Thursday, August 31, 2023

Should E-Bikes Be Allowed on Nature Trails?


A member emailed our bike club a photo of a trailhead sign banning e-bikes. This spawned a brief debate among our members about whether it’s reasonable to ban e-bikes, but not regular mountain bikes, from multi-use trails. In this post I provide my two cents … for free.

What is an e-bike?

Part of the problem here is that not all e-bikes do the same thing. The most subtle version is the illegal racing bike with a tiny motor hidden in it and I won’t go into that (other than to say I kinda want one). Among consumer products, there are three major types of e-bike, as described here. Class 1 helps out when the rider pedals, and can get the bike up to 20 mph. (This is the “pedal-assist” model called out in the photo above.) Then there’s the Class 2 that doesn’t even require you to pedal, and can also reach 20 mph. This is the kind that might have huge tires, and the rider is often just slumped over the thing, slack-jawed, languid, sometimes almost catatonic, his only input being the hand on the throttle. The final type, Class 3, doesn’t require pedaling unless you want to hit its top speed of 28 mph. And then there are the rogue companies putting out e-bikes that can go 55 mph if you snip a wire or otherwise disable their governor. So they’re basically motorcycles in disguise.

If a community wants to regulate e-bike use, the most practical way is across the board, even if the Class 1 might not be a particular menace.

What are e-bikes for?

Let me just say I love the concept of e-bikes. I’m not some purist who gets annoyed when some dude blows by me on the road, his cadence having nothing to do with his speed, like he’s just kind of floating along, pretending to exercise, like the person on the Stairmaster at the gym supporting all his weight on his hands. Who cares? At least he’s on a bike.

That said, I think the sweet spot for e-bikes is commuting. Sure, the world would be a better place if everybody were super fit and commuted everywhere by regular bicycle. (It would be Holland, basically.) But if somebody isn’t fit enough to ride to work in a reasonable amount of time, and/or just doesn’t want to show up red-faced and sweaty, and/or has a big hill that’s too much to handle after a long workday, and/or has cargo or a pet or a kid to carry … go for it! I’m not comparing this rider to a Tour de France racer; I’m comparing him or her to a car, which takes up too much space and wastes too much energy and somewhat endangers cyclists and pedestrians.

This isn’t to say I’d begrudge anybody for using an e-bike for exercise. Cycling is hard, and my favorite rides around here feature serious climbs. If I somehow lost half my fitness, and had to choose between riding on the totally flat Bay Trail on my current bike or continuing my beloved hill climbs on an e-bike, I guess I’d choose the latter (at least until I could somehow get my fitness back).

E-biking on trails? I’ll get to that in a minute. But first:

Whom are e-bikes for?

I’ve been Mr. Nice Guy so far but now I’m going to be less generous: e-bikes are not for the young. First of all, if a kid or teenager doesn’t have the energy to schlep himself or herself around on a regular bike, he or she isn’t being parented properly. Buying your kid an e-bike is just throwing in the towel on their poor fitness. It’s also, arguably, endangering your kid. Check out this article about the disturbing uptick in bad accidents involving teenagers who lack the skill to pilot an e-bike safely, and lack the sense to even try.

Safety is why allowing e-bikes on trails is problematic. I don’t have an issue with older folks taking up road cycling, though if they choose e-bikes they’d better be careful. (I wouldn’t want to tell them not to do it, since managing the risk is really their business. If they hit a car, it’s not like the driver is gonna get hurt.) I also have nothing against older folks taking up mountain biking—after all, as a high school mountain bike coach I actively recruit parents as assistant coaches. But these parents are not on e-bikes, and that keeps things safe. Given how rigorous it is to pedal up a steep dirt climb, new riders develop gradually, and their skill builds along with the range they can cover. This is all for the best. Older folks learning how to ride off-road on e-bikes is just a recipe for trouble, and the danger extends to other users of the trail, who don’t have two tons of steel protecting them.

Then you’ve got your ageing former bikers, who at some point put on fifty pounds and gave up the sport, and now want to drop $10K or so on a fancy e-MTB and pick up where they left off. I was on the backside of China Camp a couple years back and came upon one of these guys. The backside has some gnarly descents, but the climb getting to it hits pitches of over 20%, which normally keeps the novices, and the out-of-practice, from partaking. This (rather stout) dude had motored his way up there and found out the hard way how much his skills had atrophied since the last time he did this descent. His collarbone was clearly broken and he was being carried out by EMS.

What, and whom, are trails for?

Now let’s step back and come at this issue from the other direction: the purpose of nature trails. I love mountain biking, and I also love (well, like) hiking. There’s a fundamental difference, in my opinion, between road cycling on the one hand, and mountain biking or hiking on the other. On the road, you have to contend with cars, along with other aspects of humanity like buildings and of course the road itself. So even though it’s super fun, it’s not exactly communing with nature. Biking on a trail, I can enjoy more of a Grizzly Adams experience, and have a relief from the crush of humanity I normally have to tolerate. (Yes, I’m an introvert.) And when I’m hiking, free of the need to operate a machine, I suppose I’m even closer to this bucolic bliss. I don’t appreciate being spooked by a bicyclist whose sense of a safe passing speed may be radically different from mine, but fortunately this is a rare occurrence.

With all this in mind, as a mountain biker I do my very best to respect the hikers I encounter. I slow way down; I offer a greeting so I don’t startle anyone; I am gracious when a hiker doesn’t feel like acknowledging me. We MTB coaches teach our student athletes that they need to slow down enough that when they say hi, the hiker has the chance to say hi back. (This is a lot to ask of a teenager but we’re tenacious about it, and they generally behave.) With this as the model, I believe that mountain bikers deserve the privilege of sharing trails with hikers. That being said, I’m totally fine with some trails being for hikers only, and I’m stoked to have encountered a few trails specifically set aside for bikers. But not e-bikers, because of the…

Unique problems e-bikes present on trails

Since I started mountain biking in the early 1980s (when the sport was brand new), I have observed how tenuous the relationship can be between bikers and hikers. In the mid 1980s, I loved riding the Shanahan Ridge and Mesa trails in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado … until the city heard from too many angry hikers and closed every single trail to bikers, a ban they still uphold. (I attended the city council meeting where this was argued about, and—being an unprepared, clueless teenager—made an absolute ass of myself and was laughed at by the entire room, which is why I have so much character today.)

The debate about regular mountain bikes on trails will never end, which is why I think we need to be really, really careful when it comes to e-bikes. This technology presents several unique problems.

First of all, as I mentioned before, part of why regular mountain bikers do okay on trails is that they have to pay their dues, fitness-wise, before they have a lot of gnarly descents to contend with. By the time they’re passing hikers on a steep downhill, they’ve acquired the skill they need not to lose control and take somebody out. With an e-bike they’re going everywhere, ready or not.

Second, with increased speed comes extended range, which means more total encounters with hikers. I mean, if I could ride twice as fast on an e-bike (which I probably almost could), I’d go twice as far, and automatically pass a lot more people. And as careful as I try to be, I’m going to encounter some hikers, usually older people, who cannot abide mountain bikers in any form. Even on a regular mountain bike, with all the politeness I can muster, I can’t do right by some of these folks. I could dismount my bike, greet them kindly with a tip of my helmet, hand them a $100 bill and say, “I’m pretty sure you dropped this, even if you don’t remember doing so,” and then give them some homemade chocolate chip cookies and a hand-knit sweater for their dog, and they’d still scowl at me with a look that says, “Go back to your gutter, you filthy vermin.” Meanwhile, at the other end the spectrum, you’ll always have a few mountain bikers who are rude and/or incorrectly gauge the socially acceptable passing speed. If, due to a surge in e-bike popularity, the trails suddenly had twice the number of bikers going twice the distance, the number of pissed off hikers would surely increase, and as I said before, this détente between hikers and bikers is already precarious. In a nutshell, I don’t want e-bikers tipping that balance and ruining the party for us regular bikers.

Third, e-bike motors are allowed to produce up to 750 watts, which is half-again more than Lance Armstrong could sustain for a single climb at the height of his dope-fueled career. This kind of power could surely enable an e-biker to spin the rear tire on climbs, not just half a pedal revolution at a time like I might accidentally do here and there, but more like a motorcycle can. They could totally peel out and some yahoos probably would. I suspect this could really damage a nature trail, which is not designed for such stuff. (And remember, not all e-bike manufacturers play by the rules, power-wise, to begin with.)

Finally, there’s the douchebag factor. Some e-bikers just wanna pretend they’re motorcyclists and will get all armored up and go treat the trail like it’s a motocross course. I was hiking at the Rockville Hills Regional Park, where e-bikes are disallowed, and this dork on an e-bike with a full face helmet and knee and elbow pads was riding with his buddies who were on regular bikes. He kept zipping on ahead and passing my wife and me, and then circling back to rejoin his friends, then passing us again. My impulse was to knock him to the ground and beat him about the head and shoulders with his bike, but it would have been too heavy given my spindly bike-racer arms. Lucky for him, I didn’t think of seizing his battery pack and flogging him with that. Granted, the prohibition against e-bikes hadn’t stopped him from riding there, but presumably the park rangers are licensed to kill and that dumbass is no longer bothering anybody.

What is to be done?

The majority of trails I encounter that allow mountain bikes also allow e-bikes, so far. It appears that the trail managers are either struggling to figure out how to regulate e-bikes, or are adopting a wait-and-see approach. As you have surely gathered by now, I’d favor something more assertive. Fire roads are fine, as there’s plenty of room for everyone, but any single-track trail that allows mountain bikes today should err on the side of caution and ban e-bikes initially, until they’ve figured out the best way to govern them. Anyone wanting to use an e-bike for exercise can go buy an (albeit sexist) Pinarello Nytro and pick on old school roadies like me, or do their shopping on an electric cargo bike. Leave the trails for nature lovers.

(At least, that’s my take, for now. I hope I’m more thoughtful than in my teenaged years, with that disastrous presentation at the Boulder city council meeting.)

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Sunday, August 20, 2023

The Oxford Comma


A friend of mine asked me recently, “Hey, did you blog about the Oxford comma?” This was basically entrapment. Having posted 690 times to albertnet, I feel like all the easy topics (e.g., bike gearing, pasta, flatulence, cycling, the spelling of “kindergartner”) have been exhausted, so I struggle to come up with new ones. Thus, an inquiry like this is basically an assignment.

Herein I will explore the raging debate around the serial, aka Oxford, comma: what is it, who uses it, should it be used, should we care, and why do we care?

What is the Oxford comma?

When a sentence includes a list of things, the Oxford comma is the one placed before “and,” as in this example:

“I bought some gum, a lighter, and a knife.”

Opponents of the Oxford comma would omit that final comma:

“I bought some gum, a lighter and a knife.”

Opponents assert that this final comma is redundant because “and” gets the job done by itself. Proponents cite the lack of clarity that can result if this comma is omitted, as in this classic example:

“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.”

Had the Oxford comma been used in the above sentence, nobody would be wondering if J.F.K. and Stalin were strippers. Obviously you could dodge the grammar and say clarity is achieved by knowing that neither world leader looked good naked, but that’s cheating.

Strong opinions

I emailed three of my wife’s former newspaper colleagues (the “recovering journalists,” I call them) to get their take. Ed immediately wrote back, “I don’t like the Oxford command [sic] anyway [sic], shape or form!” Rachel opined that “the Oxford comma is redundant and ungrammatical,” gave some rationale for her position, and concluded, “I will die on this hill.” The third, Monique, was the most emphatic of all, declaring, “I literally included this line in a [résumé] cover letter: ‘Colleagues know me as positive, trustworthy, calm in a crisis and always ready to battle the Oxford comma!’”

Oddly, when I inquired with my bike team email group, most of the responses were the opposite. Seven supported the Oxford comma, one didn’t care, and one wrote “depends.” My friend Pete, who started this whole thing, and is also a cyclist, is strongly for it. And this article in Bicycling mentions that American pro cyclist Chad Haga is a big fan of the Oxford comma. So why are cyclists different from journalists? I’ll get to that. But first…

Should we use the Oxford comma?

I favor the Oxford comma, for the simple reason that many writers don’t have the judgment to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether that final comma is needed. A journalist might pause to consider the matter, and would understand sentence structure well enough to make the right call, but so many people wouldn’t. Therefore, we should have a simple rule that can be applied every time. The comma in “apples, bananas, and pears” isn’t hurting anything.

I suppose the recovering journalists would argue that the “extra” comma slows things down—and journalists are all about speed. Their greatest fear seems to be that the reader will lose patience and stop reading. I suspect this is somewhat inaccurate, because the traditional audience for newspapers has all but evaporated, and those (like me) still willing to pay for a home subscription actually love to read, and aren’t in a constant panic about it taking too long. (Never mind that the doomscrollers end up reading a tremendous amount, though in tiny bite-sized pieces.)

Meanwhile, not all text is news, and when clarity is lost in certain contexts, such as law, the effect can be disastrous. Long ago, when I was working my first corporate job, our office split off from the parent company, very acrimoniously. I was charged with reviewing the split-off agreement, which included language around how long our consultants could continue using software that had been developed in-house. Due to the lack of an Oxford comma, it wasn’t clear whether all six software applications could be used, or just the last one in the list. I almost spoke up about this, but for some reason I just didn’t. (Maybe I was just tired after a futile debate with my boss over apostrophes.) Well, lo and behold, the former parent company ended up suing us for continuing to use all six apps, and though we eventually prevailed, the lawsuit wasted well over a month, cost gobs in legal fees, and was a massive distraction. I should have spoken up … but if the Oxford comma had been the law of the land, I wouldn’t have had to.

This kind of thing surely happens a lot. Some years ago, as described in this New York Times article, a Maine dairy company had to pay $5 million to drivers because the overtime policy, as written into Maine law, wasn’t clear about what types of work were exempted. The lack of clarity opened the door to the (ultimately successful) overtime claim. As if the $5 million wasn’t bad enough, Maine revised the law very crudely. You see, they couldn’t just add the Oxford comma, because they were dead set against it. As described here, “the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual … specifically instructs lawmakers to not use the Oxford comma.” So they came up with a grotesque new construction: “The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of” is how they arranged their sequence. They just replaced the Oxford comma with a semicolon, understanding that punctuation is required before the “or” but refusing to make it a comma. I think anyone who cares about words and grammar would agree that’s a monstrosity, and that this overly zealous adherence to the anti-Oxford-comma stance is absurd.

Of course the anti-Oxford-comma group would say fine, use it when it’s truly necessary, but omit it the rest of the time, because it’s jarring and slows the reader down. An essay in the Daily Californian states, “As readers, our brains are trained to pause when we see commas.” Well, yes, but when reading a sequence, we pause at each comma (which is what they’re for) and we also pause for the implicit comma suggested by “and.” If we didn’t, we’d get tripped up. Frankly, I think the lack of comma slows me down because I find it jarring—it’s like being clotheslined.

That this lack trips me up, but doesn’t bother the recovering journalists, suggests I’m reading different stuff, such that this serial comma seems normal to me. My favorite magazine, The New Yorker, famously defies the Associated Press Stylebook in always employing it. (Mary Norris, their “comma queen,” explains her rationale here.) The Oxford comma is also employed by most of the novelists I read. (I just spot-checked the last one, Tana French, and have confirmed she’s indeed in the pro-comma camp.) On a hunch, I searched the index of Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions to see if he weighed in on this matter, and while there’s no entry, the opening sentence of the book happens to employ this comma: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” As for the absence of serial commas in the Times, I don’t exactly read that paper anyway … I usually just skim it.

So why do cyclists seem to promote the Oxford comma? My wife’s theory is that more of us are engineer-types, and I will say that the loveliness of bicycles as mechanical objects is a big part of the sport’s allure, whatever our background. Moreover, anyone who has to properly dial in spoke tension, brakes, and indexed shifting generally has a healthy respect for being methodical and precise, even at the expense of time and effort. I will go one step further and suggest that road cycling is a good way to learn patience. I rode up Mount Diablo yesterday and was acutely aware how long that takes … halfway up the climb I thought, “Cool, only half an hour to go” and then realized, wait, that’s a long time to suffer in 90-degree heat. (And then it’s two more hours riding home.) To me, the kind of brisk, comma-avoidant sentences favored by journalists are aesthetically at odds with the experience of long-distance cycling, which is so often a slog. I don’t spin the pedals like a hamster … I like to stand up and mosh away at a low cadence … shove, shove, shove. The brief lull at the top of each pedal stroke is a bit like a comma.

Should we care about the Oxford comma?

Two things have stood out for me in researching this post. First, the responses to my inquiry—not just those that supported my position, but also the ones that didn’t—were a joy to read. Well, actually, not all of them. The one who replied “Who gives a f—?” didn’t please or inspire me. (Another replied with that comment but only to direct me to this Vampire Weekend rock video.) Apathy toward language bothers me in this era of STEM-obsessed non-readers who prefer podcasts and YouTube over the written word. My second observation is that reading various articles about the Oxford comma has been an extremely pleasant way to pass the time. (In addition to what I’ve quoted from, several other articles, like this one, greatly amused me). Readers and writers who get fired up about linguistic minutiae are my people. What side of the fence we’re on is less important.

Case in point: my friend Trevor took me to task, years ago, for using two spaces after a period. While I debated this heartily at the time, I have now conceded that he’s right … not because two spaces was never helpful, but because lots of modern software doesn’t handle a pair of spaces correctly. It’s just not worth fighting modern convention. But what I didn’t expect, when I conceded this point, is that now, years later, seeing two spaces looks wrong to me. My taste has adjusted, which is a reminder that opinions can be malleable … but apathy is absolute. 

Why do we care?

Where the Oxford comma debate is concerned, one thing is perfectly clear: those with an opinion hold it strongly. But why should this be, when the matter hinges on such a subtle point, and the English language is so convoluted to begin with? I suppose that once you’ve made up your mind what’s right and what’s wrong, every instance of the “wrong” usage feels like an affront. Perhaps it’s the same way we respond to fashion: once we’ve decided fanny packs are dorky, we wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one, even though a whole lot of people (mostly tourists, it seems) just love them.

The Oxford comma, then, could be considered a matter of fashion, just like anything else. In his New Yorker essay “A Tale of Two Cafés,” Adam Gopnik examines the phenomenon of two perfectly good neighboring cafés in Paris, the Flore and the Deux Magots, one of which is always preferred and the other shunned—even though their popularity flip-flops over time, according to the whims of Parisians. Gopnik quotes a “dour friend” who sums up the matter as intrinsic to human nature:

The relationship between the modishness of the Flore and the unmodishness of the Deux Magots isn’t just possibly arbitrary. It’s necessarily arbitrary… The reason that, when you place any two things side by side, one becomes chic and the other does not is that it’s in the nature of desire to choose, and to choose absolutely.

I think that’s a big part of it, anyway. Beyond that, the Oxford comma is just plain correct. I mean, isn’t that obvious?

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Wednesday, August 9, 2023

If William Wordsworth Were Writing Today


What if William Wordsworth (1770-1850) were writing today? And what if he had a corporate-type editor? Imagine the instant-messaging dialogue that might take place after the great poet submitted a new work for review. Actually, you don’t need to, because that’s what this post is about. The launch point is this timeless Wordsworth poem, from 1807.

Wordsworth’s poem

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. 

The dialogue

BANES: well ive read the poem and i think its a good start. a solid start

WORDSWORTH: Actually, it’s complete.

BANES: dont need to add anything

BANES: just tighten it up a bit

WORDSWORTH: I don’t see your point.

BANES: well you know poetry its so good at being sucint. thats  why its so popular right. i  mean those who still read poetry want concise

WORDSWORTH: My poem is under 200 words. That is not long.

BANES: its all relative

BANES: what is that poem about the subway and petals on a wet black bough so good can you do more like that

WORDSWORTH: If you’re asking me to plagiarize Ezra Pound, no. If you want me to adapt my style to imitate him, hell no.

BANES: no nothing like that just concise

BANES: like that first stanza maybe get that across in one line

BANES: get to the point faster

WORDSWORTH: Oh, I see. So I could get the entire poem down to the size of a tweet.

BANES: exactly

WORDSWORTH: I was being sarcastic.

BANES: no need for that i am trying to help

WORDSWORTH: Every word in every line is essential or I would have removed it already. That’s what makes me a poet.

BANES: you need to adapt

BANES: modern readers = shorter attetnion span

BANES: no time for flourishes etc

WORDSWORTH: Well then just call me a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

BANES: what are u talking about

WORDSWORTH: I gather you’re unfamiliar with my earlier works.

BANES: really what are you talking about and never mind your earlier works

BANES: you have currency now so lets leverage that

WORDSWORTH: I assume you’re referring to Taylor Swift name-dropping me in her song, literally one line after decrying “some namedropping sleaze,” ironically enough.

BANES: taylor swift yes exactly

BANES: we need to get on that

WORDSWORTH: I won’t disgrace myself by pandering to pop culture.

BANES: i'm trying to help you here. u want to be replaced by A.I.?

WORDSWORTH: If you think ChatGPT can write poetry, you’re delusional.

BANES: look, you know why coleridges poems are so successful? He’s writing about big-screen TVs, pleasure domes, and opium trips. your writing about dancing flowers

WORDSWORTH: Have you even read my poem?

BANES: yes

BANES: in fact i found some errors

BANES: like, i'm sure you saw lots of flowers but not continuous, not 10K

BANES: and lakes dont have waves

WORDSWORTH: Actually, Windermere lake is the largest in England and does have waves. As usual you have no idea what you’re talking about.

BANES: look work with me here you have some good stuff here, lonely = emo can resonate with readers

BANES: just tigten up a bit and we’re good

BANES: and doesnt matter what lake, actually not saying which lake is better

BANES: in fact i wanted to ask you

BANES: poetry now needs to be hyper local

BANES: i'm thinking different versions of poem by region

BANES: can we do one for CA and change from daffodil to poppy (state flower

WORDSWORTH: I am not a staff writer for a tourism board. And I’m not rewriting the final rhyming couplet to support “poppies.”

BANES: about that rhyming

BANES: kind of passe

WORDSWORTH: Taylor Swift uses rhyme.

BANES: touche

BANES: but getting back to the number of flowers

BANES: never ending line & 10K, nobody is buying that

WORDSWORTH: I’m employing a standard poetic device called hyperbole. I guess they didn’t teach you that in business school.

BANES: why cant you just be more precise

WORDSWORTH: Are you my editor or my fact-checker?

BANES: readers dont want to be decieved

WORDSWORTH: Are you going to revoke my poetic license?

BANES: look maybe i dont have a fancy degree from Oxford but i know my stuff

WORDSWORTH: My degree is from Cambridge.

BANES: whatever

BANES: look there is an incosistency in the poem you start with lonely & brooding and then later your all talking about bliss of solitude

BANES: not as strong as other parts need to tighten up

WORDSWORTH: This just demonstrates how completely you have missed the point. “That inward eye which is the bliss of solitude” is exactly what this supposed audience of modern readers has lost, due to the constant intrusion of Twitter, Snapchat, and the never-ending smartphone “feed.” There is no more bliss because there is no more solitude. And nobody can just enjoy their natural surroundings without stopping to snap photos and share them on Instagram.

BANES: nobody says instnagram anymore its insta

WORDSWORTH: You know what? We’re done here. You can take our contract and shove it. I’ll just put my poem on my blog.

BANES: actually i wanted to talk to you about that

BANES: its time to monetize your blog

BANES: adsense can make us some money if we get the seo right

BANES: untapped potential there

BANES: you already did the work

BANES: dont you want to get paid

BANES: hey are you still there

BANES: ???

BANES: hey

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