Thursday, March 22, 2018

Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

I want to write in more detail about the article I talked about in yesterday's post -- When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer" -- but I realized that first I should say something about the cover of the issue of The New Yorker in which it appeared.

I wrote two days ago about how important images are -- North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?. The article from the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars that I referenced there directed our attention to how caricatures may cross the line from commentary on an individual to ethnic stereotype. Consider this example:

"Let's see -- my old man said the top button is to launch and the
bottom button is to cancel -- or is it the other way around?"
Kim Jong Il caricatured by Don Wright, Palm Beach Post
c. 1994

Commenting on the cartoon, scholar Robert Perkinson says, "[T]he cartoon not only ridicules North Korea's likely new president Kim Jong Il by exaggerating both his lack of expertise and his perceived menace to the West, but also employs anti-Asian racial stereotypes." (Introduction to "Notes from the Field: The Korean Nuclear Crisis.)

Having been alerted by Perkinson, I notice several things about this cartoon:

* Kim's feet don't reach the ground. (They barely reach beyond the edge of his chair.) This suggests:

- the physical fact that Kim Jung Il was relatively short (5' 3")
- short stature as a metaphor for youth, in turn a metaphor for inexperience and/or lack of expertise
- infantilization of Asians as a racial stereotype

* Kim has big glasses and barely visible eyes, i.e. the representation is in no way realistic. Does this reflect:

- reliance upon a long-standing and innocent cartooning convention?
- reliance upon a long-standing and anti-Asian racist cartooning convention?

* Kim can't keep straight the simplest instructions concerning this mechanism. Is this:

- a dig at his inexperience and/or lack of expertise?
- an anti-Asian racist stereotype, suggesting Asians are too simple to understand machines?

I know, it's hard work; we've been looking at images like this for so long without thinking about these questions.

The New Yorker cover for September 18, 2017 is interesting.

The New Yorker, September 18, 2017

It is by Eric Drooker and is entitled "Warhead."

What I noticed about this image is that it puts Kim Jong Un on a par with Donald Trump. After months of graphics that made use of what had become a true cultural meme -- Trump's orange mop of hair -- we were now seeing an image saying to us, in effect, "There's another leader that you know just by looking at his hair!" (and, possibly, "Compare to Trump - similar? different? . . . . ")

Using the up/down/level scoring approach that I talked about in yesterday's post, I would give this a "level." If all it were suggesting was "Kim is scary" (i.e. the message implied by the image's title, "Warhead"), then I would rate it "down." But in my opinion the image makes people think.

I'm confirmed in my judgement by comparing it with an earlier New Yorker cover depicting Kim:

The New Yorker, January 18, 2016

It is by Anita Kunz and is entitled "New Toys."

Here the questions raised by the Don Wright cartoon come to mind. It seems perfectly legitimate to provide commentary that suggests that a leader lacks the maturity to handle his or her country's military and weapons responsibly. However, I believe it also involves an anti-Asian racial stereotype when an Asian leader is shown as a baby playing with his toys. (Why isn't he shown side-by-side with his US counterpart, also depicted as a child?)

So: between January, 2016, and September, 2017, the story the public has gotten from The New Yorker has progressed from "down" to "level."

At least, if you can judge a nuclear confrontation by its cover . . . .

(To be continued.)

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

The New Yorker, September 18, 2017
In the past several days, I have started the process of examining some specific examples of recent writing by others about the US, about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation, and trying to highlight the ways in which certain aspects of writing play a role in forming the impression that might be formed by readers.  I've started specifically with an article that appeared in The New Yorker: "Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," by Evan Osnos, September 18, 2017 issue; online: "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea".

Here is now I began:

Today, I want to get into the body of the Osnos article itself.

First, a disclosure. I was delighted with this article when I first saw it. Back in September, 2017, when it first came out, I was involved in helping prepare for a conference to be held at Harvard in November about presidential first use of nuclear weapons (see video summary and full text), and I immediately saw a connection. Osnos quotes Ri Yong Pil, "a Foreign Ministry official in his mid-fifties, who is the vice-president of the Institute for American Studies":

After several more toasts, Ri loosened his tie and shed his jacket. He had some questions. "In your system, what is the power of the President to launch a war?" he asked. "Does the Congress have the power to decide?" ("Letter from Pyongyang," paragraph 25)

No question about it, I was gleeful to see the very question upon which the conference was to focus being raised by people in North Korea, and reported in this prominent article!

Going back now and studying the article more closely, I realized that my particular point of view and special concerns meant that my first reading didn't necessarily have much in common with the many other people who read it. For sure, paragraph 25 was probably not the most memorable paragraph for the average reader. I even wonder whether the average reader paid very much attention to paragraph 25 at all . . . .

This time, as I read through the article, I tried to notice how the words struck me, and tried to think and feel like an average US reader. We've all heard a lot about how "bad" North Korea is -- all of us carry that with us -- so I applied a simple test: I went through the article word by word and rated each paragraph (or fragment of a paragraph) as follows.

* "down" --  if it tended to reinforce the impression that North Korea is "bad";

* "up" --  if it tended to counterbalance or question the idea that North Korea is "bad";

* "level" --  if I couldn't feel it impacting the notion that North Korea is "bad" one way or the other.

I know, I know - completely subjective and arbitrary.  But that's what all of us have to work with when we read -- received ideas, notions, and impressions, and feelings about how the words strike us. (Yes, I'll admit it: some of us . . . some of the time . . . may also read with a degree of steely logic and layered analysis . . . . Anyway, back to the real world . . . . )

Here are some examples of "up," "down," and "level" in "Letter from Pyongyang"

The article begins with a section head:


Now, I personally know the words "madman theory" to be associated with US nuclear doctrine. So my initial impression was, "Ah, good, Osnos is going to place the blame where it belongs, with the US!" This would seem to rate an "up" rating, right? It tends to counterbalance or question the idea that North Korea is "bad."

But I made a guess about the average reader. I guessed that the average reader wouldn't immediately think of US nuclear doctrine, but would think "madman" refers to the North Koreans, specifically the North Korean leader.

I also thought: "Uh-oh. Right off the bat, that section title sets a tone for what follows, and tends to swamp the mood of the piece, even though it's just a few words."  (Many paragraphs later, Osnos indeed associates the "madman theory" with US nuclear doctrine -- but by then the damage has been done, in my opinion.)

(Yes, some words get more weight than others. Similar to the way that a big colorful picture can outweigh a thousand words.)

On the other hand, I noticed that every time Osnos used a non-threatening descriptor for a North Korean person, it tended to feel like he was lifting some of the stigma on North Korea overall. I jotted down words like . . .


Certain lifestyle words also seemed positive . . .

stylish wife

All of these tended to contribute an "up" feeling, in my opinion.

There was a lot in the article that I considered "level." There were multiple instances in which I thought, "If a reader is well-informed and paying close attention, they will see that this paragraph is an indictment of the US., and puts North Korea in a more positive light than usual. But what feeling will the average reader get from this paragraph? I fear that at best it will be like water off their back."

For example, here's a paragraph in which Osnos reports on his escorts' sincere questions about what is likely to happen:

For Pak and other analysts in North Korea, the more important question about the United States extends beyond Trump. "Is the American public ready for war?" he asked. "Does the Congress want a war? Does the American military want a war? Because, if they want a war, then we must prepare for that." ("Letter from Pyongyang," paragraph 16)

Personally, I tended to view this as another extremely significant paragraph. "That's the crux of the Constitutional problem we're up against -- and they get it!" Score an "up," right?

However, I tried to be honest with myself, and I thought I had to admit that the average US reader would find this anecdote complicated and not terribly revealing (unless possibly reinforcing an impression that North Korea is war-obsessed) . . . . in other words, at best, "level."

The upshot was that when I made a tally, I found the "downs" far outnumbered the "ups" and the "levels":

"up" -- 35
"down" -- 101
"level" -- 38

Again, I know - it's not terribly precise. But I think it points to a direction that's worth looking at more.

Next up: more specific examples.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?

Many people in the US are looking at North Korea, thinking, "We don't really know enough . . . I want more information."

That's important.

. . . but/and . . .

I'm beginning to realize it's even more important that we ask, "Who am I? How is that I get to do the observing? Do I imagine North Korea is obliged to prove something to me?"

These questions go to the head of what I have described as A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea.


I attended a screening of a film at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) two days ago: The Thoughts That Once We Had by Thom Andersen.

Thoughts is a film about film. I'm guessing most people who see it think of it as being about the art of film (" . . . directors from Griffith to Godard"). But it's really about philosophy and phenomenology. Which means it's also about politics.

There's a substantial section of the film that is about war: the siege of Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Vietnam -- and North Korea.

I was so startled by the appearance of this extremely topical North Korea section that I barely had time to grab my pen and scribble down the narration as best I could: " . . . North Korea 1950-1953 . . . The US Air Force destroyed every town and city in North Korea . . . 600,000 tons of bombs . . . 2 million civilians . . . no repentance . . . not even acknowledgement . . . . "

I thought: "Serendipitous. Important context for what's happening right now. What if we routinely got reminders of this information? What if it just popped up at random times, as it seemed to do for me in this film?"

This snippet of film gives important context for our standing as observers of North Korea.

Do we need to know where we stand?

Pictures and Words

I have set out to look at a recent article about North Korea ("Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017; online: "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea") and try to understand how it impacts understanding about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation.

One of the first things that occurred to me is that the impact of a few images is likely to swamp the impact of thousands of words. There are several photographs by Max Pinckers accompanying "Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," and I think it's worth considering them even before the article's text.

(Perhaps I'm just starting here for convenience. And yet . . . . Consider the way generations of people have read The New Yorker: first flipping through the entire issue looking at the cartoons (and, now, other images), and then putting the magazine out on the coffee table (yes, or . . . ), and only later (possibly) reading an article or two.)

Among Pinckers' photographs, I found the one below particularly full of information:

North Korean schoolchildren photographed by Max Pinckers for The New Yorker

The image was displayed as a 2-page spread in the print edition. I wondered: what happens when someone looks at this image? How might it impact their understanding about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation?

The overall effect of the image seemed to me to be scary.

I tried to break it down. Some of the things I noticed in myself as I looked at the photograph:

Lighting/mood: glare, garish ... weird pink partition glass ... amber color

Composition: regimented ... is it a language lab?

Costume: uniforms ... red kerchiefs covering shoulders

Faces: overall feeling is troubling

I realized that the ephemeral aspects of the image had as much impact on me as the actual content. In other words, the feeling of the picture as much as the substance.

I went back and looked at each of the faces in turn: what do I see there? Looking left to right, front to back, at the six children's faces, I sensed: leery/looking askance; sheepish/guilty; imploring; dull/affectless; content/unconcerned; trying to be alert.

People would be justified in thinking they can tell something from the expressions on these children's faces: faces communicate -- across cultures, pretty consistently. And yet: do these six expressions really signify something? Beyond, that is, what these six individuals were feeling on that particular day, in that particular situation? (How different is this than any other group of schoolkids of this age?)

The caption in the print edition reads, "Students at the Pyongyang Orphans' Secondary School, which is housed in a new brick-and-steel complex. In a class of ten-and-eleven-year-olds, one boy asked, 'Why is America trying to provoke a war with us?'" [More on that question in a separate blog post.])

You can read the photographer's own take on this image here: "A Photographer’s Search for Cracks in North Korea’s Propaganda Machine."

When I got done with these observations, I wondered: does a photograph such as this get us closer to the truth?

Of course, this is just one picture.

Still, considering the stakes -- not to mention the history -- what obligation do we have to give everyone concerned the best possible shot at approaching the truth?

The Power to Look

We aren't going to stop looking at North Korea, nor should we. But will we slow down, even for a moment, and do our looking with a level of intentionality and self-awareness appropriate to the subject?

I have recently been watching a series of programs filmed by Louis Malle, Phantom India. From the very outset, Malle says that he and his team realized they were in an inequitable position vis-a-vis the people they were filming: they came to India, looked at people, took their images, and went do what they wished with them. It was as if, he says, they were thieves.

We are in a moment when many images and many words will be taken from North Korea and consumed by people in the US. Much of this will happen in the context of inequities from the past that will not be immediately reversed (if, indeed, they ever are), and we need to take in more, not less, information.  However, at a minimum, let us to commit to a process wherein we slow down and think as we are doing it.


Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

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Monday, March 19, 2018

A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea

cover, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars,
January - June 2000
I recently began doing something I wish I'd done forty years ago when I was a college student: reading and thinking about the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (now Critical Asian Studies) - the publication of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars.

You can read this publication free online:

Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (1968-2000)
Critical Asian Studies (2001 onward)

I plan to talk in a more general way about this important publication in a future post. Here I will begin with a relevant example of its important work.

In a 1994 issue of the Bulletin, there is a group of articles about North Korea and nuclear weapons: "Notes from the Field: The Korean Nuclear Crisis." The articles are:

* Robert Perkinson - "Introduction"

* Bruce Cummings - "Old and New Korean Wars"

* Minn Chung - "'Seoul Will Become a Sea of Fire . . .'"

* Reunification Committee of National Council of Churches in Korea - "Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula"

* Catherine B. Wrenn - "The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Retrospect: The Case of North Korea"

* Tom Clements - "Nuclear-Free Korean Peninsula: Visit of "MV Greenpeace" Spotlights South Korean Nukes"

* Minn Chung - "Chronology of Crisis: Important Developments for Peace, Reconciliation, and Denuclearization in Korea"

(You can read all these articles in pdf form In the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars Volume 26 (No. 1 and 2).)

Robert Perkinson's introductory article calls our attention to the need to read critically -- in general, and as we comment on places and cultures that are not our own, and especially in charged contexts like the relationship between the United States and North Korea.

I jotted down some words from Robert Perkinson's article:

Western media spin . . .

monolithic ideological line  . . .

portraying . . .

condemning . . .

demonizing . . .

target the North Korean people as well . . .

overt racism . . .

mocking . . .

demeaning anecdotes . . .

"hysteria" . . .

epithets . . .

jingoistic . .

anti-Asian racial stereotypes . . .

denigrating . . . 

All of these are examples of behaviors that we who write about countries and cultures not our own must be on guard against. At a minimum, our unending effort to produce "colorful writing" -- stuff that people actually feel compelled to read -- is filled with the risk of leading readers by the nose instead of giving them the material to think for themselves. At a deeper level, the power we wield as observers and interpreters and writers generally needs much, much, much more acknowledgement, not to mention careful, measured, respectful, peaceful application.

I decided it would be valuable to spend some time examining how my own writing might be improved by paying attention to these behaviors.

I also decided to examine some specific examples of recent writing (by others) about the US, about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation, and try to highlight the ways in which these (and other) behaviors play a role in forming the impression that might be formed by readers.

The good news is that much is being written and shared today about North Korea.

The bad news is that we -- readers, writers, all of us -- have a lot of unexamined biases.

Let the critical reading begin . . . . 

Follow-up posts:

North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Trump and Kim and Nuclear Brinksmanship: Too Close for Comfort

"For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Bay Area
residents are being forced to confront the unthinkable:
the possibility of a nuclear attack on our own soil."
(The Mercury News, August 10, 2017)
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A number of things will need to be said to clarify the context of the Trump-Kim Summit.

I think the most important is: US people have woken up to the fact that "business as usual" (i.e. US nuclear deterrence doctrine) means that they are targets . . . and they've also woken up to the fact that a nuclear strike is not something anyone "survives."

Donald Trump cannot come back from Korea and say, "Too bad, we couldn't agree, we're going to pursue other alternatives."

There are no "other alternatives" to ending the risk of nuclear weapons use.

I knew something had changed when more and more members of Congress agreed to co-sponsor Ted Lieu's HR.669 "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017" - including 19 from California alone!

I knew something had changed when I saw the picture above on the front page of our Bay Area paper last summer.

I knew something had changed when Hawaii had a missile alert and suddenly everyone in the US knows someone who has been scared to death by nuclear weapons.

I knew something had changed when thousands of people started to watch this video from the International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC):

"From the 1st second, to 70 years on: here’s what could happen
to you and your city if a nuclear bomb is dropped. #nuclearban"
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For years, experts in the medical field, such as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), have been urging us to face the facts: a nuclear strike is not something you "survive."

For instance, here's a video from the 1980s ("The Last Epidemic"), with specifics about the impossibility of providing medical care to all of the people harmed if San Francisco were struck by a nuclear weapon:

I guess now people in the US have begun to connect that reality to their own lives.

The degree to which things have changed struck me this morning when I happened to be reading an old Joan Didion essay about Joan Baez.

When she was at Palo Alto High School and refused to leave the building during a bomb drill, she was not motivated by theory; she did it because "it was the practical thing to do, I mean it seemed to me this drill was impractical, all these people thinking they could get into some kind of little shelter and be saved with canned water." ("Where the Kissing Never Stops," (1967), in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Picador edition, p. 83))

People have become a lot more practical in the past year. No one is talking about shelters. People are talking about getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Related posts

What Would a Nuclear Weapon Do to Chicago? (Go ahead, guess . . . )

Obscene Geometry: The Hard Facts about Death and Injury from Nuclear Weapons

US Mayors "Get It": The Nuclear Threat Must Be Stopped

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Yes, Trump to North Korea ... AND ... #restrictnukes

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it that we keep working
to restrict the ability of #DonaldTrump to use #nuclearweapons?
(Please share this message on Twitter.)

Yes, Donald Trump says he will go to meet with North Korea Leader Kim Jung-un by May.

. . . AND . . .

It still remains URGENT that formal steps succeed in restricting the ability of the US president to carry out a first strike with nuclear weapons.

As of today, there are 80 House members and 14 senators supporting restrictions on the ability of the US president to unilaterally call a nuclear first strike:

Co-sponsors of  HR.669 "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017" (plus bill sponsor Rep. Ted Lieu)

Co-sponsors of S.200 "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017" (plus bill sponsor Sen. Ed Markey)

Are your representative and senators supporting this bill?

This is not the end of the struggle to #restrictnukes. It's just the beginning . . . .


Full transcript of conference -- "Virtual Roundtable on Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons" -- from Public Books.

Nuclear Weapons: People Power Over Trump Power

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

By Any Means Necessary: Using a Graphic Novel to Get More People Talking About Drones

I'm digging into Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil.

(Shoutout to Eastwind Books of Berkeley for featuring the book and inviting the authors to a public event in February.)

I've decided to read a chapter a day and share some some comments.

Get a copy and read along with me!

Chapter One

Aha! Putting two and two together. The author Pratap Chatterjee is (at the time the book begins) with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism -- the prime source of information on what's really happening with drone warfare -- especially civilian victims of drone attacks.

Main takeaway for me from Chapter One: the number of outlets of all different types that need to work together to get the word out to the general population about the carefully crafted hidden nature of modern warfare!

(Very "meta"! Verax itself is a demonstration of that fact!)

Bonus reading: search for content on mainstream media response to the problem of drones

Chapter Two

Remember when everyone was up in arms about the NSA?

Main takeaway for me from Chapter Two: I've been paying attention to how out of hand surveillance and information technology are getting ... in theory ... but I (and all of us) need to start to deal with it seriously as part of our daily routine. Starting right now ....

Bonus reading: another tale of scientists who did work for the government and then expected the government to be grateful for their warnings: Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is)

Chapter Three

True, true, true . . .

Main takeaway for me from Chapter Three: I flashed back to CODEPINK's 2012 "Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control" in Washington, DC. That's where I saw Shazad Akbar speak, and it was after that that I came home determined to Make Drone Killing 100% VISIBLE!

Bonus reading: There was a period in 2014 when it seemed as if members of Congress might succeed in getting the US government to come clean with the facts on drone killing.

Chapter Four

It's all about software? That makes it hard for most ordinary citizens to get interested in. (And that's exactly the way the government likes it . . . . )

Main takeaway for me from Chapter Four: I know a little bit about tech . . . AND . . . every day I crawl a little further away from it, because it is so "boring." We need to do anything we can to get people to care about how technology is being used.

Bonus reading: Give science fiction a chance . . . These classics are painfully relevant today ("science fact"): 1984 . . . I, Robot . . . Ender's Game . . . Hunger Games . . . .

Chapter Five

Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Go directly to watch CITIZENFOUR.

Chapter Six

Well this was supposed to be a paced read of a chapter a day but it's now getting into the breaking of the Snowden revelations (per CITIZENFOUR) and pretty un-put-downable . . . .

(Oh, and a line spoken by Snowden in CITIZENFOUR that made me feel sheepish about my book recommendations two chapters back: "It's not science fiction. It's happening right now . . . . ")

Chapter Seven

Reading this chapter (and watching CITIZENFOUR) brought back memories of when the Snowden story first broke. At that time, it felt to me as if he was living what Jesus experienced -- the risk, the fear . . . . (I called him "The 365-Day Man.") We're coming up on Holy Week this year and I think it is worth reflecting on what it means in today's world to go up against Empire.

By the way, I thought Khalil's illustrations in this chapter were a great example of how comics can be used to convey the spatial and temporal relationships between a complicated combination of events.

About to break the Snowden story . . . in Verax . . . .

Chapter Eight

As someone who has spent a lot of time in hotel rooms in Hong Kong, the main feeling I had reading this chapter (and watching CITIZENFOUR) was, "The world is so small. You think you're a world away from them catching up with you, but when they decide to, they can pounce on you in an instant . . . . "

I also thought: "Hong Kong isn't home but at least I can imagine hiding out in Hong Kong. What I can't image is . . . where do you go from there?"

Chapter Nine

How well I remember Edward Snowden's arrival in Russia:

Edward Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena

Do you remember the story about Snowden's lawyer and the Dostoevsky novel? I wrote "Edward J. Snowden's lawyer didn't give Snowden a copy of Crime and Punishment to help him better understand himself. He gave it to him so he could try to understand where he came from." (See Reflecting on America's Split Personality (Moscow Airport Summer Reads). )

That was in 2013. In a way, it was the gift that kept on giving. Here I am on Crime and Punishment again, in 2016: Crime Without Remorse: A USA Specialty.

To be continued . . . .

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