Monthly Archives: September 2013

THE SHUTDOWN DEBACLE

Hope you haven’t made any plans to visit any one of our national parks at this time. Over 300 million visitors come to our national parks annually; with a large chunk of them visiting around this time of year, especially those parks with trees that display colorful autumn foliage.  If you have made such plans, and put down a large deposit to cover the costs of trip, you will likely be out of luck. Because if the Government shuts down at midnight tonight, as it appears highly likely, you had better hope that your travel agent is understanding enough to return your deposit. One of the first agencies to shutter their operations during a Government shutdown will be the National Park Service. You can also forget about obtaining a passport at this time, just in case you were planning an overseas trip. The passport office in the State Department will be another shutdown casualty. Welcome to your dysfunctional and delusional Government in the early part of the 21st century.

Technically, if Congress makes no funding appropriations by midnight tonight, the entire Federal Government is supposed to close shop. Because the Constitution clearly states that no expenditure is permitted for any Government operation if funds have not been appropriated by Congress. But there is a tacit, unspoken agreement among politicians of every stripe, that essential Government operations will be permitted to function. I guess it wouldn’t look too good for Congress or the President if we were subject to a major terrorist attack because counter-intelligence operatives in the Dept. of Homeland Security, the Dept. of Defense, or the CIA were told to go fishing instead of coming into work. But where are the strict interpreters of the Constitution when you need them. Where are the strict-constitutionalists like Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, who are always railing about liberal interpretations of the Constitution.

One of the reasons I write this blog is because its so much fun to highlight the irrational delusions that obsess many people’s lives and their ensuing actions. It’s fun, but it’s also tragic at the same time. Yes, reality is often a bitch, but it needs to be faced if one has any hope of succeeding in life. Delusional fears, paranoia, anger, or blaming others for one’s own mistakes or failures may be temporarily comforting; but in the end they are always highly counter-productive, and will usually lead to disaster. So it is with the House Republicans pandering to the most extreme right-wing elements that have now taken control of the GOP, and have this mantra that everything will be sweetness and light if they can only defund Obamacare. If that would only happen, then the sun will shine, the birds will chirp, and we can all go tiptoeing through tulips every morning with carefree abandonment. Thus, House Republicans refuse to pass required appropriations legislation unless it includes provisions to defund Obamacare. Democrats refuse to accept this defunding provision so Congress has stalemated itself into a Government shutdown at midnight. It’s like 2 cars coming head on at each other from opposite directions, and at high speeds, in an adolescent game of chicken. Which one will swerve to the side to avoid a head-on collision. If neither will, then tragedy ensues.

Time has long since passed when elected officials actually cared about the welfare of our citizenry. Now there is just one item on the agenda of our politicians-and that is getting re-elected next time around. To accomplish that, most politicians feel they have to appeal to their “base,” which is usually comprised of the most dedicated, fanatical, and extremist elements. People that are willing to work themselves into a coma, if that’s what it takes to get their guy elected. Because of this, there is hyper-polarization in Congress, with neither side willing to budge an inch. Which, turn, has resulted in a magnificent the 8-10% approval rating from the public in all the latest polls, that Congress so richly deserves.

Awhile back I posted an entry about why Congress has such dismal approval ratings. I theorized that Congress had been taken over by Plutonians. It seem that a few years back, scientists in this country downgraded Pluto from being a full-fledged planet in our solar system because of its smaller size. To seek vengeance, Plutonians came to Earth in space ships, took over the halls of Congress, and vowed to act as irrationally and dysfunctionally as possible. And that’s exactly what they did. It all made perfect sense, if one thought about. Alas, because this site is devoted to rationality and realism, I’m forced to abandon that theory and seek a more plausible reality.

I now believe that while vengeance is still the issue, it’s not being caused by citizens from the planet Pluto. Instead our own citizenry are the ones to blame. While, according to the polls, over 90% of us disapprove of Congressional actions, who is Congress but us. Aren’t we the ones that put all those senators and representatives there in the first place. And now we condemn them? As Ricky Ricardo might have said on “I Love Lucy”-we have a lot of ‘splaining to do.

I believe that among the Republican base of right-wing diehards, are those seeking revenge against Barack Obama for beating the GOP in 2 presidential elections. What better way to wreck vengeance than to deny Obama the funding needed to make his signature health care act become a reality. I believe that they are willing to shut down the Government indefinitely if that what it takes to strike back at the President, who they despise with every fiber of their being. Then there are those that hate the Government’s existence to begin with. In other times they were known as anarchists or nihilists. In their world, it’s survival of the fittest and every man or woman for themselves. Who needs government in the first place.

Maybe some kind of accord will be reached in the wee hours tonight; but I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it. Of course, the longer the government shuts down, the more it will adversely affect the most vulnerable in our society. Like the poor, the sick, and the elderly. But in the end, who really cares about them. It’s too much fun watching this panorama of dysfunction unfold before our eyes.

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CAPITOL FISCAL FOLLIES

In 1907, a young man in Chicago named Florenz Ziegfeld decided that his career path would be that of a show business producer. He started with a light and inexpensive song and dance revue, for the summer season in Chicago, with emphasis on holding costs down, since he had little capital to begin with. But not even Ziegfeld could have imagined the the momentous impact his creation would experience. It was a huge hit from the beginning, and soon Ziegfeld would attach his name to what became as the “Ziegfeld Follies.” As he acquired more money the show became a more lavish and opulent spectacle. By the 1920s, this extravaganza was the smash hit of Broadway. But what really made the “Ziegfeld Follies” such a mammoth event were its showgirls, a collection of eager dancers and chorus-line singers all wearing dazzling costumes. Ziegfeld advertised them as the most beautiful girls in the world. Many huge show biz stars, such as Barbara Stanwyck, Paulette Goddard, Gypsy Rose Lee, Josephine Baker, and Marilyn Miller got their career-starts in the “Ziegfeld Follies.” The show finally had to shut down in 1931 as the icy tentacles of the Great Depression were beginning to wrap themselves around the American economy and start plunging it into the deep freeze.

This is sort of a long way around to observing that the fiscal follies currently going on in our nation’s capitol, far exceed the extravaganzas put on by Flo Ziegfeld. Especially as it pertains to the theater of the absurd. As good a showman as Ziegfeld was, he couldn’t match the looney-tunes, dysfunctional antics currently underway in the U.S. Congress, even as we speak, (or write, as the case may be.) Two events explain this fascinating kerfuffle. The first is that the Government’s fiscal year ends September 30, a week from now. The Constitution has words to the effect that the Government cannot spend a farthing (or a nickel if you prefer) unless the funds are appropriated by an act of Congress. So far, Congress has appropriated nothing for the new fiscal year, about to start on October 1. The primary hold-up is in the House, where Republicans have a majority and are refusing to pass fiscal 2014 appropriations  unless all funding for Obamacare, (the President’s signature universal healthcare legislation) is stripped from the appropriations bill. Of course, it’s pure fantasy that the Democratic majority in the Senate, or the President, will agree to such shenanigans and extortion. But House Republicans are adamant that no new funding will occur unless resources for Obamacare are deleted. Even if it means shutting down the Government with all its ensuing consequences. Like military and civilian Government personnel, contractors and debt-holders not getting paid. Like no new food stamps, or housing assistance or other benefits to the sick or poor being issued. You know, fun stuff like that.

Senate Republicans also refuse to miss out on these entertaining follies. Senators, led by the four horse of the tea-party apocalypse, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, whom I’ve written about before, are also threatening to filibuster any appropriations bill that contains funding for Obamacare. Please do not disturb the ivory tower of self-delusion these four choose to dwell in. So here we are, one-week away from a total Government shutdown, with all its disastrous consequences, that could very well send our fragile economy into a devastating tailspin. But as these follies gather momentum, they do make for excellent theater of the absurd. It should be pointed out, however, that we are the only country in the world, from first to fourth rate, that is willing to shut their Government down over budgetary battles. Not even the weakest or poorest banana republic would entertain such thoughts.

If, by some miracle we can avoid a a Government-shutdown through lack of appropriations legislation; shortly thereafter comes the debt-ceiling fiasco, as Congress lurches from one phony crises to another. The debt-ceiling, unlike the appropriations process, is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. Instead, in a fit of self-imposed masochism, Congress enacted legislation saying the Government cannot exceed an arbitrary debt-ceiling without Congressional approval. We are estimated to bump up against the current debt-ceiling around mid-October. Since we are borrowing about 40 cents out of every dollar we spend, it would seem rather imperative that Congress raise the debt-ceiling. If not, the Government once again shuts down. And once again, Congressional Republicans are holding the Government hostage, by refusing to raise the debt-ceiling unless all funding for Obamacare is erased. Since the Mafia has made blackmail and extortion so profitable, Republicans, I assume, figure, why not employ these same tactics.

Now we all know that Republican vitriol and hatred directed against Barack Obama, is almost legendary. To deprive the GOP out of 2 presidential election victories is unforgivable in most tea-party and Republican circles. To say nothing of the race issue that I won’t get into at this time. So what better way to seek revenge than depriving Obama of his signature legislated achievement. Plus they know that if Obamacare, flawed though it may be, is allowed to function for 2-3 years, it will become as popular as Medicare or Social Security. Then even the tea-party lunatics will not be able to advocate for its dissolution.

One other factor is in play. There is a whole group of far-far right-wing looney-tuners that would really like to see the Government shut down. The Rush Limbaugh/ Glen Beck/ Sean Hannity types with their millions of followers are practically frothing at the mouth, or drooling all over themselves, in anticipation of a Government shutdown. Instead of visions of sugar plums, such anarchists thrill at visions of such an event. Even Flo Ziegfeld, as good a showman as he was, would have hard time producing theater follies to match the current ongoing antics in our nation’s capitol.

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THE SYRIA FIASCO

Fiasco is probably too-mild a word to describe the mess we’ve gotten into over the handling of the on-going tragedy occurring in Syria. So if any of you have more descriptive terminology, I’m open to suggestions. In any event, I thought it would be helpful in understanding the horror that is current-day Syria if we studied the four major players involved.

First, of course, at the top of the list, is Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar Assad. The Syrian civil war has now been going on for nearly 3 years, but Assad is determined to stay in power, even if has to kill every last person opposing his regime. So far, he’s slaughtered close to 120,000 of his fellow countrymen, and there seems to be no abatement in the on-going butchery.  As we all know, Assad recently decided to use some his vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and in the process, murdered 1400 of the Syrian opposition, which included an estimated 400 children. He has now taken his rightful place in the human hall-of-shame butchers over the past 100 years. These, of course, include Mussolini , Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and more recently, Saddam Hussein. Initially, the Syrian opposition appeared to to be getting the upper-hand in their rebellion against the Assad regime. But then, both Russia and Iran stepped in with heavy infusions of military hardware, which enabled Assad to turn the tide in his favor. Twisted minds think alike, as I wrote about in my recent posting on the bottomless pit of evil. Since the dictatorships in both Russia and Iran of the same mindset as Assad, why not help out a fellow tyrant in need.

Which brings to the second figure in this on-going debacle- Vladimir Putin, the Godfather of Russia. For those of you unfamiliar with the Godfather’s background, Putin used to be a mid-level thug in the old Soviet KGB, (Russia’s version  of the Nazi Gestapo.) After the fall of the Soviet’s communist empire, Putin, with deft skillfulness, managed to rise to the top of Russia’s new regime. He currently runs the Russian government with Mafia-style brutality. He’s considered the Godfather, or the boss-of-bosses, if you will, when it comes to governance. Anyone seriously opposing his regime will either wind up in an old Soviet gulag in Siberia for many years, or at the bottom of the sea wearing a cement overcoat. But Putin is no fool. So when he saw that the U.S. might use military force to punish Assad for the use of poison gas on his people, he stepped in with a proposal to protect his client state and partner in evil. Playing the U.S. like a fiddle, he suckered us into agreeing to hold off on the military option if Assad would agree to turn over his arsenal of chemical weaponry to an “international organization,” whoever that might be. Supposedly, these chemical weapons would then be destroyed.  This is such a bad idea, I hardly know where to begin.

It’s been estimated that Assad has now dispersed his poison gas inventory to over 50 locations, or more. To assume that an international force will be able to round up the entire lot of Syrian chemical weapons is ridiculous. Plus the fact that you don’t get rid of chemical weapons by just flushing them down the toilet or kitchen sink. The destruction of chemical weaponry is a very careful, rigid, taxing and time consuming endeavor. Strict safeguards have to be in place to prevent any possible mistake that could result in unimaginable devastation for miles around the destruction site. It would take years and years to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpile, under the best of conditions. Nevertheless, the Obama administration latched on to Putin’s delusional proposal, like a drowning swimmer grabbing for a life raft. Which brings to the third major player in this fiasco.

President Obama’s stated foreign policy thrust has been, in his words, “leading from behind.” I won’t get into all the gory details, but this position has led to a crippling weakness in foreign affairs, especially among the most evil and vilest leaders currently occupying the world stage. Obama drew a red line in the sand the first time Assad used chemical warfare on his people. But nobody was fearful or intimidated that Obama would actually do something. So, as I’ve said, Assad went ahead and blatantly gassed another 1400 of his populace. Obama then felt he had to undertake some kind of military retaliation, mostly because of that whole red line in the sand thingy. But his heart was not really into using military force, so he dumped the whole matter on Congresses lap, even though, as Commander-In-Chief, he had full authority to act on his own. Now asking our polarized and dysfunctional Congress to approve a sane and rational course of action, is like asking a starving lion to protect the lambs grazing in the adjoining field. Ain’t never going to happen. In Obama’s defense, it should be fairly noted that, a few days before in England, supposedly our closest ally, the British House of Commons voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to join the U.S. in military action against Syria. Obama could see the handwriting on the wall.

Which brings us to the fourth culprit in this tragedy, the American public. Polls show that the public is overwhelming against any sort of military involvement in Syria. Fed up with never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, (who wouldn’t be) the U.S. public has retreated to a position of isolationism. Which, of course, worked out so well for us up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and our ensuing involvement in WWII, for which we were totally unprepared. But because of public opposition, looney-tunes tea party Republicans have teamed up with left wing-Democrats, in an unholy alliance, opposing any possible military venture. Besides they point out, Al-Quida terrorists have become embedded with the Syrian rebels,  so its best left for the evil forces on both sides to go on killing each other.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over a lifetime, it’s that a policy of isolationism has dreadful consequences in the end. In this case, if Assad prevails, the real winners will be Russia and Iran. Yes, the same Iran that is rushing forward to develop nuclear weapons. And to dominate the oil-rich middle-east. Anyone out there happy about the prospect of the fanatical jihadist mullahs of Iran dictating world events.  You know, at one point in this planet’s history, the Roman Empire was the most powerful force on Earth. But the Huns and Vandals and other barbarians of that era kept chipping away at Rome’s defenses. Mostly through the use of terrorist tactics of that era. which was primarily to raid outlying villages and kill everyone in sight. Then plunder, and burn these villages to the ground. Eventually, Romans of that day became tired of all this constant warfare, and became isolationist, and then withdrew inside the confines of Rome itself. This only emboldened the barbarians, who were then able to break through the gates of Rome, and proceed to destroy the very existence of the Roman Empire. That was the beginning of what is referred to as “the dark ages.” It might be useful for people in this country to re-learn the lessons of history.

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WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM JOEY THE CAT

My wife and I have been married for a very long time; but, no, it’s not true, that our wedding took place right after Lincoln’s second inauguration. Anyway, the key to making  a relationship last as long as ours has, is compromise. Each partner has to be willing to give a little when there are differences of opinion in approaching or handling various situations. Compromise is the key to a successful relationship. For example, some years back my wife wanted to get a cat. I didn’t want a cat, mainly because of my allergies. So we compromised…….and got a cat.

During our younger years we had dogs for pets; but as we we aged, cats appeared to be the wiser choice. After all, cats didn’t need to be walked at 10 or 11 at night, especially in the freezing winters with snow and ice, that we experienced when living back East in our younger days. So as we grew older, we acquired a kitten while still living on the East Coast, and moved her with us, when we relocated to Las Vegas. This little kitten grew into a healthy, mature cat,  and gave us great pleasure and enjoyment for 18 and a quarter years until she died. We were naturally devastated at her loss, as if a member of the immediate family had died. (As a side note, any pet owner has to know ahead of time that when they decide to acquire that cute puppy or kitten, it’s all going to end badly. At some point, you will likely outlive your pet and experience a broken heart when it dies.) And so it was with us. We then went 3 years with no little furry creature running around the house; until my wife, one day decided that she could no longer take it- not having a pet in our household.

She had read in the local paper that Best Friends Animal Society was giving away free kittens at a local pet store, and that’s where we needed to proceed to. Immediately.  (As it turned out, these free cats were at best, semi-free, since we had to pay various fees associated with the cat’s inoculations, spaying, etc.) But this is where we found a 12-week-old, white and grey kitten with big blue eyes, that we decided to adopt. They told us that the kitten was a boy, and we were too oblivious to check further, so we named him Joey. Several days after bringing “him” home it finally dawned on us to more closely examine the cat’s gender. It was then that we became aware that “he” was really a girl; but we figured that the name Joey could also be considered female. So Joey it was. They had put the kitten in a small shoe box with handles and air vents, gave us a small bag of toys, and wished us good luck as we rode home with our new pet.

Right from the beginning, Joey made her presence known. I don’t think our previous cat had uttered more than half a dozen meows in the 18 plus years she lived with us. But this new cat started meowing, (or “kvetching” as my wife put it) right from the get-go.  The first morning after we brought her home, she wandered through the house crying her little head off. I finally figured out why. For all of her 12 weeks of existence, she had been surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of stray cats in the animal shelter where she lived. These included her mother and her siblings. Now, suddenly, there were no cats-only these 2 big,  strange, looming figures.  What had happened to all her little friends and family?But the thing about cats (and dogs too) is that they adjust very quickly to new circumstances. In no time, it seemed, she became very comfortable with us. Cats have been bred over many thousands of years to be simpatico with humans and it shows in their behavior. Since there are no other cats around it became incumbent upon us to be her playmates, such as chasing around the house, or throwing toy mice for her to run after. Sometimes I engage in roughhousing with her and she will take my fingers in her mouth as if to bite down in retaliation. But it’s only pretend and she never can bring herself to actually bite.

I have learned that if you treat these little animals with affection, they will unabashedly give you their hearts. The older I get, the more I seem to appreciate the company of animals and less of people. With people, and especially with guys, it’s all about appearances and pretenses. No matter how much turmoil, or despair, or anguish a guy might be suffering through, he will almost always put on this front that says-“Oh yeah, I’m swinging, man. If life was any better, my body couldn’t take it.” It’s always about facades and pretenses to present to the rest of the world. But with animals, what you get is what you see. Their very innocence precludes them from any sort of affectation.

Joey is 7 years old now, middle-age for cats. She never hesitates to kvetch about some displeasure, like forgetting to give her treats, or not taking her out for playtime. She is so attached to us, that it’s painful to leave her the few times a year we travel, even though we hire a cat-sitter. I think if I had it to do all over again, I would engage my life’s energies in working with animals. I have great admiration for those people who work to save endangered species,  especially from the butchery caused by the greed and selfishness of those that would kill elephants, for example, to obtain the ivory in their tusks. I also admire those whose daily job is simply to care for abused and homeless animals. ( I would hope that the ninth circle of Hell, as described in “Dante’s Inferno”, is reserved for animal abusers.) I believe there is great personal reward in devoting one’s life toward these ends.

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LIVING ON $7.25 AN HOUR

Back almost a century ago, Henry Ford had established the assembly-line method of production for his Model T-Fords, which sold for $500 apiece. (He had famously quipped that the buyer could acquire his cars in any color they wanted….as long as it was black.) Then in1914, Ford decided that that it was a smart and profitable move to pay his assembly-line workers a “living wage,” which was all of $5 per day. Until then, his plant workers were earning slightly more than half that. (It also says reams about the erosion of the dollar’s buying power, if a century ago one could lead a lower middle class life-style by earning $5 a day.) Ford also reduced the normal work day from a 9 to 8 hour shift. Columnists speculated that that Ford’s motive was to put more money into his workers pockets so they could buy more of his cars. But there was much more to it than that. By nearly doubling his worker’s salaries, and creating better working conditions, Ford created a fierce loyalty among his assembly-line employees. This resulted in far less turn-over, which, in turn, resulted in far less recruiting, hiring and re-training costs. In the end Ford made a bundle by treating his employees with a greater degree of decency than other similar employers at the time.

All this came to mind because of recent discussions about paying low-end workers a living wage, which some estimate to be about $15 an hour in this day and age.  As we all know, the current federally mandated minimum-wage is $7.25 an hour. It was last raised in 2009, and don’t look for the current highly dysfunctional and polarized Congress to be increasing it anytime soon. So, at $7.25 an hour, if one is lucky enough to have obtained a 40 hour a-week job, one would thus earn the magnificent sum of $290 a week.  Before deductions, which would likely bring it down to about $250 a week. So, do you think you can live on about 1000 bucks a month. That would have to pay your rent and utilities, and maybe put some food on the table. You would also need money for transportation and an article or two of clothing, since garments tend not to last forever. And maybe even cable, and a cell phone. Of course, this assumes that a 40-hour a week job is obtainable, which is becoming less and less likely, since companies are turning more and more, with the speed of light, to part-time employment. This is so they can avoid paying their employees health care benefit costs, or heavens forbid, comply with Obamacare mandates.

So if you tend to be toward the low end of the totem pole, employment-wise, and are having trouble meeting you monthly bills, maybe you can turn to Robert Iger  for some financial assistance. Perhaps, if you ask nicely, he would help you out with some short-term loans. After all, he’s pretty well-off, financially. You see, Robert Iger is the CEO of Walt Disney-the company that produces all those cutesy cartoon movies. As head of Disney, he’s pulling down a mere $37 million a year. Think he can afford to throw a few shekels your way? If not, you can always turn to Mark Parker, who’s the CEO of Nike. He’s only making $35 million a year, so he may be more reluctant to fork over some cash to help out with your monthly bills. Of course, all this is small potatoes compared to the $96 million a year that Larry Ellison is compensated for as head of Oracle, the computer hardware and software giant.  I wouldn’t, however, factor into your monthly budget, any hope of obtaining financial assistance from any of these CEOs. Because the larger question is whether any corporate executive, no matter how productive they may be, is worth tens of millions a year in compensation. Especially when many of their workers are likely struggling financially because they’re in low-paying jobs.  Such are the inequities of our capitalist system, however. So when people talk about paying a “living wage” these days, of maybe $15 an hour, such actions could result in these multi-millionaire CEOs of having to shave a few million off their yearly compensations. Perish the thought.

Also on this Labor Day, one has to consider the job situation in this country, or to be more precise, the lack-of-jobs situation. Political foes of this Administration readily point out the high unemployment rate that currently exists, after nearly 5 years of Obama being in the presidency. And the rate is high, standing at 7.4% with about 11.5 million workers that are seeking jobs being unemployed. But there are other factors at play in our capitalistic society. Large American, multi-national corporations currently employ about 21 million workers in the U.S. but have shipped about 10.3 million jobs overseas, where, of course, labor is much cheaper.  Apple, for example, whose products like the IPhone are so enamored by so many people, has shipped thousands of jobs to China, where many of these IPhones are manufactured. After all, if a widget costs $5 to produce in this country, but only 75 cents in Bangladesh, why not set up a factory over there. If just half the jobs that American manufacturers shipped to foreign countries were brought back here, the unemployment rate would be so low that people would be dancing in the streets. Think such an event can occur, given the rules and mandates of our capitalist society?

So let’s raise a bottle of beer to all you minimum wage earners struggling to make ends meet. After all, some states mandate a minimum wage higher than $7.25 an hour. In California it’s $8, while Washington state has the highest minimum wage at $9.19. Of course, Georgia is still stuck in a 1950s time warp at $5.15 an hour. Perhaps, however, some capitalist along the way might come up with the idea that paying his employees a truly living wage is not only a matter of common decency, it can also be highly profitable. The way Henry Ford figured it out a century ago.

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