Thursday, November 29, 2007

Altogether now - blame Hel-elen!

Some years ago now Southpark had an episode where, because things kept going wrong at home the town/school authorities decided they needed a scapegoat. They picked Canada. There was a long song and dance routine which proposed "blame Can-a-da" as the answer to all woes. In typical fashion Southpark then depicted a major war by the United States against its long-suffering northern neighbour.

Comedy, I thought, until I took a gander at the Australian Labor Party's campaign website recently {}. Basically it was a case of "Blame How-a-ward!" for just about anything! Mortage making your eyes water? "Blame How-a-ward!". Groceries getting expensive? "Blame How-a-ward!" Cost too much to fill the car "Blame How-a-ward!" What about the drought ? Yup, you got it! "Blame How-a-ward!"

Now, I have long admired Australian politicians. I loved Hawke's blokey, matey sentimental nonsense. I liked the snake-like Keating as he spat vitriol and collected French clocks like a snob. Maybe they were more amusing at a distance. But John Howard has always reminded me of a turd. There was something dank and unpleasant just in the look of the man and his politically nasty and adroit manner didn't seem to reflect any of the qualities one admires of Australians.

But pinning the blame for outrageous land prices, a global shortfall in wheat production and the investment policies of OPEC nations on John Howard personally, just seems to be a tad unfair. And of course it is - but that's the point. Those clever Australian Labor Party strategists have borrowed from military thinking and realised that a good offence is better than good defence.

On the face of it John Howard had nothing to fear. He had delivered a thundering economy and tax cuts. New Zealanders, sick of paying huge taxes for dwindling services, are packing their bags to become a part of it in unprecedented numbers {}. But Howard was still exposed. His labour relations policy made the average "Aussie battler" nervous and Australians (like almost everyone else in the world outside of Texas) felt being embroiled in Iraq had been something of a Mistake.

So Labor played on fear and irritation. Fear of what might happen (Peter Costello and even more anti-labour legislation) and irritation with the niggling things that even in the "Lucky Country" anger people: sky high mortgages; and the rising cost of living. And they bombarded the public with it like a tennis ball machine on overdrive. Because it is very glib and easy to blame people and very tiresome and difficult for them to explain why they are not to blame. In a two second soundbite "Blame How-a-ward!" is easy. Explaining high global food prices is impossible.

Given this object lesson in winning elections right next door it is hard to see how National can muck it up here in 2008. Its easy! Altogether now "Blame Hel-elen!". And Helen has even more to be defensive about than John Howard. First there are the common ones:

Housing (much more) unaffordable ? "Blame Hel-elen!"
Grocery prices rising too fast? "Blame Hel-elen!"
Gas costs (artificially) too much ? "Blame Hel-elen!"

Then you can get into the kiwi ones.

Murderers let loose on the streets? "Blame Hel-elen!"
Doctors leaving in droves? "Blame Hel-elen!"
Mothers turfed out of hospitals? "Blame Hel-elen!"
Parents convicted for spanking kids? "Blame Hel-elen!"
Schools closing/short of cash? "Blame Hel-elen!"
Call that a tax cut? "Blame Hel-elen!"
No progress on Maori greivances?"Blame Hel-elen!"
Anti business legislation?"Blame Hel-elen!"

Man, the avalanche of blame waiting to be let loose on the Prime Minister's head is simply awesome. Some of it may even be deserved! But whether it is, or isn't, won't make any difference. The main point is that it will be easy to fire accusations and very hard to deflect them.

Now the Prime Minister isn't stupid. She knows what's coming. She can read. So what will she do? My guess is more Madagascar Monkey raids. Thats where you whip in and throw poo at the leader of the opposition when he isn't expecting it. The objective is to make him appear an untrustworthy slimeball.

It worked well against Don Brash who, if Nicky Hager is correct, was basically shown to be one. Certainly his extra-marital affair and the sudden amnesia over contact with a bunch of radically sexist fundamentalists made it look that way. But in my view Brash was an easy target. Everything he did alienated women. The essential swinging female vote that Bill Clinton charmed so well, found very little in Don-errrr-Brash, to like. John Key is another story. He's younger, he's better looking, he's a family man, and he's rich. Women like that.

Key's biggest failing however is that, like his deputy Bill English, he can occassionally be a goofus. The Coldplay disaster is poo that sticks. Being caught on tape claiming to lead the Labour Party was even worse than English's brilliant concession of defeat when he told Parliament before the last election Labour wouldn't get a fourth term instead of a third. To look confident National cannot afford to look so stupid. Labour will almost certainly use every stupid thing the National caucus ever said in 2008 and it won't need a bigger pile of poo than the one National MPs have been providing it to date.

What Key has to do is make like Kevin Rudd and play the steadfastly smiling conductor to a choir singing "Blame Hel-elen!" while telling everyone that the solutions are very simple and making sure he doesn't get drawn into any details. The more Labour throws shit the more it will end up looking grubby and unpleasant. Come to think of it, it sounds almost exactly like the way David Lange won office in 1984!

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Bah Humbug 2007!

The various city Santa parades have been and gone but the holly and plastic snow has yet to appear in retailers windows. Cheesy reindeer and red-suited Santa window displays are nowhere to be seen. The sound of sleighbells or christmas crooning is still not to be heard in the streets. New Zealand is in the grip of a Grinch and the only obvious emotions on people's faces are fatigue and irritation.

The fact is New Zealanders can't afford Christmas. Credit card debt now stands at a record $4.9 billion as of October 2007 while the base lending rates are around 13%. True the slumping US dollar means that consumer durables have never been so cheap but retail outlets have been fighting a vicious credit driven market share war for these customers all year. Retailers have wrung the stone dry and consumers have nothing left to give.

With the resourceful hypocrisy of advertisers everywhere I suspect 2007 will be a 'spiritual' christmas. Marketers will have to lay off the hard sell and push for the small and meaningful, with as much reference to stories of poor people giving as possible. Soulful songs and even religious overtones are the go for 2007. The Hard beat, hard sell jingle bells of previous years will spark nothing but resentment and avoidance in retail outlets this season.

But the curious thing is the anti-merchandise sentiment seems to be equally strong among both rich and poor at the moment. People are sick of stuff. They are sick of being told to buy and they are sick of the clutter buying things brings with it. Having gorged on credit for so long people are gradually losing their appetite for meaningless merchandise as it becomes less affordable.

An amusing parallel arises here. This was precisely the situation in the Roman Empire which led to the widespread adoption of St Paul's Christianity. Tired of sex, violence and excess, the Romans - and especially the Greeks - found the humble sanctity of the Christian message a refreshing change.

But the big question is whether this anti-material kick will last or is simply symptomatic of an economic down-turn. My suspicion is that it will last and is not just due to a slow-down. Is a cultural transition.

For despite reaping record farm profits due to the global grain shortage New Zealand is facing a slow-down. You cannot run interest rates over 12.5% without a crunch coming sooner or later. Meanwhile The global housing pop is beginning reducing demand for property. Personally I would not be too surprised to see a reversal of the holiday home market over the next few years and foreign owners liquidate their unused New Zealand assets when they fail to meet the rosy growth projections their purchase was predicated on.

Baby-boomers provide the west with its cultural lead. In the 80s they went mad on champagne and dodgy bonds. In the 90s it was tech stocks and in the 00s it was housing. Most boomers have done pretty well for themselves - certainly better than other generations have or may expect to do. Now as the housing bubble begins to pop I suspect boomers are bedding themselves in for an economic winter. During this period I suspect they will start to get all spiritual on us - from the comfort of their tidy nesteggs of course.

But New Zealand is not a particularly christian nation. In the past five years those professing to be Christian has slipped from 60% to 55% with only the Catholics growing their flock. But if one scratches the surface of this the story becomes a bit different. New Zealanders have never been particularly good at accepting spiritual authorities and have a tendency to go their own way. From the fundamentalist cheese of the self-proclaimed Bishop Brian Tamaki to Christian rationalist chalk of Lloyd Geering it would be hard to discern much in common with these different brands of christianity other than their reference back to events between Nazareth and Bethlehem 2,000-odd years ago. All invoke christian motifs but variation in philosophy between Christians in New Zealand is far greater than in European nations with long established churches.

No, if New Zealand has any common set of beliefs, they turn around environmentalism. More than 80% of New Zealanders say they are concerned about the impact of humankind on the environment. As with christianity these beliefs vary enormously from the practical business-like values of farmers to the theoretical idealism of suburban politicians but there is at least a common view that the environment must be preserved, and that we are not doing a particularly good job of that.

Perhaps then, what I am predicting is the rise of more low-key "green Christmas". This will emphasise charity - particularly to third world causes, and enjoying New Zealand's outdoors. The essense will be simplicity, freedom, family and nature. There will be a greater role for businesses and religious organisations which can refine their message and deliver goods and services which meet these needs. I suspect the simple and natural will end up being humungously expensive as the middle class inevitably engages in its tragic little competitions but at least those who genuinely are poorly off will not feel too far out of place.

My only real question is, when will councils stop being so up-tight about letting people have fires on the beach? Its one of the great symbols of New Zealand freedom and yet everywhere you go the miserable sods have outlawed it!

The Government may have nothing to do with such restrictions but it is the sense of being enmeshed in red tape which is another pressure that is Grinching out New Zealanders at the moment. The Government, led by self-styled Queen Jadis, is presiding over the beginning of an economic winter and is doing so by locking down everything that moves. Recent surveys show the public is chafing against these restrictions and wants to return to a world without overpaid public servants telling them what to do every time they turn around.

People, rich and poor, are tired of being told what to do. And the problem for the Labour Party is they can't help doing it. As a reforming party Labour sees it as its mission to transform New Zealand into something it has shaped. The tendency of Ministesr to leap in and try and micro-manage is just another example of this in-built sense of mission. When money is abundant (as it has been or as it was pre-1987) most people are too busy getting rich to worry about the nonsense being spouted in Wellington. But as the interest chocker-chain tightens people start looking for someone to bite - and that will be whoever holds the lead.

For National in 2008 the answer will be simple. Sell simplicity, freedom, family and nature and they can't go wrong. Don't get enmeshed in deep policy, just keep telling everyone things should be simpler and smile a lot. Be seen in nature and talk about respecting it. Talk about simple freedoms everyone can relate to and talk about family. Following such a campaign should make getting elected a walk in the park. It will probably all be lies but these are the things people want to hear right now.

The end of the golden weather for New Zealand is definitely in sight. Thus we need to think about strategies for what is likely to be a long cool autumn.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Dead Real

Without any doubt the most watched reality television programme in New Zealand today is "Sensing Murder", the Ninox Television version of the Danish Nordisk Films series "Sensing Murder".

The programme sets a group of pre-qualified psychics against unsolved New Zealand murder cases. In most cases the psychics are given nothing more to work with than a picture of the victim which in a good many cases they don't even look at until they have already stated the victims name, age at death, description and some aspects of their character.

The most important person in the whole series is forensic psychologist Nigel Latta who witnessed the whole process as an independent observer and has posted his views on his Goldfish Wisdom website. While the format of the programme (with its over-the-top music and eerie graphics) might otherwise suggest a load of drivel this additional level of scrutiny endows the programme with a serious level of credibility.

In one of the most recent programmes Nigel said something which I completely agree with. He said "this is not soft stuff, this is hard science" and drew a parallel with the mysterious nature of quantum entanglement.

For some comparing the showmanship of stage psychics with replicable physical phenomena will sound like a complete travesty. The former is not a controlled experiment, is not repeatable and the only theoretical framework sounds like fairies at the bottom of the garden. By contrast entanglement is so predictable that it is beginning to leave the science lab and enter the province of engineering.

But this is where the real problem is not with fairies vs reality but the limits of the philosophy of science. The fundamental problem with science is that unlike life it demands repeatability. Life simply isn't repeatable. You can send the same lovers to the same place in the same weather with the same picnic basket and one day they will have a fabulous time and another come home bitching. You cannot, as the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus observed, step into the same river twice. Science works by pinning down all the variables and trying to determine the correlations between those left free. It "interrogates nature" or in the case of some parts of biology to do with vivasection frankly tortures the information out of nature. The problem is, not surprisingly, what if nature doesn't want to be interrogated?

To my mind it must always come back to two things. Phenomena and theory. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" science has tended to be governed by a basic doctrine. The doctrine seeks out reinforcing evidence and discounts equivocal or dissenting evidence. But gradually over time the evidence of phenomena outside the doctrine builds until a revolution occurs and a new theory/doctrine is promoted. There is no recognition of psychic phenomena in the doctrine of classic science. All evidence is dismissed as "unscientific" in line with Kuhn's predictions.

However there are some scientists who believe there are real phenomena which current scientific doctrine dismisses which should be more properly investigated. Rupert Sheldrake has long contended that biological systems demonstrate a capacity for adaption and learning which exceeds any conventional explanation. He has proposed "seven experiments which would change the world" which rely heavily on the proposition that many phenomena defy statistical prediction of outcomes.

And it is to statistics that the science of psychic phenomena must ultimately turn. What is the probablity that an individual given a photograph face down can correctly determine the name, age at death, and characteristics of a murder victim. The problem is that such a question dissappears into the fuzz of confidence intervals and sample sizes. But one's naive response is that when an experiment is repeated over and over again and the phenomena does indeed defy statistical prediction one must be forced to recognise that the phenomena is real and should be accounted for.

One theory which possibly provides some answers is string theory. String theory proposes that the universe composed in ten or eleven dimensions and in this way mathematically solves the long standing disjunction in physics between quantum mechanics and general relativity. But the idea that the Universe really does have more dimensions than we percieve with our stongest five senses is in some ways unnerving. Fortunately some writers have taken the time to provide insights into how higher dimensions may "look". Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote Flatland in 1884 as a combination of social satire and explanation of higher dimensions. In it he describes a world of two dimensional shapes who percieve only area. When one of these encounters a three dimensional being, a sphere, it appears only as a circle that grows and then shrinks. Exploring this concept further mathematician Ian Stewart has published Flatterland in which the descendants of Edwin Abbotts fictional two-dimensional family explore the world of modern physics, eventually ending up with String Theory.

All of this suggests to me that "Sensing Murder" should be taken seriously. For many this will come as a challenge. As one of my colleagues said regarding the show "I don't want it to be true, I was quite happy thinking that when you come to the end of your life, that's it, all over".

I used to share this view as well. Let's face it the idea of anything else is rather scary. But the fact is that what happens doesn't depend on what we hope or fear will happen. What happens depends on the rules of the universe and we don't know what they all are yet.

One possibility I have toyed with is that consciousness is actually a dimension. From a diagram in Flatterland this would show a dimensional line of consciousness transcending the four dimensions of space-time. In other words consciousness can be independent of space-time. This would allow for prophesy as well as intersections with past consciousnesses. This would mean the sensing murder psychics are tapping into the past rather than dealing with the present.

However it is important to listen to the psychics themselves, and here those who "see dead people" tend to be remarkably consistent. All speak of encountering 'spirit', all speak of experiences of 'the other side' and many have encountered reincarnation. Another who has written of this is Tenzin Palmo (born Dianne Perry) who's mother was a spiritualist. Her experience led her quite logically to Buddhism and she is now an Abbess.

I have been fortunate in my life that I was not raised in any particular religion, although I was raised in a Christian country. I have no preconceived notions on whether we survive death or not and what happens afterwards or not. I have experienced foreknowledge of events which I cannot explain but I have never encountered ghosties, spirits or anything else except in dreams. To my mind the most important thing is not to reject the experiences of others out of personal fear. I do not want to die and am scared of dying but I am not frightened of not being. At the same time if death means a step to a new level of existence where one begins as helpless as a baby and slowly discovers that the universe is even vaster and more magnificent than it already seems I am not frightened of that either. Perhaps I should be.

But one thing I utterly reject as any consequence of the "Sensing Murder" phenomenon is the suggestion that we should abandon rationality and seek out the weird and the strange. One of the most interesting tales of that journey is "The Mothman Prophesies" . The story is ultimately banal but the incidentals are interesting. The author suggests that the more people became embroiled in their own belief the more the phenomena reflected their belief. That may be a description of psychosis but personally I also believe that in fact it reflects something about our universe and that is that it may in fact be even stranger than we can imagine.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Democracy anxiety

Yesterday the New Zealand Herald took the unusual step of warning its 200,000 customers that democracy in New Zealand is at risk. The principle threat is the Electoral Finance Bill which attempts to curtail third-party spending in favour of parties or issues 12 months prior to an election. Every credible independent authority from the Human Rights Commission to the Law Society have described the Bill as an assault on New Zealanders freedom of expression.
Combined with the Prime Minister's new found interest in applying anti-terrorism legislation (originally enacted to comply with UN conventions) domestically and one begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that despite having little ideologically in common with the US Republican Administration our Labour Government is not above the same dubious law-making in order to tighten its grip on power.

The fundamental problem in my view is the weakness of our constitutional guardian – the Governor-General. In every political structure there is an office, whose duty is, in theory, to protect the constitution from the executive. Even in Soviet Russia the chairman of the supreme soviet was, in theory, the guardian of the constitution even as general secretary Stalin was sending potential rivals to the Gulags. In Nazi Germany Hitler was elected President after Hindenburg's death – even though as Chancellor he'd made it impossible for anyone to stand against him. In New Zealand the Governor-General is technically appointed by the British Queen but is effectively elected by the Parliament. The Governor-General has the power to dissolve Parliament and is the ultimate commander of the military. In practice, however, all Governors-General in our history have been rubber stamps who have done what they have been told to do by the Prime Minister.

But should the "push" of a Prime Minister: who has developed a heightened sense of paranoia, wrapped herself in the flag and spent heavily on the military, increased the 'anti-terror' role of the Police, and clamped down on political opponents; come to shove against a compliant Governor-General, I have no doubt that the Governor-General would cave in an instant. Helen Clark may think that this description of herself is ridiculous but all rulers have a tendency to only look in mirrors that flatter them, not mirrors that cast harsh shadows. And it is the shadows of any regime that matter.

What New Zealand needs, in my view, is two things. First it needs a constitutional law which describes the nature of democracy at all levels in New Zealand. This law begins with the Bill of Rights but must further stipulate how elections are carried out, the legitimacy of MPs holding office, the nature of the freedom of expression including libel laws, the nature of open Government and the status of commissioners particularly of IRD, Police, Statistics and of the defence force. Like the American constitution it must be high level statements of principle against which other laws can be tested. Any change to this constitution must require a three-quarters super-majority.

Second it needs a constitutional court, superior to Parliament, which rules on matters of constitutional law under reference from lesser courts or the head of state. The Court would consist of seven judges, including three foreign judges of suitable standing from a Commonwealth nation. Appointment to the Court would be until age 70 and be elected by the Parliament.
None of this necessarily requires the establishment of a republic. In theory the Governor General could continue to remain the head of state. What it adds is an extra layer of protection to our democracy which is simply not there at present. Should we, in future, become a Republic, the Constitutional Court would provide a means to guarantee that any President could not follow in the footsteps of General Musharraf and 'suspend' the constitution.

We are, in New Zealand, highly fortunate that democratic principles run relatively deep in Government, the Police and the military. While the Police may be somewhat 'robust' with those they see as quasi-criminal political agitators, even in the depths of the Springbok Tour (1981) they drew back from the kind of political intervention so common in other nations. Despite that democracy is rarely killed in a single coup de grace. It is the "death by a thousand cuts" that New Zealanders must rightly fear. Establishing an authority whose task is to defend our freedoms is an essential next step in our constitutional development.

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Friday, November 9, 2007

2008 is coming. Hide under your blankets!

2008 is shaping up to be a very scary year.

So far this week we have had two fairly momentous warnings. George Soros warning that the US economy is headed for a serious "correction" and a recent article on Salon suggesting that an attack on Iran is gaining support in Washington.

Most people, even those in the Pentagon, know that an attack on Iran is quite simply nuts. Unfortunately Vice President Dick Cheney doesn't. And what bothers me about that was a weird site I ran across the other day called "Satanspurerapture" which suggests that next year Osama's crew will attack Philadelphia with the Ebola virus.

Now I have no idea whether Osama has access to Ebola or not but what bothers me is some of the odd bits from the 911 Commission's findings. Most of the conspiracy theories are fanciful but the behaviour of the FBI before and after the attacks is curious. The question that hangs in the air is were the attacks let through to provide a casus belli? The comparison to the Pearl Harbour attack, which many believe Roosevelt, having cut off Japan's oil and secretly ordered his carriers out of harms way, seemed to have anticipated is valid. In short are there agents provocateur out there who will sex up the justification to attack Iran?

Soros is pointing out the obvious that the American economy is seriously unwell. Already there are many sites like this predicting a crunch in US credit. But if the US economy sags seriously Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard's reassurance that New Zealand's economy is 'resilient' could come back to haunt him.

The problem with such anxieties, of course, is that we have no ability to influence our environment. We are completely at the mercy of events. So we have no choice but to hope for the best and plan for the worst.

That means expecting transport costs to go bananas as oil prices go mad. Watch out for coastal property to slump as offshore owners cash up to repatriate assets. Get rid of debt as fast as you can because if things turn 1987ish you can bet the banks will get very picky with mortgage holders. Secure contracts as far out as you can. And buy silver or Palladium as a hedge.

Oh, and make sure you have some comfy blankets to hide under in case things turn really nasty.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The good the bad and the ugly

In my last post I drew attention to international statistics at gapminder which demonstrate how the distinction beween third world and first world has blurred in terms of indicators such as life expectancy and family size.

On the face of it this is all good news. Unfortunately there is a "but". And the "but" is the cost of all of this growth on the natural environment. According to the UNEP's Geo-4 report every environmental indicator is going the wrong way. Humanity may be growing happier but humanity is a plague on the landscape of the earth.

The problem with being part of a plague (say of locusts) is that while it is easy to decry the unsustainable nature of locusts in general it is very difficult, as a locust, to not be open to rather obvious accusations of rank hypocrisy. One cannot say the problem is all those other locusts. The problem is me, locust #3,213,343,675.

The unfortunate fact is that we cannot change. Its the tragedy of the commons. I am not prepared to make my children go hungry for the greater good. When it comes to my children, to hell with the greater good! And every other locust on the planet thinks the same.

The basic problem is that we have largely solved two major afflictions that have curbed locust numbers in the past. One is disease. The other is war. And of course both together produce that greatest killer of them all - famine. Never in history have we ever lived when there wasn't a serious risk of our nation being enslaved and destroyed by war. Never in history have we known as much as we do today about the nature of disease. And so, not surprisingly, our numbers have grown and grown and grown.

In theory, of course, once we have enough they will fall again. Already in many nations (although not New Zealand) we are seeing birthrates of less than two per woman. That is below replacement level. However while large nations like India are curbing their birthrates they are still above replacement level. And in poorer and muslim nations birthrates are up over three per woman. But a decline in population back to 2-3 billion is going to take a very long time and there is almost certainly going to be some disruption along the way.

And that disruption will almost certainly involve wars - although there may not be so many battles. For the existence of weapons of mass destruction and massively destructive and expensive battlefield weapons (like the Daisy Cutter bomb) makes the very idea of battles a losing proposition. For the next millennia or so the probability is conflict will essentially be a contest between police and underground movements. Thus wars will involve relatively few casualties unless they erupt into all out nuclear exchanges (eg Iran v Israel v USA v Pakistan v India v Russia v China) and then billions will be toast.

Another source of disruption will be disease. China and New Zealand have both doubled their population per square kilometre in the past 45 years (my lifetime). In New Zealand's case its gone from 7 people to 14 per square kilometre. But in China's case its gone from 70 people per square kilometre to 140. While in Hong Kong and Macau its 6,600 people per square kilometre. You can't pack that many people in so close together and not get disease outbreaks. To date they haven't been particularly significant but the risk grows with every passing year.

What is the solution? Abandon capitalism? Frankly Ayn Rand had it right. Capitalism is just the natural pursuit of self-interest. Abandon self-interest ? I will if you (planet earth) will - so that isn't going to happen. Frankly, I don't think there is a greater solution other than the ingenuity, savagery and humanity that is humankind.

site of interest: James Martin 21st Century School, Oxford University

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