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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be "The Bomb"

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The best television I've seen this year, ranked: [Oct. 21st, 2014|12:19 pm]
SHOWS I LIKED THIS YEAR

1. The Americans (FX)
2. Fargo (FX)
3. Review (Comedy Central)
4. How the Universe Works (Science)
5. Silicon Valley (HBO)
6. Nathan for You (Comedy Central)
7. Mad Men (AMC)
8. Chopped (Food Network)
9. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
10. True Detective (HBO)
11. Community (NBC)
12. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
13. Veep (HBO)
14. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
15. Comedy Bang! Bang! (IFC)
16. The Walking Dead (AMC)
17. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (ABC)
18. South Park (Comedy Central)

SHOWS THAT WERE JUST OKAY

19. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
20. Louie (FX)
21. Archer (FX)
22. 60 Minutes
23. Bob's Burgers (FOX)
24: Live Another Day (FOX)
25. Homeland (Showtime)
26. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
27. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
28. Maron (IFC)
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Mankind's Seventh Mistake [Oct. 18th, 2014|09:59 am]
Two thousand years ago, the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero described what he believed to be the six mistakes that consistently and continually plague humankind:

1. The delusion that personal gain is made by crushing others

2. The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected

3. Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it

4. Refusing to set aside trivial preference

5. Neglecting development and refinement of the mind and not acquiring the habit of reading and study

6. Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do

Obviously, these hold up today. It is difficult to come up with a modern problem that doesn't fall into one of these categories. For almost 25 years - since my old good friend Charles Garbowski told me about these six mistakes - I've thought about this, and I think I finally have another one:

7. The inability to appreciate measures of time, distance and degree beyond our personal experience

This observation arises primarily in defense of science in general, and evolution in particular. The primary obstacle to the understanding of the rules that govern our planet and our universe -- aside from religious fundamentalism (which is already covered by Nos. 6 and probably 4) -- is the failure to comprehend truly large numbers.

As a species we are pretty good at understanding observed phenomena by filtering it through our own experience, taking something objective and making it personal. The way in which we relate to the world is naturally relative. We consider a man "old" by virtue of our awareness of current life expectancies. We consider a line "long" if it stretches outside of a door that was ostensibly designed to stay closed, or if it's taking more than 20 minutes for us to order our goddamned burrito.

We are not so good at reverse-engineering this process. In fact, it could be argued that the bulk of our active lives is spent trying to manage developments that arise in contravention of expected patterns. And it becomes especially difficult when we try to understand things that not only upset our expectations, but exceed our entire experience.

So when you start talking about billions of years or billions of miles or billions of stars, and understanding becomes intellectual rather than personal, we run into serious problems. Even an established, concrete figure like the speed of light -- 670,616,629 miles per hour -- is reduced to an abstraction because we don't know what 670,616,629 miles is.

Even if we are told that it's slightly longer than distance between Earth to Jupiter, we have a really tough time getting the picture in our head. To wit: this to-scale model of the solar system, which will make you feel truly, profoundly alone.

Likewise, the theory of biological evolution relies on subtle mutations and other factors over billions of years. But skeptics only hear that humans evolved from monkeys and assume that we lost our tails shortly before the fall of Rome -- perhaps because they cannot conceive of a time from before the oldest story they've been told.

In a way, my proposed No. 7 this is a more passive cousin of No. 3, in that we are insisting that a thing is nonsense because we cannot make sense of it. Whereas No. 3 is willful, No. 7 is inadvertent and perhaps even natural. No. 7 is rooted in ignorance rather than arrogance.

And in a way, it is a distant relative of No. 5, which might be sharpened as the steadfast substitution of faith and instinct for knowledge. But No. 7 is not a matter of failure to study; it is a lack of perspective. We cannot count high enough, live long enough or step back far enough to see The Big Picture -- at least, not without viewing it through a kalaidescope of math (which, incidentally, is where I start pleading the 5th myself.)

The most obvious problem with my proposal is the extent to which it is simply unavoidable. If it is an inherent flaw in our species, then it is not really a mistake, per se. Maybe it's just another bummer about being human, like heartbreak or hemorrhoids or the inescapable proliferation of reality TV programming.
LinkVent your spleen

The Enchanted Index (NFL Version, 2014) [Sep. 8th, 2014|04:46 pm]
[Tags|]

In order of liked to disliked:

FUCK THEM GENTLY


Indianapolis Colts Fuck Jim Irsay with his dad’s ghost.
Detroit Lions Fuck the Ford Family.
Green Bay Packers Fuck congestive heart disease.
Buffalo Bills Fuck Donald Trump, in perpetuity, with one of his own buildings.
Cleveland Browns Fuck Johnny Manziel, who is every person I hated in high school.
New York Giants Fuck Kate Mara, who just seems like she thinks she’s better than me.
Atlanta Falcons Fuck their head coach, who is so boring his parents couldn’t even think of a real name for him.
Miami Dolphins Fuck bullies.
Cincinnati Bengals Fuck that color orange and their ginger fucking quarterback.
Oakland Raiders Fuck nostalgia.

FUCK THEM HALF-HEARTEDLY

Denver Broncos Fuck John Elway with Bill Romanowski’s helmet
Philadelphia Eagles Fuck Riley KKKooper
Arizona Cardinals Larry Fitzgerald, you’re cool.
San Diego Chargers Fuck Philip Rivers and his bolo tie.
Chicago Bears Fuck Ditka.
Minnesota Vikings Fuck Jared Allen, even if he’s not there anymore.
New Orleans Saints Fuck Drew Brees and his tippy-toes
Carolina Panthers Fuck Cam Newton and his shit-eating smile.
Kansas City Chiefs Fuck Andy Reid and whatever he ate for lunch, probably Dwayne Bowe.

FUCK THEM HARD, WITH GIANT YELLOW UPRIGHTS

New York Jets Fuck Joe Namath.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Fuck those ridiculous snooze-button uniforms that nobody likes.
Tennessee Titans Fuck their stupid thumbtack logo.
Jacksonville Jaguars Fuck those ugly-ass helmets coming and going.
San Francisco 49ers Fuck Jim Harbaugh and his histrionic temper tantrums.
Baltimore Ravens Fuck Ray Lewis with his own statue.
Houston Texans Fuck Ted Cruz.
Dallas Cowboys Fuck anyone who tries to stop Jerry Jones from burning his team to the ground.
Pittsburgh Steelers Fuck “Big Ben” and his gray penis.
Seattle Seahawks Fuck the 12th man, and the 13th man, and so on.
New England Patriots Fuck Head Coach Mumblecore and his Patriot Way.
Washington R******s Fuck their bloodsucking, racist, midget owner right in in his wallet, which is where he keeps his feelings.
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2,566 Words About Why I Would Probably Vote for Barack Obama, or Call Me "Maybe" [Oct. 25th, 2012|05:28 pm]
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
- Voltaire

It took me a little while to warm up to it, but I finally like Twitter, strictly as a joke- and link-delivery system. I don’t think it works as well for other purposes – as a medium for dialogue, as public memoir, as a tableau for philosophical argument – because there just isn’t enough room. Not enough room for nuance, or caveat, or even pauses to let things sink in.

And when time and space are at a premium, people are forced to assert things confidently, without equivocation. They appear certain. And nothing drives me more furiously crazy than rhetorical certainty.

Faith is one thing; faith is not a substitute for reason but I still admire the faithful. I pity the certain, because one must be awfully stupid to think themselves that smart. No one is that smart.



When people who don’t live and work in Washington, DC, learn that I live and work in Washington, DC, they invariably ask me about politics. I suppose this is natural. If I met an Italian, I would ask him or her about Italy; if I met Justin Bieber, I would ask him about shitty music.

And I can speak competently about the general mood within the corridors of power here, and in some cases the assumptions underlying that mood. For a city with so many secrets, there sure are a lot of people talking. You can’t help but be at least a little bit of an expert. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Washington is the only place in the universe where sound travels faster than light.”

But when people ask me what I think of the presidential election, I’m always at a loss for what to say, for two reasons:

First, on a short-term, practical level, I don’t think it makes much difference who wins. For better or worse, I don’t expect very much to change, because Obama and Romney are more alike than they are different. While grand pronouncements and bedrock principles are ostensibly what get a president elected, I think both of these guys are closet pragmatists. It’s the most apt description of Obama’s approach to domestic and foreign policy, in which he has repeatedly sought (if not necessarily found) consensus. It also explains why Romney appears to vacillate between conservative firebrand and avuncular moderate.

Even if there were stark differences between the two men, I’m not sure it would matter, because the presidency just isn’t that big a deal. The bully pulpit has devolved into a bulls-eye. As Michael Lewis writes in a remarkable Vanity Fair piece on Obama:

He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said.

It’s really rather remarkable that we’ve gone so quickly from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who assiduously worked to expand the reach and power of the executive office, to Barack Obama, who seems to have abdicated most of it. And I can’t figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, or if it was intentional or inadvertent, or if he had any agency in it at all or whether it was starved by obstructionist opposition.

There are really only three things over which the President has any control, anymore. But I’ll get to those later. The point is that no matter who wins, we’re probably screwed/OK (depending on your point of view) either way.

Second, on a grand-design, philosophical level, all political campaigns are pretty much bullshit.

I look at elections the way my wife must look at professional football – a noisy ruckus, enamored with its own esoteric complexity and arcane rules, populated by an endless hierarchy of coaches, coordinators, cross-checkers, specialists, statisticians, Davids, Goliaths and glamor-boys. It’s a closed society, with its own language and traditions, and famously nepotistic. There is a dedicated media-entertainment complex built around it, with the seemingly contradictory mission of building mythology while exposing hypocrisy. Fanatic true-believer nutjobs abound, with vulgar invective and sudden violence a persistent threat. Issues of race, drugs, crime and health care occasionally flare up and threaten to overwhelm the game itself. Economic inequality seems to be a constant problem, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there is such a shitload of money at stake – such that if it were its own company it would be one of the largest in the world. And yet it does nothing, produces nothing but winners and losers, year after year, before wiping the slate clean and immediately starting all over again.

At the center of all that, there must be something noble and pure, perhaps even inspiring. But I’ll be damned if I can see it anymore.

I happen to enjoy watching professional football very much. But I have the luxury of knowing that the NFL is a transparently upfront transaction: my money and attention in exchange for action and entertainment. The NFL wants as many viewers as possible. Political campaigns, however, only need so many votes and are free to disregard the margin. Why would they bother giving me anything?

So I’m not sure if I’ll vote at all in the 2012 election. Given the statistical insignificance of my individual presidential vote, it seemed like a relatively pointless exercise even when there was another actual state or local lawmaker on the ballot.

I’m going to have to paraphrase an excerpt from A. Whitney Brown’s The Big Picture: An American Commentary, because I can’t find it online anywhere and I long ago lent my copy to my 11th grade American History teacher (Mr. White), who never gave it back. Anyway:

It used to be that the United States was up to its frilly collar in quality presidential candidates. You could go to the ballot box, check one name or the other, and you knew you’d be okay for the next four years. Then, sometime around the time of John Quincy Adams, it came to be a distinct choice between the better of two options. Soon voters were voting for the guy they disliked the least. Eventually voters began voting against the guy they disliked the most.

It’s easy to posit that the forests of presidential timber have been barren for a while now. But I think it’s easier to lay blame at the feet of a political system that has cravenly synthesized candidates and commoditized voters. “Political science” has always been a misnomer, because – as I described before – politics isn’t a science, it’s a bloodsport.

At best, politics is an exercise in the Heisenberg Uncertainty (there’s that word again) Principle, which states that any experiment is spoiled by your participation in it. Which brings me back to voting.

As a resident of the District of Columbia, I pay federal income tax. But my elected representatives are denied voting rights in Congress. If my opinion as a taxpaying citizen is to be heard on a federal matter of interest – a bill, or law, or a regulation, or a statement of administration policy – the most effective strategy would literally be for me to shout it from my balcony.

That’s a problem. Obviously there is a basic constitutional roadblock to the remediation of the issue – D.C. is not a state. Many strategies have been proposed, from D.C. statehood to retrocession of the district by Maryland. Others have suggested the contrapositive approach of exempting D.C. residents from federal income tax. I confess that I don’t really grasp the specific practical or constitutional challenges presented by each proposal. I don’t really have a preference between any of these approaches and I have little confidence that anyone will ever do anything about it. There is too much investment in the status quo.

But the Democrats get my support on this matter if only because I believe their self-interest – the D.C. delegation, if it ever existed, would constitute a reliably Democratic voting bloc – is parallel with my own desire for congressional representation. Of course, even then – given the district’s political history – it would probably come down to a choice between entrenched corrupt Democrats, which would make me cynical about voting all over again.

But if I was voting this year, I think I would probably vote for President Obama. My reasons are noticeably less lofty than they were four years ago:

As I mentioned above, there are really only a few things that a president can really control anymore. One of them is foreign policy, where I think Obama has acquitted himself appropriately, if imperfectly. It worries me that Romney emulates George W. Bush’s “Buckaroo Diplomacy.” I’m not a geopolitical expert but I’m pretty sure that the reality in Asia and the Middle East is incredibly complicated, even more than you or I could possibly know, and the way to quell that sort of brinksmanship is not to go over there and start slapping people with your dick.

Another thing the president can control is the judicial nomination process, particularly for the Supreme Court. People like to chirp a lot about judicial activism and judicial restraint, but it seems to me that the real danger is the intrusion of policy preferences and party orthodoxy into jurisprudence – for the Democratic and the Republican appointees. Given the rapid desiccation of left-leaning Justices Ginsburg (age 79), Breyer (76) and Kennedy (74), it seems preferable to maintain ideological balance on the court. (Justice Scalia, at 76, is in no danger of exiting the court, as vampires have been known to live for many centuries.)

And the other thing the president can control is his cabinet and executive branch agencies. If there’s a failing grade on his report card, this is where I would mark it. His attorney general and secretary of energy have stumbled embarrassingly, and his secretaries of labor and HHS haven’t always acquitted themselves gracefully, either. While the Obama Administration’s legislative strategy has been largely conciliatory, its regulatory attitude (with the notable exception of Treasury/IRS) has been openly hostile toward the regulated. A second term probably won’t be any better. But a Romney Administration could well swerve sharply toward deregulation, which might be just as bad.

If, however, we continue with the premise that the presidents are, individually, largely ineffectual, we have to consider the partnerships they forge. Inevitably, at least to some extent, every moderate is held hostage by the radical elements of their own party. I have no more love for the far-left fundamentalist wackos than I do for the far-right fundamentalist wackos – I blame both for totally screwing up the health care bill, not to mention immigration reform, the stimulus bill, etc.

But ultimately, if the president is going to be hamstrung by the extreme wing of his own party, it might as well be the extremists who care about people, rather than the ones who don’t believe in evolution.*

*Then again, if I spent any significant amount of time listening to Ann Coulter, I might come to doubt evolution, myself.

And finally we have to consider what each person’s election would represent. The image of Barack Obama as a transformative, post-racial, post-partisan political figure no longer exists, of course. That “high road” has been obliterated. So I look for other messages my vote could communicate.

A strong argument could be made for electing Mitt Romney as a way of holding Obama – and all lawmakers, by extension – to higher standards of responsibility and accountability, as if to say “you have to do better.” I mean, things are rough out there. Really rough. I'm not blind to that; Mitt's right, sometimes you have to fire people. But this message really only resonates if you oust all the incumbents, and for some reason that ain't happening.

But I think the better way to make that statement is to make clear to Republicans that attack and obstruction is not an advisable strategy for scoring political points, just as the 2004 presidential election chastened congressional Democrats and created an atmosphere more conducive to cooperation. Whereas a vote for Romney would be the equivalent of buying ice cream for a pouting child, a vote for Obama could be the broccoli they need to eat if they are go grow healthy and strong.

Biden is Laffy Taffy.

Mostly though, I just get the impression of Obama as a man who isn’t “certain.” You can knock him for that, if you want. Maybe you find something more reassuring about a president who is sure he’s right. Not me. I need a guy who considers all the possibilities. Who appreciates dissent. Who knows how smart he is, and isn’t.

I think Romney is an OK guy. I’ll let his words speak for him here:

“Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning.”



There has been a demonization, of late, of the Undecided Voter, as if it’s a terrible thing to take every single word into consideration before making a choice. I realize this sort of contradicts my earlier argument that all campaigns are bullshit – “what’s the point in waiting for more information if campaigns distribute nothing but hogwash,” you may ask – but my point is that no one should be under any public obligation to make up their minds early. Besides, you never know when a candidate is going to screw up and accidentally say something honest.

People especially hate the “low-information” undecided voters, the ones who probably work hard all day at thankless jobs and don’t want to spend their precious leisure time watching two exquisitely coached men try to come up with creative and thoughtful new ways to call the other guy an asshole. I can’t really blame them for eschewing the news, which has its own depressing institutional defects, in favor of something less “real,” like the Kardashians.

I would vote for Obama, if I were voting. But I can admit that I’m not certain about it. I have friends and family, very smart people, whom I admire and respect – and who may be reading this – who I know support Mitt Romney. I know they have good reasons. This makes me nervous.

I have other friends and family who love their country and mean well – and who may be reading this – who despise Obama (and his policies, but mostly the man himself) so stridently and venomously, so reflexively and with such uncompromising conviction, that I feel compelled to retrench in opposition to their visceral hatred.

And I have other friends and family, whose compassion and patriotism are beyond reproach – and who may be reading this – who support Obama with such cock-eyed fervor and certitude that I kind of wish they didn’t agree with me. And I start to second-guess myself all over again.

Democracy is hard, man.

So you can call me undecided, but I prefer “uncertain.” #Obama2012
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Falling 'n' Love [Oct. 8th, 2012|04:55 pm]
This was my official entry for the contest. It’s actually a pretty substantial edit of a much longer journal entry I wrote way back in 2005. It was about four times as long and included a lot of stuff about my brother (who was with me on this adventure) as well as some additional excerpts from the waiver form I signed.

My biggest concern about this piece was that it was sort of conventional and “obvious,” such that there might actually be a number of skydiving entries for the judges to sift through. But in the end I thought it was simply the funnier piece. It received the most support from my peer reviewers, although I think the story still makes my mom nervous, even just reading it seven years later.

This is the exact version I submitted, 1,000 words exactly.



I’m not by nature a thrill-seeker. I’m perfectly content with the thrills that I find inadvertently, like an unusually well-blended smoothie. But skydiving always seemed like one of those things everyone should do before dying (if not *right* before dying), like running a marathon or falling in love. Skydiving seemed easier than those other things, since skydiving allows gravity to do most of the work and does not require high levels of personal charm.

I was in Las Vegas – where extreme sports like skydiving and bungee jumping and prostitution comprise a cottage industry, with ads promising Heart-Pumping Excitement! and Free Shuttle Service! – when I arranged a “tandem” jump, in which a novice skydiver is strapped to the front of an experienced skydiver who knows how to operate an altimeter and parachute without the use of adult diapers.

When the shuttle picked me up the next morning, the driver gave me and six other suckers a clipboard, a pen, and the scariest document I have ever read. It began:

“ALL FORMS OF SKYDIVING, AVIATION & ALL RELATED ACTIVITIES ARE DANGEROUS & CAN RESULT IN MAJOR PERMANENT INJURY, PAIN AND SUFFERING, &/or DEATH.”

Pain? Until I read this clause, I had just assumed that if things went wrong, it was The End. Suddenly I was worried about spending my last five conscious minutes as a semi-solid mass.

The next two pages were almost entirely about giving up the right to sue the company, its related entities, its employees, their pets, etc. ever again in perpetuity – while acknowledging that the "covered activities" may be subject to "singular or collective inabilities, failures, shortcomings, bad judgements, wrong decisions, mistakes, actions or inactions, errors or omissions, physical &/or mental blunders & all forms of oversight & simple or gross negligence.”

Forget death and pain. At that point I started worrying about my mom, and the possibility of having my remains mailed home in a manila envelope, along with my signed waiver preventing her from suing anyone for the postage due.

Eventually we rolled into a dusty airstrip. Milling about was a ragtag crew of Skydiving Professionals, most of whom appeared to have just awakened from sleeping in the hangar.

Our “training” consisted of a 20-minute video demonstrating the basic skydiving maneuver: The Banana Position, in which the novice jumper curls his or her legs backwards between his or her partner’s legs while tilting the head back. We also learned such important techniques as the Climb-Out, Clearing the Ears, and No Touching Anything!!!. At the end, a sober and serious man talked about how tandem skydiving is an experimental method that is currently being sanctioned only for study purposes, and noted that a full legitimization of the process is expected sometime in the early 1990s.

We were assigned jumpsuits, harnesses, gloves and goggles, as well as a padded “helmet” that would not have protected my head against an errant bird, much less the hard Nevada earth. I was then introduced to my tandem jumper, Ace, who exuded a shaggy, Zen-like confidence and the faint odor of Red Bull.

While Ace and his fellow experts geared up, I stared at the plane on the tarmac. It looked like it was made from tin foil and might tip over from a stiff wind, which incidentally seemed to be growing stiffer, though that may simply have been the tingling in my extremities.

Once we all filed in, the plane shook to life. We took off, climbing, climbing and climbing as the sliding door rattled violently. My thoughts turned to the legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, damaged his parachute and never got to say goodbye to his girlfriend.

As rote procedure gave way to the reality of my situation, my brain initiated its full-scale panic sequence, which resembles Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, only with a preliminary pants-wetting phase.

DENIAL: “You can quit now. Nobody will ever know,” I told myself. “You have nothing to prove. Gravity is soooo 16th Century.”

One by one, the jumpers slid along the bench and tumbled out of the plane. I was the only one left, creating a powerful peer-pressurized vacuum.

ANGER: “What is wrong with these people? Am I the only rational person left? What moron even came up with this macho bullshAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!”

Ace pushed us both through the door. “The Banana Position” became a novel afterthought as my legs cramped into a painful rictus.

BARGAINING: “Please oh please let me survive this and I promise I will eat more vegetables and give change to panhandlers and file my taxes early and vote for Obama.” Though not exactly a praying man, I thought that maybe God might be listening because I was so nearby and screaming so loud.

The air whooshed into my lungs and my goggles and every crease of my body, rendering me literally senseless.

DEPRESSION: “I can’t make out anything up here – not Hoover Dam, not Lake Mead … I can’t even identify solid Earth. Also, I’m suffocating in mid-air while plummeting toward certain death. This was a bad idea.”

I felt a jolt and let my exhausted body go limp. The parachute burst into action and my free-fall became a gentle morning glide over the desert.

ACCEPTANCE: “I’m alive! And everything is beautiful! I love you, Earth! I love you, God! I love you, Ace!” Gradually it occurred to me that I had just paid $300 for a ten-minute flight and two minutes of sheer terror, but I accepted that, too.

It would be poetic to say that skydiving is like falling in love. Unfortunately, this is not true. They share some common elements, mostly relating to the collapse of one’s autonomic nervous system. But falling in love is based on mutual affection and respect, rather than mere gravity, and typically costs way more than $300.

Still, there was something strangely transcendent about it. For a cheap thrill, skydiving somehow brought me closer to humanity, and nature, and God. (But, thankfully, not too close.)
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