Sorry: Not!

This morning, as I walked around Fresh Pond, a hoard of runners came upon me and cut me off as they turned left into the parking lot. “Sorry!” One of the women giggled.

On Tuesday, our habitually late yoga teacher arrived to class five minutes after noon. ”Sorry I’m late,” were her opening words.

Last week, a couple was walking their dog, off leash, along the bike path. I slowed to accommodate the wandering dog. “Sorry!” the wife mumbled.

Merriam-Webster defines ‘sorry’ as “feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence.” None of the micro-encounters described above included any sorrow or regret, and certainly no penitence. The runner didn’t want to break her stride crossing in front of me, even if it meant I had to break mine. The yoga teacher made no intention to begin future classes on time. The couple did not leash their meandering dog. Yet I believe that each of these women felt amelioration, maybe even forgiveness, by their words. After all, they apologized.

Once upon a time, the word ‘sorry’ meant, “I did something to inconvenience, perhaps even hurt you, and I will be more aware not to do it in the future.” These days it means, “I did something to inconvenience, perhaps even hurt you, but it’s okay because I am entitled, and if I toss a ‘sorry’ your way, my conscience is scrubbed clean.”

Men, of course, rarely say they are sorry. I used to think this was rude. Now, since almost everyone uses the word without a morsel of sincerity, perhaps men who inconvenience or hurt others are actually being more honest. They don’t fake apologize. They just do what they are going to do and if others get in the way, tough ‘nuggies.

I blame this sorry state of affairs on Parker Brothers, who popularized the British board game in the United States. No one is actually sorry when they send another player’s token back to start. Trilling the word, “Sorry!” only adds salt to the wound of setback, often made worse by the fact that, in a truly vicious game, a player can often select which opponent to abuse. It’s a game of conquest; so elementary to Western nature it hardly needs directions.

Which brings me to my own micro-crusade. I want to resuscitate the word ‘sorry’ to its original meaning, or at least give it enough heft to actually mean something.

Phase One: only say the word ‘sorry’ when I truly mean it and then change my behavior moving forward. This means I say the word less often, but actually think about how my actions affect others more.

Phase Two: When others throw a ‘sorry’ my way, stop and ask them what they mean. Do they actually regret what they did? Will they try to change their behavior moving forward? Capitalize on an unpleasant encounter to create a moment of connection.

Each of the three scenarios above—and there are so many more—concluded with me explaining to these women how they used the word incorrectly, imploring them to be more conscious of their actions, and only saying ‘sorry’ when they actually mean it. These conversations ran to ten even fifteen minutes—in my head. For of course I am too stymied in the moment to actually say anything out loud to these offenders.

Will I ever summon the courage to engage someone who tosses an insincere ‘sorry’ my way? That remains to be seen. In our uncivil word, entering into conversation with strangers is a dicey proposition, especially when the agenda is to inform and hopefully modify behavior. If I ever tried to do that: I might be sorry.

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A Soft Landing: Non-Profit, Goodbye

This is the tenth essay in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

Here is a non-obvious suggestion to make our society more just and equitable: eliminate non-profit status for any organization. Actually, let’s eliminate the entire notion of private non-profits altogether.

Our society currently operates under a triumvirate of economic sectors: for-profit, private non-profit, and public.

For-profit is easy to define: an organization that provides a good or service and sells it on the open market. For-profit companies are the fundamental component of capitalism. When they make a profit—revenue minus expenses—they pay taxes to the public coffers.

The public sector provides goods or services through governmental entities, usually at free or greatly reduced cost. These include providing services that are spread across the entire population, like the cost of legislative bodies, public education, and national defense; as well as those that provide a collective health and safety net, such as sanitary water systems, food stamps, and Medicaid. Public sector services are paid for by a variety of taxes, including those collected from for-profit organizations (see A Soft Landing: Impact Taxes).

The non-profit sector is squishier to define. These are private organizations that do not pay taxes. They provide basic goods and services that may not be offered by the public sector to people who cannot afford to purchase them from for-profit organizations. Non-profit organizations offer a huge array of services: healthcare, housing, supplemental education, scientific research. They are exempt from paying taxes because, in theory, they are motivated beyond the bottom line: prioritizing charitable goods and services over making a profit. Much non-profit revenue comes from charitable donations, and many of those can be deducted from the donor’s taxes.

There are three major problems with non-profit organizations as they exist today. First, they provide exorbitant tax shelters to the rich, who further increase their outsize influence in our nation in the name of philanthropy. Second, this in-between sector dilutes the effectiveness of both the for-profit and pubic sectors. Third, non-profits enjoy economic advantages without having to meet what ought to be fundamental to all social service programs: universal access.

From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, generations of super rich have docked their money in foundations to extend their influence and refashion their legacy. Rockefeller, Ford, and Getty’s foundations soften our perception of these capitalist cut-throats long after they’re gone, just as the Sackler family’s named places at Tufts, Harvard, and Yale, as well as the Metropolitan, Guggenheim, and Smithsonian Museums sugarcoat their role in the opioid crisis. If moguls want to spend their money in charitable ways, fine by me; even the richest men in America are allowed to indulge in reinvention. But that doesn’t mean our tax structure ought to enable it.

The second problem may be less narcissistic, but is even more corrosive. The American fixation on individual freedom is joined at the hip to our fantasy of minimal government. The more tasks and services advocates of less government can pawn off on non-profits, the fewer services the government has to actually provide. Similarly, non-profit facades enable for-profits to dodge social responsibility, all the while leaning into it. Have you seen a Whole Foods wall of ‘affiliated non-profits’: warm feeling without actually committing receipts from grocery cash registers.

Our government is the only institution tasked with providing services to all. When we shift social services to other providers, we dilute universal access. This is most true among faith-based organizations. In a country based on the separation of church and state, why are these organizations tax-exempt? They should not be.

Here’s my recipe to simplify. Every company, every organization, is either private or public. Private companies make products and services according to regulatory and marketplace rules; they pay taxes on profits. Public entities provide the universal services and infrastructure we, as a nation, agree that we need. Public entities also determine and provide social supports available to all.

If people want to engage in humane and charitable work like feeding the hungry, teaching the illiterate, and inoculating the ill, terrific. They are entitled to the satisfaction of lifting up their fellow man, but they should not be entitled to tax deductions. If a religious community wants to erect a church and hire a pastor to shepherd their flock, fine, but that should not exempt their property from taxes levied by a secular government. If Jeff Bezos wants to establish a foundation to cure the world of whatever ill he decides is most pressing, go for it, but don’t let him transfer Amazon’s profits out of our taxable pool to fund it.

Rather, tax all private profits and distribute them collectively, democratically, according to a consensus of the people over the preferences of the rich.

Eliminating non-profits will not be easy; they are entrenched in our economy and culture. Virtually everyone has a ‘favorite charity’ they support. We like to feel like we make a direct difference. The benevolent rush we get from writing our end-of-year charitable checks is much more satisfying than the April woe we feel in paying the IRS. We distrust our government to allocate tax revenues in the way we want.

And yet these are the very reasons why non-profits muddy our economic system. In a democracy, it is our responsibility to make sure the government allocates revenues according to our wishes. And if we get a rush in writing a charity check, that should be reward enough. No need to tag on a tax deduction.

The idea of a private non-profit is both inspiring and effective, yet non-profits simultaneously boost our noble intentions while indulging our baser instinct. Two days a week I volunteer at Mount Auburn Hospital, a gig I love. In 2015, President and CEO, Jeannette Clough received $6.5 million dollars in compensation to captain our 213-bed community hospital. For every $100 people in our community spent on healthcare at Mount Auburn, two bucks went directly into Jeanette’s pocket. I have never met Ms. Clough, and hope I never do; I would find it hard to be civil to such virtue-cloaked greed. Yet, I am confident that Ms. Clough’s feed at the non-profit trough is not a singular example.

Let’s get rid of such duplicity. Let’s abandon the inherent contradictions of state-subsidized private non-profits. Let’s make a strong private sector, economically efficient, to placate our competitive natures. Then, let’s support a strong public sector that mediates private excess and spreads our wealth equitably.

 

 

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A Soft Landing: Immigration: The Ultimate Test of Our Humanity

This is the ninth essay in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

Immigrants are perfect targets. The foreigner seeking opportunity, refuge, or escape ignites our fear of the ‘other’ quick as dried newsprint. He’s equally cheap and abundant. He will steal our jobs; she will corrupt our culture; they will take what is rightfully ours. Politicians suffer no fallout for beating on them; they cannot vote. Employers risk no retribution for abusing them; they cannot complain.

Virtually all of us were immigrants. Our family stories include forebears who risked all to come to this new land. This shared experience ought to foster empathy for the immigrant. Instead it fuels our disdain. Poverty, persecution, and need create immigrants. We may be grateful that our grandparents and great grandparents took risks to deliver us to the promise of America. But for all we cherish our collective nation-of-immigrants tale, we don’t much like immigrants in the here and now. They are too close reminders of our own vulnerability.

Immigration is more complicated than most other challenges we face: because immigrants are so easily abused; because our own prejudices are so strong; because their motivations are too complex to be addressed in 140, or even 280 characters. Unlike the broad concepts that capture other aspects of achieving A Soft Landing (a new Constitution, universal income, universal service), how we ought to assess and welcome immigrants (or not) cannot be distilled into a single phrase. Nevertheless, it can be synthesized into a spectrum of attitudes and actions that we will need to undertake if we seek a balanced approach to immigration. I am hesitant to label it a list, as each idea builds upon, and reinforces, the others. Cumulatively, they provide a framework that can lead to more rational immigration policies. Perfectly fair and just: probably not. But striving in that direction.

One: Immigrants are individuals, not a collective threat. When we aggregate immigrants and describe them as a force, we make it easier to stoke fear against them. This benefits politicians, but obfuscates reason. Truth is, it would be difficult to find any defined group with less ‘collective’ identity or organizational structure than immigrants. Their histories span every segment of every culture. They hold nothing in common save hope.

Two: Enforce existing immigration laws with respect. Our borders should not be open to anyone who wants to cross. However, if someone arrives seeking asylum, they are entitled to a fair hearing and timely resolution, and we should allocate the necessary resources to enable that.

Three: Revise immigration laws to reflect national and humane priorities. Our patchwork of green card lotteries, H-visas, J-visas, and selective raids against undocumented immigrants is a complicated labyrinth that keeps immigrants in a limbo of harassment. The number of people admitted by lottery fluctuates so much. Sponsored individuals granted work-dependent visas are strung along for ten, sometimes twenty, years before determining permanent residency. We reveal and deport undocumented immigrants in arbitrary raids. All of this confusion and delay further politicizes immigration; fosters continuous anxiety among immigrants, and foments fear in the rest of us.

 

 

Four: Eliminate opportunities for undocumented workers. At present, everyone benefits (in the short term) from undocumented workers. Employers get cheap labor; consumers get artificially low prices. Everyone, that is, except undocumented workers. They toil for low wages; they make few demands. A person living in shadow has no voice, no power, no agency. If we enforced labor laws against employers who hire undocumented workers; fine them, jail them even, opportunities for undocumented workers would evaporate as would their incentive to come here. Unfortunately, the undocumented themselves cannot realize this change. It is up to us, all of us, who benefit from the current patterns to take ethically correct action.

Five: Institute a guest work program. This may seem a big new idea, thought it is actually an old one. Our society, our economy cannot function without the labor currently performed by undocumented workers. Even with wage and benefit increases, American citizens are unlikely to pick our crops, process our meat, mow our lawns, and clean our houses. We need a guest worker program to enable citizens of other countries to come here to work, in the light, with specified rights, baseline economic and civil protections, and a clear, albeit long-term path to citizenship.

Six: Support justice and opportunity in everyone’s native land. Although we need to improve how we intercept, process, and accommodate people who arrive at our borders seeking asylum, our ultimate goal should be a world where justice and opportunity is distributed so evenly that people are not compelled to flee. We are so far from this fantasy. In fact, we are careening in the opposite direction. Human action: political upheaval, lack of economic opportunity, and violence against oppressed groups all contribute to more refugees, more immigrants, every year. As environmental dislocation accelerates, the number of people who must relocate simply to sustain life, the number of nomads, will only increase.

 

As long as we live on a planet divvied up into independent nation-states, each propping up different systems of inequity, the number of immigrants across the globe will continue increase. How we will address this unprecedented migration is a daunting challenge. But if we wish to do it with dignity and respect, we must stop treating immigration as a political footfall and accept it as the ultimate test of our humanity. We have to begin treating others, as we want to be treated ourselves.

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What’s Your Narrative?

Divorced white male, retired from a career in construction industry, spends most days at the gym or taking solitary walks, evenings watching old movies or PBS American Experience.

What have we here; a psychopath in training.

 

 

Successful architect who left the profession at the peak of his career to pursue activist agenda that includes international service, advocacy writing, and conscious engagement across societal boundaries.

Sounds exhausting before we ever reach dessert.

 

 

Middle-aged son of an alcoholic with long history of depression can be immobilized in the morning, especially if he doesn’t have mandatory activity plans.

Quick, someone hand this guy a pistol so he can end his misery.

 

 

Late blooming gay man, still single after all these years.

Hard to feel sorry for a bloke who channels Paul Simon.

 

 

It’s that time of year again: New Year. Time to invent yourself, reinvent yourself, rip out your guts and reinvent yourself again. Once upon a time, so I hear, New Year was an inflection point, a moment of reflection and projection. Where have we been? Where are we going?

Who has time for that posh now? Our era of accelerating speed, relative truth, and endless spin demands that we tweet and tinder personal narratives spiced with ever-bolder claims on a logarithmically shrinking timeframe. These self-descriptions shape the way the world sees us; then they reinforce our own self-image and identity; until they become our self-image and identity.

It’s all just a simple tangent on the relative-truth, alt-truth, pick-your-own-truth-and-stick-to-it-despite-any-conflicting-facts-truth. Those bubbles of skewed reality that each of us inhabit.

How did all this come about? I blame science. Back in the day of objective truth, an apple hit Newton on the head and gravity became a thing. We loved it. Three indisputable laws of mechanics described everything we needed to know. Then the Twentieth Century arrived. Instead attending to regular haircuts, Einstein postulated relativity. Heisenberg codified uncertainty. Once science went squishy, everything else caved.

Only nineteen years in, the guiding precept of the twenty-first century is selective reality. Colin Powell kicked it off in 2003 with his weapons of mass destruction mantra at the UN; the textbook example of ‘if you say it loud enough, often enough, it will become true. We actually went to war—and killed people—over weapons whose incendiary capacity was mere insistence.

Since then, we are inundated by the media echo chamber of shouting and over shouting. The dominant truth at any moment is nothing more, or less, than the one proclaimed at highest volume. It defines our politics, it stokes our fears, it cons us into believing that who we want to be is who we say we are. Forget sweat and toil, suffering or direct experience. I am what I proclaim. If Amy Schumer can say, I Feel Pretty, so can I.

Dashing millionaire with waterfront mansion and limousine fleet likes to sun himself on native grasses and lap in his private pool.

I consider that an accurate description of a guy with patches of grey hair, steep property taxes, a winter-only reservoir view, a bus stop at the corner, and a slab of sunlight on the bamboo floor in the yoga studio, who occasionally lands an empty lane in the gym swimming pool. If you don’t agree, go make your own narrative.

 

 

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New Year’s Wish

In January I watched a man die. I had never witnessed death in real time before. Thus began 2018, my year of gloom. Harry, a longtime friend, drained away before my eyes. His breath crescendoed in torment, until it eased into quiet serenity. Lover, daughters, friend stood around his bedside. Solace speckled our grief; Harry exited our world in peace.

Beyond that intimate circle, anguish rippled wise across the earth like a radioactive boulder shattering a tranquil sea. We devoted more time in postulating how humanity would end—environmental catastrophe, nuclear annihilation, biological contagion, toxic incivility—than envisioning how our species might thrive.

 

Despair informed my reading. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: a grim curiosity shop of creatures we’ve shoveled out of existence. James Suzman’s Affluence without Abundance: a Bushmen hunter-gatherer society, stable for over 100,000 years, unhinged within a few generations. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: tapping the root of our deadened soul. Tales that traverse millions of years of evolution even as they excavate our unconscious now.

 

We are specks spinning on a rock. The rock’s a mere dot in the universe. Our universe is nothing more than a cosmic dust mite. We do not matter; we don’t even know what it might mean to matter, in any galactic way. And yet within each of us lies a universe complete onto itself. Our feelings, our movements, our very breath, constitute an all consuming whole.

In this, man’s essential duality, I find hope for the New Year. We are simultaneously insignificant and omnipotent. We do not know how or when we will end, as individuals or as a species. We just know that our end is ordained by the greater powers of god, science, and myth. Yet we believe, thanks to the gift of projection, that our spirit will transcend physical reality.

“Enough!” I declared one morning, to no one but me. Exhausted from dreams of destruction, I sought a path to balance, to nurture humanity’s time here on earth without being numbed by our inevitable demise. Our problems are monstrous; our responses to them are inadequate, actually absurd. What one man can do is miniscule. Yet within my personal universe, action connotes power. And so I carry my bags to the market, wear a sweater and turn the thermostat down. I write my legislators and attend rallies. I vote. I volunteer. I operate outside of the news cycle, the business cycle, every kind of societal mousetrap except maybe the bi-cycle. I post far-flung ideas up to the cloud and don’t sweat meager reader stats. What’s good and lasting is not breaking news. It’s aged. Seasoned. It infiltrates our essence and lodges in our conscience. It awaits a viral future.

Most of all, I greet every person I encounter with equanimity. I try to be kind. I try to keep my breath moderate as my politics and my temper. I try to be kind. I try to see the world through seven billion different eyes, and when I fail, I try to be kind.

 

And so, here is my trio of New Year wishes to you and yours.

Acknowledge the gloom of our age, but don’t succumb to it.

Harness the energy of action for equity and justice.

And most important, be kind to those you love, and especially to those you don’t.

Let 2019 be the year we shirk our gloom. Let us act like we care for ourselves, and each other. When the time comes for each of us—eventually all of us—to cease this planet for good, let us rage, rage against the dying of the light. And then inhale our inevitable last breath in quiet serenity. May we all resolve in peace.

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There Goes the Neighborhood

Change happens continuously. But we humans only notice it episodically. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for more than 25 years, a few crooked blocks separated from the rest of Cambridge by Route 2. I call it the suburbs of Cambridge. Like Tottenville is to New York City and San Pedro to LA, Strawberry Hill is within Cambridge’s physical boundaries, but psychically distinct and totally foreign to the hipsters clicking around the newsstand in Harvard Square.

Strawberry Hill residents live further from the Red Line than anyone else in our fair city. In exchange, we have yards, driveways, even a few garages. Our mostly two-family houses were built a hundred years ago or so, at the limit of streetcar tracks. Three blocks east, houses are tucked tighter and priced higher. Three blocks west lies Belmont: Leave-it-to-Beaverville.

Strawberry Hill is Cambridge’s statistical outlier as well. We are more white, more moderately income, more domestically stable than other parts of Cambridge. At least we were when my young family moved here in 1992. In 1996, when I served on our neighborhood study group, I learned exactly how vanilla we are. In a city where most domiciles flip every five years or less, Strawberry Hill residents stay put for over twenty. Why would anyone leave? It’s convenient, it’s safe. We’ve got our own little public library, a cute elementary school, acres of woods at Fresh Pond Reservation, and our nation’s premier garden cemetery (Mount Auburn, 1831, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead). Besides, so many city workers live in this perennially affordable neighborhood: our streets are the first to be plowed, our trash is picked up early. My house is a 121-year-old granddaddy of the neighborhood; I’m only the third owner.

So forgive me if I didn’t notice twenty-six years of change until—boom—it hit me in the face. Or rather, it parked in my neighbor’s driveway.

When I moved into this traditionally Italian neighborhood, neighbors in every direction were named Frank and Marie. Their children lived upstairs, or across the street. Their cousins lived down the block. One Frank told me his family lived far away; Malden’s ten miles from here. Over time, the lucky ones died in their beds, others were ambulanced to nursing homes. Their kids moved to Arlington, maybe Bedford. One by one, houses changed hands, often without even a For Sale sign. The new people were white or brown or yellow, few blacks, even fewer Italians. Strawberry Hill might not so diverse as we proclaim, but we’re still basically middle class, right?

About eight years ago, Marie-in-the-white-house-across-the-street (every Frank and Marie requires a subtitle) died. The house that Marie had lived in since 1926 went on the market. It was an urban treasure, solid construction without a single update, original gumwood trim intact. A nice family bought it, mom, dad, two girls. They renovated it lovingly, adhered to LEED energy standards, installed native landscaping. He’s South Asian; she’s Eastern European. Their children go to the local school, they decorate at holidays, they raise chickens. They’re great, maybe even fabulous.

And then, one day this fall, a Tesla arrives. Not a Prius, not a Lexus, not even an Audi: a full-on Tesla. In their driveway. Sometimes they even park it on the street! My fantasy of a cozy working class neighborhood: blown to smithereens in a single stroke of left-leaning affluence. The academics, the professionals, the technocrats, the learned liberals who’ve replaced Cambridge’s working class in neighborhood after neighborhood, have finally invaded Strawberry Hill. My face burrowed. Then I looked in the mirror. Who the heck am I? A triple-diploma threat, an architect rather than building inspector, let alone a tradesman, I don’t possess a drop of Italian blood or a cousin within miles. I’m nothing more than an early adaptor in Strawberry Hill’s gentrification.

Ever since the Tesla arrived, I’ve been despondent, pining for a neighborhood that probably never existed anyway, bemoaning my role in the transformation even as I’m quietly smug to have gotten into the game so early on.

But this week, everything turned bright once more. A few doors down from the Tesla, a larger than life Santa, garish and inflated, popped up on the front lawn where a firefighter still lives (I know this because a fire truck clangs to his children’s birthday parties). It is a tacky counterpoint to the little white lights more and more prevalent here. But it makes me so happy. For at least one more holiday season, Strawberry Hill will not completely succumb to the yawning standards of gentrified good taste.

Happy Holidays to all.

 

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A Soft Landing: Universal Service

This is the eighth in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

Americans are quick to claim our rights and we are slow to fulfill our responsibilities.

That’s my logline for the state of our nation, an imbalance that permeates every level of our culture, our economy, and our government.

 

 

We are hasty to proclaim micro-aggressions, yet slow to bestow the benefit of the doubt; swift at making a buck, while tardy in owning the full cost of our excess; agile at legislating benefits, yet allergic to paying for them.

This dissonance is, I believe, a logical outcome of an affluent, consumption-based society addicted to the myth of individualism. It’s also the root of our social isolation, income inequality, and disdain for government.

The more our affluence and technology allow us to communicate, interact, and live in closed bubbles, the deeper our divisions. In order to achieve a soft landing, we have to bridge these divides. One important way to do this is through universal service.

What do I mean by ‘universal service’?

Universal means everyone participates. Everyone: every American between the ages of 18 and 24, for two years, with no exceptions. Girl genius, developmentally disabled youth, youthful felon, or son of a Senator; no one is exempt.

Service means interaction beyond our comfort zone. I envision a variety of options from which people can choose: the military, Peace Corps, and Americorps to start; additional varieties will evolve in time. Every youth has to reside in a new place and engage in new activities, preferably among people with different perspectives.

 

Our closest precedent for universal service is the Works Progress Administration within FDR’s New Deal. Like the WPA, universal service may offer benefits not bestowed by the private sector (CCC’s hiking trails). It may offer artistic and cultural opportunities (FSA photography). It may even offer direct economic benefits (rooftop solar could be our new Cooley dam).

But the primary aim of universal service will not be economic output; rather it will be social cohesion. Universal service will set different types of Americans side-by-side in a conscious effort to illustrate our differences as a route to helping us appreciate them. Universal service will create better-informed, engaged, empathetic citizens.

Patriots earn our rights when we step up to our responsibilities.

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