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Category: teaching (page 2 of 3)

California battles Texas textbook massacre

I’ve been following the Texas textbook issue with some interest and concern. You know the story: Know-nothing dipsticks have been infiltrating Texas school boards so they can force conservative changes to high school textbooks. The worry is that Texas is the second largest market for textbooks, so other states may get terrible texts foisted onto them.

But California is the largest market, and they may try to thwart such efforts.

California may soon take a stand against proposed changes to social studies textbooks ordered by the Texas school board, as a way to prevent them from being incorporated in California texts.

Legislation by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, seeks to protect the nation’s largest public school population from the revised social studies curriculum approved in March by the Texas Board of Education. Critics say if the changes are incorporated into textbooks, they will be historically inaccurate and dismissive of the contributions of minorities.

The Texas recommendations, which face a final vote by the Republican-dominated board on May 21, include adding language saying the country’s Founding Fathers were guided by Christian principles and a new section on “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s.” That would include positive references to the Moral Majority, the National Rifle Association and the Contract with America, the congressional GOP manifesto from the 1990s.


I found this comment most encouraging.

But some publishing industry experts say worries that the Texas standards will cross state lines are unfounded.

“It’s an urban myth, especially in this digital age we live in, when content can be tailored and customized for individual states and school districts,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the schools division of the Association of American Publishers.

I hope other textbook publishers operate similarly. It could control the damage. Or, scarily, it could create pockets of terrible textbooks in areas where demand is significant.

Maybe religion can still do ‘comfort’ and ‘social cohesion’.

It’s just as the ministers feared: If you offer secular ethics, no one’s going to want religion anymore.

Scripture classes lose half of students to ethics, say Anglicans

THE controversial trial of secular ethics classes has ”decimated” Protestant scripture classes in the 10 NSW schools where it has been introduced as an alternative for non-religious children, with the classes losing about 47 per cent of enrolled students.

Seems that religion’s attempt to evolve has led to a conflict. See, back in the old days, religion offered a view of the earth’s history and future that claimed to be true. When that turned out to be a load of old bollocks, some religions decided that providing ‘moral instruction’ was more in their line. The problem with that was that secular people are already doing morals, thank you very much, and the morals they’ve come up with are a lot more relevant than those of the world’s religions.

I can’t say it better than Dawkins did (and ex tempore too).

Religions are not all that good at moral instruction. Their scriptures are punctuated with unprincipled savagery, and the behaviour of their leaders has been at times reprehensible. (And I forgot to mention in my original post: one recent study showed no difference in the ethical behaviour of atheists and church-goers.)

There are some good bits in with the nasty bits, but on the whole, what a mess. Leave it out of schools, and let the secular humanists present a view of morality that is well-thought out, and centered on what’s good for humans, not for imaginary people or their representatives.

Universities don’t take religions seriously!

I teach at a university. I try to teach students to think well. That means I teach about critical thinking skills, using evidence to support claims, and controlling for bias. (And I hope I don’t forget to exercise those skills myself.)

There are also many people at the university whose job is to teach students to think badly. These are mainly religious groups that regularly encourage reliance on unseen spiritual beings, emotional reasoning, and not challenging deeply-held beliefs.

Dallin H. Oaks is a Mormon apostle. He spoke to Harvard grads recently, and tried to encourage them to think badly. Let’s see how he did this.

1. Insulting secular Americans

Elder Oaks acknowledged that LDS doctrines and values are not widely understood by those not of the LDS faith, and said that his disappointment with that “is only slightly reduced” by research that shows “that on the subject of religion Americans in general are ‘deeply religious’ but ‘profoundly ignorant.'”

By ‘ignorant’, he apparently means ‘someone who has failed to study and/or agree with Mormon doctrine’.

If people are ignorant about religion, doesn’t that mean that churches haven’t done a good enough job teaching it? Sorry, Mr Oaks. Teaching religion is your job. Don’t expect universities to reaffirm your preconceptions.

2. Denouncing universities for not promoting superstition

Elder Oaks said the higher education system was partly to blame for prevailing ignorance about many aspects of Christianity and other religions.

“Many factors contribute to our people’s predominant shallowness on the subject of religion, but one of them is surely higher education’s general hostility or indifference to religion,” he said. “Despite most colleges’ and universities’ founding purpose to produce clergymen and to educate in the truths taught in their chapels, most have now abandoned their role of teaching religion.

I think univerties have pumped out quite enough clergymen, don’t you?

“With but few exceptions, colleges and universities have become value-free places where attitudes toward religion are neutral at best. Some faculty and administrators are powerful contributors to the forces that are driving religion to the margins of American society. Students and other religious people who believe in the living reality of God and moral absolutes are being marginalized.

Universities aren’t positive enough about religion? That’s the best news I’ve heard all week. Universities should marginalise bronze-age mythologies as much as possible. Why should the people wearing the clown-shoes be taken seriously?

3. Elevating scripture and revelation as superior to empirical knowledge.

Elder Oaks said he chose “three clusters of truths to present as fundamental premises of the faith of Latter-day Saints.” Those clusters are:

  • The nature of God, including the role of the three members of the Godhead, and the corollary truth that there are moral absolutes.
  • The purpose of life.
  • The three-fold sources of truth about man and the universe: science, the scriptures and continuing revelation, and how we can know them.

Notice how religion takes up two of the three top spots?

I understand Oaks wanting to spread the word about how great his religion is — a religion whose members view him as an incontestable authority, by the way. He’s supposed to promote his religion. It’s part of the business. But Oaks is barking up the wrong tree if he expects universities to accommodate religions when religions add nothing to the store of human knowledge. All they offer is big stories, and when you challenge the story-tellers to offer evidence, they take refuge in uncertainty, and teach poor reasoning as a protective device. And, it would seem, holler loudly about how educated people just don’t take them seriously.

Religion makes no contribution to these places of science that we call universities. But as Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne point out, science can contribute something to religious thought: atheism.

Students compete in OzCLO

This month saw the state round of OzCLO, or the Australian Computational and Linguistic Olympiad. High school students from all over Perth poured into UWA to solve tough puzzles and problems. It was great to see kids getting fired up about linguistics, I must say.

The peak moment for me was seeing one student stare for ten long seconds at the problem on syntax (which I wrote), and then silently mouth, “WHAT?!?”

Here’s a taste of the kinds of problems they had to face.

One of these two Egyptian hieroglyphic cartouches represents the name of Cleopatra. Which one is it, and whose name is in the other cartouche?

(No spoilers in comments, please.)

There are more sample problems here, if you get hooked.

Advice for teachers

My head of department asked the postgrads who teach classes to give some advice to new teachers. Here’s what I wrote. I think it applies to areas of teaching beyond linguistics.

= – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = – =

Here are some ideas to think about, though obviously everyone will have to do things their own way.

• Ask yourself: Why do you like linguistics? You’re probably in this area because you think it’s sort of cool. And it is! So show your students what you love about linguistics. They will pick up on your enthusiasm.

• Try and remember one teacher that you liked. What did they do? Why did you like them? For me, I remember Marge Foland, my drama teacher. She was fun and ‘sparky’, with a zany sense of humour. She expected great work from us, and we were happy to give it. I don’t teach just like she did because I’m a different person, but I do find that that kind of style works for me. Whatever your teacher did that clicks with you is an indicator of a teaching style that you’ll probably do well at.

• Teaching is a lot like parenting. You have to convey expectations clearly to your students, give them nurturing feedback, and dish out consequences when they need it. (Warm and fuzzy, not cold and prickly.) Also, you must like your students.

• People learn by doing things. Try and take every opportunity to present students with real live data, and have them deal with it. Focus on the principle you’re trying to reinforce. Often what will happen is that they’ll run up against the limits of their knowledge, and struggle to find a solution. Then they’re ready for you, the experienced one, to provide some suggestions for moving ahead.

• No one expects you to be infallible, just reasonably well-read and well-informed. A great thing to say is “I don’t know” and the next thing you should always say after that is “How could we find out?” And it’s not bad to follow that up with “If I had to make a guess, I’d say… And the reason I say that is…” When you say these things, you’re preparing them to solve their own problems.

• Let them talk to each other and contribute their unique experiences to the class. I do a lot of small group discussion in tutorials. When I’m doing all the talking in the tutorial, I know something’s wrong. Step back and let them work through the issues without you. You may worry that they’ll reinforce each others’ mistakes, but that doesn’t usually happen. Groups of people are smarter than their smartest member, so they’ve got a better chance of getting it right. Sometimes they come up with ideas I haven’t thought of. And they get a chance to contribute, so they’re building the class.

• Always have a contingency plan. Activities run short or sometimes just don’t work, and you’ll need to have something else to do. Even having a few discussion questions up your sleeve can save the day. Don’t be afraid to toss the lesson plan and have a discussion they’re interested in, if the tutorial goes that way. Let them drive. Some of the best tutorials are like that.

• Teach the scientific method. Our data comes from the physical world. We develop testable and falsifiable hypotheses to explain the data, and if the hypotheses don’t correspond to the facts, we modify or dump them. We have many perceptual filters and biases that prevent us from seeing things clearly, and we have tools like statistics to help us avoid these traps. Find out about them. Use issues in linguistics to teach the basics of critical thinking, including the virtues of open-mindedness and skepticism. Avoid holy wars. By teaching students the scientific method, we’re not just doing good linguistics, we’re building a populace that is better equipped to live in the world, even after they’ve forgotten all the things we’ve presented.

Meeting one of my converts

I was an LDS missionary in the late 80s, spending two years of my life to promote superstition, magical thinking, and (worst of all) faith. The whole thing embarrasses me acutely now. I sometimes try and excuse myself; I was under the influence of well-meaning family and friends, born into a religious system that valued its own perpetuation. However, I’m pleased to say that out of all the people I taught and baptised, none is active.

Except one family. I remember them especially because of the numerous discussions we had. As a missionary, I always felt a bit paternal toward people I taught. I tried to explain things to them, convince them of church doctrine, and persuade them to accept, one by one, an ever-increasing cycle of commitments. The trick of this, I realise now, was that, once the investigator is more and more heavily invested in the Mormon Church with time, effort, and money, the more the sunk cost fallacy takes over and the harder it is for investigators to extricate themselves. You don’t believe in the Church? Then why are you doing all these things? And if they don’t get out, on the cycle goes.

I’d seen this family around church over the years, but just the other day I ran into the mom at the shopping centre. We chatted, and she asked how I was going with church. So I explained that I was no longer a member, and that I didn’t do religion anymore.

Some people have taken this with some equanimity, but not her. She was shaken. “Why not?” she asked.

Ordinarily, I’d tell someone the usual: I’d thought the whole thing was true, but eventually I realised the evidence for God wasn’t there; that science does a much better job of getting at reality; that if you have faith in something it makes you less able to think critically about it, et cetera, et cetera. But I realised that I couldn’t give my usual spiel in this situation. The roles we’d played for each other were too different. See, her main memory of me was the guy who sat in her house representing the LDS Church, convincing her to spend hours of her life in the service of this group. Now I was bailing, and she was still there. And something in her tone suggested to me that she was not too happy about that. Some people really seem to enjoy being Mormons; somehow she gave the opposite impression. But how would she ever pull the ejector seat? Could I now be the anti-missionary, or would that make me seem completely evil? The whole Mormon image-conscious bullshit thing was doing a number on my head once again.

A funny thing: I didn’t sugar-coat the facts about the Church being wrong, but I didn’t argue tooth and nail either. I wonder why I held back. Maybe I’m sick of being The Evangelist. Evangelism’s for fools. And she hadn’t asked for me to change her religion that day, just as she hadn’t asked me to change it all those years ago. Had I interfered enough? On the other hand, I cared about this person as we argued about religion there in the shopping centre. I regretted the monstrous waste of her time that I was directly responsible for. If I could start her on a process of fact-hunting, maybe she could eventually get free of an organisation that she didn’t enjoy promulgating. Or would that just put her at loggerheads with her Mormon (and in some cases RM) family? Was I proffering freedom, or conflict? What do you do?

What I did was this: I told her about my experience of leaving the LDS Church, and how worthwhile it’s been. I gave my reasons plainly. And when she tried turning the tables and invited me to a church activity, I did what she should have done all those years ago: I politely declined.

There was one thing I didn’t say that I wish I had. All those years ago, when she looked up to me as a spiritual example, it was because I said what I believed, and told the truth insofar as I knew it. And that’s what I’m still doing now. There was no reason for her to think less of me, or me of myself. Quite the contrary.

But ever since that chance meeting in the shopping centre, I have had this inescapable impression: that out of all the rotten, evil, terrible actions in my life (not that there are all that many), serving a mission for the Mormon Church was by far the worst thing I have ever done. Not only did I waste part of my life in furthering ignorance, I wasted other people’s lives too.

English First = xenophobia

Americans think that it’s important to learn languages. As long as the language is ‘English’, and the learner is ‘someone else‘.

Americans believe by large majorities that it is more important for newcomers to learn English than it is for their fellow citizens to become bilingual.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey reveals that 83% of likely voters place a higher priority on encouraging immigrants to speak English as their primary language.

Just 13% take the opposite view and say it is more important for Americans to learn other languages.

Broken down along party lines, 79% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats reject the idea that all Americans should know multiple languages. Among unaffiliated voters, 68% say their fellow citizens do not need to know a language other than English.

Last fall, a Rasmussen Reports survey found that 77% of Americans believed that employers should be allowed to require employees to speak English while on the job.

We tend to feel very attached to our language. It’s our tool for expressing who we are. We might not even be able to think without it. As a linguist, I’ve noticed that even smart, aware people aren’t very good at examining their language attitudes. That means it’s an area where our darkest urges can pool and simmer. And that means that we can frequently find xenophobia lurking here.

An antidote is to learn to talk the way someone else does. Not only do I want to see official documents available in other languages, I want to see second language instruction promoted more aggressively in schools. It’s not just a way to expand the mind, it’s a way to combat the more pernicious kinds of intolerance.

Award for Excellence in Teaching

Many thanks to the students who nominated me for last year’s Excellence in Teaching Award. I was awarded a High Commendation for Teaching Excellence. The photo you see here is me with Vice Chancellor Alan Robson, getting the award at the ceremony last night.

It’s very nice to be recognised. I’m usually happy if students don’t fall asleep during lectures, so this award is a very special bonus.

‘Academic Freedom’ bills: Because you shouldn’t have to put up with ideas you don’t already agree with.

When time travel becomes possible, I’m not going to kill Hitler like a lot of people do. I’m gunning for Rupert Murdoch. You Americans may be upset that you have to put up with Fox News, but we’ve still got his newspapers pumping out slime. Like this:

University is not place to crush ideas

Sinister was the word chosen by The Sydney Morning Herald to describe the campaign launched by the Young Liberals at university campuses under the slogan “Education, not indoctrination”.

Remove the SMH filter and here’s the story: a group of Young Liberals is concerned that students are sometimes forced to endure indoctrination by university academics. Their aim is to encourage freedom of thought and intellectual pluralism on campus. Some may say their goal is naive. Universities have always been bastions of left-wing thought. But sinister?

Yes, sinister.

A bit of background from Greg’s blog:

“Academic Freedom” bills seem to come in two flavors: Those that protect students from the possibility of learning certain things, and those that protect subversive teachers from getting in trouble for being bad teachers. In both cases, they are bills typically introduced into state legislatures by conservative republicans expressing concern with the Liberal Bias. There is a vague institutional connection between the concept of Academic Freedom Bills and the organization founded by conservative David Horowitz, “Students for Academic Freedom.” The motto of this organization is “You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.”

The core idea of this form of “Academic Freedom” is this: David Horowitz and his ilk define certain issues, or positions on issues, as legitimate perspectives even if the preponderance of evidence denies this legitimacy. For instance, the reality and importance of global warming as a phenomenon, as an economic problem, and as an ecological crisis is not valid according to the right wing. Global warming is only acceptable as a topic of study in an educational setting if it is taught along side “alternative” views that suggest that it is just as likely, or more likely, that global warming is a left wing conspiracy, or that the evidence for global cooling is just as strong, or that there is widespread verifiable evidence that what some see as global warming is entirely within the range of natural climatic variation. Evolution or Darwinism has never explained the evolution of a single species, nature is too complex to be explained by Natural Selection, and “alternative theories” such as Intelligent Design Creationism are at least as valid as the Theory of Evolution. And so on.

So in essence, conservatives are saying, “We’re losing the argument, so we’ll call it a draw.”

I’m no fan of conservatives, but don’t you kind of wish for the days when they at least acted like conservatives? Now they’re acting like reality deniers with a PR engine.

I’m talking about the capital-M Market, that wonderful thing they always told us would make everything all right. How to fix Social Security? What to do about minimum wage? Or inflation? Market, market, market. Until the market doesn’t give them what they want. Gay marriage? Teaching creationism in schools? Liberal professors? There oughta be a law!

Let me put it in terms that even David Horowitz can understand. The university is a marketplace of ideas. If something doesn’t get bought in the marketplace, it gets sent to the remainder pile along with the hamburger earmuffs. Academics, who are usually a bit on the smarter side, have a general tendency to not believe the most incredibly stupid ideas. Conservative ideas, being on the stupid side, will naturally be a minority view in all but the most religious universities.

It does no good to try and force conservative ideas into the university using pressure groups. Let the market decide. If they’re good ideas, they’ll get adopted in the long term. Don’t like having Marxists in PoliSci departments? Neither do I! Yet these PoliSci profs, having devoted their lives to the study of politics and economy, are probably going to have a more informed view on this than I, just like I’ll have a better idea of things in language policy or syntax. Leave them to it. Maybe they’ll write something interesting that I’ll learn from. Maybe not.

Here’s an example quoted in the article:

Jamie, an 18-year-old student at the University of Sydney, saw teachers [promoting politics in the classroom] last year during her HSC.

She told The Australian her legal studies teacher at her school in northern Sydney “found it very difficult to give an unbiased perspective, especially when we were studying Work Choices. And I was told if I didn’t write an essay that was anti-WC, it would not do very well. One day (the teacher) walked into the classroom saying: “I love Kevin Rudd.” I said to her a couple of times: “But, Miss, you shouldn’t be putting so much of your opinion into this.” Her teacher told her it was impossible to keep opinion out of legal studies.

Says Jamie: “I don’t think that’s correct. Whatever (the teacher’s) opinion, it should not be brought into teaching.”

Now, if a student feels their work has been downgraded unfairly, my university (along with most universities I know of) provides options to have their work examined by others, and an investigation can be made. These systems are already in place.

But preventing that teacher from giving her opinions in class, where the subject matter is a legitimate subject of study, would in fact be suppression of liberal opinion. Which I suppose is the point. These bills aren’t about academic freedom; they’re a sneaky attempt at meme propagation.

A rational look at Steiner schools

I can tell I’ll be browsing the pages of Australian Rationalist in my spare time. The latest issue is of some interest to me — the cover story is a rational look at Steiner (or Waldorf) schools. My sons went to a Steiner school, and Youngest Boy still does. While I can’t speak for Steiner (or Waldorf) schools everywhere, I find my local Steindorf school to be dangerous in theory, but harmless in practice.

To the article (PDF). What did they get right?

Rudolf Steiner was a fruitcake. But a renaissance fruitcake. As a boy, he thought he was clairvoyant. As an adult, he promulgated his philosophy of ‘Anthroposophy’, and investigated what he called ‘spiritual science’ — an oxymoron. He invented biodynamic farming, sort of a mix of homeopathy, astrology, and organic farming. His followers today think he is the reincarnation of Aristotle. He believed in gnomes.

And because he was concerned about the development of children, he began what is known today as Waldorf education. But it isn’t based on anything empirical. It’s just whatever Steiner thought. From the article:

The whole basis of Steiner education… comes from Steiner’s excursions into what he called ‘spiritual’ or ‘occult science’, which was code for him going into a meditative state, free-associating around a topic, and writing down the results of his ruminations as though they were incontrovertible truth.

This is the essence of cultism — a group where the leader claims special knowledge, and adherents accept his or her teachings as indisputably true, whether the evidence supports them or not.

Using this method he came up with a number of amazing break-throughs in modern thought, such as the importance of burying stag bladders full of yarrow flowers in a field to stimulate the growth of crops!

Yes, it really does get that bad. The local Steiner school is full of this stuff. Homeopaths and crystal-wavers ply their wares at the Open Day. If a kid bangs his or her head in the playground, parents are quick to proffer Bach flower essences. Parents are also enlisted for ‘stirrings’: they use their hands to slosh around water mixed with tiny amounts of manure that has been buried in a cow horn at the Autumn Equinox, which is supposed to be good for crops. I’m not kidding. The Steiner hardcores don’t even seem to want an empirical basis for their beliefs.

And the fruitcakery carries over into the education. Steiner kids aren’t taught to read until age seven — that’s when, according to Steiner, a child acquires its etheric body — again, no evidence for this is provided; Steiner said it, and acolytes believe it. One parent in Australia was told his child would be held back for an unusual reason.

“She thought his soul wasn’t fully incarnated yet, which was strange thing for me to hear at a parent-teacher interview,” he said.

“And then she pulled out some drawings that he’d done which showed him, I guess, looking down, like a plan view of what he was drawing.

“And she used this as evidence that his soul was hovering over the earth and looking down on the earth and so, therefore, she felt that he wasn’t quite ready to move into the following year.”

The point of all this is that if your philosophy of teaching is empirically based, at least you have a pretty good shot of getting it right. If you’re going by what the Guru said, your odds of getting it right will be no better than random chance.

There is clearly no evidential or experiential evidence for such ideas, nor for the many other gratuitous absurdities that riddle Steiner education, so any resemblance between Steiner education and good educational practice is purely coincidental. That a number of children have survived it, and some even thrived, says more about the resilience of the human spirit than about the efficacy of this empirically groundless theory.

Steiner school promote religion in a way that is incompatible with state-funded secular education. This is the one that secular folks should be getting irked about. Steiner schools work as a separate alternative schools. I pay a lot in school fees to make up for the lack of public funding in the local school, and that’s the way I think it ought to be. Anthroposophy may not be a religion, but it is based on esoteric mystic Christianity, and blending it into the state system poses an unacceptable risk of promoting religious beliefs.

Steiner education may not look ‘religious’ on the surface, but it is in fact a bundle of religious ideas dressed up as educational ones. This is what is insidious about it and this is why it has no place in the secular public system.

With all this in mind, I’d say the article somewhat overstates the hazards of Steiner education, especially in raising the specter of German fascism. As a Steiner dad, I haven’t caught any hints of this at all. The tone at the school is warm and fuzzy.

If there is a saving grace for Waldorf education, it’s that, in my experience, very few of the rank and file parents believe the hype. You do get a core of Steiner believers, including the teachers, but almost no one else takes Anthroposophy seriously. Many parents roll their eyes at Eurythmy and such. The kids are usually pretty down to earth about it, too. At a recent Winter Festival, some parents were trying to foster a reverent attitude during the bonfire, but the kids were chanting “More kerosene! More kerosene!” They keep it real.

I also think that the teaching of religion is handled well, as I’ve mentioned before. Many world religions are represented, and I think this has an inoculating influence on kids. They’re more likely to fall for religion in adulthood if it hasn’t been presented to them before, and the Christian myth is presented at school along with all the other myths.

If you’re a rationalist, and you’re considering Steiner education, or if (like me) you’re already in and you’re only just becoming more of a critical thinker, it’s not impossible for it to work. My kids enjoy their school, and it’s been pretty positive. But here are some suggestions.

  • It should be used only for younger children. I know perfectly intelligent and capable people who have gone all the way through a Waldorf high school, but I feel bad for anyone who’s been under the influence of Steiner believers for so long. Anyone who believes in gnomes and Atlantis has absolutely no business teaching science at a high school level.
  • You must talk to your children about what they’re learning. That way, you can help to moderate any strange ideas they encounter, like fairies. It can even be a good critical-thinking exercise.
  • Watch out for areas where they may be falling behind. Steiner kids start reading late, and some may have trouble. For Oldest Boy, some math problems went unnoticed late. This may be because of the absence of testing. Steiner teachers hate standardised tests, even to the point of encouraging parents to opt out of state-mandated tests. (Wonder why.) Give your kids the tests, and monitor the results for areas where they may be falling behind. Help them in a low-pressure way to grasp the concepts they’re going to need when they get to high school. A simple math workbook or reading together can be all it takes. You may be doing those things anyway.

The greatest danger from Steiner schooling is to the rationalist parent, not the child; you may go insane from exposure to crackpottery, or you may eventually bite through your tongue.

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