Archive for the ‘Serendipity’ Category

This is dedicated to my nephew who did fantastically well in his GCSE exams and now has to decide what to do with the next stage of his life. I can’t think of a better advisor than Steve Jobs, who stepped down as chief executive of Apple this week, and his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005:

“I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots. I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out? It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple.

I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example: Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss. I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down – that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley.

But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together. I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.

I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

My third story is about death. When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes. I lived with that diagnosis all day.

Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now. This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there.

And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Thank you all very much.”

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Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the US.  I have a lot to be thankful for as my family are happy and healthy but these are a few of the smaller things I have been grateful for this week :

– having a lie in at the weekend,

– arriving on a subway platform just as the train pulls in;

– meeting up with my book club;

– surviving a two-hour training session;

JK Rowling : I really enjoyed the latest Harry Potter movie as the last book is my favourite in the series. I am so glad she got to finish them all and to introduce so many kids to the joy of reading.

Thanksgiving is the quintessential US holiday so I was surprised to learn this year that it wasn’t declared a national holiday until 1863. The New York Times has an interesting story on how this came about in the wake of the Civil War:

“As national disunion loomed that Thanksgiving, so did hunger and misery for many Americans. Still rickety from the depression of 1857, the stock market had begun to collapse almost immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s election; Wall Street worried that debts owed by Southern planters – many of them mortgaged up to their eyebrows – would become uncollectable. Northern textile mills, fearing a disruption in cotton shipments from the South, began laying off workers by the thousands.”

The mood seems eerily similiar today and I am thankful not to be one of the many millions who is hungry so many years later.

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Hopes for my nephew

I was lucky enough to recently spend a week with my one-month old nephew. Spending time with a brand new baby and other young children amongst my friends and family helps put life into perspective.

So these are my hopes for my nephew as he grows up and finds his own way in the world:

– remember that you just need the basics

Babies cry when they are hungry, tired or sick and once any of these are fixed they are content. As you become older, society may try to tell you that owning as many expensive things as possible will make you happy but I hope don’t believe it – being happy, healthy and not having to worry about the next pay-cheque are enough.

– keep trusting people

Kids are incredibly trusting. Although I don’t want you to be naïve, I hope you think that people are basically good – I have travelled a lot and 99% of people I have met around the world have been great.

– keep accepting differences

You have parents who come from different continents, different religions and speak different languages. However, you will have the example before you every day that love can create something wonderful from these differences, so I hope you don’t let grown-ups teach you to be frightened of others.

– don’t lose your sense of wonder and curiosity

Babies are amused by the smallest things and as they grow up they never stop asking why. I hope you approach each day with that same sense of curiosity and never cease to be amazed by the wonder of everyday things.

– continue to play

Kids play with complete abandon and amazing creativity. I hope you never stop trying to learn new things and doing them in your way.

– keep your energy and enthusiasm

Children make it really obvious when they like doing something.  I hope you are fortunate enough to do something that you absolutely love so that you have that same sense of enthusiasm every day.

Whenever adults look at babies we are struck by the miracle of new life and how our capacity to love keeps expanding. So I hope you get to experience a life that always feels miraculous and, above all, is full of love.

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On the day that Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, John Simpson, world affairs editor at BBC News, has written a wonderfully appropriate piece on how individuals can change the world:

“At a single day’s trial last December, Mr Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison after having helped to draft Charter 08, a manifesto for political change in China.

The act of official irritability which took away Mr Liu’s freedom is becoming more and more of an international embarrassment to China.

Now, in every country in the world, his name and cause will be known; and more people in dictatorships everywhere will be emboldened to imitate his small act of resistance.”

He also points to a book that is published today – Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World – which details how governments which deny their people freedom have been brought down by individuals determined to speak and act as though they are free.

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Last week I was lucky enough to spend a week with some old friends. We have known each other long enough that I went to their wedding and this year is their 20th anniversary. In addition I’ve had the absolute pleasure of watching their two sons grow up and develop their own wonderful, and very different, personalities.

Being able to go on vacation and being able to spend it with good friends made me feel very blessed – and reminded me of a couple of things I have read recently about happiness.

– for a daily dose of happiness check out the 1000 Awesome Things blog which manages to come up with an awesome everyday thing every single day;

MP Mueller, a breast cancer survivor, writes about attending a fundraising event:

“Surrounded Saturday night by women bravely dealing with this unwelcome visitor, that jolt came back — the reminder that life is indeed fragile and short. (How do we manage to forget?) Doing what you truly love each day is the difference between existing and living. Are you doing what you truly love? If not, how can you get there? Are you passionate about your work? Do you have a dream you own, a purpose? If not, take the time to reach into your soul and define one. Embrace it and strut down the runway of life with all you’ve got.”

– Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, spoke about the economics of happiness in a commencement address at the University of South Carolina:

“Happiness is just one component of the broader, longer-term concept of life satisfaction, and only one indicator of how the fabric of our lives is being shaped by our choices and circumstances. I am reminded of a story about Abraham Lincoln. According to the story, Lincoln was riding with a friend in a carriage on a rainy evening. As they rode, Lincoln told the friend that he believed in what economists would call the utility-maximizing theory of behavior, that people always act so as to maximize their own happiness, and for no other reason. Just then, the carriage crossed a bridge, and Lincoln saw a pig stuck in the muddy riverbank. Telling the carriage driver to stop, Lincoln struggled through the rain and mud, picked up the pig, and carried it to safety. When the muddy Lincoln returned to the carriage, his friend naturally pointed out that he had just disproved his own hypothesis by putting himself to great trouble and discomfort to save a pig. “Not at all,” said Lincoln. “What I did is perfectly consistent with my theory. If I hadn’t saved that pig, I would have felt terrible.”

The story points out that, sometimes, happiness is nature’s way of telling us we are doing the right thing. True. But, by the same token, ephemeral feelings of happiness are not always reliable indicators we are on the right path. Ultimately, life satisfaction requires more than just happiness. Sometimes, difficult choices can open the doors to future opportunities, and the short-run pain can be worth the long-run gain. Just as importantly, life satisfaction requires an ethical framework. Everyone needs such a framework. In the short run, it is possible that doing the ethical thing will make you feel, well, unhappy. In the long run, though, it is essential for a well-balanced and satisfying life.”

– in the same vein Umair Haque puts together a Betterness Manifesto for the Harvard Business Review :

“Consume less. Do you really need another pair of designer jeans, three soy mocha Frappuccinos a day, or a bigger TV? Really? Betterness happens not through naked, aggressive consumption of disposable, mass-produced stuff, but by learning to spend your hard-earned cash on smaller amounts of awesome stuff that’s made with love, ethics, and passion.”

I shall have to put some thoughts together for my own life satisfaction manifesto. Sometimes it is the smallest things such as being in the supermarket today and seeing that People magazine’s latest issue features the 50 Most Amazing Bodies.

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As I have written before the World Cup, which starts a week today, is my favourite sporting event because you truly feel like you are participating in a global phenomenon. This year’s event is even more special as it is the first to be hosted by Africa, and for what it means to South Africa.

This article in National Geographic describes the World Cup as a turning point :

“South Africa’s selection to host the 2010 World Cup gave people a surge of confidence. Their nation could now be remembered for bringing the world soccer rather than apartheid.”

However it was the stories of individuals still dealing with the legacies of apartheid which made me cry. In particular, a meeting between a former white supremacist Daniel Stephanus Coetzee  and one victim of his bombing, Olga Macingwane:

“The interview goes on for two hours. Finally, Olga Macingwane gets to her feet. Unusually, she is fighting with her emotions. She says, “Stefaans, when I see you, I see my sister’s son in you, and I cannot hate you.” She extends her arms. “Come here, boy,” she says in Xhosa. Coetzee walks into her embrace. “I forgive you,” Macingwane says softly. “I have heard what you said, and I forgive you.” “

There are other inspirational voices in the piece who make you optimistic that South Africa will be able to live up to  Nelson Mandela‘s vision of a rainbow nation. Marjorie Jobson, national director of the Khulumani Support Group, an organisation of 58,000 victims of political violence, mainly during the apartheid era, who says:

“I think they just wanted apartheid to go away and the government to fix everything. But that didn’t happen. It’s up to each individual South African to participate actively in restitution. You know, the power of one. The power one person has to perpetuate our violent past, or the power one person has to contribute to a just, peaceful society.”

Or Tshepo Madlingozi, who arranges the meeting between Coetzee and Macingwane. He says:

“Meeting Stefaans has reignited my faith in the future of South Africa.  My worldview is black consciousness, and that hasn’t changed as a result of knowing Stefaans. But it has made me appreciate that even the most ardent racists—even murderers—can change and be humble. Yes, Stefaans’s intelligence, humility, acute appreciation of the consequences of his actions and the system of apartheid, as well as his appreciation that reconciliation is not merely about showing goodwill, have greatly inspired me.”

As much as I want to see England win the World Cup, in this case I won’t mind if they don’t if the tournament is even half as successful as the 1995 Rugby World Cup when the sight of Mandela in a Springbok shirt united blacks and whites into one nation.

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When I travel I like to fix the start and end points but leave the bits in between to chance but sometimes you don’t have to go very far from home to put this philosophy into action.

At the weekend, I was honoured to be asked again to be one of the judges at the annual AMS Pi5NY Math Tournament which this year was at West 169th Street. I have never been to Washington Heights so thought it would be fun to walk home and as a result I came across beautiful Riverside Drive.

As you can tell from the name, the drive meanders alongside the Hudson River. It was lined with trees and you could hear very little traffic so didn’t feel at all like being in the city. In fact, when I got to the end at 72nd Street  the bustle knocked me for six and made me question how I usually manage to tune out the New York noise.

When I got home I looked up Riverside Drive and found that, like a lot of modern New York, it was the creation of Robert Moses,who has been dubbed the city’s master builder. New York, by Ric Burns and James Sanders, my go-to history book for the city, describes how Riverside Park used to be six and a half of miles of muddy wasteland, populated by hobos, where even the police were afraid to go. The park was bordered by railway tracks and the coal-burning and oil-burning trains caused so much pollution that nearby residents couldn’t open their windows.

In 1914, when Moses was in his early 20s, he was on a ferry crossing the river and according to the book, he turned to one of his friends, Frances Perkins, who later became secretary of labour, and commented on the smog:

” ‘Frances, couldn’t this waterfront be the most beautiful waterfront in the world?’ He started to talk to her about this great highway that could run up along the water and this beautiful park that could be beside the highway and the park would cover the railroad tracks. And the thing that astonished Frances Perkins was that, in her words, ‘he had it all figured out.’ He said you would have to bring the highway round a curve at 72nd Street and knock down some buildings there. He saw a marina – it’s now the 79th St Marina and Boat Basin – where people could have their sailboats. He wanted tennis courts and bike paths and knew exactly where they should be.”

From what I saw on Saturday, Moses certainly achieved what he wanted.

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I discovered today that May 24 is a landmark date in New York history for two very important reasons.

In 1883, after 15 years of construction, the  Brooklyn Bridge, the first suspension bridge to use steel rather than iron cables, and the first bridge across the East River, was finally opened. Wired describes the role of Emily Warren Roebling in supervising the bridge’s construction :

“By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous. In truth, she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved.”

Perhaps more importantly, on this day in 1626, Dutchman Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan for the bargain sum of $24 worth of beads and trinkets. The Reformed Broker argues this is the real greatest trade ever and it is hard to disagree.

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I have been meaning to write about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (a word I never thought I would write) for a while but my day job got in the way. The Boston Globe has a great set of photos from Iceland (they should have done a slideshow but the images are still damn impressive).

The disruption highlighted how we take flying for granted and unknowingly depend on airplanes  for our everyday lives to function : there were stories in the British press that supermarkets would run out of fresh fruit and vegetables because they could not get deliveries from overseas. It is hard to believe that the Wright Brothers only completed the first controlled, powered flight in December 1903 and that the first commercial jet service only started in 1952.

Although it is too late for my brother, who was forced to cancel his holiday, planes have thankfully started flying in Europe again.

While they were still grounded, philosopher Alain de Botton wrote a lovely piece imagining a world without planes:

“In a future world without aeroplanes, children would gather at the feet of old men, and hear extraordinary tales of a mythic time when vast and complicated machines the size of several houses used to take to the skies and fly high over the Himalayas and the Tasman Sea.”

This may not be very far-fetched as Reihan Salam explains that dozens of major airlines are likely go bankrupt over the next decade so we have just experienced the world to come .

Salam points to a book by Christopher Steiner, $20 Per Gallon, which imagines how the world will change if oil prices continually rise. Starting at $4 a gallon, each chapter of the book describes what could happen as oil price rises by $2. Chapter $8 is called The Sky Will Empty as the airline industry is destroyed :

“Steiner paints a vivid picture: Cross-country fares quintupling in price, mid-sized cities losing most or all of their flights as subsidies dry up and the remaining airlines consolidate their operations. We’ll always have Skype and as-yet-unimagined communications technologies to stay in touch over long distances. And who knows, perhaps these technologies will be good enough to maintain the intimate connections that cheap air-travel has made possible. I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.’

Neither would I.

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American novelist Walter Mosley has written a wonderful essay on identity as the US is in the midst of completing the 2010 Census. With its history of immigration, identity in the US seems much more complicated than anywhere else in the world. One of the first things you notice when you move here is that everyone is American but also “part-something” – which can be -European, -African ,-Asian or a host of other possibilities.

Mosley begins:

Who am I? I am an American from the soles of my feet to the hair that once adorned my bald head. An American whose black-skinned ancestors were stolen from their lives and cultures and piled in the holds of ships like so many sacks of skin.

Identity is something I have been thinking about because of my personal history but also because of recent events amongst my family and friends.

I visited some friends who had a baby boy in Manhattan a few weeks ago so he is getting an American passport. Thanks to his mum and dad he can also get Irish and New Zealand passports, so he will truly be a citizen of the world.

My grandparents lived in the British Empire and during their lifetimes they went on to live in an independent India before they became East Pakistanis and then Bangladeshis. My parents emigrated to England where I was born and lived most of my life before coming to the US, where ironically I feel more English.

My nieces and nephews are/or will be a mixture of Bangladeshi, English and Spanish. I don’t know how their lives will turn out but even in the next generation the possibility of further nationalities being added to the mix is really strong.

Some people try to scare us through a fear the unknown but I think the new generation is incredibly lucky in combining so many gene pools. They may not turn out to be presidents of the free world but the combination will give them new talents and abilities that we cannot even imagine.

I agree with Mosley who ends his essay with great hope:

Through my veins run 10,000 years of history that touches every continent, deity, and crime known to humanity. This history is not composed of the false accounts of the past; it is the blood and the beat and the light that passes through my mind, and yours. I am your sibling whether you know it or not, whether you accept me or not.

We, known and unknown to each other, form an identity that I can express but still not know, not completely. And for this state of being I am infinitely grateful because it means that I can be part of something greater than the individual, while still I am at home in my heart.

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