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#21: Statistical Sense-Making: Playing “The Numbers Game” (A Philippine Star Article)

This short piece began as a 500-word book review assignment for an online course Writing in the Sciences. Then. after some revisions, I raised the word count to a little more than a thousand. I thought that time: because I had 500 words already, why not chip in about 500 more and take a shot? And this is the result of my earnest effort emanating from a split-second resolve to write. This was published last Sunday, on The Philippine Star, at the Sunday Lifestyle Section.

This is the article: Playing ‘The Numbers Game’. I reviewed this book:

This book kept my thinking going even while on dizzying cab rides and steamy jeepney commutes. That there are no formulas and almost no technical terms in this book – except of course the perennial mean, median, mode, which aren’t really technical but which I believe absent (statistically!) in the working vocabulary of Filipinos. So I’d recommend this book to anyone who has time to spare and want to go to the essence of basic Statistics without having to contend with numbers and symbols, but I bought this from the SALE section of a National Bookstore (in Harrison Plaza) and from all my other visits at other branches I think no customer will sniff out this book for a long time – not maybe in five years.

Here is the article, so read on.

There are questions and questions about numbers. How did we arrive at the “average income” the popular media always trumpets? Is a positive medical test result a good indicator for having a disease? How can we make sense of international rankings in soccer, health, and education?

With data bombarding us every moment of our waking lives, we urgently need a book that can explain the nuances of statistics to the layperson. The book The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot grants us the mental agility to analyze everyday numbers and penetrate their significance.

The statistical enlightenment that the two authors brings us is amazing, despite the fact that neither are professional statisticians. Blastland, a broadcaster, created “More or Less”, a BBC radio show that became a pop hit in the United Kingdom because of its no-nonsense exposition of statistical foibles in the media. Dilnot, a principal of a college in Oxford, was once the show’s host and a fiscal officer.

Fear nothing; the book’s presentation is far from that being done in a traditional statistics class. Expect no statistical formulas in the book – it aims for clarity above technical precision. Even statistics classrooms can benefit from numerous examples and lively explanations.

Once you have set fear aside, expect surprise at statistical facts you may have heard before but without any clue on what they really meant. Note the subtlety in the language often used to express statistics. The book gives you the mental toughness to carefully read numerical findings in the media, between the lines, while deciphering what’s not really there.

For instance, you may have heard already that if you frequently use a mobile phone, your risk of getting brain cancer will double. Taken aback? In the book’s section “Risk”, once you know the proper context behind the risk increase, which is from 1/100,000 to 2/100,000 (a measly increase), you will have nothing to worry about.

Another example, from the “Shock Figures” section, alarms you by stating that the global warming temperature increase can be “up to 11 degrees Celsius”, until you know later that the average increase is just 4 degrees Celsius, a less jarring but more representative finding.

Still another, from the “Causation” section, where you will find out that a direct relationship between hand size and reading ability exists (so if I have extra fingers, I can read better?). But not because bigger hands enhance reading ability – it’s because as you age, both increase.

The lessons learned will stick for a lifetime, and you will feel that your mind gets “reconfigured” after reading. No longer will you accept numbers at their face values; you will begin demanding more information on how those numbers came to be. No more you will be dazed – or intimidated – by official claims; you can start seeing through them for what they really are, and not for what they are cloaked on.

As Blastland and Dilnot state in the Introduction to the book’s United States edition: “The alignment of power and abuse is not unique to numbers, but it is just possible that it could be uniquely challenged, and the powerless becomes powerful.” Let’s admit it; this book implicitly explains how to exploit others with numbers (while giving us the needed ammunition for a counterattack), but you won’t feel inclined to do so. In your quest for steadfastness in dealing with data, you will also want other folks to be vigilant too.

We can go beyond classifying the book as a common reader’s average statistics book. It is also a book of clear thinking. It teaches the fine art of definition. What does “bullying” mean? What does being “unemployed” mean? If we say that some number is a “big” number, what does the “big” mean? It demands that we be critical because the explanation of any finding frequently conceals something. How many samples are there? How are the data obtained? Are there other variables that can affect the relationship between any two given qualities? It allows us to practice a querulous mindset – it makes us see numbers with question marks at their end, with the invitation to probe them further.

The Numbers Game is an easy read. You can finish it in one sitting if you want to – thus making it ideal as a bedside book that can make us all sleep with clear heads and wake up with sharp eyes. Reading it is a deserved respite to the barrage of data all around us. At the very least you’ll be able to answer with candidness the “relevance question”, so often asked in Mathematics classrooms but so often ending there too: “What is the relevance of Math in our daily lives?”

The vista of settings described in the book – from hospitals to highways to workplaces – is more than enough as an answer. Whatever the questions you feel provoked to ask about the data in the book, you will also make a habit to frequently ask when dealing with numbers in local situations: political survey results, school grades, children’s allowance, and salaries, to name a few. They mean more than you think. Probing their deeper meanings brings Math close to your doorstep

In general, we learn how to detect our knowledge gaps about numbers – thus making us powerful in what we know, humble in what we don’t know, active in filling the gaps up, and able to help others make sense of their own numerical realities.

Thought-widening, grand, and clear, The Numbers Game will leave an indelible mark on its readers’ view on all sorts of numbers. In most fields of endeavor, and in the TV and Internet, statistics is an often-used currency of communication today. To be credible, one almost always needs to back up serious claims with facts and figures. Numbers are clear-cut from the outset; according to the authors, they’re “tidy; life isn’t”. But the vast number of numbers creates a sea, and in the midst of that reality the last thing we want to happen is for that sea to drown us.

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#10: Book Fair Seminar Blues; Commitment in Writing; The “Pilosopo”

At the last day of the 2012 Manila International Book Fair, Dr. Isagani Cruz held a seminar Write Your Own Book. There were two questions that stood out in the discussion and that stuck in my mind the most: “Where will I write?” and “When will I write?” Space and time, in other words. The answers to the two questions are stunningly similar:

“Anywhere, as long as it is the same place.”

“Anytime, as long as it is the same time.”

The two answers are unthinkable. Why should I write at a definite time, say 9pm – 12mn, rather than write at any convenient time, when all the mundane responsibilities are dealt with? Why should I write atop the plastic table at the second floor rather than anywhere I can conveniently put my laptop on?

It is obvious that these answers will not make you become more creative, or generate more words, or recombine ideas. Rather, they are meant to keep you committed. Treat of them as your principles. Writing a book is a demanding task – Butch Dalisay describes it this way (for novels, but the same goes for all books written in the Philippines): “We sleep, eat, defecate, and fornicate with our novels perched on our shoulders.”

Writing books eats up chunks of our lives, with the confounding worry that whatever we turn out may not be so good, after all. For every book you see on the bestseller list, there are hundreds or thousands whose presence is fleeting.

So in completing a book, surviving all the countercurrents in this country that can prevent you from writing is a must. Writing should be on top of all priorities when writing – not daydreaming, doing household chores, or tending to domestic disturbances. Stick to your goal when writing a book – completing it – and dodge everything else in the way. That is easier when you are in a “safe zone” in a “safe time”, not when you are in a place where the earnest distractions of the outside world can pile up upon you. Even if you have to go into a cheap motel to finish your writing at peace. Even if you have to sneak into an attic for a few hours of near-perfect serenity allowing you to concentrate.

Also, writing at a definite place and time – and upholding your schedule with the precision of clockwork – is also sound practice in focusing. If you can’t remember the writing practices you promised you’ll do, how can you expect to remember the main point of your book? You may change your writing habits when you think they’re ineffective or when pressing circumstances require you to, or you may change the thesis of your book, but when you commit to something, hang on to it tightly.

After the seminar, I asked Dr. Cruz a single question, which I hope the right one. “If you can summarize a writer’s best practices into two bits of advice, what would they be?”

I received these answers: “The first one is to read a lot.“ “The second one is to write everyday.”

Reading a lot is easy to do everyday, for Dr. Cruz didn’t mention any specific book to read. Perhaps it’s just a fine way to reinforce a vision of the future result of your writing. Reading a lot, while planning your own book, can also pound this reminder: if you’re benefiting from the hard labor and mental struggles of writers, why not do the same?

Writing everyday is an exercise in commitment; do not think yourself as a part-time writer, but a full-time one. At least one word a day would be good, according to Dr. Cruz – the late writer Francisco Arcellana did just that. A minimum of one word a day en route to a carefully crafted short story may appear like grinding stones, but that’s commitment to the bones.

The two given answers are also keyhole insights to why Filipino writers are rare. First, Filipinos do not read a lot, to put it bluntly but accurately. As a mass, we read because required to do so in school, not really for the aesthetic and cognitive pleasures that it can bring. Second, in a poor country with more pressing needs than the urge to put thoughts on paper (and whose habitual logicians and theoreticians are derided as pilosopo; I think this is one of the few countries in which contemplators are socially derided), writing can get relegated to last place.

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#4: Emergency Post: Philippine-Style Libel in the Internet, Sotto, and the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012″

I wrote on my last post that I should write something else other than blogging. Well, this isn’t really about blogging; it’s about the superset of experience in which blogging is situated. It’s about the Internet, it’s about speech, and it’s about power. Any one of the three can be contexts in which the Section 4 of the Republic Act No. 10175, the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012″, applies. This is the text of Section 4:

(4) Libel. — The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.

This is a troublesome, if not shaky, provision. It makes the common citizen nearly powerless in the eyes of the law. Anyone who by the power of the Net can now publish something truthful though damaging without needing mammoth publications to do it for them suddenly has that power swiped off by the inclusion of that clause. When even big presses – those to which “freedom of the press is limited” according to an A.J. Liebling quip – aren’t immune to libel suits from the powerful people running the governmental reins, what more of the ordinary people who just want to air legitimate complaints through the most accessible channel for them to do so – the Internet.

Many Filipinos right now are skilled in using the Internet, thanks to increasing awareness of technology and also to the bustle of Internet cafes around them. For redress, someone need not go to someone else much more powerful, who may not have any incentive to listen if they are themselves erring. Power tends to be corrupting, and if our culture has power as the primary measure of person or the validity of a point, then may God the omnipotent help us. But then, a blog post or a change in Facebook status is all we need.

Sotto & Plagiarism

Senator Tito Sotto was the one hot at putting that libel provision in RA 10175. The supposed intent of the law, according to him, is to make the participants in the entire space of Internet discourse responsible for their words. “Once the cybercrime bill is enacted into law, they will be accountable for what they say or write,” he was quoted in saying. This, after the debacle that took place between him and the Internet citizens who have the keenness and the nerve to write down what they really saw.

What Sotto sees as “cyber-bullying” is nothing more than the consolidated power of sensible bloggers who have their sound views about plagiarism and the medium to make known their views – blogging. As for the intemperate remarks, most of them are only hurtful opinions that happen to be in opposition with what Sotto believes. If you are a believer of the flat-earth theory and someone with a spherical-Earth theory barges into the discussion, then unless you have a thick well-oiled armor, which is unlikely if you are a Filipino who sees criticism of work as the criticism of a person according to Tomas D. Andres, you are very likely to cry that you got scourged and hurt.

In passing, if someone says that Sotto is a dork, or some of his staff are dorks, so be it; plagiarizers are dorks in the academic community, where nearly everything is theoretical or speculative or “irrelevant”, so plagiarizers are bigger dorks when outside the academe, especially in places where the policies of a nation are shaped. (Yea, children from schools who have copy-pasted assignments and aren’t taught that aspect of advanced literacy by your parents and teachers, you are not spared from this indictment.)

Who Wins?

Of course, blogging is not the only medium open to anyone with the Net and a point. There’s also Facebook – and blogging and Facebook go hand in hand because it is possible to promote blogs and get readers from Facebook. Twitter posting is, I believe, still to be perfected, but we have seen public outcries caused by single Twitter posts, so we can see how far one such post can go.

If Facebook is one of the pivotal tools that can bring a brewing revolution to its boil, then anyone who holds power – from pesky government officials to cruel CEOs to teachers who know nothing about their subject matter to aberrant traffic enforcers who deserve to be pummeled in the middle of the road – has a cause for alarm. They’d better have legitimate power, or else the wisdom of crowds, as so-called, will strip them of it.

No one from the Senate may have seen the ferocious potential of RA 10175 to evolve into an instrument of suppressing legitimate speech. According to this site: “In libel cases, the question is not what the writer of an alleged libel means, but what the words used by him mean.” Now that blog posts are covered by the umbrella of libel, how can bloggers defend themselves from someone who deliberately misinterprets their words and then slaps them with libel suits?

It’s strange – and it’s worrisome – that there is no provision for truth in Philippine libel: the statement “Truth cannot be libel” isn’t applicable, anywhere, anytime, in any island of this country since it was founded. Malice is enough, so if I tell you something that is true and happens to ridicule you in the manner of Swift or Juvenal, then your well-paid lawyer can come knocking to my doorstep with a libel case in a briefcase. (But hang on; I predict that such an action toward a netizen will trigger a conflagration, leading to a wildfire, in the field of Philippine politics, and the ignorant people holding power will have their incompetence duly exposed.)

I suspect that “selected” public officials are the beneficiaries of the libel clause – a provision that can entitle them to pursue their dastardly acts without impunity. Those acts won’t get punished justly, I tell you, if the brand of Filipino culture as we know it continues, and they won’t be likely to get punished in the future. Don’t count on it for 200 years. But at least such information has to be known by the populace who deserve more than campaign jingles and nauseous slogans that are all hot air. If even established journalists cower in fear of the libel suits and the litigation bankroll that wicked public officials have, what now of the common citizen who just wants to share information?

What about opinions? “Libel”, in this case, can become inflated into anything that the lawmakers want it to be. They reflect what Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: “”When I use a word….it means just what I choose it to mean.” This has been the formula for many election campaigns nationwide. “Progress” is “what will take place when you vote for me”, despite the resigned protest that barely anything nice is happening right now; just perpetuation of the same old broken stuff. “Pagbabago” is a change in the names of the holders of power but not of the power structure itself. “Taong bayan” is the mass of people discussed in abstract terms, thus dehumanized, but never viewed as people with impending needs at all times. And when someone disagrees, there is a danger of that being called “Libel”.

However, time will come that all the Humpty Dumpties of this country will get cracked and then all of their underlings and their relatives can’t do anything to bring them back again.

There are also technical issues involved. One of them is stated at length in this Philstar.com column: “If the person accused of libel is a foreigner blogging from another country, will RA 10175 enable Philippine authorities to take jurisdiction over the accused and impose its processes?” Raissa Robles has also discussed her concerns, all at length, in this blog. I wonder why the senators haven’t consulted the wisdom of crowds to make the law more reasonable? They can just use the Internet, if they still know how.

The Internet

None of the lawmakers’ machinations, if they intended any, will succeed. They’re not just running against bloggers; they’re running against the Internet itself, a benevolent behemoth that has no central point that can be killed. This quote from a Borges tale captures it most: “the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere”. To you, the old-timers who know of the Internet but not of its vastness, you will be chasing a quarry that runs everywhere but also runs nowhere. In other words, it’s unstoppable. Even if we agree with Sotto that any netizen should learn how to be responsible in online dealings, legislation is not the most efficient way to do it. Responsibility begins from the person, not from an indeterminate “above”.

Because the Net’s open, the world knows what we’re doing with it. Have you heard that the United Nations Human Rights Council just declared that the act of criminalizing libel is excessive and contrary to the spirit of its statures? If you haven’t, look it up; you have the United Nations as your ally just in case someone plays the “libel” game with you. This is also strange; if we are a country priding ourselves in our global proletariat, then at least our fundamental decency toward the people, especially with those of lower socioeconomic status than we are, should approach international standards.

Here is a moment for pause. The most diligent commenters during the early periods of the Internet – when it was as slow as a rice cooker – were experts in finesse when it comes to invective, which may qualify as libel in the Philippines under the law (at least for anyone who as the bank account to litigate as deep as deep can). Following is a characterization of finesse in invective by Christopher Locke, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a 2000 book describing the changes that the Internet, which was still gathering steam, will have brought at the turn of the millennium. There was no social networking back then, but look at the power that it can grant.

It was not a game, however, for the meek of heart. These engagements could be fierce. Even trying to separate the contestants could bring down a hail of sharp-tongued derision. Theories were floated and defended with extreme energy and enthusiasm, if not always with logical rigor. Opinions tended to run high on any given topic. Say you’d posted about your dog. And, look, you got a response! “Jim, you are a complete idiot. Your dog is so brain-damaged it won’t even hunt…”

…the point is not to extol flame wars, as amusing as some could be. Instead, it is to suggest a particular set of values that began to emerge in what linguists might call a well-bounded speech community. On the Net, you said what you meant and had better be ready to explain your position and how you’d arrived at it. Mouthing platitudes guaranteed that you would be challenged. Nothing was accepted at face value, or taken for granted. Everything was subject to question, revision, re-implementation, parody — whether it was an algorithm, a political philosophy or, God help you, an advertisement.

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it”, Thomas Jefferson said three centuries ago. We’re all for preventing harm, as indicated in the other clauses of RA 10175. But these measures should have been passed long ago. It needed only a darn push – a push that many observers see as politically-motivated – for it to pass. Now here is a clue about the everyday operating psychology of the people running our country. Expect that now that national elections are nearing, and names, which are ultimately nothing but sound and dust, will be on the forefront again. Perhaps the same sort of thinking process applies regarding discussions of the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act, which has been on the burner for so long already.

So what is our battle cry? We can say “Keep the Net open”, but we don’t have to worry about that, because it’s always open. We can just invoke plain constitutional freedom of expression. We can also invoke the need to have an informed legislature and populace embarking on lifelong learning during a time when technologies change faster than mindsets.

Or we can just let our words loose. No more preambles are needed to do that. Just dive your fingers into your keyboard and begin blogging. Or write the old-fashioned way with ink. Words have power. That’s why those in power are wary of them and willing to ration them if they can.

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#3: The Ten-Minute Standing-Up Draft Activity

I propose a method of blogging that not necessarily guarantees that your posts will be good, but that you can make a post all the time: the ten-minute standing-up draft.

I mean the standing-up part literally, that is, making a blog post draft while standing up. You can try doing it in your own home and ten minutes later, assuming that you have ideas in your head, a draft will be cooked, steamy, straight from the boiler. This approach has been effective in brainstorming ideas. In Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch, they recall a sort of meeting that requires that its participants stand up. Here is a statement from General Pagonies, the featured general, about the uses and benefits of that meeting:

Early on, I discovered that making people stand up keeps the ball moving at a quicker pace. People speak their piece and then quickly yield the floor to the next person. On the rare occasion that someone starts to get long-winded or wax philosophic….people shift from foot to foot, fidget, look at their watches….

Now it is obvious why some blog posts are better made while you stand up. It makes sure that your mind is working at full blast. You won’t have the luxury of a comfortable chair (or worse, an ivory tower to make you “wax philosophic”; you will sense the urgency that the mere act of standing up gives you.

Perhaps that why comedy is best made standing up, rather than sitting down; when you’re up, you have to give it all or not, you either succeed or not, and you don’t have time to ruminate on the consequences. But when you’re sitting down, you have time and the inclination to over-analyze; time should have been better used on spilling your jokes rather than on thinking about whether your people will laugh or not.

Paul Graham wrote: “An essay is something you write to try to figure something out. Figure out what? You don’t know yet.” There are words that will inevitably emerge from your mind if you can see some words already. So put some words in place. You may never know what your point is until you have written something down that approximates that point. Stand up and write something like: “A tree and a fly and a live wire….” While standing up, you’ll feel the pressure to write anything, which is a better thing than the opposite condition. In ten minutes, you’ll have a draft about a tree and a fly and a live wire, plus some more oddball characters and some more vividness to boot.

I’m not suggesting that all of my posts will turn out the ten-minute way; only my drafts. I’d still write for protracted periods of time if I feel like it. I’d still write sitting down or lying down. But the ten-minute standing-up routine can work wonders. It stops procrastination. It pushes me onto the racetrack. It leaves me with not many options other than running forward. And with words on paper I can grow more words, so if I feel that I can go on beyond ten minutes, then that’s fine too. If not then I can always put my draft away for future use, but it’s likely that it serves as a springboard to another idea you may want to write about.

I’m also not suggesting that you cook up a stew of a post for ten minutes and then deliver it to your blog while steaming. Such a write-up should still undergo the scrutiny of revision, for you to find out whether your posts are too rushed or not and also to find ways to smoothen the rough edges. The ten-minute stand-up draft routine just ensures that you are writing something rather than not writing something; the revisions ensure that you will write something well rather than write something bad. (And revisions may take more than an hour to finish; it may even take days.) Remember, the medium involved is not the human voice, but the text, and some flaws forgivable while speaking may look awkward in written form.

The art of blogging – and writing, ultimately – is an art about not wasting someone else’s time, including the writer’s. Given the prevalence of busted blogs in the Internet and bad books, standing up while writing and giving yourself ten minutes for the task is worth giving a try. Just improve your post later on. Meanwhile, write on.

P.S. My first three posts are about blogging. Perhaps I should write about something else the next time.

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#2: Now and Then

One of the rules I have set for myself when blogging is that I should have two posts every week. This rule is tighter compared to the other rules I have set (such as limiting your posts to 300-1000 words and not using any swear words). But that is necessary if I don’t want to see my blog stare at oblivion. That rule guarantees that if I’m not pumped up for writing, then there is no way out for me to procrastinate.

The freedom to write at anytime you want in your blog is sometimes a curse; in the midst of the everyday grind, your blog may recede in your mind, further and further, until you have forgotten that blog post that should have been. If that persists, then the blog will give off a final gasp and become deposited in the black hole of the Net. The rule I have placed makes it impossible for me to say “I’m not in the mood.” It bans me from flaking. I have better do what it takes to make a blog post that hangs together. Even if it be like clothing sewn from rags. I need something to wear every week, that’s all.

So I have my golden rule: two blog posts a week. Of course I won’t attempt to be dishonest. It means two standard blog posts a week; it does not mean that I can turn single sentences into blog posts. That would be deceiving myself. (Unless I want to become a master aphorist, like La Rochefoucauld or Nietzsche, who wrote one-liners worth more than the television claptrap turned out by the masses. But then they had to produce rough drafts too.)

At the minimum, two posts a week ensure that my writing juices are up and that I won’t lose my audience. However, my ultimate goal is improvement. Having regular blog posts help ensure that I am improving because of effort and mistake-spotting. How will you ever know whether a blog will click after less than five posts? Some bloggers labor for years before they achieve superstar status.

Intuitively, you may think similarly, so here is an analogy: Just because you messed up the first day of the first class you’ve ever been, or even at your first year of education, doesn’t mean that you are doomed to be a failure for your whole life. I’m not really aiming to become a smash-hit blogger, in the midst of hundreds of millions of blogs in the disconcertingly spacious expanse that is cyberspace; it’s enough for my blog to begin as a dim light that grows brighter per post.

Of course, regularly blogging about something ensures that there is always some piece of writing for me to think about. I can analyze works from the dead masters or from the best contemporary writers, some of which may be bloggers themselves, but there’s not as much as commitment involved as the time I put my own writing on the spot. Maybe I can learn many things from the greats, but there should be some writing in the first place where I can apply them. Also, of course I wouldn’t know when the ultimate answers may arrive, or whether they will really come, so the only reasonable thing to do is to carry on instead of waiting for them to fall down.

Two posts a week. If I write bad posts, then there’s no excusing myself from their existence. I’ll just remind myself of the bad points and their silliness (as they’ll seem after I look back at this after 50 years with a neuron-powered Internet) but I’ll keep dragging myself to my laptop and make new posts that I reckon to be better. There’s no permitting myself the luxury of rosy retrospection, no memory of things that were once better, because everything just gets better. I’m in no way putting myself in the position of the people who were successful but got flapjacked in one way or another and then quit because of that.

Although now leads to the future, now is not the future, and now is when I should be doing something.

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