Services grow at fastest pace in 7 years

Australia’s services sector has grown for a third consecutive month, and at its fastest rate in more than seven years, thanks to the housing boom, low interest rates and the plummeting currency.

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The Australian Industry Group’s Performance of Services Index (PSI) climbed 1.5 points to 55.6 in August, its fastest pace since March 2008.

A reading above 50 indicates the sector is expanding.

Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said the result defied the slow economic growth figures released on Wednesday.

Australia’s economy grew by a weaker-than-expected 0.2 per cent in the June quarter, its slowest pace in more than two years.

“This suggests that the economy has strengthened somewhat over the past couple of months and that we are gradually finding sources of growth to balance the further fall in mining-related investment,” he said.

PSI respondents said trading conditions had improved due to a combination of the booming property market, record-low interest rates and the falling Australian dollar.

Small-business tax write-offs announced in the government’s May budget were also helping, the report showed.

But weak business investment, shaky business and consumer confidence, and sluggish household income growth was still weighing on the sector.

Three of the five activity sub-indexes expanded, with new orders and sales up for a third straight month, while employment rose for a second month.

Mr Willox said the solid gains posted by new orders for businesses, which increased by 3.9 points to 56.9 points, suggest the services sector would continue to grow in the months ahead.

Leppa wants Redden to stick with Lions

Bottom of the AFL ladder.

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Reports of rifts between players and the coach. Requests for trades.

By any definition Brisbane are a club in crisis.

But if Lions coach Justin Leppitsch is concerned, then he’s got a great poker face.

The Lions were rocked on Tuesday when young midfielder Jack Redden informed Leppitsch he wants a trade, feeling he’s becoming stale and needs a new location to get back to his best form.

Redden is believed to be the first of several Lions players looking for a way out of the troubled club.

James Aish and Matthew Leuenberger are widely expected to leave during the upcoming trade period while Stefan Martin and Dayne Zorko have also been named as among those keen to pack their bags.

Leppitsch is keeping a calm outward appearance however, insisting the Lions are setting out on a path back to success.

“There’s still lots of things about our football club that need to improve,” Leppitsch said.

“We’ve made a lot of changes, particularly off the field and that sometimes can make players a bit nervous about what’s going to happen in the future.

“All I can say is it’s going to be a better place, the footy club.”

Lions captain Tom Rockliff, who took to social media last month to rubbish a reported rift between himself and Zorko, said he had tried to convince Redden to reconsider his trade request.

Leppitsch says he can accept Redden’s reasons for wanting a new environment but hasn’t given up hope of convincing the 24-year-old to stay at the Gabba.

“We still think we can get the best out of Jack, it’s just a matter of proving that to Jack,” Leppitsch said.

“Keeping in touch with him and making sure we’re doing the best we can to keep him and show his best footy is here.”

Leppitsch also said if his relationship with Redden was strained, it’s news to him.

“I wouldn’t say any of my relationships with the players is poor,” Leppitsch said.

“There are varying degrees of relationships with every people in your life but I wouldn’t say it’s a poor relationship at all.

“At times clubs make decisions on players and players make decisions on clubs.

“We’re very confident we’ve got all the players we want. They’re contracted, they’re here and we think we’re going to get better as a footy club. That’s our position on that.”

Mayweather ready to hang up gloves as ‘the best ever’

Should Mayweather win, as is widely expected, he would match the 49-0 record of former heavyweight great Rocky Marciano but says he would not be tempted to come out of retirement for a 50th fight.

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“Forty-nine is my last fight,” the five-division world champion, aged 38, told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday before saying that self-preservation in the ring had always been a top priority.

“My health is more important. Anything can happen (in boxing). I am not really worried about losing. You can make a lot of money but you still won’t be able to talk, walk and have a sharp mind.

“Of course, it’s always about self-preservation. I come first but I appreciate the fans. I do. The only thing I can do is believe in myself. I’m going to be TBE (The Best Ever) until the day I die.”

Many pundits have doubted Mayweather’s claim that he will end his career after the Sept. 12 bout, pointing to the American’s U-turn when he came back from a 21-month retirement to fight Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez in September 2009.

“Like I have said and Floyd has said a number of times, this will be his last fight,” Leonard Ellerbe, CEO of Mayweather Promotions, said on Wednesday’s conference call.

“Why can’t a man go out when he has had an illustrious career, accomplished everything that he needed to accomplish and be done? And he has done it his way.

“Over the last week, I have received three major movie offers. We fully expect Floyd to be heavily, heavily involved in the entertainment industry because this is what he does right now … that is going to occupy a lot of his time.”

Mayweather, whose 48-0 record includes 26 knockouts, is renowned for his brilliant defence in the ring though he has often been criticized for selecting easy opponents while building his impressive resume.

Asked what he regarded as the greatest achievement of his career, he replied: “Every fight played a major key … and number 49 is going to be important also. But my career’s not over yet.”

Berto, a twice former welterweight world champion, will step into the ring as a heavy underdog after losing three of his last six fights but Mayweather is wary of underestimating his opponent.

“When you’ve got a guy that’s put in a situation with nothing to lose, it makes him work that much harder,” said Mayweather. “He has a chance to be one of the top guys in the sport when I am through. You never overlook anyone.”

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

After a tepid start, Ted Cruz plans to ‘play hard’ in Iowa

“Whether we win or lose, this race will be decided by the men and women gathered here,” he said last Friday to a group of mostly older people sitting on folding chairs in a conference room.

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Iowa’s first-in-the nation caucuses are often a high-stakes event for presidential campaigns — and this year the state is especially critical for Cruz, a stalwart conservative in a crowded field. The Texas Republican’s uncompromising stances seem designed to appeal to the conservative base that dominates the state GOP, as well as the state’s heavy concentration of evangelical Christians. On Friday in Sheldon, Iowa, Cruz forcefully denounced Supreme Court rulings upholding a key part of the Affordable Care Act and affirming the rights of gays to marry nationwide.

But the early evidence suggests that victory in Iowa may be an uphill climb for the Texas senator.

Cruz’s poll numbers in the state are underwhelming so far: a Des Moines register poll last month put him in eighth place among likely caucus-goers, with 5 percent saying they would support Cruz. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was in first place with 17 percent of the vote. State Republicans have expressed surprise that Cruz, who has only one paid staffer in Iowa, had visited the state as an officially declared candidate just twice before last week’s trip.

Now Cruz is doubling down on the Hawkeye State. Starting Friday Cruz is again making a swing through the state. His last stop: a speech on Saturday at Drake University in Des Moines, titled “Believe Again.”

“I’m going to spend a lot of time in the great state of Iowa,” Cruz promised more than a week ago at a restaurant in Denison, where a print of “American Gothic” hung on the wall behind him and a man rang a cowbell each time the senator made an applause line.

He has visited the state twice before as a candidate, with several more visits in the works over the coming weeks. He is vowing to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties, launching a fresh push to recruit key grass-roots volunteers and opening a campaign office soon.

“If Ted Cruz is your guy, I want to talk to you,” Bryan English, Cruz’s Iowa campaign chair, said to about 75 people who came to hear the candidate speak in Red Oak.

They included the father of Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who said he plans to support Cruz.

But Ernst herself who took a very public motorcycle ride with Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earlier this month — remains uncommitted. Other key state leaders have already signed on to other campaigns. And some here wonder why it took so long for Cruz to push this hard in Iowa.

Cruz went to Iowa a week after his announcement in March, and returned in April to attend a homeschooler conference in Des Moines. A third planned trip was canceled because of weather. He did not attend the Ernst event three weeks ago that featured many other GOP presidential hopefuls — including Walker — instead speaking at the North Carolina Republican convention. Cruz has also had to spend a large chunk of time in Washington, where the Senate has been in session.

“We haven’t seen him,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican party political director. “It’s one of those things where if he’s going to be competitive here, and he has some stiff competition for the space he wants to occupy, he has to have a more constant presence in the state. You can’t be gone for two months.”

An Iowa Republican who did not want to be identified in order to speak freely was more blunt: “Ted Cruz can absolutely win the Iowa caucuses, but thus far he’s not running the campaign that can do it for him.”

In an interview on Saturday, Cruz defended his strategy, saying much of the campaign’s time and energy for the first few months had been focused on fundraising, on recruiting statewide leadership teams and on peeling away caucus-goers who once backed current presidential candidates, including Mike Huckabee, who won the state in 2008, and 2012 caucus winner Rick Santorum. Members of Cruz’s Iowa team include former Iowa secretary of state Matt Schultz, who supported Santorum, and Joel Kurtinitis and state Sen. Jason Schultz, who both endorsed former Texas congressman Ron Paul during the last cycle.

Cruz said he is “playing hard” here – as well as New Hampshire, where he wants to appeal to Catholics, and South Carolina, where there are many evangelical Christians.

“If you look at our leadership teams you see conservatives, you see evangelicals, you see libertarians . . . I’m not aware of any other candidate that enjoys that breadth of support from the many groups that comprise the Republican majority,” Cruz said before an event at an indoor gun range in Johnston, Iowa.

Cruz advisers say that the candidate’s strategy is to coalesce his conservative base while pulling in support from evangelicals and conservative libertarians and casting aside what the candidate calls “the mushy middle.”

The campaign describes the electorate in a bracket-style system: conservatives, libertarians, evangelicals, and moderates. It believes Cruz’s path to victory involves winning the conservative bracket and getting large numbers of people in the evangelical bracket, as well as libertarians, to back his campaign.

But the biggest focus has been on fundraising. Cruz’s campaign raised $4 million in its first week and a collection of super PACs supporting the candidate have raised $37 million, according to CNN. The campaign itself said it is on pace to have raised $8 million to $10 million by June 30.

“In the early parts of a campaign, you cannot succeed without having the resources to communicate your message,” Cruz said.”There are seasons and phases in a presidential race.

“There are other candidates in the field who are not seeing significant fundraising success, who can spend every day doing nothing but grass-roots events because they’re not having success raising money,” he said.

Cruz’s campaign downplayed its minimal staffing in the state saying that its strategy all along has been to focus on recruiting the key, lesser-known grass-roots activists who can make inroads with his base, and to reach to conservatives who may not have voted in 2012.

“The era when a candidate could come move to an early state for a year, catch fire and then build a national campaign based on the momentum of that one state is no longer likely to occur because the time frame is compressed,” said Cruz. “And so we are also very deliberately running a national campaign.”

Cruz advisers said the candidate needs to win one of the first three primary states — or be in the top three in Iowa. Additionally, the campaign is pouring resources into states that will vote March 1 and March 15, a strategy they believe will position Cruz well after the crowded early primaries and caucuses shake out. Regardless of outcome, the campaign wants to be positioned to immediately dive into the delegate-rich second round of states, which includes Cruz’s home state of Texas.

“Our intent is to be standing” on March 15, an adviser said. Cruz will spend August stumping in states including Arkansas, Wyoming and Alabama. Cruz’s team also wants to try to solidify conservatives in more liberal states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota.

But Iowa Republicans believe the state is ripe for a candidate like Cruz. While Cruz advisers say they have solid teams in New Hampshire, where he has drawn large, rowdy crowds, and South Carolina, they are traditionally less friendly to a candidate, such as Cruz.

“I think Iowa is crucial for his candidacy,” Robinson said. “I’m surprised by his campaign strategy of saying we’re going to compete later on in the race and not go all-in in Iowa. Iowa is a state where he can make his mark.”

In this evangelical-dominated state, Cruz has the advantage of being able to deploy an evangelical pastor as a campaign surrogate: his father, Rafael. The elder Cruz has often drawn headlines for the wrong reasons — for instance, comparing President Barack Obama to Fidel Castro. But he’s been warmly received by many of the evangelical voters who made up 57 percent of Republican caucus-goers in 2012, according to entrance polls. He’s been a steady presence here in Iowa, showing up at more than a dozen events across the state over a three-day period this month.

Cruz assailed against what he said are efforts to strip away religious freedom. He reaffirmed his promises to protect the Second Amendment, repeal Obamacare and abolish the IRS. He vowed to destroy the Islamic State, and ensure Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon. And he described himself as the only candidate who is willing to take on anyone — Republican, Democrat or otherwise — to fight for his beliefs.

“If you look at the other candidates and ask on those issues on your list, where have they stood and led. What have they meaningfully done to lead on those issues?” he said in Denison.

Cruz paces around when delivering speeches and speaks with the cadence and zeal of a sermon. Here in Red Oak, he asked the enthusiastic crowd to imagine a president that won’t allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.

“Scripture tells us there’s nothing new under the sun,” he said.

“We could if we could get you in there,” a woman in the crowd said.

“Well, Amen, ma’am,” said Cruz. “That’s exactly what we’re working to do.”

Fact Checker: Warren claims ‘auto dealer markups cost consumers $26 billion a year’

_ Sen.

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Elizabeth Warren D-Mass., speech at the Levy Institute, April 15, 2015

Warren has long objected to Congress’s decision to exempt automobile dealers from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she helped set up as an adviser to the Obama administration. In a recent speech, she indicated that she will push Congress to eliminate this exemption and allow the CFPB to supervise loans made by car dealers.

We take no position on whether this is necessary — or whether auto dealers should be barred from arranging loans — but we did become curious about a statistic that Warren has frequently cited — that “auto dealer markups cost consumers $26 billion a year.” She referenced a 2011 report released by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), which describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that fights “predatory lending practices.”

How accurate is this $26 billion figure and is Warren describing it correctly?

Buying a car often involves two negotiations — the price of the car and then interest rate for the financing. (There can also be a negotiation over the value of a trade-in.) Consumers can come into a dealer with a pre-approved annual percentage rate (APR) from a lending institution, such a credit union, or they can get financing from the car dealer. The dealer typically will send an application to various lenders to get quotes. In that case, the dealer acts as a broker.

Whether someone would get a better rate from the auto dealer is open to question, since dealers expect to get paid for their work in arranging the loan. That compensation is known as the “dealer reserve.” But you can haggle over the rate from the auto dealer. “Try to negotiate the lowest APR with the dealer, just as you would negotiate the best price for the vehicle,” the Federal Trade Commission advises.

The dealer has the option of adjusting the APR (to below a bank’s APR) by reducing its compensation in order to facilitate the sale. Dealers also may tout low or even zero percent financing offers for certain model cars. At the same time, that dealer discretion may result in higher rates for people with poor credit (or who do not negotiate well). Consumer advocates and academic studies also say there is evidence of racial disparities in rates that are offered. We are not defending auto sales tactics, but wanted to examine how this $26 billion figure was reached.

The CRL report is based on 2009 data, in the depths of the financial crisis, and has not been updated. Although the report says that the “total rate markup volume” was $25.8 billion, it does not fully explain how that figure was calculated. A chart in the report says the key information about the dealer reserve was derived from an annual survey published by the National Automotive Finance Association, which is a membership organization of lenders who specialize in “subprime” loans to people with poor credit.

That’s right. This is data on the subprime market, a fact that CRL does not disclose in its report. CRL took the data and applied it to the entire auto loan market, even though subprime loans were only one-fifth of the auto-loan market in 2009. Moreover, just 25 of the 175 companies that were in the subprime auto loan market at the time participated in the survey. Four respondents were deemed “large” lenders with more than 80,000 loans outstanding, while 10 respondents had fewer than 10,000 accounts. (In fact, only one company that answered the survey is one of the top 20 lenders.)

“The [NAF] report has never purported to represent the entire auto financing industry,” said Jack Tracey, the group’s executive director. “The 2010 survey reported data from only 25 companies, all in the non-prime financing space, and it would be incorrect to extrapolate such a small sample size to the entire auto financing market.”

Christopher Kukla, CRL senior vice president, acknowledged that the data used in the report is incomplete. “One thing I will say is that the amount of publicly available data is minimal,” he said. “We would be the first to admit that it is not a perfect data set.”

But there’s a bigger problem. The numbers in the CRL report do not match up with the numbers in the NAF survey. The CRL report says the average markup per used car loan was $780, but the NAF survey says it was $280. For new cars, CRL says $494 but the NAF survey lists $477. CRL says the average reserve was $714 but the NAF survey says $330.

We won’t bore you with the math. But calculations based on the data for auto-financed sales in the CRL report and the stated NAF survey estimates for dealer reserves yield a figure of $11.6 billion, or less than half the figure in the report. That may seem like a big number, but remember, it’s based on data that is a subset of a subset of the overall auto loan market, so it’s practically meaningless.

Even more curious, the CRL report asserts, without explanation, that the markup volume increased 24 percent from 2007 to 2009. (Kukla says the 2007 figure was based on a different data set, from the Consumer Bankers Association.) But the NAF survey shows that from 2007 to 2009, the average dealer reserves declined 24.9 percent for new vehicles and 23.3 percent for used vehicles.

We should note that these numbers come from 15 of the respondents, since that’s how few consistently responded to the survey over three years. Kukla claims CRL relied on an average of data derived from all 25 respondents, from the survey’s appendix, “which we believe gives a fuller picture of the industry.”

It’s puzzling how the numbers could change so much with the addition of a few more respondents, especially because all of the large lenders were included in the sample of 15. It is possible a couple of small (under 10,000 accounts) lenders, with hard-to-believe reserves above $2,000, skewed the numbers.

Moreover, none of the NAF report survey questions regarding dealer reserve have responses from all 25 participating companies, as only 15 arranged loans through an auto dealer. Even then, 10 said the dealer reserve was based on a flat fee, not a percentage of the finance charge — which is practice advocated by critics such as Warren.

As an example of how fuzzy estimates of “dealer markups” are, the Consumer Federation of America in 2004 issued a report in which the dealer reserve totaled “hundreds of millions and as much as one billion dollars annually.” Yet somehow, in the CRL report, the number climbed more than 25 times in the space of seven years.

Yet even if the $26 billion number were credible — which it is not — Warren incorrectly characterizes it. She claimed that the study showed “auto dealer markups cost consumers $26 billion a year.” But Kukla acknowledged that this figure includes compensation for dealers who arranged the loans for car buyers.

“We are careful to say that, yes, this included compensation that is likely to be fairly gotten,” he said. “It is fair for dealers to get compensation for the work they do.” (Nevertheless, the group’s website includes a calculator, derived from the report, that purports to show the “windfall profits” earned by auto dealers.)

In 1977, the Federal Reserve Bank rejected a proposal that would have required auto dealers, as part of the Truth in Lending Act, to disclose how much of the finance charge they receive for arranging a loan. “In most instances, the portion of the finance charge which represents the dealer’s participation is not an amount which the consumer could save by obtaining a direct loan from a lending institution,” the board concluded.

A Warren spokeswoman declined to provide an on-the-record response.

As regular readers know, we hold politicians accountable for the accuracy of sources they cite. There are enough warning flags in the CRL report — such as its lack of transparency on how the $26 billion number was calculated — that would have given a close reader pause. The National Automobile Dealers Association in 2012 submitted to the FTC a lengthy rebuttal of the report that also raised serious questions about the research.

But besides citing a faulty number, Warren misleadingly says it represents “auto dealer markups.” The group that produced the report said that figure includes reasonable compensation owed to car dealers.

Doctors Without Borders seeks international fact-finding commission on hospital attack

The charity, known also as Medecins Sans Frontieres, said the commission would gather facts and evidence from the United States, NATO and Afghanistan.

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After that, the charity would decide whether to bring criminal chargs for loss of life and damage, it announced in Geneva.

“If we let this go, we are basically giving a blank check to any countries at war,” MSF International President Joanne Liu told a news briefing in Geneva. She said there was no commitment yet to an independent investigation.

The U.S. air attack killed 22 patients and medical staffters, including three children, in the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz, which had been overrun by Taliban militants. Thirty-seven people were injured, including 19 staff members, the charity said.

The strike was not intended to strike a hospital run by an international aid group, a senior U.S. general said Tuesday, adding to an evolving Pentagon account of one of the deadliest American strikes on a civilian target in recent history.

Gen. John F. Campbell, who commands U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, said that the powerful U.S. gunship that struck the hospital run by Doctors Without Borders acted in response to a request from Afghan troops facing a Taliban attack.

Charity President Liu said in a statement that the facts and circumstances of the attack needed to be investigated independently because of “inconsistencies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened.”

“We cannot rely on only internal military investigations by the US, NATO and Afghan forces,” she said.

In the statement, Liu said the attack on the hospital was “the biggest loss of life for our organisation in an airstrike” and that “tens of thousands of people in Kunduz can no longer receive medical care now when they need it most.”

“Our patients burned in their beds,” she said. “Doctors, nurses and other staff were killed as they worked. Our colleagues had to operate on each other. One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table – an office desk – while his colleagues tried to save his life.

“Even war has rules,” the statement said.

Liu said the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit attacks on hospitals in war zones, had been attacked too, along with the hospital. She said the conventions were not just “an abstract legal framework”, but rather the difference between life and death for medical teams working in war zones.

Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the United States bore ultimate responsibility for authorizing strikes on a civilian compound.

“A hospital was mistakenly struck,” he said. “We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”

Campbell said a full accounting of the weekend incident, which occurred as U.S. forces sought to help the Afghan government reclaim Kunduz, the first major Afghan city to fall to the Taliban since the war began in 2001, would be available after a Pentagon investigation. He declined to give a timeline for that probe.

But numerous questions remain about how Saturday’s strike, in which an AC-130 gunship conducted repeated bombing raids on a building housing the hospital’s emergency rooms and intensive care unit, could have happened.

Campbell described the incident as a mistake, but he did not specify whether the American pilots had tried to hit another target and missed or whether they intended to strike the hospital building but did not know it was a medical facility.

Neither have officials said whether U.S. forces violated their own rules of engagement in Afghanistan, which permit the United States to use air power in three situations: for counterterrorism operations, in self-defense or to protect Afghan forces “in extremis.”

In a statement released Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said he would hold those responsible accountable.

“The U.S. military takes the greatest care in our operations to prevent the loss of innocent life,” Carter said. “And when we make mistakes, we own up to them.”

Doctors Without Borders has described the attack as deliberate.

“This attack cannot be brushed aside as a mere mistake or an inevitable consequence of war,” Liu said in a statement. The organization said it repeatedly provided the hospital’s coordinates to U.S. and Afghan authorities.

U.S. military officials have already revised their account of what occurred overnight on Saturday. On Monday, speaking at the Pentagon, Campbell said the attack was authorized after Afghan troops, under attack by the Taliban, requested American air support. That contradicted earlier statements from Pentagon officials that the strike was ordered to protect U.S. forces on the ground who were taking direct fire from the Taliban.

According to Pentagon officials, U.S. Special Operations forces were positioned in Kunduz, advising elite Afghan troops nearby, when the strike took place. It now appears that U.S. forces were not facing direct attack from the Taliban.

The incident adds fuel to a debate about the future of the limited U.S. mission in Afghanistan as the White House considers further changes to its plan for bringing the U.S. military footprint to under 1,000 troops at the end of 2016. President Obama has linked his legacy to pulling U.S. forces from Afghanistan and ending America’s longest war.

About 9,800 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan. Almost 7,000 are tasked to a

multinational mission to help Afghan forces fight the Taliban, while a smaller number are part of a U.S. effort to hunt down al-Qaida and other militants.

Under questioning by lawmakers, Campbell acknowledged that he believes the current exit plan should be changed, given security conditions on the ground.

Campbell spoke as Afghan forces struggle to fully retake Kunduz. While much of the city is now under government control, the Taliban’s ability to seize a major urban area illustrates the militants’ resilience despite years of assaults from NATO forces.

Fierce clashes were reported Tuesday.

A U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment freely, said U.S. forces conducted two airstrikes in Kunduz province Monday, both of which targeted insurgents “threatening Afghan and coalition forces.” Special Operations soldiers remain embedded with Afghan troops battling the Taliban in and around Kunduz.

In Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government did not deny it had requested the U.S. airstrike Saturday but said the matter was being investigated.

Sayed Zafar Hashemi, a Ghani spokesman, said it would be common for the Afghan military to solicit air support from the coalition. Hashemi said most of the airstrikes that occurred in Kunduz after the Taliban overran it last week resulted from a specific request from the Afghanistan military.

Saturday’s incident was among the deadliest U.S. strikes to result in civilian casualties in Afghanistan. In July 2002, more than 40 people were killed and more than 100 were injured when a U.S. aircraft fired on a wedding party.

Of the 12 Doctors Without Borders staffers killed, three were physicians. After the attack, the group withdrew from Kunduz; it still operates five other facilities in Afghanistan.

Officials with Doctors Without Borders have raised doubts about the U.S. military’s ability to conduct a satisfactory investigation of its own actions. NATO and the Afghan government have launched separate probes

The Afghan Ministry of Health issued a statement expressing its support for an independent probe. The ministry said the strike “threatens the health of millions of Afghans” because private charities are now reconsidering operating in the country.

“Staff no longer feel safe in any health facility anywhere in the country,” the ministry said. “And some international health organizations are questioning whether the risks of staying in the country are just too high after such an attack.”

Some Afghan leaders continue to defend the airstrike. Hamdullah Danishi, the acting governor of Kunduz province, said Taliban fighters had been using hospital grounds as a staging area from which to launch attacks on the provincial capital, Kunduz city.

Danishi said he played no role in ordering the airstrike, but he reiterated that the area around the hospital had to be cleared of militants. “We have a military decision-making council that decides such issues,” Danishi said. “I don’t know if it made the request.”

“But if it was me,” Danishi continued, “I would have ordered the airstrike.”

Afghan military leaders declined to comment.

The aircraft that carried out the Kunduz attack was an AC-130 gunship, a platform that is dedicated almost entirely to supporting Special Operations forces, such as those advising Afghan troops around Kunduz. The plane flies at a relatively low altitude and can loiter over a target. Its pilots must rely on visual targeting to strike locations on the ground.

****

Craig reported from Kabul, Deane from London. Missy Ryan contributed to this report from Washington. Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington also contributed.

An Islamic State fighter’s surreal rant about ‘Arabs’ hogging cellphone chargers

But though Hussein may seem devoted to fighting infidels, lending a hand in the Islamic State’s attempt to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq evidently has a downside: fellow fighters borrowing cellphone chargers without permission.

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This was among many complaints Hussein, one of at least 700 Brits who have joined the extremist group, had about his service with the men in black – specifically, the “Arabs” among them.

Hussein’s lengthy complaint, titled “Culture Clash: Understanding The Syrian Race,” was posted on his blog under his nom de guerre Abu Saeed al Britani, as the BBC first reported. In more than 6,000 words, the bizarre rant took aim at “Arabs” and “Syrians” for, among other charges, their alleged shoe-stealing, lack of respect for personal space, bad dining habits and “childish behaviour.”

Then there was the cellphone problem. Sure, disputes about chargers sometimes arise in workplaces and dorm rooms. But they also turn up on the front lines of international jihad.

“They see no issue in unplugging your mobile phone to charge their own phone,” Hussein wrote. “Even if it’s your own charger, they would casually take your phone off charge to charge their own phone, even if there is no real need for them to charge their phone at that current time.”

Hussein’s Miss Manners-style essay started out magnanimously. “All praise is due to Allah who gathered the Arab and the non-Arab here,” he wrote. “. . . The Arabs and the non-Arabs are united in one line, under one banner, defending each other’s life with their own blood.”

But then Hussein turned into a bit of a Felix Unger – more specifically, a Felix Unger who is annoyed by Arabs.

“Arabs as a whole have a unique culture, which differs dramatically from the western lifestyle,” Hussein wrote. “If one is unaware of these cultural differences, then it could be quite peculiar, annoying, and at times somewhat stressful to interact and associate with them.”

In an attempt to further foreign fighters’ understanding of what they can expect from the Islamic State, Hussein proceeded to “list a few of their habits which Arabs are known for.” Some highlights:

–“A lack of privacy for other’s space.”

Arabs go through other people’s property without their permission, Hussein noted.

“Arabs in general do not know where the red line is in giving another brother his space, and this is in their culture, maybe because they see this as a form of strong brotherhood,” he wrote. “Whatever the reason it’s annoying so patience is required.”

–“Childish behaviour.”

In the Levant, it seems, funny business is welcome – but not too much.

“Sometimes it may get quite hard to hold a civilised conversation with a Syrian man, one minute he’s listening to you speak and the next he’s playing around with the other Syrian brother standing next to him,” Hussein wrote. “There is a time for being serious and a time for being childish and joking around. However the line between the two is somewhat hard for our Syrian brothers to judge.”

–“Stealing shoes.”

Some in the Islamic State seem to have a sort of bowling-alley mentality when it comes to footwear.

“In the west, it is common knowledge to walk out of a room wearing the same pair of shoes that you wore while entering the room,” Hussein wrote. “Nay, it is common sense. However . . . our Syrian brothers have a very peculiar philosophy whereby they believe that everyone can share each other’s footwear, irrespective of foot size. Someone who is a size 40 will casually walk out the room wearing your footwear even though you are a size 44, and strangely he may not even realise.” (These are European shoe sizes, in which a 40 is about a 9 in the United States.)

Hussein added: “Weird? Of course it is.”

–Dining etiquette.

“A Syrian will eat all your food without permission making you go hungry for the rest of the day without apologising nor even informing you of what he done,” Hussein wrote. “Maybe it’s just me, but it seems they seriously lack in common sense in this field.”

–Laziness.

Hussein lasered in on Arabs’ alleged failures as administrators, describing a Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which Islamic State fighters are shuttled from place to place when they need something. He also noted Arabs’ disrespect for lines.

“Arabs always throw you around to another office if they do not know what to do,” he wrote. “Instead of saying they do not know whether this task falls under their responsibility or not (even though it seems very obvious it does), they would direct you elsewhere in an attempt to get another workload off their shoulders.”

Prayer was required – and a little bit of shouting.

“So what is the solution to dealing with Arabs in administration?” Hussein wrote. “The solution is twofold. Number one; to pray to Allāh that He replaces the Arabs with others who know what they are doing. Number two; and a more practical solution, is to shout at them while asking for what you need.”

–Sleeping too soundly and talking too loud.

Arabs, Hussein claimed, go to extremes. They sleep so deeply that they often cannot be awakened – and, because they sleep so deeply, they talk loudly when others are trying to. Hussein cited an example: He was trying to rest in a basement in Raqqa when his slumber was interrupted by “Arab brothers” who “started speaking loudly for about an hour.”

“During this time I tried to sleep but found it very difficult to do so,” he wrote. “It would seem quite obvious to the average Tom, Dick or Harry to speak in a very low tone when others are sleeping yet our Arab brothers tend to consider otherwise.”

–Too much eye contact.

“In the west, if you are staring at someone (for whatever valid reason you may have) it is courteous to smile before lowering your gaze, or at least to look away if the person looks at you,” Hussein wrote. “… The Syrians keep on staring at you, even after you look at them. Sometimes it becomes quite awkward, especially if you notice someone staring at you for a few minutes even after you look back at him and smile or ask him how he is.”

Staring contests among Islamic State fighters, however, can be easily won.

“If you get a random Syrian staring at you for a long time, do not get paranoid, it’s in the culture to stare at people for long durations of time,” Hussein wrote. “And if you feel uncomfortable, just ask him a random question to awaken him from his daydream.”

–Bad driving.

Sure, Hussein has advocated beheadings. But driving on roads in the Arab world? That’s terrifying.

“Coming from the west, we have certain rules and regulations which we abide by while on the road,” he wrote. “These are for our own benefit to prevent accidents and henceforth, complications. In the Arab world however, there are not that many rules for the highway, and one can easily obtain a driving license without any test.”

He added: “Yes I know, very scary indeed!

Hussein’s parting advice to European Muslims: Come join the Islamic State, but try to fight alongside other Europeans.

“The above mentioned traits should not deter a person from coming to Jihād, for not all Arabs are like this,” he wrote. “We have many European battalions which one can join if he finds it problematic, in fact I would strongly advise my Western brothers to join a non-Arab battalion if the above mentioned traits are something one cannot live with.”

How the IRS seized a North Carolina businessman’s life savings without ever charging him with a crime

The United States of America, Plaintiff, v.

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$107,702.66 in United States Currency, Defendant.

[end ital]

WASHINGTON — That’s the Kafkaesque title of a civil asset forfeiture complaint filed in a U.S. District Court last December. The complaint, and the attendant peculiarity of the federal government filing suit against its own currency, illustrates the legal problems at the heart of the civil asset forfeiture system. As a DEA agent succinctly described it to the Albuquerque Journal: “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”

Other asset forfeiture complaints read similarly:

United States of America, Plaintiff, vs. thirty-two thousand eight hundred twenty dollars and fifty-six cents ($32,820.56), Defendant.

United States of America, Plaintiff, vs. $124,700 in U.S. Currency, Defendant.

[end ital]

The Department of Justice defines it like this: in civil forfeiture cases, “the property is the defendant and no criminal charge against the owner is necessary.” Money, of course, can’t actually be guilty of anything. But local, state and law enforcement agents use the convenient construct of monetary guilt to seize people’s property without convicting them — or even charging them — of a crime.

In seizing property, law enforcement agencies tend to prefer these civil forfeitures to criminal ones, because the standard of proof is considerably lower in civil cases. Some numbers that speak to that point: in 2014, U.S. attorneys seized $679 million in assets through criminal actions, and $3.9 billion through civil actions.

Once seized, it can be prohibitively expensive to get your money back. Many asset forfeiture victims simply give up the fight completely, a Washington Post investigation found last year. But 41 percent of victims who challenged the government’s actions were able to get some or all of their money back, suggesting that government agencies are casting a wide net when it comes to whom they target for these actions.

But in at least one case this week — the case involving the $107,000 mentioned above — the federal government relented and agreed to return all of the money it seized from a small business owner last summer.

Lyndon McLellan has owned and operated L&M Convenience Mart in rural Fairmont, North Carolina, for more than 10 years, according to the Institute for Justice. They’re a national civil liberties law firm that advocates for asset forfeiture reform, and they represented McLellan pro bono in court. One day last July, a group of state and federal officers showed up at his store to inform him that they had emptied his entire bank account — all $107,702.66 of it.

Like many small retail operations, McLellan conducts much of his business in cash. But the Internal Revenue Service didn’t like the way he deposited it in his bank account. On the advice of a bank teller, McLellan made most of his cash deposits in chunks of $10,000 dollars or less. There’s less paperwork involved with sub-$10,000 deposits, and some companies have insurance policies that only cover up to $10,000 in cash losses.

It is, quite obviously, 100 percent legal to make make deposits of less than $10,000. But it is illegal to do so with the express purpose of avoiding the closer IRS scrutiny that comes with larger deposits — a practice known as “structuring.” McLellan had no reason to want to hide his cash, or to avoid scrutiny. His business was completely legitimate and he paid his taxes in full. He was just trying to avoid some hassle for the bank tellers and everyone else involved.

Had the IRS spoken with McLellan before raiding his account they probably would have realized right away that he had nothing to hide. But they didn’t speak with him, and instead went directly to a federal judge to obtain a seizure warrant .

In its complaint against McLellan, the IRS noted a pattern of bank deposits “which appeared to be structured to evade the Currency Transaction Report (CTR) threshold of $10,000.” The IRS also had informed McLellan several years prior that “structuring bank deposits to avoid federal reporting requirements was a violation of the law,” and warned him that any future violations “could result in prosecution and/or seizure and forfeiture of all property involved in, or traceable to, such violations.”

So McLellan was warned, but he continued to make smaller cash deposits: he believed he was in compliance with the law because he was not attempting to hide anything from the government. Note the key clause in the IRS letter: to avoid federal reporting requirements. If you’re depositing sub-$10,000 amounts because that’s all you have on you, or because you don’t want to have big piles of cash sitting around your office, or for literally any reason other than “trying to hide it from the IRS,” you are doing nothing wrong.

But the IRS took his money anyway. As McLellan put it, “It took me 13 years to save that much money, and 13 seconds for the government to take it away.”

Practices like this one have come under scrutiny in the past year. The Washington Post ran a six-part series last summer on asset forfeitures on the nation’s highways, where local police seize drivers’ cash and goods, sometimes on as small a pretext as a broken taillight and an empty energy drink can. And last fall, The New York Times highlighted the IRS practice that Lyndon McLellan fell victim to.

To its credit, the federal government has been somewhat responsive to the public outcry over these policies. The IRS announced last fall that it would no longer pursue cases like McLellan’s, where there was no indication of any wrongdoing other than the bank deposit amount. And this year then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced modest restrictions on some types of asset forfeiture highlighted in the Washington Post series, and re-emphasized the restrictions already put in place by the IRS.

But in spite of all this, the IRS continued to prosecute its claims against Lyndon McLellan’s money. When the Institute for Justice publicized the case earlier this year, and it took front and center in a Congressional hearing, the U.S. attorney in charge of McLellan’s case sent a letter to McLellan’s lawyers. It read, in part:

Whoever made [the case documents] public may serve their own interest but will not help this particular case. Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it. But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency. My offer is to return 50% of the money. The offer is good until March 30th COB.

[end ital]

When the government turns up no evidence of wrongdoing it often attempts to settle with asset forfeiture victims, often for amounts far less than the original amount seized. Often, these settlements come with strings attached that prevent the victims from counter-suing the federal government for damages or for the payment of lawyer and court fees.

Many people accept — the Post investigation found over 1,000 such settlements in its investigation of highway forfeitures alone — because the cost of litigating against the federal government is prohibitively high. And almost by definition, asset forfeiture victims have been stripped of most or all of their wealth to begin with.

“Another word for it would be extortion,” said Robert Everett Johnson, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice. The IRS has your money, but they realize you did nothing wrong. ” ‘We’re not going to prosecute,’ ” Johnson said, explaining the IRS’ position in settlement offers, ” ‘but we think you should give us half your money anyway.’ “

McLellan decided not to settle. It was the right choice: this week, the U.S. Attorney filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss the case, citing “no probable cause” that McLellan’s money came from “unlawful activity.”

“The big picture here is that we’re elated that Lyndon is getting back his money,” Johnson said. “The government’s pursuit of this case was wrong and unconstitutional from the beginning and we’re glad that the government recognizes that and is giving Lyndon back his money.”

But McLellan’s court battles aren’t over yet — there’s the tricky question of his legal fees to resolve. Shortly after having his money seized he had hired a lawyer at a cost of several thousand dollars. He also hired an accountant to go through his financial records with a fine-toothed comb and demonstrate, without a doubt, that his money was obtained by legitimate means. All told, he’s still out about $22,000.

In passing the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in 2000, Congress declared that when a government agency seizes a person’s property wrongfully, they must also compensate that person for the interest, fees and other costs involved with getting the money back. But according to Johnson, the IRS has become adept at finding ways around this.

“The government will often seek to evade that obligation,” he said. The details get really technical, but in McLellan’s case, the IRS has filed a particular type of motion to give him back his money that allows them to sidestep the question of whether they need to compensate him for his troubles.

“We’re going to litigate that,” Johnson said, “and make sure he does get that.”

Now that we can edit our genome, where do we go?

Tools that can do this already exist, but one in particular, called CRISPR/Cas9, has leapt ahead of other genome-editing tools because it’s cost-effective and simple.

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Researchers say that human clinical trials to fix genetic diseases — for example, sickle cell anemia — are only a few years away.

Last month, a team of Chinese researchers reported that, in a first-of-its-kind event, they had edited the genomes of human embryos. (The embryos, obtained from local fertility clinics, would not have resulted in live births because they contained an extra set of chromosomes.) The scientists’ aim was to modify the gene responsible for a common blood disorder using CRISPR.

The majority of embryos developed unintended mutations, and only a small fraction of them had the blood-disorder gene correctly modified — not what you’d call a success.

Many experts believe it was too soon for such work to be carried out — both because the technology is not yet perfected and because the ethical, medical and legal implications of the research have not been hashed out. Soon after the results were published — by the open-access journal Protein & Cell — the National Institutes of Health reaffirmed its ban on gene editing of human embryos.

In a statement released April 29, NIH Director Francis S. Collins said that genome editing in human embryos is “a line that should not be crossed” due to safety and ethical issues “presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.”

Genome editing of a human embryo would affect every cell in the embryo’s resulting fetus, as opposed to altering the DNA of a select type of cells — such as the stem cells that produce blood cells.

“You can think about it as a molecular scalpel,” said biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley, who co-invented the system in 2012. “It’s a way for making a really precise change in an organism, such as changing a disease-causing mutation into one that is harmless.”

The CRISPR system is a collection of molecules that work together to edit an organism’s DNA. These molecules can be packed into an empty virus and then injected along with a molecule to jump-start the process once the virus encounters a cell. Another approach is to remove cells with undesirable mutations from the body, edit them in a petri dish and insert them back into the body.

Such an easy method of genome manipulation has prompted tremendous excitement in the biological sciences community, as a flood of academic labs and start-up companies scramble to take advantage of CRISPR’s capabilities. But with that buzz have come big ethical questions.

“No one should be doing anything right now until we figure out what the hell is going on with this technique in animals,” said bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University. “That’s how we perfected in vitro fertilization, and that’s how you establish safety — you do it in animals first.”

But amid the fears of mad scientists creating designer babies and real-life Jurassic Parks, experts agree on one thing: It is no longer a matter of if but rather of when CRISPR-based genomic surgery will come to a hospital near you. Genomic sequencing is readily and cheaply available, and genetic testing and disease screening have long been underway in clinics across the country.

“As much as we worry about premature or ethical use, using these technologies to get rid of genetic disease would be amazing: Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, hemophilia,” Caplan said. “We’ve never really wiped out a disease except for smallpox, and these technologies might actually add to the list.”

Rumors of the experiment by scientists based at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong spurred others, including Doudna, to meet in January to discuss the future of the technology and its responsible use in humans. A particular focus was germline editing, which refers to changing the DNA of fertilized eggs or embryos. Such editing affects all cells in the developing organism and passes those changes down to future generations.

The scientists, in a summary of their meeting published by the journal Science in April, strongly discourage their colleagues from attempting any germline editing in humans. However, they remain supportive of basic CRISPR research on animals and non-embryonic human cells to see if human germline gene therapy might be helpful in the future to fix genetic mutations.

Doudna is planning to convene a larger, international meeting later this year.

“We really need to be getting in front of this conversation,” she said. “The field has just taken off in an unbelievable way, with many hundreds of papers being published in the scientific literature now, not just in human health but other areas as well.”

While Doudna and French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier are commonly cited as the inventors of CRISPR/Cas9, we can actually thank modest, single-celled bacteria for this revolutionary genome editing system.

“CRISPR” stands for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats,” first described in 1987 by Japanese researchers who found chunks of oddly repeating DNA sequences in the genome of E. coli.

It wasn’t until about 15 years later that scientists realized the purpose of CRISPRs: They are a key part of the bacterium’s immune system. Each CRISPR is followed by unique DNA segments of viruses that the bacterium previously encountered: If that type of virus tries to attack the cell again, a CRISPR can recognize and defend against it. CRISPRs have been found in 45 percent of sequenced bacteria genomes and in 84 percent of archaea, a type of single-cell microorganism.

Cas9, a scissors-like enzyme, uses the viral DNA segments as an identification system to check for foreign invaders. If the DNA of an incoming suspicious entity is a match, Cas9 proceeds to chop up the intruder’s genetic material by severing both strands of the double helix molecule.

In 2012, Doudna and Charpentier published a study in which they adapted parts of the bacterium’s immune system to create a simple two-part genome editing tool: The Cas9 enzyme and the guide sequence — a small piece of single-stranded RNA 20 nucleotides, or “letters,” long — could be used to target any spot in the genome for cutting.

From that point on, CRISPR/Cas9 technology exploded. The next year, it was used to edit the genomes of human and mouse cells, followed by frogs, monkeys and such crop plants as rice and wheat.

“The range of possible applications is really quite broad, but translating from this very experimental science into real therapeutics — there is a lot of work to be done,” said Katrine Bosley, chief executive of Editas Medicine, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., that is trying to develop CRISPR/Cas9-based drugs to treat genetic mutations.

Perhaps the biggest issue left to solve involves off-target cuts, which occur when Cas9 gets a bit snip-happy and chops the genome in unintended places. These mistakes can cause big problems, including cell toxicity and cancer.

“Sometimes Cas9 can recognize sequences that are very similar but not identical to the target sequence,” said biological engineer Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a co-founder of Editas and head of a lab at the Broad Institute, a Harvard-MIT biomedical research collaborative. “Depending on the specific sequence, the off-target effect may be more severe or less of a problem.”

Biomedical engineer Gang Bao of Rice University said that scientists cannot answer yet whether, even with some off-target effects, it can be used for humans.

In his lab, Bao is analyzing off-target effects for his treatment of the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell disease. The idea is to take blood-cell-producing stem cells from a patient, use CRISPR to correct the mutation and then reinsert the stem cells back into the bone marrow. Every step of the process requires precision, from minimizing off-target cuts to getting the modified stem cells to survive and transform into blood cells.

After having initial success using CRISPR therapy with mice, he has moved on to inserting human stem cells into monkeys for his experiments. He hopes to initiate the first human clinical trials in 2018.

Editas is taking a different approach, working to neatly package CRISPR/Cas9 into a virus for direct delivery into the patient’s body and letting the genome editing happen there. For certain diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, which affects the lungs and other organs, Editas researchers must figure out how to get the viruses into the right cells while avoiding others.

“From the patient’s perspective, [the therapeutic] would be an injection of some sort — maybe an IV, maybe a local injection,” Bosley said. “If you’re working on a genetic disease of the eye, you might do a direct injection into the eye.”

Bao and Bosley say they aren’t interested in germline editing and don’t believe that it is necessary for the medical applications they are working on. Their work, which involves modifying somatic, or non-germline, cells, might have unexpected consequences down the line as well. The technology is so new that no one really knows.

Kim is a freelance science journalist in Philadelphia.

With Greek banks still shuttered, unsold eggs point to deeper woes

“Not good,” said the 52-year-old, surveying the interior.

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On one side, eggs in cartons were piled high. On the other, nothing. “Orders are going down. Down. Down. Down.”

In a country in the midst of a new and ugly phase in its five-and-half-year-long debt crisis, Kalyvas Estate eggs have become an unlikely barometer of life in a nonfunctional economy.

Since Greek banks were shuttered June 29, the second-generation egg farmer has seen business drop by 30 percent. He’s still selling out of his own hens’ daily production of 5,000 eggs but has cut back on reselling from wholesalers, some of whom are racing to find buyers before stocks go bad.

Cash- and credit-starved supermarkets, he said, are reducing their inventories. “If they run out of eggs, they run out eggs.” For some troubled bakeries, it’s now either eggs or flour. “And they’re going to go with flour,” he said.

Just as problematic is a crisis in payments. With tight controls on financial transactions, Kalyvas has to cover his daily costs in hard-to-find cash, leading him to demand payments in cash, too. It’s money that many of his clients simply don’t have.

“If we don’t get a deal with Europe . . . Greece is doomed,” Kalyvas said. “But even if we do, things are not going to get better fast.”

Greece and its European creditors on Saturday failed to agree on a plan aimed at winning this nation its third bailout package since 2010, with the region deeply divided over a rescue and several nations calling for more efforts by Athens before final negotiations can begin. Any agreement will mean years more of painful austerity, but failure to reach one soon could be worse — triggering a quick collapse of the Greek financial system and its likely exit from the 19-member euro currency union.

Yet even if a deal is struck, Greece could, for a period, remain something akin to a financial zombie state. Already, Greeks cannot download certain cellphone apps or buy songs on Apple’s iTunes because the capital controls imposed two weeks ago bar international transactions via Greek banks.

As of last week, 29 international airlines stopped accepting reservations from Greek travel agencies because of doubts they could cover the costs of booked tickets. Pandelis Avramidis, chief executive of premier beer maker Elixis, said he is stuck with 1,381 gallons of beer in vats on his factory floor because he cannot transfer money to his Italian bottle supplier. In two weeks the batch will spoil.

“I’m 50, I’ve worked all my life, I’m a self-made entrepreneur,” Avramidis said. “I’m running out of time to start over, and I’m afraid I’m running out of cash as well.”

If Greece’s creditors do not open the door to a new bailout this weekend, the big question remains whether the European Central Bank will agree to increase liquidity for Greek banks on Monday. If it does, banks here could reopen as soon as Tuesday, potentially allowing limited financial transactions to restart. If it doesn’t, capital controls could be tightened rather than loosened in a bid to prevent Greek banks from collapsing.

Yet even if a bailout deal comes together and the ECB jumps in to aid Greece, some limits on bank withdrawals and transfers are likely to remain in place for at least two months, Greece’s economy minister, George Stathakis, told local television on Saturday. Some analysts predict such controls could linger even longer, citing the recent banking crisis in nearby Cyprus that saw such measures extended for two years.

“The question is how long it takes to restore confidence in the banking system,” said a senior Greek banking official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

Faced with extreme uncertainty, the economy here has gone topsy-turvy. Greeks are limited to ATM withdrawals of 60 euros — about $66 — a day. But they can use their bank debit cards to spend more, up to their daily limit, at stores that accept them. Some Greeks fear that the money in their accounts could be seized and devalued into a new currency if no deal is reached with Europe, so they are rushing to spend what’s there. That means a buying spree of big-ticket, imported items like washing machines, computers, even Chanel bags.

But Greeks are largely forgoing more run-of-the-mill purchases — leaving stores such as Paul Papanikolaou’s bedding shop in central Athens battling sales drops of 90 percent since the capital controls hit. Just as well, because without the ability to make international bank transfers, he said he is unable to bring in fresh stocks of sheets and towels from his suppliers in China and Pakistan.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how long they can last under these conditions,” he said. “It depends on when banks really open fully again. A week? Two weeks? Without some kind of normal system, some businesses won’t last a month.”

Most painful for businesses like Kalyvas Estates is that after years of setbacks, things had finally begun looking up before this latest crisis.

Founded by his father, the company went from tiny pens of hand-fed chickens in the 1950s to a mechanized egg farm in the 1980s. After Greece adopted the euro in 1999 and credit became more accessible, Kalyvas made further investments, installing a refrigerated room by his ivy-covered hen house to keep eggs fresh longer.

After Greece slipped into its debt crisis in 2010, business fell 50 percent, he said, as supermarkets consolidated and other clients turned to far cheaper eggs from neighboring Bulgaria. But last year, as Greece’s economy found a pulse, so did his business. He felt confident enough to invest in a $350,000 expansion that would have boosted his production by a third.

“Things were getting better,” he said, looking at the empty row of hen houses he had installed two weeks before the bank closures. He canceled his order for the chickens to fill them after capital controls went into effect.

“These kindergartners running the country really messed things up,” he said.

The challenge now is how to carry on with normal business in a nonfunctioning financial system. On Friday, Kalyvas chain-smoked and nursed a Coke as his sales assistant worked the phones.

“I’m calling this client because I know he pays in cash,” said the assistant, Anastasia Berdoli, 46. But after a brief exchange, it’s no sale. The client hadn’t sold all the eggs he ordered earlier in the week.

Greeks are allowed to make domestic online bank transfers. But many businesses here never set up Internet banking accounts, and others don’t trust them, seeing the money locked up in their accounts now as being of dubious worth. So while cash is at a premium in Greece, it is also king.

Doesn’t Kalyvas know it. For months, he and his 46-year-old wife had been paying a doctor for fertility treatments as they tried to have a baby. But the doctor is now demanding cash, so they have, for now, suspended the sessions. Kalyvas has enough feed — largely soy and corn imported from the United States — to feed the chickens through the end of the month. But his supplier is now demanding cash for next month’s supply. If they can’t reach “an arrangement,” Kalyvas said, he may be forced to slaughter some of the chickens to sell as meat.

Yet amid the crazy insecurity of Greece right now, he said, he could understand the desire to be paid in something you can hold in your hand. He’s selling to some old clients on account, hoping they can pay him when the banks reopen. But he’s cut off some clients who can’t pay in cash. “There is only so much risk you can take,” he said.

An hour after his assistant finished her sales calls, she came to Kalyvas with good news — a Monday order for 3,000 eggs on the Greek island of Crete. It was more eggs than he had on hand, so Kalyvas rang up a supplier in Athens, an hour’s drive south.

“I need eggs,” he told the wholesaler. “Can I transfer the money into your account? Any bank you wish.”

No, he is told. Cash only.

“Okay, okay,” Kalyvas said reluctantly. “Cash.”

The push and pull to protect your data

Edith Ramirez, a Harvard Law School classmate of President Barack Obama, took the agency’s helm in 2013.

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Since then, it has secured settlements against tech giants, including Google and Apple, for allowing children to make mobile purchases within apps on their platforms, and against Snapchat for promising that photos taken with its service would disappear forever (but they don’t).

The job is only getting tougher as Americans grow more dependent on smartphones and as tech companies wield more power in Washington.

The FTC has been doubling down on its efforts, in part, by opening a new research office to bolster its technical expertise. It also plans to host public workshops examining “sharing economy” companies such as Uber and Airbnb, as well as advertisers’ ability to follow users online from their computers to their smartphones.

Ramirez sat down with The Washington Post to talk about what’s next in the FTC’s quest to keep consumers — and their data — safe. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Often, the FTC is described as the government’s de facto privacy cop. Do you see it that way?

A: We absolutely are, in my mind, the key cop on the beat when it comes to privacy. We do a very effective job on enforcement and are also thinking on the policy side. It’s very important for us to stay on top of technological developments, so we’re not only thinking about what’s happening today and ensuring companies are complying with the law, but also about what companies will do tomorrow.

These are issues that are complex and challenging. We want to deal with them in a way that allows companies to innovate and new players to develop new products and lead new frontiers. But how do we allow that to happen while at the same time make sure that consumers are in a marketplace they can trust?

Q: The commission’s enforcement in the area of privacy and data security comes primarily from its authority to guard consumers from deceptive and unfair practices. Could you explain how that oversight applies to technology?

A: In terms of the deception principle, it’s really very simple: We expect companies that make promises to actually fulfill those promises. If a company makes a particular promise in their privacy policy or through some other mechanism, we expect them to comply.

Similarly, when it comes to data security, if a company makes a particular promise to consumers about providing reasonable protections, we expect them to fulfill that promise. It’s quite a simple test, and we’ve used it very effectively, because we find that companies say things about their practices and don’t follow through.

In terms of our unfairness authorities, there, the test is a bit different. It’s basically: Has something caused consumers significant harm that they could not have reasonably avoided and that isn’t outweighed by some other benefit either to consumers or to competition?

One core example is the area of data security — we think a company’s failure to provide reasonable data protections constitutes an unfair practice, because we think it’s a reasonable expectation for a consumer. If a company is making use of personal financial information, they ought to have appropriate protections in place to make sure that information isn’t compromised.

Q: It seems that companies facing FTC enforcement often get their first strike free, then get slapped with fines the next time, once they are under an enforcement order. Is that generally how it works?

A: As a general matter, we don’t have civil penalty authority — we can’t simply fine a company because they failed to comply with Section V [which contains the authority to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive powers]. If, however, a company is under order [from the FTC] and they violate the order, at that point we do have civil penalty authority.

The commission as a whole has been urging Congress to enact data security legislation, and as part of that we believe we ought to have civil penalty authority. There are other areas where Congress has given us that specific authority, although privacy and data security isn’t one of those areas right now.

What we can do, however, is seek monetary relief for redress to consumers — so it’s not always the case that a company we don’t have an order against won’t be subject to a judgment that would encompass financial penalties. A lot of our privacy cases rely primarily on injunctive relief — where we mandate that the company put in place comprehensive privacy programs and also enjoin them from similar actions in violation of the FTC act going forward.

Q: How has the FTC’s approach to technology evolved as that technology has evolved? Where do you think that’s going next?

A: One of our responsibilities has always been to stay on top of evolving business models. We were certainly looking at online commerce when the Internet first became popular.

Back in 2000, only a small percentage of Americans used mobile devices. Today, more than 60 percent are using smartphones.

As a consequence of that, we’ve been increasingly placing priorities on making sure that consumer protection extends beyond the brick-and-mortar world and into the mobile ecosystem. We brought a number of cases, even just in 2014, that emphasized to companies the need to ensure that consumers have adequate information about purchases and that disclosures are made effectively on mobile devices.

Q: Do you think consumers are generally aware of the trade-offs that they’re making when it comes to privacy?

A: Most of us carry our phones all the time, and that means a lot of information is being collected. That brings a lot of benefits to the consumer but then also raises certain risks.

You might purchase a smartbed that could monitor your heart rate and your respiration, as well as capture snoring patterns. It might also permit you, from the comfort of your bed, to lock your doors or turn off your lights.

Not only is this smartbed collecting a lot of health information, it’s also now providing connectivity that could raise security issues.

We want to highlight what those risks are but also think about ways to mitigate those risks. We encourage companies to think hard about privacy and data security from the get-go. From the time that they conceive a service or product, we want them to be thinking about how to incorporate protections.

Q: How has your background in corporate law influenced your approach to enforcement?

A: Being both on the side of defending companies and as an enforcer gives you an important perspective — so it’s not just one side pitted against the other. I think it’s important to understand that the vast majority of companies want to comply with the law. You need to have a constructive relationship with them and provide guidance.

Learning how to assess a case, learning how to evaluate whether it’s appropriate to move forward with an enforcement action, determining what type of relief is needed — these are all things I was familiar with from my days as a litigator.

At the same time, being in an agency that places such an importance on policy and research has been new terrain for me, but it is something I feel is valuable.

Q: Do you feel like your background in litigation played into the commission’s decision not to pursue antitrust action against Google for its search practices?

A: I’m not going to get into the Google situation. We issued a statement that articulated our thinking and why it was that we felt it appropriate to close that particular investigation.

But as a general matter, the first question we ask when we are determining whether to bring an enforcement is: What is the right outcome here? Has there been a violation of the law? Sometimes we deal with issues that are very complex, but that’s the first and foremost question that is on my mind when I’m helping to decide whether we ought to proceed.

Obama visits Florida to talk hurricanes and raise cash

The president toured the National Hurricane Center and then answered questions via his new Twitter account, arguing that his administration is committed to addressing global warming, even as it permits offshore oil drilling.

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Within minutes of announcing the chat, Obama was flooded with replies from questioners. Several demanded an explanation for why the Interior Department gave conditional approval this month to Royal Dutch Shell to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska.

“Why are you allowing oil drilling in the arctic if you are concerned about climate change?” asked Twitter user Ben Alexander.

The president tweeted a three-part defense:

“1/ We’ve shut off drilling in the most sensitive arctic areas, including Bristol Bay.”

“2/ But since we can’t prevent oil exploration completely in region we’re setting the highest possible standards”

“3/ already rejected Shell’s original proposal as inadequate which shows we’re serious.”

Zebulon Carlander, a Swedish political activist, asked “Mr @POTUS” to explain why he has said that climate change is a national security issue.

The president tweeted in response, “more severe weather events lead to displacement, scarcity, stressed populations; all increase likelihood of global conflict.”

Many of the questions had nothing to do with climate change, instead raising issues on subjects ranging from ongoing trade negotiations to who ranks as the NBA’s best 3-point shooter. Obama answered some of those, too, suggesting that the Cleveland Cavaliers’ J.R. Smith and LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and the Atlanta Hawks’ Kyle Korver are all competitive.

“jr smith having a great season but the heart of the Cavs is Lebron. And no one can outshoot Curry — maybe Korver if wide open,” he tweeted.

But for the most part, the president focused on climate and the environment. At one point he argued that trade negotiations could lead to greater climate protections: “In fact new trade deal [will] have the strongest enforceable environmental provisions in history, raising standards across Asia.”

Before answering questions, Obama received a briefing at the National Hurricane Center, after which he gave brief remarks to the news media.

“The truth is we are better prepared than ever before for the storms of today,” he said, adding that federal officials are “focusing on making ourselves more resilient” to climate impacts such as more-severe flooding.

“The best climate scientists in the world are telling us that extreme weather events like hurricanes are likely to become more powerful,” Obama said. “When you combine stronger storms with rising seas, that’s a recipe for more-devastating floods.”

State and local officials are also preparing for rising sea levels and more-intense storms.

“Some people get swept into office. I floated into office,” said Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat who won election after a bad flood. On Wednesday, he showed White House senior adviser Brian Deese a torn-up block where the city is raising the level of the roads and installing stronger pumps and one-way valves, all part of a multiyear, $400 million flood-control program.

This year, an El Niño in the Pacific Ocean is altering global weather, and most experts say there should be fewer hurricanes than normal. Federal and city officials, however, are still on alert.

Greg Holland, a senior scientist at the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said that forecasts show the number of hurricanes could drop by 25 to 50 percent. But he added that although “everyone is pointing to a particularly low season, the question to ask is: What about 1992? That was a particularly low season, but that’s when Miami got wiped out. It only takes one.”

Said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT: “I don’t like forecasts at all, because people let their guards down. Hurricane Andrew, at the time the most expensive national disaster in the history of the United States, took place in an El Niño year. If you look at statistics, the message is loud and clear: Even in a quiet year, you can get clobbered.”

Miami is one of the country’s most vulnerable cities; its average elevation is about 15 to 17 feet above sea level. Areas near the beach are only two to three feet above sea level, city officials said. As a result, many of the city’s gravity-managed pumps were actually taking water onto land when sea levels rose too high in the bay separating one part of the city from another.

“Miami is looking at sort of a bleak scenario — especially Miami Beach,” Emanuel said. “Even on sunny days, if there’s a mild east wind blowing and an astronomical high tide, like a moon tide, you will get street flooding.”

That’s what happened in the neighborhood where the mayor, Levine, and Deese met, near the Sunset Harbour Yacht Club on the bay side of Miami Beach.

Flooding there caused about $10,000 to $15,000 in damage and lost business for Andreas Schreiner, 37, who owns three restaurants on a corner.

Such situations make long-range planners nervous because sea levels have risen half a foot since dire flooding in the 1920s, and climate experts warn that even higher sea levels are on the way.

Levine has been aggressive in undertaking flood-control measures, making him an example of building “resilience” that the Obama administration has praised. The city also is bolstering its building standards.

But Levine said he could use some help paying for it all. He raised storm-water fees by $7 a month per household, an 84 percent increase, and he has shifted money from a different program. Together that covers about half the $400 million cost, and he said he hopes to get federal or state assistance.

Turning to Deese, Levine said, “Hopefully we’ll get a check in the mail,” and he jokingly asked Deese, a former No. 2 official in the Office of Management and Budget, whether he had brought a checkbook or a credit card. Deese laughed wryly.

Later, Deese said that nationwide about $1 billion has been redirected to a competition for resilience projects. The competition has not taken place yet. Although the amount of money is a tiny fraction of what U.S. cities will need to protect against hurricanes and floods, Deese argued that it would inspire innovations that all cities could use. In addition, he said, the president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2016 calls for establishing grants for preparedness against storms.

“If the federal government can invest in resilience, the cost on the back end could be a lot smaller,” he said.

During his time in Miami, the president also met with the parents and sister of slain journalist Steven Sotloff, who was executed in Syria in December by members of the Islamic State. Obama expressed his condolences to Sotloff’s parents, Art and Shirley, as well as his sister, Lauren, according to National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan, and “appreciated the chance to hear from the Sotloffs more about Steven’s work as a journalist [and efforts at] making a positive difference, including in Syria.”

On Wednesday evening, Obama headlined two fundraisers in Coconut Grove, the first held by Joseph Falk, a past president of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers and a philanthropist prominent in the LGBT community. About 30 people attended. The second was held by Stephen Bittel, founder of the real estate firm Terranova and a longtime Democratic activist. He had five large round tables, each with about a dozen people who had given the Democratic National Committee up to $33,400.

Although he is not running for office, Obama is still a strong draw for money, and the party is in need.

“I think we’ve realized it’s not just about the president but what we’re dealing with out in the states,” said Carlos Odio, a former Obama White House aide and now managing director of the Florida Alliance. Odio attended one of the fundraisers as a guest of a donor.

But in a state that might produce next year’s GOP presidential standard-bearer, Obama sounded themes — immigration reform and the need for climate action — that could define the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Saying that “ultimately, an eight-year span in the life of a country is pretty short,” Obama told people gathered Wednesday at Bittel’s house that “part of what we’re also doing is laying the foundation so that we then pass that baton to the next administration and we institutionalize some of the progress that we’ve been making.”

He said he feels different now that his presidency is drawing to an end. “It is a liberating feeling in the sense that the amount of time I have left really concentrates the mind,” he said.

Real New Yorkers can say goodbye to all that

I’m not speaking metaphorically.

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I was born in New York. Except for school, I lived there for my first 33 years.

There is a perennial cottage industry in essays on three topics: coming to New York, living in New York and leaving New York, of which Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” is the lodestone. No one has ever written so beautifully and completely about the process of being smitten with my hometown. I have several collected volumes of the genre, and I’ve found myself re-reading them on a sort of anti-nostalgic journey.

The inspiration was the Zachary Lipez’s essay in Vice, “Hello to All That: Why I’m Staying in New York Until I Die,” which by its very topic invited comparisons to the ur-text. I posted it on Facebook, and naturally, because I was born in New York, I had to add a snotty comment. “People like this,” I said, “are why I left New York.” I, like almost everyone I know who grew up in the city, now live far away from it.

We left because of these aspirational New Yorkers — not to get away from them, exactly, but because we were less willing to bear any burden, pay any price, to stay. The dreamers simply outbid us for our New York, and in the process, they created a city we no longer loved quite so much. This is apt to make such musings hard reading for us.

But we are not the real audience for these essays, we born-and-bred New Yorkers. Didion memorably writes, “I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” To judge by the canon of Newyorkature, many an MFA has ecstatically thrummed to the lilting, wistful cadences of that line.

I’ve never loved New York like a lover. To be born there is to love it as you love your parents, dog-eared books, and the body-memory of running pell-mell down a sidewalk without fear or purpose … a sidewalk that, in your case, was strewn with litter, and nonetheless beautiful in the morning sun. For us, reading the impassioned essays of the city’s adult migrants is a bit like reading the love letters from your father’s new 22-year-old bride.

I do not mean to insult you, Non-Native New Yorker. I am sure you are a very fine and authentic person. But to us, most of you will never be New Yorkers. You just don’t have it in you.

Real New Yorker status can be acquired. Both my parents had it, though it probably took them decades. But it cannot be acquired by reading Didion and investing all of your adolescent angst in a few square miles of concrete. It cannot be acquired by going to awesome, funky bars that are totally different from the ones at home and meeting a heroin addict bartender/freelance sex worker who wears cowboy hats and Doc Martens and quotes Allen Ginsburg while the two of you smoke cigarettes underneath the High Line.

There are some signs of a real New Yorker I could point to: for example, you have forgotten how to drive (if indeed you ever knew), or you can instinctively navigate the subway system without resorting to the 42nd Street shuttle. But these are not universal, and anyway, they are merely the outward signs of an inward state, which is: not being able to think like anything but a New Yorker. If you are still one of the legions starring in a multi-year run of “Me, Living in New York City!” or if you are writing essays about how you’ll never leave New York – then you are not yet a New Yorker. You are a tourist who has possibly overstayed your visa.

The most remarkable difference between us and the joyous immigrants penning paeans to the city may be this: We don’t seem to find it so hard to stop being a New Yorker. I’ve left the city of my birth and now, slowly, it is leaving me. I can tell because I no longer know where to eat in the city, my favorite pizzerias and bagel shops having shut down one by one. I can tell because I actually like Washington, where my acquaintances are here because they care about ideas. I can tell because – well, I left New York City, and now I am writing about doing so, two things a real New Yorker would never do.

I moved to Washington just for a few months, to recover after a harrowing breakup. Then I got offered a job as I was being evicted from my 435-square-foot one-bedroom on the Upper West Side so the building could be turned into condos. I found myself building a new life. The old one was torn down abruptly to make way for someone else’s plans, a thing that happens a lot in New York.

I now know exactly three natives still in New York. Two live in the houses they grew up in. Housing there has always been expensive. Now, however, the housing market has gone from “wacky” to “just how bad do you need that extra kidney?” Oh, yes, the bankers and the lawyers, you are saying, but I have to tell you, it’s not just them. It’s people so besotted that they will cling to New York’s towering walls with bloody fingernails. Those of us who spent much of our childhood there doing the same boring things you did in your hometown always saw it more as the place we lived than as a mythopoetic wonderland. We are simply unable to glamorize the effort it now takes to stay there — especially since so much of what we loved about “our city” was disappearing even before we did.

The New York of my heart was the Upper West Side of the 1970s and 1980s. If you’ve seen “Annie Hall,” you know what it looked like. It was not glamorous, nor particularly bohemian; it was Jewish and Puerto Rican and black and Irish and Italian, living together in the faded grandeur of buildings erected before the Depression and barely maintained since.

It was Saturday lunch at a mediocre Chinese restaurant with my father, followed by a matinee at the Metro or Loew’s 84th Street. The book-and-video store that let you trade used books for credits on “new” used books. Shoes at Indian Walk or Harry’s Florsheim, and summer clothes (plus camp trunk!) at Morris Brothers. Going to Macy’s in eighth grade with our parents’ credit cards to do our school shopping all by ourselves. Walking up Broadway with my mother, starting at Bruno’s for pasta and then collecting things one by one at the stops along the way: Fairway. Citarella. H&H bagels. Zabar’s. Murray’s.

It was getting on the train at 242nd Street after track practice to ride back to Manhattan from the cool green precincts of Riverdale, and walking through the train cars as it moved along the elevated tracks. When I think of high school, I always think of one particular day in the fall when I found myself between cars just as the train went around the bend at 238th, as the sun was shining low between the grimy towers to my right. It was one of those glorious moments that calls for a movie sound track, but also doesn’t need one. I don’t think these moments actually come more often in New York, but New York was where I was.

Eventually my city was also tiny poetry readings and very off Off-Broadway, that really cool bar and those really hideous nightclubs and “all that.” But the earlier moments gave me one crucial advantage over the newcomers: when I said I loved New York, I never confused “New York” with “being 22.” So when the time came, I was able to leave the city without romanticism, and almost without regret.

I returned to New York to pack up loose ends. Friends reacted: Washington? Really? “Is there anything there?” asked one amazed classmate from college.

“People and buildings and everything,” I assured him.

The incipient panic I’d felt at leaving “all that” vanished, as my city already had. The bits of New York that weren’t turning into a shopping mall were instead turning into London, where the cost of real estate pushes the merely affluent people far to the periphery.

I have no desire or right to complain about this. I never owned “my New York,” a city too big and too fast and too crowded to ever be fully described, much less possessed or preserved. But the morning after my last party in New York, when I drove across the George Washington Bridge and prepared to turn south, I was glad to be going home.

_ Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.

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