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The staff of music is long, but it bends towards harmony: An interview with the authors of Theft! A History of Music

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“To those who think that mash-ups and sampling started with YouTube or a DJ’s turntables, it might be shocking to find that musicians have been borrowing—extensively borrowing, consciously and unconsciously—from each other since music itself began,” write James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, two superhero academics have taken on the subject of music and creativity in a new graphic novel. Meticulously researched and incredibly entertaining, the book explores 2,000 years of musical history, from Plato’s admonition that “musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state” to the recent “Blurred Lines” case – and everything in between.

theft-coverTheft! A History of Music is the newest comic from Jenkins and Boyle, the team behind the 2006 fair use comic Bound by Law. Theft was written in collaboration with the late illustrator and academic Keith Aoki; Boyle and Jenkins developed the graphic designs that were illustrated and inked by Ian Akin and Brian Garvey. The book is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 and is available on the website of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

In the book’s afterword, you write that you thought you were “done with comic books.” Why this one, and why now? How did the process of writing this book, which took ten years, differ from your previous comic, “Bound by Law?” Why did you decide to take on music as your next subject?

Bound By Law had success far beyond our expectations because it met a need – it explained fair use to a generation of creators and reusers of culture who found the language of copyright law mystifying and felt thwarted by the “permissions culture” of today, which presumes that permissions and fees must be attached to even the tiniest piece of creative culture.

We thought the same was true of music – particularly the permissions culture point. But when we came to write the book we saw that it had to roam much further, through the history of attempts to regulate musical borrowing – whether on grounds of philosophy, religion, race, or property rights. We saw common themes in all of those, common relationships between technology, incentives, law and the fire of sympathetic inspiration, which is impatient with barriers – whether it was a generation of white teenagers being inspired by African American rhythm and blues, or a church composer taking from the songs of the troubadours. As for the ten years it took us to finish, that gets to the pledge we made to our dear departed colleague, Keith Aoki.

superhero

In some “superhero” type scenes, your protagonists struggle with the push and pull between power and control vs freedom, with alter-egos employed to demonstrate the impossibility of the decision. How do you, as academics and authors, reconcile the tension between these two forces?

We don’t think that the forces can ever be reconciled once and for all; they are dynamic tensions that actually drive the art. The important thing is to understand that this is a dynamic balance, not a simple equation where more control means more incentives and thus more art.

Jamie still remembers the first conversations with Larry Lessig, Hal Abelson and others about why we needed Creative Commons – we asked the Copyright office how creators could choose to share, to make their material freely available for others to use and build upon. Their answer was “we don’t provide that service.” That is missing a key part of the cultural dynamic – the fact that culture needs raw material on which to build. Creative Commons tried to deal with one aspect of that, namely the sharing commons. But we understood very well that some of that raw material needs to be there because law doesn’t reach it in the first place. For example, E=MC2 or the alphabet aren’t “owned” and if they were you would get less creativity, not more. Yet that does not mean freedom is always the answer. We want artists and composers to have rights over their work and to receive the compensation and attribution they richly deserve. That is in their, and our, interests. But it is also in their interests to have the freedoms to build on the past in interstitial ways that prior musical generations took for granted!

abbey-road

Something I found particularly compelling about the book is the complicated nature of many of the artists’ copyright disputes juxtaposed with lighthearted illustrations and narrative. For example, you discuss a number of surprising stories from the 20th Century, like the clampdown on the kind of sampling in early Public Enemy (the court decision announcing “get a license or do not sample”) or the case finding George Harrison liable for “subconscious” copying. You also include more distant history about Bach, Gutenberg, and even Plato in ways that are easy to understand and often irreverent. What was it like to turn court cases and history into comics? How did you employ storytelling tropes to craft a narrative out of 2000 years of scholarship and history?

Each domain of creativity – from music to comics – has its own dynamics. As academics, fond of long, carefully constructed arguments, we found it a wonderful challenge to fit complex and multifaceted ideas into a comic panel, a picture and a short speech bubble! But designing each of those panels was what made the art so truly satisfying – it was a rush, a creative high. As for law, it can be the subject of both art and humour – look at what Shakespeare and Dickens do with it! The question for us here was whether we could be technically faithful to the details and nuances – this is academic research with references behind every assertion, but it is also an attempt to capture a “conversation” that has been going on for hundreds of years, and do so fairly.

blurred-lines

Even a casual reader will notice that the book is well researched. How did you do the research? How did you decide on the narrative structure, from the invention of notation to “Blurred Lines?” What primary sources did you draw on, and how did you do it collaboratively?

Again, there is so much to tell. We worked with composers and musicologists – our colleague, Dr. Anthony Kelley of the Duke music department bears much of the credit there. We taught classes made up of half law students and half composers and asked each group to explain the lines that the other group drew around “allowed” and “forbidden” creativity. We scoured the great books about musical history and borrowing – there are many. We drew on the legal scholars who have touched on this debate – Mike Carroll, another person on the CC founding board has written several of the most important law review articles on the subject. And above all, we listened to how music has been influenced and changed over time.

As for the structure, it emerged out of the chaos of our desire to tell the story and our panic that we wouldn’t be able to do so in a way that showed how fascinating it is. The readers of the book will be the best judge of whether we succeeded.

staff-of-music

The book ends with a question – what will music production and rights look like going forward? How will musicians find their way in the 21st century? What do you think is the future of music?

We see several possible futures. Frankly, if we go on our current path – with the permissions culture extending legal claims to the atomic level of musical creativity – then we think that the future will be poorly served. We say in the book that we wouldn’t have got jazz, rock and roll, soul or the blues if we had used the rules we have today. Those musical forms would simply have been made impossible. It is a horrifying thought to think of that dynamic denying us the next great musical form. But we also see a reaction against that cultural sclerosis. We wanted this book to provide the raw material, the balanced information, that helps us decide as a culture which line we wish to go down.

Watch a three minute video about the book below: 

The post The staff of music is long, but it bends towards harmony: An interview with the authors of Theft! A History of Music appeared first on Creative Commons.

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mako
36 days ago
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Bringing the Boss’s Politics In: Supervisor Political Ideology and the Gender Gap in Earnings

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The gender gap in earnings and rewards remains persistent across many professional and managerial work contexts. In these settings, where there are few objective criteria for performance and organizational mechanisms are weak, we propose that personal political values can serve as a powerful influence on whether supervisors reduce or enhance inequalities in performance-based rewards. We develop theory about how political liberalism versus conservatism affects supervisors’ perceptions and allocative decision-making. Combining internal personnel and billings data with publicly available political donation records in a large law firm, we test the effect of political ideology among supervising law firm partners on the performance-based bonuses awarded to male and female subordinate lawyers. We find the male–female gender gap in performance-based pay is reduced for professional workers tied to liberal supervisors, relative to conservative supervisors. We further find this political ideology effect increases for workers with greater seniority in the organization. Our findings contribute to an understanding of the determinants of the gender earnings gap, suggesting that, in settings where managers have leeway over rewards and careers, their personal political beliefs have an important influence on outcomes for male and female workers.
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36 days ago
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Ideologues and Grifters, Douchebags and Snowflakes: A Theory of the Trump Administration

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I’ve read a lot of confused takes trying trying to make sense of the Trump administration through a traditional left-right lens. I’m sure you have, too. They use words like “pivot” and “establishment” and they struggle to explain when and why Trump does things other Republicans complain about. I find this particular style of Kremlinology unhelpful. Whether “conservatives” or “moderates” are winning is less than half the story.

The biggest division in the Trump White House is between ideologues and grifters. Ideologues care about policy; grifters don’t. Ideologues sometimes fight viciously among themselves over their policy commitments, but they’re united by having commitments at all. Grifters are driven only by the enrichment of the Trump family and the appeasement of Trump’s ego.

Within the ideologue camp, the starkest contrast is between ethno-nationalists (economically populist, isolationist, and sometimes overtly racist) and globalists (economically libertarian, cosmopolitan, and not necessarily racist). There are also disagreements about military policy, but the overall distance between hawks and doves is much narrower.1 There are no analogous divisions within the grifter camp; any side cons they have going are small and personal. The grifters, as I said, are unconcerned with policy for its own sake, but are happy to go along with whatever position is more expedient at the moment.

The other deep division is a matter of style rather than substance: there are douchebags and there are snowflakes, with drones somewhere in between. The key here is shame: the douchebags are psychologically incapable of feeling it, the snowflakes struggle with it constantly, and the drones keep it at bay by crossing their arms and scowling at the floor. Douchebags call up reporters for lengthy profanity-laden tirades; snowflakes call up reporters to say how embarrassed they are; drones call up reporters but ask not to be quoted by name. Douchebags don’t quit because they can’t take a hint; snowflakes constantly wring their hands about quitting but never go through with it; drones quit when asked but never on their own. Douchebags make Trump angry by stealing his headlines; snowflakes by public signs of disloyalty; drones by telling him ‘no’.

Within the Republican party over the last two decades, there has been a rough correlation between ethno-nationalist ideologues and douchebags on the one hand (“conservatives”) and globalist ideologues and drones on the other (“moderates”). But this alignment of substance and style has always only been rough and partial, and one of the things that Trump did during the campaign was to expose, in literally spectacular fashion, how hard it is to pin down a grifter on the conventional political spectrum.

Trump himself is a douchebag grifter, and at the extreme on both axes. But consider some of the other players, past and present, in his administration:

  • Steve Bannon: douchebag ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Sebastian Gorka: douchebag ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Reince Priebus: snowflake ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Jared Kushner: snowflake grifter
  • Gary Cohn: snowflake ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Anthony Scaramucci: douchebag grifter
  • John Kelly: drone ideologue, subtype hawk
  • Jeff Sessions: drone ideologue, subtype ethno-nationalist
  • Mike Pence: drone ideologue, subtype globalist
  • Michael Flynn: drone grifter

With this multi-dimensional taxonomy in mind, some of administration’s personnel gyrations make more sense. Consider the linked fates of Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In January and February they were at each other’s throats, fighting over policy. But by July, as ideologues working for a grifter increasingly hostile to ideologues, they found common cause in fighting for policy at all. Priebus, of course, went out on his ear – but that was primarily for being a snowflake in a position where Trump wanted a douchebag. He got one par excellence in the person of Anthony Scaramucci. Then Scarmucci flew too close to the douchebag sun, so he was one of the first go when Kelly started firing douchebags of all stripes.

In conventional political terms, it looks as though the White House lurched away from Priebus’s pro-business Republican establishment towards Bannon’s insurgent right-wing populism, and then quickly back. Those shifts are to some extent real – a collateral consequence of Kelly’s housecleaning is that the globalist ideologues have (or perhaps had) an open shot on goal in getting Trump to push their tax agenda. But it would be a mistake to see the back-and-forth primarily in those terms, not when so often the motivations are personal rather than political, driven entirely by personalities and rhetoric.

At least when it comes to setting policy, the palace politics of the Trump court are less important than they seem. Trump may swagger and rage like a medieval monarch, but unlike them he lives in a modern media environment. His ministers can keep the courtiers out of the throne room, but they can’t keep the king from seeking the counsel of Vulpes et amici or from listening to the tweeting of a million birds in his ear. The flow of information – both the raw “facts” and the all-important framing – to the current president depends less on White House staff filters than at any time in living memory. James Murdoch’s personnel decisions matter in a way that John Kelly’s don’t: more turns on whether Hannity keeps his job than on whether Bannon does.

The place in which it matters more who survives each successive purge is not in who has Trump’s ear at the moment but in who is there to take orders from him. The Office of Legal Counsel is of the view that the President could scrawl a legally binding executive order on a napkin, but Trump’s tweets are deeply underspecified. Someone has to translate them into directives specific enough to implement on the ground and defend before a judge. When that someone is a Steve Bannon, you get the first Muslim ban: malevolence tempered by incompetence. When that someone is a James Mattis, you get the transgender ban: malevolence subjected to a slow rollout. When that someone is a Leonard Leo, you get Neil Gorsuch.

This is why the current apparent depopulation of the White House staff is significant: Trump’s capacity to execute is dependent on having the cadres to embrace his vision, such as it is, and carry it into effect. One reason the “Reagan revolution” deserves the name is that it swept into Washington a large and ideologically coherent cohort of conservative officials and bureaucratic professionals capable of leaving their stamp on every significant government program. To the extent that anything like this is happening under Trump, it’s a bumper crop of grifters and douchebags with an ethno-nationalist streak – and there are only enough of them to destroy existing programs, rather than to create enduring alternatives. This is the future of your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen.

Except for this: shift your attention from the White House to the agencies and things look rather different (with the notable exception of the State Department under the singularly ineffective Tillerson). The left may mock and disparage, but the reaction from every conservative I’ve talked to has been consistent: Trump’s cabinet is a conservative dream team, and they’re moving quickly and confidently across a wide range of issues. Perhaps simply because Trump has neither a personal financial stake in nor any actual knowledge about most of what the agencies do, he’s been content to leave things up to a crop of appointees who are mostly ideologues and mostly drones.

The current status of the Trump administration, then, might be described as an administrative inversion. The White House, ordinarily the center of policy direction, is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and dignity wraiths die like dogs. The real action is in the agencies. Trump, in this view of things, functions primarily as an electoral rocket car: destructive and uncontrollable, but at least capable of getting things moving. Some Republicans are sticking with Trump because of his style rather than in spite of it – better a right-wing douchebag than a left-wing snowflake – but even those driven by ideology still have something to like. Trump himself may be less than worthless in pushing the policies they care about, and his White House may be a badly-written daytime drama, but as long as he can sign bills and judicial commissions, he’s better than any available alternative. 2

There are ways this alliance of convenience could fall apart, but they are less direct than, “Trump says something else utterly indefensible,” or “The White House staff keep on murdering each other with pickaxes.” These are daily occurrences now, and they are not really news when they happen. Anyone who is ever going to have an experience of total moral clarity about Donald Trump has already had theirs by now. One possibility is that high-profile failures of the conservative agenda in Congress undercut the hope that legislative (as opposed to merely administrative) success is possible under Trump. Another is that Trump’s own appetite for drama and domination – something that is both innate in his personality and strongly encouraged by his preferred media diet – causes him to act out in ways that sabotage the political prospects of his supposed allies and the policies they care about. This is what it takes to get Congressional Republicans upset. Better to have the douchebag grifter inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, they reasoned during the election, but now here he is in office, inside the tent and still pissing inside it. It’s enough to make a drone ideologue go full snowflake.


  1. The reason is that Trump’s path to power as a Republican outsider effectively fenced out both Give Peace a Chance leftists and Carthago Delenda Est neoconservatives of the second Bush administration – that is, anyone committed to significant and sustained departures from the status quo. Trump himself defines both ends of his administration’s military Overton window: tough-talking swagger and fear of getting blamed if something big goes wrong. 

  2. Mike Pence is technically unavailable, even though he’s next in the line of succession. The only plausible way to remove Trump without party-destroying revenge would be a massive stroke – or something else disabling his ability to yell and tweet. 

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mako
36 days ago
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mindspillage
39 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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Mental battlefield: How we are forfeiting the zeroth AI war

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Last week, Jean Twenge wrote the latest in a series of reflections on connected culture: “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?

Some commentators wrote off her concerns as the periodic anxiety of an older generation seeing technology changing the world of their children, comparing it to earlier concerns about books or television.  But I don’t see this as Yet Another Moral Panic about changing tech or norms. I see it as an early AI conflict, one that individuals have lost to embryonic corporate AI.

The struggle is real

We have greatly advanced algorithms for claiming and retaining human attention, prominently including bulk attacks on shared Commons such as quiet spaces, spare time, empty mailboxes. This predates the net, but as in many areas, automation has conclusively outpaced capacity to react. There’s not even an arms race today: one the one hand, we have a few attention-preserving tools, productive norms that increasingly look like firewall instructions, a few dated regulations in some countries. On the other hand, we have a $T invested in persuasion, segmentation, attention, engagement: a growing portion of our economy, dinner conversations, and self-image as a civilization.

Persuasion is much more than advertising. The libraries of mind hacks and distractions we have developed are prominent in every networked app and social tool. Including simple things like adding a gloss of guilt and performative angst to increase engagement — like Snap or Duolingo adding publicly visible streaks to keep up daily participation.

We know people can saturate their capacity to track goals and urgencies. We know minds are exploitable, hard sells are possible — but (coming from a carny, or casino, or car salesman) unethical, bad for you.  Yet when the exploit happens at a scale of billions, one new step each week, with a cloak of respectability — we haven’t figured out how to think about it.  Indeed most growth hackers & experience designers, at companies whose immersive interfaces absorb centuries of spare time each day, would firmly deny that they are squeezing profit out of the valuable time + focus + energy of users :: even as they might agree that in aggregate, the set of all available interfaces are doing just that.

Twenge suggests people are becoming unhappier the more their attention is hacked: that seems right, up to a point. But past that point, go far enough and people will get used to anything, create new norms around it. If we lose meaningful measures of social wellbeing, then new ones may be designed for us, honoring current trends as the best of all possible worlds. A time-worn solution of cults, castes, frontiers, empires. Yet letting the few and the hawkers of the new set norms for all, doesn’t always work out well.

Let us do better.
+ Recognize exploits and failure modes of reason, habit, and thought. Treat these as important to healthy life, not simply a prize for whoever can claim them.
+ Measure maluses like addiction, negative attractors like monopoly, self-dealing, information asymmetry.
+ Measure things like learning speed, adaptability, self sufficiency, teamwork, contentment over time.
+ Reflect on system properties that seem to influence one or the other.
And build norms around all of this, countering the idea that “whatever norms we have are organic, so they must be good for us.

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mako
52 days ago
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A Little More Nuance

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Fuck Nuance” has just been published in Sociological Theory. The pace of academic publishing being what it is, the paper has been out in the world for a while in draft form, but it’s nice to see the canonical version appear. The issue also contains a symposium on theory in Sociology, with contributions from Ivan Ermakoff, Ashley Mears, and Max Besbris and Shamus Khan. I’ve described the circumstances of the paper’s conception before. Early in 2015, my colleague Steve Vaisey told me he was interested in organizing a session at the American Sociological Association Meetings about—really against—the idea of “nuance” in sociological theory, and in particular about how there seemed to be a lot of demand for the stuff. He asked me if I’d be interested in submitting a paper called something like “Against Nuance”. I replied that if you were going to do something like that, you should just bite the bullet and call it “Fuck Nuance”. “OK then”, said Steve, “I’ll put that down as the title”. Having inadvertently bound myself to that mast like some accident-prone Ulysses, I was then obliged to write and present the paper.

During the review process, a reviewer requested that I substantiate the claim—or at least, make a prime facie plausible case—that nuance was on the rise in Sociology. While the reviewer suggested I provide some particularly egregious examples as evidence, I strongly preferred not to do this. The paper’s target is a habit of mind rather than an individual or school of thought, and it’s quite widespread. Little would be gained by picking a fight with someone in particular. So instead, I took a bird’s eye view and collected some data from the JStor corpus on the incidence of the word “nuance” or “nuanced”. In the paper, there’s a figure showing the recent and rapid relative growth in the use of those terms in the American Journal of Sociology, the American Sociological Review and Social Forces. But I also collected some additional data for other journals, and across various social science disciplines (using JStor’s own classification of journal disciplines). The results are intriguing and I thought I’d present some of them here.

The first thing to say is that, in absolute terms, the use of the term has been growing across all of the social sciences. If we just count the percent of all articles mentioning the words ‘nuance’ or ‘nuanced’ over the whole of the period indexed by JStor, the trends rise sharply everywhere in the 1990s. We can get a more informative sense of the differences between the disciplines by standardizing what we might call their nuance rates by the baseline usage of the term across the whole JStor corpus. This gives us the following figure.

Relative rates of nuance across the disciplines, 1860-2013.

Relative rates of nuance across the disciplines, 1860-2013.

In this view, the trajectories of the disciplines relative to one another are sharpened. I have to say that if you’d asked me ex ante to rank fields by nuance I would have come up with an ordering much like the one visible at the end of the trend lines. But it also seems that social science fields were not differentiated in this way until comparatively recently. Note that the negative trend line for Economics is relative not to the rate of nuance within field itself—which is going up, as it is everywhere—but rather with respect to the base rate. The trend line for Philosophy is also worth remarking on. It differs quite markedly from the others, as it has a very high nuance rate in the first few decades of the twentieth century, which then sharply declines, and rejoins the upward trend in the 1980s. I have not looked at the internal structure of this trend any further, but it is very tempting to read it as the post-WWI positivists bringing the hammer down on what they saw as nonsense in their own field. That’s putting it much too sharply, of course, but then again that’s partly why we’re here in the first place.

I did look at journal-level trends within the social sciences and also within Sociology specifically. Here are the trends for selected journals across Sociology, Political Science, and Economics, again showing the trend relative to the overall baseline.

Relative rates of nuance across selected social science journals.

Relative rates of nuance across selected social science journals.

Finally, here are the trends for a number of Sociology journals:

Relative rates of nuance across selected sociology journals.

Relative rates of nuance across selected sociology journals.

There are lots of suggestive patterns here. It would probably be wise not to lean on any of them too strongly. I do think that the overall patterns are picking up something real, and that people’s sense of the word “nuance” now being everywhere is not wrong. (The patterns for more generic terms of theoretical praise like “sophicticated” or “subtle” are much flatter.) At the level of entire fields—or the level of the whole of the social sciences—I’m tempted to see these trends as at least in part a manifestation of decreasing returns to Ph.D-level research in the context of a very large increase in the numbers of people doing and publishing academic work. Academic research is intrinsically specialized, and one must specialize within a literature or research program. Once that context is set, the more people who are working in that area, the less room there is for broad or wide contributions. It is much easier to make an incremental contribution that adds a wrinkle or an additional caveat to an existing approach or finding. In “the paper” I argue that there’s nothing wrong with that as such. After all, refining results and ideas is one of the main virtues of scientific research. The distinctive problem facing sociology, and perhaps some other fields too, arises with the idea that the unconstrained demand for nuance is a reliable path to theoretical innovation, or a useful marker of quality. That’s a mistake.

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mako
112 days ago
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Glad to see this is out!
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Stuff I'm thankful for

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I'm thankful that the sewing machine was invented a long time ago, not today. If the sewing machine were invented today, most sewing tutorials would be twice as long, because all the thread would come in proprietary cartridges, and you would usually have to hack the cartridge to get the type of thread you need in a cartridge that works with your machine.

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mako
117 days ago
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