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Interesting article arguing against sending kids to top schools. I’m sympathetic to some of the author’s views and think it’s better for kids to 1) focus less on grades and career prospects and more on learning and personal development, 2) take more risks and worry less about failing,  and 3) mix with people from different background and social class, including those from lower incomes. At the same time, I don’t think we can deny that there are many benefits from studying in top institutions. As I noted previously, today’s education system is like an arms race. I don’t like it but nevertheless need to find a path that I think will be best for my children.

Some excerpts below. The whole article is interesting.

A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:

Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.

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So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”

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Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to…

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The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families evenenroll at four-year schools.

A long article by Nancy Andreasen on her research on creativity. Excerpts:

As in the first study, I’ve also found that creativity tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued. This is how one person described his childhood:

Our family evenings—just everybody sitting around working. We’d all be in the same room, and [my mother] would be working on her papers, preparing her lesson plans, and my father had huge stacks of papers and journals … This was before laptops, and so it was all paper-based. And I’d be sitting there with my homework, and my sisters are reading. And we’d just spend a few hours every night for 10 to 15 years—that’s how it was. Just working together. No TV.

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I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, “The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it … When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.” Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.

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One interesting paradox that has emerged during conversations with subjects about their creative processes is that, though many of them suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, they associate their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement. “Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do,” one scientist told me. “It is like having good sex. It excites you all over and makes you feel as if you are all-powerful and complete.” This is reminiscent of what creative geniuses throughout history have said.

……

Some of the other most common findings my studies have suggested include:

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings…Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own. Many of my subjects taught themselves to read before even starting school, and many have read widely throughout their lives…

Many creative people are polymaths, as historic geniuses including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were

Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection…

……

In A Beautiful Mind, her biography of the mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar describes a visit Nash received from a fellow mathematician while institutionalized at McLean Hospital. “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth,” the colleague asked, “believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” To which Nash replied: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.

 

 

 

 

What I’ve been reading

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Hirschman lived an extraordinary life. He’s an intellect with original ideas and on-the-ground experience as well as talents to make the most out of life. His Exit, Voice, Loyalty still provides a useful framework for me to think about things.

Pleasure disappoints, possibility never!

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Being open to many possibilities meant accepting uncertainty and embracing the fact that one could learn from experience in the world by forfeiting presumptions that one could not know it all.

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Hirschman’s odyssey can be read as a journey with no particular end, the life of an idealist with no utopia because he believed that the voyage of life itself yielded enough lessons to change who we are and what we aspire to be; to require and stay on course toward an abstract destination threatened to deprive the journey of its richest possibilities.

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success. Many good advice from Megan. I clearly suffer from the impostor syndrome. Here‘s Megan on EconTalk.

The fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome.

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The metaphor for our age is the disappearance of high monkey bars from playgrounds across the country. We have made it impossible for children to fall very far–and in so doing, we have robbed them of the joys of climbing high.

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Dweck encourages parents and teachers to praise children for their effort, rather than their intelligence, talent, or looks.

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As anyone who has raised a kid can attest, the same is true of children: swift and consistent punishment is by far the best way to change behavior…Consistency is probably the most important tool of parenting.

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Learning to fail well means learning to understand your mistakes, because unless you know what went wrong, you may do the wrong things to correct it…Most of all, learning to fail well means overcoming our natural instincts to blame someone–maybe ourselves–whenever something goes wrong. Societies and people fail best when they err on the side of forgiveness. Not forgetting: the information gained by failing is far too valuable to be lost by pretending that nothing happened.

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The secret to catching your mistakes quickly is simple: treat outside information as if it were inside information. When someone tells you you’re off track, don’t look for reasons why they may be wrong; listen for reasons why they might be right.

Rethinking Housing Bubbles: The Role of Household and Bank Balance Sheets in Modeling Economic Cycles. The authors’ main argument seems to be that asset bubbles in durable goods (housing in particular), when financed with excessive debt, have been the main driver of US business cycles. I wish they had focused more on the insights gained from experiments and how well they fit with historical events, or ways we could apply those insights to analyse various situations.

 

Robert Kaplan provides a good background on the geopolitical issues surrounding the South China Sea in his recent book, with separate chapters on the countries involved (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan).

Think his base case is that there won’t be war: Europe is a landscape while East Asia a seascape, and the sea reduces the chance of war (e.g. warships travels more slowly, while navies and air forces do not occupy territory the way armies do). He sees China’s position towards the South China Sea akin to the US’ position towards the Caribbean Sea in the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries.

Similar to the author, I came away with more questions and no stronger convictions on what will happen, but I gained a better understanding of the historical background and countries’ perspectives.

Here is a good NYT review of the book, and here‘s a talk with the author.

Excerpts:

Some background

More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.

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The heart of the drama revolves around historic claims to three archipelagoes: the Pratas in the north, the Paracels in the northwest, and the Spratlys in the southeast. The Pratas are claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan. In any case, there is little argument that these are Chinese islands. China and Taiwan actually agree to a significant extent on the South China Sea, except that China does not consider Taiwan a party to the claims because in Beijing’s eyes Taiwan is not a state…The Vietnamese have a strong claim to the Paracels, but the western part of this archipelago has been occupied by China since Beijing took control of it from a failing Saigon government in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War. The Chinese and Vietnamese have, in fact, solved their disputes in the Gulf of Tonkin: a tribute partly to solidarity between the two countries’ communist parties and their pragmatism…Then there are the Spratlys, which have been claimed by the Philippines only since the 1950s…Unlike the Vietnamese claims to the Paracels, which the Chinese privately respect and worry about, the Chinese don’t respect Philippine designs on the Spratlys. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei all, too,  claim features in the Spratlys.

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…once the Law of the Sea came into play, China’s cow’s tongue—or historic nine-dashed line—suddenly had little legal meaning or rationale…Well, the Chinese say that they have authentic historic claims, while the Law of the Sea only came into being in 1982, and is therefore only part of the story. (Though China ratified the Law of the Sea treaty in 1996, it does not really adhere to it; whereas the United States adheres to it, but hasn’t ratified it.) In 2009, Chinese officials put out for the first time a map with the nine-dashed line and began interfering with other countries’ survey ships. In 2011, the Chinese made a submission to the United Nations actually making a claim of a full two hundred nautical miles around each of the Spratly Islands.

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Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s “principal protagonist” in the South China Sea dispute, asserting sovereignty over both the Paracel and Spratly islands, “based on historical usage dating back to at least the 17th century,” write scholars Clive Scofield and Ian Storey.  “If China can break off Vietnam they’ve won the South China Sea,” a top US official told me. “Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problem with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, the Philippines has few cards to play despite the country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements, Singapore is capable but lacks size.”

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The problem is all sides, with partial exception of Malaysia, are guilty of playing domestic politics with their claims, and by energizing the nationalistic elements in each country, reaching a compromise becomes more difficult.

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Asia’s arms race may be one of the most underreported stories in the elite media in decades.

China’s perspective and strategy

However, throughout Beijing, one is inundated with the nostrum, While China only defends, the United States conquers…Hard-liners and soft-liners alike in Beijing—deeply internalizing how China suffered at the hands of Western powers in recent past—see the South China Sea as a domestic issue, as a blue-water extension of China’s territoriality…Indeed, the South China Sea and its environs are China’s near-abroad, where China is reasserting the status quo, having survived the assault upon it by Western powers. But because the United States has come here from half a world away in order to seek continued influence in the South China Sea, it is demonstrably hegemonic.

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China understands power, and thus it understands the power of the United States. But it will not tolerate a coalition of smaller powers allied with the United States against it: that, given the Chinese historical experience of the past two hundred years, is unacceptable. As for the nine-dashed line, as one university professor in Beijing told me: sophisticated people in government and in the foreign and defense policy institutes here recognize that there must be some compromise down the road, but they need a political strategy to sell such a compromise to a domestic audience, which harbors deep reservoirs of nationalism.

……

Andrew F. Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, believes that the nations of the Western Pacific are slowly being “Finlandized” by China, meaning they will maintain nominal independence but in the end abide by foreign policy rules set by Beijing. He points out that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) sees U.S. battle networks—“which rely heavily on satellites and the internet to identify targets, coordinate attacks, guide ‘smart bombs’ and more”–as its Achilles’ heel. The Chinese, he goes on, have tested an antisatellite missile in 2007, have reportedly used lasers to temporarily blind U.S. satellites, and have been conducting cyber-attacks on the U.S. military for years. This is in addition to the large numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles and other anti-access/area-denial weaponry that the Chinese have been fielding to undermine U.S. forward bases in Asia.

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The aim is not to go to war, but to adjust the disposition of forces so that, as in the case of Taiwan, but writ large across the Western Pacific,  the U.S. military increasingly loses credibility as to what It can accomplish. According to Yale professor of management and political science Paul Bracken, China isn’t so much building a conventional navy as an “anti-navy” navy, designed to push U.S. sea and air forces away from the East Asian coastline.

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The very buildup of military power by China means that paradoxically China can wait and not use force. For as each year passes, China’s naval position strengthens. Beijing’s goal is not war-but an adjustment in the correlation of forces that enhances its geopolitical power and prestige.

Taiwan’s strategy

Henry C. K. Liu is the deputy director general of Taiwan’s National Security Council…”The longer we survive,” he told me, “the more likely that political changes will happen in mainland China itself.” We can buy time, it is all about playing a weak hand well was what I heard throughout Taipei. In the meantime, Liu said, “we must try our best to maintain the status quo” through creative diplomacy and hard military power. “We can only try, through our own defense capabilities, to make those on the mainland see that the use of military force is unthinkable.”

Vietnam’s view towards China

Explains another Vietnamese diplomat: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The U.S. invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive the Mexicans are about that. We grow up with textbooks full of stories of national heroes who fought China.” The Vietnamese historical hostility to China is, in part, artificially constructed: modern-day Vietnamese emphasize the resistances against medieval and early modern Chinese domination, while downplaying the many centuries of “close emulation” of China and the good relations with it, in order to serve the needs of a strong state identity.

Singapore’s view

In fact, no foreign policy and security elite in the world struck me as quite so cold-blooded as that of Singapore’s. Example: though the Philippines, like Singapore, is enthusiastic about countering Chinese power, the Filipinos, in the Singaporean view, “are emotional and unstable and thereby make the security situation worse.” The Singaporeans are more comfortable with serious adversaries than they are with unserious friends. One Singaporean summed it up this way: “At the end of the day, it is all about military force and naval presence–it is not about passionate and well-meaning talk.” Typically, everybody I met in the various Singaporean ministries insisted that frank conversations must be off the record: public diplomacy, in their view, is overrated, and is another thing they have no illusions about. “Spider-Man needs a suit to make him strong; we needed an outsized armed forces,” explained a defense official. While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia’s, whose population is 23 million.

 

 

 

 

Daydream with Sky

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Good profile of Michael Jordan, touching on themes like ageing, obsession, nostalgia, and acceptance. “All glory is fleeting.”

Excerpts:

Michael Jordan, just in case anyone didn’t recognize the owner of a struggling franchise who in another life was the touchstone for a generation. There’s a shudder in every child of the ’80s and ’90s who does the math and realizes that Michael Jordan is turning 50. Where did the years go? Jordan has trouble believing it, difficulty admitting it to himself.

……

“I … I always thought I would die young,”……His mother would get angry with him when he’d talk to her about it. He just could never imagine being old. He seemed too powerful, too young, and death was more likely than a slow decline. The universe might take him, but it would not permit him to suffer the graceless loss and failure of aging. A tragic flaw could undo him but never anything as common as bad knees or failing eyesight.

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The memories came to him, how he felt then. “It was very pure, if I can say it right,” he’d explain later. “It was pure in 1984 … I was still dreaming.”

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“I value that,” he says. “I like reminiscing. I do it more now watching basketball than anything. Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.” “How do you replace it?” he’s asked. “You don’t. You learn to live with it.” “How?” “It’s a process,” he says.

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His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy. If the boy in those letters from Chapel Hill is gone, it is this appetite to prove — to attack and to dominate and to win — that killed him. In the many biographies written about Jordan, most notably in David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps,” a common word used to describe Jordan is “rage.” Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there. The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on his basketball team and why he dreams of returning to play.

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“It’s gone,” he says. “I can’t get it back. My ego is so big now that I expect certain things. Back then, you didn’t.”

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The [Hall of Fame] speech itself, if you watch it again, is an open window into what Jordan is like in private: funny, caustic, confident, sarcastic, competitive. He sees himself not as a gifted athlete but as someone who refused to lose.

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He described what the game meant to him. He called it his “refuge” and the “place where I’ve gone when I needed to find comfort and peace.” Basketball made him feel complete, and it was gone. “One day,” he said, “you might look up and see me playing the game at 50.”

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When he mentions that Yvette never saw him play basketball, he says, “She never saw me at 218.” On the wall of his office there’s a framed photograph of him as a young man, rising toward the rim, legs pulled up near his chest, seeming to fly. He smiles at it wistfully. “I was 218,” he says.

……

The chasm between what his mind wants and what his body can give grows every year. If Jordan watches old video of Bulls games and then hits the gym, he says he’ll go “berserk” on the exercise machines. It’s frightening. A while back, his brother, Larry, who works for the team, noticed a commotion on the practice court. He looked out the window of his office and saw his brother dominating one of the best players on the Bobcats in one-on-one. The next morning, Larry says with a smile, Jordan never made it into his office. He got as far as the team’s training room, where he received treatment.”You paying the price, aren’t you?” Larry asked. “I couldn’t hardly move,” Jordan said.

……

There’s no way to measure these things, but there’s a strong case to be made that Jordan is the most intense competitor on the planet. He’s in the conversation, at the very least, and now he has been reduced to grasping for outlets for this competitive rage.

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His self-esteem has always been, as he says, “tied directly to the game.” Without it, he feels adrift. Who am I? What am I doing? For the past 10 years, since retiring for the third time, he has been running, moving as fast as he could, creating distractions, distance. When the schedule clears, he’ll call his office and tell them not to bother him for a month, to let him relax and play golf. Three days later they’ll get another call, asking if the plane can pick him up and take him someplace. He’s restless.

……

“It’s consumed me so much,” he says. “I’m my own worst enemy. I drove myself so much that I’m still living with some of those drives. I’m living with that. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t know if I could. And here I am, still connected to the game.”

……

Aging means losing things, and not just eyesight and flexibility. It means watching the accomplishments of your youth be diminished, maybe in your own eyes through perspective, maybe in the eyes of others through cultural amnesia. Most people live anonymous lives, and when they grow old and die, any record of their existence is blown away. They’re forgotten, some more slowly than others, but eventually it happens to virtually everyone. Yet for the few people in each generation who reach the very pinnacle of fame and achievement, a mirage flickers: immortality. They come to believe in it. Even after Jordan is gone, he knows people will remember him. Here lies the greatest basketball player of all time. That’s his epitaph. When he walked off the court for the last time, he must have believed that nothing could ever diminish what he’d done. That knowledge would be his shield against aging.

 

There’s a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.” Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn’t have known that the closest he’d get to immortality was during that final walk off the court, the one symbolically preserved in the print in his office. All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded. Maybe he realizes that now. Maybe he doesn’t. But when he sees Joe Montana joined on the mountaintop by the next generation, he has to realize that someday his picture will be on a screen next to LeBron James as people argue about who was better.

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I will be doing my first marathon in New York City later this year. I still remember how much I struggled mentally in my past 10K races, thinking thoughts like “why did I sign up for this”, “when will this ends”, and “is there a way to quit in the middle without embarrassing myself”. I think I felt that way because I didn’t train for them.

As I started training for the marathon and running 10K or more regularly, running the same distance seems to have become a much easier task. I struggle less and don’t think running 10K is a big deal anymore. During my training process, I’m becoming a slightly different person, physically and mentally becoming a person who can finish a marathon. And this is probably similar in many other endeavors, like becoming a professional musician, athlete, or CEO. We hone our skills and mental capacity to achieve things that wouldn’t be possible without those training and experience. Things that seem incredibly difficult at first become ordinary (and something else becomes the new challenge).

Goal seems to be a useful tool to change ourselves. When we strive for goals that stretch us, we need to become different from what we used to be to achieve those goals. Ideally we should also learn to enjoy the process when striving for those goals. For marathon it might mean enjoy eating healthy, staying active, and running regularly. When these activities turn into a lifestyle, it likely means we already become different selves. Dan Gilbert noted that we are always changing but tend to underestimate those changes (he called it “the end of history” illusion). Perhaps we could use goals to change ourselves more consciously.

I think training for a marathon is a great way to experience the power of training and discipline. It is a good challenge because most people can finish a marathon if they train for it, but at the same time it’s not an easy task.

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