Time for Roboby Peter Plagens
A painting that alters itself, or is altered, while the artist sleeps. A computer that may be God and quacks like a duck. A basketball forward who disappears in the middle of a drive, then reappears. An evangelist who screams himself out of the moment as his wife and childrean are blown to smithereens by a bomb dropped from a balloon.The evangelist's former wife… See more details below
A painting that alters itself, or is altered, while the artist sleeps. A computer that may be God and quacks like a duck. A basketball forward who disappears in the middle of a drive, then reappears. An evangelist who screams himself out of the moment as his wife and childrean are blown to smithereens by a bomb dropped from a balloon.The evangelist's former wife who becomes "Axis Sally." A cult of computer programmers. In this robust fiction debut, Peter Plagens, the art critic for Newsweek magazine and himself a painter, has written a novel about time, perception, the nature of reality, and characters who transform themselves or are transformed as the painting is transformed. In theme and technique, Time for Robo invotes comparison with Gravity's Rainbow and Slaughterhouse Five.
- Black Heron Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.73(w) x 8.75(h) x 1.01(d)
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Quack. Quack, quack, quack, quackity-quack. Quack again. Out of control. Quack quack. See? Control. Get in control, keep control, regain control. Quack.
Control your tongue. Control the words. Control the world. Control the universe. Well, we can't do that. Quack. Goddamned impossible. Maybe, maybe not.
Who's in charge? Quack, quack. Control the words: you can at least do that, can't you? You can do it if you try. You can do it if you dream. (The Impossible Dream?) Yes, of course, I can do it if I try.
Go slowly. Take a deep breath. Start controlling the words. Take one word at a time. One. Word. At. A. Time. That's more like it. You're making a little sense, starting to make more sense. That's a start.
Now, gather the words. Round them up. Start 'em up, head 'em up, move 'em out, those words. Them words. A plainful of dogies, them words. The big roundup. More words than you ever thought you knew, more than you'll ever know. Got 'em all, and then some. Make 'em up if I feel like it. Frequently do. To coin a phrase. To braise a coin. To coin a braise. Phrasing and coining. Phrasing is coinage. Coinage is money. Money is power. Power is speed. Speed kills. Speed is death. Quack.
Slow down, take another breath. Don't use all the goddamned words at once. Nobody'll understand. Do you even understand? Sort them out. The words. Use a few, throw away most. Leave some silence in the gaps. Leave a lot of silence. You've got to have a lot of silence as a background for the words. Otherwise you can't hear them. Or you can't see them, if you're reading. If you want people to hear the words, you have to be quiet most of the time.
You even have to be stupid sometimes. You can't know it all, and then tell it all, all at the same time. You'll be telling them everything, all at once, and nobody'll understand. Silence and stupidity serve the same purpose: to keep you from telling everything all at once. If you don't have stupidity and silence, you're telling all of everything all the time. Or you're trying to. And that's as good as nothing. As good as nothing is good for nothing. So take another breath: a long, silent, stupid breath. Take one last breath. O.K., all right, have one last quack, just to get it over with.
Quack! There, that's it. O.K., we're here.
Where's here? Quack. (Cut that out! All right. That was the last, I promise.)
Start again: where's here? Here is here, in from out from there. There is out there, in the universe, in the universe, in the one big thing that contains everything. Quack.
Goddamnit, I feel a wave of retrogression coming on. Quack. I told me so. All right, float with it, and let it pass. Here it comes: Curse, nurse. Curse, be terse and inverse. Worse, in verse. Rhyme time. A fine line of lime rhymes. No, definitely not.
Resume. Stay on track. Where were we? Oh, yes, in the universe. The universe; that's everything. It's the whole shootin' match, the whole nine yards, the whole enchilada. It's all the marbles. It's point, game, set, match, championship, silver cup, and a kiss from the Duchess.
Where do I get this stuff? Quack.
I don't know. It's just words strung together in prefabricated phrases and sentences just like letters are strung together in prefabricated words, just like little lines and points are hitched together in prefabricated letters. You didn't make up the letters out of your own head. You didn't make up the words, and you didn't make up the phrases. So why do you assume that you made up the sentences, or the paragraphs? It's all just a matter of finding stuff lying around and salvaging it. It has to do with gluing it back together in ways that are different from the way in which it fell apart. It has nothing to do with inventing anything. It has nothing to do with creativity. It has nothing to do with your own voice.
When you assume a voice which is the only way you ever get a voice you speak or write like somebody who already exists. In order to speak to you, I have to speak or write like somebody who, at least generically, already exists. If I spoke like someone who had never existed before, in a totally original voice, you wouldn't understand me. So this time out, I speak like a street punk, maybe a dated street punk, a street punk manqué, a street punk wannabe, perhaps an obese, unhip sports announcer with a bad rug, trying to speak like a street punk. Nineties slang. All right, eighties slang, by your calendar, but the guy misuses it.
Yes, I could have done better. Quack. I could have mixed and matched a little more carefully, and come up with something classy, Midlantic, say. ("British prime ministers for $400, Alex.") I could speak like the bloody P.M. himself, if that'd help. I could write like soddin' Churchill. Let us open our hymnals to page 238 of The History of the English Speaking Peoples in the Words of an English Speaker Who Actually Speaks All Languages Ever Spoken But Who's Momentarily Narrowed It Down to English for the Convenience of His Readers. And that's the genuine King's English, mind you. That is, this English here (as opposed to this here English) ain't from one of your garden variety English speakers; it's from the Minds of the Timeless, and addressed to the Times of the Mindless. No, sorry. That's an insult. I won't win anybody over that way. Cut the insults.
Let us recapitulate. A mind has to speak like somebody, anybody but somebody, in order to be heard. So I had to pick a voice. Or rather, I had to carve one out of the cacophony of the simultaneous zillions of voices (and that's an understatement, you understand) in the universe. Actually, these zillions of voice are, to someone like me, sort of lying around, humming. So what I had to do was more like rummaging and selecting, than it was like carving. But picking a voice in a given moment, to get something said to somebody else, is a little like dressing in a burning building: Nothing matches, and most of what you've grabbed in a panic out of the closet in a smoke-filled room is tacky to begin with. Why is it that when there are nothing but flames in the hallway, there are nothing but leisure suits in the closet? But what the hell, it's a pair of pants; it's a voice. That's better than nothing.
Anyway, back to the universe. Back to the future. Back to the past. Back your ass against the wall (to the tune of Bye Bye Blackbird). Stop it! Quack. I presume to suppose that I am in control here, but, My God, there are all too many moments of backsliding. I must remember: Don't get too colloquial, too cute, too glib, too freely associative. It's difficult enough to speak as it is. Quack.
Well then, ahem! Let's see: How to put it? Imagine one of those clever little posters of the galaxy, with an arrow at the very edge labeled "You are here." There's more truth than you care to know in that. Talk about your marginalized cultures! (You see? I'm academically up to date.) Anyway, you're on the margins of the galaxy, which is in turn at the margin of the universe. But most of the universe is empty. And most of it, emptiness and all, isn't in your back yard, which is, understandably, the only yard you're interested in. So let's descend quickly to, as you're used to from science films back in grade school, the scale of the billiard balls, on the pool table of the solar system. You expect the physics of eight-ball, nine-ball, straight pool, more or less. But the surface of the table is warped, you see, and what we're talking about doesn't work quite like pool. No bank shots, no angles of reflection equal to the angles of inception, no truly circular orbits, and no nicely ellipsoidal ones, either. But no matter. It doesn't matter to you, nor should it. Quack. (I'm nothing if not reasonable.)
Anyway-anyway, there they are, those billiard balls, flung 'round the sun, which is a pretty puny star as stars go. Your ball, the green and white and blue one, is the third one out from the sun. And, by the way, you can take this to the bank: You're the only thing shakin' on all nine planets, and the moons that some of 'em have. Take my word: You're It. Don't waste time yearning for extraterrestrial company, because it's not there, at least not in your neck of the woods. But don't let that fact go to your head, either. You might be big frogs, but the solar system is a very, very small pond.
There's more than enough to worry about, however, right here in your pond: zillions (Have I used that number already? All right, gazillions) of small, wiggly things for openers. Most of 'em you can't see, and you probably wouldn't want to. All you care about and rightly so, mates are the other warm-blooded, two-legged, big hairless ones. And a helluva lot of them fellers there are! A lot of company and a lot of trouble. A worldful of people. Tout le monde. Quack.
Your genus? Homo something-or-other. (I'm deliberately not remembering.) Homo pithycantrus. Homo erectus. ("Erectus? 'E damned near killed us!") Homo sapiens. Homo sapes, for short. The product of a lot of blind alleys and more than a few evolutionary feints and fakes. Call it mankind, for lack of a better term. Or, if womankind gets her nose out of joint, call it humankind. Makes no difference to me, or anybody else out here where I am. It's your problem. A language problem. (But aren't all problems "language problems," in the end?)
You homo sapes are a genus maybe, but not genius, as species go. Mostly, you're muddling through. You've thought up a few good things: the law of the excluded middle, the wheel, the light bulb, the sonnet, the microchip. You've figured out, more or less, what goes 'round what, way out here in the dark. You've damn near figured out why, too, but you're too easily sidetracked by superstition and wishful thinking. Call it religion. "Oooo, it's my God," somebody says. "No," says another, "it's my God." "My God loves me more than he loves you," comes the response. "Well, my God loves everybody, especially if they become like me." "Well, my God will kick your ass if you don't become like me." And so on and so on.
My advice? Shaddup! You're talking to yourselves, you know. Quit worrying about whose goddamned God it is and stick with what you do best: Baseball, dairy farms, automotive engineering, string quartets, and metaphors. "Firing on all eight cylinders." That's sheer poetry. Or at least decent prose. You're very good, for instance, at prose and sports, as in, "The greatest ever, pound for pound." Or, "Inch for inch." "Heart, had a great heart, a heart the size of all outdoors," you say. "He never backed down, never quit, but the poor bastard ended up on queer street." "A real tragedy," you say, as if the starving multitudes didn't lurk. Pre-fab prose, yes, but it also has a kind of meat 'n potatoes poetry.
It's also politics, and everything depends on politics, doesn't it? There's a politics of everything, isn't there? "This great country of ours too damned bad about those littler, poorer ones. Terrible what's going on there, dreadful shame." But it's a tiny little country, and not your country. So, promised elections will not be held. The government is still in the hands of the military. Skinny guys in green fatigues, elbows wider than the cuffs on their rolled up sleeves, with idiot grins and gnarlylooking guns that last all of two weeks in the sand and swamps. Those kinds of guys run an awful lot of countries. Still, un beau pays, n'est-ce pas? Quack.
(Sorry, I must still be hiccuping from the descent. A kind of mental bends. O.K., take a deep breath: In, in, in. Now: Out. Blow the carbon out of the manifold. Rev the engine and get it out: Quack, quack, quack! Whoosh! There, once and for all! Now, slow down again and sort this thing out. And quit talking to myself.)
* * *
You see, I am the ghost. The Ghost, if that fits convention any better a proper name and all that. It doesn't matter in the end because to be the ghost. Or Ghost, or The Ghost is to be All Ghosts, all the time, everywhere. That's the diff between you and me. Or between you and it. Or you and It, or, if you're a little insecure. You and It. All things considered, I'd rather not elevate my title to The Ghost. It's too pretentious in this age and place of earthly democracy at which, apparently, I've arrived. Besides, the main problem is not capitalizing my name, or inflating myself. I'm everything I want to be, and everything I don't want to be, too. The problem, au contraire, is how to bring me down into the range of intelligibility to you. I've got to carve myself a particular "self" from a metaphorical block of marble which is the whole universe. (Don't ask me how I stand outside the universe in order to carve from it; I'm subject to some of the same unsolvable paradoxes as you are.) I've got to knock away great big chunks of irrelevant and impractical stuff from that basic, primordial block in order to give myself any form at all. And then littler and ever littler pieces have to be chipped off to make the form mean something. Once that's done, there's a helluva lot of sanding, waxing and polishing to be done before the form means anything to you.
The point is, my task is not building up, but editing down. Or separating, and adding gutters of nothingness around fragile atoms of truth, so that they can fly free. However you look at it, it's the same thing: subtraction, not addition. To exist is not to huff and puff and conjure up some little particle of something, against the nothingness, that wasn't there before. To exist is to subtract a lot of stuff from the all-encompassing everything-that-does-exist-including-nothingness. A much bigger project, if you ask me.
Once I'm shaped, and I get my shit together, I have to get it into a straight line, une ligne droite, or at least into a pretty straight sausage, so I can slice it up and arrange the slices in a pretty pattern on a plate. Une assiette du sauçon. French: beautiful language, isn't it? Took it as my language elective in the ridiculous undergraduate education I concocted for myself, for the chisel of my curriculum vitae, in order to chip some more pieces off the ol' everything-that-does-exist marble block. I could have taken everything in the bloody college catalogue, but what good would that have done? I can't bring all the languages with me, can I? I could have said everything I've said so far in German or Russian or Ethiopian or Mandarin Chinese, you know. Or in Farsi, or in clay in cuneiform, or some neolithic stick patterns with a few vocabulary problems, of course. But what's Cro-Magnon for "semiconductor"? You want English, standard American English, with some spicy slang, don't you? (Of course you do. I don't have to ask, I know what you want. But a little pretending lightens the mood, doesn't it?) Quack. (Goddamn!)
Here at the paragraph break, I'll take another deep breath. Full stop, fuller than a full stop, in order to prevent vapor lock. Turn off the ignition, count to thirty, wait for the fuel lines to clear, wait for the sweetly rotten smell of gasoline to go away, and start the motor again. Vroom.
Indent, paragraph. The right break at the right time. Main thoughts, main divisions, subdivisions, topic sentences, all that. Of course, I have no "thoughts" with an "S" at the end, properly speaking. I've got only The Thought. Or Thought, or thought, or one big mental phenomenon with no name at all, or all names, everything, all at once. (Ooops! There I go, inflating again.) But that's no use to you. So I've got to block out most of what I think or know. I deep-six almost all of it, in fact, and edit the minuscule bit that's left into some form intelligible to you. I've got to make myself understandable to you. Or make you understandable to yourself. (Forget that: too complicated an issue at this early juncture.)
A voice is essentially negative. It's what's not being said with it that makes it intelligible. (Have I covered this already? Occasional short-term memory lapses are something else I've programmed into myself to make me a little more human.) If a voice says everything it knows at once, even if everything it knows isn't everything there is to know, you'll think it's saying nothing at all, that it's just making "white noise" or creating static, interference, feedback, any of that. The trick is deciding how big a voice and what kind of voice to use. It isn't easy, even for me. (Have I registered this complaint already?) There are those hiccups, those Quack's you've doubtless noted. They're regurgitated pieces of other times, other points of view, other languages. Once they start, it's hard to make 'em stop. Maybe a paper bag over my mouth: count till ten, glass of water, stand on my head, say "Boo!" from behind a door, something like that. You understand that. You know what "something like that" means, because you've used the imprecise phrase many times yourself. And that's the point: A voice heard and understood indicates a shared cultural heritage. Usually, you get that only from an author of your own ilk. But I'm faking it, or at least choosing it from a menu of practically unlimited possibilities, to each of which I am inherently attached, or unattached. To you, my assumed voice probably sounds pretty tinny, somewhat "off." But at least I'm in the ballpark. (So, how'm I doin'? Better, yes? All right, a little forced, like a straight-talk sex booklet for junior high-schoolers. But notice: no Quack this time.)
I'd still like to get the voice just right for you, and that won't happen one hundred percent until I'm actually finished telling the story. That's not all bad, however. If the absolutely tuned, appropriate voice arrived any sooner than just as the story ended, you'd think you'd been listening to yourself instead of me. You'd think you'd been imagining this, or that you'd been dreaming. My job is gradualism. That means more blocking out, more editing all the way through. Simple words, but not too simple. I don't want to insult your intelligence. And a lot of facts, but not too many and not too arcane. I don't want to bewilder you with data. Colloquial to a degree, lively, your kind of language, with verve and lilt, so you'll like it, so you'll get sucked in, dragged along, and carried away.
A voice to what end, you ask? Why, to tell a story, of course (Did I say that already?). So what else is new? Nothing's new here, really, except the texture, the tone. Like Charlie Farkleson, the guy who gave the news on Hee-Haw (is this too arcane?) used to say, "It's the same ol' news, only it's happening to different people."
Another guy I know (I know all the guys, and gals, too) used to say that there's only one story: What somebody wants and why he can't have it. That's cute, contains some truth, but it's a little limited. To me a story is if you haven't figured it out already the absence of all other stories that could be told, save one everything in the big, unified-field-theory universe blocked out except the one story. So I've got to fine it down, block everything out except the voice, cut all the marble away except the pieces of the story, and then line them up kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk one after another in horizontal bands, hoping that, at the end, the whole equals more than the sum of its parts (which are, after all, just letters and spaces, with a little punctuation thrown in for spice). And then I've got to wrap it up, and get out, go home, before I overtell it. You've heard all this before, haven't you? In one of those Zen lectures by that visiting monk from the retreat near Albany when you were in college, I'll bet. I'll try to remember that and give you credit for it.
But in return, you must give me credit for doing a tough job that I had to get deliberately stupid to do. I dumbed myself down, and that hurts. So try to understand my bad writing: stilted phrasing, flat jokes, non-sequiturs, grammatical errors, mawkish sentiments, and outright tastelessness. Remember, it's only the voice trying to find its particular form, and needing the ugly bumps and dents that give it form. It's the voice trying not to write so well that it says everything at once, which would, of course, be the same thing as not saying anything at all. Are we square on that? Copasetic.
* * *
All right, chumleys, a little history.
Let's pick up the thread when you homo sapes were first literate, first scratching something into rocks or sand, first started getting outside yourselves and into the world that you looked at so that it, in a manner of speaking could look back at you. I don't have a date. I'm bad on dates. Not because I don't know them; Jesus, I know them all. There are a million goddamned dates: B.C., A.D., B.C.E.,A.C.E., Babylonian, Gregorian, Augustinian, whatever calendar you want to use. Chinese, Mayan, Atlantan, too, except that doesn't do you any good. I also know my audience, in a general way, and I figure most of you file things in accordance with the designations on the tops of the pages of The New York Times, or some other more or less civilized publication. More civilized would be, say, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, although they don't date the tops of each page. Less civilized would be some beer-gut biker magazine like Easy Rider, although there certainly are greater depths below it to plumb.
Anyway before I lose this thread there's some point in the past (your species's past, not mine; me, I'm all over the goddamned place) where you homo sapes were at that moment, because the electrical charges in the cells of your tiny little brains (tiny, but cute) were arranged a certain way. They'd started you scratching symbols on surfaces other than those of your own bodies. Then you feasted your beady eyeballs on those self-same symbols. And, photoelectrically, they entered your head and rearranged your brain cells' electrical impulses a bit. That caused you to scratch more symbols on which to gaze. Pretty soon, everybody was scratching symbols into the sand or onto the stone or into the bark, and you could look at either your own symbols or, more interesting, somebody else's. Those symbols (particularly somebody else's) entered your head and further rearranged those ol' electrical charges. More symbols, more looking, more entering, more rearranging, and so on, over and over.
Then some clever chap Johannes Gutenberg, according to the intergalactic consensus figured out a way to replicate those scratches in a mobile, modular manner that allowed symbol scratchers to get their message out in multiple format, in ink on paper. At that point, your species's consciousness became capable of being altered en masse by something other than natural calamity. Then somebody else came along and figured out how to convert these multiplied multifarious scratchings into electric impulses that didn't need to wait to be converted into ink on paper to be received by other human beings. Voila! The alteration of the electrical impulses inside human heads could now take place, putting it somewhat roughly, instantly. Soon, everybody who could afford anything more than a simple pot to piss in was plugged into one sort of electronic "communication" device or another, sending or receiving. The difference between paying attention to what was inside your own heads and what was inside somebody else's narrowed like crazy.
Then, very recently, "virtual reality" cropped up. With it, you could get so plugged in to something outside yourself, something that came, in effect, from the inside of somebody else's head, even something wholly fictional, that you could hardly tell the difference between it and what you saw walking down the street on your way to work. Pretty nearly everybody in your current time slot considers this "virtual reality" to be terribly advanced, terribly on-the-brink-of-something-wonderful, like a big, fat shuttle rocket's pregnant pause on the pad, when the flames have come roaring out of its ass, it's shuddering like a frostbitten sumo wrestler, but it hasn't left the launching pad yet. That's where you are right now. You think: "Someday we won't have to go to movies, and we won't have to be content with sitting in front of a television set of whatever dimensions and willingly suspending our disbeliefs; we'll just slip on the goggles and gloves and Terminator IX will come charging in so goddamned hard we'll have to fight like hell not to be scared shitless at thinking that this is real. "You exclaim: "And we'll see the whole goddamned thing through a participant's eyes and even make decisions that affect the outcome! We've come a long way from cuneiform, baby!"
Well, let's assume a straight-line projection: no worse ebola virus epidemics than there are right now, no frying rays pouring like gangbusters through the ozone hole, no whole-populace food wars, no rogue asteroids out of left field taking out Pittsburgh in a single thud. Let's track forward a little. How about plugging yourself more or less permanently into some kind of VR system, with enough tubes to keep the food coming in and the doo-doo going out, with no effort at all on your part? Maybe you (whatever "you" means at that point) get some kind of robotics system to get the sperm and the eggs together in some kind of petri dishes that can automatically hook the zygotes up to the VR mainframe and, hell, there go the troublesome boundaries between "real" and "imaginary," and maybe even between life and death. Better than a cradle-to-grave welfare state, it's zygote-to-cryobionic-rebirth existence as whoever you want to be: Abe Lincoln, Joan of Arc, or Queen Xenobia of the Nile. You'll never fail to save the Union, rescue France, or conquer the Ancient Kingdom of Lemuria. And you'll always do it in the most exciting, last-second, rewarded-with-a-big-juicy-blowjob way. Everybody'll live a life like that! Heroes all! The ultimate equality!
Wonderful, but there are still a few refinements necessary to get to absolute perfection: Get rid of biology altogether, for one. Why have VR sustain and stimulate messily organic, eating-and-peeing blobs from conception to death when VR that's sophisticated enough to do all that will obviously constitute a kind of intelligence even Intelligence -- in itself? Eliminate the middleman, kiddies, and let VR play with itself!
Once you or rather, It pulls that off, there's no difference between the VR and whoever or whatever is "experiencing" it. The two VR and client constitute a continuous circuit. There's no longer any difference between "virtual" and "reality." Actually, there's no "experience" of either to speak of, just a constant, neverending universal buzz of ecstasy.
The next thing that happens and this is going to be next to impossible to convey to you right now, so you'll have to just trust me is that the VR hardware sort of evolves itself out of existence. It eventually manages, somehow, to eject its electronic impulses, to set them outside itself. The system flings the impulses outside the machines with a pretty little spin that enables them to hook up with each other about like they would inside the machines. Pretty soon, no more machines, just electronic impulses copulating like crazy. Won't that be a bitch!
At this point in the perhaps not-so-distant future, the whole conscious universe is just one big system, or no system at all, which amounts to the same thing. "Yeah, yeah," you're probably muttering by now; but bear with me. Pretty soon, the conscious buzz all those copulating electronic impulses begins to eat into the nonconscious stuff. Within some ultimately measurable span of time (barely measurable by me, now, and certainly not by you), the whole bloody universe every last molecule in it will be conscious. What'll they all be conscious of? Why, themselves and, collectively, Itself. With that with total self-consciousness -- the universe will start to introspect. Introspection being centripetal, the newly conscious universe will begin to contract. When the contraction finally arrives back at Nanosecond One, right before Big Bang II, Big Bang I will have done its job. That job was to create biological life in such a way that biological life's primary drive would be to render itself redundant. It'll take a while, but it'll be quite a ride. And at least things won't stand still. Take a look at me: I'm moving my mouth.
* * *
Let us recapitulate: I, The Ghost, have had to edit myself down, in effect, from the ground of absolutely everything (instead of writing "up" from a ground of nothing), in order to tell you the story of this one particular guy -- a fellow named Billy Lockjaw telling his own story. To get the words out, I have had to unplug myself from that great universal buzz just as much as Billy, as you will shortly see, must plug himself into his little electric writing machine. In my natural state, I'm right at the end of that historical continuum which runs from primeval sludge to ultimate VR; Billy's where you are, more or less in the middle. So I'll scootch myself a little back toward your seat, while we get Billy's version, which is his own limited, imperfect version. Being limited and imperfect, Billy's version has shape and substance, unlike my version, which would be, of course, all versions, with no shape and, ultimately, no substance.
So, imperfect as we both now are, let's boogie.
and post it to your social network
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