Recent articles

We’ve already reported on a research faux pas on the part of Government Professor Kyle Dropp. He and Stanford political scientists Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden sent a mailing to 100,000 residents of Montana asking them to evaluate the political leanings of judges up for election to the state’s Supreme Court. It was all an experiment, but in trying to discern the impact of information in an election, they broke a few rules. The result:

Political Postcards Fine.jpg


Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Ryan HickoxA.jpgRyan Hickox is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy. As an observational astrophysicist, he focuses the majority of his considerable energies on questions relating to supermassive black holes and how they affect the evolution of galaxies. The combination of Hickox’s research output, teaching prowess, and engagement in the Dartmouth community is particularly remarkable considering the fact that he has not (yet) received tenure.

After obtaining his B.S. in Physics magna cum laude from Yale in 2000, Hickox completed a two-year teaching fellowship at a boarding school in England, where he was a physics instructor, a rugby coach, and a residential advisor. With scholastic life having perhaps planted a seed in his mind, Hickox went on to Harvard for his Ph.D., which he completed in 2007. He remained in Cambridge for the next two years in order to work at the Smithsonian Astronomical Observatory; in 2009, he moved back across the pond to Durham University to assume a position as a postdoctoral fellow. Hickox then joined the Dartmouth faculty in 2011, where he has been ever since.

Hickox has been an extraordinarily productive researcher during his relatively short time as a member of the professional physics community. His 108 authored or co-authored articles (generating an h-index of 38 and a citation count of 4706) would be notable for someone with decades of experience; for a scholar as young as Hickox, such statistics are particularly impressive. If the numeric trends are any indication, Hickox has an extremely bright career ahead of him — his yearly citation count rose from 726 in 2014 to 916 in 2015 and 1147 in 2016. The dollar signs are there as well. In 2016, Hickox received a highly competitive $672,000 grant from the NSF to fund his research group and support an outreach program that brings scientists into classrooms by video chat.

Hickox researches areas that stupefy the mind and leave one feeling, for lack of a better word, insignificant. At the center of virtually every large galaxy in the known universe there exists a black hole, which is a celestial object so massive and so dense that it warps space-time in such a way as to not allow anything, even light, to escape from its sphere of influence. “Smaller” black holes have a mass measuring tens of times that of our Sun, but those at the center of galaxies are incomprehensively huge. With masses that reach billions and billions of Suns, these monsters are so influential that they, in fact, as Hickox has explored, affect the behavior of entire galaxies, which themselves can stretch hundreds of thousands of light-years across.

Galaxies, which initially assume the form of a disk, are born when normal matter cools, falls into the center of “halos” of dark matter, and condenses to produce stars. As disk-shaped galaxies grow, they can collide with one another to create even larger galaxies. These mergers can produce a “bulge” at the center of a galaxy so that it begins to look less like a disk and more like an ellipse. In theory, galaxies with a bulge should continue to produce stars much like they did when they were younger and disk-shaped. In fact, star formation often stops at this point, causing a galaxy to “die.” This course of events has vexed astronomers for decades.

As Hickox’s work has helped demonstrate, the explanation for the dying-galaxy phenomenon may well rest with supermassive black holes. Black holes at the centers of galaxies accrete mass by pulling in surrounding interstellar material. When they do so, tremendous energy can be released as radiation or energetic outflows that move near the speed of light. Hickox and his colleagues have theorized that this release of energy can stop star formation by expelling the gaseous ingredients for a star from the galaxy altogether or by heating them to a point where they are not able to condense.

This is only part of the picture, though — as Hickox’s group demonstrated in 2014, black hole activity can also occur with star formation. As it turns out, black holes flicker on and off at random in the figurative blink of a galactic eye (which, for us, measures millions of years). Observational data as gathered from instruments like the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which Hickox has personally used since his days in graduate school, have provided strong evidence that these breakthroughs are on the right track.

Hickox does more than enough to keep himself occupied when he’s not churning out valuable research. By the end of this academic year, he will have taught five different courses to Dartmouth students - Habitable Planets, Galaxies and Cosmology, Stars and the Milky Way, Observational Cosmology, and Exploring the Universe, the last of which is often an undergraduate’s introduction to the College’s physics and astronomy offerings.

Advising and community are moreover extremely important to Hickox, who currently has four undergraduates in his research group. He has also received an appointment as House Professor for West House until 2019 with the possibility of serving a second term that would last until 2023. Hickox, whose experiences at Yale, Harvard, and Durham led him to value the positive impact that cohesive residential communities can have on students, is optimistic about the future of Dartmouth’s house system:

…What we’re aiming to build in West House: a community in which those spontaneous interactions between faculty, students, and staff allow everyone to learn from each other’s diverse interests, talents, and backgrounds…. I see a real opportunity for the Houses to be an important vehicle through which Dartmouth further enhances its position as a leader in offering a vibrant intellectual experience for its undergraduates.

Let’s hope Professor Hickox is right, and let’s hope that he remains in Hanover a long, long time.

Addendum: You can hear Professor Hickox speak today from 3:30-4:30 pm in Wilder 104. His lecture, titled “The Hidden Monsters: New Windows on the Cosmic Evolution of Supermassive Black Holes,” is geared towards a general audience.

Addendum: Professor Hickox also participated in the “Pulsars and Quasars” episode of the History Channel series, “The Universe,” in 2009. If you’re into astronomy, watch the whole thing, but Hickox’s appearances begin after the 26:30 mark:

In a recent post, we recommended that people attend Tillman Gerngross’ Presidential Lecture. In case you did not follow our recommendation — how could you? — here is his presentation:

What an extraordinary man. Worth an hour of your time, to be sure.

Daniel Webster Men Quote Comp.jpg

Even though pedagogical literature talks about the importance of students learning grit, resilience and mental toughness — and with Dartmouth varsity coaches asking the very best of their charges — some parts of the College administration believe that coddling and gentle caring are vital features of education at an institution of higher learning. No need to push the little darlings. After all, they might feel bad:

Dartmouth Wellness 2017A.jpg

Such an event is important, at least for undergraduates who will one day become overweening daycare providers, or worse still, administrators in a bloated university administration. A cute puppy? Stress balls? Candy? All that is missing is stuffed animals and a doll house.

And to think that we pay administration staffers real money to put on these events, instead of using their part of the budget to hire brilliant young professors.

As Daniel Webster might say, God help us.

Addendum: The rot is not limited to the College. It turns out that even the Yale Law School has a therapy dog. No word yet on whether such comforts are also offered by major law firms.Note: a former Dartmouth professor now at Yales writes in to say, “The law school therapy dog died in the snow storm a few weeks ago.” My source believes that the pup went to the great beyond when “he drowned, running out on a snow-covered, but not-fully-frozen lake.”

As has been widely reported, a number of students at Middlebury embarrassed themselves by preventing scholar Charles Murray from speaking at their school. They later violently rocked his car, and then went so far as to injure the Middlebury professor who was to question Murray and moderate a Q&A following Murray’s remarks. The attached video is a model example of a kind of intolerance that exists on too many campuses today:

To Dartmouth’s credit, Murray spoke unimpeded at the College on April 28, 2016. For reasons of its own, The D chose not report on his talk.

Subsequently, Middlebury’s President Laurie Patton has come out forcefully against the behavior of her students (compare and contrast Phil Hanlon’s non-action after the BLM library invasion), and more significantly two professors at Middlebury, Professor of English and Creative Writing Jay Parini and Professor of Political Science Keegan Callanan, have drafted a Statement of Principle that is their take on the rules of intellectual decorum and give and take that should govern life at that school. Parini taught at Dartmouth from 1975-1982; he moved to Middlebury in the latter year:

Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.

Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.

The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.

The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.

Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.

Students have the right to challenge and even to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.

A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.

No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain.

No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion.

The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices.

The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda.

The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.

A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.

All our students possess the strength, in head and in heart, to consider and evaluate challenging opinions from every quarter.

We are steadfast in our purpose to provide all current and future students an education on this model, and we encourage our colleagues at colleges across the country to do the same.

To date, 62 Middlebury professors have endorsed the Statement of Principle. (Middlebury has 283 full-time and 58 part-time faculty members.)

The Hanlon administration would do well to support such a cogent set of ideas, and then back up that endorsement with enforcement the next time students seek to impede the free exchange of ideas at the College.

Addendum: Murray offers his own description and analysis of the events that befell him in an archly titled essay: Reflections on the Revolution in Middlebury. His conclusion:

It will take some time for me to be dispassionate. If you promise to bear that in mind, I will say what I’m thinking and rely on you to discount it appropriately: What happened last Thursday has the potential to be a disaster for American liberal education.

Winter 2017.jpgThe thing about outgoing Board of Trustees Chair Bill Helman ‘80 is that he understands what ails the College. More than any other Trustee in recent decades, he has been out and about on campus talking to faculty, staff, students, and even the occasional alumnus blogger in order to take the temperature of the place. He knows the level of discontent with Phil Hanlon. The waste. The poor management. The weak people in highly paid positions. But he never could do anything about it — though it is not impossible to imagine that behind the scenes he averted decisions that would have hurt the College even more than the current disastrous policies. Now there’s a scary thought.

In any event, as he ends his term as Chair, Helman is offering the campus a chance to pick his brain — at a time when almost no students will be here:

Helman Town Hall.jpg

The original Town Hall meeting — part of a series of ongoing events hosted by EVP Rick Mills — was scheduled for March 8, when everyone would have been in Hanover. By March 15, almost all undergraduate students will have hit the road.

I would have hoped for better.

Addendum: In his day job, Helman was a successful venture capitalist at Greylock Partners. The old joke in the VC world is that it takes five elements to constitute a good company: a product, a market, the people, the people, the people. In other words, VC’s must be good judges of character. And yet Helman led the search committee that chose Phil Hanlon — ostensibly the fourth choice for the Dartmouth Presidency. How is that possible? Would Bill Helman have chosen Phil Hanlon to run a startup, or a division of Ford Motor company, where he is a Director?

As we noted in this morning’s post, “A drop in applicants from either 20,675 or 20,676 students to 20,021 is a drop of 3.2%, not 2.6%.” The College agrees with us:

Admissions Drop Lawrence.jpg

Dartmouth News Applicants Revised Comp.jpg

Last week I wrote:

My bet is that tuition, room and board, and fees will rise by 2.5%-3.0% — even though the HEPI and CPI were stable at less than 2% and 1% respectively. We’ll probably go from $66,174 to a figure in the area of $68,000.

Today the administration announced:

The trustees approved a 2.9 percent increase in undergraduate tuition, mandatory fees, and room and board for the 2017-18 academic year. Undergraduate tuition will be $51,468, an increase of $1,470 over the current year’s tuition rate. Total tuition, room, board, and mandatory fees next year will increase to $68,109. The increase is consistent with the 2014 rate, which was the lowest percentage increase in tuition since 1977 and reflects Hanlon’s strategy to slow the growth of the cost of a Dartmouth education.

The Labor Department’s most recent price calculation has the Consumer Price Index rising by 1.2%.

So Phil has the cost of a Dartmouth education rising by almost two and a half times the CPI, and the College’s press release applauds “Hanlon’s strategy to slow the growth of the cost of a Dartmouth education.” Sheesh.

Addendum: In a not-unrelated development, the Trustees made no announcement at their meeting this past weekend about the capital campaign.

The gang that can’t shoot straight also can’t count. The other day this space reported that applications for the Class of 2021 (already widely acknowledged to be the worst class ever) fell by 2.6%. We were quoting from a Dartmouth News press release, and to our everlasting shame, we did not check the administration’s math:

Applications 2017 Dartmouth News Comp.jpg

The press release noted that 20,021 students had applied for admission — and it did not specifically cite how many people had applied the previous year. However in its prior-year release, Dartmouth News had the figure at 20,675:

Dartmouth News Applicants Comp1.jpg

The Dartmouth FactBook comes close to confirming this figure; at the present time it notes that 20,676 students applied for admission to the Class of 2020:

OIR Applicants.jpg

A drop in applicants from either 20,675 or 20,676 students to 20,021 is a drop of 3.2%, not 2.6%.

But hey, if all of the other Ivies are up, as I expect that they will be when they announce their numbers (right now applications are up at Yale by 4.6%, at Penn by 3.8% and Harvard by 1.2%), who really cares if our applications fell by 3.2% or 2.6%. The figure is an embarrassment any way you calculate it.

Addendum: Are the Trustees listening? We are heading fast to the Ivy basement. It’s time to make a change.

Addendum: Note in the screenshots above that the College announced the total number of applicants last year on March 31; it did so this year on March 2. I wonder why? One hypothesis: given that most of the Ivies have not released their figures, it is harder to make unflattering comparisons. (Have no fear. We will do so when the numbers are released.)

Addendum: A alumnus/parent writes in:

A drop in applications is what promoting “diversity” and “special institutes” over excellence and a focus on undergraduate teaching does — alienates those who may not see themselves as “diverse” or “diverse enough,” while trying to attract those, particularly international students, who may desire more urban environments over Hanover.

As someone with high school and college age children (one of whom is a student at the College and absolutely loves it, as I did!; another one is now bound for a great southern school), I can state firsthand that numerous peers and admissions counselors view Dartmouth as changing its admissions criteria to the point where “typical” kids — those without an athletic or some other special “hook,” including those who are not deemed “diverse enough” — have a more limited chance of gaining acceptance given the small size of the school and its Ivy status than they might encounter at its competitor schools (i.e. vs. other Ivies, Williams, Amherst, now Tufts, Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Georgetown, etc.)

To be more specific, as an alumnus and current parent, I routinely have been asked what the admissions rate is for non-minority, non-international, non-athlete applicants (obviously have no clue) — the implication being that Dartmouth actually may be one of the most competitive schools in the country with respect to admissions for an applicant who does not fall into one of those “special” or “unique” categories (do athletes alone take up 180-200 spots?).

Hence, it’s no surprise that some segment of the “majority” is beginning to conclude that there is little point spending time, money and effort on applying to the smallest Ivy in a relatively remote location where the focus on diversity and a stated strategy veering away from its focus on undergraduate education has overtaken that which has made Dartmouth so special for nearly 250 years. I’ll leave it to you to weigh in on whether Moving Dartmouth Forward and things like the incongruous “Energy Institute” have exacerbated rather than mitigated the challenge.

At some point the College needs to realize that the answer rests right under its proverbial nose — espouse Dartmouth as THE best college for undergraduate teaching in the world, essentially Williams but with many times the size and resources. Otherwise, we are at risk of becoming “Brand X” sold only in a remote location, destined to be crushed by superior competitors with better marketing and a better product. Of course, even commenting on the deleterious effects of over-hyping an overt effort to further change the make-up of the student body will seem politically incorrect.

How ironic is it that against this backdrop Dartmouth will soon be launching a $2.5 billion capital campaign seeking major support from the very people the College has been alienating for the past 5-10+ years?!

At what point do all colleges realize that it’s time to embrace excellence and passion first, and stop discriminating against any class of applicants or students based on ethnicity, nationality, athletic prowess (or lack thereof), etc.? We are about to see whether those who otherwise would have said “in” for a major capital campaign instead “vote with their dollars” and decline or reduce their commitments, as the College they see now is not that which appropriately continues to evolve and build off a great foundation, but rather is that which seeks to alter that foundation to the point where any semblance of Dartmouth’s inherent uniqueness could be destroyed.

An old New England aphorism has it that if you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes. The coda might be that fifteen days can give you a complete change of seasons. Two weeks ago we pictured the Green as a wintry wonder/wasteland; today students are playing soccer, and the grass is showing some color. A couple of days with temperatures in the high 50°’s and some pounding rain made quick work of the deep snow:

Green without snow.jpg

Last week I biked to lunch with a varsity coach at Market Table. 60° in February!

Freenome, co-founded by Peter Thiel Fellow Riley Ennis ‘15, has just raised $65 million. Riley is the COO there:

Riley Ennis Freenome.jpg

This financing round includes Andreessen Horowitz, GV (Google Ventures), Polaris Partners, Charles River Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Spectrum 28, and Asset Management Ventures. If these venture capitalists were frats, they’d all be A-side.

Addendum: An alert reader writes in to note that Freenome’s CTO is Michael Otte ‘13. If I am not mistaken, he is standing to the left of Riley Ennis in the back row of the above picture.

Given that students can barely work up the resolve these days to build a snow sculpture on the Green, an alumnus sent in some shots of various efforts from 1962:

Dartmouth Carnival sculpture 1962.jpeg

Fraternity ice sculpture Dartmouth Carnival Feb 1962.jpeg

Tri-Kap ice sculpture Winter Carnival Dartmouth 1962.jpeg

DU ice sculpture Dartmouth Carnival Feb. 1962.jpeg

In my day in the late 1970’s, all the Greek houses and most dorms had Carnival sculptures, in addition to the main effort in the center of the Green. People would walk around campus, and particularly down Webster Avenue, to admire the various figures.

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Kevin Peterson1.jpegKevin Peterson is a Professor of Biological Sciences as well as an Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences. Trained as a paleontologist, he focuses his energies at the intersection of geology and genetics in order to explore comprehensive explanations of the origins and development of animal life on Earth. By looking at the entire picture painted by both the fossil record and genomes, Peterson has been able to provide the scientific community with important insights as to how and why organisms got to where they are today.

Born and raised in rural western Montana, Peterson started a fossil collection at the age of four. His path towards paleontology was not a straight one, however, as his undergraduate studies at Carroll College (Helena, MT), from which he graduated maxima cum laude in 1989, were on the pre-med track. After realizing that medical school wasn’t for him, Peterson did some soul-searching and decided to pursue the subject that had so fascinated him as a young child. He went to UCLA, where he completed his Ph.D. in Geology in 1996, and he became interested in how paleontological questions could be addressed on a molecular level. After a post-doctoral stint at the California Institute of Technology, a job advertisement brought Peterson to Dartmouth for the first time in 2000, where he fell in love with the Upper Valley, and where he has made his home ever since.

The work performed in Peterson’s laboratory revolves around an event known as the “Cambrian explosion,” which began around 540 million years ago. At that point in time, most animal phyla — the taxonomic rank directly below kingdom — began to be indicated in the fossil record. Prior to the Cambrian explosion, animal fossils are very rare and restricted to rocks just slightly older than the Cambrian, but within a few million years after the start of the Cambrian, animal fossils become widespread and diverse across the globe. In other words, fossils from virtually every group of skeletonized animals are commonly found in Cambrian-aged rocks.

This sudden appearance of animals, however, has long posed a challenge to the model of natural selection as first proposed by Charles Darwin: Iif evolution really took place when competing animals slowly scrapped it out for superiority, eliminating rivals in the process, why would animal life as we know it show up more or less all at once at the base of the Cambrian?

In order to shine light on these mysteries, Peterson has dived into the genomes of various organisms and mapped out how they are related on a molecular level. His voluminous research (h-index of 51 and 9922 citations) is in large part based on the idea that the key to unpacking what happened during Cambrian explosion lies in understanding both records of the history of life: the geologic and the genetic. Using “molecular clocks,” a technique that estimates when evolutionary lineages like animal phyla diverged from one another using differences in genetic sequences, Peterson’s group showed that animals do, in fact, have a deep but unrecorded Precambrian history — all of the major animal lineages were in fact present in the Precambrian, just as Darwin predicted. For reasons that are not well understood, however, they do not make their appearances in the rock record for tens, and in some cases hundreds, of millions of years later.

Peterson currently dedicates much of his time to the role that microRNAs may have in differentiating, say, humans from sponges. As Peterson’s research has shown, a surprisingly high proportion of the genetic material of complex animals is shared with simpler organisms. But microRNAs, a type of RNA molecule classified as non-coding (it doesn’t direct protein production), are to be found in the genetic code of people where they’re missing in that of sponges. Peterson has hypothesized that, because microRNAs accumulate over time in complex organisms, they can be used to peer through some of the dust unleashed by the chaos of the Cambrian explosion, when life as we know it began to assume wildly different forms.

Peterson has had plenty to do in the classroom this year as well. In the fall, he was responsible for a section of the Biology Department’s introductory course, “The Science of Life,” that was titled “Major Events in the History of Life and the Human Genome.” Currently, he is teaching a class called “Macroevolution,” and in the spring he will be offering a course called “RNA: The Real Secret of Life.”

Addendum: Here, you can listen to Professor Peterson discuss, among other things, the usefulness of microRNA in determining to whom turtles are related:

Talk about burying the lede: it takes a long while for the Dartmouth News release to let us know that applications have dropped by 2.6%:

Applications 2017 Dartmouth News Comp.jpg

The situation has not been pretty for several years now. We have never returned to the heights shown by the number of applicants for the Class of 2016:

Applications Data 2017.jpg

It seems that high school students, parents and college counselors know that Phil is not up to the task — as do the College’s students, alumni, donors and faculty. Do the Trustees know?

Addendum: We’ll have comparative data with the other Ivies soon. To start, applications were up 5% at Yale, 3.8% at Penn, and 1% at Harvard. These are the only ones of which the news has come to Dartblog.

Addendum: An alum writes in:

I was on the Admissions website, and I note that undergraduate education is not described. No mention of why my son chose the College — teaching, research opportunities, contact with professors, etc.

Addendum: Another alum comments:

Every other Ivy has seen record numbers of applications in the past few years, but Dartmouth continues to struggle to get 20,000. If this trend continues, Dartmouth will start to be seen as the “doormat of the Ivy League,” a dubious distinction which was previously reserved for the likes of Penn, Brown and Columbia in our day. Those schools have now soared past Dartmouth in numbers of applicants and lower acceptance rates. Dartmouth needs a strong and creative leader to reposition it in the marketplace, and to reclaim its prior status in the upper ranks of the Ivy League right behind HYP.

In yesterday’s post, we made the following point about the College’s spending:

The great majority of a school’s employees (janitors, dining hall workers, administrative assistants, maintenance and technical workers, accountants and administrators, etc.) are doing the same work as their homologues in the private sector. And the remainder of an institution’s costs (building construction, outside services, travel, taxes, utilities and so forth) are no different from the costs of doing business that face any equivalent company. In short, if colleges and universities were well managed, there is no reason why their costs should not rise at the same rate as the Consumer Price Index.

Let’s look a little more closely at where the administration spent money last year:

Dartmouth Expense Allocation1.jpg

First off, 59.42% of the College’s $918,111,000 in expenses went to personnel costs: salaries, wages and benefits. That leaves 40.58% for spending on items that are no different from the usual items that American businesses buy every day. How can the cost of these items rise faster at Dartmouth than the CPI?

The College, by virtue of its size, can borrow money more cheaply than the average business, and the same rule should apply to travel, construction, supplies, and utilities.

In fact, one could make the argument that because residential housing — the largest element of the CPI (42.24% of the index) and the second fastest growing one after medical care — is not an important component of schools’ cost structure, college costs should rise more slowly that the CPI.

But in the final analysis, the wages of average Americans are hardly rising faster than the Consumer Price Index, so every time schools follow or exceed the bloated HEPI, they place higher learning ever further out of reach for average American families. Think about that the next time someone in the administration gasses on about social justice.


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