Sunday, October 19, 2014

Zombie-proof you shed

I realize that we still have more than a week to go before the arrival of Halloween, but you'll need time to Zombie-proof your shed. Instructions below.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chimp vs human! - Working Memory test

"Ayumu the chimpanzee has made headlines around the world for his ability to beat humans on memory tests, in both speed and accuracy. Does Ayumu's ability force us to reconsider our assumptions about human superiority to other primates?"

I've seen these experiments before. There are even apps where you can attempt to beat the scores and times of Chimpanzees (such as 'Ape Test'). Their cognitive abilities, i.e. 'intelligence', are clearly superior to homo sapiens in this particular area. But why? How does this ability benefit them in their natural habitat? I've yet to read of a convincing answer. As our favorite Vulcan would say, "Fascinating".


"This video depicts a very rare interaction between sperm whales and an adult bottlenose dolphin with a spinal malformation (i.e. scoliosis). This represents the first time this type of non-agonistic (friendly) interaction has been recorded for sperm whales. We published a description of these interactions in the scientific journal "Aquatic Mammals"."

Sperm Whales Sleeping - Discovery Ch. Magic of the Blue

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Handwritten Thank You Note to Eleanor Roosevelt -- or the Girl With a Hundred Curls

A week or so ago there was a discussion on Pentrace started by Len Provisor, entitled "What significant person deserves honor on a Limited Edition pen?"

Two of the many suggestions were the crew of Apollo 11 (or just Neil Armstrong alone), as well as Eleanor Roosevelt.

Clearly, that honor should be bestowed upon Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (and let's not forget Michael Collins -- for a time the most isolated and lonely human in history). I wrote something of a paean to the Apollo 11 crew on this blog about a decade ago, which you're welcome to read if you'd care to.

However, I have a familial tie to wanting to celebrate Eleanor Roosevelt.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, circa 1935

My mother was something of a childhood star on radio. She was dubbed the 'Girl With a Hundred Curls', and at age twelve or thirteen she had her own show in Washington, D.C., geared to young people.

You can read the full story here if interested, but to quickly summarize, my mother invited Mrs. Roosevelt to appear on the program with her, and the First Lady accepted.

That appearance was later cancelled (there's some intrigue there), but subsequently Mrs. Roosevelt invited my mother and grandmother to the White House for tea. More than anything, my mother recalled my grandmother only allowing her to take one biscuit -- and most off all -- the strapping Roosevelt boys!

Hearing the story throughout my life, what stuck with me more than anything else was the coda to the story. About six years later after the White House visit my mother -- who was now a young woman of about 18 -- got on an elevator also occupied by Mrs. Roosevelt -- and Mrs. Roosevelt recognized *her*! Can you image? Having met a young girl years prior -- and with thousands of other people she met as First Lady in the interim -- she recognized a transformed young woman that she'd spent a few minutes with years before. I always found that absolutely amazing.

Phyllis Warner Haase

My mother started to become quite ill in 2008 (she passed away in 2009) and I really wanted to find some way to bring this great family story back to her in a special way. I'd questioned her over the years as to whether she had an actual invitation from the White House, or some other physical memorabilia of the event beyond her memory of it and that of my grandmother. She didn't recall there ever being anything like that.

So, I started to do some research to see if there was any 'official' record that I could find for her. Among the sources I tried were the Eleanore Roosevelt Society (if *my* memory serves), the 'First Ladies' Museum in Ohio and several others. I finally struck gold with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

They reported "We have found an index card in the Records of the Office of the Chief
of Social Entertainment which indicates that Miss Phyllis Warner and
Mrs. Charles Warner attended a tea at the White House on June 10, 1937." (That letter exchange can be read here).

But what really made the pursuit worth it, was they also found a handwritten thank you note to Mrs. Roosevelt from my mother:

click on the photo to enlarge

along with a poem she had included:

and a thank you note in return:

I was able to present these to my mother before her 85th birthday, while in the hospital, and a few months before her passing.

If you'd care to, you can see the handwritten note and poem on this page of the memorial website I put up for the Girl With a Hundred Curls.

Norman Haase

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I am Spartacus!

If you're anywhere near my age, the 1960 film 'Spartacus', starring Kirk Douglas, made a big impression on you. It was my Baby Boomer generation's 'Gladiator'. Besides Mr. Douglas (who produced it through his film company 'Bryna' -- his mother's name), it starred Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Woody Strode and Peter Ustinov (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), as well as many other Hollywood 'names' too numerous to mention. You can see more details about the film here. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, of '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'The Shining' fame (two among many of his great films).

So, it was with great interest that I came across the Kirk Douglas book 'I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist' [link to Amazon] -- published in 2012 when he was still only 95 (he turns 98 in December and is still writing terrific books)!!! Although the book does focus on the making of the film itself (Mr. Douglas hadn't seen it since 1960, but started to research the project to commemorate it's 50th anniversary), the second part of the subtitle is just as important to him. He gives a history of the Hollywood 'Blacklist', inexorably tied up with Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witchhunts of the late 1940's and the 1950's. Here's a quick overview.

The upshot of this in Hollywood was that a number of prominent screenwriters were unable to continue to earn their livings, at least under there own names, because of either being tainted as having Communist leanings, or of protecting those who did. Among those screenwriters was the masterful Dalton Trumbull. Quite courageously, as the boss, Kirk Douglas not only hired Trumbull to write the screenplay for Spartacus, taken from Howard Fast's novel, but insisted that he be given the writing credit for the film under his real name. This caused quite an uproar at the time, but Douglas stuck to his guns (or gladius and shield in this case).

The book is beautifully written and satisfies not only in its telling of the Blacklist and its effects, but also has some never-before-revealed juicy behind-the-scenes stories about the actors involved in the film. Laurence Olivier was going through a separation/divorce from Vivien Leigh at the time and Vivien's outburst at a party that Kirk attended was quite sad. Charles Laughton quit at least once, Tony Curtis took advantage of his past friendship with Douglas to get a part in the film, and Peter Ustinov continuously wheedled and charmed his way into enlarging his role -- to great effect! I won't detail these stories, as you'll want to read them yourself (or listen to the audio version, narrated by a certain Michael Douglas).

My favorite anecdote though refers to the main title of the book itself. Kirk came up with the idea of this pivotal scene towards the end of the film, and suggested it to Kubrick (you can see a short clip of this here, as it opens the portal to the Kirk Douglas website -- and you'll want to watch the great highlight reel there as well). Apparently, Kubrick lacked a certain openness to any ideas that weren't his and not only failed to reply to 'the boss' (remember, this was Douglas's production) but subsequently refused to even film it as a test! He tells it much better than I do here, but it ends with Douglas astride his great stallion slowly forcing Kubrick to walk backwards until his back is literally against the wall. Douglas tells him in no uncertain terms that the scene will be filmed, and cut if it doesn't work. Kirk mentions in the book at this point that he can't believe some of the things he did in his youth! It became one of the best-remembered and most-loved scenes in the film.

I was very moved by reading the book, as it brought back so many memories of the movies that my father and I would go to see together when I was a boy (not a few of them starring Kirk Douglas), as well as by how well-written and insightful it was. I was also moved by the sheer will and intelligence that still motivates this man, having suffered a massive stroke so many years ago and continuing to embody the title of another of his great films, 'Lust for Life' about the artist Vincent Van Gogh.

Not one to write many fan letters in my life, I thought 'what could I share or give to this person that might give him a small bit of the joy and inspiration that he's given me?' What could be more appropriate in celebration of this wonderful book than a Stipula Gladiator pen? It was unknown to me if Mr. Douglas was still able to actually write with a pen, due to the effects of his stroke, but that wouldn't really matter in the end.

(You can see more photos of the pen here)

To make a long story somewhat shorter, I purchased a contact list for Hollywood stars, and was able to send the pen, ink and a personal note c/o one of his agents. It eventually reached Mr. Douglas and I received this note a couple of weeks ago from his assistant, Grace Eboigbe (whom I subsequently spoke with, to confirm that Mr. Douglas had actually seen my little 'thank you' video, which can be seen here).

Would I have liked a note penned in Mr. Douglas's own hand? Of course. But I understand his current limitations. As he says in the acknowledgments in his book: “I want to thank my assistant, Grace Eboigbe, the only person capable of transmitting my spoken or written words”.

So, other then selling a broccoli & cheese croissant to Meryl Streep (that's another long story), this will probably be my only brush with the Hollywood elite and my chance to be just a fan. Happy 98th Birthday to you on December 9th Kirk Douglas! I wish you many, many more.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones

As Lawrence Block's film 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' was released on September 19th (starring Liam Neeson), I thought it appropriate to show the beautiful, mint Montblanc Agatha Christie fountain pen that passed through my hands last year when Larry asked me to find an appreciative home for it. This was one of the originals and presented to him as a gift by Montblanc. You can read more of the story (and see more photographs) here, and see a clip of the man himself on the Craig Ferguson show this past week here. Watch the official trailer here rated R).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Bob Dylan: "Anybody Can Make A Video" ( Minimation)

"On Minimation, we comb through the archives of legendary New York radio station WNEW-FM and animate interviews with legendary rock artists. This installment is taken from a 1985 interview with Bob Dylan, where he discusses his feelings about the then-budding art form of music videos. This minimation was created for by Elliot Lobell.

Bob Dylan’s 1966 short film for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is often cited as being one of the first music videos. Shot and released decades before there was any real outlet for the medium, it was something of a curiosity at the time. But in 1985, when this interview was recorded, it was a much different era. MTV was becoming a dominant cultural force, and it was pretty much mandatory that artists made at least one video (if not more) to promote their new albums. Ever the contrarian, Dylan’s mood on music videos had cooled by then.

“I don’t mind making videos,” he said. “It’s fake, it’s like making a movie, it’s all fake.” This, by the way, was two years before he’d co-star in the otherwise-forgettable 1987 flick Hearts of Fire , which he co-starred in with Rupert Everett and pop singer Fiona.
“Anybody can make a video. Anybody. All you need is a camera.”

Oddly enough, his son Jesse Dylan, went on to be a director of films as well as videos: his resume includes clips by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (“A Face in the Crowd”), Tom Waits (“God’s Away on Business”) and the Black Keys’s immortal “Lonely Boy” (which, to be fair, anybody could have made). Oh, and also a little 2008 video called “Yes We Can” that possibly helped get a president elected."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rustle, Tingle, Relax: The Compelling World of A.S.M.R.

Now I understand. More than one person has commented on my voice in some of my pen videos on YouTube. They've ranged from 'You sound like Clint Eastwood' (really? :-)), to 'His voice puts me to sleep' (I always took that as a negative, but maybe not!), to 'Your voice is perfect for A.S.M.R.'.

I looked up the definition of A.S.M.R. at the time, but it was only after reading this article in the NY Times just now that I learned how big this phenomenon is, and how many YouTube videos there are which address this.


A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.

It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.

Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me.

There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.

The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whispering; tapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour."

Click on the link to read the complete article and to follow links to some example videos. Pretty fascinating!

Link to NY Times article

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Memory Wall

See how one man is honoring Afghanistan veterans with his amazing memory.

Ron White
Arlington, TX
Phone: 972-801-5330

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dolphins Guide Scientists to Rescue Suicidal Girl

One day, my research team and I were following a school of bottlenose dolphins near shore as we do on a regular basis in the waters off Los Angeles, California. We just wrapped up our photo-identification work and were moving on to take video of dolphin social interactions and enter data on behavior.

The dolphins were still feeding in circle near shore, when suddenly, one individual changed direction heading out toward deeper water. A minute later, the rest of the school turned to follow. We were so accustomed to tracking these coastal metropolitan dolphins back and forth within a few hundred meters of the beach, that seeing them abruptly leave a foraging ground and change direction came as a surprise to the research team. I decided to follow them.

The dolphins increased their speed, still heading offshore as I pushed the throttle ahead to keep pace while one of my researchers recorded this hasty change in behavior on the sighting form. Somewhere near three miles offshore the dolphin group stopped, forming a sort of ring around a dark object in the water.

“Someone’s in the water!” yelled my assistant, standing up and pointing at the seemingly lifeless body of a girl. For a moment, we were silent. Then, slowly, I maneuvered the boat closer. The girl was pallid and blonde and appeared to be fully clothed. As the boat neared, she feebly turned her head toward us, half-raising her hand as a weak sign for help.

I cut the engine and called the lifeguards on the VHF radio. They told us not to do anything until they arrived on site but it was our unanimous feeling that if we didn’t act immediately, the girl would die. We decided to ignore lifeguard’s instructions, instead pulling the frail and hypothermic body on board. I called the lifeguards back and informed them that she was alive and that we had her aboard and we were heading back to Marina del Rey, the closest harbor, as quickly as possible.

“She is cyanotic,” said one of my researchers, also a lifeguard, after a cursory examination. “She has severe hypothermia. We need to get her warm!” We managed to get some of her wet garments off and wrap her in a blanket. We took turns keeping her warm by huddling with her under the blanket.

The girl was around eighteen and probably foreign because we couldn’t seem to communicate. We tried speaking French, Italian, and Spanish to no avail and she was barely able to speak but none of us could understand what she was saying. I couldn’t avoid noticing a plastic bag tied around her neck. It was sealed and seemed to contain her passport and a folded handwritten note. Somewhere near the harbor, we met up with the lifeguard rescue boat. We handed her off to them and followed them back to port.

A couple of hours later, we were all waiting outside the emergency room at the Marina del Rey hospital. The ER doctor came out to talk with us. The girl, it seems, would pull through, and he thanked us for our quick action. He tells us the girl was vacationing in L.A. from Germany and, as the letter found in her plastic bag explained, she was attempting suicide. If we hadn’t found her, if the dolphins hadn’t led us offshore when they did, to that specific place, she would have died.

Busy as we were trying to save the girl, we completely lost track of the dolphins. What might they have done with her if we hadn’t been there? Might they have tried to save her? There are many anecdotal accounts of dolphins saving humans from death and disaster, either by guiding them to shore, fending off sharks or helping them to remain afloat until help arrives.

Many scientists think dolphins do not, in fact, save humans because there is not enough hard scientific evidence to support these stories. But that day I witnessed coastal bottlenose dolphins suddenly leave their feeding activities and head offshore. And in doing so, they led us to save a dying girl, some three miles offshore. Coincidence?

This article has been adapted from the book Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. She is President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008; paperback 2010). She also works as a photo-journalist and blogger for several publications. Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

Friday, May 30, 2014

Andromeda and the Milky Way: A Merger of Galactic Proportions

The Andromeda nebula, which rarely feels the pull of the social media orbit, had a moment in the spotlight on Wednesday. Astronomers operating NASA’s Swift satellite spied what looked like a giant burst of radiation from Andromeda, the nearest big galaxy to our own Milky Way, about 2.5 million light-years from here. They tentatively diagnosed it as the collision of two neutron stars, the dense remnants of dead stars. Such collisions are among the most violent known conflagrations in the universe, but they rarely occur so close to our own neck of the cosmic woods.

It turned out to be a false alarm, but for a few hours the Twitterverse was riveted on Andromeda. Which is not a bad thing. The Andromeda galaxy, known in astronomical parlance as M31, holds a special place in our own future.

The Milky Way and Andromeda are the dominant members of a small family of galaxies known as the Local Group. Whereas the universe is expanding and galaxies are generally getting farther and farther away from one another with time, the galaxies in the Local Group are bound together by family ties in the form of their mutual gravity. Our relatives aren’t going anywhere.

And there is the problem. Andromeda and the Milky Way are actually heading toward each other in the do-si-do that constitutes life in a galaxy cluster. Recent measurements with the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed that they will hit head on in about two billion years. Since galaxies, like atoms, are mostly empty space, they will pass through each other like ghosts, but gravity will disrupt the stars and strew them across space in gigantic spectacular streamers. Eventually they will merge into a single giant galaxy.

The bad news is that we will be dead. Earth will have been boiled and sterilized eons earlier as the sun brightens. The good news is that the collision will be a fiesta of new stars forming as that disruptive gravity collapses and then condenses clouds of gas and dust. New worlds, another chance. Maybe.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Let Slip the Dolphins of War


New York Times

SOUTHAMPTON, England — Fifty years ago, at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke spoke of things to come. He foresaw a 21st century that would witness “the development of intelligent and useful servants among the other animals on this planet, particularly the great apes and, in the oceans, the dolphins and whales.” Clarke saw this as a way of solving “the servant problem,” although he also imagined that the animals would form labor unions, “and we’d be right back where we started.”

I thought of Clarke when I read recent reports of the military employment of dolphins in a Cold War-style face-off of cetaceans near Crimea. According to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, marine mammals trained by the United States will take part in exercises in the waters of the Black Sea where their counterparts in the Russian Navy already swim.

In fact, the military was already researching dolphins even before Clarke made his prophecies. As D. Graham Burnett, a professor of the history of science at Princeton, points out in “The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the 20th Century,” the United States Navy has run a once-classified marine mammal program since 1960.

Dolphins, orcas and beluga and pilot whales have all been investigated for their military usefulness. According to the Navy’s website, dolphins are trained to locate mines “so they can be removed or avoided.” Dolphins were deployed in both the Persian Gulf wars on such tours of duty, flown in and out on aircraft, like cetacean Marines. They were used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq to locate mines in Umm Qasr’s harbor.

There have been rumors that cetaceans have also been employed as dolphin drones, remote deliverers of death. During the Vietnam War, it was claimed that dolphins were used in lethal “swimmer nullification programs,” their beaks fitted with needles to deliver fatal injections of carbon dioxide gas to Vietcong divers. The Navy denies the stories.

Dr. Burnett notes that the use of cetaceans, imagined and otherwise, in acts of warfare fed the “countercultural tensions” that surrounded cetaceans during the 1960s and ’70s, contributing to the way they became the “totemic organisms of peaceniks, freaks, and ecoterrorists.” He also points out that the most notorious name in dolphin studies — John C. Lilly, who proposed that the marine mammals spoke “dolphinese,” and experimented by dosing them with LSD — drew on research done by the Navy for much of his controversial work.

We humans, it seems, can’t leave the natural world alone. Assuming our biblical rights of dominion, we must reshape the world in our image. So, on one hand, whales and dolphins can be sleek and cute, the stuff of Flipper and Free Willy. On the other, their intelligence can be used to do our dirty work. If man may be venal and warlike, so, too, must be his animal servants.

There’s a delicate moral dilemma here. We know that these are intelligent animals, with advanced social skills. Bottlenose dolphins have signature whistles that act as “names.” Dolphins can use their sonar to read one another’s physical states and, possibly, emotional moods. Some dolphins and larger whales possess spindle neurons, specialized brain cells found elsewhere only in great apes, elephants and humans, creating the capacity for empathy and self-awareness — and, perhaps, the ability to feel love and loss.

Scientists posit that cetaceans exhibit moral behavior and have a collective sense of one another’s individuality. And as the esteemed scientists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell describe in their forthcoming book, “The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins,” they may be said to possess culture as a result of longstanding social skills, passed down through generations. In their apparently carefree lives, cetaceans appeal to us in our less buoyant existence. Their supposed benevolence is part of our culture, in myths from ancient Greece and from the Haida and Maori people, up to present-day stories of dolphins protecting humans from sharks.

Yet dolphins can be as mindlessly violent as humans. In 2011, I attended the dissection of a harbor porpoise at the Zoological Society of London. The four-foot-long animal looked untouched as it lay on the stainless-steel slab. But as the scientist, Rob Deaville, sliced open the carcass with the skill of a sushi chef, he revealed that its body cavity was flooded with blood.

One side of its rib cage had been smashed, the liver torn in two. The event took on the air of a “C.S.I.” episode, as Mr. Deaville announced the cause of death: butting by a bottlenose dolphin.

Cute Flipper? Cute killer, more like. Other dolphins have been known to take part in sex parties. Caught up in a superpod off New Zealand, I’ve seen dusky dolphins (a southern hemisphere species) mating up to three times in five minutes. Bottlenose dolphins have been filmed appearing to get high after sucking on the toxins of puffer fish.

Many ethicists and environmentalists question the morality of keeping cetaceans in captivity. But if we accept cavorting orcas and dolphins at SeaWorld, then why not working dolphins in the Navy?

In his book, “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier,” Thomas I. White, a professor of business ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, writes that “the military use of dolphins is just as ethically questionable as any other captive program.” To Dr. White, as to some other forward-thinking ethicists and scientists, dolphins are sentient beings, due the rights of a “nonhuman person.” We accept the servitude of domesticated animals, from seeing-eye dogs to horses in Central Park, but don’t cetaceans and apes, by their very genetic closeness to us, demand greater respect — as well as freedom from Arthur C. Clarke’s prospective slavery?

Our objections to the use of dolphins in war may be sentimental, because we project idealized notions of placidity on their perennially smiling faces. We are imposing our own values, good and bad, on wild animals. But if we apprehend that dolphins are moral beings, then might they themselves object to being weapons of war? Perhaps we need to work on our dolphinese.

Philip Hoare, a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Southampton in Britain, is the author of “Leviathan or, The Whale” and, most recently, of “The Sea Inside.”

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Top down weather!

Now that warmer weather is finally arriving and I can once again put the top down,
be on the lookout for the His Nibs car, as I tool around a neighborhood near you,
flinging fountain pens through the air as I drive!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Table Tennis robots have advanced a bit...

...since mine, which I called Dragutin, was profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. 'He' was one of my training partners prior to the Paralympics in Seoul and Barcelona.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Monteverde Intima Volcano Grey

Announcing the re-stocking of the Monteverde Intima Volcano Grey. Available as a fountain pen or ballpoint, the Intima is also available in the following patterns: Neon Green, Neon Pink and Glacier Blue. The Volcano Grey is the only one that's exploded so far. See all the colors and more details here.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Canine Einstein

How many words does your dog understand? Probably not nearly as many as you'd like. Well, Chaser the Border Collie knows more than 1,000 different words!

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