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Archive for December 8th, 2015

Exceptionally strong words in a NY Times editorial

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The editorial begins:

President Obama’s address to the nation Sunday was intended to reassure anxious Americans that the United States will defeat the Islamic State, known as ISIS or ISIL, “by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.” But success, he noted, “won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for.”

If that’s true, ISIS must have been cheered by the presidential field, most of whom did their best to talk tough and stoke fear without advancing any workable ideas.

Donald Trump, a bigot without foreign policy experience, showed that there is nothing he won’t say or support to sow hatred. On Monday he outrageously proposed barring all Muslims from entering the country. There is no precedent for denying immigration based on religion, experts say, and any such test would surely be used as an excuse to attack Muslim Americans.

Ted Cruz, Twitter warrior, pledged after Mr. Obama’s speech to “direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS.” He played soldier all weekend in Iowa, spouting “We will carpet bomb them into oblivion,” to a tea-party crowd in Cedar Rapids, adding “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” whatever that means.

Marco Rubio took to Fox News to remind Americans that they are, or should be, “really scared and worried.” He also said that “people are scared not just because of these attacks but because of a growing sense that we have a president that’s completely overwhelmed by them,” as if he alone had his finger on the pulse of America.

“Bolder action across the board is needed because our way of life is what’s at stake,” was the nonprescription from Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. “Also, when terrorists threaten us, our response can’t be to target our own constitutional rights. Our rights aren’t the problem, our unwillingness to act to defeat extremists is the problem. We need to decisively and aggressively protect our nation and our ideals. We can’t delay.”

Here’s Jeb Bush, on Fox News Monday morning: “The idea that somehow there are radical elements in every religion is ridiculous. There are no radical Christians that are organizing to destroy Western civilization. There are no radical Buddhists that are doing this. This is radical Islamic terrorism.”

What Mr. Obama called an “evolving threat” has taken a new form that authorities have long feared: via the Internet, Islamic extremists are inciting terrorist attacks inside the United States, without the foreign training and travel that makes such plans easier to detect and thwart.

On Sunday, before Mr. Obama spoke, Hillary Clinton suggested that social media companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter should “disrupt” the Islamic State by taking down its content and making it harder for the group to recruit fighters and communicate online. While this approach may seem appealing, it is deeply flawed because private businesses are not equipped to decide what online speech should be taken down or which users should be silenced. And even if big Internet companies were successful at keeping terrorist organizations and their sympathizers from using their services, those groups and people would find other ways to communicate, for example, by using websites that are not well known or online services based in other countries. . .

Continue reading. And do read it all.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 4:19 pm

Astonishing? or not? Fox News Tells Young Children To Run At Active Shooters

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Story here.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Guns

A teaching scene from when I was a tutor, with regard to straight-razor shavng

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I am posting the following as a comment on this post on Reddit’s Wicked_Edge. I’m pretty sure Reddit doesn’t allow responses as lengthy as this one turned out to be, but once I had the bit in my teeth, I couldn’t let up. And it was interesting to look back on a time when I was just making it up as I went along and to see that my instincts were right. It was all ad lib, both then and, of course, also now. Life is pretty much ad lib throughout: the art of drawing without an eraser, as John Gardner said.

Here begins my response to the post linked above:

Extremely good point. Sometimes—and in fact, we see it often—a person, generally an adult, wants to postpone starting a skill (e.g., playing the piano) until he has mastered the skill. An adult beginner dreads (and hates) the inevitable clunkers made in learning: the wrong notes, the wrong beat, the lack of expression, the crudity of phrasing… his adult (and, note, experienced) ear detects it all, and it becomes intolerable. “Much better,” he decides, “to hold off on learning the piano until I can play without all those mistakes.”

God, I’ve been there. Drawing. Still can’t do it, for exactly the reasons described above: when I start, the drawings are awful, so I quit.

You’re totally right that people should jump in and start, and I see now not only the error I made, but why I made it—and many similar errors of the same genus (e.g., drawing, as mentioned above).  Now that you’ve opened my eyes, I certainly will change my argument on this point.

I’m reminded of a freshman math tutorial I took over at the start of the second semester at my alma mater, St. John’s College, Annapolis, because of the untimely departure of the tutor. By the start of the second semester, all freshman tutorials are deep into Euclid’s Elements (no electives there: all students follow the same course of study), and the theorems are getting more challenging.

Even before this point in the Elements, some tutors will have adopted a kindly Mr. Chips persona and will alert students that they may be called on in the next day’s tutorial—working through the entire tutorial, no favorites (though some tutors do play favorites and seldom call on certain students). No favorites in general, but the hardest theorems go to the students the tutor has decided are brightest, an odd strategy since it is in opposition to the very idea of teaching, which is to help the ignorant, not the educated. The tutor suggests to the students whom he plans to call on that it might be a good idea if they glanced through theorem such-and-such before the next tutorial meeting.

That was pretty much the experience of the students in my tutorial: preparing carefully when alerted. I used a different approach. There were 11 students, so I removed from a card deck the Jokers, Kings, and Queens, and assigned each student a specific card value. We went around the class and each called his/her card: “Ace,” “deuce,” “three,” and on through “Jack.”

Then I explained: I’ll shuffle the cards before each class, and for each theorem, the student to demonstrate it at the board would be determined by the value of the top card in the (diminished) deck. So, I explained, “I am not selecting you, and I’m not asking for volunteers (the idea of ‘volunteer’ becomes irrelevant). The gods will pick who goes to the board. And when your card comes up, you will go to the board, immediately. Whether you’ve even read the theorem is irrelevant. If the gods pick you, you must go. We’ll certainly help you through the demonstration—we’ll provide the words and arguments if you fail at any point. The point is to see the theorem demonstrated at the board, and the gods will pick the demonstrator. Feel honored, not frightened.”

And so I turned over the top card to pick the first to demonstrate, a person whom it’s kinder not to identify. This student at first said, “Mr. Ham, I really didn’t prepare, and I’m sorry…” and I interrupted. “That’s not a problem, truly. Whether you’re prepared on not is irrelevant. The job is simple: go to the board when your card turns up. The gods want you to.”

So the student went to the board. “Painful” ain’t in it. It was quickly apparent that the student had not so much as glanced at the theorem, and help was needed from the very start: stating the theorem.

The demonstration was a staggering performance, in the sense that the student staggered, line by line, through the entire theorem, requiring help at each step of the way. I think it took the full hour.

It was an unusual tutorial meeting, to say the least. But I thought it had been a learning experience.

So the next day, they trooped in and took their seats (habitual, not assigned, but adhered to very closely: changing one’s seat at the table was not something most would do lightly).

I felt we had made progress the previous day. I took out the deck, shuffled, and turned up the first card. It was the same student.

As soon as I turned the card, there was a very peculiar silence in the room. But—and they already accepted this—the gods had spoken. The student, without protest but with slumping shoulders, moved to the board and picked up the chalk listlessly. And then we reprised the previous meeting: the student again had not even looked at the problem, having unconsciously assumed that the gods would not pick the same student two days in a row, since that would waste a chance for someone else to demonstrate.

But the gods are hard to read and have their own ideas. So once again we stumbled, line by line, through the demonstration, in a kind of Euclidean call and response. (A student must utter aloud all the words of the theorem and proof; saying “what you said” is simply beyond the pale—not so much “not allowed” as “unthinkable.”)

It was easier this time. The student at the board was more accustomed to how to do that sort of demonstration efficiently, having had plenty of practice the previous day, and the chorus in their seats were more on their toes because of their own previous practice. But, easier or not, there was still the embarrassment.

And that completed the lesson. From that day forth every student was prepared on every theorem for every tutorial meeting (and, indeed, perhaps it carried through to the other tutorials and the seminar).

As you would expect, learning the theorems became easier and easier. Patterns emerged and were recognized. In learning one theorem, a student would see that this was just a twist on a previous theorem. “Gimme a 47B without the motor,” said in a cartoon about a shop selling custom memorial wreaths for Graceland. “I just do the previous theorem, except this one part is different,” the student thinks, having begun to build from what’s been learned the net that easily catches new ideas, incorporating those and extending the net.

In a few weeks, the whole class had a comfortable acquaintance with and knowledge of the theorems, and being selected by the gods did, indeed, become somewhat an honor—at least, I think so—even though it was admittedly sometimes a bit scary. But everyone accepted that if the gods picked you, you went to the board.

To round out the memory: the next time I had to be away from the tutorial on a recruiting trip (I was also director of admissions), I asked Miss Leonard to take my place. She had been a Euclid tutor often, so needed no prep, and she agreed.

The day arrived, and she entered the room. By this time they were in Book XIII, the construction of the (only) five regular solids that are possible in 3-space: the Platonic solids. These are daunting theorems, and at this point the universal practice was to assign a theorem explicitly to some chosen student, aloud, in class, the day before the demonstration, so the student could memorize the theorem as though memorizing a speech in a play: word-perfect, but sometimes with little (or no) grasp of the meaning of what they were saying. In the worst case, it was like a fifth grader reading aloud a speech in Macbeth about the drive and demands of ambition, having not the remotest notion of what an intense ambition is like and what it can do to people. They totally miss the point.*

So Miss Leonard naturally asked, “Okay, who’s prepared for the next theorem,” expecting the student chosen the previous day to volunteer, and things would move smoothly along with no hitches: perfection unmarred, just as the adult beginning piano player wants to play from the start.  But, of course, it is through mistakes that we learn. Avoiding mistakes means avoiding learning.

The students cried, “The cards! The cards! Didn’t Mr. Ham give you the cards?!”

Miss Leonard was baffled. “Cards? What cards?”

“A number!” someone said, and they all chimed in. “A number! Pick a number! Between 1 and 11.”

So Miss Leonard said, “Eight,” and one student groaned and stood up and trudged to the board, and she absolutely nailed the theorem, which (as I recall) was the icosahedron: she stated the general theorem, drew and labeled the diagram (the “setting out”), restated the theorem in terms specific to the diagram (the “statement”), did the construction (and at this point, all the theorems required construction), and then gave the logic of the proof, with understanding, able to restate things, able to answer questions, able to point out any nice touches.

Miss Leonard’s jaw dropped. Later, she told me, “A random student—did they all know it?”

“Sure,” I said. For one thing, at that point learning the next theorem was not so difficult. It was like learning a new verb in a foreign language that one is studying: the new verb has a new meaning, but it works pretty much like any other verb, is conjugated in the usual way—and if not in the usual way, then the conjugation is memorable. Learning each new theorem, if you know well the previous theorems, is not a biggie.

In sum, they learned Euclid well, and also learned how to prepare and to present, and learned not only the value of good preparation but also how it feels, the internal sensation of actual learning and understanding—they learned to recognize the goal. Once that it is learned, it can be applied in many fields and contexts.

The path of learning travels through mistakes; if you take that path, either at the behest of the gods or voluntarily (because you now understand how it works), then you accept the mistakes as part of the process. It helps if you focus your attention more on your progress than on your current level of accomplishment. Progress will be stunning when you start, though the level of accomplishment will doubtless leave much to be desired. Eventually you grasp the pattern of effort/mistakes/effort followed by learning. You find the rhythm. The rate of progress will inevitably slow, but by then the performance is rewarding. Demonstrating theorems, playing the piano, or shaving with a straight razor.


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*Stringfellow Barr, one of the two founders of the St. John’s Program, told us of how he saw Macbeth when he was quite young, about 7 or 8 (I can’t recall exactly, but he was a precocious child), and for days afterward went around in a cape (dishtowel tied around neck), pretending to be Macduff. He told us, “To read Macbeth and think that Macduff was the main character is about as bad a reading of the play as is possible.”

On seeing how much he liked the play, his father told him, “Did you like that? He wrote a lot more.” And the young Stringfellow started reading through the plays. (I mentioned he was precocious.) When, a year or so later, he read Macbeth, he thought, “You idiot! You dolt! You totally missed the entire point of the play!”

“And,” he told us, “Ever since, every time I reread the play, I feel the same way about my previous reading.”


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Post Script: I did have to modify the rules a bit. Each time your card came up, the card was removed from the deck (except for the fourth card), to decrease the odds you got picked twice in a row. But there was always at least one card of each value. After everyone in the tutorial had gone to the board, the deck was restored to four cards per student and reshuffled.

Also, I learned not to deal the cards out one by one during the class. Doing the cards one by one resulted in everyone reviewing the next theorem (instead of following the demonstration) in case the next card was his.

Instead, I’d deal out as many cards as I expected theorems to be demonstrated in the tutorial, plus one for safety. If I thought we would demonstrate three theorems, I’d deal out four cards at the beginning of the tutorial and turn them all over at once. That way, although those four students might be reading ahead, everyone else would follow what was going on, since they knew they would not be presenting.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Shaving

What Hillary Clinton Didn’t Tell You in Her NY Times Op-Ed

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens point out some omissions Clinton made:

Yesterday, the New York Times gave Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton a free infomercial (a/k/a OpEd) to spin her toothless plan “to rein in Wall Street.” Hillary begins by telling us this:

Seven years ago, the financial crisis sent our economy into a tailspin. Over five million people lost their homes. Nearly nine million lost their jobs. Nearly $13 trillion in household wealth was wiped out.

But that’s not what her husband, former President Bill Clinton told us was going to happen when he repealed the 66-year old Glass-Steagall Act on November 12, 1999. Here’s what Bill Clinton promised us from this massive deregulation of Wall Street: (See video of his full remarks below.)

President Bill Clinton:

You heard Senator Gramm characterize this bill as a victory for freedom and free markets. And Congressman LaFalce characterized this bill as a victory for consumer protection. And both of them are right…

It is true that the Glass-Steagall law is no longer appropriate for the economy in which we live…And today what we are doing is modernizing the financial services industry, tearing down these antiquated laws and granting banks significant new authority. This will, first of all, save consumers billions of dollars a year through enhanced competition. It will also protect the rights of consumers. It will guarantee that our financial system will continue to meet the needs of underserved communities…

This is a very good day for the United States. Again, I thank all of you for making sure that we have done right by the American people and that we have increased the chances of making the next century an American century…the future of our children will be very bright, indeed.

President Bill Clinton was wrong on every single point and every single promise he made to the American people on November 12, 1999 when he signed the legislation that would once again set up the conditions of the 1929 crash, allowing deposit-taking banks to merge with securities trading firms. And because Hillary Clinton comes from that same Wall Street mindset and echo chamber that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, she cannot be trusted to repair the epic damage her husband and his Wall Street high roller pals have caused our nation.

Hillary attempts to bolster her detail-lite plan to rein in Wall Street with this assertion in her Times OpEd:

My plan also goes beyond the biggest banks to include the whole financial sector. Some have urged the return of a Depression-era rule called Glass-Steagall, which separated traditional banking from investment banking. But many of the firms that contributed to the crash in 2008, like A.I.G. and Lehman Brothers, weren’t traditional banks, so Glass-Steagall wouldn’t have limited their reckless behavior.

First, Glass-Steagall was not a “rule.” It was the most powerful financial legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress in 1933 and it protected the nation from another 1929 style crash for almost seven decades. Just nine years after its repeal, Wall Street crashed and caused the greatest economic upheaval since the Great Depression.

What Hillary isn’t telling you about AIG, the giant insurance company which blew up in 2008 from selling credit derivatives to Wall Street firms and received a massive taxpayer bailout, is that it was also Bill Clinton’s administration that allowed AIG to become a derivatives powder keg by also passing and signing into law the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in the waning days of his administration. This act removed these dangerous derivatives from regulatory oversight. Additionally, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 10:49 am

The persistence of poor arguments

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In the NY Times Paul Krugman characterizes two species of bad arguments:

Insured v uninsured

In policy discourse, zombies and cockroaches are somewhat different.

Zombie ideas are claims that should have been killed by evidence, but just keep shambling along, like the notion that vast numbers of Canadians, frustrated by socialized medicine, come to America in search of treatment. (It was in a paper about that and other myths that I first encountered the zombie terminology.) Cockroaches are claims that disappear for a while when proved ludicrously wrong, but just keep on coming back.

I think of the notion that Obamacare hasn’t really reduced the number of uninsured as a cockroach; it seemed to me that it subsided for a while after the big enrollment numbers of 2014 and the sharp drop in uninsurance rates. And really, how could you continue to make that claim given the results shown above, which are corroborated by independent sources like Gallup?

But the claim is back, as Charles Gaba notes. He says that Avik Roy’s latest is embarrassing, which I guess it is — but how much more embarrassed can the guy who did the totally spurious work on “rate shock” get? I’d say, rather, that the latest is impressive in the way it uses multiple layers of misrepresentation to obscure what you might have thought was too obvious to deny. . .

Continue reading.

I think the term “cockroach” is spot-on: the arguments run away and hide when light is shed on them, but as soon as attention drifts away, they come back.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 10:45 am

Posted in GOP, Government, Healthcare

Republicans Like Obama’s Strategy to Defeat ISIS

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In Mother Jones Kevin Drum points out:

Do any of the Republican candidates have a plan for defeating ISIS?  As near as I can tell, most of them have offered up variations on this:

  • Bomb ISIS, just like Obama, but better.
  • Use Iraqi ground troops, just like Obama, but better.
  • Put together a coalition of local allies, just like Obama, but better.

Am I missing anything? Aside from being more bellicose (the sand will glow, we’ll bomb the shit out of them, etc.), all of the candidates are saying that Obama’s strategy is basically sound, but they’d tweak it a bit here and there. They’d stop worrying about civilian deaths so they could drop more bombs. They’d somehow train Iraqi forces better than the Army is doing right now. And they’d put together a real coalition, though it’s never really clear what they mean by that or how they’d accomplish it.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 10:23 am

Using the no-fly list to bar gun purchases

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I think we all know the no-fly list is a travesty: people are placed on the list for mysterious reasons—sometimes just on a hunch—and little distinction is drawn between people whose name happens to match a name on the list. Senator Ted Kennedy was barred from a flight because there was a Ted Kennedy on the list, for one notorious example. And not only is the list sloppily made and sloppily used, if you do happen to be on the list, there is no procedure that allows you to easily correct the error.

So the no-fly list is horrible. But I still think it should be used to bar gun sales for one reason: that usage will force the list out into the open and drive reforms in both how the list is made and how challenges to entries are done.

Here’s an argument by Trevor Timm in the Guardian against using the list, but it makes a very good case (IMO) for having the list used as a way of forcing due-process reforms on a very bad implementation.

“People have due process rights in this country,” Republican House speaker Paul Ryan said in explaining his party’s opposition to the vote, apparently with a straight face. He went on to say there shouldn’t be a rush to pass legislation at the risk of “infringing upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” which in almost all other situations is the party’s modus operandi.

Funny, I don’t remember hearing a word of protest from party leaders when tens of thousands of people were added to the list and barred from flying during the Bush years – and in fact, they were loudly cheering as the Bush administration tore down all sorts of due process rights in the aftermath of 9/11.

The Republicans supposed newfound devotion to due process is nothing more than a naked political ploy to avoid passing any gun control, no matter how inconsequential. This is the party that invented the no-fly list – it was a concoction of the Bush administration, just like a series of policies that did more damage to the principle of due process than anything since FDR’s Japanese internment camps during the second world war.

For years, Republicans have continually demanded (with much success) that the Obama administration not give constitutional due process rights to alleged terrorists, including the reading of Miranda rights, access to lawyers and trials in civilian courts. It’s the party that has proudly endorsed indefinite detention of Guantánamo detainees, drone strikes on Americans overseas and outright torture on countless detainees who were not, and have not, been convicted of a crime.

Currently, the party’s leading candidate for president has proposed immediately removing 11 million people from the country with a “deportation force” without a second thought to due process, put all Muslims in a mandatory database and potentially and arbitrarily start closing mosques that he deems too radical for his taste.

If Republicans want to vote down this largely symbolic and hypocritical gun control legislation by Democrats, that’s their prerogative. But let’s not pretend that they suddenly care about the due process rights that they have spent the last decade and a half attempting to destroy.

At the same time, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 10:21 am

The Quran and the Bible, compared

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This story in the Telegraph describes how a Bible with some verses highlighted was given the dust jacket of the Quran, and people were asked what they thought of the verses.

After it’s revealed the verses they’ve been reading are actually from the Bible, those taking part reflect on the assumptions they’d been making about the texts. “It’s all just prejudice really,” one says. “I always try not to be prejudiced myself but apparently I already am. It’s just something you do unconsciously.”

Video is below, but I got to thinking about a quiz: take 30 bloodthirsty verses, 15 each from the Bible and the Quran, and 30 loving verses, 15 each from the Bible and the Quran. Scramble the 60 verses randomly, and then hand out the quiz and have people mark the source of each verse, Bible or Quran. For example:

Circle the source:

[Bible]   [Quran]  –  “If you do not obey Me, but act with hostility against Me … you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.”

I’d love to see a summary of the results.

Here’s the video from the Telegraph story. More at the link above.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 10:10 am

Posted in Religion, Video

Eufros Vetiver de Haiti and the Black Mamba

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SOTD 8 Dec 2015

An exceptionally good shave today in every respect. The Omega brush shown, with a marvelously soft boar knot, is now well broken in. As with a previous lathering, I found myself adding small amounts of water while loading the brush, observing the soap gradually work its way up into the brush, a little farther as each driblet of water was brushed in. I hadn’t really noticed this progression until I began paying closer attention to the loading, something that started when I decided to learn to load the brush neatly even when using a tub filled with soap to the very brim. The close attention required to do a neat loading led me to observe more closely what was happening on the soap and in the brush, and the result has been that I now much more often load my brush with exactly the right proportions of soap and water: the brush ends up filled with soap and neither too dry nor too wet. Better loading was an unexpected payoff of neat loading, and this particular brush brush has a large but soft knot that well repays that degree of attention.

The fragrance of this soap is definitely vetiver and quite present, but less in your face that, say, Cyril R. Salter’s French Vetiver shaving cream, in which the vetiver fragrance veers slightly in the direction of a stench. This vetiver fragrance is more delicate—certainly not floral, but veering in that direction. I like this one a lot, and as I lathered my beard I realized that I like this brush more than ever. Note, however, that this is not a brush for those who prefer a stiff and scrubby brush. This brush is very soft, caressing the skin, a sensation that I like but that does not appeal to everyone.

Lathering done—and today it really was an exceptional lather, and I think props must be given to JabonMan for much of that excellence—I picked up my RazoRock Black Mamba and began the shave. Like some other RazoRock razors (the Stealth and the Baby Smooth are prime examples), the Black Mamba is exceptionally comfortable without the slightest compromise of efficiency, and the BBS result seemed to come naturally, almost a by-product of an enjoyable activity.

A good splash of Fine’s Fresh Vetiver aftershave, and a good start on another good day.

Written by Leisureguy

8 December 2015 at 9:14 am

Posted in Shaving

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