Separating Science and Religion

I read this article for school:
Lightman’s The Accidental Universe

When asked to write an essay about it, this is what came out. I don’t normally post essays like this, but I’ve been meaning to write a post much like this for a while anyways, so it’s convenient.

Lightman descends into the realm of religion, masking his language with a thin film of scientific consideration, but none of its hard, decisive, rational edge. Lightman never even touches the basic principles of science, but uses philosophical arguments to parade a seemingly-scientific theory around.

Falsifiability is a method for evaluating scientific theories popularized by Karl Popper. It contends that a theory cannot be proved by showing evidence in favor of it. A theory may be shown to be strong if it can make empirically confirmable and correct hypotheses, but a theory can never be proved – only disproved. So to be a scientifically valid, a theory must have a way to be disproven (thus by not being disproven, it continues as the dominant theory). This is one of the problems with the multiverse theory, the theory of intelligent design, and even string theory: it is most likely impossible to disprove them. If an intelligent creator revealed itself, such a turn of events would not inherently make the multiverse theory wrong, per se (a multiverse theory can coexist with intelligent design). It would only make it irrelevant. Of course, this reveals an even bigger fundamental problem with those theories: they don’t explain the mechanics behind physical phenomenon in the traditional sense. Instead, they provide a framework of thought into which actual scientific theories can be slotted. But the multiverse theory is only one framework among many, and there is no way to show that one framework is strictly better than another.

Is it not just as reasonable, just as falsifiable (or not, as the case may be), to conclude that the universe as we know it is the only one, albeit a very lucky one? One could posit that it is indeed accidental. How does this postulate contend with the others on the battlefield of scientific thought? In some regards it may triumph over its opponents, because it relies on any contrary observation to disprove it, while both the multiverse theory and intelligent design can be valid even in the face of one or the other being true. So really, the Random Chance theory is more falsifiable, and thus more scientific.

But of course the Random Chance theory is completely unpleasing to the philosophical human mind. A much more palatable theory is the multiverse theory, which, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, slips in among the legitimate scientific advancements and completes a scientist’s world view satisfactorily. But is a scientist’s world view scientific? No. Science is a tool for developing a physically accurate view of the world, and we employ it because the human mind is not built to obey scientific rules. Our capacity for cognitive dissonance is astounding. Thus a scientist can in good conscience accept a non-scientific belief to assuage his existential conflicts by slathering the belief in the manner of other physics theories.
Another such unfalsifiable belief system is string theory. String theory is a self-consistent way of interpreting physical data using notions that fall out of mathematical equations but have no basis in experimental science. Indeed, string theory exists only as a way for some physicists and mathematicians to unify all of reality under some Platonic mode. But it is only that; a way to think about the universe, to help explain the Great Unexplainable, as Sax Russell calls it. String theory cannot produce hypotheses that can be tested to confirm the mode of thought. It can explain the observed, but only as well as previous existing theories. While it is nice that it can bring physical laws under a single wing, niceness is not a necessary quality of scientific theory. It is a subjective human measurement applied in the realm of philosophy.

Philosophy is not useless. It is a tool, like science, for examining the world. However, instead of measuring and describing physical phenomenon objectively, it takes human concepts or unimaginable realities (such as that beyond the realm of science) and compresses them down and creates a set of rules for the human mind to follow. It generates modes of thought that allow us to function and think about that which might otherwise turn us into quivering lumps of existential dread.

But assembling a philosophical system of thought only to pass it off as a product of science is dangerous. Besides preying on those incapable of evaluating the modes of thought on their own, it tricks the creator as well. Thus we can see the inevitable and unending conflict between the “rational” scientist and the “faithful” man of religion. Neither of them realizes that they are jousting with philosophical ideas, and as a result keeps hitting his opponent not at the weak spots, but at the bastions of his belief. The scientist calls his mode of thought “scientific truth” (a misleading term in and of itself), and the religious man calls his mode of thought “religion”.

Unfortunately for the world, nobody (certainly not the loud ones) seems to realize that science and religion are not diametrically opposed. Religion is not taken entirely on faith; while it does depend on some unfalsifiable core, it builds up a philosophical belief system around that which, beyond the basic axioms, is self-consistent and pretty damn useful. The scientist, used to tackling scientific theories, thinks that by attacking the core tenets of religion, he can bring down the entire system. But the core is unfalsifiable, so the methods of science are useless. Science and religion shouldn’t even overlap in their realms of explanation. In truth, they don’t. But unfalsifiable philosophy is given the title of science, and physical explanations are given the title of religion, so two incompatible systems are faced against each other. It would be better for everyone if both sides retreated to their realm of the human experience, but since they won’t, we get tripe like Lightman’s essay.


A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

Tekkit Sucks

There is a set of Minecraft mod packs that includes Tekkit and Technic. You may have seen these showcased in a number of venues, including a popular Yogscast series. Let me just get this straight. Tekkit is stupid. It was obviously designed by someone who looked at Minecraft and said, “I’m going to make this the best game ever.” Unfortunately, they merely succeeded in creating a hodge-podge of mods which take away from the core of Minecraft.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.

But what is the core of Minecraft, really? Ultimately, Minecraft is what you make it. I say that unironically, even though I’m about to tell you how it should be. Minecraft has always been a great source of surprise. Legions of Youtube videos outline hundreds of crazy contraptions and structures that use the basic mechanics of the Minecraft universe to form impressive and surprising constructions.

Nearly every feature in Minecraft has a way of being exploited to perform tasks that the creators never even fathomed. Beyond the basic mechanics such as crafting and smelting, the use of a feature is mostly left up to the user. Fluids, redstone, minecarts, TNT, signs- must I go on? But really that was the appeal to begin with. You can create completely new contraptions within a very simple set of game rules.

This is why I think many of the features Notch added in later updates- wolves, potions, dragons, the End- run contrary to the spirit of the game. It’s OK to add elements to expand the exploratory, adventuring parts of the game. But when that threatens to push the creative, inventive part of the game into the shadows, I think the developers need to re-evaluate their priorities. Minecraft was never prized for its combat, or adventure. It became popular because the game allowed players to invent their own set of rules and develop the world how they liked. When the developer takes the reigns and decides the end-goal FOR the player, something has gone awry.

For the same reasons, I absolutely despise Tekkit. I can see the good intentions behind it, but it completely fails at its mission. A group of people, perhaps, with no sense for the game, were intrigued by how much could be done in Minecraft. But they thirsted for more. So they set out and gathered mods which let them do what they wanted. Pipes let them transport items, tanks let them store fluid, pumps let them suck it up, engines and solar panels gave them electricity, quarries let them automate mining, and energy condensers let them get any material they needed. To make it more “balanced”, they added a larger set of materials needed to build these contraptions, including rubber, and tons of new ores. Furthermore, a control system was needed, so they put a programmable computer in. A computer that ran Lisp scripts. And you loaded the scripts from outside Minecraft. They needed more power, so they added uranium and a nuclear reactor.

Suddenly, it wasn’t Minecraft anymore. It was a horrifying maze of features that was no longer surprising. Sure, people could build fascinating things that were intricate and took enormous amounts of time. But it wasn’t really surprising anymore. A nerd with a computer and a huge set of physical actuators can obviously accomplish a lot, whether the computer is in a videogame or not. The appeal of Minecraft was that nobody thought building a ALU was really possible when it started out. Half the crazy contraptions were for accumulating resources: automated farms ranging from chickens to monsters to reeds to cobblestone to snow. With the energy condenser, nobody needed ice pipelines or chicken friers. Sure, you could still build them. But there was no point. Oh, you built an automated oil refinery? All it takes is pipes, pumps, and refineries. The blocks are all there. That’s the only thing a refinery is used for.

Blocks only have one purpose, even if that is a broad purpose. Engines power pipes and quarries and pumps. Fuel goes into combustion engines. Refineries make fuel. Pumps suck up liquid. Quarries dig. Seriously, you make a single block, which then automatically digs. You can also add a pump to it if you want it to suck up water and lava. But there is no design for you to modify. You can’t make it more efficient, or irregular, or spray water on lava. You can’t build a giant engine room which is twice as efficient due to interlocking designs. You can’t build a computer, since there is already one built. Want to spray some construction foam over everything to make it blast-resistant? Boom, done. Need a nuclear reactor? There’s a block for that. Want to make it bigger? Sorry, you can add on extra chambers, but only up to six. It outputs a high-voltage. You need to make a very specific set of blocks, each of which steps the voltage down one level.

Again, this violates the very essence of Minecraft. That’s why I developed a plan for a comprehensive mod that allows most of the same functionality of Tekkit, but goes much, much further. I will cover this mod in a future post, or probably multiple posts.

Failure of Fantasy

Here’s the question: what is fantasy?

1. imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.
2. the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.

That definition sounds pretty good.

“Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.”

That one doesn’t. Fantasy is not about “magic” or “the supernatural” in and of themselves, although they certainly must be central to the story. Fantasy is about taking participants in the story to a universe that contradicts the participants inherent expectations about the way things work. The story told hinges on this new and unpredictable world. Participants get to explore an unfamiliar world as they follow the characters on their journey.

Using this definition, a lot of self-proclaimed “fantasy” isn’t really fantasy at all. Whenever a “fantasy” story casts its story in a world of dwarves, elves, harpies, vampires, werewolves, goblins, orcs, wizards, etc. it is doing so because most fantasy readers will be familiar with such a setting and it allows the storyteller to cut straight to the storytelling. Yet, inherently, this is not fantasy.

These stories are still speculative fiction, but they are no longer true fantasy. I would call them speculative fiction with fantasy elements, but I certainly wouldn’t label them as real fantasy. Of course, the term fantasy can be used to refer to these works of speculative fiction, but it is an insult to the real works of fantasy that take the time to explore a completely new and unpredictable world (e.g. Discworld).

Some of these faux-fantasy universes include roleplaying games, both on the table and in games like Minecraft, and amateur “fantasy” stories. Obviously, world creation is hard and it is time consuming to think up convincing worlds that have interesting aspects.

Ultimately, this was the downfall of my Minecraft roleplaying server. The setting was not engaging, and players had difficulty getting immersed in the lore. But why is a “fantasy” setting necessary in the first place? People seem to associate roleplay with fantasy, probably because of the prevalence of roleplaying fantasy games. In addition, both RP and fantasy aim to satisfy the same itch: they are methods for an escape from reality.

But at the end of the day, you can have a fantasy Minecraft server without roleplaying, and you sure as hell don’t need a fantasy setting to have a roleplaying server. When I founded my Minecraft server, I wanted to see how much of a functional economy would emerge if I only set in place the loosest guidelines and money functionalities. Predictably, people found little need for money, since resources are, necessarily, abundant within (almost) any Minecraft world.

I am still interested in seeing how a Minecraftian universe can be reduced to a level where economic transactions become more feasible than collecting the resources yourself. On some level, this requires restraint from the players. However, people will not restrain themselves if it restricts their fun. So the parameters for my new server are slowly taking shape.

For one, people need an incentive to play, beyond just entertainment. There are a lot of competing venues of entertainment overall, and Minecraft is a particularly niche form of entertainment. But even within the realm of Minecraft, the pool of available servers is huge. And without a critical mass of players, a server cannot succeed. So, logically, the server needs to market itself in a way that pulls enough people in while still maintaining all the other parameters.

The server will be limited edition; it will only run for 50 days (7 weeks). This means that the story has a beginning and an end, and players are driven to accomplish a tangible goal within a time frame provided by an external force.

The setting of the server will be colonial. A group of colonists must set up a lucrative colony on a newly discovered land. The trading company that is sponsoring the colony will only fund it for ten years, during which it must start making money and pay back the initial investment. This means that players must collaborate both to survive and to generate revenue.

When the server first begins, players start on the ship that brought them to the uncharted land. It has a supply of food and tools. However, players will become hungry at a much faster rate than in the regular game. Any action, from crafting to using a tool to placing a block, will significantly reduce a player’s food bar. This will result in either a high death rate (because players will not be able to sustain their health and die from trivial falls, etc.) or a high food consumption rate.

Since the colony needs a much greater amount of food, a significant amount of energy needs to go into gathering supplies, which means that until farming and breeding infrastructure is established, not much effort will be put towards gathering valuables. Food scarcity will be boosted on the server, by making crops grow slower and increasing the cooldown time for animal breeding. Food is important because characters get only one life, raising the stakes considerably. Also, once a player dies he must wait until the next ship arrives from the motherland. These arrive once every six months ingame, which translates to roughly every 2.5 days real time. However, shipment arrivals are important for other reasons as well.

The colony can purchase things from its sponsor company. Of course, the prices are higher than reasonable. Some of the things the colony can trade away include gold, redstone, diamonds, magical items, sugar, and melon. In exchange for such raw materials, the colony is allotted some number of “trading points” with which it can buy guns (maybe), food, and other normal things like pistons, dispensers, lumber, stone, iron, saddles, etc. The exact trade ratios will be determined at a later time. They may also be adjusted as the game progresses.

Right now I think the difficulty will be set to peaceful, both because monsters would detract from the experience IMO, and because it means that the use of gunpowder, bonemeal, string, and slimeballs can be restricted.

To add back in some of the conflict lost from monsters, I hope to have two factions in the world. An existing faction, the natives, will already have infrastructure when the settlers arrive. The natives have farms, granaries, domesticated pets, mines, and supplies of string and bones. However, the natives don’t have guns (if they are put in) and can’t use any sort of redstone. To balance this, natives will be able to use magic freely, while settlers cannot. This means both sides have items from the regular game that the other side cannot access. Having such a dichotomy opens the door to different kinds of diplomatic relationships, depending on what the players decide to do ingame. I have no idea whether raids or trades will be more popular.

Unfortunately, I am also wary about creating two factions in the first place. Disparate groups on a server cause two problems. They isolate players from one another, essentially requiring double the players for two-faction play to feel the same as single-faction play. Groups also cause more frequent arguments, since communication is severely throttled.

I hope that with the right amount of advertising, I can attract around 6 people to start. They will all be colonists; only after the number rises to 12 can a native town be “discovered”. I am hesitant to go ahead with guns, because that would require a modded client to play, which significantly reduces the pool of available players. The server should be as accessible as possible. That being said, there is a lot of riffraff that, frankly, I didn’t keep out on the last server. Players NEED to be able to write full, coherent sentences both quickly and consistently. Even one person who cannot communicate well can ruin the experience for everyone.

If I ever get around to fixing connectivity issues and finishing the website, I am definitely going to go ahead with this server.

Minecraft Server: RPCreate

A while back I wrote a post about Minecraft servers. Since then I’ve put more thought into it and I’m thinking about starting a new server. This will be a much more informed endeavor, and hopefully it will turn out for the best. Here are some highlights:

The main idea is that the server puts all the players on an even playing field by allowing all users to use creative mode and basic commands. This will eliminate hoarding and allow players to focus on interacting, not making money or getting resources. It also removes any worry about stealing. However, because players have the capability to get any resources they need, I am hoping they will be more willing to fill a so for economic role (farming, lumberjacking, mining, building, etc) and resort to using legit materials as much as possible.

You need to be able to write!
Number one requirement to join will be the ability to write. This indicates that you are at least somewhat intelligent and able to express your ideas. In addition, it means you can read what others write and grasp new concepts.

You need to relax!
With a guaranteed level of intelligence hopefully comes a certain ability to compromise and handle a situation gracefully if you don’t get what you want or disagree with someone. We also need people who can play fairly and understand the importance of keeping a balanced economy by not hoarding legitimate materials or abusing creative mode.

You need to play fairly, and build sensibly.
As stated before, each member should be responsible. It is their server, and thus they need to actively work to keep it fun. This is the main idea I want to permeate through the server community: the server is merely a utility through which the players, as a community, get to act out fantasies and epic stories. There are no “admins” lording over the players, telling them how to play; it is the players that get to enjoy the world they have made, and the players who have to maintain the server.

This is not to say that I won’t make suggestions about economy and distinguish between responsible building and overbuilding; I’ll be doing it as a concerned player, not moderator. I won’t have more powers than anyone else on the server, and I won’t get the final call on decisions.

One thing I won’t tolerate, however, is plugins and mods. Besides the basic Bukkit server framework, no mods or plugins will be installed, by request or otherwise, that change or enhance game mechanics. This means no currency, no WorldEdit, no seasons or races or NPCs, nothing.

The community will have a say in everything else, though. The players will make the stories, vote on policies, and build the world. The server will be quite open to change. If the players want to institute a new policy, they can. Since there are no admins or moderators, they will be the ones carrying it out. Since there is no higher authority to appeal to, players will be forced to talk out disagreements among themselves.

Obviously its impossible to completely eliminate a leader who “runs” the server. Someone needs to host it, and someone needs to maintain the bulletin boards and websites. I suppose I would do that, but nearly anything could be changed if it was popular opinion backed by a vote. What I want is a player-made server and community, not a pre-made admin’s framework which has been filled in by the players. That breeds a dependency that ultimately leads to arguments and unrest, and it gives the players something to blame for all the bad things: namely, the admin.

I mentioned in passing a website, which would actually be a key element of the server. In my opinion, a bulletin board isn’t enough to truly let a server grow into a community. It needs independent features for planning events, posting featured videos, screenshots, and stories, and a hub for bulletin board, wiki, and all the other possibly third-party utilities. A website lets the person hosting the server to post updates, which can be emailed to people in case they didn’t catch it on the bulletin board.

If I built my own bulletin board and wiki utilities (which I am interested in doing anyways), the website could have a single account for commenting on news, RSVPing to events, editing the wiki, and posting on the forum. I HAVE been wanting to get back into web programming… maybe I’ll start that this weekend.

Mediocre Super-heroes

It was just another ordinary day: I was letting Wikipedia impress human knowledge upon me. Suddenly, as happens often, a mildly interesting idea sparked within my mind.

To begin, let me explain some of the things I was looking at. Magnetoreception, for example, is an incredible phenomenon that seems drawn straight from science fiction. Yet, in nature it is fairly common. Of course, we only have inklings about how the mechanisms behind it might operate. To sum it up, many animals have the ability to detect magnetic fields and use them to navigate. This can be seen in migratory animals, for example. In addition, some aquatic creatures have the ability to detect the faint electrical impulses given off by other animals nearby; it aids them in hunting.

Moving into the realm of human-enabled abilities, I was looking at radio-frequency hearing, which is actually a quite common occurrence. As the name suggests, people have been known to hear sounds, ranging from buzzing to knocking (similar to the sounds of tinnitus) and seeming to originate from above and behind the head, when electromagnetic waves in the frequency of microwaves (300 MHz to 300 GHz) are within their vicinity. As it turns out, this is caused not by vibrations in the eardrum but by slight expansion of brain tissue within the skull creating pressure waves which stimulate the inner ear. Pretty crazy, right?

Then I remembered a documentary video I had seen about a guy who exhibited immunity to electricity. I looked it up, and it turns out that there are a couple of people like that. It comes from having naturally thick and dry skin, which increases resistance and lowers the amperes to a non-lethal level. The areas of the body which this applies to ranges from just hands to full-body and mouth.

On the level of increasingly bogus, take a look at this video, in which a Chinese man living in Java claims to be able to control Chi (funky electricity). I don’t believe it myself, but the video was well done and it looked credible enough.

Anyways, this got me to thinking about the show Heroes. Franchises which share that premise, such as x-men, try to explain the super-powers scientifically, but then introduce ridiculous powers (like vortex generation). I think that a movie/show in which both the super-heroes and the super-villains are both relatively mediocre would be excellent. For instance, one person might have the ability to regrow limbs, eyes, and organs not unlike a Caudata; and like a salamander, it would take them 2-3 years to regrow something like an arm. They would be able to afford being stabbed or shot or losing a finger, but they wouldn’t immediately be back in the fight. People could have enhanced magnetoception, RF hearing, electrical resistance, and electrical generation.

On the same thread, I highly dislike explanations that involve either the “10% of the brain” cliche, or the entire “brain wave” concept. Both are unbased in reality and are overused. Powers would be strictly based on phenomena that occur in the natural world. Devices that rely on technological concepts that have been conceived of but not yet well mapped out would be out. As a corollary, Batman-esque powers (i.e. being rich) would be discouraged for super-heroes. Super-villains, of course, almost always need to be rich. More important than riches is genre-sight (or lack of Genre Blindness), and awareness of things like the List of 100 Things to not to do as an Evil Overlord. Their mediocrity would lie in their plans and powers, not intelligence.

That train of thought can be taken a couple of stations farther. The villains may ultimately be more likeable than the heroes. Since the heroes have weak powers, they obviously have personality flaws (like Watchmen) as well (e.g. Superman is almost invincible, so he is almost perfect) and poor planning. Overall, however, both the heroes and the villains are playing a losing game. The villains’ plans aren’t that devastating (except for the occasional climax of a world-threatening plot), and the heroes are disliked by the media due to their imperfections.

Looking farther into the universe, the news of real super-heroes would no doubt spawn a wave of popularity within certain sects. Eccentric individuals or crazed fans would take a low-powered Batman approach and utilize cool pieces of technology for crime fighting, such as d3o or this (the guy made it himself for about $35,000, although prototyping cost him nearly half a million):

That was the essential fabric of my idea, but it could definitely use some ironing.

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