Dept. of AWESOME
August 6th, 2012

This NASA video about Curiosity’s landing sequence. Sample hotness:

* The unique problem of Mars’ really thin atmosphere.

* A supersonic parachute.

* Sky crane.

Bonus: To add to the degree of difficulty, the NASA number jockeys also positioned another satellite and worked a camera on a timer to capture the exact moment Curiosity deployed. As the kids say, hotttt.


Misleading Press Release of the Day
August 3rd, 2012

Subject header: “50 Shades Outsells Harry Potter!”

That’s from the literary PR agency (Smith Publicity) pimping publisher The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House. The flack begins her email by noting, “Earlier this morning, the news broke that the Fifty Shades trilogy has now officially outsold Harry Potter.”

Here’s the fine print:

Incredible as it may sound, J.K. Rowling’s compendium of seven Harry Potter books is no longer the best-selling book series on Amazon UK — that crown has now been passed toE. L. James’ monumentally popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. James’ books have sold over four million copies in print and on Kindle since going on sale in March 2012, making her the most successful author of all time on Amazon’s British portal.

In terms of individual books, the first novel in the series, carrying the titular name of Fifty Shades of Grey, has been outselling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by a factor of two to one in recent weeks, which has resulted in it becoming the all-time bestselling book on Amazon UK. Amazon also tells us that Fifty Shades is comfortably topping the bestseller chart in both print and Kindle editions in the US, but it doesn’t seem to have yet managed to break any records the way it has in the UK.

It’s hard to unpack all of this, but we’ll give it a try. The only hard number we’re given is that 50 Shades of Grey has sold 4M+ books (on the Amazon UK portal) since March. So what Harry Potter book is that supposedly better than? Unclear. The story says it’s been outselling Deathly Hallows by 2-1. Which is great, except that Deathly Hallows came out five years ago. On the first day of release, Deathly Hallows moved 2.65M copies just in the UK. I haven’t been able to find final numbers for the book in Britain. Is it possible that in the ensuing five years Deathly Hallows failed to sell another 1.4M copies in the UK? I guess. But that seems implausible.

Then there’s this story from 2008 claiming that the Harry Potter series has sold 400M copies, worldwide.

Again, that’s not dispositive. But I can’t really imagine how a series selling only 4M+ copies could outrank any of the HP books–unless they mean that it’s outselling them right at this minute.

I emailed the the reporter from the Verge. We’ll see what he says.


Conservatives and Income Inequality
July 23rd, 2012

Joel Kotkin and Virginia Postrel do some good work trying to make income inequality a topic that conservatives are allowed to be interested in. It’s an excellent start.

There are plenty of good reasons for conservatives–and all Americans–to hope that Mitt Romney is elected president. But there are also a few factors that should give conservatives, in particular, some concern. At the most superficial level, there’s the precedent in electing the wealthiest man to ever hold the office. There’s no reason to fixate on this fact, but neither should its possible consequences be brushed aside.

Then there’s the question of what the defense of that wealth might cost. For instance, it should not force conservatives into defending the idea that the pursuit of wealth is the paramount American ideal. Nor should it force conservatives to defend all forms of wealth generation as noble, valuable, and good.

This last bit is already something of a problem for many conservatives. We tend to react to the left’s general distrust of the free market by insisting that every market-based outcome is efficient, helpful, and wise. We tend to react to the left’s general demonization of wealth by insisting that every rich guy deserves his fortune and that all transfers of wealth within the marketplace are inherently admirable and optimal.

But we ought to understand that very few markets are actually free, that even free markets frequently produce failures, and that some forms of wealth generation may be–while perfectly legitimate–more about gaming the financial system than creating any intrinsic value.

Jacob Weisberg’s analysis of why private equity is problematic for Romney, for instance, ought to trouble conservatives. Some samples:

It’s not clear that private equity—like other forms of financial innovation—is good for America. You’d think that if private equity made businesses more efficient and valuable overall, there’d be clear evidence to support it, but there isn’t. Private equity firms earn most of their money through financial engineering. A big share of their returns comes from “tax arbitrage”—figuring out how to exploit loopholes to pay less to the government. Because interest is a deductible business expense, debt financing means they often pay little or no corporate tax. Private equity’s reliance on leverage can also magnify short-term earnings without leaving the companies they manage more valuable overall. One legal but dubious practice that private equity firms engage in is paying large “special dividends” out of borrowed money.  As Jim Surowiecki of the New Yorker has written, “These dividends created no economic value—they just redistributed money from the company to the private-equity investors.” There’s some anecdotal evidence that the well-regarded Bain has been a better owner than most. But there’s no real way to evaluate that either.

And then there’s this:

It’s telling that George Romney, Mitt’s father, made around $200,000 through most of the years he ran American Motors Corporation. Doing work that clearly created jobs, the elder Romney paid an effective tax rate that averaged 37 percent. His son made vastly more running a corporate chop shop in an industry that does not appear to create jobs overall. In 2010, Mitt Romney paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent on $21.7 million in investment income—around 14 times as much as his father in inflation-adjusted terms. This difference encapsulates the change from corporate titans who lived in the same world as the people who worked for them, in an America with real social mobility, to a financial overclass that makes its own separate rules and has choked off social mobility. The elder Romney wasn’t embarrassed to explain what he’d done as a businessman or to release his tax returns.

This isn’t to say that private equity is scandalous or that Mitt Romney is a rascal. It’s merely to point out that if conservatives wish to support Mitt Romney (and they probably should), it’s not necessary that they be stampeded into defending the entire “private equity” view of the world.



Kirn on Mormons
July 19th, 2012

Walter Kirn has an extraordinary essay in the latest New Republic. I cannot recommend it highly enough. About his life in (and out) of the Mormon church, it is by turns wistful, haunting, touching, and beautiful. It’s both a plain-spoken account of a man losing his faith and a powerful act of witness on behalf of that faith.

As you may have noticed, I have neither a talent nor an appreciation for autobiography. But Kirn’s mini-memoir is shorn of vanity and, more importantly, yoked to the service of something larger. So much so that it feels more like art than essay; as if Paul Simon had spun it during his middle-age.



Republican Presidents and Conservative SCOTUS Judges–Updated
July 11th, 2012

With all respect to Clint Bolick, his WSJ piece yesterday seems conflicted at the end. In his close, Bolick writes,

[T]he science of nominating philosophically consistent justices has grown more precise. In the past, presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon tried to pack the court with reliable fellow-thinkers, with decidedly mixed success. Dwight Eisenhower famously remarked that his two biggest mistakes both served on the Supreme Court (Earl Warren and William Brennan). John F. Kennedy appointed Byron White, who turned conservative toward the end of his tenure, and George H.W. Bush appointed David Souter, who was liberal from day one.

These days, however, justices are carefully chosen on the basis of long philosophical track records. Indeed, most Supreme Court justices today remain more true to their principles than the presidents who appoint them

A Republican president may spend like a drunken sailor or destroy capitalism in order to save it, and a Democrat may bail out Wall Street and fail to bring the troops home. But they will never disappoint their respective bases on Supreme Court nominations.

I’m not sure I’m convinced of this argument. In last week’s Newsletter, I did a quick count:

 In the last 43 years, Democratic presidents have appointed only 4 justices (Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsburg). They’ve all been reliably liberal, especially in important cases. Republican presidents, on the other hand, have made 12 appointments. Of them, a not insubstantial number were, to put it delicately, not reliably conservative. Blackmun, Stevens, and Souter were largely liberal. Powell and O’Connor were decidedly moderate. It wouldn’t be fair to lump Roberts in with either of these groups (not yet, anyway) (I kid!), but taking him out of the mix means that barely half of the Republican-appointed justices vote the ideological “party line” while all of the Democratic-appointed justices do.

If you go back another administration, Johnson appointed the reliably liberal Thurgood Marshall. (His other appointment, Abe Fortas, wasn’t with the Court long enough to really count for our purposes.) In fact, to find a Democratic-appointed justice who departed from party orthodoxy, you have to go all the way back to 1962 when JFK put Whizzer White on the Court.

Maybe the science has progressed over the last 40 years, but the case of John Roberts suggests that it hasn’t. Or at least not all that much. (Or perhaps, it has progressed for Democrats but not for Republicans.)

An interesting side question is whether or not Harriet Miers would have flipped and gone along with Roberts had she been on the court. It’s impossible to know, of course. But if, theoretically, she had then it would mean that W. would have gone 0-for-2. Or maybe, (0.5 + 0.5) for 2.

Does anyone really think that Mitt Romney would nominate more conservative SCOTUS justices than W. did? As Ben Domenech likes to say, the next pro-life judge Romney appoints will be his first.

Yes, yes, Obama would certainly nominate more liberal judges than Romney. But my point is that a Romney presidency doesn’t guarantee that we get conservative justices any more than the Reagan or Bush presidencies did. And probably a good deal less. The choice isn’t between getting liberal justices or conservative justices. It’s between getting liberal justices and (at best) an even-money chance at a conservative justice.

Update: Galley Friend M.F. writes in with some persuasive disagreement:

I, too, found the end of Bolick’s piece . . . incongruous, but a few friendly quibbles with your analysis.

(1) It’s very hard to compare GOP appointments and Dem appointments historically as modern “legal conservatism” as we know it really didn’t come about until after Roe v. Wade. So, for example, take Nixon.

Rehnquist was really the only one of his justices we would call a “conservative” in the true sense–and it bears noting that lots of legal conservatives never cared for him as he was a right-wing judge whose time on the Court predated and thus was not governed by “originalism” or any other consistent conservative methodology.* And yet when Nixon was putting people on the Court he was trying to correct Warren, Brennan, and Douglas on criminal procedure, antitrust, and busing.

I can’t speak reliably to busing, but as a rule Burger, Rehnquist, Powell, and Blackmun were pretty good (at least for a while) in letting Harry Callaghan off his leash and quite good in correcting course on antitrust (although that wouldn’t really come around until Bork, Posner, and Easterbrook changed all the terms of the discussion in the ’80s). O’Connor was pretty good by these standards, too. The trouble is Roe changed that as the litmus test. But even there, as Robby George likes to point out (and the language of Roe confirms it), square Republican Harry Blackmun thought he was writing a conservative decision–it was about professional prerogatives for physicians as written by the former GC of Mayo. (And his judicial “evolution” coincides interestingly with his post-Roe conversion from lame Republican Harry to the eminent Justice Blackmun, Jurisprude and Defender of Women.)

It took a little while to figure out how wrong Roe-like reasoning was, and that process happened to coincide with the ascendance of Scalia, Bork, Berger and the development of an authentically conservative farm team (under the leadership of Ed Meese or so seems to be the consensus) and the Federalist Society.  So it wasn’t until the late 80s that you had any sort of institutionalized actual conservatism on the circuit courts from which to find SCOTUS picks. So while Reagan had to go to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1981, any appointments between 1985 and 1992 had their picks of Scalia, Bork, D. Ginsburg, Starr, Santelle, Silberman, O’Scannlain, Scirica, Luttig, Wilkinson, Garza, Jones, Edmundson, etc. Reagan seems to have realized this since he only got to Kennedy after Bork and Ginsburg went down, and even Souter almost lost to Jones, which would have made things very different. It’s an imperfect but relatively young process that’s been getting better over time.

(2) Very droll by Ben Domenech, but I’ve never been sure why Romney appointing pro-aborts to the Massachusetts Court of Cow Probate for the West Southwestern Central Judicial and Gaming District mattered.  He never got to nominate someone to the SJC and since most of the MassResistence/Jason Jones stuff involves non-policy-making courts (e.g. criminal trial courts) I have to assume he never nominated a pro-abort to a court that could develop questions of law because if he did, his pro-life Catholic opponents surely would have made everyone aware of it.

(3) While the choice is between certain regression with Obama and possible progress with Romney, I think that still understates things at the Supreme Court level.  The simple fact is that it’s a closed universe. There is a finite number of papabile lawyers out there, almost all of whom are federal circuit judges, appointed by a Republican and under 55 (plus about five others). One can come up with a 90%+ complete list in 5 minutes. The beauty of the Bush years was not just that they got Roberts and Alito on the Court (whatever one thinks of the former now), but that the White House Counsel’s Office was sure to put in an excellent college of cardinals for next time.

No Romney critic I’ve talked to has been able to name any plausible bad nominees, let alone any plausible bad nominees that are worse than the best we would hope for from Obama (e.g. Denny Chin). The danger is the AAA team that will be set up for next time on the circuits by Romney, which needs to have a lot more women and minorities on it.  Looking at who’s on Romney’s judicial advisory list I’m confident they’ll find the right people from underrepresented groups for that if they’re the ones staffing the White House.  If it’s Boston Mafia, I’m somewhat less confident.

*Here, actually, is an underemarked comparison to Chief Justice Roberts. Rehnquist was famously hostile to Miranda, and when the opportunity finally came potentially to overturn it in 2000’s Dickerson v. U.S. he went with the liberals and wrote the opinion in such a way as to (a) make a constitutional hash of Miranda (it’s now a “constitutional rule” but not in the Constitution) and (b) make it as close to useless as he possibly could. People say Roberts was looking to Marbury with NFIB; I think he was looking to his old boss. Of course, Rehnquist would have struck down Obamacare root and branch, so . . .

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In Defense of Tom Junod. Sort of.
July 10th, 2012

For my money Tom Junod is one of the ten best essayists working in America these days. I’ll put his stuff up there on the high shelf with Andy Ferguson and Matt Labash and David Grann and Joan Didion. Don’t believe me? Go sit with his profile of Jon Stewart, his piece on Fred Rogers, his essay on the horror of 9/11–and these aren’t even his sizzle reel. I can’t find links to his opus on Lil’ Bow Wow and a piece on porn valley from the late ’90s that blows me away every time I read it.

All of which is why Junod’s 2008 piece on the Obama-McCain race was kind of heartbreaking. It’s not that Junod is a liberal and a Democrat and an Obama voter–more than half my friends and family checked those three boxes. It’s that it revealed that Junod’s approach to politics and politicians was . . . well, let’s just say the piece was embarrassing and not his finest hour and leave it at that.

So today Junod has a giant piece out about the President Obama’s killing of al-Alwaki’s kid. And Ed Driscoll drills down to the heart of the problem Junod faces: That Junod has become what he explicitly warned about in 2004. It’s a pretty tough assessment by Driscoll; but also pretty fair.

But that’s nothing like what Moe Lane does to Junod. His excoriation is just flat out brutal. And again, pretty fair.

The bigger question posed by Moe Lane’s vivisection is why more liberals haven’t turned away from Obama. There’s a small cadre of liberals, like Glenn Greenwald and Junod, who have criticized Obama on principle. And that’s great–God bless ’em. But you don’t see–or at least I haven’t seen–liberals publicly turning their backs on Obama and jumping ship. And I wonder why that is. There were plenty of Republican types whom Bush drove out of the party. (Andrew Sullivan, Kathleen Parker, Andy Bacevich, Jim Webb, etc.–the list is actually pretty long.) Why haven’t any lefty Dems done the same? As Lane points out, if you’re a liberal and you fell a-over-t for Obama and now you realize that he’s elevated cold-blooded murder to the level of routine executive prerogative, why haven’t you clapped your hands together, stepped away from the table, and said, “I’m out”?

Update: Moe Lane has a couple of theories here. What he’s getting at, I think, is that liberals are more partisan (by which I mean, more wedded to the Democratic party) than conservatives. That’s certainly possible. His alt-theory is that liberals are more repulsed by Republicans than conservatives are by Democrats–and so find the prospect of flipping, even temporarily, less acceptable.

A third theory might be that liberals have the Nader-Gore 2000 debacle still fresh in their minds and so basically subscribe to the Natasha Romanov school of political theory: That love is for children.

The only problem with this last theory is that the left fell so crazy in love with Obama. They didn’t just like him, admire him, support him in the way you would a politician like Dick Gephardt or Harry Reid or Joe Biden. They loved him, truly, madly, deeply. And my guess is that, despite everything, they still kind of do.


More on the Legality of Discriminatory Pricing–Updated
June 27th, 2012

Pursuant to our discussion yesterday, Galley Lawyer X sends in the following thoughts:

I have a hard time seeing how targeted pricing would be illegal in and of itself.  Your African-American zip code hypothetical could be in violation of the Civil Rights Act or something (although that’s just a guess), but generally speaking ultimate price discrimination is fine without some other factors present.  So, for example, if Amazon used Mac OS info in such a way as to maximize Kindle marketshare against the iPad through discriminatory pricing (I don’t know how, just say they do), then the FTC might start asking some questions.  It goes without saying, but this is a much riskier thing to do now than in 2 years if Romney wins.

Now, this kind of flexible price attribution in a basically oligopolistic market like, say, airlines might open the companies up to civil Sherman Act claims on a signalling theory.  “They say they’re targeting zip codes, but they’re really telling each other what the new fixed price will be.  So pay me my treble damages.”  These cases take forever to resolve even when entirely frivolous.  So some companies might not want to take the risk.

This might make a pretty interesting law review article if it hasn’t been done yet.

Update: Galley Friend G.R. writes in with a note that CA has a law that’s close to on-point in regards to auto insurance.


The 1960 Catholic Vote
June 25th, 2012

Michael Barone has a data point I’ve been wanting to see for a long while now: The 1960 Catholic vote.

Barone notes that in ’60, 78 percent of Catholics voted for Kennedy. He uses that as a comparison point for the 2008 black vote for Obama, in order to explain why overwhelming support from a one particular demographic group for a candidate of their own isn’t worrisome. But I’m not sure I’m persuaded.

Because what that means is that 1960, in a race which is partially defined by Kennedy’s Catholicism, nearly 1-in-4 Catholics voted against him. In 2008, Obama took home 96 percent of the black vote. Which means that only 1-in-25 blacks voted against him. To my mind, anyway, that seems like a difference in kind.

I’ll be very interested to see what proportion of the Mormon vote Mitt Romney captures in November. (And I hope there will be some relevant exit poll data on it.) Will Mormons vote as a group more like Catholics did in 1960, or more like blacks did in 2008?


Three Stories
June 21st, 2012

(1) Romney campaign asks Florida Gov. Rick Scott to downplay his state’s employment gains.

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign asked Florida Governor Rick Scott to tone down his statements heralding improvements in the state’s economy because they clash with the presumptive Republican nominee’s message that the nation is suffering under President Barack Obama, according to two people familiar with the matter.

(2) Romney campaign cuts press call short because reporters ask questions about immigration.

Asked again about immigration, Chen contended that “the one thing we ought to focus on with immigration” was “how the economy has failed the Latino community.”

After reporters did not oblige, the Romney campaign cut off the call.

”We don’t have any more questions on today’s topic,” a Romney aide said.

(3) TNR’s Alec MacGillis asks, How is our guy even in this thing?

[H]ow is that Obama is not in truly serious trouble? All the talk recently has been of Obama’s prospects slipping, with him now only a couple points ahead of Romney, at best, in most polls. But he should be slipping! The economy, after showing signs of a solid recovery just a few months ago, is gasping for air again, and there may be worse on the way. This should be disastrous for the incumbent.

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JVL Elsewhere
May 23rd, 2012

My Daily column this week looks at Mitt Romney’s very good May, and wonders what if this is as good as it gets?

And in the Weekly Standard Newsletter (which you should sign up for, because it’s all-new essays, not just repackaged content) I put forth a modest proposal for gay marriage. Excerpt:

Conservatives have two big practical concerns about gay marriage. (We’re going to put aside all of the philosophical objections and worries about unintended consequences for the moment.) The practical concerns are these: (1) Would the expansion of the marriage contract stop with homosexual couples, or would it be pushed further? And (2) Would religious institutions be compelled to recognize and/or perform gay marriages?

You can tell a lot about the gay marriage debate by the way proponents of gay marriage address these concerns. Instead of trying to reassure conservatives on these points so as to persuade them, the people who want same sex marriage ignore or mock them.

For instance, in New Hampshire, Rick Santorum suggested that if gay marriage were made legal, it was difficult to say why polygamy wouldn’t be next. He was jeered and ridiculed for linking the two.

But where did Santorum get the “crazy” idea in the first place? It turns out that there’s an entire movement of gay marriage proponents who have already started advancing the legal ball toward polygamy. In 2006, a group of liberal academics, legal scholars, and activists got together to think about what the future of marriage should be after same sex marriage was legalized. The result of their work was the Beyond Marriage Project, which proposes a radical expansion of the marriage contract so that, among other things, there would be legal recognition for “households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.” Which is the polite way of saying “polygamy.”

Since the Beyond Marriage Project launched, hundreds of liberal thinkers have become signatories to its proposal. Some of these supporters are folks from organizations with names like “Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness.” But many of them are quite respectable. One of them, for instance, is Chai Feldblum—an impressive legal theorist from Georgetown Law School who is now serving as the head of President Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Feldblum isn’t crazy in the least. What would be crazy would be to dismiss her thinking as part of some fringe.

So conservatives aren’t making this stuff up. Now maybe most of today’s gay marriage advocates would never support polygamy. But maybe not. Forty years ago, lots of liberals said the same thing about the notion of “marriage for gays.” And look where we are now.

Then there’s the matter of religious freedom. If same sex marriage were legalized, would churches that reject the idea be forced to recognize it—or even perform gay marriages? No one really knows. Yet consider this: Supporters of same sex marriage often argue for it by saying that years from now, we’ll look back on this moment as a civil rights episode equivalent to the rebellion against anti-miscegenation laws.

Well, once anti-miscegenation laws were repealed, all of America had to comply—even non-profit groups. The most prominent institution that still recently banned interracial dating was Bob Jones University. And in order to keep this ban in place, Bob Jones had to give up its non-profit tax-exempt status. (The university dropped the policy in 2000.) If America legalizes same sex marriage and, say, the Catholic church refuses to marry gay couples, would the church lose its tax-exempt status, too? Most supporters of gay marriage insist that it wouldn’t, but the truth is, no one really knows.

There is an obvious solution. If gay marriage supporters really believe that the redefining of marriage will stop at same sex couples, and that institutions of civil society will be allowed to retain their own views on the subject, then they could propose a constitutional amendment.

In 2002, a group of conservative Democrats and Republicans proposed a Federal Marriage Amendment, the goal of which was to build a constitutional ban on same sex marriage. There’s no reason supporters of gay marriage couldn’t craft their own amendment. A “Federal Gay Marriage Amendment” could set out three principles: (1) that marriage is between two, and only two, individuals; (2) these individuals can be of any sex; (3) religious groups retain a conscience exemption in the recognition of any form of marriage.

Such an amendment would provide a constitutional guarantee to gay couples while also taking polygamy off the table and providing protection for churches. Many, though not all, conservatives might be inclined to support it. (As a bonus, it would take the issue out of the courts—finally giving gay marriage popular legitimacy, too.)

So ask yourself: If their goal isn’t to keep pushing the boundaries of marriage and to coerce religious institutions into agreement, then why haven’t advocates of same sex marriage argued for such an amendment?

There are only two answers. The first is that they just haven’t gotten around to it—and that if public opinion continues to evolve in their direction they eventually will.

The second is that, despite their reassurances to the contrary, the mere legalization of same sex marriage is not the movement’s final destination but just a weigh station on the path to even bigger changes.


Great Moments in Law Enforcement
May 7th, 2012

This account of a Mitt Romney’s arrest for “disorderly conduct” is pretty infuriating–if the particulars are correct, then it’s pretty clear the officer acted in gross violation of the law. (And by the by, I’m not sure Romney could behave in a disorderly manner if you paid him.)

It’s only a shame that Romney didn’t really put the screws to the arresting officer. Rather than threatening to sue and getting the record sealed, he should have demanded the officer be disciplined and a public apology.


Deep-Dive Research
May 4th, 2012

Shorter Scott Conroy: There’s a small, regional minority which is going to vote heavily in favor of Mitt Romney–but they won’t vote unanimously!

No kidding.

This would have been an interesting piece if it had explored (1) What sort of share of the Mormon vote Romney is likely to get–will it be closer to 90 percent or 98 percent–given how Mormons have broken for the GOP in the last several presidential elections. And (2) How this percentage compares with minority group voting solidarity in other historical “first” elections, ie. percentage of blacks breaking for Obama in 2008; percentage of Catholics breaking for Kennedy in 1960.

Someone is going to have to write this piece eventually anyway. Might as well get it out of the way now when there’s no real campaign news.

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