October 20, 2015

Carbon Taxes: Where I Stand

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 6:03 pm

I complain a lot about the divergence of political ideologies toward their extreme points, and the accompanying (or causative?) increase in ideological “team” or “tribal” identification, but I’ll give this much to the people who do it:  It makes it easier for people to understand exactly where you stand.  One of the difficulties of staking out positions on a case-by-case basis (as opposed to accepting the entire package of an ideology) is that others may sometimes become confused as to exactly what views you support.  At worst, people may think that such a person is a crank who mindlessly rails against everything, when in fact the person is just thoughtful.

I grumble about environmental policy positions of the hard left.  This is not because that element of the hard left is the most offensive to me, but because the cause is—and always had been—the most important policy matter to me.  I care more about progress being made in it, and I’m a pragmatic idealist.  I happen to believe that pretty much any suggested regulation from these people that is aimed at private individuals would be counterproductive.  People tend not to like “the government” telling them what to do in their own homes, especially if it causes financial hardship or personal discomfort.

And the fact is that a lot of these ideas would do both.

I am in support of a corporate carbon tax.  Corporate taxes are already handled very differently than individual taxes, so the legal precedent exists to impose a carbon tax on business (large business, even, given that small businesses are often exempt from any manner of tax laws that apply to business) without doing it to individual households.  And if companies wanted to avoid the tax consequences of high carbon production, then their options would consist of carbon offset purchases (or donations to environmental causes, perhaps) instead of squirreling money into tax-free accounts.  I think it would be a net benefit to everyone.

I am not, however, in support of an individual carbon consumption tax.  In a time where the middle and working classes are already squeezed and unable to get ahead, this type of tax policy could impose an even greater burden.  Furthermore, it would be unequally applied and arguably regressive.  People who were fortunate enough to live in areas with public transportation, multifamily housing, and the like would have lower carbon usage than others.  Given that in urban areas, poor neighborhoods are usually underserved by public transit, and that the rural poor often have no options at all except personal vehicle ownership, the transportation part of the tax could very easily become highly regressive.  Furthermore, let’s look at those vehicles.  People who cannot afford a new, efficient car, or an upgrade to their existing one, would be penalized by a carbon tax as well.  One could even argue that people who eat meat, dairy, or buy leather would be penalized, as would people who lived in historic properties and did not have the money to insulate them.

People would also be penalized based on the climate of their location.  Those in highly temperate climates, such as the Pacific Northwest, would have lower home energy usage than those in the Northeast corridor (hot summers and cold winters), the Southeast (very hot summers), the Plains and Midwest (very hot summers and very cold winters), or, well, pretty much anywhere else.

And sure, a corporate carbon tax would penalize businesses in regions with extreme weather conditions more than it would penalize businesses elsewhere.  But unlike private individuals, businesses have more ability to pay for the upgrades to make their facilities more energy-efficient.  If such a carbon tax were to be implemented, it would even make sense to extend credits to businesses for making the upgrades, on top of the advantages that would be in place under the tax code once it took effect.

In sum, I don’t think an individual carbon tax is good liberal policy or politically pragmatic.  It could antagonize huge swaths of voters and possibly even open up a rift between the environmental community and the “economic justice” faction of the left.  However, I would favor a business carbon tax.  It would bring in extra revenue, give large companies fewer options for evading taxes, and result in lower industrial emissions from any sector subject to it.  Perhaps it would be ideal to reduce individual consumers’ carbon footprint too, but I think the best and most pragmatic way to do that is to encourage the production of greener products on the market, to offer tax credits (rather than imposing tax penalties) for green choices, and phase people into a new energy economy without slapping them with a regressive tax in an era of economic hardship.

September 8, 2015

Decoupling Climate Science Acceptance from Political Beliefs

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 6:30 pm

As readers of this blog are very aware, the radicalization of American politics is one of my personal pet issues.  Social scientists and other observers have studied it in greater detail by far than I have, and their findings bear out my own anecdotal observations.  Increasingly, self-identified conservatives and progressives do not only hold diametrical political opinions, but they also identify with diametrically opposite non-political positions and make opposite lifestyle choices because they believe that is what good conservatives/progressives ought to do.  The rural/conservative-urban/liberal association is only becoming stronger, for instance, and part of that is that there is increasing migration to communities for political reasons.  This particular phenomenon is, I think, creating myopia on both sides about how to deal with large-scale problems, because what works for one type of community might not do at all for another.  More on this later.

It goes deeper.  Rigid conservatives and rigid progressives enjoy different types of entertainment:  The progressives want to feel “global” and “multicultural” and so they partake of foreign art films; the conservatives want to feel “patriotic” and seek out military-themed movies; neither side wants to watch what the other side likes.  They make certain dietary choices based on what “their people” are “supposed” to eat.  They engage in different hobbies.  And they do it on purpose, for reasons of political identity, rather than because of natural preferences.  It’s “the personal is political” taken to the nth degree.  If that sounds like cliques and social interaction in junior high (“cool kids don’t like X; they like Y”), well, that’s because it pretty much is the same thing.  It’s incredibly toxic, and it has expanded to many other aspects of life.  What I’m going to discuss here in depth, however, are climate science acceptance/denial and opinions on climate change mitigation policies.

I’m an atmospheric scientist.  I have written on many occasions about how it feels like a personal attack for someone to deny that anthropogenic climate change is taking place, because in almost every instance now, the claim is not that something else is causing climate change, but that climatologists are engaging in mass data forgery.  Accusing a scientist of research fraud is character defamation of a very serious degree.  Those few (but loud) skeptical climatologists also like to beat the drum of “advocacy” every time one of their non-skeptical colleagues expresses a political opinion about what should be done.  This is a less overt, non-explicit insinuation of misconduct, because it is empirically irrelevant if a scientist holds a given opinion about their research as long as the methodology of that research is sound.

The skeptics’ shift in recent years from proposing alternate testable hypotheses (the sun’s causing it all, interactions of atmospheric-oceanic teleconnection patterns are doing it, etc.) to accusing 97% of climatologists of research fraud is, I think, yet another manifestation of ideological polarization.  No longer is it okay on the hard right to accept that the climate could be changing, even if one doesn’t accept that we are causing the greatest part of it.  And it is certainly not okay to accept that we are changing it.

Why is that?  I think that for many people, unfortunately, it’s just an emotional reaction to side with their “team” in any circumstances.  But for some, probably especially those who are the most articulate and influential on their side, I think there’s something else going on.  After all, if we accept that the climate is changing, then at a bare minimum that calls for community resilience measures.  If we accept that we are doing it, that calls for us to cut back on what we’re doing.  Hardening and mitigation call for the government to regulate private-sector activity.  The concepts are linked and can’t be taken apart.  Right?

Actually… wrong.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.

It is absolutely possible to believe that the climate is changing due to human activity and also to hold the political opinion that we shouldn’t regulate anything relating to that change.  “Freely choose to adapt or die” is a position I have seen at least one very politically conservative meteorologist advocate.  This is not my own position, of course, but it is one I can at least respect, because it accepts empirical scientific data.  This scientist correctly recognizes that he can hold his chosen political ideology without believing that his colleagues in climatology are engaged in mass scientific misconduct.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.  That does not just go for general policy prescriptions, or (in the above example) the political opinion regarding whether anything at all should be done as a matter of regulation.  It also goes for specific policy prescriptions.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on the purchase of animal products (food or otherwise).

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on home energy consumption.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive emissions penalties for cars.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating “smart fuel pumps” that read one’s odometer, check it against a database, and assess a tax based on miles traveled.

There is a reason I have mentioned those four policy ideas, by the way.  It is because I am an atmospheric scientist who accepts anthropogenic climate change and I am against every single one of them.  A couple of them I’m against in any circumstance, and the other two, I’m against as one-size-fits-all national policies.  I generally do not favor using the heavy hand of government on private individuals in this situation, for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s not politically pragmatic.  It is arguably counterproductive, in fact.  People respond much better to the carrot than to the stick, and I do support measures such as tax credits for making the choice to get a green car or to upgrade one’s home.

Second, it is large-scale industrial operations that have a greater effect on the global carbon dioxide balance, and private citizens do not often have much say-so in broad corporate policy.  Not even through their buying choices, at least when we are talking about the power sector or the automobile industry, which are almost impossible for new competitors to enter that are not already very well-funded (and even then face difficulties, such as the determination of some states to lock out Tesla Motors from selling to people because they do not use a dealership model, but sell directly to drivers).

Third, consumers often have limited choices, especially for big expenditures.  Not everyone can afford a new, highly efficient car.  Prior to the new standards requiring 35 mpg, not that many cars even were highly efficient, let alone affordable ones.  Not everyone can afford a home renovation to become greener.  Not everyone has access to public transportation or carpooling options, and not everyone can afford to move closer to work.

And finally, the fourth reason I’m against the broad application of this sort of regulation is that it is a one-size-fits-all approach that is utterly inappropriate in some situations.  For instance, on the subject of personal energy consumption, it is not even safe to forego heating or cooling in some regions during winter or summer.  A limited-AC-usage efficiency prescription that isn’t that onerous for San Francisco would be a major public safety hazard in Atlanta in the summer.  (Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the US.)  The same thing is true for car usage:  If a municipality wants to have strict emissions standards for privately owned vehicles, that is defensible when reliable public transportation is available in the area and perhaps they want to discourage driving when other options exist.  It is potentially quite onerous in areas where your options are generally to drive to work or not work at all.  And even in those cities where it is defensible, it makes sense to offer exemptions in cases where people cannot afford new vehicles or vehicle modifications.  We were able to implement mandatory health insurance coverage without imposing a harsh burden on people who can’t afford it, after all.  Even in large cities with good public transit, there are some situations when people need to use a car instead.  Public transit may take you to work, but it generally can’t take you everywhere you need to go unless you happen to live in a place like New York City.

Sustainability must be fine-tuned to localities, in fact, because areas will have different needs.  In fairness to right-wingers who complain that “liberals” always think in terms of how things are in “liberal cities” (San Francisco, Portland, New York, etc.), I’ll even grant that some of these suggestions, when considered for the entire country, do appear that way, since they work so poorly outside of such areas.  But this cuts both ways.  For instance, I will argue down anyone who is against any emissions testing at all in large cities.  I have been in East Coast cities where, even leaving aside carbon dioxide emissions, particle matter and ozone can create truly oppressive—and hazardous—health conditions.  I have felt my chest constricting on “code orange” ozone days.  I’ve coughed up blood on high particle matter days.  If your own experience is limited to medium-sized towns and suburban communities where this does not happen, then you too should remember that other types of environments have different needs, and your community’s situation shouldn’t be the blueprint for policies everywhere any more than the communities that your political adversaries often live in.

I know that it may be difficult for people accustomed to thinking in terms of “us versus them” politics to consider that “mixing it up” is even possible, but it is.  It is possible to accept climate change science without supporting the entire hard-left policy package… or even any of it.  It is possible to think that some things should be done without believing that they should all be done exactly the same way everywhere.  From my own admittedly biased perspective, I think it’s not just possible, but preferable to think that.  This us-versus-them, with-us-or-against-us, no-gray-area form of politicking benefits nobody, not even those who do it, except in the very cynical way of perpetuating their own existence by always having an “enemy” with whom common cause is impossible.  It certainly doesn’t achieve anything concrete for the issues themselves.

August 17, 2015

Online Activism, Framing, and the Guilt-By-Association Fallacy

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 5:51 pm

If you’ve spent any time at all looking over political blogs, political debates on social media, or online comments for political articles, you will have noticed a type of argument that is repeatedly made by both left and right.  It goes something like this:

“You’re arguing for X [relatively mainstream opinion with which I disagree].  The person/group Y argues for X, but they also argue for Z [non-mainstream, politically extreme or fringe issue].  Defend that!”

If that sounds like a fallacious line of argument to you, you would be correct in thinking so.  It is a named informal fallacy, guilt-by-association.  In this instance, it is used in a twofold way:  to dirty both the debate adversary and the mainstream issue by associating them, respectively, with a radical entity and a fringe cause.

As I said, I’ve seen this done time and time again by both sides.  It is occasionally called out when one party is on the ball and recognizes the fallacy (whether they associate that term with it or not). That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person making the fallacious argument is going to back down, of course.  As social science studies into the topic are increasingly finding out, ideology trumps logic and empirical evidence in, well, pretty much everyone, if allowed to.  It can happen with any kind of ideology—political, social, religious, anti-religious, or intra-disciplinary (such as taking a hardline position on a controversial topic in a science—as a scientist).  Unfortunately, most of the time that this fallacy is called out in an online debate, the person using the fallacy only doubles down on it.  The usual gist of the doubling down is something like, “I don’t care if you don’t agree with view Z.  It’s still your side!”  –Sometimes with the pivot of “Why don’t you agree with view Z?  Not progressive/conservative enough?”  Which is a dodge from the original debate, but one that puts the attacker at a clear advantage if the opponent takes the bait, since doing so requires the opponent to defend himself instead of sticking to the topic.

However, more often than not, the guilt-by-association fallacy is not called out.  The debater confronted with the guilt-by-association fallacy who doesn’t recognize it will feel compelled to defend another member of his own “side.”  Humans are a deeply tribal species, another social science finding that I have long suspected to be true.  We are driven to defend “our own” against “the other.”  I rather suspect, in fact, that the social media use of the guilt-by-association fallacy is a contributing factor to the radicalization of the left and right in American politics.  People who, before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, would not have been adherents of fringe views—seeing such views as, indeed, fringe, and feeling no obligation to defend them—are now being put on the spot by aggressive online “activists” who have access to search engines and networks of ideologically oriented websites that sometimes even list pithy, fallacious “talking points” for online political brawls.  They are being compelled to view people as part of their “tribe” whom, in the past, they would not have, and are acting accordingly.  Eventually, some of them do come to agree with the fringe views simply out of a sense of maintaining solidarity with one’s “team.”

That brings me to my final point, and it is, to me, the most disturbing one.  I don’t think that the “masterminds” of such tactics sites care that they are encouraging anti-intellectual forms of debate.  I certainly don’t think they care that they are contributing to political radicalization.  I remember a number of years ago, when this type of online activism was first coming into its own, how the concept of “framing” exploded in the political blogosphere, and they were very open about what they were trying to do.

It was not the smooth marketing of “real” politics (not political campaigning, mind, but rather, deal-making and persuasive lobbying among elected officials and interest groups).  In that environment, people are generally wiser to fallacious arguments.  Half the people there, if not more, have legal education.  In fact, I am pretty sure that this is why horse-trading does exist.  To get something done with a truculent would-be ally, one must promise something tangible or concrete, or make an objective-sounding argument for why they should sign on.  Fallacious appeals to emotion won’t cut it.

No, this “framing” that burst on the online grassroots scene around 2007 or so is something quite different from that.  The point of it, as its originators proudly state, is deliberately to appeal to emotion, including the emotion of revulsion for an opponent because of guilt-by-association with a more extreme opponent.  It is to take advantage of a widespread lack of critical thinking or logical analysis, and to play off the most primitive evolutionary parts of the human brain.

If this were the only way to get things done in politics, then it might be justifiable.  But the fact is that this is not the case.  In reality, this type of politicking is responsible for the rise of polarization and the inability to get anything done now, because it discourages people from stepping out of their reactionary knee-jerk “lizard brain” responses.  I don’t see that it benefits anyone at all, except perhaps the PACs and firms that thrive on the ability to present their political opponents as crazy inhuman aliens who cannot possibly be reasoned with.

I’ve said before that I consider this type of populism to be anti-intellectual in the extreme.  This is, by now, a running theme of this blog.  Here’s yet another bit of evidence for it.

July 30, 2015

Yes, It’s Advocacy. So?

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 2:34 pm

I follow a number of television meteorologists on social media.  I’m not a broadcaster myself and have never had the slightest interest in undertaking that career path, but I’ve found that they are good sources for up-to-the-minute information about ongoing weather events and disasters.  On Twitter, for instance, they will tend to retweet any report from a person who is in a town that has been hit by a tornado.  Other than chaser accounts (which I also follow), it’s really the best source of information about what is going on in such events immediately after the disaster has occurred and before the major news reporters pick it up.

As one would expect, I also receive retweets and shares from them in my feeds that are not about disaster updates.  Like anyone else, they’ll share pieces they find interesting or agree with.  And, given that I primarily subscribe to TV meteorologists in the Southeast, and that (for some reason that hasn’t been fully explained—perhaps a good background in weather but limited education in climatology?) broadcast meteorologists are climate change skeptics in the majority, one would also expect some of these “general” shares to be about climate change.  Many of the shares, in fact, are not even originally from other broadcast meteorologists, who perhaps realize that it’s less credible for the “TV weatherman” to go on about the subject than for a researcher to do so, but instead are from research meteorologists and the occasional skeptic climatologist.  These people do indeed exist.  No scientific hypothesis has 100% agreement, not even gravity (but don’t take my word for it; look up the controversy in physics about the existence of the hypothetical graviton particle).  There are approximately 3% of climatologists and climate-specializing atmospheric scientists who deny anthropogenic climate change.  They seem to have quite a loud mic for their numbers, with the same three or four people always being cited as “climatologists who deny climate change,” but when a scientific topic becomes political, the media will want to find “balance for both sides.”

There is a hashtag that has become increasingly common for these people and their supporters regarding the 97% of climatologists who do accept the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change:  #Advocacy.  It is the snarky, disdainful sort of hashtag rather than a purely descriptive one, posted at the end of a link in which a research scientist who studies the topic is also quoted as making policy suggestions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—or if a research study about it is being supported by a think tank.

When I first started seeing this on social media, it irritated me deeply.  Attempts to discredit scientists who study this subject are extremely personal to me, one of the most guaranteed ways of irking me.  I tried to think of a defense and comeback, an explanation of how the “objectionable” statements are not advocacy.  And then I realized:  You know what, they’re right.  It is advocacy.  But that doesn’t discredit anything.

The #Advocacy hashtag—used in this context—is indeed an attempt to discredit the work of climate scientists.  It does need to be countered, but not by a denial that advocacy is taking place, because obviously it is.  It’s not even the most effective counter to mention that, by this same standard, climate-change-denier atmospheric scientists who speak to the media (or work with right-leaning think tanks) are also “advocates” and that it is therefore hypocritical for them to object to the other side doing it.  It’s certainly worth pointing out the hypocrisy from a narrative-control perspective, but I cannot support implicitly agreeing with this notion that it is somehow a bad thing for scientists to engage in “advocacy” because it “contaminates their research.”  The fact is, it doesn’t.

What is needed is an education campaign about the scientific method.  The sneering hashtag is another instance of a profoundly anti-scientific populist political trend of claiming conflict of interest about research when the researchers have political opinions on the policy implications of the study.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now:  Wanting research to have certain results does not discredit it.  Having research funded by an organization wanting certain results does not discredit it.  The only thing that can discredit research is its methodology.  It doesn’t matter who does the project, merely how it is done.  That’s how the scientific method works.  If you want to criticize or attack scientific research with which you disagree, you have two options:  Find a flaw in the methodology that undermines the claimed conclusions, or prove fraud.  That’s it.

Yes, it’s advocacy when a climatologist in “the 97%” is quoted in the media as offering policy suggestions.  It’s advocacy when a think tank commissions a study about climate change or hires its own in-house scientists to do it.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

April 12, 2015

I’m Not a Candidate Blogger…

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 6:43 pm

…and I do not intend to write pieces promoting my chosen candidate or speaking ill of others in the party, but let it go on record that, barring exceptional circumstances, I will be supporting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for President.  I did not do so in 2008, because I was a loyalist of John Kerry (having worked in his office), and I felt that he had been ill-done by some of her people.  However, time has healed that wound, and I’m able to look at this with more detachment.  My reasoning for this is a little… unconventional, although it probably should not be surprising to anyone who knows me or is familiar with the general thrust of my political thinking these days from reading this blog.

Reason one:  I’m supporting her because I do not want to see the Democratic Party primary devolve into a free-for-all to the progressive left.  I am emphatically not on board with the tactics and principal objectives of activist progressives these days.  I believe in privacy, not just as a matter of law, but as a societal expectation, and progressives absolutely do not.  For them, “the personal is political” and every individual action needs to have some kind of “social justice” importance.  In the words of George Orwell,

“A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.”

(This refers very aptly to hardline ideologues of any stripe, incidentally.)

Activist progressives largely focus on personal “thought crimes” (look up the word “microaggression” and read about this progressive-created absurdity if you don’t believe me) and private individual behavior rather than workable, constitutionally sound solutions to problems.  For instance, the push to shame and punish non-vegans over the carbon footprint of raising livestock—and to institute regressive carbon taxes on individuals who, due to lack of public transit, have no choice but to drive personal vehicles—are great examples.  (“They should just move to a big city” is no different from “they should just move to a more gay-accepting community.”  Not everyone can move, but more to the point, Balkanization along political and demographic lines is not good, people.  We all need to be exposed to viewpoints that challenge our own.)  If the progressive left has managed to antagonize me—a moderate liberal, climate-change-accepting atmospheric scientist who strongly supports green technology, industrial emissions reduction, and community resilience—you can only imagine how much such proposals antagonize people to my right.  Additionally, pretty much every Twitter-shaming campaign of a random formerly private citizen who happened to say something “offensive” was started by the progressive activist left.  (I’m not talking about celebrities who made statements in interviews, by the way, but ordinary people posting on their social media accounts.)

They are, in two words, culture warriors just as the social conservative right has been for the past 30+ years.  It was polarizing and toxic when the social conservative right focused on private individual behavior, and it is polarizing and toxic now that the social progressive left has started to do it.  The Republican Party primary is already turning rapidly into a race to the far right, as a bevy of right-wing candidates enter the race and try to outdo each other in extreme social conservative rhetoric.  I do not want to see the Democratic Party doing the same thing but catering to the extreme left, and I think the only real way to prevent this sort of free-for-all is for a candidate to enter who is a towering enough figure in her own right that she doesn’t have to rely strictly on a wild-eyed base.  It is never a good thing for a political figure to be beholden to one interest group.

The other reason I am supporting Hillary Clinton is that, in the course of my scientific education, I have come to see the value of expertise in any skilled profession.  Being a “regular Joe outsider” with no experience in policy or governing is not an intrinsic virtue, and we are seeing that play out in Washington and in state governments now, with a crop of new representatives who ran on a “Main Street” populist campaign platform that presented experience as equivalent to “corruption” or “being part of the problem.”  They have strong opinions, but they don’t understand how things get done and don’t care to learn, because they are the virtuous non-politicians (who now hold political office) and they know best.  This is why we have gridlock in Congress and an increase in stupid, blatantly unconstitutional bills introduced in state legislatures.  It’s a destructive, anti-intellectual mindset.  Character and skill (at a profession that isn’t inherently immoral) are completely distinct and unrelated qualities, and people need to start seeing expertise and “insider” status as a good thing again.  House of Cards is fiction, people.  Fantasy, even.  The real world of politics isn’t like that, and having past involvement with it is not a sign of an irretrievably blackened heart.

As it happens, the two problems that I outlined both feed into the problem of increasing political polarization in America.  This issue is probably the most important issue to me that is not directly related to science or environmental policy.  It is destroying our soul as a nation and seriously damaging our relationships with each other individually.  Now, some people might say that Hillary Clinton herself is a polarizing figure.  To that I would ask, what national political candidate today isn’t?  And yet, when she was Secretary of State, she mustered broad support for a political figure, at least in terms of the numbers one can expect these days.  I don’t expect the 2016 electoral season itself to be less toxic because of her entry.  I don’t think there’s much that anyone can do about that, at least not immediately.  That would take a change in political culture, which would take time and an increase in self-awareness among citizen activists that their hardline “my way or the highway” culture-war tactics are contributing to it.  But I would like to think that as president, as a civil servant working for America rather than just a candidate, Hillary could usher back in some some of that cross-partisan goodwill that her history demonstrates she can cultivate.

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