What Does Creativity Mean to You?

When I was at school, careers’ advice – at least at my girls’ grammar school – was essentially non-existent. Perhaps boys’ schools did better; after all, for my generation of women, ‘careers’ weren’t a matter for serious concern. I certainly believed, as I expect many of my peers did, that going to university would lead to a few years of random work followed by marriage and housewifery with a child or three to keep me busy. The pictured advertisement from my school magazine illustrates neatly the sort of expectations that were implicit in society around 1970, if not in my actual school where we were at least encouraged to get a degree. Get yourself some nice high heels and a tight skirt and girls like you could become ‘cashiers, supervisors, income tax specialists and officers in the Executor and Trustee Department.’ As even more of an inducement this ad added ‘Barclays has two women branch managers’.

School magazine

My own life didn’t turn out like that. I neither became a Bank manager nor settled down at 25, but that wasn’t because at any point I was offered serious careers advice other than from mentors once I was already on the path of research. It would be nice to think that schools were able to do rather better than on this front these days, but it all seems incredibly patchy. Following the 2011 Education Act

‘responsibility for careers education was transferred from local authorities to schools and colleges, but without any associated extra funding’

according to the introduction to a recent House of Lords debate on the topic, introduced and championed by crossbench peer Lord Aberdare. This shift in responsibility has led to fairly disastrous consequences for years of students in many schools. Reading the report of the whole debate in Hansard gave a gloomy picture of what has been, but more optimism about current changes.

As Lord Aberdare said, with the best will in the world

‘Teachers are not the right people to deliver careers education; most have neither the skills nor experience needed. That is why schools need access to independent, impartial careers guidance from trained and qualified professionals.’

A new organisation, set up in 2014 the Careers and Enterprise Company, seems to be moving things very much in the right direction. Bursaries are available – although not necessarily enough –to help schools identify and train their careers leaders.  Skilled help should be becoming available to the children coming through the system now and in the future.

Speaker after speaker in this debate talked with passion about the importance of appropriate advice and the recent past failures in the system. Some considered the issues around inequality, inclusion and the path for those destined not to go to university. Others looked with optimism towards the future with its new structures. However, I spotted another problem starting to raise its rather ugly head. If we want to believe CP Snow’s Two Cultures are a thing of the past, that such boundaries between Art and Science have vanished in our brave new world, I see a parallel division being introduced in some speakers’ minds from this debate hinging around the word ‘creative’. Creative is now used to mean something very different from what I might wish.  The overall and alarming sentiment is perhaps best captured in the brief sentence

‘As we have heard, there is a growing need for STEM skills, but not at the expense of creative skills’

a remark made by LibDem Peer Baroness Garden of Frognal. Science is, apparently, not creative!

This is of course not a new sentiment. William Blake perhaps was the first guilty party, with his 1826-7 engraving of Laocoön including the words

‘Art is the tree of life.  Science is the tree of death’

quickly followed by Thomas Carlyle in 1833 with

‘The Progress of Science…is to destroy wonder, and in its stead substitute Mensuration and Numeration.’

A couple of centuries later we have the novelist Lucy Ellmann claiming

‘The purpose of artists is to ask the right questions, even if we don’t find the answers, whereas the aim of science is to prove some dumb point.’

I wonder how many ‘dumb points’ she has benefitted from generated by ingenious and creative scientists around her.

Nobel Prize-winning Peter Medawar had it right when he said in 1968

‘All ideas of scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true – a preconception that always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in.’

His views have clearly fallen on deaf ears. We are still up against the idea that scientists need to be segregated from the creatives of the creative economy (you know, people like those who design and write computer games  – not techie STEM folk of course). Who believe that our schools cannot teach creativity in science as well as in art or music (although to be fair the curriculum may not make it easy to do so, but that’s not the fault of the science).  It was reassuring to hear from Christopher Frayling (in a private conversation over dinner last week) – former Chair of Arts Council England and Rector of the Royal College of Art no less – that he too was deeply irritated by this  abuse of the word creative. I hope more people will speak up about this travesty of the use of our language, as well as a complete failure to understand how science operates.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we should ensure all our school children get exposed to the whole spread of disciplines. The government’s emphasis on STEM education is absolutely part of a drive to ensure our children are equipped to deal with the world as it is, but it definitely should not drive out the richness of the other subjects. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to wonderful musical opportunities at my school and I did 3 languages at O Level as well as History for my humanities dose. I loved most subjects (with the exception of biology).  Careers advice may have been non-existent in my school, but I certainly got what these days would probably be termed an excellent STEAM education (with the added A being arts). Let us push for a world in our schools that recognizes the reality not these false dualities which limit choice and imagination.


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The Buzz of the New

The start of the academic year brings its own opportunity for new year’s resolutions. All the usual: drink less coffee, snack less between meals, waste less time reading peripherally-relevant websites and answer all emails within 24 hours. Just like calendar New Year’s Resolutions they are unlikely to be adhered to. But this time of year – and yes I know Cambridge terms start later than most so many readers will have long since passed this point – also is the point when you know that last bunch of resolutions you made at the start of the summer have also not been met. All those grand ideas about manuscripts written, hours spent in the library and grants submitted. Just like drinking less coffee they are likely to have bitten the dust, at least in part. And the end of summer rams it home just how few pages have been written en route to the next REF submission, grant application or job application. In that sense, it is a dismal moment of closing-off of options. I seem to feel it more than usual this year, perhaps because I sense I have no excuses for failing to meet my own self-imposed goals. No unexpected deaths or accidents marred my summer, and I can’t even use the excuse of being demoralised by the referendum. That sense of impending Brexit catastrophe is now a permanent state of affairs yielding a constant DC level of gloom, only shifting – in the wrong direction into spikes of even worse misery – whenever I attend an ERC meeting to remind me of what specifically scientists are about to lose. (I wrote about this previously on this blog, and most recently here.)

For a different generation, however, the start of the academic year brings all kinds of excitements coupled with fear. As new students arrive in College with newly acquired coffee mugs, duvet covers and well-established mascots or other mementos of home, the academic cycle starts again. New skills must be learned. Skills such as learning to cycle successfully down Trinity Street whilst avoiding other cyclists going the wrong way along the one way system while simultaneously swerving round tourists taking selfies in the middle of the road. Skills such as balancing sleep requirements with a social life and working out the right number of corners to cut when writing essays. All skills which – literally or metaphorically – remain valuable throughout one’s life, whatever direction it takes one in.

For these students I hope there will be a real buzz as they put down their roots in their new homes and work out whether the person in the room next door is going to turn into a lifetime buddy or an evil pain whose loud, thumping music regularly keeps them awake at night. (Churchill Porters can, however, be quite fierce about late night noise.) That buzz should carry them through the first week or two while they find their way around the nooks and crannies of the university’s older buildings as well as acronym soup; keep them going when they realise that their capacity for drink in the bars around the college and city is perhaps less than they’d like to imagine when trying to impress their friends and that glasses of after dinner port at the Matriculation Dinner carry quite a kick: fortified wine does mean it’s stronger than the usual stuff.

As an undergraduate at Girton all those years ago – that former all women’s college which was built a long way out in 1869 because it really was not a good idea to have the young gentlemen in close proximity to the maidens of Girton – I also had to learn the hard way that Cambridge winds (currently particularly strong) are always in your face, whether cycling into town or out again in the small hours. Colleges closer in have less of a battle on this front although Kings Parade does have its own particular version of vicious winds at certain times.

The start of the academic year should be a time of new beginnings for young and old alike. How long does all that enthusiasm last? I wrote previously about ‘sixth week blues’ and that is probably about right. Six weeks, for the student, is long enough to work just how far behind reading and problem solving has fallen, that no clean jeans can lead to sartorial disaster so leaving the laundry that long is a mistake and that a cumulative lack of sleep does not improve mental capacity. All those strands of life collide and bounce around. By the second term balance should have been (re-)established, but that first term before Christmas can feel inexorably long. For the staff member six weeks is also long enough to erase all memory of any putative freedom to write that the summer conferred yet to render the approach of Christmas without time to buy the family presents a constant reproach.

Like the natural world, the academic world ebbs and flows around the year and years. It has its periods of rapid growth and slow decline into senescence and decay. Moments of sudden beauty and others of mould and fear. At 18 one hopes the student feels each moment is to be seized because there may never be another such. As an old hand the daily routine can feel like a familiar friend.






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Being Educated but not Inspired

I’ve been away for a few wonderful days exploring the streets (and art) of Paris, a city in which I always regret I have never lived – as opposed to visited many times. One of my unfulfilled dreams was to spend a sabbatical there, but it never happened. Just a significant number of short trips associated with Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, his successor at ESPCI Jacques Prost, as well as various events associated with the L’Oreal/Unesco For Women in Science Awards; not to mention holidays such as this week but beginning with my honeymoon. It has many happy memories.

However this year the last day was marred by being struck with a migraine, and I returned feeling fairly under the weather. So I turned to some easy reading when I got home, and picked up a book I had been sent by the publishers (unsolicited) since it looked like light reading. ’Life Lessons from Remarkable Women: tales of triumph, failure and learning to love yourself’ it was grandly called. I could not get very far through these tales, which struck me as smug and clichéd. I wasn’t even sure how helpful it would be had I been many decades younger and looking for encouragement. Opening the book now at random, take a sentence like ‘I’m my own best friend. Weirdly, it’s not even a little bit scary to say that out loud any more…’ – does that make you feel any better? Or does it make you cringe? No doubt focus groups have established the market is crying out for a book like this, but it’s not for me despite what the publishers seem to have expected.

It’s a stark contrast to the rather more serious book I read while away, one of the books of the moment as it were: Educated, by Tara Westover and published by the same publishers as the lightweight book I’ve just rejected. Educated is an astonishing book of intellectual rags to riches, the personal account of a Mormon girl brought up without schooling but with severity and essentially suffering abuse (however lovingly applied), yet one who escaped. Not simply as far as the Mormon University of Brigham Young, but later to Cambridge as a Gates Scholar. How did this happen? This may sound like the kind of self-help book that might motivate the young struggler who is not on top of their exam revision – Westover had to sit exams without ever having had a formal lesson or knowing what to do with a multiple choice answer booklet – or who is trying to escape controlling parents (though few of us will have had control exercised upon us in quite such extreme ways).  However, gripping – and terrifying – though I found the book, I’m not sure it will provide answers.

The great weight of the book is devoted to Westover’s early years where she was expected to help in a junkyard, doing daredevil things without, quite literally, any safety net. The accidents that befell her are relatively mild by comparison to others in her family – it’s not clear to me whether driving lessons featured in any of her sibling’s lives and car crashes were not infrequent and always horrendous. She certainly never mentioned being taught to drive yet, perhaps in the true American way, driving around became part of her life. Two of her brothers did escape to university and later PhDs, but they had been allowed some schooling. Westover herself seems not to have had a single day of that. Yet she taught herself enough to get into BYU and then, despite the kind of embarrassments that resemble those a Fanny Burney ingénue might have suffered when first going into society, she scrambled through so much more than adequately that she got scholarship funding sufficient to enable her to survive without parental support.

Many years ago I read a biography of Mary Somerville in which I faced the same frustration this book provoked in me (as I wrote about here). The crucial step of how a girl, who had no formal mathematics teaching somehow (in Somerville’s case) picked up enough maths to go on to be able to translate Laplace, was not to be found in Kathryn Neeley’s book. Fair enough, you might say, the author was not there and could not follow Somerville’s maturing brain. This is clearly not true of the author of Educated. She is the person who makes this transition and yet, other than working hard and at all hours of the day or night, how she grew to intellectual maturity remains – to me at least – a frustrating mystery. Furthermore, the maturity she demonstrated took her way beyond the confines of BYU to, ultimately and after various set-backs as she tried to square her own personal circle of family versus escape (again a moving read of breakdown and immense polarising tensions), a PhD from Cambridge and research at Harvard. If I were to hazard a guess I would say that it was the very fact that her upbringing/‘education’ had been so unusual that she could bring an extraordinarily innovative way to tackle the topic of ‘The Family, Morality and Social Science in Anglo-American Cooperative Thought, 1813-1890’ for her thesis. As she put it

‘In my account, history did not set Mormons aprat from the rest of the human family; it bound them to it.’

But what of the hungry reader who wants to learn how to overcome their own specific battles? Is there any way that they can gain ‘inspiration’? I am no great fan of that word, inspiration, because

‘a person, place, experience, etc., that makes someone want to do or create something’

– to quote one definition – implies that it is external forces that inspire in an active sense. In general, you can admire others, you can wish to emulate them, but the act of creation and self-belief has to come from within. That is a lesson I have learned the hard way over many years (as some of my friends may testify). Force, of the sort Westover was subjected to by father and brother, may have kindled something within her to do something about her lot. But inspiration will not have made her or anyone else do something.

One can – and I certainly do – admire Westover for overcoming formidable obstacles. I hope her story will encourage others to think that, whatever hand of cards they’ve been dealt, there may be an escape route for them, enabling them to achieve their dreams if they look long enough and put enough effort in. Knowing others have beaten the odds may indeed provide role models to reassure you that you are not as stuck as it may currently appear. That, I know, is what some people mean by inspiration. But it is not sufficient to be inspired without putting in one’s own hard graft. For each of us, what that means will vary. Maybe for some believing you are own best friend may help, even if I found the few ‘life lessons’ I personally read by ‘remarkable women’ merely made it very easy to put that particular book back on the bookshelf and find something more congenial. Seeking to find whatever levers you can to take control, to inch forward as Westover had to do, may be a better life lesson for us all.

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Thinking about Everyone’s Health

My last post dealt with an almost trivial – although symptomatic – issue of everyday sexism. This one deals with something of rather larger magnitude, but one that is much lower beneath the radar than it warrants: health, and health differentials by gender.
Earlier this summer the Lancet ran a story headlined ‘Patients’ sex may impact efficacy of immunotherapy in cancer treatment’ – in other words, treating men and women as identical might not lead to the best outcomes.  This was the result of a large scale meta-analysis of other trials, and the article went on to specify that ‘individual trials likely cannot reliably show the interaction between sex and treatment efficacy’, since more than half the trials had a third or less women involved. By lumping men and women together in variable proportions, the trials were simply hard-pressed to come up with definitive answers about the consequences.

The issues of how gender impacts on different aspects of research design have been explored for many years by Stanford’s Londa Schiebinger, with a website (Gendered Innovations) detailing some of the case studies that show how badly the sexes may be served by poorly designed and ill thought-through research programmes. Needless to say when I say ‘sexes’ what I really mean is that too often experiments are only (or largely) carried out on or with males. I first met Londa back in 2010 and had the pleasure of meeting her again this week. What horrified me in our recent conversation was the sense that, in the UK at least, many things have not moved on at all since that first conversation. The problem is most acute in healthcare and clinical research, although there are issues in a range of areas and, increasingly, this is an issue in AI.

Although the UK has taken a pioneering approach to tackling issues surrounding gender in the scientific workforce through the Athena Swan Award scheme, an approach many other countries around the world are now developing and adopting including the USA, when it comes to incorporating gender issues into research design we seem to be dragging our feet. The NIH in the USA

‘expects that sex as a biological variable will be factored into research designs, analyses, and reporting in vertebrate animal and human studies.’

Furthermore that

‘more often than not, basic and preclinical biomedical research has focused on male animals and cells. An over-reliance on male animals and cells may obscure understanding of key sex influences on health processes and outcomes.’

These are strong words, but their impact and importance is clear. If you only carry out research – even on primary cells, let alone on human subjects – which look at the response or behaviour of the male, extrapolation to the female may be a dangerous and ill-informed thing to do. Researchers really need consciously to study both sexes; consciously to disaggregate studies by gender.

Horizon2020 likewise draws attention to the issues in its information for applicants, although in less strong words

‘you are invited to explore whether and how the gender dimension is relevant to your research. In the proposal template (section 1.3) you are asked “to describe how sex and/or gender analysis is taken into account in the project’s gender content.”’

However a quick search of the MRC and Wellcome guidelines throws up nothing equivalent. Google searches of either of these funders plus ‘gender’ simply throws up references to issues such as gender composition of teams, the gender pay gap and the importance they place on diversity. Hugely, hugely important issues – but utterly different.

How is it that the UK funders are not concerned about whether you are plating male or female cells? Given that in so much of our life we are told women, for instance as in my last post, can’t drive or pilot a plane and this is usually attributed to our hormones, it seems ironic that pre-clinical trials can be done without considering in detail whether (for instance) the sex hormones are getting in the way of a treatment protocol. Drugs and other interventions that benefit one sex may actively hinder the health of the other. I first became aware of this well over a decade ago during my time on the Governing Body of the Institute of Food Research: a presentation on the impact of soy protein in the diet indicated that the desirability was different for men (for whom there might be a beneficial impact on prostate cancer) and women, where the presence of the phyto-oestrogens in the soy might not be such good news. This position is supported by (for instance) a current statement from Australia, specifically highlighting that women who have already had breast cancer should avoid consuming high quantities of soy but there might indeed be a protective effect for men with respect to prostate cancer.

If you start searching on the web, plentiful stories come up from the clinical world pointing out that gender differences matter in risk and treatment (see Gender Differences in Cancer Susceptibility and Sex and Gender-related disparities in Colorectal Cancer Risk to get you started) and treatment (e.g. Gender Differences in the Effects of Cardiovascular Drugs). Those of an old enough generation will remember what happened when thalidomide was given to pregnant women; it may have had the potential to be a drug with all kinds of good outcomes on men and non-pregnant women, but the consequences for the developing embryo were profound and terrible although it was specifically seen as a drug to treat morning sickness. It would seem some of the lessons about ensuring that due thought is given to testing the relevant population and not some presumed ‘male by default’ patient have not been adequately learned. The implication of all these studies is that (women’s) lives and health are being put at unnecessary risk and that money may be being wasted.

In the UK we cannot afford to rest on our Athena Swan laurels (if such we have) without paying attention to the importance of incorporating gender into research methodologies. It may come as no surprise to know that where there are diverse teams carrying out the research, the question of gender is more likely to turn up in the design of the experiments. Another reason why we need more women entering the STEM professions to make sure women aren’t inadvertently shortchanged by the biomedical establishment in their experimental programmes – another fact I should perhaps raise at the upcoming discussion at NESTA of the Biomedical Bubble report. Researchers should remember that ‘Every Cell has a Sex’.

As a corollary, these issues do not just apply in the medical arena, although here they are manifest. There are many other fields where related problems arise. As a new entrant to the field, let us not forget the fact that AI has many pitfalls for those who don’t focus on gender. Some readers may remember a couple of years ago the revelation that training a bot using Twitter rapidly incorporates both misogynistic and racist terms into the lexicon. Londa Schiebinger has again highlighted this fact recently. Let us not permit another domain to grow in which gender gets ignored to everyone’s detriment.


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Come Fly with Me!

This week the Guardian ran a story which reeked of the Everyday Sexism Laura Bates has charted so excellently. The story referred to the airline TUI which had printed out badges to give to children boarding its flights. On one flight they took great care, apparently, to segregate the badges. Those reading ‘future pilot’ were handed out to the boys; the girls got ones labelled ‘future cabin crew’. The article did not relate whether the badges were also neatly colour coded. I’m guessing not because TUI’s response was that usually they were handed out randomly, but no explanation of why they had fallen into such an obvious gendered trap this week. Clearly there was someone left over from the 1950s handing out the badges that day. Even Japan, a traditionally strongly paternalistic society, has managed to appoint its first female fighter pilot this week.

I put out a tweet reading

How nice, children given stickers saying ‘future pilot’ – but only if they were boys. Girls got ‘future cabin crew’ stickers instead. Ugh! #everydaysexism

Unsurprisingly, given the mindset of many of my followers, most related tweets were as appalled as I was, but surprisingly there were quite a lot of angry folk out there who decided to take a pot shot at me, although by the standards of trolls, they did this quite mildly. Given that I regularly tweet about gender issues I wasn’t sure why this one had trodden on so many folks’ corns. Some were of course just abusive:

How nice that you are a total knobhead.

Others seemed to think I objected to men aiming to be cabin crew (although I don’t think that’s what my tweet implied, it is simply their reading of it), as in

Get a damn life, who cares if a boy got a captain sticker and the girls get a crew member. Do we have to make an issue out of every little thing? It’s sexist for boys to get captain, maybe they want to be a crew member? #getalife

I’ve written about those folk who say ‘get a life’ before because, on the whole, I quite like the life I have got and I suspect that is more than can be said for some of these twitterati who object to my tweets. I fear it is the very fact they feel life has treated them unfairly that causes them to strike out randomly at strangers across the ether. This would seem reinforced by the following tweet

with the airline stickers… if u don’t like them or u r offended, then don’t take a sticker or don’t fly them. Stop complaining to the world that it’s not fair. Newsflash*** The world is not fair, get used to it & grow thick skin

One could write many words about why the world is not fair and why equally it isn’t always appropriate to grow a thick skin but I’m not sure that was why I put my original tweet out. (Just for the record, I have never flown TUI so perhaps that means I’ve already taken the other handy piece of advice proffered).

And then there was the helpful voice who referred to my ‘milenial [sic] opinions’:

I’m so tired of you sick people and your milenial opinions. If I ask 100 girls what do they want between captain and cabin crew, 90% will say crew. Or is cabin crew in your opinion a bad career to have?or an insult? What is wrong with all of you?

Curious to assume I’m a millennial, wrong by a few decades, but clearly this respondent hadn’t noticed that not everyone even of their own generation shares their views.

Then there was the tweeter I wanted to encourage to read Angela Saini’s excellent book Inferior to correct their view about women drivers (or pilots) and many other stereotypical myths that I suspect this person probably implicitly believes:

To be fair have you ever seen a woman reverse a car? Sound policy from TUI if you ask me

However, following the policy of not feeding the trolls, again I refrained. I don’t suppose they would have followed my advice anyhow. I think the writer of

Your all insane, face the fact the most women cannot, I repeat cannot do what a man can do, there is a difference

is probably also guilty, not just of poor English but of believing many of the same myths but as the words are so non-specific it is hard to know what I am not supposed to be able to do (although I will admit I cannot fly a plane).

As I say, I’m mystified why my original tweet provoked so much ire (there were others too, but you get the point) when links to stories about gender inequalities in business or science provoke fewer in general. Perhaps it is because it involved children and they don’t want their own children bucking the stereotypes? Maybe they want their daughters to grow up aspiring to be docile and handy pouring orange juice under turbulent conditions because that’s all they want in the women in their life. I am assuming that the respondents were all male but, as Trump supporters have made clear, many women don’t seem particularly enthusiastic about women’s rights so I may be wrong.

In the grand scheme of things, handing out stickers segregated by gender is not important. It is simply a symptom of a lazy and unhelpful way of thinking. However, it is clear that we will never reach any true sort of equality unless we take a stand against even the minor things. I know some people may think these things are funny. I remember the occasion when I sat down at a committee meeting in my assigned place – there were name plates on the table to indicate where we should all sit – and discovered that I had a branded notebook in my place, a pink notebook no less. Looking round the room it was clear that yes, someone really had put pink notebooks in every woman’s place and blue ones for the blokes. Red faces on the part of the organisers ensued, but someone must have thought that one through carefully and I am far from convinced they were being ironic.

Everyday sexism of this sort does not matter in and of itself. It does matter as a message, as a constant reminder that women are different from the default male who is expected to rule the roost. Any woman who tries to speak up runs the risk of being told ‘can’t you take a joke?’ or something much, much worse. Or to be marked down as a trouble maker. Or just occasionally, to be marked down as the person who dared to speak up.

To end on a positive relating to that last point, I was rather pleased to be accosted by a woman at a recent committee meeting who introduced herself as someone who had been part of the administration servicing a committee I had served on about 10 years ago. She was not surprised I did not remember her but pointed out that I had been the one who had challenged the Chair when he referred to us collectively as ‘gentlemen’ (despite there being a number of women present on the committee and in the secretariat). I wrote about that sad episode early on in the history of this blog (which has just passed its 8th birthday), when I had mobilised some of the men to challenge the chair the next time he transgressed. As a tactic it had worked well. And I am pleased that as an awkward cuss who made the chair change his tactics I had stuck in this woman’s mind all these years. Those of us in a position to do something should never shy away from doing so, to help eradicate outdated ideas about women’s roles and how we should be addressed and treated.



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