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Physicists in Congress Calculate Their Influence

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

WASHINGTON - According to the Congressional Research Service, there are only about 30 scientists among the 535 senators and representatives in the 110th Congress .... But physics is on a roll.

"Go back 15 years, and there weren't any physicists," said Vernon J. Ehlers, a Republican who taught the subject at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., until he was elected to Congress in 1993.

His was a lone voice until 1998, when Rush Holt, assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory, won election from New Jersey as a Democrat. And today there are three, adding Bill Foster, a physicist at Fermilab and another Democrat, who won a special election in March in Illinois. ... [A] Congress full of physicists might solve some worrisome problems, the three-member physics caucus argued one afternoon when they met for a joint interview in the Capitol.

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Africa Most Vulnerable to Global Warming Effects, U.N. Says

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Africa produces a tiny fraction of the world's greenhouse gases but is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, U.N. environmental experts said Tuesday at a conference of African environment ministers here.

Some of those present had harsh words for the developed world, in particular the United States, the largest producer of greenhouse gases. They said industrialized nations are pressing Africans to reduce gas emissions while not doing enough themselves.

"Computer models project major changes in precipitation patterns on the continent, which could lead to food shortages and increased desertification," says a United Nations Environment Program report released at the conference. "Yet on the whole, African nations lack the resources and technology to address such changes."

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Using the Web to Net Our Feathered Friends

from Scientific American

Combining standard field biology techniques with a Web-accessible robotic camera positioned at the Welder Wildlife Refuge in Sinton, Tex., scientists and amateur ornithologists are trying to determine whether the sighting of subtropical birds well north of their natural habitat is proof of climate change and a profound shift in wildlife migration patterns.

Amateur observers have witnessed - via the CONE (Collaborative Observatories for Natural Environments) Welder Web site - the green jay, great kiskadee and white-tipped dove cavorting north of their known breeding areas in Texas's Rio Grande Valley, about 160 miles from Sinton.

In fact, dozens of species of subtropical birds appear to have shifted to neighborhoods north of their normal stomping grounds.

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Hints of Structure Beyond the Visible Universe

from New Scientist

Colossal structures larger than the visible universe - forged during the period of cosmic inflation nearly 14 billion years ago - may be responsible for a strange pattern seen in the big bang's afterglow, says a team of cosmologists. If confirmed, the structures could provide precious information about the universe's earliest moments.

In the first instant after its birth, the universe is thought to have experienced a rapid growth spurt called inflation. During this period, space itself expanded faster than the speed of light.

Inflation solves some cosmological puzzles, such as why relic radiation from the big bang, released when the universe was less than 400,000 years old, is relatively uniform.

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City-Size Tract of Amazon Forest Cleared in April

from National Geographic News

In just a month, an area nearly the size of New York City was cleared in the Amazon rain forest - an "alarming" and "worse-than-imagined" development, the Brazilian government said in a statement. At least 433 square miles were deforested in Brazil in April 2008.

That's eight times more than the 55 square miles destroyed the month before, according to data released last week by the Brazilian National Space Research Institute (INPE), which monitors the Amazon.

The results suggest that the deforestation rate has accelerated, INPE said. ... The numbers are based on satellite data from Deter, a system that uses low-resolution images to capture frequent snapshots of the region.

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Telescope Admired from Afar Is at Last Viewed Close Up

from the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Registration Required)

WILLIAMS BAY, WIS. - Late one sunny afternoon in April, Kyle Cudworth, director of Yerkes Observatory complex, opened up the door leading into the main observatory.

Shuffling behind Cudworth, 86-year-old Rolf Riekher ... smiled with unalloyed delight. His eyes darted around the circular room, a vast space - and then they fixed on the massive, dark metal pier at the room's center. Looking up, he saw it: a slender, gracefully canted 63-foot-long white tube.

Built in 1897, at the apex of the Victorian age, this mighty telescope was the international space station of its time. It remains the world's biggest refracting telescope. ... What delayed the prominent telescope expert from seeing the important telescope was Riekher's unusual, isolated life and career in Germany under the Nazi and East German Communist regimes.

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Americans Put Themselves on the Path to Green Careers

from the Christian Science Monitor

Kathleen Loa first began thinking about pursuing a green career while she was a student at Oberlin College. Now, armed with a degree in chemistry, she is taking the first step in that direction. She's serving as an intern at the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C. After earning a master's in energy policy, she'll find a job.

"I want to keep working on environmental energy, either through a nonprofit role or a for-profit company," says Ms. Loa of Claremont, Calif.

That goal puts her in the vanguard of one group seeking eco-friendly jobs - students and recent graduates who hope to join the green boom at the beginning of their careers. A second group includes people in midcareer who want to parlay their current skills into green jobs. ... Yet defining just what constitutes a green job remains a challenge.

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A Measure of U.S. Happiness

from the Seattle Times

WASHINGTON - The Gallup Organization and a health-industry partner now offer a detailed daily measure of U.S. happiness and stress that you can look it up on the Internet. They hope that it will be as influential an indicator of national progress someday as the gross domestic product.

The index, which is based on 1,000 in-depth interviews nightly, is the first time that happiness and its many components have been measured regularly and precisely in other than dollar terms.

To come up with the daily index, Gallup asks a battery of questions about respondents' previous days, including state of health, economic comfort, job satisfaction, social life, restedness, optimism, worry and other factors in contentment.

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Brainpower May Lie in Complexity of Synapses

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Evolution's recipe for making a brain more complex has long seemed simple enough. Just increase the number of nerve cells, or neurons, and the interconnections between them. A human brain, for instance, is three times the volume of a chimpanzee's.

A whole new dimension of evolutionary complexity has now emerged from a cross-species study led by Dr. Seth Grant at the Sanger Institute in England.

Dr. Grant looked at the interconnections between neurons, known as synapses, which until now have been regarded as a standard feature of neurons. But in fact the synapses get considerably more complex going up the evolutionary scale, Dr. Grant and colleagues reported online Sunday in Nature Neuroscience.

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Scientists Find Monkeys Who Know How to Fish

from the San Francisco Examiner

BANGKOK, Thailand (Associated Press) - Long-tailed macaque monkeys have a reputation for knowing how to find food - whether it be grabbing fruit from jungle trees or snatching a banana from a startled tourist. Now, researchers say they have discovered groups of the silver-haired monkeys in Indonesia that fish.

Groups of long-tailed macaques were observed four times over the past eight years scooping up small fish with their hands and eating them along rivers in East Kalimantan and North Sumatra provinces, according to researchers from The Nature Conservancy and the Great Ape Trust.

The species had been known to eat fruit and forage for crabs and insects, but never before fish from rivers.

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AIDS: Getting the Message

from the Economist

... Once it was only AIDS activists ... who criticised the mandarins of the AIDS establishment. Even then, the criticisms mostly boiled down to two things: "you're not acting fast enough," and "you're not spending enough money."

Now, insiders, too, are ... accusing the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS, in particular, of sloppy methodology, of the selective presentation of data, and of kowtowing to political correctness in a way that has distorted priorities for the treatment and prevention of the disease.

Ironically, this is happening at a time when the desire of the activists - treatment for all - no longer looks like a pious hope. It may take longer than those activists would wish. And the definition of "all" may not quite be the one in the dictionary. But the treatment of AIDS is steadily improving.

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Loyal to Its Roots

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

From its diminutive lavender flowers to its straggly windblown stalks, there is nothing about the beach weed known as the Great Lakes sea rocket to suggest that it might be any sort of a botanical wonder. Yet scientists have found evidence that the sea rocket is able to do something that no other plant has ever been shown to do.

The sea rocket, researchers report, can distinguish between plants that are related to it and those that are not. And not only does this plant recognize its kin, but it also gives them preferential treatment.

If the sea rocket detects unrelated plants growing in the ground with it, the plant aggressively sprouts nutrient-grabbing roots. But if it detects family, it politely restrains itself.

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Salmonella Scare: McDonald's, Others Pull Tomatoes

from USA Today

OAK BROOK, Ill. (Associated Press) - McDonald's (MCD), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) and other restaurant and grocery chains have stopped selling certain tomatoes as U.S. health officials work to pinpoint the source of a Salmonella outbreak.

McDonald's, the world's largest hamburger chain, stopped serving sliced tomatoes on its sandwiches as a precaution until the source of the salmonella is known, according to a statement Monday from spokeswoman Danya Proud.

McDonald's will continue serving grape tomatoes in its salads because no problems have been linked to that variety, Proud said. The source of the tomatoes responsible for the illnesses in at least 16 states has not been pinpointed.

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Bionic Hand Wins Top Tech Prize

from BBC News Online

The world's most advanced, commercially available, bionic hand has won the UK's top engineering prize.

The i-LIMB, a prosthetic device with five individually powered digits, beat three other finalists to win this year's MacRobert award.

The technology has been fitted to more than 200 people, including US soldiers who lost limbs during the war in Iraq. The device started life in Scotland in 1963 as part of a project to help children affected by Thalidomide.

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Caribbean Monk Seal Extinct, U.S. Officials Declare

from National Geographic News

Federal officials in the U.S. have confirmed what biologists have long thought: The Caribbean monk seal has gone the way of the dodo.

Humans hunting the docile creatures for food, skins, and blubber left the population unsustainable, say biologists, who warn that Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals could be the next to go.

The last confirmed sighting of a wild Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 in the waters between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries Service confirmed last Friday that the species is now extinct.

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Sense of Fairness Affects Outlook, Decisions

from the Washington Post (Registration Required)

American workers are hurting. The country is in an economic slump, thousands of people are being laid off, and hundreds of companies are retrenching. With house values falling in many parts of the country and with gas prices soaring, many people are struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

The unfolding shakeout might ultimately be good for the economy, but it can be extremely painful for individuals. For companies, managing change is very important, not only for the well-being of their employees but also because to succeed, they need employees who are engaged, enthusiastic and energized -- and not burned out.

A pair of psychologists recently evaluated hundreds of employees at a large North American university that was in the grip of painful change. The researchers wanted to find out whether there were factors that explained why some employees successfully weathered the transition and reengaged with their jobs, while others spiraled into cynicism and exhaustion -- the classic signs of burnout.

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Mars Phoenix to Try Shake-and-Bake Once More

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

In a series of maneuvers that sounds more like cooking class than research on Mars, scientists said Monday they would try one more time to shake bits of the clumpy Martian soil into a test oven on NASA's Phoenix lander before switching to a backup strategy that called for dribbling the soil into the oven.

Scientists have failed in two attempts to inject soil from the Martian north pole into one of eight tiny ovens designed to test for organic compounds that would prove Mars' suitability for life.

The problem is, the opening to the oven is about the thickness of a pencil lead. The Martian soil is proving to be much clumpier -- cemented, in scientific terms -- than expected.

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Fresh Hurdle for Stem Cell Hunt

from BBC News Online

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist says it could be tougher than first thought to harness the healing power of stem cells in medicine.

It had been hoped a single "master" cell could potentially be used to repair all damage in a single organ. Professor Mario Capecchi, from the University of Utah, found surprising clues that different stem cells might be working together in the same organ.

This means experimental treatments relying on the wrong type might fail. Professor Capecchi, writing in the Nature Genetics, said the finding suggested stem cell biology could be "more complicated" than previously thought, which could be bad news for patients hoping for the swift arrival of new therapies.

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Pesticides Blamed for Plummeting Salmon Stocks

from New Scientist

A weak mix of pesticides in river water dampens a salmon's sense of smell, say researchers. In experiments, Steelhead rainbow trout exposed to low levels of 10 common agricultural pesticides could not perceive changes in levels of a predator's scent.

"You can imagine if a fish is unable to detect just how close it is to a [wading] bear, it's a problem," says Keith Tierney, a toxicologist who led the study while at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

A depressed sense of smell might also keep fish from finding mates and food. Trout are closely related to salmon, and, though the theory is unproven, pesticides may be a cause of plummeting salmon stocks in Canada and the US, Tierney says.

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Sunshine May Be Nature's Disease Fighter

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

Medical researchers are homing in on a wonder drug that may significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and many other diseases -- sunshine.

A study released [Monday] found that men who are deficient in the so-called sunshine vitamin -- vitamin D -- have more than double the normal risk of suffering a heart attack.

Just last week, another study found that low levels of vitamin D increase the risk of diabetes, and a study last month linked deficiencies to an increased risk of dying from breast cancer.

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Before Darwin: How the Earth Went from Lifeless to Life

from the Scientist (Registration Required)

Even as political rhetoric and court battles reflect a public struggle over Darwin's theory of evolution as an explanation for the origin of humans, a different struggle is unfolding within science about the adequacy of evolution as a theoretical foundation for biology.

On the surface, the two debates seem to have little to do with one another, but in a subtle way both reflect the need for a richer theoretical biology. The perception of evolution among the wider public might even be improved by better communication of scientific concerns about the limitations of evolutionary theory, and how those concerns are being addressed.

A sympathetic reading of public distrust over evolution would be that a simple theory of change seems too bare to account for the richness of structure we see in the world around us, and for how that structure first came to form.

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Ecological Responses to Climate Change on the Antarctic Peninsula

From American Scientist

The crack of an iceberg splitting away from the Marr glacier reverberates through the halls of the Bio Lab at Palmer Station, on the western shore of the Antarctic Peninsula. That sound has grown increasingly familiar ....

The retreat of the Marr glacier ... signals ongoing environmental change. The average midwinter temperature here has increased by 6 degrees Celsius since 1950; this is the highest rate of warming anywhere on the planet, five times the global average.

The isolated biological community of the peninsula and its coastal waters evolved in a polar climate that remained relatively stable for many millennia. Now, as the climate shifts, [scientists] are trying to document and understand how the ecosystem responds.

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Kennedy's Recovery -- And a New Treatment for Brain Cancer

The story of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy's brain surgery at Duke University Medical Center continued to be the focus of media attention last week. The 76-year-old senator was said by his doctors to be making "an excellent recovery." He left the medical center June 9 to fly back to Cape Cod.

Meanwhile, Duke researchers reported that a vaccine under clinical trial has been found to double survival time for those who have the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme.

And it appears that a drug that prevents bone loss during breast cancer therapy also substantially reduces the risk of the cancer's return. Medical researchers said this was the first large study to affirm wider anti-cancer potential for bone-building drugs called bisphosphonates.

Another study suggests that red wine may be much more potent in slowing the aging process than was previously thought. The New York Times said the study is part of a new wave of research that may increase longevity.

A new survey found that teen sexual activity in the U.S. may be increasing, after a decade-long decline, and that fewer high school students are opting to use condoms. But the survey did not provide sufficient data to indicate a definite trend, officials said.

In does appear, however, that race and where Americans live have a big impact on the quality of medical treatment they receive. Overall, black Americans with diabetes or vascular disease are nearly five times more likely than whites to have a leg amputated, researchers reported.

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Technology: New Developments in Earthquake Warnings

Earthquake alert systems were in the news last week. NASA scientists say a possible correlation between electrical disturbances in the atmosphere and impending earthquakes could lead to a space-based early warning system. But some scientists remain "deeply skeptical" about the basic premise.

Meanwhile, a new earthquake early warning system in Japan has gotten off to a rocky start. The system was designed to give two-minute warnings of approaching shock waves, but either missed or was late in sounding the alarm over recent quakes.

In other technology news, scientists have inserted a small piece of DNA into a living bacterial cell, creating a microbial computer to solve a mathematical sorting problem. The study was published in the Journal of Biological Engineering.

Technology giants say they could provide much faster wireless Internet access via unused bandwidth between TV channels. But media leaders are concerned that using those buffers for cell phone and Internet traffic could cause problems for TV signals when they go digital next year.

A preliminary study found that a device that sucks blood clots out of the coronary arteries of heart patients prior to angioplasty reduces the one-year death rate by nearly half. The new devices are already being used in many large medical centers.

Experts say new factories that process quartz into polysilicon will end a shortage of the raw material for solar panels. As a result, the price of solar panels could drop by as much as a third by 2010, which is good news for a promising energy alternative that remains expensive.

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In Egypt, a Rediscovered Pyramid and an Ancient City

Archaeologists announced new finds in Egypt last week, including a 4,000-year-old "missing pyramid" and more remains of Tharu, an ancient fortified city near the Suez Canal.

The pyramid is believed to have been built by King Menkauhor, an obscure pharaoh. It was found in 1842 by German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius, only to be lost later to the desert sands.

The 3,000-year-old fortress city, near the modern border town of Rafah, covered about 31 acres and helped guard the Egyptian empire's eastern front in the Sinai Peninsula.

In other news, scientists presented new evidence suggesting that human settlers did not come to New Zealand until around 1300 A.D., or 1,000 years later than previously believed. This conclusion was based on a four-year studying involving radiocarbon dating of bones and seeds.

Meanwhile, in Peru, scientists say ancient skeletons unearthed at a 4,000-year-old archaeological site about 90 miles from Lima suggest that human sacrifice may have been practiced in the Pre-Ceramic period in the Andes mountains, a time formerly thought to have been relatively peaceful.

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A Setback on Mars; A New Lab for the Space Station

On the surface of Mars, the Phoenix lander experienced a soil-sampling glitch on its first attempt late last week, but scientists don't think it's serious. None of the dirt meant for the spacecraft's oven made it into the tiny chamber, so it couldn't be tested for signs of water or organic compounds.

Over the weekend, NASA delayed the launch of the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) until June 11 due to a battery issue. The telescope is designed to send back detailed data on "the most energetic explosions and flare-ups the cosmos has to offer."

A team of astronauts successfully attached a 15-ton Japanese laboratory to the International Space Station last week. The station's biggest room, it will be used for biomedical and material sciences research.

Further from home, a new map of the Milky Way indicates that our spiral galaxy has two fewer main spokes or arms than previously believed. Based on findings about the structural evolution of the Milky Way, the map was presented at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

At the same meeting, scientists said that a newfound planet only three times the size of Earth has fueled expectations that Earth-like planets are orbiting stars elsewhere in the universe. The newly discovered planet is the closest in size to the Earth of any extrasolar planet yet found.

And, finally, NASA's STEREO solar satellites have captured images of giant tornado-like jets twisting near the sun's poles. They are estimated to be a thousand times faster than terrestrial tornadoes.

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Washington's Climate Change Debate: 'It's a Battle Over Big Bucks'

A major climate change bill was defeated in the U.S. Senate last week, and the Los Angeles Times was among those to point out that the issue was as much about money as about greenhouse gases. The bill proposed new pollution regulations on industries while expanding carbon "offsetting." Detractors said the bill could lead to $8-a-gallon gas, among other economic hardships.

Meanwhile, a NASA investigation found that, for at least two years, political appointees in the agency's public affairs office worked to spin and distort findings by its own scientists about climate change.

The investigation was prompted by reports in the Washington Post and other news outlets that Bush administration officials were trying to muzzle NASA climate scientists.

And the Washington Post also reported last week on the dismal failure of a $58 million state and federal government effort to bring oysters back to the Chesapeake Bay. Official estimates indicate that there are now fewer oysters in the bay and fewer oystermen trying to harvest them than there were when the program began in 1994.

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Cold, Very Old Microorganisms Discovered by Penn State Team

from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They like the cold, they don't need much oxygen, and you can fit 62 trillion of them into a teaspoon. They're also 120,000 years old.

Those are the salient characteristics of a new species of ultrasmall bacteria discovered deep inside a glacier by researchers at Penn State University.

The Chryseobacterium greenlandensis were isolated from an ice core from 1.8 miles beneath the surface of a glacier in Greenland. Jennifer Loveland-Curtze, the lead researcher on the Penn State team, said the new species adds one more sliver of enlightenment to the vast and mostly unexplored universe of microorganisms.

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Now Students Take Field Trips Online

from the Christian Science Monitor

Stockton, Calif. - When seventh graders in Stockton took a field trip this week to see elephant seals, they didn't even step outside their school. Instead, with the help of a projector and a video camera, the students teleconferenced with a state park guide on the California coast.

Across a distance of 100 miles, students on the so-called "virtual field trip" got to talk with the guide, watch seals throw sand on themselves, and hear the blubbery beasts belch and bark - all without a yellow bus or permission slip.

"If you can't go somewhere, this can be the next best thing," says Craig Wedegaertner, an administrator at Marshall Middle School in Stockton. "Or, it can be used to prepare [students] before they go there."

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Hearts Don't Gain If Blood Sugar Is Leashed

from the Chicago Tribune (Registration Required)

Two large studies involving more than 21,000 people found that those with Type 2 diabetes experienced no reduction in their risk of heart attacks and strokes and no reduction in their death rates if they rigorously controlled their blood-sugar levels.

The results bolster findings reported in February, when one of the studies, by the National Institutes of Health, ended prematurely. At that time, researchers made the surprising announcement that study participants who were rigorously controlling their blood sugar actually had a higher death rate than those whose blood sugar control was less stringent.

Now the federal researchers are publishing detailed data from that study. Researchers in the second study, from Australia and involving participants from 20 countries, are also publishing their results on blood sugar and cardiovascular disease.

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