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Tuesday 5 November 2019

Boundary Conditions

Mboko and !Kang locked eyes, each assessing the other for discernible signs of vulnerability or weakness as they prepared to lunge. Neither considered giving way; This was their land, upon which the deepfathers of their fathers had hunted. For uncountable generations, their peoples had roved these lands. 

Neither knew that the land upon which their ancestors foraged and hunted had overlapped for aeons, to the extent they even had boundaries, and it wouldn't have occurred to them to ask; this was a matter of honour.

!Kang visualised his thrust, driving upward from his knees as he hit the bottom of the desiccated streambed, his body forming a single spear of wood, bone and sinew. Mboko saw his leap in a frozen moment between breaths, using every inch of the advantage the higher Southern bank of the stream afforded him, driving his spear down like the tail of a scorpion.

It began with a whisper, little more than a change in the texture of the air, a dull thrumming felt first as vibrations in the soles of their feet, a tiny rivulet of brine trickling through the parched landscape between them, followed by a torrent, boiling and building in a relentless crescendo. For all that !Kang thought his head was going to explode - this could only be the foretelling of demons, after all - the noise continued to rise until the river thundered past him.

And then the lawyers came.

Charles Darwin was - quite correctly, from a certain perspective - described by one physicist as 'the greatest physicist of the 19th century'. 

In Darwin's day, the world's physicists were pretty much exclusively determinists. That is, they thought of the universe as a clockwork machine, of sorts, with everything nice and neat, with one event following another as a direct and predictable result of prior events. This flavour of determinism even had a name; Laplacian determinism.

French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace, upon reading Newton's Principia Mathematica, is famously said to have declared that all one need know is the exact position and velocity of every particle in the universe and one could predict with absolute precision every future state of the entire universe and derive its entire past. It gelled nicely with their views of causality, handed down from Aristotle, even to the extent that people still quote it now as a 'law of physics', despite it not appearing anywhere in physics, or indeed modern physics demonstrating it to be categorically incorrect. 

Every effect has a cause.

It must be said, if Newton was the final word, this might look like a reasonable conclusion to draw, yet those of us concerned with what's really true about the world are fully aware that those are precisely the kinds of conclusion we should afford the greatest and most vigorous scrutiny. Of course, the obvious get-out is simply to define things that don't have a cause as not being an effect, but the motivation behind this statement doesn't take that possibility into account, and treats everything as an effect, all the way back to a single 'prime mover', but that's a complication that takes us too far afield for our purposes here.

Then along came Darwin, and shattered this view. He met with resistance, of course. Being a scientist is no panacea for clinging to cherished notions, after all. Science itself doesn't much care about the cherished notions even of the most lauded and vaunted scientists and thinkers. Aristotle himself thought women have fewer teeth than men, Newton believed in alchemy*, Astronomer Royal Sir William Christie rejected Einstein's theories because 'we're not havin' any o' that German muck', Fred Hoyle spent years trying to come up with a fudge that let him retrieve a steady state for the universe given Einstein's work, Einstein himself reje...

But I digress.

The point is, science progresses in spite of and with no regard to the prevailing views of, well, anybody, no matter their number because, as Feynman famously pointed out 'if it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong'. 

So, Darwin introduced something into the natural world that shook the foundations of this view; the random variable. It was a shock to the determinists, because it means the universe is unpredictable.

Once the dust settled, other people looked at this idea, and tried to see what it might mean in other areas. One of those people was Ludwig Boltzmann, father of thermodynamics; broadly, the science of motion. He it was who uttered the superlative, and he is going to begin us on our journey through our idea du jour. He took the notion of a random variable and ran with it. From this notion, the entire modern formulation of thermodynamics was born and, indirectly, such disparate ideas as Chaos Theory and Quantum Mechanics, hence Boltzmann's glowing praise of him.

There are three types of thermodynamic system, and they're fairly simple things to understand.

An open thermodynamic system is a system in which energy in any form can cross the boundary in both directions. In a sense, it's a system that has no boundary or, more accurately, has a boundary whose existence is more of a conceptual convenience or, in the jargon of science, an idealisation**. 

OK, so now we've had an easy one. Of course, when we say 'energy', we mean matter as well because, as everybody knows, 'it's all relative, man!' Still, we need to have a care, and treat energy and matter as different things for clarity in what follows. They're the same, in reality, but their form has import, and that's what we need to focus on.

A closed thermodynamic system is a system that can exchange energy with its surroundings, but not matter. The details of this energy exchange are defined by the properties of the boundaries of the system. It's worth a moment to look at the two main divisions of closed-system boundaries.

An adiabatic boundary to a closed system allows exchange of work, but not heat. For example, it can be the case that the boundaries can expand and contract. Expansion allows transfer of work outside the system, as expansion or contraction of the boundary can exert mechanical pressure on the surroundings. We can say a closed system with an adiabatic boundary is a thermally isolated system.

A rigid boundary to a closed system allows exchange of heat, but not work. In other words, the boundaries are fixed, thus the system can't exert mechanical pressure on its surroundings. It can absorb heat from and lose heat to its surroundings, though. We can say a closed system with a rigid boundary is a mechanically isolated system.

Initially, in statistical mechanics, which is what Boltzmann's field was at the time, this was defined slightly differently. A closed system was one in which no energy in any form could cross the boundary, because this was the limit of our understanding at the time. We thought we only needed an open system and a closed system. Of course, as we've learned repeatedly in science, we were far from done (and indeed we may still be). 

In this case, we realised we needed to expand our understanding, because it became clear there were subtleties to be addressed, those being the discovery of processes allowing for these exchanges. It was still a closed system, because no matter had crossed the boundary, meaning the matter content is conserved.

The scientifically astute reader may notice something here, and it's all to do with something known as 'symmetry'. In this case, Noether's theorem tells us conservation of energy is a symmetry of time-invariance.

Anyway, we needed a new classification, clearly, so we defined a third kind of system, and we had a ready term to hand for the job; an isolated system. 

An isolated system is, as the name suggests, a system whose boundary is entirely impermeable. No work, no heat, no matter. Nothing can cross the boundary of the system. Because an isolated system cannot be subject to energy transfer to or from its surroundings it will, over time, reach equilibrium, meaning that no internal energy exchange is possible. As far as we know, no such system exists - all other considerations aside, it appears that everything is transparent to gravity - other than possibly the universe itself. 

Even this may be open to question, not least because the term 'universe' isn't incredibly well-defined. What, exactly, is the universe? I've been studying this stuff for decades, and I can't give a robust answer that wouldn't need more explanation than the definition. What we can say is that it's a thermodynamic system. What type of system really depends on what might cross the boundary, or, to put it into the jargon, what the boundary conditions are. We really don't have as much to go on in that regard as popular notions have us believe. 

It's popularly thought, for example, that time began at the big bang. This is a statement about the boundary conditions of the universe. Funnily enough, the strongest justification for this comes from the work of Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, the so-called 'Singularity Theorem'. Neither Hawking nor Penrose eventually thought this theorem described our universe, not least because the singularity is a huge problem once quantum mechanics is taken into account. As alluded to in the header, Hawking, in his later years, was working on a model with Jim Hartle in which the boundary condition of the universe is... that it had no boundary. But wait; that would make the universe an open system, wouldn't it?

In fact, the observational evidence we have that the universe even had a beginning is limited to observations of the universe's expansion. It's also the case, for example, that observations show the universe to be remarkably flat on large scales, which means our observations can't even tell us whether our universe is finite or not. If it's infinite, it was always infinite, and the concept of a beginning makes no sense at all. So how, exactly, are we to define 'universe' with all this in mind? It's really difficult to define something when you can't talk about the properties of the boundary.

There can be other issues with boundaries, of course. Take the notion of a 'species', for example. This is a concept that's foxed biologists since Aristotle, although he didn't know it. The term itself is a Latinate form of Aristotle's 'eidos'. It's been notoriously difficult to pin down what a species is, and this is all to do with the boundaries of the system. The most commonly used definition of the term these days is 'a population of organisms throughout which gene flow occurs'. It's not perfect, and it can run into big problems if you try to apply it too rigidly (viral vectors can be said to constitute gene flow, which raises problems, as nobody would suggest that the ebola virus is a human). One of the issues is that you clearly can't apply it into the past, otherwise all our ancestor species would be the same species as us, so we have to add something to the definition; we have to define another boundary other than just gene flow. That boundary is 'a given moment in time'.

Yep. This is an open system. A system in which the boundary is defined for convenience. In fact, if we had fossil examples of every generation of every species that ever lived, we'd quickly find the concept of species to be a complete nonsense, because evolution is a continuum. The boundary here is a useful fiction. As is often the case, we find that the map is not the terrain.

Other boundaries seem more solid, but they're really not so different. The boundary between the sea and the atmosphere, for example, is one we can point to, and everybody knows exactly what we're talking about even though, from the perspective of planetary dynamics, they're really one and the same. That is, the surface water on the planet is, in fact, part of the atmosphere. The only reason it appears otherwise is that, at the ambient temperature on Earth, water is liquid. On Earth, methane is an atmospheric gas, while on Jupiter's moon Titan, it's what the oceans are made of.

Anyway, it appears that boundaries have a common feature; definition. This may look like a trivial point on the surface, but there's depth if you look closely.

In essence, a definition is a device to constrain thought. In fact, a definition is a boundary, of sorts. It constrains our thinking in a very specific way, and sets the boundaries of the topic or concept under discussion. It very much seems as if boundaries and definitions have a great deal in common. A boundary defines a region, and a definition imposes a boundary on thought. One could, in fact, reasonably argue a definition and a boundary to be the same thing and, even when dealing with radically disparate concepts, the distinction between the two is not nearly as disparate. This will become important in what follows.

Let's move on, then, and look at some of the other boundaries threaded through our thinking, beginning with a boundary that defines a huge amount of our thinking out in the real world.

National borders define commonalities. What a national border really is is a conceptual framework whose role is to protect groups of other boundaries. Indeed, this is the organisational principle underpinning any society. Those boundaries, most of them entirely abstract in nature, define the laws that protect us and the ethos of nationhood.

Evolution has furnished us with tools that allow us to recognise that there is safety in numbers, and our success as a species is very much predicated on our being a social species. Being a social species means we have to have some arrangement for how to behave in our interpersonal interactions. Some sort of social contract. Not rules, exactly, but a common understanding of what makes interactions profitable from the perspective of our survival strategy, and what makes them less-than-profitable. 

As societies, we go about this by defining other boundaries. The national border is an obvious example, a purely conceptual boundary,but one which we reify with walls, and guards, and guns. In the distant past, we also did this with cities, and there are examples of walled cities the world over. These are subdivided again and again, down to our homes, the boundaries on our family space, and finally down to the boundaries between us as individuals. All these borders have one thing in common; safety. We build houses with doors we can lock, keeping us safe from those in our own community who might do us harm or, at least, that's the idea. In reality, personal boundaries are routinely violated even within these so-called safe spaces, and this is a problem.

Central to all our reasoning in this regard is a boundary that can be objectively defined. We refer to this boundary in many and diverse ways. Expressions of it, or corollaries thereof, thread their way through all of our moral and ethical thought, from Confucius and early expressions of the Golden Rule, the US Declaration of Independence (Liberty), the First Amendment of the US Constitution (freedom of speech; freedom of belief), the UK Human Rights Act (all of the above) etc.

I'm talking, of course, about bodily autonomy. This simple principle is the foundation of all morality; of all ethical reasoning. Unlike rules, which inevitably lead to immoral behaviours due to being unable to deal with specifics, the notion of bodily autonomy and violations thereof are central to what it means to be a moral agent. We know what it feels like to have our agency violated. It sucks. We all know this, and in fact this knowledge is precisely what empathy is.

I've been watching the world in recent times with some interest, and this boundary has come up in some interesting contexts.

The first is a collection of events in which some people were targeted with a certain chilled dairy confection. 

I'll admit, once again, to momentary schadenfreude, just as in the case of a previous incident with a neo-nazi (I laughed uncontrollably at a montage of the three of them with the caption 'Game of Throwns'). Still, this constitutes violence, as do all violations of this boundary.

In reality, as with all the permeable boundaries we've discussed up until this point, there are conditions at the boundary of bodily autonomy determining whether or not the boundary can be crossed. Indeed, there's a simple notion that underpins all expressions of bodily autonomy, and which should inform all of our thought regarding when we can be justified in violating it; consent.

It's a matter of some interest to me that this really simple concept is so catastrophically poorly-understood by so many, yet experience tells us it's not nearly as well understood as it should be. Often expressed as being the idea that 'your right to swing your arm ends at my nose', even this is problematic, and it's all because of something we touched on briefly above, namely the notion of 'safety'.

We all have some idea of what it means to be safe, yet our thinking in this is often quite shoddy. For example, we might judge that somebody shouldn't feel unsafe at something like having a milkshake thrown at us, but such an assessment overlooks something fundamental to what it means to be human.

Each of us is the result of a long chain of experiences, and those experiences shape us. It's well understood that trauma can have adverse effects on our well-being long after the source of the trauma is removed. Emotional damage can be difficult to quantify, and harder still is understanding how each of us responds to a given stimulus. Take the example of somebody swinging their arms about. One might think the end of the nose is a reasonable place to limit this right, but this overlooks the notion of emotional damage arising from the feeling of being unsafe. A person who's experienced violence in their past might feel justifiably threatened by such behaviour, and this impacts well-being every bit as much as genuine physical violence. In reality, even attempting to determine how somebody should respond to any given situation is to invalidate their reaction. In essence, it's saying 'I'm better than you, because I wouldn't respond the way you did'. This is, of course, nonsense, not least because we rarely know how we'd respond to a situation beyond our experiences.

Do I consent to the behaviour this entity is subjecting me to?

If the answer to this question is 'no', then your bodily autonomy is being violated. Indeed, violence is being done to you, even without physical contact.

The simple fact is that the only person who can reasonably define the boundary of bodily autonomy is the owner of the body. If somebody feels threatened by your swinging of your arm, the thoughtful thing to do, and the thing that protects their bodily autonomy, is to retire beyond the safe distance defined by their response. This can be difficult, and indeed it's an absolute certainty we'll all violate this boundary at some point. I know I have, usually in ignorance. What makes a difference is whether we get offended by having the boundary pointed out or we grow and learn from it.

The other context in which this boundary comes up continually is rearing its head in a very big way at the moment, with legislated violations making their way through several of the state-level legislative bodies in the US.

The purpose of all of these bits of legislation is the same, namely to get one in front of the US Supreme Court, in an effort to challenge the landmark ruling in Roe versus Wade 1973. For the uninitiated, this was a ruling that viewed anti-abortion legislation as being in violation of the 'due process' clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, in that legislating a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy was a function of the right to privacy. 

The most prominent example is the legislation that was signed into law not so long ago by the Governor of Alabama, the so-called 'heartbeat bill'. I won't get into the specifics of this draconian legislation, because they're largely irrelevant to our purpose here, but I'll note that they massively overlook the central point we're addressing. 

In the case of a pregnant woman, her bodily autonomy is being violated by the foetus, up until the point where her consent is given. If she decides she doesn't consent to her boundary being violated, then violence is being visited upon her. It's entirely her decision to determine that boundary, and it's nobody else's business. For a state to legislate against this compounds this, and in fact makes the mother a subjugant. 

That's a nice word, isn't it? It looks pretty, and it's not a word that comes up very often. We usually use a different word for this notion; slavery.

Of course, the usual argument wheeled out at this point is the right of the foetus to life. Whether or not there's such a thing as a right to life (my own view is that this is a nonsensical notion, not least because it's an impossible one to enforce) is a matter for another day, but we should all agree, even if such a right did exist, it wouldn't excuse violating bodily autonomy. If we really thought it did, there'd be no objection to, say, forcing people to serve as human dialysis machines in places where there's a paucity of manufactured dialysis machines. You can bet your house that those bleating about the right to life of the foetus would be up in arms about any legislation trying to enforce such a violation, yet they have no problem supporting precisely the same thing for a clump of cells.

Whenever we talk about rights, we have to talk about them as applying equally to all. In the case of anti-abortion legislation, or any of the arguments pertaining thereto, the 'pro-life' (dog-whistle's coming right up) proponents wish to accord the foetus additional rights not enjoyed by anybody else, the right to take up camp within the boundaries of somebody else's body without their consent. All arguments dealing with the rights of the foetus overlook this single point, and it's the only argument that has moral weight, because bodily autonomy is the foundation of moral thought. I have no problem, and nor does anybody who believes in the right of the mother to choose, with the foetus being treated as a fully human individual, with all the same rights as any born human, but it should never have any additional rights not protected for the born human. If it can survive without the aid of an unconsenting human, then protect away, and we'll help you do it.

In almost all matters involving violating bodily autonomy, we're very clear on where the lines are drawn. Most of us recognise that, for example, subjecting children to sexual abuse is a violation, and to be abhorred (although this is far more prevalent than we wish to admit). We recognise that raping an unconscious woman next to a dumpster is a bad thing. We recognise, to a first approximation, that mutilating the genitals of children is a bad thing.

Except, do we really? 

In the case of much of the relevant legislation, there are no exceptions for rape and incest. Two cases really throw this issue into sharp relief. 

The first is one of a rapist who raped a woman passed out by a dumpster. This rapist, because he had some skill at throwing a bit of animal skin, or maybe because he was half-decent at not drowning (I don't recall the specifics of the apologetic erected on his behalf by the judge, nor am I interested), was given a light sentence, purely on the basis that the judge didn't want to ruin a promising life on the basis of twenty minutes of madness. Let's overlook that this crime was pure opportunism, and that opportunists tend not to resist opportunity, and let's ask about the life ruined by those twenty minutes. Not his, but the life of his victim.

Let's suppose he'd impregnated this woman. Under the legislation described above, she'd be forced to carry the pregnancy to term, and could, in fact, be sentenced to imprisonment for ten years (a physician carrying out an abortion can be sentenced to up to ninety-nine years). In other states, there's even more draconian legislation making its way through the system, to the effect that even going out of state to a place where it's still legal could result in a lengthy prison sentence. What this does is to effectively make a woman chattel; the property of the state. This is slavery writ large.

Compare and contrast with the rapist described above, who was given only 6 months.

We also touched on child sexual abuse above, and this is another nail in the coffin for morality. The victim of such abuse, if impregnated (such as in one case in Ohio - another state where the most invasive of these laws is moving through the legislature - involving a girl of eleven), would be forced to carry to term. A child. Violated in the most horrible way possible, further violated by the state in subjecting them to an extremely dangerous pregnancy and delivery, in a situation in which the offspring is highly unlikely to survive and, even if it does, would probably be doomed to a terrible life.

The simple fact is, where consent to utilise somebody else's body is not given - even when our own survival is predicated on it - we are not justified in violating bodily autonomy.

So when are we justified in violating bodily autonomy?

As a society, we do recognise that some violations of bodily autonomy are necessary. For example, the young men who discovered the rapist described above in the commission of his crime were entirely justified in violating his bodily autonomy. Why? Because they were stopping his violation. In effect, his violation of the boundary of his victim constitutes, morally and legally, consent to violate his boundary.

When I started writing this wander through the boundaries of thought, there was a whole section about how the thrown milkshakes were not justified. In the intervening time, I've had occasion to discuss these events and, like any good skeptic should, I've had my mind changed by fresh perspective.

Much attention has been given in recent years to where the boundaries of, for example, free speech are. Freedom of speech is the most basic expression of bodily autonomy which, as we've learned, is the foundation of all moral and ethical thought. We might think that this right should be absolute, but that doesn't take into account speech that is harmful, whether to individuals or society. It's well understood that yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre is going to be a problem, because it puts people at risk, thus we quite rightly classify that as outside the reasonable boundaries of freedom of speech.

Other speech that falls outside this boundary are more difficult to quantify. Hate speech, for example, can be problematic in terms of definition. As we've learned, a definition is a boundary, and this is really important when we start cracking new legislation. Many attempts have been made to make the boundaries firm, not least because law must work from well-defined boundaries; you can't say something violates the law if the boundaries of the law are woolly, not least because, even where laws are rigidly defined, interpretation can be very fuzzy.

Many think, for example, that criticism of Islam constitutes hate speech, despite the fact that, in most Western jurisdictions, the law has been formulated in such a way as to only apply to people, where Islam is nothing more than an idea. No legislation outside the theocracies of the Islamic world prohibits criticism of Islam and, in fact, the vast majority of such legislation categorically defines criticism of Islam as falling well within the bounds of free speech. Criticism of Muslims based only on their adherence to Islam is, however, quite correctly defined as hate speech.

Any speech that is inciteful also falls outside the boundaries of free speech and, while this is exactly correct, there are problems with it. The biggest and most obvious of these is a concept that I plan to look at in some detail very soon; the dog whistle.

Dogs can hear into areas of the frequency spectrum that humans cannot (some caveats here; some with very well-trained ears can hear into these areas, but they're outliers). The notion of a dog-whistle in this context, then, is something said that's a mask for something else, something more insidious. An obvious example is a way that transgender women are often spoken about, with the phrase 'used to be a man' or 'born a woman'. To the uninitiated, this might seem entirely unproblematic, but that's entirely the problem. The simple fact is that a woman is a woman, and always was, regardless of the way they physically presented to society based on our poor understanding of the issues. There is no woman that was ever anything but a woman. It's always worth remembering that our definitions are a model of the thing, not the thing itself, and that our definitions have to be updated as our understanding increases.

What the above should be telling us is that, even where we can't identify speech as crossing the boundaries of what would reasonably defined as free speech, there are some forms of speech that can only be heard by 'those with ears to hear', to borrow a phrase from mythology. Often, we can say things that have undertones that we're entirely unaware of, simply by virtue of not having been exposed to them, and we need to be careful of them, not least because such modes of speech are incredibly harmful and should, in the spirit of any hate-speech legislation, be treated as granting consent to violate the boundary of the speaker, in exactly the same way as the rapist mentioned earlier.

So, is it acceptable to punch a neo-Nazi? For myself, I would be entirely uncomfortable doing so, but the law should certainly engage in such pugilism. While it continues to fail to do so, it's very difficult to argue that others shouldn't, especially when the ones doing the punching are the targets of the speech. There was a time not long ago when I would have argued strenuously against this, but I no longer feel it appropriate to do so. I do think that people can have their minds changed by education and better arguments, in exactly the same way that my mind was changed on this, but I also recognise that, to some, there's only one effective mode of communication, and it ill-behooves me to argue that those subjected to their abuse, whether blatant or surreptitious, should not respond to the violations of their boundaries in whatever manner they deem most appropriate, especially when the law gives the bigots licence.

In any event, dog-whistles are a huge topic, so I'll leave them to a future offering and move on to something that should focus all of our thinking when it comes to boundaries and our interactions with them, in this case our personal boundaries, and what it means for us to be treated equally.

I said I was going to talk about a thought experiment central to certain views of morality. It's useful precisely because it casts the entire discussion in terms of perspective and equity, and we know this to be a good thing.

Some of the greatest social thinkers in the Western tradition have proposed something like this, from Kant, to Rousseau, to Hobbes and Locke, and even Thomas Jefferson. The modern form of this gendanken is mostly attributed to John Rawls.

Rawls asks us to imagine constructing a society, with laws and precepts already in place. He asks us to construct this society from a very specific perspective, though. He wants us to construct this society with no prior information about our place in society. We have no idea of where we'll fall in terms of wealth or poverty, of where we'll fall in terms of social standing, or indeed any of the other factors that might determine how easy or hard our life might be.

We can even think of real-world experiments to show how this would pan out in our society.

Ask a child to divide a birthday cake, for example. First, ask them to divide it between a number of people when they have first pick, and then ask them to divide it when they have last pick. You can bet that the latter case will lead to a very even division of the cake. That's Rawls' 'veil of ignorance' in a nutshell. 

Ask yourself, then; What are your boundary conditions?

To anybody whose boundaries I've ever violated in any way, I apologise unreservedly. I am, as are we all, a work in progress, and I'm learning.


*Although he did lay the experimental foundations of chemistry while investigating it, to be fair...

** Idealisations are fairly common in science. A really good example is how we consider the behaviour of particles in physics. Almost all are reduced the simplest possible system; a universe containing a single particle. This doesn't describe our universe, of course, but makes for easier understanding.

† I've had occasion to encounter border guards in three countries of late, and to spend quality time with them. I won't give my thoughts here, except to note that I have thoughts.

‡ The Golden Rule is quite problematic, in some respects. For those with certain mental and cognitive disorders, for example, treating others as you'd want to be treated would be an issue. There are refinements to it, such as 'treat others as they consent to be treated', which shows that morality is something we learn as we go along.

§ For more on transgender issues, there will be a new post on this in the next couple of days.

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