Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Feeding the correct wolf

I would like to share a wisdom parable that I came across today which I thought quite beautiful and inspiring.

"One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

I thought that the metaphor of the two wolves battling against each other describe very well the gradual and deliberate process through which a person's character is developed. And I thought it describes well the duality that exists in the nature of human beings, who is a mix of both vice and virtue. Some people allow themselves to indulge in their dark natures, which slowly grow and blocks out the light in them. And there are the trials and pride of life, that can cause us to become callous, and slowly lose aspects of our humanity, like compassion for the people around us.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bill Maher - Religulous

I watched the comic documentary film Religulous yesterday evening. The film starred Bill Maher, a well-known talk show host in America known for his irreverent take on religion. Through the film, he interviewed various people from the various religions of the world such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, questioning them for their beliefs, and basically taking a satirical stance on religion.

Through the show, Bill interviews and lampoons religion with satirical questions about their religion. He makes fun of some of the beliefs inherent in people’s religion, such as the Christian’s creation narrative, especially the ‘talking snake’, and he contrast this with the creation beliefs of the scientologist, who believe humans came from some extra terrestrial space aliens. He interviews a certain scientist in the jewish community, who had come up with all sorts of ingenious devices so as that the people practicing Judaism can practice the Sabbath without flouting their sabbatical law prohibiting use of electricity. At one point, Bill asked them whether they were trying to outsmart God, to which the jew replied that if God had allowed for a loophole in the law to exist, he must have purposely allowed it so that it could be taken advantage of. It seems that the Jews' rather positivistic stance towards their religious laws remains to this day.

Bill went around visiting the likes of the average Christian American Joe, who have a small community gathering in their small church. They tried to put up some defence for their Christian beliefs, but were easily stumped by Bill Maher’s interrogation. But they accepted Bill’s request to pray for him, and they prayed for Bill to be able to find answers to his question despite them not being able to. I think Bill admitted that there is good in Christianity when he praised them for their practicing out their Christian beliefs instead of what he calls ‘just being Christians’.

Bill also went about interviewing the more intelligent Christians like the genetic scientist Francis Collins, who are ready to talk about the evidence that grounds his beliefs in Christianity. There was this person who roleplays Jesus for a play, whom I thought gave quite intelligent responses to Bill’s questions. Bill seemed to have been stopped in his track of cynicism when he was presented the analogy of the trinity as water in its various states.

Bill also went around visiting really weird characters. There was this man from mexico who thought himself to be the second coming of Jesus, and who has a congregation who worships him. He thought himself the incarnation of Jesus based on his assertion that Jesus and Mary had children, and that the second coming of Jesus would be through a descendent of his, of which he is the one. Then there was this character who leads a religious group which advocates the use of pot and mushroom in order to obtain the spiritual experience. He talked with a slur and who seems cognitively impaired from his prolonged drug consumption, and Bill was leveraging on the man's mental slowness to poke fun at him.

At the end of the show, Bill concludes that when it comes to the big questions such as the existence of God, it is better to be admit doubt than to profess certitude in a faith. And I think it was the purpose of his documentary to portray religion as silly.

I think it is all too easy to frame a religion as silly by propping it up as a strawman and shooting them down in your documentary. I have seen a short documentary clip carried by Christians into the atheist community, where they similarly portraying atheism as silly by interviewing the average atheist, whose substantiation of her atheist belief similarly came off as weak and silly.

I would say that Bill’s conclusion that doubt is the approach to take is rather dogmatic position as well. The existence of doubt does not deny the possibility of truth in the matter. Ultimately, one tries his best to analyze the truth of the matter, and then proceed on the matter of faith. Each position have their problems. Religion come into difficulty in finding sold evidence that God exist, and that their faith is the correct one. In my opinion, the lack of conclusive historical information about the veracity of religious accounts, as well as the seemingly unapparent nature of God in today’s world make it difficult to be absolutely certain about the truth of religion.

However, the atheists too run into many problems for their belief, such as having a basis for morality, finding meaning in life, finding meaning in altruistic values such as selflessness and unconditional love, and similarly, to find solid proof that there is no God.

There is this really insightful article about religion and agnosticism. It asserts that many of us are actually agnostic when it comes to having an intellectual basis for our religious position, or lack of it. But one is still justified in taking a religious position despite the lack of intellectual conclusivity. Religious beliefs are not easily rebuttable as simply delusional or foolish. But just because we might have doubt is not enough of a reason to conclude that we cannot profess our opinion or position on the matter. I think in religion, as well as in many other things in life, we can try to find out more by reading and studying more about the truth of the matter, and then we take a leap of faith.

Personally, I will remain a Christian, because I think I have many weaknesses that I need God's help with, and I am comforted by a belief in divine providence and guidance, and Christianity gives me a paradigm to identify sins, temptations, and human depravities, and to avoid them. I believe that it is difficult to find a basis for objective morality without religion. And I think it is also easy to observe how religion, or the absence of it, plays out it people’s lives. I do wish that I could feel and see God’s love more personally in my life, and that God would help me more in my life. It would certainly bolster my faith in God. But barring such personal encounters in my life, I think I will choose to hold on to Christian faith even though things in life do not go the way I want or pray for them to go.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Law Christian Student's Conference - Consider Christ - Campus, Career, Community

I just attended this year’s Law Christian Students’ Conference titled Consider Christ – Campus, Career, Community. It is nice to hear from people from the legal fraternity talk about their Christian experience in their lives. I shall write about some of the stuff spoken by the various speakers at the event, and some of my own thoughts and feelings.

A lawyer in practice came up to talk about his walk and learning as a Christian in the working world. He was going through the passage in Philippians 2 and speaking about his life as an Executive Director and regional head of legal and compliance of a Swiss private bank. He talked about some of the struggles that he faces as a Christian in the working world, as well as in his ministry in his own church. One of which is surrendering his ambitions to God. Even though he has done quite well in the working world, and has contributed much to his church ministry, he says that he sometimes loses perspective of the meaning of these activities. They simply become another measure of self-edification, even though it may seem like he is doing it for the good of God’s kingdom.

Another point that he touched on was the status consciousness of Singapore society. He described his experience in a Chinese new year reunion dinner, a gathering with families and relatives. And relatives would be quipping with one another how their children would be doing. “Where is your daughter studying now?” asks one relative to another. “Oh, she is studying law at NUS”, replies the other relative, beaming with pride. Then she hears that the child of the relative who had asked her is studying law at Oxford, and she feels that she has loss face at the dinner table because her child did not do as well as the relative’s.

I sometimes wonder whether the esteem given to the two common vocation of doctor and lawyer has been extended beyond its proper bounds, and whether this esteem is a perception originating from social mores that perpetuates without too much reason for it. What exactly is it of a doctor or a lawyer that merits so much esteem in society? Are they esteemed because they do good for society? Or is it because of their association with money or power? I would agree though that the top figures in the law profession do have a lot of influence in shaping society.
I don’t think I am that status conscious, or at least, I hope not to be. It’s a very stressful mentality to live by. It seems to fit the bill of what we Christians call the pride of life. I really don’t want to play the social status consciousness game. But I am conscious of the status-consciousness of the people around me, and it does affect me somewhat. For example, most Singaporean girls are status conscious and materialistic, or at least that is the impression I get from what I hear from my guy friends and from reading online (I wish I could ask my Singaporean female friends about what they look for in a guy and whether this conception of them being materialistic and status hungry is justified, but I am much too shy and I don't want to come off as weird), and if I do wish to get married, I would have to contend with the fact that girls would be evaluating my suitability based on my status in the community and my financial sustainability. And even if she were not status conscious or materialistic, I would have to contend that she would have parents who would evaluate me based on their criteria of suitability based on my status. I am not sure whether this mentality is particular to Singapore or Asian countries in general. How about the western countries? Do they find themselves bridled by the status conscious mentality? Is there the same rat chase to make it into law school or med school? Personally, I don’t really like to receive the sort of wide eye treatment of awe from a person when I tell him or her that I am studying law. I don’t think any profession should merit such perception of respect than any others. A doctor, or a lawyer, in my opinion, serve their respective functions in society, which should not be overly venerated beyond the functions provided by others in society as well. And I dislike also having to play by expectations of what others perceive as respectable in society. So, for example, whilst I don’t want to be a lawyer simply for the reason that it is ego boosting, I also don’t want to have to fear not practicing law because I don’t want to lose that respect from others. But the fact is, I am actually affected by what people think, even though I don't wish to be.

I think that a materialistic culture is very poisonous to the individual, and is in a way self-perpetuating. The perceptions of the community influences the lives of the individuals, and this in turns influences the individual’s perceptions. So because of a materialistic ideology perpetuating in society, the individual, even if he wants to live by a more Christian counter-cultural rule, finds himself having to play to the ideology of the majority in order to find some fulfillment in society.

The status conscious culture with a value-orientation towards success, creates a brimming ego in those who have succeeded, and their condescension of those who fail. And similarly, creates a reciprocal inferiority complex in those with relative less success, and causes them to envy. It is a culture of strife and unhappiness.

One of the questions put forward in a later programme involving a panelist of current and former undergraduates of law school was “How do you see failure?” I thought this was a very pertinent one to me. I would say that I have been failing in life because of my struggle and bad results in law school, and I have been reading lately on how Christians should view failure. Is there a purpose for everything in a Christian’s life? Do failures happen for a reason, or are they essentially meaningless, events which pass by in the schemes of humanity and the universe? I do like what the Christian apologist, Dr William Lane Craig has to say about this. He distinguishes between two types of failures – failure in the Christian life and failure in the life of a Christian. The former, a failure in the believer’s relationship and walk with God, which according to Craig, is essentially a spiritual problem, a matter of moral and spiritual failure.

It is the second type of failure which I am referring to, a failure in the life of a Christian which is unrelated to spiritual considerations. It is not due to sin in the life of a believer. It is just some defeat a person who happens to be a Christian experiences in his day-to-day life. For example, A Christian businessman going bankrupt, or a Christian student flunking out of school despite his best efforts to succeed, or a Christian workingman finding himself unemployed and unable to find a job. In Criag’s article, he concluded ultimately that failure in the life of a Christian is God’s way of teaching us important things that we might not learn from success.

I could identify with the experience of a girl in the panelist who replied to the question. She admits about how she is not a smart person and does not do well in law school, and could remember being so depressed and crying over her law grades. At first, she did not want to admit that she was not smart enough for law school, but that she had simply placed too many commitments on her church activities. But she came to the reluctant conclusion that she was not smart enough after trying so hard for the following semester and doing badly as well. According to her, she feels that this is the way God is breaking her pride and building up character and trust in God. Perhaps, this might be the same for me as well. But I get angry at God for my bad result, or for not giving me enough smarts to do well in it. And these are the times when I would doubt God’s existence, because I wonder why he doesn’t help me to do well in my studies. In some sense, I have a sort of self-entitlement mentality when it comes to doing well in school, and one thing I expect of myself is to have the trait of intelligence. This is because I feel that I have been shortchanged in life with my poor social skills due to Asperger’s Syndrome, and the least that God could do is to give me more traits of intelligence so as to compensate for the social deficit. Anyway, it is struggle for me in my faith to find myself struggling so much in law school. I do get angry at God for not answering my prayers to help me do well in law school, to the point that I would doubt his divine providence in my life, or even his existence.

I do appreciate the empathy and help of caring schoolmates in law school. But there is only so much that they can do sometimes to help me out with my law school work. At some point, I do have to be able to be competent to stand upon my own two feet and be independent in my law school work. Otherwise, I should really consider doing something else other than law.

It was nice hearing from lawyers in the corporate line in a workshop, about their experiences so far in life in their job as corporate lawyers. They talked about things like challenges to their Christian walk and integrity that they face in their career. One of the speaker was talking about how he has transacted around 6 jobs in his working life, from being a pupil in a firm, quitting after making it to the bar, becoming a relief teacher, and now, an in-house counsel. I found his story about his experience dealing with corporate legal compliance in a bank particularly interesting. I can’t exactly remember the details, but it was something about Russians crooks and their 40 plus bank accounts dealing with dubious transactions running up to 8 digits figures. There is so much twist and turns in his life, and he is where he is today, a thing that is not exactly planned for by him, but he is surviving and doing well.

Professor Ho Peng Kee gave a talk later on in the programme. It’s cool to see my former member of parliament of the district where I stay in talking about his own Christian walk in life. I have heard a story about how his Christian beliefs had come into conflict with politics from a friend who participates in grassroot. He had incurred the ire of the Chinese temple community because of his reluctance to attend their temple functions because of his Christian beliefs. They threatened to vote for the opposition in the next election, and this was really a concern for the PAP to the extent that then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had to step in to pacify the temple community. Sometimes, it is the little things that can really affect an election. I am always inspired to be a fervent Christian if I hear of Christians out there in society who are intelligent, accomplished and active in their careers, who are similarly devout in their Christian beliefs. It shows that the two are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, I have the apprehension that I may not be smart enough, and that being Christian perpetuates a passivity in me in being spiritual and dependent on God when I should use the intelligence I have to find solutions to various issues in my life. I do like Christianity because it seems good and simple to understand, and it seems to provide wholesome principles for people to live by - to do good in society, and to care for one another. But I always fear that I might be too dependent in my spirituality rather than taking positive steps in the way I deal with things in society and in my approach to solving problems. There are many complicated operations which governs how society work that individuals’ require to learn in order to make society function. There are things that an individual has got to learn, very technical things, in order to sustain himself in society. Society can’t run if everybody would just reflect on spiritual matters, and I fear that I am much too spiritual in the way I view everything in life, missing out the technicalities that I am required to understand in order to play a part in society.

I suppose the verse mentioned by Professor Ho is an apt one. “Be shrewd as snakes, and innocent as doves”. Professor Ho says that this is one of his favourite verses that he keeps at heart. I am not exactly sure how to practice this. I don’t think I am as shrewd or wise as I would like to be, and I might fall into deception for my lack of wisdom. I guess for a start, it would be good to follow what God says in the bible. But I do pray for wisdom in my practical affairs, to not fall into traps or deceptions, to be able to stay away from sins and temptations, and to be loving and caring to those around me.

[PS: I like a song used for the worship session. It's called How He Loves Us. Thought it was a very passionate song with beautiful metaphors describing the love of God. And the worship team delivered it very well!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Considering taking a break from law school 2

I came to school this morning to consult about taking a leave of absence for this semester. A staff there at the Oei Tiong Ham office addressed me about my questions regarding taking leave of absence. Apparently, I have exceeded the two week instructional period by which I could take up leave of absence for the semester without having to pay the tuition fees for the semester. Nevertheless, I could still apply for leave of absence for this semester, and have my modules shifted to the second semester. I would however graduate half a year later than my peers.

I am hesitant about taking leave of absence now, as I think it would be more difficult for me to cope with the modules if I am placed in a batch where I am unacquainted with anybody. It would be difficult for me to obtain notes and useful materials from my peers, and I might have to study alone. Secondly, I might not be entitled to tuition grant for the additional semester and would have to pay the full tuition fee for the additional semester required for completing the requisite modular credits for graduation.

But on the flipside, there is the worry that I have that I have not been coping with law school precisely because of my headache which is affecting my abilities to study. And I don’t think things have been going well for me so far this semester. I have found myself struggling with the materials and with the tutorials. It could be that I am cognitively compromised, and that I should take a break to recuperate so that I could do well for the subjects next semester. Or it could be that I am genuinely inapt at law studies and the period of rest would not make much of a difference. Nevertheless, I think I could use the break period to explore other courses from other faculties to see whether they are suited to my liking and competency.

I would try to make my decision by next week, so that I can get the admin matters sorted out, and tell my Legal Case Studies group mates that they would have to make arrangements for my absence. I am not sure what would be the impetus for my decision. For one, if I am really finding it hard to complete my public law assignment and equity and trust assignment, perhaps I should cut my loss by quitting before being picked upon when class resumes after recess week ends, because the grades reflected in those assignments would not be voidable.

I am not sure whether I am still interested in a career in law. Nevertheless, when the time for application for training contracts come about, I would have to tender my academic transcript, which would reveal a gap for this semester’s grades should I choose to apply for leave. I am not sure how the training contract system works. Would I be severely disadvantaged if I apply it the following year instead of this year? For one, I do wish to do well in at least a few modules so that I can improve my chances at the job market, because my grades for the previous two semester has been lackluster. And I do wish I could do well for my equity and trust module and public law module. So if my grades aren’t reflected, that would certainly harm my chances. But it may not help if I do just as badly for this semester’s modules and this gets reflected into my transcript as well.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be too hard to get a job once I get a degree whatever my grades in law school might be. I could settle for a small position in a firm, earning relatively less than what my peers would be earning in a big four firm, handling simpler tasks. Or perhaps, results might not be of such matter at all, and I could try to explain it away at the interview about the predicament I faced at law school during this semester and the last two semester. I certainly hope that I might find a way to get a hang of law school and excel in it by this semester or the next semester, and do well in the evidence module, or in the electives. I just wish to be able to say something along the lines, “Well, those grades in the first two years are not reflective of my potential, because I didn’t quite got how law works, but now, I have gotten a hang of it, and if I were to retake those modules, I would have excelled in them.”

Or perhaps, I should just forget about a career in law, and do another degree or a masters in another course. I have ever thought that if I know how to go about it, I would want to start a business, or engage in entrepreneurship, and do well in it. It might be more profitable than what is earned in a law career.

I just wish I could do well in life.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Asperger's and Religion

A woman psychologist conducting a research study between social cognition and social behavior messaged me on facebook that current theories indicate that people on the autism spectrum are not able to be religious, but she believes otherwise and would like to find out more by speaking with people on the spectrum who prescribe to religion.

I have read up articles before on the internet which suggest that people with Asperger’s Syndrome tends towards atheism. According to this post from Scientific America, people on the autism spectrum, due to a deficit of this thing called the “theory of mind”, which is the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge etc – to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. They are thus less likely to think in a ‘teleological’ way – for example, saying that the event was meant to unfold in a particular way or explaining that God had a hand in it, and more likely to invoke a natural cause (such as blaming an illness on a virus they thought they were exposed to)

John Elder Robinson, a notable author with Asperger Syndrome, in his blog post, questions whether if those people with Asperger’s Syndrome who had expressed what seems like atheist views in a study, were truly atheist, or really “anti-organized church” instead.

But I am a Christian, and I do know of people in my church on the autism spectrum as well. What makes us believers when the prevailing theories seem to suggest a tendency towards atheism? For me, I sometimes think in quite spiritual terms, of perceiving a sense of God’s divine will in the way things work on earth. In fact, I feel a sense of spirituality when I read about the world, and the many things that goes on in the world, about people, and things like good and evil that takes place, and the wondrous things of the world and the universe. Indeed, one of the times in my life when I felt strongest in my faith was when I was away from school, and did not have to study or interact with people on a daily basis. God felt closer to me when I am examining the world in a detached manner. But now, when I am in law school, having to deal with people, assignments, deadline, and live out life, suddenly my sense of living seems so personal and relatively lacking in that spiritual feeling of God.

I am not sure whether I am describing a psychological experience typical of people with Asperger Syndrome, or people in general, Asperger Syndrome or not. I would say that unlike what was put forth in the Scientific America article, I seem to be able to think in a teleological way, and perceive spirituality in complexity of the way the world works. For one thing, I seem to be particularly religious since young, and fond of spirituality as compared to my peers in school or my family members. 

Actually, I sometimes doubt whether I have Asperger's Syndrome at all because I usually come off as normal to people and people usually think me as just introverted or quiet.

On another note, I don't think a person necessarily accepts a religion simply on the basis of being able to have that 'spiritual' feeling. There are rational reasons as well, and I do find the arguments put forth in Christian apologetics quite convincing. Arguments such as the cosmological argument, teleological argument, ontological argument etc, are strong arguments for the Christian faith. Indeed, one of my favourite websites to visit is Reasonable Faith, a Christian Apologetics website by featuring the works of the eminent Christian apologist William Lane Craig. I thought he came off quite convincing in his debates with eminent atheists.

I try to find my associations in the Christian community. I do like to feel like I belong to a group, and there is something nice about the exclusive we vs the world group mentality in Christianity, as well as its inclusive spirit of accepting people of all kinds. But I do face personality clashes with the more extroverted Christians, and sometimes, their treating me as weird and alienating me has the effect of making me feel estranged from Christianity. It is ironic that the times when I feel most estranged from Christianity, is when I am placed in the midst of certain kinds of Christians. I do wish I could be a normal Christian and feel more part of the group sometimes.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Sermon : Overcoming Temptation (Luke 4:1-14)

For church service today, Brother Geok Seng gave a sermon titled overcoming temptation on the passage of Luke 4: 1-14.  The passage is about Jesus being tested in the wilderness. There are a few items from his sermon.

1. Brother Geok Seng highlighted the fact that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. The tempting was however carried out by the devil. Both the Holy Spirit and the devil are involved in the testing of Jesus. The Holy Spirit sets up the location, duration, and the operative of the temptation. Whilst the Holy spirit is in control, the devil is the instrument that gets the tempting done.

2. A testing of a person’s faith can be seen from two perspective. From the perspective of the Holy Spirit, the motive for the testing is to build up a person, so that through the test, the person may come to trust and obey God. Whereas, from the devil’s perspective, the motive of the test is to tear down a person and make the person doubt and reject God.

3. A person’s faith cannot be proven true without the test. Brother Geok Seng brought up the analogy of a person winning a trophy without participating in a contest. The trophy is devoid of significance without it having been won through a contest.

4. Brother Geok Seng asked, can we ever fail a test? Now, Brother Geok Seng cited 1 Corinthians 10:13 which states that no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind, that God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, and that he would also provide a way out so that you can endure it. I don’t think Brother Geok Seng answered his question here, but from the verse he cited, the answer I would infer is that one can indeed fail the test! It is just that God would pitch the strength of the temptation such that a person undergoing a test can succeed in it, but this does not necessarily mean that he will do so.

What does it mean to fail the test? From my reading of 1 Corinthianss 10:13 in its context, there are certain instances which Paul mentions to the Corinthians which implies the failure of this test of temptation. There is the rather explicit falling into temptation such as the committing of sexual immorality and idolatry, but it suggests that to test Christ or to grumble is to fail the test as well. During a VCF session once, we went through a question of why God would be lenient to characters like Jeremiah, Job, and the Psalmist, even though they grumbled, whereas he was severe on the Israelites during their wandering in the desert. I thought that the Israelites grumbling were particularly inflammatory, because it charged God with evil motives like bringing them out to the desert to die, whereas the kind of grumbling by Job and the Psalmist were self-depreciating and did not charge God with wrongdoing.

I have a friend who was formerly a Christian who became an atheist because he was very upset at God for allowing his parents to divorce. He substantiates his atheism with many intellectual reasons, but he does admit that there is an emotional basis to why he hates God so much. I would have to admit that I do grumble against God a lot as well, especially when I do badly for my studies, or when there are bad things in my life, and I can understand why some people would hate God, especially when it can seem like he does not care. Which brings me to the next point.

5. Brother Geok Seng says that without the Holy Spirit, we cannot succeed in a test. We should depend constantly on the Holy Spirit, his leading, protecting, and enabling. I would further posit that one requires the intervention of the Holy Spirit. I do think that it is indeed very hard to keep faith in God in difficult times or in temptations. It can come in bitter thoughts that appear very rational to a person, such that he would even doubt the existence of God or the Holy Spirit. I know because For me, one of the experiences I struggle with is to have thoughts that God isn’t real, or that he doesn’t care, that this paradigm of God and devil testing a person is a farce, that all that exist is nature and its necessary evil. For me, reading up on apologetics helps me with my faith, to know that there is an intellectual basis for it, so that I would not be so swayed by the emotions. I would like to think that the Holy Spirit has kept me in the Christian faith, despite my struggles in faith.

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