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New July 2013

The Good Wife Recap: Chicago Confidential

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If you wondered whether The Good Wife could survive without Josh Charles/Will Gardner, the answer felt evident to me with this episode: Hell yes. This show is firing on all cylinders, in spite of, and possibly now because of, the tragedy of Will’s death. Even better: A longstanding bit involving … More »

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Climate change got you down this Earth Day? Time for a badger mask

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It’s not often that any magazine profiles an environmentalist. So when the New York Times Magazine did just that this week, I got excited. Just in time for Earth Day! Setting aside, of course, the uneasiness that I feel about Earth Day. When you are the only habitable planet in the solar system, as well as the large spheroid mass whose rotation around the sun actually makes days happen, arguably all of the days are yours. But Earth Day itself has very sweet and thoughtful origins as an idea, proposed by a Wisconsin senator in 1970, to host teach-ins on ecological issues around the country. The teach-ins became so huge that the momentum from that day of meetings is credited with the creation of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act — along with the persistence of Earth Day itself, which very few people seem to get excited about any more, but which hovers in our vision anyway like the afterimage of a camera flash. Part of that persistence is a consequence of the news cycle, which requires holidays in order to write about things — civil rights, women, the fact that the only planet we live on seems to be having some tropospheric issues — that we all should be writing about anyway. And so, for its Earth Day story, the Times chose, in something of a punk move, to profile another generator of an unexpectedly viral idea — Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth is a British environmentalist and anti-globalization activist who, back in 2009, very publicly lost faith in both struggles. Climate change was not something that could be stopped, he decided. “Sustainability” wasn’t something that was attainable, given the current human population and fondness for things like heat, light, and food. The future did not look good. “Decline, depletion, chaos and hardship” were in store for the lot of us, and the sooner we realized it, the better. Many people who come to such conclusions start hoarding a lot of canned goods; Kingsnorth’s response to impending collapse was to found a lavish hardcover literary journal. The journal was called Dark Mountain, as is the group of uncertain size that has organized around it, which Kingsnorth described as “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself.” Together, he wrote “we are able to say it loud and clear: we are not going to ‘save the planet’.” In 2012, he elaborated further during an email exchange with the writer Wen Stephenson: I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to. Dark Mountain, Kingsnorth wrote, would bring about gatherings of “practical people with hands-on ideas for building the post-oil world in a century of chaos.” The festival that Daniel Smith, author on the Times profile, attends, though, has more of a Burning Man vibe: A man wearing a stag mask bounded into the clearing and shouted: “Come! Let’s play!” The crowd broke up. Some headed for bed. A majority headed for the woods, to a makeshift stage that had been blocked off with hay bales and covered by an enormous nylon parachute. There they danced, sang, laughed, barked, growled, hooted, mooed, bleated and meowed, forming a kind of atavistic, improvisatory choir. Deep into the night, you could hear them from your tent, shifting every few minutes from sound to sound, animal to animal and mood to mood. The next morning over breakfast, Dougie Strang, a Scottish artist and performer who is on Dark Mountain’s steering committee, asked if I’d been there. When he left, at 3 a.m., he said, people were writhing in the mud and singing, in harmony, the children’s song “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” (“If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.”) “Wasn’t it amazing?” he said, grinning. “It really went mental. I think we actually achieved uncivilization.” If this sounds less like an enduring movement with relevance to the environmental movement as a whole than a midlife crisis, you wouldn’t be the first to think so. In the profile, even Kingsnorth says as much: “What do you do,” he asked, “when you accept that all of these changes are coming, things that you value are going to be lost, things that make you unhappy are going to happen, things that you wanted to achieve you can’t achieve, but you still have to live with it, and there’s still beauty, and there’s still meaning, and there are still things you can do to make the world less bad? And that’s not a series of questions that have any answers other than people’s personal answers to them. Selfishly it’s just a process I’m going through.” He laughed. “It’s extremely narcissistic of me. Rather than just having a personal crisis, I’ve said: ‘Hey! Come share my crisis with me!’” At 41, Kingsnorth is at the age when a lot of people who’ve devoted themselves to a project, whether it’s saving the world or selling inground swimming pools, tend to burn out and wonder what the hell they’re doing with their lives. In declaring the largest problem of our era unfixable, Kingsnorth gave himself — and a few other earnest, idealistic types – the perfect excuse to put on a badger mask and go party in the woods. When someone goes and names their organization “Dark Mountain,” that’s a sign of a few things: 1) They’re a little depressed at the moment; and 2) they’re probably on a quest of some sort. For most of us, mountains are pilgrimage sites, not destinations. It’s hard to grow anything on a mountain. The air gets mighty thin. There are clues that even Paul Kingsnorth finds it hard to live up to Paul Kingsnorth’s ideals of retreat and preparation for social collapse. He’s spent the last three years organizing to keep a supermarket development out of his rural community, though he uses some bleak poetry to justify it. “I’m increasingly attracted,” he says, in the article, “by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do.” The story of Dark Mountain reminds me of another British phenomenon that poured a lot of hubris and energy into hopelessness: the Sex Pistols. When Johnny Rotten howled “No Future” into a microphone in 1977, he couldn’t, of course, see the actual future, where he would be 58, something of a whale-watching enthusiast and preparing to tour with a production of Jesus Christ, Superstar. Another Brit put it better. As Joe Strummer said, “The future is unwritten.”Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics

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Is Boston Really America’s Second Funniest City?

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The Humor Research Lab has done the impossible and likely unnecessary, by determining through an elaborate algorithm which cities in the US are funniest. Joke’s on us: Chicago is #1 and Boston is #2.Read more…

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Pope celebrates Easter Sunday Mass

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Pope Francis celebrates Easter in front of thousands in St Peter’s Square, praying for peace in Syria and Ukraine and “an end to all war”.

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Garden centres ‘want’ Easter choice

The government is urged to end restrictions that prevent many garden centres in England and Wales from opening on Easter Sunday.

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Making the road safe for biking’s nervous Nellies

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I used to bike like everyone was trying to kill me. I was fresh out of college and had moved to San Francisco to seek my fortune, only to discover that the city’s public transit system was more of a simulacrum of a system than something that actually got me reliably on time to my job — or, let’s be honest, jobs. Living in the city required a lot of jobs, and sometimes the bus came and sometimes it didn’t. So I started biking. Even if drivers didn’t bear any malice towards me — and almost none of them did — I learned to regard them with caution. They were bored. They were tired. They were steering 3,000+ pounds of metal powered by a combustion engine, but they spent so much time there that they behaved like it was their living room. (I looked over, once, and saw a woman in huge Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, eating corn on the cob and driving with her elbows.) It is because of this experience that I view the recent news that California’s Department of Transportation has signed on to the National Association of City Transportation Officials guidelines for street design with unmitigated delight. NACTO is the kind of agency that rarely makes the news — probably because it’s dead boring. But to those interested in the future of our cities, NACTO is also an illustration of how local governments can have much more power than they initially seem to. Cities are often more progressive than the states that surround them. And while city governments that set out to plan for a future that will have more bike traffic and public transit and fewer personal automobiles can be jerked around by their states, they can also make inroads against more conservative state and national policy. In the case of NACTO, they accomplish this by working together to form a giant multi-city Voltron. In 2007, a traffic engineer in Portland, Ore., named Rob Burchfield set out to design away a particularly common car/bike accident – the one in which a car turns right without noticing the cyclist in the right-hand bike lane coming at it. The fix he developed — brightly marking off a specific box for cyclists that leaves them in front of any car, in the driver’s line of vision — was common in Europe, but not in the U.S. Burchfield encountered some red tape from the Federal Highway Administration for his decision. It was the last straw for Burchfield. He’d come up with the designs in response to two fatal accidents that had occurred within a two-week period. So he partnered up with Portland’s former city bike coordinator, Mia Birk, and began compiling a set of street design guidelines that they called Cities for Cycling. Portland was a member of NACTO, and it persuaded the group to adopt the standards for their own. Anyone designing roadways is trying to do so with an eye towards avoiding lawsuits or unwanted attention from the Federal Highway Administration for getting too creative. By adopting the Cities for Cycling guidelines, the cities of NACTO saved themselves the hassle of designing their own individual standards for, say, what is the appropriate signage for a contra-flow bike lane. In the process they also created a grassroots urban policy that could someday be adopted by the federal Department of Transportation and become truly national policy — instead of just a set of standards that happens to have “National” in its name. When I began biking, San Francisco seemed like a city primed to become the bike capital of the country. It was only seven miles square, it had nice weather, and it was full of both hippies and people who liked to exercise compulsively. (The hills, you say? They added drama. Plus, they were easy to cut around.) But creating bike safety infrastructure, like bike lanes that were separated from car traffic, was a process that took much, much longer than I, in my idealism, ever expected. Often, at the last minute, changes would be overruled. Or they’d have to go through an $900,000 Environmental Impact Review. Or they’d just be taken out altogether, because Caltrans had declared that a road was too critical to car transportation to put in a bike lane. According to the categorization developed by the Portland Department of Transportation, I, as a young cyclist in San Francisco, was one of “The Strong and the Fearless.” This sounds like a soap opera, but in reality describes the 0.5 percent of the population who will ride a bike regardless of the dangers of the road they are traveling. As cities have put in more bike lanes, they have brought out onto the road more of the cyclists classified as “The Enthused and Confident” – the 7 percent who are happy to take on the risks of cycling, as long as there’s a bike lane. Cities that are serious about making it safer to bike are now going after a tougher crowd: the 60 percent of the population that actually fears death on two wheels. The elderly. Parents with kids. People who haven’t been on a bike since they were kids. To accomplish this, communities face the prospect of going back into the bicycling infrastructure that they’ve already built and changing it even further — taking out street-side parking that can result in cyclists being hit by car doors; adding concrete barriers between car traffic and bike traffic; even making entire streets bicycle-only. That’s going to be a massive project. As of this month, San Francisco — and any other city in California — is one step closer to it.Filed under: Article, Cities, Living, Politics

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How BP turned a whole community into an endangered species

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Shawn EscofferyOystermen of Plaquemines Parish, La.Whether you live in Seattle, Baltimore, or Schenectady, N.Y., if you’ve had an oyster dish, chances are the shelled delicacies came from the Gulf of Mexico, most likely off the Louisiana coast, which produces a third of the nation’s oysters. Crabs? Hate to break it to you, but those luscious “Baltimore” crab cakes — yep, those are from Louisiana too. This has been a fact for a long time, but it might soon become an artifact. The reason: the BP oil spill disaster of 2010, which dumped over 205 million gallons of oil and another 2 million gallons of possibly toxic dispersants into the Gulf, devastating the area that’s responsible for 40 percent of the seafood sold commercially across the U.S. For the end user, this just means Maryland chefs actually using Maryland crabs again. But on the supply side, this means that whole communities of fishers along the Gulf Coast have been put out of business, their livelihoods ruined. Oystermen have fared among the worst in that bunch, notably the African-American oystermen who live and work in Plaquemines Parish, on the lowest end tip of Louisiana. They used to harvest a great deal of the shellfish that eventually adorned our restaurant plates, but the impacts of the BP disaster have proven too difficult to rebound from. They’re now facing “zero population” of oysters, as one seafood distributor put it. For too long, these black oystermen have been invisible not only to the nation they serve but also to the state they live in. The new documentary Vanishing Pearls from first-time filmmaker Nailah Jefferson hopes to raise the oystermen’s visibility and also our awareness of their value in our national economy and environment. Nailah JeffersonJefferson, a New Orleans resident, began making the film shortly after the BP disaster, based off a friend’s tip. She followed that tip down to Pointe à la Hache, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where a small community of black fishers live and have subsisted off the bays there for decades. (You can read more about them in this story I reported shortly after the spill.) After meeting them, Jefferson immediately concluded that the hardscrabble men and women here deserved more shine, especially in the face of a disaster that threatens to destabilize their lives with little remedy. Vanishing Pearls makes its national debut on April 18 in New York and Los Angeles. It’s the culmination of more than three years of work by Jefferson, filming and reporting on the BP disaster’s impacts long after the rest of the media shifted their focus elsewhere. The documentary was featured this January at Slamdance, the Utah-based film festival known for showcasing breakout films that Sundance slept on. Christopher Nolan and Lena Dunham are among the directors discovered at Slamdance. Slamdance also helped Jefferson catch the attention of Ava DuVernay, founder of the pioneering film distribution company African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), and the first African-American woman to win the Sundance Best Director prize for her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere. With DuVernay’s power behind the project, Vanishing Pearls will now throw more shine on the struggling black oystermen than Jefferson originally imagined. Friday’s opening coincides with the four-year commemoration of the BP disaster. I was able to catch Jefferson by phone from her home office in New Orleans to discuss her filmmaking experience and the fate of these oystermen. Q. So how does it happen that entire communities are just rendered invisible? A. Because they don’t matter enough. It’s about the money. Down there in Pointe à la Hache, you have a fishing community that has contributed so much to our state, our identity, and our economy. But what contributes more is oil and gas, and fishing has historically been in the way of the growth of oil and gas. So when up against the industry, they don’t matter. [The oystermen] know that, that the terms are unbalanced in favor of the oil and gas industry, but I don’t think they thought that a natural disaster would come and wipe out entire portions of their livelihood also. We will continue to drill, because it’s just a way of life here, but I think the state needs to work harder to strengthen regulations so that if another disaster occurs, it won’t wipe out the remaining estuaries that are still thriving. Q. While your film is about people and communities, you didn’t shy away from breaking down the environmental toll of the BP disaster. Did you personally have much background in the science? A. No, it was a steep learning curve. I interviewed Dr. Ed Cake, who’s one of three well-known oyster biologists in the Gulf Coast, because this is absolutely not my field. But I felt that if this was a story I was going to tell, I’d better dive in and figure it out. I didn’t want to bog people down with the science, but if you don’t grasp even a little bit of it, then you won’t get the whole story. Q. You show that the oyster beds were exposed to some oil and dispersants. How do you deal then with the question of whether seafood is safe to eat? A. The best way I can describe it is the way Dr. Cake explained it to me: Oysters are like the canaries in the coal mine. If they’re able to survive, thrive, and reproduce, then the waters are OK; if they’re not, then the waters are unhealthy. At the time that the spill had occurred, the dispersants had been sprayed, but the full effects hadn’t played out yet. So there were still oysters that could be harvested in that area. The last of that harvest came in late 2011. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department put a hold on fishing, closing the public [oyster bed] grounds for a long time, and then when they opened them back up, those guys went out and harvested the last of what survived. There hasn’t been much left. Q. The oystermen come across as the real scientists in your film. A. I think when people think of fishermen, they think of simple bayou people who aren’t educated. Perhaps they haven’t been in school for the longest time, or they don’t have post-grad degrees, but they are very much knowledgeable about what they do, and it’s something they’ve done for years. I wanted to show that their work is more complicated and harder than people think. You have to have a certain type of intellect to get this work and be successful at it. Q. You find many of the oystermen in the film talking about generational instructions on how to harvest oysters sustainably. Did you get the sense they were natural environmentalists? A. Yes, it was clear from when I first met them that these are the real environmentalists, because they actually have to live off the land and water. It really is in and of itself a science that’s been passed down to them, and I think it’s their passion for this work that makes them want to remain bayou residents. Q. Despite their expertise, they’ve had to play defensive with scientists and environmentalists, notably those who under the Louisiana coastal master plan want to use freshwater diversions to replenish the eroded marshlands, even though this will ruin what’s left of the oyster beds. Did you sense that professional environmentalists respected these fishers’ expertise at all? A. There isn’t proof that these freshwater diversions will work or will be as beneficial as stated. People have told them, “Look, you’re going to have to sacrifice for the greater good of the state.” If the diversions were something proven to work, then it probably wouldn’t be such a harsh pill to swallow for them. It’s not that the [environmentalists] know better [than the oystermen], they just understand things differently. We need a more collective approach moving forward. Q. What can people do after seeing your film if they want to help? A. One reason I signed with AFFRM is that they are very supportive of social advocacy campaigns. We’ve already launched one and hope to do more around supporting efforts to clean up the spill and make sure regulations are tighter so that we don’t have this kind of occurrence again. We have a petition you can sign encouraging EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to support efforts to tighten regulations under the Clean Water Act so that our streams and tributaries going into the Mississippi River won’t be polluted — and also, of course, so those communities who rely on those waters will be able to have healthy water again. —– Watch the trailer for Vanishing Pearls: Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living

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Is climate change the new slavery?

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The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out, with its layers of deadening bureaucratic prose. Climate watchers have had their latest chance to make out, as best they can, what biblical futures await us on a hotter, drier, stormier planet. Two sentences from the report’s second installment struck me with the force of a storm surge: “Climate change is projected to progressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields in many regions. These projected impacts will occur in the context of rapidly rising crop demand.” Translation: We’ll have smaller harvests in the future, less food, and 3 billion more mouths to feed. The IPCC has done an heroic job of digesting thousands of scientific papers into a bullet-point description of how global warming is shrinking food and water supplies, most drastically for the poorest of Earth’s 7 billion human inhabitants. Being scientists, though, they fail miserably to communicate the gravity of the situation. The IPPC language, at its most vivid, talks of chronic “poverty traps” and “hunger hotspots” as the 21st century unfolds. The report offers not a single graspable image of what our future might actually look like when entire populations of people — not only marginalized sub-groups — face perennial food insecurity and act to save themselves. What decisions do human communities make en masse in the face of total environmental collapse? There are no scientific papers to tell us this, so we must look to history instead for clues to our dystopian future. The last global climate crisis for which we have substantial historical records began 199 years ago this month, in April 1815, when the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia cooled the Earth and triggered drastic disruptions of major weather systems worldwide. Extreme volcanic weather — droughts, floods, storms — gripped the globe for three full years after the eruption. In the Tambora period from 1815 to 1818, the global human community consisted mostly of subsistence farmers, who were critically vulnerable to sustained climate deterioration. The occasional crop failure was part of life, but when relentless bad weather ruined harvests for two and then three years running, extraordinary, world-changing things started to happen. The magnitude and variety of human suffering in the years 1815 to 1818 are in one sense incalculable, but three continental-scale consequences stand out amid the misery: slavery, refugeeism, and the failure of states. Across what was then the Dutch East Indies, the rice crop failed for multiple years following Tambora’s eruption. In response, the common people did what they always did when faced with starvation: They sold themselves into slavery, by the tens of thousands. In faraway China, desperate parents likewise sold their children in pop-up slave markets. Across the globe, starving peasants abandoned their homes, roaming the countryside in search of food, or begging in the market towns. Irish famine refugees, numbering in the tens of thousands, were met by armed militias at the gates of towns whose inhabitants feared a kind of zombie invasion by human skeletons carrying disease. In France, tourists mistook beggars on the road for armies on the march. Meanwhile, governments everywhere feared rebellion, so they closed borders and shut down the press. Europe witnessed an upsurge of end-of-the-world cults. In southwest China, Yunnan province suffered total civic breakdown post-Tambora, only to remake itself as a rogue narco-state, new hub of the booming international opium trade. These are the sorts of world-altering disaster scenarios the IPCC’s board of scientist-bureaucrats fail to mention in their latest report. But then, climate change has never had its own proper language, a language commensurate with the threat it represents, a language that would forcefully express what it is: the great humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. To invent a language for climate change, we might start with the historical analogy of slavery, which flourished during the Tambora climate emergency two centuries ago. Like our future under climate change, slavery was a human-designed global tragedy that lasted centuries, displaced tens of millions of people, and reorganized the wealth and demographics of the planet. Like climate change, slavery institutionalized the suffering of millions of people from the global south so that folks in Europe and North America (and China) might lead more comfortable, fulfilling lives. And like climate change, few people at the time saw slavery as a serious problem. Even those who did believed nothing could be done without bringing about global economic ruin. That exact argument is used today to defend the continuation of our fossil-fuelled societies. Related Articles:Please, scientists: Tell us how you really feel about climate changeHenry David Thoreau would have given “12 Years a Slave” the Oscar for best picture, tooBlood on the leaves: The hidden environmental story in “12 Years a Slave”Some historians have argued that it was the harnessing of carbon energy — not the abolitionists — that truly made an end to slavery possible in the 19th century. But in a dark historical irony, that same carbon energy, as a pollutant altering the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, is now ushering in a new era of global slavery. Millions this century, living and yet unborn, face displaced lives without hope or freedom of choice, only desperate hardship, due to haywire changes in weather patterns. Does that make climate change the new slavery? One thing we can say with “high confidence,” to use the lingo of the IPCC, is that even now — as the U.N. panel marks its quarter-century anniversary with its fifth and most dire report — there is no international climate change movement comparable to abolitionism. For one thing, we don’t even have a name for the millions of people across the world who are passionately committed to the cause of averting climate disaster. Even Bill McKibben, probably the most effective climate activist in the United States, when branding his organization, could do no better than a number — 350, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we need to return to for climate safety. Given that climate activism is faring so badly in the public-relations stakes, perhaps it’s time to brush off the old slogan that worked so famously well for the abolitionists, the rallying cry of the greatest humanitarian victory of all time: “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” And instead of an African in chains above the caption, let’s show a crowd of faces from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the Arctic north — the faces you won’t find in the IPCC’s report, but who are stubbornly real nevertheless, living precariously in their millions on the shifting global frontlines of climate change.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

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‘Mr. Putin, Heroes Do Not Die’

New Jersey’s defiant Ukrainian population marked the death of the fallen in Maidan square with a stark warning for the Russian president.

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Baoding ready for Beijing overflow

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Baoding, a city just outside Beijing, in Hebei province will create 34 districts to absorb branches of institutes and companies based in the overcrowded capital, authorities say. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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America, Inc. at it’s Finest

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Bren-Books.com, Modern first editions and collectible fiction<

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New July 2013