Practice versus theory in shared parenting

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Most of the speakers at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 were primarily ivory tower researchers. Pamela Ludolph, on the other hand, had gone into courtrooms countless times as a forensic psychologist and custody evaluator (recommending a parenting time schedule to the judge; what some states called “Guardian ad litem”). Her talk was on how the theory translates into practice.

Ludolph, based at the University of Michigan, described how Attachment Theory, a product of the 1960s mostly from a British psychologist named John Bowlby, had become “the big weapon against fathers” in Americans nominally-gender-neutral courts. Mom is a “secure base” and children are in a “sensitive period” for the first 2-3 years of life. If anything is done to interfere with their attachment to Mom, there will be bad outcomes.

Ludolph noted that this was plainly misapplied because children of divorce tended to turn out badly even when they had a strong and secure attachment to their (generally plaintiff) mother. Pushing away the father, the typical result of a divorce lawsuit in most U.S. jurisdictions, is “a huge loss” to a child from which full recovery is unlikely.

In any case, it turns out that the attachment to mothers and fathers operates independently and, even when mothers spend 3-4X more time with babies, at 18 months they will protest separation equally from both parents.

Another way that children lose fathers when psychologists come into court is when the psychologist finds that exchanges between the parents causes “stress” (crying baby). Ludolph noted that “stress isn’t trauma” and “temporary stress is better than the loss of a father.” Ludolph notes that parents in intact families stress babies all the time, e.g., by taking them on vacation or dropping them at day care. She asked rhetorically, “Why should the standard for stress be different in family court?” The answer turns out to be that the standard is different. It is okay for a baby to be stressed to go on a Carnival cruise, but if switching to the father’s house is stressful, the father has to be cut.

What’s her perception of the reality for a father who gets sued these days in Michigan? “Mothers are so preferred as primary caregivers that judges are reluctant to pick the father even when the mother is psychotic or so depressed postpartum that that child could be killed.” The likely schedule result? “Short visits with the father that are stupid. It isn’t worth the driving time and hassle to spend two hours with a child.”

Related:

What I learned at my 35th MIT reunion

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“I thought that because I was smart I should be rich,” noted one alum, still working 9-5 as a software developer. Especially when one factors in retirement/pension, it seems that not too many of the reunion attendees had earned more than a Massachusetts State Trooper or a California prison guard. Most of those who had out-earned an 80th-percentile public school teacher had gotten out of tech per se, e.g., to become doctors or work in financial services.

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science was the biggest department for the Class of 1982 and there were quite a few software engineers and some circuit designers at the reunion. The computer nerds agreed that, outside of Silicon Valley, one’s career was likely to be lame and irrelevant. Typing all day every day was apparently not a healthy lifestyle. Here are a classmate’s hands:

img_3771

He didn’t earn enough to retire young. He spent three years teaching “maker skills” and found it rewarding, but it didn’t pay enough so he is back to the coding grind.

Heterosexuality was either the norm among our classmates or a condition of reunion attendance; I didn’t see anyone from 1982 with a same-sex adult companion (at an “all-classes” event with about 1000 attendees, I did see two young women holding hands). In our class of roughly 1,000 there doesn’t seem to be anyone who has changed gender ID. That may change with the next generation, however. Alumni from wealthy Boston suburbs reported neighbors having children who had changed gender IDs. One alum’s son (still!) is a 20-year-old liberal arts college student. The parents refer to “his girlfriend,” but in fact the individual is “non-gendered” and is offended if referred to with female pronouns.

Most of my classmates seem to have been married, at least at one point. This prospect filled some members of the Class of 1997 with horror. The 42-year-old never-married software engineers were fit, slender, cheerful, carefree, and could have passed for 30. One of them said “I’m being buzzed by Tinder right now.” What was wrong with marriage? “The women that I meet want to have kids, but the women I know with kids seem like total bitches and the stuff that upsets them is trivial. You go to a family’s house for dinner and the mom is obsessing over precisely what a 5-year-old is eating. I don’t remember a lot of 5-year-olds starving themselves to death. Why are these moms monitoring every bite?”

The prevalence of divorce tracked the research of Brinig and Allen pretty well. Classmates who’d lived in states where divorce was more lucrative, e.g., Massachusetts or California rather than Georgia or Texas, were more likely to have been sued by their spouses. Classmates who’d earned more money, e.g., by working in real estate or financial services, were more likely to have been sued than those who toiled as faceless cubicle-dwelling coders. The women who had been sued were the higher-earning spouse. For example, female physicians who survived 30 years of practice without a malpractice lawsuit had proved vulnerable to attack in family court. No-fault divorce for their plaintiffs was rephrased as “Would you like to discard your 55-year-old wife, take half of the money she saved from working as a medical specialist, take half of the money she’s going to earn going forward, and see if having sex with younger women is more exciting?”

Aviation was a field best suited to the patient. “My first job out of MIT was at Hughes Aircraft preparing a bid for the FAA on the NextGen Air Traffic Control System, which still hasn’t been implemented [35 years later],” said a tablemate at dinner. An aeronautical engineer, Class of 1960 (so he’s roughly 79), talked about starting his career working on a variant of the F-105 jet fighter and now finishing it as an FAA employee. Not that much has changed! [Thinking that you’ll work with newer technology in the U.S. military? A friend’s message: “I found out that [the Boeing 757 that becomes] Air Force Two’s nav databases have to be loaded by floppy with everything checked against some sort of huge spreadsheet to make sure they have the approaches and waypoints they need for wherever they’re going (they can only have a limited amount at any one time)”; it isn’t quite this bad in the civilian world because a Cessna 172 can have a $10,000 Garmin GPS with, if desired, an SD card containing a database covering every airport, airway, and waypoint on Planet Earth.]

One alum had worked for 30 years building trading software for big banks. What had he learned about the financial services business? “The only way to make money is by cheating the customer.”

Physical fitness seemed to be an important component of happiness for our group of mostly 57-year-olds. One guy works from home for a big integrated circuit manufacturer and his non-MIT girlfriend said that he worked 70-80-hours per week for 12 out of the preceding 18 months. She runs a fitness center (“I worked in corporate America for decades. I’m a lot happier now.”) and gets him out on the golf course regularly as well as into the gym. They both seemed to be doing great despite his lack of “work-life balance.”

Maintaining musical skills also seemed to be a good investment of time and energy. The Alumni Jazz Band (roughly our class’s age) performed at our brunch and they looked happy and sounded fantastic.

Understanding government and government regulation seemed to be the key to a lot of careers. One alum’s wife works for a “woman-owned small business” that perpetually keeps the headcount below 100 people. They are thus entitled to “sole source” federal contracts and don’t have to compete with other/larger companies. How do they get the work done on what might be huge contracts? “They subcontract everything to Booz-Allen. That’s how business is done in D.C.”

Readers: What did you learn at your latest college reunion?

Related:

Nearly de-orbited Iridium system used by USS Fitzgerald crew

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“Investigators Believe USS Fitzgerald Crew Fought Flooding For An Hour Before Distress Call Reached Help” (U.S. Naval Institute News) contains an item related to some previous postings here:

In addition to the damage to the spaces, the collision knocked out Fitzgerald’s communications for the better part of an hour. At about the same time the crew was able to reactivate their backup Iridium satellite communications to radio for help,

This is the system that Bill Clinton-era Pentagon bureaucrats were unenthusiastic about using (they envisioned an official military contractor building them a more glorious one) and downright hostile to helping rescue from Motorola’s threats to de-orbit.

Iridium is apparently still useful, 18 years after going bankrupt.

The previous posts:

Shared parenting in Belgium since 2006

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Kim Bastaits described research from Belgium at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017.

For custody and child support, Belgium was a standard (for Europe) “mom wins, but not too much cash” jurisdiction until 1995 when courts began favoring joint legal custody (“authority”). Mom couldn’t donate the child’s kidneys without Dad’s consent, for example. In 2006, legislation moved to gender neutrality and favoring 50/50 shared parenting. Did they abandon “best interests of the child”? No. Before 2006 the “best interests of the child” were “live with mom.” After 2006 the “best interests of the child” were “live 50/50 with mom and dad.”

Today roughly 27 percent of Belgian children of separated biological parents are in a 50/50 shared parenting arrangement, with the remainder primarily with their mothers.

Bastaits and her colleagues worked with 623 parent-child relationships, interviewing parents, the new partners of those parents, children, and grandparents. 221 of the relationships involved intact (nuclear) families. 138 were in what the researchers considered “shared parenting,” but it wasn’t the strict 50/50 criterion used by the Swedes. Anything from 35/65 to 65/35 was put into the “shared” bin (the difference between these two schedules in Illinois could be millions of dollars in cashflow!). There were 234 relationships measured for children who lived primarily with their mothers and just 30 for children who lived primarily with a father.

As in Scandinavia, the kids in intact families did the best and kids who were primarily with one parent did the worst. Also as in Scandinavia, the children with a shared parenting arrangement were closer to children of intact families (nobody at the conference would breach decorum and say “normal children” or “children in a normal family”!).

Bastaits and her colleagues looked for differences between “mostly with mom” and “mostly with dad.” In both types of situation, the child’s ability to communicate openly with the other parent was damaged as well as the ability of the other parent to control and support the child. Whichever parent had been reduced to a minority role provided less “emotional support.” Fathers who were primary parents provided more emotional support than mothers who were primary parents (consistent with what litigators interviewed for Real World Divorce told us; American single moms are not that interested in their children, according to their attorneys).

Parental Alienation

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A handful of presentations at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 were on parental alienation. This is a challenging area to study because (1) some kids hate one or both parents even in intact families, (2) some kids may hate a parent because the parent has done something to them, and (3) some kids may hate Parent B because Parent A says bad things about Parent B.

In the family law context, psychologists collect fees to determine if Case #3 is occurring and the standard seems to be “I know it when I see it.” The waters are inherently muddy due to the fact that a parent who files a divorce lawsuit is generally doing something harmful to his or her children (see the Litigation chapter: “It a mistake to think of divorce lawsuits as being Parent 1 v. Parent 2,” was how one lawyer explained the typical situation. “In the cases where anyone has enough money to hire me, the parties who are opposed are the plaintiff parent and the children.”). The waters are further muddied by the fact that many states give child support plaintiffs (winner parents) a financial incentive to engender hatred of the defendant (loser) parent. If the child refuses to spend time with the loser parent and the parenting time split goes from 70/30 to 100/0, for example, the cash profitability of the child increases under many states’ child support guidelines.

The stories of children who haven’t seen one of their parents, a person who actually does love them, for years or decades, are sad. We actually have one of these guys in our suburban neighborhood. He doesn’t know whether his adult daughter is dead or alive because, decades ago, his plaintiff “just made it too difficult to see her.” He’s super gentle, so he probably would have been an important resource for the girl (now woman). Certainly he seems like a good father to his elementary-school-age child (though, unless he moves out of Massachusetts into one of the states with 50/50 shared parenting as a default, he is at risk of a repeat!).

Nonetheless, as a numbers person it is tough to know what to do with sentiment. A common outcome of an American divorce or custody lawsuit is that the child hasn’t seen the loser parent within the previous year (see the Children, Mothers, and Fathers chapter for how it might be roughly 2/3rds of children of divorce falling into this category). But how much of that is due to parental alienation? Nobody cares enough to gather data and it might be challenging to gather even if anyone did care.

Americans at the conference, mostly lawyers and psychologists, confirmed what the litigators we’d interviewed for Real World Divorce told us: most states’ family courts make it easy for a motivated plaintiff to go from being winner parent to being 100-percent parent. Where the conference attendees differed from the veteran litigators was on plaintiff motivation. The attendees simply denied the possibility of a financial motive for fomenting parental alienation. It was a psychological phenomenon and therefore the only remedies were bringing more and better psychologists into lawsuits.

I cited Brinig and Allen (see Causes of Divorce), who found that the possibility of being the winner parent increased the probability of a divorce lawsuit being filed and then, in a later paper, that the profitability of child support also influenced the probability of a plaintiff seeking to be divorced in the first place. How could parental alienation work in Nevada? I asked. With a 50/50 shared parenting guideline and child support capped at $13,000 per year, how could it be done and, more importantly, why would someone bother trying? Nobody was persuaded that changing the incentives would be more effective than bringing more psychologists into the courtroom. This was true even with a guy who’d actually lost a child (attending the conference to find remedies and sources for his situation). He was a Massachusetts resident who had been the loser in a winner-take-all divorce. He believed that his child was currently alienated from him due to actions taken by the plaintiff/winner parent. I couldn’t sell him on the idea that he might not even have been sued in the first place if he’d lived in Nevada, Arizona, or Pennsylvania, and that as a 50/50 parent in those states his plaintiff would have had a tougher time embarking on a program of parental alienation. As with most Americans at the conference, he wanted to see better-funded family courts (but we already spend more on family court matters than any other society in the history of humanity!), better personnel, and better procedures so that there would be more accurate outcomes after litigation.

The one thing I learned is that parental alienation allegations may be most commonly made by winner parents. How is that possible when the children are with the loser parent only every other weekend? Here’s how the process was explained to me: Plaintiffs typically sue when children are young; the winner parent gets accustomed to a compliant 5-year-old; the winner parent loses the relocation fight so the kid is actually still in contact with the loser parent; the sweet 5-year-old turns into a questioning 13-year-old; the 13-year-old begins to question the winner parent’s motivations and veracity; the 13-year-old gets an earful on the greed and mendacity of the winner parent from the loser parent’s new partner (evil stepmother, just like in fairy tale!); the 13-year-old decides to switch allegiance and refuses to return “home” to the winner parent’s house, thus putting the continued child support cashflow at risk.

Readers: What do you think? If we know that a child hates one parent is there in fact a practical hope of figuring out why? Or will we just spend the remnants of what would have been this child’s college fund paying psychologists to guess?

Related:

  • no blog entry is complete without a reference to Rachel Dolezal, who sued her husband (and father of one of her two children) and was subsequently accused by the defendant of parental alienation (New York Daily News)

Photos of the Tall Ships in Boston

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Sail Boston 2017 ended today with the departure of tall ships from all around the world.

Here are some photos from the dock, from a schooner (Hindu), from the Institute for Contemporary Art’s 4th floor, and from an East Coast Aero Club Robinson R44 helicopter:

album on Google Photos

Enjoy!

Helicopters Explained for Curious Children (Kindle book)

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Folks:

Helicopters Explained for Curious Children is now available as a Kindle book (paperback eventually). If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber can you please download and give some feedback (technical or content-related).

If you’re not a Kindle Unlimited subscriber and buy it and don’t love it I’ll be happy to personally refund your $1.99 via PayPal!

Thanks in advance for any comments.

[I should note that this was developed as a hand-out for schools that we visit in our helicopter (free of charge). Also,if you don’t want to invest $1.99, email me and I will send you the ePub or PDF.]

Shared parenting literature review from Michael Lamb: is the main point of social science research to bolster personal prejudice?

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Michael Lamb, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University (“the real Cambridge”), gave a literature review with historical perspective at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017.

The highest-level perspective:

  • “hundreds of papers show a higher risk of maladjustment in children when parents have separated.” (note the genteel phraseology for what might have been a pretty interesting “separation” that was unlikely to be mutual!)
  • maintaining a relationship with both parents minimizes the risk and the bad effects of parental separation

[So we can already conclude that the U.S. will have the highest proportion of maladjusted citizens because (1) we have the highest percentage of children living without both parents, and (2) a family law system that, in most states, discourages regular contact with the loser parent.]

To stay within his 30-minute slot, Lamb concentrated on “attachment theory” and, in a winner/loser parent system, the question of whether or not young children should spend overnights with the loser parent. In a family law system that consumes 3 percent of GDP, why would toddler overnights be worth a special focus? Litigators told us that cash-motivated plaintiffs tend to sue when the youngest child is 2 years old. This is the point at which a second adult in the household is less useful because (a) the child can be parked with day care, (b) the child can be parked with an iPad or TV, or (c) the child can be parked with a babysitter in the evening. In the “preserve and extend the status quo states” the winner parent from the first round of litigation is generally guaranteed to retain winner parent status until the child ages out of the child support system, age 18-23. Preventing the child from spending overnights with the loser parent is an important first step in severing the relationship with the loser parent, which is helpful for keeping the cash flowing and also with getting court permission to relocate.

Courts have historically awarded winner status to the mother, who is also typically the plaintiff in a divorce or custody lawsuit, with young children spending 100 percent of their overnights with the mother and enjoying occasional visits with the father (though that tenuous relationship often withers away to nothing). In the old days it was enough to say “the kids go with the mother because she is the mother,” but in a nominally gender-neutral legal system it became necessary to find more elaborate theories for why the outcomes should continue to park children exclusively with mom.

Lamb explained that “attachment theory” suggests that attachment forms at 7-8 months “usually to both co-resident parents.” Courts would then deny children overnights with the loser parent (father) not because courts hated fathers but because they were concerned that a young child spending overnights with the loser parent would have a problem attaching to and/or maintaining an attachment to the winner parent (mom).

Lamb described Solomon and George, 1999. He explained that the frequent citation of this paper by family court practitioners was problematic because the population was not representative. It is about biological parents who barely knew each other, often having separated before the child was born and certainly prior to the 7/8-month attachment threshold. Of the fathers with whom children spent overnights, 86 percent of them were under restraining orders obtained by the mothers (compared to 100 percent of the fathers who were blocked by the court from caring for children overnight).

Australian judges denying young children overnight time with their fathers rely on work by Mcintosh, Smyth, and Kelaher (2010). Lamb found the study flawed due to lack of information regarding whether or not the separated parents had ever lived together and, if so, how old the child was at the time of separation. He noted that the children who were supposedly being harmed by overnights with their fathers had the same scores for “vigilance” and “irritability” as the children in intact families. Lamb pointed out that the study showed no differences on teacher- or observer-reported behavior for young children and that, by age 4, there were no differences at all, even including reports from mothers.

Tornello, Emery, et al. (2013) is another popular paper that is cited to deny children overnight access to fathers. Lamb noted that the population is also not representative of typical family court litigants. For example, 70 percent of the parents were not living together when the children were born and 85 percent were black or Hispanic. The survey was designed for use by trained observers, but the researchers asked mothers to fill it out themselves. The researchers concluded that children who spent overnights with fathers were less attached to their moms, but they included children who spent 5 out of every 7 nights with their fathers in this group of children who “visit fathers.” So basically they found that children who spend most of their time with Parent A are less attached to Parent B. One curious data point was that the children with the best behavior and adjustment lived exclusively with their dads (see also the Spanish children who were happiest when they lived with two fathers!).

In Lamb’s opinion, one of the best studies on the subject of toddler overnights was Fabricius and Suh (2017), which found a more or less linear relationship between overnights with the father and quality of relationship with the father while at the same time, at least up to a 50/50 shared schedule, there was minimal/positive impact on the relationship with the mother.

The audience, many of whom get paid to show up in court as expert witnesses from time to time, did not see decades of courts using obviously-flawed research as an indication that litigation might not be the best way to resolve questions about a child’s schedule. Instead they hoped that the judges and psychologists involved in adjudicating custody disputes would upgrade to relying on the latest and best research.

At one point in the conference, however, I asked “aren’t there enough papers that a Guardian ad litem, judge, or expert witness can find at least one study to justify any personal prejudice or to support one side in a case?” The answer was, of course, “yes” and nobody had a clear explanation for how the use of social science would result in different outcomes compared to judges simply ruling according to personal inclination or prejudice. In fact, I said “Wouldn’t children who’ve been through the family court mill actually be better off if none of this research existed? Common sense would have suggested that a child who never spends overnights with the father is unlikely to develop a close or even a real relationship with that father. Without support from social scientists, judges might have been reluctant to sever the father-child relationship.” The social scientists at the conference didn’t disagree, but pointed out that if results were communicated to the public and judges there might be a change either to legislation, e.g., mandating 50/50 shared parenting (such as has happened in Arizona and Nevada), or in the personal prejudice of judges, such as has happened in Pennsylvania (moved to a 50/50 shared parenting default without any change in the “best interests” standard).

Readers: What do you think? Is the main point of social science to justify conclusions that would otherwise seem absurd? We have a subset of social scientists ready to tell us that when costs for low-skilled labor are pushed up by minimum wage laws, businesses won’t cut back on their use of low-skilled labor (examples). We have a subset of social scientists ready to tell us that we can offer people free housing, health care, food, and smartphones conditional on them not working and yet they will remain eager to work.

Related:

  • Steven Pinker in Blank Slate (2003): “”The denial of human nature has spread beyond the academy and has led to a disconnect between intellectual life and common sense. I first had the idea of writing this book when I started a collection of astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because their parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers get the idea to compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; that men think the goal of sex is an orgasm because of the way they were socialized. The problem is not just that these claims are preposterous but that the writers did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety. That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for the truth, and I believe it is responsible for some of the unfortunate trends in recent intellectual life. One trend is a stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence. Another is a hypocritical divide between what intellectuals say in public and what they really believe. A third is the inevitable reaction: a culture of “politically incorrect” shock jocks who revel in anti-intellectualism and bigotry, emboldened by the knowledge that the intellectual establishment has forfeited claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.”

Oxymoron: Interesting Computer History

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“Minitel, the Open Network Before the Internet” (Atlantic) is worth reading (though I wish that someone could find good videos of people actually using Minitel terminals). Minitel is a good reminder that most stuff that folks do on the Web today was already happening on the Minitel system in the 1980s. Programmers aren’t smarter today. We only look smarter because the hardware engineers have given us so much more power (most of which we turned around and wasted!).

Best way to avoid adult-adult conflict in your household: have a child without a co-parent

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An opening speaker at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 wondered “How can courts determined the best interests of a child when two parents in an intact family may spend weeks or months arguing about this regarding a particular issue?” [This dovetails with Linda Nielsen’s comment in Real World Divorce that it isn’t possible for a psychologist to figure out which is the better or more important parent within an intact family, so how is a family court judge in one of the winner-take-all states supposed to do this?]

“Conflict” between parents is a common reason for U.S. courts and legislators to deny children a 50/50 schedule with their two parts. The doctrine is that conflict will be less important and/or will be reduced if the children see the loser parent just every other weekend (often trending down from there, especially after a relocation).

But what if conflict is the natural condition of two involved parents? Then courts would be discarding the most involved co-parents.

The ever-rich-in-data Swedes came to the conference with what might be an answer. Malin Bergstrom presented statistics on conflict between parents whose children live in different situations. Guess who fights the most? Parents in nuclear/intact families! Separating and putting the kids on a 50/50 schedule reduces the amount of parent-to-parent conflict. Separating and putting the kids on an every-other-weekend schedule reduces the amount of parent-to-parent conflict yet more.

[Note that these data might be different in the U.S. due to the fact that divorce is typically an administrative proceeding in Sweden and child support payments are limited to about $2,000 per year per child. So children who are on an every-other-weekend schedule does not suggest that there was a big winner-take-all lawsuit with bitter winner (did not get as much cash as hoped) and a bitter loser (greatly reduced standard of living and seldom sees children).]

The news is not all bad for those of us who live with a co-parent: the amount of cooperation tracks the amount of conflict.

Still, the Swedish data suggest a life strategy for those who want to enjoy a conflict-free existence as a parent: have a baby without a partner.

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