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Nina's Blog

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Sarah Saxon is a senior at Roland Park Country School working as a BJEN intern this spring. She authored this guest entry.

Recently someone told me about a new website called Blackle. The site was created by Heap Media, and it is powered by Google. Basically, it is a more sustainable form of Google. Why? You might ask. Well, instead of having a screen that is all white with black writing, the screen is all black with white writing. This is more sustainable because it conserves energy. According to Roberson et al., “Image displayed is primarily a function of the user's color settings and desktop graphics, as well as the color and size of open application windows; a given monitor requires more power to display a white (or light) screen than a black (or dark) screen”. The amount of energy conserved can be seen on the site’s main page. It says that presently, 1,256,001.441 Watt hours have been saved. Although this is a small amount, it is one step in a larger action to reduce energy use.

What you can do to help:
Heap Media claims that Blackle was created in order “to remind us all of the need to take small steps in our everyday lives to save energy”. Heap Media encourages users to set Blackle as their home page. “This way every time you load your internet browser you will save a little bit of energy”.

In order to learn more about Blackle, you can go to the website and click the “About Blackle” button on the bottom of the page. You can also find out more about how to save energy and stay updated about the site.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

green stimulus

For those of you who do not regularly read Grist (one of the best green news services), here is a rundown of the green items in the proposed stimulus package:

The $789 billion economic-recovery bill looks good in terms of green spending, according to preliminary analysis from the Center for American Progress. The House and Senate reached agreement on the bill on Wednesday and are expected to approve it by the end of the week; President Obama hopes to sign it into law by Presidents' Day.

The bill contains at least $62.2 billion in direct spending on green initiatives and $20 billion in green tax incentives, while funding for nuclear and coal projects was dropped from the final version. Here's the breakdown:

Energy transmission and alternative energy research:

$11 billion for smart grid
$7.5 billion for renewable energy and transmission-line construction
$400 million for the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy for the development of alternative energy sources and efficiency

$4.5 billion for energy-efficiency improvements to federal buildings
$6.3 billion for local government energy-efficiency grants
$2.25 billion for energy-efficiency retrofits for low-income housing
$2.25 billion for the HOME Investment Partners Program to retrofit community low-income housing
$5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program for efficiency in low-income households
$510 million for energy-efficiency retrofits for Native American housing programs
$420 million for energy-efficiency improvements at the Department of Defense
$300 million for Department of Defense research on energy efficiency at military installations
$300 million for the appliance rebate program for Energy Star products
Mass transit and advanced automobiles:

$8.4 billion for transit capital assistance programs
$8 billion for Amtrak and intercity passenger rail
$300 million for the purchase of more alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles for the federal fleet
$300 million in grants and loans for technologies that reduce diesel emissions
Green jobs training:

$500 million for green jobs programs through the Workforce Investment Act

Most "enviros," as the motley collection of green movement advocacy leaders are called, are very pleased.

I will be back with my more personal blogs very soon! Meanwhile, at least there is a green lining in this sad economic climate we find ourselves in.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

the best things in life are free

Dr. Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering has recently published a paper that shows that many of our most politically fair-haired energy solutions (clean coal, ethanol, biomass, nuclear, etc) are actually the most expensive and the most destructive to use. Rather, he argues, wind and concentrated solar power are the best options before us today and can go a long way to supplying the doubling of the power demand that is expected by 2030. Even transportation energy, if most of our fleet goes electric.

Read more about his findings and, if you are scientifically-minded or otherwise intellectually intrepid, follow the link on the right of the page to read Dr. Jacobson's article in Energy and Environmental Science (First published on the web 1st December 2008).

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our President-Elect

I confess: I wept during Obama's speech last night. Truly wept as I had not done in a long time. They were tears of relief. They were tears of gratitude. They were tears that undammed the clogged and unwanted reservoir of pain and embarrassment and worry and frustration that had built up for too many years. The flow opened the reservoir, letting it empty. It is making room for tomorrow.

I needed to hear the words he spoke, words of hope, unity, daring, dignified confidence. They called me to duty and sacrifice, to believe in our collective wisdom, talents and abilities. How can I not respond? And how long has it been since our leaders so believed in us that we were deeply moved to believe in them?

I have dear friends and family who supported McCain. This entry is not about politics. It is not about them and us. It is about America, and how we again are being called to be our best selves and lead this imperiled world to a blessed future.

For all of us, it is a new day. And it is up to us to help make it a great one for all humanity.

In order to do that, among all the other sacred challenges we face, we must also continue to work for a healthy, green world. Please take a look at President-Elect Obama's environmental and energy policies.

You can find them on his website, and easily see them if you simple google 'barack obama environment'. I am attaching two weblinks - hoping they will provide an easy access to them. But if not, with a tiny bit of exertion on your part, you will readily find them.

This is his policy on the environment:

This is his policy on energy:

May we, and the world, work together to build a new, blessed era for us all.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

lessons learned from wood burning stoves

I know there are many of you who are way ahead of me on this one. I must confess that not only am I a late-comer to the joys and environmental value of wood burning stoves, but I actually bought a house with one and removed it in the renovations!

Now, I see the light. First of all, it calms you better than an aquarium. The hearthiness, the earthiness, the physical engagement (you have to manage the wood flow, the air flow, the cleanliness, the timing), the visual comfort of the flames, the colors and the show, especially if the window is spacious. (The heat of the fire cleans the window constantly so it is always clear.)

I have a backyard filled with wood, and with the cost of oil these days (yup, my electricity is all wind powered but my heat is oil), this stove will pay for itself in 2-3 years.

Here are things I am learning about the benefits of a wood-burning stove:

-- the newest stoves have a burn cycle that consumes most of the smoke's particulate matter and is said to burn so efficiently that it leaves less of a residue (including less CO2 - though I welcome an explanation of how this works) than naturally decomposing wood.

-- CO2 put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is CO2 that what would have been safely sequestered deep underground, save for the fact that we dug it out of the ground, and are now releasing it. Burning fossil fuel changes the CO2 equation, for the worse.

-- CO2 put into the atmosphere by burning wood would have been released into the atmosphere through decomposition anyway. So by burning wood, we are not adding to the cycle of existing above-ground, loose, CO2. That is, burning wood is CO2 neutral - and sustainable, as long as additional trees grow in their stead. (The source of the wood for these stoves could become an issue if we begin to destroy more trees than are replanted. A net-loss of tree cover is bad - no matter what the reason for cutting down the trees.)

-- Most interesting to me, however, is what I learned about radiant stoves and how that is being emulated in the broader construction and building maintenance business.

Wood stoves largely come in two varieties: circulating air and radiant. They both burn wood efficiently. They both heat the house. But one (circulating air) heats the air directly, and the other (radiant) heats a material (cast iron or soapstone) that absorbs and stores the heat and releases it evenly over an extended period of time. To heat air directly is to allow the heat to dissipate quickly. When the fire is gone, so is the heat. But when the fire's heat is absorbed by these efficient heat-storing materials, and released slowly over time, the fire keeps heating even after it is out.

The lessons learned here go beyond wood burning stoves. We build power plants to meet the maximum peak energy demand of a region. That is, we have to build new power plants mostly because most of us wake up between 6 am and 9 am and use hot water, lights, shavers, hair dryers, toasters, microwaves, coffee machines all at the same time. However, at 3:00 am, almost all of us are asleep, and the energy demand is minimal. If we could somehow shift our energy use schedule, and spread it out more evenly over the course of the day, we would not have to continue building new power plants at the same rate as is demanded today.

However, few of us are going to get up at 3:00 am or stumble around in the dark or otherwise make the significant shifts we have to (moving up to 50% of our daily energy use to off-peak hours). However, if the burden were placed not on the consumer to shift their use, but placed on the industry to create ways to store its energy, that might be a most useful tactic.

That is, what if the power companies generated a steady rate of energy 24 hours a day - and stored it in big batteries (or whatever creative technology they can devise - and I believe they can with the proper incentives and investments). The public, you and me, would draw on the energy as we needed it - and could even be enticed to shift some of our energy use, say, dishwashing, oven cleaning and clothes washing to off-peak hours, especially since many of these appliances are coming with built-in timers to help us do that.

But mostly, with efficient storage systems, the generation of energy could be constant even while the consumption of energy would still follow the circadian flow of human activity. Would this reduce our energy use or our CO2 emissions? Maybe. I need to learn more about that. But it would reduce the cost and waste associated with building and operating additional, unnecessary, facilities.

Heat storage and delayed release is what my stove is teaching me. That is what some construction companies and businesses are doing. They are using materials that can store and time-release the heat and cool that they have stored to ease peak-time energy crunches.

Solutions are at hand. There is no one single magic bullet - but with thousands of little innovations, we can conserve, shift and redirect our energy so that we can run a more efficient, and ultimately healthier society, both for the economy and the environment.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bidding 5768 goodbye

The difficulties we are experiencing at the end of this year are certainly making it a pleasure to bid it goodbye. The financial markets worldwide, led by the United States mortgage fiasco, are teetering and fragile. Unemployment is up. Consumer confidence is down. Ethical behavior is in tatters. Basic rights guaranteed under the constitution of the United States are sliced away in the guise of security and our own best interest. How could the Treasury Secretary even imagine, even as a bargaining ploy, to dare ask for the exclusive, non-reviewable, non-challengeable, non-supervised right to single-handedly manage and distribute $700 billion?

And we just learned that despite all our efforts at stabilizing our atmospheric greenhouse gases, they rose 3% this past year, almost all increases coming from the developing world. China - now the largest contributor to greenhouse gases - is responsible for 60% of this 3% increase. The good news is that we in the "developed world" are holding our emissions steady - and soon might be able to see them decline. Just this past week Maryland and nine other eastern states held their first Regional Greenhouse Gas carbon auction, which will both limits CO2 emissions and create funds for alternative energy research.

So while things are looking rough we cannot throw up our hands. Just as China is beginning to crack down on manufacturing abuses that are killing their children, sooner or later China will begin to crack down on the pollution that is killing the world's environment. And when they do, we should be ready with technologies that can help them. Then, we will be the grand exporters and China the importers. We will turn the economic tables. Green industry, research and technology can re-establish America at the head of the technological revolution and enable us to become the green industry leaders. But we must invest well, fully and wisely.

This is not the time to be timid.

We created the money to prosecute a fabricated war; and to bail out a banking industry that could have avoided this whole fiasco if it just did not seek usurious rates from greed-driven mortgages.

We might not think we have any money left over for grand, Manhattan Project like efforts to green our industries, but surely if we do not invest in efficiency technologies, in new renewable forms of energy, we will within ten years be spending billions of dollars we also do not have to take care of people displaced by - and repair their homes damaged in - increasingly angry storms, spend more money on a gallon of clean water than a gallon of gasoline when local water systems are polluted and unhealthy, heat and cool our homes with over-priced energy that continues to degrade the environment.

The environmental picture is not looking much better despite all our efforts. But we cannot stop - rather must work harder. How do we do that and not give in to despair? What keeps us going?

No doubt we each have our own answer. In no small measure it is the company we keep, the comforting and encouraging presence of those who care just as much as we. And just like the star thrower - who threw back all the starfish he could, even thought there were many more he could not - we do what we can, hoping that cumulatively someday it will all add up to something big. No doubt someday it will.

And some of us keep going for the pure joy we get from less, from a life of increased simplicity. From buying less, and wasting less, and disturbing the world less. Surprisingly, the less gives me so much more - a greater appreciation of all, an awareness of worlds in littler things and individual acts. Being green isn't just good; it is fundamentally, life-alteringly, fulfilling.

My very best wishes to you all for a healthy, sweet, green new year, filled with its full share of blessings that will heal this fractured world of ours.

Shana tova

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A blessing for turning on the light

I just bumped into Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce. And I am just on page 21 - so you may know something about this book that I don't. But I have been struck with the passion, data and hutzpah of the book already.

He takes on the myth of America's business ethic - saying that "The ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money... The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy."

That is not the general way we hear people talking about business. Hawken argues that in order to live in a "green" society, we must not only ask how do we save the environment, we must also ask, how do we save business, for it is only when business can thrive while being green will we all prosper.

I will let you now if the book continues to inspire or takes a turn somewhere. But the datum that caused me to write this entry is the following:

According to Hawken, in 1993 - the year the book was written - humankind consumed in ONE DAY the amount of energy it took the young earth 10,000 days to create. That is, in 24 hours, we consume 27 years-worth of converted sunlight. And that was back then. Imagine the rate of consumption now.

No matter how big and how old the earth is, that rate of consumption is clearly way out of whack with a sustainable society.

That's it. I just wanted to share that stunning datum. And suggest:

If we make a blessing every time we eat - thanking God for the energy that has gone into the sowing and growing and harvesting and threshing and kneading and baking, surely there ought to be a blessing every time we turn on the light.

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

19.7 cubic feet

Try as I might, I could not muster the time or energy to blog over Passover. Much like our ancestors, my experience of the holiday began with the food preparations and consumed me until now.

Thursday before the holiday was devoted to purchasing food stuffs, which often felt more like hunting and scavenging. I went from store to store to find all that I needed for the three day opening onslaught (Shabbat and the first two days, including the two seders). My seemingly, out-of-character, apparently indulgent - not to mention expensive - food shopping spree so alarmed my credit card company that they froze my card temporarily, not for lack of funds but for suspicious activity.

Thursday night was devoted to the final marathon cleaning, putting hametz dishes away and bringing down the passover ware.

Friday was devoted to cooking. And more cooking.

Friday night, we were off and running.

Between exhaustion, guests, work and the incessant cycle of cooking/cleaning/cooking/cleaning, there was little time to blog. For the reality of a home that that is the hub of Passover is that for a whole week, every morsel of food that we eat has to be prepared from scratch, by hand in one's kitchen that very week (unless you are really good and either transform your kitchen weeks earlier or have the indulgent luxury of a separate kitchen. Or I supposed you could hire someone to cook for you, but now we trespass in the territory of make-believe.) No eating out, no buying prepared food, no dipping into the freezer for food you cooked weeks earlier for such an occasion. The constancy of the kitchen, for those of us who ordinarily spend as little time as possible there, is humbling.

But that is not the point of this blog. Just an explanation for the blog blackout period.

The point of the blog is this: a month before Passover, I disconnected our second refrigerator/freezer. It has become de rigueur in the burbs to have two, sometimes three, refrigerators and freezers. But that appliance is one of the greediest power eaters in our homes. A 20 cubic feet refrigerator/freezer (roughly the one I have and most likely you too) uses 2700 KW a year. That annual usage is exceeded in most typical homes only by the water heater and air conditioner. (For a fascinating glimpse at typical home appliance consumption rates, go to

We too have two r/fs. And that was perhaps, maybe, somewhat defensible when my children were smaller and thus the household larger. But today, there are three of us in this large home. So a month before Passover, I determined, by fiat, that we were going to reduce our cold food storage to what we could fit into one unit, our 19.7 cubic foot refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen. It took us a while to eat down our stock. We buy less at a time now, but amazingly don't find we are going to the store more often. We just have less stashed away at any one time. And the bright side is that our freezer food is fresher, not having stayed in the cold recesses of climate-controlled cave for months, courtesy of abundant frozen space.

But I write about this now because for Passover, I needed to return to two fully functioning units. What with feeding 20 people at a seder and 6-8 at most subsequent meals. So now once again, after stocking up my two units, I need to cull and trim and get back into one unit. Despite my previous wrestling with this storage space diet, 19.7 cubic feet still looks so very small. And yet I realize that is probably larger than most home refrigeration units in most of the world. The whole closet - for that is what it is, just cold - is almost as big as a twin bed. And we are back to three people in my household. So why do I need more space; and why does my refrigerator feel so small? What grand level of luxury and abundance has become the norm in our lives so that I feel like I am now shoving my life's food stock into a handbag? Maybe I should line the back wall with mylar or mirrors to make it feel twice as big?

Old habits of abundance, even excess, are hard to break. But I am now off to consolidate, bringing the residue of holiday foods from the second r/f into the neighborhood of the kitchen r/f. It almost feels like crossing the railroad tracks; merging two classes, two cultures. I hope everybody plays nicely in the dark.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Greening our Home

Two bits of green news on the home front:

First the hard news:

We had our home energy audit today. A wonderful company called TerraLogos came by and for a few hundred dollars, checked us out. With cool gadgets such as hand-held laser remote temperature seekers with a cute little screen that shows where the house is leaking out, pouring out, costly warmth, to a door-sized blower that measures the pressure differential in your house to locate exactly where you need to stanch the air flowing out of (or in the summertime, into) your home, to an assessment of my appliances, they are going to help me understand where all my energy inefficiencies are skulking about, and what I can do about it.

The full report comes in two weeks - I will be certain to share the news with all of you. (What do you think: a new reality show?!? Who thought watching people buy houses would be a winner?) In the meantime, as a sneak peak, Atticus, my gentle but thorough inspector (how can you not like a guy named Atticus? It conjures up images of Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, with all the righteousness and courage he portrayed.) showed me that my leaky house was operating at twice the air transfer or pull or some such (I will be able to report more precisely in two weeks) than we should be.

Now, on the one hand, we can be looking at thousands of dollars to fix all these problems. On the other, as Atticus kindly pointed out, there are lots of places for us to save, both in money and CO2 emissions. So the question is really not can we do anything, but what do we do when?

The better news is this:

In reviewing our energy bills with Atticus, we noticed that over the past two years, which coincide with our coming-of-age as more aware energy consumers, we cut our summer electrical bill in half, and our winter electrical bill by 20%. So even though we pay for 100% green energy, still and all, we know that the less energy we use, the better it is for everyone. (Yes, it does cost a little more. But the difference between last year and this year for our entire annual electrical bill was under $200. That is, for the price of two theater tickets and a great dinner, not including baby sitter, we can power our home totally on green electrical energy. Where else can righteousness be bought so cheaply!)

The grid still needs to supply a full load of energy - and on the whole, energy demand is still growing. So if we can reduce our share to offset new houses, new offices, more buildings, etc, we are helping everyone, including ourselves. That is the ticket, grow the economy without growing the energy usage. It can be done.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

breathing easier about solar panels

Good news for solar panel fans (not the spinning kind but the users or would-be users): today's solar panels save as much energy in 2-3 years as they expend in being manufactured. Which means that by year four at the very latest (and by year two at the most efficient), they are already reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. Given that they have 20 year life expectancy, this is very good. To quote from the March 1, 2008 issue of Science News: "the net emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants due to the cells' manufacture were between 2 and 11 percent of what power plants in the US and the EU would emit to make the same amount of energy." So, don't let the manufacturing emissions' costs hold you back, if the price tag doesn't.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Daylight Saving Time

Here it is. The first calendrical harbinger of spring: Daylight Saving Time. A bit early this year. Though we have to plod through a few more weeks of darkened mornings just when we were getting used to rising to the gentle rays of dawn, we will now come home at the end of the day and still have time to play and garden and run outside. (Okay, it may just be me, but in the wintertime, come 7:30 pm, with dinner behind me, three hours into night’s darkness and the dishes out of sight, I am beginning to wonder just how early can I go to bed without feeling odd, old, boring and useless.)

So, if all DST did was to trick my body into thinking there are more hours in the productive day, dayyenu!. That would be good enough. How wonderful to come home and imagine that there are hours yet to bedtime and the end of day.

Which is good, because that may be all DST is good for. I went on line to see exactly what we were saving with this magical shift of the clock. How much energy; how much money; how many lives; etc.Truth be told, it looks like the answer is not much. Best estimates are that we save perhaps 1% of our electrical consumption - which is something, but much smaller than I imagined. And the price may be high. One study I read said that the number of pedestrian deaths (people hit by cars) the week after DST is 2-3 times as high as the week before. Seems like drivers are not making this transition easily.

Surely we should look again at this leap of time that most of America undergoes twice a year. But if we can prepare ourselves to avoid accidental tragedies, and if we can at least not use more energy making this transition that we would without it, then we can truly celebrate the spiritual and practical benefits of feeling like we have two days in the time span of one. That must be why summer always feels as long as all the rest of year combined.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

the one that didn't get away

If the cheapest power plant is the one that you don't have to build, then the best carbon dioxide is the amount that doesn't get released - and that you don't have to capture and store.

The Dept of Energy's Secretary Samuel Bodman pulled the plug on its $1 billion plus boondoggle with Futuregen that would build a plant in Illinois to explore the large-scale feasibility of burning coal without releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Instead, the CO2 would be captured and stored underground. The expanding and unforseeable expenses in that technology blew it out of contention, but it should also be nixed forever because of the questionable safety of the gas being sequestered securely (it could leak and escape or blow up and escape), and the inability of the earth to reabsorb that carbon in a stable fashion (the way oil and coal and gas have been for millions of years). These concerns alone should put a cabash on CCS (carbon storage and sequestration, or storage) as a viable alternative to renewable energy.

And let us not forget that the coal has to be dug up first, which not only causes the loss of 1000s of lives world-wide in harvesting the stuff, but also destroys the land that harbors it.

The best CO2 is the stuff that stays in the ground. Sun and wind, and perhaps other possible sources that we have yet to discover, do not create CO2 so we don't have to worry about capturing it or storing it or even reabsorbing it. Or paying huge costs to clean up a mess we did not need to create. (CSS means that we pay twice for our energy: getting it and using it, and storing its waste forever.) We should take our billions of dollars and put them into research and development of those truly clean fuels. We need to harness the energies of power sources that no one can own, and that cannot be put at the mercy of one grand industry or cluster of nations. (How interesting that the least researched energy sources are the ones that cannot be owned and thus sold at market fluctuating prices!)

Secretary Bodman did the right thing but for the wrong reason. Let him - and others - know that R&D in the right places can get us where we want to go if we would only invest wisely and well and abundantly in them.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

ownerless energy

Imagine if the world's power source was not located in any one state or nation; not owned, controlled or abused by any one company. Imagine an energy source that did not have to be dug up or blown off or piped across any expanse of land. Imagine an energy source that did not have to be transported in tankers, or trunks; whose distribution was managed by the forces of nature and not the whim of CEOs; whose harnessing was tamed by the creativity of the human mind and not the brute, crude force of destruction. Imagine an energy source that could not be blown up or blown down by terrorists or storms.

Imagine an energy source that did not make any one wealthy, but that made everyone rich.

Such is the nature of wind and solar energy - and who knows what other decentralized, readily available, on-site, safe, sustainable, no waste energy sources.

No wonder the energy companies are fighting it. There is no profit in the stuff of sun or wind. They can't hold or own or control the sun's rays or the wind's force. But there is profit in the machines that capture their energy; and in the green economy of manufaturing through recycling and the ever-expanding need for a service economy that can meet the infinite needs of the human spirit for care, companionship, and culture.

A new era of economics and spirit will have to dawn for us to save this planet, and ourselves. We will have to move from a disposable economy to a renewable economy; and from an economy of stuff to an economy of service. We can do this - and even more, we will be a better people, a happier people, if and when we do.

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