Monthly Archives: February 2006

Apologies for no blogging: on vacation

Sorry for the lack of blogging in the past few days: I was in Venice for a short trip for the carnival, and the festive atmosphere has kept me away from even light blogging. Heading home right now, so from tomorrow morning things will be back to normal.


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Burn the witch!

In the past few days, this blog has seen some rather heated discussions of intolerance, attempts to suppress “offensive” speech, and elevation of dogma over science on the part of the religious right. Now comes an example of the same from the politically correct left: Harvard president Lawrence Summers has announced that he will resign at the end of this academic year. His decision is widely seen as stemming in large part from the brouhaha over his speech last year in which Summers said, in part, that the underrepresentation of women in science may be partly due to biological differences between the sexes (and thus irremediable), which prompted an outcry from the faculty. In his letter to the Harvard community, Summers notes that “the rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard’s future.”

Here’s my March 1, 2005 Boston Globe column on the Summers controversy:

THE REAL scandal at Harvard is not that university president Lawrence Summers suggested, at a private symposium, that the small numbers of women in math and science departments at top research institutions may be due less to sex discrimination than to personal choices and inherent sex differences. The scandal is that his fairly innocuous, carefully hedged remarks sparked an irrational, intolerant outcry and that Summers was forced to offer groveling apologies in order to save his job.

Now that the transcript of Summers’s remarks at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce on Jan. 14 has been released, let’s clarify what Summers did not say. He did not say that women are intellectually inferior to men or that women can’t be great scientists. He did not say that young women shouldn’t be encouraged to pursue careers in math and science or that there is no need to combat discrimination. (In fact, he said just the opposite.) He did suggest that even with the best efforts, full parity might be unattainable.

One reason for the imbalance, Summers said, is that science is one of those fields where highly successful people must have “near total commitments to their work” and fewer women than men are willing to make such a commitment, particularly women with families. (He added, “That’s not a judgment about how it should be.”) That is, quite simply, true. In a 2001 study by University of Vanderbilt psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow, nearly a third of talented female graduate students in math and science and only 9 percent of the men said it was important to work part-time for at least a part of their careers. More egalitarian family roles would solve the problem.

Summers also touched feminism’s third rail: biological differences between the sexes. The issue isn’t average mathematical ability, which is quite similar for men and women; it’s that many more males are clustered at the high and low ends of the scale, among the geniuses and the learning-disabled, while women are more likely to be found near the middle.

Is it “crazy,” as Harvard physics professor Howard Georgi averred, to suggest that this may be due partly to scientifically proven brain differences? These differences aren’t absolute (about a third of each sex usually fits the pattern more typical of the other), but they’re significant enough to result in uneven distribution. Few would question the role of biology in the fact that four out of five children with autism are male.

Why deny it so strenuously when it comes to mathematical and scientific geniuses? Why refuse to consider that innate differences in temperament may make women more likely to prefer people-oriented occupations? Discrimination can’t explain why women have made far greater inroads in formerly male-dominated fields such as law and medi cine than the hard sciences.

Summers’s comments are hardly beyond criticism. He may well have underestimated the role of culture in gender differences. His story about his daughters calling their toy trucks “daddy truck” and “baby truck” belongs to the annoying “how my kids confirm gender stereotypes” anecdotal genre. Still, his informal talk was more grounded in solid research than the 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the status of women faculty, a largely data-free hodgepodge of broad claims about discrimination and women’s feelings of marginalization and misery.

The anti-Summers backlash is a scary display of know-nothingism, an embarrassing spectacle of academics rushing to denounce the mere statement of an unorthodox hypothesis. Like the MIT study, it’s likely to create a climate that ultimately won’t be good for women scientists. In his talk, Summers warned that an aggressive push to hire and promote more women i.e. preferential treatment may cast a shadow on women’s merits, even when their advancement is based solely on talent. A number of women scientists such as Lynn Hillenbrand, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, have expressed similar concerns.

It has been suggested that Summers’s comments could discourage scientifically talented young women. But exaggerated claims of pervasive, subtle discrimination could have an even more discouraging effect. Our message to these women should be that they are individuals whose talent is not diminished by the male-to-female ratio in their field and whose personal choices play a key role in shaping their careers not victims whose fragile egos must be protected from dangerous ideas of gender difference.

The witch-hunt against Summers may not have been quite up there with Stalinist show trials, as some have rhetorically claimed; but it was an egregious display of PC intolerance, and now the witch-hunters have had their burning at the stake, which is likely to have (pardon the mixed metaphor) a chilling effect on other administrators who would raise similar contentious issues.

For those who want to read Summers’ heresy for themselves, here it is. Stanley Kurtz thinks Summers’ real sin was the apology (his Galileo moment, so to speak), and he may be right.


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Russia: Everything old is new again?

More disturbing news out of Russia. According to The Independent:

After a number of delays, a “Stalin museum” dedicated to the once venerated Father of the People is to be opened at the end of March in Volgograd, the Second World War “hero city” once known as Stalingrad.

The project is being financed by local businessmen but will controversially enjoy pride of place in the official complex that commemorates the epic Second World War Battle of Stalingrad.

The museum will display a writing set owned by the dictator, copies of his historic musings, a mock-up of his Kremlin office, a Madame Tussauds-style wax representation of him and medals, photographs and busts.

Svetlana Argatseva, the museum’s curator, said she felt the project was justified. “In France, people regard Napoleon and indeed the rest of their history with respect. We need to look at our history in the same way.”

But Eduard Polyakov, the chairman of a local association of victims of political repression, is among those who believe the project is an insult to the millions who suffered in Stalin’s purges and were sent to their death in the Gulag. “I don’t even want to hear about this,” he said.


The comeback of a man whose bloodied hands are often compared to Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, has alarmed the more liberal wing of Russia’s political class. The Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that neo-Stalinism is on the march again while Russia’s first post-Soviet President Boris Yeltsin has said he can’t understand why Stalin is still so popular.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of poll respondents regularly rate Stalin’s achievements as “positive” and a survey last year named him the most revered Communist leader the USSR produced. Admirers cite his turning the Soviet Union into a superpower, the country’s defeat of fascism and the “order” he enforced.

Significantly, there has been no reaction so far from the Putin government, which — without quite resurrecting Stalinism — has made moves to restore “pride” in the country’s Soviet past. Given the autoritarian climate in Putin’s Russia, it is highly doubtful that those Volgograd businessmen would have had the nerve to open a Stalin museum without at least implicit approval by the government.

Incidentally, February 25 is the 50th anniversary of the speech Nikita Khrushchev gave at a closed Party leadership meeting denoucing the Stalin “personality cult.”

In the meantime, Putin has been the object of something of a “personality cult” of his own. A Russian friend has sent in this sample:

It’s a Putin pocket calendar, complete with glitter, the Kremlin towers, and billowing banners.

It all reminds me of a Russian limerick that made the rounds after Khrushchev was deposed and forced into retirement in 1964:

How embarrasing! How shameful!
How could this have come about?
We’ve kissed ass for near a decade —
But the wrong one, it turned out.

Still, the nation marches onward,
Quite unfazed by such a mess,
For we’re confident as ever
That we’ll find another ass.

(Translation by yours truly.)

On a less facetious note, Michael McFaul in The Weekly Standard reviews a new book on the Putin regime’s slow strangulation of Russia’s infant democracy. He concludes:

If democracy’s erosion in Russia is as serious as it is portrayed here, why does President Bush seem so blasé about it? In his second inaugural address, and in many other inspiring speeches, Bush has pledged to stand against tyranny and with democrats in all parts of the world. Yet he continues to mute his message when meeting with Putin, even though Russia has experienced a more dramatic rollback of democracy than any other country in the world while Bush has been president. In their chapters on diplomacy, Baker and Glasser only tiptoe toward an explanation. The subject demands its own book. But in this truly definitive account of the Putin era, Kremlin Rising may help to be part of the solution. No one can read it and not feel uneasy about Russia’s short-term future.

The next time Natan Sharansky visits the White House to offer counsel on how to advance liberty around the world, Kremlin Rising is the book he should give the president.


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False rape charges: a feminist responds

Recently, Jeff Goldstein challenged feminist bloggers to respond to a bizarre California story about a false accusation of rape that was disproved only by the existence of a videotape, and to the fact that such charges — which can potentially lead to years of imprisonment for the falsely accused — are generally treated lightly by the legal system. I responded to the story here.

Now, Jill at Feministe — one of the bloggers Jeff addressed — has a response of her own. Jill points to an absolutely horrible story from Iran, involving a teenage girl named Naznin, who has been sentenced to death by hanging for stabbing a man to death when he and two other men tried to rape her and her niece in a park after chasing away their male companions by pelting them with stones.

Jill then comments:

There isn’t much else to say about this one, is there? It’s disgusting beyond words.

But of course, I shouldn’t take this girl’s word on its face. I mean, we all know that women lie about rape for fun and no one lies about other crimes, and this girl especially had something to gain. Perhaps we should consider a higher legal bar in evaluating rape charges. Right?

Of course, if a male blogger posted some terrible story about an innocent man being lynched on a false accusation of rape, and then added a snarky aside along the lines of, “I mean, we all know that women never lie about rape and we should just believe the women,” then we’d all know he was a misogynist… right?

I’ve seen Jill’s posts before, at Feministe and on others blogs. I’ve often disagreed with her, but she always struck me as someone willing, at least, to engage in an honest exchange of ideas. But now, confronted with an open-and-shut case of a woman lying about rape — a lie that could have sent six men to prison for many years — she can do no better than to use Nazanin’s tragic story to try to score a cheap rhetorical point.

Disappointing, to say the least.


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Hyping the Muslim peril

I did say that this would be my last word on the Mohammed cartoons, but here’s something that’s more or less directly connected to that topic, and that deserves a response.

Andrew Sullivan, who ever since the start of the cartoon controversy has been beating the alarm about the threat posed by Muslims to liberties in the West, has a post titled “How Muslim Blackmail Works.”

Moscow has now canceled its Gay Pride parade. It was canceled after the chief Muslim leader in Russia warned that marchers would be “bashed” if they dared to walk the streets. Money quote:

“Earlier this week Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin warned that Russia’s Muslims would stage violent protests if the march went ahead. “If they come out on to the streets anyway they should be flogged. Any normal person would do that – Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike … [The protests] might be even more intense than protests abroad against those controversial cartoons.” The cleric said the Koran taught that homosexuals should be killed because their lifestyle spells the extinction of the human race and said that gays had no human rights.”

Sullivan then laments “appeasement of these religious terrorists.”

But when you read the article he references, from The Independent, a rather different picture emerges.

For one thing, the parade was not “canceled,” which would imply that at one point it had been approved. Rather, it was preemptively vetoed by the city government. According to the story:

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s administration said yesterday it would not even consider an application for a parade, prompting Russia’s gay community to threaten legal action in the European Court of Human Rights.

Gay and lesbian activists have been campaigning for permission to stage the country’s first gay pride event on Saturday 27 May.

The date marks the 13th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Russia in 1993.

After quoting the Mufti, the story continues:

The Russian Orthodox Church has called [the parade] “the propaganda of sin”. Bishop Daniil of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk yesterday condemned the plans as a “cynical mockery” and likened homosexuality to leprosy.

The mayor’s spokesman, Sergei Tsoi, said a parade would not be allowed. “[The plans] have caused outrage in society, particularly among religious leaders,” he said.

In the Communist era Russian homosexuals were jailed for five years and their “condition” was classed as a mental disorder. In post-Soviet Russia public acceptance of homosexuality has been glacial. An opinion poll last year showed 43 per cent of Russians believed gay men should be incarcerated.

There is, in other words, a great deal more to this story than “Muslim blackmail.” In fact, I would venture a guess that “Muslim blackmail,” in this case, is not part of the story at all. We’re talking about Moscow, where ethnics from mostly Muslim regions are routinely harassed and abused by the police; and about Russia, where the government would rather risk hostages’ lives than negotiate with terrorists. That the government in Putin’s Russia would capitulate to the threat of violent protests is unlikely to the point of being absurd. (In fact, many believe that Putin’s government has often used extremist groups for its own purposes, to intimidate opponents.) It’s just as absurd to think that the authorities needed any Muslim pressure to ban a gay pride parade. Russia is a deeply homophobic society (where, two years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church razed a chapel after it was “defiled” by a wedding ceremony between two men). It needs no help from Muslims in that regard.

I do agree, of course, that in many European countries, there is a genuine conflict between the conservative values of Muslim immigrants and the openness and pluralism of the societies around them. But this is simply not one of those cases. I also think that intimidation is definitely a factor in this conflict, and the sensibilities of Muslim immigrants are respected out of fear as well asmulticulturalist deference. But not everything is about the Muslim peril. If Amsterdam had canceled its gay pride parade in response to threats from Muslim leaders, that would have been a clearcut, and appalling, case of intimidation. In Moscow, there is little doubt that the ban reflected the authorities’ true wishes.


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And speaking of intolerance….

The Arizona state legislature wants to protect college students from any course materials that might hurt their poor little feelings.

According to Inside Higher Ed:

The legislation … would require public colleges to provide students with “alternative coursework” if a student finds the assigned material “personally offensive,” which is defined as something that “conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” On Wednesday, the bill starting moving, with the Senate Committee on Higher Education approving the measure — much to the dismay of professors in the state.

The Arizona bill … goes so far that David Horowitz, the ’60s radical turned conservative activist who has pushed the Academic Bill of Rights, opposes the measure. “It doesn’t respect the authority of the professor in the classroom,” he said. “This authority does not include the right to indoctrinate students or deny them access to texts with points of view that differ from the professor’s. But it does include the right to assign texts that make students feel uncomfortable.”

… Although the legislation has a long way to go before it could become law, the idea that the Senate committee charged with overseeing colleges would approve the measure is upsetting to academics. They are also angry because the evidence cited by lawmakers to support the bill appears to be based on a misreading of an acclaimed novel.

The sponsors of the bill did not respond to messages seeking comment. But local news coverage of the session at which the bill won committee approval quoted Sen. Thayer Verschoor as citing complaints he had received about The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody that was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee. “There’s no defense of this book. I can’t believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material,” Verschoor said at the hearing, according to The Arizona Star. Other senators spoke at the hearing, the newspaper reported, against colleges teaching “pornography and smut.”

Actually, there are plenty who would defend teaching The Ice Storm, including the professor whose course appears to have set off Verschoor. The course — at Chandler-Gilbert Community College — was “Currents of American Life,” a team-taught course in the history and literature of the modern United States. The literature that students read is selected to reflect broad themes of different eras, according to Bill Mullaney, a literature professor. For example, students read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The Ice Storm was a logical choice for teaching about the 1970s, Mullaney said, because the novel looks at suburban life at a crucial point in that decade: the collapse of the Nixon administration. While two families’ lives are dissected, Watergate is always in the background and the relationship between private morality and public scandal is an important theme.

Adultery is central to the novel and one of its most famous scenes involves a “key party,” in which couples throw their car keys in bowl, and then pull out keys to decide which wife will sleep with which husband (not her own) after the party. From comments at the Senate markup of the bill, it seems clear that lawmakers had heard about the wife swapping, but Mullaney and others doubt that they actually read the book. If they had, they might have realized that Moody’s portrayal of ’70s culture is far from admiring.


Chandler-Gilbert officials said that Mullaney and all of their professors take a number of steps that indicate that they do respect students’ rights to avoid certain material. Mullaney, for example, had a reference on his syllabus to the controversial nature and “adult themes” of some works, and he draws students’ attention to that reference on the first day, when they have time to switch courses or sections. In the case of the student whose complaint apparently set off the bill, however, he ignored the warning and demanded an alternate book several weeks into the course, saying he hadn’t paid attention when Mullaney noted the material earlier. The student’s mother also called the college president (although the student is over 18).

Mullaney said that he respects the right of students to decide which courses to take, but that students can’t dictate books to be taught. “This is totally unworkable in the classroom,” he said. “If you have students demanding alternative books, and one student is reading one book, and one another, and one another — it doesn’t make any sense in terms of how you teach.”

If the bill became law, he added, professors would have to avoid controversial books so they wouldn’t risk losing control of their reading lists. “I joke that what I’ll do is just teach To Kill a Mockingbird — all the time,” he said.

Faculty and administrative groups are opposing the bill. …

The Arizona Daily Star
quoted Senator Verschoor as acknowledging that additional negotiations might be needed. He said that he doubted colleges would follow the bill’s provisions now “because of the whole academic freedom thing.”

Oh yeah, that. The whole academic freedom thing.

Well, all right, it’s not on a par with issuing fatwahs and lopping off heads. But hypersensitive students can dictate what books a professor can assign? A parent complaining about her grown son being exposed to a book with (gasp!) sexual content? One doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Given that this bill is actually moving through the legislature, I think alarm is a more appropriate response.

By the way, Prof. Mullaney shouldn’t be so confident about teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. In recent years the book has been criticized on feminist grounds, for its unsympathetic treatment of a (white) woman accusing a (black) man of rape. And can anyone doubt that if the Arizona legislature gets the bill through thanks to special pleading from affronted traditionalists, it will also end up being used by affronted feminists, minorities, and others?


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Obesity, medical studies, and gender politics

The other day, at the American Enterprise Institute conference called “Panick Attack” (focusing on modern culture’s proneness to exaggerated fear), James Glassman talked about government- and media-promoted hysteria about obesity. Obesity is, by the way, an interesting issue politically: hostility to what some see as a campaign to exaggerate the dangers of fatness is found both on the libertarian right, which sees it as elitist do-gooder meddling with people’s lifestyles, and on the cultural left, which sees it as an attempt to give medical validation to oppressive standards of beauty and body shape (you know — fat liberation, fat-is-a-feminist-issue, etc.).

As an example of how misguided this campaign supposedly is, Glassman cited the recent study, publicized by Gina Kolata in the New York Times, claiming that reducing dietary fat does not reduce the risk of cancer and heart attack. This study, a part of the Women’s Health Initiative, is the largest of its kind; it followed nearly 49,000 women ages 50 to 79 over the course of eight years, about 40% of whom were assigned to a low-fat diet. This led one researcher quoted by Kolata to call it “the Rolls-Royce of studies.”

Well, it’s certainly a Rolls-Royce cost-wise, at $415 million. But it may be a defective Rolls-Royce.

For instance, the Columbia Journalism Review daily points out, relying on a Wall Street Journal article:

The problem with the study, the Journal went on to point out, was that it did not distinguish between so-called “good” fats, like omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, and “bad” fats, such as the saturated and trans fats found in fried and processed foods. Also, the Journal noted, the women on the low-fat diet didn’t do a great job of sticking with it. As a result, the overall difference between the two diets ended up being fairly minimal. That the resulting health differences were also fairly minimal, therefore, was not exactly big news.

Some of the same points are made in letters to the Times (no longer available online at the Times site).

For instance, Dr. David L. Katz of the Yale School of Medicine points out:

The diet component of the Women’s Health Initiative compared some 20,000 women advised to cut dietary fat and increase their intake of produce to a comparable group given the federal dietary guidelines.

The difference in these interventions was modest; the advice to cut fat without attention to kinds of fat, questionable; and subject compliance, limited.

Thus, there were only rather trivial differences in the diets between groups, and despite that, a trend toward reduced rates of both breast cancer and cardiovascular risk factors in the intervention group.

That there were any discernible differences in outcomes at all is more surprising than how modest those differences were, particularly given that cancer and heart disease develop over decades and that this intervention occurred relatively late in life, in women well past menopause.

My convictions in the fundamentals of a healthful diet are unshaken.

Another writer notes:

In the mid-1990’s, when my mother first became a subject of the Women’s Health Initiative study, of which the low-fat study was a part, she complained after her first orientation session, ”They make no distinction between lard and olive oil!”

A slim, healthy senior citizen with no medical background, she was already aware, a decade ago, of mounting evidence that all fats are not equal.

But the study’s designers paid no attention to this, and we went ahead and paid $415 million to carry it out.

It would be highly irresponsible of the American medical community if, as Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society suggests, this were to be the last word. The study was flawed and dated from the get-go.

Actually, it was. And some people even pointed it out at the time.

On November 2, 1993, The New York Times reported:

A committee of the Institute of Medicine said today that it was skeptical of the merits of a women’s health study planned by the the National Institutes of Health at a cost of $625 million. The committee said much of the anticipated data could probably be obtained with smaller, better-focused and less costly projects.

The committee, which spent six months examining plans for the Women’s Health Initiative at the request of the House Appropriations Committee, said it questioned the value of the nationwide study as designed and recommended changing it.

Much of the criticism, as it happens, focused on the low-fat diet/breast cancer study. (Among other things, according to a Washington Post report on the same date, committee members expressed doubt that the necessary diet modification could be carried out with such a large pool of subjects.) The panel also warned that the cost estimates for the study were far too low and that it would end up costing at least twice as much as projected. Considering that the low-fat diet study was only one of its many components and that it has already run up a $415 million tab, that seems likely.

All these recommendations were rejected. Why?

Well, let’s recall how the WHI came into being in the first place. In the early 1990s, there was a big to-do about alleged neglect of women in medical research. For the most part, this neglect was a myth. For instance, while members of the Congressional Women’s Caucus were outraged by a report showing that less than 14% of National Institutes of Health spending in 1987 was for research on female-specific illnesses, they apparently didn’t noticed that fewer than 7% of the NIH budget was allocated to male-specific problems (the rest went to the far more numerous diseases that afflict both sexes). And, while there were a lot of claims that breast cancer research had been underfunded because it was “only” a women’s disease, breast cancer was in fact one of the most extensively studied and most generously funded diseases long before the rise of women’s health activism. In 1991, the National Cancer Institute allocated more research dollars to breast cancer than to any other single type of cancer — indeed, more than to lung cancer and prostate cancer combined. From 1981 to 1991, the NCI spent $658 million on breast cancer research and $113 million on prostate cancer. Medline, the comprehensive database of medical journals, has nearly 18,000 entries for breast cancer in 1966-1991, compared to fewer than 1,800 for prostate cancer and about 8,600 for lung cancer.

Nonetheless, just about everyone picked up the “sexist bias in medicine” meme and ran with it. Then-NIH president Bernadine Healy, a major proponent of this myth, pushed for a major study to remedy this supposed bias. And so the WHI was born. Its champions’ reaction to criticism of the study was telling.

According to The Washington Post:

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, said that the IOM report is shortsighted. The Women’s Health Initiative, she said, addresses a historical lack of interest in women’s health issues; to make it shorter or less costly would repeat past inequities. “We just want to make sure,” Schroeder said, “that nobody cuts the corners on us one more time.”

The cry of sexism was echoed by Healy, in The New York Times:

“Billions of dollars have been spent to do research in men, and now a relatively modest study comes along to do studies in women, and it is subject to this kind of scrutiny,” Dr. Healy said. “However, when this study is over, we will know a lot more about women’s health than we do today.”

(By the way, seven of the committee’s 11 members were women.)

And so the study went forward as planned.

At this time, it is perhaps fitting to quote the words of Yale epidemiologist Dr. Kelly Brownell, one of the IOM panel members, who told The Washington Post, “the science has to be good or the money will be wasted.”

Well, yeah. That’s what happens when you get politics-driven science, whether the politics are based on religion, feminism, or any other type of ideology.


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