Joho the Blog » books

July 26, 2014

Why I have not been blogging much: it’s my book’s fault and more

My blogging has gone way down in frequency and probably in quality. I think there are two reasons.

First, I’ve been wrapped up in trying to plot a new book. I’ve known for about three years the set of things I want to write about, but I’ve had my usual difficult time figuring out what the book is actually about. For example, when I was planning Everything is Miscellaneous, I knew that I wanted to write about the importance of metadata, but it took a couple of years to figure out that it wasn’t a book about metadata, or a book about the virtue of messiness, or two dozen other attempts at a top line.

I’m going through the same process now. The process itself consists of me writing a summary of each chapter. Except they’re not summaries. They’re like the article version of each chapter and usually work about to about 2,000 words. That’s because a chapter is more like a path than a list, and I can’t tell what’s on the path until I walk it. Given that I work for a living, each complete iteration can take me 2-3 months. And then I realize that I have it all wrong.

I don’t feel comfortable going through this process in public. My investment of time into these book summaries is evidence of how seriously I take them, but my experience shows that nineteen times out of twenty, what I thought was a good idea is a very bad idea. It’s embarrassing. So, I don’t show these drafts even to the brilliant, warm and forgiving Berkman Book Club — a group of Berkfolk writing books — not only because it’s embarrassing but because I don’t want to inflict 10,000 words on them when I know the odds are that I’m going to do a thorough re-write starting tomorrow. The only people who see these drafts are my literary agents and friends David Miller and Lisa Adams, who are crucial critics in helping me to see what’s wrong and right in what I’ve done, and working out the next approach.

Anyway, I’ve been very focused for the past couple of months on figuring out this next book. I think I’m getting closer. But I always think that.

The second reason I haven’t been blogging much: I’ve been mildly depressed. No cause for alarm. It’s situational and it’s getting better. I’ve been looking for a new job because the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that I’ve co-directed, with the fabulous Kim Dulin, for almost five years has been given a new mission. I’m very proud of what we — mainly the amazing developers who are actually more like innovation fellows — have done, and I’m very sorry to leave. Facing unemployment hasn’t helped my mood. There have been some other stresses as well. So: somewhat depressed. And that makes it harder for me to post to my blog for some reason.

I thought you might want to know, not that anyone cares [Sniffles, idly kicks at a stone in the ground, waits for a hug].


June 25, 2013

The kids are reading more than we thought

A fascinating new report from Pew Internet includes the following:

As with other age groups, younger Americans were significantly more likely to have read an e-book during 2012 than a year earlier. Among all those ages 16-29, 19% read an e-book during 2011, while 25% did so in 2012. At the same time, however, print reading among younger Americans has remained steady: When asked if they had read at least one print book in the past year, the same proportion (75%) of Americans under age 30 said they had both in 2011 and in 2012.

In fact, younger Americans under age 30 are now significantly more likely than older adults to have read a book in print in the past year (75% of all Americans ages 16-29 say this, compared with 64% of those ages 30 and older). And more than eight in ten (85%) older teens ages 16-17 read a print book in the past year, making them significantly more likely to have done so than any other age group.


…younger Americans have a broad understanding of what a library is and can be—??a place for accessing printed books as well as digital resources, that remains at its core a physical space.

Overall, most Americans under age 30 say it is “very important” for libraries to have librarians and books for borrowing;

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May 20, 2013

[misc] The loneliness of the long distance ISBN

NOTE on May 23: OCLC has posted corrected numbers. I’ve corrected them in the post below; the changes are mainly fractional. So you can ignore the note immediately below.

NOTE a couple of hours later: OCLC has discovered a problem with the analysis. So please ignore the following post until further notice. Apologies from the management.

Ever since the 1960s, publishers have used ISBN numbers as identifiers of editions of books. Since the world needs unique ways to refer to unique books, you would think that ISBN would be a splendid solution. Sometimes and in some instances it is. But there are problems, highlighted in the latest analysis run by OCLC on its database of almost 300 million records.

Number of ISBNs

Percentage of the records





















So, 78% of the OCLC’s humungous collection of books records have no ISBN, and only 1.6% have the single ISBN that God intended.

As Roy Tennant [twitter: royTennant] of OCLC points out (and thanks to Roy for providing these numbers), many works in this collection of records pre-date the 1960s. Even so, the books with multiple ISBNs reflect the weakness of ISBNs as unique identifiers. ISBNs are essentially SKUs to identify a product. The assigning of ISBNs is left up to publishers, and they assign a new one whenever they need to track a book as an inventory item. This does not always match how the public thinks about books. When you want to refer to, say, Moby-Dick, you probably aren’t distinguishing between one with illustrations, a large-print edition, and one with an introduction by the Deadliest Catch guys. But publishers need to make those distinctions, and that’s who ISBN is intended to serve.

This reflects the more general problem that books are complex objects, and we don’t have settled ways of sorting out all the varieties allowed within the concept of the “same book.” Same book? I doubt it!

Still, these numbers from OCLC exhibit more confusion within the ISBN number space than I’d expected.

MINUTES LATER: Folks on a mailing list are wondering if the very high percentage of records with two ISBNs is due to the introduction of 13-digit ISBNs to supplement the initial 10-digit ones.

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January 24, 2013

Attending to appearances

I picked up a copy of Bernard Knox’s 1994 Backing into the Future because somewhere I saw it referenced about the weird fact that the ancient Greeks thought that the future was behind them. Knox presents evidence from The Odyssey and Oedipus the King to back this up, so to speak. But that’s literally on the first page of the book. The rest of it consists of brilliant and brilliantly written essays about ancient life and scholarship. Totally enjoyable.

True, he undoes one of my favorite factoids: that Greeks in Homer’s time did not have a concept of the body as an overall unity, but rather only had words for particular parts of the body. This notion comes most forcefully from Bruno Snell in The Discovery of Mind, although I first read about it — and was convinced — by a Paul Feyerabend essay. In his essay “What Did Achilles Look Like?,” Knox convincingly argues that the Greeks had both and a word and concept for the body as a unity. In fact, they may have had three. Knox then points to Homeric uses that seem to indicate, yeah, Homer was talking about a unitary body. E.g., “from the bath he [Oydsseus] stepped, in body [demas] like the immortals,” and Poseidon “takes on the likeness of Calchas, in bodily form,” etc. [p. 52] I don’t read Greek, so I’ll believe whatever the last expert tells me, and Knox is the last expert I’ve read on this topic.

In a later chapter, Knox comes back to Bernard William’s criticism, in Shame and Necessity, of the “Homeric Greeks had no concept of a unitary body” idea, and also discusses another wrong thing that I had been taught. It turns out that the Greeks did have a concept of intention, decision-making, and will. Williams argues that they may not have had distinct words for these things, but Homer “and his characters make distinctions that can only be understood in terms of” those concepts. Further, Williams writes that Homer has

no word that means, simply, “decide.” But he has the notion…All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed necessarily to lie between coming to a conclusion and acting on it: and he did well in leaving it out, since there is no such action, and the idea of it is the invention of bad philosophy.” [p. 228]

Wow. Seems pretty right to me. What does the act of “making a decision” add to the description of how we move from conclusion to action?

Knox also has a long appreciation of Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (1986) which makes me want to go out and get that book immediately, although I suspect that Knox is making it considerably more accessible than the original. But it sounds breath-takingly brilliant.

Knox’s essay on Nussbaum, “How Should We Live,” is itself rich with ideas, but one piece particularly struck me. In Book 6 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle dismisses one of Socrates’ claims (that no one knowingly does evil) by saying that such a belief is “manifestly in contradiction with the phainomena.” I’ve always heard the word “phainomena” translated in (as Knox says) Baconian terms, as if Aristotle were anticipating modern science’s focus on the facts and careful observation. We generally translate phainomena as “appearances” and contrast it with reality. The task of the scientist and the philosopher is to let us see past our assumptions to reveal the thing as it shows itself (appears) free of our anticipations and interpretations, so we can then use those unprejudiced appearances as a guide to truths about reality.

But Nussbaum takes the word differently, and Knox is convinced. Phainomena, are “the ordinary beliefs and sayings” and the sayings of the wise about things. Aristotle’s method consisted of straightening out whatever confusions and contradictions are in this body of beliefs and sayings, but then to show that at least the majority of those beliefs are true. This is a complete inversion of what I’d always thought. Rather than “attending to appearances” meaning dropping one’s assumptions to reveal the thing in its untouched state, it actually means taking those assumptions — of the many and of the wise — as containing truth. It is a confirming activity, not a penetrating and an overturning. Nussbaum says for Aristotle (and in contrast to Plato), “Theory must remain committed to the ways human beings live, act, see.” (Note that it’s entirely possible I’m getting Aristotle, Nussbaum, and Knox wrong. A trifecta of misunderstanding!)

Nussbaum’s book sounds amazing, and I know I should have read it, oh, 20 years ago, but it came out the year I left the philosophy biz. And Knox’s book is just wonderful. If you ever doubted why we need scholars and experts — why would you think such a thing? — this book is a completely enjoyable reminder.

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August 26, 2012

Singing the news

I’m reading Robert Darnton’s Poetry and the Police, a fascinating history that uses the Affair of the Fourteen — which resulted in the downfall of an important government minister — as a way to explore the social networking of news in pre-Republic France.

In 1749, the police cracked down on citizens reciting particular popular poems that were considered seditious. Prof. Darnton has done prodigious research exploring how the poems moved through the culture, being altered along the way. It’s the basic folk movement that we see on the Web now, albeit the Web speeds things up a wee bit.

Here’s a paragraph about how these poems/songs spread news:

By the time “Qu’une bâtarde de catin” reached the Fourteen, it included a little bit of everything that was in the news. It had become a sung newspaper, full of commentary on current events, and catchy enough to appeal to a broad public. Moreover, the listeners and singers could adjust it to their own taste. The topical song was a fluid medium, which could absorb the preferences of different groups and could expand to include everything that interested the public as a whole.” (p. 78)

This is a reminder of two things: the most basic elements of human sociality change less than we think, and deep experts who write beautifully are a treasure.

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July 31, 2012

[berkman] Brad Abruzzi on being an indie author

TITLE: [berkman] Brad Abruzzi on authorship and publishing

Brad Abruzzi, author of the NJ Famous Turnpike Witch, a novel I really liked, is talking about the trajectory of authorship, at a Berkman lunch.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Brad says that he’s not a success story. If you want to know how to make millions, thousands, or even hundreds, you should write a book about how to write succcessful books. Or vampires, he says. Instead, he’s going to give us thoughts about authorship and publishing.

He says he was in his first year at law school, interested in the history of literature. He wrote a note titled “Exploitative publishers, untrustworthy systems, and the dream of a digital revolution for artists. ” It was based on Marxist historical theory and sketched three phases:

1. Feudal: pre-modern, from antiquity to production publishing. It relied upon patrons who offered a living wage, and could bring interest and favor to the works. In return, the author might offer a celebration of the patron in the work. Or, Virgil who established the lineage of Emperor Augustus all the way back to the gods. Or dedicate the work. Brad points to Sterne’s dedication in Tristram Shandy. But this arrangement produces resentment: the authors feel they are the creators, but the patrons take some of the glory. (He reads a scathing letter to Chesterfield from Samuel Johnson in response to a request for a dedication, who lived on the cusp of Phase 2.)

2. The industrialization of publishing. It put the means of reproduction (Marxist pun intended by Brad) into the hands of the publishers. Thus, authors were once again dependent. This is because there’s always a super-abundance of manuscripts trying to get into the market. This selection process has of course become highly professional. “The problem is that we didn’t choose these people to be the gatekeepers…Ultimately their responsibility is to their shareholders.” This works better than the Feudal system, but the criterion is what an editor thinks will sell. (Brad points out that his work was rejected by publishers.) “The superabundance problem persists.” There are now two barriers of entry to works of fiction: Works have to come from literary agent before publishers will consider them. “If you want to be a writer, you’ll probably be better off writing for yourself and buying scratch tickets, because you won’t be as frustrated when the scratch ticket tells you that you’ve lost.”

So, he asks, is there any hope for someone like him, who thinks his works are good but who cannot get a publisher to publish them? Yes, he says, digital publishing is the hope. “We can make our works directly available to readers. We don’t need publishers any more.”

But, readers rely on publishers to winnow away at the super-abundance of manuscripts. Without publishers, “we move the slush pile to around the ankles of readers.” “We can create a ground-based, critical reader culture” in which people can publish their own reviews, accrue authority, etc. “Amazon does this a bit of course…but we can be more substantive than that.” “Everyone has the means of reproduction. So, hooray.”

So, why did it take him 11 years to publish his own work? “I’ve got all sorts of excuses…but the truth is that traditional publishing offered a better prospect for me.” First, digital reading hasn’t been as appealing. That’s obviously beginning to change. Second, publishers put their chosen works on the fast track. If you can get two people to like your work — agent and publisher — you can cut to the front of the line. So, he tried for ten years to sell his books. His agent was very good at getting flattering rejection letters from publishers. His first novel, In Defense of Cactus Kelly in the late ’90s, didn’t get a publisher. He blogged the second book — NJFTPW — and added popup multimedia. But no one came.

Time passed. Self-publishing became a more promising prospects because of the emergence of digital marketplaces where people can find what they want to read. At certain point, he decided to just publish NJTPW. He uploaded it, pressed the buttons about royalty schemes, and it’s up on Amazon. “But then there’s the super-abundance problem.”

The book is currently at #164,296 at Amazon. A couple of days ago, it was over #300,000. “It doesn’t take much to bump up your book.” “If you can use social media to overthrow an Egyptian dictator, you can probably get people to buy my book,” Brad says, adding “These are probably at comparable levels of difficulty.” He has a handful of followers at Twitter. He’s posted some ads at Facebook, and has 421 Likes. “But Likes on FB don’t translate to sales and reading of your book. Maybe they translate at a 1% rate.” Brad isn’t willing to conclude anything about the effectiveness of social media, since he is “ham-handed” in its use.

He shows his sales from the last month on Kindle, which was his worst week: 4. But in the three days he had a promo offering it for free, he had 350 downloads. The promotions get you channeled into Kindle’s promotions. During the promo, he was in the top 20 for literary fiction, along with public domain classics. He thinks he did that well in part because he has all 5-star reviews [one of which is mine].

This gets him thinking about the reader-based review culture. People do write blog posts about books, some on book sites. “Even the reviewing culture suffers from the super-abundance problem. If you want a good book blogger to review you book, you have to pitch them.” The Kirkus Indie program wants $425 to review your book. “I stand here fairly clueless…but hopeful in a general sense that we’re on the cusp of creating a situation in which publishers are not the final answer….Readers need to believe that books that are not traditionally published can still be a good book. Readers need to look outside the walled garden.” “Writers need to trust that readers will do these things.” If so, those who own printing presses won’t get decide what we get to read.


Q: How did you pick Kindle, and not Nook, etc.?

A: It was my choice for an initial platform. You can participate in Amazon’s free promos if you commit to exclusivity to Kindle Select for 90 days. It also lets your books be lent for free to Kindle Prime program. You get paid pro rata for those loans. I am thinking about printing on demand.

Q: In the spiritual self-help area, a lot of people promote their books via their blogs. They refer to one another mutually.

A: I experimented with posting at FB under the name of the Turnpike Witch, trying to get this character communicating with people.

Q: I appreciate your intersection of analysis and emotional experience. What you say about publishing is the same as in music. And Louis C.K. And Patton Oswald a couple of days ago gave a keynote called “A Letter to Gatekeepers,” saying that if they continue to think narrowly, they’ll kill their industry. Also, on FB you can pay to promote your post. Finally, people want to participate in things that other people are participating in. That can work for us or against us in the attention economy. Finally finally, a combination of all three of your phases: fan-funding,, etc. This gets people in as patrons, and then they evangelize for you.

A: Publishers encourage you in their rejections not as a tactic to maintain hegemony, but because they’re being polite. BTW, my agent left the biz, and went back to school in anthropology.

Q: What about copyright? People can disseminate it without your knowledge. We’re looking at self-publishing because the royalties are better, but are you protected?

A: I’d take the trade in a minute. It’s not a coincidence that the first copyrights were given first to the publishers (“stationers privileges”). They wanted to avoid undercutting each other, and the Crown wanted to keep an eye on what was being published. The copyright concerns come first and foremost from publishers…

Q: Creative people are concerned also.

A: I won’t say categorically they’re not. But many of us would put it out for free, since I’m not depending on my books to make a living.

Q: [doc searls] Cluetrain is free online but still sells well. But, Brad, why not just make it freely available in an open format, and put out a tip jar? How comfortable to do you feel inside the silo that is Amazon?

A: I’m trying to understand how useful it is to have Amazon. It might be a deal with the devil.

Q: [me] How many of you here in the audience are going to buy the book? [About 5 hands go up.] Why not?

Answers: It’s not on Nook. …I’ve got too much to read…I don’t know enough about it…

Q: Publishers play an important curatorial function. I’d love to circumvent it because they look for a formula. But putting it on line isn’t enough. Where is the inter-connect?

Q: I edit an online literary magazine. Finding folks who are already reading at open mics, making a connection is great. We have gatekeepers of a sort, but they’re made up of writers and readers already in the community. Also, there are independent publishers who are not motivated by profit. Getting the novel excerpted in a journal like ours helps. Also: There’s something inbetween self-publishing as an individual and commercial success. There are communities.

A: Yes, my social media work was aimed at reating a community.

Q: Have you tried open mic readings? Or do you need to be a published author?

A: One of the reason I write is because I do it better than I speak. A judge once told me to find a job where I write things to people, rather than talking to them, I elected to take it as a compliment. I still see myself as someone who’ll put something out and broadcast it, stand behind it. T’hat’s not getting me to where I need to be. I thought maybe I’d get NJFTPW out of the way so I could write the next thing to submit to a conventional publisher. Now I’m not sure. I’m trying throwing our more content.

Q: Your expectations of traditional publishers are overstated. Publishers often do nothing but print. Also, digital publishing has taken us to a place as bad as traditional publishing. Charlie Stross (sf writer, former sw guy) has an excellent analysis of what Amazon is doing to the market. Single publisher, single format, own their own hardware.

A: Traditional publishing has worked wonderfully for us. People can make a living as a writer. The Amazon issue is a trade-off, which I re-examine all the time. People complain that there’s too much junk at Amazon., e.g. people re-selling Wikipedia content. Rather than putting in a spam button, let people write reviews.

Q: I’m writing a book for a publisher. Even with a publisher, it’s up to the author to build a market. I’m writing a memoir of my father, a queer poet, self-published before the digital age. It was all shoe leather: printing stuff up, going to bookstores, doing readings. It was about finding community, promoting writers like himself, and putting out ideas.

A: Copyright is an incentive for people to do something creative, but I don’t think it’s anything close to the whole ball of wax. E.g., I enjoy communicating to myself — re-reading something I wrote when younger. But, more important, I want to communicate something.

Q: My new startup is trying to enable readers as reviewers. Our tech helps lend credibility to reviews. Self-publishing has grown 400% since 2010, approaching a $4B market. Your 2001 article described the problem perfectly.

Q: I’m intrigued by the two sides of your personality: button-down and creative. This book is very readable. Could you get a celebrity do the reading?

A: I think a lot of this has to do with authority. People with broader authority can move copies.

TAGS: -berkman

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July 17, 2012

[2b2k] A New Culture of Learning

If you want to read a brilliant application of some of the ideas in Too Big to Know to our educational system, read A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. And by “application of” I mean “It was written a year before my book came out and I feel like a dolt for not having known about it.”

DT and JSB are thinking about knowledge pretty much exactly the way 2b2k does. What they call a “collective,” I call a “knowledge network.” With more than a hat tip to Michael Polanyi, they talk insightfully about “collective indwelling,” which is the depth of insight and topical competency that comes from a group iterating on ideas over time.

Among other things, they write provocatively about the use of games and play in education, not as a way to trick kids into eating their broccoli, but as coherent social worlds in which students learn how to imagine together, set goals, gather and synthesize information, collectively try solutions, and deepen their tacit knowledge. DT and JSB do not, however, so fetishize games that they lose site of the elements of education a game like World of Warcraft (their lead example) does not provide, especially the curiosity about the world outside of the game. On the contrary, they look to games for what they call the “questing disposition,” which will lead students beyond problem-solving to innovation. Adding to Johan Huizinga‘s idea that play precedes culture, they say that games can help fuse the information network (open and expansive) with the key element of a “bounded environment of experimentation” (116). This, they say, leads to a new “culture of learning” (117). Games are for them an important example of that more important point.

It’s a terrific, insightful, provocative book that begins with a founding assumption that it’s not just education that’s changing, but what it means to know a world that is ever-changing and now deeply connected.


June 18, 2012

The Famous NJ Turnpike Witch

Most fiction is crap. Often the plot is arbitrary or unsurprising. More often, the you can see the author’s plans behind the writing: The author needs a brainy nerd, a wisecracking minor character, a mysterious presence, someone with the key to the jalopy. Whatever. The characters, the plot, the entire mess feels constructed. Which is usually the opposite of art. (This is certainly true of my pathetic stabs at fiction.)

Then, of course, there are the magicians. John Updike could make you feel you were inhabiting a real person within a single paragraph. I’m reading Philip Roth’s Nemesis now, and while I often find Roth’s world unpleasant to live in, I find myself in that world without any sense of Roth standing between it and me.

So, meet Brad Abruzzi. Brad was a Berkman Fellow last year, and we hit it off. Brad was also a lawyer in Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel, and I got to know him in that capacity since he was a silent hero in the effort to negotiate the freedom of 12M+ bibliographic records from Harvard Library. He has since moved to MIT, which is too bad for Harvard. I like Brad a lot.

But I had no idea, none at all, that he is a fiction writer whose work is the opposite of crap. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but the guy can write. Of course, I don’t know what I would expect a good fiction writer to look like, short of a beret and a thick coat of pretension.

I downloaded Brad’s novel New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch with trepidation, figuring I’d have to say something nice to him about it while technically salvaging my integrity through some clever, noncommital choice of words. But NJFTPW is just wonderful. I’m only 70% through, and I’ll let you know how the whole thing goes, but I’m loving it so far. Brad has created a skewed world in which the NJ Turnpike is its own realm, with its own culture, sociology, and politics. The fulcrum of the story is Alice, a performance artist who — implausibly, until you realize that this is not the NJ Turnpike you’re used to driving — is beloved by the long lines of cars she ties up with her antics. The story is brimming with characters, none stock, most somewhat over-the-top, each richly imagined and each with her or his own unexpected history — funny short stories on their own. Brad, it turns out, is endlessly inventive. You would never ever read back from this book and figure it was probably written by a Harvard-MIT lawyer.

This is a really good book. Once you give into its absurd premises, it follows a logic that makes sense as it unfolds. It’s funny, satiric, frequently hilarious, and full of sentences you’ll re-read because they’re that enjoyable.

Holy cow, Brad! Holy holy cow.


June 15, 2012

Interop: The podcast

My Radio Berkman interview of John Palfrey and Urs Gasser about their suprisingly wide-ranging book Interop is now up, as is the video of their Berkman book talk…

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April 1, 2012

Books by Friends: Write Hard, Die Free

Howard Weaver’s Write Hard, Die Free is a two-fisted memoir of how The Anchorage Daily News — a newspaper he helped found and then edited — went on to win two Pulitzer prizes and defeat the established major daily, which was, according to Howard, an oil industry mouthpiece. It’s an entertaining story of scoops, legwork, drinking, and camaraderie.

It’s also a reminder of an age that now seems as distant as the cowboys, although it was only a couple of decades ago. In part that’s because Alaska remains a frontier state, but it’s also because, while the future of newspapers is unknown, the days of brawlin’ reporters are over.

Write Hard, Die Free (I love the title) is, as they say, a good read, and a reminder of a time not as distant as it already seems.


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