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More information has come in concerning last week’s fatal incident involving an autonomous car and it is not good.  That robot car just straight up murdered the poor woman walking her bike across the road: it didn’t even try to stop.  The human “back-up driver” onboard was also utterly useless (although this might actually be a pretty accurate representation of how people will be once they get in one of these things and start watching Netflix or writing opinionated blog posts or whatever).

Now Uber is far from my favorite company.  I dislike their creepy name (with its third Reich overtones) and their extraction-based business plan of squeezing drivers/franchisees as hard as possible while avoiding all meaningful oversight and liability.  They perfectly exemplify the MBA’s “heads I win-tails you lose” mentality and it doesn’t surprise me that they have botched things so badly right out of the gate.  Additionally, the homicidal actions of their sloppy robot have made it harder to ignore the voices questioning what sort of autonomous future we want for the roads.  So maybe it is a good time now to heed those voices and brainstorm about the things we want from autonomous automobiles!  Here are some of my requests to the powers that be, just jotted down as loose notes:

1)      Non-monopolistic: We need more than one or two big companies making these transportation units, or we are going to all be held hostage by their cartel.  The big company will make the decisions about national (or international) transportation priorities and the rest of us will all be dragged along for the ride (as it were).  We already had this model in the middle of the 20th century when automobile companies ruthlessly dominated infrastructure/land-use planning and suppressed other modes of transportation or city planning.  It worked barely…for our huge growing country, but those days are gone and now we need…

2)      Trains trains trains: America has one of the finest freight rail networks in the world, but our light/passenger rail is terrible.  China has leapfrogged us completely.  In the Middle Kingdom, you can make a trip from Beijing to Shanghai (a little farther than New York to Chicago) on a high speed train in a bit more than 4 hours.  During peak hours the trains run every 5 minutes and cost about 80 dollars.

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3)      Ability to recognize things:  An idea which has come up is that robot cars won’t be able to recognize humans with lidar/radar/sonar and suchlike electronic sensors alone.  Pedestrians and bicyclists will need to wear beacons to avoid death by Uber (domestic animals and wildlife will obviously be out of luck).  This is unacceptable! Back to the drawing board, tech guys—your cars will have to do better than this

4)      We need these cars to be tamper-proof.  If hot-rod teenagers can hack the things and make them go 300 miles an hour over washed out bridges, then the technology will not be sufficient to keep riders safe from tampering or to keep car companies safe from litigation, or to keep the roads safe at all.

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Cars are all made in some robotic factory anyway—the price comes from setting up the automated equipment.  This means that there is not much price difference between making a super luxury car and an ultra-economy model (they are both twisted into shape from the same steel and wires).  The fact that the luxury car costs 4 or 5 times as much as the hatchback is because some MBA guy decided people would pay that much more for increased status.

One of the biggest problems with our roads are the extent to which they reflect status.  Somebody driving an expensive car often takes liberties and chances with other people’s lives which make it apparent that they really think they are worth many times more than the underclass nobodies they are crushing.  Will robot cars reflect this dynamic?  Traditional car companies must be desperate for such an outcome (they make a lot of money with luxury models), yet I hope we have a more egalitarian result.    If the future consists of giant robot tank/limousines going 200 miles per hours with carte blanche to knock anyone off the road, we might as well keep the dangerous broken system we have.

I have been enthusiastic about robot cars and I continue to believe they offer astonishing new realms of freedom, leisure, and opportunity for all. I can move to the country! Grandma can go shopping whenever she wants! But after looking at the inhuman mess which big companies have made out of the energy industry, the medical industry (shudder), the aviation industry, or the telecom industry, it seems like corporations might need some guidance from the rest of us.

igardenflounderHere are two more little flounder doodles which I make during the spare moments of the day.  The one at the top is a garden flounder which makes me think of spring…but with some sort of automated gardening machine that looks like a bug sitting atop of it.  Below is a post-apocalyptic fluke in the middle of the desert badlands of the grim future.  I have no idea what it means.  Maybe these have something to do with that perplexing German flounder fable about what we really want.

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RIP to the first victim of an autonomous car.  Details are still coming in, but it seems like an Uber robot SUV being tested in Tempe, Arizona killed a woman who was walking her bicycle.  Well, I guess technically some rich guy was already killed while incorrectly operating his semi-autonomous Tesla, however today’s accident feels more real to me and, judging by headlines, to everyone else as well.

I used to be deeply in love with the idea of cars.  They represented power, freedom, and status…until I tried to drive one and realized A) I am terrible at it; and B) it is profoundly easy to hurt or kill someone with a car.  American society is designed to normalize this in all sorts of ways… to such an extent that most people don’t even notice our rising traffic fatality statistics.  In Holland, if you kill somebody with a car, no matter what the circumstances, it is a real problem, but in America, even if you pretty much straight-up murder somebody through volition or grotesque incompetence, the police will come and rationalize a way it was the bicyclist’s or pedestrian’s fault and give you a hug and a root beer sticker. (If you kill more than six people you get a free foot-long hero sandwich!)

The deep indifference of the authorities is born out by the numbers: in 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic-related accidents in the United States.  If 40,000 people died in a war or by gun violence, society would be up in arms (so to speak) and we would be having a national conversation about how to improve things (editor’s note: in 2016, 38,000 Americans were killed by guns. What sort of dark carnival are we running over here?).

America is too spacious for us to ever be free of automated carriages.  I live in New York because, despite the cars, I can bicycle here (barely) and because there is a 24-hour subway (also barely…thanks a lot, Cuomo).  But beyond the coral-reef lifestyle of America’s one worthwhile city there is too much distance to cover.  Even if we were all Lance Armstrong (and we’re really not) we would still need motors to get around.

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We have decided not to invest in effective national mass transit. Likewise, we are not redesigning roads in ways which have been proven to make them safer in Europe and Japan (safer for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike).  Our only hope of diminishing the carnage and damage wrought by our 1950s/60s era national transportation system is effective robot cars.  This won’t work if we take the lamentable current state of transportation as something to aspire to.

So, although today’s headline was scary and terrible, we need to keep looking at the bigger picture. We are fixated on the person tragically killed by a robot car because it is novel and garners attention (look, here I am writing about it too), but the real headline should be the hundred people who were killed in the United States today by normal human drivers.  Of course, that is the same story every day so nobody remarks upon it.   So Uber (and Google, and Tesla), get your act together.  Break down the data and figure out what went wrong and fix it.  Why didn’t your car stop (they are supposed to have faster reflexes than any person)?  Also, why was the “car” a giant hulking tank to begin with?  What is wrong with robot cars that are adorable little soft alien bug cars, like the Japanese are working on?

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Robot cars are coming and I believe they will be glorious, but a lot more work is needed…and more imagination and creativity are needed too.  So let’s slow down for a moment, but then speed up.  Think of the one person killed, but think of the hundred too.

“And a Man sat alone, drenched deep in sadness. And all the animals drew near to him and said, “We do not like to see you so sad. Ask us for whatever you wish and you shall have it.” The Man said, “I want to have good sight.” The vulture replied, “You shall have mine.” The Man said, “I want to be strong.” The jaguar said, “You shall be strong like me.” Then the Man said, “I long to know the secrets of the earth.” The serpent replied, “I will show them to you.” And so it went with all the animals. And when the Man had all the gifts that they could give, he left. Then the owl said to the other animals, “Now the Man knows much, he’ll be able to do many things. Suddenly I am afraid.” The deer said, “The Man has all that he needs. Now his sadness will stop.” But the owl replied, “No. I saw a hole in the Man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want. He will go on taking and taking, until one day the World will say, ‘I am no more and I have nothing left to give”

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Last week’s essay about fear has made me think about the opposite of fear: desire.  I don’t mean romantic desire (although maybe that too), but instead what we really want…not just over the course of an afternoon or in junior high school, but for all of our lives. It is a big question!  And it becomes bigger when we start talking about what people want collectively at a city or national level (or at a level beyond that). What do we want for ourselves within a decade? What about a lifetime?  Or many lifetimes? But, whereas fear is very miserable, at least we tend to have a strong sense of what we are afraid of, and why.  Desires (beyond immediate obvious sorts like mates, status objects, good outcomes for our loved ones) are abstruse and inchoate.   We seem to know exactly what we are running from, the question of what we are running towards is much more elusive.

Humankind is a hive organism… a super colony like mole rats or termites, but we exist at a planetary scale, so it maybe behooves us to honestly talk about the things we all want and the directions these aspirations are leading us in.

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This week, in order to more fully explore these issues, I have chosen three animal fables concerning what humankind wants and the lengths to which we will go to obtain our desires.  They seem like simple stories, however, the more you think about them, the less facile they become.

I say these are animal stories because, in each case, the guide/interface to humans reaching what they want is an animal.  The animals in these stories represent the “natural” world with its power, glory, and strength.  The tales seem to set humankind apart from that world and from other creatures–as a different sort of being even from magical talking animals–yet I am not sure we are so different (neither from real animals nor from the ones in the stories).  Religious people see humans not as animals at all, but more like a sort of lesser “junior” deity.  I think we are an extreme manifestation of the animal kingdom and there are no gods–divinity is only an abstruse concept we have created to give shape to our fears and desires. Yet maybe that is not so different from what the religious people think (the idea of divinity makes a big appearance in these three fables as well).  I love animals and I mostly like being one (although greedy angry primates aren’t my favorite creatures).  I have my own strong ideas concerning where humankind needs to go and it seems like we are going the wrong way.

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Enough blather: I am losing the thread!  I will present each of these tales without commentary.  We can talk about what they mean after they are done, however, as you read them, please keep thinking about what you want the most both for now, and for the far future when you are long gone.

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There are two amazing pieces of space news today to shock and astonish you.  First, we have found a near-analog to planet Earth orbiting a red dwarf star—and it is “only” 11 light-years from our Solar System.  The exoplanet is named  Ross 128b and it is orbiting a quiet red dwarf star (most red dwarves are subject to solar flares which release life cleansing jolts of exotic radiation, but, like our delightful Sun, Ross 128 seems to be much more sedate (perhaps its placid life has something to do with its bland name which makes it sound like a dullard clone friend on an 90s sitcom).  In this age of exoplanet discovery, it is easy to lose sight of what an astonishing find this is, but I grew up in a world with only nine known planets.  Remember back when Ferrebeekeeper was rhapsodizing about weird icy oddballs like Gliese 581 g?  Ross 128B seems like it roughly the same size and temperature as Earth and it is right in our backyard.  Additionally, it is moving towards us, in a mere 78000 years it will be the closest exoplanet to Earth!

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The other “news” is more conditional and vague, but no less exciting to me.  NASA has been floating the concept of a balloon mission to Venus.  I have been hoping for more attention to our nearest neighbor (since I harbor fantasies of living there, in the sweet spot above the merciless clouds) a balloon probe to see what the atmosphere is actually like would let us know whether his fantasy is at all workable.   The Soviet Union actually sent some balloon probes to Venus back in the early days of interplanetary exploration, but they were crude things which were not built to last and they told us little.  Let’s do it right this time and find out everything about our mysterious sister planet!  It is going to be a little while before Ross 128B is in range so let’s explore the immediate neighborhood and get to work on living abroad while there is still time!  

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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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Did you all watch Moana?  That movie was amazing! It may be my favorite Disney movie (and I am a big fan of hand-drawn animation instead of the computer rendered stuff, so that is really saying something).  The eponymous hero is brave and truly heroic, yet her strength does not come from magic or violence (or a marriage proposal from some foppish prince), it comes from constant striving to go farther and understand things better.  That is a rare thing in our entertainment world.

There is an amazing revelation early on in the movie.  Moana longs to leave her island paradise and sail the broad oceans, but society forbids anyone–even a hereditary princess–from sailing beyond the reef.  Then, in a scene of breathtaking wonder, Moana discovers the secret history of her people. They were not originally from that island…once they were fearless explorers who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on enormous exploration canoes.  Yet they have become insular—obsessed with rules, hierarchies, and the past.  Not only have they become fearful and small, but they have caught all available fish and their fruit groves are dying…

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Naturally, the talk about Moana has largely centered around two things: (1) whether it is secretly an allegory of American politics (I don’t think it is…exactly…but clearly there are uncomfortable parallels); and (2) whether it bowdlerizes Polynesian culture (it does, but, come on! kids’ cartoons flatten and distort every story and the movie presents Polynesian culture with respect and wonder).  “Hercules” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” destroyed those stories: in Disney’s hands they literally ended up with opposite meanings (and endings) than in the original versions, but you don’t hear French people and ancient Greeks complaining.

Lately, in our world, everyone seems to be becoming ever more tribal. We are swift to find (or imagine) insult about anything concerning our group or worldview, and strangely unable to perceive the wonder and possibilities of the bigger picture.  I have been writing about princesses because I want people to stop being so stupid and tribal.  We need to re-examine the leadership archetypes we grew up with so that we can make some better choices.

There are two antithetical reasons we sell the concept of princesshood to little girls.  The first reason is about making children behave.  If you master rules and norms, people will like you and you will succeed. The other is about true leadership, not by coercive means like threats, lawsuits, or bossing people around, but by generosity, and imagination, and beautiful example. If you making your life into something remarkable and amazing, other people are drawn towards you and want to follow you.

Everyone has to tread the line between these two poles– whether you have to submit to the whims of the great masters and the weight of society–or whether you can build a life of beauty, meaning and worth on your own terms. Moana masters both, and is able to lead her people beyond the reef back to their true heritage of exploration and discovery.

People worldwide are growing dissatisfied with the self-satisfied conclusions of the post Cold War era of globalization and automation.   They ask whether we should turn back the clock to make society more insular, static, tribal, and impoverished (yet more safe), or whether we should instead keep growing, learning, and discovering—even if it puts us at danger.   It strikes me that there can only be one answer: the insular society of the 50s was not really all that safe.   The only way is forward; there actually is no road back. We will keep exploring this idea, but in the meantime watch Moana, and tell me your opinions about princesses (or share some favorite childhood memories).  We are starting from the beginning in rediscovering what is best about leadership and how to move on to a future which is worthwhile.   Reexamining some cherished archetypes is a good place to start, but there is a lot we need to talk about concerning where we want to go and who we want to be.

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My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.

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If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.

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Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).

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We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).

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I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.

 

Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.

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Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.

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Color transcends history.  The wavelengths of light…the chemical compositions of the pigments…these things are part of the physical universe.  Yet how we apprehend color is a part of our eyes, and our minds, and our upbringings (and involves some quirks unique to human physiology—as demonstrated by the colors magenta and stygian blue).  Most of the colors I write about were first mentioned in the 18th or 19th century.  Some colors are vastly older—like Han purple (which I like more all the time, by the way). However today I am writing about a color first mentioned in the distant year of…2009.  This color found a name after the rise and fall of Britney Spears.  The great recession had already set in by the time this color made the scene.  I am talking, of course about “Arctic Lime” which was invented by Crayola’s for its “eXtreme” line of ultra-bright colored pencils.

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At first gasp, Arctic lime seems like a sad effort by a marketer who was not at the top of his game.  Chartreuse and the Arctic do not initially go together in the popular imagination (nor do tropical limes belong in the frozen tundra). Yet the more one looks at this hue, the more it makes sense.  It is not the color of ice, but it is the color of the aurora as it sweeps past inhuman vistas of alien frozen waste. Also, Arctic lime may not have a beautiful name, but it is a beautiful color (in its own unnatural and eXtreme way).  Perhaps people of the far future will think of this color the way we think of Han Purple and they will imagine us going about our lives in Arctic Lime leisure clothes and neckties.  Come to think of it, the color is pretty similar to the high-visability fluorescent green of my bike helmet.  Maybe the imaginary people of the future are imagining us more accurately than we imagine ourselves!

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