Archive for the ‘The Passing Scene’ Category

The rise and fall of a love affair with China

July 10, 2020

Winston Sterzel is a British South African who settled in China 14-odd years ago.  My fellow blogger “Nikolai Vladivostok” recommends his YouTube channel, SerpentZA: Stay, Awesome, China, which is about life in China.   I got around to watching his videos just this week, only to find that Sterzel has decided to leave China.

He gave his reasons for being fascinated with China in the video above.  He gave his reasons for leaving in the video below.

It is hard to find a non-propaganda view of China.  Sterzel is an intelligent person of good will whose views are not based on promoting a vested interest or ideological agenda.  His videos are well worth watching.  They might not be the last word, but I trust him more than most.

Sterzel went to China when the nation was booming under the leadership of Deng Xiaopeng.  Dang was in no sense a believer in democracy or human rights as these words are understood in the USA.  But he allowed enough slack in the Chinese system to allow a creativity and enterprise to blossom.  He also set up an orderly succession system, so there would not be a struggle for power like that following the death of Mao Zedong.

China’s new ruler, Xi Jinping, is tightening up the system.  He is restoring Maoist thought control, using advanced surveillance technology to monitor and modify all aspects of human behavior.  He also has declared himself ruler for life.  Whether this is compatible with China’s continued growth in wealth and power remains to be seen.

I read the work of Pepe Escobar, who believes that China’s Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, will bring about the economic integration of Eurasia—China, Central Asia, Russia, Iran and lands beyond.  This potentially could be as important a development in human history as the European Age of Discovery initiated by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

Escobar presents the geopolitical and historical overview.  Winston Sterzel presents the ground-level view.  He makes me wonder whether Xi’s great dreams are all they’re cracked up to be.

LINKS

SerpentZA: Stay Awesome, China.  A gallery of intriguing videos.

Pepe Escobar: A Roving Eye on Globalistan.

Bears at play

June 20, 2020

Knight Rider theme for eight cellos, one cellist

May 30, 2020

This is a version of the Knight Rider theme song by London-based cellist Samara Ginsberg

Hat tip to Jason Kottke.

Bacteria, viruses and the human mind

May 29, 2020

The following is a quote that I read in the June issue of Harper’s magazine.  It is from the forthcoming book, The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gilbert.

Viruses and bacteria hijack our minds and make us act weirdly.

For example, Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat feces, makes mice less afraid of cats; this is an evolutionary strategy, making it easier for the parasite to get from the mouse to the cat.

When it spreads to humans, it may increase their risk-taking.  One study found that people with toxoplasmosis, the infection caused by the parasite, “are more likely to major in business.”  An NBC News story suggested optimistically that the parasite “may give people the courage they need to become entrepreneurs.”

That would be an extreme case of a microscopic parasite altering the course of our lives.  But viruses and bacteria influence our everyday behavior as well.

A 2010 study, for example, found that people become more sociable in the forty-eight hours after exposure to the flu virus, a period in which one is contagious but asymptomatic.  The infected hosts, researchers found, were significantly more likely to head out to bars and parties.

I know of no evidence that coronavirus infection influences human behavior.  None whatsoever.  I am not hinting or implying that it does.

But, as a thought experiment, suppose it did.  How would the virus influence its hosts’ feelings, thoughts and behavior?  What changes would it induce to help itself survive, reproduce and spread?

As the coronavirus lockdown ends (for now) …

May 21, 2020

Click to enlarge

The chart above, via Kevin Drum, shows that the United States has gotten off fairly lightly during the coronavirus pandemic, compared to other Western countries.

The USA has the most total deaths because it has the largest population, but the death rate is the key measure.  The USA is a big country.  Some parts of it are relatively safe and some aren’t, but overall things aren’t as bad as they might be—at least not yet.

 

Click to enlarge

The chart above, also by Kevin Drum, shows that the number of new deaths from the coronavirus is tapering off in Western countries.

As the lockdowns end, the death rates will probably rise again—hopefully not to their previous peak.  If they don’t rise, a lot of what epidemiologists have been telling us about contagion is wrong.  I expect we’ll learn the epidemiologists were right.

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Under the electron microscope

March 28, 2020

There are many more than 10 amazing images in this video, although none of the coronavirus.

Stefan Pabst, painter of 3-D optical illusions

March 21, 2020

Stefan Pabst of Hamburg, Germany, is a master of painting 3-D optical illusions, which I never cease to find fascinating  Here are some examples.

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Ten years a blogger

January 25, 2020

As of today, I’ve been blogging for 10 years.

Blogging satisfies my creative need to write, and my ego need to have someone read what I write.  I’ve become acquainted with interesting people, including some who live in foreign countries and some whose views are very different from my own.

I’m an 83-year-old retired newspaper reporter, living in Rochester, N.Y., with time on my hands and no reason to fear economic consequences of displeasing anybody with what I write.  I’m content with my fortunate and pleasant life while pessimistic about the fate of my nation and the world in general.

I hadn’t realized, until my friend David Damico alerted me to the possibility, that web hosting for blogs was free (although I now pay WordPress a fee for premium service) and that blogging does not require any special knowledge of computer technology

Phil Ebersole

From Jan. 25, 2010 on, I have made 5,014 posts, consisting of about 2 million words.  The posts have drawn more than 1.7 million views in slightly over 1 million individual daily visits.  They’ve received 4,650 comments and 9,405 “likes.”

My blog has 1,320 followers, who are notified every time I post something, although the average number of daily visits is far less.  There are 252 individual posts with comment followers, who are notified every time there is a comment on that particular post.

My previous retirement creative outlet was sending out book reviews by e-mail.  I started my book notes in 2004 by sending a friend brief notes on books I’d read during the previous month.  Over time my notes expanded to lengthy review-essays, and my e-mail list to more than 100 recipients.  I now post all my book notes on my blog while continuing to distribute them by e-mail.

My great fault as a blogger was the same as my fault as a newspaper reporter.  I have been too prolific.  I have written many forgettable things and some that I am embarrassed to remember.  The writings I am proud of are submerged in a vast sea of mediocrity.

On breaking news, I often made a post based on incomplete knowledge, and I had to keep making additional posts to clarify, supplement or correct what I’d written originally.

The posts that I think have lasting value are all about more general topics, some political, some not.  Of course blog posts are impermanent by their very nature, so maybe I shouldn’t worry about lasting value.

As I said, I’m 83.   I’m slowing down mentally as well as physically.  My memory is worsening, and so is my “executive function”—the ability to keep a number of different things in mind at the same time.  I spent too much time with the computer screen and my books and not enough with the practical issues of life.

My short-term goal is fewer but better posts.  I’ll try to post something worth reading every Wednesday.  If I can’t write something, I try to find an interesting video or chart, or a worthwhile link.  This isn’t a commitment—just how I see things now.

I don’t expect to be able to continue posting 10 more years, but who knows?  I’ve already lived longer than I expected.

If you find my posts of interest, I am pleased.  The best way to show your appreciation is to share your own thoughts, especially if you see things differently from me.  Or comment on this post about what you like or don’t like about my approach to blogging overall.

The search for a national conservatism

January 20, 2020

I’ve long said that the Republican Party rests on three pillars—the neocons, who believe there is a military solution to every problem; the theo-cons, who believe there is a Biblical solution to every problem; and the libertarians, who believe there is a free-market solution to every problem.

This is an exaggeration, but an exaggeration of reality that’s only a little bit unfair. Many conservatives recognize their problem, and that was the theme of the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., last July.

A German journalist named Thomas Meaney, reported on the conference for Harper’s magazine.  He said His report shows the unifying theme of the new conservatism is patriotism and national unity.  Instead of globalization, the new conservatives want an industrial policy to rebuild American manufacturing strength.

Meaney was moved to ask—

What if Trump had dialed down the white nationalism after taking the White House and, instead of betraying nearly every word of his campaign rhetoric of economic populism, had ruthlessly enacted populist policies, passing gargantuan infrastructure bills, shredding NAFTA instead of remodeling it, giving a tax cut to the lower middle class instead of the rich, and conspiring to raise the wages of American workers?

It doesn’t take much to imagine how that would play against a Democratic challenger with McKinsey or Harvard Law School imprinted on his or her forehead.

There seemed to be two futures for Trumpism as a distinctive strain of populism: one in which the last reserves of white identity politics were mined until the cave collapsed and one in which the coalition was expanded to include working Americans, enlisting blacks and Hispanics and Asians in the cause of conquering the condescending citadels of Wokistan.

Was it predestined that Trump would choose the former?

Source: Harper’s Magazine

My answer is, yes, it was predestined that Trump make the choices he did.  Character is destiny, and Trump has the character of a showman and confidence man.  His business record shows this.

He is smart enough to give the common people the appearance of respect, while serving the interests of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.

There is nothing in his record to indicate that he has either the interest or sense of purpose to do anything more than that.

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How educated liberals alienate working people

December 31, 2019

Here’s a little thought experiment: What would happen if, by a snap of the fingers, white racism in America were to disappear?

It might be that the black and Latino working class would be voting for Trump, too. Then we Democrats would have no chance in 2020.

We often tell ourselves: “Oh, we lost the white working class because of race.”  But maybe the truth is something closer to this: “It’s only because of race that we have any part of the working class turning out for us at all.”

This is the beginning of an article by Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan in The New Republic. His point is that that leaders of the Democratic Party and also the Washington press corps are college graduates who have little or nothing to do with mere high school graduates, even though they are the majority of Americans.

The liberal solution to economic inequality in the USA is college education for everybody.  In other words, the message of the liberal elite is: Imitate us.

This is insulting and is felt as an insult, Geoghegan said.  It also tells the majority of Americans over 30 that they are doomed.

And even if college education were universal, it wouldn’t end poverty, raise wages or cure economic inequality.  It would simply be a higher bar you have to reach in order to have any kind of economic future at all.

Geoghegan said that’s why the most astute thing that Donald Trump ever said was, “I love the uneducated.”

It wasn’t always this way.  I am old enough to remember a time when a majority of Senators and Congresspeople, not to mention President Harry Truman, had no education beyond high school.

 I was one of only two college graduates employed by the first newspaper I worked for, in 1959.  The other was the city editor, who had a degree in chemistry.

That era was certainly no utopia, but politicians lived in the same neighborhoods as their constituents and journalists lived in the same neighborhoods as their readers.

Not that education, or liberal education, is useless.  It is just that it is not a solution to problems caused by concentration and abuse of economic and political power.

By the way, exit polls showed that Donald Trump got 8 percent of the African-American vote and 29 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016.

LINK

Educated Fools: Why Democrats still misunderstand the politics of social class by Thomas Geoghegan for The New Republic.

Merry Christmas 2019

December 24, 2019

I found this on the Dispatches from the Asylum blog.  Every post ends with an excellent musical selection.

Happy Holidays 2019

December 21, 2019

Can you guess in what city the pictures above and below were taken?

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Baroque chamber music for train horns

December 14, 2019

Sources: The Kid Should See This and kottke.org.

Johann Pachelbel composed his Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo sometime between 1680 and 1706,  I don’t recall ever hearing Pachelbel’s Canon under that name, but the music is strangely familiar.

A Czech named Pavel Jirásek edited short bits from ACETrainsUK’s horn compilation of trains in the United Kingdom with other clips of train horns to recreate the melody of the famous chamber music composition.

Is the U.S. educational system failing?

December 11, 2019

My friend James in Texas e-mailed a link to a New York Times article on the latest results of the Program for International Assessment tests, which compare proficiency of students in 79 school systems around the world.

Overall the U.S. results didn’t seem to be that bad.  American children are in the middle of the pack of advanced nations in reading, somewhat below in math, but better overall than in the previous round of tests.  However, as the Times writer pointed out, there are disparities within the averages.

About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam.

Those students, he said, face “pretty grim prospects” on the job market.

James is an architect.  He worked as a substitute school teacher in the 1980s, taught design and algebra in community colleges in the 2000s and is now working on a certificate to teach in high school.  These are his observations from two decades.

1. Detracking – all kids dumped into same classroom, no honors or remedial grouping, no separate special ed class, teacher now must do 5 or 6 different lessons simultaneously instead of one. Advanced kids are bored and essentially teaching themselves, while slower kids are perpetually lost and have stopped even pretending to care.

2. No enforceable conduct standards – no consequences for anything, 2/3 of kids are basically feral, kids know teachers are powerless, with no administrative support, teachers given all responsibility for “classroom management” with zero actual authority, too busy being social workers and ringleaders instead of teaching.

3. Time theft – minimal lunchtime, no recess, obsessively timing every activity to the minute, weeks stolen for state testing, teachers’ weekends stolen for useless seminars and endless meetings. Kids can’t sustain attention enough to think deeply about anything, and teachers don’t have time to breathe, let alone teach.

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Why hospitals never have enough nurses

December 10, 2019

Prasad’s Law:

Medical goods and services that concentrate wealth can be paid for; medical goods and services that disperse wealth are “unaffordable.”

Source: naked capitalism

Prescribing more drugs or scheduling more doctor’s appointments means more revenue.  Hiring more nurses does not.  Click on this link for a discussion of what this means.

Where the world gets its stuff

December 9, 2019

Click to enlarge.

Most countries of the world used to get more stuff from the United States than they did from China.  But now it’s the other way around.  Now most countries buy more stuff from China.

This map, which has been making the rounds of the Internet, appeared in the Financial Times—behind a paywall, unfortunately for me, because I don’t subscribe to the FT.

Many economists think the turning point was in 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization, which included the world’s most advanced industrial nations.

China became entitled to “most favored nation” status, which means no trade barrier against a WTO member could be higher than a barrier against any other member.

I say China’s gains had to do with the effectiveness of China’s industrial policy, and the lack of any U.S. industrial policy.

China told foreign nations that if they wish to sell goods in China, they would have to locate manufacturing facilities in China.  Furthermore they would have to share their technological know-how with Chinese partners.  Then the Chinese would take their new knowledge, improve on it, and use it o compete with their former partners.

The U.S. government, under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was content to let this happen.  American consumers benefitted from cheap imports, and stockholders in American companies shared the profits of offshoring.

Meanwhile the United States dissipated its wealth in waging pointless and inconclusive foreign wars, while China used its wealth to make itself stronger.

Unlike his predecessors, Donald Trump has correctly identified terms of trade with China as a problem.  He deserved credit for putting this issue on the table.

But his scattershot tariffs on Chinese goods do not solve the problem.  All they do is to create a market for goods from other low-wage countries.

The Chinese government successfully executed a long-range plan to build up its industrial strength, using subsidies but also building up the infrastructure and know-how of the nation as a whole.

The U.S. government has no plan.  It has been content to stand aside and allow financiers to hollow out U.S. manufacturing.  Tariffs aren’t an answer unless they are part of an overall strategy to rebuild.

The Chinese aren’t to blame for our problems.  Our leaders are to blame for our problems.  We are to blame for our leaders.

LINKS

The New China Syndrome: American business meets its new master by Barry C. Lynn for Harper’s magazine.

How Bill Clinton and American financiers armed China by Matt Stoller for BIG.

China Revolutionizes World Trade While Washington Dozes by Geoffrey Aronson for The American Conservative.

The Ukrainegate situation summarized

November 28, 2019

We now have, in essence, the two sides investigating each other for the crime of having investigated each other

Source: Pete’s Politics and Variety

Taibbi on how the news divides and misleads us

November 13, 2019

Last week I I read Matt Taibbi’s HATE INC.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another.  Of all the books I’ve read during the past 12 months or expect to read in the near future, this is the one I’d most recommend to anybody who wants to understand what’s going on in the USA..

It is about how and why the business model for the American press changed from the seeking of a broad, noncontroversial consensus to the promotion of conflict.  It also is about why the conflict so seldom involves fundamental issues.

Noam Chomsky famously said that the way to preserve the illusion of freedom of the press is to allow vigorous debate, but only within certain prescribed bounds.

There is extreme polarization for and against Donald Trump.  Some say we’re on the verge of a new civil war.   But the debate remains within limits, and is focused on personalities.

We the public are encouraged to think that there is a deep and permanent conflict of ideas between Democratic liberals such as Rachel Maddow and Republican conservatives such as Sean Hannity, but also that there are no ideas worth considering beyond the limits of what they say.

Neither side questions ever-increasing military budgets, everlasting wars, ever-expanding surveillance, ever-growing bailouts of tax breaks for and and handouts to the most powerful corporations.

The current $716 billion military appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year contained a $165 billion increase—in itself more than the entire military budget of Russia or China, and more than the entire cost of the Iraq war in 2003 or 2004.   Large majorities of both parties in both houses of Congress supported it.

The press coverage of the bill focused not on its contents, but on whether President Trump was disrespectful of Senator John McCain, the sponsor, by not mentioning his name during the signing ceremony.

In the old days, the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite sought to appeal to a broad, bland consensus.  The feeling he tried to project was reassurance—that all was right with the world.  Other broadcasters were the same way.

They also were limited by the government’s Fairness Doctrine.  If they broadcast anything controversial, they had to provide free air time for the other side.

Newspapers followed a similar path.  Most had local monopolies.  All had secure revenue streams based on classified advertising (job listings, legal notices) and as the main source of information for stock prices and the like.

I got started in journalism at the end of the old era.  The ideal in reporting in that era was objectivity and impersonality.  Reporters strove to write in a way that nobody could guess their personal opinions.  Routine newspaper articles lacked bylines because it shouldn’t matter who wrote them.

Then the Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine.  Opinion no longer had to be balanced.  CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle.  The easiest way to fill time was with commentary and opinion.

The Internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, provided a way to segment the readership individually.  No longer did a newspaper or TV broadcast have to appeal to the whole family.  Each person could have their own news, tailored algorithmically to their own desires and viewpoint.

Fox News, and also talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, took advantage of the new business model.  They realized they didn’t have to have universal appeal to make money.  All they needed to do was to target a segment of the viewers or listeners and tailor things to their interests.

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The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

November 2, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

The domino effect

October 26, 2019

Small causes can have big impacts

And sometimes the chain of causation is very long.

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Wingsuit flying in the Swiss Alps

October 12, 2019

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

This must be highly exhilarating, provided you’re able to walk away from it at the end.

More about the Brahmin left and merchant right

September 24, 2019

Democrats in the U.S., the Labor Party in Britain and left-wing parties in France no longer primarily represent the interests of wage earners, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous French economist.

Instead they represent an educated elite, which he calls the Brahmin left, while the conservative parties represent a financial elite, which he calls the merchant right.

The educated elite are not an intellectual elite.  Having advanced college degrees don’t make you an intellectual any more than owning stocks and bonds makes you an entrepreneur.

I agree that there is less conflict of interest between the educated elite and the financial elite than there is between the two elites and the majority of wage-earners.

In a typical Fortune 500 corporation, the CEO, the board of directors and the institutional stockholders would be the merchant right.

Salaried middle management, the highly-paid consultants and most especially the human resources department would be the Brahmin left.  Their income would not come from financial assets, but from their rank in an organization, for which they would qualify by means of educational credentials.

The human resources department of an organization usually determines the organizational culture.  Typically HR people are big on diversity training and being LGBTQ allies because these things do not affect the wealth of stockholders or the power of top management.

American non-profit organizations such as universities and hospitals and also government agencies are adopting a  corporate model.

This means a well-paid top-heavy administrative overhead along with lower pay, higher demands and less security for those who do actual work.   Adjunct teachers, hospital nurses and letter carriers are treated just the same as factory workers.

Just to be clear, I’m in favor of sticking up for the rights of minorities, women and other groups that are targets of prejudice.  What’s wrong is using this as cover for lower wages, longer hours, expansion of contingent work and a fight against labor unions.

Such are my observations about American institutional life.  I don’t know how true these observations are true of institutions in Britain and France, or whether they are true at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.

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Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories

July 27, 2019

Double click to enlarge.

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by the University of Chicago by Open Culture.  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

Sixteen levels of complexity in ‘Happy Birthday’

July 20, 2019

This is from Jason Kottke’s blog.

Watch, listen, and learn as pianist and composer Nahre Sol plays what you might think of as a very simple song, Happy Birthday, in 16 increasing levels of complexity.  She starts out using a single finger and ends by playing an original composition that seemingly requires 12 or 13 fingers to play. This gave me, a musical dunce, a tiny glimpse into what a composer does.

Source: A Demonstration of 16 Levels of Piano Playing Complexity

How many times can you fold a piece of paper?

July 6, 2019

Hat tip to kottke.org.

It’s said that you can’t fold a piece of paper in half more than eight times.

High school student Britney Gallivan proved this wrong back in 2002.

To see how remarkable her achievement was, take a look at a brute-force approach to the problem below.

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