Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 28th, 2014

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

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I think she’s onto something, and I can see no reason on earth why the customer should not be able to delete apps from his or her own phone. Apple is sometimes way too controlling.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 6:15 pm

Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” “coward”

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In the Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg, who has served in the IDF and is a strong proponent of Israel, writes a blistering profile of Bibi Netanyahu:

The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.

This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations— dual guarantors of the putatively “unbreakable” bond between the U.S. and Israel—is now the worst it’s ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.

The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has “written off” the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a “red-hot anger” at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.)  But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.” I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding. From time to time, current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency. (President Obama, in interviews with me, has alluded to Netanyahu’s lack of political courage.)

“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.”

I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Mideast Conflict

BREAKING: Court Refuses To Intervene In Case of 40,000 Missing Voters In Georgia

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It looks like the Georgia courts are also determined that the 40,000 black voters not get to vote. The lawsuit is “premature”? Does the court think that we should wait until election day? after the election?

Alice Ollstein reports at ThinkProgress:

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—On Tuesday, Judge Christopher Brasher of the Fulton County Superior Court denied a petition from civil rights advocates to force Georgia’s Secretary of State to process an estimated 40,000 voter registrations that have gone missing from the public database.

Though early voting is well underway in the state, Judge Brasher called the lawsuit “premature,” and said it was based on “merely set out suspicions and fears that the [state officials] will fail to carry out their mandatory duties.”

Angela Aldridge, an organizer with the group 9 to 5 Atlanta Working Women who has been working to register voters for several months, told ThinkProgress she was “furious” when she learned of the outcome: “That impedes people’s rights,” she said. “People need information before they go out to vote and they don’t even know if they’re registered or not. They were discouraged, upset, kind of frazzled, not really knowing what was going on. What can you even say to people who want to vote but possibly can’t? They might get disengaged and say, ‘Why vote? It doesn’t matter.’ It’s really disheartening.”

The New Georgia Project, who spearheaded the voter registration drive and brought the lawsuit against the state, vowed Tuesday to “continue to pursue all legal avenues available.” But with the election mere days away, there may be little remedy for the tens of thousands of people who submitted all necessary documents, but have still not received a registration card. Four of those impacted voters were present at the court hearing, but were denied the opportunity to testify.

Dr. Francys Johnson, President of the Georgia NAACP, who represented the 40 thousand voters in the court, called the ruling “outrageous.”

“All in all – a republican appointed judge has backed the republican Secretary of State to deny the right to vote to a largely African American and Latino population,” Johnson wrote in a press release. . .

Continue reading.

The racism and determination to keep African-Americans from voting in several states in the South has become quite overt, just as the Voter ID laws are quite overtly aimed at keeping people from the polls: in-person voter fraud has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Later in the article:

“When we started registering people this spring, people were saying, ‘You know, I registered six months ago, but I haven’t gotten anything yet!’ We thought that was strange,” she said. So we sat down with our list of registrations and checked, and about 20 to 20 percent were not showing up. We truly don’t know where things stand with them.”

Burrofsky said the people she registered in Dunwoody, Georgia, a more affluent and conservative community, did show up in the system, while those in more diverse and low-income communities in DeKalb County mysteriously disappeared.

“It just hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a tactic that the Secretary of State could use. I was very naive, I guess. I feel absolutely sick that this election is being stolen,” she said.

With the races for the state’s governor’s mansion and Senate seat too close to call, the missing voters could not only sway the political control of the state, but the political control of Congress’ upper chamber. Aldridge, who has spent several months registering voters in Fulton and Cobb County, told ThinkProgress that it is imperative to increase participation in marginalized communities so that elected officials better represent the constituents.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Election, GOP, Government

Christie and Cuomo: The Ebola Kings

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Amy Davidson writes at the New Yorker:

How many Ebola-quarantine policies does the United States have? And do any of them make sense? It’s hard to tell, after a confusing few days in whichGovernor Chris Christie effectively kept a nurse prisoner in a tent in a parking lot outside a Newark hospital, then packed her off in an SUV to Maine. On Friday, he and Governor Andrew Cuomo held a press conference to explain that this was the sort of thing that tough governors did, and that New York and New Jersey would hold in quarantine for twenty-one days anyone arriving from West Africa who’d been around Ebola patients. Kaci Hickox, the nurse in the tent, who’d been treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, shouldn’t expect to go home sooner than that because, the governors said, people like her couldn’t be trusted outside of a government institution.

On Monday, though, after Hickox put up a fight—she wondered why Christie said she was “obviously ill” when she wasn’t (“First of all, I don’t think he’s a doctor,” she told CNN) and wasn’t even allowed to take a shower—and after the White House complained, each governor had a new set of looser rules, while each pretended that nothing had changed. Their denials were in character: Christie went on, as he will, about being a Jersey guy. He suggested that he’d never cared if Hickox, who lives in Maine, went off to her own state, as long as she didn’t use public transportation. “My job is not to represent her. It’s to represent the people of New Jersey,” he told reporters. He said that real Jersey people would be allowed to wait out the quarantine in their own homes after all. Tents, apparently, were for sorting out who belonged in the Garden State. He said something about twenty-four hours without a fever, a standard that hadn’t been mentioned before. For Christie, there is no contradiction that can’t be resolved with combativeness and condescension. “I didn’t reverse any decision. Why are you saying I reversed my decision?” he asked a reporter who wondered why he had. Hickox was a spoiled traveler who was upset at being “inconvenienced,” and in time would realize how wise he’d been; the federal government only said that his initial quarantine plan was off target “because they don’t want to admit that we were right and they were wrong.”

Cuomo’s shift came more quietly, with evasiveness and obfuscation (as theTimes noted, his aides distributed an inaccurate transcript of his press conference with Christie Friday) and a note of unearned vanity. Describing how New Yorkers could wait out a twenty-one-day quarantine in their own homes, with visits from health workers for temperature checks, he joked that they could use the time to “read a book—read my book.” (It’s a new memoir, called “All Things Possible”; according to TPM, it sold nine hundred and forty-five copies in its first week.) They’d have some ill-defined “compensation” for missing work. Cuomo said, too, that home quarantine would give those potentially exposed to Ebola a chance to “enjoy your family, enjoy your kids, enjoy your friends”—presumably, not by inviting those friends over. Both he and Christie acknowledged that Hickox and Craig Spencer, the New York doctor now being treated for Ebola at Bellevue, were doing admirable work, though in a tone not likely to inspire many volunteers. Neither looked Presidential, which had likely been their main goal.

The sort of quarantine that Christie and Cuomo initially proposed for returning health workers like Hickox was, according to health officials, not sensible. Ebola can’t be transmitted unless there are symptoms, and although Hickox briefly had an elevated reading on a forehead scanner, every reading that she had with an oral thermometer (which is more accurate) was normal. In terms of tracking people and keeping them compliant and providing information, panicked lock-ups don’t help. The Centers for Disease Control, on Monday, had a different set of guidelines, which involved self-monitoring and regular checks, with tighter controls for health workers who think that their protective clothing might have been breached.

But those public-health principles don’t fully explain why the White House and federal officials reacted to Cuomo and Christie’s theatrics with such frustration and anger—they were a little panicky themselves. The reason was not so much that Hickox had been unfairly dealt with (though she was) as that the Administration’s plan for fighting Ebola hinges on getting more people like Hickox to go to West Africa—as volunteers, on their own time, under the auspices of private charities like Doctors Without Borders. American troops are being sent to West Africa, but they will, on the whole, be dealing with transport and the construction of Ebola-treatment units and, as the Washington Post noted, “will not directly treat Ebola patients or come into contact with them. That is a point stressed by the Pentagon in trying to assuage the concerns of military families.” The treatment centers are meant to be staffed by volunteers (though there are plans for military doctors treating those volunteers if and when they get sick). Hickox spent the night before she headed home to America watching a young girl die; that is hard enough. If the prospect of three weeks in a tent in a Jersey parking lot or, God forbid, reading the works of Andrew Cuomo discourages them, the argument goes, then the disease will spread out of control in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, more people will flee those countries, and the United States will face a far greater risk than that posed by a doctor going to a bowling alley in Williamsburg.

This is practical, but it raises another question: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Daily life

What women must put up with from many men

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No, not all men—but too damn many. Watch this video  and think about how this sort of thing, day after day, year after year, affects women. From a story at Vox.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

Cato Institute study finds that marijuana legalization so far has no effect on traffic accidents, crime, or overall drug use

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Legalizing marijuana seems more and more like an equally big event in Oklahoma:

On April 7, 1959, Oklahomans went to the polls and contradicted Will Rogers’s adage that they would vote “dry as long as they could stagger to the polls.” They repealed prohibition and turned back local option.

I happened to be in my small hometown in Oklahoma on the day in the summer of 1959 when the first legal liquor sales occurred. People were nervous—some expect carloads of drunken townspeople to drive recklessly through town, possibly shooting out streetlights and store windows. It was a hot, still day—and nothing happened. Nada. There were a few cars at the liquor store, but no reckless driving, no shooting, no shouting.

The fact was that people who wanted alcohol already had good access to it through a network of bootleggers and corrupt sheriffs. Each time the vote came up on whether to legalize liquor, this group (which made its money from selling illegal liquor) would go into partnership with Baptists, Methodists, and other others of the “dry” (teetotaler) persuasion to defeat legalizing alcohol.

So when it was finally made legal, the main changes were that people under 18 could no longer buy it (the stores checked IDs carefully), and the state got tax revenue from the sale for the first time.

That seems to be what’s going on here. From Radley Balko’s afternoon links:

Cato study finds that when it comes to traffic accidents, crime and overall drug use, thus far pot legalization in marijuana hasn’t had a noticeable effect either way.

Here’s the Executive Summary of the Cato paper:

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 1.59.56 PM

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Drug laws

Federal Court: ‘We Have Our Doubts That Imprisonment Is An Appropriate Treatment’ For Marijuana Use

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An understatement, I’d say. Perhaps the US will start moving a little more quickly to dismantle the wreckage of the war on drugs. Ian Millhiser reports at ThinkProgress:

An opinion signed by three appellate judges, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, criticized a federal trial judge for returning a man to prison because of his marijuana use. As Judge Richard Posner’s opinion for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit noted, there was no indication that the man “deals, or has ever dealt, in marijuana or any illegal drug.” His previous employers said that they were “impressed by his work ethic and would be glad to hire him back after he was released from prison.” Nevertheless, federal district Judge Sara Darrow sentenced him to 15 months in prison for marijuana use and for “violat[ing] rules of the halfway house where he lived for a time after completion of his prison sentence.”

Judge Posner responded to this sentence with a blunt critique: “we have our doubts that imprisonment is an appropriate treatment for a marijuana habit.”

The facts of this case are tragic, and Posner responds to them with a somewhat unusual opinion. The defendant, Jesse Smith, grew up in a broken home. His father was imprisoned for murder, and his mother used crack cocaine. By age 18, he had a criminal record that included burglary and fighting with cops. Not long thereafter, he was sentenced to two years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Yet, as Posner’s opinion notes, Smith’s “criminal career, except for continued use of marijuana, ended five years ago.” During the time Smith spent out of prison, he worked for a living and earned solid reviews from his employers. Smith “had a bank account and actually paid his bills.” He also has three children.

Nevertheless, . . .

Continue reading. There’s a twist: Before Darrow became a judge, she was a prosecutor who prosecuted Smith on a related case. She should have recused herself, but obviously bears some sort of grudge against Smith.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Drug laws

3 NYC corrections officials stepping down over Rikers—but the guy who appointed them is fine

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I think they missed a spot. Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip report in the NY Times on how a Corrections department housecleaning removes 3 incompetent and corrupt officials, but leaves in place the man who promoted and protected them. The NYC municipal government seems to be badly broken.

In a major shakeup at the New York City Correction Department, three high-ranking officials, including the top uniformed officer, are stepping down amid mounting criticism over the handling of violence and corruption at Rikers Island.

The chief of department, William Clemons, and two high-level deputies — Joandrea Davis, the bureau chief of administration, and Gregory McLaughlin, the bureau chief of facility operations — are departing, according to two senior correction officials. The Department of Correction did not immediately comment or provide an explanation for the sudden changes. MayorBill de Blasio’s hand-picked correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, had promoted all three within the last five months.

But the department has been under intense pressure from the news media, lawmakers and federal authorities to address systemic brutality and corruption at Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail complex. The United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, which in August released a damning report detailing abuse of adolescent inmates at Rikers, has threatened to sue the city if changes are not made. . .

Continue reading.

So Joseph Ponte remains in place. He is first one I’d fire, and I get his replacement to clean house down the line. Instead, three are plucked as sacrificial lambs, but the man who promoted them remains, ready, no doubt, to promote 3 more corrupt incompetents to take their place. Ponte clearly should not be promoting or appointing anyone: he has demonstrated that he cannot do that well.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Government, Law

Researchers find mobile ISP thwarting customers’ attempts to send encrypted emails

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And, as an add-on to the previous post, some mobile ISP companies don’t allow encrypted emails to be sent or received—though as soon as it was pointed out publicly, the company changed its stance. They were just trying to see whether they could get away with it, I suppose. Nancy Scola and Ashkan Soltani report in the Washington Post:

Some customers of popular prepaid-mobile company Cricket were unable to send or receive encrypted e-mails for many months, according to security researchers, raising concerns that consumers may find that protecting their privacy is not always in their hands.

The inability to send some encrypted messages on Cricket’s network was discovered by software engineers from the Austin-based digital security firm Golden Frog. The company mentioned the issue in a July filing to the Federal Communications Commission, and the tech publication Techdirt published an article on it earlier this month. But neither Golden Frog’s filing nor Techdirt named the mobile Internet service provider.

Golden Frog told The Washington Post that Cricket customers were unable to send encrypted messages and said its testing found that the problem ended shortly after the TechDirt article was published. It is unclear how long or how many customers were affected.

Cricket did not address repeated questions about the issue and did not alert customers, many of whom rely on Cricket as their sole Internet service, that they would not be able to protect their e-mails from prying eyes. AT&T, which absorbed Cricket when it acquired Leap Wireless last spring, did not respond to a request for comment.

Cricket said in a statement to The Post that it “is continuing to investigate the issue but does not intentionally prevent customers from sending encrypted emails.” . . .

Continue reading.

How many believe Cricket? … sound of crickets …

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

Another player in the Snowden drama talks about how it went down

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Fascinating article by Micah Lee at Motherboard:

Late on the evening of January 11, 2013, someone sent me an interesting email. It was encrypted, and sent from the sort of anonymous email service that smart people use when they want to hide their identity. Sitting at the kitchen table in the small cottage where I lived in Berkeley with my wife and two cats, I decrypted it.

The anonymous emailer wanted to know if I could help him communicate securely with Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who had repeatedly cast a critical eye on American foreign policy.

From: anon108@■■■■■■■■■
To: Micah Lee
Date: Fri, 11 Jan 2013


I’m a friend. I need to get information securely to Laura Poitras and her alone, but I can’t find an email/gpg key for her.

Can you help?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just been contacted by Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who was then preparing a momentous leak of government data.

A month earlier, Snowden had anonymously emailed Glenn Greenwald, aGuardian journalist and chronicler of war-on-terror excesses, but Greenwald didn’t use encryption and didn’t have the time to get up to speed, so Snowden moved on. As is now well known, Snowden decided to contact Poitras because she used encryption. But he didn’t have her encryption key, as is necessary to send someone encrypted email, and the key wasn’t posted on the web. Snowden, extraordinarily knowledgeable about how internet traffic is monitored, didn’t want to send her an unencrypted email, even if just to ask for her key. So he needed to find someone he thought he could trust who both had her key and used encrypted email.

That was me.

And as it turned out, several months later I was drawn more deeply into the whole thing, when Snowden got back in touch and asked me to work with him to launch an online anti-surveillance petition.

Until now, I haven’t written about my modest role in the Snowden leak, but with the release of Poitras’s documentary on him, “Citizenfour,” I feel comfortable connecting the dots. I think it’s helpful to show how privacy technologists can work with sources and journalists to make it possible for leaks to happen in a secure way. Securing those types of interactions is part of my job now that I work with Greenwald and Poitras at The Intercept, but there are common techniques and general principles from my interactions with Snowden that could serve as lessons to people outside this organization. . .

Continue reading. It’s a fascinating account.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 12:08 pm

AT&T uses “unlimited data” to mean “as much data as we want to give you”

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AT&T throttles their “unlimited” customers routinely. (A few years back, a blog reader commented that “We can trust corporations.” I was stunned by the statement, but I realize that he probably meant that we can trust corporations to try to cheat us at every turn and lie repeatedly.”) Chris Welch reports at The Verge:

The Federal Trade Commission is suing AT&T because the second-largest US carrier throttles speeds of its unlimited data customers, a policy that the FTC describes as “deceptive” and “unfair.” In a press release, the FTC said AT&T has “misled millions of its smartphone customers” by slowing down their data speeds after they’ve used up a certain amount of data in a single month. AT&T has failed to make its throttling policies clear enough, according to the complaint. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. The Commission’s filing blasts AT&T for slowing customers down to the point where common tasks — watching video, streaming music, etc. — become “difficult or nearly impossible.”

AT&T no longer offers unlimited data plans; the carrier began slowing down speeds for heavy data users in 2011 — and it’s throttled a whole lot of people since then. 3.5 million unique customers have had speeds slowed more than 25 million times, per the FTC’s numbers. AT&T has drawn thousands of complaints over the policy from consumers who feel unlimited data should continue to be free of restrictions. Those complaints have been sent to the FTC, FCC, Better Business Bureau, and AT&T itself. AT&T is by no means alone in slowing down those on unlimited plans, but clearly the FTC isn’t happy with how the carrier has handled things in recent years. Today’s press release says the FTC worked closely with the FCC in piecing together the complaint. In response, AT&T offered the following, strongly-worded statement: . . .

Continue reading.

In the meantime, of course, AT&T is one of the telecoms pressuring states to pass laws that make it illegal for municipalities to create gigabit networks for public use: worse than a dog in the manger, a pig in the manger.

Brian Fung also reports on this in the Washington Post:

AT&T broke the law when it slowed down mobile Internet speeds among customers who’ve paid for unlimited data, federal regulators said in a complaint unveiled Tuesday.

As many as 3.5 million individual AT&T customers were hit by the throttling more than 25 million times over the course of several years, the Federal Trade Commission alleges in its suit. In some cases, users’ speeds were cut by more than 90 percent. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 12:02 pm

Economists Say We Should Tax The Rich At 90 Percent

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That’s what we used to do. Note that the 90% applies only to income above a certain level (for example, 90% of the adjust gross income over $2.5 million/year); it’s not 90% of total income, only that amount above the limit. That’s the way it was from around 1946 to 1962, including the Eisenhower era. Ben Walsh writes at Huffington Post:

America has been doing income taxes wrong for more than 50 years.

All Americans, including the rich, would be better off if top tax rates went back to Eisenhower-era levels when the top federal income tax rate was 91 percent, according to a new working paper by Fabian Kindermann from the University of Bonn and Dirk Krueger from the University of Pennsylvania.

The top tax rate that makes all citizens, including the highest 1 percent of earners, the best off is “somewhere between 85 and 90 percent,” Krueger told The Huffington Post. Currently, the top rate of 39.6 percent is paid on income above $406,750 for individuals and $457,600 for couples.

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans, or about 1.3 million people, reach that top bracket.

Here is the conclusion from the report, charted:

Marginal rates

What you’re seeing is decades of a more or less strict adherence to the gospel that tax cuts for the highest income earners are good. The trend began with President Kennedy, but his cuts were hardly radical. He lowered rates when the American economy was humming along, no longer paying for World War II and, relative to today, an egalitarian dreamland. To put things in perspective, Kennedy cut rates to around 70 percent, a level we can hardly imagine raising them to today. The huge drops — from 70 percent to 50 percent to less than 30 percent — came with the Reagan presidency.

In comparison to decades of cuts, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama each raised taxes at the top by a historically insignificant amount. Obama also proposed modest tax increases, raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 from 33 to 36 percent, and on individuals making more than $200,000 from 36 to 39.6 percent. These increases failed in the House.

A 90 percent top marginal tax rate doesn’t mean that if you make $450,000, you are going to pay $405,000 in federal income taxes. Americans have a well-documented trouble understanding the notion of marginal tax rates. The marginal tax rate is the amount you pay on your income above a certain amount. Right now, you pay the top marginal tax rate on every dollar you earn over $406,750. So if you make $450,000, you only pay the top rate on your final $43,250 in income.

A very high marginal tax rate isn’t effective if it’s riddled with loopholes, of course. Kindermann and Krueger’s paper is also focused solely on income, not wealth, and returns on wealth are how the truly superrich make a living.

Despite these limitations, Kindermann and Krueger say that a top marginal tax rate in the range of 90 percent would decrease both income and wealth inequality, bring in more money for the government and increase everyone’s well-being — even those subject to the new, much higher income tax rate.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 11:43 am

Posted in Government

The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World

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And Elon Musk warns us that with AI we unleash the demon. Kevin Kelly describes in Wired exactly how the unleashing is being accomplished:

A few months ago I made the trek to the sylvan campus of the IBM research labs in Yorktown Heights, New York, to catch an early glimpse of the fast-arriving, long-overdue future of artificial intelligence. This was the home of Watson, the electronic genius that conquered Jeopardy! in 2011. The original Watson is still here—it’s about the size of a bedroom, with 10 upright, refrigerator-shaped machines forming the four walls. The tiny interior cavity gives technicians access to the jumble of wires and cables on the machines’ backs. It is surprisingly warm inside, as if the cluster were alive.

Today’s Watson is very different. It no longer exists solely within a wall of cabinets but is spread across a cloud of open-standard servers that run several hundred “instances” of the AI at once. Like all things cloudy, Watson is served to simultaneous customers anywhere in the world, who can access it using their phones, their desktops, or their own data servers. This kind of AI can be scaled up or down on demand. Because AI improves as people use it, Watson is always getting smarter; anything it learns in one instance can be immediately transferred to the others. And instead of one single program, it’s an aggregation of diverse software engines—its logic-deduction engine and its language-parsing engine might operate on different code, on different chips, in different locations—all cleverly integrated into a unified stream of intelligence.

Consumers can tap into that always-on intelligence directly, but also through third-party apps that harness the power of this AI cloud. Like many parents of a bright mind, IBM would like Watson to pursue a medical career, so it should come as no surprise that one of the apps under development is a medical-diagnosis tool. Most of the previous attempts to make a diagnostic AI have been pathetic failures, but Watson really works. When, in plain English, I give it the symptoms of a disease I once contracted in India, it gives me a list of hunches, ranked from most to least probable. The most likely cause, it declares, is Giardia—the correct answer. This expertise isn’t yet available to patients directly; IBM provides access to Watson’s intelligence to partners, helping them develop user-friendly interfaces for subscribing doctors and hospitals. “I believe something like Watson will soon be the world’s best diagnostician—whether machine or human,” says Alan Greene, chief medical officer of Scanadu, a startup that is building a diagnostic device inspired by the Star Trek medical tricorder and powered by a cloud AI. “At the rate AI technology is improving, a kid born today will rarely need to see a doctor to get a diagnosis by the time they are an adult.”

Medicine is only the beginning. All the major cloud companies, plus dozens of startups, are in a mad rush to launch a Watson-like cognitive service. According to quantitative analysis firm Quid, AI has attracted more than $17 billion in investments since 2009. Last year alone more than $2 billion was invested in 322 companies with AI-like technology. Facebook and Google have recruited researchers to join their in-house AI research teams. Yahoo, Intel, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter have all purchased AI companies since last year. Private investment in the AI sector has been expanding 62 percent a year on average for the past four years, a rate that is expected to continue.

Amid all this activity, a picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000—a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness—or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize. This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.

Around 2002 I attended a small party for Google—before its IPO, when it only focused on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder, who became the company’s CEO in 2011. “Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad-auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site who thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: “Oh, we’re really making an AI.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation over the past few years as Google has bought 14 AI and robotics companies. At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search contributes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward. Rather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every time you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI. When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter bunny looks like. Each of the 12.1 billion queries that Google’s 1.2 billion searchers conduct each day tutor the deep-learning AI over and over again. With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, plus a thousand-fold more data and 100 times more computing resources, Google will have an unrivaled AI. My prediction: By 2024, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.

This is the point where it is entirely appropriate to be skeptical. For almost 60 years, AI researchers have predicted that AI is right around the corner, yet until a few years ago it seemed as stuck in the future as ever. There was even a term coined to describe this era of meager results and even more meager research funding: the AI winter. Has anything really changed?

Yes. Three recent breakthroughs have unleashed the long-awaited arrival of artificial intelligence: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 10:23 am

Just two weeks learning Esperanto can get you months ahead in learning your target language

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Interesting article on how learning Esperanto first accelerates the learning of your target language:

Whenever I meet new people and try to help them with their language learning missions, when they hear that I have already learned to speak a few languages and ask me to list them, the one that always gets their attention the most isEsperanto.

Most people have never even heard of it, but occasionally they say that they thought it was dead and that maybe I learned it as an alternative to Klingon orNa’vi just for the hell of it, since “nobody actually speaks it”.

Well, today I am going to make a suggestion that I included as one of many other language hacks in the Language Hacking Guide, and it has nothing to do with saving the world, or peace and love between all races with a universal language. I don’t learn Esperanto to aim for a better world some day – to me it has very practical uses right now to me and to many learners.


In fact, let’s pretend that nobody actually speaks Esperanto.

In this hypothetical universe, there is just material online to learn it and one guy on Skype in Yemen who is willing to chat to you in it. Even in this situation, I still say that if you aren’t speaking your target language yet (Spanish, Japanese, Russian or whatever it may be), then devoting two weeks to Esperanto can get you months ahead in that language.

If you already speak several languages then this particular language hack will be lost on you, but for those of you still behind the “barrier” of actually conversing, this may be just what the doctor ordered!

One big criticism I have for many traditional learning systems is the obsession with studying (a.k.a. input if you like thinking of humans as the same as robots) because they see a language as nothing more than pure information and totally ignore the social aspect of it. You need to get over the barrier of feeling embarrassed, and simply not used to a foreign language. This is the strangest part of learning any language.


Why should you learn Esperanto? Because it’s easy.

I don’t actually like using the word “hard” with languages – I think it’s counterproductive to randomly assign negativity, which will do absolutely nothing to actually help you learn a language. But anyway, if you are curious (I do get asked this a lit) the “hardest” language I ever learned and ever will learn was… Spanish. Yep – no matter what language you suggest in the world, Spanish will always have been the hardest one for me.

Not because of the subjunctive, or tables of conjugations or any of the other things that pessimists drool over when they get ready to compile a list of reasons to discourage people. It’s because it was the first foreign language that I ever tried to speak. It doesn’t matter about the grammar and vocabulary so much when you just are not used to any foreign language coming out of your mouth. This barrier is a tough nut to crack and extra work of needing to worry about conjugations, cases, word genders etc. are generally going to add to this pressure.

The reason I’m suggesting Esperanto for 2 weeks is because it is very easy (no word genders, no conjugation, perfectly phonetic, no random rule exceptions, easy consistent vocabulary). If you are truly devoted and have a lot less to randomly whine about, then in just a couple of weeks you can focus entirely on communication with way less study. You will recognise thousands of words already since most of the vocabulary is based on European languages like French, but there is some English in there too! For example, Yes is pronounced exactly the same (spelled as “jes”).

If you are fully devoted for two weeks, and in the second week do genuinely try to speak it in a chatroom or on Skype, you will be forced to use what you have learned, but you won’t have to think too hard to do it. If you are dedicated enough (and use some hacks to make sure you are speaking quicker) you could do this in a very short time. You will get over this speaking barrier and be communicating in a foreign language! You would need more than 2 weeks to speak fluently, but you can indeed speak it and get by in this time.

And then something amazing happens – that target language, the one you really want to speak (for moving to France, trying to rediscover your Chinese roots etc.) suddenly becomes your second foreign language! You already “speak” one, so you have gained this confidence that seemed so unobtainable before, and now you will have that extra edge where you actually want it.


It won’t surprise you to hear that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 10:11 am

Posted in Education, Esperanto

No wonder conservatives hate science: The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

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Science is in effect a filter that selects out conservatives, for reasons to some extent explored and explained in a Pacific Standard article by Tom Jacobs:

While political partisans of all stripes have been known to take issue with research findings that contradict their positions, conservatives have come across as particularly anti-science of late. Columnist and commentator George Will, who dismisses the consensus opinion of climate-change researchers, recently expressed skepticism of the medical community’s assurances that Ebola cannot be caught via airborne transmission.

Will clearly perceives scientists as untrustworthy, their conclusions skewed by self-interest and preconceived notions. While this view is obviously self-serving—he really should check out the psychological notion of projection—it raises disturbing questions about whether science has become hopelessly politicized.

So are scientists—as conservatives suspect—more likely to be liberals? Recently published research suggests they are, but—contrary to the implication left by Will and his colleagues—this is not because political progressives are more intrinsically inclined than right-wingers to choose a scientific career.

Rather, according to a research team led by Harvard University psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams, immersion in the world of science tends to shifts students’ attitudes toward the left side of the political spectrum.

Specifically, they report adopting a scientific mindset makes one less likely to endorse a hierarchy-based ideology in which one group of people is considered superior to another—an attitude that has been strongly linked to political conservatism.

In the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Ma-Kellams and her colleagues describe four studies that support their thesis. In the first, 196 students from a New England university revealed their ideological positions by responding to 18 statements expressing political opinions.

“Across domains,” the researchers report, “those who are in scientific fields exhibited greater political liberalism compared to those in non-hard-scientific fields.”

Importantly, this was only found for students in their third or fourth year of college. This strongly suggests that, rather than political liberals being attracted to science, it was the hands-on study that made the difference.

The second study featured 100 undergraduates, who expressed their views on three hot-button political issues (same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and the Affordable Care Act). They also completed the Social Dominance Orientation Scale, in which they expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such statements as “Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place,” and “In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups.”

Consistent with the first study, the researchers found that “for those with significant exposure to their discipline (i.e., upperclassmen), studying science is associated with more liberal political attitudes.” Furthermore, they found this was due to a lower level of support for the my-group-deserves-to-dominate positions outlined above.

Additional studies featuring Canadian students and a community sample from the Boston area came to the same conclusions.

“Relative to those studying non-sciences, students in the sciences exhibited greater political liberalism across a variety of domains (including foreign policy, health care, and the economy) and a variety of social issues (gay marriage, affirmative action), as well as in general self-reported liberalism,” Ma-Kellams and her colleagues write.

This, they conclude, is the result of “science’s emphasis on rationality, impartiality, fairness, progress, and the idea that we are to use these rational tools for the mutual benefit of all people in society.”

In one sense, these results are something of a surprise. . .

Continue reading.

This explains (to a degree and on a general level) why conservatives seem to know and understand very little science: those who do learn science tend to stop being conservative. (It’s a general rule, with many exceptions.)

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 9:22 am

Posted in Education, Politics, Science

Only 1/2 of 1% of “Patriot” Act Secret Warrants Used against Terrorism

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Mark Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation posts at Informed Comment:

The Patriot Act continues to wreak its havoc on civil liberties. Section 213 was included in the Patriot Act over the protests of privacy advocates and granted law enforcement the power to conduct a search while delaying notice to the suspect of the search. Known as a “sneak and peek” warrant, law enforcement was adamant Section 213 was needed to protect against terrorism. But the latest government report detailing the numbers of “sneak and peek” warrants reveals that out of a total of over 11,000 sneak and peek requests, only 51 were used for terrorism. Yet again, terrorism concerns appear to be trampling our civil liberties.

Throughout the Patriot Act debate the Department of Justice urgedCongress to pass Section 213 because it needed the sneak and peak power to help investigate and prosecute terrorism crimes “without tipping off terrorists.” In 2005, FBI Director Robert Mueller continued the same exact talking point, emphasizing sneak and peek warrants were “an invaluable tool in the war on terror and our efforts to combat serious criminal conduct.”

A closer look at the number of sneak and peek warrants issued (a reporting requirement imposed by Congress) shows this is simply not the case. The last publicly available report about sneak and peek warrants was released in 2010; however, the Administrative Office of the US Courts has finally released reports from 2011, 2012, and 2013.

What do the reports reveal? Two things: 1) there has been an enormous increase in the use of sneak and peek warrants and 2) they are rarely used for terrorism cases.

First, the numbers: Law enforcement made 47 sneak-and-peek searches nationwide from September 2001 to April 2003. The 2010 report reveals 3,970 total requests were processed. Within three years that number jumped to 11,129. That’s an increase of over 7,000 requests. Exactly what privacy advocates argued in 2001 is happening: sneak and peak warrants are not just being used in exceptional circumstances—which was their original intent—but as an everyday investigative tool.

Second, the uses: Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.

Section 213 may be less known than Section 215 of the Patriot Act (the clause the government is currently using to collect your phone records), but it’s just as important. The Supreme Court ruled in Wilson v. Arkansasand Richards v. Wisconsin that the Fourth Amendment requires police to generally “knock and announce” their entry into property as a means of notifying a homeowner of a search. The idea was to give the owner an opportunity to assert their Fourth Amendment rights. The court also explained that the rule could give way in situations where evidence was under threat of destruction or there were concerns for officer safety. Section 213 codified this practice into statute, taking delayed notice from a relatively rare occurrence into standard operating law enforcement procedure.

The numbers vindicate privacy advocates who urged Congress to shelve Section 213 during the Patriot Act debates. Proponents of Section 213 claimed sneak and peek warrants were needed to protect against terrorism. But just like we’ve seen elsewhere, these claims are false. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 9:03 am

New report details the disastrous municipal court system in St. Louis County

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Radley Balko has an excellent column summarizing the disastrous state of affairs in the municipal government and court system of St. Louis County in Missouri. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights from the report he quotes:

A judicial circuit in Missouri contains 8.6 municipal court divisions on average. St. Louis County’s circuit contains 81 municipal court divisions. So, the presiding judge of St. Louis County’s circuit courts must oversee nearlyten times the number of courts and judges as an average presiding judge in Missouri. This significant flaw in the oversight structure manifests itself in a number of problems.

One such problem is the prolific collection of court fines and fees in the St. Louis region. In 2013, the municipal courts of St. Louis City and County collected $61,152,087 in fines and fees. During that same time, the combined total of court fines and fees collected by Missouri municipal courts was $132,032,351.63. This means that the municipal courts in the St. Louis region accounted for 46% of all fines and fees collected statewide, despite being home to only 22% of Missourians.

Further analysis revealed that St. Louis City accounts for 5% of Missouri’s population and 7% of municipal fines collected statewide, while unincorporated St. Louis County accounts for roughly 5% of Missouri’s population and 5% of Missouri’s municipal fines and fees revenue. This seems logical. However, while the combined populations of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County accounts for only 11% of Missouri’s population, those municipalities bring in 34% of all municipal fines and fees statewide ($45,136,416 in 2013).

Municipal courts are used most frequently as a revenue stream in municipalities north of Olive Boulevard and within the boundary of I-270. In fact, 20 of the 21 municipalities that derive at least 20% of their general budget from fines and fees are located in that geographic area.

Also from his column:

The report found that on average, the municipal courts in the county brought in about three times what it cost them to operate. The average “profit,” about a half million dollars per town, went to the towns’ operating budgets. Under Missouri law, no municipality can bring in more than 30 percent of its revenue from municipal courts. That rather sensible law would seem to be a nod to the dangers of allowing government’s operating costs to become too reliant on fines and citations. When a government’s operations are contingent on fining citizens, governing becomes less about serving citizens and more about finding ways to fine citizens to fund the government.

But several municipalities are routinely violating the 30 percent law, and some rather egregiously. Better Together found 14 cities where the municipal court was the primary source of revenue in 2013. As the report explains, “Without revenue from fines and fees it is inconceivable that these communities could afford to operate.”

In Calverton Park, for example, about a fourth of the residents live below the poverty line — and 66 percent of the town’s revenue comes from fines issued and collected by its court. In Pine Lawn, which I visited for my original report, nearly a third of residents are below the poverty line, and nearly half the revenue comes from the court. In Normandy, it’s 35 percent below the poverty line and 41 percent revenue from fines, court fees and citations.

It’s also worth noting that because the county lacks reliable public transportation and because these towns can be so small, even a drive to the nearest grocery store could take you through several revenue-hungry towns, much less a daily commute into the city. And as has widely been reported, according to a report from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, blacks in St. Louis County are pulled over at rates that far exceed their proportion of the population. They’re also more likely to be searched, even though white motorists are more likely to have contraband. If you’re more likely to be stopped, you’re more likely to be fined. In other words, even in towns that don’t have high poverty rates, the people in the municipal courts are still likely to be disproportionately poor and disproportionately black.

The report includes a number of other disturbing details:

  • Nearly all these towns have become so reliant on fines from petty infractions that they incorporate the projected revenue into their annual budgets. In other words, they expect their municipal courts to generate revenue well above operating costs. When your operating revenue depends on your citizens committing petty infractions, you run into a number of temptations, none of them consistent with good governing. You’ll be tempted to put a higher priority on policing for those infractions than, say, a style of policing that may be better for public safety but unlikely to generate the same sort of revenue. You’ll be tempted to “find” crimes where none existed or to create crimes by passing vaguely worded ordinances that can be broadly interpreted. In short, you have a government with the strongest of incentives (its very existence) to look at its citizens not as constituents to be served, but as potential lawbreakers.
  • In some towns, it’s even worse: The report found towns that actually projected significant revenue increases from their municipal courts in their annual budgets, meaning these towns planned to fund new projects or cover budget shortfalls by issuing more fines and citations. Dellwood, for example, projected a nearly 200 percent increase in municipal court revenue between 2011 and 2013. This is difficult to explain. Did Dellwood officials have advance knowledge of some sort of impending petty crime wave? Perhaps a town could make such a prediction if it had reason to think its population would double, too. But Dellwood is actually losing population. The simplest and most plausible explanation is that the town planned to find new ways to fine and cite people. But that a town could simply decide to double its revenue from traffic fines in the coming year, and then double it again the year after, reveals just how arbitrary these laws can be, both either in content or in how they’re enforced — and how they’re enforced has very little to do with public safety, highway safety or quality of life.
  • In one striking table looking at the towns of Ferguson and St. John, Better Together illustrates that as the towns got poorer (using assessed property values as a proxy), the revenue generated from their municipal courts grew proportionately.
  • The state law capping municipal court revenue at 30 percent has no real enforcement mechanism. It requires the towns themselves to report their own violations and to turn the excess over to a fund for the county’s schools. Though according to their own public financial records eight towns violated the law in 2013 alone, Better Together’s inquiries to the state of Missouri found no towns in excess of the cap, with no contributions to the schools fund.

Read the whole thing.


Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 8:32 am

Testing a Feather AS-D1 with D.R. Harris

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SOTD 28 Oct 2014

A two-test shave. First, I was testing the Omega boar brush shown. I got a poor lather from it last week. I tried the soap with another brush (a badger) and got a fine lather, so now I have to try that soap with a different boar brush, but I also wanted to test this brush using a different soap. (It produced the poor lather last week from a Honeybee Soaps shaving soap, which almightywhacko has found does not produce good lather for him, thus the test with a different soap.)

So, first test: Use a soap of impeccable lathering credentials, D.R. Harris, and see how the brush performs. And it performed very well indeed. I had a rich, creamy lather and the brush still had an abundance when the shave ended. So it’s not the brush, which clearly can perform well with some soaps.

The next step is to try the same soap (HBS Lilac) with a different boar brush. Perhaps that soap doesn’t work well with boar brushes in general, and no particular fault is associated with this brush. A second use will help figure that out.

With good lather in hand (and on beard), I next turned to the razor test. For me, the Feather AS-D1, when used with Feather blades, is a top-notch razor, both extremely comfortable (most agree) and aggressively efficient (some don’t find it so). I have reports from multiple sources that the efficiency depends upon using Feather blades in particular.

However, a reader reported that he has to struggle to get a good, close shave with his own Feather AS-D1, so we agreed that he would send it to me for a test. Today is the first test.

I thought I would shave with both, but that was hard to do, though I did shave a bit with mine (the one with no tape on the handle). I thought my Feather perhaps did feel a hint more aggressive, but that was only one part of one side in the XTG pass. I’ll do this again and use one for the left side of my face, the other for the right.

And, in any event, I did get a very close and smooth shave with no nicks. Not quite BBS, but close and a more than satisfactory shave. So: another test is needed. (I will be sending the razor back in a week, so I have time for some more testing.)

A good splash of Arlington afteshave, and the day is properly begins.

It’s too bad the razor test—or, for that matter, the brush test—was not immediately conclusive, but it’s a step by step process.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 8:22 am

Posted in Shaving

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