Archive by Author

9 thoughts I had while I was not blogging

29 Sep

1. [22 September] So today, in my fourth week in my new department, which is one floor down on the sixth floor, I pressed 7 in the lift. Apparently a muscle memory built up over the last two years takes over when I’m in automaton mode.

2. [In a cab on the way to work, passing by Yishun Avenue 1 going towards the expressway, looking left] The clouds today are like fog-shrouded hilltops seen from a nearby peak. One can see which is nearer, and which further, and the nearest one actually looks approachable.

3. [About a coffee start-up near the workplace; I will call it X] The coffee in X really isn’t very good – this is after trying maybe 20-plus lattes from the place, generally around 8 in the morning, when sometimes I’d see my friend’s mum alight from her other daughter’s car – in particular compared to lattes from Symmetry (the only food I’ve tried from the place is the crispy baby squid – it looks cute written like that, not in the least edible – and it’s so good).

4. [About my normal day, and the song-list in my head) My alarm is set for 6.05am. I usually wake up a bit earlier than that. When I actually get off my bed and zombie-slouch-walk my way to wash up, there is usually a song in my head. For a few weeks it was the same 许茹芸 song. On 24 September, it was 那些年. The next day, the One Night in Beijing chorus caught me unawares. And on 26 September it was – I took a while to pin it down, my brain was playing only snatches – Pharrell Williams’ Happy. And today, it was the music accompanying this FANTASTIC and violent fight scene in 杀破狼.

5. [On my first MRT ride in some weeks] I had forgotten what it is like to ride the MRT as a routine – there are people you expect to see, and stories you begin to make up about them. The harried mum with two always sleepy, always not-quite-kempt children, the boy with a repaired cleft lip who is more tolerant than his older sister of his mother’s nudges to wake up when they reach Bishan. From this, my brother and I thought their family situation must be difficult. But I do not think of them during that MRT ride, because I see a motorcycle with lime-green spokes and it falls behind the MRT and I keep waiting for it to catch up.

6. [During a lull in a busy period in August] Huh – I haven’t changed the month on my calendar since May.

7. The nasi lemak from that corner stall at the Old People’s Park Food Centre is lousy.

8. But the nutella crepe – made by a lady from Saybons (I didn’t know they did catering) – is perfect.

9. A long time ago, I learnt about fastest plane in the world, faster than the F15 or the F16, with the highest cruising altitude: the Blackbird. And recently I came across this totally amazing story about someone who test-piloted this plane for a living.

Flex again, and stuff I want to remember

27 Apr

I have not written or read for myself for a long time, it seems. I think part of it is that I’ve become addicted to the sheer availability of reading material online – plain old books now seem too uncertain a proposition.

I did read Caroline Paul’s Lost Cat recently – it was short enough that after reading the blurb I was confident there would be no unpleasant surprises. It’s supposed to be a true story about what happened after the author got into a plane crash – she helpfully clarifies it was an experimental plane – and I read it in an hour and a bit, not including the time I used to make sure I was not going to the miss the lip of the escalator (I would have, by a couple of feet, if I hadn’t looked up), and the time I tried to prolong the book, after I realised it was ending in a few pages. I found it to be an interesting look into how pet-owners see their pets and how people come to terms with the life of their significant other. I also enjoyed the funny drawings which accompanied the story; I remember that I came to know about the book through Wendy MacNaughton’s blog, and her art was one of the reasons I looked forward to the book. One line early in the book stuck with me; it set a tone I could identify with: Every day I expected Wendy to lean in, whisper that she’d had enough, and walk out the door. And who would have blamed her? We hadn’t been together long enough to justify this kind of burden.

***

Some weeks ago, a few days after the first rain in a long spell and the inevitable flight of the large black winged ants, many of which got attracted to the lights in my kitchen, I heard a chorus of frog croaks. And as I think back on it now, it was a muted chorus, just a few frogs, and soft. There was a time when frogs and toads were not an uncommon sight in my garden on wet nights, and it’s a little strange, but I can’t remember if the chorus had been louder then.

***

In Ottawa, again relative yonks ago (August 2013), I saw a garishly lit-up stretch limo which had been converted into a roving casino. Think there was one person in there.

***

On 3 March this year I had my most vivid dream in a while. I was in a neat and pristine army bunk, a modern flat of a bunk, nothing like the poorly ventilated, poorly lit room I had lived in for a good portion of my life while I was doing national service, the sort of room that somehow stayed dirty and grimy no matter how one cleaned it. And an erstwhile bunkmate was there with me, and we were discussing how a big shot was going to inspect the place, and how the new four-to-a-bunk regime made it infinitely easier to prepare for the inspection than the old many-to-a-bunk arrangement. He was quiet, now that I think about it, but smiled more than when I last saw him, or remembered. And slowly with no warning I realised the room was too bright, and I never had a four-to-a-bunk sort of bunk, and he was smiling altogether too much, and I could see him too clearly – and then I woke up, unsure of what time of the day it was, half-remembering that it was evening, that I had just taken my customary weekend late afternoon nap, and then after an effort, and checking the time, I realised it was morning, and I had just awoken from a late night, having dreamt of a fellow Sim who had been dead for more than 17 years, and whom I never really knew that well.

***

Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the Men in Black movies, told a very funny story in the 1 March 2014 edition of the news game show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!. (I was going to transcribe it all, but it’s already all there at the link – you can listen, or you can read, or you can listen and read.)

***

I was in Salt Lake City not so recently (just checked – it’s amazingly almost half a year ago in November 2013). And while I was there I ordered these earphones. Because I couldn’t be sure they would reach my hotel before I left for Singapore, I paid the shipping fee. The merchant sent me an email with a link that allowed me to track the package on its way to Singapore. So I did. The first stop for the package was to Salt Lake City. Nice coincidence. Then, when I stopped in San Francisco for a couple of days and checked the link again, I found that the package had been sent to San Francisco. And from there of course it followed me to Singapore. Brilliant. What’s more brilliant: I came to learn that the same earphones, but without the mic I did not want, were available for way less on a special offer.

***

It was good to do some personal writing again. I can feel the atrophied muscles start to grudgingly slough off their stiffness as I flex just a little bit.

I Am Pilgrim

5 Jan

The colleague who was my Secret Santa for Christmas 2013 got me I Am Pilgrim, a book that I think I first read about on Guardian. (I really need to track where these recommendations come from, for my reference and future enjoyment.)

I wanted a good thriller, and got 700 pages’ worth – with the 9/11 attack as a very present backdrop, and the promise of a worse eruption of terror, narrated in the first person by a haunted and brilliant protagonist, studded with observant and unsparing detail and surprisingly sympathetic characters. The writing took some getting used to – I thought it was stilted in the beginning – and there was some grandstanding, Hollywood-ish moments (which sort of makes sense since the author is a former screenwriter), but it was a satisfying read, which I finished in one sitting (this afternoon and evening).

Probably the best thing is that the ending – with a master criminal still at large and the protagonist accept his calling in life – all but guarantees that this will be the first in a series :)

P/S. Another colleague got me a really cool bookmark; I used it three times before I finished the book.

Salt Lake City and flakes of snow I did not see

2 Dec

In Salt Lake City, I saw no lakes, but I did see a gray day, mist descending upon the streets, and a bright day, with smears of clouds and sun-rays that made the cold crisp and clear, and the colder aftermath of a storm I’d slept through, stained sidewalks and puddles and gusts of condensed breaths, all from the inside of the hotel, the most luxurious I’ve ever stayed at, where my colleagues and I met with other folks and talked and talked.

***

These days I seem to only read proper books during my work trips. I finished two and a half of them this time round. One was Kathleen Jamie’s collection of essays, one of which was about a trip to see auroras and which I thought was a work of beauty, something I literally gasped at, and which was generous, because she described stuff in a way that made me think, she really wants you to see and feel what she does. I want you to read it and take it in in all its context and be happy, but I also want to share a bit of it with you, so here’s a bit of it:

Luminous green, teal green, the aurora borealis glows almost directly overhead. It intensifies against the starry night like breath on a mirror, and it moves. Across the whole sky from east to west, the green lights shift and alter. Now it’s an emerald veil, now with a surge it remakes itself into a swizzle which reach toward some far-away place in the east.

***

Apart from being a stunningly lyrical essayist, Kathleen Jamie is also a poet. And talking about poets, I found one, I can’t remember whom or where from, but I found a good one who writes about commonplace things and is supremely accessible. (This makes a difference to literalist me.) Check out Billy Collins, and his poem The Lanyard. I enjoyed how the poem sort of does a slow little pirouette to end off.

***

And this year, I also discovered Ken Liu and his stories which often mix in some aspect of Chinese typography or myth or history to poignant effect. How wonderful, that some of them are freely available. Like Mono no aware. (Gravity fans (i.e. those who like the movie starring Bullock and Clooney, not those who ensure the feel of weight) should especially enjoy it. I wouldn’t know – I haven’t watched Gravity yet.)

***

A couple of months back, I heard a song on the radio. It was a sad Chinese pop ballad, and at first I could not place the familiar voice. Then it hit a clear high note, and I realised it was 张信哲. When I got over the voice, these lyrics stayed with me.

飞机起飞之后 我的笑容永不再相同 (After the plane lifts off, my smile will no longer be the same)

Somehow, in Chinese, it’s more poetic.

***

This year, I discovered many many things about myself. One of these is that I always ruin my candles. You know, those that fill up jars? I always drop matches in them, or add in potpourri petals and bits to see how they would smell burnt, or the wick would shorten to an untenable length. Then, the candles get neglected and then the neglect becomes abandonment.

***

Also quite recently, I heard the first few piano plonks of Jewel’s Foolish Games, and immediately knew what song it was and remembered that I hadn’t heard it for many yonks, that it had been big when I was in my first year of university and that I had thought the world of its lyrics and her singing. Listening to it this time, Jewel sounded strident and pretentious, instead of raw and heartfelt. I don’t think the song has aged well.

Or maybe it’s my taste that hasn’t.

 

For my friends who like Calvin and Hobbes

23 Sep

allow me to introduce… Hobbes and Bacon!

Strip 1

Strip 2

Strip 3

and, sadly, the last strip.

Also sadly, it seems that the folks who did this and also their own Pants are Overrated did their last comic strip in October 2011.

Twenties Girl – commentary

1 Sep

I guess you could say I took the long way to Ottawa (land of much open space): Singapore – Hong Kong – San Francisco – Chicago – Ottawa. The way back was just as bad: Ottawa – Chicago – San Francisco – Incheon – Singapore. But I managed to read Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl, which a colleague lent me a few weeks ago (I passed her Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go), during the San Francisco-Incheon leg, and while I was enjoying it I jotted down some notes.

Page 109 – The main characters, meek, set-adrift-and-buffeted-by-life Lara and the stridently shrieking ghost of her great-grandaunt Sadie, are at their selfish worst. I can’t sympathise with them. But I’m willing to continue reading, I think because I know they will eventually emerge as benevolent and likable. (Is that a difference between a serious novel, which would not offer that certainty. and something lighter, which this book is?)

Page 123 – The point I get really interested in the book: Sadie agrees to help Lara with her dog problem. Before this, the two weren’t a team.

Page 136 – Shock: Lara asks him out! (“Him” being the “American man with the frown” – also, “quite good-looking in that classic preppy way… has a bit of a tan, and dark wrist hair visible inside his immaculate white cuffs [note: weird, describing wrist hair]… his eyes are penetrating…”) Not sure what to make of the fact that, with much effort, Sadie is able to make herself heard by others (Lara can see and hear her normally, and is persuaded to ask him out because Sadie thinks he’s handsome and wants to dance with him), but this is an intriguing development.

Page 150 – Lara pesters Sadie to get Josh (Lara’s ex-beau) to tell the girl he is now with (not Lara) what was wrong with Lara. (Yes, Lara is spying on Josh during his date.) And I realise that Lara and Sadie have this relationship where they just pester each other to do something until the other agrees to. Apart from parents and their children, do people actually have this sort of relationship?

Page 157 – Lara resolves that she will change all that Josh thought was wrong with her. She’s deluded! Are women like that?

Page 191 – The “the quarrelsome twosome understand/appreciate each other” moment.

Page 201 – Hmm. The plot thickens. (Background: Sadie’s apparently still around because she can’t go without her necklace, which has disappeared. In her search for the necklace, Lara finds out that the last person to visit Sadie at the hospice was one Charles Reece, who turns out to be Lara’s uncle Bill.)

Page 209 – Lara meets Bill, after an extravagant pageant of security and functionaries and secretaries.

Page 216 – Sadie, who is invisible (except to Lara) and intangible, finds the necklace in Bill’s house. So Bill did take it. The plot grows several layers.

Page 226 – Lara sneaks around in Bill’s house looking for the necklace, with Sadie as alarm and guide. Pretty kick-ass to have a ghost on this sort of mission.

Page 229 – Lara is going to “trail” (aka stalk) Josh outside his workplace to show him she has changed and try to get back together with him. The “not good idea” quotient of this idea is clearly expressed by Sadie, who says: “This is a very bad idea. A very, very bad idea.”

Page 234 – So they are back together. But only after Sadie mind-bullies vapid Josh into it.

Page 237 – Lara texts all her friends, and the pizza delivery person, about Josh’s and her return to couplehood. Smacks of approval-seeking or some vague gloating, totally unappealing. Hope she does not end up with Josh – just would not be right.

Page 244 – CRISIS. Necklace out of reach, work emergency with no solution in sight.

Page 264 – Lara and Mr American frown aka Ed discuss her partner (at work) a little, during their second “date”. The notion that Lara will end up with Ed with Sadie facilitating pops into my head.

Page 283 – Ed reveals the reason for his frown. I like Ed more and more.

Page 310 – The necklace makes another appearance during a fashion show, and after an exciting chase in which Bill also appears, menacingly, it slips away just before Lara can get her hands on it. Why does Bill also want the necklace?! He’s the owner of a chain competing with Starbucks, for goodness’ sake.

Page 319 – Inevitable: Lara breaks up with Josh.

Page 326 – Also inevitable, as it is that stage of the plot for a crisis between friends: Lara lies to Sadie that she is going out with Josh, so that Sadie will not get to crow over the breakup, and goes out with Ed.

Page 333 – I won’t describe what is so true here, but it’s so true :)

Page 360 – So good to see one of the minor villains of the story get hers!

Between page 361 and page 386 – I realise that I’m missing movies and TV shows during an 11.5-hour SQ flight for this book.

Pages 387-388 – The most surreal moment in this ghost story: After Sadie disappears in an angry huff after seeing Lara and Ed together and Lara searches all over for her and fails to find her, Lara tries to summon her at a pond.

Page 424 – Lara and Ed find out why Bill wants the necklace. Well and a bit too neatly plotted.

Page 432 – Why not just tell Ed that you can see Sadie’s ghost?!?!

Pages 456-457 – Tonya (Lara’s sister and the other minor villain in the book) is *irritating*.

Page 466 – Sadie’s ravishing smile, the last that Lara sees of her = brilliant.

The colleague who lent me the book urged me to finish it: The ending is heartwarming, she said. This was echoed by a reviewer on Goodreads. But I found the lead-up to the ending better than the ending itself, which I thought was rather ordinary, although it did give everyone their just desserts. Sadie got her Alaskan earthquake :)

Miscellany (12 Aug 2013)

12 Aug

The distance between armchairs at lunch and scenes from Before Midnight

A few days ago I had lunch with a colleague. This was again at the TCC at Central, with the mini armchairs that always make me wish I could settle more deeply into one but that would end up with me too far from the table and the meal and definitely too far for conversation. Come to think of it, this is also the issue in the typical Starbucks store – hm… “store” seems not particularly suitable for a Starbucks place; let’s use “location”, which is antiseptically neutral but accurate enough – this is also the issue in the typical Starbucks location in Singapore, which nowadays feels packed and spacious at the same time and is sprinkled with comfy yet low-maintenance sofas and armchairs and a place to feel like you want to feel comfortable in, but it’s tough because the instinct is to sit opposite each other, which places you too far apart, and sitting next to each other results in the sort of dynamic that also happens when two people watch a movie, which is similarly side-by-side self-directed focused enjoyment of the scenes unfolding before you, which only occasionally merit staccato bursts of mutual sideways looks and exchanges for the purpose of ascertaining that the other person feels the same way about the scene that you do. (There were lots of these when my pal and I watched Before Midnight, whose script I found topnotch and intensely engrossing. There is the opening scene where Jesse sends off his son with entirely and understandably too many promises. And then there is the scene in which Jesse and Celine drive back to their Greek holiday villa and quarrel the way significant others who can plot out the meanders of each other’s lines of argument quarrel, during which Jesse eats a half-eaten green apple which one of his twin daughters have yet to finish and said daughter wakes up and blearily asks for said half-eaten green apple and in so doing keeps the quarrel from boiling over. Then come the scenes of Greek meal preparation in which Celine helps her hosts stuff peppers with stuff that made me hungry, interspersed with scenes of Jesse testing the (pretentious) concepts for his next novel with an old fellow writer and a couple of fans, and then the dinner scene in which various models of love (including the model in which both parties know break-up is certain at some point in time, being young and independent and having no need for the sort of committed companionship and partnership that marriage is) and couplehood (including the model in which the party who dies second continues to think of what the party who dies first would say if he is still around) are discussed and bickered over and there is the continuation of the couple’s quarrel in the car, leading to a sharp rise in temperature then a very welcome drop in same as those around the table deftly conduct some reconciliation and set up the finale (Celine’s and Jesse’s hosts insisting on taking care of the twins while the couple enjoy a night at this hotel). Then there are the long takes where Celine and Jesse just walk and talk and walk and talk as if we are not there (in a way that movies, which by definition presuppose an audience, are usually too self-aware to show), and the scene in which Celine and Jesse check into the hotel and Jesse is asked to autograph some books by a fan and Celine too and Jesse obliges and Celine doesn’t want to until Jesse says out loud that yes Celine would be happy to and she does so in a way that hides her true fury from the fan and sends a clear message to her husband. Then comes the climax-which-felt-like-it-lasted-half-the-movie, in which the quarrel escalates into an emotionally violent argument with its own rhythm and plot about sex and gender roles and one partner’s success and guilt which is absurd yet raw and real, and lastly the scene in which there is some much longed-for time travel. There were points where my pal and I laughed together, and winced and cringed and flinched together, and after it ended, I felt – in no particular order – deeply relieved, tired and satisfied yet determined not to put myself through this movie again, solidly impressed with the chemistry and generosity of the actors in working out the script and then in acting out the script, and oddly optimistic about the future of Celine and Jesse as a couple.)

***

Crime book dichotomies

And I had thought that we discussed it during the lunch, but now I remember that the colleague and I had discussed books on the way to lunch. She asked what I was doing that long weekend – I said reading and spring cleaning, the latter of which I haven’t done, at all – and she then asked what books I liked to read and mentioned she liked crime books by James Patterson and Jeffrey Deaver and I replied I read crime books too but preferred PD James and Ruth Rendell and stumbled over myself trying to articulate the differences I saw in the crime books she liked and the ones I liked and, after dropping the too easy and slightly inaccurate action vs. procedural dichotomy, arrived at the international/cosmopolitan vs. little town/village dichotomy.  (And after reading Ruth Rendell’s dense and quite brilliant Harm Done, whose commentary on a vulnerable class (battered women, and women in general to a lesser extent) reminded me of Donna Leon’s The Golden Egg (which focused on one horrendously treated child), I find I have to consider also the popcorn plot vs. social commentary dichotomy.)

***

Love = capable of causing pain

Before Midnight came up again in a discussion with another colleague – we had exchanged books (Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl for me and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for her) – who, after I mentioned the movie required a lot of emotional investment and was raw and not something I’d want to watch again, said it sounded so sad. I thought about that a bit, and concluded that for me the movie is not sad overall, but certainly the parts where Celine and Jesse show that each knows exactly where the other has poorly healed wounds to messily and thoroughly unscab – those parts are sad in the sense people who love each other so deeply are in the best position to cause that commensurate pain and sometimes fully aware they do just that, harshly jerking away the scabs and precisely salting the exposed parts.

***

7/8

This year, 7 Aug came with some warning – in that it was the day before a four-day weekend and therefore had stuck in my mind for other reasons than the usual, which I have more or less forgotten – and perhaps leading up to the day I had thought however fleetingly about what that date used to mean to me, so on the day itself I found myself humming 优客李林’s 输了你,赢了世界又如何, which had come out around the time the date meant the most.

***

A three-inch diameter ear-stud

Recently I got a seat on the MRT on the way to work. And while listening to my favourite podcast on my ear-buds (which by the way is an activity I seem to have become addicted to; I think the fundamental attraction to me is the ability to choose the world I alone want to experience), I saw this chap – possibly from Anderson Junior College; he looked the right age and had on trousers of the right colour and possibly the appropriate insignia – with what I thought were clear plastic headphones which turned out to be a gigantic hoop ear-stud (I only saw/paid attention to his left ear). Yup, it looked like he had on a ear-stud – which I always thought was some inconspicuous mini-thing to keep one’s earring-hole open – that was essentially a three-inch diameter hoop, I kid you not. It was surreal looking through the ear-hoop and seeing clear through to where his neck connected to his collar. I thought that was quite bizarre, and could his school condone it, but maybe he liked it.

***

Some much-needed self-bashing

I have become less and less appreciative of my folks, I’m afraid – plain choosy about my dinner, for example, asking Mum to cook me some noodles when she’d already painstakingly prepared rice and perfectly adequate dishes to go along with it. So the other day I came home, and she showed me that she had fried some rice, and I stared at it, reflexively thinking up reasons to reject it in favour of some noodles – I love noodles – including, I remember, complaining in my mind that the egg in the fried rice was too clumpy and not scrambled enough. I went to take a shower without either committing to the rice or saying I’d like some noodles, please, and after some well-deserved self-bashing came out and ate up two bowls of the rice, which was not the best but yummy enough. I need to be more self-bashing in this aspect of my life :)

***

Airsless people

Few people I know are totally without airs – I’ve met a President’s scholar a few years younger than me who was, and there is this high-ranking civil servant and former boss who is – and the other day I bumped into the latter at a stairs landing in Hong Lim Food Centre after I had bought my breakfast, and he seemed genuinely pleased to see me and spend those next few minutes with me to find out how I was doing, to the extent that, although people using the landing had to go around us, it felt as if he was perfectly focused on talking with me. That was a great start to the day.

***

Dear cab-driver, I wish you well…

I was going to work on a cab the other day. (Yes, this peasant princeling enjoys such uneconomical luxuries.) At around the same time I was thinking how new the cab was, the driver said that I was his first customer for this cab, and that he’d gotten it only the day before, after which he had driven his wife and two children (I think it’s two) around in the cab. He had only been driving a cab for a few months, and he was previously with TransCab (he was now driving a ComfortDelGro Hyundai Sonata), and his was among the last batch of Sonatas and the next batches would be i40s, he said. He said he did not like driving a cab – it was a lot of pressure, having to deal with different customers and not knowing which kind he was going to get next. A couple of his friends had gotten into trouble because of customer complaints already. He much preferred his previous job as a container truck-driver, which he felt he and other Singaporeans had been pushed out of because of PRC drivers, which he said he perfectly understood because that’s what someone else would do if he was in the boss’s position, and because the job paid by the trip and more and more the PRC drivers were getting the trips because they were cheaper, he could see how the inevitable would happen and had decided to quit, and his friend and fellow container truck-driver had talked it out with the boss but to no avail. He said that was why he asked his daughters (I think) to study hard and to his understated pride it was clear that they were doing well in school. I noted that his boss should be finding it harder to get good container truck-drivers and he said yes in fact his boss had called him to ask him to go back, but he had asked if his friends and former colleagues had been asked to as well and the boss had said no, and therefore he had decided not to go back, even though his friends had told him he should, because – he explained – he was the sort of person who didn’t like others to think that he had made some side arrangement with his former boss. I’m afraid I hounded him on this – perhaps you need not be so focused on what others think or say, I said; this is a job you like, I said; and which pays better etc. etc., I could have said – but he was adamant and appeared totally at peace with his decision and keen to continue on his current path to the best of his ability. Then we arrived at my destination, and I paid him and wished him well, and he wished me well, and said he hoped his other customers would be like me, and I slid over to the curbside and stepped out and closed the door and he drove off.

I hope he is doing well, this cab-driver.

***

One day, on my way to work…

Outside the MRT gates, I saw a man casually dressed in jeans and a light-coloured shirt at the side of the gates watching someone go up the escalator to the MRT platform. In Chinese, this would be described as 目送, literally “eye send” – as in using one’s eyes to send someone off. He watched and watched, and then finally turned away and, I think, caught me watching him and smiled a little smile.

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