Newt and the Fallen Fruit

August 28, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Posted in Disinformation, Dysfunctional Politics, Presidential election | 2 Comments
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Gingrich at a townhall in Derry, New Hampshire.  Date of photo: 8 January 2012, Author: Gage Skidmore.

Gingrich at a townhall in Derry, New Hampshire. Date of photo: 8 January 2012, Author: Gage Skidmore.

Isaac Newton, 1689, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723).

Isaac Newton, 1689, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723).

















Newt Gingrich has once again joined the chorus of those who promote misconceptions about Obama and welfare.  He is also pontificating at the Republican Convention in Tampa this week.

Obama should be honored to have so despicable an enemy.

As Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich has debased our political life.  He has replaced civilized discourse by name calling.  He tries to demonize those he disagrees with.  He played a significant role in zombifying the Republican Party into the party of the Reepos.

Although well educated, he has misunderstood almost everything he has ever heard or read about history and political science.  It is mind boggling that he has actually taught history at the college level.

He has written scholarly books.  But it is possible to write many scholarly books and still understand little.  How many of Gingrich’s books are quoted, or are used in classes, or are even read?

Gingrich is energetic.  But energy propelled by comprehensive misunderstanding does no good.

Some of Newt Gingrich most revealing statements were quoted by Garry Trudeau in his Doonsbury cartoon on January 15, 2012 :

“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” (Gingrich said that in a speech to College Republicans.)

On other occasions he modestly noted:
“Gingrich – Primary mission: advocate of civilization, definer of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization, leader of civilizing forces.
“I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.”
“I discourage a cult of personality.”

He noted that video games “undermined the core values of civility”.  But he also created a  “directory” of language that Republicans should use when describing Democrats:
“Decay, sick, pathetic, lie, betray, shallow, traitors, hypocrisy, radical, incompetent, permissive, destructive, greed, corrupt, selfish, shame, disgrace, bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power.”
He said that “the secular radical machine” is “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”
For more stomach-churning examples, see the section “In Congress” in the Wikipedia article on him.

As an exemplary family man, he allegedly said about his first wife, “She isn’t young enough or pretty enough to be the president’s wife.”  (But there is some controversy about whether he said that, according to the Wikipedia article on him.)

He went on to remarry, and then remarry again.
In talking with his second wife about his adultery, he said, “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”
During his second marriage he committed adultery with the woman who was to become his third wife.  He tried to justify this later, in a public interview (see the section on “Marriages and children” in the Wikipedia article on him) by saying  “There’s no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

During the recent Republican presidential primaries, Newt Gingrich showed us how he would steward the public wealth, by repeatedly running his campaign deeply into debt, by a combination of unrealistic strategic choices and extravagance.

How did Gingrich become so conceited, so blind to his delusions and rationalizations?

I believe that the answer may that his first name instilled in him delusions of grandeur.  His doting mother gave him a first name that evokes that other Newton.

The Newton who noticed an apple that suddenly, seemingly unprovoked, left its branch and fell straight down to the ground.  The Newton who glimpsed from this common event a possible connection between the force that holds our feet to the ground, all around the Earth, and the force that keeps the Moon from flying off in a straight line, by continually deflecting the Moon’s forward momentum so that the Moon instead orbits the Earth.  The Newton whose mathematical power was so great that he could then verify that connection, quantitatively.  The Newton who so hugely advanced our knowledge of the properties and applications of light, and who so dramatically enlarged our mathematical toolbox.

If Gingrich’s megalomania indeed received its initial impulse from his first name, his mother’s choice of name did him no favor.

Laws Against Blasphemy Are Always Wrong

August 24, 2012 at 9:44 am | Posted in Enemies of Freedom, Judicial Injustice | Leave a comment
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The Trial of Giordano Bruno (bronze bas relief), obtained via Wikipedia

Giordano Bruno being tried. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de’ Fiori, Rome. Photographed in 2006 by Jastrow. (

If there are N different religions, at most one of them can be correct.  Then the only way of expressing the truth is blasphemy against at least N – 1 of them.

Blasphemy is not always good.  But laws against blasphemy are always bad.

Every law against blasphemy announces to the world that those who enacted that law do not believe that what they are shielding can withstand critical scrutiny.  It is an admission of weakness.  It announces a belief in the fragility of whatever is being shielded by that law.  It says, “People’s belief in these claims is brittle.  It anyone voices any doubt or question, the whole structure will collapse.”

In that way, every law against blasphemy, itself blasphemes against what it claims to shield.

A law against blaspheming the Koran, or Mohammed, or Allah, or Islam, itself blasphemes the Koran, or Mohammed, or Allah, or Islam.

A law against blaspheming the Bible, or Jesus, or Christianity, itself blasphemes the Bible, or Jesus, or Christianity.

A law against blaspheming the Torah, or the God of Abraham, or Judaism, itself blasphemes the Torah, or the God of Abraham, or Judaism.

So punish for blasphemy anyone who accuses someone else of violating a law against blasphemy, any judge who sentences the accused, and anyone who proposed or voted for or enforces a law against blasphemy.

Laws that prohibit criticism of a leader or a government, or a country’s policy, laws against political disrespect, are really laws against blasphemy: against political blasphemy instead of religious blasphemy.

Blasphemy and public criticism of governments and officials are good.  They expose weaknesses, and the glare of publicity then motivates fixing the weaknesses.  The result is a more coherent and intellectually defensible system of beliefs, or a stronger and better society.

The benefits from allowing public criticism are among the greatest strengths of an open society.  If leaders learn about problems only via official channels, they learn only information that has been filtered by a long chain of sycophants.  So the leaders don’t know what their major problems really are.  They hear only what their echo chamber repeats back at them, plus at most a few muffled contrary voices.

Turkey, China, Russia – are you listening?  (I included Turkey because it is so achingly close to being an open society, and its leaders are honorable patriots.  The other two are less advanced.)

Crowd-sourcing is a remarkably effective and comprehensive way of obtaining information, and of generating ways of solving problems.  One of the advantages of open societies is that they benefit from the crowd-sourcing of information and of ideas for solutions.  But crowd-sourcing works only when everyone can speak freely.

Ancient Athens was a democracy, but it was not an open society.  It used laws against blasphemy to stifle political discussion.  That is demonstrated by the trial of Socrates (URL1, URL2).

I continue to subscribe to the Washington Post, despite its increasing scrawniness and its increasing number of pushy ads (oversized pages, offset pages, pages that are deliberately made unavoidable by wrapping them around other pages).  I subscribe because the Washington Post so effectively uses exposés to force abuses to be fixed.  Watergate is a historic example.  The exposé on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center is a more recent one.  There have been many others.

Fungus Among Us

August 23, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Posted in Climate change, Dysfunctional Politics, Global warming | 2 Comments
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Mold overwhelming tomatoes

Mold overwhelming tomatoes. Photo by Schimmel (Netherlands), obtained via Wikipedia (

In a previous post, I mentioned that global warming is likely to cause fungal diseases to become a major problem at non-tropical latitudes, where they have hitherto been only a minor problem.  This post will explain why.

Early in 2011 I attended a talk by Arturo Casadevall, who is the Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in Bronx, NY.  (His talk was unrelated to my work, and was given in a city far from New York.)

Cryptococcus neoformans

Cryptococcus neoformans, photomicrograph, provided to Wikipedia ( by Dr. Leanor Haley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The talk focused on cryptococcus neoformans, a fungus that presently causes over 600,000 human deaths per year.  But the talk also described in general how biological evolution and the typical temperature in a region jointly affect which organisms in that region are vulnerable to infection by many different types of fungi.

The most important factor is whether an animal’s internal temperature is or is not much warmer than the typical outdoors temperature.

Must species of fungi will evolve to thrive at the typical outdoors temperature.

That means that they will not thrive – and usually cannot survive – inside the body of an animal whose internal temperature is much warmer than is typical outdoors.

Toe nail fungus can grow under a human toe nail, but it cannot invade the interior of a human body, because we are warm-blooded, and our insides are too warm for the fungus to survive inside us.

The same is true of athlete’s foot.

Many colonies of bats in caves have been killed recently by white nose syndrome, which is caused by a fungus.  The bats are immune to the white nose fungus during the summer, when the bats are active, and the insides of their bodies are warm.  But infection by the white nose fungus can sweep a colony during the winter, when the bats hibernate, and the insides of their bodies are cool.

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome (Wikipedia)

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009. Wikipedia.

Cold-blooded animals are much more vulnerable to internal infections by fungi.  One species of frog has recently become extinct due to fungal infection.  Insects are especially vulnerable.  A scratch on an insect’s body is very likely to lead to a fatal fungal infection.

Grasshoppers Killed By Beauveria Fungus

Grasshoppers killed by Beuveria fungus
Stefan Jaronski, via Wikipedia,

Those statements apply today, at non-tropical latitudes.

But as the typical outside temperature rises at those latitudes, the fungi will evolve, and will become adapted to the higher temperatures.  People who live at those latitudes – and all other warm blooded animals who live there – will then become more vulnerable to internal infection by fungi.

That will happen without any planning or effort on the part of the fungi.  Every new generation of a particular species of fungus will a have a few individual new colonies which result from spores or buds which, due to random errors when the parent’s genetic code was copied while generating the spores or buds, would thrive in a warmer environment than would be optimal for the parent colony.  There will also be a few new colonies which would thrive in a cooler environment than would be optimal for the parent colony.  If the environment has warmed, then – on average – more of the warm-happy colonies will thrive and produce offspring.  Generation to generation, in small jerky steps, the bell-shaped curve of the temperatures that are optimal for that species will  jerk slightly toward higher temperatures more often than it jerks slightly toward lower temperatures.  Without knowing it, that species of fungus will adapt to a warmer environment.

By the way, this process – biological evolution – is so effective that software engineers now mimic it on computers, to generate computer algorithms that can function in complicated environments, and in changing environments.  Examples are Genetic Programming, artificial neural nets, and cellular automata.

How fungal infection will be affected by global warming is analyzed in more detail in two articles (references 2 and 3) that are cited in the section “Advantages and disadvantages of an endothermic metabolism” in an article in Wikipedia.

The pain to infected individuals and the economic cost of the increased fungal infection of humans, livestock, and wild animals should be included when weighing the near-term and long-term net costs of delaying action on climate change.

The Green Parties of Australia and the US

August 21, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Posted in Climate change, Conceited, Global warming, Presidential election | 6 Comments
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Several posts (Jill Stein, Roseanne Barr, and the Green Party, Mr Belly Button and the Green Party) in this blog have pointed out the negative electoral effect of the Green Party, and its vagueness, impracticality and grandiose quality.  The US Green Party seems to be a self-indulgent hobby.  Its only effect on US politics so far has been to help Republicans win elections.  Of course, this unintended effect blocks the achievement of all of the goals of the Green Party, and of those who vote for its candidates.

But these criticisms apply only to the US Green Party.  Blogging on WordPress has acquainted me with the Australian Green Party.  It seems to be entirely different from the US Green Party.  I came to that view by following James Wight’s posts, in particular

Wight’s blog shows that the Australian Green Party, unlike the US Green Party, does the hard work of crafting detailed policies and justifies them with quantitative data and analyses.  Thus they really contribute something substantive and usable to discussions of policy, and their ideas can be cited and used even by the elected members of other parties, as well as by the Green Party itself.  Unlike the US Green Party, the Australian Green Party is constructive.

Australia’s Green Party shows how the US Green Party could change itself into something beneficial, and no longer inimical to its own stated objectives:
– It could propose detailed, quantitative proposed legislation and regulatory action.  This should be detailed enough to be used as draft legislation, and should be backed by quantitative data and assessments of impact.
– It could avoid siphoning votes away from the Democratic Party.

Mr Belly Button and the Green Party re: Citizens United

August 19, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Posted in Conceited, Judicial Misjudgment | 3 Comments
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On January 20, 2012, I participated in a demonstration in a small park that faces the Supreme Court.  The demonstration decried the Court’s absurd decision in the Citizens United case.

Citizens United is the case that ignored the fact that corporations are purely legal entities, created solely to shield their executives and board members from personal legal liability for the corporation’s actions, and – secondarily – to obtain favorable tax treatment.  They are not political entities, and their political preferences are certainly not independent of the private political preferences of their executives and board, effectively magnifying the personal influence of those individuals on the outcome of the election.

The Court’s decision favored plutocracy and oligarchy over democracy.  It did so because that is what Chief Justice Roberts and his cronies, like Willard Mitt Romney and his cronies, really believe in.  True to its purpose, the decision spawned the sudden appearance of the super-PACs, with their hidden, very rich donors.

The Court’s decision also spawned efforts to enact a Constitutional amendment that would overturn the Court’s decision.  The demonstration I attended was in support of such efforts.  It was organized by a group that I had never heard of before: Move to Amend.

Those participating in the demonstration were diverse, and included many who, like me, had no connection to the organizers.  Some of the participants were from the Occupy movement.  It was the first time that I had personally encountered any.

The demonstration was in the morning, and during the demonstration the organizers issued an invitation to an open discussion that afternoon about what could be done next.  The discussion was held in a building adjacent to the Supreme Court.  I attended.

The meeting was led by one of the main organizers of the morning’s demonstration.  I will call him Mr. Belly Button, because he was impressed by the fact that every human had a belly button, and no corporation did.  He insisted on showing his to all assembled.

Mr. Belly Button announced that he would next show us Move To Amend‘s proposed amendment to the Constitution.  He said that he was eager for discussion and comments, but that they would not result in any changes of wording.  The wording was already fixed, unchangeable.

Move to Amend‘s proposed amendment is good.  But before the meeting I had come across another proposed amendment, S. J. Res 29, that was more general, and covered aspects of the problem that were not covered by Move to Amend‘s version.  The inability to influence the wording of Move to Amend‘s  proposed amendment made it pointless to raise this issue.  That was a loss for the whole effort to obtain an amendment that would fix the Citizens United decision, and related prior decisions by the Court.

(S.J. Res 29 was proposed by Senators Udall (New Mexico), Bennet (Colorado), Harkin (Iowa), Durbin (Illinois), Schumer (New York), Merkley (Oregon), Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Begich (Alaska), and Shaheen (New Hampshire).)

Because the wording of the proposed amendment was fixed, the focus of the discussion became what to do next.

One particularly self-esteeming gentleman from Atlanta said that eventually the whole Constitution should be rewritten, because those who wrote it were not representative, and included slave-holders.

That is important enough to require some comments.

The barons who imposed the Magna Carta on the King of England were not at all egalitarian.  They were not elected by the adult population that would be affected by their action.  So by the logic of the gentleman from Atlanta, England should now revise the Magna Carta.

To embark on rewriting the Constitution from scratch would ignore the law of unintended consequences, the twistiness and contingence of historical branching, all of which result from the complexity of human society.  Rewriting the Constitution in one fell swoop would be extraordinarily foolhardy.  But neither Mr Belly Button nor any other of the dominant voices at the meeting blanched or voiced any objection.  They even hinted at favoring an eventual complete rewriting of the Constitution.

Any system of government that works fairly well should be changed only incrementally, testing the results of each small step before going on to the next change.  The evolution should resemble biological evolution during an interval that contains no planetary-scale geological or astronomical catastrophes.

That applies also to Paul Ryan’s goal of sweepingly reorganizing and rescoping the government, which underlies and goes far beyond his proposed budget.

It is worth noting some aspects of those in attendance.

Move to Amend appeared to me to be a fixed group of individuals who moved opportunistically from issue to issue.  I got the impression they waited for the emergence of the next new issue that they could ride, and changed the name of their group accordingly.  Most or all of the organizers seemed to be leading activists in the US Green Party.

As far as I could glimpse their underlying agenda, it seemed pretentious and grandiose.  Fortunately, because the group regarded pragmatism as synonymous with impurity, their agenda is unlikely to ever be implemented, or even to contribute to policies implemented by others.

As noted earlier, the audience was much more diverse than the organizers.  Many were practical and non-doctrinaire.  In particular, I was very favorably impressed by those from the Occupy movement.  They had thought long and hard about the issues.  That was understandable, in view of the personal sacrifices they were making.  Unlike the organizers, those from the Occupy movement were very focused on the effectiveness of proposed actions and policies.

Another organization, Public Citizen (URL1, URL2) is partnering with Move to Amend to promote Move to Amend‘s proposed amendment to the Constitution.  Public Citizen is presently trying to encourage people to push for the amendment right now.  That is a big mistake.  This is the wrong time, even though the deformation to the electopral process that has been wrought by the Citizens United decision is presently in full view.  The politically aware portion of the citizenry are and will be focused exclusively on the election until it is over.  For the moment, talking about Citizens United is a waste of time, money and energy, and will detract from the attention that activists are willing to give to the issue after the election.

August 19, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Republicans versus Reepos

August 17, 2012 at 8:06 am | Posted in Climate change, Disinformation, Dysfunctional Politics, Enemies of Freedom, Enemies of Planet Earth, Fairness, Global warming | 1 Comment
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I used to vote mostly for Republicans.

I contributed to the campaign of our local Representative, a thoughtful Republican who considered each issue on its merits, was pragmatic rather than ideological, and did not toe any party line.

The 1994 Contract With America delighted me.  (Does anyone remember it?)

But then the Republican Party zombified itself.  The change became noticeable in 1994.

Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert, and their ilk elevated ideology and party loyalty over pragmatic choices.  They sneered at compromise and bi-partisanship, as if they had a monopoly on truth.  Their policy was to stay on message, never revising their positions, regardless of the facts.  Thus they became rationalizers for what would benefit the rich, and purveyors of disinformation.

They ignored the data on climate change.  They saw no need to protect the public against unsafe food, or unscrupulous financiers.  They forgot the great economic lesson of the 20th Century: that an economy can grow stably and generate abundant jobs only when income is widely distributed, so that the many have the means to buy.  They systematically sought to dismantle labor unions.

They became ethically and politically repulsive.  They were no longer Republicans.  They had become Reepos.

The Grand Old Party became instead the Greedy Old Pricks.

Perhaps it would be more polite to replace GOP by POG, for Party of Greed.

The GOP complains about class warfare, but the only class warfare right now is that waged by the Reepos against everyone else.

I grudgingly realized that however much I liked the work done by my local Representative, as long as my Representative was a Republican, that person would have to vote for a dishonorable Speaker of the House.

It is even worse now.

After President Obama’s election, the leading Republicans in the Senate and House said out loud that they would do everything possible to make Obama a one-term President.  They would vote against anything that Obama and other Democrats proposed, regardless of its merits.  In other words, party took priority over patriotism.  For the sake of attacking President Obama, they opposed the very features of his health care plan that he had learned from them.  The elected Republicans became the Party of No, the party of obstruction, the party of no compromise.

Opposition to even the possibility of compromise is un-American, because it is contrary to the goal of an open society, which is the most fundamental principle of the original United States.  An open society was the goal because of its greatest strength, which is the self-correcting ability it derives from give and take, loyal dissent, and compromise, rather than winner-take-all.

The Republican party has lost its previous understanding that a large and growing middle class was essential, both economically and for political stability, that robber barons are bad, that capitalism has to be regulated for its own good, and that – as the Founders so clearly understood – essential functions that benefit all must be funded by all, via the government, and therefore that government and taxes are indispensible.

What the Republican Party has become fulfills George Washington’s worst fears about what partisanship would do to the country.  In his Farewell Address  (December 19, 1796) Washington said that partisanship “serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the Community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against the other, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”  That accurately describes us, today.  (As for the last phrase in that quote, think of the right wing demogogues on TV, and how their message affects racial purists and the unstable.)

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said, “Not a Republican”.  But the old Republicans were honorable and contributed beneficially to the civic dialog.  “Not A Reepo” would have more accurately represented the thought underlying the bumper sticker.

Should the Democrats Talk About Climate Change?

August 16, 2012 at 9:22 am | Posted in Climate change, Disinformation, Global warming | 1 Comment
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Climate change has long been a divisive issue.  For that reason the Democratic Party has shied away from talking about it before the election.

But this year has been the tipping point for public opinion about climate change.

Drought, fires, and record temperatures this past summer have convinced many who previously doubted global warming.  (Although global warming does not account for all of the present drought, it does contribute to it, and will contribute more importantly to future droughts.  Here is a concise summary of the relative contributions to drought from natural cycles and from human-induced warming.)

The reports of ice melting and the margins of glaciers disintegrating in both the Arctic and the Antarctic have added to the change of heart. The steady drum beat of dramatic changes has cumulatively built up a convincing mass of evidence.

There are probably few farmers in the midwest and southwest who still do not believe in global warming.

The drought is going to push up the price of food.  The melting of the permafrost in formerly cold regions will force hugely expensive replacements of buildings and roads.  There will also be an enormous human and medical cost from fungal  infections, as I’ll discuss in a later post.  It is now clear that the cost of not reducing global warming will eventually dwarf the cost of reducing it.

By the way, what do the Pee Party and Paul Ryan think about the Federal role in drought relief? If they are for it, how do they expect the government to pay for it?

That brings us back to the question in the title of this post.

In the pre-election arguments, the Democrats should point out that, of the two parties, only they are willing to do something about global warming.

If Republicans are elected,
– action will be further delayed
– the problem will be much harder when we finally get around to dealing with it
– the impact on you, your children and your grandchildren will be much more severe.

If Democrats are elected,
– action starts right away
– the problem will not be as hard or as costly
– the impact on you and yours and on the economy will be less severe.

Al Gore was right.  Global warming is an inconvenient truth.  But we cannot avoid having to deal with it eventually.

Fareed Zakariah

August 14, 2012 at 6:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A recently discovered incident of plagiarism has caused CNN to drop Fareed Zakaria as a commentator, and some other news media are also considering dropping him.

That would be a mistake.

Despite any shortcuts he took in his article on gun control, Fareed Zakaria is still one of the most insightful commentators on both national and international political issues.  He sees the relevance of facts whose relevance no one else has spotted.  He sees through disinformation.  He sees each issue from a novel and useful angle.  He is also an extraordinarily clear writer.  I eagerly read his columns whenever they appear, and learn something even from the columns with which I do not completely agree.

If he is denied a prominent forum, we will all be the poorer for having been deprived of his insights.

Say ACA, not Obamacare

August 13, 2012 at 8:03 am | Posted in Disinformation | Leave a comment
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“Obamacare” is the derogatory, partisan term for the Affordable Care Act (the ACA).

It was created to deflect attention away from what the Act does, and toward an individual having a non-mainstream name.

Whether or not it was invented by Karl Rove, it is Karl Rovian in style and intent.  That is to say, it is Goebbelsian.

An unbiased news commentator or reporter would say Affordable Care Act, or, for brevity, the ACA.

“Obamacare” is euphonious, which, together with the efforts of the right wing noise machine, has made it common.  But it is disinformation.  It carries spin.

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