fear that tune

Are you a fan of the WHO? Good news: they’ve just released a new hit single.

Problem is, it’s a lousy tune and nobody’s buying. So what can a lumbering dinosaur do to get some new love? Oldest trick in the biz: get your legions to dress gothic.

Of course I’m not talking about the band, but the UN agency.

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Do you sometimes have the feeling that the world you live in is a badly written horror flick? You aspire to freedom, peace, happiness and prosperity, but there seems to be no shortage of toxic surprises just lurking around the corner?

Problem is, you don’t have access to the script, nor do you know who the scriptwriter is. You only see the actors, basking in red carpet glory and awards ceremony honors.

Well, kudos once again for the good people at The Onion for pointing out the obvious.

Ominous Music Heard Throughout U.S. Sends Nation Into Panic

There, you heard it, the golden rule of horror flicks: “when you’re standing there relieved, that is when the horrible event is most likely to occur…” Do me a favor: keep that in mind this fall, when you’re standing in line waiting for your swine flu shot.

Just kidding: of course it’ll be fully tested and safe.

(post intro image credit: stuart anthony)

no child left behind without a midlife crisis

People in the West are always getting ready to live – Chinese Proverb

Today, an attempt at enlightenment.

I’ve been around for 38 years now. I have to tell you that of all things that puzzle me in life, this one really stumps me: where do so many people get their deeply-ingrained fear of thinking?

After all, read – or listen to – any of the great philosophers East and West, and in no time you’ll have found a second home for your own thoughts and musings.

No impatience, no sense of futility, no dismissal. Just the “Joy of Thought”, of enriching your awareness, and that strange wonder of being conscious that comes over you once in a while!

enter The Realist

“No, no, no. Not so!”, says the Realist: “too much thinking will paralyze you!”. Or, “life demands action…”, and “it’s totally horrible and useless to be stuck in your head”, etc.

Now, who could disagree with that?

But, but, but: any admissions to the value of thinking? “Only if it helps you solve real-life problems!”

So is philosophy forever doomed to having to justify itself to Lord Utility? And how did Lord Utility get so much street cred, anyway?

Well, I have my own ideas about this, but I thought I should let Zen philosopher Alan Watts (thanks Vic!) open up the discussion… (Musicians beware: Alan wants you in the front lines of his battle!)

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“they made you miss everything…”

Ever try to write down an account of your school years? What about the last biography of a famous person you read? How were their years in school presented in the book?

Details I’ve come across over and over again in people’s accounts of their schooling: perhaps a stimulating course, or an excellent teacher, or worthy “extra-curricular” activities (sports, music, theater, etc.) here and there… But for the most part, for most people:


Years in school = a tremendous waste of time and energy, and way too much tedium and negative social interaction to justify the happy bits!

In other words: if schooling is ever referred to as a positive experience, it’s because it happened to be set in a stimulating and supportive environment that respected the principle of learner autonomy.

Now that doesn’t sound like our public school system, does it? So how are we to account for the life-sucking monster Modern Education has become?

independent thinking: not in the curriculum

“Too many teachers are mediocre!” … ” If we only we didn’t have so many lame-ass, career-obsessed parents!” … “the cuts to public education are relentless!”…

Agreed, there’s room for much improvement in the existing system. But don’t you agree with Alan, that improvements and reform are all for naught if they lead to the same basic outlook in life?

As Watts points out, the very design of our education system is based on a carefully cultivated social mythology of “success”: life as a long, drawn-out “journey” with a beginning (our individual potential), plenty of “obstacles and challenges” along the way (preparation for economic life), and a happy ending (our social and professional success).

Witness the kind of talk we hear in a typical high school graduation ceremony: “preparing our youth for life”, “going out into the adult world”, “the virtues of effort and perseverance”, “through trial and error”, “living up to your full potential”, etc.


But, wait a minute: what are we graduating from, anyway? Doesn’t this lofty language prove that we’re not just graduating from school, but graduating into “adult life“? That our educational system, with its grades and degrees, is some kind of long, drawn out process of ritual initiation? That through schooling and its compartmentalization of knowledge, we are actually being vetted for potential upward mobility in social and professional life?

we are the world, we are the hierarchy

There you have it, there’s a permanent contradiction at the heart our educational system: the official discourse on the primacy of teaching and learning – the “No Child Left Behind” kind of talk so loved by politicians – running up against the credentialing function of educational institutions, a process that relentlessly standardizes our unique learning personalities for career-readiness in public or private corporate hierarchies.

The question remains: if so many of us are aware of the nature of the Juggernaut, then why do we allow this state of affairs to be perpetuated? And what do we have to lose in letting alternative concepts of education flourish, as legally available options open to all parents and children?

There’s a permanent contradiction at the heart our educational system: the official discourse on the primacy of teaching and learning – the “No Child Left Behind” kind of talk – which runs against the credentialing function of educational establishments, that relentlessly standardize the unique learning personality of individuals for career-readiness in public or private corporate hierarchies.

have music, will love learning

Here’s a $17,000 question for you:

Will the year-in, year-out learning of music (instrument, singing, drumming, etc.) make you into… a better person?

OK, OK, it’s a loaded question. And a crowd-pleaser too, the kind of question an M.C. could bark to a packed auditorium just to hear a great big “YES” in return. We’re all “better people” for loving music, aren’t we?

Seem obvious? Well then, try making music a “core” curriculum item in schools, one that’ll stick when your government starts to prioritize military spending and “security” infrastructure over education.

And if you’re daring, make music central to your concept of education.

My hunch is that you’ll have to find better words than “music makes children into better people” to sell your idea, no matter how much we all agree on the universal virtues of music.

character training

So how do you do it? How do you convince people that music is of central importance to education?

I’ll argue that music will forever be relegated to “secondary curriculum” status in education (what is also happening to phys ed these days) until the concept of “character training” is revived in educational philosophy, and given mainstream respectability.

In other words, we have to change our concept of education.

Seems like a radical proposition? Or does “character training” sound a little too much like boot camp, or religious upbringing?

…et la musique

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how music and character training go hand in hand is to look at a real-world example.

Canada’s National Film Board has produced a fine little gem of a film on this very subject. It’s called …et la musique.

The film, released in French, follows three kids – Alexis, 6 years old, Rachel 9 years old and Anne-Catherine, 11 years old – in their public school learning adventures at école primaire du Sacré-Coeur in Sherbrooke, Québec. And you guessed it: the school’s curriculum focus is music education.

Having seen the film, I’ll try to encapsulate the experience and message it conveys.

First, filmmaker Michel Lam adopts the point of view of children in the school environment as they discover socializing, teachers, educational expectations, group discipline, and school-yard play with new friends. The film is set for the most part in the school’s classrooms, practice rooms, halls and playground.

Nothing especially novel here. But because the film eschews story development and favors “day-in-the-life”, scene to scene transitions, we’re slowly made aware of the real star of the film: the educational setting itself, and the special relationships that emerge between children and teachers.

Pierre Foglia, who reviewed the film for La Presse says it best:

“…On comprend tout de suite que ces enfants-là ne deviendront pas des virtuoses, ce n’est pas l’idée non plus. L’idée, magnifique, et même grandiose, est celle qui est au coeur de tout projet éducatif: apprendre à apprendre. On comprend tout de suite que ces enfants-là seront meilleurs en français, en sciences, en mathématiques, grâce à la musique certes, mais on comprend aussi que cela pourrait être grâce à l’équitation, au tricot, à la littérature… Je dis n’importe quoi exprès pour qu’on m’entende bien: apprendre à apprendre à travers une passion.”

In a nutshell, this film is about “learning to learn“, or becoming passionate about learning by developing a life-long pursuit. Foglia’s statement goes even further: he implies that the success or failure of any educational project should be judged on how well people “learn how to learn”.

All fine and well, but perhaps we’re putting the cart before the horse here: is Lam really making a case for quality education, or the ideals of pedagogy? Or is he simply concerned with making a loving portrait of kids learning music at school, as a tribute to his own experience as a child going to school at Sacré-Coeur?

I’ll let you be the judge of this. I for one, thought the picture of music education that emerged from the film was slightly idealized, almost isolated from other areas of character development. For better and for worse, the film focuses on the interaction between children and their teachers, with our attention shifting between directive vs. supportive approaches to music teaching. Does this setting truly create a “love of learning”? For a few, for many?

Of course, only Sacré-Coeur alumni can answer this question. As for Michel Lam, whatever “case” he might be making with …et la musique, he’s not in the least bit preachy about it, and more than a little bit poetic.

a modest proposal

Returning to our initial question: how do we “upgrade” our concept of education? If subject-based “core” curricula remain the norm in public education, how does one make the case for change?

If you’re having trouble with the idea, perhaps we should look at other institutions that are undergoing major brain-shifts.

For example, health care: we’re hearing more and more about a “whole-person approach” to treating illness and disease these days. Not just from alternative medicine practitioners, but from traditional “authorized” medical institutions, hospitals, universities, etc.

amateurmusicians.net‘s modest proposal? To do the same in education: reexamine our focus on knowledge and skill acquisition in light of this “whole person” paradigm.

If that sounds like New Age talk, it’s not. “Whole person approaches” in practice simply means using multiple models instead of a single authorized body of knowledge to solve problems. In health care the multiple-model approach is called “integrative medicine“.

And perhaps this is where music education – and music teachers in particular – will lead the way into a new revolution of “integrative learning” in education. Because you can’t teach music successfully without understanding your students’ music itch, and how to scratch it.

play from your heart, or i’ll knock your teeth out

Below is probably the angriest and most outrageous video I’ll ever put up on my blog.

But it’s pretty much how I feel when, in polite company, we slide into that “to each his/her own tastes” relativistic chatter, Cheshire cat grins and all. Without the qualifying debate about how people acquire and develop tastes to begin with.

Also thought the music “excellence” wigs out there might appreciate the reminder that audiences care more for emotional relevance than peak performance.

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“I WANT MY ROCK STARS DEAD!” Yep, it’s none other than stand-up gadfly Bill Hicks, appearing in Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival in 1991.

Now, uh, what’s Bill doing here? This routine is probably one of the most “shock and awe” comedy segments I’ve ever come across, fully disorienting to any poor soul out on the town for an evening of fun and laffs.

Shock and Awe“? Perhaps the only thread linking a doctrine of state terrorism to Hicks’ routine is the belief that shock can be therapeutic.

As distinctly American as this philosophy might seem, Hicks’ “shock comedy” act does bear kinship resemblance to the nihilistic absurdist performances of the dadaists, who gave voice to the trauma and desensitization effects of war during the giddy, light-headed post-WWI years in Paris and Berlin.

At least, that’s how I explain the New Kids on the Block/Hitler Youth robot dance Bill does. As fellow comedian Brett Butler put it:

For all the talk about Bill being like Hendrix or Dylan or Jim Morrison or Lenny Bruce, it was Jesus Bill wanted to be. He wanted to save us all. But Bill got freeze-framed in the scene where Jesus went through the Temple and said ‘This is my father’s house, and you’ve turned it into a den of thieves.’ Because that’s what Bill always wanted to do, he wanted to be Christ as his angriest.

So there you have it: Bill Hicks is a Dada Dandy for the Deep South, and a very, very angry Jesus. Your archetypal role model.

the Molestics have a Memoir

It’s true, there’s book out on Vancouver’s Molestics, Canada’s punk n’ roots answer to the sad lounge music revival of the late 1990′s.

Published by Edmonton’s Belgravian Press and written by ex-band leader Mike Soret, Confessions of a Local Celebrity, an “imbibing memoir” and retelling of poignant artistic endeavors, sets the record straight on the tipsy rise and fall of the band, amid speculations of success and originality.

As I was co-founder of the band, Mike invited me to write an opening statement to his book:

The Molestics is one of these things I’ve done in life I’m actually proud of.
Sure I was glad to leave when I had to. My forearm tendons were shredded, my head unhinged. In fact, it went deeper: I was tiring of the way people deal with each other in the “rogue creativity” scene, and feeling that your art is only as good as the angle you have. I was also getting bored with the rebel lifestyle, the booze, drugs and smoking bit. Like Mike says in the story, I never had that good a constitution. Even as a teetotaler I often found the scene tapestry stinky and tepid.
But the Molestics: this band was actually a different kind of creature. It’s weird, we were just doing our thing, going out into the world as we were. We found out there wasn’t a lot of that going on. Anywhere. We were shocked.
Honest, we tried to be as derivative as possible. We loved the music we were ripping off. Most other musical acts we knew were trying to be trailblazers. Yet we ended up being an original. How does that happen?
I regret we didn’t focus our energies on bringing the band to new audiences, on maturing the concept, smoothing out the kinks. Make our limping style more a show, less a way of life.
About the band name: I stuck to it come hell or high water for all the reasons Mike mentions, but also as a sort of insurance policy against any future respectability I might try to achieve. Must say it has served me well, in this respect.
Anyhow, by the time I left the band I finally had noticed: hey, everyone’s in the band!
But the Molestics, I insist, was more than just a band. It was a time and a place, and all the people that went into it. Mike’s got it all down in his book.

For the book launch, Mike and I reunited to play a couple of gigs in early February 2009, one in Edmonton at New City, the other in Vancouver at Slickity Jim’s. Here’s a photo-montage of the experience, for your viewing pleasure (picture credits: Tamara Letkeman).

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Copies of the book can be obtained directly from Belgravian Press, for $16 CDN. If you’re in Edmonton, you can get a copy at Nokomis or Greenwoods. In Vancouver, at Red Cat or Zulu. The gig poster, designed by Confessions… publisher Raymond Biesinger, can also be obtained as a silkscreened print from Belgravian Press, or on Etsy for $20 CDN.

Molestics Gig Poster

input/output: the taste-makers

A few days ago, a colleague of mine made a passing remark on a recent trend in pop music remixing: the heavy filtering of lead vocals with studio FX.

We’re not talking reverbs and echoes – amplifiers of natural voice qualities – but the complete synthesizing and processing of a human voice, to fit within a limited palette of teen grunts, coos and gurgles acceptable to music industry execs.

And appropriately conditioned mass audiences.

Here’s a couple of videos for you, on the issue of social engineering through the mass market shaping of our lifestyle habits:

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Can the same argument be made re: music industry? The video below, featuring author and media critic Douglas Rushkoff, uncovers come surprising facts about the industry, as seen from the inside.


You can by the DVD version here.

why your music is somebody else’s noise

Something funny happened to me on my way to holiday bliss.

I was at my parents’, and we were receiving guests, members from my extended family. We were all sitting in the living room, sipping tea and nibbling away at Christmas treats. Conversation waned from the anecdotal to the trivial. At some point, my mother put on Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations in the background: I happily let my soul escape into Gould’s bravura performance, while my body stayed with the small talk.

I must admit, the music was a little too virtuosic for the occasion. Even at low volume. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what came next…

“hey, can we stop that and put some music on?…”

…flipped in my dad, nonplussed, who until then had been sitting quiet and nodding to the stories.

Needless to say, I got flustered. To explain…

First my disbelief: my father’s statement. To him, this music was clearly antagonistic noise. In other words, beyond the actual situation, he did not consider this stuff music. Oh holy of holies, how can Glenn Gould be considered noise, even if unsuited for the occasion!

Then my gut reaction: personalizing this. You know, like: Glenn Gould is an artist of stature. You can hear it immediately when you listen to his recordings, especially the Goldberg Variations. I’m an artist, and I believe serious, committed artists are pretty important to society. Glenn Gould is just such a person. Therefore, this kind of dismissal goes to the core of my personality.


so what does your dad listen to?

If this seems unfairly harsh, I did opt for the broader view of things.

It goes like this: my father actually does like music. At least certain kinds of music. Specifically:

  • music that relaxes you – but does not “transport” or get overly passionate
  • music that successfully blends into the background – keep it subtly below the radar, at low volumes
  • easy-listening genres – nothing experimental or brashly sensual, please

In many respects, I’m a lot like my father. For example, volume: I despise loud music (notable exception, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). It’s nice also to have music that suits the situation. Plus: I worship quiet as much as he does. But I had a question to answer: how can “something of preeminent value” be summarily dismissed? What’s behind that?

And I’ve seen my dad in enough situations with music to know it’s not just… the situation.

I say Plato you say Hölderlin

The answer: incompatible world-views. About music. About art and the social value of artists.

My point: beyond debates about individual tastes, we all have philosophies of music we subscribe to, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Knowing a little bit about philosophy, I’ll venture my dad has a “platonic” view of the role of music and artists. And it seems I have a “diametrically opposed” viewpoint. We’ll call my world-view “romantic”.

For the sake of oversimplification ;-).

To explain: while Plato‘s views of music, taken in historical context, represent a rejection of bardic storytelling-as-knowledge, modern social engineers have sought justification for their views in his arguments.

Why social engineers? Well, for one, Plato has a prescriptive vision for the arts. You use this particular musical mode, dance and declaim your verse in such-and-such way, and your music is morally justified. Because it keeps the passions in check. Anything that arouses the passions is immoral because it destabilizes man’s “inner order”. More importantly for the social engineers, because of its emotional appeal, music properly harnessed can be a tool for maintaining social order.

You know, like Muzak. Or Mozart.

The Romantic viewpoint, by contrast, expounds a philosophy of music which posits man’s expressive needs as its core doctrine. Beginning in 18th century German revolutionary thought, the romantic creed has since become the common conception of what artists are supposed to be: complicated, hypersensitive, gifted and sometimes tragic figures, who “live through their art” .

Example: Beethoven, a deaf composer!

The romantic creed is certainly better known than the platonic viewpoint. If you’ve ever heard heard someone say “I do xyz to express something deeply personal”, you’re talking to someone who, consciously or not, has a romantic take on life and art. In fact, this philosophy is what motivates most people who call themselves “artists” to become artists to begin with.

Whether they’re committed or not, is entirely another matter ;-).

So in a nutshell, the platonic view: DO NOT DISTURB. The romantic view: SAY IT TO THE WORLD!

If you can convince me these viewpoints are somehow compatible, well, my dad and I would certainly like to hear from you. For the moment, I’m just going to hide in my headphones and take in Handel’s Messiah, from Jesus’ point of view.

And wait for dad to turn down the volume ;-).

the symbolic matrix of music

(2010 update: Ezra’s main website is now The Tone Color Alchemy Project. His blog posts are in the “Articles” section)

A few days ago, I posted a new addition to my blogroll: Ezra Sandzer-Bell’s Hidden Origins of Western Music(k)

What does this blog cover? In a nutshell: the Hidden Origins of Western Music(k) (HOWM) blog is one man’s attempt at uncovering occult organizing principles and symbols embedded in the major/minor key system of our Western music tradition.

Occult? Music? You mean Led Zep, Black Sabbath, playing records backwards, all that over-the-top heavy metal pseudo-satanic stuff?

Well, yes and no… Those of you following my own ramblings know that I’m generally curious about the origins of things and fresh new takes on the history of music. My interest in Mr. Sandzer-Bell is this: we both share a hunch that the “inner workings” of music – the design of the system – have implications that go far beyond our everyday understanding of music as art and entertainment.

For his investigations, Sandzer-Bell makes use of a “synchromystic” method that compares seemingly unconnected symbols and symbol-systems to reveal underlying patterns, similarities and origins. “Synchro” as in synchronicity, because the connections are intuitively discovered and grasped. “Mystic” because the symbols belong to traditions of esoteric thought. The term is borrowed from Jay Kotze of the Brave New World Order blog, and means: ”the art of realizing meaningful coincidence in the seemingly mundane with mystical or esoteric significance.”

In other words, this approach treats music as an esoteric system of knowledge that needs decoding.

Perhaps the best intro to Sandzer-Bell’s magical mystery quest is his first video. If it all seems rather ad hoc, keep in mind that Sandzer-Bell is referencing a common repertoire of esoteric lore contained in the traditions of Freemasonic symbolism, Kabbalah and Sacred Geometry, and applying them to everyday symbols.


musicians are so square(d)

Don’t know what to make of all this? I’ll confess that I’m a little iffy on this idea of relating everyday iconography to hermetic symbols as a way to confirm “occult origins”, even if there is clear overlap in core design features. From everything I’ve read on this topic, I’ve seen that the creative exegesis of symbols can mystify as much as it can open “the doors of perception” (to use Aldous Huxley‘s phrase). I also feel that numerology is more an assumption than a method of discovery: once you start that number patterning, everything ends up as a number pattern.

Which I guess is the whole point of hermetic and kabbalistic approaches. Maybe I’m still too new at this, but it seems strange to me to think symbols are “magical” and numbers have “talismanic” properties.

That said, I’ll grant that there are still many unanswered questions about the way Western music has emerged and developed, and its Pythagorean origins are well established in mainstream scholarship. What I take from the “synchromystic” crowd: be open to unexpected connections.

And do keep it playful ;-).

I’ll close this post with a quote from Sandzer-Bell, on why he’s after some answers:

Music is universal to every culture, it potentially inspires a sense of awe and magical beauty, generating love and connection between humans. I noticed that it has lately been used in the mainstream as a tool for separation and thoughtlessness, encouraging mindless behavior and militaristic aggression (blastbeats?). Who is behind this force? Is toxic music the byproduct of toxic composers?


there’s too much goddamn music

I was going to call this post there’s too much fucking music, but that would have been stealing the title of (the late great) George Carlin’s “new” comedy routine.

I learned about Carlin’s new never-to-be-captured-on-HBO routine in a wonderful interview piece by Jay Dixit for the Psychology Today blog done just nine days before Carlin’s death.

There it is, right at the end of the interview:

Dixit: So the last question is: What are you working on now?

Carlin: I have a piece of material that I’m doing on stage these days. I’m in Las Vegas now. I do weekends here, I do four nights on weekends as part of my year of touring. I go mostly to concert halls and theaters, around 80 or 90 of ‘em a year. But I come down here around three or four. So I’m down here. This piece of material called, “There’s Too Much Fucking Music,” which is my way of looking at how much music there is, I guess. It’s just my way of looking at the world and saying something that people don’t notice and figuring out a new way. And it’s filled with exaggeration and stuff. I’m doing that on stage a little bit. I’m not giving myself any pressure.”

O Irony of ironies for amateurmusicians.net! Carlin’s “new routine” successfully captures a perspective I’ve long been trying to articulate through this blog, in a single sentence:

There’s just too much music goin’ around these days!

on training to be an artist a human

The Dixit interview is valuable for many reasons – not the least being its blessed good timing, days before Carlin’s death. For me though, it especially stands out as an example of the rich results you can get from a well-prepared Q&A, conducted with someone you truly admire.

Kinda like a good Playboy interview, minus the pompous titties.

The essential lessons I got from this Carlin interview:

  1. what his working methods were
  2. his concept of the comedian
  3. how method and mission inform one another

On Carlin’s concept of the comedian: a jester should always aim to be a court jester. A comedian should speak directly to power. A comedian should take risks. Reputation risks are therefore the holy grail of the comedian-cum-social-commentator.

With this in mind, we see that training to be a comedian is not simply a matter of coming up with good jokes. Rather, it’s about cultivating a point of view on the world, life, on absolutely everything, and doing so with courage. Thanks to Carlin therefore, I now understand that comedy is one of the many “genres” of human knowledge, one which leverages the “strategy of surprise” to teach important insights.

My own fave approach to obtaining insight is through cultivating paradox. In case you hadn’t already guessed.

So what did George Carlin do all these years, behind the scenes? He trained himself to be perceptive, as a life-long occupation. Indeed, the Dixit interview reveals that Carlin had a process for training his observational sense, a process he refined (and upgraded) over the course of his 50 years in the field of entertainment.

This attitude seems to me to be the psychological and spiritual key to the committed artist, whether amateur or professional. Without which you spend your life swimming in other people’s soundtracks.

where’s George?

All said and done, we certainly haven’t finished hearing from George Carlin. Therefore let this post be a message-in-a-bottle for all you Carlin fanatics out there: if you should ever come across a recorded version of the above-mentioned routine – text, audio, video – please forward me a copy! Or post it on Youtube!

With Carlin’s wise (and blunt) words, I suspect we’ll once again remember why we created the “off” button, and why we’re so afraid to use it.

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Person George Carlin

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