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Putting CO₂ to use: 10 finalists named for Carbon XPrize

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 11:35

Enlarge (credit: Argonne National Lab)

On Monday, the XPrize organization announced that it had selected 10 finalists for its NRG COSIA Carbon Competition. These finalists will be given space near a power plant and pipes that will deliver some of the plant's carbon-dioxide-rich exhaust. It's up to the competitors to turn that carbon dioxide into marketable products.

For the finalists, those products range from concrete to carbon nanotubes. To get a better overview of the technologies and the competition itself, we talked with Marcius Extavour, the XPrize's senior director of energy and resources.

Capture, no storage

The world remains committed to fossil fuels, despite our increasing knowledge of the risks they pose. These risks have raised interest in the idea of carbon capture and storage. Rather than shut down our fossil-fuel-burning hardware and all the infrastructure that feeds it, we simply remove the carbon dioxide from the plant's exhaust, placing it in either long-term storage or reacting it with rocks to lock it away indefinitely.

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Elizabeth Holmes announces brutal layoffs at Theranos following SEC settlement

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 15:25

Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes. (credit: NBC Today)

As recently as 2015, the plucky blood-testing company Theranos had about 800 employees. But on Tuesday, that number fell to about two dozen or less, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of the Silicon Valley biotech company, announced the third, brutal round of layoffs today in an all-hands meeting at the company's Newark, California office. The carnage claimed at least 80 percent of the company’s approximately 125-employee workforce that had remained until now.

According to people familiar with the matter, the move is intended to save desperately needed cash and avert—or at least delay—bankruptcy. Though the company was once valued at $9 billion, it has seen its value plummet and funds dwindle after revelations that its highly touted blood-testing technology was faulty and company leaders misled partners, regulators, customers, and investors.

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The closest exoplanet to Earth just got doused with deadly flares

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 09:42

Enlarge / An artist's impression of the view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. (credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Amid much excitement in 2016, astronomers revealed the discovery of an Earth-sized planet around Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our Sun. This exoplanet, just 4.2 light years from Earth, was close enough to its red dwarf star that water might well exist on its surface.

Alas, now we know that life probably does not live on the planet, at least not on the surface. In March 2016, astronomers using an array of telescopes known as Evryscope observed a "superflare" 10 times larger than any previous one detected from the red dwarf star. Based on these observations and those of other instruments with spectrographs, the astronomers determined that about five of these superflares occur in a given year.

In an unpublished paper that describes their use of a model for interactions between the flares and a planetary atmosphere, the astronomers suggest such extreme solar activity would reduce the ozone of an Earth-like atmosphere by 90 percent within just five years, with complete depletion occurring within a few hundred thousand years. This means that ultraviolet light observed in the recent superflare reached the surface with 100 times the intensity needed to kill even microbic life that is resistant to UV light.

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Eating world’s hottest pepper sparks brain disorder, thunderclap headaches

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 19:55

Enlarge / Mature Carolina Reaper. (credit: Magnolia677)

Extremely hot peppers don’t just blister your mouth and bum—they can also spark fiery havoc in your brain, according to a report published Monday in BMJ Case Reports.

An otherwise healthy 34-year-old man developed a blood-flow disorder in his brain and suffered several debilitating “thunderclap” headaches after entering a hot pepper eating contest, US doctors reported. The man had managed to get down a Carolina Reaper pepper, which in 2013 earned the title of the world’s hottest chili by Guinness World Records.

In 2013, the Carolina Reaper—a cross between Sweet Habanero and Naga Viper chilies—clocked in at 1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), a unit of measure for a chili’s spiciness. For comparison, jalapeños fall in the range of 2,500 and 8,000 SHUs, while ghost peppers (Bhut Jolokia) register at just over 800,000. In 2017, the Carolina Reaper took the title again, with a pepper grown in South Carolina that measured 1,641,183 SHUs. (Though there have been reports of a “Pepper X” measuring 3.18 million SHUs, it has yet to be confirmed by Guinness World Records.)

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Saudi Arabian fossil find puts finger on the story of human dispersal

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 12:42

Enlarge / palaeodeserts project, human bone, phalanx. (credit: Ian Cartwright)

Paleontologist Iyad Zalmout of the Saudi Geological Survey was walking through the Al-Wusta dig site in 2016 when he spotted a tiny bone eroding out of a layer of sediment. The 87,000-year-old fossil turned out to be a human intermediate phalanx—the middle section of your finger—from what was probably a middle finger. It's the earliest directly dated human fossil that has been found so far outside Africa or the Levant, and archaeologists say it's evidence that once humans ventured beyond Africa, they spread farther and faster than previously thought.

A green Arabia

According to uranium-series dating, the fossil is between 85.1 and 90.1 thousand years old. At that time, the Nefud Desert wasn't the 40,000-square-mile sea of sand that now stretches across the Northern Arabian Peninsula. Around 84,000 years ago, a shift in the climate brought stronger summer monsoons to Arabia. Based on evidence from layers of sediment at the site and hundreds of animal bones, Al-Wusta was the shore of a shallow lake, one of hundreds in an arid Pleistocene grassland. African antelope grazed here, and hippos wallowed in the muddy waters of the lake. And the site was home to a few dozen hunter-gatherers, according to Oxford University archaeologist Huw Groucutt, who directed the fieldwork at the site.

The people who dwelled here 87,000 years ago lived in a fairly densely populated landscape by the standards of the late Pleistocene. Groucutt and his colleagues have identified several other ancient lakes over the course of a decade of survey and excavation in the region, and many of them have their own stone tool assemblages, a sign that several hunter-gatherer bands roamed the lake-dotted landscape at around the same time. But Al-Wusta is the first site where archaeologists have found actual remains of those early settlers.

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Elon Musk shows off a new tooling for the BFR spaceship

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 09:14

"SpaceX main body tool for the BFR interplanetary spaceship." (credit: Elon Musk/Instagram)

Elon Musk has been talking about SpaceX's large BFR rocket for a few years, but so far we've seen precious little hardware. In 2016, Musk showed off a large, composite fuel tank that will contain pressurized liquid oxygen. The company has also shared limited video of the rocket's Raptor engines.

Now, as SpaceX moves forward with a facility to manufacture the rocket in Long Beach, Calif., we probably will see more hardware associated with the BFR—known as the Big Falcon Rocket in polite circles. To that end, on Sunday night, Musk shared a photo of a tooling that will be used to make carbon-fiber composites for the rocket's upper stage, the spaceship. This appears to be a mandrel, or mold, around which carbon fiber is wound for the main body of the spaceship, or BFS.

Carbon fibers, which are generally woven into a fabric, possess desirable qualities such as high tensile strength, low mass, high temperature tolerance, and low thermal expansion. Using carbon-fiber composites instead of aluminum to manufacture tanks for a rocket booster allows a manufacturer to save tons of mass, and in a rocket as large as the BFR, that will translate into many fewer tons.

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European grid dispute resolved, lost 6 minutes returned to oven clocks

Sun, 04/08/2018 - 14:30

If it's all moving too fast for you, consider upgrading to an oven or microwave that will allow you to stop time entirely. (credit: James LeVeque)

This week, Europe's electric transmission lobby announced that oven, microwave, and alarm clocks across the continent were no longer six minutes slow. How did they get back the lost time? By resolving a grid dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, and running the continental grid at a slightly higher frequency than normal.

That's because clocks that are connected to an outlet often tell time by counting the the rate of the electrical current, and on the Continental Europe Power System the clocks expect an average frequency of 50 Hz. But between mid-January 2018 and early March, a grid dispute between Serbia and Kosovo resulted in 113GWh of unmet demand from Kosovo. Since Kosovo is part of the Continental Europe Power System, the unmet demand on the 25-country system led to a system-wide decline in frequency to an average frequency of 49.996 Hz. That meant that clocks were counting down minutes too slowly, and over 3 months, connected clocks around the continent lost six minutes.

Last month, the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E) publicly admonished Serbia and Kosovo for not properly balancing their grids according to previous agreements. "This average frequency deviation, that has never happened in any similar way in the CE [Continental Europe] Power system, must cease," the group wrote. "ENTSO-E is urging European and national governments and policymakers to take swift action."

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The puzzling case of two women who lost their hair after eating bitter squash

Sat, 04/07/2018 - 09:40

Enlarge / Various gourds, which may contain a harmful poison. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

For those who hate eating their vegetables, it’s easy to imagine that they’re actually toxic plants masquerading as food. But, as Ars has reported before, many of the common vegetables, fruits, spices, and other plant matter that we shovel in do in fact contain toxins—albeit at minor, generally harmless amounts.

This includes veggies in the Cucurbitaceae family also called cucurbits or gourds (see gallery of family members below), which contain a class of poisons called cucurbitacins. The toxic steroids are among the most bitter-tasting compounds biochemists have ever come across and, in the plants, they function as a defense against herbivores. Most domesticated varieties of gourds have had high levels of cucurbitacins bred out of them. But stressful growing conditions, such as droughts or high temperatures, can cause plants to boost production. Also, accidental cross-pollination with wild, bitter varieties can up toxin levels.

Jeremy Keith

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Interior secretary: SpaceX wouldn’t be building rockets if it were regulated!

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 18:00

Enlarge / Zinke addressing the International Offshore Wind Partnering Forum in Princeton, NJ. (credit: Nate Anderson)

PRINCETON, NJ—Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has seen things in his time as a Navy SEAL—and he wants to keep them far away from your family. "I don't want your kids to ever see what I've seen," he told a dimly lit ballroom of offshore wind energy executives at a Westin Hotel in Princeton this morning.

Zinke, sounding for a moment more like a left-leaning "no wars for oil" protestor than a Republican cabinet member, argued that producing energy in America was a moral imperative. Being held hostage by foreign energy—and being led into wars driven by that energy—was immoral. Thus, the Trump administration strives for "energy dominance," with an "all of the above" approach to energy production. Zinke was here to show that, despite the rhetoric about coal and oil, the Trump administration could be a friend to renewable energy producers.

"Let's make American energy great again!" Zinke called out.

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Solar is so hot right now: Context for 2017’s 98 GW of photovoltaic panels

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 14:56

Enlarge / WUHAN, CHINA - APRIL 27: Workers from Wuhan Guangsheng Photovoltaic Company install solar panels on the roof of a building on April 27, 2017 in Wuhan, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

To say 2017 was a good year for solar panels is a bit of an understatement. According to a report from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, last year more solar capacity was installed around the world than net coal, gas, and nuclear plant capacity combined.

Solar's total came to 98 gigawatts (GW) of capacity versus 73 GW of net fossil fuel capacity added (that is, additional fossil fuel capacity adjusted for fossil fuel plant retirements). That's great for solar, but it also shows we're nowhere close to breaking our addiction to fossil fuels. The world added 67 GW of coal plant capacity in 2017, but 32 GW were retired, leaving a net 35 GW of coal capacity added. For gas-fired plants, gross additions totaled 54 GW, and 16 GW were retired, leaving a net addition of 38 GW.

The numbers come from Bloomberg New Energy Finance's database. The company partnered with the Frankfurt School and the United Nations Environmental Programme to complete the 86-page analysis of 2017's energy landscape.

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Hot-air dryers suck in nasty bathroom bacteria and shoot them at your hands

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 14:28

Researchers found these spewing bacteria and spores. (credit: Alisha Vargas)

Washing your grubby mitts is one of the all-time best ways to cut your chances of getting sick and spreading harmful germs to others. But using the hot-air dryers common in bathrooms can undo that handy hygienic work.

Hot-air dryers suck in bacteria and hardy bacterial spores loitering in the bathroom—perhaps launched into the air by whooshing toilet flushes—and fire them directly at your freshly cleaned hands, according to a study published in the April issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The authors of the study, led by researchers at the University of Connecticut, found that adding HEPA filters to the dryers can reduce germ-spewing four-fold. However, the data hints that places like infectious disease research facilities and healthcare settings may just want to ditch the dryers and turn to trusty towels.

Indeed, in the wake of the blustery study—which took place in research facility bathrooms around UConn—"paper towel dispensers have recently been added to all 36 bathrooms in basic science research areas in the UConn School of Medicine surveyed in the current study,” the authors note.

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Mysterious sunstones in medieval Viking texts could really have worked

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 13:10

Enlarge (credit: ArniEin via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Vikings first sailed to Greenland in the late 10th century, they didn’t have compasses to guide them; that technology wouldn’t reach Europe until the late 16th century. So how did they do it? A new computer simulation says an unusual method mentioned in an eight- or nine-hundred-year-old Icelandic saga would have been precise enough to get Viking ships safely to Greenland.

“The Viking legends (so-called sagas) refer to mysterious tools, sunstones, with which they could determine the position of the invisible Sun in cloudy or foggy weather,” archaeologist Gabor Horvath told Ars Technica.

In The Saga of King Olaf, the titular king—who ruled Norway from 955-1030, around the time the Vikings settled Greenland—visits a chieftain in a remote part of the country to investigate some cattle thefts. There, he spends the night in a strange rotating house and has a strange dream, which the chieftain’s sons interpret as a vision of the kings who would succeed Olaf as rulers of Norway. One part of the text describes a stone that allows the king to peer through dense clouds and snow to determine the position of the Sun:

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Satellite tracking of Antarctica expands view of glacial patchwork

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 07:45

Enlarge / Migration of glacier grounding lines between 2010 and 2016, with ocean temperatures. (credit: Hannes Konrad et al., University of Leeds)

If Antarctica and Greenland were just big ol’ ice cubes, projecting future sea-level rise would be a snap. The physics of ice melting are simple when you know the temperature. But these frozen continents are not nearly as boring as a cube of ice, so the task of working out how fast they will melt over the next century (and beyond) is herculean in scope.

Antarctic ice flows like slow putty, sliding away from the high interior of the continent and toward the sea. Some “outlet glaciers” at the edge fall apart before they hit the shoreline, but most push out into the water to produce floating ice shelves. The point where the ice lifts off the ground and begins to float is called the “grounding line,” and it’s incredibly important to a glacier’s stability.

A new study led by Hannes Konrad of the Alfred Wegener Institute greatly expands the map of Antarctica’s grounding lines, tracking areas of change and areas of stability.

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Machine-learning says Homo naledi may not have buried its dead

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge (credit: UtaUtaNapishtim via Wikimedia Commons)

Every human culture has a special way of laying its dead to rest. Some cremate the remains, some lay them beneath the open sky, and others place them in the ground. Regardless of its form, that final ritual implies an understanding of our own mortality, one of the things that seems to clearly set humans apart from other animals. Along with art and jewelry, deliberate burial is one of the few ways that we can trace the evolution of human thought using the archaeological record.

But it's hard to objectively determine what's a deliberate burial and what's an accidental collection of bones. Now, scientists have attempted to hand off the task to an impartial judge: a machine-learning algorithm. Its analysis indicates that possible signs of burial in other hominins are more likely to be the result of chance.

Grave or not?

Archaeologists are very interested in figuring out when humans started burying our dead. At the moment, the best candidates for the oldest-known burials of modern humans come from Skhul and Qafzeh Caves in Israel, where people appear to have been interred with ochre and other items around 100,000 years ago.

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500 years of Mississippi flood data shows things have gotten worse

Thu, 04/05/2018 - 13:30

Enlarge / While we've done a lot to control the flow of the Mississippi, it's not always effective. (credit: USGS)

It's hard to get a sense of the Mississippi River's scale without having seen it. It drains water from 31 of the 48 contiguous states, along with parts of Canada, and its outflow can average up to 20,000 cubic meters of water every second. When something that big floods, it can be a staggeringly destructive event, one that can impact multiple states as the surge of water makes its way downstream to the ocean.

Accordingly, humans have been attempting to limit the impact of flooding by building structures that contain the river and direct its overflows. But as floods have continued to plague the river basin, including a massive 2011 flood, people have started to question whether the structures we've built have only made matters worse. A new study reaches back 500 years to gather data on past floods and answers that question with a yes.

Creating a history

For a river like the Mississippi, floods are erratic events, which means that picking out trends requires many years of data. A decade-long lull in flooding, for example, won't tell you if you're safer or lucky. And here, the relatively recent settling of the North American interior works against us; the first hardware to measure the flow of the river wasn't installed until nearly 1900. So how do you analyze a history that doesn't exist?

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Lumber’s lure: Thanks to physics, viable biofuel may grow in the woods

Thu, 04/05/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / A tourist walks in the Redwood forest amongst tall trees in Rotorua, New Zealand. (credit: Matteo Colombo / Getty Images)

ROTORUA, New Zealand—My pitches to Ars' editors are, in contrast to my articles, short and to the point. "I'm going to New Zealand soon. They have a big forestry industry and there is a local research institute trying to turn waste wood into biofuels. I think that would make an excellent story."

In my mind, its acceptance was equally brief: "Sweet as. Enjoy your trip to biochemistry land."

Today, biofuels may conjure images of ears of corn or Priuses for US readers, but the domestic industry has been as much about politics lately as it has been about scientific innovation. While researchers and scientific organizations have looked into finding green energy sources in everything from human waste to humble algaestate and federal governments continue to tangle over how much of a priority this area should be.

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Video: Astronaut Peggy Whitson talks to Ars about what it takes to run the ISS

Thu, 04/05/2018 - 09:15

Video shot and edited by CNE. Click here for transcript.

Peggy Whitson was the first astronaut I got to meet and talk with at length, ten years ago at a party at Moody Gardens celebrating NASA’s 50th anniversary. She was cool and canny, radiating competence and cutting a different figure than her male astronaut counterparts, rocking a gown and heels as she worked the crowds. I liked her immediately.

If I’d known I was meeting a legend, I would have paid even closer attention. Whitson is one of the most accomplished astronauts in the corps, holding a large number of NASA records including the most spacewalks by a NASA astronaut (ten, tied with Michael López-Alegría) and more time in space than any other American, surpassing even Scott Kelly.

Space ace

And as it turns out, Whitson is about as skilled an astronaut as they come. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of space flight insiders over the past few years, and when conversations turn to the modern-day astronaut corps and the ISS, Whitson’s name invariably comes up—and never negatively. She’s often described as not just a model astronaut, but as a space superhero—a stunningly talented professional in orbit who powers through tasks and assignments with zero mistakes, devouring work and clearing schedules with effortless ease. She is almost universally regarded as the solution to any problem on the ISS—if something’s not working, inside or outside of the station, you can probably throw Whitson at it and it’ll be back on the nominal in no time.

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Cavitation dilemma resolved in knuckle-cracking model

Thu, 04/05/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge (credit: Jaysin Trevino / Flickr)

Picture this: a dark alley where the suave evil dude has cornered a helpless plot point. Looming behind the evil dude is someone as broad as he is tall. The generic muscle has a shaven head, missing teeth, and an in-grown T-shirt. The plot point cowers as the muscle moves in. But, before flogging the soon-to-be-dead plot point, the muscle leers and the sound of cracking knuckles echoes off the walls.

Movie clichés not withstanding, popping joints are still something of a mystery. After some experiments and a great deal of thought (and argument, probably involving knuckle cracking), scientists concluded that the popping noise was due to the collapse of cavitation bubbles in the fluid that lubricates joints. That explanation went unchallenged for some 40 years, until more sophisticated experiments showed that, after the popping noise, there were still bubbles in the joint fluid. How could the collapse of bubbles be the source of sound if the bubbles were still there? Now, a pair of scientists have has developed a mathematical model of knuckle cracking that shows how both can be true.

Sucking bubbles

Joint popping usually occurs when bones of the joint are suddenly separated by an unusual amount of fluid. As the two bone surfaces move apart, the fluid between the joints suffers a sudden pressure loss. When the pressure drops low enough, the fluid turns to a gas, creating a bubble. This is cavitation.

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Porous silk fiber traps heat, hides a rabbit from IR camera

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 16:12

Enlarge / Polar bear fur insulates even when wet. (credit: Mario Hoppmann)

Personal heating products have always scared me. The idea of getting into a bed with an electric blanket appeals about as much as a romantic bath with my toaster. So when researchers propose a shirt that you plug in to the mains, my response is: yeah, nah.

But the research is quite interesting, made even better by the inclusion of a gratuitous polar bear picture. Polar bears, according to Chris' compendium of tru facs (patent pending), are most famous for being the animal least-likely to express regret after accidentally chewing off your left foot. Equally famously, polar bears seem to be able to cope with some rather cold weather. It is this latter fact that has caught the attention of researchers who have replicated the insulating properties of polar bear fur in a weavable thread.

Polar bear fur faces some tough challenges. Being insulating is not enough: it also needs to maintain that insulation when the bear's coat is soaked through after swimming from one ice floe to another. For fair-weather animals, this swimming would be deadly, because their insulation mostly relies on the air trapped between hairs. Since air is a poor heat conductor, trapped air provides remarkably good insulation. Unfortunately, a prolonged swim will remove all the air, replacing it with water. Water is a much better heat conductor, so body heat is sucked away from a sodden animal at a deadly rate in cold conditions.

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Woman takes DNA test, learns her real dad is her mom’s doctor

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 15:53

Enlarge / I see the resemblance. (credit: Getty | John Greim)

There are many reasons to avoid the plethora of direct-to-consumer DNA tests on the market these days. Recent data suggests that many may produce alarming false positives for disease risks, while others that claim to predict things like athletic abilities and wine preferences are simply dubious. Another, perhaps less-common concern is that an at-home genetic analysis may unveil completely unexpected, deeply disturbing information that you just can’t prepare for.

That was the case for Washington state’s Kelli Rowlette (née Fowler), who took a DNA test with the popular site back in July 2017.

Rowlette was likely expecting to discover new details about her distant ancestors, but she instead learned that her DNA sample matched that of a doctor in Idaho. The analysis predicted a “parent-child” relationship. Befuddled and in disbelief, Rowlette relayed the findings to her parents, Sally Ashby and Howard Fowler. According to a lawsuit the family filed in the US District Court of Idaho, she told her parents she was disappointed that the results were so unreliable.

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