Category Archives: Rights and Freedoms

Spatial Justice: a more level playing field

A more level playing field? Change how the field is used

Cheong Suk-Wai meets a thinker in this fortnightly column, which alternates with her book review column The Big Read

For all of his adult life, American geographer Edward Soja has been championing spatial justice, or transforming urban areas to improve the quality of life of the poor

ASK American geographer Edward Soja why he has devoted his entire adult life to championing the idea of spatial justice, and he says: “I guess you could call it trying to increase happiness everywhere.”

That is because his life’s work has been to watch closely for ways in which cities are developed, lest they lead to prime land becoming playgrounds for the rich while the poor are left to languish in ghettos, steeped in pollution.

The focus of spatial justice is squarely on cities because its overcrowded environs intensify resentment and the sense of unfairness among people.

He was in Singapore recently to talk about spatial justice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He had first visited Singapore in the 1980s and then late last year, to talk to architectural students of the National University of Singapore about his work.

Professor Soja, 73, says: “I try to get people to realise that planning and deciding public policies all shape public places, and sometimes create bad spaces.

“But, more importantly, if we have made things worse, we can make things better too!”

His main argument is that by scrutinising how people interact in living spaces, you will begin to see all kinds of injustices, such as the best schools and roads being usually in the wealthier neighbourhoods. “This is a geography we have created,” he points out. “It is not something natural or inevitable.”

So understanding the dynamics that lead to, and entrench, inequalities will help you map out what he calls “the uneven geography of power and privilege” and enable everyone to see immediately which areas within a city need the most attention.

The one thing to remember, he says repeatedly during this interview, is that spatial justice cannot result in complete equality.

“That’s never going to happen,” he stresses, because living on Earth’s uneven surface – with those on mountains much poorer than those in valleys – creates its own inequalities.

“Friction and distance in geography are the main elements that lead to unequal human development,” he notes. “So where there is space, there will always be inequality.”

More seriously, he points out, once certain segments of society gain an advantage over an area, they not only prolong that advantage, but also sometimes extend it over wider areas.

“Whether it be occupying a favourite position in front of a TV set, shopping for food, finding a good school or finding a location to invest billions of dollars (in)… human activities not only are shaped by geographical inequalities but also play a role in producing and reproducing them.”

The point then, he says, is to improve life for the disadvantaged slowly but surely, while “embarrassing the wealthy” into lowering the barriers between them and the have-nots.

He muses: “One of the great myths that have to be dispelled is the idea that progress is a zero-sum game, that to improve the poor, the rich have to suffer terribly.”

For example, he points out, Singaporeans should acknowledge that part of their country’s stunning wealth today “came from the shoulders of its immigrant population”, given how much cheaper it has long been to hire foreigners for work here.

The rub is, he adds, the problems of the poor rarely get most people’s attention, and this lack of visibility makes it all the more harder to get justice for them, spatial or otherwise.

In that, Prof Soja has a cautionary tale to share: In 1996, a California court compelled Los Angeles’ public transport authority to put the needs of poor commuters above those of the rich for 10 years. That was after the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU) sued the authority for discrimination because it spent more money building highways than subways or buying more buses. This meant that those who owned cars benefited more than those who were dependent on public transport.

Unhappily, Prof Soja adds, the footnote to this landmark case was that in 2000, when a Spanish-speaking Hispanic man in Alabama sued the transport authority there because the all-English driving test discriminated against him, the US Supreme Court ruled that any American who alleges discrimination had first to show that the discriminating party intended to be unfair.

Worse, the same court added, no private person or organisation could sue the US government for discrimination. That stopped the impact of BRU in its tracks.

So, yes, spatial justice is still very much a work in progress.

In that vein, he pooh-poohs economists who reason that most people today are jobless because the Information Age has rendered their jobs obsolete and that is why they have dropped out of the market. “That’s silly because there are so many other things causing it, including changing geographies in cities that are creating new inequalities.”

For example, few would link a spike in divorces, suicides and spousal and child abuse to the daily drudge of commuting to and from work. But Prof Soja’s long and deep studies of his home base Los Angeles show that spending four hours to travel from one’s home to one’s office, and back, exerts such a toll on one’s self-worth that it is a major factor in families breaking up.

So by, say, finding ways either to reduce time spent travelling or to enable employees to live closer to their workplaces, the bonds of family are less likely to fray.

Prof Soja’s parents were uneducated Polish immigrants. His father drove a taxi while his mother was a housewife. From the age of 10, he says, he was fascinated by maps and travel stories, although he travelled “only in my mind”. Now a married father of two and grandfather of three, he is a distinguished don in urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles as well as the London School of Economics.

In December last year, the 109-year-old non-profit society Association of American Geographers awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Honour for reshaping the relationship between people and the city.

Pioneering Singaporean architect William Lim says of Prof Soja, who is his friend: “For more than 30 years, Edward has shaped spatial justice such that it is now a respected conversation topic.”

suk@sph.com.sg Continue reading

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New laws on labour trafficking: the need for defining conditions in SG

Bar on what is forced labour should not be set so high that new law ends up nailing no one

Labour

A group of Bangladeshi men arrive in Singapore expecting to earn a basic monthly salary of $600 plus overtime because that is what they were told back home when they were recruited to be construction workers. The amount is stated in the approval letter from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which they receive before they board the flight. Within days of arriving, however, their employer gives them the lowdown: their basic pay will be $520, and they will have to sign a fresh contract reflecting the reduced terms. Having taken loans of more than $3,000 to land their jobs here, the men sign on the dotted line. If they refuse, they know, they might be sent home penniless to face a huge debt.

They start work and soon learn that other workers have been similarly deceived by the same employer, who also makes them work extra hours without overtime pay. There are illegal deductions too and some months their basic salary dips to below $200.

This is a hypothetical case, but such practices are not uncommon here, say migrant worker advocates who deal with foreign workers in various states of distress. If migrant workers facing such multiple forms of abuse complained in Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia, their allegations, if true, could be prosecuted under laws banning human trafficking. In those countries, the law covers vulnerable migrant workers who are deceived or coerced into commercial sex or labour and exploited.

Singapore is planning a dedicated law to combat human trafficking, but judging by discussions so far, such cases may fall outside its purview. Public consultations on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, likely to be introduced in Parliament by November this year, ended on April 18. It covers sex and organ trafficking, which are already illegal here, as well as labour trafficking which is not prohibited under current laws. Continue reading

Should we boycott the Olympics?

The Sochi Olympics in Russia has attracted enough attention to detract from the Games. Russia’s track record of human rights violations and the 2013 controversy of enacting a slew of anti-gay laws have been deemed incompatible with the Olympic ideals. There is also criticism against the Putin government for using the Olympics to elevate the prestige of its regime. This was the reason President Vladimir V. Putin “personally lobbied the International Olympic Committee and Russia offered to spend $12 billion on preparations, twice as much as the nearest competitor.” Others meanwhile believe that a boycott of the Games is nothing new – throughout history, athletes have been used as pawns in a political war. These critics claim that the real sacrifice is that of the athletes careers at the pedestal of Lost Causes.  They cite the example of the Moscow Olympics, as well as the Soviets’ boycott of the Los Angeles Games which eventually achieved minimal effect in driving change.

What is your perspective? Have sporting platforms been hijacked? What would your response be to those who advocate the boycott of the Sochi Olympics and why? 

NY Times Room for Debate this this on here 

Here is one view: Human rights violations in Russia are incompatible with Olympic values. But I am against a boycott.

First, boycotts are an indiscriminate sanction that punishes hundreds of millions of innocent people. Second, there are other, more targeted and more effective, actions. Third, given the censorship in Russia, participating in the Olympics may be more effective in spreading Olympic values than boycotting the Games.  Continue reading

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American gun use is out of control

(Shouldn’t the world intervene asks the Guardian)

Concepts/issues  – civil rights, the 2nd Amendment, freedom to bear arms, polarisation of opinion, gun violence, fear/peril

The death toll from firearms in the US suggests that the country is gripped by civil war
guns, Henry Porter

A man on a rifle range: ‘More Americans lost their lives from firearms in the past 45 years than in all wars involving the US.’ Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last week, Starbucks asked its American customers to please not bring their guns into the coffee shop. This is part of the company’s concern about customer safety and follows a ban in the summer on smoking within 25 feet of a coffee shop entrance and an earlier ruling about scalding hot coffee. After the celebrated Liebeck v McDonald’s case in 1994, involving a woman who suffered third-degree burns to her thighs, Starbucks complies with theSpecialty Coffee Association of America‘s recommendation that drinks should be served at a maximum temperature of 82C.

Although it was brave of Howard Schultz, the company’s chief executive, to go even this far in a country where people are better armed and only slightly less nervy than rebel fighters in Syria, we should note that dealing with the risks of scalding and secondary smoke came well before addressing the problem of people who go armed to buy a latte. There can be no weirder order of priorities on this planet.

That’s America, we say, as news of the latest massacre breaks – last week it was the slaughter of 12 people by Aaron Alexis at Washington DC’s navy yard – and move on. But what if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for America and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis – a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention? As citizens of the world, perhaps we should demand an end to the unimaginable suffering of victims and their families – the maiming and killing of children – just as America does in every new civil conflict around the globe.

The annual toll from firearms in the US is running at 32,000 deaths and climbing, even though the general crime rate is on a downward path (it is 40% lower than in 1980). If this perennial slaughter doesn’t qualify for intercession by the UN and all relevant NGOs, it is hard to know what does.

To absorb the scale of the mayhem, it’s worth trying to guess the death toll of all the wars in American history since the War of Independence began in 1775, and follow that by estimating the number killed by firearms in the US since the day that Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968 by a .22 Iver-Johnson handgun, wielded by Sirhan Sirhan. The figures fromCongressional Research Service, plus recent statistics from icasualties.org, tell us that from the first casualties in the battle of Lexington to recent operations in Afghanistan, the toll is 1,171,177. By contrast, the number killed by firearms, including suicides, since 1968, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI, is 1,384,171.

That 212,994 more Americans lost their lives from firearms in the last 45 years than in all wars involving the US is a staggering fact, particularly when you place it in the context of the safety-conscious, “secondary smoke” obsessions that characterise so much of American life.

Everywhere you look in America, people are trying to make life safer. On roads, for example, there has been a huge effort in the past 50 years to enforce speed limits, crack down on drink/drug driving and build safety features into highways, as well as vehicles. The result is a steadily improving record; by 2015, forecasters predict that for first time road deaths will be fewer than those caused by firearms (32,036 to 32,929).

Plainly, there’s no equivalent effort in the area of privately owned firearms. Indeed, most politicians do everything they can to make the country less safe. Recently, a Democrat senator from Arkansas named Mark Pryor ran a TV ad against the gun-control campaign funded by NY mayor Michael Bloomberg – one of the few politicians to stand up to the NRA lobby – explaining why he was against enhanced background checks on gun owners yet was committed to “finding real solutions to violence”.

About their own safety, Americans often have an unusual ability to hold two utterly opposed ideas in their heads simultaneously. That can only explain the past decade in which the fear of terror has cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars in wars, surveillance and intelligence programmes and homeland security. Ten years after 9/11, homeland security spending doubled to $69bn . The total bill since the attacks is more than $649bn.

One more figure. There have been fewer than 20 terror-related deaths on American soil since 9/11 and about 364,000 deaths caused by privately owned firearms. If any European nation had such a record and persisted in addressing only the first figure, while ignoring the second, you can bet your last pound that the State Department would be warning against travel to that country and no American would set foot in it without body armour.

But no nation sees itself as outsiders do. Half the country is sane and rational while the other half simply doesn’t grasp the inconsistencies and historic lunacy of its position, which springs from the second amendment right to keep and bear arms, and is derived from English common law and our 1689 Bill of Rights. We dispensed with these rights long ago, but American gun owners cleave to them with the tenacity that previous generations fought to continue slavery. Astonishingly, when owning a gun is not about ludicrous macho fantasy, it is mostly seen as a matter of personal safety, like the airbag in the new Ford pick-up or avoiding secondary smoke, despite conclusive evidence that people become less safe as gun ownership rises.

Last week, I happened to be in New York for the 9/11 anniversary: it occurs to me now that the city that suffered most dreadfully in the attacks and has the greatest reason for jumpiness is also among the places where you find most sense on the gun issue in America. New Yorkers understand that fear breeds peril and, regardless of tragedies such as Sandy Hook and the DC naval yard, the NRA, the gun manufacturers, conservative-inclined politicians and parts of the media will continue to advocate a right, which, at base, is as archaic as a witch trial.

Talking to American friends, I always sense a kind of despair that the gun lobby is too powerful to challenge and that nothing will ever change. The same resignation was evident in President Obama’s rather lifeless reaction to the Washington shooting last week. There is absolutely nothing he can do, which underscores the fact that America is in a jam and that international pressure may be one way of reducing the slaughter over the next generation. This has reached the point where it has ceased to be a domestic issue. The world cannot stand idly by.

(Here’s also another perspective – intervention other than legislation, and viewing gun crime as a public health problem)

More: A year in mass shootings

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What’s new in Big Brother Technology?

Does an increase in surveillance correlate with safety in cities?

Concepts: Orwellian societies, Big Brother (from George Orwell’s 1984), Surveillance, Rights/Freedoms, control, power, dehumanisation

Using surveillance to make cities safer

Thursday, 14 Nov 2013 | 7:41 PM ET

In the final episode of our theme week on ‘Innovation Cities,’ Tom Mackenzie takes a look at the new technology designed to help make us all more secure.

Singapore may already have one of the lowest crime rates in the world, but this has not stopped authorities there to push for further innovations in security. Its one-year Safe City pilot program is testing out a range of advanced technologies in the hope of improving public safety.

Singapore’s government has worked with Accenture, the management and technology consultancy, using video analytics to help stop crime. Facial recognition technology is used on streets to identify suspects, suspected gang members, and those on wanted lists.

(Read more: Minority report: Predicting where to put your policeman)

“We’re still in the early stages of that program, but we’re hoping that there will be results showing that this technology can make a real difference to public safety in a more cost-effective way, but also in a more effective way,” Ger Daly, Global Managing Director of Defense and Public Safety, Accenture, said in a report for CNBC’s Innovation Cities.

As well as using facial recognition software, the technology developed by Accenture can scan the way we move and assess whether a crime is being committed. “Now the technology can even detect patterns, so for example people fighting or break-ins at shops,” Daly added.

“It can pick up that behavior just from the shapes and the movement of the people and generate an alert even if nobody is watching that television feed.”

(Read more: Basque Country reaches out to the elderly)

For some, the use of this kind of technology conjures visions of Orwell’s Big Brother: where our every single movement and action is surveyed by the state. But Daly argues this kind of technology is already in use. “Biometric data has become a very important part of identifying people, it can be your fingerprints, it can be your iris, but it could also be your face,” he said.

“The technology is there, today…to really uniquely identify you and me and other people just by the patterns and shape of our face,” he added. “What maybe people don’t realize is that they’re actually using it already today. All new passports have… the chip symbol. It has your personal information on it, same as what’s printed on the passport. But it also has your face as a biometric identifier.”

Tracking illegal activity and criminals using facial recognition is one thing. Being alerted to offences by sounds is another. ShotSpotter, a U.S. company, has developed innovative acoustic surveillance technology that can detect gunfire and alert authorities to its location.

Joern Haufe | Getty Images

(Read more: Cities take some decongestant)

In 2011, the Minneapolis Police Department used ShotSpotter to great effect. “The system that we have of integrating our public safety cameras with ShotSpotter… [was] able to help us identify and catch the suspects in a homicide,” Commander Scott Gerlicher said this week.

“When we had a drive by shooting at a local convenience store, the ShotSpotter audio system captured the shots and our camera, which happened to be located at the corner where this incident occurred, also captured video tape of the vehicle actually doing the shooting,” he added.

With rapid advancements in security technology, are we nearing a future when police officers on the ground become redundant? “Technology has its limitations and it’s not meant to replace police officers,” Gerlicher said.

“But I think it’s been proven time and time again that technology, if used appropriately, can greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of delivering police services to a community.”

 

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How People in Muslim Countries Think Women Should Dress

Concepts/Issues: Cultural perceptions, discrimination/prejudice, rights, gender equality, freedoms.

One of the region’s most liberal societies prefers one of the more conservative head coverings
JAN 9 2014, 10:14 AM ET (The Atlantic) 
How respondents in various countries said women should dress. (Pew Research Center)

Wearing some form of head covering in public is an important sign of Islamic identity in many Muslim-majority countries, but there is considerable variation in the extent to which women are expected (and sometimes mandated) to cover up.

A recent Pew report, based on a survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research from 2011 to 2013 in seven majority-Muslim nations, reveals just how widely opinions about female attire differ in the region.

The researchers asked the respondents in each country, “Which one of these women is dressed most appropriately for public places?” while showing them this panel:

In the full paper, the study’s authors explain that “style #1 is en vogue in Afghanistan; #2 is popular among both conservatives and fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab countries; #3 is the style vigorously promoted by Shi’i fundamentalism and conservatives in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon; #4 and #5 are considered most appropriate by modern Muslim women in Iran and Turkey; and #6 is preferred by secular women in the region.”

The fourth style, a white hijab that fully covers the hair, ears, and neck, was the most popular across all of the nations on average, while a fully uncovered look (#6) was only embraced among the comparatively liberal Lebanese.

The authors also asked participants if women should be able to choose how they dress, and majorities in only two countries—Turkey and Tunisia—agreed.

A country’s economic development, it seems, had little correlation with preferences for a less-conservative veil. One of the richest countries of the lot, Saudi Arabia, also had the most people saying they preferred a black niqab that covers the entire face.

Instead, the authors found that dress preferences tracked most strongly with each country’s level of gender equality and social freedoms.

That makes Tunisia’s preference for a relatively conservative hijab particularly interesting, since Tunisians hold otherwise relatively liberal values: The country showed tepid support for an Islamic government, it had the most respondents who were supportive of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes, and it also had the largest percentage of people disagreeing with the idea that university education is more important for boys than for girls.

And while respondents in all of the countries rated their own country as more moral than the U.S., Tunisians were the most likely to say they’d want Americans as neighbors.

Mevs.org

At the very least, the survey shows that there’s more to wearing a veil than conservative Islamic values.

Legality and effectiveness of extensive surveillance?

THE AL QAEDA SWITCHBOARD BY JANUARY 13, 2014, The Atlantic

Concepts: Privacy, control, rights, duties, responsibilities

Background: Surveillance, post 9/11 world, 2013 NSA/Edward Snowden leaks 

Edward Snowden has started a critical debate about the legality and the effectiveness of the N.S.A.’s practice of collecting unlimited records of telephone calls made to, from, and within the United States. Last month, two federal judges came to opposing conclusions about these issues. On December 16th, Judge Richard J. Leon, in Washington, D.C., ruled that the indiscriminate hoarding violates the Fourth Amendment right to privacy and its prohibition of unreasonable searches. Two weeks later, in New York, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that the metadata-collection program was lawful and effective.

Judge Pauley invoked the example of Khalid al-Mihdhar, a Saudi jihadist who worked for Al Qaeda. On 9/11, he was one of the five hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. In early 2000, Mihdhar made seven calls from San Diego to an Al Qaeda safe house in Yemen. According to Pauley, the N.S.A. intercepted the calls, but couldn’t identify where Mihdhar was calling from. Relying on testimony by Robert Mueller, the former director of the F.B.I., Pauley concluded that metadata collection could have allowed the bureau to discover that the calls were being made from the U.S., in which case the bureau could have stopped 9/11.

If he is right, advocates of extensive monitoring by the government have a strong case. But the Mihdhar calls tell a different story about why the bureau failed to prevent the catastrophe. The C.I.A. withheld crucial intelligence from the F.B.I., which has the ultimate authority to investigate terrorism in the U.S. and attacks on Americans abroad. Continue reading

Public health vs Private freedom

Peter Singer, Project Syndicate

PRINCETON – In contrasting decisions last month, a United States Court of Appeals struck down a US Food and Drug Administration requirement that cigarettes be sold in packs with graphic health warnings, while Australia’s highest court upheld a lawthat goes much further. The Australian law requires not only health warnings and images of the physical damage that smoking causes, but also that the packs themselves be plain, with brand names in small generic type, no logos, and no color other than a drab olive-brown.

The US decision was based on America’s constitutional protection of free speech. The court accepted that the government may require factually accurate health warnings, but the majority, in a split decision, said that it could not go as far as requiring images. In Australia, the issue was whether the law implied uncompensated expropriation – in this case, of the tobacco companies’ intellectual property in their brands. The High Court ruled that it did not.

Underlying these differences, however, is the larger issue: who decides the proper balance between public health and freedom of expression? In the US, courts make that decision, essentially by interpreting a 225-year-old text, and if that deprives the government of some techniques that might reduce the death toll from cigarettes – currently estimated at 443,000 Americans every year – so be it. In Australia, where freedom of expression is not given explicit constitutional protection, courts are much more likely to respect the right of democratically elected governments to strike the proper balance.

There is widespread agreement that governments ought to prohibit the sale of at least some dangerous products. Countless food additives are either banned or permitted only in limited quantities, as are children’s toys painted with substances that could be harmful if ingested. New York City has banned trans fats from restaurants and is now limiting the permitted serving size of sugary drinks. Many countries prohibit the sale of unsafe tools, such as power saws without safety guards.

Although there are arguments for prohibiting a variety of different dangerous products, cigarettes are unique, because no other product, legal or illegal, comes close to killing the same number of people – more than traffic accidents, malaria, and AIDS combined. Cigarettes are also highly addictive. Moreover, wherever health-care costs are paid by everyone – including the US, with its public health-care programs for the poor and the elderly – everyone pays the cost of efforts to treat the diseases caused by cigarettes.

Whether to prohibit cigarettes altogether is another question, because doing so would no doubt create a new revenue source for organized crime. It seems odd, however, to hold that the state may, in principle, prohibit the sale of a product, but may not permit it to be sold only in packs that carry graphic images of the damage it causes to human health.

The tobacco industry will now take its battle against Australia’s legislation to the World Trade Organization. The industry fears that the law could be copied in much larger markets, like India and China. That is, after all, where such legislation is most needed.

Indeed, only about 15% of Australians and 20% of Americans smoke, but in 14 low and middle-income countries covered in a survey recently published in The Lancet,an average of 41% of men smoked, with an increasing number of young women taking up the habit. The World Health Organization estimates that about 100 million peopledied from smoking in the twentieth century, but smoking will kill up to one billion people in the twenty-first century.

Discussions of how far the state may go in promoting the health of its population often start with John Stuart Mill’s principle of limiting the state’s coercive power to acts that prevent harm to others. Mill could have accepted requirements for health warnings on cigarette packs, and even graphic photos of diseased lungs if that helps people to understand the choice that they are making; but he would have rejected a ban.

Mill’s defense of individual liberty, however, assumes that individuals are the best judges and guardians of their own interests – an idea that today verges on naiveté. The development of modern advertising techniques marks an important difference between Mill’s era and ours. Corporations have learned how to sell us unhealthy products by appealing to our unconscious desires for status, attractiveness, and social acceptance. As a result, we find ourselves drawn to a product without quite knowing why. And cigarette makers have learned how to manipulate the properties of their product to make it maximally addictive.

Graphic images of the damage that smoking causes can counter-balance the power of these appeals to the unconscious, thereby facilitating more deliberative decision-making and making it easier for people to stick to a resolution to quit smoking. Instead of rejecting such laws as restricting freedom, therefore, we should defend them as ways to level the playing field between individuals and giant corporations that make no pretense of appealing to our capacities for reasoning and reflection. Requiring that cigarettes be sold in plain packs with health warnings and graphic images is equal-opportunity legislation for the rational beings inside us.

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