Between the Ones and Zeroes

The push to "reopen" and forcing binaries onto non-binary situations.

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In the late 1960s, President Nixon called his science advisor, Edward E. David, into the Oval Office. Henry Kissinger was there too, among a few others. The topic was a recent spate of airplane hijackings.

“The president, in effect, asked me how science could be used to stop these incidents,” David said in a speech much later. “I had the distinct impression that he expected a final solution to be laid on the table immediately.” Nixon wanted an off switch: do this one thing, make the problem go away.

“I'm afraid I told him rather unwelcome news, that the situation was extremely complex and there was neither a sure fix or any technological magic that I could conjure up to solve this problem,” David went on.

One of fundamental ways that politics and science have never mixed is in their acceptance or rejection of the binary. To a certain kind of politician, everything is binary, a one or a zero, with no room for fractions or irrational numbers or any gray area whatsoever. Planes will be hijacked until they are no longer being hijacked, at all and forever. The economy is closed because of Covid-19 until it is open again, completely and forever.

As the lockdowns have dragged on, a certain kind of politician has decided that it is time to switch from a zero back to a one, to flip the light switch back to the on position, regardless of what the Edward E. Davids of today—pretty much the entirety of the world’s public health experts, epidemiologists, physicians, nurses, physician’s assistants, nurse’s assistants, medical students, freshman in college with a passing interest in medicine, hospital custodians, grocery store clerks, meat-packing plant employees, and most rational people with an interest in not dying—are saying about it.

“It’s time to reopen the economy” went from a Fox News fever dream to complete conservative orthodoxy virtually overnight, even as the science remained clear that “reopening” isn’t the binary that the pithy tweets spewing forth from Congress suggest. It’s not just the U.S.—in the U.K., virtually every tabloid screeched things like “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons” this past week just because the officially designated period was coming to an end and Boris Johnson was supposedly going to issue new rules.

People—not just politicians, but they lead the way—want science to offer a yes or no answer. With the coronavirus, we want to go from closed to “open” without acknowledging the need for an in-between. We want a positive test to mean you have the virus and a negative one to mean you don’t, with no room to accept the idea of an error rate. We want the almost-mythical-at-this-point antibody test to determine immunity once and for all, even though those many of those tests are basically useless with absurd rates of false positives and we don’t even know how well any of it corresponds to actual immunity from reinfection anyway. This is a crash course in scientific gray areas.

And with politicians in charge of a fundamentally scientific crisis, it almost feels inevitable that we’re failing that particular course. How many times have you heard a politician (*cough* Biden *cough*) promise that we will “cure” cancer in some arbitrary time frame? This is another binary: the Big Bad is either here or it is not, it kills us until we stop it from doing so, once and for all. The nuance required to understand 250 different diseases that share only the basic concept of uncontrolled cell proliferation is not something many in government can manage—or they can, but choose not to, because claiming you’re going to cure grandma’s lymphoma is an easier sell.

With cancer, or other long-term, ongoing issues, you could argue this isn’t horribly damaging. If by using the language of binaries you can get people on board with, say, huge increases to NIH funding, then maybe your little white lie about some mythical cure isn’t the end of the world. But if your little white lie is that it’s safe for everyone to go get a haircut and then head to a NASCAR race next week, maybe it is the end of the world.

When Nixon poked his science advisor in the shoulder and demanded he do some science to fix things, David actually did offer some advice, it just wasn’t what the president wanted to hear. He told him about x-ray machines, and metal detectors, and other simple things that might help keep weapons off of planes. Nixon didn’t like those, so instead he started by putting a bunch of air marshals on planes, but eventually we got the modern version of airport security at least partially as a result.

In other words, we took incremental steps that offer somewhat dramatic inconveniences to the general public, but probably does deter most would-be hijackers from even giving it a shot. Call the x-rays and the metal detectors the masks, testing, and contact tracing of the issue. There is no “open,” not anymore, just a long tail of gray area, an ocean of ambiguity stretching out in front of us, and we’ll do better to learn to swim in it.

random bits

  • If the virus doesn’t get us, the heat sure will! But seriously it’s already getting too hot in many places for people to survive, far quicker than anticipated.

  • Scientists found a black hole only 1,000 light-years years away, 25 times closer than the one at the center of the Milky Way.

  • I’m sure you’ve all heard about them by now, but still: murder hornets. (But also, please do not kill regular good bees because you’re scared of the murder hornet. The thing you’re killing is not a murder hornet.)

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The Metaphor War

Our limited rhetorical imagination might have made the outbreak worse.

Hope everyone’s quarantine is going okay. Thanks for reading, and spread the word.

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The former director of the CDC has said there is “a long war ahead.” Trump calls himself a “wartime president.” Countless politicians and pundits have talked about “beating” the virus or how “we can’t let the virus win.”

I suppose this all sounds good, in some ways. Treating something like a war suggests you’re taking it very seriously. But the problem is that Americans have heard this rhetoric before, and it came with a very different message. “We can’t let the terrorists win” meant go out and buy things, go to restaurants and bars, don’t be scared of life. Whoops!

Toward the beginning of the outbreak, I would argue this specific rhetoric was actively detrimental to the response. Well after it was clear they shouldn’t, people flocked to the beaches of Florida, to bars in D.C. and New York, to church services. They said things like “we can’t let a virus dictate our lives; we’re going to win.” How much worse is the outbreak because people heard “war” and responded how we’ve been trained to respond to such threats?

Call something a “war” and “winning” becomes crucial. But in a real war, there is an opponent who knows about you and acts in at least somewhat predictable human fashion and wants to win as well. But the virus very much does not give a shit about winning. We tried to play a game of Battleship against a few strands of RNA. It’s like declaring war on gravity. Sure, we built planes that take us into the sky, but we didn’t “beat” gravity, and I’m pretty sure gravity isn’t out there pouting at our “victory.”

It also sets us all up for the absurd rewrite of history that is already ongoing. Calling it a war means that certain incompetent leaders of the free world can eventually declare victory, no matter what happens. The pandemic will end at some point. If half a million in the U.S. die, or a million, or two million, but the outbreak finally stops: did we still win the war?

And aside from the inevitable gaslighting, it places agency and value judgments on to people where it shouldn’t. We do this with other diseases as well: anyone with cancer is encouraged to “beat” the disease, and someone who dies of it is said to have “lost a battle.” It suggests the person who lives through it is somehow stronger, better, more capable and strong-willed than the person who did not. This is, obviously, dumb: sometimes cancer kills you. It isn’t your fault when it does.

Now, there may well be some use to the rhetoric. A new editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the two or three most influential and revered medical journals in the world, argues that “it is a war we should fight to win,” and goes through a series of “wartime” steps that could be taken to get there. Among the suggestions is the need to “inspire and mobilize the public” to do things like wear masks every time we all leave the house, and other steps to minimize risks of transmission. Once the entirety of the public has internalized the direness of the situation, this sort of thing might help: a voluntary draft into full community protective measures probably rings more than a few patriotic bells.

But even in the last few days there are still reports of people gathering where they shouldn’t. There are quotes about defiance and anger at how we’re letting it change our lives. We’re letting the virus win!

I can’t quantify any negative effects of a metaphor, but the way people responded—and continue to respond, in some limited cases—suggests we might have done better with some other rhetorical twist. It’s something we might try to remember for the next unseen crisis: wars against brainless enemies don’t have winners.


random bits

  • I’m actually very curious if anyone has better metaphor ideas; I’ve been known to try and replace the asteroid or boiling frog climate change metaphors with a giant pile of shit in your yard, so maybe I shouldn’t be in charge of such things. Please, discuss in the comments if you have suggestions, or if you think I’m wrong about the war metaphor.

  • The drop in industrial output thanks to the pandemic has led the entire planet to stop, uh, vibrating so much.

  • There used to be rainforests at the South Pole! A *long* time ago, but still.

  • Stay safe everyone.

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@davelevitan

The Gap in the Clouds

The virus is showing us what a cleaner planet could look like.

Well, it appears that gravity has very much returned, and we’re all stuck firmly to the ground for a while. Hope everyone is staying safe, and staying home. Thanks for reading.


The imagery is remarkable, if not that surprising: as the world has retreated inside, out of public spaces, out of work and off the streets and out of their cars, we can see the pollution begin to disappear.

First in China and then elsewhere, in Italy in particular, satellite imagery and other tools started showing us what a real decline in global movement, production, and activity looks like. The concentration of nitrogen dioxide, in particular, is easy to track, and serves as a marker for other pollutants—it is produced from combustion in cars and tracks and in power plants and factories, and it lasts a much shorter time in the atmosphere than some other gases (like carbon dioxide).

There will be other attendant benefits. Ozone production at ground level, which can cause respiratory ailments and exacerbate asthma, will go down—its primary source is car exhaust mixing with sunlight, and there’s a whole lot fewer cars out these days. In Los Angeles, where smog (made largely of ozone) is generally a way of life, saw rush hour traffic moving at more than 70 percent faster than normal by the middle of last week—before California was locked down.

There are reports of the canals in Venice having clear water for the first time in recent memory. Carbon monoxide levels over New York City declined by more than 50 percent over last week. Once we have some distance from this current crisis and take stock from afar, there will almost certainly a fairly impressive drop in carbon dioxide emissions as well—industrial output, and of course air travel, being dramatically diminished.

There are two ways you could look at this. On the one hand, you could imagine it as a “silver lining,” or even take it farther and argue that this is a good thing, that the virus is “healing” the world or some other bit of New Age madness. This, essentially, is eco-fascism: kill the people, fix the planet.

Or, you could see it as an illustration, rather than a solution. It is showing us in stark terms our effect on the world. Obviously, we already knew all of this: we have been measuring NO2, and CO2, and ozone, and we’ve been staring down into the canal’s filthy water for decades on end. We could easily have said three months ago: if we stopped burning fossil fuels, or stopped driving, or stopped all the factories, then many of the bad things we are doing to the world would likely stop. The world would exhale, we might have said, happy to be rid of its dirtiest inhabitants.

But very obviously, just saying it wouldn’t have done much. But seeing it? I’m not the most optimistic of science writers in the world, but I guess my glass-half-full moment in this dark time is that maybe this will actually start to look like an opportunity. There are plenty of arguments out there about how to restart society once we can, about changes to how we treat workers and healthcare systems and so on, and those satellite images of declining NO2 are basically a built-in argument on how to do the environmental side of things. We now don’t have to speculate on what a cleaner-burning economy looks like; we saw it. It was right there (well, it is right there, for the foreseeable future).

That doesn’t mean do *this* [gestures around] again, obviously. That’s back to the fascism bit again. It means using that new, tragic evidence to argue for spaces with fewer vehicles, for more remote work and telehealth, for more generally, a realization that humanity’s obsession with capital-G Growth maybe could use a bit of a rethink. At some point those swirling NO2 animations will tick back the other way, once we push through the worst of it and begin to restart. Here’s hoping we remember what they looked like.

random bits

  • NASA fixed a wonky bit of the InSight lander up on Mars… by having it hit itself with a shovel.

  • Here are some tips from astronauts about how to not go crazy when you’re home alone for a while.

  • In case you’re curious, the update to the last issue, about being a wanderer as wandering becomes impossible, is that our other house-sits have canceled and our current hosts are stuck half way around the world for the time being. So that’s fun.

  • Anyway, this is all horrifying and just weird, but we’ll get through it. Stay home, stay safe everyone.

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Nomadic in the Age of Pandemic

How do you self-quarantine at home when you don't have one?

Something a bit different for this issue. We find ourselves in a very odd situation, so I wrote something of a reflection on being wanderers when wandering becomes impossible. For what it’s worth, I wrote this more than a week ago, and obviously a lot has changed since then! So, read this with something like March 4 eyes instead of March 12 eyes. Thanks for reading, liking, subscribing, and social distancing.

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The flight from Boston to London’s Gatwick airport was not substantively different from any other flight. There were no announcements about the coronavirus, no admonishments to wash hands or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. The flight was mostly—though not entirely—full. The plane did not fall out of the sky.

But still, an air of tension laid across the entire endeavor, like the plane was wrapped in a thin layer of shellac that would crack at any reasonable provocation. A cough or sneeze would ring out in the economy cabin (who knows what was taking place in the glorious and, I like to imagine, somehow virus-free land of lie-flat seats and endless booze), and eyes would dart about. Face masks, covering somewhere in the vicinity of ten percent of the passengers, were nervously adjusted and periodically removed, likely rendering them useless. Hand sanitizer materialized out of seat-back pockets and backpacks. Shared armrest space was given a centimeter more of a polite buffer than one has come to expect. Sleep seemed more fitful than usual for an overnight flight, with flickering seatback screens remaining lit throughout the cabin.

This was on February 29, around eight weeks into the coronavirus outbreak, and the world seemed to have a sort of teetering potential energy to it, like some wrathful Olympian had inhaled deeply before blowing the fleet tragically off course. Case numbers in South Korea and Italy were beginning to spike, gaps in testing in the U.S. and elsewhere sparked concern, and various national and international events had canceled or were considering it. Experts quoted in news articles and on television seemed to agree, this would get worse before it got better.

Waiting for that flight to depart, I wondered at what point doing this exact thing—moving about the world, through bottlenecks of human activity like airports or train stations—would simply become an indefensible act. Had we already arrived at that point? [Ed. note from March 12: Yes.] I looked around as we boarded, listened for accents and wondered what percentage of passengers were people simply trying to get home—surely an understandable move, even in the face of a spiraling epidemic.

What, then, to make of my wife and me, traveling by a strange and self-made necessity? How do you self-quarantine at home when you don’t have one?


In late August of last year, we sold our house in New Jersey, near Philadelphia. We sold our car, sold or gave away most of our furniture, donated piles of clothes and boxes of books, and then packed up the shockingly extensive collection of things that remained and moved them into a storage unit located in the generic armpit of several highway interchanges, to be dealt with in some unknown fashion at some unknown later date. We spent a week at my father’s house in Philly, carving out time for pub quizzes, museum visits, and pizza and game nights with every friend we could rustle up. And then we left.

On September 1 we flew west—far west—starting a nomadic existence that continues now more than six months later. We left because we felt a need to try something different, a change from the northeast coast of the U.S. where both of us had lived in one spot or another for all our lives; but also because we felt the country pushing us away, its litany of indefensible scourges piling up until we looked around and asked ourselves why we felt the need to tolerate them. As a freelance journalist, I could, more or less, work from wherever. As an experienced teacher and educator, she could likely find jobs almost anywhere, if we found a place we wanted to settle. We did not have children, or pets, or particularly urgent plans to acquire either one. Though daunting in the planning and preliminary execution, we quickly understood that the idea was, simply put, feasible

As we approached our departure it started to seem increasingly obvious. Do we stick with the country sliding headlong into absurdist authoritarianism, or grasp that feasibility and try out literally anywhere else? How much longer should we bother with impenetrable medical bills and calls with insurance companies, with a country that won’t raise wages or offer paid leave or even vaguely try to stop burning fossil fuels? How many more of her Philly-area students had to be murdered (the number sits, incomprehensibly, at nine) before it became acceptable to simply opt out? 

As we made our tour of friends and family prior to leaving, most people seemed to understand: this place is making so many of us sad or angry or confused. At least trying out some other version of a life, if you find yourself in a privileged enough position to do so, is hard to argue with.

So we swallowed the guilt from our climate-endangering flights, and wandered for a bit. We were in Southeast Asia, then New Zealand, where Parliament passed a zero-carbon bill two days after we arrived and where a tragedy populationally proportional in scope to 9/11 led to actual reforms instead of endless war. We got used to living out of our bags, and began to adjust what it meant to feel at home.


When we left, though, the diffusion pressure felt unidirectional. The disease we fled—always with the caveat that we might return, who knows, maybe we’ll miss people too much, and that storage unit filled with clothes and books and other things we couldn’t bring ourselves to shed does exert a certain gravity, after all—was at home, localized, undoubtedly tinted orange but also far more systemic than just one person. The disease that showed up later, and worsened when we swung back through the U.S. as visitors heading toward a new portion of the peripatetic existence we were carving out, had a point of origin but within weeks began to feel inescapable.

It certainly felt present on the flight to London, if only as a thought on every passenger’s mind. But what could we do save keep moving, at that point? We were on our way to a tiny hamlet in the Somerset countryside, where our home for a month—this month, now, as I sit and write—was a 16th-century farmhouse, where a retired couple and their dog, a golden lab named Bessie, enjoyed an existence that the word “quaint” does not begin to describe. A stream runs next to the one-lane road, alongside a 500-year-old stone wall. Sheep graze on the hill above the house. Drop one pound and ten pence into a box out front of one house, and grab a half dozen eggs collected that very morning. Numbered addresses are non-existent here, with only a name—Pickering, Old Mill, Thatchover—required for mail to arrive without a hitch. One centuries-old house, a neighbor told us, was the setting for a rather infamous royal love affair some decades back.

The owners of our house weren't there, of course—they were traveling in Australia, and through a clever website we had been connected as someone who could house- and pet-sit while they were gone. We get free lodging, they get free pet care and a dog that can stay comfortably at home—a reasonable trade. Our plan, after various unexpected changes to my regular freelance gigs in the previous months as we wandered Asia and New Zealand, was to hop from house-sit to house-sit for some months, enjoying the company of various pets while staying comfortably still in the English and French countrysides. Europe is not a cheap place to sleep, so doing it for free had an undeniable appeal.

And so we arrived to Somerset, slept off our jet lag, and walked Bessie through the mud and past the newborn lambs on the hill. I joked that we had skipped right to the end of 28 Days Later, when the surviving heroes have settled somewhere deep in the countryside, happily sewing together massive signs of greeting for the uninfected world to glimpse from planes flying by. It felt vaguely and accidentally responsible—assuming we hadn’t picked up the virus on our way across the Atlantic, we were relatively isolated, alone in a country house with little to do and only the comically friendly neighbors to see every now and then. We stocked the fridge and freezer with the intent of making the food—and the many bottles of wine—last the full month; we returned the rental car after only a few days. We sat still, shook no one’s hand, did not go to work, avoided any large gatherings. We even washed our hands more often than normal, though that could have been related to Bessie’s predilection for digging in the mud and delightful demands for attention.

But the unease of the situation would not abate. The calls to take personal responsibility to help stop the coronavirus’s spread began to proliferate on Twitter and elsewhere (the house’s stone walls did their best to keep us off the internet, but wifi and our addictions won out). “This isn’t just about you.” “This is a test of both governments’ and individuals’ ability to empathize with people we do not know.” “Cancel your travel plans, maybe save a life.”

How, exactly, does a nomad cancel travel plans? Is “travel plans” even truly the right term? This particular house-sit in the Somerset countryside will end come April. Assuming the owners make it home from Australia and New Zealand, do we simply demand to stay? Make the case that it would be irresponsible to travel to London, to board a train headed under the Channel toward Paris, to arrive at another small town where an excitable Weimaraner awaits our care? What do we tell those owners in France, whose own travel plans have been set for some time and are counting on a reliable couple to feed and walk the dog twice a day?

And then there is the chance that we end up with no choice in the matter. If the virus spirals truly out of control, the patchwork of travel restrictions we have seen so far—heightened State Department alerts about traveling to Italy, Lufthansa’s canceled flights to Israel, the obvious dip in any travel into China—will be rendered hilariously quaint. [Ed. note from March 12: Correct.] Maybe Bessie’s owners won’t even make it back from the Southern Hemisphere for some unknown period of time.

Or perhaps our next hosts, in France or others we have committed to in Oxford and Edinburgh, decide that they should be responsible global citizens and stay home. Though of course we would be disappointed on a personal level, there is obviously no criticizing such a decision—except that we don’t have a home at which to stay. We sit here, literally unsure what the governments, businesses, and various travelers of the world will throw in our direction, and what the responsible course of action will be once it is thrown. We left what felt like a diseased home to wander, and find ourselves in an absurdist, disease-ridden limbo, with no place to sit still and no excuse to keep moving.

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Doc, I'm Burning Up

The clearest signal that climate change has very much arrived may come from your doctor.

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“We owe it to our children and our grandchildren to put out this oncoming conflagration,” said the well-meaning politician as his hair caught fire.

There is no doubt that at very least the rhetoric surrounding climate change has undergone a shift in the last year or so, with most non-Death Cultists agreeing it represents an existential threat to modern society, millions of species of plants and animals, and the actual shape of the landmasses of the planet. But one annoying piece of early-2000s Climate Speak has retained its popularity: the insistence that fixing the problem is for future generations.

Now, there are plenty of people who do focus on the very obvious now-ness of the problem—the entire continents catching on fire, the millions of people already displaced—or very soon to be displaced—by rising seas and eroding coast lines, and so on. But the “we owe it to our children” persists, and whether this is reflective or causative, it seems to relate to public opinion.

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, only 48 percent of Americans think global warming “is already harming people in the U.S. now or within 10 years.” Meanwhile, 67 percent think it will harm “future generations.” (Let’s not talk about the missing 33 percent here, they’re lost.)

There is one group of professionals in the U.S., though, that might serve as something of a town crier for the oncoming onslaught of effects: doctors. And nurses. And basically all medical professionals. There is an already-large and growing understanding in medicine that climate change is coming for our health, in an almost uncountable number of ways, and doctors and nurses are actually starting to sound that alarm loudly.

The Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) is hosting an event later this month called the Climate Crisis and Clinical Practice Symposium (co-hosted by Harvard Medical School and Harvard Global Health Institute, along with the New England Journal of Medicine). I find this to be a sort of fascinating event because it is aimed solely at other medical professionals, and not really at the public: the goal is to educate practicing clinicians on what climate change is doing to their patients, and how to get better at managing those issues.

This is very much not the first time anyone has warned about the health effects of a warming world. Exacerbated asthma, flooding-related illnesses and pathogens, worsened air quality, unprecedented rates of heat stroke, spikes in tick-borne illnesses—that’s just to name a few, and there are likely health effects we haven’t even really thought about that will enter the mix at some point. And then there’s climate-related mental health, another can of worms that is very much already open. When I wrote about the mental health effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rican youth last year, one expert told me: “I don’t think we are ready for the coming tsunami of climate mental health impacts.” Which sounds ominous.

Doctors and nurses really do need to be aware of all this, and it is beyond encouraging that this group, at least, doesn’t seem to think it’s just some vague thing coming down the pike at a Date To Be Named Later.

The Harvard event isn’t some standalone thing either. From a Wall Street Journal piece last year:

At the University of Minnesota, medical, nursing and pharmacy schools, among others, have added content or tweaked existing classes to incorporate climate-related topics. The University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign added a diagnosis exercise about worsening asthma due to increased wildfires from climate change. The Mayo Clinic is starting discussions this month on how to integrate the topic into its medical school’s curriculum.

Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health started the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education, which aims to educate medical professionals on climate-related health issues. It has 196 members at latest count, including medical schools, nursing schools, public health schools, and others. The American Medical Association has adopted a policy of teaching climate change issues to all medical students; the students agree, with the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations working to integrate climate change into university curricula.

I get how you can ignore a politician. It’s easy. Joe Biden telling you that climate change is a crisis doesn’t really sell the urgency when he spent however many decades in the Senate, you know, not fixing the problem. So who would you listen to?

The reason it seems like the best bellwether so far is that doctors and nurses are not trained to think about this. They are not climate scientists. They are not energy experts, or policy advocates or anything at all that in a non-warming world would have to think that hard about the climate. But they are thinking about it, in a clear-eyed sideways rebuke to politicians who say one thing and do another. The asthma cases are here, and will get worse, and it’s time to know what to do about it.

Doctors aren’t the know-everything sages of the 1950s, but they still hold a certain degree of authority in a world beset by misinformation. If they tell you which chemotherapy is most likely to kill your cancer, you’re probably going to listen to them. They’re telling you now that it’s not your children and your children’s children you need to worry about.

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