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Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website November 2nd, 2005. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

To start off, let me say that when this soap box entry was written, it wasn't completely up to date with current events. I began writing this in August, before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. But, like it says on my homepage, my website's just a hobby, so with my focus being on other things, it's taken me a little while to write this entry. I've even put this essay aside to complete two other pages on this site that were more important to get done quickly (Guatemala 2005 Photos and Homosexual Marriage Soapbox Entry). So, there are many things I've seen since I started writing this essay that would go right along with the topic, especially remarks I've seen related to Hurricane Katrina. However, in the interest of actually completing this essay and getting it posted on my website, I'm not going to write about them. In fact, I'm even going to drop one of the original topics I was going to discuss, Justice Sunday II, just because it's taking me so long to write this.

2 November 2005

Okay, I don't want to beat a dead horse. I know I've gone over the subject of evolution several times. So, I'm going to try to stear clear of that in this essay. (Maybe I'll start a new section on my site, Evolution Rants, so I can just write away about it to my heart's content, and not have it interfere with the rest of this site.) Anyway, I've been doing a lot of reading over the past couple months on evolution, creationism, science, religion, etc., probably devoting more time to it than I should. And so it's making me notice these things more in daily life. And now I think that the whole evolution vs. creationism debate is just the symptom of a larger problem in this country. I'll just throw out a few examples here in the opening paragraph, and then discuss them later on. First, just the other day, I got an e-mail, the same one from two different people (though one guy sent it to me just to get a rise out of me, but it still shows that it's making the rounds), that correllated the September 11th terrorist attacks with taking prayer out of school and the moral decline of our country. Second, and I don't remember exactly where I saw this, but at the time, some book called Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About by Kevin Trudeau was the second best selling book in America, followed behind Harry Potter. Actually, as I began writing this in August 2005, and again when I checked in October 2005, it's at the number one spot for Hardcover Advice on the New York Times bestseller list. And finally, I was watching the National Geographic Channel the other night, and on their new series, Is It True (which is a very good series, by the way), they did a special on excorcisms, and showed all the people that are buying into it.

All of these examples, as well as my previous rants on evolution, show a society that's increasingly abandoning science and embracing the mystical. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a Christian myself (though my views would probably get me branded as a heretic in most circles), so I believe that there's more to the universe than just what science can tell us. And some home medical remedies do work. But I think that for the most part, scientists, doctors, and other technical people know what they're doing and what they're talking about, supernatural explanations are usually the wrong explanations, given the choice between homeopathy and modern medicine - I'd take modern medicine any day, and that some of the religious views in this country right now, to put it frankly, just plain scare me.

Scary Religious E-mail

Okay, this topic is really what got me worked up the most to start writing this essay. Below is a copy of an e-mail that I got the other day. I've reduced the font size from the original formatting in the e-mail I got, and I made it all left-justified, instead of centered, but other than that, I tried to keep the formatting (mistakes and all) pretty much the same.

Granted, this is just one e-mail, but I got it from two different people, indicating that a lot of people are buying into it and forwarding it on to people that they know (okay, the one guy that sent it to me did so just to get a rise out of me, but the e-mail still got to him, so it's still making it's rounds).

Subject: FW: Please Read This ,It Got me to Thinking--Hope You Do Too !

In light of the many perversions and jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke, it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" (regarding the attacks on Sept. 11).

Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.

And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school . the Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "WE REAP WHAT WE SOW."

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says.

Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they WILL think of you for sending it. Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in!!

We Plan GOD Laughs

If you dont agree send it to the author,

(intentionally left out)@aol

This e-mail scares me. Basically, it links separation of church and state with the September 11th terrorist attacks, then goes on to say that the world's going to Hell in handbasket because of our Godless ways. I think it's scary the type of mindset it takes to write that type of e-mail, believe it, or forward it on to people.

Now, I don't doubt that there are certain problems on the rise in this country, but I don't think it's any worse than problems that have appeared in civilization in the past - we just need to understand their causes and correct them. Correlating the problems to removal of school prayer just doesn't seem like the answer to me - it's like saying global warming and other increases in natural disasters are a result of the reduction of pirates since the 1800's (See the Flying Spaghetti Monster site) (Actually, out of all the problems that are on the rise in our country today, one of them that scares me the most is the abandoning of science for increased religious fundamentalism.)

You know who in history had it good? Rich Romans. You know, the pagans who would practice homosexuality, had slaves, and massacred Christians in the Colosseum for entertainment, just to name a few of their vices. Their standard of living was very good, even by today's standards. They had running water, central heating, flushing toilets, and a lot of other things that weren't commonplace in Europe again until the last couple of centuries. They had feasts where there was so much food, that it was accepted practice to excuse yourself to vomit between courses, just to make more room in your stomach (hey, gluttony, there's another sin). You know who in history had it bad? Poor peasants in Medieval Europe. You know, the devout Christians who went to church every Sunday, had complete faith, and wore hair shirts and flailed themselves as pennance for their sins. They were little more than slaves to their lords, and had a horrendous standard of life. I know lots of people like to point out that the Roman Empire did eventually fall, and they like to blame it on their decadent ways, but the empire still lasted for several centuries, not to mention the republic before that, which is quite a long time for a nation to last. If the empire fell because of their sins, it sure took a long time for it to happen, letting people enjoy that decadent lifestyle the whole time.

That line in the e-mail about Dr. Spock's son committing suicide isn't even true (See Snopes). Besides, what's so bad about not beating your kids, anyway, and disciplining them in other ways?

And what's the purpose of that parenthetical comment about someone speaking out against school prayer getting murdered - that whenever someone gets murdered God was mad at them?

To me, this e-mail reeks of propaganda. The writer has an agenda - getting Christianity into schools and government - and he/she's preying on people's religious beliefs to try and make them feel guilty enough into going along.

Actually, since I've been writing this, a new study by Gregory S. Paul, titled "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" was published in the Journal of Religion and Society. It shows the correlation between the number of people in a nation that believe in and worship a creator, versus different problems that that nation faces. To quote the study, "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a 'shining city on the hill' to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health." I know statistics can be taken many different ways, correlation is not causation, and I'm sure there are many factors contributing to problems in the U.S. But this does demonstrate that the more "Godless" nations are actually doing better than the U.S. in terms of "societal health," and that becoming less religious as a nation does not necessarily lead to the collapse of society. It's just absurd to blame the problems in the U.S. on abandoning school prayer and other such things. (To read more about this study, take a look at the article in The Times or this blog entry on Thoughts from Kansas, or just go and read the study, itself.)

Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About

Like I said in the introduction to this essay, I was watching TV one night with my wife, and I can't remember what channel or show it was that we were watching, but at the time, some book called Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About by Kevin Trudeau was the second best selling book in America, followed behind Harry Potter. Since I first saw that, while channel surfing I've seen Kevin Trudeau numerous times either being interviewed legitimately about his book, or more often on an infomercial in a staged interview trying to sell his book. Apparently, he's doing rather well. when I first checked the New York Times Best-Seller Lists this past August, the book was at the number one spot for hardcover advice. When I checked again at the end of October, 2005, the book was still at that spot. And really, it just amazes me how he can do so well.

Before I even get into looking at the claims that this man made, let's take a look at his reputation, first. Here's a very good page on the Federal Trade Commission website. He was banned from doing any more infomercials because of the number of lies he told. Here's a quote from the FTC page:

In nationally-televised infomercials, Trudeau advertised that Coral Calcium Supreme, a dietary supplement purportedly made from Japanese marine coral, provided the same amount of bioavailable calcium as two gallons of milk, could be absorbed into the body faster than ordinary calcium, and could cure cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, lupus, and other illnesses. In a separate infomercial, Trudeau claimed that Biotape, an adhesive strip, provided permanent relief from severe pain, including debilitating back pain, and pain from arthritis, sciatica, and migraines. In June 2003, the FTC filed a complaint in the Northern District of Illinois against Trudeau and some of his companies, alleging that these disease claims for Coral Calcium Supreme were false and unsubstantiated. The Commission also alleged in a separate action that Trudeau violated a 1998 FTC order by making the Coral Calcium Supreme claims and the pain-relief claims for Biotape.

This man is, almost literally, a snake oil salesman. With the type of repuation that this person has, how can people continue to buy his book? I guess the answer is that most people who see a book in the bookstore won't go and research the author before buying the book, and if they see it on the Home Shopping Network they won't do a lot of research, either. But really, after watching the infomercial and the types of claims he's making, you'd think people would do some checking into it. Part of the problem also lies with retailers. I know we need to have freedom of expression, but what about responsibility for what you're selling? Wal-Mart is well known for its refusal to sell certain controversial items, like music albums with explicit lyrics. How can they in good conscience sell a book like this one? Well, I guess businesses stay in business by selling what people want to buy, and apparently that means this book. Plus, allowing dishonest people to publish there books in the interest of free expression is better than censorship. So really, most of the blame does come down to the people being gullible/ignorant enough to believe this man's claims and to buy his book.

So let's take a look at some of those claims. Here's a transcript of one of his infomercials (along with the webmaster's commentary) on InfomercialWatch.org.

In the interest of keeping this essay from becoming too long (both for the reader's sake, and so that I can actually complete it to post it on my website), I'm only going to look in detail at one of his claims. Here's one of the exchanges that took place in that interview, regarding multiple sclerosis. I included the first few lines so you can see the exchange leading up to his claims about MS.

TRUDEAU: There are. There are all-natural cures. You'll never hear about them because the manufacturers can't tell you what they are. Diabetes, migraines, cancer, heart disease, acid reflux, Attention Deficit Disorder, depression, stress, phobias, fibromyalgia, pain of all sorts, arthritis, the list goes on. Lupus, multiple sclerosis; there are cures for multiple sclerosis. There are cures for muscular dystrophy that are all natural and people are not being allowed...

MATTHEWS: Now muscular dystrophy, for example ...

TRUDEAU: -[to tell the truth].

MATTHEWS: How long would ... well, I mean, I guess it depends on the case. But on the average, what kind of program of homeopathic medicines would someone have to get on and ... ?

TRUDEAU: There is ... in the book I tell you, in most cases, MS symptoms are caused by something you're eating. It's a food additive. And when you stop eating it within ... in some cases, days, the symptoms of MS go away. Now isn't that shocking?

MATTHEWS: Well, it is shocking.

TRUDEAU: It's caused by a food additive in many cases. In many cases, MS is being diagnosed when a person doesn't have anything. It's a food additive that's causing the problem.

Well, to start off with, this is a bit misleading. You can see in the first statement by Truedeau that he's claiming a cure for MS. But then in the rest of the discussion, he talks about treating symptoms of MS, not the disease itself. Notice the slight shift in his claim there. He goes on to say that the symptoms are caused by food additives, and that doctors are misdiagnosing the disease. If I were a doctor, I'd be highly offended, that somebody would make such a serious accusation, that I'm not just misdiagnosing a case here and there in the less severe cases, but most cases of MS. I don't think doctors are that inept. My wife's a nurse, and through her I've met several medical doctors. And they are very intelligent people. They have to be to get through all of the schooling it takes to be a doctor. I don't think it would be very easy for food companies to add an additive to their foods, and to trick all of the doctors into thinking that the symptoms were actually caused by MS. Not just that, but I think enough research has been done that people have a pretty good idea of what the causes of MS actually are. To read some real information about the disease, visit the National MS Society.

I hope that specific claim helps to show how ludicrous his claims are, but let's discuss the claims in general. Read that transcript I mentioned above if you've never had the displeasure of watching this man's infomercials. Most of his claims, which should be evident enough from the title of the book, are very conspiratorial. He's saying that all of these natural cures are out there, but there are all these cover-ups to keep them from being known, so that drug companies can continue to make money. While I'm not willing to dismiss the power of greed in driving people to certain actions, you really have to consider how many people would have to affected by such a conspiracy, and you really have to have a low opinion of people on top of that. I mean, consider just how many people work for drug companies doing research. It's a huge industry. Not one of those people has a high enough moral standard to speak out for the greater good of the world? And what about other research institutions, like universities? Are all of those professors, not to mention their grad and undergrad students that are doing large parts of their research, also a part of the conspiracy? It just seems ludicrous. They're human beings, with the same compassion for humanity as everybody has. They'd jump at the chance to find a cure to save all of those people. Even at a selfish level, don't you think somebody would want the fame of being the one to uncover a conspiracy and give the world the cure for cancer? or any of the other maladies Trudeau is claiming are being covered up?

And just to wrap up the discussion on this book, here's a link to the book on Amazon.com. At the time I posted this, there were 1734 reviews of the book, so go ahead and read some of them for yourself. Apparently, the book doesn't even have all of the content that Trudeau claimed it would in those infomercial interviews.

It just boggles my mind that so many people are buying into what this huckster is claiming. I mean, it's not just his claims that get me worked up - anybody can be an idiot on their own time - it's that he's got one of the best selling books in America based on those claims.

Exorcism

Yet again, watching T.V. with my wife, we saw a show on the National Geographic Channel, Is It Real? (which is turning out to be one of my favorite shows, by the way). This particular episode dealt with exorcisms. Actually, at the time of writing this, if you go to National Geographic's Video Archive, and do a search on "exorcism," you can find a short clip from the episode. And really, I don't know exactly how many people are buying into this, but from the video clips you could see on the show, there were some pretty big crowds at the services of one particular exorcist, Bob Larson.

While I was watching this man perform his exorcisms, I was struck by one thing, before they ever even introduced the skeptics (so I don't think I was being biased by their views), and that was how much the whole thing looked like stage hypnosis. There was the preacher, up at the front of a big crowd, with his "patient" there with him, and he kept talking to "the demons" possessing these people. I mean, the susceptibility of the human mind to the power of suggestion is a lot greater than most of us would like to believe. And it's not necessarily stupid people (Nobel laureate Richard Feynman discusses being hypnotized by a stage magician in one of his books), it's just that certain people have a disposition towards being hypnotized. So, I told my wife that's what was going on, and lo and behold, a few minutes later when National Geographic showed the experts, that's exactly what they thought was going on.

Although I'm a bit skeptical, I tend to be very trusting of people. So I saw this man doing his exorcisms, and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, that he believed in what he was doing just as much as the people being exorcised. I told my wife that, but she doesn't have quite as high of a regard of human nature. Her response was, "I bet he's selling something and making a lot of money off of this." And just a few minutes later, they show how he sells books and videos at his services.

I wish I could find a transcript of this episode, or maybe catch it on T.V. again to get this certain quote. One woman said that she'd been excorcised by Larson many times, I think in the double digits. That right there should be a signal that these people aren't doing what they say they're doing. I guess you can come up with lots of rationalizations for this (more than one evil spirit, getting re-possessed), but I'd seriously question the validity of an exorcist who needs repeat business. And this helps bring up the point of what is wrong with people buying into this - they're not getting the real help that they need.

These people have problems. They wouldn't be seeking out help if they didn't. And obviously, many of these people believe that the exorcists are really doing some good for them. I had a brief discussion on this topic with an acquaintance of mine, who said that maybe the psychological effects of believing that you've been helped really do help. Well, that may be true to some extent, but I think the case of the woman going back to the exorcist multiple times shows the problems with that. She's not getting the help that she needs. People may argue that psychologists don't cure you in one visit, either, or that some psychologists are too quick to give out drugs, but at least they're trying to find and treat the actual problem, not just hypnotizing you and shouting "Devil be gone."

Well, I'd like to rant on this a little bit more, but without having a transcript of the episode, or writing this while the episode is still fresh in my memory, I just can't remember enough to bring up any good points, so I'll just move on to discussing alternative medicine in general.

Homeopathy and Alternative Medicine

Americans seem to be embracing alternative medicine these days, and I really just don't understand it. A few years ago, I was with a group of acquaintances, and one other man who knew them that I had just met that night and never saw again. But I still remember one statement this man said. We were out having dinner, and the topic came up of what we all did, and what our wives did. He told how his wife was into homeopathy, and the statement that really sticks out in my mind, "Western medicine can't explain it, so they just dismiss it." And that seems to be a common mantra among people that are into this sort of thing. Now, medicine is just like any other science, there are unknowns. But, just like any other science, it's based on experiment and evidence. Doctors perform studies on large groups of individuals, and study the results of those studies, and from that determine what treatments work and what treatments don't. And you know what, sometimes the doctors don't understand why exactly a certain treatment performs the way it does, but if they find a signficant statistical correlation from their study, they'll dig into it further. They don't just dismiss things things that they can't explain. You'll find examples of this all the time, such as a recent article on news@nature.com, explaining how a certain drug originally intended to combat Lou Gehrig's disease also caused a loss of appetite. The doctors couldn't explain it at first, but after some studying found that it had to do with growth of new cells in the hypothalamus. And they still don't understand exactly what's going on, but they can see that something's happening.

I think that a lot of homeopathic remedies work to some degree not because there's anything beneficial about the remedy itself, but because of the placebo effect (more info at Wikipedia). Basically, if you believe something will work, no matter how ineffectual it actually is, you will at least perceive less of the symptoms, and might actually get somewhat better. Not too long ago, I went on a cruise with my family. The first night out, the seas were a little rough and lots of people were getting seasick. The crew had two remedies to sell- dramamine tablets, or metal bracelets. The crew seemed to be recommending the bracelets quite a bit, and I saw quite a few people buying them. I heard one customer ask if they really worked. I really wanted to tell him that it would work just as much as he wanted to believe that it did, but I bit my lip.

There may be some home remedies or alternative medicines that do legitimately work, not just the placebo effect, but actually having a measureable impact. After all, modern medicine has gotten several of its treatments from traditional remedies. For an example, look at how we've gotten aspirin from the traditional remedy of using willow bark (More Info). The difference is, though, that modern medicine approaches the problems more scientifically. Not just to try and figure out what works and how it works, like I've already discussed, but also what side effects there might be from the treatment, or how a certain new drug might interact with other drugs. Sure, a home remedy might alleviate a certain symptom, but if you later found out that it was a carcinogen, or that it had bad side effects when mixed with the cough syrup that you take, you might have been better off to never use that home remedy, and that's one of the important safeguards that comes with the way modern medicine works.

So really, the biggest problem that I see for alternative medicines, is, like I had discussed for exorcism, that people who need help aren't getting the treatments that they really need. Not just that, but because these remedies aren't studied as extensively as conventional medicine, there could be bad side effects that people don't realize.

Religion- The Good and the Bad

My wife and I recently went on a medical mission trip to Guatemala. Since it was a mission trip, pretty much everybody that went was a pretty devout Christian. And it seemed like a big part of the reason that many of these people went was to do God's work to help these people. So obviously, religion can inspire people to do good things. I think I had the most liberal interpretation of the Bible of anybody there (see my Bible Interpretation Essay), and that most of those people accepted the Bible as a divinely inspired book. Like I said, this is a topic I've been thinking a lot about, recently, so seeing all of these people going to Guatemala to help so many strangers made me think that maybe I'd been thinking too harshly about religious fundamentalism, if it creates good things like this. But then, towards the end of the trip, we learned about all the mudslides Hurricane Stan had caused in that country, and about a bad earthquake that had just hit Pakistan (and don't forget that Hurricane Katrina had just caused all of that devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast), and it got the people to discussing those natural disasters. And what seemed to be the consensus was that the Bible talks about the end of the world coming, and these were just signs. And that really bothered me. It's a type of complacency - natural disasters happen, it's God's will so there's nothing we can do about it. What about global warming? We're screwing up the planet right now, and hurricane seasons are just going to get worse. Maybe this was just an anomolous year (random variability is going to make some years have more hurricanes than others), or maybe it was a symptom of global warming. Why not try to figure out the real reason - maybe we'll be able to change something to prevent this from happening in the future, or maybe we'll be able to predict these things better so that we'll be able to get people out of harm's way. But to just pass it off as God's will really irritates me.

So, after that conversation, it got my head back out of the clouds. Religion can inspire people to do good things, but I think that fundamentalism, or extremism in any sense, is bad. Let me repeat that, so that you don't skim through and miss it - the religious fundamentalism in our country right now is bad. You may say that you believe in Christ, but your actions are harmful. In the past, fundamentalism has lead to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, all of the fighting in Ireland, and countless other evils. The bad things that have been done in the name of religious fundamentalism (not religion in general, but fundamentalism) more than outweight the good things that have come out of it. So, be religious, but don't abandon sense and reason.

Okay - A Little Bit of Evolution

I know said I wasn't going to bring up evolution, but, well, I just came across this article in the Washington Post (linked to from Pharyngula), written by Sally Jenkins. The basic gist of it is that somehow, ahtletes are good evidence against random evolution and for intelligent design. (Really. Go ahead and read the article.) Wow. I just really don't know how to respond to this, so I'll just link to the thread on Pharyngula. Bottom line: this woman should not be allowed to write another article for a newspaper, ever.

And as long as I'm on the topic of evolution, here's a link to a poll done by The Pew Research Center. Nothing I'm going to go into much detail over, just more data confirming that nearly half of Americans reject evolution.

Final Remarks

Right now, the U.S. is a country where an e-mail that blames the World Trade Center attacks on taking prayer out of our public schools is making its rounds and being accepted by a large number of the people that read it; where the public is so willing to accept the claims of a huckster hawking "snake oil" that they've made his book one of the nation's best sellers; where some people would rather go back to the dark ages of exorcism to have demons banished, instead of going to a doctor to get real treatment; where almost half of the people reject evolution despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. It really just astounds me that those statements describe a modern society. Two hundred years ago, maybe those things might not have been so unbelievable, but we've had so much time to understand how the universe works. I mean, I don't know how this country can be so backwards. It seems like we're losing ground, abandoning science in favor of the mystical. Like I've said in a few previous essays, education's the answer, but it really is a daunting task when you look at the state of our country, and know that this isn't just the product of ignorance, but in many cases people actively trying to resist the real science. I just hope that we can fix this problem, before it advances further and hurts our country worse.

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