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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The World in a Mess?


Dealing with depression, as I am at the moment, one can question how much the way one perceives the wider world is influenced by the basic note of melancholy which overshadows one’s personal self-perception. When hope and joy become categories of intellectual certainty rather than lived experience their ability to colour the way we see things is weakened. This is something I feel I should take into account when I attempt to comment on the wider world, on events and trends beyond my own little world of direct experience.

Moreover, given my training as an historian, I am well aware of a fundamental human tendency to see the times in which one finds oneself as hopelessly corrupt and degenerate in comparison to the “good old days;” usually the times of one’s innocent youth when the sap was rising strongly and one was invulnerable and immortal in a world which was opening itself in a wonderful cornucopia of love, ideas, passions and possibilities.

And yet, even taking all this into account, I cannot discount my feeling that our world – particularly the western culture and society into which I was born and in which I have always lived – is in a bad way. I am not alone in this. In a comment on my last post, Susan said: “I'm depressed much of the time but I've come to see it as a natural byproduct of the unfairness we're expected to swallow without complaint every day. If instead of protesting at government buildings about particular wars, cutbacks, and financial improprieties, millions of people just gathered because they're bummed out, that would be at last a common truth.” Neil also commented: “I suspect depression is sometimes the strain of the struggle to retain sanity in a mad world.”

Our world is complex and one of the major problems it suffers from is a surfeit of idiots offering easy simplistic answers for the problems bedevilling it; one need only to look at the circus of potential candidates vying for the Republican nomination for next year’s presidential race in the USA. But sometimes it can help to look at history in broad sweeps, to see the movement of great waves, the birth, growth and death of paradigms which transcend borders and develop over decades.

The Second World War was a deeply traumatic experience for the generation around the world which experienced it, fought it and made the decisions which led to its ultimate conclusion. The new world order which the victors instituted contained many flaws, among them the acceptance of the division of the world between two rival systems. But one of the major motivations driving the western powers, under US leadership, was to try to create a system in which peace and economic prosperity would reinforce each other, within a democratic, free-market context. The United Nations, the Bretton Woods system, the Marshall Plan, the founding of the various organisations which evolved into the European Union and the roll-back of colonialism are all examples of impulses resulting from the experience of the war and the determination that the conditions which led to its outbreak should not be allowed to repeat themselves.

A second motivation for ordering (western) society following the war was the conceptual competition with Marxist and Soviet ideology. The promise the Marxist model offered for the masses was that its analysis and organisation of society were logically preferable for most people, as well as being historically inevitable. This provided a concrete incentive for those in power in the so-called “free world” to show that this was not the case; to demonstrate in practice that the Marxist claim that capitalism led to the exploitation, impoverishment and imprisonment in misery of the mass of ordinary people was untrue and that the free-market model led to increased prosperity and contentment for all – without the limitations on individual freedom which the centrally-planned, collective communist systems imposed.

Systems are always dynamic and change is unavoidable. But the eighties saw two major developments which led to a hollowing out of the post-war consensus. The first of these was the growing influence of a group of economic thinkers who rejected the Keynesian-inspired foundations of the prevailing economic order, particularly Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. The enthusiasm with which their ideas were taken up by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dovetailed into a very different view of the individual and society, in which the individual was seen as completely paramount, with society being only the coincidental forum within which individuals interacted. Mrs Thatcher said in 1987, “They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

The result of this was to push any idea of the greater good firmly into the background, as well as to denigrate any thinking which inclined in the direction that specific economic policy could be used to forward particular societal goals. Markets were the context within which all human interaction took place. Any attempt to control and regulate them would only have negative consequences; left to themselves, markets were automatically self-regulating.

The second development which occurred was, of course, the collapse of the Soviet system and empire at the end of the decade. The competition between the two systems had been resolved; capitalism won, communism lost and disappeared (with a few paltry, stunted exceptions like Cuba and North Korea) into the midden heap of history.

And with it disappeared a continual, effective corrective to the extremes of capitalism. For as long as the socialist alternative existed, the societies of the west had an incentive to show that they were capable of providing a decent life for all their citizens without the totalitarianism and ideological control which guaranteed social security within the communist system entailed. Too much existential insecurity in western societies would lead to a growth of popularity of extreme leftist thinking among the masses and increasing attractiveness of the alternative on the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, particularly in Western Europe, which was the front line in the ideological struggle known as the Cold War, the social market system had developed, with continual efforts to ensure employment for the great majority of the population, universal access to relatively good quality education, public health care, decent, affordable housing, social welfare, pensions and enough disposable income to ensure moderately high rates of general consumption.

The fundamental changes I have sketched here did not become immediately apparent. The liberation of the markets from their fetters initially gave rise to increased growth, a growth fuelled by globalisation and the opening of new markets and opportunities, above all, for reduced costs through the relocation of labour-intensive production processes in areas of the world where wage and ancillary (e.g. environmental controls) costs, as well as taxation were lower, a development aided by the increased ease with which capital could be transferred. Though Reagan’s Republicans and Thatcher’s Conservatives had been replaced by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s New Labour, deregulation continued. For as long as the “peace dividend” could be enjoyed, the negative consequences of unfettered so-called free-market capitalism were disguised.

Now that the crash has inevitably come, the results are becoming clear. While the old paradigm of democratic participation, of empowerment in shaping our societies, has continued to have lip-service paid to it, we are discovering that it has become meaningless. The whole post-Cold War system of unregulated global markets could only half-way function through rapid growth, some of it real (if frequently based on exploitative, inhuman, commercial corporate neo-colonialism) but even more of it the artificial inflation of all sorts of virtual bubbles, so often masquerading under the name of financial “products” and “services.”

The price has been frighteningly high. Western countries have priced themselves out of global markets for most simpler labour tasks, thus giving rise to growing under-classes of those lacking the necessary social and intellectual skills and networks to make their own way and forge their own dignity and values in the societies in which they find themselves. Here are the true roots of the violence and destruction which have erupted in the Parisian suburbs and London in the past years. Identification with wider societal values and concepts such as the common good or service of others have given way to a general ethos of social Darwinism and individual selfishness. After all, as Mrs Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society. So why should someone who does not have the purchasing power hesitate to loot a shop for a new TV, a games console or a new pair of Nikes (stitched together by a Chinese labourer earning two dollars a day) if the opportunity presents itself? After all, they have been bombarded all their lives with the message that these are the things they must possess in order to be happy. And that this happiness is their right, as long as they are strong enough to get it. They don’t see themselves getting it any other way.

Meanwhile, we are also becoming aware that we have mortgaged our say in what happens, in our futures and those of our children to out-of-control markets, driven more and more by software programmes written by people who didn’t understand the consequences of their programming apart from maximising profits in every situation; rising markets, falling markets, swing markets. That such virtual gambling has serious consequences in the real world doesn’t matter, for ethical responsibility – insofar as it exists at all – is defined solely with respect to maximising profits for share- and bond-holders.

To those with enough money and power it doesn’t really matter anyway. No matter what happens, they remain on the winning side. And, in handing over control of the future to the corporations, to the banks and the rating agencies, we have unwittingly sold out our democracies to the representatives of that small minority who possess most of the wealth, nationally and globally.

That is the real lesson of what happened in the wake of the crash of 2008; having seriously damaged the real world economy through their irresponsible hubris, the financial institutions – as representatives of that small rich elite – demanded and got their losses equalised and more from the ordinary taxpayers (for the rich themselves pay little or no taxes) of the countries whose economies they had wrecked. Our elected representatives failed to face them down. More, the control the rich elite exercises over much of the media, and thus their ability to manipulate public opinion, is so overwhelming that they have persuaded large amounts of the little people in the USA (through their Tea Party instrument) to protest against tax increases for the rich.

If we don’t find some way to change all this, I see the future as being very bleak for most of us. But, despite being personally down at the moment, there is still a part of me which refuses to despair. When Pandora opened the box in the legend, thus setting free all the ills to which humanity is heir, hope was the one thing which remained. There are so many creative, intelligent, generous people around, all trying in their own ways to live out and project values such as decency, respect, honesty and solidarity. In recent months the young people of countries as dissimilar as Spain and Israel, refusing to accept that their futures should remain bleak and hopeless, have taken to the streets to peacefully protest. It is seeds like this which need nurturing.



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Friday, 19 August 2011

Burnout


“                   … Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
(W.B. Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion)

This isn’t going to be an easy post, but I feel I need to write it – if only to prove to myself that I can, for reasons which I hope will become clear in the doing of it.

A large part of what we call reality is personally defined by our own perception; the way we see the world and ourselves determines the way we interact with events and our lives and the way we live them take form and direction as a result.

In the past few months it became slowly clear to me that my perception was darkening. More and more things in life seemed to demand a growing investment of energy just to be dealt with. I realised that I was increasingly withdrawing, finding excuses not to do things I normally enjoyed doing, letting things lie. Everything seemed to cost so much effort, effort which it more frequently often didn’t seem to be worth making.

Around three weeks ago, I realised that, apart from work, there was very little else going on in my life. And with that realisation came a further insight; it was because I was finding work so tedious, demanding and frustrating that I had no energy left for anything else.

There was no point in retreating into denial – I’m blessed/cursed with enough self-knowledge, experience and intelligence to be able to recognise clear symptoms, even when I see them in myself. I was exhibiting all the major signs of incipient burnout

The next steps were therefore clear, if difficult. They involved accepting that there was something potentially seriously wrong, making an appointment with the doctor and signalling to the relevant people at work that I had problems and would be dropping out for a while in the near future.

I’m not going to go into the concrete causes of this situation here – they are the usual combination of work conditions, a number of concrete current issues as well as older job-related stories. I believe and hope that some discussion leading to a few particular adjustments in my work situation will be able to defuse a lot of the specific difficulties. But such discussion is something which still lies in the future, in that phase of recovery where getting back up on the horse which has thrown you is the next step. I’m not that far yet.

The other aspect of all this has to do with myself. I am no stranger to depression. In fact, it was my memories of a major battle with it thirteen years ago which allowed me to recognise the symptoms with which I currently have to deal and act appropriately. And, as a result of that experience, I believe and trust that this time I was able to recognise what was going on before those symptoms had developed to a stage where they could begin to do serious damage to my life.

At any rate, I am now on sick leave and getting used to medication. Adaption to selective serotonin uptake inhibitors takes a couple of weeks and involves a number of side-effects which are, while not intolerable, uncomfortable. One aspect of this adaption is that some depression symptoms like apathy and anhedonia (a diminished capacity for feeling joy) can actually temporarily increase until, after two to four weeks, the anti-depressive function of the drug slowly starts to unfold.

While I am usually open enough about myself in this blog, it is not generally my primary aim to use it as an online diary or confessional. But there are two considerations which made me decide to write this very personal post.

The first is the fact that mental illness is still for many a taboo theme in our society. Some of the reasons for this are understandable – there is something very uncomfortable about the idea that there’s something wrong with your head, with your thinking and feeling. Someone asked me the other day how it felt to be taking prescribed substances which affect the way you think and feel and commented honestly that she found something very unsettling about the idea. And it’s not the kind of illness that’s easy to be open about either. If I were sitting at home with my leg in plaster, I’d have no problem talking freely about it. But many kinds of mental illness, particularly depression, are characterised by a pathological sense of guilt on the part of the sufferers themselves; that feeling that you are somehow shamming, that all you need to do is “pull yourself together.” The problem is, of course, that you can’t – if you could, you wouldn’t be ill in the first place.

Moreover, mental health issues are becoming so prevalent that society simply cannot afford to ignore them any more. Statistics released recently in Germany revealed that more working days were lost last year in the country through mental illness than as a result of any other category of sickness. We need to think about this and start asking harder questions about the things in our societies which are making so many people ill – putting it bluntly, driving them mad.

The second reason I’m writing this is as a kind of explanation for my relative absence on-line in all sorts of areas over the past month or so. One of the things I have realised recently is that my tendency to withdraw from all sorts of contacts has also been affecting my “virtual” life. Forums where I would normally have been contributing, blogs I would have been commenting on, mails I would have been reading and answering have all been neglected. My frequency of posting on this blog has decreased and I haven’t been replying regularly to comments. As they say, my dear friends and readers, it’s not you, it’s me! J

Well, now you know. And for me, there’s also something positive about having managed to write this. It relieves quite a lot of that low-level continuous feeling of guilt which I mentioned earlier – one of the nastiest components of my particular brand of depression; that nagging voice which keeps telling me, “you should be doing this, and that, you’re just being lazy, letting things slip is going to make you sorry … etc., etc.”

In 1984, the rock group The Pretenders released an album after a two year hiatus, during which two members of the group had died of drug overdoses. They called that album Learning to Crawl. It’s an excellent description of where I feel myself at the moment. But at least I am crawling, and there are days where it manages to get me to most of the places I want to go to. And you’ve got to (re-)learn how to crawl before you can start walking – and running – again.



Pictures retrieved from:

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Berlin Wall


Last weekend saw the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall and the media here in Germany, understandably, carried quite a bit about it. It provided the most powerful symbol of the Cold War – an ever-present, concrete reminder of the division between two opposed ideological systems competing for world domination.

For my generation, growing up in the 60s and the 70s, the Berlin Wall was a fact of life, something as obvious, inevitable and permanent as the Statue of Liberty or the Eifel Tower. It – and the conflict of ideologies it represented – was part of the way the world was and we lived with the continuous background possibility that someone on one side or the other could some day make a bad miscalculation in the chicken game of MAD (mutually assured destruction) they were playing, the missiles would fly and the cockroaches would inherit the earth.

If World War III was going to break out, Berlin was one of the prime locations for that happening. Checkpoint Charlie, concrete ramparts, barbed wire, floodlights and communist troops armed to the teeth, ready to shoot anything that moved, provided a dramatic backdrop to the reality of international politics. And, like many such dramatic backdrops, a lot of it was pure theatre; smoke and mirrors blurring a somewhat different, more complex reality.

From the establishment of the (East) German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1949 as a Soviet satellite state up to the building of the wall, around three and a half million East German citizens (nearly 20% of the total population of the country) had left for the west, most of them through Berlin, where two thirds of the city was under western control. The communist authorities in the DDR were well aware that their country was in danger of bleeding to death through this – in their view – open wound in the middle of their country. In summer 1961 they finally achieved Khrushchev’s permission to do something about it. On August 13 they closed the border between the two parts of the city, initially with troops, torn-up streets, fences and barbed-wire before starting work on the Wall which, by the time it was finished, had a length of around 140 km and completely enclosed West Berlin.

If Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany, had had his way, the Wall would have been erected much earlier; it was the Soviets who were the reluctant ones, fearing the western reaction. It was only after the newly elected President Kennedy gave a tacit indication that the US would not actively oppose such an action that the Soviets gave their permission for the action of their DDR allies. In fact, the western allies had long expected such a move and did not regard it entirely negatively. The building of the Wall, in their view, made a sudden surprise military move on the part of the Warsaw pact forces around Berlin much more difficult and thus could be regarded as a stabilising event in global geo-political terms.

For all the rhetorical hot-air on both sides (particularly the western one), both superpowers had learned to live with the de facto division of Germany and Berlin. Germany was the country where hundreds of thousands of soldiers, armed to the teeth, were stationed on both sides of the border; but, ironically, this made it the country where neither side had any real interest in provoking the other. If war broke out in Germany the missiles would fly, and both sides knew it. Instead, they consented themselves with niggling each other fighting proxy wars in other areas; the Middle East, South East Asia, Central America, Southern Africa. The “anti-fascist protective rampart” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall), as the East Germans liked to call it, was an attempt to shut West Berlin out more than it was to close it in – an effort to protect their controlled, often dreary and colourless state and its citizens from pernicious, seductive capitalist influences.

When I came to West Germany in the mid-eighties, the division of the country, symbolised by the Wall, was generally accepted. If most West Germans at the time (particularly those of my generation) were honest, it didn’t particularly bother them. The DDR was “over there” (drĂ¼ben), boring, drab and somehow foreign, something you didn’t think of much. West Berlin was well worth a visit – it was a bit exotic, there was a good scene there and a certain frisson of excitement about driving along one of the approved Autobahnen through the communist east to get there. It was an attitude I could sympathise with easily; as a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, I was used to living in a divided country, accustomed to the rhetoric of politicians mouthing about unity and national aspirations while nearly everybody was quite happy to get on with business as usual.

And when the Wall finally fell, in November 1989, the momentum came from the other side, from the East. The communist experiment had failed, and Gorbachev’s attempts to reform Soviet totalitarianism had only hastened that failure. When the countries of the Eastern bloc realised that the unscrupulous will to defend the borders of the Soviet empire with bullets and tanks had evaporated, the erosion of faith among their citizens in the putative advantages of the system they had been forced to live under reached a critical point. Following increasing public demonstrations, and a growing exodus of East German citizens westwards through open borders in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the East Berlin party boss, Gunter Schabowski, announced in the course of a rather confused press conference on November 9 that the border crossings between East and West Berlin would be open to all “effective immediately, without delay.” That evening, thousands of Germans danced on the Wall, even as others spontaneously began chipping away at it with hammers and chisels, watched by bemused border guards who had no orders to stop them.

My children are now in their twenties and have never known the Wall, have no memory of a formally divided Germany. That Berlin is once more capital of a united Germany is as self-evident for them as the division between East and West was for me when I was their age. Germany, particularly the East, is still struggling with the residue of forty years of division but it is slowly shrinking. The world, having changed suddenly and drastically little more than twenty years ago, has moved on and different problems and challenges have replaced the old certainties.

Communism lost and capitalism won. The promise Marxist-inspired leaders promulgated of a world revolution leading, finally, to an end of alienation and the withering away of the state in a proletarian paradise has proved to be a chimera. The very building of the Wall, signifying the need to quarantine itself from the seductive lure of its ideological opponent, was already an implicit admission of weakness.

Yet the promise of the victor itself has also proved flawed. The efficacy of the “invisible hand” which ensures that greater prosperity will result for all as a result of globally untrammelled free markets has shown itself to be severely defective. It has developed into a system in which, all too often, people have been reduced to commodities, units whose costs are to be reduced and efficiency increased as much as possible, whose value is only to be reckoned in terms of their consumption power. It’s a spinning top which can only be kept stable by pumping ever more energy into it to keep it spinning, energy to be taken from wherever it can be found, from the environment, from all of us riding it, even from the future, no matter what the ultimate cost.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall also carries another, perhaps more hopeful message. The very structures we are told are certain, inevitable, unchangeable, may be nothing of the sort once their lies have been exposed, once people finally lose faith in their self-proclaimed infallibility, once hope and solidarity overcome fear. This is a truth we have seen repeated this year in Tunisia and Egypt, even if success is not guaranteed, even if it means great suffering as in Libya and Syria. Walls can still be brought down; we only have to start by taking down the most obstinate ones – those in our heads and our hearts.



Pictures retrieved from:

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Beatles: Revolver


Forty five years ago (August 5, 1966) today, the Beatles released the album Revolver. It was their sixth studio album, eagerly awaited by millions of fans, and topped, inevitably, the album charts in both the UK and the USA.

There is a convention in rock history to regard the musical history of the Beatles as falling into two periods; the first from 1962 to 1966, from their first album, Please Please Me to Revolver; and the second from Sgt. Pepper to the break-up of the group in 1970. This division has much to do with the release of the two compilation double albums in 1973; 1962-1966 (The “Red” Album) and 1967-1970 (The "Blue" Album). For my generation, those who were children in the sixties and only really registered the Fab Four in their last years, or after their break-up, these were frequently among the first albums we bought – a chance to get the best of the greatest rock group ever and to spend long teenage afternoons listening to the songs again and again, mourning over the group’s breakup, apportioning blame for the same (with Yoko usually occupying the role of prime villainess) and speculating about the chances of a reunion.

The convention is strengthened by the accepted wisdom which acclaims Sgt Pepper as the greatest Beatles album, with everything before leading up to it and everything following as part of the long disintegration period leading to the ultimate break-up of the group. And there is certainly some validity in this view. Sgt Pepper is a magnificent album and encapsulates the Zeitgeist of the Summer of Love better than anything else which happened in 1967. 1966 saw the Beatles do their last live tour and their guiding mentor and manager, Brian Epstein (the “fifth Beatle”), died in August 1967. Looking back, John Lennon saw this event as the beginning of the end of the group, "I knew that we were in trouble then. ... I thought, we've fuckin' had it now."

But in August 1966, when Revolver was released, this was all still in the future and – despite all the growing pressure the group was under, particularly through touring – they were at their creative best. Lennon and McCartney were expanding in their musical maturity and sophistication, still working easily together, each taking the other’s ideas and mutually adding touches of refinement and genius, interacting instinctively with their producer, George Martin. The rivalry, which was always part of their relationship, had not yet reached the stage where it had started to poison things between them. Harrison was growing into his self-confidence as a musician and composer in his own right and Ringo was … well, Ringo was happy.

With all this in mind, I would like to suggest a different model for viewing the work and history of the Beatles between 1962 and 1970 (leaving aside the earlier Quarrymen and Hamburg period), divided into three periods; the Boy Group period, from Love Me Do to the film and album Help!, their harmonic peak of creativity and genius, where everything came together, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper, and the long period of increasing rancour and break-up from 1968 to 1970[*].

Against this background, then, Revolver becomes part of a triptych of albums. Following this artistic image, I would see Sgt Pepper as the central part of the picture with Rubber Soul (characterised by folk-rock influences) and Revolver (a stronger emphasis on electric-rock) forming the two framing elements.

However you want to see Revolver in the overall context of the musical history of the Beatles, you cannot deny that it is a wonderful album which stands the test of forty five years very well. From the opening sarcastic Taxman to the psychedelic final Tomorrow Never Knows it is a creative tour de force, which becomes even more evident when compared with an album like A Hard Day’s Night, released only two years earlier. This is not to knock AHDN, which is a fine pop album with many very good songs – nevertheless, the albums are musically light-years apart and the contrast shows just how much the group has grown in this period.

The Beatles were controversial in the latter half of the sixties because of their drug use – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds often being given as an example of a description of an LSD trip. While I have never really accepted the rather disingenuous denials of various members of the group regarding this, publicly they have been much more open about the effects of drugs on the creation of the songs on Revolver. Doctor Robert is about a fantasy doctor who cures his patients with drugs, McCartney has described Got To Get You Into My Life as “actually an ode to pot”, and confirms that Tomorrow Never Knows is about LSD trip. Shortly before his death, Lennon told how She Said She Said originated

“That was written after an acid trip in L.A. during a break in the Beatles tour where we were having fun with the Byrds and lots of girls. Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid and he kept coming up to me and sitting next to me and whispering, 'I know what it's like to be dead.' He was describing an acid trip he'd been on. We didn't 'want' to hear about that. We were on an acid trip and the sun was shining and the girls were dancing, and the whole thing was beautiful and Sixties, and this guy-- who I really didn't know-- he hadn't made 'Easy Rider' or anything... kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, 'I know what it's like to be dead,' and we kept leaving him because he was so boring! And I used it for the song, but I changed it to 'she' instead of 'he.' It was scary... I don't want to know what it's like to be dead!”

I would like to say that I remember the release of Revolver as a significant event but I was only six years old and Bonanza, F Troop and, above all, Batman, were much more important to me at the time. But Revolver even had something for kids too and, certainly not later than 1967, if my memory serves me correctly, I remember singing Yellow Submarine with my friends. I certainly didn’t know it was from the album Revolver, I may not even have known it was by the Beatles, but one thing I did know … it was a cool song!




[*] In terms of albums, I would see the first clear signs of a lack of coherence as a group in The White Album. For Beatles purist fans, Magical Mystery Tour then becomes a possible subject of controversy as to which period it should be categorised under. Personally, I’ve always been inclined to see MMT as a sort of seamless continuation of Sgt Pepper – a coda, if you will, still following and utilising the wave of creativity which that album generated.



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