Areopagus Volume LXXXVI

Areopagus Volume LXXXVI

Welcome one and all to the eighty sixth volume of the Areopagus. We begin with a message from my patrons at Write of Passage. They have launched a rather exciting newsletter called Writing Examples. If you enjoy the Areopagus then you shall certainly enjoy Writing Examples also. Here is how they describe it:

One way to become a better communicator is by learning from the greats. Or, in David Perell's words, to “imitate, then innovate.”
Every Wednesday, we focus on one exceptional piece of writing — be it a pop lyric, a rousing speech, a banger Tweet, a passage from classic literature, or a famous punchline — and we break it down so you can demystify great writing and learn to emulate it.
Writing Examples is everything you wanted from your 5th-grade English class but never got. We study writing from the greats, then teach you how to write like them. Your own personal swipe file of the greatest writing ever, broken down so you can study their excellence.

If you like the sound of it, subscribe here.

And, with that said, another Areopagus begins...

I - Classical Music

La vie parisienne, Act IV

Jacques Offenbach (1866)

Performed by the Chœur et Orchestre National du Capitole De Toulouse
Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

If I asked you to guess, without telling you anything about this piece, whether it is serious or comical, what would you say? Comical, I suspect — and you would be correct. Is this because we have been conditioned to understand particular sorts of music as light-hearted and others as serious, or because of qualities intrinsic to music itself? Either way, it is remarkable that we can hear a new piece of music (even with lyrics in a foreign language!) and immediately understand something about its subject or be moved to feel a certain way.

But we shouldn't be surprised; Jacques Offenbach was the comical composer of his age. A few of his pieces — the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann and the Can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld — are instantly recognisable, both having entered the realms of popular culture. The piece I have included here is the fourth act of an operetta called La vie parisienne, meaning "The Parisian Life". It is far less well-known, but serves nonetheless as a wonderful example of Offenbach's melodious, playful style.

What is an operetta? Think of it as a light-hearted opera. They were shorter, funnier, and less grandiose, usually involving spoken dialogue and entertaining dances. Jacques Offenbach was simultaneously a master and populariser of this form, turning it into a 19th century phenomenon beloved all over Europe. His particular style of operetta came to be known as opéra bouffe; a testament to Offenbach that he could essentially claim a subgenre as his own. All told he composed over 100 operettas, at once sentimental and satirical, and insodoing was the direct forefather of the modern musical.

II - Historical Figure



Archimedes is in the bath one day, pondering a complicated problem. He suddenly stumbles upon a solution, cries "eureka!", and runs through town naked so he can tell the king before he forgets. A famous story... but who was the real Archimedes? He is among the most well-known of Ancient Greeks, largely because of the eureka story, and has thus become one of those strangely timeless figures. We've heard of him before, but when and where did he live?

By way of introduction I offer you a passage from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita. This was a history of Rome, written during the 1st century BC, from its mythical founding by Romulus down to Livy's own time under the rule of Augustus. Here we find him narrating the Second Punic War, fought between the Roman Republic and Carthage, which took place from 217 to 201 BC. Specifically, Livy is describing the siege of Syracuse, a major Greek city in Sicily which, though long allied with Rome, had unexpectedly betrayed them. And the Romans, despite their military might, were finding this city unusually difficult to take:

An attempt made with so much energy would have succeeded, had it not been for one person then at Syracuse. That person was Archimedes, a man of unrivalled skill in observing the heavens and the stars, but more deserving of admiration as the inventor and constructor of warlike engines and works, by means of which, with a very slight effort, he turned to ridicule what the enemy effected with great difficulty.

Here, then, we find Archimedes in situ. There was a war going on and Archimedes was caught up in it, designing complicated machines of war that devastated the Roman navy and kept the Syracusans safe. There is apocryphal talk of a "heat ray", composed of mirrors, that Archimedes used to set Roman ships on fire. This sounds like a fanciful tale, but ancient sources are clear that Archimedes was a masterful engineer whose other inventions, if not quite so bizarre, were nonetheless unlike anything else in the world at that time.

Why was Archimedes in Syracuse? Because that was his home city, and for years he had been supported by King Hiero II, who allowed Archimedes to pursue his abstract experiments in return for a few favours here and there. In other words, what Archimedes really cared about was pure geometry and mathematics; designing war machines that could keep the Roman army at bay was essentially a hobby. One such favour Hiero asked of Archimedes was figuring out whether a supposedly golden crown had been mixed with silver — without melting it down. This problem Archimedes solved when he realised that different materials have different densities, and therefore vary in size even when the same weight. He submerged a block of gold weighing the same as the crown in a vessel filled to the brim and noted how much water was displaced. When he submerged the crown itself... there was a difference. Eureka!

I will not attempt to explain Archimedes' achievements in maths, engineering, astronomy, geometry, physics, and hydrostatics, for such things fly over my head. Suffice to say that he was and still is regarded as one of (if not the) greatest ancient mathematicians. We with our globe-spanning networks and spacefaring machines may be tempted to imagine that the past is of no relevance; but without Archimedes, labouring long ago, we may never have gotten here at all.

How did Archimedes meet his end? Livy tells us that in 212 BC the Romans finally overcame the Syracusan defences... and thus ended the life of a man to whom the modern world owes a debt of gratitude.

The city was given up to be plundered by the soldiery, after guards had been placed at each of the houses of those who had been with the Roman troops. While many acts exhibited horrid examples of rage and rapacity, it is recorded that Archimedes, while intent on some figures which he had described in the dust, although the confusion was as great as could possibly exist in a captured city, in which soldiers were running up and down in search of plunder, was put to death by a soldier, who did not know who he was; that Marcellus was grieved at this event, and that pains were taken about his funeral, while his relations also for whom diligent inquiry was made, derived honour and protection from his name and memory.

III - Painting

Poetic Licence

Do painters ever... lie? A troublesome question! And one that turns, essentially, on what we mean by "lying". Well, there is surely a difference between a painting that seems to be "realistic" and one which evidently departs from how we normally see the world. What I mean is that nobody will look at Claude Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral and feel shocked to find it doesn't "actually" look like that:

But what about something like James Webb's 1857 painting of Mont-Saint-Michel, below? Had you never seen Mont-Saint-Michel before then you would have every reason to believe Webb's painting is more or less accurate. But, comparing it with the real thing, you can immediately see that Webb did not paint Mont-Saint-Michel as it "really" looks. Notice how he has made it far more vertical, elongating the monastery ramparts and narrowing the rise of the hill. This is an incredibly poetic take on Mont-Saint-Michel; Webb has produced a dream of the place rather than a realistic view of it.

And what about when different artists depict the same location? Unsurprisingly, no two artists will ever create identical pictures. Here are four depictions of the Notre-Dame in Paris, each of which not only gives us a different atmosphere but very literally portrays the building itself — a real building — differently. It is recognisably the same in each case, but the details and proportions vary wildly.

Charles Meryon (1854) / Gabriel Guerin (c.1900)
Albert Lebourg (1910) / Alexis Forel (1852)

Given all this poetic licence used by artists, it is tempting to say that they do "lie" in some way, and therefore that we should only rely on photographs to show us what a particular place really looks like. Tempting indeed, but that statement rests on the assumption that photographs are truthful. Are they? In one sense they are obviously more accurate than any painting could ever be. But how often have you visited some marvellous place, or even looked upon a beautiful sunset, and taken a photograph which afterward seems to lack any of the wonder or beauty you witnessed? It isn't necessarily that the photograph doesn't capture all the details you noticed; rather, the photograph simply doesn't convey how it felt to be there at the time. And that makes sense, of course, because ours eyes are not our cameras, and what we see is not what a camera sees. So... can an artist do any better? Several times I have been wandering through London and seen the Palace of Westminster silhouetted in a blue and hazy English dusk; for me, at least no photograph has ever captured this view so well Claude Monet's paintings of the Palace of Westminster.

Besides, a photograph can only capture one moment in time. Were I to take a picture of a building you'd previously visited and photographed, our photos would look different even if taken from the same spot. Buildings age and erode, or are restored and modified. There's also the weather, the sunlight, the people and other buildings in the vicinity, plus a whole litany of other variables. In which case, whose photograph would be more truthful? Suddenly poetic licence seems like a ubiquitous quality of life rather than something unique to artists. Despite the impression given by photographs, we all see this world differently — the beauty of so much art is that, for a moment, we can see it through the eyes of another.

IV - Architecture

An Ode to Bricks

Wherever you are in the world, as you read these words, there will almost certainly be some bricks nearby. Go and look at them. Compare one brick wall to another. What do you notice? That no two are exactly alike. These little blocks of clay (and various other materials!) are not something we often pay attention to. But, much like flowers or trees, a little attention brings great reward. Why do I speak of this? Not only because it is interesting in and of itself, but because it will (I hope!) help you see more in the world around you.

First: there are many sizes and shapes of brick, different materials they can be made from, and different ways they can be laid, called "bonds". These are just a few:

Bricks can also be painted or glazed, thus making them green, purple, blue, or any other colour. And even when bricks are ostensibly the same colour they usually have plenty of gradation. This isn't something you ever consciously notice — but look at any brick wall and you will find it.

Then there is the mortar binding the bricks, which can also vary in colour, size, and texture. White mortar and red bricks are one thing; grey mortar and red bricks are another. And, of course, there are also many ways to shape the mortar itself.

That might seem trivial, but consider the image below; see how the slightly recessed mortar creates shadow beneath and around the bricks, thus outlining them against one another.

All these variables mean that bricks have an almost unlimited variety of form, colour, texture, size, and combination, to say nothing of the additional decorative possibilities. And even within a single wall there is still a litany of variation; no two bricks in the image below are identical.

Bricks also tend to age fabulously well — each one matures differently, whether by fading colours, crumbling corners, hairline cracks, or encroaching moss.

Variation is a law of nature. Whether the trees and flowers of the forest, the clouds of the sky, or the grains of sand on a beach, the natural world is defined by eternal variation of colour and form. So it only makes sense that we are accustomed, biologically, to such detail and variation. In which case bricks perfectly reflect the appearance of nature and lend human architecture its aesthetic qualities.

In any given set of bricks there is much workmanship to be admired, both technical and creative, and endless fun to be had in discerning what sort of bond has been used, how the mortar has been applied, and whether parts of the wall have been rebuilt or altered — plus the simple aesthetic joy of seeking out gradations of colour and texture, of minute details that nobody has ever spotted before. My friends find it funny when I stop and stare at brick walls. Now, I hope, you can see why I do it; perhaps you shall find yourself doing just the same.

V - Rhetoric


Language, what joy! A cornucopia of tools and moving pieces, a magical machine of eternally rearrangeable clockwork! That is, of course, circumlocution — when we use more words than needed, or least needlessly verbose words. But I do mean it. One such example of a delightfully subtle linguistic and rhetorical tool is hendiadys. This is when you replace an adjective and noun with a noun and noun. As ever, a concrete example should make an abstract explanation clear. And, as ever, the best example comes from Shakespeare. Take those famous words of Macbeth:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare wrote sound and fury (i.e. noun and noun) when he could have written furious sound (i.e. adjective and noun). That is hendiadys. By pairing two nouns neither takes precedence. Thus they are balanced and seemingly combine to describe a single idea from two vantage points. Think of when we say, "I am sick and tired of this!" That feels different to sickly tired or tiredly sick, doesn't it? It seems to get at something bigger, even to say something quite different. Another common case is "nice and cool" — nicely cool doesn't capture what we really mean.

If I say that a particular tree is "covered in leaves and acorns" this is not hendiadys, because the two nouns are distinct from one another and describe different things. If I say that a tree is "covered in leaves and peace", however, there seems to be some connection between them — I am describing the same thing in different ways. Consider a few more examples:

We spoke about the wonder of our youth → We spoke about our wonder and youth.
A bright future awaits us. → Brightness and future awaits us.
He looked at me with shadowy hatred. → He looked at me with hate and shadow.

In that last case one could easily have written shadowy hatred. But, by the very ordinariness of its construction, it feels rather dull and sounds overwritten. Such is the elusive beauty of hendiadys. It is essentially a very unusual way to speak or write, and its precise workings are therefore rather hard to identify. But it works because of this ambiguity. Hence, perhaps, why Shakespeare used it so often in Hamlet. An ambivalent and dichotomous technique suited to the character of his protagonist:

And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain.

VI - Writing

As time goes by...

I mentioned circumlocution in the previous section. It is incredibly unpopular these days, and we tend to look back on Victorian prose (for example) as needlessly and almost offensively verbose. But the habit of overwriting has always been criticised. In the works of Quintilian, who was teaching rhetoric in Rome two thousand years ago, we find this statement:

The speaker who is always hunting for striking thoughts, must necessarily produce many that are trifling, vapid, and impertinent... Most of them, indeed, may be said not to utter fine thoughts, but to utter everything as if it were a fine thought.

And he is right — like everybody who criticises genuine circumlocution. Old Arthur Quiller-Couch has it spot on:

‘How excellent a thing is sleep,’ sighed Sancho Panza; ‘it wraps a man round like a cloak’ – an excellent example, by the way, of how to say a thing concretely. A Jargoneer would have said that ‘among the beneficent qualities of sleep its capacity for withdrawing the human consciousness from the contemplation of immediate circumstances may perhaps be accounted not the least remarkable.’

Why do people ever write in such a way? Quintilian, I think, has the answer — because we are scared of sounding boring:

Language may be described as mean when it is beneath the dignity of the subject or the rank of the speaker. Some orators fall into serious error in their eagerness to avoid this fault, and are afraid of all words that are in ordinary use, even although they may be absolutely necessary for their purpose. There was, for example, the man who in the course of a speech spoke of “Iberian grass,” a meaningless phrase intelligible only to himself.

So we may agree that circumlocution is not the right solution to a fear of sounding boring. But there is a major difference between employing needlessly complex language and using language in a heightened but effective way. Sometimes "fancy language" is justified. The reason I say all this is because, the other day, I was flicking through a travel guide to northern Spain published in 1906. It struck me as the kind of thing that, for good or bad, would be unpublishable in 2024. I have included an excerpt about café culture. Is it sophisticated, or is it circumlocutory nonsense? I cannot help but feel this particular author was having some fun with his verbiage in describing scenes from everyday life so elaborately. Has the world lost something now that we have turned our back on such styles of writing? Either way, it is something of a blast from the past — one that, I hope, you will enjoy.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Art versus Artist

Last week I asked you:

Can we ever separate the art from the artist?

A big question — and your answers demanded the seventh plinth:


I think the answer is we SHOULD separate the art from the artist.
Being raised in a strict conservative lifestyle, I witnessed an authoritarian tendency to scorn and even ban the works of those who did not follow ideological and behavioral purity in their lives at all times (as judged by the leaders).
How ironic that this justification was mainly based on a book in which the sublime Psalms were penned by a man after God’s own heart: who had an adulterous affair and then murdered the husband to cover it up (King David). A book in which the man used to present the Law forming the basis of justice in our western civilization was a hothead who murdered an Egyptian (Moses), etc.
If we (rightly) do not discount the beauty and truth of the Bible written by flawed men, should we condemn art created by a flawed artist?
Linking ‘allowed’ truth and beauty to the behavior of the producer can foster an obsession with purity and lead to persecutions, punishments, and purges.
(Note: while I think that art, by definition, can be subjective and its ‘value’ manipulated, truly magnificent art impacts people — ‘educated’ or not.)

Matthew L

On the whole, I see no reason to link art to artist, because you enjoy art for what it is, not for who made it. But people should be held to account for crimes/wrongdoings they commit, and so I would feel uneasy contributing financially to someone who I perceived to be a bad person by purchasing their work, yes. Thankfully, however, for most of the art I enjoy where the artist is questionable, the artist tends also to be dead.
And for those who aren’t, we thankfully live in a very open and public culture of accountability these days. The varying levels of this, and where to draw the line, is becoming a bit of an issue, I think, but that’s a question for another time.

Deborah G

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to separate the two. It’s fascinating and moving to see how people express themselves. The British series “Portrait Artist of the Year” (and its companion series about landscapes) clearly show multiple artists approaching the same subject each according to their own artistic vision. Weirdly, decades ago I used to think that if someone wanted to simply document a scene, they’d use photography. How wrong I was! The artist is always an integral part of the story.

Susie K

I do believe we can and should separate the art from the artist. There have been some challenges on this recently with our whole ‘cancel culture’ when an actor or musician has done or said something egregious and yet I do believe we can appreciate the art that one has created be it musically, theatrically, or literary. We are all humans and we are flawed but we are also miracle creations who create art in many forms.


Maybe what we take into account - are the artist's actions a personal failing or causing actual harm to people?
This debate comes up in my circles when an R Kelly song plays in an establishment. The art is tainted by the artist's actions. I deleted all his music and have blocked it on my streaming platforms as well. I had all the CDs, lyric booklets - the quintessential fan. However for me, in this case, the art cannot be separated from the artist - because his art was instrumental and thematic to the crimes he committed.
It doesn't mean that his music is bad - he did release one of the best gospel albums. But all that is sullied by the person he is. In this case, the art cannot be separated (in my opinion) from the artist. It is difficult to appreciate the art when you consider the source, whether or not the art reflects his views.
If a personal failing - JK Rowling publicly comes to mind. People have managed to separate her personal views from the Harry Potter empire and still very much support the franchise and the actors, however, there's the court of public opinion that's against her perceived personal failing. You might decide to continue enjoying the books while disagreeing with Rowling's views as they aren't thematic in her books.
For some, JK's views might be bigger than a personal failing, or be nothing at all.

Jane L

I remember back in the 50s when I was about eight years old, my father exclaiming with satisfaction that at last we had a Parish Priest who appreciated Art. Our new PP was a learned and cultured European and he had banished the painted pot statue of the Sacred Heart and mawkish Stations of the Cross and replaced them with large framed reproductions of Eric Gill’s stations which hung in Westminster Cathedral. The protests soon died down and the new stations were greatly admired. Until, in 1990 Fiona McCarthy’s biography revealed his paedophilia and incest. The images were removed and replaced with iron reliefs. Still attractive but unexceptional and inoffensive. Although there are many who would describe the depiction of torture as offensive in itself.
Today, seventy or so years later I saw a film in a dark and silent room called Whistler reimagined. The mural which had occupied the restaurant for nearly a century was dimly lit and difficult to see. I had never looked at it closely before and had no idea what it depicted. I suspect it has been ignored by nearly everyone over the decades. The film showed a bowed and humiliated Whistler being questioned and lectured to by a rather angry fictional academic. Indeed, there were very offensive and upsetting images in the mural and the film certainly provides some background to the artist and his times.
Of these two pieces, the first is an artist whose personal behaviour is abhorrent and the second is the work of a war hero whose depiction of black children is abhorrent. Both have caused great controversy and soul searching.
The Gill stations remain in the cathedral and presumably assist the faithful in their spiritual lives; those who know the details of Gill’s life are free to swerve the images if they find them distasteful as a consequence. The mural remains in the Tate but those who visit have no choice but to listen and watch the the interpreted back story. Which I suppose is better than destruction which was proposed by some.
But if we go back to the less recent past the controversies seem to fade. Who now is offended by Thomas Rowlandson’s cheerful depictions of buxom women and their well endowed partners. We don’t need the back story or trigger warnings to separate the works from their maker. Who now considers Fra Filipo Lipi scandalous because he married a nun or that the works of Caravaggio should need caveating because he was a murderer. We appreciate their work and are free to study their lives and what influence their circumstances and beliefs had on their work. Sometimes it helps to understand and appreciate, sometimes knowing the the context and life of the artist enables us to see the work differently and pose questions which may or may not enhance or spoil our appreciation.
But I think that for the most part, nannying by the guardians of culture is unhelpful. As adults we have choices to make about what what we watch or listen to. In the old saying we can hate the sin / piece of art, but love the sinner / artist. Or the other way round. It’s a matter for us.

Patrick S

Art as I have observed it is always separated from the artist and in my mind I have no need for the artist to enjoy, understand or dislike.
In consideration of the artist I’ve often found my view to be perturbed from what I see or hear, saw or heard. Regardless of what the artist IS, I prefer to selfishly see the world as I want through art not as is it relates to the artist’s themselves. It sounds unfair and disconnected and disjointed but art to me is about me and the world, the artist is entirely separated from their art once given to me. It is no longer their expression but mine.

Eric V

Of course. We do so all the time. No one looks at Ancient Greek statuary and discounts the beauty therein because the Ancient Greeks discriminated against women or held slaves. "Should we ever..." is perhaps the more appropriate - and more difficult - question, and one that perhaps needs addressing with the filter of time. If the separation does not encourage new bad behavior then I say we should separate the two. "Art is long, and Time is fleeting" - Longfellow.

Michael M

Of course. Not.
No. The art comes from the artist. A painting, a poem, a play, each reflects its artist. A rattlesnake, racoon, blue jay, each reflects its artist. A comedy monologue, a quilt or carpet, an Apple computer or iPhone, each reflects its artist(s). Art, of whatever kind, is a creation of its artist and always (to some extent) would be different had it been created by a different artist.
Can we EVER separate ...? Yes. In museums, there are plenty of paintings and sculptures whose creators are NOT there. That art and its artists have been separated.
I hope my remarks have been an aid to understanding, as "The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding," according to Leonardo da Vinci.Nonetheless, "From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere," according to Dr. Seuss.

David R

First, what is meant by “we”? The group consisting of all persons who have come into contact with “the art”.
Next, what is meant by “separate”? A small sub-set of the set of persons busy appreciating the work of art in question will know something about the artist, but most will know nothing. Those latter are, in effect, “separating” the art from the artist without even knowing that that is what they are doing.
As to the former, the members of the small sub-set, each will have a different level of knowledge of the artist. I think it will vary from individual to individual, whether they possess the ability to set aside their knowledge of the artist, when appreciating “the art”.
So I guess the answer to “ever” must be Yes.
Incidentally, I suspect that art appreciation is qualitatively different from appreciating what talking heads are advocating on TV Talk Shows. For example, if you know that the speaker is a leading member of a political Party with extreme anti-democratic policies, you simply cannot shut that out of your mind when appreciating the substance of their contributions to the Talk Show discussion. Nor should you.

Sarah W

Not only can we separate the art from the artist, but I think we must. In a very literal sense, art and the artist are two entirely separate entities. One is an object, one is a human. One is finite, the other infinite. Art lives forever, the artist lives (if they’re lucky) 80 odd years. Art has the unique ability to travel in a way the artist never can, in both space and time. It gets contextualised then recontextualised then recontextualised again and again and again either till the end of time or until it is forgotten or destroyed. What this means is that a piece of art can exist in a world that has completely forgotten its author and knows nothing about its origins. And while, throughout this journey, the content of the art itself never changes, the art certainly must gain something in all its migrations, becoming something the author could never have intended it to be.
Indeed, a large part of a work’s meaning resides neither in the artist nor indeed in the art, but in the reader. Words are nothing but dried ink on a page until the moment one of us decides to read them, ingest them and bring them to life. How many times have you listened to a singer sing of a deeply personal experience that you have never gone through and yet related it to one of your own (completely different) deeply personal experiences? Art lives in each of us and belongs to each of us. In some ways, simply by reading, analysing and thinking about a piece of art we are all re-authoring it. I think that anyone stating that to really know a piece of art you have to know its author is someone who is viewing art, through a warped lens, as simply some kind of historical source or as a jumbled up jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put back together, rather than what it truly is: an object of infinite meaning and interpretation.
Strong art speaks for itself. When I pick up Romeo and Juliet, I don’t need to know a thing about Shakespeare's biography to feel every ounce of the giddy lovesick high or the brutal, tragic comedown, I simply need to read the words. Frankly, Shakespeare could have been anyone - a mass murderer, a school bully or the King of England - it doesn't matter, because I think that Shakespeare is a mere onlooker to my relationship with the work, a relationship that is unique and personal. Indeed, to say that you can’t separate art from artist is, to me, like saying you can’t fall in love with someone without also falling in love with their parents.

Question of the Week

And for this week's question...

Why is sport so popular?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

The sun at last is shining, for the summer of 2024 is here — or winter, depending on where you are in this spinning world of ours. I wonder... what direction are things going? Alas, that is a question for tomorrow. As Horace once sang:

Quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere
Leave off asking what tomorrow will bring

With gratitude and unceasing I bid you good morrow, good day, and good eve. Farewell!


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