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Oct 21 2013

Malcolm Gladwell is simply an awful person

I don’t get it. Jonah Lehrer was rightly pilloried for dishonest journalism, so why is Malcolm Gladwell, the king of shallow, pseudo-scientific hackery, still getting published, and still raking in absurdly high lecture fees? Why is anyone still giving him the time of day? For instance, read this piece published in the New Yorker in September: Do Genetic Advantages Make Sports Unfair?. It’s more of his glib, counter-intuitive nonsense, and it’s dangerously bad.

He argues that performance enhancing drugs aren’t so terrible after all — they’re just equalizing the playing field. But the only way he can do that is by pretending the consequences don’t exist.

What Gladwell fails to mention – at all – are the risks involved in using performance-enhancing drugs. There is nothing about the risks of blood doping or of pharmaceutical enhancement. He even skips the risks inherent in the very genetic condition he holds up as “lucky.” There is no mention of contact sports, where the decision to illegally enhance could be the difference between life and death for your competitor. There is no recognition that healthcare access for athletes is a continuum with the Lance Armstrongs at the upper end, with their elite teams of morally questionable medical practitioners,and with some kid at the bottom end, desperate for a place on the team, taking injectables that he gets from a friend of a friend.

So journalists can lose their jobs for plagiarizing or making up facts, but actively distorting the evidence and making dishonest arguments is apparently still within the ethical compass of some journalists.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    All professional sports should be played by identically grown clones, apparently.

  2. 2
    stuartsmith

    I don’t know, he seems to make pretty good points here. I think the real problem is the degree to which our society rewards athletic accomplishments. If people made millions of dollars playing video games, and football was treated as childish passtime, then I’m sure we’d have people taking drugs to enhance their reflexes and attentiveness, while steroids would be a non-issue. Ultimately, if you create a situation where people with particular genetic traits enjoy a huge, highly visible advantage in life – lavishing money, attention, sex, and all the other things that we are driven to seek out upon them – then people who lack those traits will obviously end up looking for a way to obtain them. Trying to ban them from doing so just makes it all the more dangerous by forcing them to operate in secret, out of reach of regulation, and deal with criminals. As long as we have professional athletes, we’re going to have people looking for ways to enhance their performance, and marking such behavior as illegitimate just makes things more dangerous.

    Not that I’m against abolishing professional athletics…

  3. 3
    PZ Myers

    Did you read the second link? Because he made bad points by completely glossing over the dangers of PEDs.

  4. 4
    mkoormtbaalt

    @stuartsmith
    “If people made millions of dollars playing video games, and football was treated as childish passtime, then I’m sure we’d have people taking drugs to enhance their reflexes and attentiveness, while steroids would be a non-issue.”

    Not exactly related to the topic, but I would like to point out that video game players are starting to make a lot of money. They generally refer to it as e-sports. One player in Spain, Carlos “Ocelote” Rodriguez, just said in an interview that he makes more than 600k Euros playing video games (http://www.abc.es/tecnologia/videojuegos/20131021/abci-ocelote-jugadores-profesionales-videojuegos-201310181445.html). He’s an excellent player, but not even a top-5 player at his position in the game.

  5. 5
    John Small Berries

    “So journalists can lose their jobs for plagiarizing or making up facts, but actively distorting the evidence and making dishonest arguments is apparently still within the ethical compass of some journalists.”

    Journalists have an ethical compass? I thought a concern for truth wasn’t their job.

  6. 6
    Nicholas Sullivan

    And if you want to know what other horrible stupidities Galdwell has dumped, here’s his S.H.A.M.E Project profile: http://shameproject.com/profile/malcolm-gladwell-2/

  7. 7
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    There are other factors than genetic differences, such as practice effort & duration, will power, good coaching, nutrition, and many socioeconomic factors and random conditions. The playing field is never equal.

  8. 8
    swampfoot

    #6 Nicholas: I recall reading the predictably smarmy, aloof non-response Gladwell was finally forced to make to Yasha Levine.

    What an utterly unrepentant scumbag.

  9. 9
    geroche

    I’ve heard allowing drug use might get more people watching sports. When I look at the risks associated with boxing, it’s a wonder that’s still legal. At the time Felix Baumgartner’s parachute opened, during his record breaking free fall, a decent percentage of the viewers stopped watching. It’s possible many turned up just to see a tragedy.

    It’d take more than drugs to get me interested in sports though. Call me when the odds might be ever in their favour.

  10. 10
    vaiyt

    Ultimately, if you create a situation where people with particular genetic traits enjoy a huge, highly visible advantage in life – lavishing money, attention, sex, and all the other things that we are driven to seek out upon them – then people who lack those traits will obviously end up looking for a way to obtain them. Trying to ban them from doing so just makes it all the more dangerous by forcing them to operate in secret, out of reach of regulation, and deal with criminals. As long as we have professional athletes, we’re going to have people looking for ways to enhance their performance, and marking such behavior as illegitimate just makes things more dangerous.

    You’re assuming only the disadvantaged sportsmen use drugs. If everyone is drugging themselves, then drugged top-level athletes get even more of an advantage! Not to mention the health risks will only get compounded when everyone is looking for the training regimen that allows the most drugs to be pumped into a sportsman in the shortest amount of time.

  11. 11
    left0ver1under

    Just as Gladwell is known to shill for tobacco companies and others, his “article” might be shilling for sports owners.

    Baseball owners were never serious about getting steroids out of the game. Steroids mean more home runs which sell tickets, and pitchers using steroid to get strikeouts, which also sell tickets. It becomes an ever increasing arms race (pun definitely NOT intended) which the owners profit from, and then can wash their hands of by saying, “cheaters don’t belong in the hall of fame”. Why aren’t we demanding money back from the owners who sold the tickets and merchandise, knowing this was going on? And who faces the consequences of drug use? The used up players whom the owners have no liability to care for.

    The same is true of the olympics. The IOC knows everyone is dirty, but world records sell tickets, not winning gold medals. The only way to keep increasing records is more steroids, so they go through the motions of “drug testing” and allow countries to cover up their own positive tests. Ever notice that nearly everyone caught is a mid-level competitor? The only “top” competitors who get caught are those suspected in the court of public opinion.

    Regarding permanent damage and injuries to competitors, the same is true of the NFL. Brutal hits sell tickets as much as touchdowns do, so the owners go through the motions of “drug testing” to give the impression that they care. The players who sued and got over $750m for concussion problems played in the 1970s and 1980s when linemen averaged 250 pounds. Linemen today average around 300, and the collisions are harder and faster, with the same equipment. Does anyone believe there won’t be more and worse brain damage in the future (re: Seau, Belcher)? In five to ten years, players from the 1990s will start dropping like flies.

    The NFL, MLB and other sports have been denying there is a serious problem for decades. Why would it surprise to hear they hired a shill like Malcolm Gannon to make up story on their behalf?

  12. 12
    sorenkongstad

    It’s a total myth that PED can make anything more equal.
    People do not react the same to PEDs so while one person might get a 15% boost from using one drug, another person might get a 5% or a 50% boost from the same drug.

    What PEDs does is that they at another set of axis. Before it was genetical “potential” environment, training, perseverance, methodology, nutrition, access to medical help etc.

    With PEDs all those thing are still in play but now you add physiological response to PEDs, medical assistance in choosing and using PEDs, luck in not getting caught, adverse effects, access to drug pushers etc.

    The whole point in competitive sports is that the playing field IS NOT level.

  13. 13
    khms

    If the playing field were exactly level, wins would be purely random. I’m pretty certain sports fans wouldn’t like that.

  14. 14
    geroche

    left0ver1under

    Ever notice that nearly everyone caught is a mid-level competitor? The only “top” competitors who get caught are those suspected in the court of public opinion.

    I hadn’t noticed that, but it’s not surprising given I never watch the Olympics and only researched them once so I could memorize the countries/cities in chronological order (in case I go to a pub quiz). I decided to look at the parameters from the wikipedia article on doping http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Olympic_Games and the wikipedia articles for each Olympic Games. I took note of participating athletes, medals won, athletes caught, medal-winners caught etc and managed to come up with some figures. I’m not purporting to be an expert in the field, nor am I claiming my interpretation of the available data isn’t flawed. Certainly anyone curious enough is welcome to find their own figures.

    Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896:
    - 170252 athletes have participated and 17283 (10%) of those were medal winners*.

    Since PEDs were banned in 1968:
    - 111318 athletes have participated and 11224 (10%) of those were medal winners*.
    - 141 athletes have tested positive for banned substances and 52 (37%) of those were medal winners.
    - 52 medal-winning athletes have tested positive for banned substances and 25 (48%) of those won at least 1 gold medal.

    In the last 20 years:
    - 64492 athletes have participated and 5748 (8.9%) of those were medal winners*.
    - 90 athletes have tested positive for banned substances and 37 (41%) of those were medal winners.
    - 37 medal-winning athletes have tested positive for banned substances and 19 (51%) of those won at least 1 gold medal.

    *Based on 1 medal per person. Actual figure would be even lower.

    As I said, my interpretation of the data may be flawed, but if it’s correct then this suggests that top level competitors are in fact well represented in the number of athletes caught. They make up less than a tenth of the population, but account for more than a third of the athletes who are caught. I can’t comment on whether all of them are suspected in the court of public opinion, but I will say that seems an impressive claim to make.

  15. 15
    jamessweet

    I unfortunately don’t have time to read the links, so this may wind up being an ignorant comment… in any case, I do agree with your paraphrasing of Gladwell insofar as I think there has been too much focus on performance-enhancing drugs as being somehow “unfair”, when they are really no more unfair than e.g. hiring a personal trainer or something like that. The public seems to have this perception that you inject some steroids and magically become some uber-athlete, when in fact that is not the case at all. In fact, if I started taking steroids (and changed nothing else in my routine), it would probably do nothing but make me angry and become even fatter. :D

    It is exactly right that it is the associated risks that are the problem, and the competitive incentive to engage in those risks. And, contra Gladwell, the solution is not to say “Hurrah for performance-enhancing drugs!”, but to broaden our vision of what types of incentivized risks need to be reduced. For instance, NFL linemen essentially must maintain an unsustainable unhealthy weight in order to compete at that level — isn’t that just as bad as steroids? Might we consider phasing in weight limits on NFL players, in order to reduce that risk?

    Another related issue is that (again because of this weird misconception of performance-enhancing drugs as somehow magically “more unfair” than other imbalances in sports) there is a zero-tolerance policy in many major league sports to steroids, even when their use is medically appropriate and actually likely to reduce risks to the players. A number of NFL players started taking steroids initially not to enhance their performance, but rather because they had suffered an injury that, if I had suffered the same thing, my doctor would have prescribed steroids to assist in my recovery. In the name of a misguided ideal of fairness, players are denied medical care that might actually help them to reduce the odds of a future injury. So some players take it into their own hands, and then once the connections are established… well… If there were a sensible system for ensuring that steroids can be prescribed to players when it is medically justified, that has the potential to significantly cut down on use based around performance enhancement.

    So I’m sympathetic to those pointing out the things Gladwell is pointing out. But yes, it’s deeply irresponsible to make those points without also acknowledging the risks entailed. So I also am sympathetic to the criticism.

  16. 16
    Ingdigo Jump

    in any case, I do agree with your paraphrasing of Gladwell insofar as I think there has been too much focus on performance-enhancing drugs as being somehow “unfair”, when they are really no more unfair than e.g. hiring a personal trainer or something like that.

    i don’t know what to say to this other than that you’re a fucking idiot.

    Rough equivalent is saying that bringing a rifle to an archery competition is as “unfair” as hiring an archery coach.

  17. 17
    ledasmom

    I note that the first athlete at the Olympics to be disqualified for drug use was a modern pentathlete who had a couple of beers before the shooting portion of the event. That was 1968; by 1972 it was all about the stimulants. In 1976, anabolic steroids and stimulants. 1984, mostly anabolic steroids. 1988, steroids, beta-blocker, stimulants (including caffeine – interestingly, the athlete banned for beta-blockers and the one banned for caffeine were both modern pentathletes). 1992, steroids, stimulant, strychnine (!). 1996, steroids. 2000, steroids, diuretics, stimulants, EPO, human growth hormone. Etc. Steroids are always there. Drugs that stimulate red blood cell production were big in 2004/2008. In 2012, somebody was banned for cannabis use, which seems silly. The drugs change. The issues don’t, much. It would be kind of nice if beer were the only doping issue the Olympics ever had.
    I do not understand what Gladwell’s point is supposed to be. Allow drug use and in general the same people are going to end up on top, only now they’re going to be on steroids/erythropoiesis-stimulating agents/beta-blockers/whatever and will have the health consequences from that, and every kid who’s got even a remote shot at making it big will have the health consequences as well, and all of this for something that, in the case of the Olympics, doesn’t pay well even for most pro athletes.
    For football, well, football as it’s now done seems pretty immoral regardless of PEDs, but I don’t see how PEDs could make it better.
    Doping not a problem? There are athletes who will take anything and everything if they think they’ll get a boost and won’t get caught. I’m afraid the idea of a happy free-market approach to Olympic doping is not nearly as clever as Gladwell appears to think it is.
    I mean, by his standards, there’d be nothing wrong with gymnasts taking drugs to stunt their growth and delay puberty (don’t tell me they already are. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, though) more than is already done by restricting food and lots of training. For that matter, there’d be nothing wrong with shorter high-jumpers using a trampoline for that extra competitive edge. What? That’s silly? That’s obviously different? Yes. Yes, it is. It’s less harmful than the drugs.
    I used to love the Olympics. If I’d gone by the laws-and-sausages standard, I still might.
    I’m not sure I totally believe Epstein, who Gladwell quotes, about Kenyan long-distance runners. Someone always has a reason why a sport is currently dominated by people from a certain area, as if whenever they’re writing is a time when access and training are actually equalized to the point that one can make such assumptions. Look at Joan Benoit: not exactly anyone’s idea of the ideal running frame, but a hell of a runner.

  18. 18
    naturalcynic

    FYI, beta-blockers are useful in shooting sports to slow the heart rate so that the trigger can be pulled between beats. They have also been used by some divers to reduce adrenergic overstimulation. Even if you have done it thousands of times, 10 meters is still a scary height.
    In low doses, strychnine is a stimulant.

    People do not react the same to PEDs so while one person might get a 15% boost from using one drug, another person might get a 5% or a 50% boost from the same drug.

    Probably too high. The increments between highly trained users and non-users in some contexts could be more like 1-2%, but that’s often the difference between medalling and finishing 7th in the semi-finals.

    I mean, by his standards, there’d be nothing wrong with gymnasts taking drugs to stunt their growth and delay puberty (don’t tell me they already are. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, though) more than is already done by restricting food and lots of training

    I’m telling you, YES. Numerous accusations have been lodged against the Chinese Gymnastics Federation. With the knowledge of puberty-inhibiting drugs among pediatric endocrinologists in the Europe and North America, I would think that this has been tried by individuals. But nobody’s talking.

    and all of this for something that, in the case of the Olympics, doesn’t pay well even for most pro athletes.

    Nope. Not in most countries. Most world class athletes in the lesser known sports are subsidized by government Olympic Committees. This is a disadvantage to US athletes in the same sports. Remember that the Olympics was originally designed as an amusement for sons of the upper classes who would be pure amateurs.

    Rough equivalent is saying that bringing a rifle to an archery competition is as “unfair” as hiring an archery coach.

    Very exaggerated.

    The IOC knows everyone is dirty, but world records sell tickets, not winning gold medals.

    Pffft. This might be the case for events like a track meet where the top dog says he is going for a WR in his/her event. The Olympics is a different story, especially the host country. It’s the medal count.
    One thing that needs to be addressed is the willingness of athletes to knowingly take the kind of risks that most people wouldn’t take. Years ago, sports psychologists were sometimes stunned when top athletes were questioned about their willingness to exchange a current winning performance for a few years earlier death. They felt that the glory now was more important. This attitude is changing somewhat with things like the publicity about the long term effects of concussions.

  19. 19
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    The way I heard it was that athletes would take something that would give them a gold medal even if it would kill them in five years. The Goldman Dilemma, it’ called — mentioned at the end of this blog article about EPO.

    There’s a well-known survey in sports, known as the Goldman Dilemma. For it, a researcher, Bob Goldman, began asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey biannually for the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain.

    Only recently did researchers get around to asking nonathletes the same question. In results published online in February, 2009 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exactly 2 of the 250 people surveyed in Sydney, Australia, said that they would take a drug that would ensure both success and an early death. “We were surprised,” James Connor, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of New South Wales and one of the study’s authors, said in an e-mail message. “I expected 10-20 percent yes.” His conclusion, unassailable if inexplicable, is that “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”

  20. 20
    stuartsmith

    I did read the second link. I don’t see how the dangers are relevant. They’re not secret dangers. I know PEDs are dangerous, and I have zero interest in athletics. People aren’t blindly deciding to take drugs they don’t realize are dangerous, they’re knowingly accepting the dangers because they care more about their performance. And given how our society rewards that performance, it’s not even necessarily an irrational decision. As he points out in the article, starving yourself to improve your performance is also dangerous, but that’s allowed. Come to that, there’s plenty of athletic competitions that are dangerous enough in and of themselves that if we wanted to be consistent, we’d have to ban them outright.

    In the end, there are three questions I consider relevant: Is the person informed of the risks? Are they free to make their own decision about taking or not taking the risks? Is anyone else who is put at risk also making a free, informed decision to involve themselves? If the answers are all yes, then I don’t see a problem. The only issue here is that in some cases, the last question might get a no, and then only because the use of PEDs is covert – more as a result of the rules against them than the drugs themselves. If they were allowed, there would be no need to keep them secret, which incidentally would also make them safer for everyone. Drugs bought from criminals and taken in secret are always going to be more dangerous than ones bought from and used under the supervision of a trained professional.

  21. 21
    consciousness razor

    People aren’t blindly deciding to take drugs they don’t realize are dangerous, they’re knowingly accepting the dangers because they care more about their performance.

    Why the fuck would it matter whether they know?

    And given how our society rewards that performance, it’s not even necessarily an irrational decision.

    That doesn’t follow. Being rewarded for it in some way doesn’t make an activity rational. Ask any rational, non-brainwashed economist.

    In the end, there are three questions I consider relevant: Is the person informed of the risks? Are they free to make their own decision about taking or not taking the risks?

    How would that be relevant? Being informed of the risks and consenting to them doesn’t negate them, nor does it give them a good reason to take advantage of such drugs (or take advantage of others who don’t, or of a system which “rewards” them for doing so).

    Is anyone else who is put at risk also making a free, informed decision to involve themselves?

    Who are you talking about with “anyone else”? Other athletes who may not agree to their use? People like their family and friends, who may not have a choice to “involve themselves” with the person? People who would be victims of the person’s increased aggression due to the drug use? Whoever that last group may be, they may not know the person in the first place, so that answer is certainly negative — it’s not a “they might have chosen this (and it was a good choice)” kind of answer, but definitely a “no, it’s not their fault” kind of answer.

    If they were allowed, there would be no need to keep them secret, which incidentally would also make them safer for everyone.

    No, that would not make them safer for everyone. For example, people who suffer from medical issues from them would not be any safer, just by virtue of having the freedom to due so openly.

    Drugs bought from criminals and taken in secret are always going to be more dangerous than ones bought from and used under the supervision of a trained professional.

    Why assume that many aren’t already taking them under the supervision of a trained professional? (Probably not high school kids, but you’re presumably not arguing to make it “legal” for them or remove the bans by their sports institutions.)

    And how would that actually make it better anyway? Why assume “supervision” would sufficiently negate the risks involved? Because you’ve made quite a sweeping generalization about all drugs: smoking marijuana (illegally/unsupervised/etc.) is nowhere near as dangerous as smoking tobacco, with or without a doctor. And again, that’s only talking about that one person’s health risks, not the consequences for anybody else or any other personal consequences which might result from it.

  22. 22
    consciousness razor

    Gah, I obviously meant “freedom to do so.” I know how to spell.

  23. 23
    scimaths

    asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes

    This is interesting, I wonder how it breaks down across different disciplines and countries, and whether the same response would be found now.

  24. 24
    aaronpound

    I’m pretty sure Gladwell is taller than I am. Using his logic, that would mean it should be okay for me to kick him in the ankle if we were play a game of basketball. After all, he has a natural genetic advantage that I should be able to overcome by breaking the rules of the game.

  25. 25
    doublereed

    Goddammit, I haven’t finished reading Outliers! Wait until I’m finished before maiming the author! It’s really engrossing stuff!

  26. 26
    stuartsmith

    Why the fuck would it matter whether they know?

    Because you can’t give informed consent to something without being informed.

    That doesn’t follow. Being rewarded for it in some way doesn’t make an activity rational. Ask any rational, non-brainwashed economist.

    Of course it doesn’t. It’s only rational if you value the reward more highly than the costs. It certainly wouldn’t be rational for ME to use PEDs because doing so would be trading something I do value for something I don’t. But if I were offered a drug that had similar drawbacks to performance enhancing drugs, but would boost my intelligence, focus, and memory to the point that I was virtually guaranteed to make breakthroughs that would put me on par with Einstein and Newton, I would certainly at least consider taking them. Some people would rather burn bright than burn long, and given those values, PEDs are a rational way to accomplish it.

    How would that be relevant? Being informed of the risks and consenting to them doesn’t negate them, nor does it give them a good reason to take advantage of such drugs (or take advantage of others who don’t, or of a system which “rewards” them for doing so).

    If being informed of risks and consenting to them doesn’t matter, then we should ban people from playing all sports, riding bikes, crossing the street, going to bars, having sex, arguing, being president… The list of things that carry risks is endless. It’s THEIR body, THEIR life, THEIR choice.

    Who are you talking about with “anyone else”? Other athletes who may not agree to their use? People like their family and friends, who may not have a choice to “involve themselves” with the person? People who would be victims of the person’s increased aggression due to the drug use?

    All of those people ALREADY EXIST. The only difference is that right now, they don’t even know they’re in that position. If people didn’t have to hide their use of these drugs, then those people would have the opportunity to make their decisions on an informed basis, which has to be better than making them blindly. That said, this is the one argument against PEDs that I am actually sympathetic to.

    No, that would not make them safer for everyone. For example, people who suffer from medical issues from them would not be any safer, just by virtue of having the freedom to do so openly.

    If would note eliminate the danger completely, but it would certainly reduce it. You are saying that “people who have already fallen afoul of the dangers are not any safer.” People who have been hit by a car are not any safer if it happened at a crosswalk, but it’s still safer to cross at a crosswalk than not. If things are legal and above board, you eliminate a vast swath of dangers associated with secrecy and criminality. That isn’t the same as being completely safe, but then that’s not what I said.

    And how would that actually make it better anyway? Why assume “supervision” would sufficiently negate the risks involved? Because you’ve made quite a sweeping generalization about all drugs: smoking marijuana (illegally/unsupervised/etc.) is nowhere near as dangerous as smoking tobacco, with or without a doctor. And again, that’s only talking about that one person’s health risks, not the consequences for anybody else or any other personal consequences which might result from it.

    You’re right. I phrased that wrongly. What I should have said is “Drugs bought from criminals and taken in secret are always going to be safer than the SAME drug bought openly and used under the guidance of a trained professional.”

    How much effort goes into making those drugs undetectable that, if they were legal, might instead go towards making them safer? We don’t know, but we do know that a LOT of effort goes into making them undetectable. Which, of course, means that doctors can’t even tell if you’re using them when a problem does crop up.

  27. 27
    Pteryxx

    stuartsmith, here’s how to use blockquotes:

    <blockquote> quoted text </blockquote>

    gives

    quoted text

  28. 28
    Charlie Euchner

    A rejection letter for Mr. Gladwell is in order, don;t you think? (http://bit.ly/1cXaoP1)

  29. 29
    Charlie Euchner

    A rejection letter for Mr. Gladwell is in order, don’t you think? (http://bit.ly/1cXaoP1)

  30. 30
    ritrat

    Calling him an awful person seems a bit harsh. It’s not like he put a cat in a wheelie bin.

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