Sunday, June 1, 2008

Networks of Design

Networks of Design

3-6 September, 2008
University College Falmouth
Cornwall UK

Networks of Design "responds to recent academic interest in the fields of design history, technology and the social sciences in the ‘networks’ of interactions that inform knowledge formation and design. Studying networks foregrounds infrastructure, negotiations, processes, strategies of interconnection, and the heterogeneous relationships between people and things."

Thematic Strands

Networks of Texts: including images, documents & databases
Networks of Ideas: including theories, disciplines & concepts (among them ANT)
Networks of Technology: including mechanical & virtual technologies
Networks of Things: including material & technological artefacts
Networks of People: including collectives & individuals

If I could choose one conference to attend this year, this would be it, and if their website were better designed I'd be able to link directly to the completely amazing line-up of people and papers.

(I also hope to one day finally see an academic conference website that at least publishes abstracts, if not full papers, as well as author contact information. Apparently the irony of excluding these is lost on them.)

In any case, keynote speakers include Bruno Latour and my friends Matt Ward and Alex Wilkie will be presenting "Made in Criticalland: Designing Matters of Concern." Right on.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Social sciences and design: managing complexity and mediating expectations

For reasons of pedagogy and social responsibility, Tony Dunne is one of my favourite designers and I'm particularly taken by his ideas about designing for debate. In setting briefs for students in Design Interactions at the RCA, he says "design proposals should pose questions rather than provide answers, making complex issues tangible, and therefore debatable." To purposely intervene in an issue without trying to solve a problem is a difficult activity, but one with extraordinary possibility if done well. Plus, the archaeologist in me knows the ability of material culture to make "tangible, and therefore debatable" things that are complex, fragmented and strangely ephemeral.

For details on how to design for debate check out this talk from last year's Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign event in Potsdam:


Now, the idea that design can play a productive role in managing complexity is hardly new, but I do see a lot of potential in designing and using objects (things) to engage publics around particular issues, or matters of concern. Pushing this connection between sociology, anthropology and design, I see this kind of work as another way to facilitate public understandings of emerging technologies, or to mediate public science and the co-production of scientific knowledge--but there's no reason to limit its application to the realm of technoscience as it is equally well-suited to intervening in many aspects of everyday life. (Proboscis' Feral Robots and Snout projects also demonstrate a lovely combination of technoscience and everyday life.)

Paola Antonelli writes in Seed Magazine about curating MoMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition:

"Fundamental to this emerging dialogue between design and science is the appreciation of the role of scale in contemporary life. Today, many designers have turned on their heads several late 20th-century infatuations, for instance with speed, dematerialization, miniaturization, and a romantic and exaggerated formal expression of complexity ... The focus now is on ways to break the temporal rhythms imposed by society in order to customize and personalize them. If design is to help enable us to live to the fullest while taking advantage of all the possibilities provided by contemporary science and technology, designers need to make both people and objects perfectly elastic ... These new principles embody the great responsibility that comes with design's new power of giving form and meaning to the degrees of freedom opened by the progress of science and technology."

It's certainly nice to see designers seriously take on something other than the creation of consumer products, but I'm not sure design has that much power to change the world. Still, this general perspective ties in with some interesting theoretical and methodological issues in contemporary social and cultural studies that are worth exploring further. (In fact, Goldsmith's Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process ran an interesting seminar series this year on design and social sciences, featuring friends and colleagues including Matt Ward, Alex Wilkie, Tobie Kerridge and Nina Wakeford. I also see that Mike Michael and Bill Gaver have been working more on the intersections of sociology and design, so that should also be interesting to follow.)

My dissertation deals quite a bit with the expectations that surround urban computing and locative media, or the ways that particular technosocial visions serve to shape relations in the present and delineate future scenarios that include some things and bracket out others. While this may appear to be of purely sociological or anthropological interest, by acknowledging the role that design plays in these processes, design can also reflexively and responsibly intervene again through the creation of objects that mediate these expectations. Such activities also bring issues of scale and temporality to the forefront, arguably better enabling a wider range of people to act in situations that affect them. But in order to get a sense of how these activities can also limit what we can do, check out this assessment of UK think tank Demos' Mobilisation document and the enactment of future users (pdf).

In any case, as soon as I've got the dissertation defended (stay tuned for news on that!) I'd like to do more work in this area. There's just so much to think, and do and make...

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The cultures of things

Dream Machine: The Snooze Button by Daniel Steinbock

"Modern citizens of industrialized nations live by the linear, mechanical clock, not the Sun. Office buildings have controlled climates and artificial lighting, making sunlight unnecessary for productive work. Thus work schedules are divorced from circadian rhythms, imposed by business constraints, rather than the environment. In order to live according to arbitrary time schedules, citizens use technologies that impose arbitrary sleep cycles on the body. Consider the alarm clock: a direct technological intervention in the natural sleep process. It forces the linear mechanical time-sense of a globally-synchronized waking world upon the cyclic, mytho-logical dreamtime of the sleeper. The alarm clock enables its user to arrest sleep at any time of morning or night. College students, with class schedules that vary throughout the week, often choose alarm schedules that are similarly uneven; waking at 8am for an early class, then sleeping in until 11am the next day. The alarm clock is the thing that does the work of shoehorning the necessity of human sleep into the artificial constraints of the workaday waking world."

"In dreaming, identity explodes. Dissociated from artifice and perception, the dreamer is monad: window-less yet luminous, god-like yet amnesial. Dream logic plays at synaesthesis. Things in dreams become disarranged and confounded with their personal meanings and web of associations -- memory and fantasy, desire and fear, Self and Other, love and death, sex and flight. Whether paradise or nightmare, the dreamer is locked in a room with no doors to open, no walls to break down, and no eject button. In waking, identity collapses. The body concretizes at a locus in spacetime: lying in bed, a familiar room, morning light slanting in, plans for the busy day solidify and arrange themselves. If motivated, the sleeper's body rises from bed -- now heavy with the weight of materiality. The snooze button acknowledges the body's resistance to artificial awakening. What an absurd subversion of will power to provide a mechanism for procrastinating past a self-imposed waking time..."

Part of Ten Things 2007 - a class with Michael Shanks about design

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How would you evaluate a chair?

I was just looking at student project proposals for Dori Tunstall's design research methods course, and I was quite impressed by how the following two projects merge the concerns of anthropology, art and design:

Anna Leithauser, MFA Student Graphic Design, The Art of Bookspines (pdf)

The project investigates the use of bookspines as designed objects, as consumer items, and as decorative art. The goal is to study both how bookspines have impacted the design, sales, and evolution of books and how changes in the book industry have affected bookspine design.

Brett Jones, BFA Student Graphic Design, Expensive Sneakers in the Hip Hop Community (pdf)

This project studies the role of the marketing of African-American hip-hop rappers and athletes in making expensive sneakers a necessity and obsession in the African-American hip-hop community.

I was recently asked to explain what I think the connections are between anthropology and design, and I tried to describe how both involve thinking, doing and making.

Objects That Look

"Despite police ‘crackdowns’ and the increasing availability of willing sexual partners online, the canal remains popular with men seeking anonymous and impersonal encounters with other men. During my fieldwork I employed a combination of ethnographic voyeurism and online ethnography to gain an insight into this capricious and difficult to access group. Sketch enabled me to place the witnessed body into a photograph of the empty site, avoiding the ethical, legal and practical complications of recording participants’ identities during ‘the act’. The downside of the technique was that ultimately the other becomes my creation in the collages. However this feels a more honest representation of my experiences and the men’s objectification of each other when cruising."

Michael Atkins, MA Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester


Design Anthropology – When opposites attract (pdf) by Werner Sperschneider, Mette Kjærsgaard and Gregers Petersen

"Design anthropology is a point of view: Not our (the designers) point of view not their (the users) point of view, but an additional point of view, a double perspective ... There are different levels of intervention in the field with users, but design is always a social activity. Involvement in situated practice is about people and their activities, and understanding one's social intervention through a piecing-together."


"I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get developed to sensitize designers to culturally and context specific issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot, or after product roll-out."

- Mimi Ito, Interview with Mimi Ito by danah boyd

Today in class we watched Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary on Edward Burtynsky's photos of where things come from. Everyone claimed that technological progress comes with a high price. No one felt they could do anything about it.

Design Education as Applied Anthropology by Anthony Inciong

"Design education for me is an opportunity to connect with the world in a variety of ways. My goal is to exploit a potential – to reveal how an anthropological perspective might be used to raise the potency and relevance of design ... I’m not proposing a creativity-eschewing, scientific study that has us spinning our wheels ... I’m interested in developing a practical method that accounts for our propensities as creative individuals but also facilitates our putting those to use in appropriate ways."

Visualizing Information for Advocacy (pdf) by John Emerson

IxDA video: Ethics of Everyday Design by Gabriel White

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Ethnography and design

LIFT08 Conference videos on ethnography and design:

Younghee Jung, Nokia

Genevieve Bell, Intel

Paul Dourish, University of California Irvine (USA)

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Making new forms of life..."

Tonight kicks off The Defiant Imagination Lecture Series, organised by Concordia University Design and Computation Arts in Montréal, and lucky locals will get the chance to hear and see more about Theo Jansen's super-cool strandbeests.

Lecture: Theo Jansen - Strandbeest
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6:00 p.m.
D.B. Clarke Theatre, 1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd., W., Montréal

Admission is free.

Artist and kinetic sculptor, Theo Jansen has been called a modern-day Da Vinci. Trained in Science at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, Jansen creates large-scale kinetic sculptures that are a fusion of art and engineering. Jansen’s interest in technology and the process of biological evolution have led to his development of his own creatures.

His animals (“Strandbeests”, or” beach animals”, as he calls them) are enormous skeletal, complex mobile structures made out of plastic pvc tubes that use computer programs to calculate their movements. Powered by the wind, these creatures, which have evolved through several generations, walk, flap, roll, and discern obstacles. Eventually, Jansen hopes to ‘release’ his animals in herds where they can live out their own lives.

Strandbeest website

Theo Jansen's TED 2007 Lecture: The art of creating creatures

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A few questions about design ethics

For the past few years I've taught mostly STS classes, and teaching power and everyday life this term has been an interesting shift that's really challenged me to question what might constitute ethical practices of everyday life. For example, I've been following with some interest recent debates about anthropologists consulting for the military. Given historical and current geo-politics I wouldn't do it, but over the years I've heard researchers and designers say everything from "The pay is great!" and "Who else do you think funds this kind of work?!" to "Someone's gonna do it, so it might as well be me!" and "I have no problem with this."

Only a very few have bothered to ask "Doesn't it depend on how the research/consulting is done, and how it's used?" Score for attention to situational rather than universal ethics--but are 'we' really such an individualistic bunch? And at what point can we say that someone subscribes to a standard of ethics but not to ethical practice?

Over at Design Observer, Elizabeth Tunstall has written a piece asking What If Uncle Sam Wanted You? or more specifically, "What if the U.S. Army asked designers to join teams to do 'service design' projects in Afghanistan?" It's worth reading the whole thing for insights into the different perspectives of anthropologists and designers, and then move over to her blog for how she's actually a bit concerned by designers' responses to the article.

I'd wager that for most people attracted to, and trained in, understanding social and cultural interaction, the confounding bit is the value these designers placed on individual choice instead. But as Dori more pointedly asks: "As design seeks to expand its progressive impact on business, government and society, I wonder if we, designers as thinkers, can continue to afford to see ourselves in such individualistic ways."

I think it's interesting, too, that she brings her students into the discussion. Time and time again at conferences and workshops, I've noticed significant differences between those who actively teach and those who do not--especially when it comes to witnessing cultural (including generational) changes. In fact, the classroom is one of the very few places where I encounter difference that I am not allowed to ignore, or to circumscribe in ways that reduces or flattens it to conversations amongst 'equals' - and that is something I believe more designers could stand to do in their own work.

What I mean is that things are changing. My students also see themselves as part of a bigger, more diverse, more unequal, and more interconnected world--and they have different ethical expectations than most of the established practitioners I meet. They have genuine concerns that professional life will involve more ethical standards than ethical practices, and they object to this. Given these and other differences, it's not surprising to have seen their concerns casually dismissed as youthful naivety, and formally opposed as threats to lifetime career interests.

But for me, the more disturbing bit is that these concerns are actually given a lot of lip-service, in much the same ways as ethical guidelines can become ethical alibis for practitioners who ally themselves in abstract, but not concrete ways.

So let's get more specific: Is consulting for the military unethical? Well now it depends, doesn't it? I recently had a very interesting conversation with a scientist who regularly consults for the US military. He argued that the issue should not be if consulting is unethical or not, but rather what kinds of consulting may be unethical. I agreed, and when I asked him for an example he claimed open research as the most important value for scientific research, and explained he would only work on projects that did not involve non-disclosure agreements and proprietary research. For him, closed or restricted knowledge, whether supported by the military or a corporation or the university, was simply "bad" science. And this made me wonder if designers have a sense of "bad" design that might preclude, for example, working on proprietary projects with NDAs?

Historically, design interests have been so well aligned with the logic and desires of capitalism that many a joke has been made about whether design can ever be an ethical practice. But most designers I know don't find these jokes very amusing, and I've never met a designer who enjoys being characterised as a dilettante when it comes to social, political and ethical matters. At the same time, many have become very frustrated at the suggestion that they simply not work with clients they think 'do harm'. They insist: "That's not a very practical option!" which, ironically, returns us to jokes at their expense.

But are design's clients only ever the ones who, for example, require NDAs and create proprietary knowledge? Of course not. Designers do have and make choices every day, but there appear to be rather serious obstacles to seeing these choices as something other than individual or personal matters. And this, of course, makes it very difficult to hold them socially accountable for their actions, or inactions.

In any case, I certainly don't have all the answers and I'd love to hear from students, teachers and design practitioners about any of these things! What do you think?

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Locative media today

Locative Media Summer Conference
Universität Siegen
3.-5. September 2007.

Opening Speech
Greg Elmer (Toronto, CA)
Disaggregating Locative Networks

Sociotechnical Space
Joe McCarthy (Palo Alto, USA)
Friendsters at Work: Displaying Social Media Streams in the Workplace
Christoph Rosol (Weimar, D)
From Radar to Reader. The Origin(s) of RFID
Adrian Mackenzie (Lancaster, GB)
The Act of Locating Wirelessly

Mapped Space
Jeremy Crampton (Atlanta, USA)
Can Peasants Map?: Map Mashups, the Geo-Spatial Web and the Future of Information
Lev Manovich (San Diego, USA)
New Spatial Media?

Locative Media Design
Mark Bilandzic (Munich, D) & Marcus Foth (Brisbane, AUS)
CityFlocks: A Mobile System for Social Navigation in Urban Public Places
Dimitrios Charitos (Athens, GR)
Towards a Conceptual Model for Supporting the Design of Location-based Systems for Social Interaction within Urban Public Space

Locative Media Art
Patricio Davila, Geoffrey Shea & Paula Gardner (Toronto, CA)
PORTAGE: Locative Media at the Intersection of Art, Design and Social Practice
Tina Bastajian & Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam, NL)
Geo-Genealogies: Tracing the Possible Lineages of Locative Media

Locative Media Activism
Drew Hemment (Manchester, GB)
Locative Arts and Locative Activism
Mark Shepard (Buffalo, USA)
Locative Media as Critical Urbanism

Locative Media Aesthetics
Marc Ries (Leipzig, D)
Where Can I Become? Geoaesthetic Considerations on Locative Media
Miya Yoshida (Berlin, D)
Techniques of Mobility, Aesthetics of Flatness

Locative Media Wanderer
Ben Jacks (Oxford, USA)
Locative Media, Pervasive Computing, Walking, and the Built Environment

Locative Media Urbanism
Viktor Bedö (Pécs, HU)
Pattern of Locative Urban Knowledge
Katharine S. Willis (Weimar, D):
Situating Encounters
Martijn de Waal (Groningen, NL)
No more bowling alone? Locative Media and Urban Culture

Locative Media Games
Sophia Drakopoulou (London, GB)
Collective Participation and Broadcast: How Data Bound to Locality Re-appropriate Physical Space
Britta Neitzel (Siegen, D)
Location-based Games and Appropriation of Places

Some interesting stuff here, but why, oh why, is it still so hard to get academics to post things online?

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mobile publics and issues-based art and design

Mobile Nation Conference
22-25 March, 2007 - Toronto, Canada

Mobile Nation investigates design methods for locative technologies, devices and games, showcasing international research, design and engineering ... Participants will share expertise with WiFi, Global Positioning System (GPS), Bluetooth, Radio Frequency ID tags, intelligent garments, ambient media applications, and geo-locative gaming ... Throughout the conference we will be looking at research methodologies and ways that they will be integrated into industry, education, and creative practice.

Speakers | Programme | Workshop | Poster Exhibition

I'm really looking forward to this event - not only are there lots of interesting people participating but it's really nice to see so many Canadian researchers, designers and artists represent. Plus, I've long admired Nigel Thrift's work on technology and space so I'm excited that I'll be the discussant for his social geographies keynote. And at the very end of the first day Eric Zimmerman will be moderating discussion between Jason Lewis, Minna Tarkka, Suzanne Stein, Ron Wakkary and myself. I'll be presenting on some of the more practical aspects of doing what I call issues-based art and design research (you can get the extended abstract here but I like to think it'll be much better in-person) and I'm looking forward to the other presentations and discussions. If you're there, please come say hello!

This presentation actually draws on a chapter I recently wrote for Sampling the Spectrum, edited by Barbara Crow, Michael Longford and Kim Sawchuck, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.

Mobile Publics and Issues-Based Art and Design (pdf)

Starting with the 'problem' of the public, I look to select historical and philosophical understandings of publics and politics. Building on the work of early American pragmatists like Walter Lippman and John Dewey, I focus on a public that is fragmented and contingent but still very much capable of judgment and action. In order to delve deeper into the kinds of situations or events in which these kinds of publics can come-together I find inspiration in the carnivals and feast crowds so eloquently described by Mikhail Bahktin and Elias Canetti, as well as in Bruno Latour’s "parliament of things" or dingpolitik. I follow that discussion with an overview of recent research into the social and cultural aspects of mobile, context-aware and pervasive computing, and I question the senses of 'public' and 'private' at play. More specifically, following Mimi Sheller, I ask what a non-network model of mobility might look like. The kind of fluid and messy picture that emerges ends up pivoting on acts of coupling and decoupling, or gelling and dissolving, multiple publics and privates around shared concerns or difficult issues. The chapter culminates in a discussion of what I call issues-based art and design, or those mobile and context-aware projects in which a 'public' is convened around a set of shared concerns or complex issue that cannot be adequately handled by more traditional means. More specifically, I look at mobile technologies being deployed in the interests of political and economic awareness and action, as well as environmental awareness and sustainability. Assessing the limitations and possibilities of these kinds of technological, artistic and design interventions, I conclude by asking where the most productive potentials for mobile publics can be found, and what it will take to actually mobilise them.

UPDATE 12.03.07

The new issue of Wi: Journal of the Mobile Digital Commons Network is out and it also takes a look at the benefits and challenges of collaborative research and design practice. Good stuff by Yasmin Jiwani, Alison Powell, Andrea Zeffiro & Daviid Gauthier, Kim Sawchuk & Barbara Crow, Michael Longford, and Janice Leung.

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Biotechnologies, bodies and boundaries

These days when not writing about the politics of touch, my efforts are going towards teaching. We only have three classes left (the final one is a poster session, yay!) and I already know I'll miss our weekly get-togethers. They're an unusually good bunch who just submitted major research papers on topics like the biopolitical implications of assigning life and death, social and political boundaries for biometrics use, transexuality and the construction of otherness, mobile technologies and perceptions of space and time, genetically engineered crops and uncommon ground, public debates on stem cell research, domestic appliances, gender and everyday life, and pharmaceutical regulation of human sexuality. Totally amazing.

The last two classes have focussed on technoscience and bodies. Last week put the beginnings and ends of life up for debate, and we talked about reproductive technologies, tissue culturing, selfhood, markets, property and regulation.

For example, the case of Amillia Taylor offers intriguing insights into the practice of neonatal medicine and the regulation of bodies, as well as public concerns around the practice of abortion and the constitution of life itself. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of ambivalence in this Daily Mail story. The hospital environment is clearly understood to be more controlled/controllable than the "outside" world, but no less risky if we consider the litany of medical problems the premature baby has already experienced within its walls. According to the story, "Amillia was conceived in vitro and has been in an incubator since birth." Born at 22 weeks, this means that the majority of her life--and the very status of her life--has been almost entirely regulated by biotechnology. At the same time her survival is most often described in terms of surprise or the miraculous. Her mother is quoted as saying "now she is beginning to look like a real baby," which suggests it was difficult to recognise her as such before then. And the article concludes by invoking the abortion debate and challenging the reader to ask when but not how life actually begins: "Babies can still be aborted for non-medical reasons at up to 24 weeks. Recent evidence shows that, of those born at 25 weeks, half of them manage to live."

On a more personal note, the pictures of the child startled me. I still have a hard time recognising this creature as something bound for this world no matter how much we try to bind her to it. The medical intervention initially struck me as artifice in the sense of mechanical art, and thus wholly unnatural. But I find all sorts of 'unnatural' things to be beautiful and good and I'm having a hard time explaining why I can't seem to recognise 'life' here. Maybe it's the implication in that final quote that if we can keep a baby alive at 25 weeks then we shouldn't be allowed to abort it at 24 weeks. The problem I'm having, maybe, is that I don't think either creature is a 'baby' or 'child' at all. In fact, it discomforts me that she has a name because it insinuates her into a social world I share and I have a hard time attributing selfhood to bodies kept alive. Plus, it totally disturbs me that Latour's collectives of humans and non-humans could constitute nothing but people, or rather that we assign different people to different sides of the human/nonhuman 'divide'. Biopower and biopolitics indeed.

Yesterday's class focussed on monsters, hybrids and the sexing of bodies. One of my favourite topics because it focusses almost exclusively on what happens between categories, we talked about everything from Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, to freaks, museums and reality tv to conjoined and parasitic twins, intersexuality, body modification, disability, circumcision, cosmetic surgery (including vaginal rejuvenation and designer vaginoplasty), commodities, markets, consumerism and the ever-present matter of taste. Generally a proponent of the 'three-sex' (female, male and both/neither) model, I also keep thinking about the idea that there is only one sex and it exists on a continuum from male to female and different people occupy different positions, like if you view sexuality as a continuum from homosexuality to heterosexuality and people occupy many positions along it over a lifetime.

Anyway, now I'm preparing for the final classes on technology and everyday life. Next week we take a look at domestication and technology, which includes domestication of and by technology, as well as domestic technologies. This means reading some really interesting work by Shelley Nickles on the history of refrigeration in terms of material culture and gender construction, and introducing students to Elizabeth Shove's work on material culture, consumption and practice-oriented design, as well as the larger Designing and Consuming: Objects, Practices and Processes research project and their forthcoming book on The Design of Everyday Life. The final lecture and discussion will focus on pervasive technologies from mobile phones to biometrics, and further investigate the fluid boundaries between public and private in our technologised everyday.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

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