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Steve Keen "therealus" (Herts, UK)
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Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches
Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches
by Robert H. Jackson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £28.12

5.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction, 6 Oct 2014
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Jackson and Sørensen's International Relations provides an excellent introduction to the subject for student and non-student, although the emphasis is slightly on the former, given its text-book format. The different traditions of International Relations are described and explained, along with some of the various critiques which have been applied to them. Its systematic approach means that each of the traditions can be approached in isolation at first, before addressing the potential shortcomings in their foundations and assumptions. The theoretical content is amply supported with real-world examples, although these are not overplayed, meaning that the theory is not swamped. Towards the end there is an excellent treatment of some of the issues - international terrorism; religion; the environment; the dynamics of statehood - currently confronting International Relations. There is also a useful Glossary.

One intriguing aspect for me, having recently completed a degree module including International Relations, is the differences in emphasis placed on the various subject areas between the book and the module. For example, where Jackson and Sørensen make a clear distinction between constructivism and the English School, or International Society, as they prefer to call it, the module implied similarities and affinities. In addition, Jackson and Sørensen present traditions such as mercantilism, under the heading of International Political Economy, also touching on such areas as post-positivism and post-structuralism. The book therefore complements the module, in the meantime illustrating the point that no received message is neutral. All messages, no matter how well-intentioned the author, has a slant in one direction or another.

My one reservation is with the short section on think tanks, in which their descriptions of some of the more famous ones read almost as if taken from the respective organisations' publicity material. In general, though, this is a good introduction to the subject.

Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
Price: £7.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As fresh and creative as ever, 1 Oct 2014
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Lucinda Williams is not in some ways the most fecund of artists, this being her first album since Blessed in 2011, but Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone corrects that somewhat in being a double CD, so we get a lot of Lucinda as some form of compensation for the long wait.

To say the wait was worth it is an understatement. Williams’s razor sharp lyrics are honed to perfection, pleading, threatening, berating, defying and celebrating in turns. She shifts in very short order from the lamentation of Burning Bridges to the uncompromising “If you don’t like it, tough” attitude of West Memphis, and there are numerous other shades and nuances to savour, both lyrically and musically.

Williams’s singing is as distinctive as ever: there’s little possibility of mistaking her for anyone else. The musical accompaniment, however, has a different feel from previously, neither Car Wheels nor Essence. Some of that is likely in the production, with the electric guitars in particular seeming to cut through the air at times. It’s also in the variety of tempos employed. But in being untypical it is, perhaps, typically Lucinda.

As so often, Williams’s preoccupation with geography gets a look in, which sometimes brings to mind that other legendary American geography celebrant, Bruce Springsteen. But where, in this reviewer’s humble (and possibly flawed, you decide) view The Boss has lately been off the boil, Lucinda Williams demonstrates with this set that she is as fresh and creative as ever.

Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash
Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash
by Pat Gilbert
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Unravelling the myth, 24 Sep 2014
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There are a few things you should never see being made if you want to continue enjoying them. Sausages and rock music come pretty well up that list. There is nevertheless a kind of perverse fascination in reading Pat Gilbert’s account of The Clash’s brief, fruitful career culminating in a train crash ending made almost inevitable by the very forces that made them good in the first place.

There are so many, often self-generated, myths surrounding the band that a part of Gilbert’s job in writing this account was to unravel them and dig into fuddled memories in order to construct a different story, although the alternative version he creates is often no less extraordinary. Reading the 2009 revision it’s clear that there’s still more to be clarified or denied, or confirmed but with a bizarre slant. For example, throughout most of the account we have a vision of Bernie Rhodes as a cross between pantomime villain and capricious Svengali, and yet at the end we find there was no early plot on his part to oust Mick Jones and replace him with Steve Jones, and that CBS found him to be a welcome, stable interface with the band.

Given the number of books dedicated purely to deconstruct the recorded music Gilbert perhaps wisely spends very little time on this. It’s a shame though that his account of the band’s live appearances is so skewed to problems and the US, which almost makes it feel like I made up the times I believed I saw them, other than the RAR event at Victoria Park. He writes about the appearances in Paris during which Futura 2000 painted the backdrop of the stage while the band played, but not of the at least one occasion this happened in Brixton. Or did I really make that up? There is similarly too little background to the, at the time quite odd, in some people’s minds, appearance of Joe Ely (a country singer!) at a “punk” gig as The Clash’s support in Camden. If you only have this book to go by, you’d think that only happened in the US.

Leaving quibbles aside, though, Gilbert’s account is well worth the read, and rather than detracting from enjoyment of the band’s music will possibly give it a whole new life.

However, if there is a book out there that gives a more thorough account of The Clash Live in the UK I’d like to read it.

Flamenco - All You Wanted to Know
Flamenco - All You Wanted to Know
by Emma Liaño Martinez
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.41

5.0 out of 5 stars A good primer, 22 Sep 2014
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If you're looking for some lessons in how not to spell or punctuate, this is possibly your starting point. But it is also a good place to start to learn about flamenco. Unlike other guides to flamenco culture, this one lacks airs and graces, and is not all about the author.

Martínez deals with flamenco forms, history, culture and lore fairly comprehensively. There are discussions around authenticity and controversies regarding what is and is not flamenco. She names some of the key figures in flamenco, past and present, and suggests recordings with which the uninitiated could start to get an idea of what is good flamenco. There is also a useful history of the development of the Spanish guitar.

Despite the undoubted value of the contributions of Federico García Lorca to the promotion and understanding of cante jondo, Martínez is nevertheless quite rightly scathing of his self-appointment as an arbiter of good taste in flamenco, though his role in this respect is no different from many intellectuals of his day, and in fairness he appears to have been very popular with the gitanos he associated with. Unlike some authors, she does not romanticise the marginalised status of gitanos, and is happy to sacrifice some of the "pena" of the music in exchange for a better life for them.

It doesn't quite deliver all it promises: there are still more things I'd like to know, but as a primer it's more than adequate, better than Robin Totton's Song Of The Outcasts, although that book has the bonus of a CD as illustration of the various styles. It's an enjoyable read and one which should help anyone wishing to understand flamenco a little better.

KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Price: £11.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Ten songs; ten high points, 27 Aug 2014
Lovers of Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr’s songs will love this. The different artists performing the songs each gives them a different seasoning, meaning that their amenability to different styles is brought out. Whilst often the lyrical style and subject matter are typical of the writers – outlaws, misbehaving parents, beloved siblings, home, sorrow – the performers’ interpretations are likely not always as Crowell himself would present them: it’s difficult to see/hear him delivering Momma’s On A Roll anything remotely like Lee Ann Womack does.

There are ten tracks and ten high points on the record, but here are some random observations.

Both If The Law Don’t Want You, delivered in world-weary style by Norah Jones, and My Father’s Advice, with Crowell accompanied by a gruff Kris Kristofferson, are still making me laugh out loud. God I’m Missing You, on the other hand, is infused with a sadness so deep by Lucinda Williams that I have to listen to it with a drink in my hand, even more so than Crowell’s own version on Tarpaper Sky. Somewhere in between, Sister Oh Sister recalls happy memories of a lost sibling, sung by Roseanne Cash with backing vocals by Chely Wright. And in addition to providing a tangible regretfulness for missed opportunities on Long Time Girl Gone By, Emmylou Harris sweetens up the vocals on the closing track, Hungry For Home.

To cite one of the old man’s pieces of advice, go on and give it a whirl.

Long Waves of Capitalist Development: A Marxist Interpretation
Long Waves of Capitalist Development: A Marxist Interpretation
by Ernest Mandel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.47

5.0 out of 5 stars Food for thought, 27 Aug 2014
Ernest Mandel’s take on Long Waves is an excellent demonstration of Ha-Choon Jang’s recent reminder, in his Pelican Economics primer, that economics is never anything other than political. The difference with Mandel is that he makes absolutely no secret of his angle. There is no hidden agenda. Mandel writes from a Marxist perspective, on the assumption that capitalism has had its day and it is now on life support, waiting for somebody to put it out of its misery.

His principal thesis is that, far from technological change being the driver of capitalist Long Waves, it is the exogenous shocks immediately preceding the adoption of the technology that enables capitalists to reduce wages, lay off workers, and make those that remain work harder, thus supplying the profits that provide the financing for the new technologies and reducing workers’ ability to resist their introduction. Examples of exogenous shocks are recessions, wars and politically motivated anti-worker legislation such as that introduced by the Tories in the 1980s, all factors which weaken the bargaining power of the working class and their ability to defend themselves.

It’s an interesting, almost compelling argument, and one that deserves consideration. In present context, following six years of the Great Recession, the UK economy is nominally recovering, yet most people’s wages are flat, and in real terms shrinking, the workforce is becoming increasingly casualised, and the wages of workers under 30 are reckoned to be round 10% less than they were in 2006. Meanwhile the banks, whose footloose practices dug the hole in the first place, continue to play financial derivatives poker at the same time as they absorb enormous fines for their malpractice, pay virtually no interest on deposits and refuse loans to businesses.

It is this final point that is symptomatic of the risk-aversity that has developed and is currently, contrary to what may be expected from Mandel, stifling the animal spirits that are needed to stimulate renewed prosperity. Thus an alternative view, to be found in a recent paper from Mariana Mazzucato and Carlota Perez (Innovation as Growth Policy: the challenge for Europe), also takes as its starting point the growth of profitability as a result of firms’ exploiting the weakened state of organised labour, but pinpoints the need now for opportunities for investment. In order for those to emerge, they argue, government needs to create the opportunities, through sponsoring R&D and through its own procurement policies, which reduce the uncertainty surrounding investment in new technologies, whilst simultaneously reforming the tax system to reward innovation in new technologies rather than in financial speculation.

Mazzucato and Perez put their case, I have no doubt, far better than I am able to in a couple of sentences. Whilst Mandel offers no hope for capitalism, and perhaps he’s right, their combination of Schumpeterian and Keynesian thinking offers a more compelling alternative for the capitalist system than secular stagnation culminating either in global impoverishment or Marxist conflagration, or maybe both.

Ernest Mandel offers a valuable perspective on the capitalist system, one that is overtly laden with an anti-capitalist political message. Mazzucato and Perez provide a pro-capitalist foil for that message, though less overtly, which steers a middle line between Mandel’s Marxism and the market-oriented fanaticism currently steering the global economy.

The Cajuns: Americanization of a People
The Cajuns: Americanization of a People
by Shane K. Bernard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.65

5.0 out of 5 stars Preserving a culture, 18 Aug 2014
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Unlike many accounts of the injustices and indignities imposed on the people now referred to as Cajuns, Shane Bernard’s focus is not on the original sin, the expulsion of the French inhabitants of L’Acadie, modern-day Nova Scotia, in the mid-18th Century, by the British, but upon their experience in their new home, Louisiana, in the 20th.

Bernard begins with the Second World War, the event which began the process by which the Cajun culture of southern Louisiana was inexorably subsumed and subverted by Americanism. As Cajun men were sent out into the world to serve in the forces, and brought back with them the message that their language was inferior and would get them nowhere, so others arrived in the state, especially to work the booming oil industry, bringing with them a demand for English and a condescension towards the Cajun way of life.

Tales abound of the active campaigns to eradicate French from the region, including punishment of children from French-speaking homes who insisted on speaking French when they were at school. Musicians who began by playing the folk music which had developed in the region were obliged by economics to adjust their repertoires to suit the taste of those whose preference was for rock and roll or country.

Then along came the sixties and with them the struggles by minorities, both in the US and abroad, for recognition and rights. Campaigns, albeit many of them hopelessly misdirected and misguided, were launched for the preservation of the Cajun dialect; musicians such as Dewey Balfa, who had stuck to their roots, found they had a ready and eager audience for their music in other parts of the US. A militancy developed in some parts of the populace which drove changing attitudes and led to the election of politicians from a Cajun background.

Sometimes there were setbacks. The political and economic upheavals of the mid-seventies halted some educational programmes in their tracks, or at least slowed them down, but in some cases that was not so bad as it afforded an opportunity for reevaluation and realisation, for example, that teaching Parisian French to Cajun children was doing nothing for a dialect that had not been heard in France since the 17th Century.

Inevitably, Bernard discusses at length the issue of authenticity, and of the ways in which “Cajun” has become a catch-all for tourist traps, even to the extent of selling New Orleans as Cajun when in fact its French background is metropolitan, not rural. He also mildly lampoons the adoption of southern Louisiana itself of the Evangeline myth, perpetrated by Longfellow, which sometimes sees girls dressed as milkmaids parading for visitors.

This perspective is useful for those who may be going to Louisiana seeking a Cajun experience. You’re as likely to meet a professional Cajun as a real one, although there is no taking away from the sincerity of those many people working to preserve what they can of the memory, if not the actuality, and that includes Bernard himself who, in sharing with his readers the good, the bad and the all-too-often ugly story of the Cajuns is ensuring that, whilst they may not altogether like where they are now, their unique culture is not lost to history.

Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century
Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century
by James Steinberg
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.95

5.0 out of 5 stars The future can be drafted now, 11 Aug 2014
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As China develops and its power increases, so the potential for misunderstanding with the world’s only, but waning, superpower grows. Politicians on both sides, under these circumstances, need to be aware of the risks, the potential scenarios that could play out, and have strategies for ensuring that the worst case scenarios are confined to the fields of conjecture. The key tools for achieving that goal are reassurance, in which each side goes out of its way to demonstrate that its intentions are good, and resolve, in which equally they demonstrate that any cheating will be punished. That means keeping the lines of communication open, taking all opportunities to engage in dialogue and joint operations, flagging intentions in any instances where there is potential for misinterpretation of activities, and, as far as possible, operating transparently.

Recent events have shown how all this can go wrong: through China’s overenthusiasm in drawing lines of possession around sea-girt rocks and, rather less symbolically, Taiwan; and in Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US’s covert surveillance activities. In terms of demonstrating resolve, on the downside there is US hesitation to act against Assad, despite his crossing of predefined “red lines”, but on the upside is the escalating action taken against Russia as retribution for Putin’s posturing over Ukraine.

James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon do a good job of analysing this unfolding chapter of China-US relations, presenting their case with clarity and, whilst clearly viewing the world from a “western” perspective, acknowledging that the US, for all its nurturing of potential rivals in the interest of a liberal international order, nevertheless has to prove itself capable of resisting the temptation to take preemptive action before it’s too late and China is suddenly in a position to seriously challenge it, as happened in the authors’ opening example in which Sparta attacks an ever-more powerful Athens, just in case, thus unleashing the Peloponnesian War. But the key message is that the onus in such a scenario falls on both parties equally to demonstrate good faith.

In using game theory to characterise the strategic dynamic the authors probably quite rightly draw on the Prisoner’s Dilemma in modelling the way strategic thinkers have approached the problem to date. In doing so the temptations associated with the consequent sub-optimum equilibria are recognised and a means of circumventing the problem thrashed out, preferably in collaboration. In so doing, they could have pointed out, the dynamics can be changed to transform the model into an Assurance Game, as the US and USSR did with their strategic arms treaties.

This all takes time, as mutual trust is not something available tied up in ribbons at your local gift shop. Alexander Wendt, challenging the fixity of confrontational geopolitical relationships in the Realist model, envisages the potential for transforming, long term, a culture of enmity between states into a culture of friendship. In between is a culture of rivalry. Steinberg and O’Hanlon appear to be looking at how the incumbent and upcoming global superpowers can at least exist as rivals within this continuum through a long-term process of give-and-take, operating in a world in which greater parity between their respective arsenals is overall a good thing.

In game theory, one of the ways in which models disintegrate is when one side’s rationality is the other side’s vision of hell, as with kamikaze missions. Then the model quickly transmutes into a Chicken Game, or worse. Steinberg and O’Hanlon appear to be working on the assumption that neither the US administration nor the Chinese bureaucracy will behave like James Dean refusing to pull his car out of a head-on collision.

All signs recently have shown this to be the case. If so, then the future just became a little less scary, as it is to be hoped that both sides in the equation are using guidelines such as these in their deliberations over how to conduct their affairs with each other. In the West, if you’re so inclined, you even have the opportunity, if you’re not a member of the elites determining policy, to at last vote for the part of the elite not seemingly hell-bent on cultivating suspicion and hostility. It’s better than nothing.

Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction
Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction
by R. I. M. Dunbar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hooray for another Pelican!, 24 July 2014
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As a bibliophilic teenager, at least once a week I would make the pilgrimage downtown to Clulow’s, a sadly long-defunct independent bookshop, where I would enjoy browsing the Orange-, Grey- and Black-edged Penguins and iconic blue-edged Pelicans. At home my incipient book collection began to emulate the colour-scheme, allowing only the rarest glimpse of a white-edged Picador or randomly hued Panther. From those books I began my exploration of world literature and learned my first proper lessons in Greek and Roman history and mythology, philosophy, psychology, politics, economics and linguistics.

Some of those books continue to adorn my bookshelves, remaining as a reminder of an autodidactic past. It was therefore something of a thrill to find that the Pelican imprint was being relaunched.

Elsewhere I review the first product of this initiative, Ha-Joon Chang’s introduction to economics, which is excellent but, having just completed an economics degree I had a more informed and specialist view of its content, not to mention its overtendency to reference popular culture. Thus reading that book was a different proposition from the second, Robin Dunbar’s introduction to Human Evolution, a subject in which my prior knowledge was relatively shallow, but which manages to avoid, for example, references to Star Trek when explaining symbionts.

So it was that I began my transformation from casual to dedicated observer of people in groups, as that is essentially what for me is the greatest takeaway from Dunbar’s book. In the Financial Times Gillian Tett, an anthropologist by training, cited Dunbar’s revelation that on average the approximate human bonded-group size is 150, speculating on the implications of that for the way we live and, for that matter, the people on Facebook who claim to have thousands of “friends”. (Lower intimacy groups of 500, acquaintances, and 1500, tribes, are also covered, however.)

But the revelations that most interested me were those regarding the role of social grooming in releasing endorphins in the primate body, thus providing the pleasure associated with socialising, and the role language plays in increasing human efficiency in social grooming by doing away with the need continually to comb each other’s hair in pairs by permitting multi-tasking, engaging in social grooming by talking with each other as we hunt, travel and create.

One of the studies Dunbar cites involved the size of groups in pubs. Here the average size of a social group, a set of people who are obviously together is, apparently seven. But when it comes to a conversation group, where one or more people talk whilst the others listen, the average size is four, and laughter groups, in which people talk and occasionally laugh together is three. The efficiency in this arrangement is that unlike social grooming of the hair-combing variety, the release of endorphins occurs in both giver and receiver, not just the receiver, hence three people are groomed simultaneously.

The numbers cited are what have had me paying more attention lately to groups of people in public places. Thus should you find yourself aware of some weirdo paying an unusual amount of attention to your small gathering in a public place, it may be me, seeing if you’re tuning out as the fourth member of your group relates an amusing tale.

(Incidentally, who knew that it was possible to get paid for sitting around in pubs watching people chat? Why wasn’t I told earlier? But more seriously, I did also wonder if pubs are the best places to run this kind of study, and what the results may have been in, say, a works canteen or sports centre.)

Dunbar begins his study by outlining the questions he is setting out to address and the two essential tools he will be using, the social brain hypothesis and the time budget models. He explains the differences between hominins and hominids, why the great apes are unable to live far from the equator, details the five transitions in human evolution that have brought us to where we now are, and explores potential explanations for how language, fire and cooking allowed our precursors to travel, organise and develop sophisticated modes of reasoning and expression, eventually becoming Anatomically Modern Humans. He also explores the potential reasons why Neanderthals, contrary to popular myth highly evolved and intelligent, nevertheless became extinct whilst homo sapiens survived and thrived.

What becomes apparent as Dunbar progresses is that, far from there being a missing link, there is a remarkable amount of contiguous evidence available for us from which to construct a history of human evolution, much of which extends beyond theory into what Richard Dawkins calls “theorem”. We will never know the precise date when the first word was spoken, nor what it was, or the location or source of the first artificial fire, but we do know enough to say when brains and physiologies, and behaviour and diet had developed sufficiently for these things to be potentially possible. Fire, for example, as well as extending the length of the day beyond nightfall, improved the efficiency of eating, rendering meat both more digestible and more nutritious, reducing the quantity of food required to survive and the amount of time required for acquiring and eating it, thereby freeing up more time for socialising and creating the things that ultimately make us human, including religion and art.

Later, as human groups expanded, came the development of culture, freeriding and the appearance of pair-bonding. On this latter Dunbar is almost clinically analytical, dissecting the several possible reasons why pair-bonding came about, and examining the ways in which the pair-bond breaks down along with potential reasons, including the presence of a philandering gene in some people. I’m not sure, though, that reference to this is going to help next time you’re caught by your partner indulging in extra-curricular activities.

The book therefore gives myriad insights into what we are, where we came from, and why we do some of the things we do, making the routine of everyday living a source of interest. Evidence of learning is sometimes said to be a change in behaviour. Clearly I’ve learned.

I only have one quibble. On a couple of occasions the word “design” creeps in in places where more care is needed, as with a footnote which describes human feet as “designed” to allow a striding form of motion. Strictly speaking they “evolved” that way; using the word “designed” runs the risk of further confusing those folks who believe the world is only 6000 years old. There are also a couple of occasions where Dunbar seems to be over-enjoying the flaws in some other people’s theories, rather than just, as he does when he’s most convincing, surgically assessing the weaknesses in their assumptions and conclusions.

Echo Sessions
Echo Sessions
Price: £6.70

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was prepared for, 14 July 2014
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This review is from: Echo Sessions (Audio CD)
Fresh with the sounds of their eponymous long player, I ordered The Stray Birds’ Echo Sessions EP. As I might have expected, the former only partly prepared me for the latter.

Where the long player tends to favour the individual voice, the EP feels much more oriented to harmonising featuring the voices of all three members of the group, the exceptions being San Antone Rose, in which Maya de Vitry leads, and Blue Yodel #7, led by Oliver Craven. There’s less fiddle and very prominent mandolin and no wild instrumentals.

All this and some intangibles I haven’t quite put my finger on yet, but possibly down to production details, give the EP a different feel from the long player.

Still, having at first been a little blindsided by the differences I’m now also noticing the general similarities, like the exceptional musicianship and vocal delivery, which serve to fulfil the Birds’ aim of offering a tribute to the writers of the songs. The two songs with which I was not previously familiar, When I Stop Dreaming and Blue Yodel, will likely be my reference points for any future versions I hear. Loretta and San Antone Rose, which I’ve heard a few times by other people, are rapidly going the same way. And although at first I wondered if their emotional attachment with I Wish It Would Rain was a little lacking compared with Nanci Griffith’s own version on Winter Marquee, having listened a couple more times I think I was wrong.

And unlike the long player, there are no swing pieces to fast forward. Five for five.

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