7 Films You Should See and See Again


So much—too much—of culture these days is disposable. Short attention spans are a terrible thing, yet they’re catered to by corporations and hacks who, admittedly, know how to make a buck.

The late, great Roger Ebert once marveled at how a truly bad film ever makes it to the silver screen, considering how much work, time, money, and people are necessary to complete each production. A similar bit of headshaking might be directed toward the question of what a high percentage of films costing millions of dollars—or tens of millions, or hundreds of millions—are seemingly designed to be forgotten as soon as you leave the theater.

A side-effect of this phenomenon is that people are almost being taught not to watch films carefully. If most of what you’re exposed to lacks not only depth and substance but even internal coherence, what’s the point of really paying attention? The experience will only suffer for the effort.

Part of the way out of this artistic dead end is to stop feeding on the cinematic equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup. You are what you eat, and if you keep feeding on shit, what can’t expect of your analytical byproducts? The good news is that there’s so much fab fare out there that you don’t have to dine on doodie.

Some of the fabbest fare out there you might have already seen. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it again. More often than not people revisit films for their pure entertainment value. While there’s nothing wrong with that, many of history’s cinematic high points occur at the antipodes of disposability, a vaunted realm where art cannot be fully appreciated at first glance.

With that in mind, here’s a list of seven masterpieces (in alphabetical order) you need to see more than once to have any hope of fully appreciating.

Any Wes Anderson film between Bottle Rocket and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Okay, so this isn’t one film. Sue me.)
Bottle Rocket is cute and sets us up for the gentle, quirky humor that has characterized all of Anderson’s subsequent work. But let’s be honest: everything else he’s done since then is in a different league. For example, his next film was Rushmore, a perfect piece of cinema that adapts tricks from some the late 20th century’s most exciting directors (Scorsese’s use of soundtrack and slo-mo, Jeunet et Caro’s art direction) to Anderson’s unique sense of humor and style, tied up with a beautiful metafictional bow.

You say you missed that last bit? You didn’t get that Rushmore is a Max Fisher production? That’s just one reason to see it again. And while several of his films present a framing device that informs what it is you’re actually seeing, there’s also the more straightforward fact that Anderson’s work is full of tiny, often foreshadowing details—not to mention being rife with little (and not so little) absurdities and deadpan humor that some of it is bound to get by you the first time—that if you see a Wes Anderson film only once, you’re missing a lot.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t do much for me at first. It’s hard to imagine it now, but walking out of the theater I felt a bit let down, not having found it all that funny and not appreciating it as much more than a study in style. But it stayed with me, and several months later I had the nagging feeling that if I saw it again I would love it. Finally I rented the DVD, and, as much as I remembered the story, the feeling I got watching it was completely new. Since then I tend to lock in with his films upon my initial viewing, but they’re all better the next time I see them.

That said, I didn’t especially care for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Then again, I’ve only seen it once.

Films that quilt their stories together in achronological panels are nothing new (a technique most widely popularized for Americans by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), and often a second viewing is helpful to get the sequence of events straight in one’s mind. But if such a film doesn’t offer something special, the extra viewing feels like a waste of time. Babel falls at the opposite end of that spectrum. In fact, director Alejandro González Iñárritu does such a good job dropping linking details into several sections that an attentive viewer should have little difficulty understanding the order of things the first time around. But it’s processing the thematic linkages that make a second viewing so valuable. With Babel Iñárritu has erected a powerful statement about the variety of disconnection, of how we can be crushed by the building blocks of language (verbal, nonverbal, symbolic, sexual) that we don’t know how to build into meaning.

City of God
When I first put on the DVD to City of God, the subtitles were off. Since I don’t speak Portuguese, this was a barrier to my understanding exactly what was happening. But I was so mesmerized by the visual language of the opening sequence and then the magical time swirl that takes us back to protagonist Rocket’s childhood and “the Story of the Tender Trio” that I seriously considered watching the whole thing nescient of the dialogic substance. But the story seemed like it was going to be too good for me to endure in such ignorance, so I restarted it. As soon as it ended, I re-watched the whole thing. After two weeks I forced myself to ship it back to Netflix, a bit alarmed by the obsession I had developed with watching it, often literally breaking scenes down frame by frame to figure out just how director Fernando Meirelles made such miracles. City of God is a fantastic story (stories, actually, as part of the fun is how City of God divagates to tell the tale of one boy’s attempt to come of age in developing dug-war danger of Brazil’s most famous favela), but the filmmaking raises the experience to the divine. The editing alone makes this one worth a second look.

You might be persuaded to call this a cheat, since it’s a faithful adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s most renowned play, but hold your tongue. Equus is not cinematically complex, so the reason to re-watch this is for the writing, which is powerful and nuanced both psychologically and philosophically. Most of the meaty stuff comes in the monologs of psychologist Martin Dysart (played by Richard Burton, giving the performance of his career), who meditates directly to the camera on passion, madness, and whether helping patients fit the societal bill of mental wellness doesn’t sometimes come at too great a price. Yes, you could just read the play, but in writing the screenplay Shaffer made many improvements to his original work, enough that I felt compelled to scribble into my copy of the play every change he made. You should see it. It’s pretty inked-up. And you should see Equus. Again. For almost the whole of his career Sidney Lumet’s films weren’t particularly inspired, but that Equus comes in the middle of a three-film span that includes Dog Day Afternoon and Network should give you a sense of how sometimes an artist just gets into the zone.

Lone Star
It never came together for John Sayles quite like it does in this most overlooked of masterpieces. A true ensemble piece, the main plot concerns Rio County Sheriff Sam Deeds’s (Chris Cooper) investigation into the disappearance of Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) 40 years ago, a mystery in which Sam’s father (Matthew McConaughey) plays a major part. The plot is fantastic, but the real payoff of seeing Lone Star on more than a lone occasion is to follow Sayles’s philosophical exploration of the intermingling of here and there, now and then, us and them, me and you, an exploration he reifies with extremely clever shot framing and camera movement. Lone Star is one of the subtlest acts of cinematic brilliance you can ever see. See it more than once to see what I mean.

Miller’s Crossing
Yes, on the surface it’s one of the most complex plots since Chinatown, and you’ll have a much better grasp of exactly what happens if you see it twice. But you might want to go in for even more viewings, as few films can satisfy on a shot-by-shot level like Miller’s Crossing. Undoubtedly that’s in no small part due to the fact that the Coens are that breed of filmmaker who storyboard every single shot. But that tactic alone doesn’t automatically yield a film worth re-watching. At their very best, the Coens are more than great writers and quirky humorists: they are composers, with every onscreen carefully orchestrated for tone, driving forward a musical movement. A great cinematic scene is so much more than what happens. Check out the PBS documentary series American Cinema: One Hundreds Years of Filmmaking to see a fantastic breakdown of how the Coens choreograph Leo’s Tommy-gun battle to the 78 of “Danny Boy” he’s got going on the phonograph. And really, that’s just one of the most obvious examples of how much care the Coens put into every second of screen time, every inch of screen. The shadow of footsteps under a door, the way a hat is tipped or tossed. You can’t consider this one too closely.

Red (from the “Three Colors” trilogy)
Red is very complex in its construction,” director Krzysztof Kieslowski said shortly before the completion of his final film. “I don’t know whether we’ll manage to get my idea across on the screen. [...] I’ve got everything I need to put across what I want to say, which is really quite complicated. Therefore, if the idea I’ve got in mind doesn’t come across, it meant that either film is too primitive a medium to support such a construction or that all of us put together haven’t got enough talent for it.”

It turns out that film wasn’t too primitive a medium and that Kieslowski and company had enough talent to get across his idea, but you’re going to have to put in some serious work to understand it. The question here is not so much of following the plot (which involves a fashion model’s curious friendship with a retired judge and a series of fateful coincidences that bring her ever closer to meeting a law student whose life follows along the lines of the judge’s own youth) as grokking its significance, which pivots on issues of processing one’s past and creating one’s future. Although the “Three Colors” trilogy is a trilogy only in the loosest sense, you will need to see the first two parts to fully understand the significance of Red‘s metafictional finale, but it’s worth it.


Spend significant time with these films, and you’ll come away enriched not only because of how much each of these films has to offer, but with a better understanding the craft of filmmaking. And the more feeling you have for craft, the less feeling you’ll have for crap.

Love and formic acid,

Posted in G.I.ant Tagged with: , , , , , ,

So You’re Offended by Urban Outfitters. But Will You Finally Put Your Money Where Your Indignance Is?


Urban Outfitters is a calculating, cowardly, conscienceless company. But you knew that. So the question is: why are you still giving them your money?

Let’s be frank. You should have had the good taste to shop elsewhere on fashion principle a later than a year ago, when Urban Outfitters started selling prefabricated “vintage,” pretend DIY punk-rock jackets. But it shouldn’t have come to that, considering the far more ethically dubious products they had long been putting out.

A concise video review of what I’m talking about was put together by the Washington Post. Among the highlights are a line of clothing promoting the stereotype that Irish people are drunks, a line illegally marketed as Navajo products (including a hip flask with a faux Navajo design, believe it or not), and an “Eat Less” T-shirt—modeled, of course, by an emaciated young woman who herself may or may not be healthy but whose presence clearly sends a message along the lines of, “Anorexia nervosa is cool!”

Then this month came the blood-stained Kent State sweatshirt. Never mind Urban Outfitters’ cowardly claim that the faux blood splatter is actually meant to evoke that “sun-faded vintage” look, and only later did anyone say, “Looks like blood…Kent State…oh, wait a minute.” But since when does sun-fading produce dark red spots? Obviously, the only thing the shirt is designed to evoke is the 1970 murders of four unarmed students at the hands of National Guardsmen

Well, that’s not entirely true: it’s also designed to evoke controversy. This is the “All press is good press” model. As their history has demonstrated, Urban Outfitters will market anything they think will help them make a buck, including that which is in the worst of taste, banking on the belief that feigned innocence and a quick mea culpa will minimize the damage to their reputation enough so that the net result from the flash of negative attention will be a broader customer base.

But you, the consumer, can buck Urban Outfitters’ conventional wisdom. You can stopping giving them your dollars, instead buying your clothing from one of the indie retailers in your town (which you should have been doing, anyway). Because that’s the only thing people and companies like Urban Outfitters care about: the financial bottom line. If Urban Outfitters sees a noticeable drop in their 2014 Q4 sales report, they’ll second-guess their “disgust equals dollars” strategy. 

You can also contribute on the public-relations side. You can start by un-Liking their Facebook page. (I see your Likes. You Like way too much), and you can tell Urban Outfitters you’ll never again shop there. One of the amusing side effects of their recent trivialization of murder is the response on their Facebook page. On every single post they’ve made since marketing their shitty little sweatshirt, numerous people have sounded the theme. “Would look better with blood splatters, right?” commented a visitor beneath multiple posts promoting various products. “Where’s the Holocaust vintage wallpaper?” asked another visitor under a post about Urban Outfitters’ removal wallpaper. Even a seemingly random posting about freshly picked flowers drew ire: “Remember those kids who died at Kent State? They carried freshly picked flowers too! Your blood splattered Kent State University sweatshirts are appalling. More than a few people in the marketing/design departments should be looking for new jobs. That is, ‘if’ the company has any type of soul left to it.”

The main message, though, has been the obvious one: boycott. “I am sick to my stomach after seeing the Kent State sweater,” read one comment that attracted 700 Likes within 24 hours of being posted. “Absolutely disgusted with the UO company. Planning to never shop UO or it’s other companies, Anthro & Free People.”

It’s just talk, though. Without action, it’s like a tree falling in the forest with no-one around to hear it: it doesn’t fucking matter whether it makes a sound. If Urban Outfitters’ bottom line doesn’t change for the worse, their business practices won’t change for the better. So stop shopping there, or otherwise you may find a Who ’79 Concert Tour T-shirt with red stains (I can just hear the false apology now: “Oh, that’s not supposed to be blood—it’s ketchup from a Riverfront Stadium concession stand”) coming to a store near you. And nobody needs that. Nobody.

P.S. Will you at least stop buying all your LPs there? Can’t you find a record store to support? What the fuck is wrong with you?

Love and formic acid,

Posted in G.I.ant Tagged with: , , , , , ,

How and Where to Undercut Rape Culture?

Imagine that your wife or sister was gang-raped for hours on the back of a bus. Imagine that it was not only penises that were used to administer the torture but also metal rods. Imagine that the perpetrators pulled her intestines out of her body. Imagine they tossed her from the bus and then tried to run her over. Imagine she is dead, lost to you forever.

There’s nothing imaginary about the crime. These are details from rape murder of a women the press labeled “Nirbhaya” (Sanskrit: fearless), an infamous Delhi incident in December 2012 that brought tens of thousands of Indians into the streets to protest India’s cultural normalization of violence against women and girls. 

For Mumbai-based photographer Raj Shetye, apparently normalization isn’t enough, because a recent photo shoot called “The Wrong Turn” is a series of glamour shots of an elegantly clad woman being literally manhandled against her will by several male model types, including a quasi-shirtless figure supine so as to maximize the six-pack outline of his abs.

Not surprisingly, the Nirbhaya’s parents are outraged. ”[This photo spread] has once again brought us face-to-face with the incident,” says Nirbhaya’s mother, “and [Shetye] has done it for his own publicity and to make money. He has tried to hurt the sentiments of parents and has mocked a girl’s struggle.”

Shetye claims his shoot was “in no way meant to glamorize the act, which was very bad. It’s just a way of throwing light on it. […] And the aim is to create art that will gather some reaction in society. […] The message I would like to give is that it doesn’t matter who the girl is. It doesn’t depend on which class she belonged in—it can happen to anyone.”

If Shetye is confused why people are labeling him despicable rather than nominating him to be the photographic consciousness of his generation, the simple way to get through to him might be to ask whether he would have done the shoot had Nirbhaya been his sister. 

In recent months the term “rape culture” has been bandied about somewhat irresponsibly, overextended to include all societies and labeling all men as complicit by virtue of their gender. But indiscriminate usage of the term shouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking that there isn’t a real point here.

The fact that rape culture, the normalization of sexual violence against women, isn’t perpetuated only by men would be shocking if we didn’t keep in mind the reason that Shetye did a photo shoot he most certainly wouldn’t have done were Nirbhaya his wife: many people don’t care much about the horrors of the world unless they strike very close to home. So it is that at least one woman participated in the photo shoot. She wasn’t raped on a bus. Her mother didn’t lose her intestines and her life to metal rods. 

But normalization is such a powerful force that it can lay a groundwork allowing for even intrafamilial horrors. Last year reportedly 869 women in Pakistan alone were murdered by family members in “honor killings,” usually for “crimes” no worse than refusing an arranged marriage in lieu of marrying someone of her choosing.

Then there’s the practice of female genital mutilation (a.k.a. “female circumcision”). In subcultures where the practice continues, mothers willingly deliver up their daughters for the procedure, which is typically performed by a woman. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 125 million living victims of the practice, which occurs in 29 countries.

While the United States may not be a hotbed of “honor killings” and female genital mutilation, rape culture is here, too. Many of its manifestations are relatively (i.e., compared with places like Pakistan and Africa) subtle. But even if some claims regarding the frequency of rape in the United States are inflated—such as a claim that 1 in 4 female college students has been raped, which Steven Pinker cites as an example of “junk statistics”—it is universally acknowledged that rape continues to be (in Pinker’s words) “notoriously underreported.” That’s not because women like being raped: it’s a combination of the persisting stigmatization of the victim and the fact (n.b. not merely belief) that most perpetrators will go unpunished.

As a kid I knew what rape was, but I figured it was so rare that I was unlikely to meet a rape victim. Then in my 20s I began to meet woman after woman who opened up to me about terrible experiences. My first college girlfriend had been raped. My next girlfriend had been raped. The first girl I dated in grad school had been raped. At least four of the last six women I’ve dated were raped or otherwise sexually abused. 

This is to say nothing of the number of women who may not have been physically assaulted but were harassed or threatened. I have a clear recollection of chatting with a coworker by her car one night when another coworker, one who had an obsessive “like” for her, came up to us and began yelling at her. I shudder to think what might have happened had I not been there.

And that is to say nothing of the objectification of women I’ve witnessed that was not even ill-intended. “That’s a nice red dress,” a guy once said as my red-clad girlfriend and I walked by. “Thanks,” she said. “I was talking to my boy,” he rejoined. Being only 20 and still oblivious to the import of such attitudes, I laughed. 

Eventually I became more conscious of what was implicit in such exchanges. Numerous times I have been asked whether it’s okay to dance with my female companion. “That’s for her to say,” I say. 

I’m also no more likely to open a door for a woman than I am for a man. As I see it, treating someone differently solely on the basis of gender is sexism no matter how you slice it. Calling it chivalry doesn’t change the message that women inherently deserve to be regarded not as individuals. There are good reasons to open a door for someone: because he or she is in a wheelchair, because his/her hands are full, etc. Secondary sexual characteristic don’t qualify. 

Pulling up the roots of gender otherness, the simple attitudes that females have or deserve less agency than males, may be a better long-term strategy for killing off rape culture than chopping at it while its in full bloom—although that, too, should be done, and with vigor. 

Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure: photo shoots gussying up gang-rape aren’t going to do the trick.

Love and formic acid,

Posted in Uncategorized

Too Stupid to Breed? There Oughta Be a Law!

Because my homecolony doesn’t make the news much, when I hear the mention of Fullerton, CA, my antennae perk right up. Like a couple of weeks ago, when I heard a story about a married couple arrested after they parked their van at the Brea Mall and went inside to do a little shopping. 

Problem was, Ho and Tae Kim left their 3-year-old child in the van. And because it was a 91-degree F day, the only reason they didn’t come back to a dead toddler is because some sharp-eyed shopper caught sight of the crying, sweltering little girl and called the police, who later opined that it seemed the 30-something couple forgot the tot was with them. 

The Kims were arrested for felony child endangerment and held on $100,000 bail each, while the couple’s three children were temporarily taken in by relatives.

Neither Keanu Reeves nor the film Parenthood are very impressive artistically, but in that film Reeves does voice a line that makes a good point: “[Y]ou need a license to buy a dog, or drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish! But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”

But butt-reaming American jurisprudence is such that ultimately the couple is likely to receive little more than a light fine, and there is no chance their children will be taken from them.

Hey, I’m just an ant, so what do I know about parenting human children? Nonetheless, I can’t help wondering whether your society might be better off by setting the bar a bit higher when it comes to the custody of young children. Were the Kims running a daycare center rather than a dental office, surely their license would be revoked had they made such a potentially deadly oversight regarding someone else’s kids. Why is society more accepting of an adult’s mistreating one’s own flesh and blood?

Presumably it comes out of tradition. Because for most of human history children were seen partly as chattel and partly as little slaves—consider, for example, how relatively recent child-labor laws are (thank you, Mr. Dickens!)—it’s not surprising to find vestigial attitudes allowing parents to inflict more neglect and outright damage than any little tyke should have to suffer. But you know the battle cry of the bad parent: “Don’t tell me how to raise my kids!”

The irony, of course, is that it’s even worse when one does wrong by one’s own offspring, since those are the only minors for whom the parent is responsible, both morally (because hey, mom and dad, you made them) and legally.

Yet somehow society doesn’t get it, and so you must get caught doing something awfully serious—as in molestation or breaking bones—to lose custody of your little ones.

If you want a barometer of just how wacky attitudes toward bad parenting get, consider this other case of kids being left alone in a hot car. But first, a warning to those with heart trouble: the shocking twist in this story may cause coronary arrest. 

Shanesha Taylor, a 35-year-old single mother of three, had a job interview last March but couldn’t find anyone to watch her 6-month-old and 2-year-old. Her solution? Rather than canceling the interview or bringing the children inside with and explaining the situation to her prospective employer, she decided to leave the kids alone in her Dodge Durrango while she went inside and tried to make the case that she was responsible enough to become the company’s newest employee.

Taylor’s execrably bad parenting choice was discovered—and perhaps kept from turning tragic—when cries of distress led passersby to the Durrango, parked directly in the noontime sun with the air conditioner off and the windows rolled down only slightly. Reportedly, the infant, dressed in two shirts and covered by a blanket, was “crying hysterically and sweating profusely,” with the temperature in the SUV estimated by a police officer on the scene to be around 100 degrees Farenheit.

Taylor was arrested when she returned to her vehicle about an hour later and, like the Kims, arrested for felony child endangerment. But apparently they do things differently in Arizona, because Taylor’s bail amount was $91,000 lower than the Kims’, even though she was booked on two counts and didn’t forget about her children but left them alone by design.

The excuse Taylor gave the police was that she was jobless and homeless, and therefore driven by desperation. However, both claims turned out to be false. 

It’s no shock to find bad deeds going unpunished. But rewarded? Yes, here’s that surprise twist: Taylor’s tearful mugshot went viral, leading to the following:

  • an anonymous donor paid her bail
  • a petition to the Maricopa County Attorney to drop all charges against Taylor
  • an #ISupportShanesha trend on Twitter
  • a crowdfunding campaign for Taylor that eventually grossed $114,000

And just last month the charges were basically dropped, conditioned only up her completing some parenting classes and using her six-figure windfall for childcare expenses (including future education). Naturally, she retains custody of her kids.

A woman walks into a job interview. She’s left her toddler and infant alone in a hot car in the parking lot alone. She lies to police about why, but no charges of any sort are filed. People from far and wide rally around her, paying her bail and giving her over $100K besides. 

It is a joke, just not a funny one. It’s almost surprising she didn’t get the job.

Love and formic acid,

Posted in Uncategorized

Access Calories

I’ll eat anything because, y’know, I’m an ant. But humans, or the USDA, have a different standard. Last month the government gatekeeper of edible food (that is, anything fit for human consumption) told us* that in 2010 a full 31% of the food supply went uneaten. Maybe the road of excess doesn’t lead to the palace of wisdom after all!

Think about it. We’re talking about nearly one-third of (to quote from the report summary) “the [total] amount of edible food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason[,] includ[ing] cooking loss and natural shrinkage (e.g., moisture loss); loss from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; and plate waste.” That’s 133 billion pounds of food, which the USDA estimates comes out 1,249 calories per American. Every day.

The average adult can survive comfortably on 2,000 calories per day, but let’s call it 3,000, since some can’t resist an extra donut here and there. If we round the number of Americans down to 300 million and round the number of wasted calories down to 1,000 per day, that means the total amount of wasted food in 2010 could have fed 100 million people. Let’s cut that number in half, presupposing logistical issues that make it impossible for half of that food not to be wasted. Still a lot of food for millions of hungry folks. 

According* to Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity providing food to 37 million people via a network of 200 food banks supplying 61,000 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters, that number almost exactly coincides with the number of Americans experiencing food insecurity, which the USDA defines as lacking “access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” So, clearly, the food is out there.

But Feeding America is fighting a war that is being lost on many battlefronts. As an example, Feeding America cites the situation with the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), “a means-tested federal program that provides food commodities at no cost to Americans in need of short-term hunger relief through emergency food providers like food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters.” Feeding American notes that commodity support for TEFAP “declined nearly 30 percent in FY2012, leading to 40 percent decline in TEFAP deliveries for food banks in 2013.”

On local fronts, organizations like Food Not Bombs*, which “recovers and shares free vegan or vegetarian food with the public without restriction in over 1,000 cities around the world,” often run into local interference* in the form of city ordinances restricting the feeding of the homeless persons or hyper-restrictive health codes.

Everyone, including the government, knows there’s a problem out there. The solution may not be simple. But if the food is available (and going to waste), the least government can do is get out of the way. With the most wealth, best technology, and most robust infrastructure of any country on the planet, surely the United States can do better than wasting a third of our food.

But like so many systemic problems in this country, this one impacts only the less fortunate. Call me a cynic, but could it be that the U.S. government doesn’t always fire on all cylinders when it’s about helping those who don’t exactly comprise a powerhouse voting or lobbying bloc? Perhaps time to serve the rich and feed the poor.

Love and formic acid,

told us—http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib121/report-summary.aspx#.UxgMFCjixK4


Food Not Bombs —http://www.foodnotbombs.net/

run into local interference —http://www.foodnotbombs.net/fnb_resists.html

Posted in Uncategorized

Lost in the Middle East – Questioning the Status Quo

It sounds like a joke:

Q: What do you get when you rule 3.5 million people and deny them the right to vote, to go where they please, and to adequate access to water; when you frequently destroy their homes so that you can erect domiciles for some other chosen people; and when you routinely kill innocent civilians—including children—among them? 

A: Three-and-a-half million pissed-off people.

Or there’s the alternate punchline: Israel. It’s not funny, of course, because it’s all too true. For decades the Israeli government has seemed genuinely shocked at how much hatred Palestinians harbor toward their oppressors. The Knesset cannot get its collective mind around why world opinion is almost unanimously against them regarding the continuation of settlement-building in the West Bank, even though Israel’s own Supreme Court has ruled that the area is not part of Israel. They can’t figure out why they don’t have peace with the Palestinians.

How dumb can they be?

There is absolutely no doubt that the conundrum of how Israel should handle its security is difficult to resolve. And there’s plenty of blame on the Palestinian side. But it is ludicrous to assert that all hatred for Israel is tied to anti-Semitism or that every Arab in the neighborhood wants Israel to be pushed into the sea.

To be sure, there are more than a few people in the Palestinian territories who hate Jews, who think the Holocaust was either a lie or a good start, who think the State of Israel is illegitimate, who would sooner die than have rapprochement with a Jewish homeland. Rockets don’t lob themselves into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and those who lob them would be just as happy to kill a mother and her baby as an active Israeli soldier, just as most suicide bombers will board buses and hit cafés at least as readily as they will target military outposts.

But part of Israel’s answer has been to antagonize the entire Palestinian population. They did it in 1982 by presiding over the slaughter of thousands of Palestinian in what came to be known as the Sabra and Shatilia massacre. They did it in 2001 by electing as prime minister Ariel Sharon, the man Israel’s official investigation into the massacre found to bear “personal responsibility.” They did it in 2009 by using white phosphorous in densely populated Gaza areas, including near at least one school. They did it just last month by shooting live bullets at two teenage boys armed only with slingshots. They did it just this month by beating a 15-year-old American protester (the cousin of a murdered Palestinian) past the point of unconsciousness and then lying to the world about what transpired (as video evidence shows). They did it last week by killing four Palestinian children playing soccer on a beach. They did it this week by responding to Palestinian rocket fire—almost none of which has proven deadly to Israelis—with aerial assaults that killed four times as many Palestinian civilians and combatants, a tactic so ineffective that now Israel has moved ground troops into Gaza. Then yesterday they shelled a hospital, killing patients in the midst of surgery and wounding mostly hospital staff.

And then there’s the perennial bugaboo, the single greatest obstacle to the “two-state solution”: the continued building of settlements in the West Bank. The entire world recognizes that the only possible path to peace in the Middle East is the “two-state solution,” with a sovereign Israel and a sovereign Palestine existing side by side. Even Israeli leaders, including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, often admit as much. But by its actions Israel shows itself unwilling to walk the path. 

“Yesterday the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin […] profitable negotiations,” said Vice-President Joe Biden in 2010 after Israel announced—on the eve of peace talks—that it was building 1,600 new settler homes in the West Bank. And as The Economist noted two years later after an annoucement of yet more settlements, “The houses Israel keeps on erecting on Palestinian territory are the main reason why so much of the world has lost sympathy for Israel’s cause.”

Now, with yet another two years of settlement-building under its belt, Israel may be on the brink of destroying its only real chance for peace. “With breathtaking self-persuasion,” wrote Chemi Shalev in Haaretz last month, “most Israelis have convinced themselves that the physical, geographic and demographic transformation that has taken place in the West Bank as a result of four decades of Jewish settlement does not constitute a unilateral act that undermines a peace process […].”

Many Americans suffer the same delusion, even though the U.S.—by far Israel’s strongest ally—has unequivocally agreed with the rest of the world community that the settlement-building is a violation of international law. It’s that delusion that paralyzes U.S. lawmakers from taking hard enough of a line on Israel—for example, by imposing sanctions—to compel Israel to change its destructive ways.

The sad irony is that Israel’s destructiveness is also self-destructive. With each settlement built, with every non-combatant killed, Israel injures its own people. And that makes me sadder than you might think. Because I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m Jewish. 

Okay, so I’m not a practicing Jew. And don’t ask me how they made a Gomco camp small enough for my tiny ant penis. But believe me when I tell you that Hitler would have personally driven me to Buchenwald. 

More than that, though, I am sympathetic to persecuted peoples. And for thousands of years the Jews have been persecuted like nobody’s business. You don’t know why there is such fervor for Jews to have and preserve a homeland? Wake up to history.

But Israel’s response to that persecution has been, in part, to engage in a persecution of its own. That persecution is not based in racial or religious hatred, but in an inconvenient truth. When Israel acquired the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War in 1967, it acquired the responsibility of the people living there. The spoils of war sometimes come with a price. 

One way or another, Israel is paying the price. A better purchase would be doing everything it can to bring about a sovereign Palestinian state. If security is the real sticking point, the advantages of a Palestinian state are obvious. Were a sovereign Palestine to attack Israel unprovoked, the world community would get behind Israel’s right to defend itself. But as it is, Israel is an apartheid nation, ruling over millions of people for whom second-class citizenship would be an improvement. 

Hatred for one’s oppressors is natural. No-one should understand that better than Americans. Every July 4th for 238 years the United States has celebrated the violent overthrew of British rule, a tyranny that didn’t approach the level of oppression suffered by the Palestinians. The cololnials got literally up in arms because they were being taxed without government represenation. Palestinians are actively deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course they lash out. What do you expect?

This is not to say that any and all tactics against one’s oppressors are justified, but it does offer something in the way of an explanation—especially since the balance of power is almost completely on the Israeli side. For example, take the fact that Hamas has launched over 2,000 rockets during the last two weeks, and yet at press time reportedly only 27 Israelis have been killed in the current conflict—almost all of them military—while 556 Palestinians have been killed, an estimated 70% to 80% of them civilians. (And even if Bibi’s right in saying that Hamas wants and is to blame for the high civilian casualty rate on the Palestinian side, does that somehow justify racking it up? Does anything?)

No doubt some of Israel’s measures against Palestinian militants are justified, pick your favorite human-rights organization—Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross, B’Tselem, the United Nations, Médecins Sans Frontières—and they’ll tell you that Israel routinely commits human-rights violations and war crimes against civilians, actions that don’t fall under the umbrella of self-defense. As Amnesty International puts it in a recent report entitled “Trigger-happy: Israel’s use of excessive force in the West Bank,” the Israeli military regularly “us[es] excessive force to stifle dissent and freedom of expression, resulting in a pattern of unlawful killings and injuries to civilians. [...] The frequency and persistence of arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and police officers – and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators – suggests that it is carried out as a matter of policy.” 

What’s more, it’s a policy that’s not working. So if you support the Israeli government, you are not supporting the Israeli people. Support peace for Israel; do not support the status quo. 

Love and formic acid,

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Are the Erasure of Truth and Sanctioned Electoral Lying Parts of the New World Order?

You need a scorecard to keep up with the flurry of dubious judicial decisions being handed down these days. But a couple from either side of the Atlantic that are particularly troubling for anyone who favors access to truth and frowns upon the spreading of lies.

The former comes to us courtesy of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that all Internet search engines—Google, Yahoo!, etc.—are, “in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name.”

And in case you’re thinking that this applies only to bogus information, the Court makes it clear that you’re wrong. “[E]ven initially lawful processing of accurate data,” says the Court, “may, in the course of time, become incompatible with the [Court's] directive where, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, the data appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”

How one determines what qualifies as “inadequate, irrelevant,” etc., is anyone’s guess, as the Court offers no further guidelines. But the bottom line is clear: it is now European law that links to truthful, accurate stories may be censored from Internet searches simply because the subject doesn’t like them.

The ruling doesn’t affect Internet searches on this side of the Pond. But the big court out thisaway is doing its best to erect a different sort of barrier to living in an honest and forthcoming world by clearing a path to striking down an Ohio law that prohibits lying in campaign materials.

Here’s the skinny. In 2010, “pro-life” org the Susan B. Anthony List attempted to erect billboards in Ohio claiming then-Rep. Steve Driehaus “voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion,” apparently based on his support of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). Driehaus cried foul, complaining that the claim was a lie and therefore would be a violation of the Ohio law.

Although the billboards never went up, Driehaus lost his re-election bid, and so the Ohio Elections Commission dismissed his complaint. But the SBA List pursued the matter in federal court, challenging the Ohio law as unconstitutional. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the SBA List did not suffer “a sufficiently concrete injury for purposes of standing or ripeness.” However, the Supreme Court disagreed, and so the SBA List will be heard in its attempt to use First Amendment protections to refashion the world in their lying image.

That, of course, is not the way the SBA Listers see themselves, claiming that they’re merely trying to educate voters.

“Everything we have argued is true […],” the group claims in a press release. “The Affordable Care Act provides new federal tax subsidies that will finance elective abortion coverage for millions of women who did not have such insurance, expands state Medicaid program coverage of elective abortion for millions of women in dozens of states, and uses federal funds to finance elective abortion coverage for members of Congress and their staff.”

Ironically, in that same press release the SBA List confirms its willingness to play fast and loose with the truth by claiming they were “prevented from [erecting the billboards] because of the Ohio law.” But the Supreme Court tells it like it is: “The advertising company that owned the billboard space refused to display that message […] after Driehaus’ counsel threatened legal action.”

That’s nothing, of course, compared to the falsity of the SBA List claim that set all this in motion. Just ask Democrats for Life in America, whose self-proclaimed “pro-life” stance is so crispy that they oppose even embryonic stem-cell research. 

“As pro-life Democrats, under the leadership of Congressman Bart Stupak, we worked very hard to include clear and concise language that will not allow Federal funds to be used for abortion,” the group says. “[…] No tax subsides (i.e. federal tax dollars) can be used for that purpose; this prevents direct and indirect public funding of abortion.”

Of course, the mendaciousness of the SBA List is a given, considering that to have legal standing to pursue their case they had to admit that their intentions were to violate the Ohio statute—in other words, to disseminate false information during the course of the campaign—and that they intend to do so in the future.

“When challenging a law prior to its enforcement, a plaintiff satisfies the injury-in-fact requirement where he alleges ‘an intention to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest, but proscribed by a statute, and there exists a credible threat of prosecution thereunder,’” the Supreme Court noted. “[…] Petitioners have alleged ‘an intention to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest’ by pleading specific statements they intend to make in future election cycles.”

As if truth in politics wasn’t already hard enough to find.


It’s not like either of these issues are easy ones. Clearly there’s a lot of information floating around in cyberspace, and maybe some of it really should be consigned to oblivion. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to agree at least partially with SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser when she says, “The truth or falsity of political speech should be judged by voters, not government bureaucrats.”

But yelling “Fire!” in a crowded cinema when nothing is ablaze is an example of a lie the First Amendment does not protect. And if once upon a time I did so and someone wrote about it, should I really be able to prevent you from retrieving the story by way of a search engine? 

In a world where truth is a paramount virtue, resolving these issues would be relatively simple. Alas, we do not live in such a world.

Love and formic acid,

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Why Ants Never Pledge Allegiance (and Maybe You Shouldn’t, Either)

Ants don’t buy into symbolism. We can’t. Our language is chemical and purely functional. Does that lack of metaphor, etc., leave something to be desired in terms of our ability to conceptualize, to create art and the like? I admit it: you humans trump us there.

But I’ll tell you one way in which our linguistic shortcomings places us far above Homo sapiens sapiens: we never confuse empty rhetoric for patriotism.

I don’t know whether the United States is the worst place in the world for the practice (my anthill is somewhere in Southern California, from atop of which I can see the U.S. more clearly than I can other countries (though my friend Sarah Paliant swears she’s got a sweet view of Russia)), but it’s got to be in the top 10, with your singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”—and, on occasion, “America the Beautiful”—before every stupid sporting event, your flare-ups of politicians pushing a Constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, and the God-invoking loyalty oath you basically force upon your children even in public school.

This moronic march to the same dopey drummer was on full display recently on Fox News—an appropriate place for morons if ever there was one—when Fox News labeled former American Idol contestant Chris Daugherty “Fool of the Week” over his refusal during a Fox & Friends appearance to be pressured into an impromptu version of a “patriotic song” in honor of D-Day.

Instead of taking to the airwaves and telling Fox and all its friends to fuck off, Daughtery spinelessly went all mea culpa, posting a video during which, with his saddest puppy-dog eyes, he castigated himself for being “absolutely disrespectful” and literally begged forgiveness for his “lack of judgment” and “stupidity.”

“The worst part of all,” Daughtery says: “I didn’t honor our troops, I didn’t honor our vets, who so deserve it, who sacrifice everything, their lives, have sacrificed everything for our country. […] I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed. […] Everyone has a moment in their life that they regret very deeply, and this is at the top of my list. […] I wish that I could have pulled it together and sang my heart out to honor our troops.”

While Daughtery comes off like a douche, you can’t completely fault the guy, who is, after all, a product of a culture that lionizes empty displays of patriotism. Really, what else should we expect from someone who on every school day from ages 5 to 18 was made to swear loyalty not just to the United States, but also to the piece of cloth that represents it? “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands…” (emphasis added). 

The central idea driven home by such programming is not loyalty to a country, but a confusion between displays of patriotism and actual patriotism. It’s the kind of confusion that turns sincere gestures into empty ones. Take the tradition of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting events. While it didn’t start out as the de facto requirement it is today, ESPN spells out the story of how during the 1918 World Series the song—still over a decade away from becoming the U.S.A.’s national anthem—was performed out of respect to the 100,000 soldiers who had already died in World War I, as well as the many baseball players who were about to join the fight.

In such contexts (during World War II, immediately post-9/11, etc.), even my non-symbolizing ant brain can perceive that perhaps there’s something to be said for the genuineness of the gesture. And hey, singing it on the Fourth of July is a slam dunk. But the way in which the song is crammed down Americans’ throats chokes the very life out of its sincerity. 

Patriotism is not singing or reciting paeans to one’s homeland. The Nazis were great at that, and no-one remembers them as great patriots. A patriot is someone who forwards the worthy ideals of one’s national forefathers (patrios, Gr., “of one’s fathers”). Those ideals can be found in many places. They are contained in the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, in the philosophies that have helped our country to become more inclusive, increasingly broadminded, and freer. It’s in the work we do to protect the weak and speak for the voiceless. It is in the open exchange of ideas and collective decision-making.

Where you won’t find them is in hollow gestures and mindless recitations, no matter how tuneful, no matter what Fox News says.

Allegiance should not be static, not a “my country, right or wrong” sort of stance. You should align yourself only with the angels of your nation’s better nature. The United States of America has committed many sins since being founded largely on genocide and developed largely via slavery. In many ways this is a country deserving as much derision as patriotic fervor.

But the United States is no single thing or time or group of people. It is the most complex society the planet Earth has ever seen. And because even a simpler country must always be a becoming, it is only reasonable to take a Sartrean view the U.S.’s essence: We are what we do. 

Singing your own praises is not a good use of voice. What is far more important is to speak up when your homeland does bad than it is to pledge allegiance to the republic. Raising your voice in opposition to the status quo may be greatest use of the First Amendment. It’s certainly the first step to making whatever changes need to be made. 

This is not unpatriotic talk. There’s a spectacularly large and nuanced chasm between blind loyalty and betrayal. You’re not either with us or against us. 

You are, however, better off spending time teaching your citizens to think for themselves than you are programming them to pay lip service. Because as it is you have a nation full of people who have trouble telling the difference between a flag and what it represents, or between when a gesture serves a genuine purpose and when it is a mindless expectation.

Love and formic acid,

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A Redskin by Any Other Name…

In my little ant lifetime, I’ve never heard the term “redskin” used as a slur. Neither have you. Is anyone telling stories of being slurred as a “redskin”? I haven’t heard one. For several generations it seems the only use of the term has a capital R and has referred to the likes of Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Art Monk, and Darrell Green. Hail to the Redskins, three-time Super Bowl champs!

How I missed the fact that “Redskin” referred to Native Americans despite the fact that there’s an image of a Native American on the side of each Redskin helmet has a lot more to do with how uninterested I am in symbols than some question of semantics. The Redskin mascot is a Native American; the only question is whether that fact is racist and therefore should be changed.

There is an honest dispute regarding whether the term “redskin” is racist in origin—a fact that those who want the NFL’s team’s name changed have not generally been honest to acknowledge. According to a 2005 Washington Post article, for example, Smithsonian Institution linguist Ives Godard reported that his seven-month investigation of the term led him to conclude that the term was coined by Native Americans themselves in order “to distinguish themselves from the white ‘other’ encroaching on their lands and culture”; and that even early uses of the term by those of European extraction were not derogatory.

But as Ludwig Wittgenstein helped teach us, language is use, and no-one even claims that “redskin” has never been used as a slur. Then there’s the term as referent for the scalp of a Native American, an unconscionable trophy that fetched a pretty penny during the height of the genocide perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of North America.

All that—along with the fact that many, many, many Native Americans, et al., find the name offensive—recently proved good enough for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has cancelled the team’s trademark of the name “Redskins,” on the grounds that the term was “disparaging to Native Americans when registered.” 

That past-tense rationale—that the term was racist when the trademark was filed—is worthy of note. Ants don’t know dick about trademark law, but the team was founded in 1932. Framing the issue in that context effectively means that it doesn’t much matter whether the term had died out as a slur by the time someone like me began watching football (no, I’m not a Giants fan). Justifiably the U.S. government doesn’t want to be in the business of officially sanctioning slurs—never mind helping a company to profit from the usage thereof—so ta-ta to the trademark.

That doesn’t mean the Redskins have to stop using the name. The First Amendment exists to protect all speech, particularly unpopular speech—which is, of course, the speech that actually needs protection—and so it would be a mini Constitutional crisis if the government got seriously involved with compelling the Redskins to change the name. 

But the National Football League is not the government. If the National Basketball Association could legally force a guy to sell his team because in private conversation he asked his sugarbaby not to post pictures of herself with Black people, one has to imagine it would be comparatively easy for the NFL to force a guy to give up a name offensive to Red people that he can’t even trademark.

Should the NFL do that? Admittedly, my feelings on the subject haven’t been all that strong. While I’ve got some Choctaw in my ant blood, I don’t self-identify as a Native Antmerican; and as I mentioned, to me a Redskin was never anything but a footballer. 

But I can’t help appreciating a recent point made by Robin Quivers (a.k.a. Howard Stern’s radio sidekick). Isn’t it ironic, she mused, that the football team with the name “Redskins” is based in Washington, D.C., the seat of the American government, the very body responsible for the Native American genocide and a string of broken treaties since?

Too ironic, I think. Make room for me on the bandwagon. Change the name—or at least the mascot. I just came across a joking proposal to keep the name but change the mascot to red potatoes, which are delicious, healthy, and politically correct. Hail to the Redskins, because going into a rebuilding year isn’t small potatoes even when you’re not in the eye of a controversy. Some traditions aren’t worth the trouble.

Love and formic acid,

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How Celebrity Ignorance Can Be More Dangerous Than the Commoner Type

We ants aren’t known for independence of mind. Individually we function somewhat analogously to neurons, each doing our own little job to contribute to the global function of the organ(ism)—”ant is to colony as neuron is to mind,” that sort of thing.

Lacking independence of mind has its advantages. For example, ants never suffer from one sickness that’s terribly endemic to humankind: being overly impressed with one’s own opinion. 

Humans have an amazing capacity for overlooking the fact that they are limited, contingent creatures, programmed by culture, wholly subjective, and completely cut off from most of the data of the world. In such a predicament it would be far more reasonable to doubt everything than to be sure of anything. Nevertheless, many, many people ardently claim certainty about things they quite demonstratively know nothing.

Celebrities aren’t immune, and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak may be a case in point. A one-time weatherman (not a meteorologist, which actually requires some scientific training), Sajak’s gotten a lot of press recently for Tweeting, “I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends.” 

While there’s little doubt his words were (as he later claimed) “intended to parody the name-calling directed at climate skeptics,” Sajak is truly one of those “climate skeptics,” a term that apparently categorizes disregarding the near unanimity of the scientific community as healthy skepticism.

Why does anyone care what Pat Sajak thinks? It’s the celebrity, dummy. In the United States celebrity has tremendous power to influence. And because climate change can have literally cataclysmic consequences for humanity, you don’t need those with influence leading their simpleminded followers to behaviors that may tip a delicate balance over the edge of global disaster.

But Sajak is using his Twitter account as if he’s testing out one-liners for open-mic night at the Laugh Factory, not to change minds, so Bill Maher, Salon, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, et al., really ought to calm down. Sajak is dopey, but he’s probably not worth the ink.

But Jenny McCarthy may be a different kettle of fish. Since 2007, McCarthy, whose levels of talent and scientific training are roughly equal to Sajak’s, has actively campaigned for parents not to have their children vaccinated against any diseases, asserting a scientifically unsupported link between vaccines and autism.

Last year McCarthy joined the panel of The View, a TV talk show that surely does help shape the opinions of the millions who watch it every weekday, discussing as they do not just whether you want to buy a vowel but current events and, yes, even science (even if nobody’s going to confuse it with Nova).

The New Yorker greeted news of McCarthy’s hire with consternation. “When people disagree with her views on television, McCarthy has been known to refute scientific data by shouting ‘bullshit,’” notes Michael Specter. He continues:

McCarthy has repeatedly asserted that the rate of autism has grown rapidly alongside the number of vaccines children receive, which is not true. […] That does not mean that vaccines carry no risk: nothing is entirely without risk, and there is a small but measurable possibility that any vaccine can cause a serious adverse reaction. Still, the benefits for society so powerfully outweigh the risks that suggesting otherwise is irresponsible at best. It spreads fear and incites the type of ignorance that makes people sick. That is exactly what McCarthy has been doing. By preaching her message of scientific illiteracy from one end of this country to the other, she has helped make it possible for people to turn away from rational thought. And that is deadly.

How deadly? The Website jennymccarthybodycount.com keeps a sort of count. No, its numbers aren’t directly linked to McCarthy’s efforts; rather, it keeps track of three vaccine-related statistics since 2007, the year McCarthy and a passel of other celebrities started driving the anti-vaccine bandwagon. As of June 7, 2014, here is the “Anti-Vaccine Body Count”:

Number of preventable illnesses: 134,405

Number of preventable deaths: 1,393

Number of autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccines: 0

Who knows how many mothers have heard McCarthy’s impassioned talk of how her son’s autism was caused by a vaccine and decided against inoculating their own precious little ones? But with the current California epidemic of pertussis—a disease for which there is a vaccine that McCarthy urges parents to deny their kids —it’s worth keeping in mind that celebrities are just people, too, often oblivious to how little they know. Pat Sajak can certainly tell you all about Wheel of Fortune, and presumably Jenny McCarthy can tell you about, um, something or other. But for science, don’t go to anyone you might see on Extra.

Love and formic acid,

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