Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 20th, 2012

Driven by the accidents of history

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This sounds like a fascinating book, reviewed in Bloomberg BusinessWeek by Peter Coy:

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
Crown Business; 544pp; $30

Somewhere in Beijing there must be an incinerator for burning reports from outsiders telling China’s leaders what to do. In February the World Bank, in cooperation with an arm of the Chinese government, issued a report calledChina 2030 that included this gem: “Where contract disputes arise … the disputants should have access not only to legal recourse but also to a transparent and effective judicial system that imparts justice without fear or favor.” It’s hard to imagine President Hu Jintao slapping his forehead in wonderment upon reading this: “But of course! Why didn’t we think of that? Stop the theft of intellectual property at once!”

As silly as it is, the “ignorance hypothesis”—the assumption that people in power would do right by their citizens if only they knew better—“still rules supreme among most economists and in Western policy-making circles,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard University political scientist James Robinson write in their new book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Nations fail, the authors argue, because “those who have power make choices that create poverty. They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose.” For the brutal few, hanging on to power and wealth outweighs all else.

Creative destruction, the driving force of modernization, terrifies those in power—and almost always has. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I rejected the request of one William Lee for a patent on a knitting machine. “Thou aimest high, Mister Lee,” she told him. “Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.” What really worried Elizabeth, the authors say, was that the labor-saving technology would be politically destabilizing “and threaten royal power.”

Ranging from imperial Rome to modern Botswana, this book will change the way people think about the wealth and poverty of nations. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 1:52 pm

The wreck of the Costa Concordia

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A detailed account by Bryan Burrough:

At the Italian port of Civitavecchia, 40 miles northwest of Rome, the great cruise ships line the long concrete breakwater like taxis at a curb. That Friday afternoon, January 13, 2012, the largest and grandest was the Costa Concordia, 17 decks high, a floating pleasure palace the length of three football fields. It was a cool, bright day as the crowds filed on and off the ship, those who had boarded at Barcelona and Marseilles heading into Rome for sightseeing while hundreds of new passengers pulled rolling bags toward theConcordia’s arrival terminal.

Up on the road, a writer from Rome named Patrizia Perilli stepped from a chauffeur-driven Mercedes and marveled at the ship’s immensity. “You could see it even before you entered the port; it was a floating monster,” she recalls. “Its size made me feel secure. It was sunny, and its windows were just sparkling.”

Inside the terminal, newcomers handed their luggage to the Indian and Filipino pursers. There was a welcome desk for an Italian reality show, Professione LookMaker, filming on board that week; among those arriving were 200 or so hairdressers from Naples and Bologna and Milan, all hoping to make it onto the show. As they chattered, flashed their passports, and boarded, then slowly filtered throughout the ship, they thought it all grand: 1,500 luxury cabins, six restaurants, 13 bars, the two-story Samsara Spa and fitness center, the three-story Atene Theatre, four swimming pools, the Barcellona Casino, the Lisbona Disco, even an Internet café, all wrapped around a dramatic, nine-story central atrium, itself a riot of pink, blue, and green lights.

Some of the hundred or so Americans on board weren’t so wowed. One likened wandering theConcordia to getting lost inside a pinball machine. “It kind of reminded me of old Vegas, you know?” says Benji Smith, a 34-year-old Massachusetts honeymooner, who had boarded at Barcelona with his wife, along with two of her relatives and two of their friends, all from Hong Kong. “Everything was really gaudy, lots of fancy blown glass in different colors. The entertainment kind of reinforced the old-Vegas thing, aging singers performing solo on a keyboard with a drum track.”

There were just over 4,200 people aboard the Concordia as it eased away from the breakwater that evening, about a thousand crew members and 3,200 passengers, including nearly a thousand Italians, hundreds of French, British, Russians, and Germans, even a few dozen from Argentina and Peru. Up on Deck 10, Patrizia Perilli stepped onto her balcony and daydreamed about sunbathing. As she began to unpack in her elegant stateroom, she glanced over at her boyfriend, who was watching a video on what to do if they needed to abandon ship. Perilli teased him, “What would we ever need that for?”

As the world now knows, they needed it desperately. Six hours later the Concordia would be lying on its side in the sea, freezing water surging up the same carpeted hallways that hairdressers and newlyweds were already using to head to dinner. Of the 4,200 people on board, 32 would be dead by dawn.

The wreck of the Costa Concordia is many things to many people. To Italians, who dominated the ship’s officer ranks and made up a third of its passengers, it is a national embarrassment; once the pinnacle of Mediterranean hedonism, the Concordia was now sprawled dead on the rocks in a cold winter sea.

But the Concordia’s loss is also a landmark moment in naval history. It is the largest passenger ship ever wrecked. The 4,000 people who fled its slippery decks—nearly twice as many as were aboard the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912—represent the largest maritime evacuation in history. A story of heroism and disgrace, it is also, in the mistakes of its captain and certain officers, a tale of monumental human folly.

“This was an episode of historic importance for those who study nautical issues,” says Ilarione Dell’Anna, the Italian Coast Guard admiral who oversaw much of the massive rescue effort that night. “The old point of departure was the Titanic. I believe that today the new point of departure will be the Costa Concordia. There has never been anything like this before. We must study this, to see what happened and to see what we can learn.”

Much of what happened on the night of January 13 can now be told, based on the accounts of dozens of passengers, crew members, and rescue workers. But the one group whose actions are crucial to any understanding of what went wrong . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Daily life

Making yourself smarter

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Raising one’s IQ through deliberate effort was once thought impossible, but perhaps not. Dan Hurley has an interesting article in the NY Times—and for some reason the “single-page” option is missing. Weird. His article begins:

Early on a drab afternoon in January, a dozen third graders from the working-class suburb of Chicago Heights, Ill., burst into the Mac Lab on the ground floor of Washington-McKinley School in a blur of blue pants, blue vests and white shirts. Minutes later, they were hunkered down in front of the Apple computers lining the room’s perimeter, hoping to do what was, until recently, considered impossible: increase their intelligence through training.

“Can somebody raise their hand,” asked Kate Wulfson, the instructor, “and explain to me how you get points?”

On each of the children’s monitors, there was a cartoon image of a haunted house, with bats and a crescent moon in a midnight blue sky. Every few seconds, a black cat appeared in one of the house’s five windows, then vanished. The exercise was divided into levels. On Level 1, the children earned a point by remembering which window the cat was just in. Easy. But the game is progressive: the cats keep coming, and the kids have to keep watching and remembering.

“And here’s where it gets confusing,” Wulfson continued. “If you get to Level 2, you have to remember where the cat was two windows ago. The time before last. For Level 3, you have to remember where it was three times ago. Level 4 is four times ago. That’s hard. You have to keep track. O.K., ready? Once we start, anyone who talks loses a star.”

So began 10 minutes of a remarkably demanding concentration game. At Level 2, even adults find the task somewhat taxing. Almost no one gets past Level 3 without training. But most people who stick with the game do get better with practice. This isn’t surprising: practice improves performance on almost every task humans engage in, whether it’s learning to read or playing horseshoes.

What is surprising is what else it improved. In a 2008 study, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now of the University of Maryland, found that young adults who practiced a stripped-down, less cartoonish version of the game also showed improvement in a fundamental cognitive ability known as “fluid” intelligence: the capacity to solve novel problems, to learn, to reason, to see connections and to get to the bottom of things. The implication was that playing the game literally makes people smarter.

Psychologists have long regarded intelligence as coming in two flavors: crystallized intelligence, the treasure trove of stored-up information and how-to knowledge (the sort of thing tested on “Jeopardy!” or put to use when you ride a bicycle); and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence grows as you age; fluid intelligence has long been known to peak in early adulthood, around college age, and then to decline gradually. And unlike physical conditioning, which can transform 98-pound weaklings into hunks, fluid intelligence has always been considered impervious to training.

That, after all, is the premise of I.Q. tests, or at least the portion that measures fluid intelligence: we can test you now and predict all sorts of things in the future, because fluid intelligence supposedly sets in early and is fairly immutable. While parents, teachers and others play an essential role in establishing an environment in which a child’s intellect can grow, even Tiger Mothers generally expect only higher grades will come from their children’s diligence — not better brains.

How, then, could watching black cats in a haunted house possibly increase something as profound as fluid intelligence? Because the deceptively simple game, it turns out, targets the most elemental of cognitive skills: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 1:42 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

Pseudo-crisis: Food deserts; also: Obesity by supermarket

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First, the obesity rate by the supermarket used:

That’s from an interesting post by Kevin Drum that includes links to studies that “food deserts” (lack of supermarkets in poor neighborhoods) is not in fact a problem.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 12:00 pm

For travelers who live in the North

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When air becomes too dry, people get sick for various reasons. A humidifier is a great help, but what about when you travel?? Here’s one answer at Cool Tools.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 11:51 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

What the US is doing: Executing strangers based on suspicions

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The US is becoming increasingly aggressive and brutal in its killing, even beyond the war crimes occasionally revealed or discovered (e.g., the US soldier in Iraq who went on a rampage killing 19 in Afghanistan). I think this column is stunning, but oddly many Americans seem not to care. When I read the account, I see the future of the US, and it’s dark :

There are many evils in the world, but extinguishing people’s lives with targeted, extra-judicial killings, when you don’t even know their names, based on “patterns” of behavior judged from thousands of miles away, definitely ranks high on the list. Although the Obama White House has not approved of this request from CIA Director David Petraeus, these so-called “signature strikes” that “allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior” are already robustly used in Pakistan — having been started by George Bush in 2008 and aggressively escalated by Barack Obama. There is much to say on this new report, but in order for me to focus on three discrete points, permit me to highly recommend two superb articles that highlight other vital aspects of this policy: (1) this article from my Salon colleague Jefferson Morley this morning on why this form of drone-targeting is pure American Terrorism, and (2) this essay from Chris Floyd about a recently published Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings on Obama’s love of drones and secret wars and how the military’s slang for drone victims — “bug splat” — reflects the sociopathic mindset that drive them.

Initially, it’s critical to note how removed all of these questions are from democratic debate or accountability, thanks to the Obama administration’s insistence that even the basic question of whether the CIA has a drone program is too secret to permit it to publicly acknowledge, even though everyone knows it exists — especially in the countries where it routinely kills people. Recall that Obama officials refused to tell the ACLU, in response to a FOIA request, whether any documents relating to a CIA drone program even exist because even that is too much of a secret to address, and when the ACLU then sued the Obama administration — seeking the most basic information about why the Obama administration thinks it has the power to kill people this way and how it decides who will die — the Obama DOJ again insisted in court that it cannot even acknowledge that such a program exists, let alone provide any basic disclosure or transparency about it.

So here we have this incredibly consequential policy adopted in total secrecy by the Obama administration, one that empowers the President to secretly target people, including American citizens, for instant, due-process-free death. They have placed the policy beyond the rule of law — by insisting that it’s too secret for courts to examine — and shielded it completely from democratic debate. The only time we are permitted even to hear about it is when the President, his aides and loyalists politically exploit the corpses they create by strutting around with chest-beating, tough-guy boasting about how Strong it shows Obama to be (because, really, what is more courageous, more embodying of the noble American warrior spirit, than killing people by remote-controlled video game while the killers are ensconced in secure bunkers in the U.S.?).

And the only time we are permitted glimpses of the debate over these policies is when someone decides to leak it anonymously to reporters like Greg Miller. So here’s a policy — CIA drone strikes — which anonymous administration officials are defending yet again on the front page of The Washington Post at the very same time the Obama DOJ tells courts that it cannot explain itself in a judicial proceeding because it cannot even safely confirm that such a program exists. Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton spoke at an “Open Government” conference in Brazil, and — while serving in an administration that is waging an unprecedented war on whistleblowers and is fixated with self-mocking levels of secrecy — had the audacity to say things like this, apparently with a straight face:

In the 21st century, the United States is convinced that one of the most significant divisions among nations will not be north/south, east/west, religious, or any other category so much as whether they are open or closed societies. We believe that countries with open governments, open economies, and open societies will increasingly flourish. They will become more prosperous, healthier, more secure, and more peaceful. . . .

I know we don’t need to make the case for openness to you. You’re here. But what we have to do is make a convincing case that those of us who have joined up to the Open Government Partnership really mean what we say. It’s not enough to assert that we are committed to openness. We have to deliver on the commitments that we have made. 

Let me mention a few examples of how that is already occurring. . . .  I want to commend the Slovak Republic and Montenegro for alsointroducing whistle-blowing protection laws to ensure that those who expose corruption are not punished or harmed. . . .

These initiatives are designed to reduce corruption because we know corruption kills a country’s potential. It drains resources. It protects dishonest leaders. It takes away people’s drive to improve themselves or their communities. So the cure for corruption is openness, and by belonging to the Open Government Partnership, every country here is sending a message to their own people that we will stand for openness. And we’re going to hold ourselves accountable. . . 

So we now have a chance to set a new global standard for good governance and to strengthen a global ethos of transparency and accountability. . . .[W]e intend to do all we can to help make the Open Government Partnership a leader in ensuring that the 21st century is an era of openness, transparency, accountability, freedom, democracy, and results for people everywhere. Thank you. (Applause.)

Last week, the Obama administration indicted its 7th whistleblower on charges of espionage — more than double the number of such cases under all prior Presidents combined — and it continues to insist that its CIA drone program is too secret even to acknowledge for purposes of court cases or public debate, even as it boasts of that same program on the front pages of newspapers. That’s apparently what Clinton means when she trumpets the “global ethos of accountability and transparency.”

Secondly, one can never emphasize enough how the U.S., through the policies undertaken in the name of the Terorrist Threat, is principally responsible for sustaining and continuously increasing that threat. In February, Jeremy Schaill returned from Yemen and documented how U.S. drone attacks are the primary source of Al Qaeda’s strength in that country. In March, David Rohde — the former New York Times reporter who was kidnapped and held in Pakistan by the Taliban for seven months — documented how Obama’s “signature strikes” in Pakistan are also “backfiring”:

From Pakistan to Yemen to post-American Iraq, drones often spark deep resentment where they operate. When they do attack, they kill as brutally as any weapon of war. The administration’s practice of classifying the strikes as secret only exacerbates local anger and suspicion. Under Obama, drone strikes have become too frequent, too unilateral, and too much associated with the heavy-handed use of American power.

Rohde also noted: “after promising to make counterterrorism operations more transparent and rein in executive power, Obama has arguably done the opposite, maintaining secrecy and expanding presidential authority.” Last night, in response to this Post article, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote: “At some point – as the bombs continues to fall – people are going to come to the conclusion that Yemen is under western military attack” and“signature strikes in Yemen could easily expand the war well beyond one the US could ever kill its way out of.” He observed that “signature strikes” are likely to kill far more civilians since “in Yemen just because it has a beard, carries a gun, and talks about Islamic law doesn’t mean its al-Qaeda” and then asked: “If US has been carrying out strikes in Yemen since Dec. 2009 then why does AQAP keep getting stronger?”

In late 2009, an Obama-approved attack with Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs killed dozens of innocent Yemenis, including 21 children. In May, 2010, a U.S. drone attack killed a popular Deputy Governor of a Yemeni province. In October of last year, two weeks after Obama successfully ordered the death of U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. drone strike killed his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman (today’s Post article asserted, seemingly without any basis, that that killing was “inadvertent,” even though the alleged target was apparently nowhere near the scene). It’s not hard to imagine what ordinary Yemenis think of the U.S., and whether they’d be more sympathetic to Al Qaeda’s message after all of this.

So here we have — yet again — the U.S. doing more than anyone else could toincrease the threat of Terrorism with the very policies it claims are necessary to combat Terrorism. It’s impossible to know whether that outcome is a feature or a bug for U.S. policy makers, but what is certain is that the threat that continues to fuel impenetrable American secrecy, massive erosions of civil liberties, the proliferation of the Surveillance State, and the ongoing expansion of endless war and militarism, is the very same threat which the American National Security State — as it well knows — is primarily responsible for sustaining with its actions.

Finally, none of this will matter politically. . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: Note this James Fallows post on the Drone-Industrial Complex. Note that Congressmen now believe their specific mission is to look after the interests of businesses (which fund them) and not their constituents. Though that’s been obvious for a while, members of Congress now feel free simply to state it as a fact.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 10:34 am

A better alternative to stop-and-frisk

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Very interesting column in the NY Times by James Forman, Jr., and Trevor Stutz:

IN the face of growing anger over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, the commissioner,Raymond W. Kelly, has faulted his critics for failing to offer an alternative for fighting crime in minority neighborhoods. “What I haven’t heard is any solution to the violence problems in these communities,” he told the City Council last month.

Mr. Kelly is correct that high levels of violence are intolerable and that those who would challenge stop-and-frisk — in which police officers use thin pretexts for streetside searches — must present credible alternatives. At the Yale Law School Innovations in Policing Clinic, we have been visiting police departments around the country in search of such strategies. One increasingly popular approach, “focused deterrence,” is among the most promising.

Developed by the criminologist David M. Kennedy, focused deterrence is in many ways the opposite of stopping and frisking large sections of the population. Beginning with the recognition that a small cohort of young men are responsible for most of the violent crime in minority neighborhoods, it targets the worst culprits for intensive investigation and criminal prosecution.

Focused deterrence also builds up community trust in the police, who are now going after the real bad guys instead of harassing innocent bystanders in an effort to score easy arrests.

This strategy was responsible for the dramatic decline in Boston’s homicide rate during the 1990s. In 2004, Mr. Kennedy and his colleagues successfully adapted it to combat violent open-air drug markets in the West End neighborhood of High Point, N.C.

Rather than sweep through and stop large numbers of young black men, the police built strong relationships with residents, promising greater responsiveness if they took back the reins of their community and told their sons, nephews and grandsons that the violence and the overt dealing must end. Meanwhile, the police identified the 17 men driving the drug market and built solid cases against each. In one fell swoop, they arrested three with violent records.

The other 14 men were then summoned to a community meeting. Neighborhood residents demanded that they put an end to the violence. Law enforcement officials made credible threats of prosecution, but also told the men they had one last chance to turn their lives around. Meanwhile, social service providers offered them job training, drug treatment and mentoring.

Most of the men listened. The city’s most significant drug market vanished overnight, and it has not come back. Violent crime has fallen by half.

Why did the strategy succeed? . . .

Continue reading. Now the question is whether police departments will adopt a tactic simply because it’s been shown to be effective, or will they continue with the familiar but ineffective tactics used to date? I think we can get an answer by looking at the War on Drugs: effectiveness is not the criterion, but acting tough (and, of course, seizing vast amounts of property and money) are.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 9:53 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Miss Megs is more relaxed

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I got a Feliway unit at the suggestion of The Wife, who uses it for Molly. As you see at the link,

Feliway® is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure

I hadn’t thought that Megs needed it. Molly, on the other hand, is such a nervous Nelly that it helps her a lot. But Megs is a tough cookie. So I didn’t think she needed it, and when I started using it, I didn’t know what to look for. But The Wife pointed out some behaviors of Megs that indicated a certain level of anxiety or fearfulness: she would air-spray things at the drop of a hat—not actual spraying, but more or less making the gesture, which she clearly felt she had to do. And when she was lying on the bed and I moved my hand to stroke her head, she would initially jerk back slightly, as if fearful I was going to hurt her, though she relaxed as I started stroking.

Once I knew what to look for, I started noting that she does indeed seem more relaxed and secure: no air spraying, for example, and I can reach out to pet her head and she simply waits—or extends her head toward me—instead of the tiny protective recoil. In general, she seems calmer and happier.

It’s not inexpensive, but it has made a definite difference. The units are also great for tactical use: as when moving into a new place, or simply rearranging furniture in the current place (cats hate change and get upset). It’s particularly helpful in multicat households.

You can get it cheaper from places like VetDepot.com, from whom I also just ordered a pack of Nutrisentials Tartar Control Treats for Cats, to be split with Molly (“Sharing is fun, Megs!”). The vet recommended it, and both Megs and Molly love the stuff.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 9:46 am

Posted in Cats, Megs

Shaving as a restorative ritual

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This story of how the shaving ritual offered a refuge and comfort during a high-stress year is well worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 9:30 am

A new soap and a new razor

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I decided to interrupt the soap sequence because I got in more samples to try, and I have a non-lathering shaving cream review I need to get to work on. Today’s soap is a Soap by Judy that someone recommended. I was particularly interested to try it because the first ingredient listed is olive oil—well, organic olive oil—and in my experience olive-oil-based shaving soaps don’t lather well: the lather tends to die. (Interestingly, on the site the first ingredient is water and not olive oil—I cannot explain the discrepancy: formulation revised? simple error and not bothering to check, proofread, or correct? doesn’t consider ingredients lists important? It’s a puzzle, but (as you can tell) irritating: makers should understand that we rely on them for this information, and carelessness in providing it is not reassuring.

I washed my fact with QED Reserve soap, which I’m liking as a pre-shave soap. Then I attacked the puck of shaving soap with the Rooney brush and got a good initial lather. My question was: will the lather endure? I did note that the lather’s bubbles were larger than in my regular lather.

I also received my new razor: $6.72, delivered. I thought it might make a good beginner razor, and indeed it’s not bad. It’s all metal, no plastic. The knob at the base of the handle turns, but don’t get excited: it just screws out. It’s in effect a finial for the metal tube that’s the handle. I screwed it back in—thought I had a TTO for a second—and unscrewed the cap. Traditional three-piece design. I put in a new Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge blade, and began the shave. (Note the illustration on the display card: a cartridge razor. :) )

The razor is quite lightweight, and instructions to “just let the weight of the razor do the cutting” do not apply: you do have to manage the pressure. I can’t decide whether this is good or bad: beginners—especially those who shave with cartridges—tend to use too much pressure, but this razor would put that to good use. Undecided.

Three smooth passes with no cuts. The lather lasted all three passes, but the large bubbles were noticeable and it was getting some sparse at the end. But it works, and certainly the list of ingredients (if accurate) sounds quite good. Worth a try, I would say, as are Mike’s Natural shaving soaps. But, truthfully, neither will be a favorite: I can simply get better—thicker, creamier, longer-lasting—lather from some of my other soaps.

A splash of St. John’s bay run aftershave, and I’m ready to do laundry.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2012 at 8:27 am

Posted in Shaving

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