Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future


Installation View for Anish Kapoors Past, Present Future

Installation view of “Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future.” (Credit: John Kennard/ICABoston)

— by Natalia Mackenzie

The giant elevator in Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art opened and I faced the 16-inch long, S-shaped wall mirror that introduced me to the Anish Kapoor experience. The image of myself that Kapoor offered as I  entered the exhibition struck me: Short legs, short torso and one big head. I found my body’s boundaries and shapes now unfamiliar, and I guess, neither were those of the other visitors, who stared at their deformed images next to me. Without realizing it, Kapoor was slowly immersing us into his ludic environment of unfamiliar spaces.

Born in 1954 to an Iraqi-Jewish mother and a Hindu father, Kapoor is a mixture of both Western and Eastern cultures. He explores what he believes is the seduction of distorting familiar spaces and invites the viewer to be part of the art scene. With a total of 14 sculptures, the exhibition “Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future” gave me a perfect glimpse of the twisted world Kapoor builds over his art pieces.

As I walked through the room, passing in front of thousands of tiny, hexagonal mirrors resembling a fly eye, a huge, red, waxed planet caught my attention. It was smashed against the wall as if the artist felt that there was not enough space in the room to fit it all. More that just playing with speculations about where the space begins and where it ends, Kapoor believes space can be an object by itself.

Looking from a distance, his piece My Body, Your Body, a dark blue rectangle of 6-feet tall and 3-feet long, appeared as a simple flat piece hanging on the wall. But as one gets closer, the blue plane becomes a hollowed, deep structure. The effect is so unbelievable that the guards had a hard time keeping everybody away from sticking their hands into the piece. But that was not all. Once my perception was stable enough, an inner cavity in the center of the rectangle became evident. Suddenly, I felt like I was diving into a blue body through an endoscope, and had made it halfway down to some kind of cave. My feeling made total sense when considering that Kapoor is obsessed with cavities and protrusions that evoke our own mysterious body parts.

And when I was dizzy enough and thought that I had seen it all, I came across one of that exhibit’s most disturbing illusions. As if showing off Kapoor’s need of understanding creation, When I Am Pregnant, made in 1992 with fiberglass and paint, emerged from the white flat wall. Easily unnoticed when standing in front of it, the round, pregnant, belly-like structure that protrudes from the wall, strikes you with its perfect silhouette.

Kapoor’s simple, hidden shapes easily provoked and unleashed my curiosity. I hoped one day I could come across one of those giant reflecting structures that distorted the image of the Rockefeller center or the Chicago Skyline. I left the museum thinking it is no wonder that Kapoor won the prestigious Turner Prize and is considered one of the world’s most influential sculptors. I think Nicholas Baume, chief curator of the ICA summarizes best my opinion of the exhibition in his quote: “Kapoor’s work demands to be experienced.”

Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: September 18, 2008
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Scientist Brian Greene Transforms Greek Myth Into Physics Folklore


Supermassive Black Hole

An artist’s interpretation of a supermassive black hole. (Credit: Alfred Kamajian/Goddard Space Flight Center)

by Joseph Caputo

With waxen wings, young Icarus took off from the island of Crete and into the sky. Charged by the feeling of flight, he ignored his father’s warnings and soared higher and higher towards the stars. Flapping hard, Icarus soon flew so near to the sun that his wings melted. As he crashed into the water below, he became another tragic figure in Greek mythology.

This story always troubled scientist Brian Greene. “Here is a young boy who goes against what his father says and pays the ultimate penalty,” he told a crowd gathered at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square Tuesday night.  For Greene, this moral is completely antithetical to scientific investigation, which is about challenging the established order.

There is a bit of Icarus in Greene as well. The Columbia University professor and well-known string theorist is a maverick in the particle physics community for his desire to bring the mathematics of time and space to mass audiences. He has authored two popular science books, “The Fabric of the Cosmos” and “The Elegant Universe,” which later became a PBS documentary starring Greene. At his Tuesday-night talk, sponsored by Harvard Book Store,  Greene promoted his latest and riskiest work, “Icarus at the Edge of Time,” a graphic-heavy, fictional science story aimed at both adults and children.

Greene’s version of the Icarus tale is a futurist vision that rewards curiosity, one that he calls “much closer to the experience of science.” The reader is introduced to Icarus, a young astronaut born on a spaceship, on route to an alien planet he will never see. The entirety of his life is to be spent traveling and he passes the days learning about space and life on Earth.  Along the journey, his ship passes a nearby black hole, and Icarus is overcome by the desire to go to its edge.  Although his father warns him against it, Icarus eventually feeds his curiosity. The outcome is both tragic and satisfying, an excellent metaphor for scientific investigation.

The book contains a considerable amount of scientific fact about black holes, but the storytelling element drives the reader along. “For so many people, science is the material that sits between the two covers of a textbook,” Greene says. He calls this a shame, “because science is one of the most wonderful adventure stories.” This is a true and fascinating statement, especially since it is is made by a string theorist.  The power of Greek mythology to teach a lesson is much greater than a detail-laden science lesson. In this respect, “Icarus at the Edge of Time,” is an unconventional textbook, one that should be read by physics students from elementary age to graduate school.

Posted by Joseph, under astronomy  |  Date: September 17, 2008

Film Review: “Encounters at the End of the World”


Encounters at the End of the World

A scene from “Encounters at the End of the World.” Diving beneath the Antarctic ice, a  scientist-diver searches for new species of microbes. (Credit: Werner Herzog)

by Nuño Dominguez

Places with extraordinary climates attract people with extraordinary lives. Such is the case of the scientist who claims she traveled from London to Africa in a garbage truck. She is just one of the improbable characters in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary film, “Encounters at the End of the World,” an unconventional and truth-seeking exploration of Antarctica.

Herzog, 66, is a veteran German filmmaker with a passion for unique and extreme people. He finds inspiration in men who choose to endure nature, like the visionary tycoon who tried to build an opera house in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, (“Fitzcarraldo“), or the environmental activist who lived among wild animals in Alaska until he was killed by a grizzly bear, (“Grizzly Man“). This time, the National Science Foundation invited Herzog to write and direct a factual film at McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. The goal was not to produce another movie about penguins, making “Encounters…” not your average wildlife movie.

Nevertheless, the film is like many others in that it gets a great part of its magic through cute nature shots. Beautifully crafted images and a solemn but sometimes annoying choral music brings the viewer under the crust of frozen seas, to the top of an active volcano and into ice tunnels that lead to the boiling center of the Earth. However, this journey is just the prologue to Herzog’s real interests: The vulcanologist and the welder, the biologist and the truck driver who live in Antarctica throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Herzog makes the point that no matter how excessive his characters are and no matter what remote land they live in, we all are a little bit like them. It is a difficult point to make and the director knows our first reaction is denial. His only chance to succeed is to let us think his characters are just a bunch of weirdos. He even supports our skepticism and mockery as we follow him on his exploration of the Antarctic base and its surroundings. We meet a scientist-performer who fits herself into a sports bag and crawls across the stage at one of McMurdo’s bars, and a Bulgarian philosopher who works as a bulldozer operator and says he is in love with the world. We also meet a bus driver who was once the prisoner of a dangerous tribe in South America and a glaciologist who dreams he travels north on one of the icebergs he studies.

Soon enough, the Antarctic safari moves to deeper grounds as Herzog captures the outsiders’ essences. His mastery as an interviewer helps viewers go through the exterior eccentricity of the subjects to reach an inner realm of personal stories full of wanderlust and curiosity for life. An intelligent use of the barren landscape of the base, the silent depths of the sea and the immense loneliness of Antarctica emphasize the universal resonance of those testimonies. Suddenly, we share the passion of the scientist who searches for the elusive neutrino particle or the sadness of the marine biologist about to take his final dip into the Antarctic waters. Only then, Herzog is able to make his recurrent point that the dreams of outsiders are no different from our own.

Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: September 16, 2008
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Tonight at New England Aquarium: The Search for Interspecies Music


David Rothenberg

David Rothenberg, author, composer and jazz clarinetist “jams” with whales around the world. (Credit: David Rothenberg/Thousand Mile Song)

“Thousand Mile Song”

A lecture and performance by David Rothenberg

September 15, 7:00 p.m. Free

New England Aquarium, Harborside Learning Lab

Registration Required

Musician/Philosopher David Rothenberg, author of “Why Birds Sing” and more recently “Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Song” will speak tonight as part of the New England Aquarium Lecture Series. Rothenberg has traveled from Russia to Canada to Hawai’i to play his jazz clarinet with whales in their native habitats. According to the Aquarium, this search to understand whale sounds “culminates in a grand attempt to make interspecies music.”

Although there is no evidence that the whales respond to his music (see video below), Rothenberg has a rather supportive following, and much of his music, he has six CDs, is grounded in the natural world. “Thousand Mile Song,” which was published last spring, received favorable reviews from readers, and the UK Guardian. Said Guardian critic Susan Tomes:

“Sound in the deep ocean spreads out evenly from its source, making it very difficult to tell where it comes from. And so it is with Rothenberg’s style in this erratic but engaging book. He writes now as a philosopher, now as a new age pantheist, now as a jazz clarinetist, and finally as a sober scientist. A musician himself, he considers the whales to be “grooving” in their own dark nightclubs.”

A professor of philosophy and music at New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rothenberg represents the divide between art and science.  Because his research is more liberal arts than marine biology it could be interpreted as a bold move for the Aquarium to invite Rothenberg to speak, giving tonight’s event great promise as a lively presentation and discussion.

The program lasts approximately one hour, and a reception follows. The Aquarium Lecture Series is free and open to the public. Registration is required. For a list of other upcoming lectures and events, visit the Metro Calendar.

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: September 15, 2008
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The Future of Innovation? Collaboration.


A low-cost, lightweight solar cooker designed by a team of students from MIT and Qinghai Normal University in Tibet’s Amdo region. The cooker is easily disassembled, transported, and reassembled by one person. A metal coil attachment allows the solar cooker to provide heat for the home. (Credit: Scot Frank/MIT)

— by Joseph Caputo

While traveling through Tibet a few years ago, MIT senior Scot Frank, an American from Salt Lake City, Utah, learned about the harsh conditions Tibetans face when gathering materials for their traditional yak dung-and-wood-fueled cookers. He heard stories of how women, sometimes pregnant, must travel through dangerous storms and unforgiving terrains to find dung. And how obtaining firewood, a scarce resource, often means cutting down tress in environmentally fragile areas. Although alternative solar-powered cookers were already around, their poor design often led to fires and unhealthy amounts of smoke.

Frank and his travel partner Catlin Powers of Wellesley College soon took steps to produce a solar-powered cooker that is safe, cheap and easy to make, a project they continue today under the name SolSource Tibet. The secret to their success is collaboration, both with other teams of students, in this case from Qinghai Normal University in Tibet’s Amdo region, as well as the rural Tibetans. The solar cooker, which looks like a tin-foil satellite dish with a frying pan in the middle, is changing the lives of Tibetans and could be ready for mass production by the summer of 2009.

Frank presented the solar-powered cooker as part of Innovation Night at MIT Museum. Although mostly a poster session and panel discussion to advertise a $30,000 Lemelson-MIT student prize, the evening also highlighted a growing trend in the business of new ideas: collaboration.  The lone, aloof inventor of yesteryear would not make it in today’s world. The future of innovation requires a team of talented and diverse individuals to create shared products and resources, a vision described by Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar and present CEO of GoLoco.

“I feel that we are living in a world of increasing scarcity and we want to move back to abundance,” Chase told her audience. “I think we’re feeling this scarcity because we feel like we have to own everything ourselves.” In her opinion, we need to create platforms to share excess capacities.  What’s innovative about Zipcar is that each person is responsible for their share. This approach does not tear down any existing infrastructures, it is just a small step forward to save space and make things more affordable, essential if the population continues to expand at the rate it is.

This idea can also be applied to intellectual resources. Both Frank and Chase relied on the input of others to create their inventions, which as Chase pointed out, is exactly what the Internet age is doing with Web 2.0. New innovation will increasingly rely on networking, specifically solving problems through community collaboration. Whether this generates a safer way to cook or a transportation revolution, the strategy will no doubt produce great contributions for science and society.

The MIT Museum will host two more evenings of science-related forums and presentations in the coming weeks. Science Outreach night will be held on Friday, September 26, and Energy night on Friday October 10. Both events begin at 5:00 p.m. and include refreshments.

Posted by Joseph, under technology  |  Date: September 12, 2008

Supersize Crocs: Sunday on PBS


Supersize Croc Wallpaper

One of many crocodiles starring in the NATURE documentary Supersize Crocs. (Credit: NATURE/Thirteen)

This Sunday, NATURE re-airs from its 2007 season, Supersize Crocs. The documentary by one-time director Richard Chambers follows reptile conservationist Rom Whitaker on a  journey through Ethiopia, India and Australia to find the world’s last remaining giant crocodiles.  According to NATURE, he suspects that human hunting may have selectively killed off crocodiles surpassing 20 feet in length. 

“Reptiles always get the worst end of the stick,” Whitaker told NATURE in January 2007, “They do not have the cuddle-factor that mammals and birds have and that works against them.”

The film is peppered with fascinating factoids about how scientists study crocodiles and how the scaled lizards outlived dinosaurs to became the most-feared freshwater predator.

Supersize Crocs airs Sunday, September 14 at on PBS (check local listings).

P.S. As a member of the NATURE | PBS Facebook group, one is privvy to weekly updates about the NATURE series, which will begin its 27th season on October 26.  The short e-mail reminders assure you never miss a broadcast. 

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: September 11, 2008
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BU School of Medicine Lecture to Honor Victim of 9/11 Tragedy


Sue Kim Hanson

A memorial immunology lecture in honor of Sue Kim Hanson (left) will be delivered Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher (right) later this week at Boston University School of Medicine. (Credit: BUSM.)

“Transcription Regulators of Inflammatory Diseases”

A lecture by Laurie H. Glimcher, M.D.

September 12, 12:00 p.m. Free

Boston University School of Medicine, Keefer Auditorium

Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) will present The Seventh Annual Sue Kim Hanson Lecture in Immunology on Friday, September 12, 2008 at noon in the School’s Keefer Auditorium. The annual lecture is in honor of Sue Kim Hanson, MA, PhD ’02, a former researcher in BUSM’s Pulmonary Center. Kim Hanson, along with her husband and daughter, were passengers on United Airline flight 175, the second plane that struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The lecture titled, “Transcription factors that regulate inflammatory diseases,” will focus on immune system transcription factors that control the severity of autoimmune diseases like inflammatory bowel disease. It will be presented by Dr. Laurie Glimcher, MD, the Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology, Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard University School of Public Health.

Glimcher’s laboratory uses biochemical and genetic approaches to elucidate the molecular pathways that regulate CD4 T helper cell development and activation. The complex regulatory pathways governing Thelper1/Thelper2 (TH1/TH2) responses are critical for both the development of protective immunity and for the pathophysiologic immune responses underlying autoimmune diseases.

Kim Hanson moved to Boston and earned a MA degree in medical sciences from BUSM in 1992. After graduation, she joined the School’s Pulmonary Center. She then concurrently entered the PhD program in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at BUSM.

Her thesis project was an investigation of the role of interleukin-16 in immunity and targeted deletion of the interleukin-16 gene in mice. Her degree was awarded posthumously by unanimous vote by the thesis committee.

“Sue was on her way to a promising career in molecular biology,” said David Center, MD, Gordon and Ruth Snider Professor of Pulmonary Medicine, Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry at BUSM. “While her life was taken at an early age, her legacy lives on through this annual lecture. We are proud to remember and honor her and her family each year.”

— press release provided by Boston University School of Medicine. For a list of upcoming lectures and events, visit the Metro Calendar.

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: September 9, 2008

Nobel Prize Winner Sees Promise in Collider; No Doomsday Expected


Fred Wilczek

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winner and MIT physicist is one of many scientists looking forward to what the Large Hadron Collider will reveal. (Credit: Nuño Dominguez)

On Wednesday, the world’s largest particle collider will go online. With all the bells and whistles now attached, the $9-billion, 16.5-mile long beast of a machine, dubbed the Large Hadron Collider, will soon be smashing protons under conditions mimicking the chaos after the Big Bang. After analyzing the crashes, scientists expect to find evidence as to what holds the universe together.

But not everyone is excited. Amid the celebration are whispers of certain doom.  Scientists involved in the project are even receiving death threats from anonymous citizens hoping to stop the collider from going live. One of the recipients is Nobel Prize-winning physicist and MIT professor Frank Wilczek, who explained the collider’s promise and controversy to Publico reporter and Science Metropolis correspondent Nuño Dominguez.


A: Our modern theory of fundamental physics, called the standard model, is very well tested, but it’s based on a very strange idea that hasn’t been tested properly. It’s the idea that what we perceive as empty space is, in reality, not empty at all. Instead, empty space is full of something called Higg’s condensate, which gives mass to particles and slows things down.

An analogy I like to make is if we were fish, and we were always in the water, we wouldn’t think the water has anything special. We would think about it as empty space. [Human beings] are immersed in something like an ocean. The step that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] will take is that it will tell us what this sea is made out of.


A: It’s an opportunity to expand your appreciation of nature, of God if you’d like. One definition of religion is believing in things you don’t see. Well, here we are presenting you with lots of things you don’t see in everyday life and giving you ideas that the world is a bigger and better place that appears in the surface.


A: I don’t think any sensible researchers have proposed that [a black hole] could swallow the earth. It’s very, very speculative that some teeny-weeny black holes could be formed at the LHC. What has to be emphasized is that the word black hole used for these objects really gives a wrong impression. It’s just like saying elephants are animals and amoeba are animals too. It’s true that they’re both animals, but they have very different properties and if you worry about getting trampled by an amoeba, you are thinking the wrong way.

It’s similar here. Black holes that could be produced at the LHC are smaller than a proton. They are really, really small and furthermore they are really, really unstable. You shouldn’t think of gigantic objects that will swallow the earth that people would helplessly fall into, it’s not that at all. It’s just highly unstable objects that are not so different from other elementary particles. 


A: Yes it is. I believe it’s a mentally unstable individual. This has been going on for many months. He has called other people. He is suggesting that we are reckless and this is a large conspiracy to endanger the earth because either we don’t care or we actually we want to destroy the earth because we are just evil.


A: No.


A: There has always been, at some level, fear of the unknown associated with science. I think that in modern times it was triggered by the development of nuclear weapons, which are scary and very powerful. There are all sorts of frightening stories about biological weapons, chemical weapons. They are legitimate concerns and it gets mixed up with genetic engineering and climate change, biotechnology.

I don’t want to destroy the world either. I have a very happy life. I have a very nice family and care about my children. You know thousand of people are working at CERN and very, very few of them are mad scientist or evil people. They’re normal people with families and concerns about the future


A:  [Laughs.] I’ll be in bed probably. It would be a milestone for the machine, but in terms of new discoveries in physics, they are not going to happen right away. It’s going to be a process.


A: I’m hoping for the best, but it wouldn’t be science if nature doesn’t get the last word. Part of what make this exciting is the possibility that it could not work. I’ve already gotten the Nobel Prize so, [laughs,] I like that none of this would take that away, but it would be really nice to have these later ideas confirmed and then we can build on them.  

*** A version of this story, by interviewer Nuño Dominguez, was published in the September 10 edition of the Spanish newspaper Publico.

Posted by Joseph, under physics  |  Date: September 8, 2008

At MBL: Taxonomy Toy Not Just For Bioinformaticists


Taxatoy Graphic

The number of descriptions (y-axis) are shown for every year between 1750 and 2000 (x-axis). Significant historical events that coincide with noticeable changes in year-to-year trends are noted with arrows. (Credit: I.N. Sarkar, R. Schenk and C.N. Norton/BioMed Central)

The final installment of “At MBL,” Joseph Caputo’s experience as a science writing intern at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The following story originally appeared on the MBL Website.

Cathy Norton may be on to something: Bioinformatics toys for scientists. Sure, they won’t be as popular as Super Soakers or Frisbees, but hers is a niche audience. Currently on the market is Taxatoy, a computer interface that lets users create customizable graphs to depict the number and variety of species discovered since 1750, when the Latin classification system began. (For instance, using the program I learned that out of the nearly 2.3 million listed species, 31 are lobsters). The tool was developed by the MBLWHOI Library in 2007 and is now freely accessible online.

According to Norton, who directs the MBLWHOI Library, the idea for Taxatoy came out a steering committee meeting for the Encyclopedia of Life. Chair James Hanken, a Harvard professor and herpetologist, wanted to know how many books on snakes were out there. “Everyone kind of stared and said. ‘We’re not sure how to do that,'” Norton recalls.

After thinking about the problem, she asked Indra Neil Sarkar, Informatics Manager at the MBLWHOI Library, to figure out how many new species were described before 1923, the year at which copyright restrictions begin in the United States. He began with uBio, a catalog of names of all known organisms discovered pre- and post 1923.  Sarkar imported each listed species’ name, who first assigned it, and what year. He and Ryan Schenk, who assisted with the project, then used this information to design Taxatoy out of an Excel workbook.

In a paper published online at BioMed Central in May 2008, Sarkar, Schenk, and Norton explored historical trends first visible through Taxatoy. A plot of all species described between 1750 and 2000 revealed spikes of discovery in 1754, 1758, and 1775. These dates can be correlated with the respective publication dates of Species Plantarum, Systema Naturae, and Systema Entomologica, the three major works of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. The graph also showed that while the number of new species described overall declined during the World Wars, which might warrant further investigations into relationships between conflicts and their impact on taxonomic science. “When you start looking at it, suddenly you see new and different patterns,” Norton says. “That’s the excitement of building any bioinformatics tool.”

Although Taxatoy began as a librarian’s way to answer a specific question, it turned into a tool to actually ask questions and get many answers. “It’s interesting for environmental conservation reasons as well,” Sarkar says. “One may want to know if a particular taxonomic group is well described or under-described – Should I bother looking for more of these?”

He also sees educational applications. “I can imagine a fifth-grade quiz question: Why do you think bacteria are only available after 1910?” Sarkar adds. “Well, the logical answer is that’s the year the modern microscope became popular.”

However people are using Taxatoy, it’s a hit at BioMed Central. The paper describing historical trends quickly became one of the site’s top-accessed articles of 2008. Try it out at

Posted by Joseph, under At MBL  |  Date: September 7, 2008

Award-winning “The Queen of Trees” to air Sunday night on PBS


Fruit fly with fig wasp on wing

Fruit fly with fig wasp on wing from NATURE documentary “The Queen of Trees.” (Credit: Deeble and Stone Productions)

 When it first premiered in the Spring of 2006, the New York Times declared NATURE’s The Queen of Trees as an extradordinary film. Aside from a surprisingly exciting storyline, considering it focuses on a single species of African fig tree that sustains a complex ecosystm, the filmakers, husband-and-wife team Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone obtained stunning visuals, only possible with the invention of  high-definition cameras. 

The documentary, which took two years to make, highlights the relationship between a tiny wasp and a giant fig tree, the sycomore.  According to NATURE, “The Queen of Trees  documents the tree’s pivotal role as a source of food and shelter for everything from gray hornbills, Africa’s largest bird, to swarms of invading insects searching for food. In a surprising turn, some insects come to the tree’s aid — sparking a battle you won’t want to miss.” 

The Queen of Trees airs Sunday, September 7 on PBS (check local listings).

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: September 6, 2008
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