Thursday, February 26, 2009

Support the Troops

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Johann Hari: Despite these riots, I stand by what I wrote

The answer to the problems of free speech is always more free speech

by Johann Hari
 
Last week, I wrote an article defending free speech for everyone – and in response there have been riots, death threats, and the arrest of an editor who published the article.

I argued this was a symbol of how religious fundamentalists – of all stripes – have been progressively stripping away the right to freely discuss their faiths. They claim religious ideas are unique and cannot be discussed freely; instead, they must be "respected" – by which they mean unchallenged. So now, whenever anyone on the UN Human Rights Council tries to discuss the stoning of "adulterous" women, the hanging of gay people, or the marrying off of ten year old girls to grandfathers, they are silenced by the chair on the grounds these are "religious" issues, and it is "offensive" to talk about them.

This trend is not confined to the UN. It has spread deep into democratic countries. Whenever I have reported on immoral acts by religious fanatics – Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim – I am accused of "prejudice", and I am not alone. But my only "prejudice" is in favour of individuals being able to choose to live their lives, their way, without intimidation. That means choosing religion, or rejecting it, as they wish, after hearing an honest, open argument.

A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas; it is not surrounded by an electric fence none of us can pass.

That's why I wrote: "All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him. I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. When you demand "respect", you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade."

An Indian newspaper called The Statesman – one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country – thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was "prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet" and I should be sent "to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech."

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world's largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with "deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings". I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth – especially in a democracy of a billion people riven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-despite-these-riots-i-stand-by-what-i-wrote-1608059.html

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Do we still pretend that we abide by treaties?

by Glenn Greenwald

On Friday in Salon, Joe Conason argued that there should be no criminal investigations of any kind for Bush officials "who authorized torture or other outrages in the 'war on terror'."  Instead, Conason suggests that there be a presidential commission created that is "purely investigative," and Obama should "promis[e] a complete pardon to anyone who testifies fully, honestly and publicly."  So, under this proposal, not only would we adopt an absolute bar against prosecuting war criminals and other Bush administration felons, we would go in the other direction and pardon them from any criminal liability of any kind.

I've already written volumes about why immunizing political officials from the consequences for their lawbreaking is both destructive and unjust -- principally:  the obvious incentives which such immunity creates (and, for decades, has been creating) for high-level executive branch officials to break the law and, even worse, the grotesque two-tiered system of justice we've implemented in this country (i.e., the creation of an incomparably harsh prison state for ordinary Americans who commit even low-level offenses as contrasted with what Conason calls, approvingly, "the institutional reluctance in Washington to punish political offenders").  Rather than repeat those arguments, I want to focus on an issue that pro-immunity advocates such as Conason simply never address.

The U.S. really has bound itself to a treaty called the Convention Against Torture, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.  When there are credible allegations that government officials have participated or been complicit in torture, that Convention really does compel all signatories -- in language as clear as can be devised -- to "submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution" (Art. 7(1)).  And the treaty explicitly bars the standard excuses that America's political class is currently offering for refusing to investigate and prosecute:  "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture" and "an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture" (Art. 2 (2-3)).  By definition, then, the far less compelling excuses cited by Conason (a criminal probe would undermine bipartisanship and distract us from more important matters) are plainly barred as grounds for evading the Convention's obligations.

http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/02/16/treaties/index.html

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Tibetan New Year Protests Around the World Today: Boycotting Losar.

Today, February 25, 2009, is the date on which Tibetan New Year -- Losar -- begins. Many Tibetan exiles around the world are observing Losar in a different manner this year. Some are forgoing traditional observances to instead protest human rights abuses by the Chinese government inside Tibet. There are reports that Chinese authorites are effectively making Losar celebrations inside Tibet compulsory, and reactions have led to violent clashes.

Some links to coverage: a post about civil disobedience today from the exiled Tibetan poet Woeser. In the LA Times, China expects Tibet to celebrate, or else -- snip:

On Feb. 14, a 39-year-old Tibetan monk set off a furor when he walked through a public market in the Tibetan plateau's Lithang county carrying a photograph of the Dalai Lama and chanting, "No Losar." Hundreds of people reportedly joined the protests, which continued into the next two days, according to the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. The group said that Chinese police detained 21 people, some of whom were badly beaten, and that the county has been locked down for the holiday.

Reports say that as many as 20,000 additional soldiers and paramilitary troops have been deployed in Tibetan areas and that in Qinghai province, village leaders were threatened with arrest if they urged people not to celebrate the holiday.

http://www.boingboing.net/2009/02/25/tibetan-new-year-pro.html

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Orwell in Babylon: Obama's War-Continuing "Withdrawal" Plan

Written by Chris Floyd   

It would be superfluous in us to point out that a plan to "end" a war which includes the continued garrisoning of up to 50,000 troops in a hostile land is, in reality, a continuation of that war, not its cessation. To produce such a plan and claim that it "ends" a war is the precise equivalent of, say, relieving one's bladder on the back of one's neighbor and telling him that the liquid is actually life-giving rain.

But this is exactly what we are going to get from the Obama Administation in Iraq. Word has now come from on high – that is, from "senior administration officials" using "respectable newspapers" as wholly uncritical conduits for government spin – that President Obama has reached a grand compromise with his generals (or rather, the generals and Pentagon poobahs he has inherited -- and eagerly retained -- from George W. Bush) on a plan to withdraw some American troops from the country that the United States destroyed in an unprovoked war of aggression. Obama had wanted a 16-month timetable for the partial withdrawal; his potential campaign rival in 2012, General David Petraeus, wanted 23 months; so, with Solomonic wisdom, they have now split the difference, and will withdraw a portion of the American troops in 19 months instead.

But the plan clearly envisions a substantial and essentially permanent American military presence in Iraq, dominating the politics and policy of this key oil nation – which was of course one of the chief war aims of the military aggressors in the Bush Administration all along. By implementing his war continuation plan, Obama will complete the work of Bush and his militarist clique. From the New York Times:

Even with the withdrawal order, Mr. Obama plans to leave behind a "residual force" of tens of thousands of troops to continue training Iraqi security forces, hunt down foreign terrorist cells and guard American institutions...


And a "senior military officer" dispatched to pipe the spin to the Los Angeles Times added another potential role for the remaining American troops: fighting Iraq's war for it. He was also refreshingly frank on the plan's ultimate intentions:

The senior officer said the troops also could help protect Iraq from outside attack, something the Iraqis cannot yet do.

"When President Obama said we were going to get out within 16 months, some people heard, 'get out,' and everyone's gone. But that is not going to happen," the officer said.


No indeed, that is "not going to happen." One of the most remarkable aspects of Obama's "war lite" plan is its brazen and absolute disregard for the agreement signed between the United States and the supposedly sovereign Iraqi government guaranteeing the complete withdrawal of all American troops by the end of 2011. Of course, this "agreement" was always considered a farce by everyone – except for the American corporate media, which kept reporting on the "tough negotiations," as if the pact would have any actual meaning in the real world. The agreement was vitiated by escape clauses allowing the Iraqi government to "request" a continued American military presence after the 2011 deadline; and considering that any Iraqi government in place in 2011 will be helplessly dependent on American guns and money to maintain its power, such a "request" has always been a dead certainty. So I suppose we must at least admire the Obama Administration's candor in dropping all pretense that U.S. forces are going to leave Iraq at any time in the foreseeable future.

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It was the worst of times

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Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes

If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery.

 
tomato

Working at breakneck speed, you might be able to pick a ton of tomatoes on a good day, netting about $50 at 45 cents per 32-pound basket. But a lot can go wrong.

Driving from Naples, Florida, the nation's second-wealthiest metropolitan area, to Immokalee takes less than an hour on a straight road. You pass houses that sell for an average of $1.4 million, shopping malls anchored by Tiffany's and Saks Fifth Avenue, manicured golf courses. Eventually, gated communities with names like Monaco Beach Club and Imperial Golf Estates give way to modest ranches, and the highway shrivels from six lanes to two. Through the scruffy palmettos, you glimpse flat, sandy tomato fields shimmering in the broiling sun. Rounding a long curve, you enter Immokalee. The heart of town is a nine-block grid of dusty, potholed streets lined by boarded-up bars and bodegas, peeling shacks, and sagging, mildew-streaked house trailers. Mongrel dogs snooze in the shade, scrawny chickens peck in yards. Just off the main drag, vultures squabble over roadkill. Immokalee's population is 70 percent Latino. Per capita income is only $8,500 a year. One third of the families in this city of nearly 25,000 live below the poverty line. Over one third of the children drop out before graduating from high school.

Immokalee is the tomato capital of the United States. Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area's largest communities of farmworkers. According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is "ground zero for modern slavery."

The beige stucco house at 209 South Seventh Street is remarkable only because it is in better repair than most Immokalee dwellings. For two and a half years, beginning in April 2005, Mariano Lucas Domingo, along with several other men, was held as a slave at that address. At first, the deal must have seemed reasonable. Lucas, a Guatemalan in his thirties, had slipped across the border to make money to send home for the care of an ailing parent. He expected to earn about $200 a week in the fields. Cesar Navarrete, then a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, agreed to provide room and board at his family's home on South Seventh Street and extend credit to cover the periods when there were no tomatoes to pick.

Lucas's "room" turned out to be the back of a box truck in the junk-strewn yard, shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so occupants urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, Navarrete docked Lucas's pay by $20 a week. According to court papers, he also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day: eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and, occasionally, some sort of meat. Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price. Lucas was soon $300 in debt. After a month of ten-hour workdays, he figured he should have paid that debt off.

http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2009/03/politics-of-the-plate-the-price-of-tomatoes?printable=true

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Tooth fairy: gene that could give you a set of these without seeing a dentist's chair

• Researchers claim enamel 'tissue' may be regrowable
• Discovery raises hope for end to cavities and fillings

Tough tooth enamel
Tough tooth enamel evolved to give carnivores longlasting teeth for survival
but more than 55% of adults in the UK have cavities.
 
The days of whining drills and shrieking patients that can make a trip to the dentist an experience to dread may be numbered, according to scientists who claim that they may have found a way to regrow rotting teeth.

Researchers studying tooth development have singled out a gene that controls the growth of enamel, the hard outer layer of teeth, which cannot grow back naturally once it is damaged by tooth decay. The discovery sheds fresh light on the way teeth form and could pave the way for new dental treatments that heal decayed teeth by regenerating a layer of enamel, making traditional drilling and filling obsolete.

Scientists at Oregon State University found the gene after noticing that mice born without it grew teeth with no enamel covering.

Tooth enamel is the hardest tissue in the body and begins to form when humans are still embryos. Specialised cells called ameloblasts in the tooth bud make enamel by releasing calcium phosphate minerals into a protein "scaffold" that shapes them into tightly packed rods of enamel.

When our teeth are fully formed, they erupt from the gums and the enamel-forming cells die off, making it impossible for our teeth to regrow new enamel later. For most animals this is not a problem, but in humans, the large amount of sugar and starch in our diet is turned into acid by bacteria living on our teeth, which slowly dissolve the enamel to make a hole in the tooth. If untreated, cavities can cause life-threatening infections in the body.

If scientists can perfect a way of regrowing teeth and replacing the drill in the dentist's surgery, it could have important knock-on effects for patients.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/feb/24/dental-research-enamel-gene

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Who's the chimp?

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Why No More 9/11s?

The Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory

Don't mistake these guys for criminal masterminds.

This is the first in a series of eight essays exploring why the United States suffered no follow-up terror attacks after 9/11. To read the series introduction, click here.

The 9/11 attacks were heralded as the harbinger of a new era of foreign-based terrorism in the United States. What if they were really a fluke?

Al-Qaida's successful elimination of the Twin Towers, part of the Pentagon, four jetliners, and nearly 3,000 innocent lives makes the terror group seem, in hindsight, diabolically brilliant. But when you review how close the terrorists came to being exposed by U.S. intelligence, 9/11 doesn't look like an ingenious plan that succeeded because of shrewd planning. It looks like a stupid plan that succeeded through sheer dumb luck.

Consider:

• Conspirator Khalid Almihdhar, who was (at least theoretically) under U.S. surveillance for his suspected role in the bombing of the USS Cole, aroused suspicion at a San Diego flight-training school with his impatient request that he be taught how to fly a Boeing jet. (On 9/11, Almihdhar would help crash American Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.)

• Another conspirator, Nawaf Alhazmi, aroused suspicion when he boasted to a fellow gas-station employee that he would become famous. (Alhazmi would go down with Almihdhar on Flight 77. For more on what the Federal Bureau of Investigation knew about Almihdhar and Alhazmi prior to 9/11, click here.)

• By late July, former Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet told the 9/11 Commission, "the system was blinking red," and earlier that same month, FBI special agent Kenneth Williams sent a memo from the Phoenix office to Washington noting "an inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest" attending flight school in Arizona. (To read the memo, click here.)

• In early August, President Bush received a classified daily brief famously titled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S." (To read it, click here.)

• Later in August, the FBI's Minneapolis office interrogated Zacarias Moussaoui, who had aroused suspicion at a Minnesota flight school by asking about New York City flight patterns and whether a jetliner's cockpit doors could be opened while it was airborne. (To read a summary of what the Minneapolis office knew as of Aug. 19, click here.) Moussaoui's recklessness and volatility made his al-Qaida superiors reluctant to use him in the 9/11 attack; he was likely being held in reserve for a future al-Qaida attack, or possibly as a backup pilot for 9/11.

• Tenet, despite knowing "the system was blinking red," did nothing after he was briefed about Moussaoui on Aug. 23. (To read Tenet's "Terrorist Threat Review Update" for that day, click here.)

• In trying to obtain a warrant to examine Moussaoui's laptop, a field officer in the FBI's Minneapolis office told FBI headquarters that he was "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center." The FBI did not obtain the evidence of Moussaoui's al-Qaida link deemed necessary to obtain that warrant until two days after 9/11.

Nearly eight years after the attacks, it remains physically sickening to review these for-want-of-a-nail details about what the U.S. government knew prior to 9/11. The various intelligence agencies' failures to pool their knowledge about the plot should surprise no one familiar with Washington's bureaucratic culture. But it's equally true that to count on so extreme a degree of government dysfunction, as al-Qaida effectively did, was foolhardy in the extreme. The terrorists took an unacceptably high risk that they'd get caught, and, just barely, they beat the odds. That they succeeded does not prove they were smart to try.

http://www.slate.com/id/2211994

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OBAMA RENEGES ON A BIG ONE

by Jim Hightower

Amazing! If George W had done this, I would have blasted him.

Wait – George W did do this, and I did blast him!

The "this" is a recent move by President Barack Obama's justice department to usurp the judicial branch's Constitutional authority to hear a legal case. Obama's lawyers have told the Court of Appeals that it may not proceed with a case brought by five victims of Bush's immoral and illegal program of "extraordinary rendition" – a program that sent war prisoners abroad to be tortured.

In a bid to halt the court proceeding, the Obama presidency has invoked an autocratic doctrine known as "state secrets," arguing that the very subject matter of this case is a government secret of such importance that it cannot bear discussion in a courtroom. This is the same hokey legalistic effort that the Bushites had used to dodge public accountability for their illegal torture program.

Obama's use of the state secrets gimmick to continue covering up Bush's illegalities is ridiculous, because the "secrets" being hidden are hardly secret. From books to TV exposés, the world knows about them. As the ACLU lawyer for the victims noted, "The only place in the world where these claims can't be discussed is in this courtroom."

Obama's stand is also a direct betrayal of voters who cheered last year when he frequently and vehemently denounced Bush's use of torture, extraordinary rendition, and – yes – state secrets. Yet, after only one month in office, and in a single case, he has reneged on all three of those principled stands.

What we've learned here is not that Obama is suddenly without principle, but that we have to be vigorous in demanding that he hold true to his principles. One group we can trust to help us do this is the ACLU. Contact it at : www.aclu.org.

http://www.jimhightower.com/node/6732

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Sasha Obama Keeps Seeing Creepy Bush Twins While Riding Tricycle Through White House

Bush Twins
The ghostly former first daughters, shortly after a White House elevator reportedly overflowed with cherry daiquiri.

WASHINGTON—A little more than a month after the first family's move to the White House, reports of strange happenings have continued to surface, with Sasha Obama confirming Tuesday that she had once again been visited by the eerie specter of the Bush twins.

Sasha, who was playing in the East Wing of the executive mansion so as not to disturb her busy father, reported seeing the former first twins while riding her Big Wheel tricycle down the Cross Hall corridor. The frightening apparitions, the 7-year-old said, emerged out of thin air and were dressed in identical outfits consisting of spaghetti strap tank tops and denim skirts.

"At approximately 4:36 p.m., we received a detailed account from Sasha Obama about a series of manifestations in the White House," press secretary Robert Gibbs announced. "However, a thorough search conducted by security officials has thus far uncovered nothing."

Added Gibbs, "Whatever grotesque and haunting images the president's youngest daughter thought she saw must have been a figment of her imagination."

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/sasha_obama_keeps_seeing_creepy?utm_source=a-section

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Iraq Reconstruction: the Greatest Fraud in US History?

A Theft Bigger Than Madoff

By PATRICK COCKBURN

In what could turn out to be the greatest fraud in US history, American authorities have started to investigate the alleged role of senior military officers in the misuse of $125bn (£88bn) in a US -directed effort to reconstruct Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The exact sum missing may never be clear, but a report by the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) suggests it may exceed $50bn, making it an even bigger theft than Bernard Madoff's notorious Ponzi scheme.

"I believe the real looting of Iraq after the invasion was by US officials and contractors, and not by people from the slums of Baghdad," said one US businessman active in Iraq since 2003.

In one case, auditors working for SIGIR discovered that $57.8m was sent in "pallet upon pallet of hundred-dollar bills" to the US comptroller for south-central Iraq, Robert J Stein Jr, who had himself photographed standing with the mound of money. He is among the few US officials who were in Iraq to be convicted of fraud and money-laundering.

Despite the vast sums expended on rebuilding by the US since 2003, there have been no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline except those at work building a new US embassy and others rusting beside a half-built giant mosque that Saddam was constructing when he was overthrown. One of the few visible signs of government work on Baghdad's infrastructure is a tireless attention to planting palm trees and flowers in the centre strip between main roads. Those are then dug up and replanted a few months later.

Iraqi leaders are convinced that the theft or waste of huge sums of US and Iraqi government money could have happened only if senior US officials were themselves involved in the corruption. In 2004-05, the entire Iraq military procurement budget of $1.3bn was siphoned off from the Iraqi Defense Ministry in return for 28-year-old Soviet helicopters too obsolete to fly and armored cars easily penetrated by rifle bullets. Iraqi officials were blamed for the theft, but US military officials were largely in control of the Defense Ministry at the time and must have been either highly negligent or participants in the fraud.

http://www.counterpunch.org/patrick02162009.html

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Inside source reveals FEMA & DHS preparing for mass graves and martial law near Chicago

By D. H. Williams

An Indiana county municipal official in the vicinity of Chicago reveals the contents of his meetings with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. The initial requests seem reasonable enough when FEMA asks the county officials to prepare a Hazard Mitigation Plan to deal with flooding, fires, high winds and tornadoes.

But as the required meetings and calls with FEMA and DHS continue over a two year period their request become more unusual, raising suspicions of county officials.

"We want to know every important thing in this county. We want to know where police departments are. Where weapons are stored. Hazardous material. Where can we land a helicopter. Where are the airports. How big a plane can you land at the airport. Where are all the bridges. Where are all the power stations. Where are all the generating stations.Where are all the substations. They literally wanted to know where everything was. I'm sitting there thinking man if there was ever martial law. This kind of information is exactly the kind of stuff they are going to want. We're just laying it all out for them right there."

During the legally mandated meetings held with FEMA and DHS different disaster scenarios were reveled to county officials:

  • In late December 2008 municipal officials were invited to Indianapolis for a briefing on the state of Indiana. There were told if industry were to collapse for example GM going bankrupt resulting in mass unemployment a depression would soon follow and municipalities could expect to loose 40% of their funds.
  • Every county in the nation would be required to prepare a Hazard Mitigation Plan.
  • The county should prepare a plan to vaccinate the entire population within 48 hours and practice the plan several times.
  • FEMA inquired to where mass graves could be placed in the county and would they accept bodies from elsewhere.
  • The sheriff's department via the state sheriff association was told that no .223 ammunition rounds would be available as the military would be purchasing all stocks.
  • The county was asked to make plans for "hardening" of police and fire stations, putting in hardened bunker type buildings around town.
  • The county was asked to make plans for the possibility of up to 400,000 refugees from Chicago.
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