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Government United States Politics Technology

America's Technical Debt 165

Funksaw writes: An article by Brian Boyko in Equal Citizens, Lawrence Lessig's blog dealing with issues of institutional corruption in democratic politics, explains why, specifically, this reform movement needs (more) people with technical minds and technical skills.

Quoting: "What we need are more people willing to look at the laws of this country based on their function. And when I use the word 'function,' I mean very specifically the same sense that a computer programmer means it. (Because lord knows, government isn't functioning by any other definition.) ... It's not just that big money politics is being injected [like a code injection] into the function of democracy. It's also that the function of democracy can be warped by an injection. Stopping the injection of money into our democratic function still leaves the function vulnerable to the same — or similar — injection attack.... We need people who can solve the problems of politics like a programmer solves problems in computer code, because a democratic system with vulnerabilities is a democratic system that can fail or be made to fail."

The author is the technical adviser to the New Hampshire Rebellion and Mayday.US, two of Lessig's major reform projects.
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America's Technical Debt

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  • Laws are written, have the person, or their Aid be noted as their contribution to the law. The words come from someone, make public who wrote what from whom.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ssyladin ( 458003 )

      Oh man - the "blame" tool just took on a whole new meaning!

      • No, that's exactly the meaning it had. Some people like to say it's for credit too, but it's not -- it's for when shit happens and nobody takes responsibility.

    • The people that can actually change the laws, namely, the people we have already elected, have a vested interest in making sure that the changes that would be necessary, will never get enacted.

      The ONLY possible 'reset' to the current system will involve a large number of guns.

    • by nomadic ( 141991 )
      That already happens.
    • The words come from somewhere, and often adjacent words will come from different places. Laws are formed in committees that do not operate in the public view, and there are good things about this. It enables lawmakers to be more reasonable without offending less reasonable constituents.

      This isn't like our Subversion repository here, where all changes are done by an individual. Committing in the legal code requires the agreement of large numbers of people.

      • There's really only one group of people who needs to be shielded from reality for its own good: children.

  • by bistromath007 ( 1253428 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @06:49PM (#50112643)
    Leaving aside the completely ridiculous assertion that a system composed of people can be debugged in the same manner as code simply because it happens to be called a "code" of law, the author seems to be unaware that just about every problem with the democratic process has a solution which some part of history has already provided. We simply aren't using them because one of the many safeguards of the system is making the important parts (which are unfortunately the ones troubling us) difficult to change. We are in a degenerate case of democracy; the players who historically won the game have absolutely no interest in changing the rules to make them more fair. It really cannot be fixed without war.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @06:54PM (#50112663)

      So we need a programmer for laws. I shall call this profession .... Lawyer.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Hahaha I was thinking the same thing. It's as though TFA never realized there are millions of people who devoted their lives to this exact thing.

      • by tedgyz ( 515156 )

        Seriously - this should be modded Insightful

      • maybe...liar?
      • by Kirth ( 183 )

        No. The trouble with lawyers is that they don't learn to write proper code.
        They're just debating how to interprete it.

      • So we need a programmer for laws. I shall call this profession .... Lawyer.

        We killed them all in the revolution...

    • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @07:02PM (#50112735) Journal

      It really cannot be fixed without war.

      Coolest thing about American democracy........if you can convince enough people to follow you that you'd be able to win a war, then you'll probably be able to convince enough people to vote for you without a war.

      • Yes, thank you for demonstrating the fatal flaw that turns all large hegemonies into plutocracies.
        • The fatal flaw is when people don't pay attention. If the public doesn't pay attention, than the ones who do will get into power.

          No constitution you can conceive will save ignoramuses from themselves.
          • The fatal flaw is when people don't pay attention. If the public doesn't pay attention, than the ones who do will get into power.

            No constitution you can conceive will save ignoramuses from themselves.

            What about one that said "people who do not vote will be taken out into the street and hung by the neck until dead; one in ten people who voted for the losing side in any election will be taken out into the street, placed up against the wall, and then shot"?

            In other words, forced participation, with forced collaboration on outcome.

            Yes, that's a reductio ad absurdum of your argument.

            • I don't understand how your comment addresses my argument at all. How does shooting people save them from themselves? You're just going to encourage heard voting.
          • by bistromath007 ( 1253428 ) on Wednesday July 15, 2015 @01:06AM (#50114485)
            People don't pay attention because individuals in any sufficiently large, sufficiently centralized society quickly learn that their engagement is irrelevant.

            Functional democracy is only possible when the amount of power any one entity can hold is limited to what a person is capable of meaningfully understanding within their lifetime. In other words, their immediate surroundings; a small city. If legislative power goes any higher than that, corruption becomes impossible to stop due to it happening faster than people are capable of recognizing what it is.
          • by mcrbids ( 148650 )

            You can blame the people as much as you like, but failing to consider the power of the media (aka Faux News, CNN, etc) is folly.

            I wonder how much of that "ignoramus effect" is due to people actively being spoon fed garbage information?

            Watching commentary on any news network is a veritable "here's how" for logical fallacies.

      • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @09:25PM (#50113603) Journal

        .if you can convince enough people to follow you that you'd be able to win a war, then you'll probably be able to convince enough people to vote for you without a war.

        But I spent a fuckton of money on this here firearm with "Don't Thead On Me" engraved on the receiver, and I aim to kill me something.

        [Note: It was supposed to read "Don't Tread On Me", but I let Jimbo from gas station do the etching because of his experience doing prison tattoos and he got to smoking meth. It's still a sweet rifle, though. I may let him turn all the letters into Olde English so then nobody will be able to tell the difference between an "h" and an "r". It's a good thing I didn't let him go ahead and draw the coiled up snake too, because the one tattooed to his belly looks like a goddamn pile of turds.]

        • But I spent a fuckton of money on this here firearm with "Don't Thead On Me" engraved on the receiver, and I aim to kill me something.

          Neighbor, I got some cockroaches in my house yoo cun rid me uv

          • Neighbor, I got some cockroaches in my house yoo cun rid me uv

            Hell, I don't need my Bushmaster for that. I deal with cockroaches with my S&W Model 629.

    • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

      a system composed of people can be debugged in the same manner as code

      False [fastcompany.com].

    • by readin ( 838620 )
      The solution is to have a citizenry willing to respect the rights of their fellow citizens and recognize the proper limits of government when voting.
    • Leaving aside the completely ridiculous assertion that a system composed of people can be debugged in the same manner as code simply because it happens to be called a "code" of law,.

      It's not because both is called code. It is because both legal and computer code are both nothing more than a set of rules. And the more complex such sets become, the more unwanted side effects you have. People try to find loopholes in those rules for personal gain are either called lawyers or hackers and for both, best practice of avoiding such loopholes is to keep the rules as simple and exactly worded as possible.

      Code injection is a bit of a stretch, though, but in general, programs and laws have a lot i

  • Wrong problem (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @06:56PM (#50112681)
    It's not the laws per se (though some, like the ACA, are atrocious at many levels). It's the low-information voters. There are plenty of cases where motivated voters who actually pay attention will vote contrary to what the money spent on the campaign would (if Lessig were right) say that they'd vote. The problem is that most of the time, voters are two dumb to actually understand the issues at stake or the consequences of their actions. Fix the dumbness, and you fix all sorts of other cultural mal-consequences (not just clumsy politics and gimme-dat laws).

    Not saying that producing informed, critical-thinking-capable young people is easy, just that the payoff for doing so is huge, and not just in the area being discussed.
    • by taustin ( 171655 )

      It's the low-information voters.

      My thought exactly. When people vote how the one eyed monster in the living room tells them to, the problem isn't money in politics, it's disengaged, uninformed, and frankly stupid voters who do what the TV says. Reduce the amount of money, and you simply change who controls the instructions. Reduce it enough, and control passes to the TV networks.

      Who would want to live in a TV show? Given the economics of television, it'd be a reality show. Government by Duck Dynasty.

    • It's the low-information voters.

      And yet, never before, in the history of all history, has information been more readily available to voters [wikipedia.org].

      • And yet, never before, in the history of all history, has information been more readily available to voters

        Which has nothing to do with the manner in which public school teachers generally think and act, or the degree to which parents are disengaged from the process. Lacking any cultural embrace of critical thinking, young people are, exposed to all of that information you're talking about, making no distinction between the useful information and the BS. Which is why people exposed to all of that information never the less keep doing things like spending money on homeopathic snake oil.

        • by nomadic ( 141991 )
          "Lacking any cultural embrace of critical thinking" The problem is "voters lack critical thinking skills" usually just means "too many voters are voting other than I am."
      • It's the low-information voters.

        And yet, never before, in the history of all history, has information been more readily available to voters [wikipedia.org].

        And in my experience the real problem tends to be people who know lots of facts.

        The guys who knows nothing's solution to every problem is take the proposals and split the difference. The guy who knows everything should (in theory) be miraculously smart and able to detect BS from a million miles away, in practice he's the purveyor of most of the BS because if he didn't have extremely strong ideological priors he wouldn't have waded through sufficient BS to become knowledgable.

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Alas, never has the crapflood of punditry been so deep.

    • If you read Lessig's writings, you'll see he does understand that. His campaign reform ideas are centered around making it easier for individual citizens to donate to politicians, if they are paying attention.
      • What's hard about it? I've never seen any candidate make it difficult to donate. At worst, I write and mail a check, and that's easy. If I'm not paying attention, it doesn't matter how easy it is to donate.

        • Maybe I used the wrong wording.....hard is relative of course, but here is one example [southernstudies.org]. You can see that the goals of the bill are to increase the influence of small donations.

          In other words, he's attacking the problem, not by prohibiting rich people from being involved, but by strengthening the power of individuals.
    • The problem is that most of the time, voters are two dumb to actually understand the issues at stake or the consequences of their actions. Fix the dumbness, and you fix all sorts of other cultural mal-consequences (not just clumsy politics and gimme-dat laws).

      Make people smarter and the issues and consequences will simply become more complex. They're not some external invariance, after all, but a function of those very same people's behaviour and mental make-up. So every organization must deal with the fac

  • (Because lord knows, government isn't functioning by any other definition.)

    he sounds like...... a Republican

    • by taustin ( 171655 )

      Really? I didn't see anything about gay marriage causing dinosaur extinction (and how bad it was that Jesus couldn't ride dinos any more).

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @07:00PM (#50112721)

    We already have technicians who work with the law, they're called lawyers and their very technical sophistication is what enables a lot of the clusterfuckery which takes place. Creating and finding loopholes, manipulation of the legal process, etc. And they also write the rules in very technical language, enabling a kind of only-we-understand-it monopoly control.

    Maybe what we need is more non-technicians to eliminate the technical meddling.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I tend to think programmers could be perfect for this. Not in the sense of actually writing the laws or enforcement, but to put the laws through code review. Think about it.

      "Are you aware that this clause leads to this potential loophole?"
      "I'm sorry, but I have to reject the whole thing, it's sloppy and I can't follow what's going on."

      And since the standard programmer isn't privy to legalese, it would be ideal to make them written in language non-experts could understand. Just have to keep it a rotating

      • by nomadic ( 141991 )
        Legal language has developed over hundreds of years to be as unambiguous as it can be, and even then it's hard to make that way. Starting over with non-experts and we'd end up with a lot of very vague laws with a lot more loopholes.
    • by Kirth ( 183 )

      Actually, no. They did not ever learn how to write proper (legal) code.

      - as short and precise as possible
      - yields the intended result
      - does not have any unintended side-effects

      • Why do you think that? Lawyers learn how to write documents that yield the intended result and don't have unintended side effects (although they're not perfect at it). They try to be as short and precise as possible, but complicated situations can demand longer text. Observe lawyers drawing up corporate contracts, for example.

        However, laws have got to pass to get on the books. This means that a large number of people with varying views have to agree. Therefore, there is no one intended result, and s

  • The request for more STEM people in politics is analogous to asking for more "people people" (PHB) in technology. Nasty and counter-productive beyond those necessary for I/O interface.

    Different people have different personalities and predilections. Tech people like manipulating technology (molecules, electrons, logic). They would be devoured by politicians who devote the same effort into manipulating people. (Often, but not always, to their detriment.)

  • that we can recursively send many people to learn to code, effectively, on the same funds

    First of all, what he describes has nothing to do with recursion. Second, how does he think he can "send many people to learn to code" for free by somehow "passing along" the funds?

  • Is there a way to debug voters who keep re-electing the same politician over and over? (And in the case of term limits, they keep electing relatives of the previous politician).

  • by Anonymous Coward

    As a Nation, we are corrupt, greedy, adulterous, full of lies and cursing and hatred, ignorant of the woes around us (or at least more concerned about inconveniences at home), and always ready to break covenants, yet we expect our democratically elected & representative politicians to have the exact opposite character.

  • Lovely sentiment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @07:09PM (#50112779)

    It's a nice sentiment, but absurdly naive, if you think that politics can be solved by applying programming-type *logic*. Hell, we can't even get rid of *office politics*, and you think you're going to take on the real thing? Some of the smartest programmers I know would likely get chewed up and spat out by actual politicians and media.

    So, here's the problem with such straightforward thinking:

    What if we could, for example, write a program which will show you at a glance, which politicians have the highest or lowest correlation of campaign contributions to supported policy?

    And? I'm not sure what that tells you. A campaign contribution does not indicate corruption. Let's say I'm a big believer in the same sorts of principles as the NRA, and the NRA donates $1000 to get me elected. Have I been bribed or bought by the NRA? Your answer might depend on whether or not you personally *agree with* what the NRA stands for. Let's change it to the EFF. I've been given $1000 by the EFF. In these cases, have the politicians been bought, or are they being supported because the organizations believe them to hold views which they agree with?

    There are all sorts of gray areas in politics as well. If you never compromise on your beliefs, but your principled stand either ends up blocking or stalling otherwise useful legislation, or gets you entirely excluded from the decision-making process, did you do the right thing? If you've got what you believe to be a bad bill in front of you, and your choices are to: a) oppose it, and have it pass as it, or b) engage and make it slightly less bad, then which is the better option?

    I'm not sure I have a real answer for what *should* be done, but I don't think it's helpful to pretend that technology can solve what are ultimately very *human* problems. Can an algorithm fix your personal relationships as well? Same principle, I think. I'm all for getting more technically-minded people in office simply because they'll have a better understanding of technology-related issues, but I'm not going to hold my breath that a more analytical sort of mind will make a better politician.

  • by Crashmarik ( 635988 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @07:09PM (#50112785)

    Just from the federalist papers #51

    " If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

    Going to need omniscience to figure out what the functionality will be of changed laws, and a whole lot of arrogance to think the "Selfless" people doing this for the greater good won't be bought off faster and cheaper than any congress critter ever could

    • Or as I like to say, if we had perfect people or perfect leaders we could have a perfect government. We have neither so the government we have is not perfect either.
  • The U.S. form of representative democracy was set up by the "founders" to be what it is, and it is no mistake that the upper class fights tooth and nail to keep it that way. The main problem with representative democracy goes beyond the founders though (which may explain why it was chosen in the first place) and is very similar to the main problem with the economic system called communism: Both require that humans act outside their behavior patterns to reach some ideal abstraction.

    Where communism insists th

  • by J Story ( 30227 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @07:15PM (#50112835) Homepage

    Programmers are taught to code for a specific, well-defined objective, whereas untrained ordinary folk think more along the lines of "do what I mean". Recently, however, through the ACA state funding case, decided that what is *said* is immaterial, and that the law should reflect what Congress obviously *meant*. In other words, "do what I mean". Given this, language is no longer important, and it is up to the high priests of the US Supreme Court to view the auguries to determine true meaning. In other words, thanks to the Supreme Court it is not programmers that are needed, but magicians.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Dude, it's grammar, not a super-logical recursive function run by computers.

      In the ACA case the Judges ruled that a Federal exchange set up in lieu of a state exchange was the logical equivalent of an "exchange set up by the state." This is no more irrational then telling your houseguest he can borrow the diesel car or the gasoline motorbike as long as he tops up the diesel, and expecting him to know you meant he fill up the bike with gasoline.

      There's a reason multiple states chose to use the Federal Exchan

    • by nomadic ( 141991 )
      No, the Supreme Court did not decide what was said is immaterial. They made a perfectly logical analysis:

      1. The statute says the States can set up an exchange.

      2. If a State doesn't, the federal government can set up "such Exchange" for them. Note that it doesn't say set up "an Exchange," but "SUCH Exchange." The statute is pretty clearly stating by using "such" that any Exchange set up constitutes a State Exchange under the statute. What else would "such" mean in that context?
  • This quote from the article is completely wrong:

    But we have to recognize that our government is not working.

    Our government is working. We've gone over 200 years without a coup de'etat.
    We've been successful in maintaining a strong army that doesn't threaten the state.
    We keep a lot of fundamental rights.
    To a large degree we manage to help poor people, and take care of old people.
    Crime is low enough that I can walk out on the street at night without a defensive weapon.
    Overall, corruption has gone down since the days of boss Tweed, Pendergast, Daley, Huey Long, an

  • First of all, humans aren't computers that obey logical laws. they also have emotions such as greed and fear.

    Second, democracy is a failed system and will always fail. The original framers of the constitution setup a representative republic and not a direct democracy. Democracy is nothing more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner.

    The entire public school system is built around the concept that democracy is the best form of government. This is by design to keep the people deluded by the fa

    • A proper education isn't possible with a public school system when certain political ideologies are trying to destroy it

      FTFY. Seriously, public school education can be fine until a bunch of demagogues try to privatize it or cut its funding to nothing. I've known so many teachers who busted their ass, cared about their students and did a great job only to be hamstrung and crushed by the useless administration above them (up to and including the Governor.) The uncaring and/or insane parenting doesn't help either. And please don't mention charter schools; I live in Florida and have a front row seat to that sideshow of greed

      • Public education is fucked. Case in point, recently a student was suspended for nibbling a toaster pastry into the shape of a gun. This is an example of the demagoguery of which you speak. There ARE good teachers however they cannot educate in an environment where such stupidity prevails.

        • by nomadic ( 141991 )
          "Case in point, recently a student was suspended for nibbling a toaster pastry into the shape of a gun."

          One case does not prove anything. That's like saying nobody could plausibly leave their house because someone got struck by lightning once doing that.
          • I provided one case of which there are thousands. Your metaphor provides nothing to refute my statement that Public Schools are fucked.

            • by nomadic ( 141991 )
              And your example does nothing to prove your statement. I'm a graduate of public schools and I'm doing just fine.
            • If you can find thousands of really stupid things happening in schools each year, they're doing very very well. There are about a hundred thousand K-12 schools in this country. Individual anecdotes mean nothing in this context.

    • Typical Libertarian. Extremely strong on the theory (or at least aspects of the theory that support libertarian preconceptions), weak on the practice.

      In theory the poor could all team up and vote themselves a Billionaire's money, and that would suck. But a) the drawbacks of your theory are even more horrifying (white supremacist Rhodesia, for example, technically allowed anyone of any race to vote if they had the proper education, it was just impossible to get said education if you weren't white, in the act

      • Thank you for saying my theory is strong. You have said nothing however to disprove it. There is ample historical evidence that shows that democracies eventually destroy themselves or become so weak that they are easily destroyed by invaders. The U.S. is very strong militarily but it's culture is weak and it's economy is one financial crisis from complete collapse. The people have voted themselves bread and circuses. Soon they will have neither.

        • There is ample historical evidence that all systems eventually destroys themselves. In fact, in terms of not destroying itself, the best form of government is probably the British; which is so successful at totally remaking itself every few decades without a Revolution that it is quite literally impossible to pick a start-date. Even the one most of them would pick (1066) wasn't much of a change in governance structure for the vast majority of the population, it was just a change in the hereditary nobleman

  • by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Tuesday July 14, 2015 @07:43PM (#50113023)

    If you are going to have democracy then you need to push things to the lowest level possible. Instead of 50% + 1 winning it needs to be more like 2 sigma or 95%. If you want to delegate a function to the national government then 95%+ of the people should agree. Same for the state, county, town, neighborhood, family, or individual. The system we have now insures conflict because you can force a slight majority to your will.

    • The system we have now insures conflict because you can force a slight majority to your will.

      The system you propose is hardly better - because it will never accomplish anything. (Yeah, yeah, bring on the ignorant jokes - but consider a system that fails to anything is also a system that fails to do what you'd like it to do. It won't pass tax breaks for the rich, but it also won't approve the ACA or funding for New Horizons.)

    • When was the last time you saw a poll where 95% of the country agreed on anything?
      • When was the last time you saw a poll where 95% of the country agreed on anything?

        Most polls only ask about controversial things. I bet you could easily get 95% agreement on:
        Murder, theft, fraud, etc... should be illegal. (Basic criminal law)
        We shouldn't allow Syria/Iran to conquer us (military defense)
        and I'm sure you'd see a few other essential items getting broad agreement.

        For the rest... well, that's a feature of the system, not a bug.

        • Okay, now propose a law on fraud that 95% of the people are going to want. Many will disagree with the particular definition of fraud, and large numbers of people are going to disagree with the penalties, whatever they are. And, yes, virtually the whole country will agree we want a military force. Do you expect 95% to agree on details?

          You can't govern by general principles. You need specifics. You're not going to get 95% agreement on those.

      • Oh, the plebiscites in Austria before WWII, or the more recent one in the Crimea. In such a system, the only things that happen are pushed through by force. Since the 95% rule prevents the state from mounting effective resistance, it'll lead directly to strongman rule.

  • ... just don't assume the people already trying are stupid. This is a legitimately difficult issue.

    A big thing that this coding concept doesn't quite grasp is that the "hackers" are sitting there f'ing with your code AS you write it.

    And you can't just fork the code if you have a disagreement with them.

    The trick is to think ahead 10 moves and put something in the system that will seem meaningless initially but which at a later juncture will trigger and deal a savage blow to hackers.

    • ... just don't assume the people already trying are stupid. This is a legitimately difficult issue.

      A big thing that this coding concept doesn't quite grasp is that the "hackers" are sitting there f'ing with your code AS you write it.

      And you can't just fork the code if you have a disagreement with them.

      The trick is to think ahead 10 moves and put something in the system that will seem meaningless initially but which at a later juncture will trigger and deal a savage blow to hackers.

      Clever buried tricks in the law are irrelevant when the rule of law itself is being tossed aside, as we see with the current administration. Don't try to be clever. Try to be principled, and then defend those principles.

      • You're losing with that policy.

        You're predictable. ANd because you don't look to tricks in the law your enemies can bury them in the law and you never see it coming.

        The left dominates you because they're better politicians. They play the game and they play it strategically and long term.

        And you don't and so you lose.

        So choose.

        My way or slavery.

        Those are your choices. And you're so predictable I know what you're going to say before you even open your mouth.

        You're going to say "neither" or "slavery"... anythi

  • Yes, the original article is (yet another) example of this current avant garde trend of characterizing everything as "code," but for once the underlying point has some merit: the entire institution of civil law is a structure, a system, designed to produce a desired result.

    Many of my Poli-Sci classes in college were taught by erudite gentlemen who helped us ponder the beautiful and challenging intricacies of political theory. The best professor I ever had was not one of those men. He was a self-described
  • We already solve it like programmers--we do it according to what the suits say, regardless of how stupid it is because... money.

    The good programmers (would-be leaders) get disgusted and quit.

    What we need is disruptive technology, from a different bunch of suits. This has nothing to do with how good the programmers are, except that if it's a good bunch of suits they'll attract a good bunch of programmers.

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