How high do birds fly?

Normally when flying pilots worry about birds during takeoff and landing, for the obvious reason: who can forget US Airways Flight 1549 going for a swim in the Hudson River after a run-in with Canada Geese at 2800 feet during takeoff? In a typical year the US Air Force has upwards of 5000 bird strikes, and civil aircraft hit on the order of 9,000. Most are minor and don’t result in an incident (the vast majority are found by maintenance personnel after landing), although it is almost always fatal to the bird. A dozen or so a year result in the pilot having to abort the flight and make an emergency landing. Here’s a Boeing article on bird strikes for those wanting to find out more details.

I tend to relax a bit about birds once I’m above 5000 feet or so, but birds fly much higher during migration. Recent research in Europe has shown even small birds can fly at over 20,000 feet at times. I got a bit of a reminder while in the Mississippi flyway last week. I was cruising along at 16,000 feet when I saw a bright triangular shape rapidly cross in front of and slightly below me. Contrary to what this guy might think, as it passed I realized it was a flock of birds a few hundred feet below (the human brain tends to “connect the dots” when seeing moving point sources and it looks solid when it isn’t).

No birds or airplanes were harmed taking this picture, by which time said birds were too far to see.

Despite the occasional dramatic events, aviation and flying is remarkably safe. Because accidents are so rare we tend to focus on them, and since flying is something most people don’t do that often it feels more dangerous than it is (unlike driving, which is more risky than you think, especially on Abercorn). Perception of risk is one of those things I study, and it amuses me a bit that now I’ll probably worry more about birds than I should for a while until something else pops up to change my focus. It’s human nature. But hopefully resulted in an interesting blog post 😛

Wait, it’s not Palm Sunday?! Well, it’s complicated …

For the Western Churches that trace their lineage back through the Roman Catholic Church, today (10 April 2022) is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. But for roughly 30% of the Christian World, Palm Sunday isn’t until next week (17 April). Why is a fascinating story that involves astronomy and geophysics, politics, and theology. Here’s a few notes for those who are curious …

A Roman Kalend (Calendar) stone …

At the time of Christ, the calendar in use was the Julian Calendar. Julius Caesar himself ordered it into use in 45 B.C to clean up a number of issues surrounding the old Roman calendar. His new calendar was designed with the help of Greek astronomers (who were among the best of the time) and by any measure it was a big advance, more closely matching the actual length of the time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun, which is 365.24219 days. The Julian Calendar is pretty close to that, 365.25 days. It did that by having a year that is 365 days for most years, but inserting an extra day in the month of February every four years. The problem is that over time, even that .00781 of a day adds up, so the calendar “drifts” by about one day every 128 years. They were aware of the problem but figured they could fix it later, Of course, like many problems politicians say will get fixed later, later never came, possibly due to stabby senators …

By the 1500’s that drift had added up to nearly 10 days, causing the calendar to be out of sync with the seasons and causing problems with the calculation of the date of Easter. So Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar developed. It’s not really that different from the Julian Calendar, but tweaks things by making the average length of the year 365.2425 days (only .00031 days off, or one day of drift every 3225 years). It does this by dropping the leap year sometimes:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are.
– US Naval Observatory FAQ.

In the Catholic world, the Gregorian Calendar came in to use in 1582. But while Gregory XIII was still called Pontifex Maximus, he was no Pater Patriae or Imperator like Julius … and by then the Western World was fragmented. The Roman Catholic Church had split off from the Eastern Churches in the Great Schism of 1054, and the Protestant Revolutions of the 1400’s had caused a major fracturing of Western Christianity. Most Protestant countries rejected the new “Papist” calendar even though it was technically more accurate, and more in sync with the seasons. The Orthodox Churches simply ignored it as just another Papal heresy to add to the increasingly long list 😛 . However, over time, the Protestant countries created their own, so called “Improved Calendar” that just happened to be identical to the Gregorian Calendar, so under whatever name by the 1700’s most of the western world had adopted the Gregorian Calendar. In the early 1900’s, most nominally Orthodox countries had adopted a split system: a civil calendar based on the Gregorian calendar, but the religious calendar and thus the calculation of the dates of Nativity (Christmas) and Pascha (Easter) stayed on the Julian Calendar.

So the situation today is that the Western Churches (Catholics and Protestants) use the Gregorian Calendar to calculate Easter, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian, Antiochian, the Orthodox Church in America, and so forth) use the Julian Calendar to calculate Pascha (Easter).

Today there is a 13 day difference between the Julian and Gregorian Calendars. Because Pascha/Easter are calculated based on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (on 20/21 March), that means the dates sometimes fall on the same day, but in other years can be up to a month apart! In 2016 Easter was March 23rd on the Gregorian Calendar, but Pascha was on May 1st Gregorian (April 18th Julian). This year (2022) they are only a week apart.

Nobody really disagrees with the fact the Julian Calendar has drifted, and the Gregorian Calendar is more accurate. Why haven’t the Orthodox Churches updated the calendar? Worse, why have some (like Constantinople) switched for the daily calendar but not for calculating Pascha? A key reason it remains unsolved involves the way the Churches are governed and how councils that can decide that sort of thing are convened. The Orthodox Church suffered two major disruptions in the early 1900’s, the Communist takeover of Russia (which is the largest Orthodox Church in numbers), and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and rise of the secular Turkish regime. The situation in Turkey has become even more complex, and the Orthodox Church there nearly destroyed by the increasingly oppressive Islamic forces under Erdogan. There have been some attempts at convening a council but some complex politics have gotten in the way such as the growing Schism between Istanbul (Constantinople) and Moscow, and interference in Church affairs by secular authorities. But that’s a long. complicated mess … but the bottom line is in the Orthodox world, where things move slowly anyway, the mechanisms to fix things like the calendar problem aren’t working.

So that’s a bit of history. To wrap up, here are “Leonid and Friends” doing a fantastic cover of Chicago’s classic, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” This group is amazing – the musicians are scattered across Russia and Ukraine, working together even during COVID and the ongoing conflicts. They also did a session with Arturo Sandoval doing a trumpet solo on “Street Player”. Well worth exploring …

Is Putin Rational?

A number of people online, not to mention the media, have questioned if Putin is rational, and the push-back against those who say he is has been intense. I think there is a lot of anger, propaganda, and more importantly a failure to understand how that term is used in various contexts that clouds the issue. Unfortunately a lot of people use the term “rational” to mean “agrees with or thinks like me.” Of course that’s not what it means. It may surprise you to know it doesn’t really even mean “makes good/optimal decisions.”

OK folks, back to school …

When I and other geopolitical/intelligence analysts use the term “rational”, we are mostly using it within the context of Rational Choice Theory as meaning a Rational Actor. Some of you may be familiar with the term as it is used in Economics (the basic underlying theory goes back to Adam Smith). Parallel related theories have emerged in political science and other fields such as international relations and military analysis. What follows is simplified, but hopefully introduces some background in the context of geopolitics. To be sure it is not a perfect analysis method for various human behaviors, and there are lots of variations such as bounded rationality, and folks get in to poo throwing contests over the details, but it’s a good start.

In short, a rational actor does a benefit/cost analysis of various options and selects the option that maximizes that benefit/cost ratio. However, hidden within that simple statement are a lot of factors such as the framework and values in which the calculations of “benefit” and “cost” are made, the amount and quality of information available to the actor, and so forth.

Rational Choice Theory, and the determination if someone is a Rational Actor within that theory, is extremely important. You can predict and potentially change the behavior of a rational actor by taking actions that change the factors the actor uses in their calculation. A non-rational actor is in contrast dangerous and unpredictable. Note there is no moral judgement involved here. Hitler pre circa 1942 or so was a “rational actor” (later not so much), especially if you factored in the importance of his ideology. Repugnant to be sure, but, within the context of Rational Choice Theory, rational. Likewise, Gandhi was a rational actor – yet you could not find two different individuals or moral systems.

It should be evident that a rational actor, working in a framework different from the analyst, may decide a given course of action is rational, whereas someone who has a different framework may see it as irrational (strictly speaking, if moral values are involved, distasteful or even evil are words often used in that case). Information also plays in to this. Time frame also matters; what is “rational” in the short term may be “irrational” or sub optimal in the long term, and vice versa. So “rational decisions” can easily be bad decisions, not just because of a flawed moral framework, or bad information, especially when they depend on the “rational” decisions of other actors.

So it is vital to realize that you can’t always assume other actors are working within the same framework, time frames, and with the same information that you are. IMNSHO this has been the greatest failure in US Foreign Policy over the last 30 years, be it in the Middle East or with Russia. We take actions that would result in a certain outcome by assuming that the other actors hold to our values, and we make assumptions as to their information space that are not valid.

It is far too complex to go in to detail a lot of detail here, but when you look at Putin’s actions within the framework of modern Russia and its environment, his actions thus far are “rational”. We may not like them, but they make sense to him and those around him. And this is my frustration, that we could have worked with him, within his worldview, to prevent the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. By discounting his actions as irrational, we absolve ourselves of the need to negotiate or compromise, and that makes the world a lot more dangerous place.

Reducing these kinds of things to mathematics and logic, be they hurricanes or wars, isn’t always popular. I have been criticized for being “emotionless” about this stuff, and sadly neutrality in this case is often seen as siding with Russia given the tremendous bias present in the Western information space. Anyone who knows me, and what I have been through in my life, knows that nothing could be further from the truth. As noted in a previous post, I feel all this very deeply – I’ve seen war firsthand. But what is also true is that I have learned to try to use a careful mix of logic and empathy when analyzing these situations, and not let either get out of control. That is essential in trying to figure out policies that minimize human suffering while maximizing human dignity. It is simply not possible to do that while angry, in a politically charged environment, saturated by propaganda. And anyone who thinks there is always a good outcome is delusional. Sometimes there are no good outcomes. Trying too hard to change complex, dangerous situations for the “better” can be very risky. Noble sometimes, selfish more often than we would like to think, but risky.

Sadly, especially in geopolitics, all we can hope to do is try to make things less worse, while laying the groundwork for a better tomorrow. That is increasingly impossible in our complex world and flawed systems of governance that rely on manipulation through emotional triggers rather than rational analysis guided by empathy – but that’s a different post.

Conversations at the End of the World

One of the people who are working to save the world that you’ve probably never heard of is Nate Hagens. He is involved in a number of projects designed to not only raise awareness about the dangerous traps humanity has set for itself like environment, energy, finance, geopolitics, technology, he’s actually trying to do something about it, especially through education. As part of that work, Nate has started producing podcasts featuring deep conversations with a broad spectrum of researchers. The first 3 conversations are now live:

  1. Former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, on social media, leadership and democracy;
  2. Endocrine/chemical expert Dr Shanna Swan on impact of chemicals on human (and animal) reproduction;
  3. Geologist Art Berman on the importance of (and risks to) US oil production.

These are fascinating deep dives in to each subject area. Those of you who are concerned about the trajectory Humanity is on, I highly recommend listening in. The links are at The Great Simplification with Nate Hagens (direct), or subscribe via substack at this link.

While I probably doesn’t deserve to be in such august company, Nate needed some filler so a talk with me is episode four. Nate and I started talking about risk and climate and ended up talking mostly about nuclear war since that is probably the biggest threat to climate that you’ve never heard of … and wouldn’t be good for humans either.

#Colorado Fires

The fires in Colorado are clearly visible from satellite. This overlay shows fires detected from the NOAA-20 satellite as flame icons:

click to enlarge.

The fires have jumped into several subdivisions. The early (very preliminary) economic impact estimates are over $500 Million, and the fires are still partly out of control. This is pretty unusual for this time of year, normally there would be snow covering the ground but it has been an unusually warm and dry winter so far, after a very dry summer and fall. Fortunately it looks like snow is already falling this morning, and 3 to 5 inches of accumulation is predicted over the next day or so.

#Carolina Bays

Those of you who are flying to visit family and friends this holiday season and have window seats may want to keep an eye out for an interesting geological feature along the Atlantic Coast: Carolina Bays. Although farming and other activities have destroyed a lot of them, there may be as many as 500,000 of them left with various degrees of visibility. A lot of them are quite distinctive from the air, especially in fall and winter when the vegetation differences are distinctive …

Carolina Bay near Allendale, SC (Enki Research Photo, 30 Nov 2021)

Carolina bays are normally elongated, in the southeastern US have a northwest to southeast orientation, shifting in angle as one moves north. Where these features came from was a mystery for a long time. During the 1950’s some geologists believed that they were “splatter” from an asteroid impact in Michigan. But more recent research has shown these are in fact a relic of the Wisconsonian Ice Age (the most recent one). Carolina Bays are most likely something known in geology as a thermokarst lake. These are found today in Alaska, where lakes form where the ground is frozen and thaws, with the orientation depending on the prevailing wind direction. Carolina Bays are an indication that during the period from 70 to 80 thousand years ago, and again 15 to 14 thousand years ago, the ground was frozen as far south as North Florida with strong winds sweeping across what was then a tundra like terrain.

For more on Carolina Bays, start with the Wikipedia entry as an overview. If you’re flying and want to know just what it is you’re seeing out of the window, try this really neat app from the National Science Foundation, Flyover Country. You can use it when flying if your phone is in airplane mode, and it’s handy to have for road trips as well (just not if you are driving!).

More pandemic deaths in 2020 than 2021?

So if you’ve been watching the news over the last few days you’ve seen a rash of headlines along the lines of “US COVID-19 deaths in 2021 surpass last year’s toll” (The Hill). Is that true? Let’s see what Dr. House has to say …

I feel his pain.

Even some basic common sense shows comparing year-to-date numbers for 2020 and 2021 is utterly absurd. Let’s take a look at the CDC’s excess death database, using data through the end of October (since US medical statistics reporting is a train wreck and the November data isn’t usable yet due to late reporting). COVID19 wasn’t widespread in the US last year until at least April. There were only five COVID19 excess deaths in the first five weeks of 2020. There were 120,541 in the first five weeks of 2021. So these reports comparing 2020 to 2021 are just typical modern media reporting: simplistic, context free, and melodramatic.

So what if we do a rational comparison. By the first week of April 2020 COVID-19 was widespread in the US and weekly excess deaths were over 10,000. Let’s compare the first week of April through the last week of October in each year. In that period last year (2020) we had 230,240 excess deaths attributed to COVID. 2021? “only” 207,590 – . I say “only” in the sense it’s not as high as 2020, not in the sense that it’s anywhere near a good thing or shouldn’t have been a lot lower. (and, that number may go up some due to the reporting problems, but it’s probably not far off). For reference, using a baseline of that period (April to October) of 1,730,000 deaths (the number of people we would expect to die in the US during those months), over 12% more people died so far this year who wouldn’t have were it not for COVID. Still, put it all together … lower is lower, and you can argue it’s a positive sign given the “Delta Surge” the last couple of months. However, hope doesn’t sell for some reason and there is a lingering fear among officials who certainly know better about the statistics that if the message is “diluted” with hope, people who haven’t been vaccinated will use it as yet another excuse to avoid the jab.

The “Delta Surge” starting in August seems to be waning, but if last year is a guide the winter surge got started about the end of October/Early November. Will we have a similar winter surge this year? Hard to say, but it might be that the Delta surge, combined with vaccination and the sad fact that many vulnerable people have already been lost, it will take the edge off the expected winter peak.

If we use the first week of April as a baseline, the total number of excess deaths (people killed by the SARS-COV-2 virus who wouldn’t have died otherwise) in the first full year of the pandemic, from April 2020 to the end of March 2021, was 556,179. Even if this winter season (Nov to March) is exactly as bad as last year, the total will be 5% less than the first year of the pandemic. For what it’s worth I think this winter won’t be as bad as last year, and I suspect when we look at the number for April 2021 to March 2022 they will be 10% or even 15% lower than the first year. To be clear, that’s not as big a dip as I’d hope, but given the mangled response to the pandemic by all the key players (government, industry, public), sadly not surprising.

Side note: if you’re over 30 or have an underlying vulnerability, just get the stupid shot.

Surprise! Another day of flooding for coastal GA/SC

I didn’t bother to check the updates this morning, but it looks like the high tide this morning was actually higher than yesterday, and busted in to the top 5 records at 10.45 feet (preliminary). That flooded US 80 (the road to Tybee). NWS/Charleston also got caught a bit off guard (although they did still have coastal flood advisories in effect), saying in the early morning discussion (referring to the coastal surge models) ….

However, that guidance has consistently over predicted tides for several days now. Thus we are reluctant to utilize it for this morning.

That was my thinking as well. Probably should have re-examined that plan. Here’s the tide graph from Ft. Pulaski as of 2:30pm EDT:

(The weird jog at 3am is due to the time shift)

So why? Several things – onshore winds stayed above that forecast for longer than expected, a big factor was more rain than expected (5 inches here in midtown), and the marshes just didn’t have a chance to drain out overnight (notice in the above plot how high the “low” tides are, two feet above normal). For what it’s worth, both the models and humans are saying tomorrow morning’s high tide should be at least a foot lower (~9.5 feet, which is the flood stage for this gauge, and at which Catalina Dr and Lewis Ave start to get wet on Tybee).

Bottom line:

Why #climate change isn’t the problem.

With the COP26 meetings starting today, lots of angst will be generated about the state of Earth’s climate system and human impacts. Although this post talks a lot about climate, it may surprise you that at this point I’m not really “worried” about it; like the pandemic, at this point I’m much more worried about how badly world leaders are screwing up the response. By far the greatest threat to humanity is our flawed system of governance and, in particular, the collapse of the US as a superpower. That is a much more immediate threat to the planet than the most likely climate change scenarios. So you’re still doomed, just not because of anthropogenic climate change. Here’s why …

What clouds might look like …

If you’re not familiar with my background and position on all this, you might want to start by reading a couple of previous posts. If you’re too impatient to do that, I’d gently point out that this is a very complex subject that involves politics, economics, engineering, and science, and you’re going to have to work to create an informed opinion. The climate problem isn’t an existential crisis, but it isn’t a hoax either. Be very careful of hand waving and simplistic points of view that exist in sound bites. As for my background and views …

The post in that last link discussed things from the perspective of COP25 and the US withdrawal under Trump, but Democrats often are equally problematic, and so far the Biden Administration has followed the destructive trends of prior (pre-Trump) administrations such as Obama, Bush II, and Clinton. I’ll add that the current US positions in most international organizations are (as always) more about internal US politics than the actual global problem. But that would be another long blog post.

With respect to the science, our understanding continues to improve. There is no doubt humans are altering our climate system. But the key is what is going to happen in the future; that will drive, in part, our solutions. The future scenarios used by the IPCC and echoed by decision makers and activists are weighted towards more extreme carbon production and economic activity than is possible given resource and growth limitations. That is a complex issue, but it’s not likely that most of the scenarios (“Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” or SSP’s) are even possible; they are certainly not likely for the medium to distant future (50-100 years). We know the models “run hot,” so that is another potential bias. Forming policy around extreme scenarios is always dangerous, especially when based on modeling. Some of the better performing configurations with respect to history combined with reasonable scenarios do not forecast nearly the severe outcomes that are being repeated and promoted by advocates for radical action on climate (not that they don’t forecast Bad Things, just not Horrific Things). So I’m increasingly skeptical about the more extreme outcomes.

Cloud microphysics is a vital component of climate modeling. Here at the top of the cloud, where water droplets, ice crystals, sunlight and clear sky meet are extremely important and complex small scale processes that have to be parameterized since they can’t be simulated from first principles. Small changes in these assumptions and models can cause huge swings in predicted temperatures.

This weighting towards extreme scenarios has a toxic effect on any attempts to do something about the real problem. First, it opens the door to both healthy skepticism and unhealthy dismissal of the reality of the problem as ideological. Second, it pushes potential solutions away from those that are practical and less disruptive towards more radical and harmful economically actions, which is therefore unacceptable to the majority of people and countries. But it fits in well with the current mode of human governance, where in order to get anything done, it has to be a “crisis,” and somebody (preferably the existing oligarchs) need to profit.

To be clear, we have and continue to alter the earth’s climate system, and we need to stop it. But I don’t think the climate problem is a “crisis” or “emergency” that requires (or is even amenable) to radical immediate action in and of itself – especially if those actions are themselves not sustainable or risk destabilizing societies and economies. It is intimately entangled with politics, economics, and therefore lifestyle. Solving these interrelated aspects will take long range, multidecadal, multilateral, consistent and careful action (action that should have started 20 years ago). Unfortunately, that kind of planning and action is impossible in the US political system which is incapable of looking beyond the two year election cycle in the House of Representatives. And if it is impossible in the US, it is even more impossible globally given the fact that the US is so vital to the global system of governance, and the dis-functionality of the US political system means that humanity itself is at risk, in part from climate, but more so from geopolitical instability and the threat of global war, including something we thought left in the 1960’s but is now more likely than ever, nuclear war.

In the US, “solutions” to problems often boil down to two competing narratives believed with almost religious fervor by the bases of each party, neither of which is true, and more often than not neither of which will actually solve the problem. So climate change is either Crisis or Hoax. The political objective is the next election cycle – and the “news” media is an enabler because they profit from that system, and horse race reporting with two sides yelling at each other is easier than trying to explain cloud microphysics. Social media didn’t start this, but it is making things worse. So an emotionally driven deeply split and angry electorate with mutually exclusive policy positions are the “optimal” way to win election cycles and keep ratings high. But they make it nearly impossible to govern. And policy radically swings depending on who is better able to scare the fraction of the electorate that changes sides from year to year, and is thus able to seize power. This is catastrophic since almost all of the problems we face require a consistent approach measured in years or decades, not election cycles. Even if the Biden Administration had policies that would work (TLDR: they don’t), it wouldn’t matter: the political pendulum will likely swing, and they will be scuttled, just as the Trump Administrations policies (also bad) are being scuttled.

To sum up, just like what happened last year with the pandemic, any estimates I might make as a scientist about the potential impacts of climate change will more than likely be totally swamped by the impacts of the horrible decisions and policies implemented by human leaders, based on short term thinking, lack of understanding of the complex technical issues, and their greedy and narcissistic values based on gaining and holding power.

In defense of the explorers (#Erikson, #Columbus)

October 9th was Leif Erikson Day, and October 12th is Columbus Day. In recent years it has become fashionable to denounce European explorers, Columbus in particular, with monuments being removed across the country. In my view this is a mistake, creating a false perception of history for short term political purposes, while ultimately perpetuating and aggregating the racial and ethnic divides these actions claim to be trying to heal. OK, now that I’ve angered half of my readers, let’s see if I can annoy the other half … 😛 … but please read on and consider. It’s a long post, but it’s a complex subject.

First, perhaps I’m a bit biased, but in the absence of older records it seems Leifr Eiríksson actually discovered America, rather than blunder into it looking for something else as did Columbus. Leifr heard about a new land from Bjarni Herjólfsson, who had been blown off course and seen it but not made landfall. Leifr bought Bjarni’s boat and deliberately retraced the voyage for the purpose of finding and exploiting that land, setting foot in what is now Newfoundland.

Leifr Eiríksson discovers America …

There are stories of earlier contact from Europe going back to Roman times, but if such contact existed (and it possibly did), they left little trace and no solid records. And of course there were many rich, complex, and fascinating (as well as utterly horrific) civilizations here. I do agree it’s somewhat dismissive to imply that if it was unknown to Europeans it needed to be “discovered” so it’s probably better to say Leifr was the first European to discover America, but of course it’s complicated. As far as we know, the indigenous peoples migrated here across the land bridges that existed at the end of the last ice age. There were certainly explorers among them – but we do not know their names or motivations. Indeed, there have always been “explorers” among us, going back to our early, pre-human ancestors, those who looked to the horizon and wondered what was there, and left the familiarity of their homes to find something better, or different, or just because. But as far as we know the major migrations were of the “let’s follow that herd of food” variety rather than the deliberate “let’s collect supplies, organize transportation, head out into the unknown and go find a new thing.” Again, no disrespect, but it’s not the same thing. (And, of course, this discussion is limited to the discovery of North America by Europeans – there were amazing explorers in the Pacific, the Middle East, India, and Africa throughout history).

The celebration of my ancestors like Leif is absolutely not to disparage Columbus – of course his explorations resulted in a permanent exchange between the hemispheres and radically changed the course of history. The Norsemen got here first, but their settlements were not permanent, in large part due to the rapidly worsening climate – but that’s a different post.

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