Trivial Disputes

February 2nd, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in badscience, bbc, climate change, drurrrgs, independent, telegraph | 46 Comments »

There are no difficult ideas in this column. Like, for example, when I tell you about the Daily Telegraph front page headline which says “Abuse of cannabis puts 500 a week in hospital”, and it turns out they’re actually quoting a figure from a report on the number of people having contact with any drug treatment service of any variety. The colossal majority of these, of course, are outpatient appointments for drugs counselling, not hospital admissions. So there are not 500 people a week suddenly being put into hospital by cannabis. But this is not a news story: like their recurring dodgy abortion figures, it is the venal moralising of a passing puritan, dressed up in posh numbers.

Similarly, there’s nothing very complicated about a report from CNW Marketing in Oregon, which the Independent’s motoring correspondent has now quoted (twice) in his attempt to demonstrate that Hummers, Jeeps, and various other cars the size of a small caravan are – “in fact” – greener than smaller hybrid cars like the Prius. Because readers love a quirky paradox.

CNW, a car industry marketing firm, manage to do this by making calculations over the lifetime of a car. They decide that about 90% of the environmental cost of a car’s lifetime environmental impact is from its manufacture and recycling, not the fuel it burns whilst tootling around. This is the polar opposite of all other life-cycle analyses. CNW include all kinds of funny things to make their numbers work, like the erosion of the road surface of the people who travel to the car factory.

They also decide, for the purposes of their calculation, that people will keep their giant, cyclist-killing Jeeps for twice as long as their green hybrid cars, and if you think that is a leap of faith, they also decide that Prius drivers will travel about half as many miles a year as Jeep drivers.

This may be true if you observe the behaviour of people who choose to buy these cars. But it’s hard to see how it is a factor for anyone making a new purchasing decision, since you’re probably going to drive as much as you’re going to drive, and buying a 4×4 is not suddenly going to turn you overnight into a chubby, middle-class parent driving your children 400 yards to school.

Although for those of us afflicted with a disproportionate anality, the most infuriating thing about this report is the contrast between its opaque methodology and its spurious, four-figure accuracy. They confidently assert that your Hummer will last “34.96 years”, which is almost as irritating as this paper slipping into bogusly accurate currency conversions for estimated figures, like last week’s “$56bn (£28.26bn) international food supplement industry”. Mind you, in the translators’ academic journal META, vol 43 no 4, p 562 they give a mean sentence length for translated texts of 24.08714286 words, with no discernible trace of a knowing smile.

I know I’m wrong to care. On the BBC news site “crews were hopeful the 20m cubic litres of water could be held back and not breach the dam wall”. And that’ll be a struggle, since “cubic litres” are a nine-dimensional measuring system, so the hyperdimensional water could breach the dam in almost any one of the five other dimensions you haven’t noticed yet.

In the Metro they reckon “solving problems is really down to keeping an open mind. Brain scans showed that volunteers who hit a mental block during verbal tests gave off strong gamma rays, which are linked with being focused and alert.”

Gamma rays are produced by sub-atomic particle interactions, like electron-positron annihilation or radioactive decay. They will sterilise your brain very nicely, before the dead, irradiated neurons start to grow over with scar tissue, and that may well affect concentration.

And meanwhile, in Elle magazine they’re promoting the scientific theories of yet another self-declared nutritional genius: “Marisa cited flour and water as the two biggest problem foods. She gave us flour and water and urged us to make a gloopy paste, with which we stuck pieces of paper to the wall. Then she said this is what’s stuck to our insides when we eat pasta and bread.”

They only do it to wind you up. If you close your eyes, it’ll all go away again.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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46 Responses



  1. brainduck said,

    February 2, 2008 at 6:17 am

    Would suggest that gamma rays are actually gamma waves on an EEG, which makes sense in badly-reported context.
    Sorry, I expect you know that already.

  2. gadgeezer said,

    February 2, 2008 at 9:02 am

    If this is the paper on which the Metro story is based, then, yes, it was about gamma waves on an EEG.

    Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving

    MSM reports are so chock-full of dodgy terminology and numbers that the only rational protection is to wear a tin-foil hat and avoid bread and pasta.

  3. drunkenoaf said,

    February 2, 2008 at 10:16 am

    That was a most amusing start to the day. Bah. This reminds me about the tosh written on the health giving properties of these mystical “enzymes”– such as those found in boiled seaweed face packs (denatured enzymes anyone?) or in health foods (digested just like any other protein).

  4. Vaughan said,

    February 2, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Normally, you’d assume that the gamma rays were being emitted by a decay of a radiotracer during a PET scan.

    But the Metro piece seems to be attempting to explain a recent study which did indeed find a link between insightful problem solving and gamma band EEG responses, and didn’t use PET.

  5. danbeck said,

    February 2, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Reading that I felt particularly self-conscious regarding the length of time I laughed to myself at the problems going on in the other five dimensions we had failed to notice.

    A bit like the scientist Prof. Frink in The Simpsons who tells the children that they can’t play with the toy as they won’t enjoy it on as many levels as he does.

    Great stuff.

  6. Munin said,

    February 2, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    I urge people to look at the CNW report before disregarding it entirely.

    It’s the worst presented piece of research I’ve ever seen. I watched pages of tables and appendices scroll past with a rising sense of wonderment, chirping with joy when I hit appendix AAA.

    Please do look at the report. And then disregard it entirely.

  7. Martin said,

    February 2, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    So, if “people will keep their giant, cyclist-killing Jeeps for twice as long as their green hybrid cars”, does this mean that they kill twice as many cyclists?
    Have CNW factored this into their calculations? I mean, there’s the ambulance running costs, wear-and-tear on hospital trolleys, fuel used by the extra doctors getting to work. They really haven’t thought this through properly, have they?

    It reminds me of a newspaper piece (probably in all seriousness) which claimed that driving 500m to the shops was actually better for the environment as the energy you used in walking (calculated assuming that all our energy comes from beef – ?) was greater than the fuel used.

    Sometimes I despair of the human race. I can only hope that these people come in last.

  8. Munin said,

    February 2, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    By the way, there’s no shortage of candidates, but I’d have included last month’s IoS cover story: “Mobile phone radiation wrecks your sleep”.
    www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/mobile-phone-radiation-wrecks-your-sleep-771262.html

    More marketing mistaken for science, patiently investigated and debunked in the forums by megachicken and chums.
    badscience.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4156

  9. jackpt said,

    February 2, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    The gamma ray stuff is very scary. I’d hope that everyone has heard of gamma rays, or at least sothe phrase rang bells that prompted looking it up. To miss that one suggests a lack of science education that one would associate with people who haven’t been to school. And are so deprived, or lacking in an encyclopaedia or dictionary, that typing two words into a search engine is beyond their ken. As for disproportionate anality, they’re disproportionately anal too, except their anality has withered to 2.568% of its healthy size. It’s everywhere. They take whichever story backs up whatever they want to say and then report it so that it fits.

  10. RS said,

    February 2, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    I presumed the reference to gamma rays was in reference to PET scanning where positrons are emitted and these then annihilate releasing gamma radiation.

  11. OldBob said,

    February 2, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Regarding the so called “cubic litres” there was another perhaps more important
    aspect. Journalists are all too inclined to reinforce the misconception
    that the force pushing at a dam is somehow connected with the volume of
    water it restrains. The crucial factor is of course the depth (or
    height) of the water, not at all its volume.

  12. Ambrielle said,

    February 2, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Thanks for the laugh. I think it was the Columbia report that did it for me. Time travel has apparently been done folks.

  13. erica.blog said,

    February 2, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Regarding the flour/water: it’s rather similar to a theory I once heard about. You should never drink ice water with your meal, because the cold will cause any fats in your meal to solidify and build up in your gastrointestinal tract. Think of all that solid lardy yuck stuck to your insides…

    … completely ignoring your warm-blooded body’s ability to warm up (or, indeed, cool down) anything that isn’t already at body temperature!

    It also reminds me of my young daughter’s misery if a cookie breaks before she eats it — even though she knows it will be chewed up into small pieces in her stomach. But I *expect* a logical disconnect like that from a five-year-old!

  14. Neil Desperandum said,

    February 2, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    Just to get this straight…

    Is that 20 milli cubic litres, 20 Mega cubic litres, or 20 metre cubic litres of water?

    The last is 10-dimensional water. Is that the stuff that remembers things in infinite dilutions?

  15. muscleman said,

    February 2, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    On a running forum I inhabit a poster reported being told that in cold weather you wear longs to run in because otherwise your arteries close up and no blood flows to your muscles. I gently pointed out that if that happened the stench of decay and gangrene would preclude any exercise.

    So the person advising the guy, and good on him for asking, was talking completely out of his arse.

  16. recinort said,

    February 2, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    I think you missed out other important possible implications of gamma rays being emitted from your brain, like super powers. Consider the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Spider Man who would not currently be saving the world were it not for these important rays.

    However, as a radiotherapy physicist I continue to be disappointed with the lack of superpowers demonstrated by our patients. Enough to make me consider changing career to become a dark garbed vigilante dispensing rough justice due to childhood trauma more conventionally treated with counselling.

  17. misterjohn said,

    February 2, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    And no-one’s yet mentioned the mysterious gigajuelles on the first page of the CNW site, which “does not include issues of gigajuelles, kW hours or other unfriendly (to consumers) terms”.
    This has been pointed out by a number of bloggers, as a Google searech shows.

    I do like the idea of gigajuelles, however; there’s something “bling” about it, rather like the gas-guzzling cars

  18. william said,

    February 2, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    I like the part about Hummers lasting 34.96 years.
    As if anyone buying a car that is a fashion statement would keep it for 10 years, if that.

    Of course a Prius is a different kind if fashion statement and I doubt it anybody would keep it for 10 years either.

  19. Suw said,

    February 2, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Best guffaw I’ve had in ages… at least since I last looked at icanhascheezburger.

    I’m excited, though. I had no idea I could produce gamma rays just by concentrating. And given the dangerousness of such rays, it is for the benefit of humanity that I forswear all concentration, focus and attentiveness, for the rest of my days. At last, a scientifically sound justification for a life of procrastination and LOLcats.

  20. projektleiterin said,

    February 2, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    They just like to drive people up the wall, the kind of entertainment I also enjoy. :D

  21. Sili said,

    February 3, 2008 at 1:16 am

    “gigajuelles”?

    Well, that’s as bad as ‘jiggawatts’ (that’s a pronunciation spelling).

    O tempora, o mores …

    (Also – in before “It’s over nine thousand”.)

  22. Munin said,

    February 3, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Maybe it was a LOLcat-scan?

    Im in ur brane, emitn ur gamaraze.

  23. cedgray said,

    February 3, 2008 at 11:23 am

    @ posts 1 and 2

    EEG phenomena are more properly referred to as ‘waves’ (e.g. alpha, beta and gamma waves) and not ‘rays’ as the article reports.

    Waves are perceived patterns of electrical activity, whereas rays are electromagnetic radiation. Very different beasts.

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electroencephalography

  24. Robert Carnegie said,

    February 4, 2008 at 12:50 am

    I can’t remember unfortunately whether drinking really cold water is supposed to cause cancer or heart attack, according to the rumour going around, but anyway it doesn’t of course. If it gives you hiccups, sip. On the other hand, on a cold morning I warm up my grape juice from the fridge by giving it a quick turn in the microwave.

    Hummer drivers will kill at least twice as many cyclists before you take into account engine noise as a warning factor: as a cyclist, should I fear electric cars? But I don’t count on hearing, I have a somewhat convex rear view mirror on the bike. (A flat one shakes too much.) And the Hummer death factor is based on their double mileage compared to the pious Prius owners – four times the mileage of a Prius, but what matters is the miles driven in the time, during which the Prius owner uses up two cars. Or not, since I’m not qualified to tell but it -sounds- like a whole great load of rubbish just as you say.

  25. Plebian said,

    February 4, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Is Gammarase one of the new holistic energising enzymes being flogged by that dead horse McKeith?

  26. birkesmuir said,

    February 4, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Shame on you resorting to emotion and anecdote. What exactly does the term ‘cyclist killing’ add to the Jeep v Prius green credential debate? Does the dying cyclist take comfort from being run down by a ‘green’ vehicle? The lack of engine noise of electric vehicles is a valid safety concern, particularly for the blind. You might want to check this link: www.nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm05/bm0506/bm050605.htm
    As for ‘and buying a 4×4 is not suddenly going to turn you overnight into a chubby, middle-class parent driving your children 400 yards to school.’- possibly not! but where are the supporting ‘school run’ data.

  27. emilypk said,

    February 4, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Gamma waves are themselves something of a construction generally suggesting reduced gross activity rather than any specific type of activity. Without looking at the paper in any depth it seems unsurprising that when someone is not thinking of something, their brain is kess active overall then when they *are* thinking of something?

  28. Bicycle Pete said,

    February 4, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Re 2nd Feb column (Cannabis casualties, hybrid cars, and cubic litres) thought you might be interested in the calculations below from the person who was listed as the Science, Education and Environment Spokesman for the Association of British Drivers.

    Bicycling Climate Change Threat
    Posted Sun, 2000-03-26 20:38

    Originally published in issue 47 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Mar 2000.

    Page:21

    Subjects:emissions CO2 greenhouse gases bicycle cycling

    Locations:UK

    Sources:Abrams

    The supposed dangers of manmade global warming from excess carbon dioxide (CO2) generation is often used as an argument for junking new road construction projects and otherwise discouraging car use. But in
    Europe someone has actually done the calculations!

    Bicycles: 4 adults cycle 5 miles to work at an average speed of 8mph, time taken 38 mins (0.63hr).Exercise breathing rate: 6 cub metres/hour, so cyclists exhale 4 x 6 x 0.63 = 15.1 cub metres air.

    Exhaled air contains 4% carbon dioxide (CO2), 1 cubic metre exhaled air contains 73.3g CO2. So the amount of CO2 exhaled by the four cyclists is 15.1 x 73.3 = 1108 g.

    Car: Four adults travel by car, travelling 5 miles at average 22mph, time taken14 mins (0.23hour). At-rest adult breathing rate is 0.4 cub
    metres/ hour. So four adults in car exhale 4 x 0.4 x 0.23 cubic metres air = 0.37 cub metres air. 0.37 cubic metres exhaled air, 4% CO2, contains 0.37 x 73.3 = 27g CO2. The car exhaust emits 215g CO2 per mile (modern, high mpg), so CO2 emitted is 5 x 215 =1075g. Total CO2 emitted by car and 4 seated adults is 1075 + 27 = 1102g. (from Bernard
    Abrams abrams@rmplc.co.uk)

    No difference! Those sweaty people on bicycles emit as much CO2 into the air as a car.

    Now we’ve always believed the best mode is neither the car, the bus, the train nor the bicycle but the walk, indeed the slow amble. The message of true environmentalists will be “Save the Planet, Amble Slowly”.

    www.tollroadsnews.com/node/2601

    Profiles

    www.abd.org.uk/

  29. Justice Seeker said,

    February 4, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    On the same topic, there is an advertisment currently running on some channels which is selling a “Kinoki” footpad which is supposed to absorb impurities from your body while you sleep. It also contains, the ad. says, “ions”. It doesn’t say what of, just “ions”. Sheesh!

  30. MrC said,

    February 4, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    @Bicycle Pete

    Those calculations re: CO2 emissions neglect to mention that the CO2 emitted by cars is in effect ‘new’ CO2, having been locked away underground for millions of years. The CO2 emitted by cyclists is merely recycled from the atmosphere through the food chain etc, and hence isn’t making a net contribution to atmospheric CO2 levels.

    Therefore the calculations,although interesting, are irrelevant.

  31. brw said,

    February 4, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    The guys in the car didn’t just share an efficient vehicle: they also held their breath for 24 minutes while they waited for their colleagues on the bikes. Thereby ensuring that they never emitted any more CO2 ever.

  32. emilypk said,

    February 4, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    except of course via decomposition….

  33. Robert Carnegie said,

    February 5, 2008 at 3:28 am

    As (as I mentioned) a cyclist, I’m theoretically as much a threat to the blind lady as the Prius is. I don’t intend to make unnecessary loud noises as I go about my business. Conversely, I think she’s putting too much faith in being able to avoid a marauding motor-car if she can hear it coming. If theyre out to get you then they’ll probably get you.

    Having said that, one car advert apparently now sounds an alarm when something pops up in front of you, such as a donkey, although these days you can’t tell if something in a car advert is real or not, which I think (and I think I’ve said) is because adverts with reckless or impossible driving were banned unless the advert was made to look obviously like a cartoon.

  34. Munin said,

    February 5, 2008 at 7:23 am

    Perhaps the ABD think cyclists eat coal for breakfast.

    Anyway, it’s good to see them promoting car sharing. Have they amalgamated with the Association of British Passengers?

  35. tonyy said,

    February 5, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    From a quick Google trawl, it looks to me like the breathing rate of 6 cubic metres per hour is conveniently exaggerated. For light to moderate exercise like riding a bike at 8 mph, the average estimate seems to be about 3.5 cu m per hr. At which rate the cyclists would produce a little over half the CO2 of the car travellers.

  36. quark said,

    February 5, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Great calculation concerning the CO2 emissions by cyclists and car passengers!
    What surprises me is that the car only travels at 22mph. I assume this is because at this speed fuel efficiency is highest. However, if the people in the car drove much faster, say 88mph, they would, according to the calculation, only have to breathe for 3.5 minutes during the 38 minutes it takes the cyclists to get to work.
    Wouldn’t this mean that, if the people in the car only went fast enough, they could almost stop breathing completely?

    On a more serious topic: It was mentioned that we obviously don’t eat coal for breakfast. However, I don’t think we can claim that our food consumption only recycles CO2 and is not making any net contribution to CO2 in the atmosphere. A lot of fossil energy goes into agriculture itself, transport of food, cooking etc.
    I’d be very interested to see some proper calculations how CO2 efficient we, as human beings are. Obviously this also depends on what we eat. I assume the fact that, if we walk, we only have to move our own body weight (and not the car as well) would make us quite fuel efficient. Do our bodies generally convert energy more efficiently into movement (instead of heat) than a car? How efficient is cycling compared to walking or running?

    Maybe there are some exercise physiologists on this board who know the answers to my questions?

  37. robmcbell said,

    February 5, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    wouldn’t cubic liters be 27 dimensional?…

  38. jodyaberdein said,

    February 6, 2008 at 1:12 am

    Re: cars vs bicycles

    I haven’t had time to browse the relevent literature fully. However it seems improbable that a biological engine moving 85kg around the place (70kg man plus 15kg bike) is going to be no more efficient than a heat engine moving 320kg (1/4 of 1 tonne care plus 70kg man) about the place.

    ‘Physics literacy, energy and
    the environment’,Art Hobson, Physics Education, March 2003, p 109

    ..is worth a read in this regard.

  39. andyl said,

    February 6, 2008 at 10:57 am

    We all have to eat, even the drivers, and when I cycled to work (now work at home) I didn’t used to eat extra – even though I went quite a bit faster than 8mph. Also someone who rides 10 miles a day is getting some of the exercise they should be taking. The driver, if doing the recommended daily amount of exercise, would be doing similar exercise somewhere else and using up similar amounts of energy.

    According to Gary Kamen’s book “Foundations Of Exercise Science” walking uses 0.75 calories per kg of body weight per km, cycling uses 0.15 calories per kg per km. However the maximum efficiency of cylcing is approx. 29% and walking slightly higher. He also states that cycling is much more efficient than a car.

    Also 15Kg is a tad on the heavy side for a bike. A Galaxy tourer is 1.5 Kg lighter than that and that is a fairly heavy bike. Also a car that weights 250 Kg? Even a Ford Fiesta 1.6 has a kerb weight of 1100Kg.

  40. Delster said,

    February 6, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    I think william had it right… anybody with the over abundance of money and under allocation of brains to buy a hummer (mercenaries and liberation fighters excluded) would probably be changing it every 2 years if not every year.

    Also as a motorcyclist well over half of the near misses i’ve had have been with 4×4’s… just look for the ones with knuckle marks in the door panels. So you can chalk up extra usage of rubber – for braking to avoid them and ambulance usage both…. plus of course new wing mirrors that they will inevitably replace even thought they don’t appear to use them which is what leads to their removal by irate bikers.

    Engine noise is a factor in accidents… which is why bikers put louder exhausts on their bikes so car drivers might hear them even if they don’t see them.

  41. memoryweaver said,

    February 7, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    re cars vs bicycles

    You’ll also need to calculate the extra CO2 used by all the cars having to slow down, wait, then accelerate past the 4 bikes, over 38 minutes….

  42. jodyaberdein said,

    February 7, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    Re 39, 41:

    The intention was neither precision nor fastidious calculation, infact quite the opposite.

    I deliberately chose ball park figures: specifically an over-heavy bicycle and quarter weight car (assuming full occupancy and per capita for comparison), as these should bias any estimate in favour of the opponent.

    Thus regarding acceleration etc, you no longer need bother calculate it to get a rough idea once you realise you have a less efficienct engine moving much more weight around to achieve the same end.

    The point is that a little scientific literacy goes a long way in terms of b**lshit filtering.

  43. cwadowney said,

    January 8, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    Reverting back to the gamma-wave EEG – don’t we need to conduct some controlled study of rhyming and near-rhyming malapropism rates as a function of journalists’ time-pressure, in printed words required per working week? To whom can I apply for a grant for this research? :-) Initially I suspected that this Metro story was about some radio-glucose study using tomography, not EEGs. I used to be a lowly kind of ionizing radiation metrologist, and had never heard of brains’ having gamma waves.

    As for the fictional effects of gamma-ray photons,
    middle-aged readers may recall that the recent Spiderman movies updated the neo-techno-phobia: a genetically modified spider was the culprit, not a radioactive one as of old. I recall that according to a National Radiological Protection Board booklet in the 1980s, if memory serves well, I could have stood next to my lead-lined (7 +/- 5 mm thick?) safe in my radioactivity-metrology lab all morning and got a lower dose of ionizing radiation than by flying to Spain at high altitude? Frightening people is so easy! Is there any way to shame the commercial popular culture merchants into trying something more difficult, like calming readers down? Oh, who am I kidding? I may have to try writing “mundane SF” myself.

  44. cwadowney said,

    January 8, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Reverting back to the gamma-wave EEG – don’t we need to conduct some controlled study of rhyming and near-rhyming malapropism rates as a function of journalists’ time-pressure, in printed words required per working week? To whom can I apply for a grant for this research? :-) Initially I suspected that this Metro story was about some radio-glucose study using tomography, not EEGs. I used to be a lowly kind of ionizing radiation metrologist, and had never heard of brains’ having gamma waves.

    As for the fictional effects of gamma-ray photons,
    middle-aged readers may recall that the recent Spiderman movies updated the neo-techno-phobia: a genetically modified spider was the culprit, not a radioactive one as of old. I recall that according to a National Radiological Protection Board booklet in the 1980s, if memory serves well, I could have stood next to my lead-lined (10 +/- 5 mm thick?) safe in my radioactivity-metrology lab all morning and got a lower dose of ionizing radiation than by flying to Spain at high altitude. Frightening people is so easy! Is there any way to shame the commercial popular culture merchants into trying something more difficult, like calming readers down? Oh, who am I kidding? I may have to try writing “mundane SF” myself.

  45. cwadowney said,

    January 8, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Please delete my first submission, marked comment #45, if pos’bl. Thank you very much.

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