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I'm not judgmental when it comes to other people's lifestyle choices and I've always wondered if that is learned or natural behavior.

I saw a segment on 60 Minutes recently in which researchers purported to discover some sort of gene-based morality in babies, as well as a preference for people like themselves. That makes sense from a survival standpoint. I assume I have as much gene-based bias as any other human. But for some reason it doesn't translate into being judgmental about people in my everyday life. I'm hoping this is an example of mind over genes, but I have no way of knowing for sure.

What I do know is that over the years I have developed a worldview that makes the idea of being judgmental feel nonsensical. Here are the pillars of my worldview, some of which you already know from earlier posts.

1.     Willpower isn't a real thing. Some people just have greater urges than others. If I resist a cookie and you don't, it doesn't say anything about your willpower, but it might say you are hungrier than I am, or you simply like cookies more than I do.

2.     I don't believe in a creator. I see humans as a collection of particles bumping into each other. Or maybe we're a computer simulation created by some earlier civilization. In either case, no group of particles, or arrangement of ones and zeroes, is superior to another.

3.     I have no individual skill that is not topped by at least one person in every demographic group. Every group has people who are smarter than me, stronger than me, kinder than me, more generous than me, more talented, and so on.

4.     There is no logical way to rank talents or virtues. Is one person's excellent musical skill somehow better than another's good parenting skills? Is your kindness better than your friend's work ethic? None of these things can be compared objectively.

5.     Genes are often destiny. You were probably born with your personality and your preferences, in which case you are not to blame. Or you might have been the victim of some sort of nastiness in your past that changed you permanently, and that probably wasn't your "fault" in any objective way either. Your particles bumped around until something bad happened, nothing more.

6.     For purely practical reasons, the legal system assigns "fault" to some actions and excuses others. We don't have a good alternative to that system. But since we are all a bunch of particles bumping around according to the laws of physics (or perhaps the laws of our programmers) there is no sense of "fault" that is natural to the universe.

I'm avoiding the term "free will" here because experience shows that using that term turns into a debate about the definition. I prefer to say we're all just particles bumping around. Personally, I don't see how any of those particles, no matter how they are arranged, can sometimes choose to ignore the laws of physics and go their own way.

I'm curious about the rest of you. Are you judgy? And if so, do you think it is learned or genetic?

 
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Privacy is a good thing, right?

Almost everyone agrees with that statement.

Assuming the majority is correct - and privacy is a good thing - you probably have examples from your own law-abiding life in which losing your privacy created a lasting problem for you. Can you tell me a few stories like that?

Probably not.

Okay, now can you give me some examples in which sacrificing your privacy worked to your advantage? I'll bet you can.

Maybe you shared your medical history with your doctor and that allowed him to treat you more effectively.

Maybe you put your personal information on an online dating service and it helped you find the love of your life.

Maybe you showed your past tax returns to your bank and it helped you secure a mortgage to your dream house.

Maybe you were secretly gay or lesbian and it was a huge relief when you came out.

Maybe you installed a device on your car that allows your insurance company to track your driving history in return for lower rates.

Maybe you enjoy sharing your life on Facebook.

Maybe Google tracked your search history and later served up an ad that was exactly what you were looking for.

Maybe your favorite airline gave you a free upgrade because they know you fly with them often.

Maybe you put your work history on LinkedIn and someone offered you a job.

We tend to fear losing our privacy until it's gone. Then we wonder what all the fuss was about. It turns out that the bigger challenge than retaining privacy is getting anyone to care about you at all.

I know, I know: You want to lecture me about how an evil government can use your private information to hurt you. You might even toss in a Hitler reference or two because that helps any argument.

But I would counter that you're describing a situation in which the government has privacy and you don't. I'm not in favor of that situation either. If the government were to operate with complete transparency, not counting some national security secrets, law-abiding citizens would have nothing to fear. The government and the governed would keep each other under control. So don't confuse a problem created by too much privacy (the government's) with one caused by too little privacy.

Let's game out another scenario in which citizens give up privacy and see if that seems better or worse. I'll pick gun registration as my example because it's a hot topic. Suppose that tomorrow you could go online and see which of your neighbors registered their legal guns. What would you do next?

Well, if you don't already own a gun, you probably get one quickly because burglars can see the same information you see. You don't want to be the one unarmed home on the block. And because you're a good citizen, you get a gun safe, maybe trigger locks, and you train every member of the family in proper gun use. Now every home in your neighborhood has a small armory.

My best guess is that in that scenario the burglary rate in the neighborhood goes down. And instead of gun registration leading to government disarmament of the public as many fear, my best guess is that gun ownership would expand. And if the burglary rate goes down as a result, politicians would be happy to take credit.

The studies on gun ownership and crime rates are sketchy in my opinion, so no one can safely predict what might happen if every neighbor had a registered gun. Maybe that would lead to gun duels in the streets, suburban warlords, and sniper attacks on backyard barbecues. But historical patterns suggest it would be more good than bad. I say that because every case I can think of in which adult citizens intelligently gave up privacy in this country turned out well.

I can imagine insurance companies offering lower rates to customers who have passed gun safety programs and/or own gun safes. In the long run, you might have more gun ownership but a higher rate of gun safety. It's hard to know where that nets out.

Here's a story from my personal life in which giving up privacy helped tremendously. For most of my life I harbored an embarrassing secret that I am about to reveal to you: I can't use restrooms if any other human is nearby. For decades I believed I had some sort of mental problem. I was ashamed of my condition and never spoke of it. I continuously made excuses for avoiding situations with inadequate bathroom privacy. The inconvenience of it all was debilitating. Leaving the house for more than an hour was a nightmare because I couldn't be sure I would have access to a bathroom I could use.

Then several years ago, an unexpected thing happened. My older brother went public, website and all, with the same problem. We grew up together and somehow neither of us was aware of the other's situation. I later learned that the condition has a genetic component. It goes by the medical name paruresis, or more commonly shy bladder, and perhaps 5% of the public have it.

My brother gave up his privacy because he thought it would help others. And it has. My own problem diminished by about 75% within a year of learning that other people suffered from the same condition. I started admitting my condition to my friends, only to learn that a surprising number have the same problem. And once I was open about it, I found I could say without embarrassment which bathroom situations work for me and which ones don't. When I let go of my privacy on that topic, it improved my life considerably. With the exception of the Oakland A's stadium restrooms, in which men stand shoulder to shoulder to pee in a trough, I can now use normal public restrooms without much trouble. And all of that happened because my brother gave up his privacy on the topic and I followed his lead.

About 5% of the people reading my story just took a deep breath and felt normal for the first time in their lives. You can thank my brother's lack of privacy for that.

 
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Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

---------------

Back in March I predicted a 20% correction in the stock market sometime in 2013. I based the prediction on my hypothesis that the financial markets are manipulated by a loose network of big players. I have no hard evidence for that hypothesis. All I know for sure are the following facts:

1.      Markets act in a way that is consistent with manipulation.

2.      The big players have the means and the motive to manipulate markets.

3.      Collusion is nearly impossible to detect if done right.

4.      Some of the most respected firms in the finance world have recently been caught doing unethical and illegal things.

That's the backdrop.

This week, our so-called government announced it has secret evidence that a dictator in the Middle East used chemical weapons on his own citizens.

Pattern Recognition: ON

Here's some more background to keep in mind: The President of the United States recently supported the closing of medical marijuana dispensaries in California and never offered a reason for his change of policy from hands-off to go-to-jail. The new policy wasn't even popular with voters. An observer has to assume money was behind the flip-flop. Maybe it was the private jail industry that wants to keep weed illegal. Maybe it was the booze lobbyists. All we know for sure is that President Obama changed his views on the topic and didn't offer a reason. So he has a credibility problem where money is involved.

Now we citizens of the United States are being told that we might need to lob some bombs at Syria because someone over there allegedly used chemical weapons. Everyone agrees that the limited military action being contemplated won't fix anything. But it certainly will drive down the financial markets.

One entirely plausible explanation for the administration's position on Syria is that it has information we citizens don't have, and shouldn't have, and the government is acting in our best interest. Or maybe they really want to send the world a message that chemical warfare is a red line that can't be crossed. Maybe the whole thing is an excuse to poke Putin in the eye and make his people scurry for cover because we're still tweaked about the Snowden thing.

Any of that is possible.

The problem with believing any of those scenarios is that an equally good explanation for what we observe is that the defense industry, the news industry, and the market manipulators are, once again, moving in lock-step to gin up a war, generate weapons sales, improve news industry profits, and create huge profits for market manipulators.

As a citizen, I am forced to form an opinion using nothing but the questionable "facts" emerging in the news, plus my own guesses and suspicions. How does one form an opinion in that environment?

In a situation with so much at stake and so little reliable information, I default to the following rule: If you don't know which choice is right, pick the one that costs the least to implement. So I don't support bombing Syria; it sounds expensive.

I want to be clear that I'm not recommending a course of action for the United States. I don't have access to the information that the decision-makers have. All I'm saying is that the government has a credibility problem where money is involved, and lots of money is riding on the Syria decision. The whole thing smells like bullshit to me.

 
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Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
----------------------------------------------------

I wonder if anyone has done an experiment like the one I'm about to describe. Let me know if you have heard of it.

The experiment would involve one set of slightly underfed mice that are not tall enough when on their hind legs to reach some extra food on a ledge in the cage. They'd smell it and want it, but they couldn't reach. The food would always be there, day after day, just out of reach.

You'd need a control group of mice who are similarly underfed but have no shelf of food that is frustratingly beyond their reach.

I'm curious if the mice that have the shelf of food just above their reach would produce taller offspring, on average, than the control group.

If so, I would call that Aspirational Evolution. My hypothesis is that creatures with brains have evolved in a way that allows one generation to influence the genes of the next based on what the parents imagine they need to better survive.

I do know that if one generation of humans lifts weights, for example, it doesn't automatically make their kids have bigger muscles. But going to the gym has no immediate survival advantage in the way that extra food has to a hungry mouse. Exercise registers to us as more of a rational decision that might pay off over the years. Hunger is right now, and emotional.

When humans get stressed, their bodies automatically produce one set of chemicals, and if they fall in love they produce another. There's a lot going on in our bodies, chemistry-wise. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that our minds - and specifically our aspirations - positively influence the design of the sperm and eggs that are formed by our bodily juices.

Has anyone done that experiment?

 
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I'm starting the process of redesigning Dilbert.com.

Long overdue, I know. But I've been quite busy lately.

I'd love to hear your suggestions as I compile my list of requirements.

I know the comments engine here is a mess. And I know you want the profanity filter to die. And I know the site is uglier and slower than it needs to be.

I'm thinking of killing the mash-ups feature. It had a good run. Unless you tell me otherwise.

I'm noodling on adding a few new things below the strip on the main page, which has been mostly wasted space. Some ideas include:

1. A Reddit-like feature so you can suggest interesting links and others can vote on them. I would build the engine so you can include your profile picture (or any image you choose) plus a section for you to give a plug for yourself or your company. 

2. Some sort of Dilbert-branded store -- operated by a third-party -- for items that everyone needs, such as replacement cables, phone chargers, or other common tech devices. Another way to go would be a Dilbert-branded store for more exotic and cool tech stuff or uncommon products that cleverly solve common problems.

3. Guest bloggers: Anyone can submit an opinion piece, with a plug for yourself or your company. Readers vote up the best ones.

4. Highlight links to other great comics at GoComics.com.

5. Reader-submitted stories of bad or absurd management. The ones voted to the top by readers would become comic fodder for Dilbert.

6. Add other content that supports your morning ritual that includes checking the Dilbert comic, checking stocks, weather, and some other popular tech and business news sites.

7. Irreverant business news of the day, summarized by Dogbert or one of the other Dilbert crew in a separate window.

8. User-submitted hacks and inventions. Upload photos and descriptions of your awesome hacks, work-arounds, inventions, and fixes, for, well, anything. Show your geeky solutions to the world.

9. Investment ideas and discussions with an emphasis on tech companies.

I'm told that a good website needs to inspire curiosity in visitors. If you have any ideas on keeping readers curious, I'd love to hear them. 







 
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I smile for at least two reasons:

1.       I am happy.

2.       I want to influence someone.

If you smile because you're happy, that seems honest enough. But what about smiling when you're not feeling it on the inside, such as during a job interview, or while trying to make a good impression on a potential love interest? Is it ethical to fake-smile?

Research backs common sense on this topic: Smiling influences how people feel about you, and that in turn influences how they act. So if you smile for strategic reasons, you're not a genial personality so much as you are a manipulative bastard.

On the other hand, don't we all have an implied obligation to make the world a better and happier place? If a fake smile causes a real smile in others, and that initiates their happiness subroutine as science says it will, aren't you - the fake smiler - sort of a living saint and a spreader of joy? Or are you still a manipulative bastard?

I was thinking of this recently because an employee at my local UPS store told me I have a "great smile." I thanked her for the compliment, even though my dentist deserves most of the credit. But I felt a little guilty about it because she was reacting to my professional smile as opposed to my happy smile. And by that I mean that I make a special effort to smile during business transactions because it makes my experience and that of others a little bit nicer. And it's free, so why not?

Smiles are like compliments in the sense that they cost you nothing while having a real impact on the happiness of others. So I try to dole out both smiles and compliments whenever I get the chance. But I have a tiny reservation about the honesty of it all. I never give out false compliments, so that part is honest. And I generally don't smile at people unless I think they deserve it. But there's no doubt that it is intended for effect, and therefore manipulative by definition.

Do you ever smile with the intention of manipulating others? And if you don't, why are you so selfish?

-----------------------------------------------

On another topic, have you friended Dilbert and me yet on Facebook? www.facebook.com/dilbert

 I also accept all connections on my personal LinkedIN account.

 
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Most of you probably heard of a study that, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, indicates you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an "expert" at anything.

More recently, someone looked at the study and pointed out that 10,000 was an average. If you have the right genes, you might need far less practice, while other people might need far more. So the average of 10,000 hours is a fairly useless number. All we know for sure is that practice is a good thing.

Other writers have been pointing out that it also matters what you practice. If you practice the wrong stuff, it doesn't matter how much effort you put into it.

What you have read so far in this post is seen as ground-breaking thinking in the field of success. Allow me to list these shocking results:

1.       Practicing the right things is important!

2.       It helps to have the right genes!

Summary: duh

I'll add one more, um, insight? It goes like this: The only people who can put in long hours of the right type of practice are . . . drum roll please . . . PEOPLE WITH THE RIGHT GENES.

Oh, and also victims. If your parents made you practice the flute for 10,000 hours, and it wasn't your thing, you aren't an expert. You're a victim.

Do you know why I don't put in long hours training for a marathon? Is it a lack of focus and dedication?

No, although I don't have any of that stuff either, at least for running.

The reason I'm not training for a marathon is that my body isn't built for it. I'm a lifelong exerciser with 16% body fat. I try to work out seven days a week. But my genes just aren't right for distance running. I'm built for sprinting. So for me, tennis makes more sense. I've played about 8,000 hours of tennis, according to my thumbnail calculation. I should crack the 10,000 hour mark by the time I'm seventy, at which point I expect to win Wimbledon. I hope to God I haven't been practicing the wrong strokes this whole time.

Anyway, here's my formula for becoming an expert:

1.       Be born with the right genes. (luck)

2.       Have opportunities that work well with your genes. (luck)

At best, becoming an expert is a process of moving from a game that's wrong for you to one that fits your genes. That's the part you can control, at least according to the common view of free will.

The diabolical element of the "expert" conversation is that it relies on an illusion. That illusion is generally referred to as willpower. The idea is that one can hunker down and do unpleasant things that need to be done if one has enough of this thing called willpower.

But willpower is like the horizon. You can see the horizon, define it, and even walk toward it. And yet a horizon exists as nothing but a concept. You can't scoop up some horizon and put it on a basket.

Willpower is like that. We know what we mean when we speak of it, but it doesn't exist. It is an illusion.

Let's say you and I are sitting in a room with donuts in front of us. We both know donuts are bad for our health. Which one of us breaks down and eats a donut first?

Is it the one of us with the least willpower?

No.

It's the hungriest one.

Willpower is an illusion.

People become experts for the same reason most things happen: luck. You need the right genes and you need to be born into the right environment. The most important skill involved in success is knowing how and when to switch to a game with better odds for you.







 

 
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As you know, whenever the earbuds for your iPod or phone are not directly observed, they come alive, like thin, angry snakes. Their single-minded focus is to tie themselves into annoying tangles of knots. My hypothesis is that earbuds hate humans because we are always sticking their tiny heads into our waxy ear holes. If a giant did that to you, you'd probably wait until he was napping and tie his shoelaces together. So I think that's what's happening with the earbuds. It's a revenge thing.

Every time I get to the gym, I remove my iPod from my gym bag and discover that my unobserved earbuds have knit themselves into a dense birds' nest. I spend the first ten minutes of my exercise time sorting them out and muttering under my breath that there must be a better way.



So I decided to invent that better way. I didn't want to carefully wrap the earbuds up and place them in some sort of protective case. That would be a bother. I wanted to toss the mess in my bag as always, but without the birds' nest problem.

My idea was that if I could easily snap the earbuds to the back of the iPod case before tossing the whole mess in my gym bag that would be enough to prevent tangling. I made a prototype of my design using a rubber band. I used the rubber band to secure the ear-ends of the earbuds to the back of the case, and kept the plug connected to the iPod. With both ends of the earbuds secured to the iPod, the dangling cords resisted tangling. I just took it out of my bag, shook twice, and the cords relaxed into a loopy, untangled state. Success!

Now I needed a more elegant solution than a rubber band. So I bought some Velcro self-stick material and put one strip on the back of the iPod. A second strip would secure the earbud cords to the first. The Velcro didn't add enough bulkiness to the iPod for me to notice when it was in my pocket.





Success! In field trials, my design worked every time. It was simple to attach the earbuds between the Velcro strips and the cords never tangled in my bag. I was quite proud of my invention.

As you know, pride is that wonderful feeling you experience between the time you have a great idea and the time you show it to someone else. I demonstrated my brilliant invention to my teenaged step kids as they watched quietly, in awe I presumed. I used an actual gym bag to demonstrate how the cords would tangle when my concept was not used. Then I wowed them with my invention. I even added a flourish when removing the iPod and cords from the bag. I gave the iPod a casual shake and the cords dropped into a loose, untangled position. I waited for the slow-clap that would become a standing ovation. It was my finest moment as a step dad. Finally, after years of trying, I would earn the respect I craved.



My step daughter, who was not in awe of my demonstration, took the earbuds out of my hands and said, "Or you could do this." She directed me to the little rubber connector on the earbuds themselves that allow you to snap one earpiece to the other. After several trial runs I determined that this too keeps the earbuds from tangling in the bag.

So it turns out - and I did not see this coming - that Apple has some engineers who think of stuff too. Nicely played, Apple engineers.

 
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I'm starting to wonder if the era of super-big problems is over. Wars are trending smaller. Economic meltdowns aren't quite so deep or lasting. Israel has become so skilled at managing its local threats that a peace treaty would feel like a step backwards. The Gates Foundation is chipping away at malaria. The technology to create and deliver food where it's needed is better than ever. New energy sources are popping up daily.

Generally speaking, the world's biggest problems have shifted from the right-now type to the pending doom type. Climate change might end us all someday. A meteor might head our way. The global economy might disintegrate because of (insert reason). Iran might build a nuke and use it. Immigration problems might evolve from a nuisance to a huge problem. Pipelines might burst and pollute stuff. Demographics might make us a world full of senile oldsters. And so on.

There's a lot of scary stuff in the "might" category. Luckily, the Adams Theory of Slow-Moving Disasters predicts that any problem the world sees coming gets solved. We humans are surprisingly competent when we focus.

The great thing about the connected world is that we can see problems developing early enough to head them off. We can monitor climate change over time. We can detect terror plots before they are executed. We can identify financial bubbles early. We can alter lifestyle to ward off predictable future health problems.

A huge advantage of the connected world is that we can study what one government does to address a given problem and then steal those best practices. We could be a lot better at doing that, but the trend seems clear enough.

1.       We now have the means to predict most problems well in advance.

2.       We can borrow best practices from anywhere in the world.

3.       Modern technology provides immense problem-solving tools.

Now that civilization has the ability to identify problems early, and the ability to research and borrow best practices to solve those problems, the weak link is government. Our current forms of government - at least the democracies - are poorly designed for data-driven decisions. Dogma, superstition, money, and reelection concerns will always trump data.

I don't think there's a realistic hope of reengineering the basic forms of our elected governments anytime soon. Perhaps we need an independent group of scientists and engineers to identify trending national problems, rank them for importance, and identify best practices from other places. The entrenched political parties will of course ignore data and best practices as they always have. But perhaps the existence of well-publicized best practices will encourage future candidates to run on platforms of data over dogma.

I would feel most comfortable if the scientists and engineers in this independent group were atheists who don't vote and aren't strongly aligned with any political party - sort of like having eunuchs guard the harem.

 
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I'm an early adapter of Google's new $35 Chromecast product.

I ordered it as soon as I read about it, but not because I wanted the product. I wanted to test my powers of pattern recognition. I do that sometimes. If you live long enough, you can predict which sorts of things won't work even before you try them. In this case, it seemed unlikely to me that I could scroll through content on my phone and tell the Internet to send it seamlessly to my Chromecast dongle so it could display on my TV. Too many hand-offs and synchronization problems, I thought. It just feels like the sort of thing that looks good on paper but never works when you get it home.

So here's my review of the Chromecast:

1.       Looks good on paper.

2.       Doesn't work when you get it home.

Okay, some details.

The set-up only has a few steps, but the on-screen directions for one of the steps was so oddly worded that I predict no more than 20% of the general public would be able to decipher it. I stared at it for a few minutes and considered quitting. Eventually I took a guess at what the directions meant and it worked out. Most of the readers of this blog would have guessed right too. To put it in perspective, if you are the type who can buy a wireless router and set it up without help, Chromecast would be easy enough to set up. Otherwise you might need to ask for help.

To be fair, the setup is just one poorly-worded instruction away from being genius. And I'm sure by now someone has posted a YouTube video of how to do it.

Once Chromecast was up and running, I couldn't immediately adjust the TV volume because my universal remote didn't have the TV's internal speaker volume on its top menu screen. In my house, that means I would be the only one who could figure out how to drill down to the internal speakers menu on the universal remote to adjust volume. If your TV doesn't have external surround sound speakers, it's not an issue.

I downloaded apps for Netflix and YouTube - which is about all I can do with Chromecast and my iPhone - and waited for the system to not work, because that's how this sort of thing goes. And sure enough, the pattern held. The apps would lock up on a regular basis. Sometimes the video and the sound didn't sync. Overall, it didn't work well enough to trust it for an entire movie.

In the few minutes of uninterrupted video and sound I was able to produce through Netflix, I could see the potential of the thing. If it ever worked, it would be fantastic, especially for the price.

I was also impressed that I could move the device to another TV and it retained its setup programming, at least within the house where it has the same WiFi. That was handy.

Your experience with Chromecast might be different. And I would expect some of the bugs to shake out soon. I like the promise of it. And if you have a teen who likes to watch YouTube clips on a big screen, it could be a great gift. It works well enough for that if you don't mind the occasional technical problems and freeze-ups.

 
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