back to article Taking a first bite out of Wolfram Alpha

Is it the newest rival to Google, likely to knock Google off the top spot? No it isn’t. Does it provides a single answer to complex questions – unlike traditional search engines? Nope. Could it possibly be "a natural search engine"? Not quite. The newest game in town, if Twitter is anything to go by, is the Wolfram Alpha …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Bahh, waste of time and money

    Sure, it knows the answer to the meaning of life the universe and everything (42, obviously, duh), but it hasn't a bloody clue where my car keys are..

    This computational AI stuff's got a long way to go yet.

    Paris, not AI, not even sure she's real I..

  2. Tim

    European Swallow?

    It knows the airspeed of a European swallow 25mph, but not an African one....

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    more competition

    This can only mean good things for Search Engine users. Competition will increase and just like what is happening with other industries, smaller players will emerge with great solutions. Reminds me of a recent Search Engine (SEOENG) that also appealed to a narrow group of people, but nonetheless solved a problem not yet addressed by the major Search Engines.

  4. Feef Lovecraft


    Somethings that i've tried (like ISS interesct LONG/LAT co-ordinates it would intersect with in a few hours) it just doesn't know what to do with but it manages to figure out what ISS means and the long/lat co-ordinates.

    Kinda nifty to play with all the same

  5. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Dark Horses are Black Bess Thoroughbreds too.

    "allowing users to feed the system questions in an approximation of English." Thank GODs for that. A Virtual Interpreter Program.

    Very SMART, Stephen, Information Creating ITs Own Future Space and SurReal Places/Earthed Realities.

    " That study, at present, is focussed on issues of disambiguation and the creation of "ontologies" – the re-structuring of data sets to align them more closely with the information requirements likely to be placed upon them.

    In those aims, Wolfram|Alpha looks like being a resounding success."

    Seconded, John .... so that has Squared ITs Potential. One more Fan has IT Easily Cubed and Real Powerful in All Possible Control Matters.

  6. Peyton

    already has a flaw

    "as Americans simply do not eat rabbits." Needs to be able to distinguish IPs from urban areas and those from rural... the latter certainly includes noshers of things lagomorphic.

  7. Adam Azarchs

    It's not a search engine

    It's an expert system. Still an impressive feat, but calling it a search engine is just an attempt to jam it into the current fad about what computers should be spending their time on. It's not a way to interact with the internet at all.

  8. Jeremy
    Thumb Up


    It works better than I thought it would when I read the blurb a while back.

    That said, there are clearly some 'gaps' in data that it should know about. For example, it knows all about Tropical Storm 'Fay' in 2002 but knows nothing of the larger storm of the same name in 2008.

    I'm still quite impressed though.

  9. Wokstation

    It also cannot...

    ...tell me how many stomachs a badger or cow has.

    Nor is it able to give a full answer to "how many kilobytes per megabyte", because it ignores what's been the usual since the 60's and only gives the SI answer. It doesn't even mention that until recently, a meg was 1024kb - even though almost every single dictionary (a source that should be aggregated) defines a megabyte using the 1960's method, not the SI method.

    So it's ok... as long as you check it's answers through Google. So... might as well just Google it?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It seems to be broken

    I typed in "what is the cross product of two vectors", read the rest of the reg article, started writing this post and I'm still waiting for the answer.

    Ooh. It's just finished. The answer is...

    Sorry, Wolfram Alpha is temporarily unavailable. Please try again.

    Ho hum.

  11. Allan Rutland

    Yes and no.

    It's kind of odd...yes its coming back with a lot of "doesn't know what you mean" pages...but then you put the exact same in again, and on the third of forth shot it suddenly gets what you mean and does something with it. Not sure if the "doesn't know what you mean" thing is actually a doesn't know, and is actually a "given to much time to looking, and giving up" answer...possibly due to everyone clobbering it for answers at the moment.

    Is it a search engine like Google? no. Is it something I may throw a question at since Google comes up with nothing but crap filled directory pages? yes.

  12. Anonymous Coward

    Does its output make any more sense than

    Does its output make any more sense than Amanfromarse's?

  13. Skeptical Sally

    Nice one Guardian.

    Funnily enough I 'ad that Bertrand Russell in the back of my cab once. "So, Lord Russell," I asked 'im, "what's it all about then?". And do you know what, 'e couldn't tell me! Mind 'ow you go gov...

  14. Anonymous Coward

    This is the kind of research we need . . .

    Americans don't eat rabbit . . .

    Dragons Den pitch:

    It's essentially an overseas product, rabbit stew in a can. We've also secured a contract to provide a low cost, creatively labelled, compartmentalised (TV dinner style) rabbit stew. Major airline's have shown good interest. Rabbit as a food source provides excellent return on investment compared to other meat's. . .

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    From the guardian link:

    "There's also Stephen Wolfram discusses Wolfram|Alpha: Computational Knowledge Engine, which is the full 1 hour 65 minutes."

    Or 2 hours 5 minutes to most people.

  16. david
    Thumb Down

    It's not very good...

    ... I tried "what is the difference between a duck"*

    and "what are next weeks lottery numbers"

    and it just said it didn't know what to do with my query.

    Poor show.

    *One of it's legs is both the same

  17. Tim Roberts
    Thumb Up

    Good luck Wolfram!

    The key sentence in the article is "For if any one thing is certain, the non-specialist press just love to tear apart new technologies the moment they fail to live up to claims they never made in the first place."

    As far as I am aware Wolfram have never said that this the current release is the final version of the search engine. It's a great pity that Alpha will be commented on in the popular press, by people with significantly lower intellect than those working at Wolfram.

    I for one hope that Wolfram is successful. I seem to remember that Mathematica was treated with some suspicion when it was released because many people simply did not understand it.

  18. Stuart Gibson
    Paris Hilton

    Knowledge gaps

    Doesn't know what to do with "Northern Ireland", so they haven't even manged to load all the countries of the world into their knowledge engine.

    Paris, because her geography probably isn't great either.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's thick

    I asked it a load of direct questions and the only one it managed to answere was 'how much potasium is in a banana?'

    It had no idea how big tibet is or how tall Richard Hammond is.

  20. Werner McGoole
    Thumb Down

    Solution looking for a problem

    It's obviously intended to be an engine for extracting facts from the internet. However, I see it mostly as a filter for restricting your view of the internet to just those facts that happen to fit its model.

    As such, it's basically like a very restricted form of Wikipedia. By using it, you're accepting someone else's pre-digested view of what's going on in the world. Obviously, even Google must have some bias about which links it shows in response to keywords, but at least you can sample a few links to judge the range of what's available (or even try another search engine). With Wolfram|Alpha, you're basically trusting big brother to tell you the truth.

    Not really a problem you might think? Then what does it have to say about the reality of climate change, for example? Can it plot a graph of future global temperatures (or even historical temperatures) that everyone would be happy with? Is it able to decide when something ceases to be a fact and becomes opinion? I'd say even humans aren't very good at that - and that causes a whole load of trouble.

    And what happens when it deduces the wrong answer to some very popular query? Does it become an urban myth machine? Will its gullible users just repeat the garbage it produces until everyone starts to believe it?

    Honestly, I can't see myself using this for getting the answer to anything that matters. I'm always going to have to check the result with something else, like Google. So why even bother?

  21. The Mighty Spang
    Thumb Down

    crashes my browser after entering question

    firefox on mac. anybody else?

  22. Ben

    Speed of Swallow

    It may not know the speed of a general unladen swallow (try "what's the speed of an unladen swallow") but it does at least give a reason why. Get more specific and click on the link for a European swallow, and it will give you the answer - even noting Monty Python as the question source.

    For most people, Wolfram Alpha is going to be of limited use. Sure it can tell you the weather with pretty graphs and a few other stats, but really it's best for a set of technical questions that combine interpretation, calculation and display of data. Hopefully though it will keep improving as I find it better than Google for certain queries.

  23. Tom Paine

    An early front-runner

    The hype got a good headstart from this ludicrous front page lead in the S/Indie back on 3rd May:

    On one level I feel sorry for Wolfram. On the other hand, there's the small matter of the hours of my life I won't get back which I wasted reading about "A New Kind of Science" and cellular automata. I therefore feel justified in getting in a pre-emptive Nelsonian "HA-HA!"

    Pirates because I don't think I used that icon before. Splice the mainbrace! Yo ho ho! and so forth.

  24. Peter Kavanagh

    Citizen Smith

    I can see why they are annoyed at the hype (as generated by their own PR people ;-), but surely it could have a better name - how about "Wolfie" ?

    'Power to the People!'

    'Freedom for Tooting!'

    (mine's the one with the copy of Socialist Worker in the pocket...)

  25. Claire Rand


    tried it, apparently you need javascript active for it to work.

    so I won't be going back.

  26. Eddie Edwards
    Thumb Up


    It doesn't know the airspeed of a swallow, but it does explain that this answer only applies to European swallows, and not African ones.

  27. Mike Taylor

    Beer gives you energy

    In imperial

    but not the number of joules in a litre

    What it's doing is far more impressive than the results indicate

  28. SuperTim
    Thumb Down

    I tried it....

    It's wank. Pardon my French.

  29. Rich

    Americans *do* eat rabbits

    I had rabbit in a New York restaurant once. It was yum.

    The system is obviously being populated with incorrect axioms already.

  30. ThinkingOutLoud
    Paris Hilton

    First post?

    Not likely by the time this gets on the board.

    However, the rest of you must have much brighter questions to ask on this subject. Else, give me a while before I show you up. I'm not so smart so please don't make me make you look dumb, OK?


    Paris because she always looks good, regardless of circumstances...

  31. Jim Westrich
    Thumb Down


    It would help Wolfram's case somewhat if they did not get the answer to the first question I asked it wrong (it gave me the wrong population of a city which seems like a pretty basic thing to get wrong--even Wikipedia gets it right). I asked other things and got some interesting information but the formatting needs work.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Load of carp

    It seems to like finding the density of things, so try "potato density" - you should get 0.63 g/cc.

    Strange that, because mine always seem to sink when I put them in water. Maybe mathematical geniuses don't prepare their own vegetables. Try some other root vegetables and I think you'll get similar nonsense.

    Helpfully, however, it will give its obviously wrong result in a wide choice of different units.

    Not a good sign is it?

  33. Charles Manning

    Is this really what we need?

    Beside the fact that it does not work very well (yet?), one wonders whether it is really a good idea to try get actual answers from the internet.

    Google's searches return (mostly) relevant information but still require the reader to actually apply some reasoning and interpretation to get to the real answer. Considering all the rubbish out there this is probably a far better way to handle information from the internet.

    WA might technically work, but if it runs in Mathematica (even compiled) then it will just never be able to scale like Google does.

    I tried WA from New Zealand South Island with two questions:

    Question: "How many sheep in New Zealand?"

    WA answer: Can't understand input.

    Google: NZ population statistics page giving a reasonable number.

    Question: "Where is Wellington?"

    WA answer: Map with a star at the bottom of North Island. Reasonable answer.

    Google answer: Google map of Wellington + wikipedia link + other associated info.

    Correct answer: Who cares.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Limited datasets

    I was interested in comparing the performance of some laptops, so I entered the CPU labels, but WolframAlpha didn't recognize them. It seems like the sort of data that might be useful in this kind of "engine".

    I also asked it about "population density in EU countries", but it apparently couldn't parse the phrase "EU countries", giving be an average population density for the whole EU (so it recognized that term) , and for the whole world (all countries).

    Just asking for "population density in EU" worked, and it's interesting to compare it to "population density in Western Europe", so it's clearly a powerful tool, but it's not going to pass any Turing tests!

  35. Doug Glass

    Oh How Cute

    Wolfram is the "old" chemical for what we now know as Tungsten. Is the supposed to compete with Chrome?

  36. James


    It's an interesting concept. It does struggle at the moment with a lot of inputs but that should get better over time as it begins to take over the world and all it's information like Another Large Search Engine Beginning with G(TM).

    I can certainly see the possibility of using this product inside corporations, insurance companies and the like. Type in a post code and see a list of claims made with age data and number of acts of god since 1984 etc.

    Perhaps this could be fed with ContactPoint data? An enterprising individual in the gov could make a fortune selling to the Paedophiles/Daily Mail information on streets with the highest densities of vulnerable female/male children under the age of 6 who like sweets...

  37. Tim Brown

    A long way to go

    I played with the site today, and, apart from entering queries as prompted by their examples, everything I tried just got a 'Huh' reply.

    Maybe I was just being dumb, but certainly the hype about being able to interpret 'natural English queries' is definitely unfounded.

  38. Anonymous Coward

    Just a thought

    >"Rabbit", in the UK, should return data on the animal both as biological entity and source of food: in the US, according to Wolfram|Alpha, the second level of meaning will be overlooked, as Americans simply do not eat rabbits.

    So what did Elmer spend so much effort for ?

  39. Andrew Tyler

    Okay then

    I seemed to get a lot of "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input."

    However, in response to "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?" It did give "A woodchuck could chuck all the wood he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood."

    I'll keep an eye on it.

  40. Anonymous Coward

    Queries I have known

    I tried asking it "How many people are doing it right now?" in the hope that I could then refine the result to a radius around me, but alas it didn't understand.

  41. Moss Icely Spaceport

    I googled: "Wolfram Alpha"

    All I got was:

    "I can't let you do that Dave"

  42. Keith T
    Thumb Down

    Why do journalists not read the FAQs?

    Why do journalists not read the FAQs?

    Wolfram's FAQs specifically point out that that it is not a search engine and does not index web pages.

    It is like saying Open Office will drive Firefox out of business -- Wolfram Alpha and Google Search do almost entirely different things.

    Google Search is a search engine.

    Wolfram Alpha is a database.

  43. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Search ... for the Constant Pursuit or Real Placement of Excellence?

    "It's obviously intended to be an engine for extracting facts from the internet. " .... By Werner McGoole Posted Monday 18th May 2009 19:42 GMT

    Err ..... I think it is much SMARTer than that and is also for placing/injecting new facts and phormations onto/into the Internet ..... in Order to Create SurReal ControlLed Environments in the Midst of a Chaotic Destructively Competitive Intellectual Space .... although I would agree with anyone who would say that there is precious little Intelligence being used if there is a Destructively Competitive Chaos Space/Earthly Place.

    But I suppose you would have to ask Wolfram|Alpha that question to remove any possible doubt.

  44. Steve Sherlock

    Beer unit size?

    @Beer gives you energy

    At least it knows something about the unit of choice for beer:

    serving size 1 pt (480 g)

    The downside is the actual calorie count in beer varies greatly depending on the brew in question...

  45. TeeCee Gold badge

    Third meaning!

    "....Americans simply do not eat rabbits"

    They do drive them though and that is a genuine, geographically specific thing as VW call 'em Golfs everywhere else.

  46. Anonymous Coward

    Vital internet question

    What's it like at searching for porn?

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Glass houses

    "the non-specialist press just love to tear apart new technologies the moment they fail to live up to claims they never made in the first place."

    This made me laugh as I read it just after Ted Dziuba piece in this very organ of the "specialist press".

  48. John Ozimek


    Clearly the two most important questions to arise already are the airspeed of a swallow - for which the engine appears to provide a European but not African answer - and whether Americans eat rabbit.

    On the second, the "fact" fed me about American dietary habits emanated from their pr department, as opposed to Wolfram|Alpha itself. So perhaps americans DO eat rabbits. Anyone with the definitive answer to that would be welcome.

    Although I have a sinking feeling that this article may just have spawned an urban myth.

  49. Sooty

    I have to wonder

    ""Rabbit", in the UK, should return data on the animal both as biological entity and source of food: in the US, according to Wolfram Alpha, the second level of meaning will be overlooked, as Americans simply do not eat rabbits."

    If it comes back with info on the other type of rabbit!

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Example question

    It can do the example question of $250 + 15% (obviously as they have used it as an example)

    But it simply cannot understand the british version of £250 + 15%

    Whats so different apart from currency

  51. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    is confused

    not about wolfram but about someone above saying that a megabyte is not 1024 KB and that it changed recently, not had any updates to my computer to change what is reported, nothign in the big computer places about a new figure for a megabyte.

    Unless there is confusion about the difference between megabits and megabytes again :p

  52. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Natural language? Mathematica?

    So how come "what is half of ten" shows me everything but five?

  53. RichyS
    Thumb Up


    I just copied amanfromMars' last input into Wolfram Alpha.

    It said: "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input."

    I have to agree with it. Very clever indeed...

  54. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Keith T

    "Google Search is a search engine.

    Wolfram Alpha is a database."

    What's the difference?

  55. Mike Shepherd
    Thumb Down


    Why would I use a search engine that limits results to what I'm likely to know already?

  56. alan

    specific gravity of water

    An easy one I thought.

    But it didnt understand and suggested gravity of water which it interprets as GRAVITY and WATERS two companies listed on the stock exchange and then compares them.

    Whereas the first hit on google gets the answer.

    Its 1 by the way :)

    Close but no cigar wolfram. It will be interesting to see where it goes, but I dont see it main stream any time soon.

  57. Columbus
    Thumb Down

    chained results

    more impressive for me are the chained results, keep up the good work boys

    I for one will be keeping in my bookmarks. Its a bit like those specialised tools you can buy, useful for one job, but it saves you hours. I tried some searches on wolfram & google, if Wolfram got an answer it was better than Google, but you could refine the Google query better.

  58. Paul McConkey

    Wait until it has a critical mass...

    So, I remember switching to Google from Yahoo back in the day when nobody knew what the hell a google was. At the time google was small and had only indexed a few hundred million pages (OK so maybe the Internet was smaller). Google worked ok some of the time. Now it's so useful that it's a verb.

    Same for Wikipedia (even with the fiddlers).

    Wait until WA has thousands (tens of thousands...) of data sources and then decide how crap it really is.

  59. Jon

    what a load of bun

    "Americans eat 8 to 10 million pounds of rabbit meat every year."

  60. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    There is no God

    So I thought I'd try my usual AI killer question:

    Does God exist?

    This is what I got:

    Additional functionality for this topic is under development.

  61. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Over-hyped experiment

    I am interested in all things AI and the idea of an expert system that knows everything is intriguing. The problem with WolframAlpha is that it seems to know very little (at the moment, that may change).

    I understand the argument that it is very clever but it falls way short of being useful. It's like so many AI projects, the theory and concepts are very interesting but to the average user it appears incredibly stupid.

    I have yet to get a decent answer to anything yet. Although I have found out that Wales is a city in northern England that has a population 5956 people and that England is the same as the UK.

    Get your facts right Wolfie!

  62. DZ-Jay

    Re: @ Keith T

    @Greg Fleming:

    The difference is that Google is an index of web pages; it does not provide knowledge nor gauges the accuracy of it's results--and as a matter of fact, contains no content at all, just links to other resources. You ask it a question, and it will retrieve a list of resources that it thinks are relevant, based on various factors which may even include popularity. However, it only knows what's on the Internet, which as has been pointed out before, even by El Reg's Mr. Orlowski, the Internet is far from representative of the collection of human culture and knowledge.

    Wolfram|Alpha is a collection of facts compiled from various resources (available to you for reference), most definitely *not* web pages. It is not an index of, nor it represents a "new way to interact with the Internet"; it is a searchable database with a computational engine and expert system that allows you to combine and correlate any of its myriad data points.

    As the article said, the the data sets are currently few, so it is understandable that it cannot respond to every query. However, it should be understood that even this is no small feat, as the data sets contained are vast themselves. Don't think works of Shakespear, think the English language; don't think recent hurricane patterns, think historical weather data for the last century. Surely you can see the potential of such a system if its database continues to grow.

    In more popular term, I would say that Google is closer to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, while Wolfram|Alpha represents The Encyclopaedia Galactica.

    I suggest you and others watch the demo presentation, where Mr. Wolfram explains and shows the capabilities of the system.


  63. cordwainer

    upper class rabbit

    @ Peyton - LOL; but don't forget the urban snooty eateries and French restaurants that feature "lapin" on their menus.

    Perhaps WA could distinguish on the basis of annual income of searcher based on IP, serving rabbit to rural poor and urban wealthy alike...and rarebit to those in between?

  64. John Taylor
    Thumb Up


    I think wolframalpha has a lot of potential, sure it doesn't have all the data sets it needs yet, but given time, i'm sure it will manage to provide meaning to structured data...I look forward to seeing this project evolve...

    It's not google, and to be honest I don't think its even trying to be google, it's trying to provide clear answers to questions using its own knowledge banks.

    Google is a search engine, and is still my favorite search engine. Wolframalpha is a different beast entirely, and will probably become my favorite 'computational knowledge engine'...think both of them will exist side by side quite nicely.

    My 2c ;)

  65. Paul Murphy

    It's getting there.


    airspeed of unladen swallow


    Input interpretation:

    estimated average cruising airspeed of an unladen African swallow


    there is unfortunately insufficient data to estimate the velocity of an African swallow (even if you specified which of the 47 species of swallow found in Africa you meant)

    (asked of a general swallow (but not answered) in Monty Python\'s Holy Grail.)


    tee hee


  66. Anonymous Coward

    Pretty cool, but...

    It gives great results when you can get it to actually look up what you're trying to find. Some explanation of the search syntax might be helpful. I tried to compare two stocks (as suggested) and couldn't get it to find one of the stocks regardless of trying the symbol, full company name, etc. for a stock listed on multiple exchanges. Tried looking up Mandelbrot Set and found no info! Surprising for a math-flavored SE. When I looked up Benoit Mandelbrot, only the most basic info came up, with no info on his work.

    Needs much improvement to be more than a curiosity.

  67. Parax

    @Steve Sherlock...

    Beer unit size?

    At least it knows something about the unit of choice for beer:

    serving size 1 pt (480 g)

    Tut Tut... thats a US Pint.. Mines a 568ml if you dont mind...

  68. Andy ORourke

    Not really all

    "The number of data sets included are, at present, limited to a few hundred, although, as a spokesman for Wolfram pointed out, as one data set includes "all current and historical weather", whilst another includes "the English language", this measure may be deceptive."

    All current and historical weather? WA couldnt tell me if it rained in wigan last tuesday or if it is raining in reading now

    To be fair, google couldnt answer these specific questions either but it did manage to give me a pointer to a current forecast from the BBC

  69. Anonymous Coward

    needs a little work I think...

    >composition of air

    Input interpretation:

    [dry air][composition]


    nitrogen (N_2) 78.1%

    oxygen (O_2) 20.9%


    >nitrogen in air

    Input interpretation:

    [is][nitrogen][in dry air]



    let me know when it gets to Beta!

  70. David S

    Not all bad

    It was very good at telling me tomorrow's weather in Brno. Or rather, collating the weather forecast for the rest of the week in Brno. I'll tell you tomorrow whether it was accurate...

  71. David S

    In case anyone cares,...

    ... it's been right about the weather in Brno so far. Mrs S tells me it's had the weather spot on in our obscure little home town as well. Quite clever, actually.

  72. David

    Charge on an electron is rounded

    Ask Wolfram Alpha what is the charge on an electron and you will get an answer of 1.6021765x10^-19 C.

    But the best avaiable data is the CODATA 2006, which is what is reffered to by both NIST in the USA and NPL in the UK.

    Wolfram Alpha have the value from CODATA 2006, but it has been rounded to 8 significant digits. The internationally agreed value is 1.602176487x10-19 C, not the value Wolfram Alpha gives.

    So far from being a 'primary source' as Wolfram Research claim, it is taking primary data and rounding it. Wikipedia has the right value.

    I'm a user of Mathematica and find that program impressive, although the free open-source Sage looks as though it will be a thorne in the side of Wolfram Reserach. I was impressed the day I first see Mathematica - more than 20 years ago. But I can't see much of use in Wolfram Alpha. It appears to be a poor man's Mathematica. For most things web relatved, google is far more useful.

    I'm sure Wolfram Alpha will improve over time, but I can't ever see it being too succesful myself.

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