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The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

[ 6 ] October 17, 2012

One of the thrills of a good documentary film is what it explores above and beyond the explicit subject at hand: doses of philosophy, delightful idiosyncrasies, a person taking us to an unexpected place through their words or actions.

Elizabeth Spiegel

I had that experience– the thrill of the above and beyond– when I encountered the contagious enthusiasm of Elizabeth Spiegel, one of the subjects in Brooklyn Castle, a new documentary film opening this weekend in Manhattan (and elsewhere in subsequent weeks). The film tells the story of of five stellar chess players at I.S. 318, a below-the-poverty-line junior high school in Brooklyn that has won more national championships in chess than any other in the country (here’s the trailer). That success is furthered day after day by Spiegel, I.S. 318’s indefatigable resident chess teacher, who is also featured in a chapter of the new book How Children Succeed. In Brooklyn Castle, her philosophical insight into the teachings of the game and her unflinching attention to helping her students improve are steady forces at the heart of the film.

I sat down with Elizabeth Spiegel to talk about the educational value and creativity inherent in the game of chess.

NH: In the film you talk about chess as a game of near-infinite possibilities. How do you help students feel sure of themselves, able to make calculations, in this realm of infinite possibilities?

ES: In chess, there’s this idea of forcing moves. You can force moves with checks, captures, and attacks on valuable pieces, like an attack on the Queen. If you take something, either they’re going to take you back, or you’re going to be ahead by a piece.  So some things you can calculate—you’re going to go here, and he’s going to do one of these five things. And then I’m going to go here, and he has these choices. That’s a process that you build up—it’s a skill like being able to lift weights.

You know, in math, there’s always an answer. But in chess, it’s really true that the answer might be twenty-three moves down the road, so that even if I am an expert chess teacher and I come to it with knowledge, there’s no answer key I can go and look at and be able to tell them. To some extent, computers have reduced that— they’ve sucked a bit of the mystery and the unknowable nature out of chess. But it’s still there. I think it’s great for kids to know there aren’t clear-cut answers always. That even when you get very good at something, things aren’t so simple.

NH: What is one way that chess asks you to use your mind in a way you don’t usually use it, or to an extent you don’t usually use it?

ES: I think there are lots of great thinking habits that chess demands from kids. One is this practice of double-checking yourself relentlessly. That you can play really well for fourty moves, and then you make one miscalculation, and your opponent sees it, and you lose. People don’t often pick their own ideas to shreds, but chess forces you to do that.

NH: So a level of self-awareness?

ES: Yeah, a level of negative thinking, of finding the problems in your thoughts—and not being like, “Oh, I have a great idea, I’m fantastic.” You know, you have an idea, and you’re excited about it, and then you go and try to find every possible thing that might be wrong with it, and make sure it’s really correct. I think that’s a hard thing to teach kids, and I think chess does it really well.

I think it also teaches a certain resilience. No matter how good you get as a chess player, you’re going to get in bad positions. And you have to deal with them, you can’t just give up when you have them. So you have to be optimistic about the position itself and find what goodness there is in it, even when it’s unpleasant to play it and you know that you’re losing in it and you know that it’s your fault that you’re losing in it.

We do some theoretical learning too, and the students have to memorize a certain amount. I have a big library of chess books, and the kids will borrow them and read them. And it’s great, because you learn an opening and it sort of provides a framework for you to be creative—like it provides a structure where you have certain ideas, and you have to figure out a different context in which you can apply them. For a lot of kids I think theoretical and academic stuff can seem really irrelevant to their learning experience. But for a lot of the kids I teach I think chess makes memorizing something and learning what other scholars have done to be a very relevant thing—they know that it will help them win, so they’re willing to make the effort to memorize the variations and remember the ideas. There’s a moment where your creativity and the theoretical knowledge meet, and that’s how they get really good.

NH: So about that— what exactly is creativity in chess? For a chess player, what is the optimal balance of your own creativity and the inherited theory about what other players have done?

ES: One of the things you’re doing when you have a position in chess is you’re thinking, “Where do I want to go from here, and what do I want to accomplish?” In some openings, there are a lot of preset ideas: the themes that come out of the way the pieces are arranged, or the way the pawn structure is shaped. But a lot of the ideas are dependent on very tiny details—one pawn is in a different place, and it affects what is going to work. Creativity in chess is being able to come up with lots of these ideas—to have lots of things going on in your mind that you want to do— to be able to take all the ideas, and to see how one opening might apply in a slightly different position—that’s what I see as creativity in chess.

Elizabeth Spiegel leads a class.NH: You mentioned that there is a lot of written theory about openings in chess. Beyond the opening, does the game get more open and creative as it goes on?

ES: Yeah, because it gets more diverse as it goes on. Everyone starts from the same position, so there are maybe five good first moves. In some games, there might be theory through move thirty. But the further you get from the starting position, the more on your own you are.

And then, you know, it’s funny—when it gets to the end game, it also gets to be more about accuracy and less about creativity. When there are fewer pieces on the board, it’s more important to be right—it’s more calculable. Chess with less than five or six pieces is solved, and there’s a right answer. So when you’re on move thirty-five, it’s about what ideas you can find; when you’re on move sixty, there are only five ideas left, and you’ve calculated what the end result of each of them is.

NH: In the film you talk about how players experience sudden leaps in ability. As an expert player yourself, do you remember experiencing your own leaps in ability? How did it feel?

ES: It’s a bit like when you’re fit and you go running, and you feel powerful. That’s the only feeling I can compare it to. You feel more capable.

NH: What about now—what’s it like to see those leaps in ability from the point of view of teaching?

ES: You can’t give up on kids: they’ll be terrible for a long time, and then all of sudden they’ll be good. And they always do get good, if they stick with it. I have a kid right now who lost his first twenty-one straight games—they were terrible games, week after week. It took him two years, but last year he won first place in his section of nationals. He won it through sheer doggedness—he was losing every game, and he’s just such a hard worker, and things finally clicked. Learning doesn’t happen in a smooth way. People really do wake up one day and they’re better, and it doesn’t necessarily have a linear relationship to yesterday.

NH: You’re featured in a chapter the new book How Children Succeed, where you’re working with a student who has just lost an important game at a tournament (read the excerpt here). Your approach there seems particularly hard-nosed compared to the way we see you in the film. How do you balance these different teaching methods?

ES: I feel like in the book I’m a very different person than I am in the movie.

NH: How so?

ES: Anytime you’re a character in anybody else’s portrayal of you, you’re a character for a reason, and there’s a narrative and a point behind you. I think that they’re both absolutely true, but I think that the film is trying to portray me as the sensitive and encouraging teacher, and Paul is trying to portray me as the teacher with high expectations that pushes kids. I think the larger thing is that different kids need different things from teachers.

NH: Do you have a way you approach winning all the time, or do you take it case by case?

ES: Kids need less from you when they win. But we always go over the game. The kids write down all their moves, and we go over it together.

Winning is useful educationally for two reasons: one is that kids are less emotionally upset when they’ve won, so they’re more willing to accept that they made mistakes. Sometimes when you lose you just don’t want to face it right then. I try to connect their winning to something that I want them to do, and then hopefully they associate the winning with that behavior you’re encouraging.

NH: In cognitive science we hear a lot about top-down versus bottom-up thinking—bottom-up being our incoming sensory streams about the world around us, and top-down being the weight of expectations, memory, and emotional experience we bring to every situation. It seems chess might be an interesting meeting point of those bottom-up and top-down systems—how does a player balance their moment-to-moment reactions to each position they’re in with all the experience and predictions they have inside them?

ES: I think openings are related to that question. One of the reasons we teach openings is so that the kids have a similar pawn structure every game. They know the qualities of the pawn structures, and they’ve had experience in those positions that they can draw on to make decisions. Their history can help them.

NH: From watching the film, I get the sense you really value your time with each student, and you take their intellectual work seriously. Why is that important to you?

ES: When you play chess, and you put all your effort into trying to win, and you know, chess is so very complicated—it’s helpful to sit down with a teacher and have them take your thoughts seriously, to help you unpack the game, so that you understand why you lost and where it came from. It’s a bit like editing someone’s writing—you go through it word by word and you ask them, is this exactly what you want to say? Is there a better way to put it? I think that’s how people get better at things. I think there’s not a lot of room for that in most classrooms, where you see the kids for 45 minutes and there are 30 of them.

You know—you’ve lost, and you’re crying—and what chess teaches is that understanding what just happened does make it easier.  And I think that’s an important thing for them to understand in life, as well. Nothing is really so terrible once you figure it out—and that working through something does make it better.

You can see Elizabeth Spiegel in action in the new documentary Brooklyn Castle, opening on Friday, October 19th, at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in Manhattan.

A Heavyweight Brain Debate

[ 2 ] April 4, 2012
Sebastian Seung (L) and Tony Movshon.

On Monday, the New York City-based group NeuWrite hosted a public debate on minds, maps, and the future of neuroscience between Sebastian Seung of M.I.T. and Anthony Movshon of NYU, moderated by Robert Krulwich (Radiolab) and the esteemed science writer Carl Zimmer (NYT, Discover). As eager attendees packed Columbia University’s Havemayer Hall on Monday evening and another three hundred watched a simulcast from a nearby room, two things were immediately clear: there is a hunger for a true debate about the brain, one that moves the conversations usually held behind closed doors at scientific conferences and over late-night beers to the public sphere, and Sebastian Seung is wearing gold sneakers.

Credit for organizing the event goes to NeuWrite, an innovative and resourceful group of scientists, writers, and, as their website explains, “those in between: graduate, post-doctoral and faculty researchers, fiction and non-fiction writers, as well Journalism and MFA students at Columbia.” NeuWrite regularly workshops pieces of print journalism and books-in-development with a scientific focus, as well as film, radio, and poetry that present threads of scientific inquiry. In public, this is NeuWrite’s second event about the brain—last year paired Patricia Churchland, author of Braintrust, with Roger Bingham of UCSD and Jesse Prinz of CUNY, for an engaging discussion about morality and neuroscience.

Some were desperate to get in.

It was clear from the opening statements at Monday’s debate that Movshon and Seung represent two different schools of thought, but their conversation ended up being less a “brain brawl” and more a respectful airing of differences. Seung believes neuroscience is stuck in a traditional mode of research, where the necessity to publish the next paper and get the next grant corrals scientists into overly-specific, limited fields of view of the whole system they’re studying. As a result, Seung argued, “neuroscientists can be very short-sighted.” Seung’s own plan of attack is one he’s elaborated in his popular TED talk and documented thoroughly (and very accessibly) in his new book, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. On Monday, he reiterated this philosophy: the best way to understand perception, memory, and the basis of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and autism, Seung believes, is to study the brain at the level of the synapse—to trace all the connections between all the neurons in a brain. By generating a map of the whole system, we may be able to finally see engrams for memories and perceptions, as well as what might be going wrong with these networks in the aforementioned disorders, perhaps due to various problems in the ways neurons are wired up, which Seung calls “connectopathies.”

So where’s the debate? Movshon made his position clear: “I’m not going argue against the acquisition of information. I just don’t think the connectome is the way to do it.”

Movshon then presented some of his concerns about Seung’s connectomics. Among them:

  • There is a scale mismatch between the microscale field of view that tracing a connectome gives you (you’re looking at connections between cells of one specific organism) and the mesoscale understanding that Movshon argues is what’s really needed to understand the big questions (the mesoscale being statistical probabilities of wiring and activity common to the different brains of individuals).
  • The relationship between the computations carried out by a brain and the substrates of those computations remains elusive. In other words, even if we can see the connections between all the neurons in a brain (the substrate), how can we be sure that we’ll then make the leap to understanding how those connections give rise to a perception or memory (the computation)? Movshon brought up work done by Todd Sacktor that suggests there may be molecular switches within neurons and at the synapse that play a major role in the maintenance of memories. Movshon argued that connectomics would not show us the potentially crucial molecular mechanisms such as those studied by Sacktor (for more on that work, here’s an interview I did with Sacktor on a past edition of our podcast).

With their differences stated, some of the most intriguing moments of the evening arrived nearer to the end of the debate. Krulwich turned to Movshon and posed an important question: if you don’t want to map the connectome, how are you going to understand the brain?

Movshon responded by reminding the audience that “neuroscience is a cottage industry,” meaning the study of the brain has traditionally been carried out by many individual labs focusing on different parts of the whole, communicating their results to the scientific journals for circulation to the other cottages. In this philosophy, which Movshon believes is still the best way forward for the field, a better understanding of the whole brain and the answers to the big questions of perception, memory, and disorder will emerge from a better and better understanding of all the parts– as carried out by the localized cottage industries– and eventually consensus will emerge about the whole.

Seung’s approach is one injected with a bit more grandeur—and Movshon pointed out that “The problem of grandeur in neuroscience is one we’re all concerned about.” Connectomics is a large-scale undertaking that, a bit like large-scale brain simulation projects, demands rapid, parallel improvements in computer technology. Connectomics does not follow the research traditions of the cottage industry that Movshon represented in the debate—though the questions connectomics could answer are indeed big ones, no one can be totally sure yet exactly how those questions will be answered, or when. It’s a very different research approach than, say, studying fear response in the mouse brain for one’s entire lifetime.

The discussion of grandeur in neuroscience inevitably led to a briefly contentious back-and-forth about Henry Markram’s Blue Brain Project. When Movshon brought up Blue Brain and seemed to suggest a parallel between Seung and Markram, arguing that what we really need are more “guided, more focused, and more hypothesis-drive projects,” Seung pounced on the chance to distinguish the aims of his work from those of Blue Brain. While Markram famously declared in 2009 that he would have a full human brain simulation completed within ten years, Seung takes a somewhat humbler approach to his work: “Hey, I just want to map some connections,” he joked, draining the tension out of the hall with a good laugh. Indeed, Seung is hoping that in his lifetime he can map a mere cubic millimeter of mouse brain—just that, he said, would be a big step forward for the field.

Though there was no blood spilled in the end, one can hope that this “brain brawl” will be the start of more such public discussions of neuroscience’s direction and goals in the 21st century. The difference of approach between Movshon’s cottage industry and Seung’s connectomics is not necessarily one of ambition but one of scale. Both scientists emerged as ambitious explorers using slightly different tools and drawing slightly different maps.

These questions of approach and scale may present more two-camp issues as fodder for future debates (it could also be interesting to see such a debate unfold in more of an Oxford-style, Intelligence Squared format). While the actual science happens in labs and is reported on in journals, at conferences, and eventually in the press, we rarely get to hear actual scientists talk to the public and to each other about why it is they are going about studying the brain in the way they’re studying it. One can only hope Monday evening was the first of many such synapses between the scientific community and the eager public.

The Sloan Film Summit

[ 0 ] October 30, 2011

Two things happened on the last Saturday in October.  The first snow of the season came.  That was the first thing that happened, and unfortunate too, because there’s a leak in the boiler in my building, so gas doesn’t have the necessary pressure to make it up five flights of pre-war pipes.  At least that’s what the super told me in Spanish while we stood in the clouded basement, two men sharing in the sacred ritual of the steam (albeit in an accidental sauna).  But never mind that, because there was the second thing: later that day I attended my first summit, a meeting of important people, for film and science.  When I was invited all I could conjure was Camp David and G-8—20, but, to my knowledge, there were no heads of state there at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Every 3 years The Sloan Film Summit gathers filmmakers from around the world to privately discuss the eco political future of our planet . . . wait . . . !  what I mean to say is they’ve all received financial grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the creation of science-themed narratives for the lay public.  Directors who have previously participated in this program include Warner Herzog, Darren Aranofsky, and Julian Schnabel.  Presented by the Tribeca Film Institute, there were 70 attendees this year, filmmakers with projects at various developmental stages.

I saw a staged reading of seven screenplay excerpts, ranging from the historical to the hysterical.  Or both, in the cases of Noah Miller’s Project Alpha—about a 1979 parapsychology study featuring two full-of-shit teenage subjects—and Matthew Evans’ The Wizard of Sussex—about Charles Dawson and the “missing link” hoax of 1912.  The staged reading itself is the real transitional form, a display of work on the way from page to screen.  It was cool to be able to observe these midway moments in the development of films.

Next was a delightful panel—”From Science to Fiction”—featuring scientists Dr. Janna Levin and Dr. Stuart Firestein alongside three filmmakers.  I found out that after graduate students show professors their data, the professor will often say “So what’s the story here?”  Results are even re-organized superficially for the sake of making sense, at which point scientists can realize that they’re “missing a scene,” maybe, and so they go back and conduct another experiment.  Sounds familiar, because scientists and artists are both creative problem-solvers.  Their methods may differ, but any human being striving for discovery, striving for anything, has inherent drama.  It’s the job of Sloan grantees to erase, hover over, or fancy-foot across and back from whatever arbitrary lines might separate an audience from material.

Now for a true story of my own, one funny to me: I am sitting in the hospitality room at the summit drinking straight half-and-half that’s supposed to be for coffee, when in comes a caravan of caterers each wearing one latex glove and holding up a tray of assorted chocolate cookies as though they’re grapes for Cleopatra.  Milk, then cookies?  A formal logical fallacy I recognize as “affirming the consequent,” necessarily false.  I’m a little giddy because logic seems to have been trumped, and so I say to one caterer “Thanks dude!  You baked all of those cookies yourself?” and he looked right at me and gave me just the answer, nothing more: “No, I didn’t.”  I read his face, it was like the face of a lay man reading to a dense scientific abstract.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is not dedicated to studying the phenomenon of why everyone doesn’t always laugh at every single one of my jokes.  The Sloan Foundation—through it’s Program for Public Understanding of Science and Technology—is dedicated to educating and engaging the public with science-themed books, radio, public and commercial television and film, theater, the Internet, and new media.  They’re distributing $10 million this year through all phases of the creative process, from commission to distribution.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Doron Weber, who runs the program, and he told me that in his 15 years he has seen science distilled more-and-more successfully into the mainstream.  There are 4 Sloan-supported feature films being released, and many more coming down the pipe.

Which leads me to a serious question: Would the Sloan Foundation pay for space heaters in my apartment, if I called them spacetime thermodynamos and wrote a story about it?  Because I’m working on it, in layers.

Bluebrain | Year Two

[ 18 ] August 25, 2011

We are proud to present the Year Two update to director Noah Hutton’s 10-year film-in-the-making that will chronicle the progress of The Blue Brain Project, Henry Markram’s attempt to reverse-engineer the brain, culminating in a documentary feature in 2020. If you haven’t seen Year One, you can watch that here. Enjoy the piece and let us know what you think.

The film is being produced by Noah Hutton’s production company, Couple 3.

A Public Coversation about Morality and the Brain

[ 4 ] April 8, 2011

Patricia Churchland

It had been some time since I had sat in a university lecture hall.  But on March 30, a special event brought me to historic Havemeyer at Columbia University.  The topic: morality and the brain.  Patricia Churchland, whose research focuses on the interface between philosophy and neuroscience, offered answers to such unanswerable questions such as Can science tell us right from wrong? and Where do values come from? Dr. Churchland’s compelling and scrupulous theory — which takes into account evolutionary, genetic, neuroendocrinological, and behavioral evidence — appears in her new book, Braintrust (Princeton University Press).  An in-depth review of her argument will appear here at The Beautiful Brain soon.  Suffice it to say that it had also been some time since I had taken so many notes.

The greatly successful night was organized and sponsored by NeuWrite, a group of writers and scientists dedicated to the public dissemination of science, with support from the Dana Foundation.  Dr. Churchland’s presentation was followed by a dialogue with City University of New York philosopher Jesse Prinz, whose theoretical thinking is also tied to scientific study.  Churchland and Prinz might be called neurophilosophers, after Churchland’s 1989 book Neurophilosophy (The MIT Press).  These are the rare responsible intellectuals who will always have me happily stuck to my seat.

Life is a Dream

[ 14 ] March 25, 2011

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Dreams are seemingly all anybody talks about in the Spanish Golden Age drama La vide es sueño (Life is a Dream).  In that classic by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the crown prince of Poland — Segismundo — has been imprisoned by his father since birth because of a prophecy: Segismundo will be a cruel king.  But his father — King Basilio — wants to know whether or not his son is in fact cruel.  So Segismundo — now a man — is drugged, taken to the palace, and given the throne.  After waking up in power, he attempts to rape a woman, fights her father, and engages a duke in a duel.  A poor servant who points out the faults in Segismundo’s behavior is promptly thrown off of a balcony.  Now sure of the prophecy, King Basilio drugs his son again and returns him to captivity, where confused Segismundo wonders about reality:

What is life? A frenzy.

What is life?  An illusion,

a shadow, a fiction,

and the greatest good is mean:
for all life is a dream,

and dreams themselves are only dreams.

This is part of the most famous monologue in the play and whence its title comes. But after attending the March 20 Brainwave event with Debra Winger and Dr. Robert Stickgold, I re-discovered a brilliant speech by Clotaldo, the guard of Segismundo — and thought about it in the context of modern science:

But as they say dreams are rough copies of the waking soul

Yet uncorrected of the higher Will,

So that men sometimes in their dreams confess

An unsuspected, or forgotten, self;

One must beware to check — ay, if  one may,

Stifle ere born, such passion in ourselves

As makes, we see, such havoc with our sleep,

And ill reacts upon the waking day,

And, by the bye, for one test, Segismund,

Between such swearable realities —

Since Dreaming, Madness, Passion, are akin

In missing each that salutary rein

Of reason, and the guiding will of men.

Preeminent sleep researcher Dr. Stickgold — of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital — mentioned a fascinating finding: the prefrontal cortex, thought to be the throne of “executive function” — is particularly sensitive to sleep.  Its deactivation is responsible for the bizarreness of dreams.  Indeed, Clotaldo’s observation — philosophical in nature — is essentially the hypothesis that has been proven by sleep researchers (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2002).  Great minds think alike.

Next, Clotaldo describes the influence that dreams can have on waking life.  In a TedxRiverCity talk, Dr. Stickgold described an experiment by his student Erin Wamsley that showed that sleeping — and more specifically dreaming — improved performance on a task.  Subjects were required to navigate a 3-D maze.  In between trials, half of the subjects took 90-minute naps and half did not.  The nappers were on average one minute faster than non-nappers.  But the coolest finding was that the performance of the nappers who dreamed improved ten times.  It turns out that even off-topic dreams help.  (“A brief nap is beneficial for human route learning,” in press.)  The brain does not rest while the body does; in fact, the whole brain is busy processing information on multiple levels.  As Clotaldo notices, sleeping and waking are not strictly separate.  He does suggest that we should do our best to make them so, however.

Illustration by Jeremy Finch

Finally, Clotaldo draws a parallel between dreaming and two other states: madness and passion.  They are all born from a measure of freedom from the mainly rational self, which makes sure to say safe in order to survive in the world.  During the talk, Ms. Winger — Academy-Award nominated actress, author of the memoir/meditation Undiscovered, and mother of two sons — articulated her experience in the fluid continuum of dreaming and waking, and her frustration with quotidian concerns that keep her from that which is most deep and wonderful.  But all of the worlds — dreaming, and perhaps madness and passion too — are perpetually present.   Dreams do not “turn off,” Ms. Winger noted; the key is to access them while awake.  We might call that creativity.  Indeed, another finding related in the TedxRiverCity video showed that people who slept were two-and-a-half times more likely to perceive an underlying pattern in a memorized list of numbers.  Dr. Stickgold called this a “creative intrusion.”  He has said that he believes the purpose of dreams could be to integrate old and new memories and to imagine possible futures.  Is that not what an artist does?  And so we might add Creativity to Clotaldo’s list — with Madness, Passion, and, of course, Dreaming — of somewhat liberated mind-states.  Not intrusion, of course, but inspiration.  Pedro Calderón de la Barca must have known this.  You can read what his brain produced.

When they find out about their captive prince, the people of Poland liberate Segismundo and he becomes the head of a rebel force.  But he is reluctant to believe what is happening to him is real; he expects to again wake up from this dream of power.   Segismundo frees Clotaldo — who had tried to warm him about himself during the first kingship experiment— and acknowledges the importance of restraint.  Segismundo defeats his father, but mercifully lets him live.  He has a chance to satisfy his lust with the same woman, but does not.  Instead, he selflessly encourages the same dueling duke to marry her.  In the end, Segismundo becomes an enlightened king, devoted to acting well and doing good deeds.  All because of his powerful insight: life is a dream.  How fittingly Buddhist!

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