Pulling on the String of Destiny

Last updated on: Mar 8, 2022

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Pull on the string and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to provide evidence and arguments for the claim that we can control the future[1]. I aim to display how planning and preparation can bring an agent’s goals to fruition by merging metaphysics and physics together with human psychology and agency. To do so I will rely on contemporary concepts from physics, physiology, cognitive science, and psychology and will provide topographic descriptions from these fields but refer elsewhere for their detailed explanations. To actualize my conclusion I will use models to create a visual framework by which we can “map” the spacio-temporal events of life onto and with which we can then reveal the mysteries of life and mold the future according to the goals we seek[2].

            My argument takes the following form:

1) All events are truth evaluable (including past and future), that is they exist.[3]

2) We can actualize these events through preparation and execution of preliminary events.[4]

3) “Now” is the only context of spacetime that we can directly affect.

C) In order to directly affect a future event then I must be there “now”.

            I acknowledge that my argument may not agree with how physicists like Carlo Rovelli posit that the cosmos “actually is”, but I argue that it matters not with respect to how we perceive and interact in the world. Just as Rovelli explains that there exists a minimum interval of time below which time is nonexistent, I argue that for humans there is a minimum interval of time beyond which and beneath which move outside our conceptual abilities and therefore are irrelevant to our everyday existence[5].

            I will begin by outlining the concept of spacetime and placing into a model with which we can interact with the future, past, and present. In section two, I’ll use this model, which I call a map, to establish a legend and a framework that will allow us to visualize, measure, and describe the world from different perspectives and levels. In section three we’ll analyze an episode from Homer’s The Odyssey in which the protagonist Odysseus must encounter Sirens on his journey to return home to Ithaca. I’ll use this event to move beyond theory to praxis and display both why and how planning and preparation are vital steps on the path to actualizing the future. Lastly, I will conclude by reiterating the “so what” of my endeavor in this paper.

 

What is Spacetime?

            In the simplest sense spacetime is life and life exists in spacetime[6]. From our limited perspective events exist in both space (bidirectional) and time (unidirectional) and each event in life contains a coordinate that allows us to map it onto one model or another. There are a few current theories in physics that seem to suggest the existence of other dimensions, but I will not explore those here[7]. My focus remains rooted in reality as it exists for us now, not other-worldly possibilities. In order to understand life, then, we must acknowledge that events exist in time and in space as a conjunction[8]. Because events exist in spacetime they are necessarily constituted spatially and temporally. This is what we mean when we say that events exist as coordinates in the spacetime continuum. We will explore ways of representing this spacetime continuum via models in the next section, but first we must cover a few foundational concepts.

 

Space

            Space is three-dimensional in that it consists of a height dimension, a depth dimension, and a width dimension. It is bidirectional meaning that we can move between and amongst spatially separate objects. We can also differentiate spatial objects from one another by recognizing their individual identities, a concept known as the identity of indescernibles.[9] These three dimensions give space its structure and its texture. It also constrains the physical universe we experience to these three dimensions. In a sense we are “boxed” in to it. Finally, space retains the feature of being a body- it exists as a physical, tangible entity which can act and be acted upon[10].

 

Time

            Time, as far as we can tell, moves unidirectionally from past to future, from now to later. Our sense of time provides us the ability to measure changes in life that in a way mirror the identity of indescernibles property that governs spatial objects. That is, time allows us to see differences. Time accounts for intervals of life and provides us a fourth dimension that intersects with the spatial dimensions. Unlike space, time is a concept that subsists[11]. It is a byproduct of life and a way of conceptualizing the cosmos in the same way that language and the concept of nothingness is contingent on human cognitive abilities. It is not a body which can be acted on or be influenced. A “time stamp” coincides with each spatial entity but is not an inherent property of that spatial entity.

            The temporal concepts of past, present, and future are relative to an observer’s point of view or frame of reference. An event exists in the past of an observer’s frame of reference if it occurs before or earlier than an event closer to the observer’s defined reference point now. An event exists in the future in the inverse way, that is, if the event occurs after or later than the observer’s now. Historically, now has caused much consternation in philosophy and in the sciences as it was seen as an indefinable concept. I see no issue with the concept as now inherently involves a relation. It requires another temporal concept to reveal the relationship, determine the juxtaposition, and draw the genealogical line. Just as a subject needs a predicate to qualify an action, now needs a then to actualize directionality.

            In line with Rovelli’s thinking, I consider now to be a metaphysical bubble that surrounds us[12]. Depending on the interval of time we’re considering the size of the bubble will expand or contract. Moreover, it is important to consider our current or future abilities and rates at which we might move through space. For example, if my current concept of now is measured in seconds, then no matter if I am walking, driving, or flying I can only make it so far. Therefore, my now bubble will surround me as if it is a second skin. Compare this with an interval of months and we can cover much more ground. The relationship between spacetime and our now bubble also corresponds to the amount of detail that our conceptual maps allow us to see. The larger the spacetime interval, the less detailed and more organic. This we’ll call the macro perspective. The micro perspective is, on the other hand, more molecular. It can illuminate the quanta of the world, the specifics. Like everything else in life each of these perspectives, or fields of view, are relational. In summary, the macro view is like seeing the forest, the micro like seeing the trees. We need both if we are to have our way with the future.

            Now is where we’ll focus our attention for the remainder of this paper. It will serve as our center of gravity and the decisive aspect of time that allows us to make changes in the cosmos. It is this interval of time that we attribute with existing, and which is intimately intertwined with our own world-line[13].

 

“Mapping” Spacetime

            Having described the variables of time and space and the characteristics and functions of each we will move on to creating a representative model of the spacetime continuum. I’ll refer to this as our map and will describe our model using features typical to a topographic map.

 

Coordinate Structure

            The relationship of time and space naturally allow us to represent spacetime graphically. Let the y-axis serve as time and the x-axis as space. The intersection of the x-axis and y-axis serves as the observer’s current spatial and temporal location. The green circle represents their relative conception of now (Figure 1).

            With an observer established we can add two more concepts to the map, that of the observer’s world-line and the surface of the present (aka simultaneity) (Figure 1a). The world-line always remains parallel to the observer and serves as the “path” that their life will take (their future) or has taken (their past). Imagine that the observer has a compass. Their world-line in effect is represented by the azimuth depicted on their compass. In the case of future events the compass reads a 0-degree azimuth whereas for past events it reads 180-degrees. Past and future are always separated by 180 degrees from the observer’s perspective. The surface of the present depicts the spatial relationship of other objects in relation to the observer and their concept of now. This is represented as all other objects being perpendicular (90 degrees laterally) to the observer on the map thereby creating a line of simultaneity of actions across all objects. Any object or event that lies on the same x-axis plane as the observer is said to occur or exist now. In summary, the world-line of an observer is represented by a 0-degree azimuth and the surface of the present would then be the 90-degree and 270-degree azimuths.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Minkowski Diagram

            Minkowski enhances our model using light rays to fix our model relationally to an interval of spacetime (Figure 1b).[14] The speed of light is a physical constant that serves the purpose of defining and measuring the upper limit to which conventional matter can travel. In relation to us, this is much too fast as covers too much space. This is the problem I spoke of in the introduction. I refer to this as a cosmic measurement whereas humans are concerned with worldly measurements to interact with life.[15] Nevertheless, Minkowski shows us that we can use this standard spacetime measurement to differentiate between the future, past, and other. We might also say that it helps to depict what might occur (future), what did occur (past), and what else can/is/was occurring.

            It is important to note that Minkowski’s model can be inverted and provide the same results from a different perspective (Figure 1c). This will help me to explain later how we can conceptually cast our line into the future and reel our fate in.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

Our Map

            With the basics covered we can lay out the final pieces of our map. Minkowski provided us a cosmic scale map of life, but we need an existential one. One that we can relate to and one on which we can see ourselves in time and in space. To make this happen we must use a different standard of spacetime measurement. For the most part our lives consist of thinking, acting, scheduling, and doing things in life that range from seconds to years. Of course, we sometimes need to use milliseconds determine which runner crossed the finish line first in an Olympic track race, or conceptually understand the history of the Earth using measurements like periods, eons, and ages that might cover hundreds of thousands of years. But these are not common, everyday uses of spacetime measurements. Indeed, then, if we are to scale our map appropriately we must use measurements that accurately correspond to our lives as we perceive it. Figures 1d and 1e depict how our spacetime interval affects our maps with respect to the absolute past, elsewhere, and future.

 

            Notice the differences between Figures 1b, 1d, and 1e. Figure 1b represents a cosmic scale map. Unless the observer is a cosmic being, e.g. the earth or the sun, or I have the ability to travel at least one interval of the speed of light, then this map is useless to me for representing life. Figures 1d and 1e, however, scale the map down to a spacetime interval which has meaning to me. I notice that on the second-scale (Figure 1d) map that my concept of future and past extend far beyond my conceptual framework, in this case the limits of my map. I get the sense that I have almost unlimited options in my future due to the fact that I have more time intervals in which to interact with life. In the same way the cone of my past is widened with a bag full of experiences. On this scale I can interact with singular events (inhaling one breath, watching a five-second GIF, etc.). Notice, also, that the cone of absolute elsewheres is shallow displaying the fact that there aren’t many things I could have done otherwise or that won’t/don’t/aren’t interacting with me then/now. On this map scale, everything happens near-simultaneously.

            The century-scale (Figure 1e) map has similar characterstics as the second-scale map (Figure 1d), but clearly shows that other possibilities creep into the periphery. My future and past are more limited and the actual endcaps of my life are present. The solid cap in my past is by birth and the dashed line at the top represents my death (whenever that may be). On this scale I interact with major events or periods (childhood, graduate school, marriage, etc.). I can visualize the hourglass of my life and analyze it holistically.

            Up until this point the circle representing the observer’s now remained fixed and irrelevant to our diagrams. If we manipulate it’s scope we can see how different concepts of now correspond with different map scales. Moreover, we can show that now is relative and arbitrary unless given a definition or limits. Everyday use of now might bracket the time bubble around us to within a few seconds or minutes. Figure 1f displays what now might encompass spatially and temporally on a second-scale map. This might represent a micro level map in relation to us.

            To reiterate, the now bubble corresponds to the temporal aspect in relation to the observer. Spatially, events might be completely contained in the now or persist beyond its bubble. For example, let’s say that now is defined as plus or minus two seconds (+/- 2 sec.) from the moment you finish reading this sentence. In that time, the distance a plane can move now is much further than I can walk now which is further still than a snail can move. Each of these events has a beginning and an end although my concept of now might not encapsulate its totality. Indeed, since the concept of now (a temporal variable) that I ascribe to in this case is relative to me, there will of course be an asymmetry present in space for other objects. Objects/events that move faster in relation to me will cover more space than objects/events that occur slower. Nevertheless, because I have lashed them to my now (+/- 2 sec.) I can conceptually overlay them onto my spacetime map and provide them a unique spatial coordinate tied to the same temporal coordinate.

            For a better visual representation of this we’ll use Figure 1g. This scale allows us to visualize what an encapsulated event might look like at a macro level (again, in relation to us humans). It is obvious to us that neither the snail nor the plane “map on” at this scale due to their relatively short existence as events. At this macro scale our map is zoomed way out and conceptually this might be hard for us to wrap our heads around. For this reason, lets forget space in a specific sense, that is via measurements, and confine space to macro level objects such as Earth. With this move we eliminate the frivolties of everyday actions and events and draw them out along their lifespan. We lose depth and surface area but gain persepective and range. Here at altitude we can begin to see relationships between things, there are few precise delineations and separations (though even where there are ones evident they may be blurry), correlation and causation take a different form here that at the micro scale.

          

 

 

 

 

 

 

  These macro and micro scales show us different things about the world in which we live depending on which one we endorse, at which time, and within which context. At once, we might feel like the smallest, most insignificant beings in the cosmos and the next as the most omnipotent ones. As we lay the last bricks in our foundation I will end with a caution that I have reiterated before- each of these perspectives comes in relation to our own imperfect one. What I mean is that despite the fact that I can climb to the top of Mount Fuji, my own limited faculties of sight preclude me from absorbing the entirety of the vista around me. It is too grand a scale for me to encapsulate without using other means- even in this way I am still only taking slices or chucks of the whole to systhesize. In this same vein, looking at the tag of the universe and reading what fabric its made up of does not mean that I actually understand, taste, feel, or sense it as it actually is or might be. It is totally blended into my being through my biased senses that, while finite and imperfect, allow me to make inferences about the world, draw conclusions, and create frameworks that are relevant to my own perspective in it as a human being.

 

Odysseus and the Sirens

            The epic journey of Odysseus provides us ample material with which to apply our map. The Odyssey is a story of tragedy, error, hubris, selfishness, greed, lust, reason, fate, longing, perseverance, pain, understanding, empathy, and decision-making all within one individual and one lifespan. It is the story of a man trying to get home who along the way must make decisions that help or hinder the realization of that goal. Moreover, Odysseus must come to grips with fate[16] and destiny[17] in a way that only humans can- through agency. In this way the life of Odysseus parallels our own.

            Odysseus finds himself stranded on the island of Aeaea with the witch Circe. To make it home, she foretells, Odysseus must navigate successfully past the Sirens that await him without succumbing to their seductive song. In order to succeed she advises him to make earplugs out of beeswax for his men and that his men should lash him to the mast so as to prevent him from steering them to their deaths. As the story goes, Odysseus complies with Circe’s advice and successfully sails on towards Ithaca (though more trouble broods beyond)[18]. Temptation and ignorance having been suppressed by planning, preparation, and discipline.

            I have not done justice to recount the wonderful adventure that Homer provides us, but this short synopsis will have to do for our purposes. To actualize the objective of this paper we will use Odysseus’ experience as our “working model”. We can now transcribe the events onto our map and determine how Odysseus pulled on the string of destiny to achieve success.

 

Conducting a Map Reconnaissance

            Odysseus has an overall objective- get home to Ithaca. This requires physically moving himself from his current location and traversing vast oceans and inhospitable lands. He understands his mission and has knowledge of the terrain. He acknowledges enemies and adversaries, that the waters won’t always be smooth, nor the winds favorable. The inhabitants of the lands treacherous and bloodthirsty. He is aware of his own psychology, dispositions, capabilities and composition and that of his men. His overall task and purpose are clear: task- get home, purpose- to rejoin family and move on from life after the war. Just as important as what he does know, Odysseus doesn’t know what he doesn’t know which precludes him from overlaying it onto his map. All things considered Odysseus has enough of the world to conceptually map it out in his mind.

            We will use a macro scale and a micro scale map to visualize Odysseus’ exploits. Figure 2 serves as the macro scale of Odysseus’ journey. The macro scale map shows Odysseus at his current location with his current state of self and mind as a result of past events. For the purposes of the micro scale I will remove the past and only consider the future to allow for more detail (Figure 2a).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           The maps that he develops are important in two respects: 1) he can now see what he does know, and 2) he can see where he has gaps in knowledge or where his insight is unclear (i.e. what he doesn’t know). This allows him to make decisions on the information that he has and make assumptions about information he doesn’t have. To fill in these gaps Odysseus must acquire more information to confirm or deny assumptions and to clarify the map. Until he does these gaps serve as blind spots on his map and out of this darkness unaccounted for events may arise.

 

Confronting the Sirens

            In the most basic sense we might call the information Circe gives Odysseus intelligence and their conversation a planning session. One can imagine that prior to this intelligence Odysseus would have no idea what awaits him on his journey between Aeaea and Ithaca, although he might suspect future woes based on his journey thus far. Odysseus can now bring the full weight of prior experience and insightful foreknowledge to bear on his future self. With his overall objective in mind (getting home), Odysseus now plots a sub-objective (bypass the Sirens). This is important because it contextualizes how he might respond to events that coincide with confronting the Sirens, namely, that his purpose should remain unchanged while the necessary tasks evolve. We call this synchronization of purpose nesting. Nesting one’s purpose with the overall objective maintains continuity of purpose. This continuity keeps the individual focused on the prize, keeps him from succumbing to hedonic seductions in the moment, and allows for freedom of action when necessary[19].

            Table 1 coincides with Figures 2 and 2a. This might be the event matrix that Odysseus developed to accomplish his goal. Notice that Step 5 is the encounter with the Sirens but is not the end of the journey. Can we imagine a different outcome if Odysseus didn’t heed the advice given to him and instead chose to invoke his manliness and rational agency in the moment of the encounter? Surely it would have led to destruction.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

          So far the maps and tables coincide with our everyday concept of time and how events flow (from past to future in a left to right or top-down manner). But does the intelligence that Odysseus has of the future necessitate success? Of course not, but it does fill out his map in ways that force him to consider possibilities of an event occurring. Without this knowledge events 3-6 might well be deleted and he’d encounter the Sirens unprepared. Then he’d be forced to persevere using his own agency or succumb to Siren’s song. Either way, Odysseus will either survive the Sirens or perish on the rocks. Since Odysseus aims to make the statement “Odysseus will survive the Sirens” true then we can infer that there will need to be a causal chain that leads to making it come about. Looking “back” then on his current self, future Odysseus (at event 5) might realize that there are many circumstances that could lead to the truth value of “Odysseus survives the Sirens” to be false. Therefore he might deduce that he needs a way or ways of mitigating the possibilities of being enthralled by the Siren’s song. So long as he knows that this is their only means of bringing about his demise, then he can prepare to negate that possibility. In this case he might concur with Circe’s advice and choose to stop up his men’s ears with beeswax and submit to restraint upon the mast. Step 2 necessarily occurs as a means to accomplish events 3-5 and at last we arrive back to the present. Through backwards planning, that is from a future event to the present, Odysseus is able to identify contingencies and mitigate their risks while maintaining his freedom of action and maneuver to the extent it is possible. Moreover, just as he invokes preemptive reason over spur-of-the-moment agency and chooses to lash himself to the mast of his ship he also lashes himself to his overall objective through disciplined, realistic planning and preparation.

 

Conclusion

            Without planning, foresight, heuristics, etc., life is like running through the forest at night with your eyes closed. Things still exist despite your eyes being closed and even if you opened them you’d only get peripheral perception of what’s in front of you and around you. Using a flashlight then, we can see a certain distance into space (and time) and out to the periphery a certain extent as well. We have to move that flashlight back and forth to map out the rest of our surroundings. However, we can use others and their flashlights to aid in lighting up the surrounding. Sometimes we see others and their flashlights off in the distance, also searching.

            To follow the theme of water metaphors and time I have one of my own to express what planning and preparation is like for us humans. Imagine you are stranded out in the vast sea of life, struggling to stay afloat and to reach the shore to safety. You are at the mercy of the tide, current, waves, weather, and sea creatures (especially sharks). Your goal is to get to the shore, and you may very well do so on your own volition, but the factors just mentioned may impact your plans more than you realize or consider. You might be carried further down the shore than you wish or even get sucked further out to sea! Drowning from exhaustion or being eaten by a shark are real possibilities. The only way to increase the chances of you actualizing your future is to cast yourself a life preserver from the shore. Once you’ve reached the raft you can drag yourself to the shore. The sea may still have its way with you, but you’re securely tied to the shore via the life preserver you’ve cast yourself!

            The longer the line the more it is susceptible to sway if it isn’t taught and the less likely we are able to inspect every fiber for tears, rips, or other issues. Therefore, vigilance, continual updates to plans, and posturing for future events is vital to maintaining the rope. The problem is that future me is based on current me and I therefore may not have all the conceptual data to precisely map out the environment for him to return to me. (e.g. there may be a large mountain that is serving as an intervisibility line between me and him).

            Despite the fact that contemporary physics might “prove” that our concept of time is arbitrary and “not real”, I don’t think it matters one bit to how we still conceptualize and experience life. It is simply our limited, micro-perspective relative to a cosmic, macro-perspective. In this way I think it still fits in with contemporary physics. By backwards planning we can see the Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs that will lead us back to present now.

            I’ve attempted to show that we can control certain aspects of the future if we plan appropriately for it. This requires discipline, focus, information, objective and purpose. Due to the truth evaluability of future and past events we can therefore place ourselves into a future now and draw a line of causality back to our present now. Understanding and acknowledging our own finite ability to capture the entirety of the cosmos and all of its causal chains we recognize that our line might curve and sway as the future is actualized. Just as gravity bends light, the vastness of time distorts our time line. There is an ever-present possibility that there is something we didn’t plan for that may affect our path, yet this matters not when we are the ones who pull on the string of our own destiny.


Endnotes

[1] This claim comes with caveats which will be explained later in the paper.

[2] Though not the focus of this paper, I hope the reader will also take away the positive “side effects” of proper planning and preparation. e.g. lowered stress response as it pertains to realistic expectation management.

[3] Putnam, Time and Physical Geometry, 240-7, in The Journal of Philosophy (Apr. 27, 1967)

[4] That is, although I posit a deterministic nature of our universe, I take a compatibilist approach to living in it. Specifically, I take a Stoic source compatibilist view that delineates antecedent causes and effects via principal and auxiliary causes. Principle causes are what explain the difference in motion (e.g. the character of an agent or the shape of an object). Auxiliary causes provide an avenue by which an effect can be achieved (e.g. without legs I could not walk, however, having legs does not necessitate my walking). This is a complex view that allows the Stoics to retain agential responsibility and authority in a deterministic world and differs from our common notion of “free-will”. Reference Bobzein, The Inadvertent Conception and Late Birth of the Free-Will Problem, 138.

[5] Rovelli, The Order of Time, pg.71; concepts of time beyond a century already begin to hurt my brain as I try to place events within that framework. Relating this length to an “average” human lifespan is helpful depending on what we’re discussing. As for a time beneath which we can comprehend I image that for most of us a millisecond and shorter seem superfluous.

[6] For the purpose of this paper I assume the vantage point of us as human beings. I acknowledge that there is other literature available on attempting to understand life from perspectives other than human, but that is not the focus of my inquiry.

[7] Quantum loop gravity, string theory, quantum physics, etc.

[8] I differentiate between understanding life and simply existing in life to highlight the fact that we can still operate in life without knowing all of the “whys” behind it.

[9] As formulated by Leibniz in his correspondence with Clarke.

[10] The Stoics believe that anything that can actualize a cause or effect is a body. See also Newton’s laws of motion.

[11] The Stoics say that time belongs to a class of ti (things) which subsist (time, place, lekta (sayables), void).

[12] Rovelli, The Order of Time, pg. 39

[13] Bas van Fraassen, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space, 185.

[14] Bas van Fraassen, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space, 185

[15] I recognize that in the future this claim may prove to be false with advancements in spacetime travel. Even then, though, the intervals of time that humans are worried about relate to the human lifespan, not a cosmic one.

[16] Fate- the development of events beyond a person’s control, regarded as determined by a supernatural power

[17] Destiny- the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future

[18] Homer, The Odyssey

[19] David Sally discusses covers two terms related to this “rational” versus “hedonic” thinking. He terms them fully informed prolepsis (FIP) and partially informed prolepsis (PIP). Odysseus opts for FIP and in order to actualize future events according to our will we increase our chances by following suit.


Bibliography

A Collection of Papers, which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leibniz, and Dr. Clarke, In     the Years 1715 and 1716, by Samuel Clarke D.D. (London: James Knapton, 1717)

Annas, Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, The University of California Press (1994).

Bas van Fraassen, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space (2013).

Homer, The Odyssey. Penguin Books. (2002).

Putnam, Time and Physical Geometry, 240-7, in The Journal of Philosophy (Apr. 27, 1967)

Rovelli, The Order of Time (2017). Riverhead Books, 2018.

Sally, David. Confronting the Sirens: Rational Behavior in the Face of Changing Preferences, (2000). Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE).

Written by <a href="https://www.callsignsandoval.com/author/matt/" target="_self">Matt Sandoval</a>

Written by Matt Sandoval

Hi, I’m Matt. I am an active duty Soldier in the United States Army. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in NeuroExperimental Psychology and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. I am highly competitive in all activities (work and recreation), but my personality is a strange concoction of Seinfeld and Stoicism. I am interested a wide-variety of philosophical and military topics and gravitate towards discussions of human experience. I have a penchant for planning, organization, and building teams. If you’re looking for information, advice, or dialogue on leadership, metaphysics, or a bit of wit infused with some healthy cynicism then I’m your guy.
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