Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

CRISPR Critters

The first applications of gene editing are (will be?) to fix deleterious mutations. Nobody, or almost nobody, will complain when previously horrible diseases get fixed before a child is born. But the practice won’t stop there. There will be a progression of editing services from muscular dystrophy to hairlip to more ahtleticism, and eventually, more hair or a more attractive nose. The last two may take a while.

But what will be really interesting will be the tweaking of genes that fix cognitive issues. Again, its a matter of progression. Nobody – OK, almost nobody – will complain in a decade or three when Downs’ Syndrome is edited out of a fetus. From there, bringing a mildly retarded child to normal is a barely an ethical step at all. After that, well, perhaps someone destined to be of normal intelligence can be made smarter than average, or even a borderline genius along one or another dimension.

The timing of this whole process of enhancement will depend on its complexity and difficulty, and the difficulty of dealing with trade-offs that might exist. It is possible, but unlikely, that a single tweak of the genome will bring a noticeable leap in IQ. But it is more likely to require making a lot of small changes to the genome.

Timing also matters in and of itself. An evolutionary process may cause less social upheaval than a revolutionary process. Its one thing to go from cohorts with today’s intelligence to something we’d call a genius today over a period of a century or more. Its another to achieve that over half of a generation.

But regardless of details, its all coming. At some point there will be generations with large numbers of genetically edited young people. And they will be different. On average, they may have some combination of trait we deem desirable. These include athleticism, beauty, creativity, perseverance and intelligence. But those genetically edited people, however different, will also be the same as the rest of us in a few key ways. They will simply be individuals, trying to make their way through life as well as they can. They won’t be a single monolithic entity, and they won’t behave or think the same. They won’t have the same life trajectories. But like the rest of us, they will all be trying to make a living, and for some of them, their inborn traits will make it that much easier for them to outdistance the competition.

If there is one thing the very diverse members of the edited group will agree upon, it is probably this: there is no way in hell they’ll be voluntarily accepting handicaps Harrison Bergeron-style, to level the playing field. All of this is going to be painful to the un-edited who happen to be around at the time, and who may wish for such handicaps. They may even succeed in getting some handicaps required through strength of law or societal pressure.

Such steps to compensate for an uneven distribution of skills, talent and abilities will create winners, namely those given the leg up. But it will be a short-term, and harmful victory. Holding back the talented, or replacing them with those who are less gifted, simply slows development and innovation, and blocks the tide that would otherwise lift more boats.

(A final note: I guess if I were someone else I might have written the same essay about AI. However, having done some work on the outer edge of the distant periphery of the field, I just don’t believe anyone will be building anything that remotely resembles a self-motivated sentient machine in any future that is remotely foreseeable today. As a result, machines won’t outcompete people. People using machines, though, will outcompete other people, but that makes for a very different post.)

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Evolution of the Trump Administration: An Op Ed

Donald Trump seems to be missing some sort of a regulator that prevents him from simply saying what temporarily happens to be on his mind. That made it inevitable that he would treat his audience to a regular stream of faux pas. However, I think both the degree and severity of the mess may be diminished going forward.

The reason has to do with how the Trump administration came into being. Simply put, unlike most candidates, he actually beat both major political parties in the US, not just the Democrats. He took the Republican nomination by beating the presumptive heir – Jeb Bush. Then he beat the back-ups who were viewed as acceptable to most establishment Republicans: Rubio and Cruz.

Now, when a new President takes office, he can usually stock his administration from think tanks and members of the political intelligentsia. Trump couldn’t. As the Republican nominee, he was never going to use left-leaning people. But he wasn’t about to bring in people from the Bush/Rubio/Cruz camps, nor were many of them willing to serve under him either. That pretty much ruled out the vast majority people with any experience in how Washington works.

So who was left? Well, there were disaffected members of the Republican establishment (those who had pissed off the neocons during the last Republican administration), some elements in the military, and people on the right who had been criticizing the Republican party for a long time. The latter group tend to be the most numerous. They also live on the fringes. And like most people on the fringes, they have no idea how the world works. Many are bombastic, like Trump himself.

So that was the well from which Trump could draw. A clown show was inevitable. And since many of the clowns were actually advising Trump himself, it was also predictable that Trump would be repeating some of their nonsense, sprinkled in with some that was homegrown.

But it seems that Trump can learn, after all. He may brag that he is the bestest Presidentiest President ever, but under it all, people he trusts remind him that he isn’t actually getting anything done. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to him to get rid of Priebus and replace him with Kelly. What Kelly himself believes – politically – isn’t entirely clear, but he is a four star general, and it seems clear he understands how organizations work. He quickly unloaded a couple of the more clown-ish actors, the Mooch and Steve Bannon, and perhaps his own predecessor.

Assuming Trump and Kelly remain in place, this should lead to something resembling professionalism in some of the corners of the administration that haven’t had such a thing in a while. That professionalism should even manifest itself in advice given to the President, reducing the amount of crazy-talk taking up valuable shelf-space in his head. That in turn might cut down on some of the more soap opera-ish activity coming from both Trump and the rest of the administration.

Is that a good thing? Well, there’s a yes and a no to that question. The yes piece is obvious, so I won’t elaborate. But as to the no… year to date, Trump was busy proposing ideas that had no support from anyone except the fringes and peddling them in ways that couldn’t possibly gain traction. As a result, those ideas went nowhere. But what happens if he starts running with garden-variety Republican tropes? Those tropes can gain the support they need to be enacted. They also didn’t generate positive outcomes the last few times we’ve seen them applied. Nor is there any real reason to expect that things will be turn out differently the next time the are tried.

I have to say, I was naive. I didn’t even think that Caligula might have an effective chief of staff.

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Explaining the Gender Wage Gap

From Thomas Edsall in the NY Times

At one end of the scale, men continue to dominate.

In 2016, 95.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were male and so were 348 of the Forbes 400. Of the 260 people on the Forbes list described as “self-made,” 250 were men. Wealth — and the ability to generate more wealth — must still be considered a reliable proxy for power.

But at the other end of the scale, men of all races and ethnicities are dropping out of the work force, abusing opioids and falling behind women in both college attendance and graduation rates.

Edsall’s comments are very compatible with this by Deary et al:

There is uncertainty whether the sexes differ with respect to their mean levels and variabilities in mental ability test scores. Here we describe the cognitive ability distribution in 80,000+ children—almost everyone born in Scotland in 1921—tested at age 11 in 1932. There were no significant mean differences in cognitive test scores between boys and girls, but there was a highly significant difference in their standard deviations (P<.001). Boys were over-represented at the low and high extremes of cognitive ability. These findings, the first to be presented from a whole population, might in part explain such cognitive outcomes as the slight excess of men achieving first class university degrees, and the excess of males with learning difficulties.

It is also compatible with this by Lynn and Kanazawa:

This paper presents the results of a longitudinal study of sex differences in intelligence as a test of Lynn’s (1994) hypothesis that from the age of 16 years males develop higher average intelligence than females. The results show that at the ages of 7 and 11 years girls have an IQ advantage of approximately 1 IQ point, but at the age of 16 years this changes in the same boys and girls to an IQ advantage of 1.8 IQ points for boys.

Lynn and Kanazawa’s paper sample is for all kids born in Great Britain during one fine week in March of 1958. The abstract and the paper focuses on mean differences.  They seem to mean a lot to the two authors, and most especially Lynn, but to me the differences in mean are small and of lesser importance than other things they note.   To mangle a metaphor, the multiplier (when it comes to differences in population outcomes) is the standard deviation.  To see what I mean, here are a couple of tables from the Lynn and Kanazawa paper:

Lynn and Kanazawa tables

Notice the standard deviations are larger for males in every sub-sample. What they tell you is that even if the mean intelligence of men and women is the same, you expect far many more idiots and far many more geniuses among men than among women in most areas of human endeavor that require something identifiable as cognition or IQ.

But it’s not just at the tails; you expect to see more “pretty stupid” and “pretty smart” men than women. The female population simply displays less variance at all ends of the spectrum.

Neuroscientists are also finding that there is more variability in men’s brains than in women’s. Which is to say, patterns of variability in measures of cognition observed in the studies mentioned earlier are very likely to apply to other fields as well.

Now, consider making money. Everyone does it to some extent. But we should see more variation men’s earnings than women’s earnings.

Throw on one more detail: income distributions are truncated at the bottom. There is a minimum wage, after all. People simply don’t get paid less than that. But even in the absence of a minimum wage, people who don’t make enough to survive are very euphemistically removed from the distribution.  In fact, in most careers, there is a baseline and most people earn closer to that baseline than to the level that superstars in the field make.  People’s abilities may fall on a standard normal distribution, but incomes are described by something that more closely resembles a Chi-Squared distribution.

Which is to say, chunks are taken out from the bottom end of the female and male income distributions. However, a larger proportion of the low end of the male distribution is removed because, due to the larger male variance, more men fall below the floor.

That right there is the gender wage gap, as well as Edsall’s observation.

You disagree? Does today’s America’s differ from what you would expect in a world were men and women have similar intelligence, but men have a great deal more variance? If it does, tell me how.

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Intelligence and Education

I’ve noted a few times that the political center needs to come to grips with research on genes and intelligence or we risk ceding the field to people with scary impulses and frightening goals. I think something like what the center-left position should be is reasonably well articulated by Richard J. Haier. Haier is a professor emeritus in the University of California at Irvine medical school, editor in chief of the journal Intelligence, and he was one of the signators of the Mainstream Science on Intelligence: An Editorial With 52 Signatories, History, and Bibliography in 1994.

Here is a recent article by Haier:

Historically, assaults on intelligence research were launched as a reaction to studies that suggested that average intelligence test scores were lower for some disadvantaged and minority groups. Combined with the possibility that intelligence might be genetically determined, this incendiary combination resulted in efforts to discredit the validity of intelligence tests and genetic studies. Concurrently, there was a single-minded focus on environmental factors as the predominant, if not only, influence on differences in mental abilities and the cause of achievement gaps.

This has led to 50 years of earnest and expensive but largely futile attempts to reduce education achievement gaps. These include focuses on early childhood education, raising students’ expectations, smaller classes, better teacher training, more testing and greater accessibility of challenging classes. Such interventions should not be expected to reduce gaps appreciably given the consistent research that shows that such variables do not influence academic achievement all that much – especially compared with the large effect of a student’s intelligence.

Education is for individuals. It does not matter if there are average intelligence differences among groups defined by poverty or race because there is more overlap than separation. As in modern medicine, any genetic influences, although real, are best thought about as probabilistic rather than deterministic. Basic neurobiology is the same for all humans, and both genetic and neuroimaging research connects neurobiology to intelligence. Understanding the complexities of how this works has potential for designing ways to improve mental ability and maximise education for all students, irrespective of background.

No one is well served by education reforms that neglect research findings on the nature of intelligence and its central role in student achievement. Neuroscience and intelligence research cannot solve all the issues of failing schools and education, but it is time to follow the data and add what we know from these perspectives to discussions about what research to fund, and what reforms to try next.

(The bolding is mine.)

While this may be anathema to much of our educational and academic establishment, it is, from what I can tell, pretty close to the position of the best -known researchers in the field like Stephen Pinker and James Flynn. Which is to say, the position is mainstream science on intelligence.

We ignore that at all of our peril.

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Cultural Appropriation

From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

Indigenous advocates from around the world are calling on a UN committee to make appropriating Indigenous cultures illegal — and to do it quickly.

Delegates from 189 countries, including Canada, are in Geneva this week as part of a specialized international committee within the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency.

Here’s more:

Speaking to the committee Monday, James Anaya, dean of law at the University of Colorado, said the UN’s negotiated document should “obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions.”

Anaya said the document should also look at products that are falsely advertised as Indigenous made or endorsed by Indigenous groups.

Canadians often aggravate peaceful and reasonable people all over the world. Because of that, it is no surprise to find Canada among the worst offenders when it comes to abuse of the indigenous population:

There are Indigenous groups from around the world taking part in this round of negotiations, including groups from New Zealand, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia and the United States.
There is no Indigenous representation in the Canadian delegation.

Officials with Global Affairs Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and Canadian Heritage are taking part in this round of negotiations, but the lack of Canadian Indigenous representatives is drawing criticism from the Assembly of First Nations.

In any scenario in which property rights are being assigned, there are always eager claimants. Fortunately, when it comes to the Canadian First Nations, one of the tribal elders and knowledge keepers can tell us precisely who are the authorities who should oversee the creation of guidelines and a process for utilizing Indigenous knowledge in any activities:

“The elders and knowledge keepers are the authorities who should oversee the creation of guidelines and a process for utilizing Indigenous knowledge in any activities,” Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde told CBC in a written statement.

But once again there is the issue of the exploitative nature of the Canadians:

There was no word on whether the federal government plans to consult with the AFN after this round of negotiations wraps up on Friday.

Now, I am not an attorney, but I cannot understand how this could work separately from the copyright and patent process. And to my knowledge, copyrights and patents don’t touch on culture. Nor to my knowledge do they get assigned to large groups of people and administered by a council of elders.

Culture, from what I can tell, is a tough thing to assign. For example, the Navajo (mentioned in the CBC article) are well known for their blankets, suggesting that production of anything resembling such blankets and their design should involve royalties paid to the Navajo. And for a new design, copyright laws work fine. But my reading of the UN’s intent is that older designs (say those that have been in use for a long time) or even the very concept of a “Navajo design” rate protection and payment to the Navajo tribe.

However, there is some evidence that the creation of those blankets is a recent phenomenon. It may be that a Spanish trader came up with the whole idea. It hasn’t, so far, been in anyone’s interest to dig very deeply into the issue. But, if it turned out that the concept of Navajo blankets is, in fact, the brainchild of some unwashed and forgotten Spaniard of a few centuries back, what then? Would the Navajo owe the Spanish three hundred years worth of royalties? And which Spanish people are owed? No doubt among the various claimants to the Spanish empire, a council of elders could be assembled. And of course, the council of elders would decide that the council of elders should decide.

If the UN goes the route it’s headed, someone will have to tackle problems like these. Plus, it isn’t going to stop with the rights of what tend to be called indigenous people. After all, the First People seem to actually be the second people, having mostly wiped the actual first people out. That, of course, is a sadly consistent feature of human history. With the possible exception of the San, every one of us descend from butchers who engaged in genocide and other atrocities.

In a world where “indigenous” seems to simply mean “former conquerors who have since been vanquished” here’s the sort of issue that will eventually come up: is it cultural appropriation for non Jews to treat Jerusalem as a Holy City? Even accounting for the UN’s anti-Semitism, that question alone will result in quite a show. So when it comes, get comfortable. Take out your mouth-plate, loosen up your piu piu, adjust your koteka, kick off your moccasins, put up your feet and enjoy.

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Small Pieces of Academia

I’ve recently stumbled on a twitter account called New Real Peer Review. The twitter account is largely (but not entirely) dedicated to posting abstracts of journal articles and links to the papers. Here’s one such abstract:

This article explores the formation of a tranimal, hippopotamus alter-ego. Confronting transgender with transpecies, the author claims that his hippopotamus “identity” allowed him to (verbally) escape, all at once, several sets of categorization that govern human bodies (“gender,” “sexuality,” age). He starts with an account of how his metaphorical hippo-self is collectively produced and performed, distinguishing the subjective, the intersubjective and the social. The article then investigates the politics of equating transgender and transpecies, critically examining the question of the inclusion of “xenogenders” in the trans political movement. Finally, the author returns to the magical power of metaphors, arguing that metaphors do materialize insofar as the flesh does not remain unchanged by them. Analogizing his hippo-self to a “cut” as theorized by Eva Hayward – a regeneration of the boundaries of the self – he offers a final crossing to the world of fiction by showing how the His Dark Materialstrilogy outlines an aesthetics of porosity, which suggests that the self is, as much as a novel, a work of fiction.

The author has gotten an appointment as a visiting scholar at the U of Arizona. Here is the announcement from the Gender and Women’s Studies department:

GWS and the UA Institute for LGBT Studies welcome visiting scholar! Florentin Félix Morin is a French student who just started his PhD this year at Université Paris 8. He works at the intersection of Trans Studies and Animal Studies, focusing on tranimal body modifications, practices and subjectivities. He is beyond excited to be in Tucson for the Spring semester, benefit from all the department’s and the Institute’s activities, conduct fieldwork in the US, and meet everyone! (He uses the name ‘Felix’ in English.)

Welcome, Felix.  The U of A GWS department faculty also includes Professor Whitney Stark. Here’s the abstract of “Reconfiguring Quantum Identities,” a paper she recently wrote:

In this semimanifesto, I approach how understandings of quantum physics and cyborgian bodies can (or always already do) ally with feminist anti-oppression practices long in use. The idea of the body (whether biological, social, or of work) is not stagnant, and new materialist feminisms help to recognize how multiple phenomena work together to behave in what can become legible at any given moment as a body. By utilizing the materiality of conceptions about connectivity often thought to be merely theoretical, by taking a critical look at the noncentralized and multiple movements of quantum physics, and by dehierarchizing the necessity of linear bodies through time, it becomes possible to reconfigure structures of value, longevity, and subjectivity in ways explicitly aligned with anti-oppression practices and identity politics. Combining intersectionality and quantum physics can provide for differing perspectives on organizing practices long used by marginalized people, for enabling apparatuses that allow for new possibilities of safer spaces, and for practices of accountability.

I’ve always had a lay interest in physics, but Stark’s paper covers ground that is new to me.

Here’s some more college news.

To wrap up this post, I think it behooves society to a pay a bit more attention to what is happening on college campuses these days. After all, we (the public) are usually funding a big part of it, and colleges can be the tip of the cultural-change spear.  I am pretty sure most people don’t want to end up where some of academia is trying to lead us.

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Healthcare Costs, Externalities, and Changing Social Norms

One of the topics I’ve railed about many times during the decade and change in which I’ve been blogging is that society would be much better off if we forced people to pay the cost of negative externalities they impose on other people through their behavior. An obvious example would be making polluters pay for the cost that the pollution they emit inflicts on everyone else.

But it turns out there are a lot of these behavioral externalities in healthcare. For instance, here’s an infographic I took from Blue Cross Blue Shield:

screen capture bcbs unhealthy behavior healthcare cost 20170528a

I imagine there are a few instances where obesity is a medical condition due to circumstances outside the control of a patient’s willpower, but I suspect that accounts for very few cases. Most people in today’s America have the ability, during most of their life, to control to a fair extent how much they eat, drink, smoke and exercise.

Elsewhere, Blue Cross Blue Shield also tells us this:

screen capture bcbs cost of treating chronic diseases 20170528a

So assuming BCBS is correct, 86 percent of US healthcare costs come from treating chronic diseases. Chronic diseases include:

screen capture bcbs list of chronic diseases 20170528a

I am no doctor, but I understand some (and I hasten to repeat the word  “some”) of the conditions can, in some cases, be brought about by a person’s behavior. For example, HIV can come from unprotected sex with prostitutes or IV drug use, diabetes from poor dietary choices and lack of exercise, and some psychotic disorders can be brought on or worsened by by drug use.

What if, going forward, we should cease to cover the costs of health conditions brought on by a person’s own behavior (when they can be identified as such)? This would be disruptive, so I don’t think it should be done cold turkey, but rather the way Social Security benefits get cut by ratcheting up the age at which a person can get benefits. For example, we could simply state that on date X, any new cases of lung cancer which are traceable to a person’s tobacco use are not to be treated at the expense of Medicare or Medicaid, and private insurance companies might be encouraged to do the same.

Note – people who used to smoke, or eat unhealthy, or not exercise a long time ago might have been submitting to societal pressures. But for the past few decades, the world has been a different place. Societal pressures now are to eat healthy, eschew illegal drugs, avoid smoking, avoid drinking in excess, and to exercise. We’ve moved from “smoke ’em if you got ’em” to “if you want to smoke, you need to do it in the smoking section.” Then we went to “you need to go outside to smoke.” These days you see smokers forced to stand some distance away from many office buildings if they want to get their nicotine hit.  Next to where I work are some office buildings occupied by a health insurance company.  Smokers who work there seem to be forced leave the premises completely  (they are usually standing in the street, even in the rain).   For many people, getting lung cancer went from the cost of conforming to social norms to being a consequence of anti-social behavior.

So what would be the effect of taking the treatment for these conditions off the public purse? I’d say the following:

1. We would see some number of cases of fraud where people would insist their behavior did not induce some outcome. A lying patient is harder to treat, so I’m guessing this would go some way toward worsening the outcomes of successful fraudsters.
2. The life expectancy and perhaps qualify of life of people who self-induce these problems would go down.
3. The incentive of people to minimize these behaviors would go up. Of course, not all of them would respond the right way, but some would. Particularly in light of the life expectancy issue in point 2. Overall healthcare costs would go down.
4. The cost to the public would go down.

Thoughts?

(One comment… I am pretty sure I recently read something proposing some part of this recently, but for the life of me, I cannot remember what or where. My apologies if I’m inadvertently stealing someone else’s idea.)

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Terrorism and Immigration Policy

From a story in The Globe and Mail

The 22-year-old Mr. Abedi was identified Tuesday by Manchester police as the suspected bomber. British media reported that he was born in Manchester to parents who fled the violent repression of Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya.

Little else is known about Mr. Abedi – British authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation and only released Mr. Abedi’s name after it was leaked by U.S. officials – but his profile as the child of Muslim immigrants is similar to that of other recent Islamic State and al-Qaeda devotees who have brought terror to the cities of Europe.

Second-generation immigrants born in France to parents who had immigrated from Algeria carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in the centre of Paris in 2015. The Belgian-born children of Moroccan immigrants masterminded the shooting and bomb attacks on the Bataclan nightclub and Stade de France later the same year. All five perpetrators of last year’s bombings of the Brussels airport and subway had a similar profile.

“If the story of radicalization and Islamism in Europe is about anything, it’s about second-generation immigrants, children of immigrants who feel culturally dislocated … a sense of dislocation related to being brought up in Western culture and finding something doesn’t quite fit,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

Of course, it isn’t just Europe. Think Omar Mateen, Syed Farook, Nidal Hasan, Nadir Soofi, and add to them any number of individuals raised in the US who made their way to fight for ISIS or Al Shabaab.

One would think that the children of immigrants would be particularly unlikely to want to cause to harm to their country. Their parents, after all, got lucky when they were able to come here. That is something they should know and a message they should pass on to their children. (Those feelings are something to which I can attest; on my father’s side, I am a second generation immigrant.)

But that decency and gratitude is clearly more than some people will show to their compatriots. And that is becoming more and more of a problem, particularly now that the terrorists have become vile enough to directly target children.

(Before you decide this is something we brought on ourselves by provoking people through our behavior abroad, bear in mind two things. The first is that pacifist countries like Sweden get the same treatment we do. The second is that Osama bin Laden told us a decade and a half ago that one of his goals was the “liberation” of al Andalus.)

Of course, none of this is to say that we don’t have atrocities committed by people who aren’t 2nd-gen-immigrants.  We do, and too many at that. No decision made at the INS in the last few decades would have saved Americans from Dylan Roof or John Allen Muhammad. On the other hand, without the signature by an immigration officer a generation ago, Omar Mateen’s 49 victims would still be alive.

Now, we have the population we have. The next Mateen is already in the US, and the next Abedi is already in Europe, and they will kill more of us, and more of our children. But there is another Mateen and another Abedi that are a little farther out. They haven’t been born yet, and their parents are currently somewhere far away. For the sake of our descendants we had better figure out how to recognize not just those evil enough to perpetrate callous acts of violence, but also those who don’t have the decency to teach their children not to be evil themselves. And we damn well better make sure we don’t let them into the country.

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