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March 12, 2011

PB's accountantNote from mum re absence (12/3/2011)
I was MIA last week because I suffered a recurrence of an ankle injury I had in June 2009. I have been informed that repetition of this injury increases the risk of permanent damage, so I was straight into bed and doing all the things that I was supposed to be doing to minimise the damage. Another planned activity that had to be cancelled for the weekend was participating in the Mardi Gras parade with Sydney Gay Atheists. If I couldn't walk to the kitchen to make a cup of tea I wasn't about to walk several kilometres, even if surrounded by much distracting colour and movement. (Note to people who want to abuse or misrepresent me: I would have participated with the Sydney Gay Atheists because many of them are friends of mine and I support their campaign against discrimination. I'm from Sydney and I am an atheist, and to quote two cultural memes, "two out of three ain't bad" and "not that there's anything wrong with that".)

The other distraction for the weekend would probably have trumped everything else anyway. I had to rework two years of my company's accounts to keep the tax office happy and to satisfy the government department which pays my wife a small benefit. Neither of these organisations like being told to wait. My ex-bookkeeper is locked in the garden shed with nothing to look at except the picture on the right. I have ordered a rack and a brazier for heating pokers on eBay and they should be delivered next week.

Can it get more vile than this? (12/3/2011)
Anybody in the world with a television must have been appalled at the scenes from Japan following the earthquake and tsunami. What is also appalling is the reaction from people who exploit tragedies like this. We have come to expect lunatics like Fred Phelps at the Westboro Baptist Church to come out with insane rants. In this case there have been the mildly mad who have suggested that the earthquake might in some way be related to the fact that the moon will be at its closest point to the Earth next week. I'm firmly in the "climate change is happening" camp, but I cringe at statements attempting to link earthquakes to global warming. People calling this an "act of God" and calling for prayer (the fastest-trending item on Twitter following the earthquake was #prayforjapan) miss the point that if God did this he is very evil and praying to the source of the trouble for assistance and relief seems incoherent. The idiots who have been besieging Facebook with claims that the tsunami is payback for Pearl Harbor are mad but probably harmless. The anti-nuclear contingent are out in force with scaremongering about possible damage to Japan's nuclear power reactors. (At the time of writing one of the stations seems to be in serious trouble, but the neither the nature not the extent of the problem is yet known.) I liked the comment that Japan was foolish to build nuclear reactors in seismically-active areas, although the commenter failed to go on to say where else there is in Japan.

The prize for blatant self-promotion and cynicism, however, goes to Australian homeopath Fran Sheffield, for this email sent to her subscribers.

Here's a fact. There are no "protective steps that can be taken with homeopathy". To say otherwise is not to be mistaken, not to be deluded, it is to lie. And as for treating radiation exposure with 30C x-rays, the only kind of person who would suggest that is either insane or admitting to being a complete fraud. (If you want an example of the insane sort, see how homeopathic Saturn can help with overcoming disasters. I am surprised that Ms Sheffield didn't suggest that for Japanese residents who aren't close to reactors.)

Homeopathy is rubbish, but while it is being used to treat only the walking suggestible it is relatively harmless. When homeopaths start talking about treating serious things like radiation exposure it is time to get out the pitchforks and flaming torches and tell these charlatans to shut up. It has gone beyond a joke and is now deliberately endangering people's lives.

Something to think about (12/3/2011)

Things sure have changed since I last went to a bible camp. Is it the drugs, the bible camp or the combination that is the dead end? I suspect that it's all three.

Dripping water wears away stone (12/3/2011)
I would prefer a bulldozer to move all the rubble of quackery, but I suppose I have to be thankful for small victories. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is gradually getting on with the job, and have announced another step on the path to a clean alternative medicine industry. My opinion is that a clean alternative medicine industry is like a square circle, but at least something is being done to reduce the damage.

Court finds allergy treatment claims misleading

The Federal Court has found three companies and two individuals made false claims and misled consumers about their ability to test for and treat allergies.

The findings conclude proceedings brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission against:

Willesee Healthcare Pty Ltd Sophie Georgonicas Theoliza Pty Ltd Maria Colosimo, and Theta Line Pty Ltd.

"Recently the ACCC has taken action against a number of traders in the health and wellbeing industry," ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel said today.

"These proceedings reinforce the ACCC's commitment to stamp out unsubstantiated claims by traders which put the health of consumers at risk."

Each respondent claimed they could diagnose, treat and/or cure allergies using "Nambudripad's allergy elimination technique" (NAET) or similar techniques. These techniques involve identifying allergens by testing the resistance of the customer's arm muscle to pressure applied while holding a vial of the suspected allergen. The purported treatment then involves the application of pressure or needles to points on the customer's body, while the customer is exposed to the potential allergen.

Its proponents believe this process clears energy blockages which have been caused by the allergen, thereby desensitising the customer to the allergen.

The court declared the companies and individuals engaged in false, misleading and deceptive conduct by representing one or more of the following:

that they could test for and identify an allergen or a substance to which a person is allergic, when they could not that they could cure or eliminate all or virtually all allergies, or allergic reactions, when they could not that they could successfully treat a person's allergies or allergic reactions, when they could not that after receiving treatment it would then be safe or low risk for a person to have contact with the substance or allergen to which they had previously suffered adverse reaction, when none of their treatments could achieve this result.

Each of the respondents is restrained from engaging in similar conduct for a period of three years, either by injunction or an undertaking to the court.

The court ordered the respondents to display corrective notices on their websites and in their clinics. The respondents must also send letters or emails to current and former customers explaining that they engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct, apologising for that conduct and outlining the remedies obtained by the ACCC. Each respondent is also required to pay a contribution to the ACCC's costs of the proceeding.

The court will consider proposed consent orders in relation to four additional joint respondents on a date yet to be fixed.

In February, a separate trader, Allergy Pathway Pty, and its director, Paul Keir, were fined for contempt of court after previously giving undertakings to the court not to make certain representations about Allergy Pathway's ability to test for, identify and safely treat allergies. The ACCC has also taken action against traders this year for misleading claims relating to cancer cures and treatments.

Release # NR 047/11
Issued: 11th March 2011

The Sci-ənce cartoon site has gone to the great bit bucket in the sky.

When is a joke not a joke? (12/3/2011)
I haven't included the joke below as one of my regular attempts to provide humour to readers. It is here because someone threatened legal action over it.

See more SMBC here

You might think that anyone offended by a cartoon would take action against the creator of the cartoon, but in this case the action was threatened against blogger Orac. It seems that an anti-vaccination liar interpreted it as a death threat. Now we know that anti-vaccination liars can't read and understand the scientific literature, but now we know that they can't understand cartoons either. Then there's the ultimate irony – someone dedicated to killing children (and women denied the HPV vaccine) objects to a joke about killing. In the joke it's just words. In real life it's dead kids.

And I agree with Orac – Now there's a skeptic movie I'd go to see!

Oh, and if any anti-vaccination liars want to threaten me for displaying the cartoon I will have these pokers at red heat in my brazier. Bend over and smile.

See more Cectic here.

March 19, 2011

BarCamp (19/3/2011)
On Saturday, March 19, I attended BarCamp Canberra. For those of you unfamiliar with BarCamp, it is an unconference put together by unorganisers. What this means is that there is a venue and some people attending, all of whom are expected to contribute in some way. There is no set agenda, and speakers simply put their names and topics down on a chart of time slots on a first-come, first-served basis. The predominant topic streams are usually related to technology in some way, reflecting the origins of the BarCamp idea, but this is not rigidly enforced and any topic seems to be permissible provided it is of interest to the people attending. In this case, most of the people attending were computer geeks (one of them not too far from this keyboard even had an earring in the shape of a small computer monitor and keyboard) or government employees (reflecting the milieu of the national capital city). Seven of us from Western Sydney Freethinkers made the trip from Sydney to Canberra; I spoke about using technology and social networks to spread the creeds of science and skepticism and my friend Dave The Happy Singer did an impromptu musical performance composed on the spot from audience suggestions. (The suggestions were: Ruth, palaeontologist, LOLcode, Mainz, absinthe, homeopathy and I can't remember the rest. Chopin never had to work a room like that.)

One disadvantage of a conference without a pre-arranged agenda is that it can be hard to remember afterwards what went on, but there is a move to upload all the PowerPoint slide shows to some convenient place to act as a memory jogger. A lot of the talks were about the storage, management, extraction and distribution of large quantities of data. (It was interesting to note that the audience member who wanted to challenge me on the basis that homeopathy might work because "we don't know everything and science has been wrong in the past" turned into a conspiracy theorist in a talk about the federal government's policy of making all possible government data available on the web: "How do we know it's all there?") There was a talk about preparation for disaster that was of particular relevance to me because I live in a bushfire-prone area (the talk was listed as "Zombie Alerts", but we stayed anyway even after the truth was revealed). A presentation about ways to use type on web pages gave me a lot of ideas to improve this site and the other ones I manage; there were talks about robotics, security and the other sorts of things you would expect to find at a geekfest. Two well-received presentations were one about a facility where people can go and build electronic devices themselves and one where we were asked the question "Graffiti – art or vandalism?" (the consensus seemed to be that representational public art is art but tagging is vandalism). There were talks about client relations and marketing. Something for everyone.

Here is a version of what I had to say. It is a version, because I spoke without notes and followed leads from the audience, but it covers what I wanted to say and why I wanted to say it in this venue.

Communicating science and skepticism

My topic today is communicating science and skepticism. Speaking for myself, I've used just about all forms of communication to get these messages out. I write a monthly column for Australasian Science magazine and (almost) regular articles for the Yahoo!7 web site. I've written for newspapers and I've appeared on television, sometimes even as an expert. While you might laugh at the idea of going on "current affairs" programs like Today Tonight and A Current Affair, I take the view that getting thirty seconds to talk to a million or so viewers is better than not being there and giving the other side all the air time. There certainly can be frustrations in dealing with shows like these, an example being that one segment I was on was followed on air by a promotion for the next night's show when a cure for autism was going to be announced, but it's still worth the effort. I have also done a lot of broadcast radio and I am involved in a couple of podcasts. (Radio is not without its frustrations either. I went on air once to talk about the evils of medical quackery and when I put the headphones on I heard that the advertisement immediately preceding me was for herbal supplements that could treat all sorts of illnesses.) To make sure that I don't have any spare time I have a web site addressing scientific and skeptical issues that gets several thousand visitors each day.

But enough about me. I'm here to learn from you people, because I'm always looking for new ideas and methods of getting the word out. Suggestions and comments are welcome.

Read the rest here.

Dunning and Kruger make a good point (19/3/2011)
I've spent some time lately debating someone who proudly touts her Myers Briggs personality reading which indicates that she is a mastermind, and an IQ test which shows that she is some sort of genius. Unfortunately, this hubris causes her to know everything without the necessity of actually reading the work of experts. For example, the problems with the Myers Briggs assessment have been pointed out to her several times, but she refuses to read the expert commentary because she is a mastermind. (The biggest problem is test-retest reliability – I had an evaluation on two successive days using the same testing instrument and was rated ENFJ on one day and ESTP the next.) She has admitted that she has probably read fewer books about alternative medicine than I have, but she possesses more knowledge and expertise.

I'm using this lady as an example, but it is common for people to assume that they are much smarter than they really are, and to use this mistake to assess their own competence at various activities. Because they are smart, they can't be wrong.

This phenomenon is so prevalent that it has been given a name – the Dunning/Kruger Effect. This comes from a 1999 paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University titled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". The abstract says:

 People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Because I have been having this mental battle with an exemplar of the effect, I have decided to invite the authors to be guests, and you can read the paper here.

Confirmation bias, denialism and Morton's Demon. (19/3/2011)
Another aspect of people like the lady mentioned above is their total resistance to facts. I suppose this is a corollary of Dunning/Kruger, because if you are an unassailable expert then you know it all already, so any new information is either redundant or wrong. I've written an article about this (actually a script for a radio report) and you can read it below. Well, you can read most of it here and the rest somewhere else, because it's a bit long for this page.

I was going through my record and CD collection and two songs caught my attention. One was "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel which has the line "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest"; the second was Rod Stewart's "Reason to Believe" which says "I look to find a reason to believe".

These got me thinking about how we have a need to believe things and the lengths we will go to be comfortable with what we believe. I'm saying "we" here because I'm not immune to the problems I'm going to talk about, but with a little caution we can avoid the traps.

Anyone who has ever done any research will be familiar with the problem of confirmation bias. This is hearing what you want to hear. My studies were in cognitive psychology where it is impossible to get directly to the processes underlying observations, and so it's all about statistics and interpretation. Anybody doing research in the social sciences has to be constantly aware of the possibility of confirmation bias, of selecting results and readings that fit the hypothesis and either ignoring or eliminating things that don't quite fit. I don't mean rejecting obvious outliers where the observations are so far from the rest that a mistake can be assumed - I mean shaving the results to suit what the experimenter expects to find. This may not even be a conscious act, because doing it consciously approaches fraud and most people are basically honest.

The classic case in the hard sciences of confirmation bias is cold fusion. Ponds and Fleischmann found what they wanted to find and then stopped looking. In the social sciences there was Cyril Burt's just-too-good statistics about separated twins and Margaret Mead's willingness to believe whatever some young girls told her. In medicine there was William McBride's work on Debendox. I don't think any of these people started out to do the wrong thing, but they all did it anyway because what they did confirmed their beliefs. (I am not talking about obvious cases of deliberate fraud like Andrew Wakefield or the Korean investigators into fertility. These people knew exactly ... More

This was recorded for a segment on Diffusion Radio.

Earthquakes and other Acts of God (19/3/2011)
All the news about the earthquake and tsunami affecting Japan got me to dust off something I wrote in 2005 following the tsunami that caused enormous loss of life in Indonesia in December 2004. You can read it here, but in the spirit of recycling a version will appear as my next Yahoo!7 column and I recorded it for the Skeptic Zone podcast. You can even listen to it here or by using the little player below.

See more Red Meat here

Humane execution (19/3/2011)
Just in case you are planning to execute some adulterer who has broken some religious rule, you need this set of instructions on how to go about it in the most humane way. Note that you can use the bound and covered excutionee as a measuring instrument for getting the right sized hole in the ground. Click on the pictures for larger images.

Preparing the hole
Preparation of the condemned adulterer.
Doing the job
The day of the stoning.

Brave homeopath (19/3/2011)
I've had a bit to say in the past about homeopath Fran Sheffield and her business for extracting money from the gullible, Homeopathy Plus!. She ticks all the boxes – anti-vaccination, homeopath, overcharging for nothing worthwhile, ignoring regulatory authorities, ludicrous claims, ... Apparently she is now so ashamed of what she says and does that she has blocked me from following her on Twitter. (I think I was the first person to be blocked from her Facebook page, and all I did was post a link to the page about her here.)

I have sent the following Kind and Gentle email to Ms Sheffield:

Dear Ms Sheffield,

I notice that I have been blocked from following you on Twitter, and I also appear to be banned from posting anything to your Facebook page. I can understand why someone doing what you do would be a little sensitive about criticism, but surely if you are right and homeopathy can do all the things you say it can do then any criticism from me would make no difference.

You are free to read my web site at any time you like and if you send me comments I will publish them. You are free to join any public mailing list that I manage and post whatever you like to the list and you will not be moderated in any way (unless your messages expose me or anyone else to legal action). You have my permission to follow me on Twitter. You can be a fan or member of any Facebook page or group (or any other online forum) of which I am an administrator and any comments you post there will be left untouched (again unless they expose me or anyone else to legal action).

I have nothing to hide and I am not ashamed of what I say or do. It appears that you can say neither. Prove me wrong.

Shameless promotion (19/3/2011)
I don't usually run unpaid advertisements here (and if you saw how little money Google pays advertisers you would know that I don't run too much paid advertising either), but I have decided to make an exception, because I attended a talk by the film maker, Adrian Norman. What he had to say about cults made a lot of sense.

This is the trailer for a DVD named Visions of Paradise. It is about people who have managed to get themselves out of cults. To quote from the promotional material:

Visions of Paradise is a challenging, intelligent and thought-provoking documentary about the need to belong and find purpose and meaning in life. Through candid interviews and with reference to famous psychological studies along with commentary from cult experts, Visions of Paradise is a timely warning to all about the continuing attraction of cults and fundamentalist thinking in the 21st century.

You can buy the DVD through Ronin Films. You should also visit the Cult Information and Family Support group.

March 26, 2011

Back to school!! (26/3/2011)
New stuff is going to be a bit sparse around here for the next few weeks. I will be doing a training course in small business management and we will be doing in seven weeks what usually takes 36 weeks at most business colleges. The expression "As busy as a one-armed wallpaper hanger" comes to mind. The plus, apart from the fact that I will have another nationally-recognised marketable qualification, is that I don't have to pay the several thousand dollars that these courses usually cost (thank you, taxpayers of Australia). I will try to update the site weekly, but the updates might be the sort of thing I can do in a hurry.

I'll start by inviting David Brown to be a guest writer and tell us about the ridiculous idea that the Amish don't vaccinate and therefore have no children with autism.

Olmsted Lied, People Laughed: The "Amish Anomaly" hoax (26/3/2011)
Dan Olmsted's "big break" for coverage of the vaccine-caused autism coverage was a series of stories about two claims: that the Amish do not vaccinate, and that they do not have autism. He wrote at least six articles on this subject between March and October 2005. To this day, he continues to defend his work. Yet, his critics have long since demonstrated 3 facts: The Amish vaccinate; they do have children with autism, and Olmsted would have known these facts if he had actually conducted a serious investigation.

A major argument by Olmsted is an interview with Dr. Frank C. Noonan, said (apparently in his own words) to have treated "thousands and thousands" of the Amish population of Lancaster county. This provided a major recurring sound bite: "'You'll find all the other stuff, but we don't find the autism. We're right in the heart of Amish country and seeing none, and that's just the way it is.'"

However, by Olmsted's admission, Noonan is openly a practitioner of "alternative medicine", which makes him potentially biased. Nor is he the only source with this problem. Dick Warner, a salesman Olmsted was mocked for quoting in the June 2 article "A Glimpse of the Amish", sold "natural health" products as well as water filters. Dr. Lawrence Leichtman, reportedly instrumental in guiding Olmsted to six Amish children with autism, was featured in the April 2005 issue of Alternative Medicine. Heng Wang, another prominently cited source, may also have "alternative health" ties: The site of his DDC clinic lists nutrition and special diets ...

Read the rest here

It's voting time! (26/3/2011)
There is a state election on where I live today. Universal opinion seems to be that it is not a case of picking the best party to run the state for the next four years but the least worst. Contentious topics are climate change and what we should do about it, teaching ethics in schools as an alternative to religious education classes, and things that didn't work in the past so we had better try them again.

See more SMBC here.

How crazy can it get? (26/3/2011)
Collectors of web esoterica have long been familiar with Gene Ray's Time Cube, for years considered the craziest web site on the Internet. (At one stage at a meeting of some members of Western Sydney Freethinkers there were at least eight people reading passages from Time Cube aloud from their smartphones, although the fact that such phones could be used for that purpose renders the prefix "smart" moot. We were in a pub at the time and some people may even have been drinking. At least it was a change from karaoke.)

When trawling the depths of quackery I sometimes come across sites which challenge Gene for craziness, but it is rare to find more than one per day. Today was an exception, and I offer you some wonderful entertainment. And when you have finished laughing, remember that there are people out there who will believe this stuff and trust their health, and even their lives, to this sort of "information"

And speaking of altmed ... (26/3/2011)
One staple of the alternative medicine industry is the colonic flush to rid the body of toxins. Here is a possible alternative medicine for just this purpose.

Australasian ScienceHe writes (26/3/2011)
The April edition of Australasian Science magazine should be on its way to your letterboxes right now if you subscribe or your newsagents if you buy it with the papers. As usual it contains my Naked Skeptic column, this time about the way that homeopathy only treats symptoms, exactly the crime that its supporters accuse real medicine of doing. And I'm not just saying it, I'm quoting the inventor. If you can't wait to read what I have to say you can read it here, but I recommend getting the magazine because it is the best popular science magazine in the country, with interesting articles by experts every month. My column for May dealing with confirmation bias and other ways we fool ourselves has been submitted but I won't put it up here until it appears in print towards the end of April.

Yahoo!7 NewsMy latest article for Yahoo!7 News deals with the religious reaction to catastrophes like the recent earthquake and tsunami affecting Japan. You can probably guess which line I took, particularly if I told you that the title is "Acts of God?" You can read it here.

The Atheist Cartoons site disappeared in 2014

That stupid woman again (26/3/2011)
It seems that a weeks can't go by without more idiocy from Fran Sheffield, the homeopath who won the 2010 Anus Maximus Award. Her latest is some advice she gave to someone asking for help with inflamed tonsils. Here it is as presented in her email answers system.

As I don't suffer from lack of confidence and under-developed genitals this probably won't be prescribed for me if I go to a homeopath because I have a sore throat. That's probably just as well, because I have read some MSDS sheets for barium carbonate and I don't think I want to ingest any. Of course, at a 6C concentration, or 1:1,000,000,000,000, I probably wouldn't be getting any anyway but I would be paying for it. An interesting aside is that alternuts are always telling us that aspartame is rat poison, but guess what one of the uses of "Bar-c" is? It's also used in the glazing of bricks, but it's not recommended for glazing food utensils because a homeopathic dose might leach out into food and harm someone.

Here's a longer answer to the question, from the Homeopathy Plus! web site. Obviously the person asking the question above didn't deserve all the "facts":

Q. Kissing Tonsils and Small Concerns – What Can Bar-c Do?

Baryta carbonica (Bar-c.) is one of the remedies that can cure tonsil infections and catarrh, but only if other health problems and your overall disposition matches that of a Bar-c 'state'.

Chldren or adults who need Bar-c. usually have a history of chronically inflamed, swollen tonsils. The tonsils can be large enough to almost block the throat, earning them the nickname of 'kissing tonsils'.

These people will also suffer from mental/emotional or physical immaturity with symptoms such as:

  • shyness and lack of self-confidence
  • anxiety
  • childishness
  • delayed mental development
  • nail-biting
  • short height and slim build
  • stunted development of atrophy (shrinking) of body parts such as sexual organs

So, if these symptoms describe you, fantastic news!

Bar-c. will help to reduce your anxiety, increase confidence, and improve your physical or emotional immaturity. It will also take care of your infected tonsils and catarrh at the same time.

In children with the above symptoms, it will help normalise growth and development.

BUT, if none of the above sounds like you, using Bar-c. for your infected tonsils will either:

  1. Do nothing at all, because the remedy has no relationship to your symptoms,
  2. Improve things for a short period because it partially matches your symptoms but won't ever be able to cure them, or
  3. Produce a short term "aggravation" (a worsening of your symptoms) through it being a close but still imperfect remedy for your needs.

The 6C potency mentioned by other websites is considered to be a low and gentle potency suitable for regular dosing for most people.

BUT, if your tonsils are chronically infected you are advised not to self-treat as changes in potencies, remedies, and frequency of doses may be needed for best results. A qualified homoeopath will be able to help you in this area.

I wouldn't care if this ridiculous nonsense was confined to consenting adults in private and prohibited from being taken anywhere near anybody who might be sick, but this stuff is given credibility by being taught in universities, sold in pharmacies and treated with respect as if it has something to offer the world. Not only is homeopathy scientifically ridiculous but it is logically incoherent. The rubbish above simply doesn't make any sense to anybody who can think clearly. As homeopaths are not stupid people one must assume that they can recognise the vapidity of what is said and therefore only continue to practice because they value money over common sense. And over the health concerns of the people they deceive by selling this stuff.

Here are some facts:

I am sick of seeing homeopaths treated with any respect at all. They have nothing to offer the world and should be exposed and ridiculed at every opportunity.

See more Wumo here


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