Uncommon Sense

May 24, 2021

It is a Dirty Word! Don’t Use It!

The dirty word is “redistribution.” To the wealthy this means “rob from the rich and give to the poor.” This means “take from the deserving and give to the undeserving.” This is an abominable thing, redistribution, they say.

Of course, they have been doing it for the past 40 plus years now, and now that they have succeeded, they are, as they say, pulling the ladder up so no others can use it. The wealthy of course have been using every tool at hand to redistribute earnings from the less rich to the more rich. They have manipulated tax laws, labor legislation, social media, you name it in their quest to become even richer than they were. They have used some of their newly acquired wealth to double down and now “own” much of the legislatures and judiciaries in the U.S. Those bodies will not act in any way before running their possible actions by the rich and powerful, aka “donors.” (When the rich ask each other whether they are “donors” they are not talking about organ donations, they are talking about political donations, aka bribes.)

A recent study, however indicates that the strategies employed by the rich to get richer are counter production. They looked at an example for which there was enough data, starting in 1989, though 2019, and found that:

“Downward redistribution appears to make everyone quite a lot wealthier, faster – especially (no surprise) the bottom 80%. Economic activity, annual spending, increases even faster. Taking the leftmost bars as an example: with an annual 1.5% downward transfer, greater spending would have resulted in a 549% total wealth increase, versus actual 421%. (To put that 1.5% downward transfer in context: the compounding annual growth rate on a passive wealth holder’s 60/40 stock/bond portfolio over that thirty years was about 7.5%. That’s all unearned income, received simply for holding wealth.)

“Most of that extra wealth growth would have gone to the bottom 80% (wealth growth of 527% vs. actual 295%), while top-20% wealth growth would also have been slightly higher than actual (526% vs. 499%). The top-20% share of wealth would have remained unchanged, versus the actual share increase, from 61% to 71%.

“With 1.5% in downward redistribution, 2019’s total consumption spending — a pretty good index or proxy for GDP — would have been 52% higher. Total wealth would have been 16% higher.” (Source: How Redistribution Makes America Richer, www.nakedcapitalism.com, May 24, 2021)

Of course the wealthy deny such findings as they conflict with their worldview, “Reality, pfft, what is it really?’

May 22, 2021

The Scary Side of AI

Filed under: Morality,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 11:21 am
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Efforts to create artificially intelligent (AI) computer systems is still in its infancy. I was intrigued at first but now I am concerned.

The most basic concept is to create computer systems that can “learn” as opposed to the “normal” process of programming in code all abilities desired from the system.

So far, nothing scary here.

Now that we have created systems that are somewhat adept at “machine learning” we have discovered, hey presto, that we often do not know what these systems have learned or how they did the learning of it. The systems don’t report back, “telling” us how they did it and what they are capable of doing.

Recently a system was created to “model” the entire universe. Much to the creator’s surprise the model, after proving itself faster and more accurate than previous systems (of all types), also showed abilities it was never “taught” to calculate. The “teaching” is the supplying of datasets that would lead the system to make up general rules which it would then apply. But it was showing abilities that weren’t predicted from the datasets that were supplied.

The scary part is there is a responsibility disjoint here. Such a system, which are more and more being used for facial recognition and for application (job, college admittance, etc.) evaluations, were it to go awry, there is nobody responsible for making the system the way it is. “I didn’t program it to do such a thing,” will be heard around the world.

But the “programming” of these systems is not in the previously understood form of written code but in selecting the datasets to feed the beast, as it were.

Recently face-recognitions systems were shown to be vastly more erratic when looking at faces of people of color than the mainstream (white Americans, or Chinese citizens). One system showed no response to the face of a black woman . . . until she donned a white mask (like a V mask) then it recognized there was a face present to analyze. The system showed high accuracy for white male face recognition, lower for white females, much lower for black and brown men, and even lower for black and brown women.

Right now these systems are being implemented willy-nilly by private companies and authoritarian governments. Clearly there is a role to play for regulation of such system, like a test sequence of faces that a system must recognize to a high degree, but there is little in the way of inducement for the implementers to seek out such “safety standards,” at the moment.

So, apartment buildings are implementing “face recognition” entry locks to keep out the riff-raff, of course, but they also have interior cameras which recognize the faces of the people in the halls and report rules infractions to the building’s management. Big Brother is here, now.

There are few laws and almost no privacy protections built into our system, certainly not governing these new “frontiers.”

May 10, 2021

WTF Is Wrong With Us?

In a report on a mass shooting that occurred in Colorado on May 10, 2021 (yesterday), The Guardian commented “It was Colorado’s worst mass shooting since a gunman killed 10 people at a Boulder supermarket on 22 March..”

Think about that. Worst mass shooting in two months? In 48 fucking days? Just in Colorado, mind you.

What’s next? Mass shooting of the month? . . . of the week? Worst mass shooting in some small community so they can compete with the larger “events” in places like Las Vegas?

Yes, I am quite aware that you are not someone I need to worry about “going Rambo” in my community, but what does it say when there are so many of us who want this activity to be quashed . . . completely, and we cannot get that to happen because there are too many guns and ammo manufacturers making too much money to have any such restrictions passed into law or, if already passed into law, enforced for Pete’s sake. Making money for this small segment of our economy is too important to protect the lives of hundreds of victims of gun shootings/suicides?

Do we really think “if those people live, what will happen to our jobs?”

What is wrong with us?

April 26, 2021

The Flaws of Capitalism

Filed under: Business,Economics,Morality,Politics,Reason,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 11:09 am
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The major flaw of capitalism, that it has no limit of even a brake on greed, I have pointed out before, but there are others. Here are a few.

It is claimed that capitalism provides the most efficient distribution of resources. That may or may not be true, but capitalism sure doesn’t do diddly-squat for the distribution of production wastes. There are a spare few examples in which capitalism did have an effect upon waste. A steel company was drawing some heat from the amount of waste they were producing. This waste stemmed from the “pickling acid” (actually hydrochloric acid) used to reduce corrosion of newly poured iron ingots. The acid “passivated” the iron but it also dissolved a bit of the iron and so “wore out” its ability to perform that task. They were dumping that liquid waste, some legally, other not so much and were drawing heat from the federal government (too much regulation, my ass). A consultant told them that their “spent” pickling acid contained a great deal of iron(III) chloride which could be sold on the market and much of the unused acid could be recycled. The sale of the iron(III) chloride and reuse of the acid reclaimed paid for the processing and, in fact, made a profit. Ta da! A capitalism success story. Unfortunately such stories are rare. Dumping of waste is the lazy and cost effective way to deal with it and has been for a very long time.

A capitalism horror story involved a battery recycling plant near Oakland, CA. This plant took car batteries, broke them down, and recycled the lead in them to make new car batteries. Sounds cool, no? Well, part of the process involved emptying the old batters of the fluid in them which was heavily acidic (sulphuric acid, stronger even than hydrochloric acid) and had a great deal of dissolved lead in it as well. So, how did they dispose of this nasty liquid? They poured out on a bare patch of ground out back behind their buildings . . . for decades. Evidence of this waste process was discovered many tens of miles (hundreds even) away as the ground water system spread it out to cover a large part of central California. We do not possess the resources or the techniques to clean this up. The company? Oh, they declared bankruptcy to avoid any liability on the part of those who did the deed.

Basically, capitalism abuses “the commons,” that is those things we hold in common: the air, our waterways, the ground and all of the systems operating therein. Capitalists pollute it, we clean it up. (We are still spending tax money to clean up Superfund sites from decades ago.)

Capitalism does a lousy job of distributing wages. As a prime example, CEOs in the 1950’s made 20-30 times what their average worker made. Today, more than a few CEO’s make 300-400X what their average worker makes. Wow, did CEOs increase productivity, knowledge, customer satisfaction, anything that much? Nope. If one could track CEO productivity (and that would be hard to do), I am sure that CEO salaries have rocketed ahead of any productivity measurement you could some up with. How is this so? It is so because the CEOs packed their own boards of trustees with friendly faces and when the issue of “CEO salary” came up they vote for “raise” every damned time. Some of these CEOs return the favor by serving on their friend’s boards so they could get unwarranted raises, too. Unwarranted salaries paid out to CEOs doesn’t end up in shareholder’s pockets, so how could this happen? Capitalism basically doesn’t care.

In this country we have come to view capitalism as a thing in itself, rather than a tool we wield. We think “it” does this and “it” does that when it is we who do everything. It is very, very (very) clear that unregulated capitalism is disastrous. So, why does one of our two major political parties campaign all of the time on a “less regulation” is better and “no regulation” is best platform? Shouldn’t we be searching for the best regulation and if not that, better regulation? Why would capitalists campaign against the thing that makes capitalism viable? Oh, it’s the greed thing again. Even rabid anti-socialist politicians will vote for corporate socialism almost every time and the reason they do? They are being paid generously, by capitalists, to do so. Apparently politics doesn’t limit greed either.

April 23, 2021

Why Would God Care About Morality?

Filed under: Morality,Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:09 pm

This is a rather brilliant and novel essay on the question portrayed in the title above.

Why Would God Care About Morality?



April 21, 2021

Where Morals Really Come From

Filed under: Morality,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:16 am
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Gee, the argument about objective vs. subjective morals rolls on! (I wonder who keeps bringing up the obviously impossible idea of objective morality?) Can’t we put this discussion to bed, instead of it living on as a zombie discussion for more millennia? Because for millennia, human beings argued and negotiated standards of behavior, and then when organized religion came along, it hijacked the topic. Here is how morals actually grow in each of us.

If you consider a child’s typical experience in the U.S. (I know typical does not mean all), you can see where a child gets its morals. When newly born, babies are never corrected. If they poop their pants or throw up on Grandma, well “isn’t that cute.” Once the baby reaches the toddler stage (crawling, walking), that is can locomote on its own, corrections begin. Why? Because they can get into trouble on their own. If they pick up an electrical cord and try to bite it, they are corrected. If they reach up to touch the stove, they are corrected. If they try to bite their sister, they are corrected. This is done by mother, father, older siblings, grandmothers and grandfathers, and aunts and uncles, sometimes the parents of other children do, too. (It takes a village, indeed.)

Children are taught how to behave, what is acceptable, and what is not. Children are taught table manners (We don’t throw food, child!). Once the child enters day care or school, additional lessons are taught. No, not just the three R’s, but how to get along with other children and adults not your parents. If two children get into a dispute, say as to which gets to play with a particular toy right now, they are taught dispute resolution. Each gets to tell their story and the judge (parent, child care worker, teacher) decides on how to proceed. They learn that they don’t have to like a decision, but they do have to abide by it.

Children are taught these lessons in various ways. When I was a child, corporal punishment was still in vogue. Now it is tantamount to child abuse.

If their family is church going and they attend Sunday school, children may learn more. The story of Noah’s Ark teaches them that there is this powerful Superparent that once killed almost all of the people and almost all of the animals. They may even learn that if they are not obedient, they may die and end up in a cave full of fire. They are taught to love them the Baby Jesus but the only one they can see is being tortured on the wall.

So, where do children learn how to behave rightly? At home and in day care and in kindergarten. Where do they continue to learn moral lessons? At home and in school and on playgrounds.

So, are the lessons taught by parents, et. al. learned from the Bible? Lessons like don’t bite your sister, don’t stick your fingers in electrical sockets, don’t pull on the cat’s tails, share your toys with your friends, don’t hit others, don’t run out into the street, don’t take candy from strangers, be kind to others, help those in need, etc. While some of these may be reinforced by church activities (winter clothing drives, food drives, toy drives for those less well off) I suggest the basic lessons were already learned. So, when do they receive their moral instruction from “The Bible?”

If We are Going to Pass Anti-blasphemy Laws We Should Know What Blasphemy Is

Filed under: Culture,Morality,Religion,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 11:07 am
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A number of high ranking officials in the Muslim world, most often it seems the President of Pakistan, have been suggesting that western nations really, really should pass anti-blasphemy laws.

So what is blasphemy?

Blasphemy is an insult that shows contempt, disrespect, or lack of reverence concerning a deity, a sacred object, or something considered inviolable. Some religions consider blasphemy to be a religious crime.” (Wikipedia)

But, you see, blasphemy is a religious crime, specific to each religion. You cannot generalize it. The churches themselves do not vehemently insist that you cannot blaspheme another religion. You can only blaspheme your own religion, they say. If you do try to generalize blasphemy so that it applies to all religions . . .
• Any Catholic who demeans a Protestant religion could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any Hindu who demeans Muslims could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any Muslim who demeans Hindus could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any evangelical who bad mouths the Pope could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Any movie actor swearing according to script could be charged with blasphemy.
•  Political cartoonists could be charged with blasphemy on an almost daily basis.
•  Comedians could be charged with blasphemy on an almost daily basis.
•  Any one putting pineapple on a pizza could be charged with blasphemy.

Well, maybe not that last one.

Would we really want our courts bogged down with such cases? Plus, consider the complications. Would jurors be asked what their religion was during voire dire? (If so, what happens to the Constitutional “no religious test for public office/position” provision?) Would public defenders have to be the “right religion?” What would happen if the “church” of the religion so offended disagrees with the decision of our secular courts?

Think about what the standards for “showing a lack of respect” for a religion might entail. Where I come from, if you want respect, you have to earn it. Such laws would apparently give respect to all forms of worship (even worshipping Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?) whether it has been earned or not.

Can you imagine the religious brought into court for demeaning the worship of Satan? (Oh, please, please, please let it happen.)

I have no problem if religions want to chastise or punish members of their churches for such infractions. But when they try to impose their rules on the rest of us, that is where I draw the line. What’s next? Country clubs trying to impose their dress codes on the rest of the nation? Book clubs deciding what we can and cannot read?

I think these people have become a bit too full of themselves. I do know that for officials like the President of Pakistan, that this is a form of virtue signaling, but some less observant think he is serious in his demands.

April 9, 2021

Now I See Where He Was Going (C.S. Lewis on Moral Laws)

I have been re-reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and in my first post on that topic (The Moral Law of Right and Wrong) I addressed his claim that our sense of right and wrong was something other than a set of socially transmitted compact rules. Now that I have finished three chapters I see where he is going. In Chapter 4 (What Lies Behind the Law) Lewis writes “When you say that nature is governed by certain laws, this may only mean that nature does, in fact, behave in a certain way. The so-called laws may not be anything real—anything above and beyond the actual facts that we observe. But in the case of Man, we saw that this will not do. The Law of Human Nature, or of Right and Wrong, must be something above and beyond the actual facts of human behavior. In this case, besides the actual facts, you have something else—a real law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey.”

Lewis, here, is using a bit of legerdemain as well as dishonest language, mixed in with a bit of ignorance. His statement “The so-called laws may not be anything real—anything above and beyond the actual facts that we observe.” confuses man-made laws (e.g. traffic laws,. tax laws, etc.) with natural laws which are indeed “the actual facts we do observe.” When people started looking for the “rules” behind natural behavior, they observed behaviors which were dependable without fail, for example, unsupported objects fall (straight down). These were and still are, only a set of dependable behaviors we can observe in nature and use to make predictions. It is not the case “that nature is governed by certain laws,” there is no governor, and the “laws” aren’t obeyed. Instead of the “laws” of nature, we might well have said the “behaviors” of nature.

Also Lewis’s use of the phrase “above and beyond” as a source for such laws is disingenuous. He is making a case for his god being the source of the law to which he refers and where does this god reside? Above and beyond our experience, is commonly used to describe his location (yet it is everywhere at the same time, hmm).

And why might dependable behaviors in nature “not be anything real”? In order to be observed, they have to be real, no? Again, language is being used to undermine natural laws as possibly not being real, a criticism used against Lewis’s god, but rarely about observable nature. If observations of nature are not real, then what is? Lewis apparently wants to have his cake and eat it too, as he went to great lengths to paint “The Law of Right and Wrong” as a “natural” law, yet he argues that the law comes not from nature. (Is great puzzlement.)

Lewis is contrasting physical laws (law of gravity, etc.) with the moral law of right and wrong. His argument is that a rock dropped from a height has no choice to “obey” the law of gravity, it just drops. But a man, contemplating an action can consider a rule such as “Do not steal other people’s things!” and can choose to follow the law or not. He is building the case that moral laws have an existence separate from whether or not people obey them, which means they weren’t constructed by nature or even those people, otherwise they would follow their own advice. Rocks are affected by gravity, always, no exceptions. They have no choice. But we do. Natural laws are always exhibited. If a “law” is not, then you know you are dealing with a man-made law, not a natural law.

I think there is a fundamental mistake Professor Lewis is making here and strangely enough, it involves language, which is his field of expertise. Professor Lewis is looking at only the short versions of these moral laws, which appear to be commands, and therefore like man-made laws (being full of “shalls” and “shalt nots”), rather than agreed upon observable behaviors.

When these moral “laws” were negotiated, they were in some sort of form like “we will all be better off if we, as individuals, all pledge to not steal the possessions of others.” (Imagine this stated by a wizened elder when a tribe was in convocation, with the heads of all of the others bobbing in agreement.) But for the simple-minded and the very young, longwinded rules don’t stick in their tiny brains, so we shorten the rules. “If I have told you once, I’ve told you twice, don’t steal!” Parents turn an agreed upon behavior into a command for their children to obey. Why? “Because I am the Mom, that’s why!”

To Lewis, moral laws sound like parentally-shortened rules. So, instead of “Don’t be late for supper, son, it really irritates me and makes extra work for me besides” they get “Don’t be late!” And since these moral laws are universal, which parent model is available to all? Why God, of course. Of course, Lewis doesn’t explain why all of the different gods provide very similar sets of rules, almost as if there were just one source, but there is not such a source. There is absolutely no reason Shiva would create the same moral laws as Huitzilopochtli. But human beings are quite the same the world around so the rules they would come up with would be similar, no? Same source: human beings, same result: common moral precepts.

And were Lewis to argue that there is only one set of rules because all of the others are false gods; there is only one true god, then he would have to explain the differences. The Aztecs tore out the beating hearts of human captives and allowed their blood to run down the sides of their temples as a form of worship, but the Hebrews were told (eventually) that human sacrifice was immoral. If there were only one god, why the variations?

Clearly, even sincere apologists use dishonest language and argumentations because of their beliefs. Assuming ones beliefs to prove ones beliefs is circular reasoning, but also a surefire way to get an outcome you desire. An axiom of argumentation is that the surest way to get a particular conclusion is to get its existence stated as one of the premises. Faith can lead one into making such errors.

April 7, 2021

The Moral Law of Right and Wong

Filed under: Culture,Morality — Steve Ruis @ 11:15 am
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I am re-reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and now that I am better educated, it resonates differently from when I first read it. I just started but Professor Lewis, one of my all-time favorite authors, starts by advancing the idea of moral laws. (You can guess where he is going with this, but I haven’t re-read that far, so I will not comment on that.)

What I will comment on is where we learned the vast majority of the moral and fairness rules that we abide by now. We learned them by interacting with others, almost always this was when we were young and playing a lot.

I remember playing touch football and arguing about something vehemently after every other play. I remember a playmate, named Peter, who was not a gifted athlete by a real asset to our team. Peter was Arguer in Chief. I can see him still, in my mind’s eye, bending forward from the waist, arms extended backward and screaming loudly, so much so that his face turned red. A fearsome sight was Peter in full throat and, I suspect, the reason we won many, many arguments when Peter was . . . deployed.

In schoolyard and community playgrounds, hordes of kids were left to work things out on their own. And we did. And we learned that many things are negotiable, few things are absolutes and our moralities reflect that. For example, if Christians really believed in Christian morality, why would one ever commit a crime? Either they thought they could negotiate their way out (get forgiveness by confessing, etc.) or they felt those rules didn’t apply to them, because a life sentence in the Lake of Fire seems like something to be avoided in the extreme.

Remember the book “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?”

“These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. Clean up your own mess.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned—the biggest word of all—Look.”
―Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Obviously for most of us, religious indoctrination has barely begun by the time we exit kindergarten (many evangelicals actually are at full throttle at this stage with children’s books, Noah’s Ark toys, etc. but they are in the minority in this).

Clearly, we learned much of this through interacting with other children. Teachers general teach “moral lessons” when there is a context, typically a dispute, that needs to be settled. Since the tykes are both upset, they soak up the lesson quite well, onlookers as well as they probably prefer not to get in the teacher’s crosshairs for doing something “wrong.”

So, Lewis’s “Natural Law of Right and Wrong” need no gods to prop it up. It is negotiated over and over by children in communities with some direction from adults who learned the same lessons, the same way.

This is also, by the way, why “remote learning” is not a good idea as a general method for educating youths. Education is a social process in which people learn how to work with, from, or just in the presence of others. The illusion that it is a process of acquiring factual knowledge needs to be buried, more than six feet deep. (It is, of course, a zombie idea that seems not to die.) This is exposed, if it really needs to be, by intellectuals who look down their noses at manual arts training courses (learning how to care for hair, weld, fix cars, build with wood, etc.) Those courses involve the actual transmission of knowledge and physical skills and, if one believed that education were a transmission of knowledge, should be held in higher esteem than those course that only provided abstract mental ideas, like mathematics.

March 21, 2021

Who’s a Humanitarian?

Filed under: Culture,Morality,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:33 pm
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I have seen people called “humanitarians.” I know vegetarians are people who eat only vegetables, but I suspect that humanitarians are not people who only eat other people. We already have a name for them. So, what is a humanitarian? What are the qualifications? Can you get advanced degrees in . . . humanitarity?

This, I suspect, is one of those labels rich people apply to themselves as part of the gas lighting of the other 90+% of the population of this country who have the moral failing of not being rich, or even “well-to-do.”

Any rich person who does something generically “good” will have this label slapped on them by the marketing machine of the rich and famous. They will refer to their actions as “humanitarian gestures” and what they did as being in “the best tradition of philanthropy” and whatnot. On the other hand, if you aren’t rich, you have almost zero chance of acquiring this status. This last Christmas I saw an article saying that because of the pandemic, the food banks (Food banks in a rich country!) were struggling to keep their shelves stocked, so I went online and donated $100 to my local food bank. I did it anonymously, which rich people don’t do. If they are going to give away a chunk of change, they want visible credit for doing so. On a global scale I am a “rich American” but in America, I am a retired school teacher, so . . . middle middle-class. That $100 was a significant amount of money to me, being several percent of my monthly income (most of which is committed before I get paid, so a much larger part of my “disposable income”). How does that compare with Jeff Bezos, who apparently has added $637,000,000,000 to his net worth during the pandemic? If he were to give a million dollars to my food bank, that would constitute a significantly smaller fraction of his income that was my contribution. But Mr. Bezos, a twenty-first century Robber Baron, would be labeled a humanitarian and I will never be.

Putting on airs is a college course rich people take, I am convinced. They are better than us, just ask them. They are convinced that their riches are an indicator of their superiority. I think that when these people die, a wall should be put up where people can write what they really thought of those people when they were alive. They and their survivors should know what we really think. I would have to bring multiple pens to label Mr. Bezos.

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