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Archive for the ‘homeschool’ Category

Cover of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningIf you took World History in high school, your experience was probably like mine: the course was miles wide and only about an inch deep. This has everything to do with the amount of material that has to be covered, even over the course of an entire academic year. Therefore, I found Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning an excellent read. As the title indicates, this Timothy Snyder work covers one of the worst times in the history of our world.

This is a hard read because it is information dense. I’ve made a note to myself to go back through this book and take more elaborate notes for review and comparison because there’s just that much. However, it is definitely worth the read because Snyder covers so much that isn’t covered in typical history courses nor in most video programs on the Holocaust. For instance, right from the start Snyder traces the ideology of Hitler and the Nazi party as a whole. Certain key ideas go all the way back to Germany’s former colonization of Africa and some of the actions of Hitler and Germany mirror actions from that previous time. Another example is an exploration of why Poland should have been Germany’s ally and not the Soviet Union. Snyder then covers the events and differences in the beliefs about the state which led to the opposite, with Stalin initially being Hitler’s ally and Germany’s invasion of Poland.
One of the interesting perspectives reinforced in the early part of the book is how much of Germany’s actions (and Hitler’s thinking) was about land. My old American History instructor used to tie most of America’s actions to a pursuit of more land. It was so common a theme (think Manifest Destiny) that she would often exclaim, “Land!” when discussing motivations. For instance, the Louisiana Purchase was about land. Jefferson struggled with it because he couldn’t find anything in the US Constitution which specifically gave the President the authority to make such an acquisition, but the deal was just too good to pass up! And in reality, the colonization of America in general was about land. Hitler saw a need for the expansion of Germany for more farmland and his ideology was completely fine with the idea of seizing that land from the “lesser race” even if that meant their complete extermination. The parallels to America are not accidental because Hitler saw what the USA did to Native American tribes, both through warfare and by forced exile to west of the Mississippi River, as an example of how Germany should act. And in Hitler’s mind, there was Germany (and possibly England and the USA) and there was everyone else. The everyone else had no rights, not even to life, and definitely no ownership over resources if Germans needed/wanted them.
If I have a complaint, it’s found in the Epilogue (titled Conclusion: Our World). There the author tries to link climate change with a recurrence of events leading up to and including the Holocaust because a leader will be able to spin similar ideology as Hitler did. Logically, this doesn’t follow. That a shortage of resources or perceived need might lead to such a dictator is not only plausible but we’ve seen that played out numerous times in history. However, such a leader doesn’t need Global Warming to generate that lack of resources. One only has to look at situations like Burma/Myanmar or North Korea today to see that. Also, if the concern is about food, there’s that general concern as the population of the planet increases. This is a concern regardless if Global Warming forecasts are correct.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. The complaint aside, there’s a wealth of information found in this one source that goes beyond what most folks know about the history of the Holocaust. There’s that old maxim, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” and with something as horrid as the Holocaust, we don’t want to repeat those series of events again. Looking at what led up to the Holocaust allows us to build defenses and warnings for events which might cause us to follow a similar road. Therefore, Snyder’s Black Earth is worth the read.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Cover for Breaking the Chains of GravityAre you interested in the history of the US space program? Do you know the history of it prior to NASA? That’s what Amy Shira Teitel covers in Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA. It is a fascinating read with a timeline that will likely surprise you if you’re not already familiar with the roots of the famed space program.

Teitel starts off in Germany. Why Germany? The truth of the matter is that much of the successes in the early space program were due to technology based on the German V-2 rockets. Yes, the very same ones the Germans launched against Great Britain in WWII. Not only did we use captured German technology, but many of the leaders in the US space program were former Nazi scientists like Werner Von Braun.

Teitel covers Von Braun’s motivations well as well as several other key participants in Germany’s rocket program. Military use of rocketry was something they were forced into due to the times. And membership in the Nazi party was a requirement for survival in a fascist regime. Therefore, when the war came to an end, the scientists involved and any information on the technology around the V-2, especially spare parts, were high priority acquisitions. That’s effectively what they became as the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain all vied to get at the men and materiel.

Then Teitel delves into the next plodding steps of the US space program: not knowing what to do with the Germans, the test flights with the X-1 aircraft (which was used to break the sound barrier), the conflicting priorities, the infighting between the military services, and the shock when the USSR launched its first two rockets into space. As is pointed out elsewhere, any of these subjects could and have warranted books of themselves, but Teitel delivers a nice summary in a storytelling style that connects the pieces together. She finally ends the narrative with the formation of NASA from so many disparate parts and its first few steps as the center of US space research.

I enjoyed Breaking the Chains of Gravity greatly and would recommend it to anyone who has a thirst for space, for NASA, and for how science advances in the applied realm. It’s not a quick read. There are a lot of facts, a lot of agencies, and a lot of separate initiatives to keep track of, especially in the last one third of the book. This reflects the historic complexity and, for lack of a better word, mess that represented the US space program prior to NASA. If you happen to be a homeschooling family, this would be an excellent addition to any study of space and the US efforts in that arena.

Note: I received a pre-release copy of the book for review.

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GundamBeamSaberRecently, Lockheed Martin announced plans for a compact fusion engine, one it believes can be developed possibly in the next 5-10 years. As soon as I heard the announcement, my mind went to a series of Japanese manga and anime, all around “mobile suits” called Gundams. Ever since the first Mobile Suit Gundam, the multiple series have produced both scientific and government inquiry into the possibility of producing a Gundam. There are a lot of limiters, but the biggest one is the power source. If a compact fusion engine becomes viable, it increases the viability of a real Gundam.

In reality, we may never see a mobile suit that approaches the capability of a Gundam. The cost is prohibitive. Still, it’s incredible to dream about. To get to the point where you could conceivably build a Gundam, there’s a lot of math, science, and engineering involved. When you’re a homeschool family like mine is, especially when you have children already absorbed into Gundam, this is a useful dream. Ultimately, it means what are typically banal subjects for a lot of students can be turned into opportunities to build towards the possibility of the dream.

That’s where I’m taking it. When I first proposed the idea to my two high school boys, their eyes lit up. Slogging through Calculus and Calculus-Based Physics and college-level biology isn’t very exciting to them. However, couched in terms of Gundam, and in seeing the possibility of how to make a Gundam, well, that’s a different story entirely. This should be fun and challenging.

As far as homeschooling is concerned, it’s one of the freedoms we do have. We can consider projects and learn based on them. In this case, we’re talking about something that all of us may be working on for years to come, because it would indeed be wonderful to have the knowledge to actually design and build a Gundam. I don’t have that knowledge now. Therefore, it’s not just a challenge to my children, it’s a challenge to me as well.

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Library!I was recently having a conversation with a co-worker about the public library near our work. I had to take some library books back and he went along for the walk. After I dropped off the books at the return, I showed him around the building, pointing out the various resources. He was amazed. Libraries had changed greatly from when he was back in school. I then recalled I had a similar conversation with some other folks I worked with who also didn’t realize how much the library had to offer. For instance, my particular public library offers these in addition to the regular physical books:

I won’t  go into detail on the classes and groups that meet, everything from sewing to how to build your resume. Altogether, libraries today provide a whole lot more resources than they used to. As technology evolves, most libraries have strove to embrace these technologies because they (a) reduce cost and (b) provide more services. Often times these library resources are free.

When you’re looking to develop and grow yourself, check out what your local library has for you. As you build your reading list, you can save money if the book you want to read is in your library. But what if your library doesn’t have it?

Interlibrary Loan:

Even if it’s not, there’s a not-so-secret service called Interlibrary Loan. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s where you can request your library borrow the book you want from a library it has an agreement with. Often times you’ll be asked to fill out a form that indicates:

  • How long you’re willing to wait to get the book
  • If you’re willing to pay to offset the cost of shipping the book
  • How long you’ll need the book

Most of the time you can get books for a few dollars as the holding library sends it to yours. So if your library doesn’t have a particular book, chances are that a library it has an agreement with does and you get obtain a copy that way. This is especially true of books that more folks request or books that you’d expect an academic library to hold. Work-related books dealing with communication skills, productivity, performance, and career planning are typically easy to get this way. However, you’d be surprised as what a library can get if you’re waiting to wait a little while. I can remember back in my high school days I was learning to play the King’s Gambit. However, there wasn’t much literature on chess, much less a specific topic like a chess opening, at my local library. I used interlibrary loan to get two newly published books on the subject and then was able to use that knowledge at my first chess tournament. If esoteric books like  books on a chess opening that has fallen into disfavor at the professional level can be found, chances are books from your reading list can be, too.

Joining Another Library:

But what if your library isn’t all that great? It’s not unusual to see libraries accept members from out of its region. My library does this for a modest fee of $65 a year. Folks from neighboring counties, especially technology folks, have made use of this because their county libraries don’t offer nearly as many amenities. And $65/year through my library is far below the cost of the equivalent service level at Safari Books if they were to pay directly, meaning they have access to a constantly updating technical library for that low price.

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In so many ways, practical skills are not being passed on to the next generation. I’m thinking of skills like sewing, cooking, home repair, automobile maintenance, etc. When I consider these skills, I was taught a bit of cooking and the very, very basics of how to sew something onto a military uniform, but not these others. There are many, many more than the list I’ve given here, but it gives you an idea of what I’m thinking about.

I want to make sure my children have a wide range of practical skills before they go out on their own. As a result, in early May I decided that the two oldest, our boys, would start doing practical skills projects each month. I’m intentionally allowing that definition to remain broad. The idea is that by the 15th of the month they’ll get the books they need for the next set of practical skills they want to learn. I’ve chosen my boys because they are both teens. While we’ve been working on practical skills all along, it wasn’t with deliberate focus and intent. That’s the big difference. So they know they have to learn this practical skill and then, one month later, demonstrate it. We’ll do one a month, meaning by the end of a year they’ll have put their time into 12 sets of practical skills.

Son #1 – Origami

My younger son decided he wanted to work on origami. I know this stretches the definition of a practical skill, but I felt it was all right. The key is to get them actively learning about something they want to work on requiring hands on effort. Origami has applications outside of just folding paper. Origami promotes nimble fingers, making music play, working in miniature, and the like easier. This was his “text” for the month:

Since there were 200 models in it, we agreed that a satisfactory demonstration would be to have 50 complete. It was hard, but he pulled it off:

Son #2 – Land Navigation

My oldest decided he wanted to learn more about land navigation. He has probably taken an interest in this area because we’ve been geocaching this year. We looked at several books, but he decided on an old standby:

For his project, he wanted to demonstrate several techniques to find the North heading. These are primitive techniques using tools you likely have or can scrounge in a survival situation. This won’t get you a perfect North direction, but what it will do is give you some consistency in your heading so you aren’t walking around in circles. The first technique just uses something that can cast a shadow and an analog watch:

The second technique uses a trio of relatively straight sticks, one of around 3 feet in height. First, you see the shadow being cast and mark it:

Then you wait 10-15 minutes, see how the shadow has moved, and then effectively connect the dots. This gives you an approximation of North:

I think the first month went well. For the second month son #1 has gone with drawing dragons. He draws and sketches a lot, so this will be good for him. Son #2 has stayed with the survival manual and will be making tools from what you can find around you. Les Stroud would be proud.

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We’re about to start rolling with literature in our homeschool this year. This is my area, along with algebra/pre-algebra, to work with the boys on. This year I wanted to pick our literature selections based on a theme. I took some requests from them as to what they’d like to see, so we’re doing the mystery/horror/fantasy bent this year. I like doing themes, as we can talk about how we see connections between books and compare how one author might have used a device as compared to another. A few don’t fit this theme but are books in this age range I want to make sure they tackle. Some of these books may be a stretch for a 7th/8th grader, but I think the boys can handle it, based on what we’ve seen and how they’ve scored on standardized testing. I would rather them stretch with some assistance rather than be bored and grow very little in this area. So without further ado, here’s what’s on top thus far:

 

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At the Kelley household we have a standing rule with regards to our homeschool: you must pick an instrument and take lessons in it. Any reasonable instrument is acceptable. So far my oldest chose the traditional guitar. His younger brother has gone complete non-traditional and went with ocarina. Ocarina can be a serious instrument, especially when that is the level of expectation. So what’s the deal with music?

Music Requires You to Learn Something Completely New

When you first learn to read music, that’s new. It’s not like reading that you’ve done thus far in your life. Learning music requires you to learn specific theory that has as its closest application some parts of physics and mathematics, but isn’t really similar to other subjects. Therefore, music requires you to think in new ways. This expands what and how you consider things. That’s probably why you see so many music types in IT, especially as IT becomes more and more complex.

Music Requires Diligence and Practice

There are some kids who are naturally good at the sports they play. Until they hit the collegiate levels, they don’t really have to try. We call them natural athletes. Some kids are the same way with certain academic subjects. I went to high school with a whole group of them. Music is the great equalizer. Even if you have immense talent there’s always something more difficult out there to try. If nothing else, trying to play with others in a way that is blended and sounds awesome is a new experience each and every time.

Music Teaches One to Listen Carefully

This starts with making sure your instrument is in tune or that you’re singing on pitch. You must listen and you must correct yourself or you will sound terrible. When you’re playing as part of a group, you must listen to others around you. I will never forget in elementary school when I got a chance to play the tympani. I really went to town, banging them with abandon. The problem was I was so loud that you couldn’t hear anyone else. I wasn’t making music, just noise. To make music you must listen. You must listen to yourself and you must listen to those around you. If you’re a solo performer and you have a wind instrument, then as that horn warms up from you blowing in it, its pitch will change. If you’re out in the sun, the pitch will change. So you’re constantly tuning, or at least, you should be. That requires listening.

Music Teaches Precision

If you’re going to play a well known piece, you have to play it precisely. Sure, you can add your personal touch and that’s expected. That’s part of the creative process. But if I try and play the Stars and Stripes Forever like a dirge, people are going to go, “Huh? That’s not right!” And I can speak from personal experience that messing up the piccolo solo on that march is something you really don’t want to do. You stand out and it sounds bad. Really bad. Therefore, you must be precise.

Music Teaches Cooperation

I am primarily a solo player as a flutist. I don’t even tend to play with piano accompaniment. However, I can play with a group because part of being able to play music is being able to do just that. There’s a different dynamic at play when you have to cooperate with others. If one person tries to hog the spotlight, folks know it. Therefore, you must cooperate. You must be part of a larger team. If I didn’t take anything else away from my experience as a member of The Citadel Regimental Band and Pipes, it was this lesson.

Music Teaches Failure and How to Try Again

When you practice a difficult piece, you will fail a lot. The key is not to give up. When you try to put a piece together as a whole band or ensemble, it takes some work to get everyone together. That means, yup, failure. Failure is part of the learning process. It is not the end. And music, better than anything else I know, teaches that you can overcome failure if you keep working at it.

 

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Review: Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest is the 2011 Newberry Medal winner and it is definitely worthy of the prize. A work of historical fiction, it is set in two periods: 1936 and 1917/18. The story follows a young lady, Abilene, who is sent back to a small mid-Western town by her dad. The town, Manifest, Kansas, was the root of many of his stories and so even before getting to town she believes she knows what it’ll be like. What was and what is, however, are two different things.

Abilene doesn’t find the idyllic town described by her father, but one that is firmly in the grip of the Great Depression. It has lost its past luster and part of the tale is Abilene exploring why. That search takes her back to incidents which happened in the days leading up to WWI through the time when the signing of the Armistice looked near. These incidents are told to her through interactions with the existing populace of Manifest, old letters between two friends, through a “diviner” whom Abilene works for, and through old copies of the local newspaper. They reveal the tale of a mid-Western town in the period around World War I. Topics which are covered include:

  • how immigrants were treated by particular groups of people looking to take advantage of them
  • how the company store worked to keep folks from advancing out of their social strata
  • how stock was put into untested elixirs and tonics, leading folks to believe something worked when it didn’t
  • the horrors faced in WWI by the men who went over there
  • how devastating the 1918 flu epidemic was, especially to small towns
  • what it was like to live under Prohibition and how folks got around the law
  • the community that surrounded riding the trainings, traveling from one place to another

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? However, it is all blended together into a very compelling story that should keep the interest of youth and adult alike. I’ve intentionally stayed out of the plot of the book because the story is centered on Abilene trying to unravel a couple of mysteries which are very important to her. The author intentionally uses a first person perspective and therefore the reader must unravel the clues and solve the mystery along with Abilene. To speak much more about the plot would give too much away.

Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. The book presents a slice of life where not everything works out. The above list should give a good indication of why that is. However, there is a significant tragedy that is revealed as the book approaches its close, a tragedy that puts everything in perspective. Looking at how this tragedy impacts the town will certainly help youth realize that everything is not golden, as is often portrayed in books, movies, and TV shows. In addition, it introduces so many historic elements and puts them in context as to the impact on people. As a result, we’ll definitely be using the book along with our history curriculum when we hit the WWI period in our homeschool this year. In addition, it is also well written and a very good story, so much so that I will likely read it again soon.

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Back in 1999, when we were still in the US Air Force and I was a first lieutenant and money was tight, our neighbors across the street gifted us their couches as they were in the process of replacing them. We were the third family to welcome these couches into our home and even with that said, they were still in wonderful shape.

Fast forward to 2011. We now have four kids. We have XBox with Kinect. We have a Wii. And we have a relatively small home. Kids + couches = lots of stuff in and under the couches. That’s always a given. But then we had the space problems to boot. The living room, with the couch, was barely large enough to use the Kinect, and only then just barely. So something had to go.

Reflecting back on my days at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, we loved our bean bags in the common rooms. Yes, there were couches in them, too, but we typically made use of the bean bags first. And then there was when Kimberly and I were newlyweds. We had a couch then, too, but we had a couple of bean bags and we loved those bean bags.

We still needed a place to sit and hang out, and bean bags fit logically. So we got 6 large bean bags, like the one pictured here. The bean bags allow us to crash out and play XBox or Wii for less-active games, chill out two rows deep when we’re watching TV or a movie, and we can move them out of the way when we want to do something more active on the Wii or use the Kinect. They’re perfect for our living room, especially with a 13 year-old, 12 year-old, and 6 year-old.

But they serve other benefits, too. The other day I was working from home and the boys were around my wife for the school day (we homeschool) and sure enough, they were propped up in the beanbags. They were more comfortable than at the table and they were more focused. And yesterday I came home and saw them huddled together on two bean bags, reading Time magazine as part of their current events assignment. We intended that they be able to take the bean bags into their rooms for their own use, which is one of the reasons we got six of them, and it’s good to see that they are using them to be more comfortable around the house, to make better use of the space, and to be more productive overall.

Cleaning-wise, having the couch gone is extremely helpful. There’s no big piece of furniture to have to vacuum around. The entire floor gets vacuumed and nothing gets lost in the couch. Also, the couch arms aren’t being used to “conveniently” hold toys, stuffed animals, or books like a temporary shelf. I really wish we had thought of this a long time ago.

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My five year-old daughter is atypical in that we call her Kunoichi Princess because she does karate and swordfights with her older brothers. They have the Nerf N-Force Marauder long swords and she goes toe-to-toe with them with her Nerf N-Force ninja-to sword and puts them back on their heels. This is especially true when she gets that “I will not lose” look in her eyes and becomes a blur of ferocious fury. But otherwise, she’s like most five year-old girls, and that means she loves horses and ponies. Riverbanks Zoo here in Columbia, SC has periodic learning programs for kids and youth and they’re running their pony series for the next couple of months. We decided to sign Kunoichi Princess for the Pony Enrichment and Pony Whisperer classes and this morning we did the Pony Enrichment one. Pony Whisperer is next month.

We got to the zoo a little before 9 AM and checked in at the gate. It was a cool morning so we were bundled up well. We are members at the zoo (basically, as a family, you pay for membership and within 2-3 visits, it has paid for itself) so we brought her two older brothers with us, who then split off to try and see some of the animals that are normally asleep or lethargic later in the day (they were rewarded in their efforts).  We walked over to the farm and they were still setting up for the class so we wandered around the barn for a few minutes and then walked back over to the pony area. They welcomed us in, we waited for most of the rest of the class to arrive, which they did in a few minutes.

Kunoichi Princess was paired with another girl and they were assigned to take care of Blondie. First, the leader went over how to be safe around the ponies. Then they went and grabbed hay and put it down where Blondie could reach it. Blondie dug in and the girls went back over to get treats to feed Blondie: a biscuit made from carrots and another one made with apples. One of the safety lessons was to stay away from the mouth, so the girls put the treats in the green bucket. As soon as the first treats hit the bottom of the bucket and made a sound, Blondie stopped eating her hay and investigated what had been brought for her and then quickly ate her treats. The girls were then handed branches with leaves on them, they looked like oak leaves, and were told they could either hold the branch at the bottom and let the pony pull off the leaves or pull of the leaves themselves and put them in the bucket. Kunoichi Princess’ partner chose to hold the branch while Kunoichi Princess chose to pull off the leaves herself. The instructor likened the leaves for the ponies to a salad for us humans.

The girls were then called back over and they received buckets which had the grooming tools, basically brushes, and they were asked to brush out the coats of their ponies. Kunoichi Princess and her partner grabbed their brushes and went to it with gusto. Meanwhile, Blondie stood quietly, finishing up her hay. Kunoichi Princess was determine to do a good job and you could see the look of concentration in her face as she brushed out Blondie’s coat.

After brushing out the coats, the girls got to make a special treat for their ponies. The treat consisted of oats, shredded carrots, and a bit of corn syrup to bind them together. The carrots were a little soggy, so the treat didn’t bind together all that well, but Kunoichi Princess was able to shape hers into a ball. The girls then went and gave their ponies the treat. This was the first time Riverbanks had tried that type of treat, so the girls knew they were the first to give their ponies this handmade snack. It was a hit and while it might not have been bound together perfectly, Blondie didn’t care. The treats were gone immediately. The other ponies agreed with their treats.

We then put on the blankets and saddles on the ponies (since the pony ride was due to open right after the class finished up) and the instructor came over to each pony and showed how to put the saddle on properly. After that, the girls got to walk their ponies. One of the other groups never made it, so there was a pony without a tender. Up until this point the instructor had been taking care of him. However, the ponies were about to be walked and saddled, so Kunoichi Princess said goodbye to her partner as her partner headed over to tend to that pony. We then walked Blondie around the pony track (parents were supposed to have a firm hold on the lead rope and stand between the ponies and the children for safety) and the instructor came over and told us that Blondie was a real princess of a pony. She wouldn’t step in mud or puddles. There were a couple of wet spots and sure enough, when Blondie saw them, she balked and we had to walk her around them.

Once we were done with the walk, we tied the ponies back at their posts and the girls when over to where you get to ride the ponies and we fitted them with a size appropriate helmet. We then waited for Kunoichi Princess’ turn and she got to ride the pony known as Bear. Blondie is one of the smaller ponies and is usually reserved for 2-3 year-olds, so she wasn’t used. After Kunoichi Princess’ ride, we turned the helmet back in, said goodbye to the instructor (we’ll see her again next month) and then headed off to find the boys and spend some time in the zoo.

Overall, it was a great experience. The whole time consisted of hands-on activities with plenty of learning. Everyone was really enjoying themselves, both girls and parents alike. The girls got an appreciation of what the handlers have to do every day and they were an integral part of the care and feeding of the ponies which they were assigned to. We are definitely looking forward to the next class and I would highly recommend this class for any 5-6 year-old, boy or girl. There’s plenty to do and none of it is “girly” stuff. Just straight-forward taking care of a living animal. We learned a lot and we expect to at the next class, too.

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