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THE MEANING OF LIFE

One of the great benefits of membership in To The Point is the exclusive columns of technology genius Dennis "The Wizard" Turner, psychologist Joel Wade, investment guru Leslie Chase, and Nasdaq mastermind Dagny D'Anconia. Many To The Pointers consider any of them alone to be easily worth TTP membership. They are exclusive to To The Point -- you can read them no where else. Dennis Turner’s “Dennis The Wizard” column focuses on how to live better and much more safely with your computer. This week we offer this bonus column (in addition to Dennis' regular colum) in full to the TTP Free List as a clear demonstration of the value of being a member of To The Point. ---JW Snappy title, right? Fortunately, discovering the meaning of Life is simple - if you know where to look. Life is a “characteristic state or mode of living.” And a “mode” is a “manner of performance.” And a “manner” is a “way of acting or living.” Or maybe Life is “the course of existence of an individual”. And a “course”…. I could go on all day like this - if fact, I actually did go on for several hours recently, with one of the best free programs I have ever come across. A friend sent me the reference. I took one look at the web site, downloaded and installed it. I’m taking a break from Bluetooth and security this week because this program is just too good to pass up. It’s called StarDict, the most amazing dictionary you will ever use, online, download, print or otherwise.

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MAY THE CORE FORCE BE WITH YOU

I'm far more restrained than many experts who see security problems getting worse, not better, even though new, better and more powerful security tools are being developed all the time. But, like modern government, Windows is not going anywhere. To expect masses of computer users to pick up and move en masse to other operating systems like Linux is unrealistic; Microsoft's domination of operating systems and Windows software is too entrenched, and most people have enough to do without reorienting their computing skills, too. In any case, competing operating systems have their own security problems. The greater their market share gets, the more hackers will concentrate on them. And since Linux is based on open source code, it is that much easier to find and exploit flaws. Does that mean that Windows users will forever be subjected to endless barrages of viruses, "exploits" and Registry "holes"? The Microsoft folks say no, but in the meantime there does seem no end to their issuing “patches” to fix their bugs. There has to be a better way – and now there is. If Obi-Wan Kenobe were a computer programmer, he would say, “May the Core Force be with you.”

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CREATE AN INDESTRUCTIBLE SHARED PC

Need to put a PC in a public place? A free Microsoft tool makes it easy to lock down. Schools, libraries, and other organizations often want to make computers available in public places. These can become tempting targets for hackers. Even well-intentioned users can wreak havoc by deleting important files or accidentally installing malware. Perhaps your child has a party and doesn’t want you around. You and your wife retreat into another room, or perhaps to a neighbor’s home. But your and your children’s computers are around. They’ll surf, play games, and who knows what else. These can become tempting targets for hackers. Even well-intentioned users can wreak havoc by deleting important files or accidentally installing malware. Here’s how to prevent all that.

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HOW DANGEROUS IS WIKIPEDIA?

I have an admission to make: I have used Wikipedia for serious research. And in all the years I've been doing it, I've never really felt as if I've been led astray. But – a large but – I only use it for research in science or computing. Using the popular online encyclopedia for social, economic or political research calls for caution.

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SAYYING NO TO NOTEBOOK THIEVES

If you travel with your notebook, you’re always worried about thieves. Here’s how to stop computer kleptos with this bag of hardware and software tricks. You may have all the data security tools you need – firewall, antivirus program, and antispyware protection. But what if a thief slips into your office or hotel room or breaks into the trunk of your car – and tries to walk away with your trusty computer?

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WIRELESS PIRATES

While setting up a wireless network is easier today than ever, it’s not the type of thing a computer novice is likely to try on his or her own as it requires at least some degree of technical awareness. One could assume that people who have set up their own wireless networks would be among the users of anti-virus and other security programs. They are almost certainly among those who avoid opening e-mail attachments, who check downloads for viruses, and set up firewalls to keep out unwanted intruders. But most people’s concerns over security stops at the entrance to their hard drive, it seems.

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WHAT ARE ADWARE AND SPYWARE, REALLY?

Symantec Corporation said recently that it found itself forced to start dealing with spyware and adware simply because users of Symantec antivirus programs really couldn't tell the difference between a system infected with malware (virus, Trojan, worm, and so forth) and a system infested with adware or spyware. For the past 3 months, nearly one out of every five calls for help to Symantec ended up involving spyware or adware rather than what they call malware. To The Point readers know that I’ve been using the opposite terminology. Viruses, trojans and worms were in one category, and spyware and adware I called malware. These days, virus experts recognize that certain threats should rightly be called blended, in that they combine virus, worm, and sometimes even trojan characteristics within a single executable.

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EASIER DIGITAL MEMORIES

Digital pictures get stored on a computer hard drive or CD, and can be backed up several times to ensure that they are preserved for time immemorial. Digital photos are also fungible; you can easily change them around to reflect a "better" reality (such as eliminating spilled coffee by either cropping it out or waving your digital photo editor's "magic wand" tool).

But that only works for people who are adept at using the somewhat-threatening looking tools in programs like Photoshop - assuming they are willing to shell out the big bucks to buy it. Not to mention the steep learning curve, that will discourage all but graphics artists.

There are cheaper and simpler  alternatives that work just as well as Photoshop. 

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FIREFOX

[I have a fondness for Firefox if only for the name: I was Clint Eastwood’s arctic location advisor for his 1982 movie “Firefox,” during which time we had a number of adventures together. I’m glad to see the Wizard finally discussing the Firefox web browser, as I have been bugging him about it for about a year now� ---JW] Many people with Windows use two mediocre programs - Internet Explorer and Outlook Express - for the most important aspects of their computing experience: browsing the Internet and managing email. For email, Microsoft Office provides a better way. Microsoft Office includes Outlook, which is a robust email application. It includes tasks, scheduling and many other features of a Personal Information Manager. But what about a better way than Internet Explorer? You’ve probably heard of that better way by now. There have been widespread reports in the mainstream media about Firefox - a new and worthy challenger to Internet Explorer. Mozilla Firefox 1.0.1 is the dream Internet browser you've been looking for. Featuring a host of small technical improvements, including tabbed browsing, built-in and customizable search bars, and a built-in RSS reader, Firefox browser is the one that should finally put a dent in Internet Explorer's unrivalled market dominance.

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THE EFFECTIVENESS OF MALWARE COUNTERMEASURES: TWO VIEWS

I received the following email from a fellow ToThePointer.

Dennis,Great crusade against spyware, but I fear that your Spysweeper (and apparently Spybot and Ad-Aware, quite popular in the tech press) are hardly adequate in the battle against spyware, which the 'good guys' seem to actually be *losing*.Here's an article summary on an exhaustive paper that remains to be fully analyzed: windowssecretsThey're using Eric Howes’s research: spywarewarrior Regards,Joshua Reed
Naturally I went to these sites right away.

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IMAGE ANGST

“The latest Service Pack for Windows XP - Service Pack 2 (SP2) - is all about security.” So began the blurb Microsoft sent out in 2004 urging users to install their latest security innovation. Tired of ever-repeating mini-scandals in which hackers discovered security holes in Windows that could be exploited by viruses, the company developed a “super secure” package for Windows XP that would make it nigh impossible for pimply faced kids to remotely take over your machine for their nefarious slacker purposes. And it worked, at least for a while. Now your computer is vulnerable to the “WMF bug,” which can give a hacker total access to your computer if you click on an image in an email.

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POWER IN YOUR POCKET

If you own a Palm Pilot, you've probably heard someone comment: "Hey, that's a great toy!" or "What can you do with that toy?" - The operative word being "toy." I don't know about you, but I would take great umbrage at being accused of playing with toys. I'm as serious about my hand-held devices as anyone, and would hold my head up when I flash my Palm Pilot around. Yet, I’m still deciding between Palm and Pocket PC.

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A NEEDLESS CATASTROPHE

I troll Microsoft newsgroups regularly. It’s part of duties. Normally I troll development newsgroups, particularly those involving databases. However, now I’m doing a stint in XP newsgroups. Last week I described a catastrophe in the making that I was able to avert. This week I’m describing one I ran across last night, but too late. Not that I have much sympathy. Just to save $39.95, the fellow I'm about to describe ruined his computer.

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WHEN MALWARE REALLY GRIPS YOUR SYSTEM

When you’ve lost control of your computer to "malware," there are only two things to try. The first I’ll describe below. The second is to reformat your hard disk(s) and reinstall the operating system and all your programs. The second is apt to be painful, with a permanent loss of data unless you regularly back up your important data. I’ve discussed this in previous columns. Here's my advice. 1) Download the following two items...

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SONY SPYWARE BACKLASH

In certain movies and TV shows, the background music is almost as important as the show itself. Music plants itself in the mind and memory as no visual image can, so a movie or TV show about life in the Sixties will, as a matter of course, have background tunes to evoke memories of the era. It's amazing how long-forgotten songs can bring back powerful memories - and, of course, sell more tickets. Proving that, in the final analysis, what we really get when we buy a CD is an "experience" - a memory and a feeling that can last a lifetime. And that's all we need, as far as Sony Music (known nowadays as Sony BMG) is concerned. In what can only be termed a "scandal," it was revealed last week that the Sony people took extreme steps, to the point of jeopardizing customer's computers, to ensure that the only thing you'll retain when playing one of their CDs is the memory of the music - and not, heaven forbid, a copy of it.

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CATCHING THIEVES RED-HANDED

Most of us hate to think about it, but crime is a fact of everyday life. When you grew up, did you live in a neighborhood where you didn't have to lock the door? Seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far away. These days, we all seek ways to protect our homes and families. Some people - in fact, a lot of people - go for “burglar bars.” In Israel, we call them soragim. But bars ruin your view and are far from burglarproof. The alternative, of course, is a burger alarm. But both alarms and bars can be very expensive. Hence this column. You can set up a comprehensive security system throughout your house for very little money with the help of your PC and one or more Web cams.

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HOW TO BUY AN LCD

Deciding whether to plunk your money down on an LCD or a CRT is tough enough, but if you've decided to "go modern" and buy an LCD, you've got a lot of further choices to wade through. Not all LCDs are created equal, and deciding which LCD flavor to spend your money on means that you've got to bone up on some more monitor information.

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CLEANING UP THE REGISTRY

In an early column I discussed the Windows registry. It holds thousands, sometimes more than ten thousand settings. Some of these settings are for Windows itself, and others are for applications. As time passes, the registry becomes clogged with useless or erroneous entries. These can be left over from incomplete installations, incomplete uninstall routines. Many other problems arise. A user may move an application file without realizing that dozens of registry entries point to the old location. Application errors can leave traces in the registry. Malicious intruders as well, as I’ve discussed on several occasions. When the registry goes bad your problems can vary from annoying to disastrous. The most common ailment is that the computer slows down. Another common problem is that clicking on shortcuts doesn’t start the program. Further down the scale, some programs won’t run at all. More disastrously still, Windows functions only work intermittently or not at all. In the past I recommended Norton System Works. Its one step cleanup is good at setting some minor problems in the registry right. I suggested a utility called JV-16 for a thorough cleanup of the registry. JV-16 is no longer in business. It’s time to choose a new registry cleaner.

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POCKET OR PALM SOFTWARE?

There are lots of reasons for buying PDAs, and not all of them have to do with the devices' utility; some people just like the image they think PDAs project - that of a busy, connected mover and shaker. Of course, in some circles, carrying a PDA makes you an info-geek who needs to get a life. It's sort of like the people who carry three cell phones and two beepers whenever they go out; are they "connected," or just insecure? Ours is not to analyze the psychology of workaholics; as far as most of us are concerned, the point of a PDA is productivity when you're away from your computer, and an easy way to store bits of information you pick up on your travels, whether it's phone numbers or appointments. Ergo, the value of a PDA - to you - is in its software. So let's see just how useful a PDA can be.

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THE LURE OF LCDS

At the end of last year, CRT monitors still outsold LCDs by a large margin. More than 60% of monitors sold in 2003 were CRTs. However, there’s no going back; LCD sales have been growing over the past two years, while CRT sales have been dropping. Within the next few years, CRTs will go the way of the eight-track and VCR. There’re still making CRTs, and that’s good news if you’re looking for a bargain; although prices of LCDs have been dropping, CRT manufacturers have lowered theirs proportionally, and the price ratio of CRT of LCD monitors - about half - remains where it was two years ago.

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A STORY ABOUT SHARING

Computers are so much a part of life. You use them at home and work; maybe you even use a laptop. Chances are your kids have a computer for schoolwork. And of course, you've got a printer. If this is the kind of setup you have, you may be a candidate for a home network.

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WHAT YOU GET IS WHAT YOU SEE WITH MONITORS – plus a Health Warning and Security Update

Monitors are replete with mysterious-looking numbers and formulas. We pretend to understand them, but how much do we really know? Admittedly, until I began looking for a new one - I’m still undecided - I knew less about monitors than any other major part of a computer. In looking for a new monitor I’ve tried to fill in some of the blanks. I’ll pass the information onto you.

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LAPTOPS, CONTINUED

The main reason I’m researching laptops right now may seem trivial. My favorite caf� in Jerusalem, Aroma, now has WiFi. One important issue is what to do if your system develops a problem. On a desktop, if your system fails, you would likely just reformat your hard drive and reinstall Windows, after making sure you had taken all the precautions I explained in previous columns. It can be a lot more difficult for a laptop.

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BROWSER HELPER OBJECTS: Conclusion

The recommended tool for preventing BHOs from infecting your computer is WinPatrol. It (and its advocates) purports to make sure that no BHO gets installed on your system without you knowing it. It also protects against spyware and viruses. “Oh, no!, some of you are mumbling, not another $20. Don’t I have enough protection against all these intruders, especially if I’m running Windows XP and have installed Service Pack 2?” Let’s see - maybe you do.

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BROWSER HELP OBJECTS, continued

After you download and unzip BHODemon, navigate to the download folder. You’ll see the help file and the icon for installing the program. wizard111904a.jpg Double-click the icon and the program will install in a second. I also suggest you separately double-click the short help file and read it before you start using BHODemon. Once installed BHOD will immediately scan your registry for browser help objects. In my case, Norton and Spy Sweeper notwithstanding, I had seven. Seven, notwithstanding that only a week before I had reformatted my hard disks, reinstalled Windows XP Pro, Norton and Spy Sweeper, configured my internet account, and then installed Microsoft Office 2003, my development tools, and a number of other programs.

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EVEN MORE TRICKS FOR A SAFE AND EASY REINSTALLATION

Let’s turn to the free program, Belarc Advisor. After running it, sending the results to my Yahoo account, burning them to a CD, and printing them out, I was shocked to find a glaring defect. Because I’m organized, this defect was only a minor inconvenience. For you it might be a real pain. Let’s take a look at Belarc’s shortcomings, and figure out a way to head off problems in advance.

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BUYING A LAPTOP

Most people buy laptops for their portability, not its speed or upgrade-ability. Laptops let you be productive almost anywhere, and having a ‘portable office’ is an advantage for many. But laptops are generally overrated. Only secretaries, salesmen and engineers make good use of their laptop. Many others play games, surf the internet, check their email, try to work and talk at the same time, or at caf�s work and watch the more attractive members of the opposite sex at the same time. Given the expense involved, laptops are for all intents and purposes un-upgradeable. You are married to whatever CPU, video card (built into the motherboard) , sound card (also built-in) and screen come with the laptop. Laptops are much slower than desktops that have similar CPUs. Slower CPUs, motherboards, hard drives and video systems all contribute to the speed loss. According to reviews I’ve read, the best laptop built-in video card would be lucky to be half as fast as the best desktop video card. Of course, there’s always a better component out there, but it’s going to cost you.

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BROWSER HELP OBJECTS: The New Bad Guy on the Block

A BHO is an add-on program, usually very small, that is supposed to enhance your computing experience. Most of the legitimate helpers are designed to work with web browsers such as Internet Explorer. But there are some really vicious BHOs out there. These reach deep into your PC, so deep that their digital fingers reach your pockets. Recently, a BHO was uncovered that monitors when you surf to one of 50 or so major personal banking Web sites, in order to steal your private information.

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ADDITIONAL MEASURES TO INSURE A SAFE AND SWIFT REINSTALLATION

One reason I’m spending so much time on this topic is that it’s the most important action you’re likely to take on your computer. Some of what I have to say I only learned after I reformatted my own disk. Once you have everything in place, it’s easy to do it again. Every time your computer accumulates intruders you can’t get rid of without editing the registry according to instructions from Symantec or your anti-virus company’s support site, you can reformat and reinstall in hours. If you’ve installed too many programs which slows your computer down, perhaps uninstalling them leaves debris in your registry. Now that I’ve got the procedure down pat, I plan to reinstall every several months.

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BLUETOOTH SECURITY

Radio-wave frequency communication between computers and other devices is increasing and is almost certain to continue increasing. Throughout the first world and in much of the third world transmission stations, antennas and other infrastructure that encourages wireless communication are being steadily put into place. Even Jerusalem is scheduled to be ‘wi-fied’ within two years, including the Arab neighborhoods. The Arab League considers such unregulated access a threat:

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MORE ON REFORMATTING YOUR HARD DISK

A few weeks ago I discussed many of the precautions a person must take to successfully reformat his or her hard disk and reinstall an operating system and applications. I suggested some procedures and aids. However, before I reformatted my own hard disk, I did a little thinking. Was I sure I could recover my Outlook address book, folders, and emails? What about my passwords? Was I certain that I could write them all down? Where exactly did Windows store them? And what about my Windows settings? The screen resolution, the screen saver, and many other tweaks? Same for Outlook, my other Office programs, and those of other applications. Would I have to reconfigure all of them when I reinstall? Or is there a way of finding and saving the configuration files and restoring them after a reformatting and reinstallation? Some of the answers are too geeky for this column. But many aren’t. I snooped around some support forums and asked some questions. I’ll summarize what I’ve learned. If you follow these additional instructions, you’re even more likely to be up and running within several hours.

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EMERGENCY BULLETIN

If you use Internet Explorer to access the Web, you need to be aware of a dangerous “Trojan horse” that can steal your passwords to banking sites, and thus steal your money.Below is an article describing the danger. Microsoft has not issued a “patch” for it, so if your computer is infected, you must correct it yourself. Here is how:1. Use Search from the Start menu to find img1big.gif. That’s the file name of the Trojan horse. Make sure in the search that you opt to include hidden and system files and folders.2. Delete each copy of img1big.gif, if any.3. After the deletions, notify all financial institutions with whom you have electronic accounts that your account may be compromised.I strongly urge you to do this immediately.Dennis The Wizard

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SPAM KILLER

I think I’ve found the best spam killer. Well, actually there are two. You can buy the very same software that Hotmail and Yahoo use to automatically weed out spam, putting it all in a Bulk folder. One click on “empty” and they’re history. The software program is called Brightmail Anti-Spam 5.1. Microsoft will be happy to license it to you for only $1,499.00So I think we should talk about the other one:

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BLUETOOTH — PART ONE

Almost all of you have heard of Bluetooth. It refers to devices that are either attached to or built into a computer, cell phone, PDA, and a slew of other devices that allow them to communicate with each other. Let’s look at Bluetooth step by step.

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WHEN IT’S TIME TO REFORMAT YOUR HARD DISK

Sooner or later we all need to. Perhaps your hard disk fails. All hard disks fail sooner or later. Or you’ve installed too many programs and uninstalled too many trial programs. Your computer has slowed to a crawl because your registry is fractured, full of errors. Maybe your system’s been hit by numerous virii or other intruders that are impossible to get rid of. Perhaps you want to partition your hard disk or add or change operating systems.Are you prepared? How long will it take you to get back up?

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IDENTITY THEFT: “PHISHING” FOR VICTIMS

Identity theft is prevalent in the news now. The thieves use Spyware: worms to monitor keystrokes and steal passwords. They’ve advanced way beyond the old fashioned ways, like searching your dumpster looking for discarded receipts. Now they’ve become more brazen than ever, using “phishing,” or emails pretending to come from a known and trusted source. Some of their messages are so silly, that victims who fall for them can only be called willing, given all the publicity about security and identity theft that wafts through the airwaves daily.

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A NEW SPY SWEEPER, NEW INTRUDER TRICKS, AND MORE

Spy Sweeper 3.0 has been released. And it’s quite an upgrade from version 2.6, the version I recommended. Also, I’d like to discuss a different threat. There’s a technique by which a malicious hacker can hijack web sites and insert ads or other features that appear daily. Thus you need to think twice between you click on any ad.

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SAFELY ENCRYPTING EMAILS WITH PGP

Last week I discussed the shortcomings of web surfing anonymizers. Although they have some use, they are useless against anyone who is targeting you in particular.Another concern of my readers concern emails. Emails pass through numerous way stations on the way from the sending to your mailbox. Also from your email application to someone else’s inbox.One method that can keep emails and instant messages private is strong encryption. The most popular application is PGP. PGP is a tongue in cheek term for Pretty Good Privacy. PGP actually offers strong encryption.

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BOBAX WORM AND SIMILAR NEW THREATS

The Bobax worm is the latest threat spreading across the internet. It won’t get as far, because millions more users have downloaded the latest Windows security update. I detailed how to do that in a previous column. On the other hand its more dangerous and will cause more severe damage to your software.

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