The Altmetric Bookmarklet – an instant measure of the reach of academic publications [UPDATED]

Academics seem to be obsessed with metrics of all kinds at the moment, and I’m certainly not immune to it as my recent post on the h-index demonstrated.  So I was intrigued by a new (at least to me) browser plug-in that gives you instant altmetrics such as number of times mentioned on Twitter, Facebook or on news outlets, or cited in blogs, policy documents, Wikipedia, etc.  It’s called the Altmetrics Bookmarklet and can be downloaded (or rather dragged from the screen to the bookmark bar of your browser) from here.

I’ve given it a spin and it seems to do what it says it can do, within narrow publisher and time limits (2011 onward for Twitter, for instance).  It’s very, very simple.  Just find a paper that you are interested in, on the publisher’s official website; here’s a recent one by my colleagues Duncan McCollin and Robin Crockett – click on the Altmetric Bookmarklet (circled):

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That gives you a drop-down of the current summary altmetrics for the paper which tells us it’s been tweeted by 14 people and mentioned on one Facebook page:

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(As an experiment I’m going to see if it picks up this blog post once it’s live and will update below*).

If you select “Click for more details” you go to a new page that gives you…. more details:

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And by selecting the different tabs you can see, for instance, exactly who has tweeted the paper:

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It also gives you an altmetrics score for the paper (in this case 10) but it’s unclear to me how that’s calculated.  Does anyone know?

That’s all there is to it.  Is it possible to waste a lot of time playing around with this?  Yes.  Will it prove to be useful?  Only time will tell.  But it’s an interesting way of tracking the reach (and potential future impact) of your publications.

*UPDATE:  The Altmetric Bookmarklet had picked up the mention of the paper on this blog in less than 24 hours.

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The organisers’ positive response to criticisms of the “honey bee decline” conference

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Three days ago I wrote a short, fast post expressing my unease (in robust terms) about a forthcoming conference entitled “Biodiversity and Local Partnerships: Halting the Decline of the Honey Bee in the UK”.  I had not anticipated that the post would generate quite as much interest as it did:  2007 views, 16 likes, and 28 comments (including my responses) as of 10am today.

There were also a lot of comments and likes on Facebook, most of it positive and agreeing with my sentiments, though some have suggested that I’m over-reacting, that I may be paranoid, and questioned what my “hidden agenda” is and whether I might be funded by an agrochemical firm (!)  Thanks to everyone who took the time to read the post and/or to respond*, to tweet the post, and even, in one case, phone up the conference organisers.

So it was with some satisfaction that yesterday I received the following email from the conference organisers, Public Policy Exchange (PPE), in response to my initial reply to their invitation:

Thank you for your response to our event, we always appreciate any
feedback from experts such as yourself. Your comments have been passed
on to our researchers and they are currently reviewing this event.

Our researchers do use a variety of sources, though on this occasion it
does appear that some have made sweeping generalisations and
over simplified statements, and ultimately have been unreliable. Clearly
our previous marketing mistakenly overplayed the role of the honey bee
in pollination processes. We certainly don’t want to contribute to a
misinformed narrative around bees and other pollinators; that was never
our intention and so we are looking at how we can improve this event.

Biodiversity is an area which we are very keen to develop further and
your feedback is therefore very helpful to us.

Kind regards,

The Conferences Team

They have also changed the title of the conference to “Biodiversity and Local Partnerships: Halting the Decline of Bees and Other Pollinators in the UK“.

So kudos to PPE for their fast response.  That’s a good outcome as far as I’m concerned and I may consider attending the conference; hell I’d even consider speaking at it if i was asked!

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*Yes, that’s deliberate – I got the impression that some on Facebook were responding without reading it…

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Who is feeding the honey bee bullshit machine?

Bee on apple blossom 2 - 1st May 2015

This morning I received an email from Public Policy Exchange (PPE) inviting me to a conference in London in November entitled “Biodiversity and Local Partnerships: Halting the Decline of the Honey Bee in the UK

The opening statement on the website and the official flyer convinced me that the organisers have been misinformed; all of it is wrong:

Healthy honey bee populations are vital to food and crop production, and the natural environment. In the UK, honey bees are responsible for 80% of pollination, and a third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.”

Where are they getting this  information from?  Who is feeding organisations like the PPE this kind of bullshit?  Is it bee keeping organisations?  I’d really like to know.

Honeybees are responsible for only one third of the crop pollination in the UK (Breeze et al. 2011), and a very small proportion of the wild plant pollination. Wild bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other pollinators are much more important than honeybees, and collectively they are responsible for this pollination, not just managed honeybees.  No one is denying that honey bees are important, but there is absolutely nothing to gain (and a lot to lose in terms of science credibility) by over-playing their importance, as I’ve argued in the peer-reviewed literature.

It’s not as if this is the only recent example, The Daily Express online has recently been equally ignorant of the facts, and didn’t even get the right bee in the accompanying image.

It’s interesting that the PPE website also uses the infamous not-Einstein quote, though they cite the author as “unknown”.  With good reason, because that’s bullshit too.

I won’t be attending the conference.

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Selfie with pollinator

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There has been a recent spate of people taking selfies with wild animals, sometimes resulting in serious injury, including the guy who was bitten by a rattlesnake, and ended up with a huge hospital bill*.  Over at the Nothing in Biology Makes Sense blog they had a recent post about this phenomenon, on which I commented that perhaps I should start a new meme, involving selfies with bees (or pollinators more broadly, if you’re allergic to bee stings).

So here it is, me plus Bombus hypnorum, nectaring on Verbena bonariensis, in the garden this afternoon.  Look forward to seeing similar images (unless this turns out to be an n=1 meme…)

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*This wouldn’t happen in the UK.  We don’t have rattlesnakes.  And we have the NHS.

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How much do we really understand about pollination syndromes?

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Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have, for many years, sought to document repeated patterns that they see in nature; to understand the processes that determine these patterns; and to make predictions about how and when they are going to be observed in the future or in other parts of the world.   There are many examples of such patterns, including: cyclical population dynamics of species such as lemmings; the occurrence of specific types of plant communities (e.g. rainforest, grasslands) in areas with particular climates; and convergent evolution of unrelated species to similar ecological niches, such as large, predatory placental and marsupial mammals (e.g. the dog and wolf family compared to the Tasmanian “wolf”).

An example of convergent evolution that has fascinated botanists since the 19th century is the idea of “pollination syndromes”, which are sets of flower characteristics that have repeatedly evolved in different plant families due to the convergent selection pressures applied by some groups of pollinators. Thus, red, scentless flowers producing lots of nectar are typical of many hummingbird pollinated plants in the New World, whilst white, night-scented flowers often signify moth pollination.  Good examples of plant species possessing these archetypical flower traits are have been used as text book examples for decades, repeatedly used to illustrate the predictable and specialised nature of some plant-pollinator interactions.

The problem is that until recently the pollination syndromes have rarely been subjected to critical tests of their frequency and predictive value (Ollerton et al. 2009 and references therein).  It’s been tacitly assumed that (after more than 150 years of study) we clearly know all there is to know about them, even though there have been criticisms levelled at the syndromes since their inception, a fact that has been subsequently ignored (Waser et al. 2011).

However in the last 20 years biologists have begun to seek answers to questions such as: How often do plant species conform to the expectations of the classical pollination syndromes? How good is our ability to predict the pollinators of a plant based just on its flower characteristics? What is the role played by flower visitors that do not conform to the predictions of the pollination syndromes? Similarly, what is the role of animals that steal nectar or pollen, or act as herbivores, in shaping flower traits?  What new examples of convergent evolution of flower traits remain to be discovered?

Research conducted in many different parts of the world has addressed these questions, questions which some biologists had assumed were already answered or which were not worth asking in the first place. And the answers to them are proving to be both surprising and controversial.

For example, the most comprehensive test of the frequency and predictability of pollination syndromes that has been conducted to date (Ollerton et al. 2009) concluded that only a small proportion of the 352,000 species of flowering plants could be categorised into the pollination syndromes as classically described. Likewise, they estimated that the predictive power of the pollination syndromes was about 30%. Other studies have shown that “secondary” flower visitors can be just as, or more, effective pollinators than the “primary” pollinator predicted by the syndromes (e.g. Waser & Price 1981,1990, 1991); that floral antagonists can play an important a role in shaping flower traits (e.g. Junker and Parachnowitsch 2015 and references therein); and that there are still examples of convergent evolution to “unexpected” pollinators waiting to be discovered in less well researched parts of the world, which in fact is most of the world (Ollerton et al. 2003).

Recently the very prestigious journal Ecology Letters published a paper that has challenged the challengers. Rosas-Guerrero et al (2014), by using a statistical technique called meta-analysis underpinned by a review of the available literature, suggested that pollination syndromes are much more predictable than Ollerton et al. (2009) concluded, and perhaps as high as 75%. However some of my collaborators and I see problems with their approach to studying pollination syndromes that have biased the conclusions that they draw, and therefore undermined the robustness of those conclusions, which we set out in a response to their original paper (Ollerton et al. 2015).  We originally tried to publish this in Ecology Letters but for some reason the journal was not interested; it’s therefore freely available from Journal of Pollination Ecology if you follow that link.

I won’t go into the detail of what we perceive as problems in Rosas-Guerrero et al.’s approach to testing the syndromes (you can read the paper for yourself) but in summary they relate to how the literature review was conducted (which failed to include all of the studies that could have provided data for their meta-analysis); the significant bias in the current literature because plant-pollinator interactions are not studied randomly (biologists are often drawn to large-flowered plants possessing those archetypical, classical flower traits associated with particular syndromes); the variation in how different researchers determine the effectiveness of the pollinators in their system, meaning that these studies are not always comparable; and issues around annual variation in pollinator identity and presentation of data.

Despite providing a focus and framework for understanding pollination biology for over 150 years, the pollination syndromes continue to surprise us and to provide a vital antidote to scientific hubris: we really do not understand nearly as much about them as we assume.

In an era when we are more and more concerned about loss of pollinator diversity, including extinction at both a species- and country-level, do these debates really matter or are they of purely academic concern, of interest to a few botanists and ecologists?  As you might expect, I’d argue that they do matter: there are still some fundamental aspects of pollination ecology that we don’t completely understand, or have only recently been seriously addressing, some of which I’ve worked on myself and which I’ve highlighted in this blog.  These include the number of flowering plants that require animal pollination, the diversity of pollinators at a global and regional level, the relative importance of different types of pollinators, and whether or not plants and pollinators are more specialised in tropical compared to temperate communities.  Without some of this fundamental knowledge we are unable to make effective arguments, policies and strategies for conserving pollinators.

References

Junker RR, Parachnowitsch AL (2015) Working towards a holistic view on flower traits—how floral scents mediate plant–animal interactions in concert with other floral characters. Journal of the Indian Institute of Science 95:43–67.

Ollerton J, Johnson SD, Cranmer L, Kellie S (2003) The pollination ecology of an assemblage of grassland asclepiads in South Africa. Annals of Botany 92:807–834.

Ollerton J, Alarcón R, Waser NM, Price MV, Watts S, Cranmer L, Hingston A, Peter CI, Rotenberry J (2009) A global test of the pollination syndrome hypothesis. Annals of Botany 103:1471–1480.

Rosas-Guerrero V, Aguilar R, Marten-Rodriguez S, Ashworth L, Lopezaraiza-Mikel M, Bastida JM, Quesada M (2014) A quantitative review of pollination syndromes: do floral traits predict effective pollinators? Ecology Letters 17: 388–400.

Waser NM, Price MV (1981) Pollinator choice and stabilizing selection for flower color in Delphinium nelsonii. Evolution 35:376–390.

Waser NM, Price MV (1990) Pollination efficiency and effectiveness of bumble bees and hummingbirds visiting
Delphinium nelsonii. Collectanea Botanica (Barcelona) 19:9–20.

Waser NM, Price MV (1991) Outcrossing distance effects in Delphinium nelsonii: pollen loads, pollen tubes, and seed set.
Ecology 72:171–179.

Waser NM, Ollerton J, Erhardt A (2011) Typology in pollination biology: lessons from an historical critique. Journal of Pollination
Ecology 3:1–7.

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By lifting the restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides Defra throws a (bee) brick at its own National Pollinator Strategy

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Yesterday a brick arrived in the post.  Not just any brick, but a Bee Brick, designed by the Green&Blue company in Cornwall as an architectural addition that can provide habitat for cavity nesting solitary species such as the Patchwork leaf-cutter bee that I discussed during Pollinator Awareness week.  A representative of the company recently got in touch, after having read my blog, and asked if I’d like a sample to try out in the garden.  In the absence of any planned wall building I’ve placed it a couple of metres up on the flat top of a south facing summer house window.  It’s probably a bit late in the season to attract any nesting solitary bees this year, but we’ll see; expect a report back from me at some point.

I had actually encountered the Bee Brick earlier this year at the Chelsea Flower Show which Karin and I attended as a 50th year bucket-list day out.  It was ok, I enjoyed it, the plants and (some of) the gardens were great.  But it was too busy, too expensive and too full of ostentatiously wealthy people for my tastes.

As if to serve as a counter-point to all the good work being done during Pollinator Awareness Week and by companies such as Green&Blue, came the recent news that Defra has agreed to lift the restrictions on use of two neonicotinoid pesticides on oil seed rape across a “limited” area in the east of the country.  It will apparently apply mainly to Suffolk, and cover an area of about 30,000 hectares.  That’s 5% of the UK’s oil seed rape crop.

The decision was made at the behest of the National Farmers Union, and seems to make no farming sense whatsoever given that nationally yields of oil seed rape have not been affected by the restriction on neonicotinoids, with the harvest this year looking to be above average.   Not surprisingly the decision has drawn furious fire from a range of environmental organisations including Buglife and the Wildlife Trusts. Meanwhile Friends of the Earth have threatened legal action, a move prompted by the fact that the Government has refused to allow its independent advisors to publish the details of the decision, including how it was made and what was discussed.

Aside from the lack of transparency, what particularly worries me is that this decision opens the door to further use of these restricted pesticides over the next 12 months, on a region by region basis, until we are back where we were prior to the restrictions being imposed.  The two year restriction on use of neonicotinoid pesticides comes to an end in December, at which point no one outside (and possibly inside) of Defra knows what is going to happen.

The National Farmers Union is being very selective with their use of information about the scientific evidence base for the effects of these pesticides on pollinators.  Dr Chris Hartfield, the NFU’s horticultural policy adviser and lead on bee health issues, was quoted as saying “The majority of the research that has fuelled this debate has been based on artificial dosing studies. The big question in this area is, does this accurately reflect what happens to bees foraging in and around neonicotinoid crops?  We don’t know, but the field studies haven’t shown that they are causing population declines in pollinators”.

Dr Hartfield and the NFU know full well that all of the evidence so far published shows that even at very small (field realistic) doses, neonicotinoid pesticides have been demonstrated to have important, sub-lethal effects on pollinators that may ultimately affect populations of some species.  Surely the wisest course of action is to further restrict their use until we have studied the situation.

This is not the only occasion when the NFU have been less than objective with their use of scientific evidence.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a group email exchange with Dr Hartfield in which he talked about the study by Carvalheiro et al. (2013) that “shows these [pollinator] declines have slowed (or even reversed) in the last 2 decades”.  I responded by pointing out that the current situation is not as straightforward as that.  The recent paper that we published in the journal Science showed that the rate of extinctions of UK bees and flower-visiting wasps has in fact increased over the period when Carvalheiro et al. (2013) see a slow down in declines in abundance.

There are a number of reasons why our results may be in disagreement with those of Carvalheiro et al., which we discuss in the paper, including the large statistical confidence interval around the rate of extinction during this latter period. However as with all such data, one or two studies will not give a definitive answer.  I provided Dr Hartfield with a link to our paper but I’m still waiting to receive a reply.

Initiatives such as the Bee Brick, reduced mowing on road verges, the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list, etc., etc. are important but they are tiny contributions compared to the role that must be played by British agriculture if we are to conserve pollinator diversity in the UK.  Farming accounts for 70% of the land surface in this country and has by far the greatest part to play in reducing biodiversity loss.

Within 12 months of Defra launching the National Pollinator Strategy, the same Government department has decided to bow to pressure and allow some use of a group of pesticides that we know are causing problems, even if they are not the whole story.  Defra is effectively hurling what may be the first of many bricks at itself, ultimately weakening the Strategy.   From conversations with politicians I know that these large departments do not have good internal communication and dialogue, but this seems to be an outstanding example of Orwellian double-think on the part of Defra.

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Academics from less privileged backgrounds share their stories

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Early summer 1995 and I’m in Northampton for the first time in my life, being interviewed for the post of Lecturer in Ecology at what was then Nene College*, the institution that evolved into the University of Northampton a decade later.  The interview went well, as I was offered the job, but I was very irritated by one of the comments made by a senior member of the panel (now retired).  He asked me about my background and how I came to this point in my career, and whether my parents had been to university.

This had no relevance to the job I’d applied for as far as I could see, but I responded that my father had originally been a coal miner, then subsequently had worked in construction, my mother a housewife with occasional part-time cleaning jobs.  I’d attended a large local comprehensive school in the North East and achieved terrible grades at A-level, and had eventually got to university by a rather circuitous route.

“Oh” said the panel member superciliously “You’ve done very well for yourself, haven’t you?”

My initial reaction was that I wanted to say: “Yes, with a good first degree and a PhD, I have done very well for myself, thank you very much, but I don’t need you to tell me that so fuck off and stop being such a patronising prick”.  But I needed a job and figured that this response was unlikely to go in my favour.  So I quietly agreed and seethed on the train home.

Why am I telling you this story?  Because there’s a great article over at the Times Higher’s website by Caroline Magennis, who asked a question on Twitter about how academics from less privileged backgrounds felt about their current roles and some of the barriers they had had to face.  It’s well worth reading; a bit of clueless condescension in a job interview is at the low end of a spectrum of experiences that people have shared with her.

*NEN College, not NEEN College

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Carol Klein’s Plant Odysseys starts 29th July (and I put in an appearance in episode 1)

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Back in June last year I talked about taking part in a day of filming with Carol Klein for her new four-part series, made with Oxford Scientific Films, called Plant Odysseys.  It’s an exploration of horticultural biodiversity, each episode focused on a particular group of plants.

The first episode, devoted to roses, is broadcast this Monday 29th July at 7pm on BBC2, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the production team did with our footage from Chester.  The name may be misspelled in the publicity material but it’ll still be me….

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Garden pollinators for PAW no. 7 – Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)

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For my final post for Pollinator Awareness Week I’ve chosen another bumblebee, one with a fascinating history and ecology. The Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) is a relatively new arrival on our shores.  It was first discovered near Southampton by Dave Goulson in 2001; since then has spread out through the country, as far north (currently) as central Scotland, and has recently been recorded from Ireland.  It arrived in Northamptonshire in 2006. The Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) has been tracking its spread through a recording scheme: it’s very distinctive being the only one of our 25 bumblebees to have a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail.

All the evidence suggests that this was a natural range expansion for the species rather than a deliberate or accidental introduction by people.  It’s what species do, they move around and change their distribution over timescales of decades to hundreds of years (there are lots of bird examples of this, including the Collared dove in the UK).  There’s no suggestion that this was due to climate change, however: Bombus hypnorum has long been present in colder parts of Europe and Scandinavia.

That said, there is probably a human influence to its spread as the species is closely associated with houses and gardens, often nesting in bird boxes or roof spaces (we had one in our roof for three years running).  The natural nesting habit for this bee is tree holes (hence the common name) which is why they are usually found in cavities above the ground.  However, like the Buff-tailed bumblebee, they can also be found in compost heaps, as a recent posting on the Bees Knees Facebook group showed (if you’re not a member of that group I can recommend it as it’s full of friendly, practical gardening advice for those interested in how their garden can be beautiful, productive and wildlife-friendly).

Although the Tree bumblebee will take nectar and pollen from an assortment of garden plants it seems to be particularly associated with members of the rose family (Rosaceae) and is a frequent pollinator of rosaceous soft fruit such as raspberries and blackberries.  I tried and failed yesterday to photograph the bee on our raspberries, so here’s a photograph of the outcome of that pollination.

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The Tree bumblebee is rapidly becoming one of the commonest garden bumblebees.  Is this likely to cause problems for our other bumblebees, by out-competing them for nectar and pollen, or even nesting sites?  It’s too early to tell but I’d be surprised if it does.

Bombus hypnorum March 2010

Phew!  That’s it!  It’s been a bit of marathon preparing these posts on top of writing a large grant application and a thousand other jobs, but it’s been a lot of fun.  Thanks to everyone who has viewed my posts For Pollinator Awareness Week and commented on them, either on the site or on Facebook.  Hopefully they have raised a broader awareness of our amazing native pollinators.

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Garden pollinators for PAW no. 6 – Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

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It would be impossible to write a series of blog posts about garden pollinators for Pollinator Awareness Week without considering the bumblebees (genus Bombus) and I intend to devote the last two posts to that group of bees.  The bumblebees are arguably the UK’s most important pollinators of both wild and crop plants, certainly later in the season when colony numbers have increased. Earlier in the season it’s the solitary bees such as the Orange-tailed mining bee that are predominant.

Although common and widespread in gardens, the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) belongs to a group of bees in which the workers are rather variable in appearance and can be very difficult to distinguish from those in the Bombus lucorum group, which includes two other species (B. cryptarum and B. magnus).

This is a truly social species with an annual nest comprising workers and a queen.  Nests are founded by queens that have mated the previous year and hibernated.  They usually choose old rodent nests in which to begin their colonies, which is why they are sometimes found in garden compost bins.  An interesting question that I’ve not seen answered is whether the queens actively displace mice or voles from such nests: does anyone know?  This association between bumblebees and mice led Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley into some speculation as to the role of spinsters in the British Empire.

In my garden the Buff-tailed bumblebee pollinates a range of crops including strawberries, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, runner beans, french beans, tomatoes, and raspberries.  As the photo above shows they also visit the flowers of passion fruit, where they seem to be more effective than the smaller honey bees and solitary bees.

Buff atil on Lambs ear cropped July 2015 P1120289 copy

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