Author Archive

The Dick Bubble

Yesterday I gave a talk at an all-day symposium, “Philip K. Dick in the OC: Virtually Real, Really Virtual,” the opening segment of the 2016 Acacia Conference on Dick. I had been looking forward to it greatly, and there were a good many informative moments, such as a talk by UC Riverside’s Lisa Raphals on Dick’s use of Asian characters and tropes, which mainly focused on his use of the I Ching. My own paper drew on my background in techno-arts and forgery studies to look at the relationship between art, techne, and authenticity in the writings of Dick and William Gibson.

I thought I’d post about it here because in several respects it was unlike any symposium I have ever participated in. Overall, it was a strangely airless event in which few references were made to anything outside of what I came to think of as the Dick Bubble. Apart from my own talk, only one other addressed more recent writers or events—an interesting joint talk by UC Riverside’s Sherryl Vint and UC Irvine’s Jonathan Alexander on post-9/11 allusions in the TV version of The Man in the High Castle. I connect this restricted field of discussion with the fact that there was almost no direct criticism of Dick’s writing apart from Lisa Raphals, who brought up the superficiality with which Dick sometimes referred to Asia, and brief references by Sherryl Vint and myself to issues with Dick’s depiction of women. (At one point I touched on the link between female puberty and violence in Luba Luft’s murder in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and someone approached to me afterwards about this precise section of my paper—but only to ask why I had left out an extremely minor detail.) I am no specialist in science fiction, and I found myself wondering where were the science fiction scholars who could have upped the critical-historical-theoretical ante on Dick’s writing? Perhaps they’re attending the next phase of the Acacia Conference, taking place today at Cal State Fullerton; at least I hope so.

The whole event had a distinct aura of hagiography, which may have been partly due to the number of people present who had known and liked Dick—at least four by my count, and probably more. During the post-talk Q&A sessions, commenters often opened with some variation of “Phil Dick once said to me…”—and these tangential remarks left little space for substantive dialogue. The only women science fiction writers I can recall being mentioned during the entire day— James Tiptree, Jr., and Ursula Le Guin—were brought up in some context having to do with how they knew Dick rather than anything they wrote. It was as if science fiction as a field ended in 1982 with Dick’s death.

Just as troubling in a different way was the panel during which one of Dick’s former wives, Tessa Dick, and one of his former lovers, Grania Davis, shared friendly reminiscences about life with Philip Dick. Their remarks were fairly disjointed, and for the most part they steered away from discussing the writing itself, instead detailing patterns of daily life and sharing anodyne anecdotes. I could sense no real interest in the women themselves—both of whom are writers in their own right and have already published plenty of Dick reminiscences elsewhere. It was hard not to conclude that they were present as living databases that might, with luck, spew forth a hitherto unknown nugget of Dick lore that could be embedded in somebody’s thesis on Agoraphobic Constructions: Habitat in the Writing of Philip K. Dick (or whatever). At one point it was suggested that to reduce audience confusion over all the insider name dropping, a chronological list of Dick’s five wives be written on the whiteboard above Tessa Dick and Grania Davis—and that this would be a terrific photo op. Later someone reminded the audience that the two women would be speaking again today at Cal State Fullerton, saying: “I’m sure they haven’t used up all their gossip.”

So: if you’re a male academic/writer and knew Dick, you’re an authority on his life and work; while if you’re a woman who knew Dick, you’re a gossip?

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other uncanny valleys

It seems that nearly every article on technology and culture I read these days references Masahito Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley at some point. It’s entered the intense late-meme phase which makes me think it’s about to be obliterated by some hot new techno-trope. But I think the underlying idea of the uncanny valley is actually a robust way of looking at other forms of cultural dissonance and estrangement that have nothing whatsoever to do with robots.

For instance, before I even came across the term, I had identified for myself something that looks to me like an uncanny valley of history: the period between the end of living memory—for practical purposes, about 100 years ago—and the beginning of what we are comfortable thinking of as history because there is substantial scholarship on the primary documents—roughly 125 years ago. In that uncanny valley we can’t quite find our familial connection to history any longer, but it’s close enough that it doesn’t yet feel completely autopsied by conflicting lineages of critical scholarship. Right now, that valley falls roughly between 1890 and 1915. Others might place the valley slightly differently, or even disagree that it exists at all, but it certainly exists for me.

I’ve recently identified a second, more culturally bound, uncanny valley pertaining to digital culture. This valley exists in the 70 years between 1923—before which nearly all printed matter is out of copyright in the United States—and roughly 1993—when the generation of early web adopters began putting the documents of their lives online. Although a good deal of writing and other media from this uncanny valley has been uploaded, a lot of it is behind paywalls of one kind or another (including the copyright-driven paywalls of and its ilk). Huge amounts of pre-1923 media have been uploaded through Project Gutenberg, Google Books, YouTube, major libraries and archives, and oddball projects like BiblioOdyssey. At the near end of the valley, you can find important or just interesting writings, artworks, and documentation by all the digerati online for free (as well as some behind paywalls). For a lot of what’s in the uncanny valley itself, you have to buy the materials online, pirate them, or go to a traditional dead-tree library. I’m not saying it’s not worth the effort to do this—far from it!—but that as one reads, skims, surfs, browses, and devours one’s way around the web these days, it can feel as if Rudyard Kipling is closer to us than William Faulkner, R. Austin Freeman than Sara Paretsky, D.W. Griffith than the Marx Brothers, Julia Margaret Cameron than Margaret Bourke-White.

What’s your uncanny valley?

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Minimal machines and status differentials

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with letterpress extension.

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with (in foreground) letterpress extension.

Recently I was up at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (of which I am a longtime Associate), where I discovered that the ICI has acquired one of the tabletop die-cutters that have become popular in the last few years. This particular model comes with an insert that turns the die-cutter into a small letterpress printer. As one can tell both from the machines themselves—usually plastic and often cast in ‘feminine’ colors like pink and aqua—and the blogs where one finds information about their use (Not Another Craft Blog, Paper Pile Kitten), they are associated almost entirely with those activities that are currently designated as crafting. That is to say, the unimportant, largely unpaid leisure activities of women; the modern descendants of Victorian flower-pressing and hair jewelry. As Lilly observed in an earlier post on DIY, crafting is often cast as the opposite of design, and it’s also often cast as the opposite of technology and skilled work generally (never mind the facts).

What I wanted to talk about here, though, is not so much the problematic social status of crafting itself, but two specific aspects of the circulation of these kinds of small machines. The first might be thought of as a variation on the network effect. Traditionally, letterpress printing and die-cutting have been highly skilled occupations, and their products—hand-printed wedding invitations, small-run artist’s books, high-end PR materials with elaborate cutouts—have largely been luxuries for the well-to-do. The limited market has, in turn, helped to keep the industry small and operating under an almost guildlike mentality. So what happens when thousands of these machines get into the hands of untrained or semi-skilled individuals? Quality of output will initially go down in many cases—at least until the process of education-by-internet takes off—but public appreciation of letterpress printing and die-cutting goes way, way up. Two niche trades rather suddenly become part of a much larger arsenal of broadly practiced design-and-making techniques such as papermaking, woodworking, photography. And as Julia Lupton pointed out in a dialogue with Lilly, you never know what can come of “having access to tools that will help you shape your outlook in dialogue with other people, in ways that might not be predicted.” As with other downsized or simplified technologies—small cameras, for example—it is easy to view these small machines primarily as technological downgrades. But when I think of all those people out there experimenting with their tabletop presses and diecutters, what I see is a field of cultural potentials.

The second aspect of these machines that strikes me is how clearly they reflect the strict partitioning of the larger internet conversations about ‘new’ technology. The sites most associated with geekery, like boingboing or slashdot (not to mention all those ad-supported geek blogger-reviewers), are quick to parse every tiny iteration of the iPhone operating system or the latest inkjet printers. Many of these changes are really minuscule in their practical effects on users and form part of a larger pattern of hyping anything in the computational sphere. DIY technologies get some mention, but almost exclusively in their male-centric forms (think robots and 3D printing of nerdish objects). The development of small, hand-cranked die-cutter/presses whose early adopters include a lot of scrapbookers? Not interested.



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where Talk is not just talk

index of Harlan Ellison Talk page on Wikipedia, June 17, 2013

I’ve been thinking about an emergent aspect of my Wikipedia use that almost inverts the software’s intended design. That is: I’ve started to use Wikipedia’s Talk pages as if they were extensions of the articles themselves, especially for pages with controversial content. In some cases, I’m even finding the material on the Talk pages more informative and reliable than what ends up on the official page. The reason for this is that the public pages tend to carry only what a group of self-selected and often partisan editors can agree on; in addition, pages must meet Wikipedia’s own standards of neutrality and verifiability. Thus a lot of pages slowly morph towards the kind of pablum that public relations flacks generate. Since value judgments are frowned on, contextual analyses tend to get squeezed out in favor of a laundry list approach to any given subject: X did this, and then she did that, and then she did this other thing. What this means is that if you really want to get any kind of handle on a subject, you have to delve into the page history and the inter-editor discussions of the Talk page.

I first noticed that this had become a reflexive habit a while ago when I followed a series of links on sexual harassment, computer games, and science fiction and ended up on science fiction author Harlan Ellison’s Wikipedia page. There is a subsection on that page about controversies Ellison has been involved in, including an incident in which he groped a fellow science fiction author, Connie Willis, during the 2006 Nebula awards. (There is a YouTube video of this.) I immediately turned to the Talk page, knowing there would likely be a discussion about whether that incident should be included in his page and how it should be handled, and maybe also some indication of the larger context in which it took place. With luck, I would find out more about both the incident and Ellison himself, since he’s not a writer whose work I know well—and his Wikipedia page is an excellent example of the laundry list phenomenon mentioned above. Talk is where Wikipedia wants content discussions to happen, and the result is that Talk is where a good deal of information ends up that is not yet sourced and where the arguments over meaning and context occur.  As it happened, there wasn’t much more about the Willis incident, though there was a good deal more in support of the general view that Ellison is a petty and vindictive person with sociopathic tendencies—some of which has since been excised from the Talk page through a neutering process that parallels that of the main page. (The page on Ellison currently frames him as “abrasive and argumentative,” a phrase that hardly covers groping a colleague.)

If journalism is the first draft of history, then Talk is clearly intended as notes towards a first draft of Wikipedia. But like journalism vis-a-vis history, it has the unfiltered—or at most semi-filtered—quality of all primary sources, making it equally valuable and suspect. Andrew Leonard has an interesting recent post on the editors who use Wikpedia to pursue private vendettas, and Talk is one of the places where that kind of social engineering is most visible, because Talk is as much a contest over desire and between competing agendas as it is over content. Wikipedia—unlike its predecessors such as Encyclopedia Britannica—wants to pretend that knowledge equals facts minus interpretation. The shadow encyclopedia that is Wikipedia Talk shows up the naivete of that approach.

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With Boobies

I originally thought I would title this post: “Does Anyone at the New Yorker Actually Know How to Read?” but decided that was slightly too inflammatory. But I’m still baffled at this 2009 post, which I recently stumbled on over there:


It’s not the article itself that’s the problem—that at least is a readable and informed look back at the British physician Alex Comfort and his landmark 1972 book The Joy of Sex. The pretext for this article is the release of a new edition of The Joy of Sex, and there’s a good deal of ‘then and now’ stuff in it, leading up to the predictable conclusion that The Joy of Sex has been largely supplanted both by its own success as an educational manual (“What was revolutionary in 1972 seems obvious now”) and by the internet, our collective library of erotica and porn past and present.

Along the way, author Ariel Levy rightly criticizes The Joy of Sex for its—how do I put this without using words like heteronormative or phallocentric?—well, for what she flags as “the feel of a penis propaganda pamphlet.” She goes on to mention the “feminist alternative” to Joy of Sex, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was published a year before The Joy of Sex. Together and separately, these two books changed the terms of debate about sexuality in America by directly attacking the culture of misinformation surrounding it.

And this is why I’m still scratching my head. Here is an article written at a moment when women in America are having to refight many of the very same issues of the 1970s that prompted these two books—control over one’s own body, right to abortion, freedom from reflexive victim-blaming in rape cases, normalization of plastic surgery, to name just a few. And even as the author clearly respects The Joy of Sex as a mass education project, she also calls out Comfort for his various blind spots (homosexuality, for one). So what is the thumbnail image that accompanies this essay? In case you skipped right over it as one so often does with this kind of graphical window dressing:

Yep. In close-up. You might almost say, objectified.

I recognize the style: it’s either a Tom Wesselmann painting or a pastiche of one. I’d guess it’s the latter since reverse-image look-up doesn’t lead to any other versions of this image on the web other than those leading back to the New Yorker. And even more because the image itself is both uncredited and unlinked.

Wesselmann made his name as a Pop artist in the 1960s with a series called “The Great American Nude.” Here is a Wesselmann painting from that era that give a sense of his signature style:

Tom Wesselmann, “Bedroom Painting 2”, 1968

Feminists have long had a problem with Wesselmann’s work—the eyeless, supine naked women, the fixation on erogenous zones and detached body parts. At the very least this thumbnail is a puzzling choice to accompany an article about two books whose goals included, among other things, helping women to stop seeing themselves as a bunch of body parts intended solely for male pleasure. Way to undercut your own essay, guys. (Unless I’m missing some kind of twee irony here, which I certainly hope is not the case.)

So this is how I found myself wondering about the reading comprehension of the website’s art designer—or perhaps, this being the New Yorker, there is actually an entire Department of Thumbnail Iconography that makes these decisions at weekly closed-door meetings. Whoever it was, I suspect they may have leapt on this one sentence as the key to picking an accompanying image:

The Joy of Sex redux becomes generic—Cook’s Illustrated with boobies.”

With boobies, indeed.

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adventures with a scrap artist

Illustration of Louise Brigham's box furniture for "Ladie's Home Journal", 1910.

Recently, in the course of preparing an exhibition in Los Angeles, I stumbled across an early 20th century designer and teacher named Louise Brigham. I’d never heard of her, and I’ll bet you haven’t either. She turned up in a hundred-year-old copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal, which probably isn’t high on anyone’s reading list. In it was an article by Brigham entitled “How I Furnished My Entire Flat from Boxes.” The accompanying illustrations showed rooms filled with early-modernist furniture, strikingly more austere than either the conventional furniture designs of the day or the then-avant-garde Mission and Prairie styles being popularized by Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others. Brigham was inspired in part by the rectilinear designs of the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, but her work has a raw simplicity that won’t surface again until the 1930s, in the ‘crate furniture’ of Gerrit Rietveld.

A living room ca. 1900.

But what really startled me was that all of the furniture was built out of recycled packing crates—the soap boxes, canned-corn boxes, and gelatin boxes that would otherwise have been tossed on a scrap heap. Brigham had, in fact, designed an entire program of such furniture and published a book about it the prior year, entitled Box Furniture. In this book, she gives not only plans for a hundred different pieces of furniture, but also instructions in basic carpentry and color schemes for entire rooms.

Gustav Stickley plant stand, 1900.

Unlike most design in any period, Brigham’s book is aimed squarely at working people of very limited means; her intention was to bring both practical skills and advanced design to those who might otherwise not be able to afford either. She wrote Box Furnitureat a time when the average American worker earned less than $400 a year and a single piece of new furniture could cost a week’s wages. Brigham went on to furnish her own New York apartment almost entirely from box furniture, as a kind of model and advertisement for her system, at a total cost of $4.20.

Gerrit Rietveld crate stool, ca. 1934.

She also proselytized for her system widely in Europe and the United States, and she built a number of pieces into settlement houses, as she was an active champion of the settlement movement. She founded a workshop for teaching basic box-furniture carpentry to boys (and later girls), the Home Thrift Association; it had its first headquarters in New York’s Gracie Mansion. I was intrigued by what seemed an early appearance in the United States of an ethos of sustainability in design and wondered why I hadn’t heard of Brigham. Perhaps I had come across her and just forgotten? But when I went to google her, I discovered that very little has been written about her since her heyday, apart from a tiny handful of recent articles that argue for her as a pioneer of sustainable and affordable design. She did not even have a Wikipedia page. She does now, because I wrote one for her.

Louise Brigham's design for a quadruple desk.

I got so interested in Brigham that I dug out the contemporary newspaper articles on her, and I got a copy of her book (it’s also available as a PDF download from several websites, including Google Scholar). Working from these sources and two fine articles by Larry Weinberg and Jessica M. Pigza, I’ve reconstructed as much of her life as I was able to in a little over a week of digging, but huge gaps remain. I’m working on filling in some of the gaps, because the questions that occurred to me when I first saw Brigham’s work are still unanswered: What kind of person was she? What was her family background? What kind of art education did she get? Why did she not become a professional designer to the well-to-do like her friend Hoffmann? Did her ideas directly influence the De Stijl designers, and if so, how? How did she get involved in the settlement house movement? And most of all: how is it that this visionary spirit has all but disappeared from the historical record?

Louise Brigham, Wikipedia entry

Louise Brigham's Wikipedia page

Box Furniture received a good deal of initial exposure; it went through several editions and was translated into a number of foreign languages. It is one of the earliest design projects to incorporate the idea of modular or sectional units and to organize an entire program around both social and aesthetic objectives. It is a direct precursor of today’s do-it-yourself and sustainable design movements, as well as of consumer-assembled kit furniture such as Ikea produces. Yet none of Brigham’s work is known to have survived, and her box furniture project is all but unknown today, barely rating a footnote in the canonical story of 20th century furniture design.

The reasons for this erasure deserve closer examination, as part of the larger story of women’s role in the history of art, design, and technology. Right now, there are too many gaps in the story of her life to draw secure conclusions. So I invite anyone who knows something of Brigham to contact me, or to add to her Wikipedia page. And everyone in the Los Angeles area is invited to visit a small exhibition about her work that I’ve created—in tandem with another writer, Ruth Coppens—at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. Entitled Evidence of Evidence,  it will be up until March 30th. (I’ve written a bit about how that exhibition came about here.)

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crowd-sourcing abortion

Birth or Not website

Birth or Not website (screen cap)

I imagine I’m not the only one on DiffEng who’s been following the strange history of the Birth or Not website, which was created by a couple named Pete and Alisha Arnold and invited internet visitors to vote on whether Alisha should abort her pregnancy. As one of the site’s taglines put it:

You can vote and choose whether we abort or keep our unborn child. For the first time, your vote on the topic of abortion can make a difference.


Leaving aside for now the misguided notion that ‘other’ votes on abortion don’t matter—such as voting for a pro-choice senator over an anti-abortion senator—what are we to make of this? Articles and interviews elsewhere on the web suggest one of two impulses behind this website: either it was a nasty stunt by Pete—who’s been outed as an anti-abortion polemicist active in right-to-life forums—that was designed to disgust people with abortion by offering them a personalized (but entirely fake) intervention; or, as Alisha states in a Nov. 24th blog post, it was the couple’s attempt to find their way out of an impasse since Alisha is pro-choice and initially disagreed with Pete over whether to terminate her pregnancy (she has since decided to have the child). Or, just possibly—a bit of both.

The vote was closed down on Nov. 28th, and as of this writing the 2 million votes registered on site (raw score: 78% for abortion, 22% against) were being analyzed for—I love this part—election fraud.

What I mainly see when I consider this story is a use of internet technology to enable something that looks new—voting on an abortion—but is actually just a sheeped-up old wolf of a problem. The central, bedrock issue in abortion is always the same: who controls the (pregnant) woman’s body? Those opposed to abortion don’t want to grapple with this easily answered question so they always try to change the debate to the much more elusive question of when an embryo can be considered ‘alive’, ‘viable’, ‘ensouled’, ‘human’, etc. Or they make claims about the woman’s inadequacy to the task of managing her own body—hence those recurrent suggestions about putting ‘crack mothers’ in jail.

Allowing a stranger on the internet to tell a woman if she can have an abortion is no different from allowing a legislator or judge or doctor to tell her this. Offloading the hard decision in any of these cases implies that the woman does not need to be in control of her own body and—worse—is perhaps even incapable of it. The Birth or Not site may have helped Alisha make her own decision (although it has blown back on her as well, if the reports that she lost her job over the website are true), but it has harmed, in a small way, every woman who has fought for this most basic right of control over her own body.

The fact is that Alisha wouldn’t even have the option of putting her decision up to a bunch of netizens if a lot of votes hadn’t been cast over a lot of time to create the current legal protections—shaky as they are—for her right to decide for or against an abortion. Those were the votes that ‘made a difference’.

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photographing a feminist anarchist

Emma Goldman police mug shot, 1893.

I recently came across this double police mug shot of Emma Goldman over on Slate, in “A Short History of Mug Shots” (I’d guess they cribbed it from this mug shot site). I’ve seen at least one other pair of mug shots of Goldman (below), but I found this one particularly interesting for its semiotic slippages.

As with all such mug shots, the purpose is to construct the subject as a criminal (and in this case also as an undesirable alien). But Goldman’s neat hair and middle-class clothes—especially that great hat—partially block this reading. In Barthian terms, the hat is the punctum of the photograph, the point to which the eye constantly returns even though there is no possible sense in which it was intended as the focal point of the photograph when it was taken. Perhaps that is why the photographer made her take it off for the second shot.

Emma Goldman, 1901 mug shots.

Moreover, the lack of an immediate visible distinction between the two photographs (the vertical line traditional in mug shot pairs) suggests a first reading of not a single person but two sisters, perhaps twins, one more relaxed than the other. One can almost imagine these vivid images gracing a carte de visite. Nor would they necessarily have seemed too ‘serious’ for such a use. The technology of photography at this time was still such that—due to long exposures—everyone looked serious in their photographs.

The other mug shots (at right) do a better job with their criminalizing semiosis:  the stripped-off outer clothing, the wild hair, and the more rigid full-face and profile positions. Here, too, the plain background more clearly reads as a police station wall—in the 1893 photos, the impression is rather of an ordinary background out of focus.

Emma Goldman 'at home'.

Both of these mug shot pairs contrast with by far the bulk of the Goldman photos I’ve ever seen, which are  studio portraits typical of the era like the one at left. There are many variations on these—sitting, standing; full-length, bust-length—but a good number feature the ‘thoughtful intellectual’ typology of hand under chin.

I prefer either of the mug shot pairs to these studio portraits—although just as posed and just as formal, they are at the same time much more candid. In those mug shots I can see the determination, self-possession, and anger that must have been major features of Goldman’s character. The studio portraits seem perverse by contrast, offering (especially in the aggregate) a view of a comfortable, stable, middle-class existence that takes almost no account of her actual life.

random thought of the day

I was reading an article recently that used the phrase “serial monogamy” when it occurred to me that this is actually a rather curious phrase to choose for describing one of the major partnership patterns in the U.S. I mean, suppose we called it instead “variable polygamy”? Wouldn’t this do a better job describing a field of experiences that ranges from strict monogamy to many kinds of of overlapping relationships— not just those that overlap at the beginning and end, but various forms of polyamory, extramarital affairs, and so on. And it seems to me very problematic to describe the kinds of long-term involvements that are typical of the adults in divorced and extended families as a discrete series of monogamous relationships. I’d argue that the choice of “serial monogamy” has a good deal of wishful thinking in it—it’s prescriptive rather than strictly descriptive. However, ‘polygamy’ carries so much baggage in this culture that it’s a forbidden descriptor for all practical purposes. But clearly the choice of such sweeping designations has consequences for the culture, from the kinds of scientific investigations that are pursued to the ways in which certain relationships are normalized while others are demonized or overlooked.

DAC 2009

The international Digital Arts and Cultures conference is being held at UC Irvine this year, Dec. 12-19. Subtitled “after media: embodiment and context” it looks like being an exciting event. Among the dozens of presenters and session leaders are Nell Tenhaaf,  Andrea Polli, Nina Czegledy, and Katherine Hayles. There is an associated exhibition at the Beall Center for Art and Technology, as well as a concert. Come one, come all…

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