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Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Once again I have been thinking about the Namib Desert–the world’s oldest desert–which calls to me for reasons I cannot fully explain. I wrote about some of the Namib’s strange animals and plants…but one thing I did not mention was its ergs. This is because I did not know what an erg is, but today I looked it up and the concept is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. An erg is a sea of wind-blown sand. This geographic feature is not unique to the Namib Desert—or indeed to planet Earth—but they do tend to be found only in vast & mighty deserts. Such a landscape is characterized by vast dunes—mountain-like sand hills composed of immense numbers of individual sand grains.

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

Geographers have seemingly fixed certain parameters on how large a sandbed must be to count as an erg—but I will let you look these up on your own—I think the word “sea” covers the scope of ergs. We are not talking about a child’s sandbox here.

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

The word erg derives from an Arabic word “arq” which means dune landscape. The Rub al Kali Desert “the empty quarter” of Saudi Arabia is a vast erg—the world’s largest. There are a multitude of ergs throughout the Sahara (as seen on the map below) and they can also be found in central Asia, the middle of Australia, and the Atacama Desert (which I also really need to write about). Ergs are less common in North America than in Asia and Africa, but there a few notable examples mostly in the Sonoran Desert, but also including the unimaginatively named “Great Sand Dunes” in Colorado.

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The geology of ergs is quite fascinating as the dominant agent of erosion and change is wind rather than water. When wind activity shapes the surface of the Earth (or another planet), geologists describe the varying sorts of erosion, deposition, and weathering as “Aeolian processes” in homage to the ancient Greek god of the winds who crops up in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Ergs do not just feature great dunes but also strange sand sculpted rocks and dry river beds.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands, New Mexico

As noted, ergs are not a phenomena exclusive to Earth, but can be found on other planetary bodies too (if they have silica and atmospheres). Ergs have been discovered on Mars where vast erg fields ring the polar caps. The Martian winds blow the ergs into bizarre patterns and shapes (usually I would say “otherworldly”, but that seems too pedestrian a word here). Venus also has ergs (discovered by the Magellan probe) and Cassini’s radar spotted huge parallel ergs on Saturn’s great moon Titan. Indeed ergs may be the dominant surface feature of Titan.

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

I have never been to an erg. There are none in Brooklyn (yet). However I would like to see one…although I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. They do not seem like places for life, and indeed they are among the most lifeless places on all of Earth. Ergs are beautiful but also terrible and dangerous. At least they should stay free of suburban sprawl for long enough for me to visit one (and it will probably be a very long time indeed before we cover the ergs of Titan with strip malls).

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

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This is the Cameo Tiara, a delicate and lovely miniature crown of pearls and feminine cameos which is owned by…King Carl Gustaf of Sweden! However the Swedish king doesn’t wear it, but rather lends it out to women in his family when they are being married. The cameos were carved separately and gathered into a crown in the first decade of the nineteenth century when cameos were all the rage. The crown was a gift from Napoleon to Josephine (or at least it is assumed that that is how she obtained it). Since the fall of the First French Empire, the little crown passed through surprisingly few hands. Orders of Splendor, a blog dedicated to such things describes its history succinctly:

Josephine left it to her daughter Princess Eugénie, who left it to her nephew Prince Eugén. Eugen loaned it to his niece by marriage, Crown Princess Margaret, and eventually gave it to Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha when she married Prince Gustaf Adolf in 1932. Sibylla lent it to her sister-in-law, the future Queen Ingrid of Denmark, for a costume ball and ultimately left it to her son, King Carl Gustaf.

The pretty crown seems ideally suited to weddings because of the central cameo—but that cameo is itself the subject of minor controversy. To me it appears to be Venus teasing her son Cupid by holding some cherished object just out of his reach (archery equipment maybe…or a girdle or even a crown). Others. However, see it as a Psyche and Cupid—although frankly I enjoy Psyche and Cupid art when the two are more evenly matched in age (and when Psyche is not unwisely tormenting her spouse). Maybe the question adds charm and interest to the piece.

CameoTiaraWearersWhatever the case it is a beautiful little crown. I just wish we could see what is on the other four cameos on the back! The next time a Swedish princess invites me to her wedding I will be sure to ask (in a polite and cautious manner of course, the last thing I need is to be stabbed by some rich beefy Scandinavian nobleman).

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Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

In classical mythology Anchises was a prince of Dardania who found lasting fame as the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite. One day when he was hunting in the forest, she appeared to him disguised as a Phrygian princess. They made love for two weeks straight (!) whereupon she vanished–much to the distress of the besotted prince. Nine months later she reappeared to him in her full glory as the goddess of love…with a baby, Aeneas, who was fated to survive the fall of Troy and found Rome. Here is a splendid, splendid painting of their meeting which was made by William Blake Richmond in 1889/1890 at the zenith of nineteenth century painterly craft.

In the painting, Venus is not working very hard to conceal her godhood (although, uncharacteristically, she is garbed). Flocks of doves spring up at her feet. Sparrows fly everywhere like confetti and the dead winter woods burst into crocuses as she passes. Glowing hawthorn flowers frame her beauty like a halo of stars and a pair of adult lions bound through the woods in front of her to herald her coming. Yet these peripheral details are clearly lost on the gobsmacked Anchises whose focus is squarely on the goddess. His horn hunting bow has dropped to his side (although the top limb juts out in a not-at-all symbolic manner).

This lovely painting is remarkable for the way it merges seemingly incompatible contrasts. The larger-than-life mythical characters somehow fit in with the hyper realism of the forest in early spring. Likewise the glowing white and gold of Venus’ glowing raiment is starkly juxtaposed with the dark earth tones of the mortal world—yet somehow they go together. Her lambent robes seem to form a swirling nebula. Richmond lavished such effort on the details of this picture. Look at each perfect crocus or the endearing little Phrygian hat. You should blow the painting up and look at it full size—it is an appropriate Valentine’s Day treat.

Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014.  It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important.  But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014.  Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds).  The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005.  It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit.  Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth).  It is now presumed destroyed.

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Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA.  Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth.  This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere).  Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well.  Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice.  It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.  We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet?  We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself!  That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus!  Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

The common myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a small evergreen tree from the Mediterranean which grows up to 5 meters (16 feet) tall (although it is usually smaller).  Myrtle has little white star-like flowers which turn into blue-gray glaucous berries.  The small leaves produce an essential oil with a distinctive odor.  Myrtles are elegant small plants which can be clipped into handsome topiaries for the mild weather garden.  Some of you Californians may recognize it, if you aren’t too busy surfing, or auditioning for movies, or joining cults.   Herbalists attribute various medicinal properties to the plant, but medical science has never confirmed any utility of any part of the plant as a drug.

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Myrtle is primarily worthy of mention because the Greeks and Romans loved it and regarded it as a sacred plant of love and immortality.  The plant was the signature flower of Aphriodite/Venus (though it was also apparently sacred to Demeter, albeit to a lesser degree).  Since it is symbolic of Venus, myrtle punches far above its weight in the canon of Western art.  Visitors to art museums are probably perplexed to notice the non-descript little topiary in the background of bodacious paintings of the gorgeous nude goddess (assuming they notice at all).  Venus’ other attributes are well known: swans, roses, nudity, little men with bows and arrows, nudity, shells, Cyprus, nudity, and sparrows, however the poor myrtle seems somewhat overshadowed by the charisma and charms of the love goddess.

Venus D'Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

Venus D’Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

surface_area_largeToday features a short but vivid post borrowed from the futurist/science fiction/space blog io9 (which in turn took it from XKCD). Above is a map of all the surfaces of the solar system’s planets and moons flattened out and stitched together. The map was created by Randall Munroe and it does a superb job of explaining the relative size of rocky objects in the solar system. For obvious reasons the gas giants (and the sun!) have been excluded, but so too have small rocks and dust. For fun (um, I hope), the mapmaker also included an area equivalent to all human skin–which, distressingly, seems to be about the size of Hainan.

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

This map also emphasizes my most ardent fantasy of solar system colonization: I don’t really want to set up shop on Umbiel or Ceres, but I have a long-lasting interest in colonizing Venus. Sadly most of the rest of humankind is having trouble grasping this concept (possibly because the surface of Venus is a molten hellscape featuring boiling lead, sulfuric acid rain, and crushing pressure).  Remember though, we don’t need to ever go down to the Venutian surface: we can hang around in floating bouncy castles drifting through the balmy spring at the top of the atmosphere. Imagine taking your family zeppelin out for a night on the floating town! All of the people who express such an unwholesome interest in cold resource-poor Mars should pause to reexamine its relative area on Mr. Munroe’s excellent map!

Mars, Earth, Venus

Left to right: Mars, Earth, Venus

Edmund Spenser, oil painting by an unknown artist; in the collection of Pembroke College, Cambridge, England.

Edmund Spenser, oil painting by an unknown artist; in the collection of Pembroke College, Cambridge, England.

April is poetry month! For years I have shared my home and/or my heart with various poets—so I was going to feature some colorful and enigmatic contemporary poetry. Unfortunately none of my (living) poet friends has yet come to my aid with any relevant works. It therefore looks like I am going to have to rely on one of the great canonical poets of classical English literature to celebrate the beautiful discipline of poetry.

I wanted to feature a poem which combined three aspects: 1) the poem should have classical Greco-Roman flair; 2) it should be about bees or crowns (or maybe both); and 3) it should be really suggestive (because, let’s face it, we are talking about poetry—if you are reading this, you are old enough for adult things). The poem I found is actually a series of connected short poems by the great Edmund Spenser who was born around 1552 and died in 1599. Spenser is best known for The Faerie Queen, one of the most important and beautiful epic poems in English, but the work I selected by him has no formal title. I found a scholarly note which reads “These four short poems immediately follow Spenser’s “Amoretti” and precede his “Epithalamion”. Nothing seems known of their history. Editors have usually styled them “Poem I. Poem II.” &c. but they have no titles in any of the old impressions. We so continue them.”

The lack of title or history is appropriate. The work seems self-explanatory—an allegory concerning the pain of love written in the vein of both Catullus and Chaucer.  However just as Roman and Medieval poetry had unsettling edges and disconcerting depths, so to does Spenser’s poem about Cupid and the bee.

 

Detail of "Cupid Complaining to Venus" (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526, oil on canvas)

Detail of “Cupid Complaining to Venus” (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526, oil on canvas)

IN youth before I waxed old.
The blynd boy Venus baby,
For want of cunning made me bold,
In bitter byue to grope for honny.
But when he saw me stung and cry,
He tooke his wings and away did fly.
As Diane hunted on a day,
She chaunst to come where Cupid lay,
his quiuer by his head:
One of his shafts she stole away,
And one of hers did close conuay,
into the others stead:
With that loue wounded my loues hart,
but Diane beasts with Cupids dart.

I Saw in secret to my Dame,
How little Cupid humbly came:
and sayd to her All hayle my mother.
But when he saw me laugh, for shame:
His face with bashfull blood did flame,
not knowing Venus from the other,
Then neuer blush Cupid (quoth I)
for many haue err’d in this beauty.

VPon a day as loue lay sweetly slumbring,
all in his mothers lap:
A gentle Bee with his loud trumpet murm’ring,
about him flew by hap.
Whereof when he was wakened with the noyse,
and saw the beast so small:
Whats this (quoth he) that giues so great a voyce,
that wakens men withall.
In angry wize he flyes about,
and threatens all with corage stout.

TO whom his mother closely smiling sayd,
twixt earnest and twixt game:
See thou thy selfe likewise art lyttle made,
if thou regard the same.
And yet thou suffrest neyther gods in sky,
nor men in earth to rest:
But when thou art disposed cruelly,
theyr sleepe thou doost molest.
Then eyther change thy cruelty,
or giue lyke leaue vnto the fly.

NAthlesse the cruell boy not so content,
would needs the fly pursue:
And in his hand with heedlesse hardiment,
him caught for to subdue.
But when on it he hasty hand did lay,
the Bee him stung therefore:
Now out alasse (he cryde) and welaway,
I wounded am full sore:
The fly that I so much did scorne,
hath hurt me with his little horne.

VNto his mother straight he weeping came,
and of his griefe complayned:
Who could not chose but laugh at his fond game,
though sad to see him pained.
Think now (quod she) my sonne how great the smart
of those whom thou dost wound:
Full many thou hast pricked to the hart,
that pitty neuer found:
Therefore henceforth some pitty take,
when thou doest spoyle of louers make.

SHe tooke him streight full pitiously lamenting,
and wrapt him in her smock:
She wrapt him softly, all the while repenting,
that he the fly did mock.
She drest his wound and it embaulmed wel
with salue of soueraigne might:
And then she bath’d him in a dainty well
the well of deare delight.
Who would not oft be stung as this,
to be so bath’d in Venus blis.

THe wanton boy was shortly wel recured,
of that his malady:
But he soone after fresh againe enured,
his former cruelty.
And since that time he wounded hath my selfe
with his sharpe dart of loue:
And now forgets the cruell carelesse elfe,
his mothers heast to proue.
So now I languish till he please,
my pining anguish to appease.

venussymbolThe astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender.  With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess.  Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).

venus-goddess-of-loveConsidering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women).  Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted.  Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…

-venus-b

 

Humankind is always fixating on the Moon and Mars as the most likely spots for the first space colonies, but there is another crazy possibility.  Aside from the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky.  Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, Venus is a veritable sister planet with extremely similar mass and volume.  Because of its  size and position in the solar system, a great deal of early science fiction concentrated around Venus.  Dreamers and fabulists posited that beneath its ominously uniform cloud cover was a lush tropical rainforest filled with lizard people and pulchritudinous scantily clad women (the fact that the planet’s Greco-Roman name is synonymous with the goddess of love and beauty seems to have influenced many generations of male space enthusiasts).

Maybe we should head over there and check it out…

Alas, the space age quickly dispensed with mankind’s sweaty-palmed fantasies about life on Venus.  In 1970 the Soviet space probe, Venera 7, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet (after a long series of earlier space probes were melted or crushed by atmospheric pressure).  In the 23 minute window before the probe’s instruments failed, the craft recorded hellish extremes of temperature and pressure. The temperature on Venus’ surface averages around 500 °C (932 °F), (higher than the melting point of lead) and the pressure on the ground is equal to the pressure beneath a kilometer of earth’s ocean.  The planet’s surface is a gloomy desertlike shell of slabs interspersed with weird volcanic features not found elsewhere in the solar system (which have strange names like “farra”,” novae”, and “arachnoids”). Additionally the broiling surface is scarred by huge impact craters, and intersected by immense volcanic mountains (the tallest of which looms 2 kilometers above Everest). The tops of these mountains are covered with a metallic snow made of elemental tellurium or lead sulfide (probably).

A photo of the surface of Venus from Venera 13

The atmosphere of Venus is a hellish fug of carbon dioxide which traps the sun’s energy in a self replicating greenhouse gone wrong.    Above the dense clouds of CO2, the upper atmosphere is dominated by sulfur dioxide and corrosive sulfuric acid.  Once Venus may have had water oceans and more earth-like conditions, but rampant greenhouse heating caused a feedback loop which caused the planet to become superheated billions of years ago.  Without an magnetosphere, solar winds stripped Venus of its molecular hydrogen (yikes!).

Artist’s Impression of the Surface of Venus

Thus Venus does not initially present a very appealing picture for colonization! Yet the planet’s mass is similar to Earth (and humans’ long term viability in low gravity is far from certain).  The planet is closer than Mars and windows of opportunity for travel are more frequent. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the temperature is stable between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit).  Light crafts filled with oxygen and nitrogen would float above the dense carbon dioxide.  Today’s visionaries and dreamers therefore have stopped thinking of tropical jungles and envision instead a world of Aerostats and floating cities.  Although the rotation of Venus is too slow to craft a space elevator, the flying colonists of Venus probably could build some sort of skyhook with existing or near future technology.  Such a hook could be used to lift raw materials from the surface to manufacturing facilities in the skies.  As more aerostat habitats were built, the colony would gain manufacturing strength, safety, and a greater ability to alter the barren world below (increasingly overshadowed by flying cities and hovering countries).

Imagine then a world like that of the Jetsons where the surface was unseen and not thought about (except by scientists and industrialists).  Floating forests and croplands could be assembled to mimic earth habitats and provide resources for a bourgeoning population of Venusian humans.  Skyships would cruise between the flying city states dotted jewel-like in the glowing heavens.   Over time these flying habitats could be used to alter the planetary temperature and shield the desolate lands below.  Humankind and whatever friends and stowaways came with us would finally have a second home in easy shouting distance of Earth.    How long would it be then before we took steps to take Earth life even farther into the universe?

When the Japanese space program successfully launched the solar sail IKAROS last year, Ferrebeekeeper noted that NASA had its own solar sail missions planned.  Last Friday, January 21st 2011, the United States Space Agency successfully deployed a 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit.  To quote the Satellite Spotlight website, the tiny craft, unromantically named “NanoSail-D2” was, “designed to demonstration the deployment of a compact solar sail boom system for use in deorbiting satellites and as an alternate means of propulsion to move satellites in space that doesn’t require fuel.”

Artist's Conception of NanoSail-D2--Picured Actual Size (Ha! I'm just kidding--the actual craft has a 14 foot diameter)

Although NASA’s Nano press page does not dwell on the mission’s problems, it has hardly gone off as planned.  As the name indicates, NanoSail-D2 is a tiny satellite.  Furled up in preparation for launch it was only 30 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm—about the size of a men’s size 12 shoe or a medium sour-dough loaf.  The satellite was supposed to be launched from its mother satellite, FASTSAT–a multi-experiment platform about the size of a dishwasher–on December 6th, but nothing happened.  Even though the launch door opened, the little sail remained folded up it in its launcher.   The solar sail mission was deemed a failure and NASA concentrated on the FASTSAT’s five other microsatellite experiments. Then, unexpectedly the solar sail spontaneously launched on January 19th.  It finished unfurling on the 21st and amateur ham radio enthusiasts tracked the craft’s beacon signals until its batteries wore out. You can find the satellite’s orbital path at the following link.  It should be quite visible traveling across the sky at night for another 70-120 days after which the drag of the sail will cause it to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

NanoSail-D2 was the successor to the unsuccessful NanoSail-D which fell into the Pacific Ocean (along with an Air Force satellite, a pharmaceutical satellite meant to study yeast in zero gravity, and a canister of cremated human remains) on August 3rd, 2008 when the Falcon I rocket carrying these respective payloads veered off-course.  The FASTSAT (along with the NanoSail-D2 and sundry other payloads) were launched from Kodiak on a Minotaur IV—a Peacekeeper ICBM modified for commercial and research purposes.

A Minotaur IV Rocket Launched from Vandenberg on September 25, 2010

Although I applaud NASA’s ingenuity and celebrate the successful launch of an American solar sail, I note that on December 8th, as NanoSail D2 sat malfunctioning in its launch bay, the Japanese IKAROS sail completed its primary mission when it flew by Venus at a distance of about 80,800 km (50,000 miles).  Japan is now planning a series of larger and more spectacular solar sail missions which they hope will culminate with a mission to Jupiter.

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