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Monthly Archives: December 2008

Jostled by Pope Gregory in 1582, we shall not, this year of 2009, following the dictum

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years. For example, the year 1900 is not a leap year; the year 2000 is a leap year,

be leaping.  Rather we will trudge, trailing in our wake the dismal offal of the millennium’s inauspicious beginning, from the fraudulent if costly alarums of WK2, wherein doomsday was imagined in the errant programming of myriad computers, and on to the equally fraudulent election in the USA of George W. Bush, ensconced on the throne of alleged democratic power by a Supreme Court intervention of a decidedly undemocratic kind, thus turning the Presidency over to the man who secured fewer popular votes than the losing party, and fouling the political waters for the coming years.   Hot on the heels of this ascension the mystic numbers 911 arrived, no irony intended that it is the usual emergency telephone shortcut in America, and whatever one’s intuition’s about just how this occurred (mine conclude it was in some manner a distinctly inside job, the investigation of which thus far has left far too many oddities for mere coincidence) this in turn led rapidly to an ideological hysteria which permitted the American Right to cram, or attempt to do so,  its values into every nook and cranny of the social-political-economic and ethical landscape.    In the name of the victory of so-called Western values over those of Communism, summarized by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a triumphalist America pigged out, convinced that the Wall Street Way of uber-capitalism, out-sourcing, globalizing, and all the other buzzwords of the corporate masters was indeed the wave of the future.  Neo-cons, tucked away in their “think tanks” theorized away, imagining a veritable epoch of American hegemony, uncontested by any other parties, a time in which so-called American values could be imposed globally – American hamburgers, democracy, and economic models dished out, of course in the classic American manner, for the good of the recipients (whether they liked it or not).   Evangelicals, courted for their electoral clout, tagged along, dreaming of imposing a reign of their mode of Christianity across the national spectrum.   911 emboldened this view as the world quickly, if briefly, lined up in sympathy, and to the Yankee ear the logic of necessity rang clear:  we gotta ‘tack them there before they ‘tack us here, went the Bushian mantra.  Along with the other fanciful think-tank palliatives like “democracies never go to war with each other,” and “trading parties never go to war with each other.”  It was America uber alles because it was good for us, and if it was good for us it was good for them.

And so, following W‘s lead, we twisted the evidence where needed, and marched gloriously off to war, without the usual annoyances of a draft or the raising of taxes.  All that was required of us was “go shopping,” run up the credit card, submit to a cyclical fear-amperage boost and forget about war crimes.

Yellow.

Orange.

RED !

Shop and be afraid.


For a while Americans, or some Americans, even a majority of them, were taken with this new American Imperial vision in which GI’s would traipse around the world’s bad nabes, and do in the bad guys over there while we all partied over here.   Even when the hidden bodies began to return home, and the Mission Accomplished soured, and the deal of having the war paid for by Iraqi oil, and all the other think-tank pipe dreams began to curdle in smoke, there was still the booming housing market to buoy things along, and run up the credit card a bit longer.   And W won his next lost election, scamming his way to another four years on the claims of being a heroic cod-pieced War President smokin’ ‘em out. Back in 2004 his popularity rating was still in the 60% range, the economy was seemingly cooking, and Katrina had not yet arrived to show that the show was, well, all show, and that bin Laden, the bad guy, might or might not be alive and laughing.

Here Sam Mendes, of the UK, not US, stands with his wife Ms Winslet, preparing a shot for Revolutionary Road, based on a dyspeptic novel of the 1950′s of the same title, taking to critical task the imaginary Nirvana of upper-end suburbia.  Reviews suggest the film has “high production values/classy set design” and some good acting, though there doesn’t seem to be any accord that it is actually a good film.   One look at this production still, not really greatly different from most production stills, shows the fundamental problem, which reverberates down through the fraudulent sets of Hollywood, on through the multiplex and right across the nation to settle in the dual cesspools of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Wash., DC.   The problem is an essential fakeness of such insidious qualities that more or less all involved don’t see that everything around them, as well as the image in the mirror, is indeed fake.  Fraudulent.  Phony.

Above, as Mr Mendes counsels Kate about the next shot, we see a crew standing about, holding an umbrella to keep the actual sun from searing our starlet’s blond tints.   The lackey, doubtless making $500 or more a day, stands in spotless sneakers, as spotless as the never-worn-but-on-the-set costume of Ms Winslet, all in pristine unsmudged whites, lacking any evident rumples of life.  Around them the scrims and diffusion screens and high wattage lights, on a perfectly fine looking sunny day, belie the core falsity of Hollywood, just as do the costumes and the movie-biz pay scales.  The trades say the film cost (“a relatively low-budget”) $45,000,000 so we may assume that Mr Mendes and wife picked up a handy 5-10 million between them, while the other stars perhaps got less than their usual, and all the regular Hollywood sorts from DOP to grips got their customary $500-$5,000 a day, plus out-of-town housing, per diem, etc., for their ever so specialized labors.   For sure none of the parties involved felt the slightest sense of hypocrisy while the two leads tore at each other acting out the dismal story-line.   Rather they doubtless felt they were engaged in a serious piece of socio-critical art, with a “serious” director, and that whatever the critiques laid out for Connecticut suburbia circa 1955,  they applied not at all to these denizens of Beverley Hills, Santa Monica or whichever hip enclave in New York, London or Santa Barbara they all call home.  Revolutionary Road is but one rather minor film in the parade of equally morally squalid “product” which spills out from Hollywood, never mind the massive toilet of television.  Of course, this business is all considered perfectly normal, part of the cultural swirl which is America.  In this particular world, we’re all American Idols.


However fraudulent, in the last decades has come the complaint from Hollywood that the money-changers have taken over the biz, that bean-counters have replaced those enamored of the movies, and it’s been a downhill skid ever since.  This was said as Wall Street souls had entered the inner sanctums of the studios, buying up (along with Sony) the fabled MGM, Warner Brothers, and Paramount.  Filthy numbers had replaced the less tangible matters of art, and the good old Hwd had been bought like a whore.  Laughable as this lament may have been, indeed the hyperized pressures of the new capitalism have in fact left a lot less space for the quirky emergence of anything like art, and have replaced them with a quasi-scientific attempt to quantify every aspect of this most commercial of businesses.  But, the numbers did indeed shoot up, and the cost of making, marketing and exhibiting a film have leapt, along with the pay-scales of nearly all attached to the enterprise.   Alas, this ballooning scarcely measures next to that of Wall Street, where CEO’s whose names fail to register on any marquee, are accorded payment which dwarfs that of any hot Hollywood star, or even the entire budget of a carefully calculated mega-monster BO buster.   Compared to their brethren in New York, the moguls of LA are decidedly minor league.

(Enter Henry “Hank” Paulson, stage Right)

In the autumn of 2008, as the cumulative fraud of the United States’ economy unveiled itself as an Enron scam exponentially beyond any recognition, Henry Paulson, US Secretary of the Treasury, former CEO of Goldman Sachs (where he picked up a mere $700 million for his labors – to say for his involvement in the development of those exotic fiscal Ponzi schemes called “derivatives,” – not to mention his extra departing bonuses as he moved on to Federal service) announced that despite his not so long ago assurances (January 2008) that “the fundamentals of the US economy were sound,” that instead he was Chicken Little and The Sky Was Falling.   He demanded that he be given a mere $700 billion to pass out to his errant banking buddies, and that under no circumstances should there be any accounting or even any manner in which to account for this, otherwise he sagely said, The Sky Will Fall.  After some modest negotiation with an ectoplasmic Congress, this deal was cut and he was duly given his $700 billion, to pass out ostensibly to grease the fiscal system to loan again, though in fact this did not occur.  Instead the systemic freeze on loaning money remained gelid, and at least $350 billion went somewhere, unaccounted, into the vaults of – would you have ever guessed? – Goldman Sachs, and other banks and fiscal entities such as American International General, all of which had Ponzi’ed themselves into a deep accounting negative, playing mostly with the vaunted “derivatives” – debt sold as a positive value – which had not panned out.  Pity the poor bankers.  Being who they were they didn’t imagine that holding half-million dollar parties with the Federal bailout funds while “folks” were being evicted from their foreclosed homes would be anything but normal, and hardly could they imagine any shame attached to such behavior.  So party they did.   Now some months have passed, and while billions have been printed and shoved in the hands of those who provoked this crisis, little has changed (well, except that the banks refilled their coffers and party funds, and some million or so lost their jobs, and some 100,000′s  lost their homes, and….) and the sky has not yet fallen, though it threatens to do so any moment.  Those august persons in authority again admonish us:

Shop and be afraid.



As the house of cards which is America begins to shudder in the breeze, there is a sudden arrival of accounting.  The pundits of the press and the television talking heads all rush in to analyze the problems besetting us, each and every one side-stepping their role in setting up exactly those problems.   Those who cheered on a tax-cut and a draftless war (more or less all of them) now lament a lazy you-want-something-for-nothing public which fell for this line.  Not them, of course.  No, their public wisdoms are meant to evaporate with the morning dew, each day providing a virgin canvas for new visions never accountable to the thoughts of the past.  Thomas Friedman is an exemplary of this tendency, who having energetically cheered on the illegal invasion/occupation/war in Iraq, was a major Bush booster,  then went on to applaud globalization and all its effects (outsourcing, down-sizing), now stridently insists we need to re-boot America – the economy, our politics, our morals, ethics, etc. etc. – as if he had had nothing whatsoever to do with our slurping in the troughs of corruptions of all kinds.   He represents the tonier end of such sentiments, but has many with whom he shares company.

And so America, having preached the virtues of honesty, democracy, and proper ethics, etc. to those abroad – even if we never practiced it at home – has now fallen into the depravity of the worst of corruptions of all kinds – political, economic, ethical, moral.  We are a nation of torturers, of thieves in pin-stripes (or surely some other costume these days), of Elmer Gantry’s who preach and wantonly fuck, and of ordinary people who think glamor is properly rewarded with millions and only lament that they are not in on the take.   We trundle to Vegas thinking it our due that the wheel of fortune should shine on us, even if we have done nothing whatsoever to deserve it outside putting a chip on red or black.  We send our sons and daughters to universities of costly kinds and expect they should get an A across the board even if they have only narcissistically filled their Facebook with imaginary friends and never learned how to spell or count.   We partake of a thoroughly corrupted system and cannot imagine that we ourselves are stained.   We are “the good Americans” and now, as Bush prepares to take his leave, Obama will absolve us all, and everything will magically be OK.

But it won’t.

The fraud of our culture is reflected in the films of Hollywood, in its phony light which we have long acknowledged as “the dream factory,” and its output, if vaguely accurate, shows that our dreams are a tawdry kind, devoid of our reality even when, as in Revolutionary Road, imagining to be deeply rooted in it, just as it is reflected in our politics, in which those who survive its system are as plastic as the costumes of Hollywood.  And those who accept this, and vote for it, compliant and submissive, are as plastic as their “wealth.”  Which in these days has proven to be illusory.



Plymouth Rock

Walker EvansHarry CallahanAnsel Adams

Running Fence, Christo, Sonoma Country, Ca.2-stop-signs

William Egglestonsternfeld-image-of-califJoel Sternfeld

JasperNumbersSmJasper Johns, Numbers

Happy Seasonal Stuff and here’s to a better New Year 2009

The following is a letter to the editor to the New York Times, in response to their opinion page item, The Great Unraveling, by the inimitable Thomas Friedman.

To the Editor:

In today’s Times, from his usual moral high-horse, Thomas Friedman excoriates American bankers and stock traders and demands a change: “…Which is why we don’t just need a financial bailout; we need an ethical bailout.”

Mr. Friedman apparently believes in situational ethics, for on  April 27, 2003, he wrote this: ” As far as I’m concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war. That skull, and the thousands more that will be unearthed, are enough for me. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons (even if it turns out that the White House hyped this issue).”

Being a man of reputed wisdom, perhaps Mr Friedman might now see the connection between the example of dishonesty and deceit at the highest levels of government in the service of the most grave act of government, to commit to war, and the dishonesty and deceitfulness of the financial community which is, after all, only following the example of the Federal Executive.

For a man regarded as having a broad overview of the world, able to gather together and bind a wide range of information, one would think this elemental matter would have been visible to him long ago.  The ethical tone of so-called “leaders” is often reflected in those they lead.

If you will recall Mr. Friedman was one of the loudest proponents of the aggression against Iraq for its alleged holding of WMD.  The greatest unraveling for Mr. Friedman is his consistent failure to apply the honesty he now demands of others to himself.

Sincerely

Prof Jon Jost

Of course to expect honesty of the man who lives in the house depicted below, who sometimes scribbles about the virtues of  “green” technology, and who invariably contrives to wrong-foot himself, is to ask for miracles.   Mr. Friedman is a bought man, like most of those who live in the world of high finance, or who wield great influence in the councils of government.  Because he is bought, he brings a high-price for lectures.  But somewhere, he pays an even higher price.


Thomas Friedman, quoted in 2006:

“I don’t know whether I’m successful or not—depends on your metric—but I’m sure having fun. Never had a bad day. Shame on me if I did.”

Thomas Friedman, columnist for the Gray Lady of New York, who pontificates twice weekly in the Times “opinion pages,” is, by any accounting, almost always wrong.  He lives in the above pictured Bethesda, Maryland McMansion of a mere 11,000 sq. feet.   Perpetual wrongness is a stance he shares with his co-columnist Bill Kristol, whose smiling face peers out inanely each week as he spills forth some form of mental excrement for which he is surely equally well recompensed.  Doubtless Mr Kristol also lives in a house of similar proportions.  Why the Times gives these two people the dignity and “authority” of space to publish their alleged thoughts is beyond me, though it smacks of establishment corruption.   Mr Friedman, who, like Kristol, is taken as some kind of “expert,” never admits to his errors – rather he scurries to attempt to cover them, taking tactical distance each time a brilliant idea he has advocated turns to shit.  Friedman was an ardent supporter of the Iraq invasion and illegal war, pounding the drums as loud as anyone.  When the WMD failed to materialize, and the flower-strewn welcome to America’s Democracy-at-the-point-of-a-gun did not happen,  Friedman, as is his style, did a little foot shuffle, blamed his hero Bush for mismanagement,  and went on as if he had nothing to do with the Iraq fiasco.   He previously waxed lyrical about the wonders of out-sourced globalized labor published an inane book, The World is Flat, until the US economy tanked in part thanks to the decimation of US labor which globalization incurred.  This is his MO, ever-wrong and ever moving on to new enlightenments.  A recent one is that now that “the surge” has allegedly worked, Iraq will indeed morph into the beacon of democracy in the nasty middle-east, which was, at some juncture, said to be the raison d’etre of the attack, and that hence Bush will in the long run be proven right.  Never mind a little unprovoked illegal war of aggression, torture, and rape of a country of 23 million, half of whom were children, which could hardly ever have posed a threat to the US, but did sit on top of a very sizable pool of oil.  Never mind the global blow-back from the ugliness of American actions there. I’ve written any number of Letters to the Editor of the Gray Lady, taking Mr. Friedman to task for his hypocrisies and errors.  Naturally none were ever published.

The other day Mr Friedman turned his pen and his imagined intelligence to the matter of America’s fiscal disorder:

“This financial meltdown involved a broad national breakdown in personal responsibility, government regulation and financial ethics…. So many people were in on it: People who had no business buying a home, with nothing down and nothing to pay for two years; people who had no business pushing such mortgages, but made fortunes doing so; people who had no business bundling those loans into securities and selling them to third parties, as if they were AAA bonds, but made fortunes doing so; people who had no business rating those loans as AAA, but made a fortunes doing so; and people who had no business buying those bonds and putting them on their balance sheets so they could earn a little better yield, but made fortunes doing so.”

“That’s how we got here — a near total breakdown of responsibility at every link in our financial chain, and now we either bail out the people who brought us here or risk a total systemic crash. These are the wages of our sins.”

In this litany of finger-pointing Mr Friedman, seemingly like everyone else involved, fails to point a finger at himself, or at the 5th Estate for which he works.  Nope, Thomas is not doubting, and as usual he knows best.  Just how he secured the funds for his 7 acre spread and 11 thousand square feet of posh property surely has nothing to do with our financial problems.  Getting paid obscene fees for lectures based on the sinppets of wisdom one has had printed in the national press, however consistently wrong that wisdom has proven to be, cannot be cited as a moral failure, nor painted as an example of what has gone so woefully wrong with America (lack of accountability?) – after all it’s made a handsome living for the man.  In his column Mr Friedman never utters the word most applicable to the machinations of Wall Street honchos who were instrumental in cooking this stew, one of whom is presently our Secretary of the Treasury and another of which is scheduled to be so come confirmation after January 20th 2009.  The word is “corrupt.”  Perhaps he cannot coax this word from his lips since it would apply equally well to him and his behavior.   Another is doubtless “criminal,” though that would require proof in court.  That the practices of Wall Street have been corrupt is transparent, even to those who lack any particular education in the finer fiscal arts.  Taking away the veil of fashionable costly men’s wear, the suits and ties, the elegant cars, the multiple houses and condos, what we have is a mess of scheming thieves who lathered their deals with impenetrable mumbo-jumbo, and sold massive amounts of debt as value.  Mr Ponzi would be proud, just as would any street-corner shell gamester.  And, like the guy down on the corner who probably cut a deal with the local cops on the beat, the Wall Street con artists long ago cut a deal with their police – the Federal Government.  In fact they didn’t cut a deal, they bought the whole joint:  Mr Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury, arm of the US Government which is alleged to oversee and regulate the securities industry, meet Mr Paulson, recent CEO of the now beleagured too-big-to-fail Goldman Sachs, who was deeply involved in cooking up all those debt-is-value hot tamales which were sold to pension funds, 401(k) holders, and others, and all of whom have now discovered that debt is not a high-interest cash-cow, but in fact a hole in your wallet.  Meanwhile for his expertise in this innovative turn on Ponzi’s schemes, Mr Paulson waltzed home with a mere $700,000,000 in pay, not to mention the bonus he got on top of that.   So, while the shadows seem to be closing in on this brilliant wizard of Wall Street, one imagines at least his retirement will not exactly be onerous.  If, in due time, it proves not to be honorable.

Friedman has built a comfortable life, even leaving aside his wife’s family fortune. His speaking fee recently passed $50,000; with his Times salary, syndication rights, and royalties from his bestselling books, his annual income easily reaches seven figures. When he’s not on the road, he is a regular fixture in Aspen where his in-laws have a house, and at his country clubs. Locally he belongs to Bethesda Country Club and Caves Valley near Baltimore.


Mr Henry Paulson, US Secretary of the Treasury, former CEO of Goldman Sachs

However, did Mr Friedman, or his fellow pundits ever utter a word about the revolving door of corporate-government cosiness, the blatant conflicts of interest, and the transparent corruption which had become the Wall Street-K Street norm?  Not on your life.  After all don’t you imagine the next door neighbors there in Bethesda are likely the lobbyists who played bagmen for this whole culture?  Is Mr Friedman, like George Will and a host of others, himself not little more than a fig-leaf of intellectual camouflage for the entire scam?  To say “the system”  has long since gone rotten to the core, including the 5th estate and the myriad talking heads of Sunday’s corporate TV, each long ago bought and sold, like General McCaffrey, a military-industrial shill passed off as “expert” and duly paid to mouth the arms dealer’s latest line, are all symptomatic of the illness.  Each day brings new perfectly consistent revelations of the corruption which is, in their favored phrase, bottom-line, the truth of our country and its culture:  corruption, top down to bottom.

Now, as the hollowed-out, “globalized,” off-shored, out-sourced, derivative-laden American ship of debt  sinks, these same people clamor that unseemly as it is, we must now bail out the guilty in order to save the innocent, since the entire system, like each of its major components (AIG, Goldman Sachs, GM, etc.) is “too big to fail.”   It was all our faults (except Thomas’), so they insist, and in order to save the innocent worthy we must save the system – which after all is the only system we’ve got or can imagine having, and which, in point of fact, is manned and run almost exclusively by the devious, the unethical, the unworthy.  The mantra goes, we’re all in this boat together.  It joins the previous one which was repeated by our RightRadio, that we mustn’t have any class warfare as the concentration of wealth exponentially narrowed and the middle and bottom got squeezed out of the national accounts.   Nope, mustn’t have any of that class warfare.

While Mr Friedman and his country-club friends will certainly be far more unscathed by the slide into depression than will the “Joe the Plumbers,” even they will perhaps begin to feel the chill as their drives to and from their Aspen or Bethesda enclaves require an armed escort as so many of the soon-to-be-very-pissed-off lumpen proletariat, unemployed and headed down, whacked on meth, are, especially out in the rural realms favored as retreats for the rich, well-armed and potentially very dangerous.  Perhaps it is time to invest in companies specializing in Kevlar lined helicopters and Blackwater can take up domestic “security” instead of rampaging around Iraq.

George Grozs

The scenario above should be a caricature, but unhappily it is not.  It is a realistic portrait of a culture gone to seed, corroded and auto-deluded.  It is the culture America has been living in for some decades now, increasingly lost in a sequence of escalating delusions, while ever patting itself on the back about American exceptionalism.  These delusions materialize in a generation or two of young people – and older, too – who cannot spell, write, or speak coherently – not just your local yokal, but nice middle-class and better college educated kids.  Our soon to depart President exemplifies this – and he has degrees from Yale and Harvard.  And just how did he get them?  Where does the corruption begin?

These delusions materialize in the assumption of many that wealth is simply one’s due, and on graduation from a university, where one failed to learn how to spell, write or read, an annual paycheck of $70,000 or more is a given.  Or on winning American Idol, or a visit to Vegas. It materializes when a parent shells out $50,000 or $70,000 a year in university tuition fees, and expects an A in turn, and the college professor in order to retain their job, shrugs and gives the required stamp of approval: they bought it.  It materializes when a business executive flies first class, hotels the same, wines and dines, sluts, all on the company tab. “Expenses.”  It materializes when the CEO of a corporation pays himself in collusion with his boardroom friends obscene fees to drive his company into bankruptcy, which he eludes with an insider dump of his stocks just before the fall, and departs with a pre-arranged golden parachute. “Business.”

Tom Mix

Another fake cowboy

In a corrupted society it materializes almost anywhere, and is taken as natural and normal.  Americans, carefully trained to believe in their own exceptionalism and innate goodness, tend to think corruption is always somewhere else: in Mexico, in Argentina, in Pakistan, in Italy or Turkey, or maybe in the precinct station in a bad part of town.  It is our peculiar corruption to so paint ourselves, ever the guys in the white hats, while we have historically charged San Juan hill, the shores of Tripoli, and anywhere else where it seemed useful, profitable, and necessary to our ruling oligarchy.  But we did it, and we’re Americans, so naturally whatever we did, it was, bottom-line, for the good of the other party: “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

Or, Wars R Us.

Our real exceptionalism lies in our endless capacity for self-dealing and denial.

To place all this in perspective, the below are crystals that were around on earth 3.5 billion years ago, and from which, so they say, our scientists get information indicating that some form of life on this planet may have been kicking by then:

Dec. 13 2008

I feel the need to post this addendum, as Mr Friedman, as is his way, just keeps on keeping on.  Here, today, is the lead-off of his NYT column:

If there is anything I’ve learned as a reporter, it’s that when you get away from “the thing itself” — the core truth about a situation — you get into trouble.

The fundamental thing about Mr Friedman is that he seems unable to apply this little maxim to the most fundamental thing at hand:  himself. In the same column he excoriates the banks and financial system, Detroit, and Kabul.  Along the way he pats himself on the back for Iraq, though events in Iraq were inextricably attached to the Iraq story:  blatant corruption and the original sin that the grounds for the war, alleged WMD, was a lie.  Just like the mystical cash-cow of derivatives was a lie, and just like the logic of Detroit was a lie.  As ever, little Tommy frantically wriggles away from is own bad bets, just like his once-hero Mr George Walker Bush does.   The biggest cheer-leader for the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq; a hyped-up proponent of globalization and somewhere if I recall properly a big supporter of the war in Afghanistan – now, without a hint of his previous positions, Mr Friedman reverses himself, passing on his new little nuggets of wisdom.

Does he ever admit he “married up” to a real estate heiress?  Does he ever mention his mega-footage McMansion?  Does he ever look in the mirror and manage one honest thought?

Are you kidding?

While Mr Friedman laments the pathetic corruption and dishonesty of America, circa 2008, he fails to notice that he himself is a perfect example of what’s wrong with America.


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