The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, September 28, 2003
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INTERESTING PICTURE: I’ve got a lot of interests that are quite various and diverse. There doesn’t seem to be any inherent connection between them — except in my own little world. Back in my early childhood I got interested in trains and railroads. Yea, I had a Lionel train set when I was five, and my uncle used to give me copies of Trains Magazine. So for whatever psychological reasons, trains seemed like neat things to me, both the models and the real thing.

Another thing that interested me as a boy was the city of Newark, NJ. On Sunday mornings after church, my father used to take me and my brother away from our suburban abode for a quick road trip while my mother cooked the Sunday dinner. One morning he drove us up Broad Street in Newark. I was impressed; a major city just a few miles away from us (Manhattan was only 12 miles away but it was hard and expensive to get to, given all the traffic and the tolls at the bridges and tunnels). Up to that point all I had known about Newark were the riots and the burning buildings that we saw on TV in 1967. But on that Sunday morning with dad, Newark didn’t look so bad. The buildings were tall, Broad Street was broad indeed, and there were some nice looking parks and old churches. There weren’t many people on the streets at the time, but the place seemed to have possibilities.

When I got a little older, early teen years, I got a camera and started riding busses to various places where I could watch and photograph trains (sometimes I would also ride the trains). The busses mostly ran to Newark, so I often had to make a transfer there. That was OK with me; despite it’s nasty reputation out in the ‘burbs, Newark had a certain quality to it (although you had to watch out for yourself, and still do). Those railroad expeditions were unintentionally turning me into an urbanologist. Little did I know at the time, but Newark was where I was going to spend my college and grad school days and the majority of my working life (as a commuter, anyway — admittedly I never lived there).

One day in early 1969 I was in Newark’s Penn Station watching the (pre-Amtrak) Penn Central passenger trains coming in and leaving. I had my camera and was taking occasional shots of train cars that looked old, rare and otherwise interesting (to me, anyway). A train came in from St. Louis with some Pullman cars, so I went over by it to get a picture (it was a tough shot since it was a rainy day and the platform canopy blocked out the light). I was lining up for a flash shot of a Pennsylvania RR duplex sleeper from the 50s (those cars all had interesting names per railroad tradition, e.g. “Catawissa Rapids”) while a middle-aged African-American woman with a big hat got off with some luggage. I waited for her to walk away from the train so as not to clutter my view of the duplex; conveniently, most people who see someone taking pictures on a train station platform get away as quickly as possible, figuring that the guy must be a nut.

However, this woman seemed to think that her arrival back in Newark after visiting family somewhere out in Ohio or Illinois was a legitimate reason for some unknown photographer’s interest. So she stopped right there, put her luggage aside, and posed next to the car for a shot. I wanted to say, hey lady, you’re blocking my view of a streamlined PRR duplex sleeper. But then something else inside told me hey, this is Newark, go with the flow. So I pushed the shudder, the flash went off, and the woman grabbed her bags and headed for a bus or taxi for home. I just sighed to myself and went over to another platform for a shot of the shiny new Metroliner train to Washington.

Now, looking back 35 years, I’m glad that I got that shot. Perhaps you’ve heard the theory that we are all linked by no more than six degrees of separation (e.g., cousin of a friend of a sister of someone who went to school with …). Well, given all my involvements in Newark over the years, I’d have to believe that that lady and I have no more than three degrees of separation. Maybe she had a neighbor whose nephew worked where I did, or maybe her daughter had a friend who went to the Episcopal church that I used to go to (on Broad Street, of course). Whatever.

So here’s the pic. Turned out to be worth a thousand words after all.


◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, September 26, 2003
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That Live in Japan CD by the Ventures (see last post) brought back memories regarding the way things were in the early 1960s. And just how were they, you ask? Well, there was hope in the air. You could sense it in the tunes that the Ventures were playing (which were all over the pop radio stations at the time). The biggest thing to fear back then was the Soviet Union and Communism. Communism was the evil empire, the thing that threatened to swallow us up and end all the good times. But actually, you knew that Soviet Communism (or the Chinese version of it) couldn’t beat America. Not so much because of our nuclear bombs and jet bombers and intercontinental missiles and subs and aircraft carriers. The Commies had as much of that stuff as we did. What the Sino-Soviet Block didn’t have was coolness. And coolness was what the Ventures conveyed.

Ventures songs were tributes to people surfing in Hawaii and rockets blasting off in Florida. Just listen to Telstar, the tribute to the first communications satellite (better the studio version, as the live version didn’t come out as well). Every time I hear that number, I recall the optimism that it conveyed, the notion that satellites and moon shots were the forbearers of a bright new world, a golden age of civilization. It seemed as if things were just going to get better and better. John F. Kennedy was President at the time, and he was pretty cool. Twenty times as cool as any Soviet premier that ever was or would be (save maybe for Gorbachev). And no comparison with anyone the Chinese Communist Party put up (Chairman Mao was totally uncool, despite the admiration he gained from some American college students waving their Little Red Books around back in 68). Why would anyone anywhere in the world want to be like the Russians, with all their snow and mud and drunken peasants and the huge, grey, ugly buildings across their land? And the Chinese? Shoot, that was like being a worker ant lost in a colony. You’re just another insect, forget about any form of self-expression. Weren’t any surfer dudes catching the pipelines along the beaches near Shanghai (and may still not be).

Today, we’re living in a different world. Communism is gone and terrorism reigns as the sum of all fears. If you could go back to 1963 and tell people this, they’d be very glad to hear that the Russians collapsed and the Chinese sold out to fascist capitalism. But they’d ask, just who is terrorizing America and why? Why would anyone not like the vision that we present to the world, the vision of youth and smartness and fun? Why would anyone not like a place that was dancing to the twist and making computers and playing with hula hoops and sending spaceships to the moon? Back then, we were sure that anyone in the world who got to know America would want to become like us, not undermine us. So what went wrong?

Dang, but that’s an awfully tough question. Today we ask, why do so many Middle Easterners hate us so much, especially the ones who have been in America and have studied here? Why would they want a religious dictatorship instead of a liberal democracy?

Tom Friedman has written a lot in his columns in the NY Times about the forces underlying all the Middle East hatred. This past Wednesday he talked about how President Bush and our leadership go out of their way to protect our cotton farmers and textile industry from foreign competition, as to maintain their wealth (commercial farmers are businessmen, not people who live off the land). If the USA lowered tariffs and allowed fair competition, many of the poorest Middle Eastern countries (like Pakistan) would be selling a lot more cotton fabric here. Sure, we’d lose some jobs, but the Pakistanis would gain a whole lot more. With more jobs and income, the Pakistani people wouldn’t have to send their kids to fundamentalist Islamic schools that provide free education and free lunches in poor villages. Those fundamentalist schools teach the kids to hate the US. And guess who supports those schools? The Saudis. And guess where the Saudis get their money? From selling us billions of barrels of crude oil. So, what are we doing to slow that process down? Designing cars that use less of it? Nope. Instead, Mr. Bush proposes tax incentives to encourage Americans to buy bigger cars that burn more oil.

And then, of course, there’s Israel. Our primary ally in the Middle East. With friends like that … Hey, I’m not anti-Semitic. I know about the Shoah, I’ve read the history of the Jews as an oppressed people. I know that if Israel wasn’t so tough it would have been pushed into the Mediterranean long ago. But this Palestinian thing is another kind of game. Israel was able to get the respect of the Arab nations by beating them at war. But that tactic doesn’t seem to be working with the Palestinian people, who aren’t a nation (thanks in large part to Israel). Nations lose wars and adjust their attitudes. Un-nationalized people don’t, as the Viet Cong showed us in Vietnam. Israel tried to control the problem by building settlements on “enemy ground”. And in return they got a whole new level of terrorism and suicide bombing. And now they think that a wall is the answer. When in history did a wall against an enemy ever work? It’s just a formula for more Middle Eastern hatred, hatred that could spill over once again onto American soil. (I pray not, but…)

America won the battle with Communism for the hearts and minds of this planet because it offered something better, something smarter, something cooler. It now faces a new battle, and it’s relying on the spin doctors and image consultants to make the world at large think we’re still better, smarter and cooler. But we’re ultimately going to win or lose this war based on what lies within, not what the façade looks like. The Ventures were able to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese, enemies only two decades before that concert, because the Ventures were smart and cool and talented Americans, full of positiveness. Could any of our current pop heros go to Pakistan or Algeria and win friends? Eminem and Metallica, live in Karachi? Lil Kim and Madonna do Oman? Or do the culture heros of today reflect something inauthentic about us that the citizens of those nasty parts of the planet clearly see through? I’m not trying to make heros out of Al Qaeda’s and Hama’s killers. All I’m saying is, maybe we need a closer look in the mirror, maybe we need to ask if there is some small part of the Islamic fundamentalist criticism of America that is accurate, perhaps we need to see if there are some areas where we could do better in terms of being responsible citizens of the Planet Earth.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:32 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 20, 2003
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I picked up a couple of CDs the other day. In the mood for some nostalgia, I became the proud owner of a copy of The Ventures — Live in Japan 1965. I remember when the Ventures were hot stuff back in the early 60s. Even though the British invasion had just started (Beatles, Stones, Dave Clark Five, etc.), and even though the Ventures were strictly instrumental, you had to like them. There were four of them, just like the Beatles. And the songs were entertaining, with plenty of guitar twang and fast drumming. And you saw them on TV. I didn’t know anyone who made the Ventures their favorite group. But I didn’t know anyone who didn’t think they were cool, either.

Well, as to the Japan CD… quite interesting. Give the Ventures credit for playing to a place like Japan way back then. Japan was still very second rate at that point. Only twenty years before that concert they were a wayward enemy empire that the US Army and Navy were trying to defeat. Here were the Ventures playing tributes to California surfing and to space shots from Florida in a country that was still recovering from our nukes. If it were record sales that the group was after, you’d think that France or Italy or Australia would have been a better place to play, at the time anyway. (If the Ventures were still in their prime, I wonder if they’d do a night or two in Baghdad?)

The sounds on the album are … well, a bit thin by modern standards. There are three guitars and a drummer and that’s it. No synthesizer or mellotron or anything else to fatten-up the music, as we expect today. But put the volume up loud enough and this album starts to make sense. The songs do sound alike after a while (29 cuts on this album), but if you can get into it, that’s not a bad thing. There may still be guitar instrumentalists out there who put out good sounds, e.g. Joe Satriani and G3, but the Ventures were probably the last big act that could get away without saying anything.

PS, I checked out some Ventures web sites, and learned that drummer Mel Taylor died back in August of 1996. Mel looks pretty beat in the picture on the live album — he appears to have a black eye as if somebody popped him! But he did get around — before going with the Ventures, Taylor was the drummer on the early 60s hit song “Monster Mash” by Bobby Boris Pickett (you still hear it around Halloween), and during a hiatus from the group, Taylor formed his own band and went back to Japan for a tour. There was a big tribute concert in Japan after his death. But my own tribute was paid to Taylor years ago, along with millions of other 11-year olds riding school busses and banging their forefingers on their textbooks according to Taylor’s accented drum roll on Wipe Out. OK, I know that the Surfaris did it first, but I liked the Ventures version better.

(Interestingly enough, the Ventures still make appearances with Taylor’s son Leon on the drums … wonder how he sounds doing Wipe Out?)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
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I finally decided to make the pilgrimage to lower Manhattan, just about two years after that fateful Tuesday. And I’m glad to report that the site of the former World Trade Center has a sense of life about it, in contrast to the horrors of despair and death that held sway there for many months. The place has become a typically unique New York City artifact (ah, New York, city of oxymorons). I.e., a combination construction site, tourist attraction and wailing wall. There is life teeming on all four sides of it. People with cameras (like myself), bicyclists, young couples on dates, souvenir venders, people on official business, people passing through, etc. Hard to believe that our modern-day Pearl Harbor happened there some hundred odd weeks ago.

I don’t mean to disrespect the memory of the thousands who died that day or to trivialize the significance of what was once such an unimaginable event here on home soil. But I didn’t personally feel any sense of melancholy while I was there, nor did I detect it amidst the people who were out and about that weekend. No sense of awe, no sense of anything deep. Just New York City. Had something like that happened in Philadelphia or Cincinnati or Houston, it probably would have taken longer to regain a sense of normalcy anywhere near ground zero. Yea, if it had to happen anywhere — New York City, you are indeed one tough old town.

Anyway, here’s one of my pix, looking from the southwest corner.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:17 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 13, 2003
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Since it’s the start of the school season, it might be a good time to think about IQ. Just what is “intelligence”? Is it limited to one particular form of mental capacity, or are there many types of intelligence?

This is a hot question in the fields of psychology and sociology. The classic “psychometricians” say that their IQ tests are relevant indicators of a person’s thinking capacity. However, the sociologists say that the people doing the measuring are measuring what they think is relevant. In other words, the test is biased; it’s rigged to measure the things that are important to a certain group, i.e. the “American establishment”. The critics of IQ feel that there are many different types of intelligence, some of which aren’t appreciated here in the 21st Century USA, but may be important in other places or in other times. According to the sociological critics, standard IQ tests measure the mental skills that have been deemed most important to success within our modern American economy and culture.

I personally sympathize with the sociological approach. I’ve taken various IQ tests in my time, and they always indicate that I’m a little bit above average but nothing to write home about. Not quite MENSA material. Well! If those tests haven’t been able to detect my genius and brilliance, obviously something must be wrong!

But seriously, folks, those tests do focus on certain things to the exclusion of others. Perhaps the main thing they try to measure is quickness. Take an IQ test, an SAT, a LSAT, a GMAT, whatever, and the clock is running. You’ve got to be quick. Think fast. Time is money. I mean, is that really what intelligence is all about? Or is all this a reflection of modern social values stemming from our highly competitive economic system? I honestly think there’s another kind of intellectual capacity which these tests pass right on by, and that’s the ability to deeply understand a complex concept.

The typical IQ test question goes something like this: “Person A drives in one direction for 3 hours at 40 miles per hour. Person B starts out one half hour later along the same road from a point 200 miles away, heading towards person A. BLAH BLAH BLAH” You’ve got 30 seconds or whatever to fiddle with some math ratios and solve for a number. OK, that’s cool, but does that really mean that you’d be able to understand the social, economic and historical factors that led to the American Revolution or the Civil War? Does that mean that you will be able to work with quantum mechanics? Does that mean that you can write a beautiful and moving symphony? What I’m saying here is that the ability to understand something so deeply that it’s “down in your bones” might count for something too. But not on an IQ test.

The IQ critics and multiple-intelligence people have been able to identify a variety of mental abilities that are not captured by standard tests, but which are clearly part of human experience. These include social intelligence, spatial / design intelligence, muscle-body intelligence, etc. But the kind of intelligence I’m aware of (because I don’t have it) is political intelligence. Political intelligence is close to what is meant by the word “shrewd”. It probably correlates quite closely with what the standard IQ tests measure, given that shrewdness and political success often correlate with speed. Political intelligence is, in my opinion, the chief determinant of success as we know it today (i.e., fame and fortune, widespread acclaim, power, big money, that kind of stuff).

To make it in the USA today, whether in business or politics or academia or even sports and the arts, you have to have a fast mind, the ability to do some quick math, and a good memory. You need to be able to make a start at most any kind of problem that comes your way. Obviously, in sports and the arts, you also need the body and the talent, but lots of people have those things and never make it to the big leagues. To get anywhere in any field, you’ve got to be able to impress people. So, in addition to political intelligence, you’ve also got to be a good schmoozer (i.e., just enough social intelligence to open some doors) and have a lot of self-confidence. Oh, and it certainly matters what your body looks like. Certain types of faces and body shapes help get people to the top. Let’s face it, dumpy looking people (which I probably qualify for) generally don’t become CEOs or submarine commanders or super models or NFL quarterbacks or US senators. The rare exceptions prove the rule.

And then, finally, you need luck. At some point, how your life goes is determined by a shake of the dice.

I’ve been to the academy of political intelligence. It’s called law school. I didn’t do so well; I got thru with a B minus average. It never got me far in terms of “success”. But I did get to observe some law students who did go pretty far. I’ve also observed non-lawyers who have done quite well in life, and they usually have the same “shrewdness” and “brightness” that successful law students have.

Is this a bad thing? Well, it doesn’t have to be. Shrewdness could theoretically be used for good. Unfortunately, it’s usually used to make a good appearance so as to get whatever you or your client wants, even when the truth gets plowed under.

Truth, unfortunately, is the main casualty of our modern fixation with IQ and fast, shrewd minds. Truth and wisdom can’t be measured very well in a one-hour, one-hundred question multiple-choice test. The slower, “down in the bones” type of knowledge that I spoke of before doesn’t necessarily correspond with high IQ. A slow but inspired thinker may be able to dig deeper than a seemingly bright person. You know, the tortoise versus the hare thing. Thankfully, there are still lots of people who fall in love with the truth, professors and engineers and researchers and doctors and computer programmers and others who keep trying to better understand all the stuff they work with, despite all the pressure from their shrewd bosses to “keep things moving and keep the money rolling in”. Those are the people who generally don’t make the news and don’t get rich. To all of those impresarios of wisdom out there, fighting the demands of a sound-bite, profit-maximization world, my hat goes off to you. And to all of you kids still in school, wondering whether to go for the golden life or suffer some deprivation for the truth, well … at least you now know what your choice is.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:54 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, September 9, 2003
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It’s finally time for us bloggers to write our Warren Zevon tributes. The “excitable boy” has been swallowed up by the force that propelled his artistic career. I’m talking about death, Zevon’s leit motif. His first album was called “Wanted Dead or Alive”. His song titles include “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and “Life’ll Kill Ya”. There were lots of fatalities in his lyrics, lots of guns firing and bullets zipping about. One his final album, he recorded a cover of Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (which includes the line “mama put my guns in the ground, I can’t shoot them anymore”).

I’ll miss Zevon. He was a true original. Perhaps he wasn’t making the hit parade anymore, but he never went out of style. He never became a parody of himself like Ozzie Osborne. (But give Ozzie credit for being an intentional self-parody, not an unintentional one like Elvis). Perhaps it’s appropriate that Zevon went out while still a force in the music world. Yea, it just wouldn’t have been right for him to have faded away like Bing Crosby or whoever.

Zevon died at home while taking a nap. He closed his eyes, fell asleep and never woke up. It makes you think about the refrain from Ozzie’s “Close Your Eyes”, i.e. “if I closed my eyes forever, would it all remain the same …”

Warren Zevon was the kind of guy who should have put a “don’t try this at home” sticker on his albums. Like a lot of rock stars, he burned out too soon. Most of them succumb to heroin, but Zevon was done in by something more traditional, i.e. cigarettes (via lung cancer). Warren Zevon’s image as a tough-guy had an appropriate ending, but Warren Zevon as a human being didn’t.

Was there a vulnerable side to Warren Zevon? Sure there was. Every album or two had a song that hinted at it. E.g. “Nobodys In Love This Year”, “They Moved The Moon”, “Accidentally Like A Martyr”, and “Desperados Under the Eaves”. The lines in Desperados about listening to the air conditioner hum in a Hollywood Hawaiian hotel are perhaps the best evocation of loneliness to be found in all of rock and roll. Zevon has finally checked out of that lonely hotel room. “Look away down Gower Avenue …” Good bye, Mr. Z. I ain’t in Los Angeles, but I know what you mean.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 6, 2003
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The God of the gaps: (No, not the clothing store). This thought seems like a good follow-up to my last post about the knots that string theory is getting tied up into these days. Ever since the days of Galileo and Newton and Darwin, theologians have been playing catch-up ball regarding how God fits in with what we know about the universe. Sometimes, when the scientists are in a especially triumphant mood, they tell us that there’s no room left for an all powerful and yet all loving God who watches over us and makes things go for or against us in our daily lives, in accordance with the ultimate meaning of it all (which we see but dimly through a glass, to paraphrase St. Paul, or only as shadows on a cave wall, in the Platonic sense).

A lot of scientists today seem to follow Einstein’s lead in asserting that there in fact is a “God” of sorts, but not a God with a mind and a free will anything like our human consciousness. The concepts of chance and randomness, so important to understanding the workings of the sub-microscopic quantum world, seem to rule out for them any “master plan” behind it all and any cosmic consciousness with the power to make choices. (Yes, I read Chance and Necessity by Monod).

The theologians have shot back at these ideas. One of their weapons is the “God of the gaps” theory. If I understand it correctly, the rationale is that science always leaves something unexplained, some shadow where a traditionalistic God can lurk. I was reading an article recently that disparaged the “God of the gaps” idea as rather lame and pathetic. And yet, a few days later I read that physicists today admit they still can’t answer many of the most obvious questions about the Universe (e.g., in what medium did the Big Bang come about). In other words, the more we humans know, the bigger the gaps seem to get.

The physics of our world are very messy and strange, without any grand patterns that apply against the largest scales (e.g., galaxies and galaxy clusters) and the smallest (photons and quarks). If the Universe was in fact designed by a master consciousness, that master was certainly not interested in organization and consistency. But then again, none of the great artists were neat and tidy. Any masterpiece is messy when you look at it up close; only when you step back and take in the whole do you sense the genius behind it. Scientists could tell us many things about a Rembrandt painting or a Michelangelo sculpture. But they would still leave many gaps, gaps where an artistic inspiration could reside. Ponder that, good atheist friends, next time you stroll down the aisles of a museum gallery. And as to you believers — I’d suggest that you spend a Sunday morning (or whenever you habitually pray) in an art gallery and rethink some of the articles of your faith. Perhaps there are things more strange and wonderful lurking in those shadowy “gaps” than your traditional beliefs would imagine.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:43 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, September 2, 2003
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Something to look forward to: There’s a good article in today’s New York Times about string theory. As you probably know, string theory is the biggest thing in physics since the Big Bang; it’s the leading candidate for the “theory of everything”, the grand theory that will explain all the forces and dynamics of the universe, from the quantum hijinks of sub-atomic particles to the whirling of black holes. Well, turns out that string theory is getting the physics people into some rough terrain these days. It seems to have a million or more different versions, any one of which could be right for all we know. To make things more difficult, it requires more than four dimensions.

Most string theories require ten dimensions. So where are the other six? Rolled up into little knots or something. Not exactly in service, as far as we are concerned. But one day that all might change. One of the biggest surprises of the past 10 years was the discovery that all the stars and galaxies in the universe are accelerating, speeding up as they spread apart from each other. Scientists had expected them to be slowing down from gravity. But no, something is still pushing them. Can string theory explain this cosmic acceleration?

Yes, it can. But if string theory is correct, the pushing and accelerating is a side effect of the other six dimensions being all rolled and wound up. And someday that’s going to change. Eventually (who knows when) the extra dimensions are going to start forcing their way back into the picture as they “unwind”. And at that point, things are going to change big time. The basic rules of physics that allow there to be atoms and molecules and planets and stars and galaxies and life as we know it will all go out the window. If there is any kind of life left at that time, no matter how advanced, it will probably not be able to survive.

Well, that could still turn out to be wrong. But one thing for sure, the astrophysicists are really in strange territory these days. Just when they thought the big picture was coming together, it all blows up. More and more brilliant scientists these days are being quoted as saying “we don’t know” (the more brilliant they are, the more honest they seem to be about this). Strange times these are.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:03 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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