Classically Inclined

November 10, 2015

A seasonal Movember post on philosophical facial hair

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:06 pm
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Tis the season for people to start doing extravagant things with their facial hair – yes, Movember is upon us. It will not surprise you to learn that the question of whether to beard or not to beard was also asked in antiquity, in particular in terms of whether a philosopher should have a beard or not. If you think of the statues of philosophers you see in museums, or at least the statues that are represented as being of philosophers, they tend to have a prolific growth of facial hair to their credit. For some in antiquity, possessing a beard was seen as a defining characteristic of being a philosopher – beardedness somehow became equated with possessing wisdom.

Alas for those currently cultivating their facial foliage, it turns out that the connection isn’t quite that simple. This post is a quick round-up of some things that the Roman Stoics have to say about what’s going on with beards, gender and wisdom.

The division between those with beards and those without isn’t just between the wise and non-wise – it’s also seen as a dividing line between men and women, although again, having a beard isn’t in and of itself enough to make you a man. Having a beard is described as natural or according to nature. The Stoics are very keen on the idea that if something is according to nature, then it’s also in accordance with virtue, which makes the deliberate distinction between men and women caused by facial hair something to be valued. In Musonius Rufus’ On Cutting The Hair (Discourse 21), he compares the beard to the crest of the cock or the mane of the lion. Epictetus uses the same imagery in Discourses 1.16.12, again to emphasise the difference between the male and the female of the species.

There are always those who aren’t so happy with their stubble, which turns out to be a sign of a deeper existential malaise. In Discourses 3.1, Epictetus critiques a young man for depilating himself and confusing the natural boundary between the genders. However, he then goes on to remind his victim that he is not human by virtue of his hair, but by virtue of his moral purpose (proairesis). While the young man’s attitude to his bodily hair is a symptom of his confusion about how the world works, he needs to do more than cultivate a healthy beard to address the underlying problem. Indeed, while Epictetus attacks the youth for his excessive personal care regime in this discourse, in Discourses 4.11 he expresses a different view – he would rather have an over-coiffured youth come to learn philosophy than one with ‘his moustache reaching down to his knees’, because at least he would be able to point the first student in the correct direction of what is good and beautiful (to kalon).

The Roman philosophers are also aware of the tension between the beard as an emblem of the philosopher and the fact that simply having a beard is not enough to make one a philosopher. Epictetus says that his beard and his rough cloak identify him as a philosopher to the young man attacked for depilation (3.1.24). He lists growing a beard, along with composing philosophical treatises, as one of the marks of philosophising which Epicurus demonstrated but attributed to the flesh (sarx) rather than his moral purpose (proairesis; Discourses 2.23.21). He implies that a philosopher should reject the threat of having his beard shaved, even if such an action could result in the philosopher’s decapitation (Discourses 1.2.27). Yet  in Discourses 4.8, he parallels philosophy to music and carpentry to illustrate that simply taking on the attire of a trade is not enough to make one a practitioner of that trade. The beard signals an affiliation with the philosophical life, but it holds no guarantee that its wearer will actually be living in accordance with that philosophy.

Epictetus’ comments reflect anxiety about balancing what is according to nature with the requirements of society and the line between acting like a philosopher and merely looking like one. Seneca makes a similar observation early in the Epistulae Morales, when he encourages his addressee Lucilius to continue with his philosophical studies (5.1-3). He draws a distinction between moral improvement and simply adopting the trappings of so-called philosophers; Lucilius should not deliberately present himself in a way that arouses comment. Among the things Seneca discourages him from are an outspoken hatred of silver, a bed put on the earth, messy dress sense, uncut hair – and a more unruly beard. The danger of this sort of thing is that it puts off precisely the people whom the philosophers want to reach most: the decision to look so out of step with the world around them means ‘ordinary’ people run a mile from any philosophy that seems to require them to behave so outlandishly.

Given the various attempts at facial hair that will be materialising over the coming months, and the varied range of responses they are sure to generate among the friends and acquaintances of Movember participants, I suspect the power of the beard to overstep the common boundaries of good taste is about to be tested to its limits once again. Perhaps we might bear in mind the warning that just to wear the beard isn’t the same as having the inner disposition associated with it. The Movember Foundation focuses on four key areas of men’s health – prostrate cancer, testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity. If you are participating in Movember, or somebody you know is, then take Seneca’s advice and think about the hidden ways in which you’re committed to improving those problems, which will last beyond the application of the razor on 1st December and the eventual donning of the charity Christmas jumper.

October 2, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – the first year

Following on from my noodlings here about whether I should submit my gamification of intermediate Latin for a College Excellence Teaching Prize, I managed to put the paperwork in before the small boy appeared – and I’m delighted to say that I won one of the awards! The prize was awarded for “an innovative and creative project, which engages students from diverse backgrounds in motivational extracurricular learning”, which is rather nice as that was what I was after. As those of you reading who teach intermediate language classes will know, it’s probably the most diverse set of student experiences you find in a college classroom, and thus presents some really interesting challenges.

For those of you coming to this fresh – gamification is a strategy that tries to use the human enjoyment of games to enhance the learning experience within the classes. Last year, I reworked how I teach intermediate Latin to make the formative work I’d assumed students would do out of the goodness of their hearts into a tangible system of game-based activities. This would make the previously unspoken assumptions about the workload in the class clear and visible, and hopefully also give students the motivation to keep on top of the work required. The introduction of short-term rewards in a game format functioned through an insignia or badge system, where each activity had its own specific sticker type to collect. Students competed to collect the most insignia over the course of the term, with a ‘top three’ scoreboard updated regularly on Moodle. I wrote about how I thought things were going after one term here.


September 21, 2015

On being an ECR, academia and maternity leave

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:21 pm
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Today was my first day back from maternity leave. I have, hypothetically, been away from the demands of my job a little under six months; we now have a small boy who at just over five months is happy and thriving, and starting to get the hang of this sitting up business. Now is the time for me to dive back into all of the things that I have left undone since I shut my office door at the end of March.

Or, at least, it would be if I had actually been away.

The funny thing about academic maternity leave is that you don’t actually leave. You slow down a bit, but you don’t stop. Yes, I didn’t do any exam marking in the summer term, I handed over running the departmental research seminar, and I’ve not been on campus since I left the building. But according to my records (yes, I keep records), during my maternity leave I:

  • Made some final changes to the sci fi and classics review piece and got it published.
  • Did some final administrative work related to my chapter about women classicists at Newnham for a volume due out later in the year.
  • Made edits to my pedagogy article and saw that through to publication.
  • Approved proofs for a book review that I submitted a few years ago.
  • Wrote a short article on Seneca and relaxing for a web outreach project.
  • Wrote a case study report for the Family Archive project and kept in the loop with that as it progressed.
  • Finalised the book contract.
  • Revised two and a half book chapters plus an epilogue (which is still in revision but getting there).
  • Provided some guidance for the replacement Intermediate Latin marker on how to go about it.
  • Sorted out the syllabus for the new course I’m teaching this year, requested electronic copies of readings, and submitted a reading list.
  • Sorted out my course Moodles.
  • Completed the annual monitoring forms for the courses I taught last year.
  • Engaged in discussion about the establishment of a UK-based body to represent women in classics, which is growing out of the classics and feminism sandpit because I put my money where my mouth was.
  • Did I mention learning how to parent a tiny baby, live with less sleep than I thought humanly possible, establish breastfeeding, heal from undergoing significant physical trauma, have my emotions turned upside down every five minutes by hormones, and realise why people tell new parents to stock up on muslins?

Now, baby wrangling aside, none of those things were expected of me. With the possible exception of the annual monitoring forms, my department didn’t expect me to do any of that (and I suspect that if I’d put my foot down, they would have been worked round). Part of this is because I’m generally a productive person, and I have become good at doing things efficiently during nap times (and I’m lucky to have a baby who does nap). But there are a whole load of implicit pressures at work here, both internal and external.

Internally, I recognise that some of these choices were driven by wanting to be a good colleague. If you have promised an article, say, by a publication deadline, it’s good practice to follow through, regardless of whether you’ve just had a small person, right? It’s just common professional courtesy, isn’t it? If you’ve committed to a volume, shouldn’t you help the editors to have as painless an experience as possible by responding to their e-mails in a timely fashion? I mean, sure, people say that you shouldn’t worry because you’re on leave, but if the press has set a deadline, then that deadline’s there, baby or no, and you are inextricably bound into the process of getting the book on the shelf. The way that academic publishing works means that once you’re involved, you work to the publishers’ timetable.

Some of the choices were pragmatic, in their own way. The syllabus and Moodle wrangling happened because it was going to be far easier to do that in dribs and drabs instead of getting to this week and trying to do All The Things at once – a little bit of advanced preparation goes a long way in making re-entry smoother, even after a normal summer.

Yet there are also huge implicit external pressures at work here, not least in the shape of the job market. It wouldn’t hurt if I’d left most of the heavy lifting for the book until the start of 2016, but the pressure to be able to say in applications that the manuscript is in press… when we’re all told that it’s The Book that makes the difference between fixed term and permanent contracts… Oh, and all the other articles, that’s all important for the job market too, because the more an early career researcher in a temporary post can have on her CV, the more shiny it makes her, so long as that magic book is there. So everything will be alright?

These myths about the lengths an ECR has to go to in order to get a permanent contract are pernicious enough under normal circumstances, driving those in junior positions with no security to bend over backwards to achieve goals which come with nothing more than vague promises that it’s this quality that’ll make the difference in the next job round. Those goalposts keep moving, of course – it’s the Book, it’s a project with demonstrable Impact (thanks, REF), it’s more peer reviewed article in big-hitting journals with the right metrics, it’s a good social media presence (or none at all), it’s Fellowship of the HEA.

But to have those same pressures impact on your maternity leave, whether you are conscious of them or not, is a sign of just how paranoid the current system of academic hiring makes you without even noticing. I can’t put things on hold because I need to know what’s happening when my contract ends in August, and the job adverts are already starting to appear.  But equally, I can’t put the rest of my life on hold until that phoenix-like permanent contract deigns to make an appearance. (Not that a permanent job cures all ills by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the grail we’re told to reach for and that the system appears to reward.) I’m making decisions that limit my ability to be the perfect ECR who can up sticks and move to a contract at the opposite end of the country at a moment’s notice – because there’s more to life than that.

I’m going to go and snuggle up to my son and get some sleep. And tomorrow I’ll take him to campus and introduce him to some of the people who know him but have never met him. And eventually we’ll find a new way for our family to get through the week. And I’ll keep on making the most of nap times. But I will not let those ECR myths take charge of our shared life and take away the daily joys of being together.

July 6, 2015

June is busting out all over…

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:28 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

…and it’s taken me until July to blog about it. Such is the life of a new mum. I type this with infans in his sling, finally having the nap he has resisted all day, while I reflect upon the changes and developments that have happened in my life over the last twelve weeks.

Arguably the most significant of these is the arrival of the new small person, who is growing and thriving at a slightly alarming but very encouraging rate. We’ve all got the hang of the basics now, so it’s a matter of doing the day-to-day living, which is demanding but rather less intense than the first six weeks or so. That the final output of my maternity leave, when it finishes in September, should be a happy, cheerful and generally content baby looks like a goal that is on track.

However, I will happily own up to the fact that the itch to get back on with research work has already returned, reinforcing my personal conviction that a year’s worth of maternity leave would have had me climbing the walls. I’ve already been surprisingly productive – I finished off the science fiction piece, have done more work for the Family Archive project, and have sorted out the edits to an article about writing for the Companion to the World of Roman Women that started off as a series of blog posts on here.

Most importantly, however, last week I signed and posted back my contract with Cambridge University Press for a book provisionally entitled The Ethics of the Family in Seneca.

As you will probably have guessed, this is going to be the book version of my PhD thesis, and I’ve spent the time since submission in 2011 working on getting the manuscript into a good enough shape for publication. In fact, I’m still working on revising the manuscript, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, but now there’s an end date for the manuscript to be finished, and everything feels more… real.

When I graduated, I said that my life goals for the next few years were a baby, a book and abode. It looks like the most elusive of those three is finally getting closer. I may write more about the process of getting here at some stage, but right now, I’m going to go and help infans (who has woken up since I started writing this post) practice rolling onto his side.

May 6, 2015

New publication: In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: On Classical Reception and Science Fiction

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:57 am
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Following on my recent blog post about science fiction, classical reception and fannishness, I’m glad to announce that the final piece has now been published!

You can read In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: On Classical Reception and Science Fiction over at Strange Horizons.

Ultimately, I’m very pleased indeed with how the piece turned out. As I explained in my preliminary blog post, this is quite a big shift away from some of my usual stomping ground, and I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to get familiar with the territory. That’s because I have another project on tap that looks like it will make really good use of the sort of material that I got to use and get familiar with for this piece – but that’s another story for another time. Until then, enjoy this overview of the state of the field, and do let me know what you think!

April 8, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – A very modern family archive

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:15 am
Tags: ,

I should have flagged this up when the post went up, but better late than never… I have another post up on the Family Archive project blog, this time exploring the link between my own experience of family archives and the sentimental things that turn up in ancient deposits.

I don’t think this answers the question I posed in my previous post for the project about why sentimental (and thus ‘inexplicable’) material gets kept, but it’s certainly a place to start.

March 31, 2015

On pregnancy, academia and antiquity

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:55 am
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I type this from the second day of my official maternity leave, having made it to the end of term without infans making an early appearance. The presence of infans has, of course, been getting more and more obvious over the last few weeks; I’ve been particularly aware of it while staying at on-campus accommodation during the week to make my life easier, and eating in the attached student dining hall in the evenings, although the British Library offered some equally confused expressions. I’ve been thinking about pregnant bodies in academic spaces since Rachel Moss posted about this issue at the end of February, and while I’ve been very lucky not to have encountered any directly negative responses, I’ve been very aware of getting surprised looks from people around campus as I have been going around my daily business. While these reactions do not explicitly say I should not be in the space of an HE institution, they reveal my presence there is unexpected (surely she should be on leave?), particularly in a student dining hall where many of the students may be seeing me for the first time. (A massive thank you to the catering staff and the hospitality team is in order, as they have been lovely throughout the term and looked after an increasingly pregnant academic with remarkable aplomb.)

Another academic space that I shan’t be occupying, although this is entirely self-selecting, is the upcoming Classical Association conference in Bristol. This is largely a matter of practicality – Bristol and my home are very far apart, and my due date is shortly after the conference ends. While the thought of interrupting a staid paper session with a polite request for an ambulance is fairly entertaining in the abstract, I suspect the reality would be pretty subpar. However, this raises questions about whether I would have felt comfortable attending the conference if it had fallen earlier in the pregnancy. I did actually attend a couple of conferences very early on, before anybody knew about it, let alone before there were any physical giveaways beyond me not drinking alcohol. However, I’ve not attended anything particularly formal since the academic year started, and now that conference season proper is kicking off, practicalities intervene. Yet I wonder about the presence of the pregnant female body at these gatherings, and remember the classics and feminism sandpit in January, when I felt visibly pregnant but was not necessarily registering as such to others. The visibility of the pregnancy seems to relate directly to the social acceptability of being seen in public as pregnant – even in a world where economic factors mean women are working up to as close to their due dates as they can.

I want to turn to Soranus here, who has handed down to us an excellent manual on gynaecology which tells you more than you will ever need to know about pregnancy, giving birth and early infant care in the ancient world. (As Helen King says, it’s a relief to find out that midwives were expected to keep their fingernails short.) I’ve been reading his advice for the pregnant woman through the nine months with interest – in the eighth month, for instance, he recommends that women “must take exercise only in a litter or big sedan chair, unless one desires to walk short of the point of exhaustion”, and suggests that the abdomen should be anointed “all over with a cerate containing oil made up from unripe olives and myrtle, for if the skin is toned up it does not break, but is kept unwrinkled”. Soranus, dispensing stretch mark avoidance before Bio-Oil was ever dreamt up.


March 16, 2015

Why calling Seneca a hypocrite isn’t very helpful

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:52 am
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“There’s a review of Emily Wilson in today’s paper,” said G, waving a copy of the Observer.

“There’s a what?” I said, groggily, looking up from my yoghurt and about to rush off to church choir practice.

He passed the paper over, and lo and behold, it was a review of Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life, which in its online incarnation appears to have gained a new title – in the print edition of the Observer, the title is “A great Stoic and a serious hypocrite”, which sums up the attitude of the review rather better.

Reading the review had the effect of waking me up, mainly by making me rather cross. For several reasons. But the one G picked up on when he asked “so, is Seneca a hypocrite?” is the one on which I’m going to base this post. Seneca has had a long history of being accused of hypocrisy, starting in antiquity – Dio Cassius regales us with some particularly scandalous tales, including that bit about Seneca nearly bankrupting Britain by calling his loans in, and the usual ‘pandering to freedmen’ stuff that the Claudian period generates because Claudius actually set up a system of governmental officials who (shock horror!) weren’t senators. But Cassius Dio is writing at least a hundred years after Seneca’s death, and appears to assume that working the imperial system then was like working it in his period, when the political and moral ground had undergone some really big shifts. So that’s problem number one – the juicy evidence for Seneca’s hypocrisy comes from someone writing much later, with a bit of an axe to grind.

But the fair question remains of whether Seneca compromised his philosophical beliefs by working with Nero, and by retaining his status as a member of the senatorial elite. There are two good reasons grounded in Stoic doctrine that show attacking him on these grounds rather misses the point.

One. The Stoics had a doctrine of indifferents. That is, they said the only important thing was virtue. Everything else – good and ill health, good looks, wealth and poverty, marriage and bachelorhood, and, well, everything else – was an indifferent. Having or not having a particular indifferent did not make the slightest bit of difference to your ability to achieve virtue (and thus happiness). They complicated this a bit by then saying that some indifferents were preferred; that is, if everything was equal and your pursuit of virtue was not harmed by either choice, then it made sense to select one of the pair rather than the other. So if you had the choice between health and being poorly, for instance, you’d take health. Similarly, if you had the choice between wealth and poverty, you’d take wealth, providing the way of getting the money didn’t involve you doing something morally dubious (betraying a friend, for instance, or killing an innocent person). Stoicism doesn’t support a push towards compulsory poverty, like the later Franciscans or the earlier Cynics. The only ethically problematic thing about having money is becoming too dependent on it, forgetting that it’s an indifferent like any other, and starting to pursue it for its own sake.

But what, for instance, if your money came from, oooh, supporting a tyrant? And being part of that tyrant’s inner circle? Let us for a moment put aside the fact that Nero’s first few years of rule are generally credited with being not too bad, which sort of undermines the view that Seneca knew he was supporting a corrupt regime from the get-go. OK, there’s an ethical problem here – Seneca’s wealth and influence derives from his support of an emperor of dubious habits. Yet on what grounds would we call him a hypocrite? Hypocrisy is claiming to hold certain character traits and standards but not living up to them; hypocrisy is criticising other people for behaving in the way one happily does oneself. So we need to find evidence of Seneca presenting himself as morally superior to other people in his presentation of Stoic philosophy, and boom, there’s our evidence for hypocrisy.

But this is emphatically not what Seneca says anywhere in his extant work. The yardstick for moral achievement within Stoicism is the wise man or sage, who has got perfect grasp of reason, thus only makes rational decisions, and so is perfectly happy. The sage is famously rarer than a phoenix. Seneca never claims to be a wise man – in the On the Blessed Life, he explicitly says “I am not a wise man” (non sum sapiens). He never claims to have reached moral perfection. When he writes to his addressee Lucilius in the Moral Letters, he’s very careful never to claim ethical superiority – he has been doing this Stoicism thing for longer, which gives him a bit of an edge on knowing the material, but he’s still fallible and capable of making mistakes and irrational choices. When somebody is so open about his own moral faults and failings, even if not specifically the ones which revolve around his relationship with Nero, it’s a bit difficult to find the leverage to justify the charge of hypocrisy.

Basically, going back to this old chestnut as people have a depressing tendency to do demonstrates the importance of reading Seneca’s philosophical convictions against the historical background to get a better understanding of what’s going on in his actions and the decisions he makes. It’s not a neat answer, and it’s not a comfortably judgemental answer (because we all feel better when we can castigate someone else’s failings – well-known sayings about eyes, planks and motes come to mind). But it is one that recognises the complexity of the man and does him justice.

March 10, 2015

Classics and sci fi – some initial thoughts

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:59 pm
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As some of you will have picked up on Twitter, one of my current research and writing jobs is for a short-ish piece on the current state of the field of classical reception studies and science fiction for Strange Horizons (the lovely people who, as you’ll remember, published my short article on crossing borders in classically influenced fiction). This isn’t entirely new ground for me, as that piece shows, and I’m thinking quite a lot about sci fi and fantasy in general as part of the monsters project. But being asked to do a review piece is a first for me, and also involves trying to get a sense of the state of a field that I have hitherto been on the edges of rather than deeply involved in.

I’m very lucky to know some of the people who are at the forefront of moving various conversations around sci fi and classics forward, and who are being very generous with their time, knowledge and expertise as I try and put this together. However, one of the problems with coming to this as I am is that – well, let me make a confession. I don’t think I’m really a fan.

I don’t mean I’m not a fan of science fiction, broadly defined – it’s a fun genre, and while I do lean more towards fantasy (allowing that the border between the two genres is extremely fluid), sci fi does some interesting and cool things. I’ve been trying to read some more of the sci fi landmarks since attending the Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space conference, at least in part because I felt I was missing out on a whole chunk of the discourse by not knowing the major texts to which papers and participants were referring. (So I’ve since read the Asimov Foundation trilogy, for example, and got a brief review of Slow River into the Times Higher Ed.) But the problem is that I’m coming to this as an adult who wants to be informed about the field, not as someone with the kind of all-encompassing hunger and passion I remember from my younger years who falls in love with a series or a writer and commits whole-heartedly to their work. I’m talking, and I say this with affection, of the sort of devotion you get in Trekkies. Or indeed in devotees of Buffy and Angel. (Some of these issues are similar to those we encounter when using the personal voice in academic work.) The closest I come, if I’m honest, is probably my irrational fondness for Hope Mirrlees, and while Lud-in-the-Mist is a starter for one, it’s not exactly an in-depth familiarity with the broad sci fi canon.

So the biggest challenge for me in writing this particular piece has been overcoming good old imposter syndrome. There are other problems too, of course. I’m drafting so I’m not too worried about the tone I’m taking yet, just getting words on the page will do, but there are issues about the right sort of way to write for a venue like Strange Horizons. It’s obviously not an academic journal, but neither is it this ‘ere blog, where I can be as informal and chatty or technical and jargony as I feel like being. I’m wondering about structure and organisation, and the sorts of things that readers will take for granted and that I need to spell out (the usual concern when writing for a non-academic audience, compounded by said imposter syndrome which assumes that every reader will already know everything I have to say, which is clearly nonsense). But most of all, it’s having the courage to have a go – after all, if I wasn’t up to it, I wouldn’t have been asked.

Now that the writing is underway, it’s actually turning out to be quite fun, and I’ve read a lot of really interesting stuff along the way. So keep an eye out for the final piece, which should appear in April or May some time, and you can judge how successful it’s been for yourself!

March 7, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – Family archives and the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:52 pm
Tags: ,

In case any of you are interested, I have a post up on the Family Archive project blog thinking about the idea of family archives and how it relates to the Romans. Do pop over and take a look!

I’m still puzzled about what family archive practices look like in Rome itself, rather than Greco-Roman Egypt – I’m particularly interested in the so-called ‘sentimental’ material, kept for no readily apparent reason, and how that gets transmitted down through the generations. But that’s another story for another blog post…

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