Archive for October, 2009

worried. with reason.

Dr. Sowell has a ‘must read’ in Dismantling America: Part II. He seems worried based on experience.

The memory of that long-ago episode has come back more than once while observing both the actions of the Obama administration and the fierce reactions of its supporters to any questioning or criticism.

Almost never do these reactions include factual or logical arguments against the administration’s critics. Instead, there is indignation, accusations of bad faith and even charges of racism.

Here too, it seems as if so many people have invested so much hope and trust in Barack Obama that it is intolerable that anyone should come along and stir up any doubts that could threaten their house of cards.

The potential consequence of action is one thing. Being unable to even discuss one’s fears and insights and opinions is another.

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Teasing the judge

The case of the flying imams is a study in modern jurisprudence that needs careful consideration. Scott Johnson says The flying imams win and discusses the implications at the Weekly Standard.

Montgomery [Minnesota federal district court before judge] emphasized the distinction between the suspicion necessary for lawful investigatory stops (a relatively low standard) and the probable cause necessary for arrests (a higher standard), and her comments addressing the issue raise lingering concerns. … The principal issue addressed by Montgomery’s decision is whether the law enforcement defendants were entitled to qualified immunity for their actions. This immunity protects government officials from monetary claims under circumstances where a reasonable officer would not know his conduct was illegal. Montgomery held that the flying imams were the subject of an unlawful arrest and that no reasonable law enforcement officer could have believed otherwise.

The issue to consider is the extent to which people are allowed to tweak and tease law enforcement. The decision here is a part of the preemptive effort against terrorism. Do we only allow law enforcement to act after a criminal offense has actually occurred or can preemptive measures be taken when there is suspicious behavior that fits a pattern? What can or should law enforcement do when you have a gang of folks who decide it’s a fun thing to tweak the fears of others and see what they can get away with.

In this case, it appears to have an analog to many lawsuits. Put yourself into a position where you get ‘harmed’ (but not really) so you can file a claim for damages and other moneys. It’s teasing the judge to get income. It seems to be a modern sport or vocation. It doesn’t seem to be an honest one but the judicial system does not seem to have any problems with it.

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Seeking perfect justice blinds the debate

Dr. Jackson describes a point of view that is ideologic rather than practical and describes how that creates situations where “the very premise is inane and hypocritical.” The topic at hand is the death penalty but the same phenomena is at the core of many other issues ranging from the environment to energy to war and peace and terror.

To quote Justice Scalia (18): “Like other human institutions, courts and juries are not perfect. One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly. That is a truism, not a revelation.”

Perhaps a part of this is that a person on death row is a concrete entity that exists and is easy to identify and comprehend. That person is a victim and it is easy to loose sight of whether he is a victim of society or his own behavior. He is a victim who is available for sympathy and will respond. That brings the response and feedback very close and that means very powerful. In debates like this, the close and (emotionally) powerful can overwhelm the more distant and diffuse social needs.

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Understanding the NCLB and the ‘never enough’ syndrome

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been a favorite target of scorn by Teacher Unions and political partisans. D-Ed Reckoning provides Some Clarity on NCLB in citing a judge’s decision.

The excerpted quote, however, is a clearly written analysis of NCLB and the basic bargain it made with the states: federal funds for achieveing progress along with substantial flexibility for achiving and defining that progress. … In broad brush strokes, the Act thus allocates substantial federal funds to the States and school districts and gives them substantial flexibility in deciding how and where to spend the money on various educational “inputs,” but in return the schools must achieve progress in meeting certain educational “outputs” as measured by the Act’s testing benchmarks.

But. for some, the flexibility in both how the federal money is to be spent and in how to establish accountability for the effectiveness of that money is not enough. That is the ‘never enough’ syndrome.

The key here is a basic capitalistic philosophy: capital follows success. The complaint about NCLB is that capital is wanted with or without success. A fundamental concern many have about public education is that the plea for more money has, over decades, resulted in significant per pupil expenditures but there has been no improvement in what it is that the money was provided to achieve. Every time the schools are asked to improve the education for their students the response is that more money is needed to do it. More money has been provided yet the lack of education problem remains. NCLB was an attempt to address this. The opposition to the NCLB is an opposition to a change.

The education problem is a tough one. It should be rather obvious that expense per student is not a solution. There are glimmers of more effective solutions such as Charter schools. Change is hard, though, especially when it requires new ways of thinking and new directions. That is the basis of the NCLB discord.

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Why don’t the numbers make any impression?

William Tucker says “Scientific American used to be a great magazine but like any publishing venture headquartered in New York, it has gradually drifted into liberal never-never-land” and uses for an example this month’s cover story “A Plan for a Sustainable Future: How to get all energy from wind, water and solar power by 2030” by Mark Z. Jacobsen and Mark A. Delucchi. The observation about Scientific American is nothing new. The cover story is indeed a good example about where ‘green’ thinking has colored more than just the topic. Besides the long list of needed ‘green’ energy sources that currently supply almost negligable amounts of the power demand, the cover story also hits the nuclear knee jerk opposition.

What is truly remarkable is that the authors’ inventory of knowledge seems to include nothing about nuclear power, the one technology that can truly provide “green energy.” To begin with, they barely make any distinction between nuclear and fossil fuels, lumping together as the old way of doing things … Where the authors lose all contact with reality, however, is in talking about “reliability.”

There are reasons why wind, solar, and other esoteric power production means provide so little of the demand and why several countries use nuclear to provide 80% or more of it. Until and unless there is an honest coming to grips with these reasons, some will spend inordinate amounts of money, often other people’s money via government subsidies, trying to pretend they can create a fantasy world.

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AP attacks AGW skeptics

It appears that the AP took after a straw man to dismiss the skeptic. The straw man was an assertion that there is global cooling that has occurred recently and the skeptic is the person who does not toe the line on human caused climate catastrophe. The method was to feed some numbers to a group of statisticians to achieve a headline like Statisticians reject global cooling. That, of course, got all sorts of coverage, even in a number of ‘science’ venues. One statistician, Andrew Gelman, actually considered the case in “Statisticians reject global cooling”: it all depends on the meaning of “decrease,” “trend,” and “virtually assure”.

there’s only so much you can learn from a context-free data analysis, and I don’t think anyone would want to take this particular set of blind statistical analyses as being at all informative about the science. But there’s more going on here. … my goal here is not to “debunk” Levitt, Dubner, or for that matter Borenstein, but rather to use this as an example of how difficult it can be to pin down the meanings of even very simple statistical terms.

One question is why a news organization is conducting research rather than reporting research. It appears to be an attempt to use the appeal to authority fallacy to support a point of view. That authority was bolstered by an initial data selection mechanism and a setting of constraints on the research. Hiding that was done by the means noted by Gelman.

Creating news is a poor substitute for trying to report it accurately.

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Tortured rationalizing

At physorg The pain of torture can make the innocent seem guilty provides several examples of how tortured some folks get over torture. There are two questionable presumptions that are used as the basis for drawing conclusions. One is pain and suffering and the other is confession of guilt as a goal.

“Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception,” says Gray. “It is as though people who know of the victim’s pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea—and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it.”

These completely miss the point that stimulated the discussion recently, that of interrogation techniques. That the article was a continuation of this discussion is seen in a citation – “The findings also shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where prison guards tortured Iraqi detainees.”

The fact is that pain, as in physical pain, was not used in either the Abu Ghraib scandal nor in the prisoner interrogations. The argument was about whether mental stresses could be considered equivalent to physical pain. The goals were also not to achieve confessions of guilt. Abu Ghraib was a scandal in that prisoners were treated much like initiates at a frat house. The advanced interrogation goal was to discover information that lead to better insight about terrorist operations.

It is not an honest argument when straw men are created to build one’s points. That is what is being done in this physorg article.

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Propaganda and glass houses

Roger Hedgecock considers some of the assertions and promises made in The Democrats’ Culture of Corruption. Obama said in 2006 “Freedom today is in jeopardy it is being threatened by corruption. Corruption is not a new problem…it is a human problem.” Some folks presented it instead as a partisan political problem. They seem to have been inhabiting a glass house and not being too concerned about stone throwing.

“The Most Honest and Open Government” sounded good, but calling Reid, Pelosi, and Obama’s actual practices the most open and honest is a whole lot like saying that Tammany Hall represented good government for the citizens of the City of New York!

Corruption is a human problem and a social problem. That means that it reflects social values and will not change unless and until many individuals acting together decide it is not an acceptable practice.

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Housing bubble root causes

Scott at Powerline describes a book by Peter Schweizer: Secrets of the financial crisis titled Architects of Ruin. It addresses what happens when a big money pool seeking investment and good intentions intersect.

The idea sounds appealing enough: encourage homeownership in order to reduce crime, unemployment, and broken families. But activities pushed their agenda by demanding that lending institutions loosen their lending standards and look the other way when lending to people with bad credit. Activist groups such as ACORN, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Service Employees International Union pushed banks to use “less traditional income sources such as food stamps, unemployment, part-time jobs, non-court ordered child support and foster care payments” while considering a mortgage application.

Liberal activists also pushed banks to agree “to lower down payment and closing costs” for lenders. What this meant is that the borrower would have little or no money in the game–no incentive to hang on if times got tough. The activists also pushed banks to allow people to take out larger loans on lower incomes, upending the traditional notion that people should only be allowed to have a mortgage payment account for, say, 28% of their income. Activists argued that this was all necessary in the name of social justice.

The real culprits here are the social activists and their allies in Washington who pushed an activist agenda. They helped to propel us into the mortgage crisis we face today.

The key upon which this thesis rests is the finding common to several studies that the major impact of the financial crisis has been in poor and minority neighborhoods where this ‘good intentions’ activism has been most at play. It is another topic as to why there has been much publicity about “all the talk of unsold condos in South Florida and McMansions sitting empty in California” and house flipping for investment returns.

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Tactics for comparison and contrast

One of the more obvious clues that can be used to determine a skepticism level is in the tactics of debate. Real Climate has a good example in Climate Cover-Up: A (Brief) Review. A first consideration, of course, is to decide what ‘quality’ is in such debates. Literacy Education Online provides information that might be useful in its Logical Fallacies page. Stephen’s Guide suggests that “The point of an argument is to give reasons in support of some conclusion. An argument commits a fallacy when the reasons offered do not support the conclusion.” A pictorial taxonomy of logical fallacies might also be useful.

Keys to look for are appeals to emotion, a dependence upon the ‘who’ rather than the ‘what,’ and a focus that confuses the issues at hand. The title of the Real Climate post starts with an emotion appeal regarding secret information and conspiracies. The initial paragraph lists many perpetrators and provides misdirection in the form of asserting “attacks against climate change science.” It then assumes that there is are “disinformation efforts” by “front groups.”

As a contrast, take a look at some of the more popular blogs and resources that are subject to condemnation in this post. They are much less about “disinformation campaigns” and labels but rather about studies and research and findings. They don’t take the approach of “climate wars” that have to be won but rather an approach of integrity to reality with an appropriate regard to what we know and how we know it.

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The broad brush (moral relativism) syndrom

Rightwing Nuthouse illustrates the difficulty in describing The Different Reality Inhabited by the Conservative Base. It is a trope trying to balance the civil discord on the idea that reality is a matter of perception rather than existence.

Perhaps the first clue is the use of groups (e.g. “conservative base”) and motives and feelings rather than individuals and specific behavior. That is a contrast to the foils offered (Beck and Limbaugh) both of whom focus on specific individuals and specific behaviors. Another clue is the diminishing terms used in expressing opinion such as

If one returns to the “original intent” of the Constitution – a document written when the US was a coastal nation of 7 million people – in order to create a “small” government, the result would be devastation.

Then the conclusion yields to the logical fallacy of a reduction to the absurd where the base becomes the fringe; the median the outlier.

But it if also means espousing the paranoid fantasies and bitter partisanship advanced by the hard right, it will spell eventual disaster for the party and make conservatism itself irrelevant in the national conversation.

Peggy Noonan was quoted

But we know the price now. This is the historical context. The White House often seems disappointed that the big center, the voters in the middle of the spectrum, aren’t all that excited about following them on their bold new journey. But it’s a world America has been to. It isn’t new to us. And we don’t have too many illusions about it.

as a means to show credibility, define the base, and offer sympathy. The expression of this sympathy is hubris. It avoids completely the nature of the ideological divide as does trying to place it as an alternative reality.

If such a diatribe as this is to be honest, it first has to be clear about the definitions of ‘conservative base’ in light of political parties in its use of the terms. There is significant conflation being used to obscure party affiliation, ideology, position in the political spectrum, and self labeling. In a similar way, reality and ideology are being mixed together. Reality is what it is and ideology is how you see things. A first step in intellectual integrity is being able to distinguish between them.

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A cancer on our society

Rush Limbaugh explains The Race Card, Football and Me at the Wall Street Journal.

this spectacle is bigger than I am on several levels. There is a contempt in the news business, including the sportswriter community, for conservatives that reflects the blind hatred espoused by Messrs. Sharpton and Jackson. “Racism” is too often their sledgehammer. And it is being used to try to keep citizens who don’t share the left’s agenda from participating in the full array of opportunities this nation otherwise affords each of us. It was on display many years ago in an effort to smear Clarence Thomas with racist stereotypes and keep him off the Supreme Court. More recently, it was employed against patriotic citizens who attended town-hall meetings and tea-party protests.

These intimidation tactics are working and spreading, and they are a cancer on our society.

This perhaps understates the dishonesty and personalization of differences that is indeed a cancer on our society.

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Political cheap shots: assault at any cost

There are several cases of character assassination in the news recently. The White House attacks on Fox News have generated some comment. Liz Cheney’s Keep America Safe website and Rush Limbaugh’s bid for an NFL team provide other examples. Here’s what DJ Drummond thinks in Limbaugh and the Left’s Loser Litany at Wizbang.

the attacks on Rush only reinforce the fact in voters’ minds that the Left is not only immature, but malicious, and cannot be allowed to continue direction of the national policy. This is just one more reminder to the voters that, while the Right may be disjointed and bicker among themselves, the Left is actively pursuing plans meant to destroy anyone who stands in their way, and that the Left is willing to be deceitful and malicious if that gets it the power it wants.

Jennifer Rubin discusses Liz Derangement Syndrome using a Maureen Dowd as a foil.

There is no better temperature gauge of the Left’s derangement syndrome — the object of the hatred is irrelevant — than the New York Times’s liberal op-ed columnists. So when Maureen Dowd goes into full-rant mode over Liz Cheney (and her political-consultant sister), you pretty much know the object of the next spasm of liberal venomous paranoia. And as it usually is, the rant is more revealing of the ranter than the intended victim.

A first step in evaluating any argument is to consider its manner of presentation. These examples highlight a significant attention to the person rather than the issues and to judgment rather than opinion. Very little effort is needed to find that the basis is often ignorant if not downright dishonest. This is why MichaelW at Q&O thinks Limbaugh should seek legal relief (Should Rush Sue?)

Now, despite being an attorney, I’m actually pretty non-litigious. Most people don’t understand how expensive, invasive and stressful being involved in a court case can be, even when they have ironclad circumstances in their favor. In Limbaugh’s case, he would have it even tougher because, thanks to Times v. Sullivan, he would have to prove actual malice (i.e. that the libelous statements were made with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not), which is harder than it seems. Even so, he has an excellent case to punish the MSM for its routine malpractice, and if he’s willing to spend the money I think he should go for it.

That highlights the problem of accountability to intellectual integrity when peer pressure tends to go the other way and personal integrity fails. It can be costly, both in terms of finance as well as in terms of emotional turmoil, and difficult to seek relief.

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Analogy for many of today’s scare stories

The topic is Never Cleaner but the analogy works for many hot political issues besides environment protection.

“The problem,” I tell the students, “is similar to the experience when watching the Steelers play on Sunday with your wife or girlfriend, while eating potato chips and French onion dip. At first, each chip is generously covered with dip, a good return on each effort of chip dipping, you can even do it with peripheral vision and focus on the game. As the dip volume decreases, some adjustments have to be made; additional efforts, focus and attention are expended. Initially, the extra effort is simply turning the dip tub to a more favorable angle for your chip dipping success, after all, it is in your girlfriend’s or wife’s best health interest, almost an altruistic act on your behalf.

“Then additional effort is expended to actually retrieve the dip tub and closely focus on ferreting out sufficient dip for each chip way down in the bottom crease or under the lip of the lid. This is ultimately followed by the effort of the finger swipe and mouth chip/dip mixing. It is at this point that some reasonable person needs to stop the process. There is no longer a sufficient benefit to continuing efforts to try to ingest the last dip residue … don’t lick that dip tub … is the admonishment from your better half.”

This is the analogy to the history and current story of our environmental regulations. Where once contamination was emitted almost freely into the environment, now, it is not so extreme. We continue to expend more and more efforts to seek those last molecules of contamination to satisfy our environmental appetite for cleaner.

This gets into the False Dilemma logical fallacy. Pollution isn’t something that is or is not. It is a matter of degree. Peak oil and other resource limitation scare stories are of a similar nature. These things don’t just reach a perfect state. There is a cost involved and it rises as the limits approach. Whether it is an effort to reduce pollution or to find new sources for a resource, there is a point where the cost starts to exceed the benefit. Some matters, like pollution, do seem to need governmental involvement to address as they are often highly dispersed in impact and in sourcing. The problem is in developing mechanism to govern the governance because the cost to meet governmental regulation is also often highly dispersed. That diffuse connection between actual cost and actual benefit tends to fly past any cost to benefit considerations. That is what Robert Smith was describing in his American Thinker column.

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The money pool: Community Reinvestment

Scott describes The Dems’ poisonous cocktail and refers to a Peter Schweizer column in Forbes, “Expanding the CRA,”. The crux of the issue is a huge money pool finding legislation intended to rebuild communities.

The White House and Congress want to expand a 30-year-old law–the Community Reinvestment Act–that helped to fuel the mortgage meltdown. What the CRA does, in effect, is compel banks to seek the permission of community activists to get regulatory approval for bank expansions and mergers. Often this means striking a deal with activist groups such as ACORN or unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and agreeing to allocate credit to poor and minority areas that are underserved.

The CRA is not about community development; it is, essentially, affirmative action in lending. Trillions in loans are now to be made not on the basis of whether they can be paid back but to meet CRA goals. This is precisely what we need to get away from. Drinking this potent cocktail would be dangerous to our financial health.

Obviously the money had to exist before it could be borrowed. One source of that money was created by ‘boomers saving for retirement. This was a created wealth of the labor force that created a pressure to find a ‘reasonable’ rate of return for investment. The Community Reinvestment Act was on the other end in creating a market for money. In between were creative people finding ways to connect the money pool to the market for funds. That brought in credit management schemes, leveraging, and bundling of assets.

What happened was that the accountability of the market was superseded by political desire. The accountability of the market will not go away and it will eventually catch up to the political desire. When that happens, something breaks.

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Perverse incentives

One of the big problems in management or in legislation is that of creating proper incentives. Coyote Blog illustrates this in Follow the Incentives.

I often tell people that in failing organizations like the government or GM, most of the folks who are “part of the problem” aren’t bad people, they just have bad incentives.

The case at hand is a health bill that penalizes doctors if they show up in the wrong place in the cost distribution curve. Yes, it sounds good to trim those who end up on the high cost end of the curve. The problem is that you don’t know why they ended up there. The assumption is that a doctor who is responsible for too much billing is over-charging and not that he is more involved in difficult cases or working in an expensive environment.

The key in this case is to properly define the desired outcome. Inexpensive health care has two desired outcomes that conflict with each other. It is easy to go after one or the other and that is the source of such ideas as in the Coyote’s example. What is difficult is to find incentives that work towards both outcomes. The only effective way to do that found to date is the open market of competing ideas. It is a capitalistic economic philosophy that has worked best, to date, in encouraging many people to create new ideas and try them in the market to see how they work and how they compare to other ideas in meeting the desired goals. One of the keys in this open market approach is that the desired outcomes do not all need to be explicit nor do their relative merits need to be defined beforehand. The success of what works and how it changes over time takes care of that.

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Hockey stick implications

There is another hockey stick graph in the news right now. This one is from tree ring data. The idea is to show a sudden and recent rise in global temperatures in recent years.

A basic tenet of science is that unusual outcomes require unusual evidence. If a graph shows data going along pretty steady for hundreds of years and then takes a quick jump, something unusual is being noted. Before any conclusions are drawn, unusual evidence must be acquired to support them.

The search for unusual evidence starts with the data, the collection, and the measurements. Then the analysis methods need to be examined for any errors. Issues of precision and accuracy need to be addressed. This level of examination is where most of these climate change ‘hockey stick’ graphs suffer. In this case, it appears that the tree ring data was selected so that anomalous data was provided more weight than would be normally indicated by statistical evaluations.

Even if the first level examination did not find any problems, an unusual outcome is still suspect unless other paths to the same conclusion can be found. One of these paths is that of mechanism. The caveat here is the quality of that mechanism as using an hypothesis not well proven (such as anthropogenic global warming) is not as confirming as a more fundamental mechanism based on, for instance, widely established and used physical theories.

Another path for establishing unusual outcomes is a parallel data path, one that comes to the same destination. Global warming often suffers here in that the scale of actual changes in temperature are often quite at odds with the massive changes cited in such things as tree rings, glaciation, or severe weather statistics.

When there are ideologic or political belief systems behind a conclusion, bias can be a problem and that leads to stories such as The Sordid Story Of A Global (Warming) Con.

We are being asked to fork over trillions of dollars, cripple our economy and lose millions of jobs over the global warming scare. We have been told the Earth is doomed if we do not act. But the data shows that this is not the case. It is long past time the truth is found and real scientists debate using the scientific method as the basis of that debate.

It is up to all of us to apply appropriate skepticism to claims made about pending doom and disaster no matter if the subject is the natural sciences or basic policy issues. That means we all need to match the actual evidence against the extremity of the claims.

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Techique, denial, and obliviousness

Coyote Blog and Q&O hit two sides of the same behavior. The technique under examination is an obliviousness of history or experience that does not fit the narrative. On one issue, it is the squashing of any nonconforming views.

One suspects that a reason more people are skeptical of alarmist predictions is that they know enough about human behavior to distrust someone who claims to be correct but refuses to respond to or even allow questions or replication. [Banning Dissent, Even in Science]

In another example, it is a blindness about even recent history.

It is a sight to behold the left, after an 8 year tantrum, suddenly projecting their behavior and history on the right and calling it dangerous, disrespectful and poisonous. In comparison to their behavior, what is happening now is both mild and warranted. But don’t expect this orgy of leftist whining to end anytime soon. Like a goose does every day, they seem to have awakened in a new world and have absolutely no memory of their own recent behavior or of the recent history of violence toward politicians here. Instead, they prefer to invent their own version as they go. [Thomas Friedman’s Selective History And Left-Wing Paranoia]

Science or politics, the issue is still people. The lack of intellectual integrity is blatant but does not appear obvious to many. Why is that?

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