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I found the comments to yesterday’s post interesting.  There are some subjects out there that people are so convinced they know the details of, it’s as if they don’t hear what doesn’t comply with what they think they know.

Let’s start with  Cheryl’s comment that it wouldn’t make sense for a middle class or working class family to “stake all” on the hope that an Ivy education would mean great success for their child.

But such a family WON’T “stake all” on an Ivy education–in fact, if the family makes $60,000 or less a year, and the kid is good enough to get in anyway, the chances are that his total outlay for tuition, room and board for four years will run at most between $6000 and $8000–less, if he can get into Harvard. 

That same kid will pay $68,000 to spend four years at the University of Connecticut at Storrs–close to ten times as much.

So why would this family be “staking all’ to take the Ivy deal and being sensible to send the kid to UConn?

Like Mab, I also have one of those fancy degrees from a fancy college.  And the advantage doesn’t lie in the “old boy network.” 

Statistically, the bottom half of a Ivy class does better, financially, that the top half of a second tier–but the real issue isn’t the money.

Let’s say you’re an editor at Big New York Publishing House and you need an ediorial assistant.  An editorial assistant is a glorified secretary, but nobody gets to be an editor without being an EA first, so what you’re trying to do is hire somebody who can b promoted in two years.

You advertise–the pay is God awful, and the hours are worse, but lots of people want to get into publishing, and you find yourself with 7,000 applications on your desk.

How do you sort through them?

Picking out the ones with Ivy or other top-20 credentials makes sense on two levels:  first, the standards  for academic work at such places are much higher than at the competition and second, if you ever have a discrimination complaint that first part will cover your ass–yes, we turned down Ms. Murecki, but not because she’s a Polynesian woman. The guy we gave the job to has a degree from  Harvard and Ms. Murecki went to Oklahoma State.

In all my years in this business, I’ve known exactly one person without such credentials who managed to make it into the system, and the same thing is true of the national magazines.

And this is not a minor issue if you want to end up making your living as a writer, because the usual path to that is NOT to write things in your room at home and send them out to editors in hopes somebody will buy one.

The usual method is to take a job at a national magazine or an important publishing house, work for a few years, get to know all the editors and agents you can, and then, after a promotion or two, pitch a project. 

Most of the books and articles you see for major publishers and publications are contracted for before a single word of the project has been put on paper.  When I was still doing a lot of writing for women’s magazines, my usual process was to work up fifty or so one-sentence article ideas, e-mail or FAX them, and wait for the editor in question to pick what she wanted.   She’d take anywhere for six to fifteen, send me out a contract that covered the lot, and then, and only then, would I go to work.

Do people do it the hard way, from that room at home?   Sure.  Some very successful writers have gone about it that way, especially writers of fiction.  But if you want to make sure you can write for a living, you go the editorial assitant route.

The issue isn’t privelege or the old boys’ network, it’s access.  And it works for people who come from nothing to attend these schools even better than it works for the legacies, because the people who come from nothing have to be very, very, very good to get admitted.  Harvard has an affirmative action program, but it won’t do you any good unless your grades are already good enough to get you into Georgetown.

There are plenty of people who might make good lawyers in international firms, good bankers in international banks, who never get invited to an interview, because the sifting process dumps their applications out long before.  This is, as I said, not a matter of snobbery or privilege but merely one of logistics.  Lots and lots and lots and lots of people want these jobs.  There’s got to be a way to make an initial cut in your applicant pool to get it down to a size you find it possible to handle.

I’m with Cheryl, too, by the way, on the fact that being born into a family with money and privelege is a form of luck.  But I’m aware that it’s not just that that’s luck–there are a lot of accidents of birth going on here.   Most of my kids could work their butts of for decades and not achieve much in the way of material prosperity, not because they’re lazy or spendthrift but because they’re not very bright.   And I am more and more convinced that there is a significant proportion of intellectual ability the potential for which is set at birth. 

I don’t think it’s entirely determined at birth, by the way–I think that, given the raw material, what becomes of it is a result of environment.  But you can only work with the raw material you’ve got.   And no matter how perfect you make the environmental conditions, some raw material will limit the outcome.

I could read before I was three, I got stellar college boards in math even though I hated the subject and refused to study for it, I’ve got a phenomenal memory–and I did nothing to earn any of this.  It’s just me.  I’m very grateful for it, too, but I don’t see why the fact that I’m the fourth or fifth in the family line to be able to read a book and then remember it–actually, project the page on the back of my eyelids and read it off again–should mean that what success I have is entirely earned while my student who cannot do simple addition no matter how many times you explain it to him is being lazy and feckless because all he can get is a job at Wal-Mart.

Okay, the thing with the memory starts to go away when you’re about forty.  But my memory for what I’ve read is still far and away superior to almost anybody around me.  Want to guess what kind of an advantage that was in college classes?

Yes, of course, it’s not enough to be born with advantages if you want to achieve something significant, but that doesn’t change the fact that some people, maybe most of them, aren’t born able to achieve something significant.

And yet these are people we need.  I live out in the country, and in order to do that–in order not to have to live in New York City while doing what I do–I need a lot of help.   I’ve got to have somebody to do my lawn, my plumbing, my electricity–I’m not physically capable of the lawn, and don’t know enough about the other two to be safe.  I need people who deliver things, because packages have to go to publishers.  I need service personnel at telecommunications companies, people to collect my garbage, police and firefighters, the guys who do the sewers.

There seems to me to be something fundamentally wrong with looking at all those people and going, “well, it’s their own damned fault they’re in dead end jobs.  Let them go hang.”  It seems even more fundamentally wrong that the level of at least some of the services they need should be held down to their ability to pay.

It’s to my advantage for the public schools to be first rate.   It’s even more to their advantage.  I don’t get the bit where, with jobs that offer no benefits, it’s okay to strip him of everything he’s managed to save as soon as anybody in his family gets seriously ill.

A guy who works hard, who takes on three jobs, who does his best and goes on doing it, but who simpl doesn’t have the mental capacity to do much better than a job as a clerk somewhere (or three), should not be left out to hang.

I’m not looking to give “handouts.”  I’m looking to make sure that anybody who works hard and follows the rules actually gets to have a decent life, even if he’s never going to be able to wrap h is mind around how to make change, or what a sentence with a subordinate clause might mean.

Written by janeh

February 14th, 2009 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'Interesting'

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  1. How did I know you were going to write about publishing? Yes, my friends from Ivy League and Seven Sister colleges (as they were then) took those EA jobs in the 70s for $8K a year and worked their way up the ladder. (At the time they could rent one-room apartments in dicey neighborhoods for $60-100/month, and everyone wore jeans to the office, so you could live – just barely – on that income.) I absolutely agree that a degree from Smith or Amherst made a difference for those jobs. I also gather that when law firms or Price Waterhouse are hiring first year associates out of law school or business school, people with degrees from Harvard go to the top of the pile. I’m not so sure that’s true 20 years later. In the past – maybe; but now – I don’t know. I think that 50 years ago a fancy law firm wanted all of its lawyers to be the “same kind of people” as their clients, and it was probably more important to have a background that included a country club than to have big brains. But today when they are hiring someone 20 years out of school? Don’t you think being a smart shark with proven experience is more important?

    Maybe I’m lost on the point you’re making about luck.

    Yes, absolutely: a guy who works hard at a skilled or not-so-skilled job should absolutely have benefits, and health insurance, a decent house or apartment in a decent neighborhood and the wherewithal to take a vacation with his family once a year and go out to a restaurant on Saturday nights. Especially because that was once possible in our lifetimes. I grew up in Schenectady, NY, and all the men who worked in the GE turbine factories made decent livings, had the kind of health insurance that we can only dream of, and retired with great pensions and $800K in GE stock.

    I’m just positing why people in the lower income brackets don’t vote for something that seems objectively in their interest. Take Wal-Mart. Most people “like me” think it’s terrible. It runs smaller, family-owned stores out of business. It won’t unionize. It hires people part-time so it doesn’t pay any benefits. But poor folks, who theoretically should agree – after all, they are the people who might work there – love Wal-Mart. It’s cheap. It has everything in one place. It’s kid-friendly (or kid-indifferent). They can save time and money there. They might think – if they think about it all – that it’s a darn shame and “just not right” that those folks don’t have any health benefits. But in communities where they discussed letting Wal-Mart in, it was the poorer folks who wanted it. And when I read comments by working class folks about the various mandated health care plans being floated, a lot of them aren’t for it. Maybe it is general suspicion (“the little guy always bears the brunt”). Maybe they’ve been convinced by John McCain or whoever that the plan is going to cost them or provide “socialist medicine.” But I think that it’s harder to accept that “if we all pay a little more, we’ll all be better off” when paying a little more is a real financial burden. Or when you think (or have been convinced by politicians and rabid commentators) that somehow someone else will get free and easy what you had to struggle for. That is, I don’t believe in class consciousness.

    But then – in the interests of full disclosure – I should probably say that I live in Moscow, and if you ever want to be disabused of Marxist notions about class consciousness and class interests, this is the place to be.


    14 Feb 09 at 8:18 am

  2. All right, so it is possible for a bright kid from a poor family to get through a top US university more cheaply than one near home. I suspect in Canada that costs aren’t nearly so high at even the best universities, and neither is aid for the poorer students. It’s a different world.

    So, for US students, it probably comes back to how the student in question knows about these options, which you’ve mentioned before. We didn’t have a guidance counsellor when I was in school, and I’m not sure how much career guidance the ones employed now do. I suspect that the ones they have now do a lot of personal counselling, but I could well be wrong. I’ve been out-of-touch with the system for a while, and that was never an aspect that interested me much.

    My own school banded together with some others and offered a Career Day during one of my high school years. They had local people speak on their jobs, which pretty well ensured that they didn’t have any writers or any graduates of universities outside the region, much less Harvard or Yale. One of my next-youngest sister’s choices was the presentation by the a Mountie, who started his presentation with ‘I see we have some girls here. The RCMP does not accept girls, and I don’t think they ever will.’ (The Mounties accepted their first female trainees in 1974, which was 5 or 6 years later. My sister’s interest in police work was transient in any case.)

    I think intelligence, whatever THAT is, is determined by both genetics and environment, although I’d probably put a bit more emphasis on the environment than you do.

    I’ve always agreed with you about the importance of good jobs and respect for the people who do the lower status and poorly paid jobs which are nevertheless so important. This respect is due even or especially if the workers aren’t capable of doing more intellectually demanding work. What happened to the idea that people can take pride in any kind of work, no matter how simple or dirty or low-status, as long as it was honest work and done as well as possible?

    The loss of this idea might be connected to the strong tendency for many companies – not just Wal-Mart – to hire part-time workers so as to save money on benefits. Constantly shifting crowds of temporary and part-time employees are cheaper and more convenient for the employer, but cause all kinds of problems for the employee, including no benefits (usually), no certain hours or pay, nothing to take to a bank as proof of regular income as required to get a mortgage – and finally, no opportunity to develop knowledge and skills and the satisfaction of doing a job well. You can’t become an expert in your employers selection of small appliances if yesterday you were working in men’s wear and tomorrow it’ll be automotive.

    Re mab – The existence of publicly-funded health care isn’t an issue in Canada, so I don’t know why some poorer people oppose it in the US. I do know that when, as a poor ex-student, I moved to a province that (at the time) required payment into the health care system by the user, instead of the government taking the cost out of the taxes. I didn’t pay for it. The fee wasn’t that large, but my income was very small and erratic, so I decided my best interest was served by not paying. Since I didn’t get really sick or have a serious accident during that period, I guess it was!

    As for Wal-Mart, I can see why poor people support that, too. Sure, the working conditions aren’t great – but they’re often no worse than those with similar employers in the area, and may be slightly better. And I find that with the shift in the retail industry, there’s often no where else to buy cheap basic household goods. This is not entirely due to the lack of small businesses – other chains of department and discount stores have been struggling and closing too. My personal annoyance is the tendency of all the major stores to relocate in big box areas which are a lot harder to get to without a car than the malls and strip malls, but if I need cheap clothing, fabric, wool, basic furniture there are almost no alternatives to Wal-Mart – and the places I would have gone weren’t the small businesses.

    In any case, I used to live in small towns with small family-owned businesses, and they weren’t always noted for treating their employees well, and certainly didn’t provide the same level of service as the big chains.


    14 Feb 09 at 9:05 am

  3. You know, we have done massive amounts of remodeling of two houses in the past 10 years, and we make a habit of talking to the service people we use. Plumbers, electricians, contractors, even the immigrant labor the contractors bring in. It gives one quite a different and interesting perspective. Some of these people are indeed (what we would consider to be) trapped in jobs that offer little or no advancement. But that has less to do with the job than the person.

    We’ve met a young plumber whose enthusiasm for cutting-edge technology *and* his odd but endearing desire to visit the sewers of Paris (the oldest in the western hemisphere, according to him) made us believe he had an unlimited future. This young man, and many of the manual workers we meet, are not stupid…they’re not even incapable of doing white-collar work. Many of them are very successful businesspeople, and that in itself isn’t a chump job. These folks could be lawyers or whatever they wanted…but they *like* working with their hands. Others work their tails off because they want to become their own bosses, and this is their path to that.

    One thing I think is missing in those who patronize Walmart is the concept of quality. Some of their products are name brands, and so might be considered the same as you could get in the big-box stores. What people don’t know is that manufacturers have different lines sold at different price points. Take cotton fabric for instance. The same print can be found at a first-line quilt store, and at Walmart. But the base fabric (called griege, pronouced “gray” goods) is much cheaper for the WM fabric. The fabric will be made of shorter fibers, less fibers per square inch, and thus will be less durable and less robust than the first-quality fabric.

    I’m sure other products follow a similar path. I won’t shop at Walmart for many reasons, but one major one is that I’d rather spend a bit more for first quality, and have a product that lasts and performs as I expect, than to have to purchase two or three substandard products at WM to last the same duration. You don’t save half to two thirds on the price, so the higher quality purchase actually saves money. This is a real impediment to poor people, who purchase solely on price, being able to get goods that do last, and do save them money.

    As to the right to health care…well, with this new stimulus bill, we’re well on our way, and not in a good way. There’s language in there instituting universal government gathering of YOUR health records, and monitoring (and vaguely worded but still there) restriction of provided care, drugs and procedures based on how valuable you are. Old people are not valuable at all. So be warned. They snuck this wording into a bill that was presented too late for anyone to actually read, and it passed. I wonder what the future holds for people like me, who take many medications every day to stay alive. I hope I don’t become “not valuable” enough to be cut off. Because I suspect that if I do, I *will* be in the situation of having to choose between eating, paying the mortgage, or getting my meds. If they even let the pharmacy release them to me.

    And I think that may form a basis for resistance to publicly supported health care by poor people. They have a notion (one not entirely without a basis) that they will be valued less than rich or educated people, and so they would be at the bottom of the scale of provided care. Once care starts getting dispensed based on the value of the person being cared for, the old and the poor end up with the crappy end of the stick.

    Right now, if a poor person shows up at a hospital with a heart attack, they get the same level of care, the same doctors, as someone with good insurance. He might end up owing zillions, or the hospital might write it off, but he’d get the care. This would not happen under the system coming in with the stimulus package. Old guy? Minimum wage worker with little future earnings? Well, do the minimum, give him the cheapest drugs, and shove him out.

    Don’t believe me about the stimulus plan health provisions? http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601039&refer=columnist_mccaughey&sid=aLzfDxfbwhzs
    Mind the wrap.


    14 Feb 09 at 2:35 pm

  4. Cheryl, I can tell you that a LOT of us in the middle of the country were completely unaware that the Ivies had such huge foundations that you can get in for not much money. Though I don’t really know that it was true back then either – I graduated from high school in 1976 – Jane, was it true then too?

    Because when I was looking at colleges, my parents were resolutely steering me towards ones that they could afford – which meant state schools, and not even the small private schools in the area where a lot of my friends went, like St. Olaf and Hamline. Nothing could have been further from our thoughts than Harvard or Yale, and it’s certainly not because I wouldn’t have liked to go there. Actually, what I really lusted after was St. John’s, the one with the Great Books sort of curriculum. But no one ever told me that I had a chance in hell of affording it, not with financial aid or without.

    I’m on the other side of the Wal-Mart question, though. I can’t stand them. I don’t want to buy cheap crap in squalid stores, whether they have some cheerful old farts in vests at the door or not. In fact one of my primary rules in life is never to shop at a store with the word “Mart” in its name.

    I’ll shop online before I go there – in fact I love shopping online.

    But I can understand why people who make $30,000 per year want a Wal-Mart around. And I also understand why Wal-Mart does what it does with respect to hiring part time workers to avoid paying benefits – I may not admire it, but do you know what benefits cost companies? It’s ruinous.

    I read an article in the Atlantic this morning by Virginia Postrel about how she’s alive today because she’s in the US, because this is where new treatments are being developed, and where you can get them prescribed (whether or not your insurance will pay for them, which is a separate issue). And I agree that it’s critical to have healthy pharmaceutical companies doing research and coming up with new treatments.

    But I still wonder why it is that people here assume that a single-payer system would automatically be worse than what we have. Decoupling medical coverage from employment seems highly sensible to me, and particularly if you’re going to have people working at Wal-Mart or self-employed. It’s all very complex and difficult, but I do agree with Jane- I want someone to come take my trash away, and I want the Fedex guy to bring me my Amazon boxes, and that means those guys have to live on what they make. And getting them medical coverage is a big piece of that.

    Boy, was this all over the place.


    14 Feb 09 at 4:47 pm

  5. Let me step from my accustomed role of straw man and be the bad guy.

    If everything you write about the wonders of a top tier university were true, and if every high school student were fully apprised of them, it would make a difference only to a handful. That’s mathematical certainty. “Elite” education only works as a sorting device because so few have it.

    Sorting is a more general problem, which is why I suggested earlier that genre was a handy device when trying to “pitch” the germ of a novel to a publisher, or when the publisher is trying to sell serious quantities of the novel to buyers for the major chains. (I’m not sure it was much different before the major chains, come to think of it. The salesmen who drove bookstore to bookstore in the old days can’t have much time per book.) Sorting is a problem, but I prefer the new problems of abundance to the old problems of scarcity.

    “Decent” covers a lot of ground. One impassioned lady described it to me as about $30 per hour, which is darn near the mean wage for full-time work. This ain’t Lake Woebegon, and we can’t all be above–or even at–average.
    Everyone I know–one exception–who works full time owns or rents a house and has transportation. With time and education come nicer houses and more reliable transportation. And that’s with one or at most two jobs. The last man I knew to work three jobs was me. By the way, the renters aren’t the poorest, but the ones who have real trouble managing money. If we could find a cure for THAT…

    And the level of ALL our services is held down by what we can pay. Teachers and doctors are not slaves. They have every right to expect payment. Schools and Hospitals–not to mention textbooks and artificial hearts–don’t just grow. All you can do is widen the pool paying in. But even a GNP of $11 trillion won’t get you $12 trillion worth of goods and services no matter how great the need.
    To make people wealthier, they have to produce more, which means all kinds of short-term unpleasant things, from acquiring capital–genuine after-tax profits, and obscene ones if you can manage it–to shifting that capital to where it gets the highest return. That can mean closing down factories not just for losing money, but for not making enough. But the alternatives generally involve an average life expectancy of 40-50.

    As for first-rate public schools and some sort of governmental back-up for serious medical problems, I’m all in favor. If nothing else, I need those kids to be productive enough to pay my social security. BUT (1) I know people who haunt doctor’s waiting rooms the way others haunt bingo parlors. I’d like to find a way not to pay for other people’s hobbies, at least not at present medical rates. (2) Our educational establishment is starting to sound like WWI generals, who killed much of a generation convinced that their tactics were sound and all they needed to do was send in more young men. The Department of Education, the teachers’ unions, and far too many school boards seem convinced that their only problem is a lack of resources. When we raise the spending level to $15,000 per year per student, we’ll get the sort of results which–pardon me–we used to get for $4,000 per student, even adjusting for inflation. As I said earlier, if they won’t educate the kids for $11,000 per–which is being spent in some of our worst-performing school districts–I don’t think they’ll do it for $12,000 either. It’s past time to look at educational practices, and how the money is being spent. Otherwise, we may not wipe out a generation, but we can bankrupt a nation, and leave behind illiterates by the tens of millions.

    And I don’t think “but we meant well” constitutes an acceptable excuse.

    As for the side issue of Wal-Mart, it would be nice if the critics would compare the wages and benefits on offer, not with what the critics would like other people to be paid, but with what else is actually available to people of the given level or education and experience. By that standard, I understand Wal-Mart stacks up quite well. If you want people to be more prosperous, you have to get them the training to be productive and the capital to be productive with. But I don’t expect to see bumper stickers reading “INCREASE CAPITAL ACCUMULATION” near any of the local universities. Indignation is SO much more comfortable.


    14 Feb 09 at 5:28 pm

  6. this discussion is so US Centric that I’m reluctant to comment. We (Australia) do not have WalMart and do have a universaal health plan. So 2 questions.

    1. Are tge Ivy keague schools still top of the pile? I’ve been told that something called “grade inflation” has taken hold so that an A from HarvaRD has less significance.

    2. Do you really want the US government to run the health system? Why do you think a group of bureaucrats in Washington can do a good job of runnung your local hospital?


    14 Feb 09 at 9:02 pm

  7. Well, I stand corrected about the magic of a diploma from a flossy college. I ran this by a friend last night, who got a Seven Sisters undergraduate degree and what she called a second-tier law degree. She thinks that even 20 years later a flossy degree is the “gift that keeps giving” and is part of the sorting process. Although she also thought that the smart shark — the lawyer with a second- or third-tier degree who wins all his cases and brings in $14 million in new business — would be welcomed. But an Ivy League degree still sings on the resume page, and that if I ever applied for a corporate job, my degree with a smattering of Greek would make a difference.

    I guess JD that this is true despite grade inflation.

    Like most Americans, I generally don’t want the gov’t to run much of anything. But the system right now seems pretty nuts to me.

    What we were originally trying to understand was why it’s hard to make a case for “a decent life for all” especially in the red states. A few years ago an acquaintance told me about his father, who owns a gas station and service center out in Wisconsin and is a card-carrying democrat of the old school. I remembered thinking: Wow, haven’t seen that in awhile: An old-fashioned working class liberal democrat. And then I wondered how and when THAT happened.


    15 Feb 09 at 4:43 am

  8. Surely a man who owns a gas station is a small business owner, and definitely not a member of the working class! The people he hires to fix the cars, pump the gas and run the till might be working class, unless they’re middle class students earning a little spending money.

    From what I’ve heard out of the US in recent years, I think there’s a deep suspiscion that “a decent life for all” means “someone’s going to tell me how to run my life and charge me for the privilege”.

    Mary – your university hunt sounds a bit like mine, except being in a smaller centre there were fewer possibilities.

    I know benefits cost companies a lot, but whether or not they should be paid really depends on the society. I personally think that tying health insurance to your job (core health insurance; I have health insurance tied to my job, but it doesn’t cover major medical problems) is crazy. But for the others – I think there’s no reason they shouldn’t be included as part of the cost of doing business, but that can only be done fairly of course if all or most businesses in a particular sector offer the same sorts of deals to their workers. Which they will do, if they are short of workers. Right now, they generally aren’t (OK, I do know of some exceptions in some areas), so naturally they offer as little as they can get away with or move their work overseas. I think the weakening of the union movement is a great disadvantage to the workers in difficult times.

    I almost never order things online anymore, except for books and sometimes a DVD or CD. Ordering online costs a lot more than buying locally, and I can’t feel the fabric or try anything on before buying.


    15 Feb 09 at 7:51 am

  9. Hm again. The fellow who owns the service station is the only guy who works there, although he might hire someone to pump gas in the summer. It’s in a very small town. But I don’t know –is he working class or not?


    15 Feb 09 at 7:57 am

  10. We need to define the terms. I wouldn’t include someone who owned a business in the ‘working class’ category. I’d put working for pay as a primary criteria. Actual income is important in determining class status, but not conclusive (there are still spouses of wealthy people and those living on disability pensions with low income, no paid work and quite possibly not working class). Home ownership is another iffy characteristic – I’d expect in most places, working class folks rent, but I know in others, especially rural areas, they may well own a house.

    Many years ago I read a kind of checklist, which was old even then which included such things as whether or not the person in question could smell a neighbour’s cooking) in the determination of social class. And I mentioned before that Americans have been seen as sometimes reluctant to admit they have social classes at all, so they don’t use ‘lower class’, ‘upper class’, ‘working class’ – but will admit to lower middle, middle middle and upper middle classes.

    It can be a challenge to decide!


    15 Feb 09 at 8:54 am

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