Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 12, 2014

Podcast Episode 98: Interview with Michael Heiser on Ancient Aliens and Zecharia Sitchin, Part 2


Sitchin’s Planet X
From the view of an ancient
Languages scholar.

For the second episode of 2014, I give you the second part of a two-part series of one interview with Michael Heiser, a scholar and expert in ancient languages. Michael is about a once-a-year guest on Coast to Coast AM and he talks about evidence people claim from text about ancient aliens and related material.

In pretty much every Coast interview, George Noory brings up the fact that Michael isn’t a “fan” of Sitchin’s work (I emphasize his work because that’s what should be addressed, not the person but the claims). To this effect, Dr. Heiser has created the website Sitchin Is Wrong that explains in detail the faulty scholarship behind Zecharia Sitchin’s claims. In this roughly 35-minute interview part, we don’t get into specifics, but we instead address methodology and overall problems. I think it shows very well that the techniques I’ve discussed on this podcast and in this blog for astronomy also apply to a field about as far removed as you can get — that of ancient languages and texts.

Dr. Heiser has many websites, so I’ll just point you to his main website for now. All the others are linked in the shownotes.

With my Australia trip now in its last 10 days, I’m still still alive, and looking around for food to bring back. TimTams for sure. Also got some nice Huon Pine stuff from Tasmania.

January 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 97: Interview with Michael Heiser on Ancient Aliens and Zecharia Sitchin, Part 1


Ancient Aliens
From the view of an ancient
Languages scholar.

For the first of 2014, I give you the first part of a two-part series of one interview with Michael Heiser, a scholar and expert in ancient languages. How does that have anything to do with pseudoastronomy? Glad you asked: Listen to the episode! But briefly, Michael is about a once-a-year guest on Coast to Coast AM and he talks about evidence people claim from text about ancient aliens and related material. Especially Zecharia Sitchin … but that’ll have to wait for Part 2.

Dr. Heiser has many websites, so I’ll just point you to his main website for now. All the others are linked in the shownotes.

And with my Australia trip almost half over, I’m still alive, though I have photos of (1) jellyfish, (2) vegemite, and (3) high winds on Mt. Wellington … three things for the album of Things in Australia that Will Kill You but I Survived.

June 21, 2013

Podcast #78: Historic and Modern Geocentrism


Geocentrism:
An outdated idea some
Still choose to believe.

A slightly shorter episode, I explore some of the tenets of historic and modern geocentrism. Yes, some people still believe Earth is the center of the universe.

There’s also both a puzzler and Q&A. And to repeat the announcement from last episode:

If you’re going to TAM, I’m planning another li’l get-together, probably Saturday night during dinner time, in a suite in the hotel. Assuming this happens and it’s more than just me and one or two other persons, I’m also going to try to record it and the hope is for it to be sorta a Q&A and/or discussion or something like that about the general topics of the show. You can tell this is incredibly well planned at the moment. IF you’re at all interested, send me an e-mail so I can give you updates.

October 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 52: The Mystery of Phobos 2


The year was 1989, and the second of a twin spacecraft – the first having failed two months after launch – was close to its target: Mars’ moon, Phobos. Just before it was to launch its two landers to study the surface of the moon, something went wrong, and all contact was lost. The last image it sent back just before it lost contact was of a thin, cylindrical object — a UFO mothership — that must have blasted it out of the sky to hide from the Earthlings the closely-guared Illuminati secret that Phobos is actually a gigantic spaceship.

… or at least, that’s what they want you to believe.

Episode 52 addresses the “mystery” of the Phobos 2 spacecraft, and the conspiracy story that has been put together over the years that I relayed above.

Besides the somewhat shorter main segment, there are two New News items, Feedback, Puzzler (answer, no new one), and one tiny Announcement. Next episode should go up on or about October 16.

October 4, 2010

Comic Strip “Get Fuzzy” Tackles Pseudoscience with the “Big Bonk” Theory


Introduction

I listen to a lot of Coast to Coast AM. I know that a good fraction of the guests are quite literally certifiable, but it’s a good distraction from the mundane work day and, well, it can get addicting.

One of the hallmarks of the show, and something that its originator Art Bell would frequently say, is that that they will put ANYONE on to talk about ANYTHING (so long as it’s civil, etc.). This means that you get a lot of crazies. Same with folks who call in (despite the screeners). People who advocate pretty much anything and everything that the “mainstream” does not advocate. And a frequent refrain is that their “theory” is just as good as the mainstream one.

The Parody

Note: All images posted here can be opened in a new window and will be roughly double the posted size for easier reading.

Early in my college career I was introduced to the comic strip Get Fuzzy drawn by Darby Conley, one of the only things to which I’m thankful for my roommate. But that’s a different story. Anyway, the premise behind the strip is a single guy, Rob, living in an apartment with an anthropomorphized talking cat and dog. The cat, Bucky, is fairly insane while the dog, Satchel, is fairly dopy. I think the height of the strip was a few weeks where the cat was suing the ferret next door for knocking out his tooth … on Judge Judy.

Anyway, starting September 20 and going through October 2, barring the Sundays, the artist ran a story where Bucky decides to challenge, in a very Coast to Coast AM -like way, the idea that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. The September 21, 2010 strip follows:

September 21, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 21, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

Well, when put like that, the scientific consensus seems laughable. But that’s because you have left out a significant amount of information. But it gets better. In the strip from September 24, 2010, the final line from Satchel is actually one that the Coast to Coast AM host, George Noory, has stated many times to someone’s crazy idea:

September 24, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 24, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

Continuing:

September 27, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 27, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 29, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 29, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 30, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

September 30, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

October 2, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

October 2, 2010, Get Fuzzy Strip

The Moral of the Story: Final Thoughts

Why am I taking the little free time I have these days to make a post about a comic that has little to do with astronomy? Because it has everything to do with how people think. And it has everything to do with how that maybe 1% of the population is willing to elevate any hair-brained notion to the same status as a scientific theory that has theoretical and observational backing and has withstood all attempts at falsifying it. And I do mean all.

This series may be a comic strip, but people really do this kind of thing, and worse, there are people who unquestioningly believe the one lone nut who promotes it!

The next time you read about or hear about or see about someone’s “theory,” pause and think. Don’t just accept it at face value. Is there evidence behind it? Are they giving you all the background information? Are they making things up, or are they “on the level?” In the end, is it something that’s worth your time to investigate further and seek out independent information, or is it just another “Big Bonk?”

Legal note: All images shown here are housed on the original server and I did not download them. All are copy written by Darby Conley and distributed by UFS, Inc. and posted online at comics.com. For brevity, I have not posted all strips in the series but picked the most relevant.

July 17, 2010

Should the Public Be Able to Choose What Science to Believe?


Introduction

This blog post is about a statement made by Dr. Caroline Crocker on the ID The Future podcast episode from July 12, 2010, entitled, “Setting the Record Straight with Caroline Crocker.”

Got that straight? This is NOT about the Intelligent Design movement, it is NOT about evolution versus creationism versus ID, it is NOT about the movie Expelled, nor is it about Caroline Crocker.

Setting Up the Question

In the podcast episode, Dr. Crocker made an off-hand remark (starting about 7 min 15 sec into the episode):

“I also believe that freedom, which is foundational in our society, requires people to have choices. And if people are not given options – that is they’re not told the whole scientific truth in as much as they can understand it and most people I find can understand if you just explain – then they don’t have any choice! And I think it’s very important that people are given complete explanations, and that’s actually one reason I set up the American Institute for Technology and Science Education, so that people would have an opportunity to hear scientific options and to have a choice.”

That’s a long paragraph, about 30 seconds of speech, but what it really boils down to is this: Dr. Crocker thinks (based upon my understanding of what she stated) that people should be told the entire body of science behind something (i.e., she obviously is talking about evolution, but it would extend to any science). Once they are told this, which she believes they can understand, then they should be allowed to make their own choice about what they want to believe.

Hence the title of this blog post: Should the public be able to choose what science to believe?

An Example

I have perhaps written the title in a confrontational manner, more-so than need-be. I’m not trying to set up a post where I say that scientists from on high should pass down edicts of what is Truth and those must be followed without question. What I am asking, rather, is if the lay, non-scientifically trained public are in a position where they can make an educated opinion on a technical subject after being explained the basics for a few minutes.

Let’s have an example, and since this is an astronomy blog, we’ll take an example from astronomy. Let’s take Earth’s moon and how it may have formed.

Decades ago, the original theory (yes, I’m using that word correctly) was Earth’s moon formed the same way Earth did, in Earth’s orbit, from the solar nebula. But that had problems with it (like it couldn’t explain the composition differences). The second theory was it got captured, as we think Mars’ moons were captured and many of the giant planets’ moons were captured asteroids. But that has problems because there’s no good way to get rid of the extra velocity. The third one, this time I’d classify as a hypothesis, was the “fission” idea where Earth was spinning really quickly and it basically spun off the moon out of the Pacific ocean. This, however, required a ridiculously high spin rate and didn’t take into account plate tectonics.

Finally now we have the fourth theory that is pretty well established and has been nick-named, “The Big Splash.” This is where a Mars-sized impactor hit Earth early on, nearly destroying Earth, but throwing up a debris cloud that formed the moon in Earth orbit. This explains almost all the characteristics we observe of the moon.

But last year another hypothesis was proposed, one that some people have termed, “The Big Burp” (yeah, astronomers are real creative … everything is the “Big” something). The idea here is that, deep inside Earth’s mantle, a buildup of radioactive material suddenly went critical and there was a spontaneous nuclear reaction, blowing out a chunk of Earth that formed the moon. Kinda similar to the fission idea, but a different mechanism for the moon’s ejection.

As anyone who reads my blog semi-regularly knows, I just finished teaching an introductory astronomy class for non-majors. This was a solar system class, and we discussed the formation of Earth’s moon in about a third of a class period. I briefly went through the historic ideas and the problems with them in order to show why we think the “Big Splash” is the best model. I didn’t go into the “Big Burp” at all because (a) it is a very new proposal, and (b) it was published in a low-review journal after being rejected from mainstream ones.

When discussing all these different formation models, I didn’t go very deep into them. I explained them in about as much detail as I did above, with basically a one-sentence description. Then I went over some of the pros and cons for each. And when we got to the Big Splash, I said that this is the one that happened, this is THE way the moon formed, and they all scribbled it down, stared blankly, were dozing on their desks, or trying to hide that they were txting on their cell phones.

If Dr. Crocker’s position is to be carried to this, and I believe whole-heartedly this is what she is arguing, then I did my students a disservice. I should have gone into equal detail for each proposal. I should have explained thoroughly the pros and cons for each. I should definitely have included the Big Burp. And when all was said and done, after spending 45 minutes going through these, I should have said, “Now you have the information, it is up to you to make up your own minds as to what happened and how the moon formed.”

That’s right. Without any of the theoretical backing, without an understanding for three-body dynamical systems (problem with Theory #2), without an understanding of chemistry and mineralogy (problem with #1, #3), without an understanding of basic Newtonian mechanics and material strength (problem with #3), or nuclear forces and the structure of Earth (problem with #5), after explaining to the students the basics of each I am supposed to let them make up their own minds.

My Thoughts

I think if you have much perceptive ability you can tell what I think the answer should be to my rhetorical question based upon my last two paragraphs. Scientists in any given field of study will reach conclusions about their field based upon an thorough understanding of the data, an understanding that pretty much can ONLY come with studying it for years and years. No research field exists in a vacuum (despite what some “amateur scientists” will claim), and you have to have a lot of background information from a broad base before you can actually understand a problem.

As a planetary scientist, I have a broad, 10-year background in physics, geology, and astronomy, and that background allows me to make an informed conclusion about the state of the science and which lunar formation proposal is the most likely to represent what really happened. If it were almost any other field, I wouldn’t even go into the historical ideas, I would just jump in and say, “The ‘Big Splash’ is how the moon formed” and then explain what that means (teaching astronomy is rather unique in the sciences because we do A LOT of history of the field). But, if we were to extend Dr. Crocker’s thoughts to a field other than evolution (which is obviously what she is talking about), then I would be infringing upon my students’ right to make up their own mind without my influencing their decision.

Okay, a Teensy Bit of Ridicule

I was trying to be fairly objective and ignore evolution etc. in this, but I think I really should at least mention the whole larger context for this and the obvious case to what Dr. Crocker wants this to apply. Dr. Crocker appears to be an avid advocate for the whole “Teach the Controversy” when it comes to teaching evolution. She thinks that students should be presented with evolutionary theory at the basic level that they already are, but then also taught the problems with it that are normally not talked about until you get to a graduate level of study. The reason for the normal delay in teaching the problems is that they are minor problems on the more fine layers of evolutionary theory. For example, we know that the large cake of evolution is perfectly fine and holds its own, it’s a question then of if there are ripples in the icing on top that can’t be smoothed away yet. Anyway … besides teaching evolution and its problems, the whole other side to “Teach the Controversy” is that there should also be an equivalent amount of time devoted to intelligent design and creationism since they also have something to say about how different species came about. And then the students should be able to decide themselves what to believe.

It would be the same as with my moon example: I explain each hypothesis and also throw in that on the third day God created the moon by magic (Genesis 1:16). And then let them decide, and on the test when I ask them, not count any response wrong.

I gotta say, I think that’s silly. And it’s irresponsible. And it does the students a disservice because it makes them think that all ideas are equal, when in fact they’re not. The reason the majority of scientists who study this think that the moon formed in the “Big Splash” is because it best explains the observational evidence without resorting to something supernatural/alien/whatever.

Final Thoughts

So, does it make sense that the public should have all sides explained to them equally, assumed they understand them and all the background, and then allowed to make up their own mind and have it be just as valid a conclusion as anyone else’s? I think when you actually look at the issue in this way, fully exploring the consequences of the proposal, then the answer is reasonably obvious, and it is a resounding, “No.”

But when simply phrased in a, “let’s give people options because that’s what a free society does,” it seems so deceptively simple. Until you follow through with what it actually would mean.

I think I’ll close with a statement my former officemate made that I have repeated several times on this blog: Science is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy. Only the best ideas survive because they become the most widely accepted because they convince people who know how to understand the idea through their ability to explain the observational evidence.

July 14, 2010

The Sun’s Binary Companion, Nemesis – Fact or Fiction?


Introduction

It’s the stuff of science fiction – companion planets to our Earth, or a companion star to our sun. Wouldn’t it be cool (or maybe hot) to see two suns in the sky? Maybe even of different colors? Could our sun actually have one and we just don’t know it?

Nemesis

No, I’m not talking about the one bad even-numbered Star Trek movie. Three decades ago, a group of scientists examined the geologic record and found that, seemingly like clockwork, there was a major extinction event on Earth roughly every 27 million years. Our planet doesn’t go through a cycle like that, though, by itself (that we know of), and cycles of that length of time are usually an indication of an astronomical source. After all, we are talking about astronomical timescales here (I love words with double meanings).

The paper was published in 1984, by two paleontologists: Raup, D.M., and Sepkoski, J.J. (1984). “Periodicity of Extinctions in the Geologic Past.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 81, pp. 801-805. Kindly, the paper is available online for free (Click Me!). I skimmed through the paper and did a text search, and I mention this because no where do the authors actually state that there may be a companion star. Rather, they are more vague and simply state:

“[We may be] seeing the effects of a purely biological phenomenon or whether periodic extinction results from recurrent events or cycles in the physical environment. If the forcing agent is in the physical environment, does this reflect an earthbound process or something in space? If the latter, are the extraterrestrial influences solar, solar system, or galactic? … [W]e favor extraterrestrial causes …”

Two papers followed that one in 1984, this time by astronomers, suggesting that the unnamed extraterrestrial forcing agent was a possible companion star to the sun that orbited very far away, but would sometimes come close in and disturb the Oort Cloud (a vast region of cometary nuclei that extends far from the sun). This disturbance would send some comets to the inner solar system, periodically at that fixed orbital interval, and an impact event on Earth could then cause a mass extinction.

That’s the basic idea behind Nemesis.

A Binary Companion?

This is not so odd as it may seem. It is estimated that fully 60% or more of stars in our galaxy are in a binary system, where two stars are gravitationally linked together and orbit each other around a common center of mass. Most that we have identified have orbital periods that are reasonably short, like less than a few thousand years.

It’s possible for a binary system to have an orbital period significantly longer. The problem is that we can’t really tell. By far, the easiest way to detect a binary system should be to see the two stars orbiting each other. The problem is that stars don’t do this very quickly, and for two stars that are far enough apart to actually see as separate objects from Earth, they won’t orbit each other in a human lifetime.

Obviously, since we know of many binary star systems, there are other ways to detect them. That’s not the focus of this blog post, though. I just wanted to talk about it for background information.

But, it sets the stage for the sun’s potential companion: Another star, a small, faint one (a brown dwarf or red dwarf), that takes roughly 26 million years to complete one orbit. This means that its average distance from the sun is roughly 90,000 times the Earth-sun distance. That’s really far away in terms of trying to see something that’s really small and faint.

Why This Post?

This is a fairly random topic to talk about, and one may be wondering why I’m doing it. It’s because there was a recent Wired Science article about it, with the typical poor media headline that makes something much more sensational than it actually is: “Death Star Off the Hook for Mass Extinctions.”

That’s not the science, it is the conclusions of a new study that extends the original database of extinctions from 250 million years to 500 million years. The authors of this latest study say that the extinctions occur at almost “exactly” 27 million years. Because the proposed Nemesis star is relatively far away from the sun, it would be perturbed in its orbit by passing stars, and this would cause some fluctuation in the 27 million-year cycle. The new authors claim that the observed pattern is too predictable for a star that can be perturbed.

The rebuttal by many is that the geologic record is not precise enough to say that it’s “exactly” 27 million years, and that the margin of error in the dates more than allows there to be a changing frequency that a companion star can be responsible for.

Personally, I agree.

Absence of Evidence Is Not Evidence of Absence

The obvious problem for the Nemesis hypothesis is that we haven’t found the star. Many have looked for it, but a rather convenient happenstance of timing is that right now it would be about as far as it gets from the sun, so it is the most difficult to detect from Earth. Nemesis has not been found.

However, it would be a fallacy to claim that this absence of evidence is evidence of absence, at least for the time being. There are now several telescopes that have the sensitivity and are looking over the entire sky that are fully capable of finding a Nemesis-type star. We’ll see what happens. If these surveys come up empty-handed, then it becomes much less likely that the star is out there, and a different mechanism will need to be proposed.

Final Thoughts

I’ve always thought the Nemesis hypothesis is an interesting one. I like the idea that something as basic as a companion star to the sun is still out there, undiscovered. I also like to think astronomy is important, and an extraterrestrial cause for mass extinction events would definitely be a notch on the “YES, Astronomy is Important” side of the scoreboard.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that some people have fallaciously tied Nemesis into 2012 doomsday scenarios, saying that it’s Nemesis that is Planet X that will cause everything to go boom in 2012, or saying that it’s the Christian biblical “Wormwood” from the book of Revelation that it itself will destroy Earth in an apocalypse. Hopefully needless to day, those ideas for Nemesis are baseless.

July 9, 2010

If Darwin Is Responsible for the Holocaust, Newton Is Responsible for Bombs


Introduction

Well, my class is over, at least one student is complaining about their final grade, and I’m diving back in to trying to get back to work and play. And blogging — yeah, that too.

I hadn’t thought of a good quick post topic to write about lately until I saw someone else’s post tonight about the Discovery Institute yet again reviving the canard that Darwin is responsible for the Holocaust. But the blogger raised an interesting point that I hadn’t thought about before, so I decided to do my own quick post on it.

Darwin and the Holocaust

If any of you are unfortunate enough to have watched that Ben Stein docudrama piece of G-rated-term-inserted that came out a year or so ago, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” then you know that a common claim of the Intelligent Design movement — indeed, any “anti-Darwin” or “-Evolution” movement – is that the idea of human evolution from a more “primitive” creature is directly linked to and the cause of lots of atrocities such as Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s holocaust, forced sterilization, eugenics, and so on.

This isn’t a straw man here — if you’re not aware of these claims, then I invite you to read any of the following:

Any of those will do. And now, let’s be clear: Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, the same day and year as Abraham Lincoln. Conjures up an immediate feeling of “cool” and “he must be great” due to that simple association with Lincoln, right? Contrast that with: Darwinism led to Hitler! Gasp! Shudder! Instead of that warm, fuzzy feeling your gut is now reeling in contempt for the man. Hence why comparison with or association with or even just mentioning Hitler these days is almost in and of itself a logical fallacy (poisoning the well or ad hominem).

Anyway, my purpose here is to present what the ID folks and some Christians are doing in order to attack the formalizer of evolutionary theory and the theory itself, trying to link it with culturally distasteful concepts, happenings, and people. Let’s also be clear: Darwin died in 1882, fully a half century before the Nazi holocaust.

Does This Make Sense?

The purpose of this blog is not at all about evolution. But rather astronomy with some physics and geology thrown in. Hence the connection to the above: Claiming that Darwin was the cause of Hitler’s holocaust, or eugenics, or whatever is the same as saying that Isaac Newton is responsible for bombs. Or for missiles. Yes, dear reader, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter that projectile weapons had been in use for, oh, maybe 100,000 years before Newton was born. Or that missiles weren’t created until maybe 300 years after Newton died. Doesn’t matter. It’s the exact same logic that the Intelligent Design folks use to say Darwin was responsible for the holocaust.

Why? Because Newton formulated gravity. Without understanding how gravity works and being able to predict how objects will behave when forces are applied, then we can’t understand how bombs or missiles work. The entire idea behind “The Rocket Equation” (the bane of undergrad physics) wouldn’t have been possible without the gravitational theory Newton formulated or the calculus he is generally credited with creating. (“The Rocket Equation” is a differential equation that describes the motion of a rocket as mass is lost because in a rocket, the fuel is a significant fraction of the initial mass.)

The Bottom Line

Does that mean, from an actual objective view, that Newton really is responsible for missiles? Or is Archimedes responsible for battleships (after all, he’s generally credited with figuring out buoyancy)? Of course not. These men developed ideas of science that could predict how things would behave in the future and explain how things behaved in the past.

Similarly, Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution to describe the scientific theory that all creatures are descended from a common ancestor. This theory describes how things behaved in the past, and it is used to predict how things will behave or discoveries that will be made in the future.

So, Darwin Isn’t Responsible for the Holocaust?

No, he’s not. A scientific theory in itself does not have any sense of morality attached to it. It just is. It is neither good nor bad. People can use it and abuse it for good or bad things. Just as Newton’s theory of gravity describes how a missile launched from Iran can strike Israel, it also describes how Apollo 11 landed on the moon and returned safely with its crew. Using a theory to do something that is considered good or bad by the majority says nothing about that theory’s origin, nor should the blame or credit be given, necessarily, to that theory’s formulator.

Science is built upon the shoulders of giants, and if Darwin hadn’t formulated evolution when he did, someone else would have shortly thereafter. Similarly for Relativity — if Einstein hadn’t formulated it when he did, someone else would have very soon after, for the pieces were already out there, they just needed someone to put them together in a new way.

Final Thoughts

If you’re still not understanding this, let’s think of it a different way. Let’s use Christianity. Many Christians, I’m sure, are wonderful people who believe that Christianity stands for helping the sick, feeding the homeless, keeping children off the streets and occupied with productive things, and so on and so forth. Those are the tangible things – I’m ignoring the more spiritual for purposes of this argument.

So under this idea, priests will go to hospitals and sit with people who need to just have someone there with them. Churches will organize groups to work at a soup kitchen, etc.

But, using the exact same philosophy, using Christianity as a justification, the Crusades were launched from Europe, killing tens of thousands. The Inquisition destroyed livelihoods and lives throughout Europe a few centuries later. Literal witch hunts killed dozens in America, but tens of thousands across much of England and some of Europe only a century or two after that.

People will give Jesus credit for the ideas of Christianity and why they are volunteering in a school for underprivileged children, or running a daycare in the church basement. Do they also give Jesus credit for killing hundreds of thousands of people because of everything else people have done supposedly in his name?

Think about that next time you hear someone say that Darwin is responsible for Hitler.

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