The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘democracy bashing’

Are US Politicians Lower Grade?

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 23, 2010 @ 09:59

Gohmert in better times...

On fairly regular occasions, I watch The Daily Show. Now, it can hardly be described as an unbiased source of “news”, but satire always has a stinging level of truth behind it. More than mere truthiness.

Whenever I watch, there is invariably a segment where host Jon Stewart plays clips of US politicians, either delivering sermons in the House or the Senate, or holding forth on Fox or some other news network. The clips are usually of someone talking utter bullshit, saying something truly outrageous and being allowed to get away with it.

One recent example was the case of Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who appears to have no brain whatsoever. He talked up the ludicrous notion that terrorists were coming to America to give birth, so that their offspring could claim US citizenship under the 14th Amendment, only to return decades later as a legitimate citizen and blow themselves up.

Where this batshit crazy man got this idea from no one really knows. And when challenged to give any proof to his assertion, he just got mad instead.

Allowing lunatics like him to be elected will always remain the great flaw of democracy. But what concerns me a little about America is that he is by far not the only example. Day after day, week after week, on The Daily Show, more and more politicians are put in the limelight displaying absolutely zero intelligence whatsoever.

While Britain too has its fair share of politicians who arguably lack the brainpower to stand up and make a coherent, logical speech, backed by evidence as they see it, it seems to me that the US has a lot more of them, despite actually having fewer politicians at the national level. From Michele Bachman to Jim Bunning. And plenty more.

It seems like a harsh question to ask, but there is definitely something different about American democracy versus British democracy. I’m not saying that our voters look for intelligence in their politicians either, but for whatever reason, there is a cultural difference. US politicians have historically won elections by being more “one of us” – despite not being “one of us” in the least. Whereas in Britain, historically it has not always been like that, though we’re heading in that direction.

For those who disagree, let’s hear it. I raise the question simply because I’m genuinely interested…


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Problem #1 With Democracy: Voters Are Stupid

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 17, 2010 @ 09:44

One my my favourite pieces of news these past few days is this gem, which illustrates why – maybe – we have to be a little cautious about consulting the people too regularly…

… a Pew Research Center poll released Friday showed that nearly half of Americans incorrectly think the government’s bank bailout was enacted by President Barack Obama.

The Pew Research Center’s latest News IQ Quiz showed that 47 percent incorrectly said that the Troubled Asset Relief Program was signed into law by Obama, while only 34 percent correctly said that the bailout was enacted under the Bush administration.

All this despite the fact that, as far as I know, no Republican has ever come out and actually said the words “President Obama’s TARP bank bailout”, i.e. directly attributed this bailout to Obama. The reason is simple, because they would immediately be called a liar, trying to hide from the fact that it was President George W. Bush who created the program.

Because we’re all humans, and we all use our brains to varying degrees, people like to think they know what they’re talking about. Everyone thinks they can add 2 + 2; everyone likes to think they have some degree of critical thinking, but not everyone can get the answer of the 4.

That is the problem here. Republicans have done enough to muddy the waters, make the voters think the economic impact of the last 18 months is because of what Obama did, and nothing to do with those eight years of Republican regulation-removing, deficit-busting profligacy, shovelling shedfuls of cash to the rich in tax cuts.

Then they’ve let the voters take care of the rest, thinking there is some big-government conspiracy going on to turn America into a socialist paradise, whatever that is.

Meanwhile the Democrats are trapped. If they come out and challenge misperceptions like this, the Republicans can paint them for attacking a straw man, since no one actually said it in the first place. “Too busy trying to cover their tracks rather than resolving the financial crisis!” they’d say, making the voter even more suspicious of Democrats.

Such a good idea, but I'm not sure they'll cope with AV...

And naturally, as time goes by, voters with short memories soon attribute blame to the present government, regardless of what the actual facts on the ground are.

Yes, we all make factual errors from time to time. But this is more. This is about people wilfully ignoring reality because they have already decided only the opposite can be true. Correcting such a misconception, once its embedded in people’s minds, is almost impossible. That’s why levels of crime are so low, whilst people’s perception of crime is so stubbornly high, no matter what the politicians say.

Too many voters these days are think-they-know-it-alls, mistrusting statistical fact in favour of rumours, gossip, conspiracy theories, what Facebook/Twitter says, and downright lies. It’s far more exciting after all to believe that “they can’t be trusted” or “they don’t understand what it’s like to be one of us”. It distracts us from our mundane, boring, simple reality. And who wants that when we can pretend they don’t trust us to handle the truth?

Democracy will eat itself if such cynicism isn’t stopped.

But while we can change our politicians, we can’t change the electorate…

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When Congress Doesn’t Work

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 18, 2010 @ 09:22

Poor communicator, yes, but I guess that wasn't why he was made BP's CEO...

Anyone watching the tedium of the BP CEO attending the House Committee on Energy and Commerce session on the oil disaster could probably have only managed five minutes at best before turning off. And that’s coming from a political junkie.

I’ve seen US committees in operation in the past. They are powerful bodies, often conducting very interesting and intensive scrutiny of the evidence and their witnesses. Their power comes from the fact that all bills and appropriations have to be examined by the relevant committee. This means a seat on them is very prestigious indeed, especially if it can be used to deliver pork to one’s constituents…

This multiple role means that its members get frequent opportunities to make a name for themselves. And none of them missed the opportunity to indulge their populist fantasies yesterday. Well, all except Representative Barton (R), who licked Tony Hayward’s boots clean.

But, to me, it just doesn’t work. The way the committee works in these situations is almost embarrassing to watch. One by one the Representatives (or the Senators for a Senate committee) take their turn to deliver a pre-prepared nasty speech, full of rhetoric and invective, which the witness has to sit in silence and listen to in silence. They get a chance to reply at the end, but not before more than a dozen people have cast judgement on them… before the witness has even had the opportunity to set out their stall, no matter how unconvincing they are.

That is very uncomfortable to watch. It is not an in-depth probe, getting to the truth. It is a witch-hunt, a kangaroo court, carried out in the full glare of the media for the benefit not of the country, but for the Congress members themselves, in order to get some cheap headlines and show off their prowess to their constituents.

Such is democracy, I suppose.

Only later does it come to questions, a real opportunity to have a conversation with the witness, but even then they have all already made their minds up.

In truth, it looks more like a blood-letting than a proper investigation, with a ritualistic sacrifice from some contemporary hate-figure.

Not that Tony Hayward doesn’t deserve a thorough grilling, you understand. But the acid test must always be: did it generate anything useful? Are we any closer to solving the problem? Is America any closer to leading the way to end its addiction to oil?

The answers are simple: no. But at least it got the Congress some good headlines in the battle to rescue its shocking approval ratings, eh.

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FPTP: Frankly Pathetic; Totally Preposterous

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 12, 2010 @ 18:12

We Lubs Disproportionate Results!

One of the great defences of our shit electoral system is to say that it is “simple” for voters to both understand and to use. Just get your ballot paper, smear it with a cross (or a smiley face; Returning Officers are very tolerant!) in the appropriate box, and you’re done. Later, we count them up, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Easy!

Proportational representation fans are sometimes flummoxed by this assault. We let the other side get free-hits by saying things are so complicated they have to be counted by computers, and that explaining the counting process is impossible without a degree in mathematics.

But we do ourselves a disservice.

First Past The Post may make it easy to cast a vote, but it is blunt. It allows no nuances, and it certainly doesn’t care how many candidates are in the race.

Voting is something a lot of people take a lot of time over. They umm and ahh about who they should go for, often proceeding on a least-worst option. How can I hurt the candidate I don’t want to win the most? Which one of these candidates do I hate the least? Their preference can change daily.

But in the end, if you have FPTP, none of that thinking matters. You get one chance. If you’re not thinking like everyone else, your vote could be wasted.

So you go back to the drawing board. You try to think like everyone else. You see where the zeitgeist is headed. Which national party has the big momentum. You balance all of these factors, and you end up with what psephologists call tactical voting.

Tactical voting. It doesn’t sound very democratic, does it.

That’s because it isn’t. FPTP limits your choice. It forces you to try to think like everyone else. It squeezes you into a box. It doesn’t allow you to express your real preference, because you don’t want to be one of those wasted votes, do you? It’s a two-horse race, don’t forget.

Tactical voting, and its associated thought processes, actually make FPTP one of the most difficult electoral systems. The poor voter is left with a multitude of factors to weigh up, and that’s assuming they even know what the result was last time. Not everyone knows that you can get the result from last time in seconds off Wikipedia. And then there is the prospect of local parties spinning different election results in different ways to try to prove that they are “the only alternative”. Lib Dems, I’m looking at you…

The culmination of all this is utter confusion, a muddled mess that we expect each and every voter to have to work through in their heads. A purportedly democratic system that only allows people the choice they actually want if they fortunate enough to live in a constituency that allows it. The rest of us live our lives in glorious perpetual safeness, never feeling that joy of being part of a campaign that really could decide the future of the country.

A preferential system, on the other hand, would give everyone the chance to have their vote be worth something. And not only that, they really could express a truly democratic choice, of having their vote fully reflect their beliefs.

So the next time someone says First Past The Post is “simple”, why not remind them just how difficult the choice actually is for the average voter…

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The Vote Match Project

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 3, 2010 @ 09:57

As Euronews say, "No Comment"

Every election, websites like Vote Match spring up. They’re a fun way to try to make the election more interesting for those of us who spend most of our time on the web. But for a lot of the people who try them, they don’t like the results. Mine appears on the right…

The problem with people like me is that, occasionally, we aim for a result and try to produce it. In this case, I read the questions carefully, recognising some of them as, say, Tory party policy, and then thinking carefully about what my response should be.

Of course, that’s all the wrong way round. Elections are supposed to be about policies, aren’t they? Naughty Futility Monster.

So I started again, trying to be completely honest, knowing that my pure honesty was probably going to end up with yet another recommendation to vote for the Green Party. At least, that’s what they all told me to do in 2005.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It pleases me that this particular Vote Match is sensible. I was worried that voting for a “10% reduction in the number of MPs” was going to identify me as a Tory, since that is current Tory policy (for now). But no, it was clever. It no doubt boosted my miserable Tory score, but it also realised that the Lib Dems also want to cut Parliament, and gave me points for them too.

But what makes these websites so interesting is that most people get surprises they didn’t expect. Even the dear Iain Dale got a recommendation to vote for UKIP. This clearly disappoints him, and combined with others, and my persistent ranking of Greenness, it got me thinking.

Maybe we aren’t so centrist after all. We’re told that the only way to win an election is in the middle. But stick your average Joe in front of one of these Vote Match thingys and they’ll either do one of two things: 1) answer honestly, with no qualms about political correctness or pretences of equality and fairness; or 2) shrug the shoulders and decide they really don’t have a clue.

The former voter ends up being doctrinaire. Because many of us are at heart. We are fairly principled, and we like to believe we stand up for them. So we’ll consistently say yes to the left wing stuff, and no to the others, except where the waters are muddied. Or vice versa. And then we’ll get a recommendation to either vote for the Greens, UKIP or even the BNP.

That only happens because, like it or not, those three parties are absolutely clear about what they stand for. Unambiguous and unashamed of their policies. Consistent and totally coherent.

Meanwhile, the major parties are more in a muddle, all battling for the same middle ground. A tiny nuance here and there could be the difference between a recommendation to vote Labour or Lib Dem. With that in mind, the principled group of voters tend not to end up with a mainstream party recommendation.

The second grouping, because of their dithering and apathetic attitude, end up getting a really arbitrary result.

Perhaps it is this group that the parties are after in their centre ground battle. They really want to pick up the votes of people who are tuned out from the finer points of policy, and hope that they’ll pay attention for just long enough to be hooked by a slight fragment of the manifesto.

Vote Match is interesting, then, because it illustrates everything that’s wrong with our politics. It shows that the principled amongst us are probably not voting the way we should be, either because we can’t bring ourselves to, are limited by the electoral system, or simply are too set in our ways to change.

And then it flags up that the real battle amongst the “don’t cares” is nothing but a sham to eke out a couple of percent here and there with strands of policies, even if the rest of them may be anathema to a certain member of this apathetic segment.

How depressing.

Or maybe I’ve taken “just a bit of fun” a little too seriously…

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Social Care: An Orwellian Debate

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 30, 2010 @ 08:58

I love finding these. Three cheers for managerialism!

Social care is one of those subjects in politics that not many people like talking about. Just like planning for death, no one really likes to think that they, too, will get old one day, and so it gets pushed to the back of the mind.

The healthy thing in recent months has been the fact that, in England at least, this issue has finally gained prominence. It’s not one that’s going to set the world on fire, but due to the ageing population, the increase in life expectancy, and the general rising costs of healthcare, there is no way that we can carry on like we are now.

What we are seeing is the fact that, for what we want our state to do, we simply do not pay enough tax. The accusation hurled at Britain has long been “a European style welfare system on an American style tax system”. While that is an over-simplification, it’s broadly along the right path. We do not have the money to give our population dignified, free, healthcare in their old age.

So instead, we get a distorted debate. One that is about tax, and yet never talks about tax. Instead, we get talk of a levy to be paid on death. And since death is a certainty, this is, indeed, a compulsory levy. A compulsory levy is a tax. But don’t tell the politicians we’ve got them sussed.

The debate over social care nicely illustrates the Orwellian language involved in the politics of today. We get one side talking about something without actually saying it, and then the other calling them out on it, but using extremely emotive and divisive language: “the death tax”.

Hardly grounds for a healthy and open debate.

Frankly, though, this is one of the areas in which democracy gets in the way. The imminent election means there is no chance of politicians being honest, or us having a discussion between the various stakeholders to produce a united way forward. After all, we all want the same thing: care in our old age which isn’t going to bankrupt the country.

In truth, it’s rather surprising that Labour have brought the issue back up today by insisting that the compulsory levy, payable on death, is probably the only way forward. Perhaps, with their declining poll position, they’ve decided they now have nothing to lose, and want to keep painting the Tories as “policy light” while they are still ready to “take the tough decisions”

In policy terms, I think they are right. When’s the best time to tax someone? When they die and don’t need it any more. Better that then ask them to pay for it during their life, and make them sell their house, etc.

But I regret the relentless march of taxes that aren’t honest about what they actually are. National Insurance, anyone?

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The People’s Politician

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 20, 2010 @ 17:33

Ann Widdecombe joins the ranks of the many who can't be arsed with Twitter. Me too, usually!

I meant to write something about this programme that appeared on BBC2 on Thursday night yesterday, but better late than never…

The premise of the programme was how politicians can become more connected to their electorates, in an age where apathy is rising, and more and more people are tuning out.

In the end, the programme was disappointing. Like most TV fayre these days it was presented in docusoap style, involving jaunty camera work, a sarcastic narrator/presenter, and plenty of soundbites.

Perhaps I was misled. I thought it was going to look at ways we could solve the problem. Instead, it merely invited a couple of politicians to be the “stars” of the show: Anne Widdecombe MP and Richard Caborn MP. It sent them on a mildly entertaining journey, trying to use Twitter and websites to see if anyone out there was interested. Naturally, the website was a failure, as all websites that are created with no fanfare, no linking, no promotion are.

The Twittering Anne Widdecombe did get a response, just like most celebrities on Twitter do. But it was the usual blend of cynical, aggressive and stupid responses that Twitter is becoming famous for. It’s no substitute for what the program was trying to do.

In the end, the program was more descriptive than analytical. It described the problem well. It showed a lot of adults, mostly the young and the working class who have no engagement with civil society at all. For some, life was OK, work was OK, and the family was OK, so they just didn’t care. They didn’t see the effect politicians have on their lives, and why would you? The burning issues of the past have been resolved. There is no Cold War. There is no socialism. There is only pragmatism. In the end, things get done.

Meanwhile, the working class were pissed off, but they were pissed off by things that either a) weren’t true, but they were told they are; or b) things that politicians can’t really do much about, like immigration, wars, economies and housing. Maybe in the past they could, but the globalised world has taken much of the influence of politicians away and put it in the hands of corporations and supra-national governance. These people may have voted Labour in the past, but now feel so let down that they just don’t care any more.

These days, the things politicians can do something about are the domestic bits of policy that construct our state. Education. Health. Transport. It was a coalition of love for the public sector that brought Labour to power in 1997. It worked once. It won’t work again unless a new generation starts to think either a) the state needs scrapping; or b) the state is doing such a bad job that we need a 1997 wave again.

The contributors to the programme sort of mentioned the point I’m making here, that politics is not dying because politicians aren’t communicating, and the internet is no saviour. About 5-10 years ago people seemed to assume rising apathy could be countered by politicians making themselves more available by utilising the web. That has been proved wrong.

Instead, we’ve gone back to the future. Back to realising what it was in 2001 that caused turnout to drop to the worst in post-war history. That sense of “politics doesn’t matter to me”. It’s a self-centred, deluded way of looking at society and your place in it. It is the consequence of more people answering the collective action problem with individual apathy, which leads to collective inaction; a failure to appreciate that society doesn’t work if we all tune out.

How can it be tackled?

The programme offered no answers. I guess that wasn’t its purpose. It ended with a shrug of disappointment and slight melancholy that things have gotten to where they are.

But maybe the more pressing issue is not how it can be tackled, but whether it can be tackled at all.

I remain pessimistic.

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Clarky Cat Is On The Loose

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 17, 2010 @ 11:40

And so it begins...

It is extremely unfortunate, or perhaps richly ironic, that the drug mephedrone, making headlines this morning because of the tragic deaths of two teenagers who had taken it, has the following nicknames: “M-Cat”, “MC”, “mieow” and “meow”.

Because, when I heard this, my mind turned to thoughts of yellow bentines, cake (the made up drug) and, of course, clarky cat.

Satirised by Chris Morris and the Brass Eye team almost 13 years ago, in scenes that caused great controversy at the time due to the willingness of popular figures to lend their names to a campaign that was entirely fictitious, the problem now is that satire ceases to be funny if it’s actually true.

I have no doubt that mephedrone is indeed dangerous if you stick it up your nose. I imagine snorting most things are. Cillit Bang, Mr Muscle, soap powder…

What worries me is that we are now in danger of witnessing yet another full scale moral panic regarding a drug which has been the result of no research, no previous media information, with the resulting effect that almost the entire population know nothing of it.

That is where things start to go wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so too do the media.

Into this void we are going to see endless tales of the “dangers” of mephedrone. Politicians will jump on the bandwagon. There is even talking of classifying this drug as Class A, and yet you have Peter Mandelson admitting this morning that he had previously no knowledge of it.

Perhaps in a month or so, or less, we will be seeing celebrities coming out to warn da yoof about the dangers of this drug. And, naturally, the celebrities will know no more than anyone else.

Evidence. Evidence. Evidence.

I wrote about this same subject before when Professor Nutt resigned from government’s drug advisory panel. Where drugs are concerned, if we must be going down the route of prohibition (being a crazy liberal, I am unconvinced), the best we can do is to do things thoroughly. Yes, there will always be a political decision, and there will be variations in human physiology, but science is pretty damn good in fields like this, and we should use all the tools at our disposal.

But since that’s not going to happen, and with an election imminent, democracy is once again going to be exposed as a failure when it comes to resisting short-term bouts of populism. I’ll bet even the Lib Dems will find it hard to resist the tidal wave of calls for a ban. After all, would you want to look like the outsider on an issue like this?

No. Not when we’re going to have the Daily Mail and Express, with a dash of The Sun and Sky News dictating the agenda.

But still. As long as we all don’t have to live with arms that feel like a couple of fortnights in a bad balloon.

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David Miliband: The Radical

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 10, 2010 @ 09:20

Poor David. But will he get a chance when the clunking fist is no longer in command?

Last night a story sneaked out about how a senior member of the Labour party might actually want some real reform to the British system.

The Guardian claimed that David Miliband is in favour of a “reset referendum”, allowing the electorate to cast a verdict on the nature of our political institutions.

The worrying nature of this article is that it’s very thin on detail. I like his language. I like the idea of radical change to our rotten system, but am totally sceptical about it ever actually happening. After all, last night a mere 69 MPs voted for the thing that would revolutionise British politics: STV.

What does David Miliband intend then? He must have ideas of his own about what he’d like to see, but he is hiding behind the idea, I think, of calling a constitutional convention, something the people of England have never had the pleasure of enjoying.

Note the use of the word England. Scotland had a constitutional convention which produced the blueprint towards Scottish devolution. It worked to such a degree that the Scottish political settlement is now firmly entrenched and is playing an active part in the lives of Scottish residents.

Yes, us poor Englanders have always had to accept the status quo. Our institutions have been grandfathered to such an extent that any proposals for reform are invariably seen as heresy. Indeed, it’s only amazing that the AV referendum got through the Commons last night until you realise that most MPs saw it as a free vote for “change” that will never actually happen.

A constitutional convention could be just what the doctor ordered for the entire political settlement of Britain. A chance to start again and look at the way we want our government to be organised through 21st century eyes.

Perhaps we could have a live twitter stream of the thoughts of the voters flashing up within the Commons so they can see the public’s reaction to their behaviour…

Of course, I’m being facetious, but we do need to look at the way in which we communicate these days and make the British polity more responsive to that.

David Miliband may not truly understand the extensive nature of the proposal he has suggested. But I’m at least pleased to see that some of our major political figures are still thinking that recent changes are still only tinkering.

I know the Lib Dems would support a constitutional convention. Of course the Tories won’t.

But maybe a future Labour opposition will realise they have a real battle on their hands, and can harvest the cynicism in the British public regarding politics to challenge Cameron’s Model New Tories…

It’s just a dream, eh.

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Ruling The Unruly Mob

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 4, 2010 @ 10:04

The natives of Little Whinging are getting restless once again...

With the news this morning once again filled with stories about MPs and their expenses, it’s made me wonder just what would satisfy not just the media, but the baying mobs of the general public.

The stocks? Self-flagellation? Walking barefoot across a firey pit of doom in the depths of Mordor?

No. Nothing would. The point was sort of reinforced to me the other day when I watched Tower Block of Commons – because there is a scene in the programme where Tory MP Tim Loughton (who, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been embroiled in any of this) tries to have a reasonable conversation with a man whose anger and rage is palpable.

But Tim might as well be talking to a brick wall. Indeed, although it was probably a trick of the editing, by the end of the conversation he merely stands there silent while the man begins at MPs expenses and uses it as a delicate springboard to spout off about all the conspiracy theories everyone has about MPs, power and corruption.

Not that I don’t enjoy the odd degree of cynicism about those in power (he says with much understatement) but the real tragedy of the expenses farrago is that it has been used as the perfect excuse to justify all the things over the years that have been said about MPs, that they don’t listen, they don’t care about people like me, they’re only in it for themselves, they spend all day talking about nothing, what do they actually do, and so on and on and on and Ariston.

Some might say a lot of these people never bothered anyway, and democracy is already lost to them. It’s a fair point, and in truth, horrible though this sounds, they are the reason why voting should not be made compulsory. There is a great deal of ignorance in society about politics, either through choice or through necessity: some people’s lives are hard enough without worrying about whether Cameron really does want to cut inheritance tax for the wealthy.

That creates a brick wall, one which will never be knocked down by politicians. Democracy as a concept is fragile, but just as we shouldn’t export democracy over the world, so we shouldn’t force democracy down the throats of our own citizens. It is up to the political class to prove that democracy is worth the time and effort.

Politicians are not just advocates for their party (or more optimistically, their principles), they ought to be a shining beacon of why democracy is the right and fair choice for delivering the just society and the common good.

With that in mind though, they really ought to buck their ideas up…

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