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Thursday, August 21, 2014

On being Swindled in Burma

Pris Yeo - It's easy to lose yourself in Bagan, along dusty roads...

"It's easy to lose yourself in Bagan, along dusty roads where thousands of pagodas along the huge river stretch as far as the eye can conceive. There's practically no Internet, no connection with the outside world, no politics and no one who seems to care or know what's going on beyond the bubble of the city. Slowly though, you begin to realize how artificial it all is, that every outwardly friendly person only wants something from you, as tourist dollars feeds the beast.

You're ever the outsider, so they stiff you on prices, or give you inferior products, and send the children begging you to buy their goods so they can go to school. Everyone attempts to speak the same few words in French after finding out where you come from, with identical accents, only to badger you to buy a painting or souvenir. Canned answers and speeches attempt to garner your trust and sympathy, only so you pay exorbitant amounts for what amounts to garbage, or end up overcharged after the fact, insisting that they offered you more than what was originally agreed. You are offered the history of the place, only to be guilt-tripped into buying afterward. People pretending to wipe the same spot over and over, just so they can ask for a cleaning donation as you pass. Shameless, shameless pandering, and ever a sense of falseness. In the land full of dusty sand and ancient stupas, garbage covers the streets and fields, plastic and styrofoam are indiscriminately thrown out of windows and blown along the streets. Unsustainable tourism at its worst, and I can't imagine how it'll turn out in 5 years with no intervention.

My iPhone was stolen in a moment of distraction, and the greatest annoyance are the lost photos and inability to communicate with friends. Then I tore my ligament again, coming over a particular bumpy road where the bike heaved and threw me off in protest. A few new scars to show, and no longer guided but the trusty google maps or a clock, we lost sense of time and place. We meandered away from the tourist populated areas, to quiet pagodas, some left to mounds of dust and it's own ruin.

The sunrises and sunsets were amazing, and perhaps the saving grace was a night spent on top of an unguarded pagoda, the Milky Way slowly blinking into view as we made new friends and drank and smoked and laughed about all kinds of weird adventures along the way. Our guesthouse was another bright spot, manned by the most lovely genuine ladies that we'd met, so different from all the artificial smiles and manufactured sad faces.

Naturally, the night we leave was the one where the sky decided to paint a show, and we had to miss it to catch our transport. Perhaps we should have miss edit anyway. The bus ride back to Yangon was a new kind of horrifying, ear splitting pop-techno songs played at full volume, only interspersed by screeching soap dramas. The road was so bumpy, three locals even sicked up, one unfortunately just right next to us. All I felt when the plane left and touched down in Bangkok is relief.

Myanmar, I'm glad to be out in one piece, but if I ever see you again, it'll probably be too soon."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Links - 19th August 2014

Arab leaders, viewing Hamas as worse than Israel, stay silent - "After the military ouster of the Islamist government in Cairo last year, Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. That, in turn, may have contributed to the failure of the antagonists to reach a negotiated ceasefire even after more than three weeks of bloodshed. "The Arab states' loathing and fear of political Islam is so strong that it outweighs their allergy to Benjamin Netanyahu," the prime minister of Israel, said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former Middle East negotiator under several presidents. "I have never seen a situation like it, where you have so many Arab states acquiescing in the death and destruction in Gaza and the pummeling of Hamas. The silence is deafening."

Gaza: Palestinian Rockets Unlawfully Targeted Israeli Civilians | Human Rights Watch - "“Palestinian armed groups made clear in their statements that harming civilians was their aim,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “There is simply no legal justification for launching rockets at populated areas”... Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli population centers, as well as Hamas' failure to hold anyone accountable for those attacks"

Trivia Quiz Proves Liberals Smug, Anti-American - "Only 71% of the readers of the New Yorker or The Atlantic could name the House majority party or the Secretary of State. So who scores highest? Viewers of conservative shouting head Sean Hannity on Fox News and radio host Rush Limbaugh. The only question the liberals got right more often? The name of the leader of one of those foreign countries."

Complex cab fares enough to drive you crazy - "There are some 30 types of cabs in Singapore, in at least eight different colours, across seven brands. If that is not enough to make commuters dizzy, there are close to 10 different flagdown fares, three different metered fare structures, more than 10 different types of surcharges, and eight types of phone booking charges. Mix and match each of these types of charges to the various types of taxis and you will get combinations that rival the Rubik's Cube in complexity. Marketing professional and regular taxi customer Lau Sau Kuen probably echoed the sentiment of other commuters when she said: "It's terrible we have so many types of cabs and so many different rates. I don't know the rates any more. Just as I don't know the different surcharges any more. I'm resigned to paying whatever the cabby tells me to at the end of a ride." And if locals like Ms Lau find it confusing, what chance do visitors have? It does not help one bit that operators are now allowed to adjust fares at will. So, even if you managed to memorise the dizzying permutations of fares, you would need to be eagle-eyed to spot the perpetual changes... With about 28,000 taxis on the road, Singapore has a higher cab-to-resident ratio than most developed cities. Despite that, frequent complaints of "can't get a cab when you need one" recur. To be fair, it would be tough to get a cab anywhere in the world sometimes, such as on Saturday nights and rainy days. But macro figures suggest that taxi usage here is less than optimal. Hong Kong's 18,000 taxis make about one million trips per day. Singapore's 28,000 cabs do slightly under a million trips. On fares, Hong Kong also seems to have a more efficient system. Its cab fares are government-regulated. The market is tightly controlled too, with no new taxi licence issued since 1994. Taxis are instantly recognisable, with three basic colour schemes (red being the most prevalent). The fare structure is a lot less complex. The flagdown rate is a uniform HK$20 (S$3.20), with every 200m or one minute of waiting time charged at HK$1.50. Surcharges are few and low. For instance, phone booking is HK$5 (S$0.80), but many taxi operators will waive this. A 10km cab ride in Hong Kong costs slightly more than a ride in a normal taxi in Singapore without surcharges and booking. But with surcharges or booking, the ride here costs more - with one in a newer or fancier cab being even more expensive. Costs aside, commuters in Hong Kong seem better served than those in Singapore, as many visitors will attest."

Singapore has more taxis (absolute number and per capita) than Hong Kong. So why is it easier to get a cab in Hong Kong than Singapore? - Quora - "while HK on paper has a lower population density than Singapore, the hub density is far higher (fewer people living on HK's islands and in the New territories). With property prices at these hubs sky high, the investment in transport analysis before new complexes are built is astonishing. Companies like Arup and Swire Properties invest millions into carefully forecasting the footfall, walking times and usage of these hubs to maximise convenience and the ROI on their investments. While taxi ranks are built in the right places, they also want to ensure the reliance on taxis is reduced by providing a selection of viable alternatives."
"Total cost of owning a taxi (ie. the car itself PLUS the taxi license) is so high in HK ($MM), so majority of the cars are running on the road 7/24 daily so to get a chance to make a profit out of the car's operating life."
"2. There are more people in Hong Kong than in Singapore, and they are more densely packed
3. HKG, and the places people go to in HKG are closer together than they are in Singapore"

2,300-year-old false tooth discovered inside an Iron Age skeleton in France - "Scientists believe the iron spike was pounded into the pulp canal of nerves and blood vessels to make sure it stayed in place. The procedure would have been excruciating had the lady been alive when it was performed. Iron corrodes inside the body, and one theory is that the lack of sterile conditions may have led to an infection that ended the young lady’s life. Another possible scenario is that the dental implant was fitted after her death for aesthetic reasons. In the journal Antiquity, Mr Seguin, along with co-authors from the University of Bordeaux, wrote that the burials ‘convey the image of a social elite concerned about their appearance’. They also note that the date of the burials coincides with a period when the Celtic Gauls were in contact with the Etruscan civilisation of northern Italy, who were known for their dental mastery. The implant is 400 years older than one from another grave in France, found in the 1990s at Essonne... Five thousand-year-old prosthetic teeth used to improve the appearance of the dead have also been found in Egypt and the Near East."

Pornhub study: Anal sex porn ‘more popular in Russia than any other country’ - "It came as Russia was condemned by the veteran campaigner Bob Geldof for its anti-gay laws, which have been used to make it illegal to provide education to children about homosexuality."

Higher education levels linked to increased nearsightedness

The Character Factory - NYTimes.com - "Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t... both orthodox progressive and conservative approaches treat individuals as if they were abstractions — as if they were part of a species of “hollow man” whose destiny is shaped by economic structures alone, and not by character and behavior. It’s easy to understand why policy makers would skirt the issue of character. Nobody wants to be seen blaming the victim... The problem is that policies that ignore character and behavior have produced disappointing results. Social research over the last decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era — that if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits... measures of drive and self-control influence academic achievement roughly as much as cognitive skills. Recent research has also shown that there are very different levels of self-control up and down the income scale. Poorer children grow up with more stress and more disruption, and these disadvantages produce effects on the brain. Researchers often use dull tests to see who can focus attention and stay on task. Children raised in the top income quintile were two-and-a-half times more likely to score well on these tests than students raised in the bottom quintile. But these effects are reversible with the proper experiences."

Paul Rolly: Blogger fired from language school over 'homophonia' - "when the social-media specialist for a private Provo-based English language learning center wrote a blog explaining homophones, he was let go for creating the perception that the school promoted a gay agenda."

Why ice cream sandwiches don’t melt, and why that’s OK - "The latest food panic sweeping the internet is that Walmart’s ice cream sandwiches don’t melt even after 12 hours in the sun. They must be packed with dangerous chemicals, right? Don’t listen to the hype — this is just chemistry in action."

Hold the Phone: A Big-Data Conundrum - NYTimes.com - "If the perception that your phone is slower is attributable to the psychological effect of hearing about a new release, it should be there for both Android and Apple phones. A new phone of either kind should make you focus on your existing one. The conspiracy theory, however, should apply only to one platform... Every major iPhone release coincides with a major new operating system release. Though Apple would not comment on the matter, one could speculate — and many have — that a new operating system, optimized for new phones, would slow down older phones. This could also explain the Samsung-iPhone difference: Because only 18 percent of Android users have the latest operating systems on their phones, whereas 90 percent of iPhone users do, any slowdown from a new operating system would be naturally bigger for iPhones.
The important distinction is of intent. In the benign explanation, a slowdown of old phones is not a specific goal, but merely a side effect of optimizing the operating system for newer hardware. Data on search frequency would not allow us to infer intent. No matter how suggestive, this data alone doesn’t allow you to determine conclusively whether my phone is actually slower and, if so, why... we see a big limitation: This data reveals only correlations, not conclusions. We are left with at least two different interpretations of the sudden spike in “iPhone slow” queries, one conspiratorial and one benign. It is tempting to say, “See, this is why big data is useless.” But that is too trite. Correlations are what motivate us to look further. If all that big data does — and it surely does more — is to point out interesting correlations whose fundamental reasons we unpack in other ways, that already has immense value."

How Scarcity Trap Affects Our Thinking, Behavior : NPR - "VEDANTAM: After lots of research, Mullainathan and Shafir have concluded that when you don't have something you desperately need, the feeling of scarcity works like a trap. In a study looking at poor farmers in India, for example, the researchers found that farmers tended to be better planners and thinkers when they were flush with cash. But right before harvest, when they were strapped for cash, Mullainathan says their brains focused only on short-term goals.
MULLAINATHAN: When you have scarcity and it creates a scarcity mindset, it leads you to take certain behaviors which in the short term, help you manage scarcity but in the long term, only make matters worse.
VEDANTAM: Poor farmers, for example, tend to weed their fields less often than wealthy farmers. It's the same with being super busy. The busier Mullainathan got, the harder it became for him to make time to get his car sticker. In fact, there was a short-term reward for not getting the sticker. On each day he didn't get the sticker renewed, he saved a little time to devote to other pressing demands. But each delay made things worse the next day. Scarcity, whether of time or money, tends to focus the mind on immediate challenges. You stretch your budget to make ends meet. People in the grip of scarcity are tightly focused on meeting their urgent needs, but that focus comes at a price. Important things on the periphery get ignored."

Brainstorming Doesn't Work; Try This Technique Instead - "Sharing ideas in groups isn't the problem, it's the "out-loud" part that, ironically, leads to groupthink, instead of unique ideas. "As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you're not thinking of your own ideas," Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, told Fast Company. "Sub-consciously you're already assimilating to my ideas." That process is called "anchoring," and it crushes originality. "Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation," Loran Nordgren, also a professor at Kellogg, explained. "They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem." Because brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas, a phenomenon called conformity pressure. People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally. Unfortunately, that takes up time and energy, leaving a lot the best thinking undeveloped. We've all been in meetings like this: Some jerk says the obvious thing before anyone else, taking all of the glory; everyone else harrumphs. Brainstorm session over. To avoid these problems, both Thompson and Nordgren suggest another, quieter process: brainwriting. (The phrase, now used by Thompson, was coined by UT Arlington professor Paul Paulus.) The general principle is that idea generation should exist separate from discussion. Although the two professors have slightly different systems, they both offer the same general solution: write first, talk second."

Leave It to a Laxative Brand to Make the Year's Most Uncomfortable Ad | Adweek

No war an island: Israeli-Palestinian conflict a stage for expression of clashes in Arab world - "It's amazing how much of the discussion of the Gaza war is based on the supposition that it is still 1979. It's based on the supposition that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a self-contained struggle being run by the two parties most directly involved. It's based on the supposition that the horror could be ended if only deft negotiators could achieve a "breakthrough" and a path toward a two-state agreement... What's happened, of course, is that the Middle East has begun what Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations has called its 30 Years' War - an overlapping series of clashes and proxy wars that could go on for decades and transform identities, maps and the political contours of the region... In 1979, the Israeli-Palestinian situation was fluid, but the surrounding Arab world was relatively stagnant. Now the surrounding region is a cauldron of convulsive change, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a repetitive Groundhog Day. Here's the result: The big regional convulsions are driving events, including the conflict in Gaza. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become just a stage on which the regional clashes in the Arab world are being expressed. When Middle Eastern powers clash, they take shots at Israel to gain advantage over each other... They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood's offshoot, Hamas, had gained power. As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan GDP. Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn't strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzouk, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, "What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?" The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, "Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.""

49 Celebrities And Their Pornstar Doppelgangers (Part 1 of 2) - 9GAG

(More) Death Threats From Christians | Awkward Moments (Not Found In Your Average) Children's Bible - "Of course, many in the religious community will be quick to claim, “He’s obviously not a true Christian” or “He’s obviously mentally ill.” But, isn’t that always what they say the day after the school shooting, the day after a mother kills her child? What about the day before? “He is highly spiritual teen,” or, “She is a wonderful example of a Christian mother.” I wonder what acquaintances of God’s Little Helper would say about his or her faith, knowing nothing of their practices of mailing Biblical death threats to complete strangers – today, tomorrow?"

#BBCtrending: Jeremy Bowen and the Twitter conspiracy - "At the end of July, Bowen wrote a piece in the New Statesman about the ongoing crisis in the region. In the article he said he'd seen "no evidence" that Hamas had used Palestinians as human shields. Some days later he disappeared from our screens, and yesterday a rumour began circulating that the BBC had pulled Bowen out of the country in response to a complaint from Israel... Few spotted Bowen's own explanation, posted on Friday. When asked why he'd stopped tweeting, he replied "because I'm on holiday"."

Will captured Hamas manual on using human shields help Israel block war crimes trials? - "The IDF said that in a section called “Limiting the Use of Weapons” the manual explains that IDF “soldiers and commanders must limit their use of weapons and tactics that lead to the harm and unnecessary loss of people and civilian facilities. It is difficult for them to get the most use out of their firearms, especially of supporting fire”... The manual also shows that Hamas itself believes that the IDF is trying to follow the rules of armed conflict to such an extent that it inculcates in its fighters tactically and concretely how to exploit this to gain certain military advantages. To the extent Hamas would be the complainant before the ICC, the manual could be a powerful part of a general defense supporting Israel’s overall claim to following the laws of armed conflict when a judge has to decide to believe Israel about whether Shejaia civilians were killed by mistake or deliberately."

QLRS - Criticism : Indecent Exposure | Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014 - "Evidently, Jolene Tan is reasonably well-read, but there is a huge difference between having read hundreds of millions of words and having actually worked through writing those first million words. Consequently, the accident investigation of the novel that is A Certain Exposure faces the difficulty of deciding where to start: the flaps were up, the rudder pedal had been applied, and the plane began too far up the runway. What didn't go wrong?... there remains a suspicion that the characters are smugly navel-gazing on behalf of the author... So, if the language isn't great and the style is clumsy and there's no story to speak of, what would anyone read A Certain Exposure for? Without putting too fine a point on it, I suppose there might be an audience that enjoys being moralised to, or perhaps that believes it is already on the right moral high horse. How many issues can a writer cram into one novel? Let's do a count: there's the racism issue, the elitism issue, the capitalism issue, the Christian issue, the teenage intimacy issue, the rape issue, the bullying issue, the misogynist issue and, for good measure, both the gay and lesbian issues. Chia Thye Poh is namechecked, along with Vincent Cheng and the Marxist conspiracy (by one of the novel's teenagers, no less). Tan clearly disapproves of many of the positions taken up by her characters on these issues and wishes to satirise them, but if it is possible to stereotype characters, it's as easily possible to stereotype issues, and the upshot is that many of these come across as so dull ("And then, of course, the newspaper cuttings…") as to be not worth attention. Overall, this makes the novel feel like an attempt to assert left-wing liberal credentials for the sake of being left-wing and liberal, not because of having anything urgent or original to say. "Sometimes people are their own worst enemies", says one of the civil servants in an especially bad set piece. Indeed: this has gone beyond preaching to the converted to the point of preaching to inadvertently unconvert the converted — it made this Guardian reader feel a little queasy, only stopping from reaching for a copy of the Times of London by wondering if the novel is quintessentially Singaporean because of that Singaporean inability to get the chip off the shoulder. "

"Slut" Is The Swedish Word For "End", So This Happened

7 Swedish words that English speakers shouldn’t be confused about - "One of the funniest situations is when you take the bus or train for the first time in Sweden and see this word “Slutstation”"

Giant anteaters kill two hunters in Brazil

How the Ottoman delusions of 1914 shaped the modern Middle East - "Dating the problems of the Middle East from 1918 is to start the story’s clock running too late. One hundred years after the first of 770,000 Ottoman troops and as many as 2.5 million of the empire’s civilians lost their lives in the First World War, it is worth remembering that, as cynical architects of their own downfall, the Turkish leadership was complicit in the calamitous map-making that followed."

The Amazing, Untrue Story Of A Sept. 11 Survivor : NPR - "Tania Head had one of the most tragic and inspiring stories to come out of the Sept. 11 attacks... Head became the face of the Sept. 11 survivors movement, telling her story to the media and to tour groups at ground zero. There was just one problem: Not a word of it was true."

The changing combat rules of engagement: What is one American life worth? - "To the American people an American military life is worth far more than the life of an Afghan soldier or civilian. For the current occupants of the White House and the Administration’s staff it seems to be just the opposite. It appears that to them Afghan civilian’s lives are more highly valued than American soldier’s lives, though this could never be publicly voiced in the politically correct game of semantics that combat commanders are forced to play these days... An Afghanistan soldier walks into an American headquarters. One of the American officers doesn’t like the Afghan’s looks and starts to draw his weapon. The senior American officer present says, “You know the new rules of engagement; put your gun away. We are to trust members of the Afghani military unless they draw a weapon or show other signs of overt hostility.” The American officer returns his weapon to its holster. The Afghani soldier smiles, draws his pistol and shoots both Americans dead... Saving his own life and the life of his men is more important than saving the life of a civilian who may later turn out to be an enemy; such is the carnage of war. To the best of my knowledge the military’s newly weakened, politically correct rules of engagement were introduced during the Iraq War. Since then U. S. casualties have more than doubled... Starting with the war in Vietnam, America’s rules of engagement have been slowly changing from doing whatever it takes to win; toward soft rules of engagement such as trying to be politically correct at all times, even if it unnecessarily costs American lives. These soft new rules inevitably get our soldiers killed. If the situation is such that a U.S. Commander is forced to disobey these new rules of engagement and replace them with common sense rules, he will be court martialed, imprisoned, drummed out of the service, or all of the above."

On Marco Polo bringing back pasta from China

"Dried pasta, the kinds made with durum wheat, is found in Italy from about A.D. 800. It was, in fact, the Muslim occupiers of Sicily who spread the manufacturing and drying technique. By the twelfth century, pasta produced in Sicily and Sardinia was being exported to mainland Italian territory and northern Europe, where it was marketed by the powerful maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa. Documents exist to prove this, should there be anyone left—and it appears that there is—who still believes that Marco Polo introduced noodles into Italy in 1296 on his return to Venice from China. In reality, by that time, people throughout Italy had been eating pasta for at least a century. Marco Polo does relate an encounter with the Chinese noodle and uses the word pasta to describe it, clearly being already familiar with both term and concept. The notion that spaghetti began in the Far East seems to have originated as recently as 1938, in Minneapolis, as a marketing gimmick in an article by one L. B. Maxwell in the trade publication Macaroni Journal."

--- Encyclopedia of Pasta / Oretta Zanini De Vita

History Of Pasta

"Pasta is an ancient food—not so ancient that it predates written records, but no one was taking notes when this popular food first came onto the scene. Scholars credit the Chinese with making pasta from rice flour as early as 1700 B.C.E. The pasta-centric Italians believe pasta dates back to the ancient Etruscans, who inhabited the Etruria region of Italy (the central western portion of Italy, what now are Tuscany, Latium and Umbria) from the Iron Age into Roman times (from the 11th century B.C.E. to the 1st century B.C.E.). Around 400 B.C.E., they began to prepare a lasagna-type noodle made of spelt. The Romans who followed made lagane, a kind of lasagna, from a dough of water and flour. However, both the Etruscans and the Romans baked their noodles in an oven, so boiled pasta had yet to be born in Italy.

According to the American historian Charles Perry, who has written several articles on the origins of pasta, the first clear Western reference to boiled noodles, is in the Jerusalem Talmud of the 5th century C.E. Written in Aramaic, it used the word itriyah. By the 10th century, itriyah in many Arabic sources referred to dried noodles bought from a vendor, as opposed to fresh ones made at home. Other Arabic sources of the time refer to fresh noodles as lakhsha.

Credit for the invention of boiled pasta is given to the Arabs. Traders from Arabia packed dried pasta on long journeys over the famed “Silk Road” to China. They carried it to Sicily during the Arab invasions of the 8th century."
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