Back from Nashville, back to business

Well, I’m back from Nashville (I briefly mentioned it here), which means going back to work and back to business. I have a few things I need to do before a workshop on Monday, but it’s a chilly Saturday morning here in Milan, coffee is back to what it used to, I have a decent […]

Well, I’m back from Nashville (I briefly mentioned it here), which means going back to work and back to business. I have a few things I need to do before a workshop on Monday, but it’s a chilly Saturday morning here in Milan, coffee is back to what it used to, I have a decent glass of mineral water in front of me, and I thought I’d catch this chance to share a few updates with you.

1. What about Nashville?

I was there with the American football team for the annual convention of the American Football Coaches Association. My interest in the activities is mostly derivative: my significant otter is a player, coach and manager in the team, and I’ve always tagged along for matches. Since I can’t manage to do anything unless I go all-in, this resulted in me being the (semi)official Gameday, the account in charge of updates from the field (mandatory for the federation during home games, just for fun in away games).
My involvement and commitment with a football team is a weird one to those who know me superficially, as I’m one of the least sportspersons you’ll ever meet, but I do enjoy watching sports, and I’m always interested in community making and the growth of people, especially young people. Hence, I can often find something to interest me during these events, even if I can hardly appreciate the more technical contributions. Hence, let’s start with some highlights from the convention and then dive into the city of Nashville, an incredible place I tremendously enjoy.

1.1. The 2024 AFCA annual convention

Held through the span of two half days and a full one, this is my second convention, following the one in Charlotte last year where my boys were invited to speak, and I had the impression it was making an effort to expand its scope beyond athletics, diving more into topics pertaining to management. The convention took place inside the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, a ridiculously insane place where you have artificial channels and a fake village under a huge glass dome, tropical plants grown in the local conservatory and a local boat tour. For an European, this is the weirdest thing ever.

My favourite speech had to be Jeremiah Brown‘s “Empowering Student Athletes Leveraging NIL for Career Readiness & Professionalism”, and it dealt with transferable skills (I jolted down a couple of notes in Italian over here). If you’re not familiar with the concept, NIL stands for Name, Image and Likeness, and it’s a great conquest for athletes in College, who can now leverage their efforts to build a brand and earn autonomous revenues from it. The story of its conquest is well narrated in the movie National Champions (2021), which is also a good representation of what happens in the US when you dare to take a stand and fight for your rights.

Jeremiah reversed the narrative of NIL being “evil” and shocked the audience of coaches by proposing a model of personal empowerment for students, of creating strong connections, of coaching beyond the field, of being positive and supportive instead of bullying your guys into submission.

If your players are playing to prove you wrong, you do not have a place they feel safe, seen or valued.

If your players don’t feel safe, seen or valued, they will not execute on the field because they will be playing out of fear.

Words to live by.

Another very interesting session to us, of course, is the International Session. It’s a chance for foreign coaches to present the situation of American Football in their Countries and it’s a good comparison point for us, since you can’t possibly compare the stance of football in the USA with what happens in other countries: the place of the sport in the whole society is completely different.
This year, the hosted coaches were coming from Britain (Dan Mahler, University of West England), Mexico (Micky Romero, Barcelona Dragons), and Israel (BJ Weiss, Jerusalem Lions).

From the University of West England, Dan Mahler explained his recruiting model, showing how they manage to attract players from the US and how they integrate them with their local players, and this poses very interesting questions for us: how do you take a player with a level that’s not comparable to your local guys (these people have been playing football semi-professionally since they were eight years old) and really integrate it with your team so that they don’t create a fracture but they actually contribute to your local growth? This question isn’t new in team management, nor it’s easy to answer: it deals with integrating a star member inside a team (see here, for instance), and it’s always interesting to see it developed.

The most emotional and impactful speech in the international session, however, was held by coach BJ Weiss from the Jerusalem Lions, an American-born coach who has been living in Israel for 20 years. Unexpectedly to those who only know Israel from the narrative our newspapers like to push, Weiss took a strong stance for integration, actively proposing football (and sports in general) as a means for peace. We are all brothers on the field, he said, and integrating players from the most diverse backgrounds has always been a non-issue on the team, up until politicians started messing with people’s lives. Through the cracks of his visible effort to not appear shaken, he showed us a slide of three fallen players.

Back to the general session, I appreciated the visible effort to showcase a more diverse portfolio of coaches, though you must remember we’re in the South, and the AFCA has a thing called AFCWA that stands for American Football Coaches Wives Association: they do silent auctions and, I suspect, organizes local quilt clubs for all those girls of God out there. Still, we had one woman keynote speaker (though her speech was brief and 100% underwhelming) and one roundtable session on Working with Women Coaches moderated by Javé Brown from the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches. I was otherwise engaged, so there’s nothing I can tell you if not to follow both Javé and the association online.

More interesting content, at least for my limited and side-angled point of view, came from the closing keynote speakers, three stars in College Football: Barry Odom (UNLV), Jerry Kill (New Mexico State University), and Eliah Drinkwits (University of Missouri). The session was opened by Jeff Brohm from the University of Louisville and, though I can’t judge the technical content of his presentation, I thought the presentation and exposition in itself were lacking and unsuited for a keynote.

Jerry Kill from New Mexico, dropping a “shit” every five words, gave coaches a brief outline of what to ask and what to establish when you arrive at a school for a new coaching job: make sure the administration puts everything in writing, be able to establish a team of people who know how to do what you don’t, connect with other coaches and teachers on campus were just some of the points in his energetic speech.

Eliah Drinkwits from Missouri gave us a highly dynamic comparison between practice and what happens on game day.

Barry Odom presented his “Rebel Way” in team management, and I’ll present it to you as it is, as we’ll need it to make a deeper reflection later on. Please mind that these are Barry’s views: not mine. This is how you achieve success as a team in Odom’s world:

  1. Commitment to common goals as a team and to being successful;
  2. Unselfishness:
    1. The team comes first;
    2. You have to commit to three promises: go to class/academics; have a great attitude; have the willingness to be coached (he stressed this doesn’t mean you are willing to be abused and bullied by your coach, though I’d like to see how this uncrossable line is defined and implemented on the field);
  3. Trust:
    1. Family: “being a great teammate can be the strongest bond in your life: be there for each other”;
    2. Treat everyone how you want to be treated;
    3. Build relationships;
    4. Build trust in each other to always to the right thing for our team;
  4. Growth:
    1. Everyday, academically/socially/athletically;
    2. There is a plan: utilize the services and resources we have in place and write your script;
    3. The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on growth;
    4. Be intentional about personal growth: it won’t just happen because we want it to;
    5. Growth must never stop.
  5. Toughness:
    1. Mentally and physically;
    2. Never give up… it’s going to be hard; we will have to strain and be uncomfortable;
  6. Self-Discipline:
    1. Personal accountability and making decisions that put the team first; every decision yu make affects our football program and many before and after you;
    2. Sacrifice: having the character and the toughness fo make the right choice;
    3. Are we committed to doing more? Recovery habits, social habits, extra prep;
  7. Unmatched Effort/Urgency/Enthusiasm:
    1. Attitude: you control it every day, no matter the situation;
    2. 4th and 1 every day, in all walks of life;
    3. Be Early/On Time/Do More: it’s a reflection of what’s important to you.
  8. Eliminate Mistakes:
    1. don’t beat yourself; have these areas in our favour: turnover margin, penalties, mental errors, special teams;
  9. Be a Great Competitor:
    1. Don’t ever accept losing: as soon as it’s allowed once, it will be easy to do the rest of your life. Our culture will not allow it. [Again, this is not my view, and I have things to say on this, but more on that later];
    2. Hard/Smart/Tough: for longer than our opponent;
    3. There is a winner and a loser in everything we do [see point 1].
  10. Expect to Win:
    1. Expect more and give more;
    2. No self-limitations, true self-condifence;
    3. Prepare/believe/train to win.
  11. Consistency:
    1. Details and Habits: your very best every time.
  12. Leadership:
    1. Everyone sets an example; be willing to change what isn’t right;
    2. Establish the culture that will only allow success [Again, I feel the need to distance myself from this];
  13. Responsibility:
    1. Everyone is responsible for their own performance: do your job;
    2. Over-communicate.

There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits food people, raises them up as leaders, and continually develops them.

Now, there are some great points to take away from this: the willingness to change what isn’t right of course resonates with me, alongside the points on growth and the construction of your “found family”, as we wold say in fiction tropes, since I strongly believe family is an institute that too often fails kids.

Poetically, the speech was followed by the award of a price to the Jason Foundation for the prevention of youth suicides, and the numbers they gave are absolutely horrifying:

  • suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for middle and high school students (ages 12-18) in the US;
  • suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for college-age youth (ages 18-22) in the US;
  • each week, the US loses an average of 137 young people to suicide;
  • 22.2%, or over 1 out of every 5 students, reported “seriously considering suicide in the past 12 months”;
  • 10.2%, or over 1 out of 10 students, reported having “attempted suicide one or more times in the past 12 months”.

Let us run some comparisons, shall we? And this is not to prove that one nation is better than the other, it’s not a fucking competition: we need it to establish whether our situation can be compared to what we’re seeing here. I’m preparing this as I write it: I don’t even know the answer myself.

The number of children by age in the US is provided by Statista, which tells us we have about 25.8 million children between 12 and 17, and 26.2 million young people between 18 and 23. According to the CDC, suicide rates for US kids aged 10 to 24 rose by 62% from 2007 through 2021. Youth and young adults ages 10–24 years account for 15% of all suicides.

We don’t have updated numbers for Italy: the last survey is from 2016, though foundations like the Veronesi Foundation or the Italian Association of Psychiatrists have been vocally raising concerns. One of the key updated studies is this one from 2020, which still draws from the 2016 survey. According to those numbers — grouped by sex because, of course, we want to add to the problem instead of solving it — suicide constitutes the cause of death for young men in 14,7% of cases, and for young women, the percentage is 8,3%. They mostly throw themselves from heights or in front of moving vehicles, which is psychologically significant to investigating the causes. I’m told they’re mostly connected with feeling guilty, a failure or powerless. To these numbers, you’d have to add young people who attempted suicide and were hospitalized: according to this source, in 2023 they were 70% of the total of young people being hospitalized.

In 2022, suicide was the second-ranking cause of young deaths in Europe, with 3 kids taking their own lives each day. They were around 20 each day in the US. This means they have a suicide figure of around 7.000 kids each year, while Europe has a little more than 1.000 deaths. As we have seen, the US has a population of 52 million people between 12 and 23 years old. Europe has 73.6 million people between 12 and 25, out of a total EU population of 447.3 million. This roughly means that, while Europe’s population is one and half times that of the United States and young people in Europe are about one and a half more than young people in the US, the US has more than ten times the rate of suicides. In percentage, 1 for every 100.000 kids in Europe will die by suicide, while it’s more than ten times worse in the US: 13 for every 100.000 kids.
Similar numbers are run here and here.

What about football?

Soon after I saw these numbers running on screen alongside an oval football, I had a fleeting thought: with this kind of numbers, there’s no way everyone and everything (and I mean it: fucking everything) isn’t an integral part of the problem. When I posted this thought on my Instagram stories, I got some… well, let’s say, heated reactions, as some seemed to think I considered football to be responsible for these suicides. Football saves lives. There’s no way even one of these kids took their own life for something that’s connected with our noble sport.

People, this is 100% delusional.

Particularly coming after coach Odom’s speech, I feel we should all read up on something connected with the failure stigma and how it might lead to suicide, especially for young people. Failure is part of life. Everybody fails. And sometimes we fail spectacularly (like, I don’t know, hooking up with assholes, allowing them to abuse you for years and then blowing up your entire career for the resulting depression). We are taught that teachers and leaders should provide kids with heroic examples and hide our weaknesses and our failures because they need models of strength.

Do they, though?

Kids know failure is possible: we make them experience that every day with grades, assignments and, yes, competitive sports. What they don’t know, however, is that failure is allowed. The world is not going to end today because you failed an assignment, you got a bad grade, your team lost a match. It’s not going to end for other people, and certainly it shouldn’t feel like the end of the world for you. You’re allowed to be sad, disappointed, angry. Of course you’re allowed. But this should never reach the point of being unhealthy.
You might have tried your best, and your best wasn’t up to standard. Shit happens. Seek help in trying to understand what went wrong, and how to do better. Teachers and coaches should provide this kind of support by definition.
On the other hand, you might not have tried your best because you were fucking tired, for instance, and that happens too. It’s normal. It has to be allowed. It can’t be your standard attitude — if you feel like that all the time, there’s a bigger issue at work — but schools, communities and sports teams need to be safe spaces in which people are allowed to fail, to be sub-standard, to stumble and fall, because failures help you grow more than successes.
If you’re never allowed to fail, you won’t know how it feels and how to deal with it when it happens.
And it might be disastrous.
Trust me.
I know.

Also, providing a safe space for people to fail is the foundation for continuous growth and experimentation. Innovation means taking risks. And taking risks means allowing yourself the possibility that everything will blow up in your face, and you’ll have to think again.

A few highlights to do better in football might include:

  1. Cut the macho crap and stop talking about losers and winners: instead, start talking about people working at the best of their possibilities;
  2. Cut the bullshit penances: if someone made a mistake, there’s no sense in imposing physical penalties such as extra drills or extra push-ups (the push-up thing drives me completely nuts), and extra physical exercise should be a reward since theoretically that’s what we love and the reason why we’re here;
  3. Cut the fuelling of bullying and peer pressure: I’m sure you feel a very manly muppet, each time you impose a penalty on the whole team because someone made a mistake, but it’s just demonstrating your inability to foster a positive influence amongst your player as a coach.
Source: Prevention of Suicide by Danuta Wasserman on the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Global Public Health

A brief bibliography on the subject:

On a side note, you might have noticed I never used the C-word connected with suicide. Here’s why, courtesy of the Australian Psychology Society.

1.2. Moving on: the city of Nashville

After a lukewarm experience in Charlotte last year (but I’m willing to give it another go next year since the conference is moving back there), I was absolutely stunned by how vibrant and interesting Nashville is. My primary source of guidance was the Moon guide by Margaret Littman.

So, what’s to see over there, and why is it worth the visit? Here’s my top 7, a random number, given in random order.

1.2.1. Live music, live music everywhere

When they say Nashville is the city of music, they don’t fully prepare for what you’ll find there. Virtually everywhere, from 9 am till late at night, you’ll be able to enjoy live music spanning from country to rock and every weird variation in between, as we soon discovered by randomly stumbling upon a live exhibition of the Old Hickory on our first night near the hotel.

And here’s a word of warning: everything you’ll find in Nashville will make you go “okay, that’s weird”.
Old Hickory is the nickname of Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), the seventh president of the United States, the inventor and main promoter of Native American removal, and ideator of the Trail of Tears, which resulted in the ethnic cleansing and forced displacement of over 60,000 Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminoles people, in just the span of 20 years, between 1830 and 1850.

Anyway, this is what the Old Hickory trio sounds like.

One of the funniest things that might happen to you is when a band is trying to perform, and there’s a guy in the audience who goes around with a puppet of himself, and interacts with the band on the stage. He’s not part of the show. He’s just a guy going around with a puppet of himself. And now I know what I want to do when I grow old(er).

1.2.2. The National Museum of African American Music

The much more famous Country Music Hall of Fame was underwhelming (loads and loads of apparel and costumes with very little context and virtually no explanation of what it is that you’re looking at), and this is why I approached the National Museum of African American Music with fairly low expectations. And we were blown away.

Your experience begins in the Roots Theater with a brief film about the history of Black music in America. From there, enter the Rivers of Rhythm corridor and dive into music genres on our large touch screens. Keep an eye out for one of the Take Over Moments! Move into the galleries: Wade in the Water, Crossroads, A Love Supreme, One Nation Under a Groove, and The Message.

I highly recommend you pay the extra 5 $ for at least one RFID bracelet: you’ll have lots of interactive activities to record, such as creating your own blues song, mixing some R&B or transforming a demo into a success wearing a producer’s hat.

The journey starts with African Indigenous Customs, explaining how music and dance were always considered essential parts of nearly every communal activity throughout West and Central Africa. In the homeland of most Africans captured and sold into slavery, celebrations and commemorations, consecrations, and daily work included specific, time-honoured sounds which gave each aspect of family and community tradition its recognisable place in daily life.
Music and dance, important elements of daily life in Africa, remained central to those captured and enslaved in colonial times. When they were forced or pressured into converting to Christianity, African Americans transformed European-based hymns into more spontaneous and arguably genuine forms of expression, weaving in key African characteristics such as call-and-response singing. These songs and music-led prayers sprang from the desire for more meaningful worship; they soon turned into resistance against the white religious establishment: as such, they were repressed in the South, often violently, and flourished in the North.

“There’s something about the gospel blues that’s so deep the world can’t stand it”.
— Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Jazz was my second favourite section, with stuff like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Nat King Cole’s sweater. The social roots and impact of jazz are extensively explored and narrated, going through the prohibition era and demonstrating how impactful the original concepts of African music still were, even two hundred years after the original diaspora.

“Jazz is a purely democratic music. It’s collective creativity where somebody introduces something and we all get a chance to say something about it.”
— Max Roach

1.2.3. Street Art

I’m always partial to street art, as you might remember from my visit to Los Angeles, and your definitive destination if you’re interested in murals might be 12th Street (though I didn’t have the time to go there myself, my travel companions said it was nice enough). Randomly throughout the city, you’ll find fantastic gems such as the Tennessee Tough mural.

Here are my personal favourites:

1.2.4. Fort Nashborough

It’s a reconstruction, but it’s pretty close to downtown and has a splendid view of the Nissan stadium where the Nashville Titans play, and they’re both by the river. It originally was a log stockade, a forerunner to the settlement that would become Nashville, and was constructed as a protection against wild animals and native people who just wouldn’t agree to see their land stolen from them. This reconstruction incorporates a plaza dedicated to Native American history.

1.2.5. Nudie’s Honky Tonk

No nudes in this honky tonk, just Nudie’s as in Nudie Cohn, the Jewish-Ukrainian-born tailor who crafted rhinestone suits for the likes of Roy Rogers, John Lennon, John Wayne, Elton John, Tony Curtis, and, most notably, Elvis Presley. Between 1950 and 1975 he started customizing automobiles too, in an equally sober fashion, with dashboards studded in silver dollars, pistols for door handles and gearshifts, and longhorn hood ornaments. Two of these are on display at the already mentioned Country Music Hall of Fame, but you can save time and come at Nudie’s instead: a gigantic Cadillac is hanging from the wall, right above the heads of where the live band usually performs.

1.2.6. The Corsair Distillery and its district

If you’re into industrial heritage and brick buildings with big windows, you’ll love the Marathon Village, with its shops and distilleries. Formerly the headquarters of Marathon Motor Works, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s a veritable museum of old machinery and crafting tools.

Amongst the different distilleries, we picked the Corsair Distillery for a tour, as most of the activities in the building are shamefully closed by 5 pm and you’ll be driven downtown anyways.
What I loved about the brand, alongside the illegitimate child of whiskey and gin, is the story behind the logo. One night, the founder was working in Scotland, and he saw three random dudes who were being kicked out of the bar for being too drunk. There they were, confidently striding through the fog while people at their back kept insulting them and calling them assholes, and the guy decided they were going to be his future brand. Yes. Three random dudes. Drunk. In Scotland. What’s there not to like?

1.2.7. The Hazzard Museum

Yes, you heard me right. The Music Valley district has a place called Cooter’s, which is a reproduction of Cooter’s garage as seen in The Dukes of Hazzard’s TV show. You’ll find four authentic cars from the show, including the sheriff’s car, the 1980 Jeep CJ-7 Golden Eagle called “Dixie” and, of course, the infamously named orange 1969 Dodge Charger with no entrance doors. Parked outside, Cooter’s Tow Truck.

The museum — owned by Ben Jones, who played the mechanic in the show — has no entrance fee, so you can go and see it even if you stand with the boycott, and it has tons of memorabilia. Personally, I stand with this article in saying that the show is “as gloriously shiny and empty as a collectors’ metal lunchbox”, there’s no politics in it, just as much as there isn’t anything else except for a post-Watergate era suspicion for the law, the establishment, tycoons and politicians. It’s a rebel show, yes, but they’re not Confederates rebelling against equal rights: they’re “good ol’ boys” fighting the system and, yes, standing up for the old ways. Until these values don’t collide, they won’t have to pick sides between standing for good and standing for tradition. And the show never puts them in this situation.

So Northerners get a funny story of backwoods tricks played on backwoods hicks, loaded up with getaway music and casual stereotypes. (“If you weren’t my cousin, I’d marry you,” Bo tells Daisy in the pilot. “When did that ever stop anyone in this family before?” she asks him.) Southerners get a populist version of pride and rebellion without baggage. The kids get car chases with CB radios. The grown-ups get Daisy on a roadside in a bikini and/or Bo and Luke with their shirts unbuttoned to the waist.

Still, it’s an unfortunate business, and you can’t deny that the narrative of “good ol’ boys” flying the Confederate Flag is harmful enough these days, given that loads of those people aren’t good and certainly aren’t boys anymore. Egoistically (and no, I’m not suggesting we do that), I’d love it if we could CGI that shit out of the car and still enjoy the awesome stunt car and the casual Southern stereotypes about in-breeding and moonshining.

2. Back to business, then?

Yeah. And I need to take urgent action on that front, as I’m enjoying my activities less and less, so here’s what I’m thinking of doing.

2.1. More LEGO Serious Play

2021 was a good year, with the International LEGO Serious Play Conference in Billund and everything, but live activities were still challenging to perform because of COVID-19. That shit isn’t over yet, and people don’t feel confident in tinkering with stuff that’s been held by other people, at least around here, but this shouldn’t stop me from keeping up the work. I proposed some activities to a pro-bono association around here, but I got no response. Still, I should continue developing the theories around LSP and innovation.

This is not LEGO Serious Play, this is just two otters balancing on a log.

2.2. More team management

As I look into the functions and dysfunctions of my own team, it might be worthwhile to go back and explore instruments and tools to manage your team in a highly volatile environment. I’m reading Nassim Taleb‘s Antifragile (and boy, do I have bones to pick with it), and I think we miss this kind of high-level reasoning around what makes people tick.

2.3. More Sustainable Innovation Theories

Throughout the last few years, my focus has been on how to make innovation sustainable, especially from a social and ethical point of view. As the increasing affordability of Artificial Intelligence challenges some of these aspects, it might be worthwhile to take a look at things from a different perspective.

Back in 2011, the Cabinet Office of the British Government established the BIM Task Group, with the aim of driving the adoption of Information Modelling and the digitalization effort in the Construction Industry, starting from public procurement. Twelve years have passed, and the AEC industry is still responsible for 23% of air pollution, 50% of climatic change, 40% of drinking water pollution and 50% of landfill waste. Nearly 60% of construction workers suffer from a mental health issue during their career, and it’s one of the least diverse sectors in terms of both gender and culture. If change is being brought across, it’s not the change we need.

Also, the horizon is getting shorter. While innovation used to be thought looking at a 10-years prospect, technology and society are evolving way too fast for that: we’re stepping away from planning and entering a domain of disciplined improvisation.

Improvisation in business doesn’t mean making rash decisions; that much is obvious. It rather means building a solid framework for people to make quick decisions within boundaries that are still aligned with the company’s general strategy. The framework needs to be built, and improvisation skills need to be trained. Creative thinking is an old friend and can come to the rescue while reimagining innovation and digital transformation in the construction industry. It might be worthwhile to look at different frameworks and activities to effectively change the innovation mindset and implement innovation at all scales, from the industry level to the individuals within their local communities.

3. What about the book?

I’m querying, which is gergo to say I’m looking for an agent. This means I’m constantly working on synopsis in different lengths, abstracts, pitches, author bios, excerpts from the book, step-by-step summaries, mood boards and so on. It’s challenging, especially considering how bad I am at synthesis in general.
Also, it’s a process riddled with disappointments, as you’re bound to be rejected by many of the people you submit your work to. A lot of people write, many of them want to publish, and agents are overloaded with requests.

I think I found a way to turn this process into something positive for my Patrons, but I’ll write about that separately.
Also, if you’re not on Patreon you might consider throwing a few dimes my way by clicking on the banner below and picking one of the tiers. People in tier 1 get articles on mythology and folklore, and will start getting chapters from books in the public domain. People in tier 2 get articles on the craft of writing and querying, and will start getting ebooks. People in tier 3 get access to my inner feelings.

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