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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #96      A Publication of The Nature Institute      October 14, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Dangerous Baby Walkers, Dangerous Software?
       Your Food is a Little Bit Safer Today
       Borgmann on the Wonders of the Information Age
       On Constructivism in Education
       The Oral Foundations of Learning (David Abram)
       When Living Becomes an Inconvenience (Phil Walsh)
       On Appropriate Behavior for Machines (Victor Grey)
       The Caller ID Arms Race (Steve Baumgarten)
       If Computers Behaved Like Toilets (David Miller)
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    My wife Phyllis and I were recently in eastern Canada, courtesy of the
    wonderfully hospitable and engaging Professional Librarians of New
    Brunswick.  On our first day in Moncton, we walked over to the river that
    flows through the center of town, and immediately noticed some rapids a
    little way downstream.  After a few moments the "rapids" were nearer to
    us, and before long we were watching a sizable wave slowly pass us as it
    fought its way upstream.  After awhile the entire river was flowing
    A mystery?  Yes, but with a good explanation:  we had unwittingly timed
    our visit perfectly so as to see the "tidal bore" -- the wave that works
    its way upstream in synchrony with the famous, 35- to 46-foot tides of the
    Bay of Fundy, into which that river flows.  It was a remarkable sight.
    On Friday, October 15, I'll be at a very different venue -- Ellicottville
    in far western New York, where I'll give the banquet address at the
    Eastern Small College Computing Conference.
    ERRATUM:  In NF #95 I gave an incorrect url for the Orion Society.  The
    correct url is:  http://www.orionsociety.org/ .  My apologies for the
    inconvenience.  And I repeat:  The Orion Society is one of the truly good
    things on this planet.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Dangerous Baby Walkers, Dangerous Software?
    This week's story about the risks of baby walkers ought to be a wake-up
    call for those pushing educational software upon children.  The story
    concerns those cute little mobile seats with wheels that allow infants to
    propel themselves around the house in a roughly upright sort of way.
    There are, of course, many perfectly good reasons for employing such
    devices, and infants seem to delight in them.  But my concern now is with
    the satisfaction many parents take in seeing their little ones "develop
    strong, well-coordinated legs for early walking".  A report in the current
    Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics suggests that it's a
    little more complicated than that.  As summarized by CNN.com:
       Babies who use walkers are slower than other infants to sit upright,
       crawl, and walk, and score lower on early tests of mental and physical
       development than other infants, Roger Burton and colleagues at the
       State University of New York at Buffalo and Case Western Reserve
       University found.
    I can't vouch for the soundness of the research, but in any case what
    interests me are the questions one might be prompted to ask just on the
    face of things.  These turn out to be questions you could easily re-phrase
    and apply to all that software designed to "jump start" little kids.  Slow
    down for a moment and really think about the following:
    ** Why would you ever assume that exploring the world on hands and knees
    is less important to an eight-month-old than exploring the world on feet
    is to an eighteen-month-old?  What possible grounds are there for trying
    to speed the transition from one stage to the next?  What essential
    experiences are you denying to the eight-month-old if you do speed things
    ** If the aim really is to give the kid stronger, more coordinated legs,
    why would you assume that the way to do it is to encourage premature
    walking -- that is, to get the legs working in a way those legs
    were not designed to work?  Isn't it fairly obvious that this might just
    as well hinder future development as help it?  Couldn't it just as easily
    be some wholly "unrelated" activity you should encourage in order to reach
    your goal?
    ** Even if the walker, contrary to the evidence now presented, turns out
    to help children walk sooner, why should we assume without further inquiry
    that this has no adverse effects on other capacities, including mental
    ones?  The complex developmental processes of the human being are a unity
    far beyond our current understanding, and about the only thing we can say
    for sure is that a change induced in one aspect of development is almost
    certain to produce ripple effects elsewhere.
    You can, I'm sure, see how such lines of thought apply to the
    computerization of childhood.  There is probably no tool that offers a
    wider variety of ways to distort and "force" the normal processes of
    growing up than the computer.  This has been a repeated theme in
    NETFUTURE, and I will not dredge up all that earlier material now.
    But it is worth noting in general that the young child thinks with his
    body long before he learns to think with the adult's "detached mind", and
    a great deal of computer-based education is premised on the idea that we
    can safely constrain, alter, or ignore that bodily expression in the
    interest of speeding up the development of certain mental processes that
    are more or less alien to the child.  There is no reason in the world to
    assume that this kind of forcing -- on either the physical or the mental
    side -- will leave the child unharmed.
    Your Food is a Little Bit Safer Today
    It's hard to feel pity for the stockholders and managers of Monsanto,
    whose efforts to re-engineer the world's food supply before anyone woke up
    to see what had happened now look like an arrogant series of public-
    relations disasters.
    The most recent bit of this history occurred just a couple of weeks ago
    when Monsanto announced that it was abandoning its attempts to
    commercialize genetically engineered crops whose seeds would automatically
    self-destruct.  The immediate idea behind this "Terminator" technology had
    been to force farmers to purchase seeds anew from Monsanto each year.
    Unsurprisingly, this economic serfdom did not appeal to many farmers,
    especially in the Third World.
    But the larger idea lying in the background was even more pernicious.  I
    mean the idea, supported by many public officials and technocrats, that
    giving companies like Monsanto this kind of power through patent rights
    and regulatory largesse is a good thing:  it will stimulate the high-tech
    research that will meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.
    The assumption here is badly misguided -- namely, the assumption that
    social issues are above all technical ones whose solutions must therefore
    emerge from the technical sphere.  Only this stance could make it easy for
    regulators to hand corporations enormous power to restructure social
    institutions (such as the family farm) with scarcely a second thought
    about whether the restructuring itself would prove healthy.  It doesn't
    occur to such people that maybe our problems are not merely technical, and
    that the ways we alter our social institutions have a huge bearing on our
    most deep-rooted problems.
    But Monsanto's abandonment of its Terminator technology is only part of
    the picture.  A consumer-driven tidal wave has, with remarkable speed,
    engulfed the genetically modified food industry:
    ** Gerber announced that it will no longer use genetically modified foods
    in its baby products.
    ** Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland told its suppliers to
    segregate their grain elevators, keeping genetically modified crops apart
    from conventional ones.
    ** While Great Britain and Europe have taken the lead in resisting
    genetically modified crops, the U.S. citizenry appears to be slowly waking
    up to the issues.  There is already overwhelming support in the U.S. and
    elsewhere for labeling of genetically modified foods.  Poll after poll has
    shown in excess of 80% of the respondents in favor of labeling.  (See the
    Consumer Policy Institute / Consumer's Union summary of numerous polls at
    ** Third World countries have been finding their voice -- a voice that
    extends, in India's case, to the torching of genetically modified crops in
    the field by activists.
    ** According to Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly #649,
       The bellwether event was the announcement [last April] by seven
       European supermarket chains that they intend to jointly patronize
       growers who can deliver food that is 100% free of genetically modified
       (GM) organisms.  Teaco, Safeway, Sainsbury's, Iceland, Marks & Spencer,
       the Co-op, and Waitrose grocery chains make up the consortium.  [Then]
       Unilever, the huge transnational (and aggressive supporter of GM
       foods), announced it was throwing in the towel and joining the GM-free
       consortium.  One day after Unilever capitulated, the Swiss firm Nestle
       made the same commitment.  The following day Cadbury-Schweppes joined
       the ranks of the GM-free.  It was a complete and unexpected rout for
       the genetic engineering industry.
    The upshot of all this, as reported by the BBC a few days ago, is that
    "the international market for genetically modified crops is collapsing".
    The commodity markets in Chicago already show "an expectation that [these]
    crops will bring lower prices" in the future.
    This is good news indeed, and a victory worth savoring.  But, of course,
    the underlying technological drive will hardly be blunted by these
    developments.  A great deal depends upon the public's ability to rise
    above its vague skittishness about the potential for high-tech "accidents"
    -- justified as it is -- and gain an understanding of the consistent, one-
    sided, reckless spirit at work in the contemporary technological assault
    upon both man and nature.
    Borgmann on the Wonders of the Information Age
    I've been unsuccessful in provoking further response from the enthusiasts
    for ubiquitous computing (or "voluntary complexity", as Langdon Winner
    calls it).  But I did come across a paragraph by Albert Borgmann that
    epitomizes my own (and I think Winner's) concern about the current flood
    of advertisements celebrating the glories of digital appliances:
       Thus with all its impending expansion, integration, organization, and
       innovation, the information revolution, if it stays on its present
       trajectory, will devolve into an institution as helpful and necessary
       as the telephone and as distracting and dispensable as television with
       an unhappily slippery slope between its cultural top and bottom.  The
       characteristic mood of the information age begins to surface when the
       prophets of the new era try to get beyond grand generalities and reach
       for specificity.  In the future, they tell us, we can get instant
       compliance to commands such as "List all the stores that carry two or
       more kinds of dog food and will deliver a case within sixty minutes to
       my home address."  And we will have the pleasure, before viewing a film
       on command, of being prompted "How about trying a delicious pizza from
       Marcello's?"  And we will have the luxury of being able to "Click yes,
       and then select plain cheese, mushroom, sausage, or other toppings."
       The crashing banality of such scenarios is matched by the generally
       dreary atmosphere that pervades gospels of cyberspace, be they science
       fiction or other prognostication.
    Borgmann, of course, is the preeminent philospher of technology, and a
    professor at the University of Montana.  This quotation is from his latest
    book, Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the
    Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 1999).  The book, incidentally,
    is no tirade against all things digital.  Borgmann finds much to admire in
    our technological achievements, and (as one always expects from him)
    builds a beautifully nuanced picture of the varieties of information and
    their challenges.
    The book is not an easy read, in part because the author eschews neat,
    schematic arguments.  But you will doubtless be hearing more about it in
    On Constructivism in Education
    I often speak of education in student-centered terms, emphasizing the
    experiential nature of learning.  This leads NETFUTURE reader Aaron Renn
    to surmise that I, and the Waldorf educators I often mention, advocate a
    "constructivist" style of education.
    Constructivists reject the educational model that casts the child
       in the role of passive recipient of knowledge.  Paulo Freire expresses
       the criticism most vividly in his description of School as following a
       "banking model" in which information is deposited in the child's mind
       like money in a saving account.  Other writers express the same thought
       by accusing School of treating the child's mind as a "vessel to be
       filled" or as the receiver at the end of a transmission line.  (Seymour
       Papert, The Children's Machine)
    So far, I am sympathetic, and this is language very like my own.  But
    "student-centered, active, and experiential" is all too often taken to
    mean that we can just turn students over to their own devices and somehow
    they will learn everything that needs learning.  In particular, the
    constructivist focus on the child is assumed to imply a de-emphasis of the
    teacher's role, as if the two stood in opposition.
    But this is to miss the heart of the matter, which is that learning grows
    out of relationship.  If you really understand that learning is not
    primarily a matter of content shoveled into a container, then you must
    also recognize that what the student learns most decisively is a set of
    human gestures, a strengthening of certain inner movements, a way of
    grasping (and being grasped by) the world.
    In other words, education is not primarily a matter of learning subjects.
    What the student learns is the teacher.  If you can recall a
    teacher who changed your life in a memorable way, what you remember will
    almost certainly not be a particular body of information he passed along;
    it will, rather, be the kind of person he was.  You learned a way of
    standing in the world.  The reason we need to approach ever new subjects
    is that we need to learn what it means to be a human being facing ever new
    aspects of the world.
    Never having reconciled myself to conventional higher education, I have
    been a "distance education" student all my adult life.  The main vehicles
    of this education have been the best textbooks I could find.  But,
    increasingly, I have felt the shortcomings of this approach.  That, in
    fact, is why NETFUTURE is now affiliated with The Nature Institute.
    As my own work inexorably hedged me toward asking what a participative,
    qualitative, holistic, and ethical form of science might be, I was led to
    enter into relationship with one of the handful of people in this country
    who practice what is sometimes called "Goethean science".  In working with
    my colleague, biologist Craig Holdrege, I have realized more and more that
    what I am learning from him is not a body of knowledge; I am privileged to
    watch what is, for me, a novel way of facing the natural world as a human
    It is, to begin with, a way of withholding judgment.  (I had shaped my
    entire life around the eager habit of forming judgments!)  Abstract,
    schematic, or theory-driven judgment must yield to painstaking,
    qualitative observation -- to matter-of-fact characterization of the
    phenomena that present themselves.  The resulting images can then be
    enlivened and penetrated by the imagination (which, of course, is just a
    name for our ability to work with images as such -- that is, to work with
    images imaginally).  This is not a matter of fancy, but rather of allowing
    what expresses itself imaginally in the phenomena to come to conscious
    expression imaginally also within oneself.  For this, the imagination must
    be exercised and strengthened -- a life-long task!
    All this transpires in a spirit of calm and patience, which, however, is
    eventually matched by the quiet confidence that one's own expressive
    powers are akin to the powers that express themselves in the world, and
    therefore all things are, in the end, understandable, however distant the
    goal.  We can always approach the goal by changing ourselves, enlarging
    our capacities.  Such patience and confidence are indispensable aspects of
    the method; without them, we try to force matters, egotistically
    substituting our own familiar, abstract, brittle concepts for the living
    reality, which therefore dies.
    Such, at least, is the picture I am beginning to form of Goethean science.
    And the point is that, so far as I really do gain a useful picture, I am
    learning a certain kind of person, not just a body of facts.
    Moreover, when it comes right down to it, this is what students always
    learn, even in conventional schooling.  It's just that most physics,
    chemistry, geology, and biology courses happen to teach only what it
    means to be a human being confronting an alien, falsely objectified,
    qualitatively emptied world to which we have no meaningful connection.
    It is a setting (as Adelphi University biologist and Orion
    editor-in-chief, George Russell, puts it) where students are taught to
    dissect and "understand" frogs while their interest in getting to know
    living frogs in the natural environment is killed off.
    So that's the problem with many formulations of constructivism:  they lose
    sight of the teacher's vital importance.  The fact is that a classroom
    becomes more truly student-centered only to the degree it also becomes
    healthily teacher-centered.  The matrix of learning is the student-teacher
    relationship, and it may well be that the qualities of this matrix itself
    are the most decisive thing to be learned.
    Look at it this way:  only another human being can convey to a student the
    infinite worth and capacity of that student's life.  And how better for
    the student to find a personal connection to the subjects of the world
    than by witnessing such a connection in a teacher willing to share his own
    excitement with his students?
    Education as transferable content stands in tension with education as
    depth of experience and insight.  (This is one of those "polar opposite"
    pairs I discussed in NF #84.)  The more easily transferable and measurable
    the content, the more empty that content will likely turn out to be.  If
    only those who embrace standardized testing as a solution to education's
    ills could recognize this!
    Goto table of contents
    The Oral Foundations of Learning
    From:  David Abram (heron@whidbey.com)
    (David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous, passed the
    following letter along to me over a year ago, and I somehow let it drop.
    He had written it a year and a half previous to that, and the New York
    Times had published it.  It's still current.  SLT)
    To the Editor,
    In his State of the Union address, President Clinton, with good reason,
    decried the sorry state of education in our country, stressing the fact
    that many children who will soon enter their teens remain unable to really
    read or write.  Among his proposed solutions are worthy new literacy
    initiatives, as well as programs aimed at placing computers in every
    classroom and, ultimately, in every home.
    Yet it would be a grave mistake for parents and teachers to respond to our
    educational problems simply by forcing children to begin to read as early
    as possible, or by encouraging young children to interact with the
    computer screen as soon as they can.  Our excitement about the internet
    and its vast resources should not blind us to the fact that the
    astonishing linguistic and intellectual capacity of the human brain did
    not evolve in relation to the computer, nor in relation to the written
    word.  Rather it evolved in relation to orally told stories.  Indeed,
    humans told each other stories for many, many millennia before we ever
    began writing our words down.
    As a cognitive scientist and educator, I know how essential it is to avoid
    springing our children all too suddenly out of their sensorial exploration
    of the sensuous world that surrounds them into that other, purely
    cognitive interaction with the abstract signs on the flat surface of a
    page or a computer screen.  There must first be the intermediate step into
    a world of stories -- that is, into a languaged world that is nevertheless
    thoroughly sensuous and bodily.  This is the realm of oral language, the
    realm of stories and face-to-face storytelling.
    Spoken stories engage all of our senses; we inhabit and explore them with
    our bodily imagination.  They provide a necessary intermediate ground
    between our sensuous surroundings and the abstract world of information
    and cool reason.  Our first entry into language must be an entrance into
    the storied dimension of the cosmos -- your expressive body telling my
    body vital stories within the vast body of the world:  stories about the
    stars overhead, and about the wild wind that sometimes blows through the
    city streets, carrying our hats off our heads, and about how the nearby
    river feels when the spawning salmon return to its waters.  In this manner
    we provide our children the rich experience of growing into a living,
    imaginative landscape, and a sense of language not as a disembodied field
    of abstractions but as a mystery that grows out of the earth and binds us
    to it.
    If children first learn to navigate within the sensuous terrain of spoken
    stories, then their subsequent entry into reading and writing will be
    experienced by them as a deepening and a transformation of that more
    immediate, bodily imagination that they already share with the living
    land, and they will be able to integrate the gifts of the written word
    (whether on the page or the screen) both more fully and more fluidly.  But
    to become literate without first becoming oral -- richly oral -- is to
    undergo a subtle violence, one which perpetuates the dangerous rift
    between our modern minds and our bodies, and between our society and the
    sustaining earth.
    David Abram, Ph.D.
    When Living Becomes an Inconvenience
    Response to:  "Toward Appropriate Behavior by Objects" (NF-95)
    From:  Phil Walsh (philw@microware.com)
    One of my wife's favorite dishes is a lasagna made with spinach pasta and
    a bechamel sauce.  Bechamel is a cream sauce, seasoned with nutmeg.  I
    make the pasta from scratch, and after I have flattened it and cut it and
    it hangs on the racks drying I start the sauce.
    To make a bechamel sauce I start with butter and flour in a (preferably
    heavy) pan, and I add heat until the butter turns a golden brown color and
    the flour has been completely incorporated. Then I add heavy cream, then
    more heat, and I stir the whole mixture constantly until it thickens.  It
    takes some time for the sauce to thicken, and there is always an urge to
    turn the heat up.  This is dangerous, because the cream will scorch
    easily.  The higher the heat, the faster I need to stir; there is a point
    at which I can stir comfortably, keeping the cream from sticking to the
    bottom of the pan, and yet still add enough heat to bring the whole
    mixture to a boil and thicken.  Finding that point takes some practice,
    requires developing some skill.
    Putting this dish in front of my family, having them ooh and aah, and
    having my wife pronounce it the best thing she's ever eaten brings me
    satisfaction.  No small part of that satisfaction stems directly from
    knowing that making the dish successfully requires skills I had to work at
    to develop.
    Alan Wexelblat believes my life will be in some way better if he provides
    me with a pan that will tell me when the bechamel sauce is scorching.
    What his "wondrous" pan really does is rob me of an opportunity to live
    (because that's what trying and failing and learning and trying again
    until you get it right really is), and it's too bad that we continue to
    rush toward a place where living is apparently viewed as too much of an
    inconvenience to be tolerated.
    Phil Walsh
    On Appropriate Behavior for Machines
    Response to:  "Toward Appropriate Behavior by Objects" (NF-95)
    From:  Victor Grey (vgrey@openheart.com)
    Dear Steve,
    The real problem with the MIT Media Lab's pronouncements is that they
    indicate an unwillingness to recognize what has really been discovered --
    that "artificial intelligence" as envisioned by the science fiction
    writers is not possible, given our current state of understanding.
    Instead, as has been pointed out by others, they try to redefine
    "intelligence" as something that a machine can do.  This leads to some
    hilarious metaphors.  The "appropriate behavior" for ANY machine is for it
    to obey the laws of physics.  Fortunately for us, machines always "behave"
    Take the anthropomorphism out of the teapot statement and the non sequitur
    becomes obvious:  "Since my teapot is fashioned in a way that causes it to
    make noise when its contents are boiling, why shouldn't I have constructed
    on my behalf a complex network of data storage, transmission, and input
    and output devices, such that my newspaper delivery person can receive
    preprogrammed messages as to my delivery needs, based on presumed
    indicators of my travel plans?
    Personally, I think it's easier to leave her a note.  ;-)
    Victor Grey
    The Caller ID Arms Race
    Response to:  "Toward Appropriate Behavior by Objects" (NF-95)
    From:  Steve Baumgarten (sbb@panix.com)
    This passage from NF #95:
       Is the jogger's burden of luggage just an obvious problem to which
       there's an obvious technical solution, or is it rather a symptom of a
       deeper problem having to do with the entire structure of our lives?
       And is this deeper problem linked in turn to an unbalanced
       proliferation of the very sorts of devices now being proposed as a
    brought to mind something a little closer to home and already a reality:
    the ever-escalating telephonic arms race prompted by the introduction of
    Caller ID.
    At first, Caller ID looked like a great solution to a minor problem --
    knowing who's calling so you can choose whether or not to take the call.
    After all, why shouldn't you, as a regular Joe, have the same capability
    that important executives have had for ages (even though in their case
    it's called having a personal secretary)?
    But then came blocking -- after all, why should a caller have to reveal
    his calling number to someone who might potentially have Caller ID?
    But with blocking came another problem -- suddenly your Caller ID box is
    less useful than it used to be.  Less useful, more importantly, than it
    was represented by the phone company as being.  For if you couldn't always
    use it to screen your calls, what use was it after all?
    So then came "blocked number blocking" (I'm not sure of the official name
    for this, but it most definitely is a service you can choose to purchase
    from the phone company).  With this, you instruct your Caller ID box
    simply to refuse all calls from people who utilize Caller ID blocking on
    their line.
    I know people who have this, and the amazing thing is that they think it's
    a good thing.  They also state, outright, that they're willing to miss
    some calls from friends and family who either forget or don't know how to
    "unblock" their lines before calling them -- they say, proudly, that
    they've "trained" these people to unblock their lines, and that therefore
    everything works just fine.
    So now that the phone companies have provided us with this wonderful
    technology that should be making our lives so much easier, we find that it
    is, instead, making it much more complicated.  Suddenly we have privacy
    issues that were never before issues -- and suddenly we find ourselves
    instructing machines to reject calls from certain people unless those
    people make an extra effort on our behalf and change their normal
    behavior.  Worse, the people involved are those closest to us -- the very
    people whose calls we most want to receive.
    Caller ID is a wonderful example of technology designed and implemented
    solely because it could be (and could be profitable), not because it
    solves any real problem.  It might not be on the level of a coffee maker
    that knows when you're on vacation, but while the coffee maker is still
    the stuff of science fiction, Caller ID crept up on us slowly, but has now
    thoroughly engulfed us and changed us, and not, I believe, for the better.
    Steve Baumgarten
    New York, NY
    If Computers Behaved Like Toilets
    Response to:  "Toward Appropriate Behavior by Objects" (NF-95)
    From:  David Miller (dmiller@curry.edu)
    It's interesting that Alan Wexelblat gives airport toilets as an example
    of intelligently behaving objects:  "I find it absurd ... that the toilet
    in the airport `knows' when I'm standing in front of it, but my computer
    does not."
    This is a case in point.  I don't know what airports he's been frequenting
    (certainly not Boston's Logan Airport), but the airport, train station,
    etc., toilets I've used behave with profound stupidity.  That is, they only
    react to proximity, not to whether or not they need to flush!  Without
    going into the details which everyone can imagine for themselves, they
    almost always follow one of two patterns:
    1) flushing repeatedly and unnecessarily based on my position in the
    stall, thereby wasting great quantities of water; or
    2) not flushing when they should, simply because I haven't moved around in
    the stall. It's a good thing they have those hard-to-spot override buttons.
    From the perspectives of conservation and common sense, this development is
    regressive.  And what's more, they're just as prone to failure as the
    old-fashioned mechanical kind.
    If my computer behaved that way, it would 1) shut down every time I left
    to make a cup of coffee, and/or 2) refuse to shut down unless I physically
    left my desk.  I don't need that.
    David Miller
    Levin Library, Curry College
    Milton, MA
    Goto table of contents
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