In Mexico, A Last-Ditch Effort To Save The Vaquita, On The Verge Of Extinction

The M/V Sam Simon is one of two boats owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that is scouring the Gulf of California in search of illegal fishing.

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In Mexico, the race is on to save a small, gray porpoise that is on the brink of extinction. It’s called the vaquita, which is Spanish for “small cow.”

Scientists believe only 30 remain in the warm, shallow waters of the Gulf of California, between Baja California’s peninsula and mainland Mexico — the only place they live in the world.

Twenty years ago, more than 600 vaquitas lived in the Gulf of California. In recent years, Mexico put forth an unprecedented and expensive effort to try and save the animal — but the vaquita’s chances don’t look good.

The town of San Felipe in the state of Baja California Norte, with a population of just about 30,000, is ground zero for the fight to save the tiny porpoise. It’s also where international environmentalists, scientists and local fishermen are all entangled in the fight to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

Directors of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Mexico Maria Jose Villanueva (left), Jorge Richards and Enrique Sanjurjo speak about the vaquita during a press conference in Mexico City on May 15.

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Just offshore, Caroline Scholl-Poensgen of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a U.S. environmental group, leans over the stern of a 180-foot-long boat, the M/V Sam Simon.

After giving the okay to her fellow deck hands, she lets go of a large metal hook, called a port ray. With a large splash, the hook drops into the water and is dragged behind the vessel, one of two anti-poaching ships belonging to the group, which is scouring the upper Gulf of California for illegal fishing nets.

Standing on the bridge, with San Felipe’s dry, brown shoreline behind her, Oona Layolle, the boat’s captain, says the large nets pose the biggest threat to the vaquita.

“Those nets are just killing everything, so it is important that they just get out,” says the 32-year-old French citizen.

‘They have nowhere to go’

The tiny porpoise, with black patches around its eyes and mouth, is dying at a catastrophic rate. Twenty years ago there were more than 600; there are just 30 left.

Crew members of the M/V Sam Simon, from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, untangle and retrieve a long line net and its hooks that killed a dolphin.

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Local fishermen use large gill nets to catch the giant totoaba fish that also share these waters. The fish has become a prize catch in China, where its bladder is believed to have medicinal properties, and can sell for thousands of dollars.

But the gill nets also snag the vaquita, says Barbara Taylor, a conservation specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, Calif.

“So they have nowhere to go and it does make them very vulnerable,” she says.

Two years ago, President Enrique Pena Nieto banned the use of large gill nets in more than 5,000 square miles of the vaquita’s habitat. He also put up $74 million to pay local fishermen to stay out of the water, and he sent Mexico’s marines to patrol for poachers.

Crew members from Sea Shepherds cut up and separate more than 300 pieces of illegal fishing gear they’ve retrieved from the water. The recovered nets are shipped off to a company that turns them into consumer products, including Adidas shoes.

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Despite all those unprecedented measures, Taylor says the illegal fishing continues. Five vaquitas died just last month, caught in the nets.

“The ones where we could actually look at the dead bodies and evaluate what killed them,” she says, “they had the gill net marks from this illegal fishery for totoaba.”

Drones over the water

The Sea Shepherd boat, equipped with drones and radar, arrived five months ago to help Mexico’s marines in their patrols.

At nightfall, the busiest time for illegal fishermen, Carlotta Sanlarri of Italy is watching the ship’s radar. She spots suspected poachers’ small boats, called pangas.

She picks up as many as 18 hits on the ship’s radar. She’s closely watching one in particular. “It’s inside the vaquita refuge,” she says.

The captain sends out a drone to get a closer look.

At the back of the vessel, Tom Hutton, 19, a security camera repairman from Ireland, prepares the flying machine equipped with night vision cameras. “Bridge, bridge, drone, I’m going to take off now,” he says through a walkie talkie.

It’s off — and with minutes, it’s hovering above the small boat, about two miles away. On his control screen, Hutton can see everything, including three people in the boat.

Hutton says it’s clear the suspected poachers know they’ve been spotted.

“They dropped their net right there when they seen the drone, they dropped it in the water,” he says, his eyes glued to the screen.

Hutton speculates the fishermen must have thought the drone belonged to the Mexican Navy. Given that a new law went into effect last December stiffening prison penalties for illegal totoaba trafficking, the men apparently decided to ditch any evidence and head back to shore.

“Currently, they are running away at 60 kilometers an hour and the drone is just chasing them,” Hutton says.

The San Felipe fishing fleet is mostly made up of shrimp trawlers and small boats known as pangas that head out in the Gulf of California.

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Using the drone’s coordinates, the Sea Shepherd ship’s crew spends the next two hours searching the area for the fishermen’s illegal net. They find it, then destroy it — just as they have with more than 300 pieces of illegal fishing gear, including 200 gill nets they’ve found over the past five months.

This work has made them heroes among environmentalists and many scientists, but also enemies of some of San Felipe’s fishermen.

‘We don’t know if she will survive’

Tensions have been running high in the town, and boiled over in March. On the town’s waterfront, fishermen burned a small panga with the names of environmental groups, including the Sea Shepherd, written on the side. As the panga went up in flames, the angry crowd broke into the Mexican national anthem.

“The boat … that order was given by me,” says Sunshine Rodriguez Pena, who heads the largest federation of fishermen in San Felipe. “That boat was not in the water, that was a protest.”

Rodriquez, who was raised on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, says authorities in Mexico are paying more attention to foreign environmentalists than the needs of their own citizens. He’s worried about calls for a Mexican shrimp boycott — the mainstay of legal fishing in the Gulf — in hopes of pressuring the government to do more to save the vaquita, by reducing net fishing.

Rodriguez says the vaquita is pretty much sure to go extinct and he’ll keep fighting the environmental groups.

“They’ve made me the enemy of the world, but the hero of my town,” he says. And “any day, any time, I’d rather be the hero of my town.”

When the sun sets, the crew of the M/V Sam Simon takes to the deck to relax. The crew volunteers come from countries including France, Germany, Australia, the U.K. and Poland.

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Next month will be critical in the fight to save the world’s 30 remaining vaquitas — and for the fishermen. The $74 million Mexican program compensating them for not fishing ends and there’s no word whether it will be renewed.

Efre Pacheco says he received his last check on May 1, and without another one coming, he’ll have no choice but to go back out to sea. “I don’t know how to do anything else,” he says.

Pressure is also building on the Mexican government to make the gill net ban permanent in the vaquita’s habitat. The World Wildlife Fund has joined the call. as has actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, who engaged in a Twitter exchange earlier this month with Mexico’s president regarding vaquita protection.

The Mexican government also hasn’t provided a vaquita-safe net it had promised. The country’s two main fishing regulatory agencies did not respond to NPR’s multiple requests for comment.

Back on the bridge of the Sea Shepherd’s ship, Layolle, the captain, says it’s not time to give up. “For the vaquita, we don’t know if she will survive or not,” she says, “so we have to fight until the end.”

On land, an international consortium has recommended a last-ditch effort to save the animal. They plan to capture as many of them as they can and keep them in captivity. That won’t start until October.

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Military Mortuary Employee Allegedly Offered Peek At John Glenn's Remains

The Air Force says it is investigating allegations that an employee at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base offered to show the remains of John Glenn to Defense Department inspectors. Above, a photo of the former astronaut and U.S. senator as he lay in state at the Ohio Statehouse in December 2016.

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The Air Force says it will investigate an incident in which an employee at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary allegedly offered to show John Glenn’s remains to Defense Department inspectors.

As part of a new policy, an inspection team completed a weeklong review of the mortuary at Dover in March.

During the inspection, according to a Air Force spokesperson, “someone reportedly offered to show the remains of Sen. John Glenn to DoD inspectors.”

“According to DoD, the inspectors declined the offer and at no time viewed the remains,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to NPR.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has directed the Air Force Inspector General’s office to investigate the incident.

Military Times, which first reported this story yesterday, obtained an internal memo about the incident written by Deborah Skillman, the Defense Department’s director of casualty and mortuary affairs.

The Times reports Skillman identified William Zwicharowski, the branch chief of the mortuary, as the employee who “offered to allow the inspectors” — including Skillman — “to view the deceased.”

Dover Air Force Base mortuary branch chief William Zwicharowski, in a 2011 photo.

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“Concerning to me,” her memo states, according to the publication, “is that even after Mr. Zwicharowski was counseled by his chain of command regarding the inappropriate nature of his earlier offer, he repeated it. … This breach of protocol is serious and troubling as these offers were made to members of an official Department of Defense inspection team on-site to inspect the facility and determine whether it was in compliance with applicable procedures and policy and being well-run by its leadership.”

John Glenn died in December at age 95; he was the first American to orbit Earth, and went on to have a long career as a U.S. senator. Glenn flew 149 combat missions as a Marine. Glenn’s family entrusted his body to the Air Force until his burial at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6.

Dale Butland, a longtime Senate aide to Glenn, toldThe Columbus Dispatch that the Glenn family was not available for comment. “If protocols were violated as it appears they were, this is an unfortunate sign of the times,” he said. “It violates all standards of decency.”

The Air Force spokesperson said that when it concludes the investigation into the incident, “the Air Force will determine what further corrective actions, if any, may be necessary and appropriate. If any allegations of misconduct are substantiated, those involved will be held accountable.”

In 2011, the Dover mortuary was at the center of a scandal over how it handled remains of deceased service members. Zwicharowski, the mortuary employee named in the Pentagon memo, was the first employee to blow the whistle on the mortuary’s practices, according to a 2013 article in the Wilmington News Journal.“Investigators confirmed what had taken place, the three top mortuary officials were disciplined and new policies and processes were put in place to handle the nation’s war dead with greater accountability,” it reported.

Skillman’s memo noted that “Zwicharowski made comments indicating he believed the inspection was an act of reprisal for having exposed, six years prior, how the mortuary mishandled the remains of some fallen service members returning home from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq,” according to the Times.

The Air Force notes that the inspection of the Dover site was the fourth inspection of a Defense Department mortuary facility since the DOD commenced its new inspection process, and its first official inspection of Dover. The Dover mortuary passed the inspection with a score of 94 percent.

Zwicharowski toldThe Washington Post on Friday that the investigation into the Glenn incident was “continued retaliation” against him for speaking out:

“Zwicharowski said he did nothing improper by offering to let the inspectors view Glenn’s remains. He said his staff had further embalmed the body because Glenn’s funeral was still weeks away and wanted to show the inspectors their techniques.

” ‘I was proud of the job we did and wanted them to see our care and work,’ he said. ‘After all, that was what we were being inspected for.’

Air Force officials denied they were retaliating against Zwicharowski but declined to comment in detail about the investigation, citing privacy concerns.”

According to the Post, Zwicharowski and other workers at the mortuary questioned the inspection team’s legitimacy. Two of its members, he said, had previously worked at the mortuary and had been implicated in the 2011 scandal. The Post reports that the Air Force has reassigned Zwicharowski.

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Boehner Says Apart From Foreign Policy, Trump Has Been 'A Complete Disaster'

John Boehner sharply criticized Donald Trump’s presidency this week, and said he doesn’t think the Affordable Care Act will be repealed and replaced.

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Everything President Trump has done in office, apart from international affairs and foreign policy, has been a “complete disaster,” says former House Speaker John Boehner.

Boehner was speaking at an energy conference Wednesday, and praised the president’s willingness to dedicate more resources to combat ISIS.

“Everything else he’s done [in office] has been a complete disaster,” Boehner said. “He’s still learning how to be president.”

The comments were made at a Q&A lunch event, and were first reported by Rigzone, an energy trade publication. Boehner, who resigned from the House in October 2015, spoke for about an hour and a spokesman for the former speaker confirmed the comments to NPR on Friday.

The Ohio Republican added that he “never envisioned” Trump as president, throughout their 15 years as friends and golf buddies.

In regard to policy, Boehner said he’s “60/40” on whether Trump will be able to get tax reform done and he thinks the president “did what he could” on health care. He said, however, that a repeal-and-replacement of the Affordable Care Act is “not going to happen.”

“Republicans never ever agree on health care,” he said.

Boehner faced challenges leading the GOP-controlled lower chamber in 2015, as the more conservative Republican members of the House became especially unsatisfied with him.

Wednesday’s comments weren’t his first digs since leaving office. Last year, he called Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, “Lucifer in the flesh.”

Boehner said he’s happier now since he left Congress and added that he has no desire to run for president.

“I drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. I golf. I cut my own grass. I iron my own clothes,” he said. “And I’m not willing to give all that up to be president.”

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Confessed Killer Pleads Guilty To 7 Murders Over A Dozen Years In South Carolina

Todd Kohlhepp’s enters the courtroom for a bond hearing in Spartanburg, S.C., last November.

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In a South Carolina courtroom Friday, Todd Kohlhepp stood before a judge and pleaded guilty to murdering seven people. The plea was part of a deal he worked out with prosecutors, whereby Kohlhepp would avoid the death penalty and receive seven consecutive life sentences for killings committed across a span of approximately 13 years.

He was also sentenced to 60 years in prison for an assortment of other crimes, including kidnapping and sexual assault.

The real estate agent confessed to the seven murders last year, after investigators discovered a woman chained in a storage container on his nearly 100-acre rural property in Woodruff, S.C. She had been reported missing months earlier, and says she was held captive and raped by Kohlhepp. Her boyfriend, Charles David Carter, had already been shot dead and buried by the time she was rescued.

Another couple, also killed by Kohlhepp, was discovered buried on his property — and he confessed to still more killings. As NPR’s Bill Chappell reported last year, Kohlhepp said he was also responsible for “shooting and killing four people in Chesnee, S.C. — a case that’s been known locally as the Superbike murders.”

Several relatives of Kohlhepp’s victims sat in the courtroom for his guilty plea Friday.

“Today is not so much his day in court as it is Meagan’s day of justice and retribution,” a relative of Meagan McCraw-Coxie, who was killed at the age of 26, told the room, according to NBC News. “One day, he will face final judgment, and then may God have mercy on his soul.”

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Beaches, Bathing Suits, And Finally On The Big Screen, 'Baywatch'

Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

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It’s a beach in Florida this time — I know you care because we’re all here for the plot, right? — and head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon is now The Rock not The Hoff.

“Our team is the elite of the elite,” Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch tells his Baywatch recruits, “the heart and soul of this very beach.”

Also the pecs, glutes, and washboard abs of this very beach, of course. A beach that is apparently in peril, though you’d hardly guess from the less-than-rigorous lifeguard-tryouts Mitch is holding. Or from the snark he throws at Zac Efron’s stuck-up Olympic swimmer, Matt Brody, who tries to get out of those tryouts. Mitch won’t even utter the kid’s name.

“Hey, One Direction…” he snorts, then turns to returning guard Ilfenesh Hadera for support. “New Kid on the Block here is from Iowa. A lot of oceans in Iowa?”

“What is this,” wonders Brody, “lifeguard hazing?”

And yeah, that’s it in a clamshell, and it’s all the film has going on for most of the first hour. Which will probably be fine with its intended audience. On TV, the series was cancelled after its first season, then became a megahit during a decade or so in syndication.

Movies operate on different principles, though, and internet porn has made skimpy bathing suits less potent draws than they once were. So the screenwriters have come up with jokes to fill the time between explosions and near-drownings. Dwayne Johnson is endearing enough to keep that boy-band name thing going a lot longer than you’d think he could. Efron’s decently amusing, too, mostly at playing dumb, as when Alexandra Daddario suggests he raise his gaze.

“You should look at my face,” she flirts.

“I’m trying,” he smirks, “but it’s so close to your boobs.”

You’ll note that the women are a take-charge bunch these days (not that Pamela Anderson wasn’t — no emails please). No one would accuse the film’s women of having personalities, but the filmmakers did decide to let them make the jokes about physicality, not be the butt of them.

“Why does she always look like she’s running in slo-mo?” wonders Daddario, as she watches Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ do what Anderson did before her.

“You see it too?” marvels Jon Bass’ pudgy guard-in-training. It’s the cinematic equivalent of air-quotes.

The guys meanwhile get the gross-out stuff — genitalia caught in a lounge chair, a trip to the morgue where the talk turns scrotal (actually, the guy-talk frequently takes that turn). And when nudity is called for, who ends up naked? Bass, natch, who doesn’t realize he’s in a co-ed shower.

Females empowered, males embarrassed. All played with bathing suits skimpy enough that you figure there must be a spandex shortage in Florida. Which is guilty-pleasure-ish fun for a while, until director Seth Gordon feels the need to tell an actual story, involving real estate deals and a gorgeous villain (crossover Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) in evening gowns so clingy, low-cut, and slit up the side that she might as well be in the red suits Mitch’s team is wearing.

Unlike the setup, the story founders and cramps like a tourist who swam too soon after an all-you-can-eat buffet, which is pretty much the only thing the filmmakers don’t toss into the water by film’s end. The plot doesn’t quite sink Baywatch, but it sure slows it down. Still, as Efron shouts over a motorboat’s roar, “all things considered, things coulda gone a lot worse.” True that.

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Brand New Coaster Replaces One Tossed Into The Waves By Superstorm Sandy

People ride the new Hydrus coaster during an outing at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, N.J.

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With a gleaming new roller coaster towering above the boardwalk, one Jersey Shore amusement park is hoping this Memorial Day weekend will herald a new beginning.

Nearly five years after Superstorm Sandy ravaged Casino Pier and dumped its old coaster into the ocean, the park in Seaside Heights, N.J., has big hopes for its Hydrus ride, which opened earlier this month.

“It’s going to bring so many people and families back and that’s what Seaside needs,” Casino Pier spokeswoman Maria Mastoris told NJ.com. “It’s going to be a huge push to getting the tourists back this year.”

The neon green and blue roller coaster carries riders up and over a near-seven-story vertical plunge and whips them through a loop.

The Storino family, owners of Casino Pier, said in a statement that opening the new ride was “a very big moment” The New York Times reported. “We can now say we are fully back and can close the books on the superstorm era.”

Sandy tore through the amusement park in October 2012, chewing off the end of the pier and plunging the old Jet Star coaster into the surf. The image of the twisting metal coaster with waves lapping around it became an iconic reminder of the storm’s destruction. The wreckage was removed seven months later.

The Jet Star roller coaster sits partially submerged in the Atlantic Ocean in early 2013 after Superstorm Sandy destroyed part of the Casino Pier amusement park in Seaside Heights, N.J.

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The Jet Star had sat on the end the of the pier, and Park owners decided it would be safer to rebuild above the beach. But that required a land swap.

The state Department of Environmental Protection let Casino Pier use a slice of beach and in return, the amusement park donated some of its land to the borough of Seaside Heights, according to The Associate Press. The park also handed over a historic carousel for display in a new museum to sit on the donated land.

“This is part of the rebirth of the town,” Mayor Anthony Vaz told the AP. “It’s like a new start for us.”

The mayor was one of many residents who were displaced from their homes by the storm, but he sees one positive outcome from the storm — it gave the town a chance to move past its reputation as a party scene, as depicted in the MTV show Jersey Shore, Vaz told the news service. “It’s in our history book, past tense; we’ll never do that again.”

Vaz said Seaside Heights is about 70 percent recovered from the storm, with taxable property worth $200 million less than it was pre-Sandy, the AP reports. Some nearby towns aren’t rebounding so quickly. Homes abandoned after the storm still dot the area.

Back on Casino Pier, the recovery continues. After opening or reopening rides and attractions each year since the storm, the park says more than 20 are now running for the holiday weekend.

And the Hydrus seems to be having the desired effect. “When we got here,” Brooke Rongo, 17, told the Times, “we were just like, oh, we have to go on that.”

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I’m not quite convinced by this. Not because I’m not persuaded the sporting life is valuable, nor because I think the value of sports consists in some further good (health? perfection? enlightenment?) that it might be thought to enable. My doubts have to do with whether the value of sports can come down to the individual player’s particular experience of sporting activity. Sports are social, and a big part of playing a sport is not only the act of playing with others, but also talking with others about the sport.

This is especially true when it comes to the whole business of being a fan or a spectator. Sports fans — and, like Papineau, I am not only a philosopher but also a sports fan — can be know-it-alls. They study the games; they acquire expertise, and they argue endlessly about teams and plays and tournaments and who’s the best, the worst, the greatest, and so on.

Isn’t that true of players as well? To love sports isn’t just to love running all those miles alone on a weekend morning, or even the thrill of trying, finally, to manage a new trick in real play with friends. The sporting life is also a life of reflection on sports — and these reflections are social, collective and communicative.

These things are evident in Papineau’s book. He’s player and a fan and a know-it-all and he flaunts his knowledge the way any hyper-enthusiast would. This is not a personal criticism. He’s charming. The book is engaging. And his knowledge of sports is genuine and impressive.

But it is meant to be a friendly critique, or the start of one, of his argument. The fact is, sports aren’t just activities bent on cultivation of physical skills for their own sake, they are little social worlds in which doing is one thing and reflection on what you’re doing is another. But both are very much required.

And this, in turn, opens up the possibility that sports are not just physical.

Papineau knows this. In fact, one of the best bits of his book is his exploration of the ways in which successful sporting performance is a mental — as well as a physical — achievement. Or rather, he rejects the idea that physical accomplishment cannot be divorced from the possession and exercise of powers of concentration and appreciation. A baseball player, a tennis player, a cricket player, need to use their minds to govern the more distinctively physical aspects of their performances. Papineau rejects, and I agree with him, what he calls the yoga conception — according to which success at sports requires the achievement of a kind of Zen state of mindless flow and automaticity. No, being good at a sport may mean that you don’t need, indeed, that you shouldn’t, focus on the low-level mechanics of what you’re doing. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to concentrate, pay attention and, in general, use your head in the right kind of way.

I don’t mean to suggest that sports are not physical. When it comes to sports, it is the physical performance that matters.

But there is another way in which the mind gets into the act. Sports is social and is always embedded in a setting of talk and reflection. To be a player who didn’t participate in any of that would be like being a speaker who had no second-order views on language and how to talk. That’s an unrealistic conception of what it is to be engaged with sports.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebookand on Twitter: @alvanoe

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