Chatological Humor (December 17)

Dec 17, 2019

You asked for it and you got it. Gene holds weekly mini-chats every Tuesday at 12 p.m. ET, where he takes your questions about what's happening in the country — and anything else you want to discuss.

Here was this week's poll.

Good afternoon.  

Warning: What follows is (deliberately) disturbing. 

As many of you know, and many of you have tsk'd at, I have generally been an admirer of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, even some of their more confrontational and controversial stances, antics, and stunts.  They have an unenviable, dreadfully difficult mission -- persuading decent people that, to some degree, they (the people) are bloodthirsty monsters.

PETA can seem sanctimonious and cruel.  They see the raising and slaughtering of animals for our bellies, and the torture of animals for our entertainment, as something of a holocaust.  They are confident that in the future it will be universally recognized as such. 

And deep down, many of us -- maybe most of us -- kind of suspect they are right.  But we don't want to think about it.   And that's their mission: To make us think about it.   They don't really care if we hate them for it.  They are extremely consistent in their philosophy, even when it involves taking stands they know are wildly unpopular.   No animal medical  testing, at all?  Even to cure fatal childhood diseases?  Check. 

I just got in the mail PETA's newest project.  It shocked me.  I am not easily shocked.   So here we are, discussing it. 

It is what appears to be a children's book titled "The Secret Lives of Animals."   It's very expensively made.  The cover is beautiful, featuring adorable cartoon images of animals: A dolphin, a deer, a rabbit, a pig, and a goose.    Also, spiders, mice and bees. 

It's in the style of some expensive modern books for infants.  My grandson, Max, has one almost exactly like it.   To the right on the cover are six little touch-pad panels.  When you touch each, you get a sound of the animal in question.    Here's the book.  Adorable, no? 

Then you hit the sound buttons.  These are not Old MacDonald-type joyful oinks and quacks.  They are the sounds of each animal being tortured and/or killed.   They are blood-curdling. 

They are real.  Some were recorded by PETA during their undercover forays into slaughterhouses.  The deer is from a hunter, culled from youtube -- the dying sounds of an animal he has just shot.  The dolphin's sound is the mournful squee of a wild animal confined to a tank. 

This is obviously not a children's book.  It is not marketed as such.  PETA sells it for $20, to adults. 

Open the book.  The prologue reads:

"This book is for that kid inside you.  The one who thought that dolphins loved living in aquariums, that the lions at the zoo were happy in their cages, that cows pranced joyfully on prairies going "moo moo moo" and that pigs only feared the big bad wolf. 

"It seems funny now, doesn't it, to think you were that innocent?

"This book is also for you, as an adult.  It's time to see how animals really live and to do something about it.  To make that world you saw as a kid, a reality."

Then come the chapters, each for an animal, each told in (sometimes clumsy) rhyme.  I'll just give you the first stanza of the first chapter. 

"Rabbit, rabbit in your cage, / No wonder you're so sad. / You won't make it to old age.  / Goodbye, Mom and Dad!


So, what do you think?   I thought, yech.  And then I rethought.  PETA deals in the real world.  This is the real world.  It is their job to tell it, then rub our noses in it.    This is a good book. 


Have at me, and them.  Chat begins at noon sharp. 

I am one of the few offended by the poll joke. I grew up on a sheep farm and know all these jokes. This one was particularly baaaad.

Yeah, several people asked what anyone could possibly find offensive.   One is what you mentioned: portrayal of farmers as yokel deviants.  Another is, you know, animal rape.  The third is specifying the mechanics of animal rape. 

I'd have answered  "nah,"as most of you have,  because to find these things offensive you'd have to regard the joke as something other than a complete absurdity.  Same reason Roo Roo is not, to me, offensive. 

To be specific, I don't think it's necessarily absurd that a yak might write poetry, but mastering iambic pentameter, for a yak, is a step too far, credibility-wise. 

A yak, I fear, cannot a quatrain make. /  To claim that it has happened? Alas, a fake.  

You forgot to put "joke" in quotations.

Point taken, but I tend not to use that formulation to indicate sarcasm because I have found it is the province of idiots.  Newsbusters, for example, likes to use quotes around "humorist" when describing me or Petri.  

I am a dog person slowly warming up to cats, so I've been entertained by the discussions here about cats proudly depositing horrifying animal "gifts" at the feet of their owners. My boyfriend grew up with a cat, so I asked him if he ever observed this phenomenon with his childhood cat. He said yes - in fact, the cat did this on a number of occasions, and each time it was a bloodied bird or rodent deposited at his mother's feet and many of the times the "gifts" were delivered (according to him) ON MOTHER'S DAY. WHAAAAAAT?? Definitely need to fact-check this with his mom over the holidays because if true it is just SO insane

I suspect it is wrong.  Cats can be cunning and intuitive, but -- like yaks mastering iambic pentameter -- following the calendar is a bit much to believe. 

Look, even though at this point in voting most of us agree that the joke is both completely terrible and not offensive, you're clearly going to tell us that you think we're completely wrong (we're not but ok boomer), so let's hear it.

Not exactly.  Here it comes. 

I said it was a great joke - but with a caveat. It has to be told by the right person. The main weakness of the joke, besides the obvious, is that by the time you get to the end, half the audience will have sorta forgotten the "iambic pentameter" bit and will look at you blankly when you say the punchline. A skilled joke-teller will be able to give the lame punchline with the perfect amount of self-satisfied glee and will have the comedic timing to know exactly how long to let the audience struggle to connect the dots, all of which will elevate the joke a lot. (Yes, all jokes are better when told by a great comedian, but I'd argue that jokes like this are especially so.)

Not sure if "great" is correct, but I did write it.   I wrote it a couple of days ago, just as a dumb-ass joke, and sent it to a few friends who needled me mercilessly about its lameness.  Rachel immediately (correctly) informed the others that it was not only terrible, but was a SECOND DRAFT of an even worse first draft.  Dave Barry responded: "Needs maybe eight to ten more drafts. Start by losing the yak."

I'd call it a reasonably worthy example of "so bad it's good." Has telegraphed absurdity, a painful pun, and a startling end that is a total nonsequitur. 

I tend to disagree with you about iambic pentameter.  I think it is GOOD that you have to momentarily search back to find the provenance of "bard." 

Summary: Not quite 150 tedious words to get to a not funny "punch" line.


hi folks, I usually cannot read the chat in real time. Because so much of the chat frequently revolves around the poll(s), if it/they disappear there's not much point in reading the chat. The poll used to still be there after the chat was over but for the past month or more it has disappeared. PLEASE let it still be visible. If not possible to vote, that's fine. I would just like to know what is behind the chat comments about it. Thanks!

Yu?  You on this?

Yes, we can make that happen! 

Am really impressed with the quality of the reporting of the stories in One Day. In the heart transplant story, for instance, we hear from the cops, the man who would have become Karen's new boyfriend, the surgical nurse, the hospital administrator in charge of soliciting agreement to retrieve organs from brain-dead patients and more. I'd be interested in hearing what sort of success rate you had in approaching potential subjects for your stories and also how you prepare yourself psychologically to conduct these terribly intimate interviews about terribly painful topics and events. Finally, a note to readers: If you haven't already done so, google Cara Knott. Her beauty will break your heart.

Thanks.  I have addressed this issue before.  It's not particularly ennobling.  I am, or try to be, fully human: sensitive and thoughtful and thus such.    When I report, I become The Machine.  You have to do things you might not be entirely comfortable doing.  So you distance yourself from yourself.  It is not you doing these things, it is The Machine, doing its job. 

I fully understand your point about Cara Knott, and, yes, her beauty is what made her murder national news (Until there was a spectacular development that would have made it national news anywhere).  But the beauty of the victim does not make a death any more heartbreaking.  Which you know.   

Am reading and enjoying One Day. Wish I could chat with you about it in person. Failing that, could you tell us a bit about how you found and how you chose the stories that aren't linked to a specific event--the Ed/Ellie Krug story, for instance, and the Cynthia/Don'Paul story?

Ellie and Cynthia both found me.   I had done some media interviews during the early days of my project.   I believe they are the only two stories in the book in which the subject found me, instead of vice versa. 

I would like to respond to the chatter from last week who wrote in about the word "data". In most contexts, data can function as either a plural or a mass noun. Consequentially it can take either a plural or a singular verb. It's a completely stylistic choice; the idea that "data" is always plural is no more true than the idea that "none" is always singular, or that it's a mistake to end a sentence with a preposition. When it's left to my discretion, i.e. the style guide I'm using doesn't mandate one or the the other, I generally prefer using a singular verb, as "the data are" can come across as slightly pedantic unless your writing for a scientific publication (or writing in Latin). I introduced several errors in the third and fifth sentences of this post and incorrectly placed the first period in the hopes that it would annoy the chatter who wrote in about this.

Interesting.  I agree with you in general, and in specific that "the data are" can sound pedantic.  But -- call me a pedant -- I DO think that "none" is always singular.  I owe it to Mr. Gibbons.  He was my tenth grade English teacher.  He told me to think of "none' as "not one" and I'd never be wrong.   And "not one" is always singular. 

Understand your over-the-top enthusiasm for Bob Dylan, but which of his contempories do you also like? I find Paul Simon much more accessible and admire his expanding into multiple musical styles and world music.

Agreed.  Also, Tom Petty.  Leonard Cohen.  Elvis Costello.  

I laughed by butt off. And, no, it's not in the least offensive. Bawdy, ribald, perhaps, offensive, no.


Further to your introduction, I recently listened to a podcast episode of The Ezra Klein Show (always very interesting, thoughtful discussions) with author and philosopher Peter Singer who I guess wrote a book some time ago that talks about how we should all be working to end suffering in the world as much as we can. And that includes the suffering of animals in factory farms. They also talk quite a bit about "effective altruism" and using our wealth to do the most good in the world. Quite thought-provoking. My issue is that there are just so many needs in the world that it can be paralyzing. But maybe that's just an excuse.

It is.  Just an excuse.  I make it, too. 

I despise PETA for many reasons. I want medical advances to continue to make life safer and more healthy. Our bodies NEED a certain amount of animal protein. Do we need torture animals in order to develop shampoo? No. But for PETA to argue that the animal world is beautiful and loving, when in fact most animals eat other animals completely undercuts their positions. I've never known an animal rights supporter to refuse medicines or procedures that benefited from animal testing.

Noted.   But our bodies do not NEED animal protein.  And your argument that animals eat other animals as an excuse for raising and killing animals for food?  

I would ask you to examine your motives and your anger. 

I never really thought about the T in often before your recent chat, figured it was something regional or optional or British even though I always thought it was silent T. A couple days ago my 9 year old, who struggles with reading and spelling, was telling me something about her day and said ofTen, pronouncing the T, so I interrupted and made her go back and repeat what she said so I could correct her. After 5 tries she still kept pronouncing the T even though I explained the silent T and that the word is pronounced "offen." She didn't finish the story she was telling me, but hopefully she'll remember the lesson so that someday some pompous ass doesn't think she is stupid for pronouncing a word wrong.

If it is a comfort, I think close to half of Americans DO pronounce the T in often.   I think a good way to talk to kids about this is with examples of other silent letters.   A kid would understand that a garden gnome is not a garden Genome. 

I admit it, I often pronounce the “t” in often. My husband agrees with you, it’s nuts. While I can’t defend my pronunciation, I think I’ve figured out an explanation for it. I’ve spent a lot of time overseas working with people who speak English as a second language and doing a lot of public speaking. I think that I’ve developed a habit of enunciating carefully to make myself more comprehensible and pronouncing the “t” in often as part of that effort. The sibilance of the “s” in “listen” makes that unnecessary but it’s really hard to project “offen”. I don’t do it all the time but I find myself falling back on it when I’m trying to speak to someone who is hard of hearing or whose English is a bit shaky. I promise not to say it that way when I’m in your presence. So, my quirk is perfectly reasonable but if you want to hear something really funny, listen to someone pronounce the letter “h” as “haitch” instead of “aitch” when spelling a word out loud. I heard an actress on the show “Line of Duty” say it that way and I almost fell off the couch laughing. I’m sure glad that I don’t talk funny. ;-)

I think this makes sense. 

I agree with you, think it is quite clever and startling. I'll steer well clear of it, but think its right in line with their mission. In the recent Mr. Roger's movie, Hanks as Rogers says in explanation of why he's a vegetarian " I can't see eating anything that has a mother". We like to pretend that humans are the only animals with feelings and agency, meanwhile the evidence continually mounts that this is a fallacy. We are all part of the same web of life.

I really admire PETA.  

For the producer: Gene's intro shows up, then nothing more. Did someone forget to push a button somewhere?

It got fixed, which is why you got a vomit-out of questions and answers all of a sudden. 

What's the prospective market/audience for this book. Aren't they just preaching to the choir?

They are strengthening their base!   Stiffening their spines. 

This is the story of someone who worked a little too hard to make something funny. It seems the author thought up a punchline and then had to force their way to make it work. Rewrite, Yak farmer answers the door. Shakespeare is knocking and asks for the animal's for amorous purposes. Farmer, "Not in my yak, bard."

Yours is bad.  The length of the setup is part of the success of the punchline.  You have heard the moth-podiatrist joke, right? Norm MacDonald?

PETA would not approve of your yak joke.

You're probably right!

Listening to "Graceland" the other day, it occurred to me that one of the greatest albums of all times couldn't possibly be made today. Would have been accused of cultural misappropriation, and booed down instantly. Makes me sad.

Whoa!   I think you are right!   Others have a feel for this?  Would Graceland have been allowed by the custodians of public morality?

OK: you're a pedant. And you're wrong. As was Mr. Gibbons.

You can say anything about me that you want.  Do not besmirch Mr. Gibbons.  For one thing, he's about 130 years old. 

No. But human beings have minds, too, and quality of life. I personally enjoy animal protein and my body is designed to properly process it. I respectfully disagree with your asinine opinion....

What if you personally enjoyed human thigh meat?

I received an explanation of benefits from my insurance company for a recent mammogram. To my amusement, the name of the radiologist on the billing was John A. Tata. You're welcome.

Wow!  Excellent!  

My sister maintains that only pedants use the word pedantic. I think I agree. What say you? Also, do you find the word "pedant" as ugly and clunky as I do?

I think only pedants use the expression "what say you?"

One would think that the people of the United States, having seen for themselves the lockstep, "the leader is always right" mentality of the Republican party lately, would be so fed up they would vote for nothing but Democrats. I understand the Trump "base" is a bunch of indoctrinated idiots, but what the hell is wrong with the rest of them? Surely there are Republicans with integrity? .................nah.........

It is going to be the focus of a lot of books.  The Republican party lost its soul.  how?

When the acadamies hammer the cadets for flashing White Power and Trump pardons them what will be our response?

Depends on what the meaning of "our" are.  Er, is.  

Not sure if this has been suggested, but what if Nancy Pelosi decides to table the vote? The charges have been clearly presented to the public and there is no doubt as to how the vote will go. So why give the Repubs a week-long prime time window which they will treat as a Trump re-election infomercial and a bash-a-thon on Democrats? Trump won’t be able to claim acquittal (tho he will try), and Pelosi can always call for a vote down the road should more egregious offenses arise. Trump will not be able to put impeachment behind him, and hewon’t get his trial, which will piss him off.

This makes no sense to me.  It will seem to most of the country as though Pelosi either decided that there is no case against Trump, which would be a huge Trump victory, or that the political costs would be too high, which is also a huge Trump victory.   

Now if she simply declared a month long hiatus, but scheduled a vote in, say, mid-February, THAT would infuriate Trump and bring his trial into primary season. 

I answered that the joke was meh funny and not offensive bc I wasn't offended by it. It got me thinking about the context-specific nature of offensiveness. Likely bc I ended up apologizing to a co-worker last week after I told a story about a racist response my grandfather gave to a dumb kid joke I told when I was maybe 10. It's always seemed like an innocent, funny story to me - one I've told many times to positive reception. The funny part being my complete shock at the out of left field, cheerful racism that was signature Grandpa. To people who don't know my family though, I can see how it could come off as simply making light of racism. Lesson learned.

I have had a similar moment, involving my racially clueless but fundamentally decent Grandma.  I don't relate it anymore.  

Lest anyone argue the scenario in your poll joke is not realistic enough...

WOW!!! I was unaware of that. 

All of this, of course, calls to mind Dan Savage's Best Story Ever.  If you never heard this, give up the minute and a half.  It's great. 

In the 7th graf from the end, which is the 48th graf from the top, there’s an inaptonym. In a Seattle Times story from June 2019, a Romantic spokesman (Bob Romantic) of Grand Canyon University, provided a comment about an administration hire from the University of Washington whose sexual assault of an athlete had been swept under the rug and covered up by the university - yes, they actually did both. At UW, it was reported to only a few people as sexual harassment but not to police, and was not recorded in a way another school subsequently hiring the predator would find out through normal hiring practices.

The name alone is so remarkable and freighted that  it would probably qualify as an aptonym, or an inaptonym, in almost any context. 

Human beings have civil rights. Animals don't. Spending the rest of my life in prison as a murderer is not worth a good meal. If PETA wants to accomplish their goals, they've got a long road ahead of them, because they're gonna have to pass a LOT of laws. And they won't get laws passed giving animals civil rights...

Aha!  So you will torture and kill animals because it is legal.  Got it . 


At least weekly, the sports section has a headline along the lines of "Team A had their way with Team B." Is there a non-rapey context for that choice of words?

There is not.  It's pretty skeevy. 

I love meat. Especially rare, red meat. Can't imagine a good life without it. I also accept that slaughtering an animal to get that meat is morally wrong, but I do it anyway. Maybe the next generation will be better.

Exactly where I stand.  We are shocking hypocrites.   The raw meat I most love is sushi, and I feel less guilty about that.  

The things that bother me about PETA: 1) they operate animal shelters with high kill rates, which is related to 2) their stance about pets/companion animals. They do not believe humans should have pets. At all.

I believe they have changed that last thing.   I know PETA people.  Most have pets.  They do operate in the real world.  They feel that since there are so many domesticated animals out there, they should be cared for by people who love and respect them.  

I knew someone growing up who worked in a beef packing plant in the Midwest. At the age of 14, I asked for a tour. He said to ask him again when I was an adult, as I would never be able to forget what I saw in there for the rest of my life. I never went back, but I guess if I did, I would have become a vegetarian. Instead, our family eats way too much meat, even though I agree with your intro. We deep down, kind of suspect PETA is right. What is the best way to just wake up one day and completely give up meat?

Be a better person than I am. 

I've thought this for some time. It's exhibit A as to why -- in this nation, anyway -- the whole narrative around cultural appropriation is flat wrong.

i disagree with that, re cultural appropriation.  I think it is sometimes grotesque and inexcusable.  But some of the objections have gone over a line into the absurd. 

I've suggested to friends that she should be nominated/short-listed/win a Pulitzer for commentary. I think she's that good. I will not be taking questions, please respect my decision.

Alex, I have asked you not to submit questions to my chat. 

Your admiration of PETA is similar to Nat Hentoff's late-in-life discovery of his own opposition to abortion. It diminished him significantly in my eyes. People stopped taking him seriously as a constitutional scholar. PETA has one good point that we should be kinder to animals. Their approach and sanctimony undercut their valid point, to the point of not wanting or being able to take them seriously.

You are not alone in feeling this wrong thing. 

Gene, haven't read your book yet, but some questions in this chat and earlier ones have raised a question: When first approaching subjects for interviews for the book, did you introduce yourself as a Washington Post writer? A reporter? An author, but with no mention of the post?? Enquiring minds want to know.

Being honest is always best.   I said I was a Wapo columnist, but calling them for a book I am writing. 

What a world we live in today where the President of the United States can hurl personal insults at a CHILD on twitter and no one bats an eye. And people think this is okay?

Well, people are batting eyes, but that's pretty much all they are doing.  It's part of an insidious process:  Trump is such a vile pig, his newest example of vile piggery is not "news."

I have a suggestion for a poll. I'm curious as to what year(s) people transitioned from bringing typewriters to college with them and started bringing computers. Obviously cost would have been a factor, since computers in the 80s and 90s cost a lost more in real terms than they do now. I started college in 1995 and brought a computer, but I was in the minority. There's got to be sort of a magic age or year where things flipped over. Probably when computer labs started taking up lots of real estate in campus buildings, but I don't know when that might have been.

I appreciate your suggestion, but I am not sure you quite grasp what makes a good poll, across generations of people. 

Also, you may be making an odd assumption.   At least back when I was in college, in the early Cretaceous Period, no one brought a typewriter with them. 

I'm curious: Did you know Joel Resnicoff? Your treatment of him in One Day is so detailed, intimate, and loving.

Nope, never met him.  His brother spent hours and hours with me.   And his art is available all over.  You can understand a lot about him from his work. 

The poll joke doesn't work even as "so bad it's funny" because it's only a two-word pun. The similar Pearls Before Swine strips work even when they are telegraphed because they are long and convoluted, as the the PBS strip from two Sundays ago (

I taught Pastis everything he knows about puns. 

PETA members belong in the same room in hell with those people who stand outside the clinic harassing people who are entering to terminate a pregnancy. You can argue and persuade your side if it differs from mine, but when you step over the line and get in my face - YOU become the problem. Seriously - what kind of person does this crap?

I know this is obnoxious of me, but i repeat: Try to confront your anger over this, and analyze its roots.   

Eh, the older I get the less I can tolerate any worldview that doesn't admit complexity and differences. Factory farmed beef and chicken in awful conditions and slaughtered at fast rates, not great; responsibly raised and tended, farm-roaming animals slaughtered for people who eat mindfully and moderately, I'm fine with.

What do you think is the proportion of the first to the second?

Cats cannot be vegetarians. It will kill them, so how do you have a cat without killing other animals? And I have never seen PETA say we shouldn't have pets but in my opinion they should because 1) they have to be feed meat, 2) most animals are basically being held in captivity (think birds, hamsters etc) and 3) even people who think they are great pets owners and treat their animals well, don't. Example: dog owners who never walk their dogs.

PETA used to say no pets.   I think it might be the only issue they have retreated on, at least a little.  I suspect ( but do not know) that  it was due to pressure from within. 

Is the PETA book labeled and intended for adults, or do they really hope to put it into children's hands?

Absolutely marketed only to adults. 

I was recently at the Miami Book Fair, and attended a lecture by Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel about their hilarious new book, "A Field Guide to the Jewish People."   Mansbach is the guy who wrote "Go the F--- to Sleep."   He said he frequently gets irate mail from people outraged that he expects us to read that to babies.  

"Who the f--- would read that to a baby?" he said. 

PETA seems to only enrage a certain subset of the population, and I'm not defending all their positions, but at this point, it's pretty clear that the true cost of eating meat hugely outweighs the benefit. I'm not sure on how some other organization could do a better job than PETA is on encouraging people to eat less meat, but we need something. Our meat consumption is destroying the environment and a huge contribute to climate change; the oceans are over-fished and marine life may never recover; the workers in the factory farm industry are subject to horrific conditions; and very rarely are animals humanely slaughtered. We don't need everybody to swear off eating all meat; we need more people to eat less meat, and more people to pay attention to where their meat is coming from. I mostly avoid meat. But I have a cat, who is - unlike humans! - an obligate carnivore, and a picky one at that. He only seems to like fish-based food. There is surprisingly little out there on sustainable pet food options.

Take a look at the work The Good Food Institute is doing.  President: Bruce Friedrich. 

I REALLY am not bothered by killing animals and eating their meat. Seriously. Many people feel the same. And I lean liberal, and have pets.

You fine with the way they are raised, in squalid, depressing, cruel conditions?  Or do you maintain a self delusion that they live wonderfully until they are killed humanely?

When I was younger I loved the Blue Crab and sponsored many a crab feast. No at 62, the thought of steaming and tearing crabs apart makes me feel quite sad. I don't do it anymore.

Oddly, that's in the area where I am not that upset.  To me, crustaceans and fish and below are not in the same category as more sentient beasts. 

To me, the true horror of the blue crab is Old Bay. 

"OK Boomer" is rude and disrespectful. I am offended on your behalf.

Yeah, doesn't bother me in the least .    The Mils are about the rule the world.  Go kick ass, Mils.  If you have to climb over me, have at it.  

I am not a vegetarian, but eat meat rarely. I know this is not ideal, but feel its at least something, rather like the fact that I have a car but take the bus to work every day.

Interesting analogy.   I like it . 

Okay, we're done here.  Sorry about the early snafu.  I hope we didn't lose too many of you. 

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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

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