Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Blue Taxi

The new CD is ready.

If anyone wants a copy, let me know. Information and a few sample tracks can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site.

Note: The new linked files are higher-quality mp3s than the ones I had up before. I have also deleted all of the original "New Stuff 2008" sample tracks (except "Publicly Private, linked below") from my hosting site and removed the accompanying post from The Minstrel's Muse. Most of the tunes are no longer available online (unless someone else has mirrored them).


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Just Across the Ditch

To you it's all so far away...

Defiance and saber rattling,
Praise of the Great Leader screamed behind pumped fists,
Troops marching with grim determination,
Readiness to defend the motherland, or so they're told.

To you it's all so far away...

Faces lean and gaunt,
Standardized clothes hanging loose,
Empty, like the store shelves,
The sacrifices demanded to fight the empire, or so they're told.

To you it's all so far away...

The face of the Great Leader and his Dear son,
Watching from every wall and lapel,
Like deities in flesh surrounded in legend,
Providing everything, or so they're told.

To you it's all so far away...

In the streets, they see the empire being crushed,
On the screen, every villain has a white face,
In every mind, the world has fallen to the barbarians,
Every soul must be prepared to die, or so they're told.

To you it's all so far away...

Another agreement tossed in the bin,
Mountains shuddering as atoms are split,
Missiles sent flying into the sea,
Another victory of the Great Leader, or so they're told.

To us it's all so far away...

Their furthest-flying missile can scarcely reach Alaska,
But every part of Japan can be easily hit,
Yet while the news mentions the growing danger,
The flu is still the only thing worth talking about, or so we're told.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Other Last Song

I went and did it again.

Just when I thought the Blue Taxi album was finished, I listened to the first "production copy" a few times, decided I wasn't quite satisfied with it, and quickly slapped-together one more simple, upbeat tune both to add a bit more length to the album and to lift up a bit of emotional sag in the middle. I know this is getting to be a bad habit, but hey...people keep tending to like these spontaneous quickies!

I give you "Publicly Private".

I's not very original. I'm probably going to get all kinds of comments about how it "sounds a lot like (if not just like) [?]". Oh well, it's all in fun. Hopefully I can satisfy myself enough not to want to shove on yet another one. Even though it's a (kind of half-hearted) quickie, there were some important lessons learned. Details are on my Minstrel's Muse site. Enjoy!

(You know, iTunes definitely makes a better-sounding mp3 rip than that file-conversion app I've been using. I think I'll replace all the Blue Taxi mp3 files I have posted online...or at least those few examples I decide to keep there!)


Saturday, May 23, 2009

EVERYONE PANIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Delete before reading! Cancel all plans! Run to the hills! Run for your lives! (cue fast bass lick). The new H1N1 virus (diminished 7th fanfare) has come to the Kanto area!

The first few cases in Japan were all limited to the Kansai area (i.e. Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto), were all high school students returning from overseas, and were caught and quarantined at the airport. Since then several more cases have been found in people from all over the country. Most of them have been high school students returning from overseas. Most of them were caught at the airport and quarantined. However, now there are a few people reported infected whose symptoms appeared after they came back from overseas. Two of them are in Tokyo. One is in the city of Kawasaki in Kanagawa prefecture (neighboring Tokyo).

Now all drugstores are seeing a massive run on flu masks. People are canceling plans in droves.

My daughter's school decided not to cancel their planned field trip to the historical city of Kamakura, which is in Kanagawa prefecture. My father-in-law is up in arms about it. He seems to be of the mind that all travel to and from Tokyo and Kanagawa prefecture should be banned until the flu threat is over. He doesn't seem to be the only one that feels that way, either.

People, so far there have only been a few isolated cases, and contingencies were already in place to deal with them. It is NOT the end of the world as we know it (though I do feel fine).

No wonder terrorism is so popular these days. It's so easy to frighten society into dysfunction.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

And This Means...?

My drinking habits have long been a point of contention between my father-in-law and myself.

I've long had a custom of having one alcoholic drink with my dinner. I would rotate between a glass of wine, a 12-oz. beer, or a mixed drink. On the weekend, or if I was feeling particularly stressed out, I might have a second one. Only very rarely would I drink enough to make me catch a buzz. I would only get seriously bombed maybe once a year if that. The bottom line is that I have always kept my drinking regular yet in careful moderation.

My father-in-law still thinks that's too much. When we first moved into this house he about drove me nuts by saying, "Remember, only drink alcohol twice a week at most," every time he noticed anything remotely resembling a beer or wine bottle within eyeshot of me. Eventually it turned out that his "twice a week" rule had originated from a misunderstanding, i.e. he had read an article, replaced the doctor's words with his own preconceived notions (as usual), and then made his misquoting of said article to everyone and his dog one of his life missions. I finally called bulshiat on it, showed him proof, and succeeded in shutting him up...for a while. Every once in a while he either forgets or (as usual) replaces reality with preconceived notions and gets on the same kick again. We've had some glorious arguments.

Well, just for the heck of it, I decided to try going cold turkey for the duration of this week just to see if there would be any noticeable change. Apparently there has been. After the second non-alkie day I started having trouble concentrating. After the third I started having trouble getting up in the morning, and my Japanese speaking ability cracked. Today I'm having extraordinary trouble staying awake even though I got plenty of sleep last night.

I don't know if there is a direct causal relationship between the two, but this is bizarre...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Mid-May Updates

I don't have any single, monumental event or subject to talk about, so I'll cover a bunch of little stuff.

Pt. I Talk About the Weather
May, known as "Satsuki" (皐月) in classical Japanese, has long been seen as a lazy sort of month, famous for warm, muggy days. As I mentioned before, it was that way for a while, but then a wee typhoon skipping just off the shore made things really nasty. After a few days of that it went back to being May again for a while. However...

Last Thursday (May 14) I made an important decision. I have long relied on Firefox on my desktop computer back home, but on my work laptop I'd been using Safari for Windows for at least a year. I rather liked Safari; its elegant, streamlined (BLUE!) design appealed to some aspects of my personality, its quick loading speed was nice, and I thought it looked clearer and easier to read. There was one nagging issue that bothered me, however: plug-in compatibility. Ironically, the plug-in that had the most problems was Quicktime, like Safari an Apple product. That wasn't so bad, though; what really got me was the fact that, after one update, it started crashing frequently when I entered text. After the last update the problem got even worse. It got to the point where I was having to exit Safari (using Task Manager) and restart it two or three times whenever I wrote an e-mail or blog entry. I had a couple of theories as to the source of the problem and tried uninstalling some things and reinstalling others, but nothing helped. I finally gave up, opened Control Panel, went to Install/Delete Applications, called up Safari, and hit the "nuke" button.

At the exact moment that I clicked the button, there was a loud BOOM outside. It sounded like thunder, but when I looked out the window I saw only blue sky. As I installed Firefox, the booming began to increase in frequency and intensity. Next thing I knew, there was a monstrous-looking, black thunderhead blotting out the sky, and lightning bolts were going all over the place, many of them hitting the ground with less than a second till the (rather unnervingly blaster-like) thunderclap. The school's LAN then shut down completely, every hub and every server tripping. After that came the rain, gushing down in sheets for several minutes. Then, as soon as it had come, the big, evil cumulonimbus from hell vanished into the distance. But it wasn't over yet.

I went to the junior high staff room after that. As the sky cleared up again outside, the teachers set about the task of resetting the hubs and restarting the computers. As soon as I sat down at my desk, there was a simultaneous BANG from all the windows, and the building shook under the assault of a sudden, intense gust of wind. This kept up for between five and ten minutes. Then the trees stopped their slam-dance, things calmed down, and it went back to being May again.

Weird. Maybe I need to find out if Apple has its own Shinto shrine here somewhere so I can go and humble myself...

Pt. II Extra Totally Cool
My ETC card finally arrived yesterday (May 15), so I celebrated by making a totally pointless and wasteful trip out to Makuhari and back. There was a discount on the tolls, but it wasn't one of the extra-cheap times, so it wasn't much. Still...what a concept! It's nice to roll right on through the toll gate without having to stop and fish around for money!

The only problem is that now I won't have a very good idea of my expressway driving expenses until they show up on my credit card bill.

Pt. III Girl Politics
We hoped my daughter's friends would grow up just a bit more once they got into junior high. Apparently not. On the brighter side, however, her junior high school seems to be doing a much better job of student guidance.

For the past two years, my daughter has had one extremely problematical "friend". Her habit was to be my daughter's friend only until she started hanging out with someone else. Then she would start sending my daughter anonymous hate messages (of obvious origin), saying bad things about her behind her back, playing vicious pranks like throwing my daughter's gym shoes outside, and following my daughter around with her new friend like a gang, demanding my daughter apologize for some obscure slight and give compensation. Then, when the girl invariably wound up pissing off her new friend, she'd come running back to my daughter and tearfully beg to be her friend again. We went through this cycle several times.

My wife and I brought the matter to the attention of her 5th and 6th grade teachers repeatedly. Her 5th grade teacher's response was first just to dismiss it, saying it was my daughter's own problem to solve by herself (i.e. no action). When the bad cycle wound up coming again two more times (causing thousand yen figure damages) and we confronted the teacher again, he changed tack and said that the girl writing the messages claimed she hadn't done it, so she was obviously innocent (i.e. no action). He then refused to discuss the matter any further. The 6th grade teacher actually called in the troublemaking friend for a conference, but the latter promptly burst into tears and said she only did it to show how badly she wanted to be my daughter's friend. (She later told my daughter that she always cries to get her way, and it always works.) The teacher then advised us just to leave the "poor girl" alone. The problem escalated, and we contacted the teacher about it again. This time the teacher asked the problem friend and a couple of her sidekicks about the pranks, which they naturally denied, so the teacher tried to claim that my daughter was making the whole thing up. The girl then begged her way into my daughter's friendship again.

Cut to junior high, and the same thing happened. The problem girl got one of her sidekicks both to stick a nasty hate letter in my daughter's desk for her and to write a similar message of her own. This time, however, the story turned out very different. Some of my daughter's new classmates caught the courier in the act and immediately showed the letter to the homeroom teacher. They also caught the problem girl trying to carry out a prank against my daughter and stopped her. The 7th grade homeroom teachers examined the letter, confirmed it as having been written by the problem girl, notified me, and summoned the problem girl and her friends in front of a whole panel of teachers. Crying got her nowhere. Her parents were summoned for a conference with the principal. I don't know what disciplinary action they decided on, but we got a pretty lavish apology from both (very shocked) girls (but not a peep from their parents).

I hope (but don't quite expect) that it'll be the end of it. At the very least, the problem girl and her sidekicks have learned the hard way that their junior high school isn't putty in their hands. On the other hand, my biggest worry is the fact that the problem girl and her sidekicks not only live in my neighborhood, but are all members of the same extended family with the same last name. I would hate for this to wind up turning into a family feud.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Labor of Love on a Lacy Tablecloth

It was an extra-special Mother's Day (May 10th) for my wife this year. The kids told me they wanted to do something nice, so I took them out on a quick shopping run while their mother was away doing a little work at her school. While my daughter got a more typical, clothing-oriented present, my son insisted on getting a bouquet including a little plastic, "Arigatou, okaa-san!" ("Thanks, mom!") in the middle. Then my daughter made a simple but thoughtful dinner:

MD Meal 2009

I don't think Pandabonium would appreciate it (since he loathes curry), but it turned out pretty good...and my wife was blown away. The little hearts, cut out of toast, were a nice touch.

And my wife was sure the kids would forget...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Diary Notes from a Study Camp (2009)

(Sorry, no pics. I figured I'd only end up having to sort out most of them to avoid running afoul of the censors, so it just wasn't worth it.)

Today (May 8th) is the day of the Grade 7 Study Camp, Version 2009. This is the 6th time that they've held this event. This is the 4th time I've wound up taking part.

As with the past three times in a row, the plan was to hike the fourteen kilometers from Ye Olde Academy to the camp location. Three years ago I didn't participate. Two years ago I hiked and loved it. Last year they made me drive the school van, and I hated it. This year I was supposed to hike again. I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the Pacific has hocked a typhoon loogie just off our coast. There's no danger of it hitting us, but the warm, sunny days they forecast for this weekend weeks ago have turned into unholy skies, gloomy rain, and purgatorial winds. No hiking, folks. This time we go by bus. So what do we do with the extra three and a half hours freed up as a result? Why, hold regular classes, of course! Never mind the fact that the kids are minus their uniforms, books, school supplies, and motivation! After third period is over, we assemble in the auditorium to have lunch, wait for the bus, and try to avoid a bizarre security risk we're suddenly faced with (which I can't explain here). Hopefully the kids won't kill each other.

I seem to have a young suitor. While I try to while away the wait by quietly napping, someone keeps sneaking up behind me and poking me in the back of the neck. Every time I turn around my tormentor has already vanished into the scenery, leaving only a mist of bell-like giggles. Finally a misstep and an awkward fall in the aisle leaves the pony-tailed marauder in full view. Trapped. Instead of trying to make a daring escape, she immediately brings in her friends, and they proceed to pummel me into a stupor with silly questions. We haven't even departed the school yet, and I'm already reeling from the cuteness.

Finally the buses arrive, and we follow my usual path home from work (which plays havoc with my senses) to the camp location. It's a government-run "nature camp" facility which I have stayed at a whole bunch of times for various totally unrelated reasons. The sky is darkening. The rain is getting harder. The spirit of the kids doesn't seem to be getting dampened one iota. After dumping off our bags, we assemble in the gym for the first "fun" events of the day. The first "fun" is watching the camp manager try to get the video player/projector to work so he can give his orientation lecture. (After several minutes of his fussing with it and then giving up, one of our teachers fixes it in about seven seconds.)(What was that bit about, "those who can't, teach"?)

After that it's my turn; I have to spend half an hour trying to help the kids practice singing the school song, which ranks somewhere up there with trying to help them pull off their own thumbnails. However, instead of using the traditional (boring) cassette recording, I spice things up a bit with a combination of my guitar and a more upbeat tempo. I actually manage to coax a bit of vocal strength out of the kids...though the song itself is in a key which tends to be either too high or too low for the boys whose voices are just starting to change. I get a lot of interesting cracking effects, though.

After the singing practice is done, there is a break, and suddenly I'm mobbed by fans wanting an encore. I oblige by singing Bruce Cockburn's "Tokyo" followed by The Beatles' "Nowhere Man" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway (to Heaven)" (dude!) before the kids are called back in line for the guest lecturer. When she first starts, I'm afraid her talk is going to be horribly hackneyed and lame, but she surprises me by being very good. Her theme is basically proper use of the voice, whether for reading aloud or for greeting people. It's captivating, interesting, clever, and makes good use of hands-on participation. (I wasn't sure just how I should take it when, to my surprise, she played a recording of the singing practice I'd led and compared it with the results of a reading exercise she'd just conducted. Guess who won? Your first two guesses don't count. Oh, well, I guess that's what we paid her for...)

Dinner, as usual, is apparently designed to alienate vegetarians, vegans, and practicing Jews or Muslims (or Buddhists, for that matter). That particular camp cafeteria seems to have made pig the cornerstone of its whole life philosophy. It's the first pork I've had in ages, and I admit I like it.

After everyone bathes (like a hit and run accident since there is only 15 minutes per 32-student class to use the bathing facilities) it's time for the evening lecture and study sessions. They go smoothly, and once again the principal doesn't fail to impress with his ability to keep the kids engaged. Even so, I fight to keep myself away from the vending machines; I really want some coffee...

The kids are less than thrilled when we tell them lights out is at 10:00. As usual, getting them to shut up and go to sleep is a full-time job that keeps the whole staff going full tilt. Actually, however, they're pretty good this year. Only one boy is caught with a Nintendo DS. By eleven the girls are as quiet as a mouse, and by midnight the boys have eased down enough for the grade chief to declare our work done for the day and send us off to bed. I actually get a good night's sleep (which is amazing. Though I slept through it, apparently one of the boys started screaming at three a.m., waking up the female teachers sleeping right above him. They made their displeasure very clear...).

We get up bright and early the next morning and assemble on the parade ground for the traditional standardized exercise routine (called "Radio Exercise" since the official music for it is played on state radio every morning) and another quick run-through of the school song accompanied by my guitar. Then it's time to throw all our luggage in a corner, clean the rooms, and have breakfast (i.e. more pig). After that we're off to the gym again for some fun activities and then the day's main event: Zen meditation. (Yes, you read that right.)

In previous years the kids always made the udon noodles they then had for lunch. Our staff decided not to do that this year. Instead, they invited the chief priest of a famous, 17th-century Zen temple in Itako to come and lead us through a session of Zen meditation. The kids were rather less than thrilled at the prospect, but they are being very cooperative now and participate very well.

Unlike the kids, I don't have a cushion to sit on, but I give it a try myself. It's my second experience with Zen meditation, the first having been at a temple in Kyoto three years ago. On that occasion I found I actually enjoyed it a lot, though I was absolutely sure that I'd wind up being one of the ones whacked on the back with a stick for having incorrect posture. I didn't. I don't this time either even though the two priests seem to be having a jolly time whacking students left and right (as well as the teacher sitting next to me!). Not that I have an easy time of it. Forcing my stiff legs to stay crossed on the hard floor is the least of my problems. The dust and/or pollen in the air is wreaking havoc on my eyes...and since you're not supposed to close your eyes completely in Zen meditation, I wind up with tears literally flowing down my cheeks. Not exactly the best way to achieve enlightenment, to be sure, but as always time flies amazingly quickly during meditation, and when it's done I feel relaxed, focused, refreshed, and full of energy.

I then proceed to put my old Toys R Us stockroom experience to work hefting most of the cushions back up onto the high top shelfs of the closet by myself, not giving the other teachers much chance (and they seem only too happy to let me do it). That's how pumped I feel.

After lunch (yes, more pig) it's time for the afternoon study sessions, and I'm left with absolutely nothing to do, so I space...and force myself to stay away from the vending machines (even though the Mountain Dew is caalllllllliiiiiiinnnnnng...). Then it all ends with us separating into our respective classes so the kids can each give a one-minute speech about their first month as a student at Ye Olde Academy. Almost all of the speeches wind up being about extracurricular activities and are very predictable, though there are a few gems. Most of the girls do a fine job. A few of the boys seem completely lost. Several of them can't read their own writing. We still manage to get through the whole lot in a decent amount of time, and then we pack up to go.

It's a beautiful day now, maybe just a tiny bit hot and humid, but nice. It's a shame that it's now the end of the Study Camp. What lies ahead is the bus ride back to Ye Olde Academy, saying goodbye, having a quick staff meeting, and then going home.

Then I can look forward to Sunday...which will probably be spent in its entirety cleaning house and weeding flowerbeds. Such is life.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

E-lectronic T-raffic C-on?

The E.T.C. unit I ordered finally came, but the card hasn't yet. That might actually be a good thing right now.

I'd been tempted to get an E.T.C. (Electronic Toll Collection) device for my BLUE RAV4 for some time. They are just so convenient. Instead of having to stop and provide amusement for a bored toll collector by trying to dig your wallet out of your seat-embedded pants in a very awkward position (and pulling muscles in the process), you just slow down and drive through a gate. The device links in to a wireless system, exchanges your personal data, and the toll charge is either charged to your credit card or taken directly out of your bank account. No fuss, no hassle, no lost time, no germ-infested items changing hands, no pulled muscles. Only the cost of the items made me keep doubting whether it would be worth it.

Enter the government. (Prince By-Tor ap-)(*WHACK*!)(Ow!) Suddenly, out of the BLUE, the federal government announced it was starting a campaign to encourage people to get E.T.C. units. First they implemented a system whereby, while regular tolls remained fixed, E.T.C. tolls changed depending on the time and date, becoming much cheaper during commuting hours. The government also offered to subsidize up to a designated number of E.T.C. units purchased nationwide starting from the beginning of April by offering a 5000 yen (about $50) rebate. Needless to say, despite rumors that the real reason for the campaign was to help introduce a mileage-based tax system, the country quickly became gripped with E.T.C. fever.

I finally gave in and tried to buy an E.T.C. unit toward the end of April, but they were basically nowhere to be found. I went ahead and ordered one though I was warned that there was no way of knowing when it would arrive, meaning it wouldn't be in time for the subsidy. As it turned out, it came about a week later, and I got the rebate. There was no extra charge for the installation, and I was a happy camper until I tried to get the E.T.C. card necessary to make it work. I was told that, because of the rush (and the Snow D-)(*WHACK*)(Heyyy...) the quickest way would be to go to the bank where I got my credit card and have a companion E.T.C. card made. My existing account would eliminate the hassle, and there would be no charge. I was even assured over the phone by my bank that it would only take about a week. Unfortunately, when I actually went to the bank, filled out the forms, and provided the genetic sample (kidding...) I was informed it would probably take about a month. That means that, for the next few weeks at least, every time I start my car or approach a toll gate my E.T.C. unit says, in a slightly nasal feminine voice (in Japanese), something like, "This unit is in an inoperative state! Please insert your card into the upper entry slot!" (Noooo....I'm gonna jam it into the back! Sheesh...)

Now let me tell you what happened to me the first time I went out on the expressway with my new, INOPERATIVE E.T.C. unit. Except for the annoying voice telling me to stick my card in its slot everytime I approached a toll gate, it was business as usual. I drove through the regular gate and paid the regular toll in the regular manner (and amused myself by yelling at the E.T.C. unit to go shove itself up its own slot). However, there was one odd event that most definitely got my attention...

I was in the passing lane trying to go around a clot of slow-moving cars gathered around a bus (aka mobile traffic-jam maker). A speed camera gate was coming up ahead, so I kept my speed at a relatively modest level. Next thing I knew, a sports car was coming up on my six really fast, and it showed no sign of slowing down. I was blocked from leaving the passing lane, so I punched my accelerator, went into passing gear, whipped around the clot, pulled into the center lane, and then quickly braked to get back down below the acceptable margin before hitting the mark on the pavement showing the speed camera's aiming point.

That's when my E.T.C. unit started beeping. "This unit is in an inoperative state! Please insert your card into the upper entry slot!" But there was no toll gate anywhere to be seen. I can only assume that the unit had been activated by the speed camera gate. That would mean that they were trying to fine me electronically for being a click or two over the margin when I hit the X. I have noticed that a lot of drivers on the expressway have an odd tendency to ignore the speed cameras and just barge on through at high speed. Assuming they aren't privileged (i.e. they aren't missing any fingers), that would mean that rumors I've heard that the police don't pay much attention to the speed cameras are true to at least some extent. An on-the-spot, E.T.C.-based fine collection system would be a completely different story, and a very ominous one. There is a possibility that my unit linked up with a toll gate at an exit I passed, and I just didn't notice it, and I hope that's all it was. After all, a recent case in Italy, where red-light cameras and the signals they were attached to were intentionally tampered with in order to garner extra fine revenue, shows how easily automated law-enforcement systems can be abused. Moreover, since my driving habits are actually more in accordance with the norm rather than the exception, it would mean that a lot of these recent E.T.C. buyers could be falling victim without knowing it. At the very least, there has been no public indication that such a system is being implemented. I hope that means I'm mistaken.

In other news, I've finished another tune. It's called "From the Hat". It's another bit of fun, and kind of chaotic, with lots of genré-hopping, but please give it a listen. There are a lot of complicated details I won't go into here, but you can see them on my Minstrel's Muse site.

By the way, with this tune I have enough tracks available to make a finished CD, so it's in the works. The title is Blue Taxi. I'll leave all the tracks on my Minstrel's Muse site for now, but once the CDs are ready I'll delete that post and replace it with a regular promo like the others. That means you can listen to all the tunes in mp3 format...though I'll give fair warning that the original wav versions, and therefore the CDs, have considerably better sound quality (which probably serves me right for using a freeware file converter, but oh well).

UPDATE - I think I've found a reasonable (and reassuring) explanation for the ETC beeping at the speed camera gate.  It turns out that there are "ETC check" sensors set up at certain speed camera gates, usually at the border between fare zones.  One of my coworkers says his ETC unit always beeps at the same locations no matter how fast (or not) he's going.  The reason for these sensors isn't entirely clear, but apparently they verify whether or not your car has a functioning ETC unit on it or not.  The good thing is that it's apparently not an electronic fine-collection system.  The bad thing is that it, together with those weird "tracking cameras" set up at intervals in addition to the speed cameras, seems like another Orwellian eye on our private lives.

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