The Year Abroad Book Review

For those of you just tuning in, I recently wrapped up a year-long trip around the world. It was a very intellectually adventurous period: being outside the boundaries of the university for the first time, and free to follow my instincts wherever they led. The result was a loping, random walk through various groves in the philosopho-spiritual-literary garden: unexpected discoveries, dangerous trails, the occasional spectacular vista.

This post is a review (in the two-sentence style I’ve become quite partial to) of all the books I read this past year, listed by order of commencement (not completion). Titles in bold are those I recommend particularly emphatically. Asterisks following a title indicates that a book was begun but not completed. CAPS indicate my general location at the time of reading, for spice.

Enjoy.

KIBBUTZ MA’AGAN MICHAEL

1. The Name of the Wind
An incredible fantasy novel, the first of a trilogy by the remarkably talented Patrick Rothfuss. Imagine Harry Potter set in Middle Earth, written by Neil Gaiman, and you’re on the right track.

Some people have said this series could rival Tolkein. Read it yourself and let me know.

2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Czech writer’s Milan Kundera’s masterpiece; a story of sex, of meaning, of despair, of redemption. This book makes pushed you to the brink of despair… and then suggests some ways by which you can rediscover happiness.

To be honest, I had been somewhat afraid of this book. I had first thought to read it in the months following a difficult breakup, but friends had warned me against it, cautioning that, in my vulnerable state, it could “destroy me.” Of course, their cautioning became to me an insatiable curiosity, as I wanted to know what kind of book could possibly be so powerful. In truth, that was the first time I ever thought twice about embracing new ideas, the first time I ever had cause to consider that an idea might be better off left alone, at least for a while.

Reading the book (two years later), I understood their cautions. This book is a powerful cry against idealism, against most kinds of optimism. When read from a stable position, the book can be an expanding experience. When read from a vulnerable one, however, it could easily prove too much.

I wrote a longer piece about the book and my impressions, here.

3. Einstein’s Dreams
A whimsical series of surreal vignettes, framed as the content of Einstein’s dreams as he struggled to formulate his nascent theory of relativity. Startlingly akin to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this book is an exercise in your ability to imagine worlds.

4. The Celestine Prophecy
A manifesto of new-age philosophy, clumsily but endearingly presented in the form of an adventure novel. Fun to read and unexpectedly thought-provoking.

I recognize that I am stepping out onto thin ice when I express admiration for a book so overwhelmingly and unapologetically full of new-age woo-woo, but I would be doing me and you a disservice if would try instead to hide that admiration. The book provides a lens for understanding your relationships–to other people, to the world, to the past and the future–that is uplifting and encouraging, if somewhat fantastic. If you’re willing to do some critical re-interpretation of Redfield’s metaphysics, you can find inspiration in these pages.

5. On Human Nature
Biologist E. O. Wilson’s cautious, landmark argument advancing the theory that we now understand as “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology.” These ideas, while burdened by a long and often dark history, are fascinating and well-presented; it’s amazing seeing the care and delicacy Wilson puts into his arguments, fully aware of the importance of his ideas, and how easily they can be abused.

The book’s controversial central hypothesis, that human behavior is partially determined by evolutionary history, is one that has been debated and explored in various forms for centuries. Progressives tend to hate this idea, as it seems to contradict the enlightenment foundation of their politics. Conservatives tend to embrace it (and sadly in many cases abuse it) as justification for socially divisive policies. Having come out of the Cognitive Science program at UC Berkeley, I find that Wilson’s argument rings true, and am grateful for such a clear and responsible articulation, despite the potential risks.

My personal position is that Wilson’s argument contains more truth than falsehood, and that the best way forward it to not reject the oftentimes inconvenient truths found within, as is the habit of many progressives, but rather embrace the challenge of reconciling this new vision of humanity with the still-noble enlightenment ideals. The sociobiological argument can be–and has been–abused, in terrible ways, at many points throughout our history. In my view, only by embracing the struggle of reconciling this view of humanity with that of the enlightenment (rather than simply rejecting the former view) can we keep these ideas from being exploited and abused.

6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
A classic of modern philosophy, and a story of intelligence, insight, and insanity. Robert Pirsig challenges the conventional narrative of western philosophy, lays out an entire alternative metaphysics, and dares you to reject it.

It’s interesting looking back at this book list and seeing a natural flow and progression of ideas across the year. This book, ZAMM, was in many ways the beginning of the development of a new overall philosophy and attitude (for me); books that came later in the year refined and built on the foundation laid here. Pirsig’s project is nothing less than a re-imagining of western philosophy, and the construction of a new metaphysics, one in which the immediate and subjective experience of the world is every inch as important as the rational and reflective analysis that often follows. I particularly enjoyed Pirsig’s defense of the Greek Sophists, and his campaign against Aristotle. Again, ideas that I had never encountered before, and found delicious.

7. Meditations
The philosophical musings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. A major work of Stoic philosophy, this book emphasizes acceptance of uncertainty and urges measured reaction to all things (those familiar with the Tao Te-Ching might observe some suggestive parallels in these philosophies).

A good book, although looking back my expectations were probably unrealistically high. As far as data points go, however, this book is worth a read. After all, reading the same ideas in three different sources written centuries apart is still valuable, even if the ideas themselves aren’t new–it shows that the ideas have a more universal character, which is itself a valuable insight.

8. The Wise Man’s Fear
The sequel to The Name of the Wind, this book carries the brilliant torch of the first work forward another 800 pages. Adventures through university and learning, through poverty, through politics and power, through ancient history, through love and death and loss, through hope and passion, through magic, through music.

9. The Madman
A book of poetry by lebanese poet Khalil Gibran. Falling a fair distance short of Gibran’s monumental The Prophet, this book nonetheless has its moments.

10. The Name of the Rose
A skillful and complex mystery, set in a 14th century Italian monastery. Engaging and highly intelligent, both in substance and in style.

Immensely enjoyable. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, is currently in the running for one of my all-time favorite characters. Think a 14th century Tony Stark and you’re on the right track. The narration and pacing–a balanced mix of thoughtful detective-work and deeply learned debates about christian dogma–goes down like sweet wine, or good beer.

11. The Power of Habit
A respectable if fairly regular entry into the “Malcolm Gladwell” genre of pop-psychology non-fiction, focusing on the brain and our unconscious patterns of behavior. Although this book often feels like a series of disconnected ideas shoved together to fit into a single volume, good ideas can nonetheless be found.

JERUSALEM

12. Arab and Jew
The pulitzer-prize winning survey of the cultural and historical forces shaping mutual perceptions of “Arab” and “Jew” in the Middle East. Required reading for those hoping to grasp the human dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I was very happy to have read this book. Growing up and in college, I had on one hand people in my life telling me that Arabs were a vicious group, not to be trusted; on the other I had people telling me that the Israeli government was a cruel and hostile oppressor. My thoughts, I’d like to think, were more subtle (as were those of many of my close friends); this book was a thorough and broad survey of the many subjective facets of the conflict, and helped to organize and inform my own views on the issue.

13. To Pray as a Jew
A comprehensive and useful review of the various Jewish prayers, traditions, and rituals. Indispensable for someone looking to learn the ropes of the religious life.

I’ve always been frustrated by the act of praying. As a kid, I found it boring and burdensome. As I grew older, however, I began to wonder if my distaste stemmed from ignorance–I thought that perhaps if I understood the meaning and the history of the words, I could find some satisfaction and fulfillment in the act. After reading this book, I must confess that my position remains unchanged. I still dislike prayer–I find it boring and rote–but I understand better how others can find value. 

14. The Essential Talmud*
A thorough exploration of the history, structure, and meaning of the Talmud, Judaism’s principal legal text. A good foundation for anyone searching for a deeper understanding of the Jewish religion.

Prior to this book, my understanding of the textual structure of Judaism had been embarrassingly weak. It was fascinating to learn the traditions and history of Jewish exegesis, especially the mechanics by which one source acquires or loses authority vis a vis another. I was disappointed to learn how much of this authority is temporal: older sources are considered more authoritative than new, leading to some frustratingly regressive behaviors among the very orthodox. On the other hand, the methods by which these older sources came into being are extraordinary, and so perhaps holding them in high esteem is not so unreasonable.

I’ve written at length on this issue, which you can see here.

15. Echoes of Glory*
A religious-perspective history of the Jewish people, spanning from 350 BCE to 750 CE. This book puts forward a fascinating vision of history grounded on religious assumptions, and is therefore unlike any you’re likely to read in a secular university.

An entertaining history. The author’s harsh treatment of the Seleucid conquerers as “decadent Hellenists” was particularly pleasurable. The author’s depiction of the internal conflict within the Jewish people just returned from Babylonian exile (circa… 500 BCE?) was eye opening. Most of us, I think, who grew up in the Jewish world have an image of ancient Israel as being a place of fairly united and orthodox Judaism, where all the people co-existed in a more or less functional theocracy. Wein’s depiction of this ancient Israel as being a place torn between religious and the secular forces is curious, and suggests that less has changed in Jewish society over the last 2500 years than we might like to think.

16. Liar’s Poker
A story of money and greed, set in the heyday of late-1980’s Wall Street. Semi-autobiographical, the book offers both a sharp critique and (inadvertent?) glorification of reckless haute finance.

I had been curious for a while about the culture of Wall Street. This book, while certainly a dramatization, was helpful in expanding my understanding of the motivations and character of those working the world of finance.

17. Doormen*
A popular account of a sociological study of the doormen of New York. From getting the job to observing the behavior patterns of the rich, this book offers a view of ourselves and our society from a unique perspective.

18. Freedom Evolves
An epic argument for human freedom, this book sets out to re-envision the idea of human free will as something very much at work in a material universe. The argument is convincing and playfully made, making this book a good introduction into this centuries-old debate.

Following this debate has been a hobby of mine for many years. My initial exposure came by way of Douglas Hofstadter, through his landmark work Gödel, Escher, Bach and his later and beautiful I am a Strange Loop. I picked up the thread in college when I signed up for John Searle’s Philosophy of Mind and a Cognitive Science course called Scientific Approaches to Consciousness, both of which I found thought-provoking but ultimately unsatisfying–the former for the professor’s inability to let go of the idea of an immaterial soul, and the latter for the inability of that field’s scientific methods to cope with the problems it was attempting to analyze.

Strangely, the most valuable insights into this question I ever got came not out of philosophy, but out of a computer science course I took called Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, where I first learned profoundly influential concept of “abstraction.” That idea, that meaning and value can exist at a variety of theoretical layers of structure, has probably been the most powerful single idea of my life and has shaped all of my thinking that has followed.

Basically, I align with Hofstadter and Dennett on this question, whom also I believe align with Wilson (from On Human Nature), in that I am a materialist (although willing of course to make room for quantum indeterminacy) who sees consciousness emerging from a long and sophisticated history of development up from simpler structures into the more complex and beautiful. It’s also worth drawing attention to Julian Jayne’s interesting ideas presented in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a book I haven’t actually read but nonetheless find fascinating. More on all this when we get to Wilber.

19. Toward a Meaningful Life
The collected wisdom of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the most recent Rebbe of the global Chabad Jewish movement. Written by Simon Jacobson, a man who spent many years memorizing and transcribing the Rebbe’s talks, this book offers insightful (and unambiguously religious) advice on a full spectrum of life’s issues.

I dug this book. My scientific worldview makes it hard for me to embrace this style of thinking whole-heartedly, but I still enjoy exposing myself to it. Religious writing is able to attain a refreshing (if admittedly potentially dangerous) frankness and power that more secular writing is simply unable.

MUMBAI

20. Shantaram
A rugged and love-soaked adventure through the turning streets and pounding hearts of the beautiful city of Mumbai. Semi-semi-semi-autobiographical, Gregory Roberts’ command of language and (especially) of metaphor is unlike you will likely have ever encountered.

Look, I really liked this book. The language is the best I’ve ever seen and the story touches your heart and fires your spirit. The final fifth of the book is a bit of a letdown, but only because the first four-fifths are so stimulating.

21. The Story of My Experiments with Truth
The closest thing to an autobiography that Mohandas Gandhi ever wrote, this book is an unsurprisingly honest account of the man’s personal, spiritual, and political struggles in his early life and career. Revealing the man in both his strengths and his weaknesses, this book is the cornerstone of any study of Satyagraha, non-violence, and leadership.

To be honest, I was more shocked at Gandhi’s extreme personal habits and disconcerting attitude towards his family than I was in awe of any of his political views. Once you get over those, however, you can start to appreciate how those character traits are part and parcel of an overall extreme conviction in the ability of human beings to come together to drive forward goodness. As baseball statistician Bill James has pointed out, “Our weaknesses and our strengths are always very intimately connected.”

Another interesting arc here is Gandhi’s explorations and conversations with other faiths, especially the varieties of Christianity he came into contact with in South Africa and England, and specifically his love affairs with the works of Tolstoy and Ruskin. This suggests that the larger humanist ideas of Satyagraha aren’t necessarily purely Hindu in origin, but rather a result of a syncretism among a variety of world religions.

22. The White Tiger
The Booker Prize-winning story of a young and prospect-less Indian man who cleverly, savagely, and sadly climbs to the top of a society determined to keep him in his place. With a protagonist impossible to either fully love or hate, this book should be embraced by anyone looking to gain a better understanding of modern Indian society.

Compelling. I wonder, though, how closely this fiction conforms to reality. My instinct is “quite closely,” but I realize that this could be just be the voice of a lingering orientalist streak that I am still in the process of investigating, coming to terms with, and hopeful neutralizing.

23. The Bhagavad Gita*
The classic Hindu text, depicting a conversation between Krishna–a Hindu savior figure–and warrior-prince Arjuna, on the morning of a major battle against Arjuna’s own rebellious cousins. Krishna explains to distraught and conflicted Arjuna the importance of duty and of accepting the natural course of events; a treatise on morality and obligation that has inspired thousands (and again, consider the parallels between this work, Aurelius’ Meditations, and the Tao Te-Ching).

24. Midnight’s Children*
Another Booker Prize-winning novel, this one following the lives of various characters–born at the moment of India’s independence–possessing various magical powers. More fundamentally story of India’s independence and the complications of that transition, this book provides a valuable, clever, emotional look at that major historical process.

25. Only Love is Real
At once a story of two lovers, and an advancement of a theory of reincarnation, this book is Yale-trained Dr. Brian Weiss’s attempt to make a case for the soul’s cyclical rebirth. Drawing on experiences of working with patients through a technique he calls “past-life regression,” Dr. Weiss posits an interesting metaphysics and presents an immensely satisfying, if fantastic, conception of life’s meaning.

Similar to The Celestine Prophecy, this book reads like so much new-age woo-woo but is nonetheless so deliciously comforting that you really want to put it all aside and just believe. I have my reservations, but you may do as you wish.

26. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
A history of finance, spanning the origins of banking in Italy, the evolution (and crashes) of the markets for stocks, bonds, and real estate, the development of insurance, and the globalization of the economy, this book is an excellent counterpoint to most forms of radical anti-corporate politics. Niall Ferguson makes clear that while finance has certainly led to individuals amassing tremendous–and perhaps excessive–wealth, it has also provided the backbone that helped lift society out of the dirt and onto our feet.

Coming out of a school like Berkeley, this history was a perfect counterpoint against the hostile attitude towards finance that I had internalized as a student. This book presents a detailed history of the people and circumstances that gave rise to the major financial innovations of history, and the ways those innovations helped accomplish things that were previously impossible. While there is certainly much to be criticized about this long arc of financial and technological progress, especially and crucially in regards to the impacts on non-Western cultures, there is much to be praised about that progress; Ferguson gives fair treatment to both. Reading this book helped balance my feelings towards finance and contributed greatly to my growing grasp of financial argot.

27. The Way of the Bow
A brief parable of an aspiring archer and an old master, the former receiving the life’s wisdom of the latter. A lucid and affecting meditation on ambition, skill, growth, and challenge.

28. Dreams from My Father*
The celebrated autobiography of President Barack Obama, tracing his growth from his roots in Hawai’i through his successes as an attorney. Straightforward as far as autobiographies come, this book offers a desirable look into the inner world of our president.

POKHARA

29. Understanding Power
Iconoclast Noam Chomsky’s devastating critique of the modern world. Presented as edited transcripts from a decade’s worth of talks, this book presents Chomsky’s cynical but heartbreakingly precise analysis of American and global politics, economics, conflict, wealth, government, power, and possibilities for change.

This book can be a rough read. The late Aaron Swartz devotes an entire blog post to this book and how it changed his life. Chomsky is stunningly perceptive and lucid, and does an excellent job taking the world apart, piece by piece, and explaining exactly where and how powerful and monied forces exert control to maintain control. Reading it though, I wasn’t depressed as much as encouraged. Chomsky’s view is about as cynical as it gets, after all. After finishing the book and digesting the ideas, I was left with the unexpected but reassuring sense that while we find ourselves facing many problems, we also have at our fingertips many solutions.

30. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
A short but incredibly endearing journey through the early years of one of America’s most important figures. This book provides valuable insights into Franklin’s personal ethic, his philosophy of life, and his approach to work, obligation, and society.

I loved this book. Franklin’s ideas regarding self improvement and civil participation ring very true for me. Seeing my own attitudes mirrored in the words of such a historical figure is encouraging, and (going back to the idea of “data points” made earlier) is a very reassuring data point.

31. Beyond Good and Evil*
The landmark work of philosophy that challenged prior notions of absolute truth and morality in order to advance a new understanding based on perspectival, relative truth. A bit difficult to work through for those unfamiliar with Nietzsche,  but the persevering reader is nonetheless rewarded.

32. The Intelligent Investor*
A classic work of financial wisdom, this book make a thorough case for patient and thoughtful investing, as opposed to indulging in the manias which so regularly descend upon the market. The book that inspired Warren Buffet, this work is highly, highly recommended for anyone searching for a deeper understanding of finance and a path to financial security.

I really liked this book, for two reasons. The first was that it is an excellent primer for finance, and the second that its overarching ethos is “be the calm eye in the storm, don’t be greedy, and you will prevail.” Were this book to be released in 2013 and the publisher trying to reach a younger demographic, this could easily have been titled The Zen Investor (or, perhaps more amusingly, Zen and the Art of Investing).

MONASTERY WAT PAH NANACHAT

33. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
A cute and playful vision of the future, set in a post-scarcity meritocratic society in which social status, known as “whuffie,” is the only meaningful currency. Following the intrigues and dramas of the staff of the book’s futuristic Disney World, Doctorow finds ample space to make his interesting-enough social commentary.

34. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality
Philosopher Ken Wilber’s 1000-page magnum opus, this book sketches out an entire “Integral” metaphysics, tying together the great spiritual and scientific traditions of the last ten thousand years. A truly awesome work, one which presents a deeply optimistic and beautiful vision of the universe and humanity’s place within it.

For me, this was the book for which everything else was just preparation. It’s not often that I wholeheartedly accept another person as being vastly smarter than I am, but Ken Wilber has earned an exception. This book surveyed and consolidated a variety of ideas across history and various discipline with a greater vigor and creativity than I had ever encountered. It presented a view of the world and its mechanics that touched me on a very deep level, and has probably made more of an impact on my views than anything I had come across previously.

In this book the ideas introduced by Pirsig and Wilson and Dennett and Gandhi (all mentioned above) are embraced in a higher synthesis, in which subjective experience is valued alongside objective, where the group is as important as the individual, and where all things are understood as being both aggregates of smaller things and also parts of their own larger wholes (in a virtuosic application of my oh-so-favorite concept of “abstraction”). In addition, Wilber, like Marx, sees history as proceeding along a certain path of progress and development, although Wilber embraces and incorporates the subjective dimension of experience and (in my view) arrives at a more complete understanding of events and processes. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

That said, I’ll admit that I harbor doubts about the wisdom of embracing a work as energetically as I have this, especially given that this work is still somewhat outside the mainstream and may be found deeply flawed by those more learned than myself. However, I’ve also reached a point in my life where holding all ideas at a distance for fear of being proven wrong is seeming to be more detrimental than embracing an idea and running with it, even for a little while, even if it is proven wrong. My hunch is that within the next twenty to thirty years, this book will either be re-discovered as “pioneering,” or thoroughly discredited by future scholarship. My hope is, of course, for the former; but I’m open.

For more on this, see a reflection I wrote when I was about a third of the way through it.

35. The Razor’s Edge
A novel tracing the lives of a group of American socialites during the years between the two World Wars. Memorable both because of the period from which it comes (written in the ’40s and carrying much of that style), and because of the protagonist, Larry Darrell–one of the early examples of the “spiritual seeker of eastern mysticism” in western literature.

My dad told me to read this book because he saw much of me in this book’s protagonist. I read the book and could not help but agree.

36. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha
A book on meditation by iconoclast meditation teacher Daniel Ingram. An attempt to describe the internal experience of meditation and enlightenment in clear, accessible language, this book is at once a valuable survey of Buddhist thinking, and a somewhat forceful polemic against the (in Ingram’s mind) decadent and shallow culture of “mainstream western meditation.”

Entering the Vipassana retreat, and later the monastery, I harbored many doubts as to the legitimacy and value of “meditation,” and was deeply skeptical of the notion of “enlightenment” promised by the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Most of the descriptions of enlightenment and the “spiritual path” I had come across were vague and, in my mind, extravagant and unreliable. This book presented a very clear and modern view of what “enlightenment” actually means, and how individuals can bring themselves to the level of that experience.

After reading this book (and others in a similar vein) while spending a month moving around various meditative environments, I’m quite comfortable accepting Ingram’s vision of enlightenment and accepting that such a thing (understood as a highly specific state of awareness) is both possible and very difficult to achieve. I don’t think I’ll attain it any time soon, but it’s out there alright, even if oft-obscured and misunderstood.

37. What the Buddha Taught
A classic survey of the teachings of the Buddha, and the staple of many university courses on the subject. Spanning the Buddha’s writings on meditation, on ethics, and on metaphysics, this book makes a good introduction into the basic, core ideas of the Buddha, without the ritualistic and iconographic trappings that have come to define many of Buddhism’s later forms.

38. Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place
A Thai academic’s attempt to recreate the field of economics on Buddhist principles. Drawing inspiration from E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, the book investigates the assumptions of mainstream economics (such as that of the rational actor, and of the nature of value), and presents alternatives drawn from Buddhist teachings.

39. Hind Swaraj
One of Gandhi’s earliest attempts to articulate the need for Indian independence from Britain, focusing mostly on the economic and moral costs of the continuation of the British Raj. Although some of his suggestions might seem excessive to the modern sensibility (he advocates abolishing railroads and doctors, for example), the sympathetic reader will find the essence of Satyagraha nestled within these pages.

40. Beyond Optimism: A Buddhist Political Ecology
A treatise on radical politics, drawing together ideas regarding the environment, local economic systems, and personal spiritual development. The world vision presented is a beautiful one, and the emphasis on the interrelationship between individual personal development and community development is both welcome and necessary.

I was surprisingly impressed by this book. It was a bit of a random choice, recommended to me by a young and formerly-politically-active Buddhist novice (formerly named Alex, currently named Manissaro) who took a personal interest in my Buddhist-flavored political development. The author, Ken Jones, manages to tie together a number of threads that had been budding in my mind (small-scale, sustainable, and steady-state economies; continual individual spiritual development; appropriate shifts towards regional governance) and presents them as a model for a sustainable future society. Having a history in the cooperative movement, these arguments hit a soft spot in me. In an interesting parallel, they also tracked parts of Wilber’s argument in SES, although in a much more applied and far less theoretical form.

SANTA MONICA

41. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered
An informed and insightful argument in favor of an economic paradigm oriented towards people instead of towards growth. Taking into account both the limitations and potentials in the earth’s resources, and in human beings, E. F. Schumacher presents–in the style of a student of Keynes–an inspiring vision of what economic activity could, and should, look like.

I’ll come clean–I didn’t actually read this book until I got back to California. I included it in this review because in many ways it represents the culmination of a year’s intellectual pathfinding. In this book I found economic ideas, social ideas, spiritual ideas, epistemological ideas–in short, the ideas I had spent the last twelve months chasing down (or were they chasing me down?)–brought together into a coherent, practical argument and worthwhile course of action.

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