell vinyl now). I miss going to a video store and scanning the titles--sometimes I wouldn't even rent. Barring illegal downloads, such stores, if they're good, are often the only place to find obscure or older films. Now, only one such store is left here in town, and I consider us blessed. When I visited Boston a couple of years ago, it was bookstores that I most often dropped into--and I was reminded of how such stores used to populate other towns but no longer do (where I grew up, only Vroman's remains of new bookstores--and that includes chains; and where used bookstores once lived in every nook and cranny, there might be a sole one left somewhere). I don't visit clothing stores or other retail outlets with the same kind of curiosity and desire to stay. So yes, of course, we lose something in losing these stores and the people who work in them.

Where do creative people go? Well, many of them end up freelancing. Writers and journalists leave staff and become their own employers. The problem? Freelancing rarely pays as well and has no benefits. And as there are fewer and fewer regular gigs, there are more and more freelancers, which means competition is rife and wages depressed. Freelancing is not the panacea that so many business writers like to make of it. Sure, some people hit the big time, but most don't do that well. Timberg uses the example of Kodak, which employed 140,000 people; compare that to Instagram, which employees 13; where do those tens of thousands of others involved with photography go for work? We don't need 140,000 freelancers! And of blogging, which is a favorite example of these freelance cheerleaders. Sure, a few people make thousands off their blog, but most bloggers write for free--and many of those free writers work as hard or as passionately, given the time allowed, as the successful. (In writing of how much of a crapshoot this is, I'm reminded of a publisher's story about how a certain scholarly book that was expected to sell a modest thousand, if that, took off and sold over 80,000 copies because Elon Musk tweeted about it. A lucky break can make all the difference. But this isn't something an artist or freelancer has much control over, no matter how hard he or she works.)

Next, Timberg turns to the indie music scene. As with many of the jobs that he writes about, technology was at first a great aid to such workers. It allowed them to become DIY entrepreneurs, putting out "cheap" CDs and not being reliant on a corporation. But DIY artists generally make substantially less than those signed to labels. And many aren't good entrepreneurs. The benefit of labels (and publishers) was that artists could be free to just do art--they didn't have to do as much self-promotion. (In this sense, the industry that supports the arts, I suppose, is actually useful--not just a parasitic branch living off the work of others but rather letting those others focus on the work they want to do and taking over the parts that they aren't interested in or good at.) But in our new culture, the winners are few, and the rest of the artists and workers are left with crumbs. The entire economy, from manufacturing and now down to the arts, is based around a few real successes (the 1%) and a whole bunch of nonsuccesses. There isn't much in the way of middle ground. Some statistics were sobering: In 1982, 26 percent of concert revenue went to the top 1 percent of performers; 2003, 56 percent. And 90 percent goes to the top 5 percent. Or this statistic: if it takes one thousand units of sales to break even on a record, only 4,700 of the 75,000 records produced in 2010 did so (compare that to 2005 when 8,000 of 37,000 broke even.) Or this: One tech-savvy singer with 2 million YouTube views and 400,000 Spotify streams managed to make a whopping $3,000 of her recorded music in one year. There ain't much money in streaming even for those who do it well.

The issue is not wholly that record companies have gone belly-up and everything is pirated, though that certainly hasn't helped. The issue is that government has let big business dictate the law and the terms, which in turn has hurt artists. For one, there's the monopolization of radio stations by Clear Channel, made possible by a deregulation act of Congress in the 1990s. Now, most "local" radio stations are actually just streams from a centralized network (much like most "local" newspapers are now streams from a centralized news service). There's little space for newcomers (though this is kind of a return to radio of the early 1970s, back when major labels dictated a lot of what got played, before indie rock and small labels became a phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s). For two, if record companies were both the parasites living off artists and the enablers of artists, today's parasites and enablers are tech companies, and the tech companies pay a whole lot less, if anything at all. The artists may be able to more easily release materials into distribution via these new technological avenues, but unlike radio, these avenues don't really encourage people to run out and buy the album if they like it: they can just stream the song again, for less than a penny. Hence, virtually all the profits go to the tech companies. This whole discussion made me really sad and a little angry--but even now I keep thinking about the origins of the copyright law, and it seems to me in many ways that things never really change and that what Timberg is bemoaning is something that's pretty much always been true, though to differing degrees by decade.

Timberg next turns his attention to architecture, where the unemployment rate among professionals was around 9 percent at the time he was writing, and for those newly out of college around 13 percent. Pay is not good either--and never really was: beginning teacher salaries that stay at beginning teacher salaries. But this chapter, which also discusses graphic designers, is really about how the recession killed off work for many such professionals and how the recovery has not brought that work back at the same price point. Everyone is struggling to find work, and when they do, it is for less pay. I feel so blessed to have had a job during the Great Recession, but it doesn't make me any less anxious to know there are so many out there that were so negatively affected.

Another chapter focuses on the lack of outcry about the loss of these creative jobs. I'm not sure I completely agree here. Sure, we hear more about the loss of manufacturing jobs (that's what Trump based much of his campaign on), but it's not like the death of journalism or the killing off of physical bookstores or the pittance that Spotify pays (as denoted by Taylor Swift's refusal to have her music on it) is without reporting. I know the these various professions are hurting. Granted, as Timberg notes, some people do take the loss of such professions less seriously. When a chamber orchestra goes belly up, some people will say that if the orchestra couldn't support an audience, then we don't need it. On some level, though, they're right--there has to be a cutoff at some point. We can't just keep supporting something because it's always just been there. On another level, though, Timberg makes a great point. Some of these arts were never self-supporting--they've always depended on patrons, going back centuries. To expect all arts to support themselves is to create a culture that cares solely about quantity, about money. And there is a loss in that regard, for some work is valuable not just for its own sake but for what it brings to our culture in the long term, in the form of ideas that come to have bearing much later than when they first came into being. I think of how things work in publishing and how, for example, a publisher might put out a book about some obscure terrorist organization that only a couple hundred people have an interest in reading; a decade goes by, and suddenly the terrorist organization makes a big splash and now folks are scrambling for information about it--that's why we shouldn't just publish works about PewDiePie and the Kardashians or about what's hot now. That obscure research has value--sometimes we don't know how much value until decades later. If we are concerned about bottom line only, then those kind of works will never come to be, and when the need for that work arises, we'll be left blindsided until someone who starts from scratch can come up with it in a hurry, and that someone might well not have the perspective granted to one who is not writing at the heat of the moment, when we tend to view things with hysteria.

My concern with Timberg's argument is that there's so much focus on what we're losing, on the world that was. But as I noted earlier, technologies change--and that is true in the arts the same as it is true in manufacturing. We have to adapt. The issue as I see it isn't to fight against such progress but to find new ways, new models, that help us further the arts and that provide jobs for those pushed out of their old jobs. Timberg notes that only the rich will be left with the ability to live off their art. I would counter that if art really does become democratized so that everyone can do it, then everyone who wants to will be doing it (though in some cases the cost of technology might act as a barrier--even as it did in the past: that's why only the rich back then could fund a movie or by extension make one, employing various others in the process); the rich won't be living off their art--they'll be sponsoring it or doing it as a hobby, the same as other poorer people will be doing it as a hobby, assuming they can afford the technological means. The issue is really one of control over the means of production (and distribution). As human capital becomes cheaper and less necessary, it is only those at the top, with the ability to move culture around, that make money off the arts--or manufacturing or whatever task has to be done. That's the issue, that technology arguably is getting to a place where our productivity is increasing to the extent that workers no longer have enough to do in a single job to be able to make a living at it. We have to figure out ways to make up for these increases in productivity. Shorten the work week, for example, but somehow insist that yearly wages for that work remain the comparable (it's been done--as work weeks shrunk to forty hours from the fifty or sixty that were typical a century earlier). Or find some means by which people can accumulate even more. If I as a printer can do the work that it used to take two people to do, for example, either my sales need to double so that I can keep my employee or I need to cut both our hours by half while keeping the price for our product the same.

In some ways, the creative arts really are the future. How do we make them pay, or how do we pay for them fairly, is the question. As the professions surrounding those arts become defunct--typists aren't as necessary because writers can edit and draft on computer and don't have to type everything over again, book reviewers aren't as necessary because any enthusiast with a blog now has a platform from which to dessiminate their enthusiasm for a work, and so on)--it is the task of conceiving the actual art that becomes the real source from which machines derive their part of the labor. (This is not to say that I don't respect a professional and learned book reviewer, who usually has more and better things to say.) At this point, I don't see satisfactory books being written by computer or movies being made by software--the machines help speed the process, but the ideas still come from us human beings. In a future where machines do almost everything except come up with the creative idea--the seed of the art--it is those who have the seed who should be paid. I guess the issue here is that only so many ideas catch on. Ask any musician or writer. One can labor for years, producing new work, with little attention from the public; then, one day one song or one book somehow resonates with others, and a career is born (or sometimes not, as any one-hit wonder can attest). That's no way to guarantee a living wage for vast numbers of people.

The same is true in manufacturing to some extent (only a few ideas catch on and become things people want to buy). Three-D printing will soon make it possible for anyone (with enough money to buy such a machine, which itself is likely to drop in price) to manufacture a good in his or her home. The real work then becomes not the manufacture (or even to some extent the heavy details of the design, which could also be done via computers) but the initial spark of the idea. But this raises another question, beyond distributing income when only a handful of ideas catch on: how does one get paid for even a good idea? Patents and copyright were the government's way to guarantee such payment. However, computer technology makes sharing and piracy super easy, where once costs of entering a market were what kept a single person from stealing (and it's a lot easier and efficient to go after someone making thousands of copies illegally than to go after one person who makes a single copy in his/her garage multiplied by thousands). This is another place where new models are needed--to guarantee a fair wage for the creators.

This brings us to newspapers, the subject of one of the longer chapters in Timberg's book--and a sad one to read. Timberg notes rightly how newspapers are the voice and soul of a community--or were. Now, the Internet siphons off most of the profits. Internet advertising pays pennies to the dollar against print (about 6 percent by my reckoning), and as time goes on, aggregators are getting more and more of the hits rather than the ones actually providing the information, meaning the revenue ends up going to some entity that merely copies stories rather than actually produces it itself. The top ten sites, Timberg notes, accounted for 31 percent of all Web traffic in 2001; by 2010, they accounted for 75 percent. The proliferation of sites has also meant a breakdown in objective sources (which is really a return to the newspapers of the 1800s, which often took very clear political stances to appeal to a narrow band of readers rather than, as became common in the twentieth century, trying to avoid clear stances by being neutral so as to avoid offending anyone and thus gain market share). That means that we tend to read what we already agree with--even if it's fabricated. You know, fake news, which became an issue in this past election. One statistic that made me laugh: 29 percent of Republicans in Louisiana blame Obama for the lousy Hurricane Katrina response in 2005, four years before Obama even took office.

However, as Timberg brings to light, the death of newspaper journalism really began before the Internet took hold. It began in the 1990s, as corporations bought up local and family papers in order to turn them into profit-making centers. The papers actually made record profits in the 1990s, even as they began to substantially trim and lay off staff. And instead of investing those profits into the papers themselves, those profits went to Wall Street investors, which meant that papers were not truly prepared for what would happen to them as digital really took hold. Now, often, papers even outsource their local writing to India and the Philippines for pennies per story. As a This American Life episode recounted, the way these stories get written is often via someone grabbing a transcript of a city council meeting and simply writing out a summary. The person doesn't know the people at the meeting, doesn't know the community, doesn't really have anything at stake or know what those stakes are in the local setting. You end up with a sort of factual document without much in the way of substance or proffered understanding. (Timberg's accounts of newspaper layoffs during the high day of profit reminded me of a job I had that was lost to a buyout. We, too, had been making record profits, so it seemed a good time to sell the company to another. Years earlier, before I came on staff, the company had been in big trouble financially and had to lay off a slew of people. It seems like in corporate America, as a worker, you have reason to fear losing your job whether the company is successful or not, as either one can be cause for a layoff. And that's rather frustrating when one works really hard to try to help the company be successful. Instead of sharing in that success, one finds one's self out of a job, while investors up on Wall Street get a nice windfall. At the same time, I own stocks as part of my 401k and want to see a payoff too, so in another way--my very small investor way--I contribute to this system.)

Much of this shift in culture Timberg lays at the feet of cultural creators themselves. As criticism moved into the academic realm, it began to lose sight of its audience and of the questions it once answered. Rather than being concerned about what's good, "good" itself became a loaded concept (based on class and power). Critics began instead to criticize the canon and to uphold the popular. Thus, concerns over obscure, complex, and deeply laden works of writing, music, or film were replaced with more generic concerns over cultural works as a whole--and the more popular, the better. Madonna studies (as in the singer) replaced works about Beethoven or about some obscure blues singer from the 1920s, since the former had more appeal. Works by Tom Clancy had the same gravitas for critical study as works by Herman Melville. And so on. If we can't say any cultural thing has inherent value (beyond popularity--and the money that comes from it), then we can't really argue for keeping the (less popular) arts alive and thriving. It is no wonder that some think colleges should only focus on professions that will make "things"--that is, things that bring money. Timberg raises an interesting point about value here, about how what we value affects how much we're willing to pay for it. But I'm still a bit befuddled by the argument with regard to criticism. How can one say, really, that Madonna's has more or less value than Neil Young's work? Perhaps the death of the critic is problematic insofar as there is a death of expertise that has occurred. Anyone now can claim to know that Stephanie Meyers is a better writer than Mark Twain because there is no gatekeeper to say what has value or not, even though that person may not know a thing about literature or writing. Without an understanding of the history of literature or art or music, one has no framework in which to make such an argument, so it becomes merely a matter of taste. For me, that is the critic's role--to put such works into that cultural framework. So a good critic might value the popular, but he or she knows the full panorama of the art. Value, for me, then becomes a case of how a work speaks to and within context. This is subjective in its own way also. This leaves the door open for someone to argue that Meyers beats Twain--but only in an informed way. It's problematic to me for someone to say that Twilight has no value at all, just because that person doesn't like it. The issue I have with old-school criticism is that it props up a kind of esthete elitism. Whether it's popularity with the masses that is one's guide or popularity with a priesthood of critics, it's still popularity, still taste. I'm not keen on either being the determining factor of what is good.

However, Timberg in his final chapter raises another issue that is concerning: the winner-take-all benefits of our contemporary society. He brings out how technology has enabled people to reach much broader audiences but at the same time stripped our local communities of local art. Live performances die in favor of recorded ones. We need only look at the way in which movies displaced live theater. With that also came financial disparities: without film, actors working locally might make similar amounts to other people; movie actors--successful ones, that is--make multiple hundreds more than the viewers watching them, while other actors have to have day jobs. We see this effect in almost every art. Best-seller lists, for example, used to have much more diversity, but now, because of discounting, the effect of being a best-seller is multiplied. A stat he quotes: five of 1978's best-sellers were from authors who had had top-twenty best-sellers in the past five years; in 1990, that number was nine of the top ten. Indeed, I noticed this difference in creating my World War II best-seller reading list based on Publishers Weekly listings. The list was very diverse, but when you get to the 1990s, something like eight of the ten number-one best-selling novels for each year over the decade were by John Grisham. Winner-take-all indeed. Music has similar issues. And movies, where cheap technology has made making movies on a shoestring much easier, have moved more and more toward big-budget movies in terms of production by major studios so that more revenue can be made and the films can be distributed overseas. So small film-makers have seen their product lose out on distribution. About the only "art" that seems to be newly thriving, Timberg says, is cooking, which he says isn't an art, something I might disagree with him on on several levels. It has the advantage of having to be made locally, I suppose, but then one could also argue that chain restaurants do away with middling success in this arena as well--if you want to argue that point. And that gets back to how what we have today in the arts is in some sense a matter of how you see it. Back in 1978, for example, fewer people had access to publication than they do today, so in a sense, authors are better off; on the other hand, most of those authors don't make enough to support themselves. Same would go for music and musicians, or movie makers. Distribution is actually easier today than it was in the past (unlike what Timberg argues), as is production, but getting your work noticed among the glut of available creative work is much more difficult--perhaps because there is so much more of it. I don't know that in this sense "winner-take-all" is a bad thing, if more people have the ability to share, even if fewer can make a living off it.

Where winner-take-all is scary is when it moves into general economic trends, which Timberg certainly references. And technology certainly has its hand in this, as evidenced by his example of an actor. In 1965, for example, Timberg notes, the average CEO earned twenty times that of his employees; today, the average is 380 times more. Since the recession of 2008, 95 percent of the economies' gains have gone to the top 1 percent, and more then 60 percent to the top 0.1 percent. The lower 40 percent actually saw wages go down by 6 percent in real terms. In the sense that technology favors a few, distant though they may be, over a wider diversity of local talent, such trends are very disturbing. (Think of how a local musician might have more opportunities for paid work from live performances if recorded music from a number 1 star produced on the other side of the country wasn't available to take his or her place--at dance parties, weddings, clubs, restaurants, etc.) The middle class is slowly dying, with more and more of the wealth going to those who already have it. And yet, what stands out in most of our minds are the breakthrough stars--the everyman folks who somehow manage to make it big, the Jeremy Lin basketball players who show us that if we're just given a chance, we could be a star too. But only a few will be stars--and only a few are even given such a chance.

In some ways, Timberg's angst with regard to the last thought reminds me a bit of growing up in Los Angeles, the home of the Hollywood dream. There is this feeling that if you fail to make it big (at something), you're a loser. And everyone is trying to get into that winning slot. It can be depressing. So while being around so much art in L.A. was exhilirating growing up, in other ways getting out of that area and away from that mindset was a boon for me.

In the conclusion, Timberg pleas for the ways in which the arts actually improve society as a whole and should be valued for themselves. This is one of the issues that grad students I went to school with wrestled with--twenty years ago. What exactly is the value of the arts? And how do we decipher good from bad art? Unfortunately, while much of what Timberg has to say in his book provides good cause to be alarmed, this final section for me ends up not wringing true. Timberg essentially idealizes the twentieth century, especially from about 1920 to 1980. But I'm not so inclined to believe that the so-called creative artists had it so good then either or that it is it so much worse now. Earlier this evening I watched a brilliant film called Primer. It was shot for seven thousand dollars. It made maybe half a million. The film could not and would not have been made in the period Timberg writes about. Sure, studios didn't insist on making big budget knockouts or only distributing them, but complex films by novices still weren't likely to get made--and back then, technological costs would have stopped an indie filmmaker from even being able to do so. Great art is still happening. And while it's hard now to make a living as a musician, it was hard then to make it as a musician as well, when if you weren't lucky enough to get a recording company to back you, you were mostly out of luck or were going to spend a bundle to make and release the work yourself. Timberg looks at those who succeeded then and paints that as being typical. Me, I'm not so sure. There's a reason poets and writers ended up in the academy. The creative arts have always been jobs that are risky financial ventures for their purveyors.

Perhaps the bigger question is how is it best for our society to show the value of art? Should money--whether big money or simply mediocre money that lets you survive--have anything to do with art, and if so, to what extent? The real issues of life are not those of economics. Money is what allows us to survive. If art somehow can be squeezed away from concerns about getting by or getting rich, then it will be that much deeper and richer for it. And arguably, much as is happening in the foodie culture that has found popularity of late, it will be local--made and consumed by our friends and neighbors. And it will be made because someone has passion, much as Timberg had to write this book, a book that gave me much to think about and respond to.

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