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2012 book stats
18 books started
18 books finished
6,440 pages read
90% digital
10% fiction
24% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
A Romance of Many Dimensions (Dover Thrift Editions)
Edwin A. Abbott
read on December 1, 2012

I forget where I first heard of this book... it was referenced somewhere and sounded intriguing.

There really isn't very much to like. The book is about someone that likes in two dimensions, who then visits a one dimensional world and then also a three dimensional world. Most of the "story" is really simplistic and grating - the writing style is very annoying, and pretty shoddy. It's also hilariously antiquated (i.e., misogynistic). The book was really short, but still felt like it was 75% filler.

To its credit though, it does get you thinking about the 4th dimension though, which I imagine is the whole point. It talks about how a 1D "square" would have 2 "sides", a 2D square has 4 sides, a 3D square has 6 sides, so a 4D square would have 8 sides. I don't know, I guess I sat and thought about 4D or a little while, so... mission accomplished? Still, I really couldn't recommend this to anyone.

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The Secret to Love that Lasts
Gary Chapman
read on December 1, 2012

Getting married soon, so I checked this out on a recommendation. There's plenty to like, but I don't think I found it particularly useful.

To start, I really liked the characterization of love as a choice. The author doesn't spend too much time on this, and I think he could have expanded much more on it, but he frames love as a thoughtful decision that you make, as a way you decide to feel towards another person. Certainly I don't think his intention here is that anyone can just decide to love anyone else... I would say that there are some behavior incompatibilities that might be too overwhelming... but I appreciated the characterization of love as a behavior choice because that implicitly defines the success of a relationship as the result of the cognizant effort that both partners put into it - not just as some magical chemistry between them that either happens or not.

Unfortunately, towards the end things start going off the rails a bit. He breaks out a few anecdotes where he "helped" women that sounded like they were in pretty horrible, borderline abusive relationships, and he pretty much framed things to be their fault - they weren't speaking their husband's love language, so the guy's love tank was empty, so that's why he was such a dick. That seems like pretty shitty advice. If love is a choice, it seems fair to me to advise someone to end a relationship when one of the partners is no longer making an effort. If one of them wants to throw good money after bad and try to coax the other one into loving them again, that's fine I guess, but that should also be a choice, not a responsibility.

As for the actual five languages, I thought the discussion was interesting, but not terribly insightful or enlightening. He spends a lot of time talking about 'the first two years' of a relationship, when everything clicks and couples feel swept away with love/limerence, and how that always seems to disappear right after couples get married. The unspoken elephant in the room, for me, was the glaringly obvious advice to not marry someone after just two years (or christ, six months), but that of course was never mentioned.

Also I'm very embarrassed to have read two books now this year with numbers in the titles.

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The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality
Elias Aboujaoude
read on November 1, 2012

Really not to much to say about this book - I don't think it covered anything I wasn't already pretty familiar with. It was really slow moving, and actually sort of boring. The main idea is more or less how the internet can foster a kind of multiple personality disorder among some people, where you have an internet persona that is distinctly different than your actual personality, and how those behaviors can be really bad for you.

I'm not very interested in how people act online - whether they gamble more, are more hostile, or more prone to lie, or whatever. For me, what's interesting about internet behavior was all pretty well covered in "The Shallows", which had to do with how the format of the internet changes our brain chemistry, and changes our offline thought processes as well. Again, this book did touch on that, but it just really didn't feel put together well. Maybe if a good editor chopped of 30% of the cruft I'd have felt a lot better about it, but as it stands it just really isn't up to par with its competition.

Cool cover though.

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A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Eben Alexander
read on November 1, 2012

This is the most intellectually dishonest book I've ever read. Ever. You can imagine my excitement seeing the pitch for this book... a neuroscientist's view on spirituality? The back cover pitches it as some kind of objective look at whatever it is he experienced, "proof" of a miracle, etc etc. "Proof"! Scientists don't throw that word around lightly. I would have never gone anywhere near a book like this if not for the fact that it was written by a neuroscientist. I was optimistic I guess. I expected science. That is, I expected objective, scientific evidence. Falsify-able hypothesis. Controlled studies. Explanations of alternative possibilities. Etc.

Instead, here's what I got. Excuse the length here - but these two quotes really sum things up pretty well.

Remember who's talking to you right now, I'm not a soft sentimentalist. I know what death looks like. ... I know my biology, and while I'm no physicist, I'm no slouch at that either. I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I know that the experience I'm struggling to give you the vaguest, most completely unsatisfactory picture of, was the single most real experience of my life.

And: (emphasis mine)

at the time I knew perfectly well that what Susanna was telling me [about a near death experience] was a grief induced fantasy. Over the course of my career, I had treated many patients who had undergone unusual experiences while in coma or during surgery. whenever one of these people narrated an unusual experience like Susana's, I was always completely sympathetic, and I was quite sure that these experiences had indeed happened\'85 in their minds. The brain is the most sophisticated and temperamental organ we posses. Tinker around with it, lessen the amount of oxygen it received by a few torh (a unit of pressure), and the owner of that brain is going to experience an alteration of reality. Or more precisely, their personal experience of reality. throw in all the physical trauma, and all the medications that someone with a brain malady is likely to be on, and you have a virtual guarantee that, should the patient have any memories when they come back around, those memories are going to be pretty unusual. With a brain affected by a deadly bacterial infection and on mind altering medications, anything could happen. Anything, that is, except the ultra-real experience I had in coma.

Literally, the entire book boils down to 'This experience felt real to me, so it must have been real' and it is then presented as real, and in fact, the story itself is presented as "proof" that the experience was real.

I would have been totally fine with it if the book was just his story. If he opened it up and said "hey, here's this amazing thing that happened to me. I can't explain it, but I think it was real and it's worth reading about - it's helped me, and it might help you." But to bill this book as "proof", to put the weight of a neuroscientist behind it and then not make a rigorous effort of objectively deconstructing what could have happened to him... sickening.

This is the worst book I've ever finished. Truly shameful clickbait.

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The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World
David Kirkpatrick
read on October 1, 2012

This is the worst cover I've ever seen of any book I've ever read. Rest assured, I was not presented with this cover when buying the version of the book that I read. Ug.

I've been wanting to read this ever since watching the incredible facebook movie The Social Network. That script was based of the Book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Menrich. I've read Mezrich before and thought he overdid it a bit on the hyperbole, and figured that was the case with his account of Facebook as well. I heard that this book was similar but more accurate, and finally was able to get to it.

I'm not sure how much there is to say. It's a great book that seems to give FB (and Zuckerberg) a pretty fair treatment. There actually isn't much in it about the Winklevoss drama. The most compelling part for me was hearing when Zuckerberg got his first buyout offer for facebook. He had just turned twenty and had launched facebook 4 months before that - and he was offered 20 million dollars for it. Homeboy was a college sophomore. He had literally spent like 2 semesters working on this project, part-time, and got offered 20 million for it. And he passed on that. Incredible.

Anyway, I was impressed by his ability to stay focused on the long term. Not many folks can stare down the barrel of twenty million dollars and say no. Makes me want to pickup some facebook stock.

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Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits
Wray Herbert
read on September 1, 2012

This book was full of interesting discussion - probably my favorite was about studies looking at the effect of the agism stereotype. In one of them older folks were put inside a renovated hotel made to look 30-40 years old (as in, all the newspapers and fashion etc was of that time), and the people were told to imagine themselves to be living in the past (rather then just to reminisce about it) - and those folks got measurably more flexible and healthy in a matter of weeks. We all think old people are falling apart and unhealthy, and our brain actually projects that onto ourselves as we age. Literally, just thinking you're younger can have very positive physical effects!

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William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
Simon Winchester
read on August 1, 2012

Well, this was a dud. The book is about the beginnings of the science of geology. I guess I'm not sure why that sounded interesting. I just looked at the cover and title and assumed there would be more about.. maps. But it's not. Not really. It's more a biography of William Smith, who created a geological map of England in the early 1800's and turned geology into an actual science.

It's super boring.

There was one discussion I really liked, which was about what people used to think fossils were. That was something I had never thought about. I mean, people have been finding little shellfish and whatever-else fossils in stones for thousands of years, but until like 150 years ago we had no idea that they were actual, prehistoric dead animals. I mean, how would a clam get stuck inside a mountain? It's fund to wonder how I would have rationalized that myself.

Well, now I know how they did. Fossils were called "figure stones". People used to collect them. No one thought for a second that they used to be alive. It would have been preposterous to suggest that a little shrimp-ish thing (which didn't resemble any actual animals alive at the time) would be 1,000 miles inland, and buried 500ft inside solid limestone. So, naturally, folks just assumed God put them there to confuse and delight us, and to just generally remind us that he can do whatever he wants. Hilarious.

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The American Revolution, 1763-1789
Robert Middlekauff
read on August 1, 2012

In part of my continuing quest to broaden my general knowledge base and learn at least a little history, I figured it would be a good idea to beef up on my American history. After thinking about it a bit, I realized I didn't know anything (and that's pretty much a literal anything) about the revolutionary war. Obviously, I had some really shallow pop-culture knowledge of it, but nothing deep.

Turns out it was pretty damn interesting. Most surprising bits for me were:

  • 1776. For some unknown reason I always assumed that the war must have ended in 1776. It just made sense to me that that's when we would have considered ourselves free, and I assumed that's when Washington assumed the presidency. Soooo far from the truth. We declared in '76, which kicked off the war (which didn't end until '83). Then we putz'd around for a few years trying to figure out how to govern ourselves, and then George was elected president in the late '80's.
  • The French helped us massively in the war. They mainly did so to piss off the British - but they were a serious ally and we essentially have them to thank for our independence.
  • Founding fathers were young. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the declaration. Crazy.
  • Philadelphia was our first capital city. I guess it makes sense it wasn't "Washington", right? This one I did kind-of know before, but it hadn't actually sunk in until I was reading about the first continental congress having meetings there.
  • Not everyone wanted to be independent. I guess this makes sense. There were a bunch of British loyalists that didn't really see the big deal.

The book contextualized the revolutionary period very well. It takes a very ex-ante point of view, and describes well the conflicting sentiments among colonists regarding their relationship with the British crown. I haven't read much history since high school, but recall "history" always presented very much ex-post. E.g., 'This is what happened, and this is why it happened'. When presented like that, the lesson very often becomes 'This was the only possible outcome to this series of events'. It's much easier to see now as an adult that that obviously is not the case, but it's still surprising to be reminded that history could have worked out very differently.

To that end, it's embarrassingly difficult for me to imagine the 1760's as anything other than a pro-revolution mob and "Americans" fighting tooth and nail to rid themselves of their British tyrants - but really it was a bunch of loyal British colonists who often felt very torn about the issues of the day. The American Revolution was not a foregone conclusion - and I feel like this book does a particularly good job of explaining and illustrating that. My biggest takeaway here wasn't any lesson on the American Revolution, but one on history broadly.

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The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock Market
Scott Patterson
read on July 1, 2012

I read The Quants (also by Scott Patterson) a few months ago for an MBA class and really enjoyed it again. Pretty much as soon as I finished it up I saw that Patterson had just come out with this book, so I picked it up. This book is about the plumbing of the stock market - the electronic networks that run them behind the scenes - how those networks started, how they matured, and how they've fundamentally changed the nature of stock markets in the last 20 years.

I've read a lot of books on finance - some on stock markets, on hedge funds, on corrupt money managers, on insider trading, market manipulation, ponzi schemes\'85 I'd seen it all. This is the first book I've ever read that actually scared me. It makes me think that maybe I should get my money out of the market, and that the whole thing is just a giant crapshoot/arms race that is going to end horribly.

It's really terrifying what's happening. Market technology is moving forward so quickly now, and it's so far ahead of anyone's ability to regulate it. The markets are essentially run by computers, and it's only a matter of time before they all hit a negative feedback loop at the same time and wipe out the whole damn system.

Anyway - the high frequency stuff was really scary, but there was some pretty interesting chapters on machine learning towards the end. There are AI programs now that run hedge funds. Literally. And these things just watch huge streams of data and try to pickup on trends and correlations and then continuously learn from them. The book focuses on a few cases where the bots played the '08 crises and following rebound perfectly. I need to stress - these aren't human managers whose strategies are influenced by what the machines say is going to happen\'85 these are machines running the whole show. They make the trades autonomously, no human involvement whatsoever. A guy in a suit pretty much just shows up at the end of the month to pickup a fat check. Awesome.

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Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City
David Lebovitz
read on June 1, 2012

We're going to Paris in three weeks so I wanted to read something about Paris. This is what I learned:

Paris is full of lazy, rude, unionized a-holes that aren't driven/motivated by money.

That's about it.

Seriously though, I'm still really excited to go visit, but all told this seems like the last place I'd pretty much ever want to live.

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Who Wrote Shakespeare?
James Shapiro
read on June 1, 2012

I've been trying to get into more history books, just so that I'm not such a doofus when someone brings up pretty much anything that happened before I was born. I figure that everyone knows a little something about Shakespeare and sooner or later I'll get into a conversation about it with somebody and it just might pay off to know whether or not he actually wrote all those plays.

It's too bad then that this book is super freaking boring. I don't think it's written particularly badly, but I think the whole idea in general just wasn't nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. I mean, it pretty much goes:

  • WS was not well educated and did not have access to royalty, but wrote as though he was/did.
  • Toward the end of his life, WS was a loan shark and a malt trader.
  • WS just seemed to disappear. No one knew him that well or biographied him during his lifetime.
  • All WS left his wife in his will was a second rate bed - no huge gigantic fortune from being a father of modern literature. 

Anyway, that's really about it - at least until the halfway or two-thirds of the book I made it to. There were a whole bunch of forgeries and people that claimed things that didn't happen, and things that you would think would make for an interesting book, but it just fell flat. I kept asking myself why I even cared, and when I realized for the tenth time that I didn't - I put it down.

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The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
Michael Brooks
read on May 1, 2012

Holy crap this was a fantastic book. It wasn't exactly page turning narrative or anything, in that it doesn't really have a plot. It just goes through 13 things that science still hasn't figured out, things we just don't understand, and explains some history behind the subject and what the current theories are, etc. It's just fascinating to read all the stuff that we don't have figured out. None of it is really a huge surprise, but it's interesting to see it all spelled out in one place. The weird thing is that it's the gigantic stuff we still don't understand - not the details. Huge cosmology/physics issues, and foundational biological ones also. Life, death, sex, free will, etc. Conceptually, it's easy to say that we don't understand those kinds of things, but seeing the gritty details of exactly what and why we don't understand was great.

A standout for me was the discussion of death and senescence - it sounds like we're actually creepily close to figuring out why things grow old and die. Really, when you think about it, there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for it. I wouldn't be able to do it justice, but the book discusses for a long time about life, death and heterosexual sex and how they all may be related as part of the same system. (Again, it just sounds plain as day to suggest that those things are related, but actually trying to understand how and why isn't as straightforward as you'd think.)

Anyway, highly recommended. The book is a super easy read and lots of fun, despite its awful title.

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The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
Maryanne Wolf
read on April 1, 2012

This book is about what happens in our brains as we learn to read. The most interesting part for me was the realization that reading/writing is entirely a human intellectual invention. It's not instinctual, like speech. Humans have had the same brain chemistry for the last forty thousand years. We did not "evolve" our brains into understanding written language. If a child, or community, is raised in isolation - they would figure out how to communicate verbally. Our brains are wired for that. Certainly, no one would make up a language like english in a generation - but they'd come up with something. But they would not write it down. That part isn't instinctual the way aural language is. It's extremely complicated. You might draw a picture of a house, or a cow or something, that makes sense (though I don't want to undersell how even just that would be a giant leap in terms of communicative complexity) - but it takes a huge leap to go from that to drawing symbols that represent phonemes, which combined create a "word" that represents an object.

But against all odds - it ended up just clicking for some folks ten thousand years ago, and now we have an alphabet. And every single person that learns it needs to learn it from scratch.

The book covers a ton more than just that. I particularly liked the discussion of how different languages change the way we think, and which languages are most "efficient" and might cause the most positive effects to our thought processes. I think that was an idea I first encountered in a Gladwell book early on, and has always stuck with me. Your native language is sort of a permanent operating system that your brains communication systems sit on top of, and small linguistic changes can have a big impact on a persons life, just in terms of how it structures their thought processes.

But the best part was just that idea that the alphabet is a purely intellectual achievement. Makes me wonder what else is just waiting to be thought of.

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The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Susan Cain
read on April 1, 2012

The overarching message in this book is to evaluate and describe introversion. Cain speaks from experience here and reminds the reader many times that she is herself highly introverted. I think the content in the book, and certainly the discussion about the scientific and psychological causes/effects of intro/extraversion are well done, insightful, and something I'm better off knowing. I am myself introverted and can relate very much to a lot of the discussion.

My problem with the book is that Cain treats it as this really forceful defense of introversion. Rather than being only description, the book clearly reaches out to introverts with the message, 'Hey! It's okay! You're not a freak! You're perfectly normal!'. I'm on board with that. Introverts don't need to be ashamed of their personalities or preferences, not by a long shot. And frankly, introverts have long known that they're a helluva lot better at a lot of things than the athletic jocks and gregarious salespeople.

But I think Cain goes off the rails in this book when she starts preaching about how okay it is to embrace introversion - about how it's high time that the world begins accepting introverts. She goes on at length about how we all need to pay better attention to the introverts, and how we should start asking them for their opinions because they have good ideas, even if they don't volunteer them. She seems to think that her book is going to change the way the world works, and that introverts are a-okay just the way they are. And sorry, but that's wrong. That's the wrong message to send, because it isn't going to work. I think it's great to empower introverts, and for them to know what their strengths are - but the message here should be for them to buck up and deal, because you know what, you're not going to get promoted unless you can smile and glad-hand the president, and you're not going to get a date unless you can carry on a conversation. And yeah, it's going to be harder for you, and you're not going to like it, and that may seem unfair, but you're going to have to deal with it. Because if you don't, you're going to be the smartest guy that never got promoted, and never got into the opportunity to really flourish and accomplish great things.

To be clear, this isn't to say that I think anything that Cain writes here is wrong... I only disagree with her strategy. By saying that the world needs to realize the untapped potential in introverts suggests to introverts that it's okay for them to sit around and wait for the world to come to them. That could be damaging advice, but it's exactly what introverts want to hear. I fear that many of them will leave this book feeling empowered to just be themselves, and I think that's the wrong message to send to an introvert who wants to make an impact.

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Erin Morgenstern
read on April 24, 2012

I don't read much fiction, but decided I needed a break. Saw this on some editor's choice list on Amazon, liked the cover, and gave it a try.

Uhh, not much to say really. Probably one of the better written books I've read - significantly more well done than something like the Hunger Games (which, don't get me wrong, was entertaining, but not exactly high caliber writing). This book felt really well composed. Good pacing and narrative, fun characters that you cared about, etc. Of course, being a fiction book there really wasn't much to learn - but it was fun, whimsical, and incredibly imaginative. In the least cliche possible way to say this - parts of it made me feel like a child again... so mission accomplished.

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The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
John J. Ratey
read on March 1, 2012

This book probably has the worst cover of any book I've read in years. Not really sure what made me think this would be a good idea… Oh well - the book is great. As you can probably guess, the book is about the effects of exercise on the brain. The conclusions here are pretty dramatic, turns out staying in shape is (surprise!) pretty damn good for you - both in the long and short term. Daily exercise in the morning is pretty much the very best thing you can do for yourself. This book was compelling enough that I actually woke up an hour earlier for a whole week just to get some exercise in before the day started. And truth be told, I felt pretty great that whole week.

Then I got lazy.

I should revisit this one every few years or so to try and stay motivated.

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What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Nicholas Carr
read on March 1, 2012

So the key take-away here is that relatively recently (in the last 40 years or so) - we've discovered that human brains actually change during their lifetime. Turns out this effect is significant, and can happen very quickly, and has very strong influence over the way that we actually think. It's called plasticity.

Essentially - the internet is teaching us to consume information in tiny little chunks, very very quickly. We're beginning to learn and think and remember things in significantly different ways than ever before, which is changing our personalities as well as our achievements. The book talks about how we're doing more and more short form reading and skimming, and how we don't remember things as well anymore because there really is no need to (we can just look it up instantly). The promise of the early internet was that it would allow all people to know so much more - that by the democratization of information we would all be more knowledgable - but the very opposite has happened. By and large, the internet actually allows us to know much, much less than ever before. Instead, we just learn how to look things up.

And the consequences of that are pretty major. Carr talks about a study that looked at all the citations in all academic, peer reviewed journals over the last 50 years or so. Naturally, one would expect that the variance and number of citations would increase in the 90's, when everything was digitized and more easily accessible. But the opposite happened. In the late nineties the citations in peer reviewed journals became significantly more concentrated than ever before. This was because, instead of actually doing research, people just use the same search engines and all get the same results - (which then makes those things rank even higher in subsequent searches).

Anyway - pretty creepy stuff, and that example is just scratching the surface. The internet is significantly changing the way we think and how we do things, probably quicker than ever before. Will be interesting to see how things end up. Great book.

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Walter Isaacson
read on February 1, 2012

So like almost everyone else, I was really excited to read this book. Jobs was clearly the best businessman in a generation, as well as one of the most guarded and secretive, so there is remarkably little literature about how he worked, what he was like, etc. When he gave this guy, Isaacson, unrestricted access to himself and his company - you'd think we'd get something pretty incredible.

Well, Isaacson blew it, and now Jobs is dead and the best shot we'll likely ever have at it has been squandered forever.

Less pessimistically, the book was good. Quite good. Fun to read, and very very interesting. There is a ton of detail in there about Jobs that I certainly didn't know, and it certainly helped me get a more rounded idea of what he was like.

I haven't read many biographies. I don't really know what they're supposed to be like. But I'm guessing they're not supposed to be a book report. This book is more or less a chronological account of Job's life - and that's about it. The most interesting parts, by far, are the direct quotes from Jobs. My frustration is that Isaacson doesn't really DO anything. He is a guy that spoke a lot to Steve Jobs - that's it. He doesn't bring anything else to the table. He covers the "What". But what I wanted to get out of this book was the "Why". Why was Jobs able to do what he did? Why was he so visionary? How did he put all this together? Why did he relentlessly chase down simplicity and elegance when it made no business sense to do so? Why did the famously guarded man choose Isaacson to be his exclusive biographer? Isaacson doesn't connect any of these dots. I wanted him to elaborate on things like Job's famous Stanford speech, not just to reprint it. I never got the impression that Isaacson actually understood either Jobs or Apple, and the book is much worse off for it.

A big bummer.

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