The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College since 1873

Author: Nerissa Brobbey

Ghosts: Paranormal or hallucinations?

I was inspired to write an article on ghosts, ghouls and phantoms after remembering a visit to Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, Scotland. I had the privilege of going to Scotland last Short Term to dig in the Shetland Islands. As part of the historical build-up to the archeological work, we spent a week in Edinburgh visiting monuments, castles and museums. Mary King’s Close was the most unique tour because after the glitz and glamour of palaces we were faced with the harsh reality of what history was genuinely like for the not-so-fortunate in society. After plague ravaged Edinburgh, the lower levels of the city were closed off to prevent any more epidemics, to isolate the infected and let them die and to keep the filth at bay. Mary King’s Close was one of the streets that is now subterranean. In one of the small apartments we visited lies a pile of toys that have been accumulated by visitors over time to end the eternal search of the spirit of a little girl for her doll who died there of the plague. Is there any truth behind these reports? How much is real and how much is hallucination?

While we were there, we had no personal encounters with anything unnatural, but the Close is described by many familiar with it as haunted. The stories of the many restless souls whose horrid lives still shock them well into death become the source of much fascination and debate. All over the world there are similar reports of people appearing and disappearing, mysterious noises, startling photographs and inexplicable re-enactments. At the White House, many residents and visitors describe Abraham Lincoln wondering the corridors. In France, Marie Antoinette is said to still linger long after being guillotined. Similarly in England, Anne Boleyn’s headless body still roams after many eyewitness accounts. These events not only encourage the publicity of various monuments but they call for so many spin-off television shows like Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters and even some episodes of Scooby-Doo. Clearly, some hauntings are fabrications designed to rake in cash from tourists and hopeful TV viewers. But what about the reports by people who stand to profit nothing from their claims?

The most obvious explanation will be innocent human perception. Some types of hallucinations (i.e. induced by inhaling any gases present) and optical illusions can trick even the most rational of people. Scientific analyses have studied how natural magnetic fields in certain areas warp human perception. Studies into infrasound (low-frequency sound) have proven to stimulate experiences related to hauntings in test subjects. Vic Tandy, a lecturer at Coventry University, has written extensively about how the resonating eyeball can trick the brain into seeing unnatural movements at the corner of one’s eye. He concluded that sound at a frequency of 19Hz can induce feelings of fright in humans. He was the first to link his discovery with ghost sightings.  Poor sleep patterns have also proven to give some people the perception of being haunted. Pareidolia is a phenomenon where the human brain has a tendency to make unknown or inanimate objects familiar. This is how we look at clouds and see unlikely shapes or look at the face of the clock and see a man with a mustache. Any sudden movement or unusual sound is automatically associated with something human and hence the perception of a haunting.

But moving beyond the scientific skepticism is there something else? As likely as the above explanations are, are there some encounters that are not hoaxes and not caused by misperception? The Law of Conservation of Energy says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. We, as living beings, who are bodies of energy, what does that say about us? Of course there is plenty debate of the extent to which this theory applies to us. This theory is clearly true for the decay of our bodies and how in our death we provide life to some members of our eco-system.  But is this true at a more spiritual level? Assuming the soul is something that exists? For thousands of years, religions all over the world have advocated for some type of life after death. Irrespective of any personal beliefs, the consistency should be something to be taken into consideration.

So are ghosts real? Maybe. Before the Law of Conservation there was the Bhagavad Gita of Hindu wisdom that romantically stated “The soul is never born and it never dies. It is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain.”

The lost myster of vampires: From classy creatures to money suckers

Vampires, werewolves, and the walking dead; all are creatures with roots in mythology and classical literature. Of all the mysterious creatures of lore, vampires have most successfully endured through the ages into the fanaticism of modern times. The legend of a dead creature that thrives off the blood of the living is one that goes back to prehistory and ancient storytelling spanning several cultures around the world, but the vampire has changed in perception and shape over the centuries. As of now, the grace and class of the original vampire is gone and is replaced by CGI action films where the very sound of a new vampire film irritates and annoys.

The legend may have begun in many ways with legitimate roots. Vampires are a primitive explanation for the bloating, bleeding, and groaning that occurs during the natural decomposition process. People in comas who were taken for dead then re-awaken may have spurred some of the tale. The symptoms of rabies that was once a large problem have some correlation to the myth; the sensitivity to light and the strong smell of garlic, the need to bite and nocturnal sleep patterns.

An entire ritual and tradition evolved around the creature with symbolic methods of protection being created and multiple tales of gore and horror searing into the minds of generations. The Ancient Greeks would place a coin on the mouth or the eyes of the dead as a fee to the boatman that carries the soul of the dead into the afterlife. No coin, no entry and the body will resurrect to torment the living. Grave goods had the same function. In my father’s tribe, the Ashanti of Ghana, they believe in the Asanbosam that live in trees (like a bat) and have teeth of iron. The Chinese, the Filipinos, and the Malaysians have very similar descriptions of blood-sucking creatures of the night.

With the rise of Christianity the well-known importance of rosaries, holy water, and garlic came into effect. This was a time when the vampire had genuinely frightening qualities like any demon. Now the vampire has an otherworldly status, a mystery.

The modern word vampire itself came into its first use in English in 1734. Then came Bram Stoker with his timeless classic Dracula published in 1897. The vampire soon becomes the face of Transylvania (where I am from) and a current touristic pleasure of the entirety of Romania. He became associated with the vampire bat and a mouth of sharp canines.  This brings a more gothic, Victorian twist to the tale where the word Dracula becomes synonymous with the creature itself. The Golden Age of Hollywood cinema highlighted Stoker’s myth in Nosferatu. Through Hollywood, the vampires were not only mysterious, graceful, and dangerous but they were given an erotic quality.

Fast forward to more recent years, and we have The Twilight Saga, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and many, many others. Suddenly the vampires have become embodiments of teenage angst, modern soaps, entangled theatricals, and pathetic romances. Now vampires have superpowers far too super for their own good; more like a caped hero with teeth. The CGI effects and excessive action have now ruined the original symbolism of the creatures and every time I see a new vampire film come out it gets boring. But there is a significant fan base for these films that rakes in billions in box-office revenue and television ratings. To feed this fan base, more and more of such media is being produced all the time to take advantage.

At least with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, the wizards and other magical creatures were written true to their original mythology and medieval perception. Even Rowling herself made no major use of vampires when she clearly could have. Maybe she herself saw where the stereotypes were going; downhill and sucking money out of Twilight crazy tweens.

The Meat Market: The glamorous world of fashion modeling

I was inspired to write this article after attending the on-campus premiere of the documentary Girl Model. The film follows the life of a small town Russian girl called Nadya, then aged 13, who wins a chance to go to Tokyo by contract to model. The film narrates the dangers, the lies, and the difficulties faced by such young girls dumped in a big city looking to start a modeling career as well as the line that blurs with prostitution.

When we think of modeling we think of Gisele Bündchen making millions for a few seconds on the runway, the glitz and glamor, the adulation, the high class connections and the physical perfection; an almost god-like state of being. Then here come shows like America’s Next Top Model and its international incarnations, The Face and even the Miss Universe pageant that allure girls all over the world.

In the world of modeling, as in acting, it is only the very few who make it that are overhyped to give the impression that anyone can be a model so long as you are thin enough. But for every Heidi Klum, Naomi and Adriana Lima there are thousands of exploited girls who never go far and end up wasting their time chasing fantasies; assuming they were lucky enough to walk away from the business with only wasted time.

Some of the hazards of modeling are obvious: the body image issues, the shallowness, the eating disorders, the overvaluation of youth that leads to a fear of aging (gerascophobia), the early sexualization of young girls and unattainable standards of beauty.

The reality of the industry is that girls get rejected so often that most careers never take off. If they are lucky to find work after rigorous casting calls and painful, shallow criticism, they are sardine-canned together in small modeling apartments starving themselves. The pay is usually very low for most. Fashion is so unpredictable and it changes so seasonally that some models eventually are weeded out with the change. “Beauty is also submitted to the taste of time, so a beautiful woman from the Belle Epoch is not exactly the perfect beauty of today, so beauty is something that changes with time,” says Karl Lagerfeld.

The hypocrisy of the industry is rather astounding. I remember watching an episode of Scouted where two aspiring models were taken to New York to be tested and judged. The very woman criticizing an otherwise beautiful girl’s eyebrows was overweight and unattractive herself. I even recall looking at the women that line up the front rows of fashion shows and thinking “They judge?” Of course some people have an eye for physical beauty even when they do not possess such traits themselves and their opinion may be very valid; that is called talent. But in a lot of cases some people take pleasure in staying in a position of power where they can jab others for qualities that they themselves lack.

As discussed in the documentary, for a lot of girls at the very bottom of the food chain who struggle and do not make it eventually translate the use of their bodies as art for money into sex for money. In the HBO film Gia, a biographical drama on the life of the “first” supermodel, Gia Carangi, even the girls that make it all the way to the top and have it all eventually deal with the fast crowd they run with by taking drugs. It was heroin that eventually destroyed Gia when she acquired AIDS in the 80s through an infected needle.

Considering how few models of color succeed it is also right to think that non-Caucasian women stand far less chance of making it. Off the top of my head I can only think of Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Imam as successful black women who made it. I do not even know any Asian or Indian models that made it as big as that. After speaking to the directors of the documentary, they made it known that even the Japanese market does not have a taste for Japanese girls; they prefer the blue eyed, blondes they bring in from Russia. Naomi’s fashion representative Carole White said once in an interview for the Daily Mail “[In Paris and Milan], they absolutely don’t want black girls. A black model has to be a real star before you can take her there. They only take a black girl when the biz is buzzing about her.”

In the end girls of all types flock for a chance to make some quick money on the meat market world of fashion. It will never stop even though many people know the reality of the business. We had just completed our very own Africana Fashion Show where Nicole Kay accepted girls of all shapes, heights and ethnicities who wanted to be a part of it. If only catwalks around the world could be more like that.

A holiday to recover from a holiday: The royal question

Anna Bolena by Nerissa Brobbey

For centuries, since the first Republics began to appear permanently around the world, there has been open debate over the usefulness of a monarchy. Initially, monarchies in older societies were useful as a precursor to democracy. If anything, societies run by powerful bloodlines were part of the evolutionary nature of power regimes.  When one person acquired wealth and land, it was only natural to keep the privilege it in the family. This was especially important in a time when individual identity was closely associated with family name and regional association. Only people of a certain status were educated enough to manage others. These families soon outlined the boundaries of countries and sent culture to far off places. Once education became more accessible, individuality was less attached to birth right and more people became rebellious against oppression, and there was a large shift towards democracy.

Today there are very few monarchies left. The United Kingdom currently has the most powerful royal house in the free world; the Windsor family. They are the subject of my critique. From the Daily Mail, the current news about “Will & Kate” is that, “The happy couple took a ‘babymoon’ break in a luxury £5 million house on Mustique.” This was followed by a “mini-break” at the Arosa resort in Switzerland for a friend’s wedding. There was a serious media backlash for the abnormally large number of holidays and retreats this young couple constantly rubbed in everyone’s face while Prince William is supposed to be working as a search and rescue pilot. From what I have read about her, Kate Middleton is a girl who has never actually worked much in her lifetime and has been full-time girlfriend or wife to William since their university years.

And for every heir to the throne there is the spare that goes wild. Prince Harry has done everything from blurting racist comments, to dressing up as a Nazi, to recently appearing nude in the tabloids after a wild night in Las Vegas. In the past 100 years since the dawn of invasive journalism, the monarchy has been more popular for the scandals, divorces, and mishaps than anything useful. Of course every royal fulfills some compulsory humanitarian work to stay in the public’s good spirits. From what I see, the reason no one has yet aggressively forced out the British aristocracy is purely because of the “love” Elizabeth II has been able to maintain with her subjects.

But how long will it last?  After the substantial diminishment of the British Empire, even Scotland is now looking to separate from the UK. How much more extravagance the people will tolerate, I don’t know. For now there are no signs of backlash or anger. The British take pride in maintaining their traditions and so do the members of other Kingdoms. Now since the few royalties remaining are rare, they are more prized and fascinating to others. European monarchs are now mostly constitutional so the “off-with-their-heads” regime is gone for the most part.

The UK seems to be functioning mostly through the work of parliament and the Prime Minister with the Queen mostly having some veto power as Head of State and Commander in Chief. Who knows what the future brings for the royal families of Europe and how or if their reigns will end. But irrespective it becomes weary to watch them flaunt such inherited wealth about with their lifestyles while those who get themselves educated and work every day can nowhere near afford such luxuries.

Why So Serious? Political Correctness Gone Wild

We live in an age where every Tom, Dick, and Harry can give their two cents on a matter via Facebook or Twitter and make it go viral. As a result, all sorts of intolerance and political correctness goes around to shape our thought to the point that I ask myself; can some people just lighten up? It’s not all that requires negative criticism and attack.

I start this article with Seth MacFarlane’s most recent controversy at the Academy Awards. With his “We saw your Boobs” song, he joked about how some actresses went topless in films and he went on to list them out. The Vulture’s Margaret Lyons soon wrote an article about how MacFarlane’s article was “dehumanizing and humiliating” and how “the biggest night in film being dedicated to alienating, excluding, and debasing women.” Yes it is true Hollywood is still a man’s world. More men than women win Oscars every year. Yes the song was immature. But it was satire. Satire is mockery. The actresses, as part of their job of choice, chose to appear nude on film and MacFarlane, in his usual manner, did nothing but state what we already know and turned it into comedy; because we did actually see them topless. This is the type of touchy-touchy, knee-jerk reaction feminism that gets bad press.

MacFarlane started the Oscars with a disclaimer to how the night was going to end and everything that followed was rehearsed comedy. If you don’t like it, then don’t watch, especially if you are not a fan of Family Guy. Not all humor is to everyone’s taste but to storm the web with anger over an event that did not even offend the women in question is too much. I understand that the shocked reactions from Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron were taped in advance and included. For those who don’t believe me, they were wearing different dresses from the red carpet and Theron was supposed to be backstage preparing for her dance. Why so serious?

Another sexism row recently was at the Daytona 500. Actor James Franco was elected as Grand Marshall of the race. All he said was “Drivers…and Danica…start your engines.” A simple shout out to a friend, the first female driver to take part in this race, set Twitter alight with anger with critics calling out sexism and a gross deviation from the usual line “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines.” “His command…can easily be interpreted as implying that Danica was not a ‘driver’ like the men who made up the rest of the field,” wrote James Nye for the Daily Mail. “I know…Franco didn’t mean it, but he definitely butchered the most famous words in #NASCAR…” tweeted blogger Chris Credendine in complaint.

Going back to the Oscars. The Quvenzhané in Quvenzhané Wallis is a very unique name. For those who do not know her, Wallis is the youngest woman to be nominated for Best Actress at the age of nine for her role as Hushpuppy in the Beasts of the Southern Wild. I have heard it pronounced many times and I still can’t pronounce it. Presenters during the Oscars resorted to calling her “Little Q” to deal with the pronunciation. ‘It is rude, unprofessional and borderline racist to not even try to pronounce her name properly.’ tweeted viewer James Francis Flynn. “This insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that ‘why aren’t you white?’ backlash.” writes Tracy Clayton for Uptown. Yes it is lazy and unprofessional for a paid presenter to not bother researching the red carpet attendees but is it really racist? Her name is part fusion of her parent’s first names and part Swahili for fairy. So it is a totally made-up name that is not pronounced as it is spelled. But, again, why so serious?

You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but some conclusions are just too far-fetched. Mainstream thinking has become so rigid that anyone outside the politically correct force field is in trouble. Besides, there are worse, more pending concerns out there to pick at that are probably not getting the attention they need.

Our Father Who Art in Heaven: The Purpose of Religion

DSCN1041I was inspired to write this article after having a conversation with friends regarding why some people are religious and others aren’t. This piece is designed to look at the purpose of religion in general from a social and anthropological point of view and is not a criticism of any individual beliefs or practices. What is religion? Why do we need religion? Why is there a sudden rise in atheism?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.” Religion is the moral standard and the method of spiritual expression of a culture. As cultures change, religion changes. Religion is a human perception of what is holy. A disagreement with the doctrine of a religion should not be considered an attack on the divinities being worshipped.

Every known society, whether present or past, has had some type of dogma that it abides by. But why do we as people feel inclined to create such a complete culture around our faith? Why couldn’t we simply pray without ceremony or just believe without even praying or even believe at all? Why is atheism on the rise? To start this analysis I would like to quote Charles I. Jones, the author of my Macroeconomics textbook. “One of the most important facts of economic growth is that sustained increases in standards of living are a remarkably recent phenomenon.” He writes, “For most of history, standards of living were extremely low, not much different from Ethiopia today…It is only in the past two or three centuries that modern economic growth emerges…”

Empirically speaking, most people throughout history lived at subsistence levels with little food, short life spans, rampant death, disease, and overall social injustice; lives that many of us cannot even begin to imagine today. So what does a woman who has lost all her children to sickness do? Or an innocent man imprisoned as a result of a failed justice system? The only way for many people to bear life is to believe in a higher power; to believe in some higher level of love unmatched by anyone on earth and that somewhere beyond here all will be well. Culture then manifests itself in this expression of faith and the various religions are born. I personally believe that irrespective of the actual teachings of a dogma, the sheer fact that someone can sacrifice and do good in the name of their faith is admirable. Here is where martyrs are created. Those who are without such tragedies may eventually find religion excessive and unnecessary.

Religion has also been known as not only an emotional comfort but also an answer to an inquisitive mind to how the world functions; why the sun rises and sets, why the seasons change. This is why in modern times we experience the standoff between religion and science when actually science is a more evolved form of religion or magic.

Even though this may be argued, religion may be the essence that tamed mankind. It may not be obvious since the social laws we experience today are faulty and open to change, but law may be the most important thing there is. Without law and order there will be chaos. The sun may not rise when it must; hearts may stop beating without reason and earth may swing off orbit unpredictably. Law is important no matter what it type it is. It is the basis on which science and mathematics are built; the indisputable something. Going back at how savage the first people must have been, something had to put them in place. If we cannot fear each other, then let us fear a higher power and law that would persuade us to conduct ourselves better.

Religion is beautiful. It is as diverse as people go and it captures wisdom and knowledge from across time in a way few other institutions have. It is an exciting study that can be looked at in different ways; historically, culturally, psychologically, anthropologically or even as it is, spiritually.

I “Dreamed a Dream” of a Better Les Miserables

les mis photoLast week a fine critique was done praising the film version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables. I had seen the film the week before and I had a more mixed impression of it. In summary, without giving anything away, Les Miserables is a story that stays true to its own title; a tale of misery, loss, injustice, and poverty.

It follows the life of prisoner Jean Valjean, whose past, in the form of Inspector Javert, comes back to haunt him as he tries to turn his life around and do good. His destiny intertwines with those of other memorable, miserable characters such as the self-sacrificing Fantine and her Cinderella-like daughter Cosette. This all takes place with an air of revolution and rising modernism in the background.

Undeniably the costume and makeup in this film capture the flavor of what 19th century France must have been like. Most people who study a certain amount of history would know that most mainstream films glamorize and clean up the atmosphere of past societies for aesthetic purposes. But here all small details that are usually overlooked in other films are accounted for; the dirty teeth, sweaty faces marred by disease and injury, the poor sanitation and general everyday hardship. The performances were truly heartfelt and raw in a way rarely seen with such long close-ups.

That being said, my first problem with the film is the singing. Yes, yes I knew I was paying for a musical at the box office but it was terribly overdone. I did not expect that every minor or major conversation would have to be belted out.

In a desperate effort to do so, a lot of the singing had no proper tune and the lack of rhyming in some places threw me off. No, it is not necessary to sing “My name is Marius…And mine is Cosette”. They do not rhyme and they are not a song. It was quite cringe-worthy, exhausting and distracting.

Musicals like the Disney cartoons and The Sound of Music balance proper conversation and melody so that when the songs actually come up they have a better impact on the audience.

Anne Hathaway’s Fantine was in many ways the most interesting part of the story, but once she died things just went downhill from there as the story dived into a prolonged cat and mouse chase between Javert and Valjean.

The highpoint of the film was Hathaway’s very raw rendition of “I dreamed a Dream.”It was a hair-raising scene of desperation from a woman who has sunk so low for the sake of her daughter. However, I would have preferred it if overall the crying had been toned down. She seems to be in tears for the full 10 minutes or so she is on screen. I understand that her condition is worth many tears but I would have preferred if they had presented Fantine as a stronger, less self-pitying character so that when she does cry, it pierces the heart.

I would not critique Valjean’s character too much since he was written by Victor Hugo and not the screenwriters of the film but he was just too good to be true; almost impossibly so when he did good deeds to people who deserved worse.

The highpoint of comedy came from the despicable Thernadiers played by Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame). I got out of my seat to get popcorn and when I came back, those young French revolutionists were still singing out their plans to overthrow the aristocracy and the actual execution of their plans was no short deal either. And no, this is not the actual French revolution of 1793; it was the schoolboy version of the same concept from a later date. Thankfully, that anticlimactic climax ended in a touching way when, after Valjean’s death, all the deceased characters stand together triumphant at their barricade singing of freedom and justice.

So overall the film was not quite as spectacular as it is hyped to be. But all films are subject to taste, whether you take Darjeeling and I, Earl Grey. Generally my problem with the film was balance, drag, and exaggeration. It could have been a much shorter piece with more striking elements to it and more developed characters. I say the characters were underdeveloped because most of them played with the standard persona stereotypes, that is, the villain, the hero, and the damsel in love.

The Misperception of Marriage

bride--Nerissa Brobbey--citation on PicasaMarriage is the official declaration of the love between a couple, an indication of settling down and a safe time to bear and raise children. As much as the romance aspect of marriage is true for many I believe there is an overall misconception about the purpose of marriage. There is a less romantic side to it as well; filled with discriminatory issues, sexual-social restrictions and duty. The concept of marriage has evolved so often that people wonder as to whether it is useful or not.

So what is marriage? Marriage by definition is a legal contract between two individuals that binds them until annulment. In the eyes of the law it clearly assigns property, inheritance, and social rights within the members of the unit. That’s all. The signing of the contract in itself does not improve or degrade the emotional bond between two people unless they want to, and it does not guarantee a lifelong union or determine happiness.

Marriage, in my opinion, only became a first-comes-love-then-comes-marriage matter in the Western world in the last century or so. Before that marriage for many people was a business deal. I marry you so we can bring together my plot of land and your livestock to build our lives around and we have children so that our hard work will not be lost. It was a deal decided by those who were not members of the couple and the pair obeyed out of duty. This culture still exists in more traditional parts of the world with arranged marriages taking up 60% of all world marriages.

Marriage is one of those social institutions that has harbored discrimination for centuries. “I don’t think marriage itself is elitist, it’s the people in the government that are elitist,” says Nesli Deniz ’12. We are fortunate to have so many of those barriers broken down today. I think marriage was, and in many cases still is, an elitist affair. There is the matter of social class and background that can prohibit a union.”

Inter-racial unions were frowned upon for far too long. I have met parents who panic at the sound of their Orthodox daughter eloping with a Roman Catholic. The most modern argument has been on gender. The laws regarding who has the right to co-sign documents with whom have changed over time. The reason behind such varieties of discrimination is associated with divine and biblical regulation. Then I ask myself: do we even have the right to be so restricting and so in awe of something so manmade? Of all the creatures of this earth, we are the only ones who observe marriage. Marriage is the result of civilization and not nature. Love is what is natural and it can be expressed without legalities.

Marriage is one of those tools that has been used to undermine and confine women. It has restricted sexual behavior and put fear into people. Modern marriage, like many other aspects of our lives, has become commercialized. The wedding industry rakes in $40 billion every year. Even people of modest means save up for years to put together the whitest and the most extravagant of occasions. It has been overhyped.

We are fortunate to live in a time when it is socially acceptable and possible to recreate the emotional and legal benefits of marriage without actually getting married. Separations can be less cumbersome and messy. As a result, we can all live lives that suit us best. Marriage is on the decline and its necessity is being debated. “People seem to me to prefer an open dating life to, at least, at the moment. Thus marriageable partners who are interested are very hard to find and keep,” says Eric Devaux ’13.

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