Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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  • Jason Soon
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    Saturday, September 27, 2003
    Leon Kamen and human abilities
    I've always regarded scientists and engineers as the unsung heroes of civilisation. It's the least I can do to recognise their contributions since I suspect my verbal intelligence is a lot higher than my spatial/mechanical intelligence[1], so the best contributions I can hope to make to civilisation will be in the writing of abstruse documents, most of them incomprehensible to most people, which may influence public policy in the long run in some way and hopefully make some marginal contribution to welfare - but that's nothing compared to the vast gains in welfare made by people like Leon Kamen (whom up to now I've never heard of - what does that say about the nature of mass media?) who invented drug pumps and portable dialysis machines. Interestingly the reason for his recent celebrity lies in his invention of the Segway which so far hasn't taken off the same way. And I love this little anecdote:

    Kamen didn't give any more thought to popular culture than he did to fashion. Movies? A waste of two hours. Novels? Why settle for make-believe when you could be pondering Isaac Newton's Principia? Television? You must be kidding. The newest music? No thanks, he'd stick with the oldies. Sporting events? Don't get him started on that one. He claimed he had never bought a newspaper in his life. "My hobby is thinking," he often said.

    Consequently, he had escaped the celebrity lint that clutters people's minds. He once met Andy Warhol but didn't know who he was. He went to a fancy dinner and sat between two people he'd never heard of - Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. At a White House conference on health care, he sat next to a woman who talked a lot but made no sense. When she left for a moment, Kamen turned to someone and said: "She's an expert on health care?"

    "Well, no, that's Barbra Streisand."

    [1] I once had trouble replacing a light bulb because it seemed fused to the apparatus above it. Thinking it was unsafe to do any further DIY I called in an electrician who swiftly removed the bulb with one motion. Can I see myself as an engineer? No way. On the other hand, my doctor knows about my annoying habit of diagnosing myself, interrogating doctors and researching every drug prescribed. I could have thrived in medicine if I wasn't so bad with my hands (knowing I'd probably fail surgery I never applied for medicine in uni though I could have got in).

    Friday, September 26, 2003
    Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face
    This story rocks (no pun intended):

    A Kenyan villager has cut off his penis and testicles with a kitchen knife "to teach his wife a lesson."

    Police say Alfonse Mumbo, of Kajulu Wath Orego, near Kisumu, severed his genitalia after accusing his wife, Penina of unfaithfulness.

    Officers say the 38-year-old former barber said he wanted "to give her a free hand to go after other men." He told police he loved her so much, he could make the sacrifice ...

    "All I remember is walking around the compound anxiously and answering many calls of nature. I found myself disgusted with the penis and decided to cut it off.

    "I went into the kitchen, took a knife, undressed and just chopped it off. The knife was too sharp and before I realised what I had done, it was too late."
    There is some evidence of public support for both:

    service increases

    tax cuts

    Seccombe, in His policies are now winning hearts, so why can't he?
    writes about the paradox of Crean:

    attractive policy

    aversive personality
    The poll evidence bears this out:

    Seventy-seven per cent of respondents to the Herald-ACNielsen poll preferred spending on health and education to tax cuts.

    Hywood, in It's time to get serious about tax reform attempts to make the case for lower taxes on grounds of fiscal probity and economic productivity, but the evidence he cites shows that the opposite is the case.
    He believes that lower revenue will curtail the govrnments Parkinsons Law disease of spending extra revenue on it's political pet programs. There is evidence for upward creep of taxes:

    Taxes in 2002-03 were up 8.8 per cent on the previous year - a massive $19 billion. The Commonwealth's GST take was up just over 8 per cent while personal income tax rose 8.6 per cent. Take the fact that household incomes rose 3.5 per cent, not even half the growth in personal taxes, and it is clear that government is taking an ever-increasing chunk of people's pay packets...Which is why since 1967 the proportion of the economy made up of taxes has increased from 23 per cent to 31 per cent. This Government has not substantially reversed that trend.

    Yet the evidence he cites points against the operation of Parkinson's Law. He fails to mention that most federal spending in is on welfare entitlements and human services (health & education). Which of these should be cut? In fact the Howard government shows some fiscal probity. Hywood acknowledges that Howard, like the first Hawke government, has managed to increase taxes, and amortised federal debt, and

    can point to federal expenses falling as a proportion of the total economy.

    The recent experience in the US shows that massive tax cuts can be consistent with discretionary spending splurges (hence deficits).
    Hywood is more concerned with the incidence, rather than the aggregate, of taxes.
    Stamp duty and GST do fall on average households. He seems more exercised by the fact that the Australian tax system still retains some progressivity:

    the 20 per cent of Australians paying the top rate are significantly more heavily taxed.

    He then goes on to make the case for lower taxes on grounds of work incentives and talent attraction.

    The benefits of lower marginal rates are straightforward. Individually, they provide incentive for strong performance in the workplace. Nationally, they help in the international competition for talent.

    He provides no evidence for these statements, and the evidence that I am aware of indicates that higher work out put from high income earners occurred during the nineties, despite high marginal tax rates, as shown by long working hours. The 2000 cut in capital gains tax did not induce a massive inflow of hi-tech capital.

    A better anlysis was given by Colebach. Real tax reform is possible, but it needs real leaders
    On aggregates:

    Australia remained one of the lowest-taxed countries in the West, 25th out of 30 on the OECD charts, with a total tax take (Commonwealth, state and local) of 31.5 per cent of GDP,.

    On incidence:

    Australia still taxes consumer spending lightly. The typical GST in Europe is twice as high as it is here. Of the 29 OECD countries with a GST, 13 have standard rates between 20 and 25 per cent; the median rate is 19 per cent.

    fiscal priorities

    only 20 per cent of Australians wanted the money as tax cuts, whereas 77 per cent would have preferred the money to be spent improving services such as health and education.

    I would say that the case for lowering taxes is political rather than economic, ie shoring up Howard's aspirational voting base. But even this is dubious if polling attitudes is any truth.
    Forget tax cuts, Coalition voters want health, education

    The Federal Government has failed to win over its own supporters with its budget tax cuts, with a new poll finding two-thirds of Coalition voters would rather see the money spent on improving health and education.

    The governments own supporters are in favour of distributive socialism!
    The hostility to private distribution of community services was more evidenced in the general community:
    Medicare plans fail to woo: poll

    The Federal Government's Medicare revamp has met a poor reception with voters, with four out of every 10 Australians believing they will be worse off under the new health arrangements.

    Poll results put a spring in Crean's step
    The polling evidence finds that there is overwhelming disaffection with the Government's budget strategy, a new AgePoll has found.

    About 77 per cent of those polled said they would prefer the Howard Government to spend more on government services such as health and education instead of giving tax cuts. Only 20 per cent said they would prefer tax cuts.
    This is a blow for both Mr Howard and Mr Costello who said the strategy for this and future budgets was to use extra revenue for tax cuts rather than increased spending on services.
    The ACNielsen AgePoll also found that Australians strongly preferred Labor's Medicare rescue package rather than the Government's health plan.

    Powerless list

    The Australian Financial Review annual power list is in their colour magazine today (subscription required). The top 5 for higher education are given as Brendan Nelson, DEST Secretary Jeff Harmer, AVCC Executive Director John Mullarvey, UNSW Vice-Chancellor Rory Hume, and Commonwealth Bank CEO David Murray. (Journalist Kate Marshall always likes to include token women in her power story, so three uninsipiring women VCs get mentions as having 'thoughtful views'.) Rory Hume has so far had little influence outside UNSW, but in a sense he is the only person on the list with any creative power, the actual capacity to change things for the better, at least within one university. In the policy field there seems to be only negative power, enough to obstruct other people, but not enough to change things.

    Thursday, September 25, 2003
    Norton v. Allport

    For the next few days I am having an on-line debate with Carolyn Allport, President of the National Tertiary Education Union, on higher education. The Commonwealth's extraordinarily long and excessively interventionist Higher Education Support Bill 2003 means we agree on more than we might have two weeks ago, but we still have very different views about where policy should be going.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2003
    Another Australian world record
    This time it's ecstasy use.
    In praise of flag burners
    Christ almighty, I was reading through the various responses to Rob Corr's short piece against flag burning laws and I discovered that there are lots of very angry people out there. One of the commentators even seemed to suggest that burning the flag (presumably one's own privately acquired flag otherwise there wouldn't be a need to make flag burning a crime) was worse than destroying government property. I thought Rob's dig at the RSL was drawing rather a long bow but the rest of it had a certain logic to it and was well written, although written with a mind towards raising a bit of hell. It seemed however that most of negative reaction to Rob's piece was an excuse to rant against various protestors. They took particular exception to this:

    In a strange, almost paradoxical way, flag burners are showing greater respect for the flag and what it stands for than do many of those who wrap themselves in it on a regular basis.

    At least the flag burners recognise the potency of the flag as a symbol of Australia's democracy and freedoms. The burning flag represents the incineration of Australia's democratic values, be it by our treatment of asylum seekers, our participation in the Iraqi war, or whatever the cause of the day might be.

    Now interestingly, this particular passage and the point that Rob was trying to make overall and some people's negative reactions reminded me of a great epigram by the wonderfully contrarian HL Mencken, a favourite more of the intellectual Right than the Left and someone whom presumably Rob hasn't read. Mencken once wrote:

    The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.

    Now whether a country really has been 'debauched' or not by particular policies is a matter of opinion. One can disagree with a 'radical' who burns a flag in protest at particular policies that the country really is debauched by such policies, but one can still admire the sentiment that drives this misguided (in one's eyes) radical's passion to such an extent that he or she feels the need to make the ultimate publicly inflammatory statement (no pun intended) - one that seems designed (judging by some comments) to land the said radical in hospital at the hands of an outraged mob. This is true whether one agrees or disagrees with the protestor as long as one thinks the protestor is acting in good faith and well intentioned. I have no reason to doubt that this is generally true of protestors for some really silly or misguided causes as it is for causes I agree with:)
    Howard's Unholy Trinity versus Crean's Dull Duality
    Since Simon Crean is the Al Gore of the ALP, he will have to sex up his issues or "take a walk in the woods"

    Simon Crean is unfortunate in that he appears to have been short-changed in the personality department. So he needs to make his issues hot because he is not.
    Crean is unable to make a dent in the LibNats lead despite the fact that they are well and truly overdue for a mid-term slump. The latest opinion polls show that the LibNats maintain a comfortable 4 per cent advantage over the ALP. The polls also cruelly reveal that Crean is the Al Gore of the Labs - his personality deficit wipes out it's policy advantage:
    In two-party terms, the Coalition led Labor by 52 per cent to 48 per cent - indicating the Government would have won comfortably had an election been held last weekend...Among all voters, almost a quarter said they would change their vote if Mr Crean was replaced as Labor leader, with the majority of those - 61 per cent - indicating a switch to Labor.

    In brutal terms, Crean is the main thing preventing the Labs from giving the Libs a run for their money. Mike Seccombe elaborates:
    The Herald-ACNielsen poll taken last weekend and published in this paper yesterday found that Labor would be in an election-winning position if it dumped Crean...Labor overall remains within striking distance of the Government; all the polls put the ALP's two-party preferred vote within a couple of percentage points. The numbers speak of an electorate on the cusp of turning against the Howard Government, but lacking the confidence to do so for only one reason: leadership.

    It is often forgotten how close the last election was. The 2001 t-p-p split was 50.3-49.7 LibNat-Lab. It gave the LibNats a comfortable 15 seat majority. A 52-48 t-p-p split might be a landslide, or it could be a comfortable victory. It all depends on the distribution, not aggregation, of the two-party preferred split. An efficient distribution of voter preferences can see a party with a minority t-p-p vote win, such as occurred in:

    • 1990: Labs got 49.9% of vote & won 54% seats

    • 1998: LibNats got 48.9% of vote & won 53% seats

    The Federal Electoral pendulum shows the Coals. hold around 22 seats with a margin of 5% or less. An across the board swing of ~5% could easily turn that 15 seat majority into a 7 seat minority. An across the board 2% tpp swing would see the Labs just fall over the line. Mumble does the math:
    There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives. The Coalition holds 82, Labor 65 and there are three Independents. At the next election on current boundaries Labor would need 10 more seats...Either way victory lies around the 1.7 swing mark. Altogether 13 Coalition seats have margins under two percent.

    A ~2% swing is a quite plausible possibility, especially if the Labs engineer a change of leadership. Howard knows this and has been warning the party faithful against complacency or delusions of triumphalism:

    If we lose eight seats at the next federal election we are gone, we are out of business and the Labor Party is the government not only in the eight states and territories but also at a national level.

    If Crean can't be made to disappear, the election will revolve around the battle between Howard's Unholy Trinity and Crean's Dull Duality, which means that Howard will win. C-Files has consistently predicted this eventuality.
    The Libs own the cultural civility issue.
    Don't expect the Labs to campaign on bleeding heart issues, they don't move votes in these unsentimental times. Leave the mewling and puking over civil liberty & diversity to the Greens, their preferences will flow to the Labs, come what may. Howard is already gloating over this. The SMH reports that the PM is unapologetic over his cultural conservatism, and a majority of Australian voters probably share that opinion:
    The Prime Minister, John Howard, has effectively declared victory in the so-called culture wars over the past treatment of Aborigines, saying that "people no longer ask me for an apology.

    And the Libs, for the time being, own the economic prosperity issue. But if the housing bubble bursts, it would spell doom for Libs. A SMH article shows that the Coalition's electoral advantage depends on precariously inflated prosperity:
    Howard's nightmare is the bubble bursting suddenly and violently, shredding the family finances of those in the suburbs whose fortunes will ultimately determine his political fate.

    Finally, the Libs own military security issue.
    And another terrorist attack would spell doom for the Labs. According to Denis Shananhan so long as the hot political topic is security, Howard will prevail:
    Howard has a commanding lead over Crean on leadership and much of this comes from his strong and decisive actions on border protection, against terror and on the war in Iraq.

    The Labs have a couple of cards up their sleeves, but they are pretty mediocre ones.
    Thy own the social equity issue. Max Walsh spells out the government's unpopular social service reform policy:
    The instinctive and unambiguous reaction by the electorate against John Howard's "Fairer Medicare" scheme should provide a reality check for those who imagine that a post-Iraq Howard is unbeatable at the next election.

    And the Labs certainly own the professional integrity issue. The LibNats have certainly lowered the bar on what is considered an acceptable standard of ministerial duplicity. But this is not translating into votes for Crean because Howard pragmatic delivery of good political ends which justifies his bad professional means. Geoff Kitney rues this in the umteenth lengthy disquisition on the injustice that is Howard:
    Voters today almost expect politicians to lie. They certainly seem willing to accept a degree of dishonesty if they judge that it is justified in the interest of protecting their security. Throughout the Western world communities are accepting greater levels of secrecy and sacrifices to freedoms for the sake of security. Outcomes are more important to voters than words or deeds.

    If the Labs want to win they will have to dump Crean. Whether they do or not depends on whether personal partisan ambition and factional loyalties can override partisan endeavour. I want the parties to be competitive on the policies not personalities. I therefore offer the following gratuitous advice to the Leader of the Opposition:
    Do the Right Thing Simon, fall on your sword. Don't wait for it to be plunged into your back.
    World's gayest country #2

    The Courier-Mail (see Jason's blog below) wasn't the only newspaper to report the Durex sex survey without any suggestion that the sample may have been more than a little skewed. While the Sydney Morning Herald did not report the gay angle (rather suprisingly, given the extensive coverage it normally gives gay matters), it did let us know about fake orgasms and phone sex. Yet applying a simple 'does it look right?' test should have set warning bells ringing. A random survey, the Australian Study of Health and Relationships, found about 5% of males admitted to some homosexual experience. While that might be a little on the low side, since random surveys can miss concentrated gay populations, and there are general truth-telling problems with sex surveys, we can be pretty sure that Durex's 17% figure is well off the mark. So far as I can see, if you logged onto Durex's website you could vote - not exactly a carefully selected sample.

    Tuesday, September 23, 2003
    World's gayest country:
    So this is what happens when you live on the arse end of the world (sorry, bad joke but I couldn't resist). But if Australia is so gay, why isn't it more rich?
    The Passion and anti-semitism?
    Can those of religious inclinations please explain to this ignorant heathen the brouhaha over Mel Gibson's 'The Passion' being anti-semitic? Isn't all this stuff about Jewish complicity in the crucixion of Christ in the Bible and a standard fare of Christian teaching anyway? Another thing I don't get - if he could only have saved humanity by dying and being crucified for our sins, doesn't that mean we should thank the people who facilitated his crucifixion? [1]

    More importantly, those people like me who don't believe in the divinity of Christ but who do believe in the science of genetics find the whole concept of Christian anti-semitism odd and self-contradictory - of course it exists but how do people pass through all the contortions to be both Christians and anti-semites in the first place? After all, Jesus (if he existed) would have been of Jewish descent - if a genetic test had been taken of his blood he would have been found to be genetically closer to those people in his time who called themselves Jews than to other populations. So isn't it a bit odd to read a bunch of books written mostly by Jews, worship some guy who was a Jew and be anti-semitic?

    [1] Who was this Jesus anyway? According to most accounts, a troublemaking son of a carpenter who suffered from megalomania, ejected the money changers out of their gainful place of employment and encouraged his poorest followers to blow their months' budget to annoint his head wth expensive ointment. Given these accounts, if I saw this movie it would probably reinforce my latent philisemitism if anything. OK, bad joke.

    Monday, September 22, 2003
    The Man in Black rejoins the King in White
    You can tell something about a man by the clothes he wears

    I have been a bit quiet on blogging recently, partly because I am still smarting over that Iraq thing, but mainly because I have been mourning the death of Johhny Cash. This article inspired me to take up my mouse & keyboard. The interviewer asks Cash the reason why he dresses the way he does:
    "So," I say, "Are you still the Man in Black? Can you tell me why "
    He goes into the stock answer: quoting the song lyrics, about wearing black mfor the poor and the beaten down.
    But I know all that - I'm wondering if that's still how he feels, 30 years later. "I mean, are you still doing it?" I ask. "For the same reasons?"
    "Now?" he says gently. There's a wry look in his eye. "Now more than ever..."

    Cash answers his guest in the way he knows best, in an impromptu serenade of the star-struck interviewer:
    "You like Man in Black, don't ya?"
    ...He tunes up. I can't quite believe my fortune here. He starts to play, and he sings that song. In his front room. That pure, deep, thundery, reverberating voice, just across from me on the other sofa...We hardly talked. This is how he's choosing to communicate, I realised. By singing.

    That got me to thinking about the other rock legends who have dropped off the twig, the "Class of 55" that heralded the Birth of the Saviour. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and now Johhny Cash - all dead now, but they all had a certain style that said something about the way people feel.

    The King in White

    The Man in Black

    There may be something to the way a person dresses. Their dress codes were monochromatic bookends to the spectrum of rock n'roll emotion - a kind of a Ying-Yang thing. Elvis and Cash were, respectively, the Eternal Flame and the Dark Side of Rock n Roll.
    Elvis wore White, the colour of Innocence, and was sucked in and destroyed by Hollywood and Nashville. Cash wore Black, the colour of Lost Innocence. But realising that allowed Cash to retain his integrity and keep his personality intact - to his own self being true.
    His true spirit came out in the interview which, though not rich in transcripted text, did contain one gem which changed the interviewer's life:
    "You have to be what you are. Whatever you are, you gotta be it."

    This comes out real clear in his last hit, Hurt (needs Real Player).
    Cash says the lyrics sum up the way he feels about his Life in Fame:
    "It's all fleeting," Cash said. "As fame is fleeing, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting. The money, the clothes, the furniture."

    As Nick Cave says, they don't make 'em like Johhny Cash, Elvis (or, for that matter, Nick Cave) anymore:
    For me it's a very sad thing that he's died, because there goes another one of these great voices. As far as I can see there aren't the people around to replace these people. That's the really sad thing about this.

    Sunday, September 21, 2003
    Smiling - a test of personhood?
    I was expecting some anti-abortion activists to make mileage out of recent research on smiling fetuses but I didn't realise that pop-con Michelle Malkin would be stupid enough to take the bait. She crows in delight:

    The ultrasound images, taken between 26 and 34 weeks of conception, were released by Dr. Stuart Campbell and widely circulated on the Internet via the Drudge Report. Campbell’s an obstetrician at the privately-run Create Healthcare clinic in London. For the past two years, the medical facility has offered state-of-the art 3-D/4-D scanning equipment services to expectant parents. Campbell performs an average of 30 scans a week. His outspoken enthusiasm for this blessed technology is refreshing. "Parents love them,” he told the Mirror. “I hear so many couples laughing when they see the pictures - it's wonderful." ...

    These amazing advances in golden-hued ultrasound have illuminated an insurmountable truth: No amount of NARAL money or NOW screeching can overcome the persuasive power of an unborn child’s beaming face.

    Of course this is all a load of sentimental garbage. More power to ultrasound technologists for their advances and the advances in screening tyey may facilitate but as this piece in Spiked points out the fallacy of the 'smiling fetuses' argument against abortion:

    As most people understand, the expression of emotions and feelings (a crucial aspect of what it means to be a person) requires some development of the self. Just because a fetus moves its facial muscles and curves its lips does not mean it is 'smiling' in any real sense of the word.

    Smiling is an activity that has social connotations. To smile requires a degree of self-consciousness and experience of interacting with other people. You do not have to be a genius to work out that a fetus, or indeed a small baby, does not have this. Small babies often smile when they fart or poo in their nappies, and they do this in front of other people. Does this mean that they are experiencing the same kind of emotion that might make a child smile when she sees a clown, or anyone smile when they see a friend?

    At the very least, these basic observations suggest that there is more to smiling than simply curving your mouth. We have now been shown that 25- or 26-week-old fetuses move their facial muscles - but that is all they are doing. That we can now see fetuses making facial movements does not make one jot of difference to the case for abortion. It does not tell us that a fetus is a person, and it does not undermine in any sense the case for the legal provision of abortion.
    Garrett Hardin
    Ecologist and population reduction activist Garrett Hardin, best known for popularising the term 'Tragedy of the Commons' (the title of his most famous journal article) and for the more controversial article 'Lifeboat ethics: The case against the poor' has died, apparently in a double suicide with his wife - also a population activist (no confirmed link yet but do a google search -one newspaper article which mentions this as the cause is only available to subscribers).

    In a crowded world, he said, we need the ecological concept of "carrying capacity" if we are to minimize suffering in the long run. He thought Western man had pretty well locked himself into a suicidal course by clinging to a "time blind" ethical principle-the absolute sanctity of life. He also questioned "promiscuous" philanthropy believing that it often did more harm than good in the long term.

    His most controversial books were "Living on a Lifeboat," and "The Limits of Altruism: An Ecologist's View of Survival." Garrett's interest in immigration developed from the idea that the "lifeboat" of the West is filled with the equivalent of family members-and that kinship altruism is the source of moral behavior. Both extend the idea that resources shared in common are exploited by some, whenever there is either crowding or conditions of scarcity.

    Hardin pointed out how the sentimental path was often at odds with the ethical one.

    I guess one thing you can't accuse this guy of being is a hypocrite.

    Here are excerpts from an article in the Santa Barbara News (no link available, got this from a newsgroup):

    Garrett James Hardin, a pioneer in the field of population's effect on Earth, died over the weekend along with his wife in an apparent double suicide.

    The bodies of Mr. Hardin and his wife, Jane, were found inside their Santa Barbara home Sunday. Mr. Hardin was a professor emeritus at UCSB whose groundbreaking 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" put forth the notion that human misery would increase greatly without the recognition that livable space on Earth is finite.

    Mr. Hardin didn't let politics get in the way of his beliefs. He was vilified by the left for calls to limit immigration while his abortion rights views brought criticism from the Republican Party, of which he was a lifelong member. He and his wife were longtime supporters of Planned Parenthood, and in 1973 helped operate an "underground railroad" in which 200 local women went to Mexico seeking abortions.

    Goleta City Councilwoman Margaret Connell, a friend of the Hardins since 1956, said Mr. Hardin's research and writing on reproductive rights "were fundamental in getting the state Legislature to pass therapeutic abortion
    bills in the 1960s."




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