Tangent's Tangents · The professor goes off on some
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
Albert Einstein

Let us endeavour to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.
Mark Twain

Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.
Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
Failure is the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Henry Ford

I'm a great believer in luck. The harder I work the more I have of it.
Thomas Jefferson

 Good Advice
We don't know what we don't know - We can never be certain that we know enough about anything.

Open your arms to change, but don't let go of your values.

Don't just listen to what people say, listen to how they say it.

Give people more than they expect.

Speak slowly, but think quickly.

If you leave your mind open too far, others may fill it with trash.

Judge success by what you put into it, as well as what you get out of it.

Don't laugh at other's dreams. People without dreams don't have much.

Take care when giving advice - it might be given back.

Never argue with a fool. After a few minutes, no one can tell who's the bigger fool.

Think you can or think you can't - either way, you're probably right.

When you lose, don't lose the lesson.

Silence is sometimes the best answer.

Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you'll be able to enjoy it a second time.

Lessons from Noah

  • Don't miss the boat.
  • Remember that we're all in the same boat.
  • Plan ahead. It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark.
  • Stay fit. When you're 600 years old, you might need to do something really big.
  • Don't listen to critics.
  • Build your future on high ground.
  • Two heads are better than one.
  • Fast isn't always best. The snails were there with the cheetahs.
  • When you're stressed, float awhile.
  • The woodpeckers inside may be a bigger threat than the storm outside.
 Why Ask Why?
Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.
Albert Szent-Gyorgi

Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.
Bernard Baruch

Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift.
Albert Einstein

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
Albert Einstein

...one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one's own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.
Albert Einstein

I keep six honest serving-men,
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling

The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.
Ralph W. Sockman

"Because it's there" will probably satisfy the naturally curious. Asking "Why?" can lead to hidden inner beauty, deeper understanding, and enhanced appreciation. One can look at the night sky and see little twinkly lights, but telescopes reveal beautiful gas clouds, swirling galaxies and other planetary systems. Each new answer often leads to previously unimagined questions, marvels, and mysteries.

Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.
Robert Quillen

If someone refuses to listen to music because they listened once and hated it, you might encourage them to listen to other types of music, hoping they'll find something they really enjoy. You might try to educate them by sharing things you enjoy about your favorite music. You might even tell them they're missing something wonderful that will enhance their life. We can't all discover life-enhancing scientific breakthroughs, but we can share in the process by learning and understanding. Science isn't just grammar and spelling, but also poetry and literature.

... fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Alexander Pope

Ignorance is a luxury few can afford.
Okum Taylor

Ignorance isn't bliss when something goes wrong. You may find yourself in a precarious situation where nothing you try helps, or at the mercy of someone who merely claims to know, which can get quite expensive. Without some knowledge, it's difficult to choose an advisor, or even know which advice to trust. Nobody can be an expert in everything, but it helps to at least know something about professional certifications and licenses, and qualified, impartial third parties who can recommend an appropriate expert.

 Random Determinism
We often speak of random events but what do we really mean? Often we mean that the results cannot be reliably predicted for if they were truly random, then even perfect knowledge would prevent a perfect prediction. When we flip a coin or toss dice, we can calculate the probability of particular outcomes, and test those calculations with thousands of trials, but a truly random outcome would violate the laws of physics. Coins and dice have a specific shape, mass and center of gravity, and should respond in a consistent way to a force of known magnitude, direction and duration. The "randomness" comes in because the forces are so subtle and complex that we can't know all the details with any certainty. Oil or sweat from fingers changes the center of gravity, a slight breeze from a fan, air conditioner or open window affects the total force, and the exact force and direction of the throw depends on variations in muscle contractions. With perfect knowledge of all possible variables, we could predict perfectly. In the absence of that perfection, the best we can do is to say that the outcome is random, and assign a certain probability to each possible result.

None of this eliminates the possibility of truly random occurrences, but how can we tell? There's always the chance that with just a little more information, a seemingly random event might become predictable.

 Is an Apology Enough?
Let us endeavour to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.
Mark Twain

An apology should be as much about future as about the past. Apologies should show remorse for a past action, but must also offer some assurance that it won't happen again. Does the apology indicate concern about some act now recognized to be wrong or inappropriate, or does it merely express sorrow about being caught and a desire to avoid criticism or punishment in the future?

  • How did the original action occur?
  • What knowledge or circumstances might have prevented what happened?
  • What will happen if the same conditions arise again and nobody is watching?
  • Was this an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern?
 Nobody Knows How I Feel!
Since you're not me, you can't possibly know what I'm going through.
Anybody
Since you're not me, you can't possibly know how much I know about you.
Okum Taylor

This is similar to the old problem of the rose-colored glasses. Suppose you receive a pair of rose-colored glasses as a gift. You put them on and look around. Everybody in the room looks rosy. The carpet looks rosy. The refrigerator looks rosy. Even the dog looks rosy. You walk outside. Everything looks rosy. How many things must you look at before you can be certain that the next thing you see will also look rosy?

If the only way to know was past experience, you might never be absolutely certain. After all, you don't know what the next object might be. What if it's an identical pair of rose-colored glasses?

Carefully studying the glasses themselves is another approach. Learning about light and how colored filters affect it can tell you what's likely to happen before actually wearing the glasses. Learning these things requires certain types of experience and experimental verification, but as your knowledge increases, so does the certainty about what will happen next.

People aren't as simple as a pair of glasses, but various types of people tend to have certain perceptual "filters".

Must a doctor suffer a serious heart attack to be qualified to treat someone else's heart?

How could you convice someone else that the glasses really make things look rosy if they've never worn those particular glasses?

 Intelligent Designer Contest
God does not play dice with the universe.
Albert Einstein
Stop telling God what to do.
Niels Bohr's response

Once upon a time, two designers decided to have a competition to see who was the most intelligent. One designer created a world with beautiful geologic formations and living things that stayed the same eon after eon. Occasionally something got out of balance and the designer had to intervene to keep the whole creation from falling apart. It persisted, but was rather boring as nothing ever changed.

The other designer created a dynamic world with constantly changing weather patterns, continents drifting about, glaciers advancing and retreating, sea levels rising and falling and mountains alternately rising and crumbling to dust. Through it all, the creatures adapted and developed new capabilities to deal with each new challenge presented by their ever-changing world. All these things were created so ingeniously that this world maintained itself with no further intervention from its designer. The sophisticated, surprising changes and infinite intricacies filled everyone with a sense of awe and wonder while offering endless challenges to anyone willing to watch and learn.

Who should win this competition and be declared the most intelligent designer?

 When Scientists Disagree
It's not unusual to hear something like "Most scientists support my position that ...", only to hear someone on the opposite side of the dispute say exactly the same thing. If the dispute is to be settled by means other than popular vote, we need to look deeper into what scientists are believed to be saying. There are several possible reasons someone might mistakenly believe that most scientists support their position, including:
  • Ignoring scientists whose conclusions disagree
  • The "scientists" (often nameless) are not truly experts in the field and may have reached an insupportable conclusion.
  • The scientists were hired to "study" the issue, with the understanding that a particular conclusion was desired.
  • The scientific conclusions were misunderstood or misrepresented.

These possibilities suggest several questions to ask:

  • How were the scientists chosen? Were their conclusions considered?
  • Are the scientists highly regarded by other scientists in the same field?
  • What qualifications were required of the selected scientists?
  • Under what circumstances did the scientists first reach their conclusion?
  • Who paid for the study?
  • What percentage of all scientists in that field were considered?
  • Do scientists in the field generally accept any additional interpretations?
  • Is the issue likely to be an emotional one for the scientists involved?

It's possible that even after getting reasonable answers to all the above questions, the dispute remains. Science thrives on controversy and uncertainty. Sometimes there just isn't enough information and additional research may help clarify things. Also, scientists sometimes make mistakes, but the scientific process itself tends to correct any mistakes and approach the truth once enough reliable information becomes available.

 The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Sam Johnson

Patriotism is not loyalty to a person, icon or symbol. Even the most eloquent speech can only make someone a potential patriot. True patriots identify themselves with actions that honor fundamental ideals, principles, or cultural traditions. Ask "what is really honored by this persons actions?" If the answer is something vague or abstract such as "a homeland", follow up with "what makes this homeland special and worthy of honor?" Is this action really the best way to bestow honor? What additional actions would be appropriate? If you're not satisfied with the answers, the person in question may be merely a scoundrel.

 Patriotic Protest
Before taking action, decision makers should welcome all available resources, and those with relevant information or opinions should speak up. Once a decision is made, successfully putting it into action may require the support (or at least acceptance) of everyone involved. Ongoing reevaluation based on new information and progress reports may lead to changes, or even a reversal of the decision, but mere repetition of old information or opinions could be more divisive than helpful.
 The Shrinking Box of Ignorance
Mimes sometimes perform a routine where they pretend to be inside a slowly shrinking box. The top and sides of the box gradually close in, forcing the mime to contort to fit the ever-diminishing space. People who stubbornly cling to an assertion in spite of mounting contradictory evidence place themselves inside a box of ignorance. Each new conflicting fact shrinks the box, forcing the occupant to further contort their beliefs to fit the limits imposed by the box. The mime simply steps out of the box at the end of the routine. Those dwelling in a box of ignorance often choose to remain inside, becoming ever more confined until the constraints prohibit them from accomplishing much of anything.
shrinker
 Open-minded or Empty-headed
An open-minded person is receptive to new ideas, but needn't embrace all ideas equally. It's important to consider any evidence supporting the new idea, but equally important to look for contradictions with other well established concepts. If there's very little evidence either way, an open-minded person might simply take note of the new idea, but reserve judgment until more compelling evidence turns up. If the new idea contradicts competing concepts, the open-minded person might simultaneously reevaluate the old idea and analyze the new before choosing one over the other. During this comparison, several questions might be asked:
  • Does one option better solve existing problems?
  • Is one option more consistent?
  • Is one option more easily applied to a broad range of similar problems or facts?
  • Does one option rely more on special cases or have additional limitations?
  • Does either option lead to other useful conclusions or solutions?
  • Is either option unnecessarily complex?

Accepting an idea only because it's new, different, or politically correct might be just empty-headed.

 Judging Prejudgment
Things should be made as simple as possible -- but no simpler.
Albert Einstein

It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so.
Will Rogers

Do any 2 trees look exactly alike? Could you recognize a tree if you only see a part of it in a picture? If a tree falls in the forest, would you cover your ears? Most people have a concept of "treeness", or what all trees ought to be like, which might include a trunk, branches, leaves and bark. Could we even have a concept of trees without generalizing in some way? If we considered every detail of each tree, without any generalizations, we might conclude that each tree is a unique object and miss the broader relationships between all trees. Our language and communication would probably be quite different without such abstract concepts.

splat

What does the above picture resemble? If you can't think of at least 5 things, ask the nearest preschooler for help. Such imagination might not be possible without generalizations and abstract concepts of what something ought to look like.

When young child hears a favorite story read for the twentieth time, and the reader changes or adds anything, the child might speak up and remind the reader of how the story is "supposed to go".

Parents are usually quite pleased when their children absorb the parent's method of prayer, diet, clothing, or anything else that defines the parent's culture, religion, or way of life.

A group of young children may pick on, or make fun of, one who is different in some way, or just new to the group. The children were probably not taught to act this way, and parents often correct such behavior.

Generalizing, filling in details with our imagination, and knowing how something is supposed to be is part of who we are. Never making any generalizations would make it more difficult to function in a complex world, but we need to recognize preconceptions for what they are. Continually reexamining our preconceptions can help avoid unnecessary, irrelevant, or even dangerous prejudgments. An occasional second opinion might also be helpful.

Look carefully at several trees. Consider how they have much in common, and how each is unique. Read a story a little differently each time. Use your imagination to fill in, and occasionally change, details. How tall are the characters? Do they like broccoli? How do these changes affect the story? Explore and have fun. Celebrate differences and possibilities.

 Follow the Leader
Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.
Mark Twain

Follow what the leader stands for, not the person. People may belong to cliques, gangs, religions, cults, families, societies, companies and fan clubs, each with it's own purposes and goals. Sometimes there's a common goal or a greater purpose. Other times, simply belonging might be enough, in which case there's little need for a leader. Understand what you want and expect, and ask questions if the leader's methods or objectives seem to conflict with your personal beliefs or goals.

 Practical Idealism
Those who say something can't be done shouldn't interfere with those actually doing it.
Unknown

Idealistic goals may get dismissed as noble, but not practical. Idealism can be admirable when striving toward a lofty goal, but an oversimplified agenda may be disruptive if based on a limited understanding of the problem, or the means of solving the problem. We can accept that some things exist right now, but we don't have to accept them as inevitable, necessary or desirable. Don't give up on the ideal as an ultimate end. It might not be instantly available, but think of the "practical limits" as obstacles requiring long-term effort. Before settling, consider:

  • Do unmet needs require immediate action?
  • What are the consequences of not acting now?
  • Can controversial sections be considered separately?
  • Could there unintended or irreversible consequences?
  • How easily can changes be made later?
  • Does a compromise get you closer to your ideal goal?
 A Compromising Solution
Should you accept something undesirable as a condition of getting something else you want? Mutual back-scratching shouldn't involve anything sharp or pointy. If both sides are giving up something in exchange for something they don't want, try to separate the issues. Holding one issue hostage by linking it to an unrelated issue in the name of compromise might not serve everyone's best interests. Don't make it about winning, especially if others are affected by the decision.
 The Answer Is ...
Finding a reasonable, appropriate solution isn't always easy (see "The Committee's Camel"). If the problem involves people with strong emotional reactions, it could be better to leave the decision to others who can be more objective, or at least allow a "cooling off" period before making a substantial commitment. Delegating the problem solely to experts may also have disadvantages (see "When Scientists Disagree"). When developing options, some questions to consider are:
  • What final result do you want?
  • How will you know when you've got the result you want?
  • Once you've got it, what will you do with it?
  • What intermediate signs will indicate likely success or failure?
  • How easily can you switch to an alternate plan?
  • Is your situation typical? If not, what are the distinguishing circumstances?
  • How have others approached similar problems, and would you be satisfied with their result?
  • Is the proposed solution appropriate for everyone in your situation?
  • What differing circumstances would make an alternate solution a better choice?
  • What could happen if everyone (including those who don't like you) adopted your solution?
  • What could go wrong along the way?
  • What will others be doing while you're implementing your solution?
  • What are the "unknowns"?
  • Could a slower, incremental solution reduce unknowns, or allow better control along the way?
  • If the final outcome depends on certain assumptions, how certain are you that those assumptions are correct?
  • What are the objections to your proposed solution?
  • Who will cooperate, or help you achieve your desired goal?
  • Who could work against you?
  • How dependent are you on help from others?
  • How vulnerable are you to hindrance from others?

It's not always easy to know what someone really wants, as people sometimes ask for a potential means to an end rather than the end itself. When someone says they need more money, they probably want whatever it is they intend to spend the money on, and even that could be just a means to the real goal. Money could be a means to buy a car, which would be reliable transportation to a job. A bus pass or car pool might provide adequate transportation at a much lower cost. It's important to know what you really want, and how you will measure progress toward your true goal. Objective measurement along the way could provide new information and might reveal flaws that need correcting.

Your problem probably isn't unique. Learn from the experiences and mistakes of others. Specific circumstances vary, but a careful examination of the differences can be useful in finding a solution that's close enough.

Imagine yourself being the one giving advice, with everyone adopting your solution and possibly using it against you. Carefully consider the qualifications you might place on your recommended solution, and specific circumstances that might require an alternate solution.

If the problem is adversarial, you'll need a way to monitor what others are doing. The situation is likely to change as your opponents implement their solution, so constant reevaluation becomes extremely important. As you might need assistance from others, it's a good idea to evaluate the situation from the position of your associates and consider the conditions under which they might withhold support, or even change sides.

People love to criticize and find faults. Sometimes it's just nitpicking for the sake of argument, but it could also be a source of free research. Don't be too quick to dismiss opposition, especially from someone you may need later.

If more than one person is involved, are they all equally responsible? Is it reasonable or necessary to treat everyone involved the same way?

Focus on the goal, not your proposed solution. People sometimes become attached to a specific solution and lose sight of the ultimate goal. Whenever something changes, or more information becomes available, it's usually worthwhile to reevaluate the solution and the goal. When implementing a specific solution, try to provide enough flexibility to transition to an alternate solution if necessary. The solution to a problem should be a process, not an end in itself. People often claim that "right" is on their side, but a more helpful question may be, "Am I on the side of 'right'?"

 It's Bob - A Modern Fable
Since before anyone could remember, their town had a wonderful machine. For each coin dropped into the machine, a ripe orange rolled out. This machine had no markings, no other openings, no battery compartment and made no sound. The people had long discussions about how it might work. They watched for long periods, but never saw anyone take out the money or fill the machine with oranges. Someone calculated that the total number of coins dropped in would more than fill the machine. It's a mystery. The oranges were sweet and juicy all year, yet there was no way an orange tree could ever grow inside such a box. It's a mystery. What does the machine do with all the money? It's a mystery.

One morning, they were surprised to see a shiny new label on the machine that simply read, "Hello, my name is Bob". Nobody knew how the label got there, but at last here was an explanation. It's Bob! Someone asked how Bob could possibly fit inside the box along with all those oranges? It's a mystery, but what other explanation could there be? Where does Bob get all those oranges? It's a mystery, but what other explanation could there be? What does Bob do with all the money? It's a mystery, but what other explanation could there be? Does Bob eat anything but oranges? It's a mystery, but what other explanation could there be?

Soon the people were divided into factions. Some believed Bob was inside the machine, somehow transforming coins into oranges. Others believed Bob wasn't actually inside, but somehow controlled the machine from a comfortable vantage point. Another group believed that Bob simply built the machine and was now long gone. They argued passionately, but at least they all agreed on one thing - It's Bob!

 The End of the Means
The means should be consistent with the ultimate end. Suspending the rules could easily have the same result as permanently changing the rules, especially for others who may be looking for something to use against you. Questionable means could even create a different end, ultimately replacing the result you really want. The decision-making process often relies on the simple assumption that "we" are somehow better than "they" are. Are the proposed means consistent with whatever makes "us" better than "them"? People sometimes claim that others who break the "rules" essentially renounce any protections offered by those "rules". Using such an argument requires carefully considering the specific actions that constituted "breaking the rules", the degree to which the rules were broken, and whether other unbroken rules may still apply.
 Do All Opinions Deserve Equal Time?
Some opinions have been so thoroughly analyzed and discredited that they've lost any claim to equal time. This isn't censorship - it's just good time management. That's not to say that the holders of those opinions should suffer any kind of retribution simply because they hold insupportable opinions - they're just not entitled to an audience gathered by others for a different purpose and must provide their own forum and recruit listeners themselves. Stubbornly held, discredited opinions contribute nothing to a serious discussion, and won't change the final result - they just get in the way. Granting "equal time" in geography class to the claim that the earth is flat just takes time from more important topics. A discussion of the science and observations throughout history that lead up to the final acceptance that the earth is a sphere, and why some people once assumed it was flat, could be a useful lesson, but spending time refuting fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted "evidence" of a flat earth isn't, especially when people cling so stubbornly to their opinions that no amount of explanation or evidence will change their mind. One must be especially careful with children as they aren't always capable of fully grasping the logical thought processes and underlying science that lead to the overwhelming rejection of certain concepts. "Equal time" could just confuse them and leave them with the idea that all possibilities are equally likely, and therefore equally valid.

When you suspect that someone is stubbornly clinging to an unsubstantiated opinion, you might ask, "why do they hold and perpetuate that opinion?" Some possible answers to consider are:

  • to make money by manipulating others
  • to teach or influence others
  • to argue, often just for the sake of argument
  • to bait, or emotionally inflame others
  • for emotional security
  • for comfort or convenience

Does this opinion have any useful consequences? How does believing that the earth is flat help while traveling around the world? How does such a belief help to understand or accomplish anything?

 The Committee's Camel
A camel is a horse designed by a committee.
Unknown

Some compromises seem reasonable or innocent, but may produce a bad decision (and a stubborn, humpbacked, spitting horse).
  • Going along to get along
  • Splitting the difference
  • Swapping favors
  • Voting for one of two choices

Other, less innocent factors may also sneak through.

  • Self-interest of an individual, or a represented group
  • Not thinking through potential consequences
  • Overlooking more fundamental issues
  • Combining several unrelated issues

After a lengthy discussion about how many eyes and ears a horse needs, some committee members might say, "We went along with you on 2 eyes and 2 ears, so now you have to go along with us and give the horse 3 legs". It shouldn't be a matter of one person "going along" or agreeing with another. Ideally, everybody should be in agreement with whatever is most beneficial to the horse, or the horse's owner. There are valid reasons for giving a horse 2 ears and 2 eyes, but much less compelling arguments for a 3-legged horse.

How much should a horse eat? Some committee members say 5 pounds of oats per day, others say 80. It might seem tempting to split the difference, or vote for one or the other, but how does either choice benefit the horse or the horse's owner? Some say a horse that only eats 5 pounds of oats will be cheap to feed. Others say such a horse won't be strong enough for many jobs, and still others say a horse that eats lots of oats will boost profits for their friends and relatives who happen to be farmers. If the committee really wants to stray from their horse-designing mission and help farmers, there may be better ways that have nothing to do with feeding horses. These are two separate issues that should be discussed separately. More importantly, why even discuss how much a horse should eat? Food is basically an energy source. Once the committee determines how much work to expect from one horse, nutritional requirements should follow easily. Those needing more power can use several horses together, and those only needing the power of a single horse shouldn't have to buy excess oats.

Sometimes unavoidable ambiguities make agreement difficult. Carefully considering potential consequences can become important. Some questions to ask are:

  • What are the consequences of being wrong?
  • What early warning signs should we look for?
  • How easily can we respond to those warning signs?
  • What sorts of corrections can we make as things develop?
  • What safety precautions or intermediate steps could be taken?
  • If it turns out we made the wrong choice, how easily can we change it?

Members objecting to the solution might be assigned as "lookouts" for signs of trouble.

Some committee members might represent a larger group and vote according to their group's desires. These representatives should present the concerns of their group to the entire committee, and help the committee understand and consider those concerns, but vote in the best interest of the committee's objective. If the final decision conflicts with the group's interests, the representative can help the group understand why the committee made that decision and how everyone benefits.

Traditional "yes/no", "one-or-the-other" voting isn't always best if there are more than two choices. Some members 2nd choice might be eliminated, forcing them to settle for a 3rd or 4th choice. Giving everybody multiple votes and allowing them to distribute those votes among all the choices lets voters choose among several desirable (or at least tolerable) choices, and the number of votes they give to each option indicates the strength of their preference. If everybody gets 10 votes, 5 votes assigned to each of 2 choices indicates that both are about equal, while 6 votes given to their top choice, and 2 votes given to their 2nd and 3rd choices indicates a strong preference.

Another option is simply ranking each option in order of preference. If there are 5 options, each member could give their top choice 5 points, their 2nd choice 4 points, etc. Rather than some getting everything, and others getting nothing, most might get their 1st or 2nd choice.

Another option is basically an instant runoff. Everybody gets one vote, but rather than choosing only one candidate, they list all candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of the first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated. Votes are then recounted using the second choice selection of everyone who chose the eliminated candidate as their first choice. The process continues until one candidate gets a majority of the votes.

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