Uncommon Sense

July 29, 2012

Faster, Higher, Stronger, . . , Hunh?

Filed under: Sports — Steve Ruis @ 9:25 am
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After watching just a few minutes of the bloated incoherent Olympic Opening Ceremonies, I have a suggestion: have some official step up to a mike and say, “Let the Games begin!”

That’s it. End of ceremony.

No more countries bragging on who has the bigger . . . whatever. Put the money toward paying off the bonds you took out to finance the Games or, hey, help feed the poor.

I am a sports fan, but becoming less so as these things get more and more grandiose and . . . well, corporate. It won’t be long before Olympic athletes will be sporting advertising on their uniforms. Sheesh!

July 26, 2012

Keeping Political Money Local—The People’s Pledge

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:06 am
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Readers of this blog know that I have advocated that all political campaign funds need to be raised within the political boundary involved in an election (U.S. Senate and State Governor races only allow in-state money, etc). The reason being is that psychologically one cannot ignore a gift from another. Our brains are hardwired to feel gratitude (and to seek reciprocity) for such gifts. Consequently, gifts of funds from “outsiders” make candidates want to reciprocate, which basically is influence peddling, because those outsiders are just that, outside of the political boundaries of that candidate, hence he/she doesn’t represent the donors. This undermines the representational structure of our democracy. Why would an outside donor donate unless he/she wanted to counter the desires of the in-district citizens? The representative ends up acceding to the needs of the outsider rather than the needs of the people who he/she supposedly represents!

Well, lo and behold, this concept is being tried!

What’s one way to blunt the effects of outside interest groups on politics? Ban them. That’s what Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren did in their Massachusetts Senate race. The two candidates struck a unique deal in January to penalize one another if any outside group bought advertising to influence their race—and it has worked. Maybe too well. Consultants and political observers now question whether the ban has come at an electoral price.” (By Rachel Rose Hartman & Chris Moody | The Ticket – Tue, Jul 24, 2012)

So, the candidates agreed upon such an “outside money ban” for their Senate race and now the “nattering nabobs of negativism” are arguing whether this is a successful tactic on the part of the man (Sen. Scott Brown) who suggested it.

Huh? Letting the people of Massachusetts decide who will be their next Senator, without undue influence and influence peddling by outsiders—how can this not be a great idea?

If one argues that Candidate A or B lost the election because outside money wasn’t allowed, how can that be a bad thing? If the people in the state don’t want a candidate, why should outsiders be able to say, “Oh, no, you have to take him!”

Support the ban! We need a Grover Norquist-type crusader to insist candidates “take the People’s Pledge” like Brown and Warren did!

July 25, 2012

An Educational System of Winners and Losers

Filed under: Education,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 4:48 pm
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Charter schools are in the news of late a great deal as are the sentiments that “competition needs to be injected into our school systems” and more charter schools are needed to do just that.

It sounds good . . . but is it? Is competition the way to go? It almost sounds heretical to ask such a question in this country, but the problem with competition is it creates winners and losers and typically more of the latter than the former. These people who espouse competition are the same who extol the virtues of “free markets” and “market forces.” But those forces are brutal. If you want to know how brutal, look into the statistics of how many businesses fail each year. Eighty percent of small businesses do not survive for five years.

Is that what we want, a high percent of our schools failing? We already have that, so why would competition improve anything?

The basic rule is “within your ‘in group’ cooperation is the predominant mode; outside of your ‘in group’ competition prevails.” We don’t mind if “they” fail; we do mind if “we” fail.

So, clearly, what is needed is cooperation. And it is sorely needed. There are thousands and thousands of, pick one—how about high schools in this country. Do you know how many of them have the same standards? I can tell you. Zero. Same curriculum? Zero. No two high schools in the U.S. have the same anything: not the same standards, the same curriculum, the same textbooks, etc. This is a guaranteed disaster if what you are looking for is widespread success.

“We just all need to agree to use the same curriculum and standards. Then anyone who claims they can do it better gets a chance to prove it. If they do, everybody has to do it their way.”

The people who insist that the system needs competition are also the same people who insist on “local standards,” which are educational standards made up by the people in each school’s community. And who is responsible for these “local standards?” The local school board, yes, the pride of each community! I think it was Tom Dewey who said the greatest strength of the American educational system is local school boards and the greatest weakness of the American educational system is . . . (wait for it . . .) local school boards. There is no way that local school boards can garner the perspective and expertise to establish valid standards. The best they can do is share their prejudices.

There is a way to combine the best cooperation and competition have to offer. And it is not hard to do, just hard to gather the political will to decide to do it. Once the decision is made to do this, doing it will be like falling off a log.

Here it is: we just all need to agree to use the same curriculum and standards. But, wait a minute, we don’t agree on these. Yes, but that really isn’t a problem. We start somewhere with some set of standards and curriculum. Where you start doesn’t matter as things will change, but the better the start the better the outcome, so it is hoped we will start well. Then anyone who claims they can do it better gets a chance to prove it. If they do, everybody has to do it their way. Who in their right mind would say “We don’t want our kids taught the best way, we want that old fashioned education!” If you think you can teach reading to third graders better than everybody else—prove it. We have colleges and universities that have stellar worldwide reputations for research. Let’s use them. Develop a means to determine which methods lead to better reading (or math, or whatever) and start the competition! Wouldn’t Memphis or Oshkosh be proud to have their name on the third grade reading curriculum? Wouldn’t it be better to have school boards focused on finance and maintenance and personnel issues instead of asking them to determine whether their kids should be taught algebra in the sixth grade or ninth grade?

Competing within the “in group” in which effort is not wasted as it is in bald competition, is a ladder to success. Things can only get better. If one community tests lower than another with the same curriculum and the same materials and the same standards, maybe they need to work a little harder. If data clearly show that the money spent in a community is a large advantage in the education of their children, then we have to ask whether that money is a valid advantage or one that needs to be offset. All kinds of things would become apparent, real issues instead of the fake ones (thank you state school boards of Kansas and Texas), that we could then address . . . and make real progress, instead of “fiddling” with our educational system ad nauseum as it just keeps getting worse and worse.

One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Not far behind is “doing ‘something different’ over and over and getting worse results.”

You Want No Regulations? . . . You Can’t Handle No Regulations!

I was driving home from a guest spot with a youth sports team last night and on the radio was a discussion of sugar consumption, focused mostly on the sugar fructose (fruit sugar). The science is pretty clear that fructose, in the quantities injected into our foods in the form of “high fructose corn syrup,” is not good for us, leading to obesity and metabolic diseases like Type 2 diabetes. The corn syrup industry has responded with TV commercials showing a perky Soccer Mom cum Farmer walking through a corn field saying things like “it’s just sugar.” Unfortunately they left out the words “the wrong kind of” in the middle of that phrase.

There is no such thing as “sugar,” but there are a great many “sugars.” There is “table sugar” (sucrose), and “fruit sugar” (fructose), and “blood sugar” (glucose), and “malt sugar” (maltose, typically used in baby foods because it is more digestible). The science on fructose is pretty clear: it is fine in small doses, but we aren’t getting small doses and it is killing us. The “sugar industry” is down to playing the “no regulations” card because Republicans have plowed the field and it is ready for planting. No regulations are needed, they say, because people make a choice to consume sweet products, and besides government regulations are bad!

If that (government regulations are bad) were really true, then we don’t need traffic regulations and we can all just decide each morning which side of the street to drive on, and we don’t need work safety regulations because workers chose to take those dangerous jobs, nor do we need child safety laws, food purity laws, clean air and water laws, etc.

“But I want one more government regulation—just one itty-bitty regulation—just this:
companies which receive tax breaks or direct subsidies from the federal government
may not make donations of any kind to federal legislators.”

Unfortunately people are swallowing this “government regulations are bad” bunkum. I think we ought to double down on these “no regulations” people. I’ll start with the sugar industry. Currently just the cane sugar industry alone gets $32 billion dollars a year in the form of subsidies. Those subsidies are an attempt of the government to regulate what should be a free market! Dratted government regulations! Yet, every time legislation is submitted to remove those subsidies and restore a true free market, the sugar industry uses some of that 32 billion dollars to bribe sufficient legislators to make sure it does not pass. I’ll believe that the sugar industry wants no “government regulation” when they give up their corporate welfare.

Similarly, the corn industry has had gobs of government help and subsidies in creating a huge market for fructose that didn’t exist 30 years ago. I’ll believe they don’t want any government regulation when they pay us back.

But I want one more government regulation—just one itty-bitty regulation—just this: companies which receive tax breaks or direct subsidies from the federal government may not make donations of any kind to federal legislators. They can talk all they want, they have free speech, but I’ll be damned if they will use my money to bribe my officials to make sure they get more of my money!

Stop the madness! Write your legislator today. Tell them that you want a new law: companies which receive tax breaks or direct subsidies from the federal government may not make donations of any kind to federal legislators. This will be a condition of accepting the funds; if they don’t agree to this condition, well, they don’t have to take the funds, now do they. It’s a choice you make.

And you want it now! Tell your legislator to provide it or they won’t get your vote again . . . ever.

July 24, 2012

An Open Letter to President and Mrs. Obama

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:01 pm
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Dear President and Mrs. Obama,

I have received two very nice requests from you and your family for donations to the re-election campaign of the President. I may still make a contribution but I feel I must explain why I have not done so to date.

I am inclined to send you what money I can, even though as a retired teacher I do not have much in the way of expendable funds, because the election of Mr. Romney is unthinkable. Mr. Romney has proven himself a willing tool of the corporate and monied interests which are currently eroding what little democracy we have left. Mr. Romney has neither core values nor convictions and, hence, will do as he is told, for which, I am sure, Mr. Grover Norquist will be grateful. Mr. Romney proudly claims that he tithes a great deal of money to his church, money being the thing he has the most of so he is giving something of little value to him, but his actions do not show any particular moral or religious stamp. Plus the chosen recipient of his largess spends only a tiny fraction of their income on charity. So, I believe electing Mr. Romney would just be ceding even more control of our lives to the aforementioned corporate and monied interests.

You, on the other hand, have done very, very little to oppose those corporate and monied interests which are buying our politicians and judges. You decided not to pursue any of the criminal elements in the Bush administration, which paid you no credit with the “loyal opposition.” You decided not to break up the banks too big to fail and they repaid your generosity not with chagrined humility but with executive bonuses and myriad lobbyists still working to gut the Dodd-Frank Act. You decided to not try for a single-payer health insurance scheme, even though as a bargaining chip, it could have been cashed for the program you eventually backed. (“Well, if you don’t like my single-payer plan, what about the plan you created? I could get behind that” has a nice ring to it; it might have steered the discussion differently.) You have also not tried to restore the power balance between labor and capital. The onslaught of corporate and monied interests against organized labor has reduced the level of union jobs in this country to one-third the percentage of Canada, with which we were at par in the 1970s. (Canada has a single-payer health care system because the unions there pulled for it, not just for themselves, but for everybody.) Myriad anti-union measures have been rammed through under Republican administrations and under your administration unions have received at best benign neglect. And who else but unions fight for working people?

Rhetoric will not save the middle class, only action. That action must be in opposition to the forces of corporate and monied interests, which through conservative think tanks and oceans of political money are gutting the American Dream.

I will probably send your campaign a check because I have more hope in you than in who else is offered, but that hope is just that . . . hope. Please act before it is too late.

July 22, 2012

An Open Letter to Paterno Apologists

Filed under: Education,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 7:55 pm
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I have heard recently a number of impassioned appeals from citizens regarding the Penn State University sexual predation cover-up that the role Coach Joe Paterno played needs to be balanced by all of the “contributions he made to the community” and “how many young men he had a positive effect on.”

Joe Paterno was a teacher, a teacher of football. As such and according to federal law, he was a “mandated reporter,” which means he was trained and required, by law, to report any cases of child abuse he saw or even suspected. He not only failed to do this, but he covered up heinous activities to preserve reputations: his program’s, his university’s, and his. And I cannot believe that a man who has lead an upright, moral life would first draw a line on the other side of child sexual rape as a first offense. I have to believe that there was a ladder of failings that left this final one as a bridge not too far. He also lied repeatedly in his cover-up.

With regard to having a positive effect on a large number of young people who came through his program, well, that was his job. That is what teachers do. Whether he was good at it or not is hardly the question.

As regards his generosity with his money, I too was a college teacher, though I did not give gifts of money that could compare with Coach Paterno’s. I suspect that this is basically a reflection of the fact that Coach Paterno earned more money in one year as a football coach than I did in 35 years as a college chemistry professor, even though I saw more students and, possibly, had a positive effect on a great many more young men and women. I also didn’t have a staff of dozens of people assisting me in my endeavors.

What Coach Paterno did was unspeakable but we must speak to it. The only possibly effective recourse is to eliminate his name from history, much as one Egyptian Pharaoh did to another. His memory should be expunged along with his name, records, everything. The only remnant of his reputation should be should be a commemorative plaque explaining that an “employee of the university” failed in his most basic duty and the repercussions of which were his statue was taken down, etc., etc.

Make no apologies when none are possible.

July 17, 2012

Some Basic Physics the Science Channel Misses . . . Over and Over and . . .

Filed under: Education,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:23 am
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I don’t know about you but I enjoy some of the programming one sees on “the cable” as it were. As a scientist I do tune into science programs and there are some good ones. As an illustrator and scientist, though, I cringe when I see some of the representations pumped into our flat screens.

It may not seem like much to you, but if we aren’t committed to the truth in reality and just start choosing what to believe, as scientists we will be no better than schismatic religionists.

One of my pet peeves is the way these folks display representations of atoms. Since they are too small to see optically (naked eyes, optical microscopes, etc.) the only way we can “see” them is to measure certain parameters about them and have a computer reconstruct the variations in the fields measured. We still don’t get a sharp picture and it is quite probably the case that a sharp picture is impossible. Given that, what does theory say about the appearance of atoms?

Theory says that atoms consist of two parts, a solid bit called the nucleus and a wispy “cloud” that surrounds it. The cloud “looks” much like photos of globular galaxies, that is there is more and more of “it” as you get closer and closer to the center and less and less as you move away. There is no outer skin or boundary. The nucleus is made from protons and neutrons and the cloud of electrons. Since atoms are too small to see, there is no chance of seeing an electron, which still hasn’t yielded up a measured size. All we know now is that electrons are at least 10,000X smaller in largest extent than are protons. The effective difference between protons and neutrons is that protons carry a large amount of positive charge while neutrons have no charge at all (they are “neutral” in charge, hence “neutron”). An Aside Like the Higgs boson, the neutron was predicted before it was discovered—sometimes theory follows data, sometimes it leads.

Not only are electrons small in size they are also small in mass. You would need a pile of almost 2000 electrons to weigh as much as one proton or neutron. Consequently the electron cloud makes up a tiny fraction of 1% of the entire atom’s mass. There you have it. Atoms are made of a dense central core (the nucleus) which contains almost all of the mass and all of the positive charge surrounded by a “cloud” of electrons that possess a tiny, tiny fraction of the nucleus’s mass, but all of its negative charge. The “cloud,” though, takes up a volume (however that may be defined) that is millions of times greater than that of the nucleus. So to build a valid mental image of an atom one would start with a black background and drop a tiny (really tiny) speck of light on it (the nucleus) and surround it with a faint patch of light, so faint as to be almost invisible (the electron “cloud”), a cloud that is brighter closer in and less bright as you look away.

What we get from the Science Channel, et. al. is a bunch of grapes with raisins whizzing around orbiting them and leaving vapor trails behind. This is an image created in the early part of the 20th century and has been proven entirely wrong (no grapes, no raisins, and interestingly no “orbits,” that’s right the electrons do not orbit the nucleus like tiny planets around a tiny sun). They make it even worse by coloring the “protons” and “neutrons” in the nucleus to make them more visible! For one, there is no color at the atomic level, but what is really wrong about this is that there are no protons and neutrons “in” the nucleus. They are gone. One of the biggest problems this theory had to account for was what made positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons stick together. Their mutual repulsion or lack of attraction should cause them to fly apart. The solution to this problem came from measurements. The atomic nuclei weigh less than the corresponding numbers of neutrons and protons do! Later it was discovered that atomic nuclei are made in the intense heat and pressure of the interior of stars (in a process called nuclear fusion). At extreme pressures and temperatures protons and neutrons are merged to make new particles, the nuclei, with some of the mass of the protons and neutrons made into energy (eventually to become sunlight). The resulting atomic nuclei, not having enough mass to make the protons and neutrons back, are stuck in their configurations. And since those temperatures and pressures don’t happen too many places atomic nuclei, which are new, single particles—not clumps of particles stuck together (and which is why I said the nuclei were made “from” not “of” protons and neutrons)—continue in that form. Another Aside Ordinary nuclear fusion only has enough temperture and pressure to make the elements up to iron, the heavier elements only get made when starts explode!

Why these people can’t get it right is beyond me.

And for another thing, when they show the planets and the Sun, they place them much too close together . . . but that is another rant.

July 16, 2012

Belief—Required or Earned?

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:19 pm
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Creationists are much in the news . . . again. This time it is Louisiana Governor Jindal who is pushing a multi-million dollar school voucher program that would allow students to attend fundamentalist schools which brag that they teach “creation theory” also called “intelligent design theory” and mock teaching evolution. Sheesh, as if Louisiana didn’t already have enough education problems.

The Creationist cant goes like this: evolution is “just” a theory and the secular mainstream pushes this theory as a method of undermining the word of god. Students learn that trying to oppose this scientific juggernaut will keep them from jobs, so they just keep quiet. Scientists don’t oppose these theories because they will lose their positions, their grants, or both. In other words it is just a big conspiracy by the atheistic scientific establishment.

Shockingly there are people who believe such tripe.

 “What they are missing is the belief of scientists is earned, not required.” 

The “tells” creationists provide is their loaded language, phrases like evolution is “just a theory” as if they are ready to step off of a cliff because gravity is “just a theory.” Their argument is that they have a theory, too, and why not tell students about both and let them choose the one they thought best. The problem is that the creationists do not have a theory. They have a great deal of anti-Darwinian rhetoric and then a suggestion that, gee, doesn’t the universe, well, . . . look like it has been created? (Hint—like in the Bible, Dummy!)

They also say things like scientist’s knowledge is “based as much on belief” as is that of Christians or other religionists.” That actually is true, but not in the way they think. What they are missing is the belief of scientists is earned, not required. Join any religion and they will tell you what to believe . . . if you want to be a true believer. Possibly not astonishingly Christianity is split up into over 20,000 sects because they do not agree exactly on what to believe.

As for scientists, consider the case of Peter Higgs. In the mid-1960’s Professor Higgs was one of several physicists developing a rather strange model of the universe. Actually they were trying to fix a problem with a quite successful theory call The Standard Model which was a description of all matter at the atomic level. Higgs first paper was published but when he wrote a second paper, on the core of his contribution (now called the Higgs mechanism), it was rejected (the editors of Physics Letters judged it “of no obvious relevance to physics”). In fact Higgs received no little ridicule regarding his contribution. Fast forward almost 50 years and just recently an experiment was done that seems to have confirmed Professor Higg’s theory quite nicely, thank you. He was gratified that his vindication came when he was still alive.

The point being is that Professor Higg’s theory earned the belief that people have had in it and have now. Scientists don’t have to believe anything; they are allowed to make up their own minds about, well, everything. In Higg’s case, the mathematical consequences came to be recognized and finally physical proof came. Proof, by the way, that had less than a 1% chance of being wrong. Scientific belief cannot be required; it has to be earned.

People who use phrases like “just a theory” are trying to delude you. Creationists are intellectual charlatans. Politicians like Jindal are worse: pandering jackals trying to trade false belief for political power.

Church of State

Filed under: History,Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:30 pm
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Our Constitution provides us with freedom from a state sponsored religion, but that doesn’t mean religions don’t audition for the role. Currently it is Christianity which is first in line, but if Islam grows significantly it would surely be put forward as the religion of the U.S.

Consider this: Christianity was codified and became a state-sponsored religion under the Roman Empire. There was no particular complaint from Christians then or now. Even at that time Christian churches were amassing quite a bit of property and wealth. Throughout medieval times, the Catholic Church actively recruited second, third, and even fourth sons into the church with cushy positions. (Many nobles thought they should start in the church hierarchy as bishops . . . and they did.) Since only the first son could inherit this was considered a safe way to get those other sons out of the first son’s way, since those signing up for the church signed a vow of poverty giving all they owned to the church. They didn’t really own anything, so they weren’t giving up much and being safely tucked away in the church kept the older brothers from killing them as potential rivals. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet, being a first son was a dangerous position; first sons often fell in battle and second sons moved up in the ranks, and then they often got killed in battle (or by disease, etc.). To make a long story short, those “extra” sons often inherited everything, which was immediately transferred to the church: castles, forests, fields, moats, serfs, the lot. The Catholic Church amassed huge wealth through this tactic alone. This technique is still being used in modified form today.

The point here is that Christian churches, while preaching the virtue of poverty and calling avarice the root of all evil were themselves becoming very rich institutions. Have you noticed that churches have stopped preaching about the toxicity of wealth? In fact, they are running cover for the monied interests, who are always sure to make lavish donations to their church of choice. (Mitt Romney tithes 10% of his income to the LDS.)

Nor are these churches doing much for the poor with that wealth, directing only a small percentage of their earnings toward charity while reaping huge benefits from their tax free status. A recent estimate of the tax-based underwriting of all American churches is that it exceeds $100 billion annually. A hundred billion this year and a hundred billion next year and soon it begins to add up. (Many don’t realize that churches often run “for profit” enterprises under their “tax free” umbrellas.)

So, while we are free from a state sponsored religion, we have our share of state supported religions. And more than a few of those churches sanction prelates who deign to criticize the government or business interests too strongly. Once, the ultimate liberation theology, now Christianity forbids many of its “employees” from espousing liberation theology. Religion of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich shall not perish from the Earth.

So, basically, we have a state sponsored religion in all but final sanction. I hope Christians power mongers realize that they are paving the way for Muslims, Mormons, etc.

July 14, 2012

Let the Markets Decide . . . Yeah, Right

In this morning’s paper I read:

Visa Inc., MasterCard Inc. and banks that issue their credit cards have agreed to a $7.25 billion settlement with U.S. retailers in a lawsuit over the fixing of credit and debit card fees in what could be the largest antitrust settlement in U.S. history.” (Reuters)

I read a number of such articles in the paper every morning: banks being fined for fixing rates, mortgage companies being fined for violating review rules, pharmaceutical companies being fined for pushing drugs for treatments not authorized, banks fixing rates on trillion dollar deals, health insurance companies issuing refunds because of illegal profits, nuclear power companies shirking their duties, airlines promulgating new fees for everything from in-flight movies to checked bags, insider trading by a hedge fund manager making millions via illegal stock tips, mining companies ignoring federal safety violation citations . . . . I could go on but I think you get the point.

“Yes, there is a cost to such regulations, but the benefits outweigh the costs.
States which dump such regulations overboard to “attract businesses” do so at their peril.”

The “markets” are simply collections of companies doing business. The companies, after years and years of deregulation, are out of control, having no moral compass and little moral sense. And we are to leave our livelihoods in their incapable hands? WTF?

Conservatives often fling around names from Germany’s Third Reich: Hitler, Gestapo, Holocaust, etc. One invention of the Third Reich that does actually apply here is “the Big Lie.” If you tell a lie, even a really big one, and say it over and over, people may begin to believe it.

Giving “markets” control over our lives is such a big lie. They prove on a daily basis that they cannot be trusted and need to be regulated strongly. Yes, there is a cost to such regulations, but the benefits outweigh the costs. States which dump such regulations overboard to “attract businesses” do so at their peril.

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