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Gillian Flynn’s words echo and echo and echo inside my skull.

They don’t care about us enough to hate us. We are simply a form of livestock.

(Via Sarah Kendzior. I’ve said the same too, repeatedly, less efficiently.)

There’s Senator Orrin Hatch saying, “…consider who the judge is today – because that’s the issue. Is this judge a really good man? And he is. And by any measure he is.”

“By any measure.” Any measure.

Kavanaugh has never shown any repentance or made any amends, but by any measure he’s in Hatch’s good books. Despite every indication of willingness to commit a crime so bad it’s right up there with murder. Technically, of course. It’s vanishingly unlikely to happen to Hatch. So Kavanaugh is a “good man.”

They don’t care about us enough to hate us. We are simply a form of livestock.

You wonder how the slavers could do what they did to black human beings two hundred years ago? This is how. They thought it was natural, normal, just how things were. They could think well of themselves with no trouble while they sold people. Those people were livestock. Just as people now consider themselves “good” while thinking that a little rape never hurt anyone. Not any real people. Slaveholders were Supreme Court Justices once. What could possibly be the objection to a rapist on the highest court in the land?

They don’t care about us enough to hate us. We are simply a form of livestock.

Crossposted from Acid Test

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I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but honestly. Is there no end to the inspissated stupidity of the Dump’s dumps? (Don’t answer that.)

I was reading an article about it in The Guardian and ran into a whole bedlam of bullshit triggers. (There is so much bullshit now that we need a collective noun for it. A bedlam of bullshit.)

In no particular order, the things that smacked my gob:

Space Operations Force – an “elite group of war fighters specializing in the domain of space”

“War fighters”? “War fighters”? As opposed to what? Peace fighters? War nurses? They’ll be doing everything from consoles in Nebraska. Maybe they’re trying to stop us from thinking “video game players”? The sentence could have just said an “elite group of fighters” but noooo. Idiots.

Under the heading of Why Do We Need It:

The White House points to galactic threats from US adversaries, particularly Russia and China

Galactic? Wow. I had no idea the Russkies and the Chinese were that far ahead. They probably already have InterGalactic War Treaties with the Pod People of Zorg! Arm the (space) torpedoes! Space Farce ahead!

Does it already exist?

No! of course not. NORAD just tracks Santa. Jeebus. Try to keep up.

As to how it would be paid for? Hahahahaha. You sillies. Congress will whistle up the required billions. Duh. I’m sure there are still some kids or old people who have health insurance that’s being wasted on them.

Finally, the Guardian article politely asks:

Is it a Trump campaign tactic?

Hysterical laughter. Why would anyone think that? Major technology programs are always started with logo competitions and sales of Big Boy undershorts.

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Knowing about CRISPR-Cas9 may even turn out to be useful, unlike most of the news while we wait.

Okay, so what is that endless acronym? It’s used as shorthand to refer to a very accurate way of inserting a snippet of DNA into a chromosome. For instance, if someone has cystic fibrosis, there’s a very small mutation that causes the whole problem. You can, theoretically, use CRISPR-Cas9 to insert a corrected segment of DNA in the right place in the affected person’s cells and make the problem go away permanently. The cells incorporate the corrected DNA and when they make new cells, they pass on the corrected information.

 

CRISPR-Cas9 and DNA
CRISPR-Cas9 working on some DNA, image from NIH Director’s blog

 

Sounds like every genetic problem is solved, right? It would be if that’s all there was to it. For a while people thought so and optimism ran rampant. Wall St. bid up the prices of a new cohort of shaky biotech stocks and hung breathless on every snippet of gossip about new treatments in the works for FDA approval.

Plenty of non-scientists are still in that starry-eyed mood, but the research data has suddenly turned grim.

It appears that the process of inserting a bit of DNA using CRISPR-Cas9 causes multiple off-target mutations. The target (in my hypothetical example the cystic fibrosis gene) may be corrected, but there are other changes that appear all over the place. Most frighteningly, they can appear in regulatory segments of the DNA. Those are not the bits that code for something, such as mucus production. They regulate how active a gene that codes for something is, or they regulate when it activates.

Obviously, that’s rather important. Messing with regulatory activity can have disastrous and unforeseen consequences, even if the target gene did get fixed. It’s like changing the index and table of contents in a textbook on molecular biology. Changing a page number here and there is tiny compared to throwing out an entire chapter, but the whole book becomes useless.

There is a note of hope. These unwanted changes were found after using a type of CRISPR process (“single specificity targeting”) which has a much higher chance of error than the alternative (“double specificity targeting”). Researchers are looking at that less error-prone process now. If it solves the problem of unwanted changes, we can go back to ringing joy bells.

But until we know that for a fact, don’t let anyone talk you into taking a flier on some startup curing stupidity using CRISPR. And don’t let anyone you care about take a trip to Singapore for the cure to old age. Yes, I’m trying to be funny. In reality, even the CRISPR-based therapies closest to approval are still in the research phase. If you have a chance to have input on anything to do with regulation — a vote or a townhall meeting or anything like that — point out that there are massive unresolved issues that can’t be waved away by saying, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Now back to our regular programming of WAITING FOR THIS WHOLE GODDAMN CRIME FAMILY AND ALL ITS ACOLYTES TO GET TOSSED IN THE JUG. (I am not good at waiting.)

Everything I’m about to say is that obvious. Rights are rules that benefit everyone the same way and make life easier. All the rest — privileges, abuse, crimes — don’t work that way. Considering how simple it is, I’m convinced that when people pretend not to get it, it’s because they don’t want to. That implies talking about it isn’t very useful. The problem lies deeper. But since I don’t know how to fix the actual problem, I’ll talk about it anyway.

Planting seeds

First a few definitions. Rights, the way I’ll be using the word, are based on a given concept of fairness. In a grim development, “fair” is losing its meaning through overuse as every Tom, Dick, and Harry, and especially Donald, uses it to whine about not getting their own way. For the purposes of this discussion, I have to ask you to forget all the abuse of the word and pretend it could actually mean something.

Fairness intuitively means equal treatment, but there are problems with that definition when context is willfully ignored. If a nonexistent equality of circumstances is assumed, then in no time the magnificent impartiality of the law allows rich and poor alike to buy their own fast internet. Willful ignorance always leads to bad consequences, so keeping in mind that context is an integral factor of fairness, let’s look at equal treatment specifically.

The simplest definition of equality is the absence of double standards. What is allowed or punished for P is the same for Q. It’s not a rigid list allowing only specific things. It’s the equal application of general rules to specific situations as they arise.

For instance, let’s say you wanted to keep email secure. You could tell everyone, equally, that they must have their correspondence on a specific IBM server running a specific operating system and use two-factor authentication. But then Person A, let’s call her Amanda, uses a Hewlett Packard server, which is not the one specified. Bad, even though everything is still secure. Person B, on the other hand, let’s call him Egbert, uses the right setup, but has an automated script accessible to anyone to avoid the authentication bother. The specifics are all fine, he’s just added a layer that’s not in the book, so he’s good, even though nothing is secure. Everybody’s immediate reaction to that is, well, that’s stupid. That’s what I mean when I say the specifics of the particular situation are not the point.

Even less fairness can be achieved if Amanda is punished for incorrect email handling, while Egbert keeps his work on AOL and nobody cares. Equal treatment requires the relative distance of each from the goal of security to be judged and for the punishment to be proportional to that distance. That would be equal application of the rule, without double standards.

Keeping the avoidance of double standards firmly in mind, the distinction between rights and not-rights is easy.

Rights are those things we can do which do not curtail anyone else’s ability to do the same thing. They require no double standards, no inequality. My freedom to speak does not limit yours. My need to be free of physical harm doesn’t change your life in any way. My intention to marry someone doesn’t affect your ability to get married. None of those limits others’ abilities to have the same benefits or protections. Those are rights. I’ll go into some examples in a bit.

Privileges, on the other hand, depend on an asymmetry of power. If they’re applied to everyone equally they lead to absurdity in a couple of steps. The asymmetry can come from subtle social privilege or not so subtle economic or military force, but whatever the source, it’s used to allow some actions that would cause impossible situations if everyone did them.

For instance, if you insist on a right to make others live according to your religion, then, since it’s a right, I can equally insist that you live according to mine. But my religion is to kill all members of your religion. (That’s not just an impossible thought experiment. Both Christianity and Islam have clauses, best ignored, about holy war against heathens.) We’ve reached an absurd situation in exactly one step. There’s no way to resolve it on the basis of rights. One side has to have more power to force compliance from the other.

The crowning irony is that nobody has freedom of religion in that system since at any moment others could grab enough power to impose their will instead. Rights impose limits but allow more freedom than a complete free-for-all.

Violence is another easy example. It’s sometimes necessary to stop criminals or invaders, and yet if everyone had license to kill it would be impossible to have any kind of a society. Even the top banana, the last one standing, would soon die. That’s why the state is given a monopoly on the use of force, because some force is necessary but it cannot be a right. Freelance gun nuts are incompatible with having a life, as we’re finding out in the U. S. of A.

Another current example is vaccination. If it’s not voluntary, it’s taking away a person’s control over their own body, which is a very bad idea. There’s no way to apply that loss equally to everyone, and it has to be based on mere power to force compliance. On the other hand, an unvaccinated person can spread preventable disease, which is another kind of attack on a person. Given that spreading disease is a hugely bigger harm than a vaccination, that’s one case where it’s appropriate for the state to enforce compliance.

(Medically, voluntary compliance is much more effective. But purely as a matter of rights, there is no right to spread disease. Vaccination is a good example of how seamlessly rights come to mean what-I-think-is-good-for-me rather than what is good for everyone. We’re all susceptible to it, not just corporate executives and Donalds. Another tangent: obviously, if vaccines caused neurological problems that would be a major harm and change the balance of rights. But they do not. Vaccines do not cause autism. The links are a scientific article and a pdf that list many studies showing no connection and including millions of people. And on the other side is the one Wakefield study which did say there was a connection. That was based on 12 patients, with no controls in the experimental sense, and which turned out to be fraudulent. Developmental neurological issues do happen, unfortunately, but not due to vaccines. Disbelieving the mountain of evidence on vaccines is somewhere between rejecting evolution and rejecting the reality of climate change.)

Rights, unlike the previous examples, involve those actions which can be done by everyone equally. That has an important corollary. Once they’re applied in a way not available to everyone, they’re no longer rights. They’re the abuse of one or another kind of privilege.

Consider, for instance, free speech. It’s mainly interpreted as a right not to be silenced, and that is important. But our bigger problem now is being drowned out. With ads and clickbait shouting at us 24/7, what we need is a complementary right to silence. (Some of my thinking on that and the following issues here.) If we could all broadcast all the time, there would be no point trying to communicate at all. It’s a less bloody version of of the murder free-for-all. Nobody is heard, not even the person shouting.

Another current perversion of the right to free speech is spewing hate speech. The confusion between the two is in the process of destroying democracy, but we’re petrified to do anything about it in case it opens the door to government control over what can be said. That’s not an idle fear. Look at how quickly every resistance to people in power was labelled terrorism, whether it had any of the hallmarks of terrorism or not. Look at how quickly the Donald started labelling everything he didn’t like “fake news.” If he had a hope of shutting it down, he would. It is very important not to go down that road.

But it’s equally important to preserve democracy, which depends on free speech. Somehow, the right to free expression has to be limited to communication and has to exclude hate. I think we could make a start by improving the definition of what constitutes speech. At its essence, it’s about communicating something. Sharing ideas is a fundamentally different process than bamboozling or hurting people. Communication can be universal, hatred cannot be (in a functioning society). It ought to be possible to draw a more accurate line between them.

It’s interesting in this context that the people who use hate speech seem to know quite well what they’re doing, even if they won’t usually admit it. I’ll never forget when Steve Bannon left the White House to return to Breitbart where he’d once again be free to spout anything. “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons,” he said. Speech as a weapon should be no more protected than knives can be used to “communicate.”

If we could wrap our minds around the rights of the situation, we could stop getting sidetracked into thinking punching Nazis will get us anywhere except down the spiralling hole where violence always leads. If we have a right to punch them because we think they’re bad people, they have the same right to punch us because they think we’re bad people. Might makes right is not the route to a fun life. Instead, understanding rights means we know the solution is to figure out the definition of hate speech and then to shut the poison down.

One last example of how not to twist free speech is the policing of discussions of trans issues. Part of the trans activist community feels that transwomen must be considered women in all respects, not just socially but also when biology is in conflict with that categorization. (There is no noticeable equivalent pressure on behalf of transmen, i.e. people born female.) To do other than that is considered transphobic which has such a severe impact on transwomen it can lead some to suicide. Therefore any discussion that does not accept those assumptions is lethal hate speech and must be stopped.

That thinking requires an obvious double standard. We can’t all be on the edge of suicide and demanding from others that they do everything our way or they’re guilty of pushing us into it. Nobody would be able to do anything if emotional blackmail was a legitimate tactic to shut people down.

Transpeople, men and women, do suffer violence, but as with most violence, it is committed by men. (For instance, globally 96% of homicides are committed by men p.95.) Assault and murder are already illegal. They’re also in a different class than speech one doesn’t like. Free speech definitely covers unpopular topics. Trying to police women, for instance discussing pregnancy, by using emotional blackmail because men are committing crimes is very much an illegitimate suppression of speech that should be free.

As the free speech examples show, distinguishing between rights and their abuse gets into some gray areas. But just because there are murky zones doesn’t mean we have to give up on the clear ones. When there is actual doubt, by all means let’s give that area the benefit of the doubt. When it’s pretty clear that something is nothing but trash talk, we should stop protecting it and throw it out.

I’ve tried to show how it’s possible to distinguish rights from privilege by seeing whether the action in question can be done by everyone equally. When not, people aren’t demanding their rights. They’re demanding special treatment. The title isn’t totally facetious. Rights are like a dance where everyone follows the same rules to everyone’s benefit.

Crossposted from Acid Test

The good part is the Irish referendum to repeal their forced pregnancy 8th amendment. Marvelous photos of people converging to vote (they don’t have absentee ballots, I guess??). #HomeToVote. The hashtag is worth reading on the twitter machine, but have a box of tissues handy. The wonderful women and men of Ireland buried, just plain obliterated, the bigots who think women are a cheaper version of artificial wombs, who refuse to see that women are human beings.

+ – + – +

The appalling, horrible, devastating, dire, harrowing, terrifying part is the US government forcibly separating mothers and fathers and children. Some of the children are just a year old. One. year. old. And some have been handed over to somebody, anybody. Some unaccompanied minors given to human traffickers.

Earlier on my blog I had a post about the USA’s continued slide into depravity.

Burned mosque in Victoria, Texas. January 2017. (Bob Daemmrich)

But bad as a hate crime is against a symbol of religion, a hate crime against living, breathing children is even worse.

The sad thing is I think all of us screaming about the atrociousness of it are missing the point.

It’s not like they (the Bully in Chief, his administration, ICE, etc.) didn’t realize the suffering they would cause. It’s not like us pointing it out is going to lead to a big “D’OH!” moment and they’ll quit it.

The suffering is the point. That’s the worst of it. This is fully intentional.

The point is to stop immigration. And I can see where it could slow it way down. If the choice is murder by a local drug gang or losing your children to traffickers, I could see deciding to take a chance on avoiding the murderers. And then the monsters running the US will crow about how well their crimes of state worked.

I just … this has to stop … I wish I knew how. Yes, November. But November is not now. It has to stop now. It has to. It won’t.

Crossposted from Acid Test

Let’s talk about bitcoin. This was brought on by the news that the hunt for bitcoins is using as much energy as the entire country of Ireland now. And, at the current rate of growth one possible trajectory has it using all the world’s energy by 2021.

Which it won’t do, of course. People are going to insist on having a little bit of heat to cook and stay warm, but it does tell you how crazy the bitcoin path currently is.

What is bitcoin? The idea behind it is to have a cash equivalent when financial transactions are increasingly electronic. There is a value to having anonymous, untraceable money, just as there is value in anonymous, untraceable speech. It makes it harder for anyone to grab control over people. The downside, of course, is that it also makes it easier for criminals and hatemongers to do their thing.

Without going into the computerese of it all, you’re using processing power to do the calculations necessary to keep a transaction both secure and untraceable. (Although there’s some dispute about the perfection of the untraceability of it in all cases.) Secure untraceable transactions could actually be very useful in the case of, for instance digital voting.

A couple of points about bitcoin: there is a finite number of bitcoins allowed by the bitcoin system. I think the idea was that this was necessary for it to retain any kind of value. Obviously, if you can just “print” infinite numbers of bitcoins, they’re meaningless. It’s the same characteristic that makes gold valuable. There’s just so much of it and no more.

The second thing is that the closer you get to that limit, the more processing you have to do to get the computer to say it’s produced a secure untraceable transaction, a bitcoin. Producing a single bitcoin now takes as much energy as a US household uses in a month, very approximately. When this folderol started, I could have generated a hundred of them on my little laptop in minutes.

What is money? To understand what bitcoin actually is, I think it’s helpful to think about what money actually is. There’s a lot of dispute about the latter, so this is my view. (Which is right, of course. You at the back, pipe down.) It agrees with some of the Great Grandads of Economics (Keynes, for instance, unless I’ve totally misunderstood him), but not others.

At it’s most basic, money is a measure of value that allows us to exchange things that have real value — cabbages and houses and medical services and classes in Japanese flower arranging — without having to use barter. Barter isn’t bad, it’s just terribly inefficient. It depends on the buyer happening to have whatever the seller wants in exchange, and then both agreeing how much of A, say 5 cabbages, is worth how much of B, say on class on flowers. (And then, if you’re the teacher, what are you going to do with the 50 cabbages your students have given you?)

If money is a measure, then someone has to define what it’s measuring. With feet and meters that’s not a problem because we all know how and where to use yardsticks. But measuring value is a whole different ballgame.

There are fleets of economists who work on that sort of thing. And they can actually get reasonably close to what a given economy is producing. Money, at its best, then measures that and makes it easy to exchange things at sensible prices.

A lake high in the Chilean mountains

Wealth

The trouble comes in because money is also used as a store of value. You can put it in the bank and use your “rulers” of value later to buy things you need. People tend to confuse the storage function with the measuring function, even though storing value has to be (very) secondary to how money works. If not, you get the absurdity of people storing all the rulers, which are useless in themselves, and grinding the economy to a halt. In the case of real yardsticks, nobody would be able to make clothes or build houses or bridges or do anything else that requires measurement. In the case of money, too many people don’t have enough to keep the economy turning and depressions happen.

That is why countries abandoned the gold standard. There’s a finite amount of gold. What happens when you invent steam engines and telephones and computers? You get into the stupid situation of not having enough gold to measure all that. (Or the even stupider situation of making a unit of gold near-priceless and bestowing vast wealth on people who happen to hold gold. Needless to say, the holders of gold preferred this alternative.)

So countries have gone to a system where the money supply is supposed to reflect the size of the economy.

What does this mean for bitcoin? You see where this is headed. Bitcoin explicitly measures nothing. Its whole function is to store some-kind-of-value but it’s finite. So, like gold, it cannot reflect changes to the underlying economy.

It has no means of defining value. No fleets of economists. The whole principle is “stuff costs what any fool will pay for it.” That does not work for a real economy and just gives all the “rulers” to the people who already have them.

And, finally, it has no means of enforcing legal trade. If someone rips you off, there’s zero recourse. As a subset of the lack of enforcement, it also facilitates extremely sketchy trading, such as trafficking, pedophilia, and counterfeit medicines. Much as I might like to stop the GOOG and everybody else from spying on my every purchase of deodorant, I don’t think facilitating pedophiles is an acceptable price to pay. We could, you know, just have regulation that outlaws tracking.

So, in conclusion, this is where bitcoin stands. It’s a fun idea. The computer process involved could be useful in things like voting. It’s not money, because it does not measure value. It’s a digital analogy for gold: an arbitrary something people have decided to use instead of money. It could have been (and has been in the past) conch shells. It the future it might be tobacco plants genetically engineered to grow stained glass leaves. You can’t base an economy on stuff like that.

An economy has to be based on actual value and money has to be something that measures that.

So bitcoin, and all the other cryptocurrencies, are not useful for the real economy and, as currently constituted, are using up so much energy that they’re cancelling out all the gains made by the shift to renewables.

You know what? That crap needs the shit regulated out it.

 

Crossposted from Acid Test

I stumbled across this interesting thread by a Korean American, and all I could think was, “No, not really, not my experience at all.”

T.K. of AAK! ‏ @AskAKorean May 11

As a formerly non-English speaking immigrant, here is a story I cherish.

It’s 1997. I just moved from Korea to Los Angeles area. I took regular English courses in Korea, and that was good enough to get me out of ESL classes and into the regular 10th grade classes.

It was my second day at the biology class. There was a quiz. My bio teacher, Ms. Gallagher, told me I didn’t have to worry about the quiz since I just got to the class, but gave me the quiz sheet anyway.

This is more than 20 years ago, but I still very clearly remember every detail of that quiz sheet. The quiz was about photosynthesis. It had a diagram of a leaf, and I was supposed to write what kind of gas comes to the leaf, what is expelled, etc.

I remember staring at it for about five minutes, slowly getting angry with frustration. I was mad because the quiz was easy. I learned about photosynthesis in Korea as a 7th grade. I knew all the answers. Just not in English.

The quiz was my new reality. I hope you all have a chance to experience this: the experience of suddenly becoming stupid, suddenly having all of your knowledge turning into dust, useless and inaccessible in a new environment with new language.

After five minutes, I just decided to write in the quiz in Korean. It didn’t matter that Ms. Gallagher told me the quiz wouldn’t count; I wasn’t going to turn in a blank quiz sheet. I just had to prove to myself that I didn’t suddenly become stupid.

Two days later, Ms. Gallagher handed out the graded quiz. Then she announced to the class: “[TK] has the highest grade. He had the perfect score.”

What – I looked at my quiz sheet. She graded my quiz in Korean, and gave me all the check marks.

I asked Ms. Gallagher (somehow) how she managed to grade my paper. Turned out Ms. Gallagher took my quiz to a Korean Am math teacher at my school. The math teacher’s Korean wasn’t great either, but she looked up the dictionary to help my bio teacher grade my quiz.

I get more emotional each time I think about this. Because the older I get, the more I realize what an extraordinary step Ms. Gallagher took for the sake of her student. She already told me the quiz wouldn’t count. She didn’t have to go through the trouble of grading my quiz.

But Ms. Gallagher graded my quiz. I truly believe that moment changed the trajectory of my immigrant life in the United States. Thanks to my teacher, I was able to prove to myself that I didn’t suddenly turn stupid. I just had to learn the new language.

So I did. I learned English, I studied hard, and graduated second of my class. My graduation speech was like a scene out of Napoleon Dynamite–it was so rambling and so terrible and so accented, my classmates were so confused. They were kind enough not to boo me off the stage.

I moved onto a good college, then a good law school. Now I’m a lawyer and writer who engages the world via my writing. I’ve had writing professors telling me they use my English writing as a model for their students. That blows my mind every time I hear it.

So. Every time a fuckshit like John Kelly talks about non-English speaking immigrants not assimilating to America, I think back to Ms. Gallagher. I remind myself that America has way more Ms. Gallaghers than John Kellys.

Remember: nearly all Americans came from somewhere else. More Americans are coming from abroad as we speak. So if you’re born and raised in America, I hope you would be kind and patient with the new arrivals. I hope you would be the Ms. Gallagher to someone else. /end

Now, when I say “not my experience” I don’t mean the part about kindly people helping me feel confident. There were enough of those, thank God, to keep me going.

What I mean is the part about suddenly feeling stupid. I learned English as a very small toddler, then a third language when I was about eight, another three as a young adult. I’m kind of absorbing bits of Spanish because of living in SoCal. And even when I landed in a foreign country going to school in a paramedical subject, I never actually had a feeling ignorance.

(But if you want to talk about learning calculus and that foreign language, God yes, deer in the headlights. Until I finally realized, years too late, that hey, that’s really just another language. I know how to do this.)

All this made me think that maybe the biggest benefit of bilingualism on the developing mind is that it makes ignorance feel familiar. It’s not frightening. You learn that all you need to do is learn your way out of it. Which is also the conclusion TK comes to: “I didn’t suddenly turn stupid. I just had to learn the new language.”

How do all of you feel about that? Is a background of getting plopped into new environments or new languages as a child helpful? Or maybe just isolating for some of us? How about learning to feel okay with ignorance? Which, I guess, phrased another way, is a question about whether learning is fun or whether it’s work.

Anyway. Have at it. It’s Saturday. We can do whatever we want!


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