John Edward: Skeptics take to the streets

•August 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

One of the most prominent talk-to-the-dead psychic media, John Edward, recently performed a ‘group reading’ here in Vancouver.  Tickets to this 2 hour, 300 seat performance cost $175 plus service fees ($52,500 total, for those keeping track) . Not exactly a Sunday matinee.

John Edward is best known as the host of Crossing Over, a television show where he supposedly communicates with the dead relatives of audience members, and imparts banal and generic messages from the other side. This is pretty much what a live ‘group reading’ looks like as well. The techniques that allow someone to appear to deliver extremely personal,  startlingly accurate, and seemingly unknowable messages to another are well understood. Together, they are known as Cold Reading, and are employed to great effect by mentalists, mind readers, psychics, and astrologers. When presented as genuine and marketed to grieving relatives of the recently dead, cold reading is a profoundly immoral practice, prompting Penn Jillette to say, ”Because my mom and dad died a couple of years ago, and knowing how overwhelming that grief can be … it just seems almost inhuman to exploit that grief … and make money off of it.”‘

You can read a specific analysis of John Edward here.

The members of the Centre for Inquiry, Vancouver’s premier skeptical group, took it upon ourselves to respond to John Edward’s performance by handing out informative flyers (PDF) to attendees on their way in, and to explain the methods of cold reading to anyone interested in a discussion.  A good, thorough report of how this went can be found at the Crommunist Manifesto. Briefly, we went early, but not quite early enough. Many attendees had already registered two hours before the start of the performance and were lined up inside the conference centre. We considered handing our flyers to those waiting in line, but decided against it, as it would be inappropriate to approach a captive audience, and there was a general uncomfortable feeling about the whole thing. We stood outside and offered our material to those just arriving, most of whom took it, some of whom kindly spoke to us, and one of whom got mad and called security. That wasn’t a big deal, we just had to move a few feet further from the entrance. All told, we handed out roughly 100 flyers, and felt we put in a good day’s skeptical work. We plan to continue and expand such efforts in the future (next up: James Van Praagh), hopefully getting some press attention.

I had a short conversation with an Edward fan that I would like to talk about. I’ve transcribed the entire conversation below, to the best of my memory. I had a number of brief exchanges with others that all began more or less the same, but ended just before the ‘aspersions’ line.

Me: Excuse me, are you going to see John Edward today?
Her: Yes, I am.
Me: Would you like a flyer?
Her: Sure, what’s in it?
Me: Just some information to think about while you’re watching the show.
Her: What kind of information?
Me: It talks about some of the possible techniques John Edward might be using, rather than the methods he claims to use.
Her: Do you work for John Edward?
Me: No, I’m with an independent skeptical group.
Her: …Are you casting aspersions?
Me: Not exactly. I’m skeptical of the claims he makes about what he’s able to do. There are plenty of performers who can create similar effects who don’t claim to have the powers that John does, and I think it’s likely that he’s using those same techniques.
Her: So do you think these powers don’t exist at all, or they do and John just isn’t the right one?
Me: I haven’t seen any good evidence to suggest that they exist at all.
Her: Have you heard of the Harvard study on John Edward?
Me: No, I haven’t, but I would be interested in the details.
Her: They did a study on John Edward at Harvard and found out he has different brain waves, so he has some sort of gift.
Me: And are brain waves involved in speaking to the dead?
Her: Well I don’t know about that. All I know is I have a question I want answered today, and if I get my answer I’ll let you know.
Me: Okay. Good luck and enjoy the show.

When I got home I had a look for the study she mentioned. I found no reference to a Harvard study, but I did locate a study performed by Harvard educated Dr. Gary Schwartz, PhD. Dr. Schwartz is the director of the VERITAS Research program, which endeavours “to test the hypothesis that the consciousness (or personality or identity) of a person survives physical death.” Already I get the feeling that this VERITAS is a bit InFlatus… Sorry.

Schwartz is certainly a highly qualified scientist, but an analysis of his research methodology reveals some problems. In essence, the protocol for psychic tests performed by VERITAS is as follows: They select an individual volunteer to receive a psychic reading, and identify a specific target (i.e. deceased acquaintance) that the volunteer wants to contact. They then provide the psychic with relevant personal details of the volunteer and their target while ensuring no contact or specific identification can be made between the two (living) parties. The psychic records a reading which is then sent back to the recipient, again with no direct contact. If the recipient is able to interpret details in the reading that they feel are relevant to either him/herself, or to the deceased, and which were not initially given to the psychic, the reading is deemed a success and the psychic verified as genuine by VERITAS. I have, of course, left out details in the above, but as a general overview I believe it to be accurate.

Dr. Schwartz seems to have gone to sincere efforts to eliminate the possible use of many common cold reading techniques. The psychic is not able to modify their reading based on verbal or non-verbal cues from the volunteer, and there is no chance of a ‘hot reading’ where research is done by the psychic prior to any reading taking place. However, these are only part of what makes cold reading such a convincing set of techniques. The majority of the perceived effect takes place entirely within the subject, in the form of subjective validation. If there are no clearly defined criteria for the accuracy of details given in the reading, then it is purely up to the subjects to fit the often vague reading to some part of their expansive set of personality traits, memories, and relationships. If they can find any way to justify the reading in the context of their own lives, or the lives of their desired targets, then they are very likely to count the reading as a hit. This is known as a the Forer effect and is well documented in practices such as astrology, where the relationship between reader and subject is similar to Schwartz’s experiments.

Does this disprove the existence of psychic powers of the type claimed by John Edward? No, it does not. But with no attempt to measure or account for the Forer effect in his studies, Dr. Schwartz is in no position to conclude that there is any positive evidence for such powers. Until all possible natural phenomena can be controlled for and eliminated as explanations for perceived psychic effects, it is unreasonable to appeal to supernatural explanations which, if true, would require a complete restructuring of our broader understanding of the universe.

I don’t know whether the woman I spoke to ended up reading our flyer, or if her question was answered to her satisfaction. I don’t even know if the study she cited was the one performed by Dr. Schwartz; there was no mention of brain waves that I could find. I feel as though I’ve made good on my end of the discussion by looking into her arguments with as open a mind as I can muster on the topic. Perhaps somebody will find it useful!

Stay tuned for the next instalment of ‘Skeptics Take to the Street’, with James Van Praaaagh…

Bullshit Map or (IF YOU HAVE THE BALLS)

•March 24, 2010 • 60 Comments

A while ago I wanted to get a general idea of how the bullshit in Vancouver was distributed. So I created a simple little Google Map from the results of a few quick searches for nonsense alternative medicine. I called it ‘Bullshit’ and sent the link to a small group of friends who I thought might enjoy it. I basically left it at that and forgot about it.

Today, just over an hour ago, I got a message on Facebook from someone who found his business on my Bullshit map and was, understandably, displeased. He must have followed the link to my Google account, which is linked to my Facebook profile, where he sent me this:

Benjamin Newman 24 March at 15:06

I’m unsure why my business (pillars-of-health) is on your google map entitled “bullshit”… but I would like to kindly ask you to remove me. There are Federal defamation laws around doing things like this.

I have not met you, nor have you ever done business with me and so I am curious as to why I would end up on such a list/map.

Please remove me and remove the map or there may be further action taken in this case from my lawyer.

Thank you.
Ben

So I sent him a response:

Jesse Brydle 24 March at 16:23

Hi Ben,

I never sought your business out specifically. I constructed that map for personal use only and have never distributed it beyond a circle of close friends. It was created with a few simple Google searches for business in the Vancouver area promoting alternative health practices which I believe to be largely ineffective and/or fraudulent. I’ve had a quick look at your site, and I suspect Reiki was the reason for the match. I’d happily remove your business from my “map of bullshit” if you would do one of the following: stop offering services or advice based on Reiki, or send me a link to scientific evidence for the efficacy of Reiki. By ‘scientific’ I don’t mean testimonials, or a solid assurance that you know it works, or some excuse about how long it’s been around. I mean a properly controlled and blinded study from a peer reviewed journal. In the meantime, I’m happy to compromise. I’ve added a comment on the map clarifying what I mean by ‘bullshit’ and reassuring readers that my assessments aren’t meant to be taken as factual statements, merely opinions which have been overwhelmingly supported by the best evidence.

As I said, I had a quick read through your site, and I saw some pretty poor information there. The explanation of Reiki begins by stating that “energy is simply a frequency.” This is flat-out wrong, and frankly makes no sense. You can find the proper definition of energy in many places, including Wikipedia. You talk about light and sound being “frequencies.” Well, that’s part of it. The frequency isn’t the energy, it’s merely the frequency (colour for light, pitch for sound). To get the energy of a wave, you also need to know the amplitude and the speed. But waves aren’t the only form that energy comes in – there’s energy in chemical bonds, a compressed spring, a hot gas with molecules zipping around, etc.

You also offer a misguided explanation of Quantum Physics. You’re sort of right on the whole “small things get fuzzy” part, but those kinds of effects only apply at sizes smaller than the atom, which means it is not “the same for solids, liquids and gases” at all. Quantum Mechanics is a highly mathematical science that can’t be properly understood without an understanding of the underlying equations. It is certainly not an excuse to believe that anything weird is suddenly possible, or that fuzziness on a quantum scale means there are no ‘borders’ in whatever subject you want to talk about.

You go on to talk about chakras and meridians, which 400 years of anatomical study have failed to find any evidence for in any physical sense, and are only ever explained through subjective reports, which we know from psychology are intensely fraught with all kinds of biases and fallacies. I’m afraid there’s simply no good reason to believe in any of this stuff, and charging people to treat them on the basis of poor evidence is, in my opinion, highly irresponsible and dangerous. That’s why you’ve made it to my bullshit map.

Anyway, please either revise your site, or convince me that I’m wrong, and I will happily make changes to the map. I’ll not remove the map, nor will I be threatened by censorship. I really don’t think there are any grounds for a lawsuit, as I have created the map for personal use only, I have made no specific claims, and any insinuations are merely my opinion. But by all means, speak to your lawyer. If you’re familiar with libel lawsuits in the alternative health field, you’ve probably heard of Simon Singh’s case in Britain. He’s being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for rightly calling chiropractic adjustments a “bogus” treatment and the outcome so far is that chiropractors have been told to provide proper scientific evidence for all of their claims, and remove anything from their websites that is not supported by medical science. Wouldn’t that be amazing!

Kindest regards,
Jesse

P.S. I reserve the right to publicly share this and any further correspondence as I see fit.

As I said in the response, I also wrote the description of the Bullshit map, which had previously been blank.  It was a bit of a  ‘cover my ass’ thing, but mainly I hadn’t thought that many people would find the map, so I didn’t bother to offer any explanation. Ben’s message made me realize that there may be people stumbling across the map and not knowing what they’re looking at. By explaining its purpose and providing links, I think I have greatly increased the map’s utility to combat misinformation in Vancouver. Thanks Ben!

I’ll add any further responses I get to this post. In the mean time, if anyone who agrees with me and my map wants to head over there and rate or review it, I’d much appreciate.

—EDIT—

Haha! I just had a look at the existing comments on the map:

chanel Updated Jan 1
Hello Jesse,I found you via Canpages. Why do you call your listing “bullshit”? and have so many of them!
Remove my listing from you page immediatly and present your self in person (IF YOU HAVE THE BALLS) and explain it to my face on a Sat or Sun from 11 to 5 (COWARDS HIDE BEHIND THE INTERNET), An email reply is mandatory in cases of defamation without explanation (I HAVE NEVER MET YOU), there is a federal law against defamation. Your immediate action is now mandatory in this case.
From Chanel-owner of the – Granville Island Psychic Studio since 1996 http://www.psychicstudio.ca.

Pillars of Health Updated 2 hours ago
Jesse,

I’m inclined to agree with Chanel. It is defamation….

I have never met you either, and I’m unsure what the point of having this listing is….

I would like an explanation as well, so please contact me as well and remove my business name or there may be further action taken into this matter. Especially if all of the businesses on this map are contacted to show them what you are doing.
Ben

Why are threats and censorship always the first thing these people go to? If you believe you’re right, why not just explain it to me (IF YOU HAVE THE BALLS)? They must know on some level that they’re full of shit.

I hadn’t seen chanel’s comment until today, and I never took the “immediate action” he demanded, yet I still haven’t heard from any lawyer. Bring it on dude.

Eternal Vigilance FAIL

•December 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

On Tuesday I was on the bus heading to UBC to be a guest on CiTR’s Radio Freethinker, which was a lot of fun, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

While driving down Broadway, near Cambie, the distinctive red and blue of Vancouver’s finest began flashing both behind and in front of the bus. Ghost cars. The bus stopped, and the doors opened. Two plain-clothes cops got on at the front door, and one at the back. They walked towards each other, and stopped at a guy, about 20 years old, with a back pack. They stood him up, took his bag, cuffed him, and lead him off the bus without anyone saying a word. Their efficiency was a little surprising, and actually kinda cool. They had the guy sitting on the sidewalk with his hands cuffed behind his back when the bus continued on its way.

I have a policy – a personal rule – to record the police doing their jobs whenever I am able. Whether that means using my MP3 player to record audio when I get pulled over, or snapping a quick picture with my phone when I see an officer patrolling, I feel it is both my right and responsibility to observe and document their actions. Not to say I automatically distrust any and all law enforcement officers, I think the vast majority are just great. But they are given a lot of special powers that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and they should at all times be accountable to the public they are meant to protect.

At the time of this incident, I had my MP3 player, my cell phone, and my camera on me. I didn’t take any of them out. I’d like to say it happened too quickly, or I was distracted, or even that I was afraid they would take my stuff away from me, but that’s not what happened. Watching this guy, this stranger, get arrested for I-don’t-know-what, I had a strong feeling that this asshole deserved what he was getting. In all likelihood he did; he probably took something from a store, was clearly seen getting on the bus, and had stolen merchandise in his bag. The cops certainly had no trouble at all identifying him. Still, for me to make that assumption without even making a move to record it just in case something happened is somewhat distressing. I’m disappointed in myself, and I don’t want to let the same thing happen again.

A vaguely similar thing happened last week. I was at a liquor store to buy a Christmas present for my dad (“yeah right” no, really! “sure, we believe you”) and as I was walking through the entrance, a shifty looking guy with a big bottle was heading straight towards the exit. The clerk started yelling at him, “sir? Sir! HEY YOU!!” and the dude took off running out the door. Now, I was halfway in the store with people behind me, and I was carrying bags so it would have been difficult for me to chase after the guy – but I didn’t even consider it in the moment. My initial reaction was “…not my problem.” I would have thought my first instinct would be to go after him. Again, disappointing.

I guess my new years resolution is to try to better live up to my own standards of being a responsible citizen.

My involvement with a right-wing hate group revealed!

•December 16, 2009 • 10 Comments

A little while ago Vancouver homeopath Sonya McLeod, with whom I have a bit of a history, posted an article on her blog discussing the relation between the H1N1 vaccine and miscarriages. It was an irresponsible piece citing a handful of anecdotes, ignoring anything resembling responsible research, and lacking any discussion of clinical studies, control groups, or base rates. A few skeptics jumped into the comments thread, attempting to be as diplomatic as possible, explaining Sonya’s mistakes. She put up a pathetic defence at first, but soon realized that we were somewhat (barely) organized as a group, and deleted all of our critical comments. You can read the entire exchange here at Asshole Skeptic.

Before she deleted the conversation, she posted this paranoid and delusional bit of shrill nuttery that I simply must share with the world:

It has just come to my attention that Grace is actually [removed]; “she” is a man. [removed] and Jesse are both members of a group called the “skeptics society.” The skeptics have a political agenda: they are anti-environmental and oppose all restrictions on business, especially biotechnology. They are avid supporters of Big Pharma. They are also men, and I believe that they have are addressing me and belittling this blog post in a sexist manner. Instead of listening to what me and these women have to say, they belittle our experiences and tell us that we are wrong. Well I have one thing to tell you: our experience is more real and true than any of your sexism and put-downs.
To read more about the political agenda behind the skeptics society go to: http://elephantsandmice.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/the-weird-beginnings-skeptic-confusion/

I’m almost proud of this – like I’ve earned a skeptical merit badge by being labelled a shill for “Big Pharma.” This is the kind of crap we’re dealing with in Vancouver though. Think about this: there are some people for whom Sonya McLeod is the primary healthcare provider. Think of everything you’ve ever gone to see your family doctor for, then imagine there are people who would have gone to this woman instead. And they would have done what she told them to.

Body Soul & Spirit Expo and Woo-Woo Wands

•October 27, 2009 • 2 Comments

Yesterday I attended Vancouver’s Body Soul & Spirit Expo – the largest newage and spiritual convention of the year. A few months ago I went to a little community psychic fair. I expected the expo to be like that, but much much bigger. Well, it was bigger, but frankly, not by a whole lot. A little disappointing, in that I would have liked to see more, but also somewhat encouraging that the biggest nonsense convention in the city only draws a few hundred people.

Sadly, I didn’t get any pictures or recordings, but I did have a few interesting interactions with the merchants. I think I’m going to tell my stories one at a time, to drag this out into a week’s worth of blog content. First up: the Woo-Woo Wands!

There was a booth with two items on display: a “How to Communicate with Dolphins” instructional DVD, and packaged dowsing rods, labelled “Woo-Woo Wands”. I told the woman at the booth that I’ve heard the term ‘woo-woo’ used pejoratively, and asked why she had decided to self-apply it. She said “many people call all this stuff woo-woo,” which is true, but didn’t really answer my question. I got the impression that she really didn’t take herself too seriously, which is good!

Dowsing is an ancient practice where the movement of rods, wands, or sticks held by the dowser is said to indicate either the location of some substance (commonly water or metals) or something more ethereal, such as energy, emotions, or ‘ley lines‘. I asked what these particular dowsing rods were able to detect. She told me she could use them to determine whether somebody was thinking happy or sad thoughts. I can’t imagine this skill being terribly useful, as one could just ask the person how they’re feeling, but maybe she uses it on Atlantean spirits who wouldn’t lower themselves to speak our vulgar tongue, I dunno.

She asked if I would like to see a demonstration. I said yes, and she came around the booth, holding the rods out in front of her. She stood still and waited until the rods ‘centered’ – both came to face straight ahead. It was actually pretty neat to see the ideomotor effect in action; it really did look like the rods were responding to some force. She asked me to think a negative thought, which I did (I remembered when my childhood dog died) and the rods slowly crossed. “See? That’s the negative energy.”

She ‘centered’ them again and asked me to think of a happy thought, which I did (smooching) and the rods spread apart, facing directly away from one another. She took a few steps back to show me how far my positive energy propagated. Amazingly, the rods continued to gage my personal emotions even when she moved away from me, and much closer to a whole group of people who were sharing their fears about covert government conspiracies – surely a vortex of negative emotion.

That would have been the end of the demonstration, but I asked her if she could tell me, based on what the rods did, what kind of thoughts I was thinking, without knowing beforehand. She was very open to the idea – to her credit she was honest and friendly the whole way through. At this point, Rob and Ethan from Radio Freethinker came by and asked if they could record the test, which the woman graciously agreed to. She ‘centered’ the rods and told me to go ahead. I tried to remain expressionless, and I held in my mind the image of someone being brutally killed with a machete. I wanted to be as unambiguously negative as possible. Her rods spread apart, and she said she was picking up “joyous images.” When I told her that was incorrect, she said “that’s interesting” and offered a few possible reasons – there are a lot of people around, it could have been picking up someone else’s thoughts, etc. I felt her reasons were honest though, she didn’t blame me for the false reading or anything like that.

It was not a great experiment, all in all. Plenty of uncontrolled variables, tiny sample size, and not double blinded. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first single blinded test she’s ever taken part in. It was a fun experience for me, at least. I would love to organize a more scientific trial of some local dowsers. It’s the perfect kind of claim to test: clear criteria for success and failure, easily randomized, and easily blinded.

I would love to have bought a set of Woo-Woo Wands for myself, but frankly, she was charging far too much for what amounted to little more than two bits of bent copper wire. And I never got to ask her about the dolphins…

Skeptic North launches today

•October 1, 2009 • 3 Comments

Skeptic North is a new skeptical blog with a specifically Canadian focus. It’s a group blog with many contributors, myself among them! I’m scheduled to have a post up tomorrow, but just between you and me, I still have no friggin’ idea what it’s going to be about. There’s already some good stuff up there though, check it out!

Here’s the introductory message from the editor:

Welcome! Skeptic North is the first blog to have a truly pan-Canadian scope: We’ve got a great team of Canadian skeptic authors from across the country and from a wide-range of backgrounds, both academic and professional. Come learn a bit about us!

Although our scope is not limited to Canadian issues, we will aim to be your one-stop-shop of choice for all things related to Canadian skepticism. We’re a new organization, and this blog will go through some minor changes and tweaks in the opening salvo, but bear with us as we deal with our growing pains.

I sincerely thank you for taking the time to visit this new site, and promise that our team will strive to make it worth your while to keep coming back.

Sincerely,
Steve Thoms
Editor-in-Chief.

What Free Speech Means to Me

•September 30, 2009 • 7 Comments

Today is International Blasphemy Day – an initiative headed by the Center for Inquiry to raise awareness of limitations placed on free expression in the context of insulted religious sensibilities throughout the world. Of course, this is something I support; as someone who is non-religious, I don’t wish the act of holding the beliefs I do to become a punishable crime. I also think blasphemy laws are silly in general terms. There is not one set of rules for blasphemy – the very state of being Christian is, in some cases, blasphemous to certain Muslims, for example. Suppressing dissenting opinions is a clear indication that you aren’t able to defend your own views very well, and as my friend put it, “if God is so puny that he needs us mere humans to police each other against profaning His Sacred Name, then we are the fools for being duped into worshiping him in the first place.”

The Prophet Muhammed

The Prophet Muhammed

But the concept of free speech goes much, much deeper than defending and protecting my own opinions. Free speech, or more accurately free expression, is the guarantee that you will not be forcibly restrained or punished for holding, publicly expressing, or communicating any concept, statement, or belief whatsoever. Sure, that includes beliefs which are blasphemous to any religion, and expressions of those beliefs, such as the cartoon shown to the left which incited murderous riots in Denmark and brought the debate over their blasphemy law into public focus. But, it also includes ideas and opinions which I, and any reasonable human being, would find absolutely loathsome.

The right to express the belief that those who insult Islam should be put to death must be protected. So too must the beliefs that women should be subservient to men, that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy, that childhood vaccinations cause autism, that the world would be better if homosexuals were exterminated, and that speech should be regulated and censored by governments. It is possible to oppose such beliefs in the furthest extreme while supporting with equal strength the right to hold and express them. More so, I think it is vital for the success of a free democracy to do just that.

I have heard people say that they support free speech in regards to controversial topics, where there are reasonable opinions on either side, but that when speech crosses over into the patently and demonstrably false, or when it becomes hateful, that it is then reasonable to put a stop to it. I couldn’t disagree with this more – I truly see the issue as an all or nothing case. My disagreement mainly comes from an emotional place, in that it simply feels wrong to me to restrict any sort of idea no matter what. I think what underpins those feelings is the belief that no one should have the kind of power that allows mere thoughts and words to be restricted and punished, period. I’m wearing my Thomas Paine shirt today, which contains the following quotation:

“He that would make his own liberties secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

The quotation could be interpreted as a pragmatic argument – if we allow the ruling party to restrict ideas which are distasteful to me, they might then restrict my ideas which are distasteful to them. The response to that would be to say that as long as you only restrict obviously false and hateful ideas, the precedent doesn’t apply to my ideas. That may be true, but I think Paine meant something deeper. I think he was saying that once you grant any measure of power to the majority of a population over thoughts and expressions, and more importantly the ability to define which thoughts and expressions are allowable, you have opened a way to unchecked tyranny. Not to say that tyranny is an immediate or even inevitable outcome, but without solid and uncompromising protections for even the smallest and craziest of minorities, it becomes extremely difficult to reverse the process of slowly turning each minority opinion, one by one, into a crime. At what point will each of us find ourselves in an undesirable minority?

Oh boy, OK, this post has gone in a weird libertarian direction that I didn’t intend. I was having trouble even finishing the above thought, which I will take as a sign to simply move on. The point I wanted to get across is that as we celebrate blasphemy, which most of my readers will agree is a victimless ‘crime’, we should keep in mind that the principles we’re supporting go much further than ourselves, and that the freedom to openly express offensive ideas is not one bit less important when we’re the ones who happen to be offended.

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But
it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

 
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