Later On

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

Archive for April 14th, 2007

Top 100 books of the past 25 years

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Via Political Animal. Interesting list. I’ve read some, and Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse is here now from the library.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Books

Where’s the FDA when you need it?

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Food from China, we now know, can be dangerous:

Pesticide-laden frozen blackberries. Filthy sockeye salmon. Frozen broiled eel that appeared to contain a new animal drug.

All were among the Chinese food imports that have been rejected at Northwest ports in recent months.

But it was contaminated wheat gluten that put the spotlight on a real and frightening fact: China’s chronic food safety woes are now an international concern.

In recent weeks, scores of cats and dogs in America have died of kidney failure blamed on eating pet food containing gluten from China that was tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, fertilizers and flame retardants.

While humans aren’t believed to be at risk, the episode has sharpened concerns over China’s food exports and the limited ability of U.S. inspectors to catch problem shipments.

Just as with manufactured goods, exports of meat, produce and processed foods from China have soared in recent years.

Over the past 25 years, Chinese agricultural exports to the U.S. surged nearly 20-fold, to $2.26 billion last year, led by poultry products, sausage casings, shellfish, spices and apple juice.

In 2006, China was the Port of Seattle’s largest trading partner, with trade of more than $13 billion.

Food is still a small fraction of overseas imports that come through the Port of Seattle, said spokesman Mick Shultz. Food doesn’t even make the list of top 25 items imported through the Seattle port. Clothes, car parts, footwear and electronic parts topped that list.

Still, China’s agricultural exports to Washington grew 41 percent over two years, from $214 million in 2004 to $303 million last year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Fish fillets, bird products, animal feed products and dried fruits and nuts led the way in 2006.

But only a tiny fraction ever gets inspected, and that is not good enough, said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

“When they do look, they look for common bacteria or known pesticides,” she said. “If you’ve got some obscure contamination, they would never have a way to catch that.”

A report by The Associated Press found that in 2006, Food and Drug Administration inspectors physically checked only 1.3 percent of imports, about three-quarters of the amount inspected in 2003.

Overall, the FDA is responsible for regulating about 80 percent of the nation’s food supply; the Agriculture Department inspects meat, poultry and eggs, the other 20 percent.

Last month, FDA inspectors rejected 215 shipments from China, which included food, cosmetics and medical supplies. That accounted for 14 percent of the 1,573 detained shipments. Imports from 75 countries were stopped; only India had more than China, with 278.

Chinese products were bounced for containing pesticides, antibiotics and other potentially harmful chemicals, and for false or incomplete labeling.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 5:22 pm

What to do when you check your luggage

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According to Business Week, the incidence of lost luggage when traveling by air is up. They have some good tips on how to protect yourself:

For starters, use that camera in your cell phone to take a picture of your suitcase so you can give a good description. Monica Beaupre, a spokeswoman for American Express, says you should also put a copy of your itinerary in your bag. That way the airline can identify and find the owner even if the tags get separated from the luggage.

Pay careful attention when your bag is tagged at check-in, an obvious safeguard that many travelers overlook in their excitement or haste. “It only takes one keystroke to get the airport code wrong at the ticket counter,” says Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe, a business travel Web site.

What do you do when you arrive at the airport and your bags don’t? “Never, ever leave until you file the appropriate paperwork and get copies,” Brancatelli says. “The minute you leave, the airlines will say you forfeited your rights.”

Instead of waiting on a long claims line in the baggage area, hightail it to the ticket counter, where the agents should be able to help. After you file your report, make sure you get the number for the local baggage claim counter. “Do not settle for the 800 number,” Brancatelli says.

You can avoid a lot of the hassle if you have purchased a comprehensive travel insurance plan such as one from AIG Travel Guard, which will pay for essential items if your bag is delayed, and up to $2,500 if the bag is gone for good. The most expensive policy is about 8% of the overall cost of your trip. Your credit card may come in handy, too. Issuers of certain American Express, MasterCard, and Visa cards will hound the airlines about tracking down the lost bags.

And if you get your bags but items are missing?

Let’s assume the bags turn up, but items are missing. In the meantime, your trip was ruined by not having access to your prescriptions and your most flattering bathing suit. How do you get compensated? Last December, Nanette Bentley, a media-relations specialist at billing services firm Convergys in Cincinnati, flew Delta Air Lines to New Delhi. Her bags never made it during the business part of the trip, which meant she spent meetings in dirty travel clothes and tennis shoes. Once her luggage appeared, several flash drives worth $150 were gone.

After returning home, Bentley faxed top officials at Delta demanding compensation for her $8,000 tickets as well as the missing items. She also copied members of the press. “It’s a technique I’ve used when going through the regular customer-service channels haven’t worked,” Bentley says. Eight weeks later she received 125,000 frequent-flier miles and a check to cover the cost of the stolen items.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Daily life

How the Justice Department has changed under Bush

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Read this interview on the changes seen in the Department of Justice. It begins:

Since the day he arrived at the Department of Justice in February 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has “shattered” the department’s tradition of independence and politicized its operation more than any other attorney general in more than 30 years.

So says Daniel Metcalfe, a senior attorney at the department who retired in January, before the current controversy over the firing of U.S. Attorneys erupted. He views the episode as an “awful embarrassment” that has only worsened already-low morale at the department, especially among career attorneys.

Metcalfe, 55, served most recently as director of the Office of Information and Privacy. He co-founded the office in 1981 with Richard Huff. But his career at the department began in 1971. He started as an intern, working at the department full-time while attending law school at George Washington University. Later, he worked as a trial attorney in DOJ’s Civil Division before founding OIP.

At that office, Metcalfe oversaw Freedom of Information Act policy throughout the executive branch. He gained a reputation as a principled official who would adhere to the policies of whichever administration he served, but not at the expense of following the letter and spirit of FOIA. “Dan earned great respect for the policies he helped form, even though they sometimes put him at odds with access advocates,” says Paul McMasters, the recently retired First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum. Metcalfe plans to begin teaching law in coming months.

In interviews in person and by e-mail with Legal Times Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro, Metcalfe recently detailed his views about Gonzales and the politicization of the department, as well as information policy. The transcript follows.

Q: How do you view the current controversy at the department? Is this a time, as a recent retiree, when you would be missing the “excitement” of being at the department right now?

A: I miss many things about the Justice Department after having been there for so many years, not the least of which are the challenges that came up almost daily. One of the wonderful things about the position I held is that every single day held the prospect of bringing some new issue, or new potentially sensitive record, to be analyzed and addressed. With very limited exception, everything that the federal government does is reduced to a record, and any record can suddenly be “placed on the hook,” as it were.

So when I walked in each morning, I knew I could be dealing with a difficult legal issue in virtually any area of governmental activity — and as much as I’ll enjoy teaching law, it’ll be hard to ever top that. But if what you mean by “excitement” is the recent U.S. Attorney imbroglio, which is such an awful embarrassment to the department as an institution, I don’t miss such things at all.

As a matter of fact, knowing that the office I headed for 25 years has been drawn into that controversy by, among other things, playing so visible a role in political e-mail processing, I’m frankly glad that I avoided any prospect of moral discomfort involved. In short, I never had to decide whether to participate in such a highly questionable, obfuscation-laden enterprise because it belatedly erupted in 2007, not in 2006.

Q: You began in the Justice Department during the Watergate years. How would you rank Alberto Gonzales in terms of politicization of the department in comparison to the other AGs you have worked for?

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 12:29 pm

Military honor does not preclude lying, lying, lying

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The military seems to be forever lying and covering up its mistakes—this must be part of the honor code at West Point that’s not been divulged as yet. Take a look at this:

Six years after declaring the U.S. killing of Korean War refugees at No Gun Ri was “not deliberate,” the Army has acknowledged it found but did not divulge that a high-level document said the U.S. military had a policy of shooting approaching civilians in South Korea.

The document, a letter from the U.S. ambassador in South Korea to the State Department in Washington, is dated the day in 1950 when U.S. troops began the No Gun Ri shootings, in which survivors say hundreds, mostly women and children, were killed.

Exclusion of the embassy letter from the Army’s 2001 investigative report is the most significant among numerous omissions of documents and testimony pointing to a policy of firing on refugee groups — undisclosed evidence uncovered by Associated Press archival research and Freedom of Information Act requests.

South Korean petitioners say hundreds more refugees died later in 1950 as a result of the U.S. practice. The Seoul government is investigating one such large-scale killing, of refugees stranded on a beach, newly confirmed via U.S. archives.

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Military

Late shaving post

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Not “late-shaving post”: I shaved early enough, just forgot to blog it. That’s unfortunate because I used a very nice new shaving soap: Tryphon Rosa: “Purissimo, Emolliente Prodotto Artigianalmente.” The formula is Italian, the manufacturer American. Pink and with a lovely rose smell, it worked up into a good lather with the G.B. Kent BK8 brush. The razor was the Merkur Progress, the aftershave was (of course) Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel. A fine shave.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Shaving

A clear look at the ideology of capitalism

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It’s generally taken for granted that capitalism is the ideology of freedom, that only in capitalist countries do workers enjoy the rights and benefits of democracy, and that the cure for an oppressed people is lots of capitalism. But then you see what capitalists do:

Listen to the apostles of free trade, and you’ll learn that once consumer choice comes to authoritarian regimes, democracy is sure to follow. Call it the Starbucks rule: Situate enough Starbucks around Shanghai, and the Communist Party’s control will crumble like dunked biscotti.

As a theory of revolution, the Starbucks rule leaves a lot to be desired.

Shanghai is swimming in Starbucks, yet, as James Mann notes in “The China Fantasy,” his new book on the non-democratization of China, the regime soldiers on. Conversely, the American farmers who made our revolution didn’t have much in the way of consumer choice, yet they managed to free themselves from the British. In New England, however, they did have town meetings, which may be a surer guide to the coming of democratic change. It’s a growing civil society — a sphere where people can deliberate and decide on more than their coffee — that more characteristically sounds the death knell of dictatorships.

Which is why the conduct of America’s corporate titans in China is so disquieting. There, since March of last year, the government has been considering a labor law that promises a smidgen of increase in workers’ rights. And since March of last year, the American businesses so mightily invested in China have mightily fought it.

Beyond the Starbucks of Shanghai, the China of workers and peasants is a sea of unrest, roiled by thousands of strikes and protests that the regime routinely represses. Cognizant that they need to do something to quell the causes of unrest, some of China’s rulers have entertained modest changes to the country’s labor law. The legislation wouldn’t allow workers to form independent trade unions or grant them the right to strike — this is, after all, a communist regime. It would, however, require employers to provide employees, either individually or collectively, with written contracts. It would allow employees to change jobs within their industries or get jobs in related industries in other regions; employers have hitherto been able to thwart this by invoking statutes on proprietary information. It would also require that companies bargain with worker representatives over health and safety conditions.

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

It’s not a “war” in Iraq

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Very good point made in this post:

For a long time now, I’ve been deeply frustrated and annoyed by the ongoing use of the term “war” to describe the situation in Iraq.  Pardon me, but the “war” in Iraq ended several years ago, when all of their troops surrendered.  What we have there now is a military occupation.  You might think this is an unimportant matter of semantics, but it is not.  It is a very useful matter of semantics if you happen to be a Bush-loving, neo-con Republican.

Why is a “war” better than a “military occupation?”  “War” implies a threat, which makes garnering public support much, much easier.  “War” demands money.  “War” demands resources.  “War” demands increased military production.  “War” demands lives.

“War” is romantic, attracting both patriotic individuals who want to serve their country, and military and political leaders who want to cloak themselves in it.  Bush supporters like to call him the “war president” — do you think any would call him the “military occupation president?”

“War” justifies autocratic leadership.  “War” justifies sacrifices in personal liberties.  “War” justifies espionage, both at home and abroad.  “War” justifies sending large numbers of soldiers to be killed or maimed.  “War” justifies killing people, even innocent people.  “War” justifies prison camps.  “War” sometimes even justifies torture.  When does a military occupation justify any of this?

“War” creates images of valor and heroism.  “War” creates the myth of an innocent nation fighting back to protect itself.  “War” creates “the enemy.”  And not just any ordinary enemy (e.g., a terrorist hiding in an Afganistan cave), but a worthy enemy:  “global terrorism.”  Who is the enemy in a military occupation?  Insurgents.  Locals.  Nobodies.

In sum, “war” is what neo-con Republicans want every American to call the situation in Iraq, because this one word gives them more power than they could possibly get any other way.

It is time we stop calling it “the war in Iraq,” and time we start calling it what it is:  the military occupation of Iraq.  This is not just semantics.  It is a matter of life and death.

Comments to the post are interesting. See at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 9:13 am

Factor clock

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Very cool: it shows the time in its prime factors (including exponents if you want).

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 9:09 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Fun hacking software

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My friend in Ohio has the ability to look at a program and immediately start making changes that make it more interesting and entertaining. I watched him once ring through the changes on an Apple Pong implementation: he quickly broke into the code and altered to software in various ways—e.g., making the ball fade into invisibility as it neared the paddles, or speed up as it neared the paddles. Now this:

One of the most interesting examples of a software “abuse case” came to me rather abruptly on an airplane flight from Las Vegas to Orlando in mid 2005.

Each seat in the airplane had a small touch screen monitor built into the head rest of the chair in front, and on this particular airline, passengers could watch a variety of television channels and play a few simple games. One such game looked remarkably similar to the classic strategy game Tetris, where players use their skills to manipulate falling blocks on a screen to try and form horizontal lines. I’m a big fan of Tetris; for a few months in 1998 I was borderline obsessed with it. I would start looking at everyday objects and start mentally fitting them together with other things in the room to form weird line configurations. One of the options on this particular airborne version of Tetris was to alter the number of blocks one could see in advance on the screen before they started falling.

To give myself the biggest advantage in the game, I pressed the + control as many times as it would allow and got to the maximum value of 4. I then put on my “bad guy” hat on and asked: How *else* can I change the value in this field? Near my armrest was a small phone console; you know, the one where you can make very important calls for a mere $22 per minute. I noticed that the phone had a numeric keypad and that it also controlled this television monitor embedded in the seat in front of me.

I then touched the screen in front of me to highlight the number “4” in the options configuration shown in Figure 1. I tried to enter the number 10 into that field through the phone keypad with no luck: it first changed to the number “1” followed by the number “0”. Frustrated, I then made the assumption that it would only accept single digit values. My next test case was the number “8”; no luck there either, the number didn’t change at all. I then tried the number 5: success! ‘5’ is an interesting test case, it’s a “boundary value” just beyond the maximum allowed value of the field which was ‘4’. A classic programming mistake is to be off by 1 when coding constraints. For example, the programmer may have intended to code the statements:

0 < value < 5

When what actually got coded was

0 < value <= 5

I now had the software exactly where I wanted it, in an unintended state; the illegal value 5 was now in my target field. I then turn my attention back to the screen and hit the + button which, to my complete surprise, incremented the value to 6! Again, an implementation problem, the increment constrain probably said something like “if value = 4 do not increment.” In this case, the value wasn’t 4 but 5 so it happily incremented it to 6! I then continue to increment the value by pressing the + button until I get to 127 and then I pause for a moment of reflection. 127 is a very special number; it is the upper bound of a 1 byte signed integer. Strange things can happen when we add 1 to this value, namely that 127 + 1 = -128! I considered this for a moment as I kicked back a small bag of peanuts and in the interest of science I boldly pressed the + button once more. Suddenly, the display now flashes -128 just for an instant and then poof…screen goes black.

Poof…screen of the person next to me goes black.

Screens in front of me and behind me go black.

The entire plane entertainment system goes down (and thankfully the cascading system failure didn’t spill over to the plane navigation system)!

After a few minutes of mumbling from some of the passengers, a fairly emotionless flight attendant reset the system and all was well. I landed with a new-found respect for the game of Tetris and consider this to be the most entertaining version of it I have ever played.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 9:04 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Good profile of Wolfowitz and his background

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Interesting article. And this piece casts some light on why Sharon Riza, his sweetie, is being paid more than Condi Rice.

America Spent $35 million on Foundation for the Future Where Wolfowitz Lover Worked — but State Department Does Not Know Where the Office is Located

wolfowitz hmm.jpg

Beyond the question of what Shaha Riza’s compensation was and how she got it — is what she has been doing and for whom. She was reportedly seconded to the multi-nationally supported “Foundation for the Future,” which was really a part of America’s public diplomacy game plan.

For those interested, this is a pdf of the “Chair’s Summary” from the “Third Forum for the Future” held November 30-December 1, 2006 at Dead Sea, Jordan.

The roster of donors to the Foundation for the Future, launched with $56 million, included a seed grant from the U.S. for $35 million….

But strangely, few seem to know much about the Foundation for the Future at the State Department. To be fair, maybe some do — but in this interesting exchange between a journalist and State Department Deputy Press Spokesman Tom Casey, it is clear that the Foundation for the Future is not a high priority at State.

Here is the interesting exchange highlighting that no one seems to know how to make a call to the Foundation for the Future — (does Shaha Riza have an office or phone extension wherever this office may be?):

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 8:40 am

Insurance companies

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Here’s why insurance companies should not be running universal healthcare:

Attorneys for homeowners suing State Farm Insurance Cos. after Hurricane Katrina have long accused the insurer of pressuring engineers to alter reports on storm-damaged homes so that policyholders’ claims could be denied.

Now, some of these lawyers claim they have evidence to prove their allegation — internal e-mails from an engineering firm that helped State Farm adjust claims after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane destroyed thousands of homes on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

State Farm denies pressuring engineers to change their conclusions, but the e-mails, obtained Tuesday and Wednesday by The Associated Press, indicate the company was threatening to dismiss Raleigh, N.C.-based Forensic Analysis & Engineering Corp. less than two months after Katrina.

State Farm and other insurers say their homeowner policies cover damage from wind but not rising water, including wind-driven storm surge.

Zach Scruggs, an attorney who is part of a legal team that sued State Farm on behalf of hundreds of homeowners, said Forensic turned over the e-mails as part of the pretrial discovery process for one of the lawsuits.

The e-mails “confirm everything that we have always suspected,” Scruggs said. “What it says is pretty shocking. This outlines the whole scheme of theirs.”

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 8:31 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Teach Go instead of abstinence

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Learning Go would be at least as effective in stemming sexual activity as attending an abstinence program, and perhaps more: if they get interested in the game, they might spend all their time at that. Here’s the study report:

Students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not, according to a long-awaited study mandated by Congress.

Also, those who attended one of the four abstinence classes reviewed reported having similar numbers of sexual partners as those who did not attend the classes, and they first had sex at about the same age as their control group counterparts — 14.9 years, according to Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

The federal government now spends about $176 million annually on abstinence-until-marriage education. Critics have repeatedly said they don’t believe the programs are working, and the study will give them reinforcement.

More at the link, including entertaining responses from those who like abstinence programs—“Don’t take this study seriously. Those four programs are probably different from all other abstinence programs; also, the clear message is that students need to keep attending abstinence programs” (right: keep them so busy in those programs that they don’t have time to have sex). Go to the link for more entertainment. Clearly, regardless of any studies and any findings, those who favor abstinence programs, for whatever reason (their own psychopathology regarding sex, I imagine), are going to continue to favor them.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 8:09 am

Ugly scene at NIH chaplaincy

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From the Washington Post this morning:

The spiritual ministry department of the National Institutes of Health, which serves patients being treated in the nation’s premier research hospital, is in disarray and battling a lawsuit and discrimination complaints that allege bias against Jewish and Catholic chaplains.

In February, a federal panel ordered the hospital to reinstate a Catholic priest who was wrongfully fired in 2004. In January, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had found that he was the target of “discriminatory and retaliatory animus.” Three other former chaplains have said that they also were wrongfully terminated.

They have accused O. Ray Fitzgerald, a Methodist minister and the former head of the spiritual ministry department, of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. They say that NIH retaliated against them when they spoke up and invented reasons for terminating them.

Fitzgerald was demoted from the chief chaplain’s post two weeks ago after the EEOC, which cited the “animus,” and the Merit Systems Protection Board ordered the rehiring of and back pay for the priest, the Rev. Henry Heffernan.

NIH officials “endorsed intolerance, and they reinforced intolerance with intolerance,” said Rabbi Reeve Brenner, who testified last year in support of the priest and was fired as a hospital chaplain in February. He has filed a complaint with the Merit Board, an agency that hears federal personnel disputes, saying that he was removed by NIH as retribution for his testimony.

Another ousted chaplain, Greek Orthodox lay minister Edar Rogler, is suing the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH’s parent agency, saying that she also was removed for testifying in support of Heffernan. In her lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Maryland, and in her testimony in Heffernan’s case, she says NIH officials hatched a plan, “Operation Clean Sweep,” to purge staff members who cooperated in the priest’s complaint.

Rogler alleges that Fitzgerald made frequent anti-Semitic comments about Brenner. In her lawsuit, she says that Fitzgerald referred to Brenner as “the butthead Jew” and “the crass Jew.”

“He would not refer to the rabbi ever by his name,” Rogler said in an interview. “It was always ‘that Jew, that Jew.’ ” She was fired from her part-time chaplain’s job in 2005 after she said she informed NIH officials that she planned to testify before the EEOC on behalf of Heffernan. The EEOC called her testimony more credible than Fitzgerald’s.

Ugly, eh? It’s even worse than that. From later in the article:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 7:32 am

Why journalists get so little respect, Part whatever

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Via Glenn Greenwald, a little remind from early in the investigation of the Purge:

Norah O’Donnell is not asking questions, she’s waging war.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2007 at 6:47 am

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