A Tale For The Time Being

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This unassuming novel is a tour de force. It was short listed for the 2013 Booker Prize. I read and reviewed two other 2013 Booker short listed novels. “Harvest” is an extraordinary novel. I assumed it would win the prize, as it captured medieval England with beautiful prose. In contrast, “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki is plainly written. I also read “The Testament of Mary”. It has an imaginative plot. “A Tale for the Time Being” does not have an imaginative plot. I intend to read most of the other 2013 short listed Booker novels, although I am not sure I can wade into “The Luminaries”, which one the prize. At this point I think “A Tale for the Time Being” should have won the prize, with “Harvest” being a close second. As it is hard to compare books, I recommend you read all three of these novels.

The story in “A Tale for the Time Being” is simply told by two narrators. One a teenage Japanese girl who has emigrated back to Japan from the U.S. after her father lost his job in Silicon Valley. The girl is ostracized and bullied by her Japanese peer group and teacher. The father is unemployed. Both are suicidal, with her father being practiced. The girl and father are saved by the girl’s 104 year old Zen Buddhist nun grandmother.

The other narrator is a married female writer of middle-aged who is childless. A child of Japanese parents she moved to the Pacific Northwest from New York City to live with her introverted naturalist husband. Despite, or because of his intellectual foibles, he is the philosophical equivalent of the nun. A few years after Fukushima tsunami a diary and some letters wash up on shore. The diary is of a young Japanese girl who is on the verge of suicide. The letters are in French and need translation.

The story unfolds a few years apart in Japan and in Canada as the diary and letters are slowly read. The author is interested in parallel time and universe, and its one weakness in my view, is the animistic employment of a crow to join them. The novel is subtle learning experience. Japanese vocabulary is taught. It is written and defined in footnotes, and then used without footnotes as the novel progresses. Lessons in Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism, botany, philosophy, quantum mechanics, etymology, and history are all absorbed osmotically.

The title of the book is a double entendre. The “Time Being” is the living. A theme of the book is suicide and life, two sides of the same coin. The book celebrates living for the moment, as it explores suicidal variations. It juxtaposes kamikaze pilots with 9/11.

My favorite literary reference in the book concerns the history of the medlar, an applelike fruit which is best eaten rotten despite its awful smell. Apparently in Elizabethan England it was called open-arse fruit. The French called it cul de chien, or dog’s asshole. The novel notes that it plays a part in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

“If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark,
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.”

As Ms. Ozeki points out Mercutio is having fun with Romeo for not getting it on with Juliet.

This is an immensely enjoyable book. I would recommend it with caution to young adults in high school. I am concerned that those who have been bullied and are suicidal might find it too close to home. Some schools might also object to some passing adolescent prostitution.

Adults will spend their time wisely by reading this book.

Shadow Without A Name

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Reading Ignacio Padilla’s “Shadow Without A Name” is like walking through a labyrinth or a carnival’s hall of mirrors. The pathways and reflections seem real, but the images and identities are contrived and falsified. This is the Mexican author’s first novel translated into English. The core of the mystery is the Amphitryon Project of Nazi General Thadeus Dreyer, the purpose of which was to train doubles to pose as Nazi leaders for security reasons. Chess links all the impersonators and ultimately raises the question whether the Adolf Eichmann hung by the Israeli’s was the master chess player and author of the Final Solution or a double.

The author is not seriously questioning the identity of Eichmann, but is playing a literary game of chess imaginatively swapping pieces and trading pawns for queens. At times a scorecard is needed to keep track of who each character is because they assume different names throughout the novel. How Mr. Padilla decided on this plot is to me the great mystery. I have taken the story at face value- a game with gambits-and have not tried to ascribe to it a psychological theme about self and identity. It is more fun and suspenseful if left as an intriguing puzzle.

This is not to say that the author did not envision deeper meaning to the tale. It begins with a quote from the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa who wrote under heteronyms:

“I feel I am no one, only a shadow
Of a terrifying face I cannot see
And like the icy dark I exist nowhere.”

Whether this work is an homage to Pessoa is unclear, although there are four narrators, not all of whose names and characters reflect who they are. Identity is at the heart of the Greek myth Amphitryon, who accidentally kills his father and who plays the cuckhold husband to his wife Alcmene, who gave birth to two sons, one of which, Heracles, was the son of Zeus. The latter has been cast in comedic plays from Plautus to Heinrich von Kleist. John Banville who translated the latter’s work, also used it as the base for his novel “The Infinities”. Von Kleist’s works were ironically popular with the Nazi’s as they were with nationalistic Germans during World War I. The interesting twist on this is that his descendents, Ewald von Kleist and his son Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, were anti-Nazi. The latter was the last survivor of Operation Valkerie, the failed assination plot to kill Hitler. Whether the author knew this I don’t know, but it would not surprise me.

The novel is worth reading as it is refreshingly inventive.

A NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM?

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On July 5th I posted all the verses to “America the Beautiful”. I have always preferred it to “The Star Spangled Banner” and believe it should be the U.S.A.’s national anthem.

I later developed an another reason why “The Star Spangled Banner” should not be our national anthem. In response to an article in the Wall Street Journal I wrote the author (Amanda Foreman) of the article the reasons why we should change our national anthem. I wrote the following. What do you think?

“Amanda,

I read your article. On July 5th I posted on my blog the verses to “America the Beautiful” which I think is more representative of this country than “The Star Spangled Banner”. Most Americans don’t know all the verses to both songs, myself included. I recently read a very interesting article in September 2014 issue of Harper’s entitled “Washington is Burning”. It was written by Andrew Cockburn the Washington editor of Harper’s and the descendent of Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy who torched the White House during the War of 1812. The article discusses the use of colonial slaves by the British during the War of 1812 including their failed attack on Baltimore, to which “Star Spangled Banner” refers. The later verses of our national anthem makes historical note of the use of colonialists’ slaves at that battle. According to Mr. Cockburn the Admiral was an abolitionist and freed the slaves that “enlisted” with the British, but Francis Scott Key was anti-abolitionist as prosecutor for the District of Columbia and a mentor to Chief Justice Taney (of Dred Scott fame).

The third stanza of our national anthem reads in pertinent part:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

It is historically accurate, but is a reference to slavery what we still want in our National Anthem?

Mr. Cockburn’s article also suggests that the historically ignored and important War of 1812 created fear in the South about slaves revolting and killing slave owners. This was the fear that the Admiral hoped to engender, as owners might become more concerned about protecting their property and lose interest in fighting the British. He also states that the building of Fort Sumter in South Carolina was the result of this fear of slave revolt that increasingly developed during and after the War of 1812.

Perhaps it is time to adopt the more uplifting “America the Beautiful”, which speaks to our gorgeous geography, pioneering and heroic spirit, brotherhood and respect for law. Every stanza is a gem that Americans could be proud of (and it is easier to sing).

My favorite stanza:

‘O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!’

It is worth hearing now and again.”

The Netherlands and Russia: Power Politics Underutilized

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According to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity (www. atlas.media.mit.edu) country profile of the Netherlands its top 3 imports and exports are: crude petroleum, refined petroleum and computers.
Imports Exports

Crude Petroleum (14%) Refined Petroleum (11%)
Refined Petroleum (11%) Crude Petroleum (5.4%)
Computers (4%) Computers (3.3%)

Germany and Belgium-Luxembourg are the top two destinations for the Netherlands imports and exports. After these two, the Netherlands imports the most from Russia (8%), but Russia is only it eleventh export trading partner (1.5%). In contrast, the Netherlands is Russia’s top export trading partner (9.2%) and the Netherlands its 13th import trading partner (2.3%). Russia’s three principal exports are crude petroleum (39%) and refined petroleum (15%) and petroleum gas (9.2%). Russia’s 4th largest export partner after China (8.1%) and Germany (6.5%), is the Ukraine (5.7%). Belarus is close behind at (5.4%), from whom it imports (4.4%). Russia is the 2nd largest exporter of crude petroleum after Saudi Arabia.

The Netherlands is Europe’s second largest producer of natural gas, and is self-sufficient for residential heating at least through 2020. Nonetheless, it has substantial imports of natural gas with about 40% of the total volume imported being used domestically. Natural gas is principally imported from Norway, but 11% is from Russia. Its oil stock reserves from net imports are 90 days (mostly stored in Germany). Industry (40%) and transport (42%) account for about 80% of oil used in the Netherlands (see http://www.iea.org 2014 country profile), with transformation (mostly oil refineries) accounting for about 12%. Petrochemical use (naphtha) is the principal industry use, with diesel being the principal transport use. Residual oil mostly goes to fueling international shipping. The petrochemical industry drives the Netherlands imports from Russia in the form of fuel oil and naphtha. The Netherlands through Rotterdam (and inland bunkering) and regional pipelines (to Germany and Belgium) transits oil from imports at about four times the volume of its domestic need. It also is a major regional supplier of refined petroleum, with about 63% of refinery production being exported (principally gas/ diesel oil and naphtha).

The Netherlands is one of the most fossil fuel dependent countries in Europe (95%), but much of this is transitional as it is a regional hub, principally for Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. It has a substantial trade imbalance with Russia on a gross basis. Outside of transport, its petrochemical industry, accounts for about 20% of domestic consumption and is 15% of all of Europe’s petrochemical activities. As with crude oil, refined petroleum will gravitate to supply of China. This co-dependency will be accentuated in the Russia-China relationship, as pipelines come online and Arctic transport becomes more feasible. The co-dependency is heavily weighed in favor of China, as Russia’s economy is strictly commodity based. In the interim, political upheavals that translate into higher oil prices is beneficial to Russia and oligarchs connected to Mr. Putin. With U.S. energy independence, in the longer term, this will not benefit China. Any European disruptions with Russia, that fosters U.S. exports of its excess supplies to Europe, and deplete its reserves is also politically beneficial to Russia and China.

The Netherlands, like other EU member countries are targeting more renewable fuel usage beginning about 2020. Biomass alternatives, may reduce some petrochemical usage, but substation of less fossil fuel dependent transport will be transformative. China too is moving in this direction, but has a much longer curve than the EU.

From a political leverage standpoint, the key to bringing Russia to heal, is a reduction in oil price. Sanctions by the U.S. are only playing into China’s hands of having the Yuan become the world’s currency. Short-term switching is not meaningfully feasible for the Dutch, but they need to move more aggressively to implement plans to enable this.

To honor their citizens lost in the downing of the Malaysian airline, they should be leveraging their economic relations with Russia. It might also enable them to correct its trade imbalance with Russia at the same time. Their citizens cannot be hurt by any supply reduction, because residential usage is self-sufficient through natural gas. Its leaders just seem to be lacking the will power to use their historic relationship with Russia, and the Netherlands economic power against it.

Mr. Putin’s reluctance to admit the error is peculiar, given that it is remote that Russian military, either directly or indirectly would have ordered the downing of a civilian plane, particularly connected with its major trading partner. It is perhaps a lesson learned about weapons being supplied, and a known cautionary tale for all major powers. The more unresticted access to the site is obstructed; expert review of the aircraft and recovery delayed; and prosecution thwarted; the more unnecessary damage will be done to Russia’s trading relations with its necessary economic partners. Russia playing the German 1930s card is not in its mid-term nor long-term interest.

A Matter of Time

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I am not sure what Jonathan Swift would think of the recent installation of a giant Lemuel Gulliver at the Gulliver’s World amusement part on Usedom Island, Germany, but he would appreciate “A Matter of Time”. Originally published in German as ” Eine Frage der Zeit” by French-Swiss author Alex Capus and available in English through Haus Publishing, it is about eccentric naval officers waging war on Lake Tanganyika during World War I. The well drawn characters make the book.

Anton Ruter is the typical German engineer who has pride in his work. A master shipwright, he is charged by his employer, on behalf of the German Colonial Office, to dismantle and reassemble the ship Gotzen on Lake Tanganyika. He takes along 2 other colleagues, one an older married man with children, and the other a young budding Marxist, all of whom view the short term venture as a means to earn more money. Unfortunately, World War I changes their plans.

Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson is a member of the British Royal Navy whose disasterous career has left him in charge of patroling the Gambia River in a barely floating steamship. A man whose imagined exploits would make Walter Mitty jealous, he feels a passed over and in need to prove himself. World War I provides him with this opportunity, as he is charged with bringing two small boats to Lake Tanganyika to sink what the Admiralty believes is a barely navigable German boat of near equal size. His wife is steadfastly loyal, despite the fact that he has made them friendless as a couple and she had to live in Africa under conditions less suitable to her standing. World War I was a reprieve for her as she was able to return to London and establish a friendship.

A parody of how we see ourselves, particularly during the transition from peacetime to war time. The book is also subtlely derisive of what governments absurdly impose on its citizens and others. A times it is outright funny. Mr. Spicer-Simson upon learning of his promotion to command the two “vessels”, decides to outfit himself in the style of the commander he has become. Unfortunately, he has no idea of appropriate dress, demanding as Commander that the Admiralty’s outfitter use the wrong colors, and equip he and his men with cutlasses used decades earlier on land. Gilbert and Sullivan would be proud.

This book was a very pleasant surprise and is worth searching for.

On the Floor

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Think “Bonfire of the Vanities”. It is the 1990s on a London securities trading floor. Quants and dark pools have not yet had their day, and the age of brokerage puffery and bravado is in full swing. The heroine is Geri Molloy, an Irish woman without OxBridge pedigree, who has the mathematical acumen of quants, but is her firm’s biggest producr because she captured the exclusive interest of the recluse billionaire investor Felix Mann on a cold call. Geri has her dose of testerone and melds with the boys will be boys, while retaining an undercurrent of feminine mistrust of this institution. As superficially strong as she is in business, she is actually weak in relationships. The novel explores both facets of her life, as they intertwine.

The novel by Aifric Campbell was Long Listed for the Orange Prize. The plot mirrors Ms. Campbell’s career to some extent, as she walked away from being the first woman managing director of a City trading floor, exchanging her Morgan Stanley career for motherhood, creative writing and teaching. The novel exposes the veneer of traders on the verge of the oncoming ice age of algorithms.

The book is fast paced, but it takes a plot twist that for me goes off the rails. Psychological victim does not need to morph into physical captive. It made me wonder about the editor, who may have been trying to check off all of the current pop fiction cliches. The ending also has the air of sequel or movie script.

In spite of this, it is an entertaining summer read, particularly for those who want to mix the business-lite, and relationships genres.

Lords of Finance

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We recently passed the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI. This war and its aftermath continues to shape economics and international affairs. “Lords of Finance” by Liaquat Ahamed, is an extraordinary book. Published in 2009, it was a Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year. It is part biography, part history, with easy to understand coverage of monetary policy. For those intimidated by business, finance or economics, or who find any of these subjects boring, please consider reading this book anyway. It is very readable and the personalities of the central bankers between WWI and the Great Depression at times seem as if they are caricatures.

Mr. Ahamed is not a novice. He is a professional investment manager. He worked at the World Bank, and is remains an adviser to a number of hedge funds. Presently sits on the Board of an insurer that is in the midst of a rare hostile takeover.

The subtitle of the book is “The Bankers Who Broke the World.” His theme is that the Great Depression arose from antiquated monetary policies imposed upon the world by the principal central bankers of the period: Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England; Benjamin Strong of the New York Federal Reserve Bank; Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank; and Emile Moreau of the Banque de France. It was a period of massive unemployment and debt due to reparations and war financing. It was also a period that saw the end of the gold standard and a U.S. power play that caused the transition of world currency from the pound sterling to the U.S. dollar. The personalities of these bankers, the internal politics and cultural biases of their governments, and the absence of transparency in which they operated shaped the outcome that economically nearly broke the world economy.

There were two intriguing revelations for me. The lesser one is that President Hoover was in part unjustly maligned, as Roosevelt adopted some of the policies he wished to have adopted. Coolidge’s ignorance was more to blame for the Depression. The greater revelation is reflected in the handling of the so-called Great Recession of 2008. Chairman Bernanke is an acknowledged expert on the Great Depression. This is reflected in the Feds and Treasury’s adoption of Keynesian monetary policy through TARP after the banking fiasco of 2008. Central Bankers in the post WWI period preferred a monetary policy which tighten credit. This proved to be a mistake and one which some believe was repeated by the size of TARP being too small to jump-start the U.S. economy. The omission of Bernanke and both Secretaries of the Treasury’s is that when credit was loosened during the Depression it came in the form of cheap credit for the banks without strings attached. As with TARP banks were not required to lend the funds to businesses who could then help restore employment. This policy failure was recognized after the Depression and yet Bernanke and the Treasury repeated it in 2008 with the same result. Banks used cheap Federal funds to restore and improve their balance sheet, even after their raised Tier I capital requirements were met and they insulated themselves from Euro weakness. The U.S. government was not innocent either, as it programs to address housing foreclosures avoided principal modifications to both save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and to again support bank balance sheets. Real estate speculators are repeating the benefit of this policy at the expense of those homeowners (some of whom, also were not innocent).

I would really like Mr Ahmed to write a sequel to this book, reviewing what transpired since 2008 in light of the failure of monetary policy before and after the Depression. Given that this book was published in 2009 he could only briefly comment about this. Another subject worth exploring in more depth is the transition of the world currency from one nation to another. He briefly addresses the Bretton Woods Conference, with some interesting anecdotes about the bankers’ personalities. Given that a currency war is ongoing between the U.S. and China it is a subject that merits considerable analysis. Had the U.S. dollar not been the world’s currency in 2008 the U.S. economy would likely have folded like Greece. Economic and political power flows from having the world’s currency and both the U.S. and China know it.

To understand international affairs it is essential to follow the money. This book is both fascinating and entertaining. I highly recommend it.

America the Beautiful

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My preferred national anthem.

“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!

O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”

Wishing all Americans at home and abroad a happy 4th and common ground to fulfill our destiny.
For those soldiers stationed abroad I wish you a safe and healthy return to your family and friends.

A Dangerous Friend

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I was in search of Graham Greene’s “A Quiet American”, but settled for Ward Just’s “A Dangerous Friend”. I never read either author although both are well-regarded. Thematically, Sydney Parade, the principal character in “A Dangerous Friend”, is a quiet American; borderline idealist out to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese in the early 1960s. Escaping the boredom of civilian and married life, Syd opts into the Llewellyn Group, a contractor embedded in nation and collaborator building. Syd believes in America’s goodness and power. This invincibility that is increasingly eroded by reality. Be it illusions or delusions, best intentions are more dangerous than intended evil ones.

Fifty years since Vietnam America suffers from the same lack of human intelligence. The legacy of drafted body bags has made foreign escapades technologically distant. Syd was in Nam during the build-up stage. The failure to understand the country and the people in it abound. A U.S. soldier is taken prisoner. The intelligence and military services have no idea where he is. An ex-pat French family and the Vietnamese can readily find him. The Llewellyn Group, seeking to curry favor, has to relies on a Hispanic team member married to a Vietnamese woman to retrieve him. No one speaks the language.

This is a distinctly American book. It captures America’s ideal of doing good and being liked with its character flaw of needing to win and control. Neither flaws are unique to Americans, they are only accentuated when combined with its military hardware. “A Dangerous Friend” reveals that software, not hardware, is the better policy. It requires more thought than superficial and disingenuous nation building by politicians.

This book is a fast summer read. I recommend it as a political war novel without the genre heroics.

Jewish, Southern,Gay

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In November, 2013 I reviewed David Crouse’s “The Man Back There”; a collection of short stories that garnered Sarabande Books annual Mary McCarthy Prize for short fiction. Sarabande Books is a small press based in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Fire Year” by Jason K. Friedman, is a collection of short stories. It was the 2012 recipient of the Mary McCarthy Prize. The stories are Southern principally by venue, not atmosphere. The base is current day Georgia, with a few exceptions. The universal theme that pervades the stories is acceptance. The most compelling story is “Reunion”. A New York City transplant from Savannah reluctantly returns to his 25th high school reunion and his estranged brother. He is surprisingly befriended by an athletic star classmate from the right social club, who in the spirit of the modern South married a Jewish girl. Societal class runs deep and what is and is not accepted within and without that class is well presented.

“All the World’s a Field” is a story about first generation Americans. In this case it is Jewish Americans, who like others in the early 1900s, wanted to leave the Old World behind. Teaching their parents’ language and customs to the second generation was unacceptable. Success in the new homeland presumed or required assimilation. Miriam’s son Schmuel and wife forbid her to speak Yiddish, so she stops speaking. They are moving to what one day be Southern suburbia and wants to bring her cow. For Schmuel, the cow is a reminder of the Polish pogrom that his father did not survive. For Miriam it is about remembrance.

In “The Golem”, Solomon Blaustein, a Jewish auto repair shop owner who deals in second hand parts demonstrates how small charity can be. In the spirit of a mitzvah he convinces Artie, his mentally slow, old classmate and friend to come work for him on the pretext of avoiding being taken advantage of by others. Blaustein also takes advantage of Artie. He is about to fire him when Artie demonstrates a supernatural ability to predict what parts will be needed by future customers. Blaustein does not accept Artie as human; he is his golem. Artie, however, is less slow than unschooled. He quickly learns Blaustein and his trade.

The opening story “Blue” is a Bar Mitzvah coming of age tale that counterbalances acceptance by girls with the presumed expectations of God. “The Cantor’s Miracles” is another Bar Mitzvah story, this time told from the perspective of an impoverished cantor trying to make ends meet and risking the loss of his ethics.

“There Hope For Us All” is about acceptance in the world of art curating at museums. Mr. Friedman’s invention of Angelo Veneto, an Italian Renaissance painter who is being given his first one-man show by a small museum is a parody of marketing. The gay relationships that are back stories in my view detract from the story’s principal theme: the sensationalizing of art by museums. Here Veneto is discovered as a painter of transvestites by the assistant curator’s gay lover, a seller of women’s wear.

“Fire Year” is written in the form of a Jewish parable. A rabbi seems to ignore his scholarly son, in favor of his more ignorant brother. The scholarly son, who is not accepted by his peers retreats from the social world. It is a Father’s Day story of redemption.

As with Mr. Crouse, Mr. Friedman writes what he knows. Both write well and their stories are worth reading. In each case, it will be interesting to see if they expand their range.

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