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Off the Record 10/28/2009

SANDOW BIRK illustrates our periodic literary excursions. I became interested in his work before I knew anything about him. I'd picked up a book of his paintings of the state prison system, not the system itself in all its terrible manifestations, or even aspects of the system I saw in another painting the other day that I also liked very much, a painting by Chester Arnold whose painting depicted individualized con­victs walking in a perpetual prison yard circle. Arnold is also a painter who views industrial civilization as a literal blight on the landscape. He’ll paint a pristine country lane with scattered spills of books at the end of it, or a stream running clear but surrounded by clearcut stumps. But Sandow Birk’s prison paintings were of the prison structures themselves as seen from a distance in their soft natural settings. Looking at them was uniquely affecting, not jarring but topog­raphically contradictory, which they are in living fact because almost all our prisons are located in rural ar­eas, most of them placed in these areas as jobs pro­grams for depressed communities, and all of them just about as unnatural intrusions on the landscape as it’s possible to get considering both the human suffering they contain and the industrial-scale hugeness of them plunked down in an otherwise rural setting. Ever been to Pelican Bay just outside bleaker-than-bleak Cres­cent City? You drive along through the forest then it's suddenly there, this giant concrete excrescence. Looking at Birk’s renditions of the prisons, I felt like I’d just walked up over a pre-industrial hill and there, suddenly, was one of our post-industrial holding pens, reproduced exactly in soft, sardonic pastels. I laughed because I was both surprised and amused, and I won­dered if my response was what the artist intended, not that he’s a guy who would seem to spend much time with his worry beads over public responses to his work which, in a word, is apocalyptic, great canvases of vast, final battles for Los Angeles, say, with skate­boarders battling the cops, and other satirical touches, all of it hugely rewarding the longer you look. Birk’s latest work is absolutely unique. Called “American Qur’an” it's his illustration of about half the Koran’s 114 suras or stanzas. Alongside each of the thundering Old Testament-like prose passages, which Birk has copied out in his own bold print, a prose work of art by itself, he’s placed his rendition of the contempo­rary American experience. I found a lot of it funny as hell, frankly. His juxtapositions of the Koran’s dire moral instruction as illustrated by our slovenly vari­ousness! Paintings of chubby office pinkies next to an injunction on the necessity of honest labor; floozies alongside demands for female modesty. Oddly, though, the net effect of the work by this gifted infi­del confirms everything about modern Americans that terrifies fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians, for that matter, the two groups alike in emotional responses to life. The paintings confirm the decadence the Taliban-brains want to bomb out of existence. But fundamentalists ought to be as pleased with Birk's illustrated Koran, at least as pleased as this particular decadent was, but the young man working the gallery desk said he was “apprehensive” about how Bay Area Muslims “would receive it. I didn't stand around by the door the first week,” He said, adding, “but so far it's all been positive.” I’ve read a couple of reviews of “American Qur’an” neither or which jibed with my impressions of it, but you can see it for your­self at the Catharine Clark Gallery at 150 Minna, San Francisco, which is an alley next door to SF MOMA.

TIDBITS: The new casino on the Point Arena rez reminds me that casinos in the plains states are described by their Native American proprietors as “the new buffalo” and, according to J.C. Dillard, one of America’s lead scholars of our vernacular, the N-Word “was used without giving offense until 1928.” We didn’t have buffalo on the Northcoast, and the Indians here were hit so hard and so fast that by the time they got the horses and the guns that would have enabled them to fight back, most of them were gone, although farther north the Army had to maintain forts along the upper Eel to keep the Indians from getting a little revenge. 1928 as the cutoff point for the N-Word? Seems awfully late, doesn’t it? And exactly who was it respectable with prior to '28?

RECOMMENDED VIEWING: The Hurt Locker, a movie about an American bomb squad in Iraq directed so skillfully by a young woman named Kath­ryn Bigelow that male oinkers emerge from the thea­ter wondering aloud, “A girl did this?” It's so well done you'd think you were there. The Informant is faithful to the true story of international food price rigging orchestrated by Archer Daniels Midland as partially orchestrated by one of its goofy executives who's running side scams of his own. All true, too, and a very funny movie about a very unfunny subject.

MENTION CAPTAIN FATHOM any place but the County Jail, where he’s popular among inmates for his entertainment value, and the groans and complaints commence. The old boy, now 70, is generally viewed as a kind of roving community nuisance, his roving mostly confined to the area between Albion, where he has property, and Fort Bragg. Unless The Captain has been arrested in the last seven days, he’s out this time with a very expensive piece of monitoring equipment strapped to his ankle. The device is guaranteed by a private citizen who stands to lose some $5,000 if the Captain destroys it. I’d bet that Fathom will be arrested again before he figures out how to decom­mission the device, but if he wrecks it the old pal who put up the money for it will be snagged for the full amount.

CAPTAIN FATHOM is one of about a hundred “frequent fliers,” persons who have become the ongoing responsibility of the cops, their surrogate parents. These are people, mostly male but a few females, who are regularly in and out of the County Jail for making pests of themselves when they’re drunk or judgment-impaired by drugs, and their judgment isn't too hot when they're sober. There are also a number of mental health casualties who regu­larly get arrested because they are a danger to them­selves or, in a hallucinatory state, to others. Captain Fathom is a drunk mental health patient. He, like most of the other walking wounded routinely rounded up by the cops, don’t belong in jail where its expensive to keep them and where their underlying dissolution is not addressed. Jails are not therapy centers; they're schools for crime, er, purely custodial. A recent inmate, for instance, insists on sculpting his own feces, a practice which places him beyond most pales, including most Ukiah art exhibits. But he’s housed at the Mendocino County Jail where staff have to some­how deal with him. Most of the drunks and the 5150s, however, just need to be cordoned off in a safe, dry place — dry in both senses. Sheriff Allman has said repeatedly he’d like to have a county farm for frequent fliers, a gated community, so to speak, that consists of barracks with a fence around it where the drunks could dry out, the 5150s could cool out, and both could be put to productive work to at least partially recover the cost of their care and feeding. The old state hospital at Talmage had a very good program for drunks pegged to its farm, and Mendocino County itself maintained a county farm for the habituals north of Ukiah up until World War Two. It’s not like it hasn’t been done, and done successfully. The present Catch and Release Program is not working, and it's bankrupting the County. The Sheriff said recently he’d like to set something up along the lines of a County Farm at the Brush Street Triangle, the prop­erty in northeast Ukiah where the County hopes to some day build a jail and court complex. Locking up drunks and the mentally ill at the County Jail is expensive and futile, since they’ll only be back a few days later. They’ll come back to a County Farm, too, but a County Farm would be a less expensive way of sequestering them. As it is, week after week the same people are in and out of the County Jail for drunk in public, public nuisance, or acting crazy in public, or for the crime of incompetence. If there were a place to put them that was less of a jail, judges could com­mit them for longer periods of time, which would be good for them and good for the communities they demoralize by behavior they can't help.

RECOMMENDED READING: A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Maga­zine Changed America, by Peter Richardson. There’s plenty of good journalism out there in our doomed land, but until Ramparts in the early 1960s, under the truly great editor, Warren Hinckle, you seldom got it under one roof, in one publication. Ramparts not only created a national opposition to imperialism it freed journalism, briefly, from itself, its corporate and its government-imposed strait jackets. Lots of small cir­culation publications had done the same, but Ram­parts was the first American magazine to become a national, even international force for good. The Appropriate Police have since placed “left” publica­tions some place beyond boring, but for a brief while Hinckle's Ramparts was the most exciting magazine ever. As a kid, I haunted the newsstands waiting for Ramparts and The Realist, the second inspiration of my formative years, along with the I.F. Stone News­Letter, The Nation, and a host of periodicals my father always described as “crank lit.” He'd say, Jezus H. Christ. What's next, togas and vegetarianism? He was a Time guy all the way. Harper’s, under Willie Morris, was good back then, too, and then came a kind of silent return of prudently “left” people who think they can be weally, weally wadical but make $100,000 a year while they’re doing it. I haven’t hung around newsstands waiting for a magazine since Ram­parts. These days I read a couple of book reviews, the CounterPunch website, the New Yorker out of habit, an occasional zine called CometBus, and my own newspaper, which, week after week, is so much more interesting than anything else out there in Periodical Land I keep wondering why I’m not making a hun­dred grand a year and being wealy, wealy wadical as I go. Mostly, I read non-fiction books. If I feel like fic­tion I go back and read Hemingway. (Every time I make a sweeping literary judgment like that for the half dozen people who might be interested, I’ve got to remind myself to footnote it to say that Lorrie Moore’s short stories always pull me in, and her new novel, her first, Woman Strangled, News At Ten, is the first novel I’ve bought in a long time. I’ll read any­thing by Edward P. Jones and Sherman Alexie, but to sweep up here I’ve got to say that a lot of these young writers — Dave Eggers is the archetype — simply mystify me. There's something soft about them, something missing, something that makes them unreadable, for me anyway. And then there's Rick Moody, reigning emperor of unreadable. American lit is still Hemingway all the way, but like American newspapers doomed to extinction.

SPEAKING OF NICENESS, or the phoniest branch of it, its theoretical underpinnings you could say, there’s finally an antidote: “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich. How many times have you gone to an All Smiles (Watch Your Back) lib lab meeting in Mendocino County where the first thing you’re told to do by the organiz­ers is pull your chairs in a circle and introduce your­self. “Hi, I’m Bruce, and I’d murder every single one of you bastards if I thought I could get away with it.” That’s the temptation of course, but bucking the enforced happy-happy consensus is somehow harder to do from a circle, a fact the manipulators figured out some time ago. Meeting circles are major manipula­tions and, needless to say, a major arrow in the oppressive quivers of Mendolib, arising like so many similarly oppressive group dynamics out of hippie times when it occurred to some long-haired power monger that if he simply stood up front and tried to talk the lemmings into following him they might be more resistant, hence the faux democracy of the circle. It’s easier for the power tripper to get what he wants if he can get everyone arrayed in a big smiley-faced basketball. Ehrenreich’s book, however, is more about the way positive thinking, as doctrine, is used by the self-interested, from hippies to edu-crats to corporate monsters, to advance themselves and what­ever dubious interest it is they’ve wrapped themselves in. Oppose them and you’re “negative,” and being negative is, well, negative, or bad. For instance, “We love the kids but you don’t because you came to our meeting to be critical of us.” Anyone who’s ever been to a school board meeting anywhere in America has had this experience, school boards being simply an extension of the multi-million dollar apparatuses they are allegedly supervising. And all of it came from the nefarious doctrine of positive thinking. Barbara Ehrenreich deserves high praise for her negativity.

YEARS AGO, during the foundational days of the Mendocino Greens, now the exclusive franchise of Richard Johnson, The One True Green, we were sitting in a circle one afternoon after at soporific lunch of organic slop ladled out of a fetid metal con­tainer from a jail garage sale, when Johnson, or per­haps a dwarfish Johnson ally who’d appointed himself “vibe watcher,” announced from the most comfortable chairs in the middle of the circle that possession of an asparagus fern “empowered” one to speak. I never got the fern until I jerked it out of the stoned hand of the guy next to me, and even when I possessed the fern, even after I'd empowered myself to say what I wanted to say, no sooner had I begun to speak when the vibe watcher tootled me into silence.

CIRCLES, positive thinking, stacks — all of it — are the tactics authority uses to shut down criticism, in the absence of which very bad things happen. Barbara Ehrenreich got onto it when, she said, she was diag­nosed with breast cancer. “I reached out and all I could find were these exhortations to be positive or cheerful because it will make you better. It was smile or die.”

WALKING UP MARKET STREET the other day, I remembered a cop responding to a perennial demand from a community group “to clean up Market,” then as now a clear reference to the, ah, eccentric citizens common to the area. The cop replied, “Well, gee, we can’t arrest people just because they’re undesirable.” By even the loosest standard of undesirable most of us would be behind bars, but then most of us make at least a minimal effort to make ourselves presentable. In the teeming blocks of Frisco’s Tenderloin, and Market Street from Powell to the Civic Center, there used to be maybe one or two “undesirables” every block; there are now a couple of hundred, many of them way past undesirable and deep into repellent, even menacing. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s the system. It is the system, but the difference lately in the walking wounded is that there are a lot more of them and they're much more aggressive. The civic minded always say that the worst part of Market Street is from Powell west to the Civic Center. In living, vivid fact, Market Street is pretty grim all the way to Gough. Where it used to be merely architecturally grim that stretch of Market now borders on the abhorrent. Throw in a few lepers and we’d have the full medieval monte. So, I’m trucking west on Market, headed up and then over 17th Street, when a short, fat kid I guessed to be in his middle twenties hands me a piece of paper in the shape of a ticket that says, “Admit One, Personality & IQ Testing.” I asked him, Do I look like I need it? “We all need it,” he said, launching into his sales spiel. “A test like this usually costs you $100, but we’ll do them free of charge if you bring this slip with you. If you’re not happy with life, you can find out why.” That’s almost verbatim what the ticket said. Its smallest print identified the testing as the work of the Church of Scientology Mission at 2501 Judah Street. I asked the kid, “Were you unhappy before they put you on the E-Meter or what­ever they do?” He said, “Scientology saved my life.” I replied to his depressing confession with an irrele­vance. “I know where L. Ron Hubbard has all his secret stuff buried.” The kid quickly replied, “Nice talking with you, sir, but I’m busy here.” I’d never been brushed off by a cult guy before. Usually you’ve got to fight your way clear of them, but I had some­thing more I wanted to tell this kid, and I didn’t know why I wanted to tell him, other than, if not him, who? I circled back. “The secret L. Ron stuff is in an under­ground bunker near Petrolia in Humboldt County.” Having off loaded what I hoped was a subliminally disturbing piece of intelligence, I scurried off, unable to remember if I had it right. Maybe the Humboldt County vault belonged to the Krishnas or the Moon­ies. Maybe it was some other crackpot posse who buried their crazy talk up there. But it’s there, tem­perature controlled for the ages.

LOTS OF KIDS aren’t eating right. We all know that, but to see it in person is still disconcerting. I see them on their way to school here in Boonville, the 12-year-old diabetics, popping into Pik ‘N Pay at 7:30am to kick off their school day with mammoth soft drinks and negative food value items so toxic they're double-wrapped. By the time they’re 25 they’ll be turning purple and traveling from kitchen to couch in golf carts. Why don't their parents simply sprinkle their Cheerios with arsenic and be done with it? But here they are, millions of little fatties created out of poi­sonous food and sloth, lying around all day sucking on candy and playing with electronic gizmos. To get a kid to eat a raw carrot you'd have to hide it in a hunk of sugar dough dipped in refried grease. The Youth of Today, physical and mental wrecks years before their time.

KEVIN TOBIE is in trouble again. He’s the young man who hit Paullen Severn-Walsh with an tire iron at the Boonville Fairgrounds one night, hit him hard enough to kill him but Paullen survived with a serious jaw/head injury. Tobie said Paullen and his redneck pals had earlier scratched his grandmother’s rental car at the gravel pits, which should might earn the offender a punch in the mouth but not capital punishment.

Tobie had been previously arrested in Ukiah when he was found with a loaded Saturday Night special in his car. Tobie’s brother murdered a kid in San Fran­cisco. Tobie snitched him off for it, probably trading some crime he’d committed for his brother. Tobie stays in trouble. He was arrested for the first time in SF when he was 12. Now he’s in his early twenties and living in Ukiah where he lives well on no visible income. On October 1st he was arrested for corporal injury to a spouse, but magically posted the $25,000 bond the same day, meaning he immediately came up with the $2,500 for the bond and walked on out of jail. Which must have made the young woman Tobie beat up, Jessica McCulloch, assume she was going to get beat up again, as always in front of the two and a half-year-old boy she and Tobie have together. Tobie is smart and he’s good looking. He charms his way in and out of people’s lives, and on his way out he costs them big time or he hurts them. This guy needs to go away but he keeps getting out. When a crook, espe­cially a violent one, keeps getting out of jail it usually means law enforcement is using him to catch other crooks. If that’s the case with Kevin Tobie, the cops need a new guy.

ANOTHER ONE! Jim Mastin of Ukiah says he'll also run for the 5th District supervisor's seat occupied by the dyspeptic incumbent David Colfax who recently blurted out that the job was not worth its “crappy” pay of $68,000 a year and that he was “sick of it.” Col­fax went on to grumble about how he was constantly abused by the County's “worst elements,” among them the Grand Jury, KC Meadows of the Ukiah Daily Journal and, presumably, his hometown weekly. Even here in Amnesia County Colfax's remarks just might get him un-elected, maybe even by Mastin who is a Democrat long active in the party's, ah, er, oppres­sive Northcoast branch, which basically functions as an extension of Congressman Thompson and career officeholder Wes Chesbro, with Dan Hauser crawling around the carpet for spare corporate change. Mastin has held a job with the Mendocino Community Col­lege's book store for many years (where the AVA is of course banned lest it fall into the hands of impres­sionable youth), and he sits on this and that inland do-good board, never once wondering, so far as I'm aware, why so much good has to be done in a country and a county awash in cash, much of it liberal cash. If Mastin's tepid political views deviate in the slightest from either Colfax's or candidate Hamburg's, that dif­ference is invisible. Hamburg is more for marijuana, probably, having smoked whole chimneys of the stuff for many years, while Colfax, Phd and DuI, is a for­mer grower whose drug of choice has always been alcohol. Pitted against this louche trio of libs is, so far as we know, the relatively wholesome figure of Wendy Roberts of Mendocino about whom we know only that she served on the Grand Jury critical of Colfax's and supervisor Smith's chiseling on their travel reim­bursements. Given that the 5th District has a huge women's vote of the type that The Worst Woman Is Still Better Than The Best Man, Mrs. Roberts, who isn't Colfax or Hamburg or Mastin, just might get elected by default. We were hoping that Gentleman George Hollister of Comptche would run again but he said, “Nope.” We also tried to talk a certain Coast woman with deep roots in the area into running, a very smart, personable young woman unburdened by the opportunistic liberalism characteristic of the 4th, 5th, and 2nd Districts, but she also said, “Nope.” Too bad, because what it looks like we're going to get is a lib lab lovefest from political triplets plus one unknown, the intriguing Lady From Mendocino.

LAST WEEK the Ukiah Daily Journal launched a series of articles on the history of marijuana in Men­docino County, complete with the County seal amended to feature a marijuana leaf. The alteration was a visual reference to the fact — happy or sad, take your choice — that a large part of Mendocino County's population is economically dependent on the plant.

THE FIRST DAY the altered logo appeared on the Journal's front page, where it would appear for four consecutive issues, Mendocino County Counsel Jeanine Nadel sent a letter to the Journal demanding that the graphic be removed from the Journal’s web­site.

“WE HAVE REQUESTED that they remove it from their website at this point,” Nadel told “They are consulting with their coun­sel.” Nadel cited County Code Section 2.04.080 which sets forth requirements for use of the County seal adopted on July 13, 1982. “The use of the official seal of the County of Mendocino shall be for purposes directly connected with official business of the County and for use only in those matters approved by the Mendocino County Executive Office or by resolu­tion of the Board of Supervisors.” … “Every person who maliciously or for commercial purposes, or with­out the prior approval of the County Executive Office or the Board of Supervisors, uses, or allows to be used, any reproduction or facsimile of the seal of the County of Mendocino in any manner whatsoever is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be punishable by a fine of not more than $500 or by imprisonment in the County jail for not more than six months or both such fine and imprisonment.”

UKIAH DAILY JOURNAL Editor K.C. Meadows replied: “We are not planning to take the seal down. Our attorneys agree that our [version of the] logo is protected speech under the First Amendment. The county will hear from our attorneys on that soon. You should note too, that the seal we used is not actually the county seal; it is a replica designed in-house at the Daily Journal. Look at both side by side and you will see the difference.”

SUPERVISOR JOHN McCOWEN, neo-pot fighter who also now seems to consider himself propriety's local enforcer, also called Meadows to try to convince her to take down the graphic. Meadows said no, explaining that any review of the County’s recent his­tory would make the insertion of a marijuana leaf into the County seal a perfectly legitimate comment and therefore fair use.

MIKE SWEENEY'S GARBAGE COUP is com­plete. Last week the Board of Supervisors approved a Memorandum of Agreement with Sweeney's county-wide Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority (MSWMA) designating Sweeney as the County's new Solid Waste Director — the Director had been a County employee in the Transportation Department; that position has been eliminated. In his new, and clearly self-created capacity, Sweeney will administer all County contracts with private trash haulers, including the contract with Solid Waste of Willits's Gerry Ward whom Sweeney spent years trying to undermine.

BACK IN THE 1990's, thanks to Supervisor John Pinches in his first term, Sweeney was caught trying to steer County policy (and its lucrative recyclables) away from Ward private business so that Sweeney, assisted by then-supervisor Richard Shoemaker, could justify a huge transfer station on deep North State Street, Ukiah. Thanks to neighborhood opposition lead by then private attorney Tim Stoen and Pinches’ discovery of a smoking gun memo by Sweeney to his pal Shoemaker explaining just how Ward's company could be screwed out of Ukiah's recyclables, Sweeney's project was killed and a more sensible pro­ject South of Ukiah was established.

THE NEW AGREEMENT describes an extremely convoluted management and administrative structure that master manipulator Sweeney can manipulate to his advantage. Being twice as smart as anyone in County government and perhaps three times as smart as the local, state and federal law enforcement per­sonnel he out-maneuvered to successfully elude prose­cution for the car bombing of his former wife, the late Judi Bari, Sweeney is the very archetype of Only In Mendocino County, and certainly the County's lead beneficiary of the prevalent amnesia.

IN ADDITION to being the MSWMA General Manager under the faux direction of a captive MSWMA Board made up of a rotating collection of oblivious City Council members plus two supervisors (probably his gofer McCowen plus some other equivalently protective solon), Sweeney will report “under contract” to “Mendocino County Board of Supervisors through CEO [Tom Mitchell] or his des­ignee.” Translation: Total freedom to do whatever you want. “In the exercise of duties as County Director, [Sweeney] will act on behalf of County and not on the behalf of MSWMA,” the MOA continues, as if any­body knows the difference. The confusion and poten­tial for conflict of interest is so obvious that the MOA even contains a “conflict of interest” section which requires Sweeney to disclose those conflicts as they arise and to cooperate in resolving them!

IT WILL BE UP TO Sweeney to decide if there's a conflict of interest as he goes about his duties as he defines those duties. Technically, Sweeney remains an employee of MSWMA. But the county becomes responsible for “costs incurred by MSWMA in per­forming the [Director] services.” The County agrees to pay MSWMA $100k per year with a built-in cost of living adjustment, plus payments for “special costs,” excluding, one assumes, bombs under the driver's seats of one's ex-wives.

“THE COUNTY may terminate this agreement and the appointment of [Sweeney] at any time upon writ­ten notice,” says the MOA, “however, County com­pensation payments made to MSWMA shall continue to be due and payable for 90 days after termination initiated by the County.”

“DUE AND PAYABLE” — classic Sweeney-ese. The Lord's Avenger himself couldn't have said it better. In fact, the entire MOA reads like Sweeney wrote it, which he undoubtedly did, the effort obviously being far beyond anything the inert Mitchell could come up with. The Supes of course unanimously approved the whole scamarama on their consent calendar, meaning it was passed without discussion. A nice irony is that the agreement is signed by Board Chair John Pinches. Of all people.....

AN INTERESTING comment was posted on the Ukiah Daily Journal’s “Forum” last week in response to an Daily Journal marijuana-series article entitled ‘Where do the plants go?” The Journal reported that a lot of the plants the cops pull up are buried because air quality regs these days prevent burning it; the story didn’t say where the dope was buried. The “Forum” comment was, “Anybody who lives in Deerwood knows where all the plants go. For many years they have, and continue to be, buried on the property of a well known Sheriff's Captain. Not a good practice, but just another example of the backwoods attitude of the good old boys in law enforcement.” There are not too many Captains in the Sheriff’s office and only one of them lives in Deerwood.

THE COUNTY has submitted a grant request for $193k to the state’s Homeland Security Office to fund the local “Buffer Zone Protection Program.” If the grant is awarded the money will be used “to increase our ability to protect critical infrastructure in the event of a disaster or acts of terrorism. This grant will allow the Sheriff’s Office to establish a more aggres­sive law enforcement presence where needed to pro­tect the county’s significant assets and develop effec­tive site-specific preventive and protective measures for critical infrastructure successfully.” County gov­ernment is an ongoing disaster and terrorists are ter­rorists, not ironists.

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