Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”

5th in the “I can tell for myself” sequence. Previous post: The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

This is a short post that introduces the second half of the sequence. The first half focused on what it means to have a sense of being able to tell something for yourself (direct-knowing or “gnosis”) as contrasted with taking someone’s word for it, and how people get out of touch with their own knowing, in many little moments as children and structurally as a society. The remainder of the sequence investigates interactions between people, tensions that arise depending on how well each person is tracking their sense of being able to tell for themselves, and possibilities for collective direct-knowing: “we can tell for ourself”.

So. Sometimes one person can tell for themselves, while another is taking others’ word for it. There are a few ways that can go. Sometimes the asymmetries are simple, functional and productive; well, relatively—there are a few caveats. These simple functional asymmetries are what this post is about—companies being one example.

Lopsided conversations

When there’s a conversation between one person who is consistently checking everything that’s being said with whether it accords with their experience, and another who isn’t, the conversation can easily become lopsided, with the person who is grounded in their own self-trust ending up with a position of authority. That’s not the only place that social authority comes from (institutional power, or pure charisma spouting bullshit, work just fine for that) but I would say that it produces a kind of authority that holds up under quite a bit of inspection, which naturally engenders a kind of sustained trust from others.

When this is the case, the person who is uncompromisingly checking everything with their own experience ends up exerting kind of a large gravitational force on the conversation, and people let them do this in part because they don’t know how to access their own full weight, and in part because the other person does seem to be speaking with a kind of grounded honesty.

Prompt: A dramatic scene depicting two men in a conversation. One man stands on the edge of a rugged cliff, dressed in casual hiking gear. His posture is assertive, and he is making strong gestures with his hands. Facing him is another man standing on a towering pile of speech bubbles, symbolizing an intent verbal exchange. The speech bubble pile is as high as the cliff, putting both men at eye level. The background features a dramatic sky with dark clouds, enhancing the intense atmosphere of the scene. Both men are of average build, one with short hair and the other slightly longer.
AI-generated by ChatGPT+DALL-E with my prompt: a guy standing on a cliff’s edge, arguing eye to eye with a guy standing on a pile of speech bubbles (view image alt for the full prompt used)

And so this authority may override what others say since the others don’t trust their own “I can tell for myself” sense, so they speak in a kind of flimsy floaty way (not to say it might not sound confident, just that its source of confidence is not in the room). Simultaneously, the authority may not be bothered by people attempting to put out ideas, because they’re grounded in what they know rather than subject to some ideology that they need to uphold in order to maintain their legitimacy. And in technical domains where there’s a clearer sense that we can converge on the right answer, there can be lively debate and the authority will recognize “oh wait, you’re right, my bad”. In general, conversations in technical domains tend to have more sense of everybody involved having at least some sense of “I can tell for myself”.

My guess is that a lot of (relatively) healthy companies have a bit of this going on, and it’s not ideal but it’s legit better than a company where everybody is bullshitting, like I described in the oppressive cultures post. And there are definitely attractors, but there’s no clear binary distinction between any of the dynamics I describe anywhere in this sequence. Many situations could be analyzed through the lens of different kinds of dynamics, and multiple elements might be present or relevant at the same time.

The stability & simplicity of asymmetry & hierarchy

It’s been observed by many people over the years that while consensus has various kinds of appeal, it is often much less efficient and effective than having someone who is in charge for some scope of project or whatever, and can decisively choose what’s going to happen. There is a deeper level of complexity possible, of collective consciousness or co-what-now’ing, where everybody is fluidly organizing and integrating and differentiating and so on—the fully meta-rational workplace—but that’s hard and even the forefront of development of our species can only kinda do it sometimes. So it’s often more workable to just have one person call the shots—at least at a given level; maybe someone else calls the shots within their subproject, etc.

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“Whose job is this?”

It occurs to me, in the shower, that a lot of my life is preoccupied by this question. It’s a good theme, for Malcolm Ocean. Whose job is this?

My “what if it were good tho?” YouTube series and website is about the role of design: how each day, people are pulling their hair trying to workably interface with systems, wasting hours of their life, and feeling stupid or ashamed because they can’t figure it out, when in many of these cases an extra couple of minutes’ thought on the part of the person who designed it or made it would have made the whole experience so smooth it would have gone as unnoticed as the operation of the differential gearing in your car that makes turns not result in wheels skipping on the ground as the outer one needs to travel further than the inner one. That guy just works! That problem is so solved most people never even realize it was ever a problem.

My app, Intend, is about the question of what you want to do with your life: about consciously choosing what your job is. It’s also about figuring out what to do right now, in light of the larger things you want to do, and differentiating something someone else wants you to do from something you want to do, so you don’t accidentally live somebody else’s vision for your life instead of yours. Moreover, it helps keep you from being saddled with dozens or hundreds of stale tasks merely because past-you vaguely thought they were a good idea or at least worth putting on a list.

My work in communication, trust, and the human meta-protocol, is about teasing apart the nuances of exactly who is responsible for what. Some of that has been focused around creating post-blame cultures, and I’ve recently come to a new impression that what blame is (aside from “the thing that comes before punishment”) that I could summarize as “a type of explanation for why something went wrong that assigns responsibility crudely rather than precisely and accurately-by-all-parties’-accounts”. In other words, it gets the “whose job is this?” question wrong, and people can tell.

My mum told me that as a kid I had a very keen sense for justice and injustice, and this feels related to how I think about the design stuff as well as other questions. My ethical journey over the last years has involved a lot of investigation of questions around what things are my job, and what things are not my job, and how to tell the difference. And how to catch my breath, and how to reconcile the fears I’ve had of not trying hard enough. And how to tell when the messages about how to be a good person are crazy.

“You had one job!”

As I said, my longstanding beef with bad design can be seen as frustration at designers and builders not doing their job. I say “builders” because some of them don’t even realize that part of their job includes design. My partner, Jess, just shared with me a perfect case study of this. She’d been having trouble getting her psych crisis non-profit registered for some California government thing, because the form needed her number from some other registration, but when she put in the number the form said it was invalid (with no further clues). She tried a different browser, tried a bunch of other numbers from the document that had the supposed number, called the people who had given her the number to make sure it was the right one given that it wasn’t super well-labeled, and I even tried poking at the javascript on the page to turn off the validation altogether, but nothing worked.

A couple weeks later she texted me:

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The choice to open, the choice to allow

Another sequel to “Mindset choice” is a confusion. Here’s the first, which I wrote a year ago and published earlier this week: Mindset choice 2: expanding awareness.

I started exploring the implications of a simple question: what is within my power to choose?

This is something that we have to learn as infants and toddlers and kids—oh, I can choose to clench my fist… but I can’t choose to clench yours. Ooh… I can choose to look at something, but I can’t choose to make you look at something. Ah! I can choose to point at the thing, and maybe you’ll look, but I can’t directly steer your gaze or attention. In some sense, this is precisely where the boundary of self and other is located! And it’s also connected to how when we’re wielding a tool that works for us and it fades into the background, it becomes part of ourselves.

I can’t directly control you, although I might be able to invite or persuade or coerce you. And while I can’t quite control you, I can be trying to control you. Or I can be allowing you to be you and honoring the obvious-once-you-look-at-it reality that my choice ends at the edges of me. Society has historically involved a lot of the former, at great cost but also with meaningful results: lots of civilization was built by someone telling someone else what to do, on some level.

Then I considered that same structure, but applied internally to my own mind, and I realized that I have different parts that have different wills, and these parts also can’t control each other. They each have their own choice-making faculty, in this sense. To be clear, this line of thinking doesn’t require reifying these parts as persistent named entities as one might in IFS (Internal Family Systems). That’s an option, and might be helpful, but most fundamentally we’re just talking about some sort of subsystem that in a given moment is doing some perceiving, some wanting, some steering, etc.

And if those subsystems want something that’s compatible, I simply do it—no choice required.

But if one subsystem wants one thing and one wants another, and on a given level both aren’t possible—suppose part of me wants to keep writing and another part wants to go eat dinner—then neither system can simply enact its will since the other will oppose it. If one urge is particularly strong, eg because of a deadline or the smell of pizza in the oven, then that urge might overpower the other—it seems there are systems that track the size of urges as part of prioritizing and preventing such inner gridlock. Anyway, at that point, if the overpowered part releases and allows the first thing to happen, I’ll have full energy to do whatever it is I’ve found myself doing; if not, then I’ll experience friction and distraction—thoughts of food while trying to write, or thoughts of my blog post while eating. Or some more subtle indigestion of the mind and/or body.

What choice do each of these parts have, while in a conflict?

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Mindset choice 2: expanding awareness

Another piece I wrote a year ago that I want to publish as a kind of snapshot rather than try to get it perfect. My ideas here keep evolving and any version that I come up with seems simultaneously confused and clarifying.

A sequel to “Mindset choice” is a confusion.

My Non-Naive Trust Dance framework and its clarity that mindset choice is confused was a huge source of relief for me, because I’d been feeling pressured to somehow make a choice that I couldn’t make, and which on some level I knew I couldn’t make.

However, I have also experienced a perspective from which it seemed to be true that in some sense your mindset is certainly a thing that only you can choose, and in another sense perhaps even the only thing you can choose. So how does that integrate with “mindset choice” being a confusion?

Here’s some thinking out loud on the topic. I’m aware of some limitations—this feels like it’s sort of dancing around the puzzle, not getting right to the heart of it.

One piece of the choice puzzle is: via expanding awareness.

This framing of expanding attention (awareness) as including both doing and not-doing is really interesting. One of the core skills of Alexander Technique is that of inhibition, the constructive noticing and not responding to stimuli. You may notice that you have the urge to yell at your boss, but you don’t.

But this is an active process, one that is continually renewing itself. You are aware of what you are doing in response to your boss (having a conversation) and what you’re not doing in your response to your boss (yelling). Through the skill of inhibition, your awareness includes both of these processes at once.

The expanded awareness is what allows this to happen. If your awareness were collapsed down to the yell response, you wouldn’t have any choice but to yell. By expanding out you are able to monitor a wider field of processes and choose the one you want.

— my friend Michael Ashcroft‘s newsletter. Emphasis mine in the last paragraph

And elsewhere:

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Coercion in terms of scarcity & perceptual control

The following is a piece I wrote a year ago. A few months back I started editing it for publication and it started evolving and inverting and changing so dramatically that I found myself just wanting to publish the original as a snapshot of where my thinking was at about a year ago when I first drafted this. I realized today that attempts to write canonical pieces are daunting because there’s a feeling of having to answer all questions for all time, and that instead I want to just focus on sharing multiple perspectives on things, which can be remixed and refined later and more in public. So, with some minor edits but no deep rethinking, here’s one take on what coercion is. And you might see more pieces here soon that I let go of trying to perfect first.

Coercion = “the exploitation of the scarcity of another, to force the other to behave in a way that you want”

The word “behave” is very important in the above definition. Shooting someone and taking their wallet isn’t coercion, as bad as it is. Neither is picking their pocket when they’re not paying attention. But threatening someone at gunpoint and telling them to hand over their wallet (or stand still while you take it) is coercion. This matches commonly accepted understandings of the word, as far as I know.

A major inspiration for this piece is Perceptual Control Theory, a cybernetic model of cognition and action, which talks about behavior as the control of perception. I’m also mostly going to talk about interpersonal coercion here—self-coercion is similar but subtler.


If someone has a scarcity of food, you can coerce them by feeding them conditional on them doing what you want. This is usually called slavery. One important thing to note is that it requires you physically prevent them from feeding themselves any other way! Which in practice usually also involves the threat of violence if they attempt to flee and find a better arrangement.

In general, a strategy built on the use of coercion means preferring that the coerced agent continue to be generally in a state of scarcity, because otherwise you would be unable to continue to control them! (Because they could just get their need met some other way and therefore wouldn’t have to do what you say!)

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Open Letter to David Sauvage re Collective Decision-Making

Hello to David Sauvage (cc Daniel Thorson)

I’ve just listened to your podcast interview and want to expose myself to you as someone deeply tracking the field as well.

I’m writing this letter to you from a plane flying west in a gorgeous multi-hour sunset, from Ontario to Vancouver. I’ve just wrapped up a weeklong adventure that I described in this other open letter as a meta-protocol jam, where I was interfacing with some of the people I know who are most plugged in with the leading edge of collective decision-making.

(Listen to the podcast here: The Future of Collective Decision-Making on Emerge)

I felt huge resonance with almost everything in the podcast, even though I know very little about Occupy.

Lots of possible starting points here. Let’s use this:

The right goal is not consensus but resonance. A collective experience of the truth.

When consensus-driven decision-making works, it’s because it does this.

Absolutely. How this occurs to me is that the key difference is: consensus is allowed to be hard-blocked by dissociated narrowly-fixated left hemisphere stuff, whereas a resonance-oriented approach refuses to stop there. Though those views still need to be integrated! And there’s a huge puzzle on how to do that without losing your own view, which I’ve been investigating with my Non Naive Trust Dance framework! And I’m seeing how the moves I’ve been encouraging people to make as part of that, of naming “I can’t trust X” or “I can’t rest at ease with X”, partially helps people actually get more subjective & embodied, and to open to uncertainty.

A lot to unpack there. My NNTD framework is something I’ve developed for orienting to the creation of intersubjective truth, starting from subjective truth. One lens I have on trust is “trust is what truth feels like from the inside”. Simultaneously, trusting something means being able to be at ease in relation to it. Sometimes we generate this ease in a naive way, by suppressing our concerns, but this is unstable—when those concerns re-arise, they then disrupt apparent group consensus or even apparent resonance that was existing in denial of the concerns. As I’m articulating that right now, in relation to what I just listened to, I’m feeling the inherent relationship between truth and values—what is deeply right for us (our subjective values) aren’t arbitrary.

It seems to me that we don’t choose them so much as discover them. We discover the tradeoffs we truly want to make, and then it doesn’t even feel like a sacrifice. So the decision-making process that you outlined is one of mutual/collective discovery of what we in fact deeply want once all perspectives are heard.

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Open letter: Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

I wrote this addressed to a learning community of a few dozen people, based in Ontario, that evolved from the scene I used to be part of there before I left in late 2020. I’m about to visit for the first time in nearly 2 years, and I wanted to articulate how I’m understanding the purpose & nature of my visit. It’s also aimed to be a more general articulation of the kind of work I’m aiming to do over the coming years.

This writing is probably the densest, most complete distillation of my understandings that I’ve produced—so far! Each paragraph could easily be its own blog post, and some already are. My editing process also pruned 1700 words worth of tangents that were juicy but non-central to the point I’m seeking to make here, and there are many other tangents I didn’t even start down this week while writing this. Every answer births many new questions.

Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

To “jam” is to improvise without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements.
“Convening” means coming together, and Ontario is of course that region near the Great Lakes.
As for the “meta-protocol”…

It seems to me…

It seems to me that: consistent domain-general group flow is possible and achievable in our lifetimes. Such flow is ecstatic and also brilliant & wise. Getting to domain-general group flow momentarily is surprisingly straightforward given the right context-setting, but it seems to me that it usually involves a bit of compartmentalization and is thus unsustainable. It can be a beautiful and inspiring taste though. (By “domain-general” I mean group flow that isn’t just oriented towards a single goal (such as what a sports team has) but rather an experience of flow amongst the group members no matter what aspects of their lives or the world they turn their attention to.)

It seems to me that: profound non-naive trust is required for consistent domain-general group flow. This is partially self-trust and partially interpersonal trust.

It seems to me that: in order to achieve profound non-naive trust, people need to reconcile all relevant experiences of betrayal or interpersonal fuckery they’ve had in their life. This is a kind of relational due diligence, and it’s not optional. It’s literally the thing that non-naive trust is made out of. That is, in order for a group to trust each other deeply, they need to know that the members of that group aren’t going to betray each other in ways they’ve seen people betray each other before (or been betrayed before). Much of this is just on the level of trusting that we can interact with people without losing touch with what we know. So we either need to find a way to trust that the person in front of us won’t do something that has disturbed us before, or that we ourselves aren’t vulnerable to it like we were before, which involves building self-trust. It takes more than just time & experience to build trust—people need to feel on an embodied level why things go the way they’ve gone, and see a viable way for them to go differently.

It seems to me that: people attempt to do this naturally, whenever they’re relating, but understanding what’s going on and how to make it go smoothly can dramatically increase the chances of building trust rather than recapitulating dysfunctional dynamics by trying to escape them.

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What is collective consciousness and why does it matter?

I scheduled this post to go live as a showtime, then realized I wasn’t sure if “consciousness” is the right way to even frame this, but I let it go live anyway. In some sense it could be called “sanity”, but that has its own challenging connotations. I use both terms sort of synonymously below; I might decide later that yet a third word is better. There’s also a lot more that I can—and will—say about this!

I figure collective consciousness can be summarized as the capacity for a group of people to:

  • see the world clearly together, integrating their individual perspectives into a larger whole
  • have a shared train of thought that finds and makes sense of what is relevant
  • make and enact decisions together in ways that adequately incorporate all information and careabouts that all members have

(Jordan Hall’s 3 facets of sovereignty: perception, sensemaking and agency.)

I like to say “Utopia is when everyone just does what they feel like doing, and the situation is such that that everyone doing what they feel like doing results in everyone’s needs getting met.” On a smaller group, a sane We is when everyone in the We does what they feel like in the context of the We, and they are sufficiently coherently attuned to each other and the whole such that each member’s needs/careabouts get met.

In some sense, obviously, if there existed an X such that if you supported the X it would cause everything you want to be achieved better than you could manage on your own, you’d want to support the X. Obviously, from the X’s perspective, it would want to support the individuals’ wants/needs/etc to get met so that they have more capacity to continue supporting it supporting them supporting it [ad infinitum]. This is the upward spiral, and it’s made out of attending to how to create win-wins on whatever scale.

As far as I can tell, there can’t exist such an X that is fully outside the individual(s) it is supporting. In order for it to actually satisfy what you actually care about, consistently and ongoingly, it needs a direct feedback loop into what you care about, which may not be what you can specify in advance. Thus you need to be part of it. The system gives you what you need/want, not what you think you need/want, in the same way that you do this for yourself when you’re on top of things. Like if you eat something and it doesn’t satisfy you, you get something else, because you can tell. (This is related to goodhart and to the AI alignment puzzle).

Fortunately, as far as I can tell, we can learn to form We systems that are capable of meeting this challenge. They are composed of ourselves as individuals, paying attention to ourselves, each other and the whole in particular ways. Such a We can exist in an ongoing long-term explicit committed way (eg a marriage) or one-off task-based unremarkable ad hoc way (eg a group gathers to get someone’s car unstuck, then disappears) or something in between (eg some people who meet out on deep playa at burning man and end up being buddies for the rest of the day).

What does it feel like?

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An illustration of the adjacent-possible meta-team vision

While queuing up the 100× vision post last week, I realized I hadn’t published another vision doc that I wrote awhile back and had been sharing with people, so I figured out would be good to get that out too. In contrast to the 100× vision, which is imagining the 2030s, this one is the adjacent-possible version of the vision—the one where if you squint at the current reality from the right angle, it’s already happening. I wrote this one originally in November 2020. There’s also A Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision, which is a looser sketch.


This is intended to evoke one possibility, not to fully capture what seems possible or likely.

In fact, it is highly likely that what happens will be different from what’s below.

Relatedly, and also central to this whole thing: if you notice while reading this that you feel attracted towards parts of it and averse to other elements (even if you can’t name quite what) then awesome!

Welcome that.

Integrating everyone’s aversion or dislike or distrust or whatever is vital to steering towards the actual, non-goodharted vision. And of course your aversion might be such that it doesn’t make sense for you to participate in this (or not at this phase, or not my version of it). My aim is full fractal buy-in, without compromise.

The diagram

A diagram depicting 3 nested circles, each with people in them, and different projects that people are working on.
An illustration that I made for a friend to try to point at my vision. This piece of writing was then written to explain the illustration.

This diagram (except for the part where one of the people is marked as me 😉) could apply to any network of people working on projects together, that exists around a closed membrane, but I want to elaborate a bit more specifically about what I have in mind.

The Collaborative self-energizing meta-team vision public articulation 2020-10-19 is describing the outermost regions of the above diagram, without any reference to the existence of the membranes. The open-network-ness is captured by this tweet:

This is a beacon—want to work with people doing whatever most deeply energizes you? Join us!…how? There’s no formal thing.

Joining = participating in this attitude.

The attitude is one of collaboration in the sense of working together, and in particular working together in ways that everybody involved is excited about and finds energizing and life-giving. Where people are motivated both by the work they’re doing as part of the collaboration, and by the overall vision. That’s not to say it’ll all be easy or pleasant or straightforward—working with people is challenging! And that’s where the other layers come in.

I’m now going to jump to the innermost, closed membrane, because the dotted-line teal group kind of exists as a natural liminal area between that and the wider group.

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Malcolm’s 100× vision (3 layers)

“There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Artwork by DALL·E 2 with my prompt: “illustration of a group of humans forming a collaborative ecstatic superorganism”.
I created the graphic with the Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quotation overlaid.

Last year, I was inspired by a fellow friend and consciousness-evolution-furtherer, who sent a screenshot of his “100× vision” in a newsletter. I replied “I feel dared by you doing that to do something similar myself.” A couple months later, I finally wrote something up. At the time it felt too big and scary to post anywhere, but perhaps I’ve grown, or just gotten more comfortable with it, or shared it with enough people who responded positively… because I now feel pretty easeful about posting it to my blog.

I’ve written some adjacent-possible visions. This one is about 10-15 years into the future—sometime in the 2030s—and is written as if I wrote it then, in the present tense, describing what I see when I look around at my life. It’s not a complete description of what I want—it’s actually very abstract and is designed to be a sort of generic placeholder vision that many people would also find themselves wanting. A friend recently challenged me to make an actual personal vision, so I’ve now done that too and it’s called “Malcolm’s bespoke personal selfish vision” but that I’m also not ready to publish. Wants can be very vulnerable!

Without further ado: here’s what I see from an imagined place in the 2030s:

I’m deeply embedded in beautiful, bountiful, brilliant collaborative human superintelligence on many scales, of which I’ll highlight 3 below. I’m not the leader on any of these scales – to some extent because there is no single leader but also because inasmuch as there is, that’s not what I’m called to do. But I was one of the major figures getting it all off the ground years ago, because I knew I needed all of this to exist in order to be thriving this much… I wouldn’t settle for anything less, and nobody else was already simply doing it in a way I could join, so I Sourced some of it.

Since precisely *what* we’re all working on at this point is highly contingent and path-dependent on both what else has happened and is happening in the world, as well as on who’s involved, and I’m writing this from a trans-timeline perspective that’s independent of those details, I can’t specify in detail what projects we’re working on, but I can describe the rough structure of things as they look right now in 2035.

inner scale: collective brain

I’m part of a slowly growing group of 10-20 people who are capable of getting profoundly in sync and are thus able to actually think as well as… it’s hard to put it but something like “as well as a single human could if it had 10-20x as many neurons”. Another analogy might be “a five year old is to an adult as an adult is to this collective brain”. We’re able to solve problems better than almost any individual could (except given specific expertise). Individual wisdom is integrated—the group is wise about anything that any individual in the group is wise about.

This group is one of several that are connected, and we’ve had some splittings and mergings over the years to find better configurations of people.

We have been and are ongoingly achieving this through a combination of…

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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