Is there a Point in Travel?

As my last post makes clear, I have been busy travelling recently. My trip encompassed visits to both New York and Boston, cities which in years past I have visited quite frequently. Boston is delightfully non-American: its streets are not on a grid but resemble a British city much more than any other US city I have ever visited. It has had a hard winter this year and remnants of the mounds of snow were still to be seen between the road and the sidewalk, but they were clearly but a pale imitation of what they had looked like earlier in the month.

In the past one of the main reasons for my presence in Boston has been the annual MRS meeting held in the Hynes Conference Centre and local hotels. When I first went – and 15 years or ago or so I was even a session organiser for a symposium at one of these meetings on the Materials Science of Food – I found these meetings incredibly stimulating. With multiple parallel sessions it was always something of a challenge to nip between one meeting room and another to catch the talks one really wanted. There was a rich diet of excellent speakers, be they the most senior or those just setting out, as well as well-attended poster sessions.

However the last MRS meeting I attended, five or more years ago, I found deeply depressing. The buzz had gone. The multiple sessions were still running, but even when a speaker had an audience too often half of them were lurking at the back of the room reading their emails. Wifi was available throughout the conference space and consequently everywhere people were using it to stay online. Coffee breaks merely meant people moved out into the corridors and sat around still glued to their laptops. Conversation was severely limited, little discussion occurred and it was hard to interact with those one really wanted to catch. I have not been back since that disheartening experience.

I have always felt there were drawbacks to the big US style meeting. Whichever city they were held in, however wonderful the conference facilities, the quality of the air-conditioning (most important when I attended a conference in Atlanta in August) and the luxuriousness of spacious hotel rooms, the very extensiveness of them frustrates interaction. UK conferences held in dreary campus halls of residence mean that everyone turns up in the bar in the evening and perforce mingles. The food may be unexciting but if you are all there together you can far more easily find the person you’re really keen to toss ideas around with. This is probably even more important for junior researchers who can casually bump into their hero in the lunch queue. If everyone is staying in different hotels and you’re all heading off in different directions to find food, it requires much more bumptiousness and confidence to approach a professor to ask for time to discuss your work than if you can casually sit next to them at breakfast. So, whereas I still attend UK conferences the only US conferences I have been to in recent years have been Gordon conferences where New England prep schools’ functionality is more comparable to the UK hall of residence (although often the food is better).

However, is travelling an overrated academic pastime anyhow? Conferences can be – although I note above, not always – immensely stimulating as well as useful places to network, be inspired and be brought up to date with new developments and discoveries. However, too often the invited speakers are the same people delivering the same talks before rapidly disappearing to their next important engagement. Such people too rarely provide inspiration, insight or even opportunities for one-to-one interaction. That too often the slate of invited speakers is anything but diverse has been noted by many about conferences in many different fields. If added to this the opportunities to interact with the majority of attendees are limited by logistics and over-excessive availability of wifi then one has to wonder what benefit accrues beyond a tick on your CV from travelling thousands of miles at significant expense.

For students and for postdocs the very experience of presenting one’s work to a wider public can (and certainly should) be stimulating, even given those limitations, but once one progresses beyond the first few meetings, is the time away from one’s desk/lab bench/research group more than compensated by what one gets back? How many conferences a year do you really need on your CV to be convincing that you are making your mark when it comes to appointment and/or recruitment? I for one cut back on my travel when I had children and have never regretted the limit I imposed back then, one I have essentially never removed (even though my children have long since left home). I feel my productivity is greater for physically remaining close to home and department and restricting the days of inefficiency due to jet lag. I think as a sector we should be very careful of assuming someone who has accrued many airmiles in order to be seen in all continents in a given year, is more worthy of respect (or promotion) than someone whose travel itinerary is much more limited. In particular, if we slavishly expect everyone to attend some large number of conferences a year we are undoubtedly unwittingly disadvantaging those who do not choose to do so, perhaps due to caring responsibilities or health issues.

I wrote a long time ago about why I think travelling is overrated and nothing I have seen since makes me change my mind. It doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my most recent trip which I concluded by giving the Geiringer Lecture at Harvard. I spent a fascinating day at the University meeting old friends and new acquaintances and catching up with what they had been doing. I also learned more about Hilda Geiringer, in whose honour the lecture was named, a remarkable applied mathematician who, both as a Jew and a woman had a frustrated academic life around the time of the Second World War. Her 93 year old daughter was present at the lecture. Overall I suspect I got all the more out of the trip because it was so long since I had last visited the USA.

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Reminiscing On my Travels

I am often asked, what do College Masters do? Some people seem to think it is similar to being Warden of a Hall of Residence (i.e. sorting out broken light bulbs or disputes between neighbouring students), but it isn’t like that at all. As one of my fellow female Masters told me, it is a case of ‘setting a tone’, but even that sounds – and is – very nebulous. It is perhaps akin to what is written in my contract with the University ‘such other duties as the Head of Department requires’, where for Head of Department read the collective Fellowship. In other words, it is what you make of it but if you fail to do it well it will be very publicly visible.

Of course part of the role involves frequent dining with alumni, senior visitors and potential donors as well as the wider College community and I am on something of a culinary tour currently in the USA, meeting up with distant alumni – of Churchill and many other colleges –and wider friends of the University plus giving talks around a variety of different subjects. The Meaning of Success event had a stimulating discussion on Saturday at the Waldorf Astoria in New York with a wide range of perspectives from senior female alumni of the University including two other heads of house (Firzwilliam’s Nicky Padfield  and Murray Edwards’ Barbara Stocking). A talk in Boston followed on Churchill and Science, along the lines of an earlier post and, I am finishing the trip off today with the original motivation for the visit, a science lecture at Harvard, in the other Cambridge of course.

So, after a gap of some 30 years I finally returned to spend some time in New York. It wasn’t that I was avoiding the place simply that it didn’t happen, except sitting in airports en route to somewhere else. I distinctly remember sitting in Newark, holed up somewhere as quiet as I could find, reading an entire thesis during a long and unanticipated layover. Five hours away from email, as that implied at the time, was very productive and good for the concentration.

Returning to New York now has felt distinctly strange. My first arrival – heading off to a postdoc position at Cornell University – was marred by the fact that I had lost my wallet at Victoria before take-off. So I turned up with no money, only travellers cheques, and by the time I got to the small airport at Ithaca had to be lent a dime or two so I could phone my husband (no mobiles back then; and I’d probably have lost that too anyhow). My return to the UK, four years later (I’d not returned once in between), was no less eventful. This time I’d managed to lose my passport. When I rang the British Embassy after I realised that this was missing and asked them what I should do they said it was absolutely no problem. I should just turn up at the Embassy with my birth and marriage certificates. Things got a bit hairier when I pointed out I had ‘lost’ these too. They weren’t lost of course. In the course of moving out of our apartment I had sorted all my belongings into careful piles and it is clear, with hindsight, that these valuable documents had got into the pile to throw away. At least, they have never been since!

I set off to New York and the Embassy just hoping that they would issue me with an emergency passport on the strength of me knowing the date and Office which had issued the lost passport to me; this was easy as the passport was dated on my marriage day since I had changed my name and travelled abroad for my honeymoon. It worked. They gave me one which enabled me to leave the USA and enter the UK. I wonder how I would fare in a similar situation today with the increased anxiety over security.

So, more than 30 years on, I returned to New York. Now operating in a very different style from the life-on-a-shoestring of a postdoc, my University and College have booked me into comfortable accommodation, including at the Waldorf Astoria where the Meaning of Success event was held. It is hard not to contrast life back then as a postdoc with limited funds and a head of house for whom cars are arranged to transport me to and from the airport and comfortable, cockroach-free rooms provided in upmarket hotels. I mention the cockroaches because my first experience of a hotel in Boston was full of them, rather disconcertingly. But then, so was our apartment in Ithaca. Tough little blighters to dispose of.

This contrast, made all the starker by the absence of intervening visits, exposes my inner impostor syndrome again. How did I get here from where I was: that incompetent person who seemed unable not to lose significant items as I travelled, that person who had no aspiration to an academic career or indeed any other sort of career. I just kind of kept muddling on, possibly gaining experience in how to avoid putting a passport in the rubbish in the meantime.

Nevertheless, the Meaning of Success event highlighted the fact that for many of us across different fields of employment aspiration does not mean a bigger office, car or salary. It is so often about nurturing the talent around one in one’s teams or staying true to one’s values. Ann Cotton of the charity CamFed gave a wonderful example of how she held her nerve for the organisation regarding the absolute sanctity of the privacy of the young people she was helping in Africa in the face of a newspaper who wanted to showcase her work – thereby gaining her much needed publicity – but for whom signing a piece of paper of the kind she required for her charity’s processes was unheard of. She didn’t blink, she stuck to her beliefs so that her internal values held firm and as a result of her steadfastness the newspaper found a workaround that suited all. Sticking to one’s core beliefs is, as the Cambridge book made clear, a key factor in the lives of many of the individuals interviewed. For them, success was not success unless this line was held.

Many of us will never be faced with the sort of stark choice Ann Cotton faced but, as a head of house, I’m sure one of my other duties may turn out to be holding some sort of line under external pressure. I haven’t had to deal with such a situation yet, but one might turn up during my tenure. In the meantime, I will continue to battle the inner voice that says ‘What are you doing swanning around in upmarket hotels when you’re so wet behind the ears you lose your passport?’ and move on to my next stimulating meeting with alumni.

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Words and Images

As my last post said, I have been sitting on a lot of committees recently and consequently reading a lot of references. I am pleased to observe that it has been the men round the table who have been complaining about the gendered tone of some of these letters, picking up both when a referee envisages a job in a very masculine way and so complains if some woman operates in a different way (stereotypically with more of a collaborative than lone hero style), or when different standards for men and women are used. In this latter case, for instance, it was noted that the women were referred to by what they hadn’t done, whereas for the men it was consistently what they had achieved. These differences are quite subtle in their tone and I was delighted to note how the men around the table (and this particular committee had not had specific unconscious bias training so they had picked up these skills elsewhere) got quite angry about some of the referees’ failings. This is definitely progress. And, since there were far more men than women round the table I was encouraged to find it wasn’t the women who had to speak out. It is everyone’s problem if the best individual is disadvantaged by the application of stereotypes or a subtle marking down in ways the referee themselves were not necessarily consciously intending.

The trouble, however, remains that negative tones stick in the mind. If someone (OK, a woman) is described as feisty, for example, it is very easy to read that as ‘trouble’. The second thought may be, it’s not a word you’d use about a man, but the third thought may still be, ‘but would it be risky to employ this person?. Once you’ve heard that word, how do you strike it from the record, as a court of law might require. It’s lodged in the brain and hard to ignore. If the letter is sufficiently blatantly sexist or unacceptably rude, suggesting some long-running feud between groups perhaps, then it is easy to say such a letter should be cast aside. The less dramatic the damning, the more pernicious the effect, I suspect.

I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is, other than trying to ensure that the referees themselves get exposed to unconscious bias training. Maybe that the url’s for those sites which try to identify the gendering of words used should be more widely disseminated so that people at least think before they type some dubious word, such as feisty (see here for some guidelines). I know I have become much more cautious in what adjectives I use, trying to be clear that if I say someone is a team player I also stress their independence, or noting that someone who is good with people is also brilliant and a game changer. Many of the words used stereotypically about women are good words, in that they describe traits of people we would tend to want to have around us, but if the words search committees look for are more likely to be those of quite self-centred but smart people we have to make sure we emphasise the smart even if we don’t lose the niceness in our descriptions.

Raising awareness that women can be scientists (and more specifically physicists in the particular cases I’ve recently been involved with) by imagery is another aspect of the march towards a level playing field. Or maybe I should say the slow crawl in that direction. Although I fear this is a sad reflection on my own progress towards ‘old fartdom’, I have been involved with two unveilings of representations of women in the last couple of weeks.

First up was the unveiling of a portrait of Gillian Gehring in Sheffield. When Gillian was appointed a professor of physics at Sheffield University in 1989 she became only the second woman to attain that rank, the first being Daphne Jackson at Surrey (in my turn, I was the seventh). I remember her elevation, although I had at that time never met her, because my mentor Sam Edwards made a point of drawing it to my attention, along with the fact that she was a mother too. Given that at that time I had just returned from my second period of maternity leave the point was well made. It clearly left its mark because all these years later, when asked to say a few words about Gillian before the actual unveiling, that was the story that came to mind. She has undoubtedly been a role model to many and no doubt will continue to be so as her portrait hangs prominently in Firth Hall in the University. Hers will be the first portrait of a woman in this central space within the University; it is to be hoped it will soon be joined by others and by a more contemporaneous and welcome feel than perhaps that generated by men of distinction from an earlier age.

The second unveiling was of a terracotta bust of the astrophysicist Lucie Green at an event on ‘Women writing science‘ at the Royal Society. (In the end the sculptor, Marcus Cornish, wanted to do the unveiling himself to protect the bust, so I merely read the eulogy.) When asked why he chose Lucie, Marcus said he was inspired by the story of Clytie from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. As the myth goes, Clytie, who loved Apollo, god of the Sun, was turned to a sunflower, which was forever changing, following the Sun’s passage in the sky. The sculpture is based on this story, and Lucy’s passion for studying the sun. In her hands are gold sunflower seeds, which represent the legacy of her involvement in science communication, and passing on what she has learned, inspiring and educating others.

It is a striking story and a striking piece of art that is intended to be prominently displayed near Reception at the Royal Society, along with the other 3 busts of female scientists that they already possess: Miriam Rothschild, Mary Somerville and Elsie Widdowson if I recall correctly (and which don’t seem currently to be on display). These are part of the plans for the revamping of imagery that has been talked about for too long without visible changes occurring. Diversity at the Royal Society will soon be led by Uta Frith, who will be chairing a reconstituted Diversity Committee, so I am confident it is in good hands.

Finally, it is perhaps worth highlighting the film that I had to sit and watch at this event on the big screen in the main lecture theatre at the Royal Society, starring Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and (ahem) me. Sarah-Jayne and I were filmed as part of the celebrations surrounding the 350th Anniversary of the first publication of Philosophical Transactions (aka Phil Trans), the first scientific publication in the world and one that the Royal Society’s President Paul Nurse has said changed the world of science as much as any discovery. She and I talk about women who published in Phil Trans but weren’t FRSs, focussing on Hertha Ayrton  and Alice Lee at the start of the twentieth century. To find out more watch the film!

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10 Things to Make You a Better Committee Member

I seem to have been sitting through a lot of committee meetings recently, of diverse kinds. Every committee meeting has its own dynamic – a grant-awarding meeting is very different in form from that of some sort of a departmental strategy group; a programme committee for a conference will differ from a student-liaison body. Nevertheless there are some basic principles which apply more or less across the board. In the past I have derived a little entertainment describing the sort of committee members (and chairs) I hope you’ll never meet though probably will. Now I want to put out some suggestions for how you should behave to make sure you never feature in a future post poking fun at bad behaviour.

I think each of these rules is pretty fundamental to being able to make a useful contribution for committees at whatever level. Some of them are perhaps so obvious as to make it look as if they don’t need stating. But since I have not infrequently encountered individuals breaking each of these ‘rules’, clearly they do need reiterating and probably pretty often.

  1. Read the paperwork
    Maybe there isn’t any beyond the agenda, but if there is, make sure you have at least skimmed through it and know what it covers. You can end up looking extremely silly if you ask a question the answer to which resides on page 1, or if you haven’t mastered the breadth of topics being addressed.
  2. Prepare
    This may add up to little more than reading the paperwork, but sometimes it may require you to do a some background fact-checking (for instance reading minutes of earlier meetings or cross-referencing your facts). More particularly, if you feel you are going to disagree with a majority position then you probably need to marshall your arguments, as well as facts. How are you going to be persuasive? Who do you need to talk to in advance to make sure you have either allies or the information you need? What is missing from the paperwork that perhaps identifies some flaw in the arguments? Exploring the facts behind what is presented may be essential if you are going to be effective.
  3. Make sure you’re audible when you speak
    I have never understood why people don’t realise you will never be persuasive or even valuable as a committee member if you can’t be heard. Shyness or lack of confidence is all very well, but you gain confidence by realising people are paying attention to what you are suggesting, and this will never happen if you mumble. Your arguments may be devilishly cunning but will also be worthless if the people on the other side of the table can’t hear. Even experienced committee members are guilty of talking to their feet. As far as I’m concerned it is a form of rudeness. Why should I strain my ears because you can’t be bothered to project your voice?
  4. Be aware of others
    This is a more general version of speaking up but can go much broader. It means being aware of when others are speaking and not talking over them; take note of when someone else is being ignored (implicitly or explicitly) and facilitate their contribution being heard; and it means not being downright rude and aggressive. It is all very well to disagree with others but thumping the table and shouting should not be allowed to win the day.
  5. Concentrate
    This rule means do not get so engrossed in email or other diversionary activities that you are unable to participate. That moment when the chair calls your name out ‘Athene, don’t you agree?’ and you realise you have no idea what the question is, is a sure sign you’re guilty on this front. And yes, I have been caught out this way and in the not so distant past. But it also means no day-dreaming, so that when your turn comes you end up looking embarrassed and then drop all the papers on the floor as you endeavour to find the right page (a less visibly common experience now committee ‘papers’ may be paperless, but nonetheless often figuratively the case). Holding the whole committee up because you’ve lost your place is a real irritation for everybody else.
  6. Be aware of what’s coming up
    A more specific version of point 5, it means if you have a key topic you want to argue about, or an agenda item that is your particular area of expertise, do not wander out for a comfort break two minutes beforehand or mix up your papers so that you can’t find the notes with the carefully thought out arguments at just the right moment. You may not only lose your moment in the sun, but also the battle that should have been an easy win.
  7. Be aware of what’s not being said
    Often one is aware of sub-texts, of raised eyebrows and quizzical looks passing between sub-sections of the committee. This is likely to indicate that others know more than they are letting on; that in the equivalent of smoke-filled rooms debates have already been had and positions been staked out. Or it may mean that they know that Professor X is about to be head of department and turn everything on its head regardless of today’s committee decisions or that Professor Y is leaving taking with her the equipment under discussion but the decision is not yet public. Watch the body language; if necessary challenge it and see if those in the know will blurt out something they had not intended to reveal.
  8. Be aware when your case is lost
    There are few things more annoying to a committee chair than the member who does not know when to concede. Chipping in with a yes but…when everyone else is lined up against you and you have already said the same thing three times (even if argued in three different neatly phrased ways) merely means you lose even the sympathy vote. Being determined is all very well. Being merely obstructive will not win you friends nor make it likely a future meeting will change its mind to accommodate the new evidence you bring forth. As chair, I have only once resorted to saying, quite explicitly, to someone failing to follow this advice that we have heard what they said and they are in a minority of one and so need to stop arguing, but it is a position I would take again if the case required it.
  9. Be concise
    You all know those tiresome people who can never speak in less than complete paragraphs, probably multiple complete paragraphs. They make meetings tedious and ineffective because no one listens to them beyond a certain point. Don’t join their club. If you’ve prepared well your arguments can be expressed briefly – and expanded on as others require. Long-windedness means, not only do you appear to like the sound of your own voice, but also that you haven’t prepared thoroughly enough to know what the three crucial points in your argument are.
  10. Contribute
    Finally, do contribute. If you sit silently you are wasting your own time (unless it is your first meeting and you’re just learning the ropes of course). You will never improve your skills in being persuasive if you don’t try them out. The committee chair may watch you anxiously, wondering if actually you disagree with everything but don’t know how to express that view pleasantly and it can act as a discouragement to real debate. Furthermore, you will never know what you could achieve if only you had the courage to speak out.

I have probably spent more time on committees than is good for my well-being, some (a few) have been a stimulating joy. Others have bored me to tears with few good outcomes. Of course the chair is crucial and there are many who fail in this role. But every individual round the table, however grand or not the committee may be, has the power to influence the group dynamics and the excellence of the decisions taken. It is in your hands.


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Choosing the Right Criteria

A year ago Cambridge University launched its book ‘The Meaning of Success’ and published a letter calling on the HE community to consider what the sector values and should be promoting, figuratively and, when it comes to people, literally. This dialogue I hope has been continuing during the year in universities around the country. In Cambridge to celebrate the Anniversary of the book’s publication and associated with International Women’s Day, we are hosting a meeting on ‘Delivering Equality: Women and Success’ on Monday to continue the conversation. Some of us, including Barbara Stocking and myself, will also be taking the debate to New York later in the month. We cannot afford to reward the wrong kinds of skills and behaviour if universities are to thrive, but maybe that is in fact what by default we often find ourselves doing.

This topic also closely relates to what the HEFCE metrics group is doing, exploring the extent to which pure metrics can and should be used in evaluations, of any sort. Their report will make for interesting reading but it is hard to think, from the workshops that have been held, that they will come out in favour of the use of metrics to the exclusion of anything else – be it in the REF or as regards more local decisions – or at least not without a lot of nuancing required. Metrics are relatively easy to determine, but we need to be sure we don’t end up valuing the wrong sorts of things. And does this particularly damage women’s career prospects?

One very concrete way of looking at this issue ties in with the question of mobility that many commenters raised on my last post. If one measure of success being used is whether someone has moved between institutions, possibly even between continents, then does this systematically disadvantage certain people (one suspects more often women) who, for whatever reason, are less mobile? Is this a measure that actually measures something useful, or is it just a historical accident? In this specific case I feel the answer lies somewhere in between, again as was pointed out in one of the comments, because one does not want to hire/promote people who have stayed literally in the same place working with the same people and who may even still be under the influence of their initial supervisor. But moving around within one institution, let alone within one city or country, may be quite sufficient to give breadth without requiring a transatlantic uprooting.

This issue of mobility also underlies another figure of merit I have frequently seen used, particularly at promotion panels, that of international conference presentations. Again, many people for many different but perfectly understandable reasons including health issues and caring responsibilities, may not want to jet set round the world. If so, one has to ask whether their failure to do so provides any objective measure of brilliance (or otherwise). The answer has to be of course not; only failure to receive the invitations themselves could be used in that way. In Cambridge we do make it possible for applicants to state this quite explicitly and this option is used appropriately by many (and most certainly including many men), spelling out that they received a list of major invitations but felt they had to decline them. Referees too could help by giving information on this, a point brought home to me by a reference I read very recently which spelled out

‘He values family life, and is reluctant to travel to major international meetings, with the result that he is rather less visible in the global XXX community than ought to be the case.”

I thought this was a neat way of saying ‘this is a good guy who chooses not to divert his energies into conference presentations’. You can’t get away with this sort of behaviour indefinitely, but a few years of doing so around critical family stages should be entirely consistent with a successful career. So, for all involved in decision-making (applicants, referees and panels) let’s get away from ‘airmiles as a proxy for excellence’ as I once heard it described, and focus on quality in a more fundamental way.

In the Meaning of Success book, though, there were many additional attributes raised which need debate. This includes issues about how a research group is run – do we ever ask the students if they feel they are bench monkeys or, alternatively valued members of a thriving community? Has anyone tried 360o appraisals of staff to see if they are sadistic bastards or people who love to nurture talent? In the Meaning of Success book the message came across loud and clear from many of the interviewed women that they valued looking after their teams and seeing them develop into successful independent researchers more than simply publishing in a high impact journal if that required trampling on others (for instance by not giving credit where credit is due). What value does any current system of ‘judging’ place on developing teams? In industry such evaluation would be much more common.

Furthermore, do we recognize and reward good citizenry or do we only take note of the size of someone’s grant income, grants that perhaps only get written because the PI has managed to avoid sitting on departmental committees or taking on a heavy teaching load? And in a department’s (or other institution’s) laudable enthusiasm to try to get a better gender balance on committees, are women put in an impossible position of taking on excessive workload of a type that does not personally benefit their career prospects? I suspect that many organisations would, if answering honestly, say yes to both those. One needs to find appropriate local solutions that mean that behaviours that are rewarded are the ones that should be rewarded and not simply ones that seemed appropriate some decades ago when the world looked very different.

I don’t have answers to what should be done, I only know that what is being done is too often based on years of precedent rather than a well-argued set of criteria. Hence the need for dialogue and discussion across the sector to try to tease out what modifications we could introduce without destroying what we genuinely do value. We need to be sure the work of a university is not impeded by making bad choices in what we reward, and we need to recognize that not everyone sees life in the same way. The Meaning of Success book was a first step in acknowledging the problem but without identifying appropriate alternatives to our current systems we will not be much further on.




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