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Archive for December, 2008

I will be off on a camping trip to Death Valley National Park for the next five days. We leave tomorrow morning. There is no internet there, so this is going to be the last post till the 31st.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Come back next week.

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Even in the context of American style conservative nanny-statism, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is an extraordinary law. A direct offspring of the  “American Values Agenda”, this law, passed in 2006, in combination with the Wire Act effectively prohibits any kind of internet gambling operation in America. The law outlaws games of pure chance like online slot-machines, any kind of wager on the outcome of sporting or election events as well as games of skill like online poker. In April 2007, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank introduced a bill to overturn the Act, saying “The existing legislation is an inappropriate interference on the personal freedom of Americans and this interference should be undone.” On June 7, 2007, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) introduced HR 2610, the Skill Game Protection Act. This act would legalize Internet poker, bridge, chess, and other games of skill. On September 26, 2008, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced S.3616, the Internet Skill Game Licensing and Control Act. This bill would amend title 31, United States Code, to provide for the licensing of Internet skill game facilities, and for other purposes. None of these bills have passed as yet.

It is worth noting that the law only targets the gambling website or a financial institution used for the transaction. The act of gambling itself is legal, or at least quasi-legal in so far that the Feds have never prosecuted an individual for gambling online. Nonetheless, the presence of the UIGEA means that it extremely difficult to find a website that will accept a customer living in the USA.

There are many laws that take away individual freedom in order to protect a person from his own choices. However, there are two features that make the UIGEA particularly egregious.

First of all, the Act is blatantly discriminatory because physical gambling is already legal in much of the USA. One can go to a Vegas casino and legally play all the games that the UIGEA bans. So an important consequence of the Act is that it helps boost the business of influential Las Vegas hotels. Corporatism and special interests have always played their part in the Bush administration and this law is another example where a policy that favors large business houses is cloaked in the garb of public interest.

Secondly, the American government has decided that the UIGEA not only applies to companies based in the US but also any internet company situated anywhere in the world that accepts a bet from an American. Most of these companies have been forced to shut down their US business after the passage of this act. Those that were less careful paid harshly. On July 16, 2006 David Carruthers, the CEO of BetOnSports, an UK based online gambling website, was arrested at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas while changing planes on his way from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica. He is still under 24 hours house detention in a hotel in St. Louis awaiting trial. Shortly later, Gary Kaplan, the founder of the same company, was arrested in the Dominican Republic. He was extradited into U.S. custody with the help of the Interpol and currently faces up to 83 years of imprisonment. The Canadian founders of Neteller, strong opponents of the UIGEA, were similarly detained while on a visit to the US.

All this despite the fact that operating a gambling website is fully legal in all the countries that these individuals were based in.

Notwithstanding the Kaplan episode, the actual probability of the US extraditing the operator of an online gambling company from another country is low. This is primarily for diplomatic reasons, as outlined in this excellent paper. However, if such a person ever accidentally sets foot on US soil, woe befall.

The real damage of the UIGEA, however, is to millions of American customers whose basic freedom to spend their money in the way they want is curtailed. This point of view was eloquently presented by Radley Balko, senior Reason editor and popular blogger, in a courageous testimony to the US Congress:

Online poker is merely a new evolution of the game, similar to the way Civil War poker games introduced the straight, and gave us variations like draw and stud poker. The Internet merely removes the geographic barrier preventing those who love the game from finding opponents of similar skill who are willing to wager similar amounts of money.

No one is hurt when two or more consenting adults sit down for a game of poker, be it online or in person. Why any of this should be of concern to the federal government is rather perplexing. I respect the fact that many Americans—and many members of Congress—may have moral objections to gambling, online or otherwise. To them, I’d say, simply, “don’t gamble, then.”

But in a nation where Las Vegas is one of our fastest growing cities and most popular tourist destinations, where Indian casinos are commonplace, where horse racing is a national past time, and where nearly every state in the union derives public funds from state lotteries, singling out Internet gambling for prohibition seems arbitrary and, frankly, hypocritical.

Yes, it’s possible a parent could bet away their family’s savings, or their child’s education fund in an online poker game. They could also fritter that money away on eBay. Or on booze. Or fancy cars and exotic travel.

These are all personal decisions, of course. And if a free society means anything, it means we should have the freedom to make bad choices, in addition to good ones. The ban on Internet gambling punishes the millions of Americans who were wagering online responsibly due to anecdotal evidence of a few who may do so irresponsibly. It’s an affront to personal responsibility, and symptomatic of a Nanny Statist government that treats its citizens like children. A government based on the principle of liberty doesn’t police the personal lives of its citizens for bad habits, at any level, much less at the federal level.

The UIGEA also happens to be one of those nanny-state laws that has personally affected me.

I wrote earlier how betting on political futures is a smart investment for the politically savvy citizen. However, when I actually wanted to place a bet on the election results, I found that most websites refused to accept my credit card. Finally I found one, Sportsbook, that did. After doing some research and satisfying myself that Sportsbook is one of the most reputable and reliable companies in the online gambling business, I placed a significant bet on Obama winning the election and a smaller bet on his winning Florida. This was at a time when my calculated probability of his winning these two was significantly higher than the perception of the typical American adult, as a result of which I got excellent odds.

I ended up making an eighty percent profit and put in a withdrawal request. However it was taking some time for my money to reach me, so after two weeks I asked them what the matter was. To my surprise, I got an immediate and friendly reply. They explained in detail exactly what the problem was. They stated unambiguously that they had never missed a payment and they will ensure I get my money. However, the UIGEA forced them to resort to long-winded payment procedures to circumvent the law. They send me a link to this post that explained exactly how they do it

From then on, they sent me a weekly update about the status of my withdrawal request. And when they finally said the cheque was on its way, I received it in a couple of days.

So here’s my recommendation. If you want to place an online bet, use Sportsbook. Their exemplary customer service was the one shining light in this whole sordid episode.

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Arianna Huffington’s latest article condemning laissez-faire as a failed philosophy hits all the right lefty notes. Parts of it almost seem lifted from Obama’s election rhetoric. Not wholly unexpected from a woman who once proclaimed that she only texts three people: her two teenage children and Barack Obama.

Actually, Huffington’s piece is so bad that it almost reads like a self-parody. From her depiction of Bush — a man who oversaw the biggest regulatory expansion since Nixon — as the ultimate free market champion to her refusal to even attempt any kind of analysis,  Huffington reveals herself, like so many others, as a person blinded by her love for the echo chamber she lives in. Naomi Klein’s terrible book which conveniently lumped together all her enemies into an undefinable mass that she could pummel still made a basic, incontrovertible point — times of crisis give those in power an opportunity to extend their sway. Even the Times article Huffington so approvingly links to contains some redeeming features — interesting quotes, lots of relevant history, a (correct) indictment of Bush’s disastrous home-ownership-at-all-costs policy — that make it a good read. Articles by Krugman and Stiglitz, despite their obvious bias often bordering on intellectual dishonesty, usually contain one or two nuggets of truth. Huffington’s piece, full of huffy moralizing and utter lack of intellectual depth, makes you wonder why you just gave up two minutes of your life.

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The bizarre story of three young serial killers who tortured and killed 21 people and took live videos of their gruesome murders on cellphone camera. They did it as a ‘hobby’, so that they could have interesting memories when they grew old.

The thee youths dubbed themselves The Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs.

By all accounts, each victim came about by total chance. The three killers just picked them act random, trying to select people who wouldn’t fight back too much. Not exactly the “man as the ultimate prey” type, but just three thugs looking for thrill kills.

Of curse, they weren’t satisfied with only committing murder, they wanted things to remember their victims by for, as one of the killer put it, “when we’re old”. So they took pictures — Lot and lots of pictures. Three hundred to be exact, plus 2 complete videos of 2 murders.

[…] Man’s inhumanity to man has rarely been this ugly. We read about murders every day, and how many times have we heard that someone was bludgeoned to death. Well, up until today bludgeoning didn’t have a face, and now we know its face is a bloody, pulpy mass of flesh. These kids were having a great time watching a total stranger suffer unimaginable pain and their biggest concern was cleaning up the murder weapons while they made fun of the victim’s death throws.

It’s not like these kids were abused, or came from broken homes, just the opposite, they were quite wealthy and allegedly committed the crimes just for fun. They are thought to have used iron pipes and hammers on their victims. Mobile phone footage also suggests they practiced on cats first.

Later on one of the suspect quit and 2 guys continued to murder. Also they attended funerals of their victims, and took pictures of the mourners.

The Police are not revealing how they caught them but, with mobile phone footage of some of the murders, officers have little doubt of the identity of the criminals. “We think they were doing it as a hobby, to have a collection of memories when they get old,” said Detective Bogdan Vlasenko.

I am usually opposed to the death penalty, even for terrible crimes but for the first time ever, I simply can’t think of any reason why these three should live. Maybe it is the effect of watching the video.

Talking of the video, here’s a warning: It is much much more gruesome than anything you can imagine. I started watching the video but had to put it off less than 50 seconds through, and I am anything but the sensitive type. If you want to go ahead and watch the video, do so — but it may make you physically sick. Please don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The link I posted above does not contain the video itself; it only links to another site which has the video. But it does have a transcript of the video, so if you do not want to read a vivid description of the murders, do not click on it either.

(Hat Tip: Boing Boing)

Addendum: The other blogs dealing with this story seem to have lot of angry commenters complaining that they were emotionally scarred by the video (why did they click on it despite the warnings?) and blaming the blogger for writing about it. If you are one of those types or otherwise outraged that I posted this story here, please do me a favor and not bother expressing your moral indignation in the comments.

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I came across this remarkable site today. It is about a lifestyle in which the wife willingly submits to the husband and gives him authority to discipline her by spanking her on the buttocks from time to time. Spankings can range from mild to painful. 

A domestic discipline marriage is one in which one partner in the marriage is given authority over the other and has the means to back the authority, usually by spanking.

A Christian Domestic Discipline marriage is one that is set up according to Biblical standards; that is, the husband is the authority in the household. The wife is submissive to her husband as is fit in the Lord and her husband loves her as himself. He has the ultimate authority in his household, but it is tempered with the knowledge that he must answer to God for his actions and decisions. He has the authority to spank his wife for punishment, but in real CDD marriages this is taken very seriously and usually happens only rarely. CDD is so much more than just spanking. It is the husband loving the wife enough to guide and teach her, and the wife loving the husband enough to follow his leadership. A Christian marriage embodies true romance and a Christian man a true hero.

Can’t make this stuff up, eh? Here is a collection of stories on the subject by a woman who purportedly follows this lifestyle. Here is a blog by another. They both seem to love it.

There seems to be an element of sexuality to the whole thing, similar to S/M and they do not completely deny it.

Though we recognize by its very nature this subject can be erotic, we will keep this website as clean and wholesome as possible. However, we will not seek to deny the erotic nature of some CDD marriages as we believe it is a natural consequence of following God’s plan. After all, He created eroticism to be enjoyed inside a Christian marriage.

They also emphasize it is all consensual. The wife agrees to the lifestyle before it all begins, and she can withdraw her consent at any time except when they are in the middle of a spanking session.

Well, if it works for them, fine by me. As long as it is between consenting adults, the government has no business peeping into people’s bedrooms. Every couple should have a basic right to live their life in any way they wish. And bare buttocks are sexy.

And oh, here’s the best part. They actually sell crotchless pantaloons!

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(Post updated)

In my earlier post on this theme, I expressed my opposition to using coercive legal means to advance social goals and my moral abhorrence for laws which censor expression, ban consensual behavior or limit freedom of association. I wrote:

Any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that laws [which restrict individual liberty] are immoral.

To give another side of the issue, I am also surprised when people think that it is ‘unlibertarian’ to attempt to modify other people’s behavior — for good or bad — through non-coercive means. A controlling husband who does not want his wife to dance with other men, a guy who ‘makes’  his girlfriend eat healthy foods, a friend who tries to emotionally pressurize you to give up smoking or a lover who makes you give up something you love as a precondition of being with you are not in any way violating the non-aggression principle. Such behavior can be sensible or irrational, helpful or counter-productive but as long as they do not involve actual coercion, they are neither libertarian nor unlibertarian.

Let me focus on the cases when the controlling behavior is generally seen as bad or unfair. In those examples, the offending party may not often act in an understanding or considerate manner. However they certainly have the right to be inconsiderate. I most definitely have the right to demand that my partner do things in a certain way. The partner also has the right to refuse. At that point, each of us has the right to suggest a compromise, let the other’s wish prevail or end the relationship. As a general principle, I think such controlling behavior is a terrible idea because even if the other person acts as you wish, she will usually resent it and if you do it often enough, end the relationship with you. However, simply because an idea is terrible does not mean it violates another’s liberty. When private, consensual relationships are involved, everyone has the right to stay in it strictly on their terms.

For instance I would never date a deeply religious person. I would also prefer that my partner’s tastes and convictions are compatible with mine. I might attempt to persuade her to do things in a certain way if they are important to me, even if those things are essentially her personal matter. If the matter is core and non-negotiable, I would even make it clear that we cannot be together if she does not change. These actions may or may not be the best thing for the relationship but they certainly are a natural consequence of my liberty to live my life (which includes my associations and relationships) on the exact terms I wish.

Libertarianism deals with the legal and the political. The meme that it also governs one’s behavior in a purely social or personal setting  is misguided and display a lack of understanding of the underlying philosophical principles. That is not to say that social and personal behavior is not important or that the pros and cons of a particular kind of behavior should not be discussed; merely that such discussions (or any ethics/principles underlying it) are distinct from the principles that underlie individual liberty. Using pressure and emotional leverage to make a friend change his behavior is fundamentally different from having a law that mandates this behavior change. Social pressure is on an entirely different plane from legal coercion. Friendships, marriages and relationships can be ended by either party for any reason, rational or irrational; an oppressive law can never be escaped from.

The personal is not the political. Period.

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Popular blogger and premier gay rights activist Andrew Sullivan writes:

So I oppose hate crime laws because they walk too close to the line of trying to police people’s thoughts. I support the right of various religious associations to discriminate against homosexuals in employment. I support the right of the most fanatical Christianist to spread the most defamatory stuff about me and the right of the most persuasive Christianist to teach me the error of my ways. I support the right of the St Patrick’s Day Parade to exclude gay people – because that’s what freedom of association requires. In my ideal libertarian world, I would even support the right of employers to fire gay people at will (although I am in a tiny minority of gays and straights who would tolerate such a thing). All I ask in return is a reciprocal respect: the right to express myself freely and to be treated by the government exactly as any heterosexual in my position would be treated.

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A fortune teller in Montgomery county went to court to try and overturn a local ban on fortune telling. The fortune teller claimed his free speech rights were being hindered. The county claimed they were justified in having a law to prevent fraud.  The county won, as you might have expected (unlike in movies, the little guy usually loses in real life).

This case might seem like an intellectual riddle to some. Should we stop fraud or uphold free-speech? However, it really is quite simple. There is a fundamental difference between fortune telling and actual fraud. A guy who purports to sell milk but gives you coloured water (I believe this used to be common in India) or a pharmacist who sells you a different drug from the one you asked for is giving you something that you did not want and did not pay for. More precisely, the customer in those cases has a expectation, built upon unambigously laid out terms and well-defined history, of what he or she is supposed to receive — and this expectation is violated in an objective manner.

In fortune-telling on the other hand, the customer gets what he or she should expect to get. The product in this case exactly matches the average consumer’s reasonable understanding of it.

Suppose that in a hypothetical world where it is really possible to predict the future and lots of people do so successfully, I (in my current state of ignorance) decide to set up shop and represent myself as equivalent to those other real fortune tellers. Then I will be committing fraud, because I will be giving the customer an objectively different product than from what he asked for and had reason to expect. But in our world, the average customer knows what fortune telling entails. In fact many people who go to these tellers are there just for the fun of it. As Matt Bandyk puts it, “To say that the local government needs to `protect’  its citizens from the `fraud’ perpetrated by these businesses is giving the fortune tellers too much credit, and its customers too little credit. These customers know what they are getting into when they sit in front of the tarot cards or a crystal ball–if it makes them feel a little bit better, and a local business benefits, who is really being hurt in that exchange?”

If you still think fortune-telling should be outlawed by the government on grounds of fraud, consider that by the same expanded logic, all religious institutions are committing fraud. Do we really want to live in a world where the government has the power to decide the correctness of speech to this degree and ban your speech whenever it doesn’t meet their test?

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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If you wish to effectively advance liberty — yes the kind of liberty that I talk about in this blog — or just make a real difference to the life of someone in need, who should you donate to?

Check out this great list by Radley Balko. Liberty can thrive only if people who care enough about it do something, and surely a check of $25 or so won’t pinch you too much. Radley’s list include key libertarian organizations, charities that actually work and people who have been unjustly persecuted by the state.

Among the entities that Radley lists, I currently donate to Reason and the Institute for Justice; excellent organizations both. Once I stop being a poor grad student and get a real job (hopefully in six months or so), I hope to significantly expand my giving for liberty. But those of you reading with a real job already, you really have no excuse ;-)

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I fully agree with all those people who think captured terrorist Ajmal Amir should not be have the right to a lawyer or a proper trial.

Rights like these might make sense in countries with an excess of freedom but they have no place in our nation. There may be some people who believe that the rule of law is too important to be set aside for emotional satisfaction and others who like to spend their ink writing about jurisprudence and the perils of setting bad precedents and suchlike. I say, screw them!

We Indians are an emotional lot, we prefer to express our outrage in the old fashioned way. When have we cared that much about foreign concepts like civil liberties anyway? You can’t talk of proper legal procedures when there is no rule of law to begin with. All this talk about presumption of innocence is pure baloney in a country where so many people die at the hands of criminals everyday. So I  say, torture Ajmal Amir for three days and then hang him in broad daylight without a trial. In fact also slap sedition charges on any lawyer who has declared an intent to extend legal help to that bastard. Such people do not deserve to live among us.  Mahesh Deshmukh, if you think the beating you got at the hand of Shiv Sainiks was bad, wait till you see how prison feels!

And let’s not stop at Ajmal, henceforth hang anyone who a majority of people in the country want to kill at some given moment. After all, we are a democracy and an emotional one to boot.

(Here’s a related post by Aristotle the Geek)

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Another policy change

I have changed the Creative Commons license that governs the content of this blog. In plain English, the change amounts to the following — now you can quote, republish, adapt or otherwise use any part of this blog for non-commercial purposes, provided you attribute me  as the original source. This is more restrictive than my previous license, which allowed such use even for commercial purposes, but of course, vastly less restrictive than the default “all rights reserved” copyright, where only ‘fair use’ is permitted.

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Jim Lindgren thinks he is a great choice.

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My position on the auto bailout is simple. The big three should be allowed to go bankrupt. This is true even if one ignores the moral hazard and other intrinsic costs of bailing out private firms.

Bankruptcy now is, quite simply, the best course of action not just for the taxpayer and the rest of the economy but also for the auto companies themselves. For a short but excellent analysis, read this post by Prof. Becker.

Here’s hoping that the Democrats and the Republicans, in all their partisan politicking and in-fighting, end up doing the right thing.

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Comment policy

Here’s a simple question — who owns the comment you post on someone else’s blog?

One view is that the blog is the blog owner’s property and he owns all the content on it — including the comments — and has the right to do whatever he wants with them. Thus he may choose to publish or not publish a comment, edit it to any degree or delete it whenever he feels like.

However a little reflection should make one realize that by US law, the commenter by default attains copyright on any content he or she creates. So unless the commenter gives away some (or all) the rights associated with copyright, the comment is his property. Of course, it is debatable whether the act of posting the comment on another’s blog automatically means that the commenter gives away some of those rights.

Basically, things are a little murky. However, there is a simple solution — having a comment policy. All bloggers should clearly indicate to users what rights they have and what rights they are giving out when they write a comment. This is not only the honest and transparent thing to do but it also protects the blogger from potential legal repercussion later. This is the reason why all major comment-enabled blogs have a policy these days.

With that preamble, I present my comment policy below. It will also henceforth appear at the top of this blog. I view this blog as my property (indeed, the main reason I use WordPress is that I get such extensive control upon this site’s content) and the comment policy is written to reflect this view.

Muse Free is my blog and I will generally try to maintain it in a manner that is professional, courteous, friendly, and honest. I believe in allowing my readers an opportunity to express their views on my posts. That said, it is a big internet and I view this blog as my space. So, while you have the right to post anything you want on any open comment thread, I have the right to do anything I want with that comment henceforth. In short, once you post something here, you effectively lose control over it.

More precisely, by leaving a comment on Muse Free, you grant me a worldwide, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licenseable and transferable license to store, use, transmit, display, edit, delete, publish, reproduce, or otherwise distribute your comments without limitation, as well as to make such additional uses of them as may be needed by me.

Nonetheless, you as commenter are responsible for your words. So long as your comments have not been edited by me in a manner that changes their meaning, they do not reflect my opinions, even if I retain them on the Muse Free blog. By submitting a comment on this blog, you agree that the comment content is your own, and to hold WordPress and me harmless from any and all repercussions, damages, or liability.

Usually I will not exercise my right to edit or delete a comment without good reason. A relevant and civil comment will most likely be accepted and retained. However, these are not promises. As stated above, my right to moderate, edit or delete any comment may be exercised at any time for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all. By putting a comment here you are implicitly taking a risk that I may delete your comment at any time, use it in any manner with or without attribution, edit it as I please or abuse your trust in some other way. Any or all of these actions by me will be legal according to the policy stated above and if you do not wish to take this risk, you are advised to not post a comment on this blog.

These terms of use may be revised from time to time. Please check this page periodically for updates. Your posting a comment on this site on any given date indicates your acceptance to the terms of use as of that date.

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I came across this interesting news article today about how liberal prostitution laws are encouraging young Swedes to make a short trip to Denmark.

In Sweden paying for sex is a crime punishable with a possible six-month jail sentence or a hefty income-linked fine. Perhaps the worst penalty for errant Swedish males is the official court summons addressed to the family home; an embarrassment that has ruptured many marriages. In Denmark, by contrast, prostitution has been decriminalised.

[…]Denmark, proud of its tolerant traditions, has allowed the hippy colony of Christiania to flourish in the heart of Copenhagen since the 1970s. Now Swedish teenagers are taking taxis over the bridge, stopping off at the settlement, stocking up on marijuana, and driving back home.

The true flashpoint is prostitution. Nothing better highlights how the model Scandinavian societies are now at odds over the correct road to Utopia.

Of course Denmark is no libertopia. It’s personal income tax rate is among the highest among developed nations.

However, in this un-free world, the libertarian dilemma is not where one finds freedom but where one finds the freedoms most important to him or her. In my view, paying a little more tax but getting extensive personal freedoms as well as almost complete freedom of speech is a good bargain. Thus, I tend to think of countries like Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland as more libertarian than the USA. The first three of these also have strong laws that favor the right to die and to refuse treatment.

On the other hand, I have given up all hopes about France and England, which are getting more Orwellian every day.

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