Sound and vision blog

28 posts categorized "Technology"

11 January 2021

Recording of the week: The voice of Robert Browning (1812-1889)

This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Portrait of Robert Browning
Above: British Library digitised image from The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1888).

Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright born in Camberwell, London.

Like his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), whose great success as a poet exceeded his, at least in her lifetime, he was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era.

This cylinder recording of Robert Browning is the earliest recording of a major British literary figure that we know of.

It was made at a dinner party given by Browning's friend, the artist Rudolf Lehmann on 7 April 1889, on a phonograph brought to the party by Thomas Edison’s representative in Europe, Colonel Gouraud.

Here is Browning attempting to read his poem ‘How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.

Unfortunately, he runs into a bit of trouble trying to remember how it goes, but all is resolved in good-humoured fashion.

Listen to the voice of Robert Browning

Download Robert Browning transcript

Browning was then in the last year of his life. He was to die that December.

It is not unusual nowadays for a recording of the deceased to be played at a memorial event honouring a poet or a writer. Recording technology is now more than 140 years old. It no longer brings with it the shock of the new.

In 1890, however, when this recording was replayed at an event held on the first anniversary of Browning’s funeral, it was by no means common to hear a voice from ‘beyond the grave’.

It was all too much for Browning's sister Sarianna, who called it 'an indecent séance', and wrote to a friend:

Poor Robert's dead voice to be made interesting amusement! God
forgive them all. I find it difficult.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

11 December 2020

The untold story of the birth of World Wide Web: putting the record straight

Tim Berners-Lee's original CERN proposal with the 'Vague but exciting...' annotationTim Berners-Lee's original CERN proposal with the 'Vague but exciting...' annotation. Source: http://info.cern.ch/Proposal.html

In 1984 the CERN scientist Dr Elsie ‛Peggie’ Rimmer made a staff appointment that would change history. She helped recruit a young British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee to join her group. A rare woman physicist in a male dominated field, Peggie was an expert in computer standards and became Berners-Lee’s supervisor during the years when he was developing his concept of a World Wide Web. In 2019 Peggie recorded her life story for An Oral History of British Science, covering her memories of the birth of the web, and a short interview for the latest National Life Stories Annual Review.

Peggie Rimmer on her role in the history of the World Wide Web (C1379/135/06)

Download Peggie Rimmer on her role in the history of the World Wide Web Transcript

There are lots of good ideas that never get the time, resources or chance to change the world. But over the 1980s Peggie and group leader Mike Sendall, later her husband, created an environment that nurtured Berners-Lee’s early work on the Web and gave him the opportunity to get his idea off the ground. As Peggie recalled:

“CERN was a physics lab, not a computing lab. But the ground there was fertile because of the need for global interworking and I was a champion of computing standardisation, perhaps the strongest one at CERN, so it was a good place for Tim to be. That’s what the Web is, a standard way of sharing information all around the world. Mike and I together somehow made it possible for Tim to do his work. Not technically, but actually. We kept it quiet and got him what he needed. Mike, in charge of the purse strings, got Tim the NeXT computer that he used for the Web stuff, encouraged him, and I gave Tim suitable jobs, sent him off to relevant meetings and so on. Somebody had to do that.”

Peggie Rimmer in 2019, indicating her Read-Out Architecture RA section on the first of the three proposals for what became the World Wide WebPeggie Rimmer in 2019, indicating her Read-Out Architecture RA section on the first of the three proposals for what became the World Wide Web. Source: Peggie Rimmer

In March 1989 Berners-Lee’s first draft proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web landed Sendall’s desk. In the corner Sendall jotted a phrase that has entered the history books as the understatement of the century: “vague but exciting…” But as Peggie now reveals, it was never a comment that was meant to be seen, and in the crucial months that followed personal revelations and tragedy would see Peggie and Sendall unexpectedly step back from an idea that was about to change the world. It is a story that has remained untold until now:

“In April 1989 Mike told me that he thought he was gay – though we didn’t use that word then – homosexual…. in the ‘80s it was not the sort of thing that you easily discussed or admitted, not in Europe. It was tough. We considered what Mike should do… After a week or two had passed in turmoil, I said to Mike, ‘Would you please go through Tim’s proposal [the first draft of his proposal for the Web, though it wasn’t called that yet] because he’s waiting for your answer’. Mike did that and on the cover page he wrote what has become a worldwide slogan ‘Vague but exciting...’ We looked at it together and I said, ‘Right now, how am I going to put a phrase like that to some guy? I cannot discuss it with Tim’. So Mike agreed to change it… But a short while later he was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer and given 18 months to two years to live. So that rather changed things. And once again – [you] don’t tell anybody because when you’re dying your career is finished.”

“The reason that Tim’s first proposal was not shown to him - Mike’s troubles - was immensely important to me. And also it left me looking rather peculiar as I walked away from everything. Almost no one, and most people still, have no idea why that happened, and I don’t wish to go down in history as someone who chickened out because she wasn’t up to it!.. The fact that the document was later published, after Mike was dead and without my knowledge, including ‘Vague but exciting …’ now printed on T-shirts, distressed me no end because Mike had promised me he wouldn’t show that to Tim, and he didn’t. And because it’s history, it’s important. If there is someone still alive who can tell it like it really was and there is no other witness to what happened, then they should tell it. Even Tim didn’t know.”

To find out more, read Peggie’s article in the latest NLS Annual Review (pp.28-29). Her full life story interview can be found by searching C1379/135 at the Sound and Moving Image catalogue and can be listened to onsite at the British Library at St Pancras and at Boston Spa by contacting the Listening and Viewing Service.

Blogpost by Tom Lean

21 September 2020

Recording of the week: My family and other tapes

This week’s selection comes from Nick Morgan, classical Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

The British violinist Derek Collier (1927-2008) enjoyed a long and successful career as an orchestral leader, soloist, broadcaster and teacher. He recorded four commercial LPs but left a much larger legacy of broadcast and private recordings, which his daughter kindly donated to the British Library in 2011 (in 2012, Sound Archive curator Jonathan Summers wrote about them in this blog). Some months ago, I was assigned the Derek Collier collection to catalogue for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage – and I felt like Gerald Durrell, magically transported back to youthful years spent with a menagerie of soon to be extinct specimens.

Philips magnetic tape boxPhilips magnetic tape box

Philips tape boxes of the 1960s (left) and 1970s (right) from the Derek Collier Collection

Only, this isn’t Corfu and they’re not pelicans, seagulls, scorpions or tortoises – they’re tapes. One problem with tapes is that they all look a bit the same. Some have pretty boxes and some have funky spools, yes, but most don’t tell you very much about themselves. Unless, that is, you’ve spent your formative years working with them. Starting as a radio producer more than three decades ago, I learned the Tao of tape hands-on at a Studer or a Telefunken, herding take-up spools and snipping raw takes with chinagraph pencil, razor blade and splicing sticky.

So it was a nostalgia trip to be reunited with these long-lost friends thanks to Derek Collier. Collier broadcast extensively for the BBC over nearly half a century, and his collection contains all the kinds of tapes used in radio production, and more. There are rehearsal tapes, including one with the Black American conductor Dean Dixon – very short, sadly (Jonathan Summers also wrote about Dixon in this blog). There are session tapes: a sequence of pieces recorded in the studio, with false starts, mistakes, retakes and ‘patches’, from which a ‘studio manager’ (engineer) and producer spliced together the best bits – it’s rare to be able to compare unedited recordings with edited versions, but the Derek Collier Collection makes it possible. There are ‘insert’ tapes, containing just the edited music for a broadcast, to which spoken presentation was added either in a studio or live on air – the collection even includes one insert tape for a programme which was never transmitted.

There are ‘clean-feed’ tapes: sometimes, at pre-recorded broadcast concerts, a presenter was in the hall, announcing the music as if live, but a separate tape without the presenter’s voice was also recorded. There are listening copies: tapes sent to Derek Collier as a courtesy by producers. One small spool, often used for short BBC news reports and trails, has the standard BBC label I myself stuck on countless spools, standard coloured ‘leader’ I myself spliced onto countless tapes – yellow at the start and between items, red at the end – and with it a note on BBC letterhead I sent to countless contributors, listing three items Derek Collier had recorded for Steve Race’s Invitation to Music on Radio 4 but hadn’t managed to record off air.

spool of tape and letter from BBC
Complimentary BBC copy tape from the Derek Collier Collection

Talking of which, there are lots of off-air recordings – Derek Collier had a recorder at home and taped his broadcasts from the radio. But he also used it to record himself practising and rehearsing, bringing us closer to the starting point of his interpretations, before a piece was ready for the concert hall or the studio. And, as a bonus, there are examples of several of these types of tapes from his teacher Alfredo Campoli, complementing the collection donated in 1995 by Campoli’s widow.

C1475-185 frontC1475-185 back

Two items from 1966 LP DECCA ECLIPSE ECS 639, recorded by Alfredo Campoli in Japan, from the Derek Collier Collection

Derek Collier broadcast a lot of music by modern composers, so for copyright reasons it’s not possible to sample all the species in his tape zoo on this blog – but we can play an extract from a work which Collier premiered in the UK and which turns up several times in his collection. Boris Blacher’s Violin Concerto Op.28 was composed in 1948 and introduced to Britain by Collier in 1963. Among his tapes are an undated private practice recording of the solo part, an off-air tape of the premiere, and an unedited session recording from 1976, plus the edited broadcast recorded off air the following year. But from 1965, here’s the end of this exciting, vivacious Concerto in another broadcast performance by Derek Collier, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and none other than Dean Dixon:

Boris Blacher Violin Concerto Op.28 (end)

Derek Collier gave public solo recitals until shortly before his death in 2008, and he continued to record them, on cassettes, in the venues themselves, capturing the atmosphere and practices of the thriving musical life of Essex, where he’d retired. And he went on adding new types of tape, recording duplicates on different machines (for safety?), creatively copying ‘master’ cassettes to correct technical problems, recording rehearsals, and making mix-tapes of previous performances, seemingly as sample programmes for concert organizers or interpretation guides for new recital partners.

C1475-228
Compilation for 2004 programme rehearsal purposes, from the Derek Collier Collection

Making sense of this extended family of recordings has been an absorbing and rewarding task, and thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund it has been preserved for visitors to the British Library’s website and reading rooms to explore and enjoy in future.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage, @BL_Classical, @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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18 September 2019

Ernö Goldfinger at Open House 2019

‘He was rational about absolutely everything, down to how you sharpened your pencil.’

British architects and architecture in Britain have long been affected by influences from overseas. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a traditional training was based on the classical architecture of Greece and Rome and students spent hours painstakingly copying capitals and columns. Classical orders from the Encyclopedie, engravings of capitals and columns

Capitals and columns. Classical orders, engraving from the Encyclopédie vol. 18. 18th-century French engraving, 1761

By the early twentieth century, some architects responded to the technological changes occurring in infrastructure, communications and engineering. They argued that architecture should reflect these changes by using new forms and materials, and by mirroring how people lived in the present, rather than looking to the past. In this period, Britain experienced the arrival of a small but significant wave of European architects such as Berthold Lubetkin and Serge Chermayeff from Russia, and Ernö Goldfinger from Hungary. These architects created some of the most important buildings of the modern movement in Britain: Highpoint in Highgate, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Willow Road in Hampstead. A small and inter-connected group, they knew each other and even lived in each other’s houses. Ernö Goldfinger lived in Highpoint in North London before creating his family home nearby at 2 Willow Road. This home, built in 1939, received much public criticism when built, but has now become a local landmark and was opened to the public in 1996. Iris Strachan remembers her first visit to the house, ‘it was a revelation!’

Iris Strachan describes 2 Willow Road (C467/60)

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

Later, after the Second World War, Goldfinger designed larger residential blocks in London, notably the Trellick and Balfron Towers, both of which are open as part of Open House 2019. Often fiercely criticised when built, Goldfinger’s works are now increasingly in demand both as homes and visitor attractions. Here, long-time collaborator Jacob Blacker recalls working with Goldfinger, ‘he was a geometrician’.

Jacob Blacker describes Goldfinger as a geometrician (C467/52)

Trellick Tower. Photographed by Mark Ramsay.

Trellick Tower. Photographed courtesy Mark Ramsay. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Open House London takes place this weekend, 21-22 September 2019. Hundreds of buildings will be open to the public for free – including five designed by Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987). For information about visiting 2 Willow Road see the National Trust website. For information about visiting Trellick Tower see the Open House London website.

Blog by Dr Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer

19 July 2019

Memories of the Moon Landing

50 years ago, on 20th July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on its surface. Live television pictures broadcast from the Moon turned this into a global event, memories of which are captured in numerous interviews held in the British Library Oral History collections. This blog explores just a few of the diverse perspectives on this event that these interviews reveal.

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Gerald Myers (b. 1934) was interviewed by Jill Wormsley for the Millennium Memory Bank. He recalls that for those of his generation who grew up rarely travelling far from home, the idea of people visiting the Moon seemed ‘incredible’. This was certainly not something he expected to happen in his lifetime. For others such as Paul Ward (b. 1962), interviewed by Wendy Rickard in 2007 for the HIV/AIDS Testimonies project, watching the Moon landing was integral to his recollections of family life in the late 1960s alongside memories of family meals and birthdays.

Materials scientist Julia King (b. 1954) interviewed by Thomas Lean for An Oral History of British Science, recalled the Moon landings as part of a wider focus on the latest achievements in science and technology that permeated her childhood:

Julia King on the Moon landing in 1969 (C1379/43) [Track 1, 01:24:14 – 01:85:05]

‘Well I remember being taken to meet Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space, a Russian cosmonaut, and getting her autograph. She must have been speaking at Wigmore Hall or something like that. And of course there was, when I was at school, when I was at Godolphin, where we all sat in the hall to watch the Moon landings. So there was all that going on as well. It was a time of, of real, really intense time for discovery in science, and new, new things happening. And the papers were, were absolutely full of it. They weren’t full of footballers and, and, TV shows, talent shows on television and things; they were, they were full of, a lot of achievements in science.’

Julia King

Julia King, interviewed for An Oral History of British Science

One of the people behind this press coverage was Dennis Griffiths (1933-2015). Griffiths was the driving force behind An Oral History of the British Press, and was interviewed for the project by Louise Brodie in 2006. In 1969 he was a member of The Evening Standard production department. At a time when a lengthy setting up process was required to generate colour copy, the paper’s managing director Jocelyn Stevens took a gamble that the landing would be successful. The production team raced into action to pre-print a facsimile colour picture of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon ahead of the event itself so that the paper’s front page was already in place before any official pictures were released. As Griffiths recalled:

Dennis Griffiths on the Evening Standard front page (C638/06) [Track 6, 00:10:42 – 00:11:20]

‘I mean the adrenaline was flowing and when I’ve given talks on newspapers all over the world when I come to the Moon landing and I show them the paper how it was actually done and they disbelieve that anybody would produce a national newspaper days before it happened and gamble and then absolutely slay the opposition. Yes, that was without doubt the highlight.’

Dennis Griffiths describes working on that day (C638/06) [Track 1, 02:28:53 – -2:29:10]

‘You would have paid to have worked on that day. It was the most exciting day of my career. And at the end of the day when they blasted back off, the editor Charles Wintour threw a champagne party in his office to celebrate.’

For his efforts Griffiths received a bonus cheque which he used to buy a pearl ring for his wife, Liz.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

A sense of how the Moon landings continued to resonate many years later emerges from furniture designer Tom Dixon’s (b. 1959) interview with Frances Cornford, part of Crafts Lives. In 2004, as Creative Director of Habitat he developed a line of products in collaboration with celebrities. Most of them were prominent individuals from the creative industries or sport, but one of the more successful products in the range was ‘a moon lamp with Buzz Aldrin, you know, for kids’. Sold as the ‘Moonbuzz’, Dixon saw a clear story behind this product which strengthened its appeal with the public. It also suggests just how firmly embedded in popular culture the events of July 1969 remain.

Extracts from interviews with British Space Scientists can be found on our Voices of Science Rockets and Satellites theme page with full interviews on British Library Sounds under the subject heading space science and engineering.

Blogpost by Dr Sally Horrocks, Senior Academic Advisor, National Life Stories, British Library

24 June 2019

Recording of the week: Frank Land OBE - from Nazi Germany to the tea shop electronic brain

This week's selection comes from Dr Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

Amongst the awards in this month's Queen's Birthday Honours list was a much deserved OBE for An Oral History of British Science interviewee Frank Land, Britain's first professor of information systems and a pioneer of business computing.

In this clip from his interview, Frank recalls the path that led him from a childhood in 1930s Nazi Germany to become one of the early programmers of Lyons Electronic Office, or "LEO", the world's first business computer, created in the 1950s by catering company J Lyons & Co to automate the business operations of their chain of tea shops.

Photograph of Frank Land with his twin brotherFrank Land with his twin brother

Frank Land on emigration, education and working for Lyons (C1379/17)

The full interview with Frank Land can be listened to here.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

19 September 2018

Seeing sound: What is a spectrogram?

Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage writes:

In this digital age, most of us are familiar with audio waveforms, the ‘wavy’ images that represent the dynamic course of a particular sound recording. Waveforms are in fact a type of graph, with time on the X axis and amplitude (or loudness) on the Y.

Waveform exampleFigure 1: a waveform represents a sound recording by showing amplitude over time

Waveforms are very useful for conveying basic information about a recording e.g. where the loud bits are, where the quiet bits are, and how dynamic the recording is. If you were listening to an interview, a waveform can clearly show you where someone is speaking. Unfortunately, waveforms cannot tell us much about the pitch, frequency, or harmonic content of a recording. For that we can use a different visual representation of sound… say hello to the spectrogram!

How to read a spectrogram

Spectrograms keep time on the X axis but place frequency on the Y axis. Amplitude is also represented as a sort of heat map or scale of colour saturation. Spectrograms were originally produced as black and white diagrams on paper by a device called a sound spectrograph, whereas nowadays they are created by software and can be any range of colours imaginable!

Wave form v spectragramFigure 2: waveform and spectrogram of the same recording. An oscillating low frequency buzz dominates the waveform, only the spectrogram reveals where the bird is calling

Spectrograms map out sound in a similar way to a musical score, only mapping frequency rather than musical notes. Seeing frequency energy distributed over time in this way allows us to clearly distinguish each of the sound elements in a recording, and their harmonic structure. This is especially useful in acoustic studies when analysing sounds such as bird song and musical instruments. So not only do these graphs look really cool, but they can tell us a lot about the sound without even listening.

Spectrogram example (whooper swan)Figure 3: a spectrogram showing the harmonically rich calls of whooper swans

Whooper Swan calls recorded by John Corbett (BL shelfmark WS1734 C5)

In the above example, we can see the calls of a Whooper Swan represented in a spectrogram. The fundamental frequency of the calls is at about 750Hz, which is the frequency with the most energy (usually the lowest frequency of a sound), and gives the sound its perceived pitch. Above that are the harmonics - additional, quieter frequencies that give the sound its ‘colour’ and make up a sort of sonic signature – a Whooper Swan singing a perfect ‘G’ note will have a very different harmonic structure to a piano playing that same note. This information could be used to analyse bird songs and calls in different locations, or to understand the vocabulary of a species.

Creative uses for spectrograms

Clearly spectrograms can tell us a lot about the acoustic elements of a sound, but they are not just used for scientific studies. Audio editing is most often performed with waveforms as it's easier to make cuts or process a selected time range. When editing software uses spectrograms however, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities! With this spectral editing, we are able to look into the microscopic details of a sound and apply processes to very specific time and frequency ranges. For example, an obtrusive footstep, or car alarm could be identified and removed from a recording, just like ‘photoshopping’ sound!

Spectral repair exampleFigure 4: a recording of a robin singing was ruined by a dog barking and some low end noise – a spectrogram reveals the unwanted noises and allows the recordist to remove them.

Spectral repair BEFORE

Spectral repair AFTER

Musicians can also use spectral editing to compose and generate sounds that could not be made any other way. Patterns and shapes can be ‘drawn’ into spectrograms and played back as frequency content. In some cases, detailed graphic images can be hidden within spectrograms. Aphex Twin used this technique to hide an image of a face within the second track of his ‘Windowlicker’ EP (1999).

Aphex Face

You can find some more examples of images hidden in the spectral content of popular songs here: https://twistedsifter.com/2013/01/hidden-images-embedded-into-songs-spectrographs/

So now you know what spectrograms are, how to read them, and some of their many scientific, creative, and bizarre uses. Keep an eye out for our #SpectrogramSunday @BLSoundHeritage tweets, starting this weekend!

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07 September 2018

The MiniDisc revival starts here (maybe)

Sony launched the first MiniDisc players and recorders in 1992. MiniDiscs were small (around 2¾" square) floppy-disk-style cartridges with an 80-minute recording capacity, intended to supplant the tape cassette format.

Some major-artist commercial albums were issued as pre-recorded MiniDiscs, and the Library has a few examples of these in its collection. In its heyday, however, at least in the UK,  the MiniDisc arguably found more favour as a recording medium, particularly among broadcasters (and oral historians). The Millennium Memory Bank project, for example, created by BBC local radio stations across England, together with Radio Scotland, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru - and held at the British Library - alone comprises more than 6000 MiniDiscs.

Sony ceased production of MiniDisc machines in 2013 so the format may be considered officially obsolete. For Paul Maclean, though, and his fellow H. P. Lovecraft appreciators in the Cthulhu Breakfast Club, who have just released their first 'MiniDisc Exclusive Release', the format is very much alive.

Photo of Paul Maclean's MiniDisc and outer packaging

I asked Paul to say a few words on the attraction of obsolete recording formats:

I've been by training and trade, an archaeologist and museum scientist. I’ve always had a 'backwards-looking curiosity' combined with a love of the technological. In more recent years my work has focused on the web and especially net-based audio such as podcasts - they are a wonderful and practical way to reach people around the world almost instantly - but at the same time I think something is lost by the lack of the physical: the particular, more direct connection between audience and creator that can exist with physical artefacts.

In 2017 I produced a wax cylinder recording of a podcast (through Poppy Records), which proved popular - likely due to the novelty of using some of the latest technology (Ambisonic high resolution digital recording) married to one of the earliest recording formats. The cylinders were manufactured for us by Paul Morris. However a wax cylinder meant a very short show: only 2 minutes!

Our normal shows tend to run over an hour. Having both a love of obsolete audio formats and fond memories of Sony’s short-lived but superbly engineered MiniDisc system, the MiniDisc format seemed a logical next step.

Photo of Paul Maclean's Denon-brand replicating machine

Over the past few years I’ve collected a number of MD players and was also lucky enough to acquire a Denon DN-045R MD replicator (above) which allows me to produce pristine new MD recordings in quantity. The last Sony MiniDisc machine may have left the factory in 2013 but the format still has its loyal fans (of which I am one).

These days the typical audio I produce is distributed online in high resolution AAC format - it’s efficient and effective, but so are millions of other web audio files in an ocean of new content every day - but sometime’s what’s old is new again. Perhaps one day Sony may release a new version of the format (with less draconian DRM), in the same way vinyl has made a revival. One can but hope!

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