THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER 2001

What Questions Have Disappeared?

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Kai Krause

"What is the difference between men and pigs?"

Questions...

We ask many questions ...

...about our species, our gender, our friends, lovers and ourselves, the mystery who each of us is and where in the ant hill the intelligence lies, if each ant has no clue.

We search for the variations amongst a set, try to define the set in its limits and borders against other sets, look for analogies, anomalies and statistical outliers....

There is in fact an almost universal algorithm, like cats stalking their prey, to makes sense of our nature by boundary conditions, alas compiled with spotty statistics and messy heuristics, gullible souls, political machinations, cheats, lies and video tape, in short: human nature. We search and probe, the literate digerati confer virtually, each wondering about the other, each looking at their unique sets of parents, and the impossibility to imagine them in the act of procreation.

In other words, we still have no idea what-so-ever who we really are, what mankind as a whole is all about. We have mild inclinations on where we have been, sort of, and contradictory intentions on where we may be headed, kind of, but all in all, we are remarkably clue-free.

But that question at least need no longer be asked and has indeed vanished after this:

Even when they had way too much to drink, pigs don´t turn into men.

KAI KRAUSE is currently building a research lab dubbed "Byteburg" in a thousand year old castle above the Rhein river in the geometric center of Europe. He asked not to be summed up by previous accomplishments, titles or awards.


Milford H. Wolpoff

"Where has Darwin gone?"

Darwinism is alive and well in academic discussions and in pop thinking. Natural selection is a key element in explaining just about everything we encounter today, from the origin and spread of AIDS to the realization that our parents didn't "make us do it," our ancestors did. Ironically, though, Darwinism has disappeared from the area where it was first and most firmly seated the evolution of life, and especially the evolution of humanity. Human evolution was once pictured as a series of responses to changing environments coordinated by differences in reproduction and survivorship, as opportunistic changes taking advantage of the new possibilities opened up by the cultural inheritance of social information, as the triumph of technology over brute force, as the organization of intelligence by language. Evolutionary psychologists and other behavioralists still view it this way, but this is no longer presented as the mainstream view of human paleontologists and geneticists who address paleodemographic problems.

Human evolution is now commonly depicted as the consequence of species replacements, where there are a series of species emanating from different, but usually African homelands, each sooner or later replacing the earlier ones. It is not the selection process that provides the source of human superiority in each successive replacement, but the random accidents that take place when new species are formed from small populations of old ones. The process is seen as being driven by random extinctions, opening up unexpected opportunities for those fortunate new species lucky to be at the right time and place.

The origin and evolution of human species are now also addressed by geneticists studying the variation and distribution of human genes today (and in a few cases ancient genes from Neandertals). They use this information to estimate the history of human population size and the related questions of when the human population might have been small, where it might have originated, and when it might have been expanding. It is possible to do this if one can assume that mutation and genetic drift are the only driving forces of genetic change, because the effect of drift depends on population size. But this assumption means that Darwinian selection did not play any significant role in genetic evolution. Similarly, interpreting the distribution of ancient DNA as reflecting population history (rather than the history of the genes studied the histories are not necessarily the same) also assumes that selection on the DNA studied did not play a role in its evolution. In fact, the absence of Darwinian selection is the underlying assumption for these types of genetic studies.

Human paleontology has taken a giant step away from Darwin will it have the courage to follow the lead of evolutionary behavior and step back?

MILFORD H. WOLPOFF is Professor of Anthropology and Adjunct Associate Research Scientist, Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. His work and theories on a "multiregional" model of human development challenge the popular "Eve" theory. His work has been covered in The New York Times, New Scientist, Discover, and Newsweek, among other publications. He is the author (with Rachel Caspari) of Race and Human Evolution: A Fatal Attraction


Al Seckel

"Why is our sense of beauty and elegance such a useful tool for discriminating between a good theory and a bad theory?"

During the early 1980s, I had the wonderful fortune to spend a great deal of time with Richard Feynman, and our innumerable conversations extended over a very broad range of topics (not always physics!). At that time, I had just finished re-reading his wonderful book, The Character of Physical Law, and wanted to discuss an interesting question with him, not directly addressed by his book:

Why is our sense of beauty and elegance such a useful tool for discriminating between a good theory and a bad theory?

And a related question:

Why are the fundamental laws of the universe self-similar?

Over lunch, I put the questions to him.

"It's goddam useless to discuss these things. It's a waste of time," was Dick's initial response. Dick always had an immediate gut-wrenching approach to philosophical questions. Nevertheless, I persisted, because it certainly was to be admitted that he had a strong intuitive sense of the elegance of fundamental theories, and might be able to provide some insight rather than just philosophizing. It was also true that this notion was a successful guiding principle for many great physicists of the twentieth century including Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Gell-Mann, etc. Why this was so, was interesting to me.

We spent several hours trying to get at the heart of the problem and, indeed, trying to determine if it was even a true notion rather than some romantic representation of science.

We did agree that it was impossible to explain honestly the beauties of the laws of nature in a way that people can feel, without their having some deep understanding of mathematics. It wasn't that mathematics was just another language for physicists, it was a tool for reasoning by which you could connect one statement with another. The physicist has meaning to all his phrases. He needs to have a connection of words to the real world.

Certainly, a beautiful theory meant being able to describe it very simply in terms of fundamental mathematical quantities. "Simply" meant compression into a small mathematical expression with tremendous explanatory powers, which required only a finite amount of interpretation. In other words, a huge number of relationships between data are concisely fit into a single statement. Later, Murray Gell-Mann expressed this point well, when he wrote, "The complexity of what you have to learn in order to be able to read the statement of the law is not really very great compared to the apparent complexity of the data that are being summarized by that law. That apparent complexity is partly removed when the law is formed."

Another driving principle was that the laws of the universe are self similar, in that there are connections between two sets of phenomena previously thought to be distinct. There seemed to be a beauty in the inter-relationships fed by perhaps a prejudice that at the bottom of it all was a simple unifying law.

It was easy to find numerous examples from the history of modern science that fit within this framework (Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism, Einstein's general-relativistic equations for gravitation, Dirac's relativistic quantum mechanics, etc.,), but Dick and I were still working away at the fringes of the problem. So far, all we could do was describe the problem, find numerous examples, but we could not answer what provided the feeling for great intuitive guesses.

Perhaps, our love of symmetries and patterns, are an integral part of why would embrace certain theories and not others. For example, for every conservation law, there was a corresponding symmetry, albeit sometimes these symmetries would be broken. But this led us to another question: Is symmetry inherent in nature or is it something we create? When we spoke of symmetries, we were referring to the symmetry of the mathematical laws of physics, not to the symmetry of objects commonly found in nature. We felt that symmetry was inherent in nature, because it was not something that we expected to find in physics. Another psychological prejudice was our love for patterns. The simplicity of the patterns in physics were beautiful. This does not mean simple in action ­ the motion of the planets and of atoms can be very complex, but the basic patterns underneath are simple. This is what is common to all of our fundamental laws.

It should be noted that we could also come up with numerous examples where one's sense of elegance and beauty led to beautiful theories that were wrong. A perfect example of a mathematically elegant theory that turned out to be wrong is Francis Crick's 1957 attempt at working out the genetic coding problem (Codes without Commas). It was also true that there were many examples of physical theories that were pursued on the basis of lovely symmetries and patterns, and that these also turned out to be false. Usually, these were false because of some logical inconsistency or the crude fact that they did not agree with experiment.

The best that Dick and I could come up with was an unscientific response, which is, given our fondness for patterns and symmetry, we have a prejudice — that nature is simple and therefore beautiful.

Since that time, the question has disappeared from my mind, and it is fun thinking about it again, but in doing scientific research, I now have to concern myself with more pragmatic questions.

AL SECKEL is acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on illusions. He has given invited lectures on illusions at Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Oxford University, University of Cambridge, UCLA, UCSD, University of Lund, University of Utrecht, and many other fine institutions. Seckel is currently under contract with the Brain and Cognitive Division of the MIT Press to author a comprehensive treatise on illusions, perception, and cognitive science.


Kenneth Ford

"When will we face another energy crisis, and how will we cope with it?"

This question (or pair of questions) was on everyone's lips in the 1970s, following the oil shortage and lines at gas stations. It stimulated a lot of good thinking and good work on alternative energy sources, renewable energy sources, and energy efficiency. Although this question is still asked by many knowledgeable and concerned people, it has disappeared from the public's radar screen (or, better, television screen). Even the recent escalation of fuel prices and the electricity shortage in California have not lent urgency to thinking ahead about energy.

But we should be asking, we should be worrying, and we should be planning. A real energy crisis is closer now than it was when the question had high currency. The energy-crisis question is only part of a larger question: How is humankind going to deal in the long term with its impact on the physical world we inhabit (of which the exhaustion of fossil fuels is only a part)? Another way to phrase the larger question: Are we going to manage more or less gracefully a transition to a sustainable world, or will eventual sustainability be what's left, willy nilly, after the chaos of unplanned, unanticipated change?

Science will provide no miracles (as the Wall Street Journal, in its justification of inaction, would have us believe), but science can do a lot to ameliorate the dislocations that this century will bring. We need to encourage our public figures to lift their eyes beyond the two-, four-, and six-year time horizons of their jobs.

KENNETH FORD is a retired physicist who teaches at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with John Wheeler, of Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics.


Stephen H. Schneider

"Will the free market finally triumph?"

Despite Seattle and the French farmers, free market advocates of globalization have largely won — even CHina is signing up to be a major player in the international trading and growth-oriented global political economy. So it is rare to hear this question anymore, even from so-called "enterprise institutes" dedicated to protecting property rights.

The problem is, what has been won?? My concern is not with the question no-longer asked in this context, but rather with the companion question not often enough asked: "Is there any such thing as a free market"?

To be sure, markets are generally efficient ways of allocating resources and accomplishing economic goals. However, markets are notorious for leaving out much of what people really value. In different words, the market price of doing business simply excludes much of the full costs or benefits of doing business because many effects aren't measured in traditional monetary units. For example, the cost of a ton of coal isn't just the extraction costs plus transportation costs plus profit, but also real expenses to real people (or real creatures) who happen to be external to the energy market. Such "externalities" are very real to coastal dwellers trying to cope with sea level rises likely to be induced from the global warming driven by massive coal burning.

I recall a discussion at the recent international negotiations to limit emissions of greenhouse gasses in which a chieftain from the tiny Pacific island of Kiribati was being told by an OPEC supporter opposed to international controls on emissions from fossil fuels that the summed economies of all the small island states were only a trivial fraction of the global GDP, and thus even if sea level rise were to drive them out of national existence, this was "not sufficient reason to hold back to economic progress of the planet by constricting the free use of energy markets".

"We are not ungenerous", he said, so in the "unlikely event" that you were a victim of sea level rise, "we'll just pay to relocate all of you and your people to even better homes and jobs than you have now", and this, he went on, will be much cheaper than to "halt industrial growth" (THis isn't the forum to refute the nonsense that controls on emissions will halt industrial growth.) After hearing this offer, the aging and stately chieftain paused, scratched his flowing hair, politely thanked the OPEC man for his thoughtfulness and simply said, "we may be able to move, but what do I do with the buried bones of my grandfather?"

Economists refer to the units of value in cost-benefit analyses as "numeraires" — dollars per ton carbon emitted in the climate example, is the numeraire of choice for "free market" advocates. But what of lives lost per ton of emissions from intensified hurricanes, or species driven off mountain tops to extinction per ton, or heritage sites lost per ton?? Or what if global GDP indeed goes up fastest by free markets but 25% of the world gets left further behind as globally economically efficient markets expand? Is equity a legitimate numeraire too?

Therefore, while market systems seem indeed to have triumphed, it is time to phase in a new, multi-part question: "How can free markets be adjusted to value what is left out of private cost-benefit calculus but represents real value so we can get the price signals in markets to reflect all the costs and benefits to society across all the numeraires, and not simply have market prices rigged to preserve the status quo in which monetary costs to private parties are the primary condition?"

I hope the new US president soon transcends all that obligatory free market rhetoric of the campaign and learns much more about what constitutes a full market price. It is very likely he'll get an earful as he jetsets about the planet in Air Force 1 catching up on the landscapes — political and physical — of the vastly diverse countries in the world that it is time for him to visit. Many world leaders are quite worried about just what we will have won as currently defined free markets triumph.

STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER is Professor in the Biological Sciences Department at Stanford University and the Former Department Director and Head of Advanced Study Project at the National Center for Atmospheric Research Boulder. He is internationally recognized as one of the world's leading experts in atmospheric research and its implications for environment and society. Dr. Schneider's books include The Genesis Strategy: Climate Change and Global Survival; The Coevolution Of Climate and Life and Global Warming: Are We Entering The Greenhouse Century?; and Laboratory Earth


John H. McWhorter

"Are subordinate clauses more typical of languages with a long literary tradition than integral features of human speech?"

Contemporary linguists tend to assume in their work that subordinate clauses, such as "The boy that I saw yesterday" or "I knew what happened when she came down the steps", are an integral part of the innate linguistic endowment, and/or central features of "human speech" writ large. Most laymen would assume the same thing. However, the fact is that when we analyze a great many strictly spoken languages with no written tradition, subordinate clauses are rare to nonexistent. In many Native American languages, for example, the only way to express something like the men who were members is a clause which parses approximately as "The 'membering' men"; the facts are similar in thousands of other languages largely used orally.

In fact, even in earlier documents in today's "tall building" literary languages, one generally finds a preference for stringing simple main clauses together — she came down the steps, and I knew what happened rather than embedding them in one another along the lines of when she came down the steps, I knew what happened. The guilty sense we often have when reading English of the first half of the last millennium that the writing is stylistically somewhat "clunky" is due largely to the marginality of the subordinate clause: here is Thomas Malory in the late fifteenth century:

And thenne they putte on their helmes and departed
and recommaunded them all wholly unto the Quene
and there was wepynge and grete sorowe
Thenne the Quene departed in to her chamber
and helde her
that no man shold perceyue here grete sorowes

Early Russian parses similarly, and crucially, so do the Hebrew Bible and the Greek of Homer.

At the time that these documents were written, writing conventions had yet to develop, and thus written language hewed closer to the way language is actually spoken on the ground. Over time, subordinate clauses, a sometime thing in speech, were developed as central features in written speech, their economy being aesthetically pleasing, and more easily manipulated via the conscious activity of writing than the spontaneous "on-line" activity of speaking. Educated people, exposed richly to written speech via education, tended to incorporate the subordinate clause mania into their spoken varieties. Hence today we think of subordinate clauses as "English", as the French do "French", and so on — even though if we listen to a tape recording of ourselves speaking casually, even we tend to embrace main clauses strung together in favor of the layered sentential constructions of Cicero.

But the "natural" state of language persists in the many which have had no written tradition. In the 1800s, various linguists casually speculated as to whether subordinate clauses were largely artifactual rather than integral to human language, with one (Karl Brugmann) even going as far as to assert that originally, humans spoke only with main clauses.

Today, however, linguistics operates under the sway of our enlightened valuation of "undeveloped" cultures, which has, healthily, included an acknowledgment of the fact that the languages of "primitive" peoples are as richly complex as written Western languages. (In fact, the more National Geographic the culture, the more fearsomely complex the language tends to be overall.) However, this sense has discouraged most linguists from treading into the realm of noting that one aspect of "complexity", subordinate clauses, is in fact not central to expression in unwritten languages and is most copiously represented in languages with a long written tradition. In general, the idea that First World written languages might exhibit certain complexities atypical of languages spoken by preliterate cultures has largely been tacitly taboo for decades in linguistics, generally only treated in passing in obscure venues.

The problem is that this could be argued to bode ill for investigations of the precise nature of Universal Grammar, which will certainly require a rigorous separation of the cultural and contingent from the encoded.

JOHN H. MCWHORTER is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He taught at Cornell University before entering his current position at Berkeley. He specializes in pidgin and creole languages, particularly of the Caribbean, and is the author of Toward a New Model of Creole Genesis and The Word on the Street : Fact and Fable About American English. He also teaches black musical theater history at Berkeley and is currently writing a musical biography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.


Sherry Turkle

"Can you have an artificial intelligence?"

Progress in the domain that Marvin Minsky once characterized as "making machines do things that would be considered intelligent if done by people" has not been as dramatic as its founders might once have hoped, but the penetration of machine cognition into everyday life (from the computer that plays chess to the computer that determines if your toast is done) has been broad and deep. We now the term "intelligent" to refer to the kind of helpful smartness embedded in such objects. So the language has shifted and the question has disappeared. But until recently, there was a tendency to limit appreciation of machine mental prowess to the realm of the cognitive. In other words, acceptance of artificial intelligence came with a certain "romantic reaction." People were willing to accept that simulated thinking might well be deemed thinking, but simulated feeling was not feeling. Simulated love could never be love.

These days, however, the realm of machine emotion has become a contested terrain. There is research in "affective computing" and in robotics which produces virtual pets and digital dolls — objects that present themselves as experiencing subjects. In artificial intelligence's "essentialist" past, researchers tried to argue that the machines they had built were "really" intelligent. In the current business of building machines that self-present as "creatures," the work of inferring emotion is left in large part to the user. The new artificial creatures are designed to push our evolutionary buttons to respond to their speech, their gestures, and their demands for nurturance by experiencing them as sentient, even emotional. And people are indeed inclined to respond to creatures they teach and nurture by caring about them, often in spite of themselves. People tell themselves that the robot dog is a program embodied in plastic, but they become fond of it all the same. They want to care for it and they want it to care for them.

In cultural terms, old questions about machine intelligence has given way to a question not about the machines but about us: What kind of relationships is it appropriate to have with a machine? It is significant that this question has become relevant in a day-to-day sense during a period of unprecedented human redefinition through genomics and psychopharmacology, fields that along with robotics, encourage us to ask not only whether machines will be able to think like people, but whether people have always thought like machines

SHERRY TURKLE is a professor of the sociology of science at MIT. She is the author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet; The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit; and Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution.


Rafael E. Núñez

"Do computers think?"

This question was at the heart of heated debates for decades during the recently past century, and it was at the ambitious origins of the Artificial Intelligence adventure. It had profound implications not only for science, but also for philosophy, technology, business, and even theology. In the 50's and 60's, for instance, it made a lot of sense to ask the question whether one day a computer could defeat an international chess master, and if it did, it was assumed that we would learn a great deal about how human thought works. Today we know that building such a machine is possible, but the reach of the issue has dramatically changed. Nowadays not many would claim that building such a computer actually informs us in an interesting way about what human thought is and how it works. Beyond the (indeed impressive) engineering achievements involved in building such machines, we got from them little (if any) insight into the mysteries, variability, depth, plasticity, and richness of human thought. Today, the question "do computers think?" has become completely uninteresting and it has disappeared from the cutting edge academic circus, remaining mainly in the realm of pop science, Hollywood films, and video games.

And why it disappeared?

It disappeared because it was finally answered with categorical responses that stopped generating fruitful work. The question became useless and uninspiring, ... boring. What is interesting, however, is that the question disappeared with no single definitive answer! It disappeared with categorical "of-course-yes" and "of-course-not" responses. Of-course-yes people, in general motivated by a technological goal (i.e., "to design and to build something") and implicitly based on functionalist views, built their arguments on the amazing ongoing improvement in the design and development of hardware and software technologies. For them the question became uninteresting because it didn't help to design or to build anything anymore. What became relevant for of-course-yes people was mainly the engineering challenge, that is, to actually design and to build computers capable of processing algorithms in a faster, cheaper, and more flexible manner. (And also, for many, what became relevant was to build computers for human activities and purposes). Now when of-course-yes people are presented with serious problems that challenge their view, they provide the usual response: "just wait until we get better computers" (once known as the wait-until the-year-2000 argument). On the other hand there were the of-course not people, who were mainly motivated by a scientific task (i.e., "to describe, explain, and predict a phenomenon"), which was not necessarily technology-driven. They mainly dealt with real-time and real-world biological, psychological, and cultural realities. These people understood that most of the arrogant predictions made by Artificial Intelligence researchers in the 60's and 70's hadn't been realized because of fundamental theoretical problems, not because of the lack of powerful enough machines. They observed that even the simplest everyday aspects of human thought, such as common sense, sense of humor, spontaneous metaphorical thought, use of counterfactuals in natural language, to mention only a few, were in fact intractable for the most sophisticated machines. They also observed that the nature of the brain and other bodily mechanisms that make thinking and the mind possible, were by several orders of magnitude, way more complex than what it was thought during the hey-days of Artificial Intelligence. Thus for of course-not people the question whether computers think became uninteresting, since it didn't provide insights into a genuine understanding of the intricacies of human thinking. Today the question is dead. The answer had become a matter of faith.

RAFAEL E. NÚÑEZ, currently at the Department of Psychology of the University of Freiburg, is a research associate of the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked for more than a decade on the foundations of embodied cognition, with special research into the nature and origin of mathematical concepts. He has published in several languages in a variety of areas, and has taught in leading academic institutions in Europe, the United States, and South America. He is the author (with George Lakoff) of Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being; and co-editor (with Walter Freeman) of Reclaiming Cognition: The Primacy of Action, Intention, and Emotion.


Eduardo Punset

"Looking at the world upside down: what are we enhancing or what is vanishing in our brains while flat and dormant views of the universe are slowly disappearing?"

Wrapped like hotdogs full of mustard, snorting in search of air to breath from beneath the blanket — like dendrites looking for the first time for new contacts — , the skull plunged in a floppy pillow and the eyes allowed only to stare at the grey sky, most of the time too flat and low to enjoy a more diversified life in three dimensions. What has been the impact on the newly born brain's positioned mummy-like, and tight for generations in the pram, of this upside down perception of the Universe?

We do have a point of reference to imagine what life was like during the first eight or nine months after birth, before the invention of the anatomically shaped infant car seat that makes our youngest travel and look around from their earliest age. I'll come to that later.

First let me insist for those unaware of radical innovations in evolutionary psychology, that no baby has ever been found — there are plenty of very reliable tests for that — , who after having experienced the glamour of looking at the Universe face to face, right and left, backwards and forward, has regretted the odd way of being carried around by previous generations. Not only that; no newly born would ever accept now to look at the Universe from other vantage points than the high-tech pushchair, carriages, and travelling systems for children aged birth to four years, developed in the mid-80's , out of the original baby car seat invented in America.

Just as monkeys become quickly aware of new inventions and adopt them without second thoughts, our youngest do not accept any longer to be carried in prams where they lied flat and dormant. They have suddenly become aware that they can be taken around in efficiently designed traveling engines, from where they can look at the world in movement practically as soon as they open their eyes.

If somebody thinks that the end of looking upside-down at the Universe during the first eight or nine months of life is not important enough to be quoted as the end of anything, think of what neuroscientists are discovering about what happens during the first five months of the unborn just after conception.

Professor Beckman in Wursburg University (Germany) has convinced at last his fellow psychiatrists that neuron's mistakes in their migration from the limbic to the upper layers of the brain of the unborn are responsible, to a very large extent, for the 1% of epileptics and schizophrenics in the world's population. By the way, the 1% is fixed, no matter how many neuroscientists join the battle against mental illness. It is like a sort of cosmic radiation background. The only exception that shows up is whenever deep malnutrition or feverish influenza in expectant mothers pushes the rate significantly up.

Likewise, very few scientist would refuse to acknowledge today, that what happens during the first five months of the embryo is not only relevant in the case of malformations and mental disorders, but also in the case of levels of intelligence and other reasonable behavior patterns. How could anybody discard then the tremendous impact on the newly born brain of interacting with the Universe face to face during the first eight to nine months?

Surely, if we continue searching for the missing link between a single gene and a bark — and I deeply hope that we do now that molecular biology and genetics have joined forces — , everybody should care about the end of the upside-down perception of the Universe, and the silent revolution led by babies nurtured in the latest high-tech travelling system's interactive culture.

Professor EDUARDO PUNSET teaches Economics at the Sarriá Chemichal Institute of Ramon Llull University (Barcelona). He is Chairman of Planetary Agency, an audiovisual concern for the public understanding of Science. He was IMF Representative in the Caribbean, Professor of Innovation & Technology at Madrid University, and Minister for Relations with the UE.


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