Pixar animated film captures workplace diversity challenges in 8 minutes

Pixar has released a great little animated film that beautifully captures the challenges of building workforce diversity in the midst of a white male “bro” culture, starring a ball of yarn named Purl. Emily Canal, writing for Inc., explains:

In Pixar’s new animated short, Purl enters the office on her first day of work and quickly realizes she doesn’t look or behave like the other employees. For starters, they’re all white men clad in identical suits and acting just like their company’s name, B.R.O. Capital, might suggest. Meanwhile, Purl is a fuzzy pink ball of yarn.

…The short emphasizes the importance of workplace inclusivity and diversity as Purl is ignored, shut down at meetings, and excluded from out-of-office bonding events simply because she’s different. The film’s writer and director, Kristen Lester, drew on her own experiences in the animation industry for Purl’s story. 

“My first job, I was the only woman in the room,” Lester said in a behind-the-scenes clip. “So in order to do the thing I loved, I sort of became one of the guys.”

That’s exactly what Purl does. She refashions herself into a knitted business suit, ditches her desk decorations, and embraces a personality that mirrors what she sees around her. She’s instantly accepted by her male colleagues but at the sacrifice of her identity.

It’s excellent. You can click on the image above or here to watch it.

***

Hat tip to Adeline Moya for the Inc. article and video.

Workplace bullying, worker dignity, and therapeutic jurisprudence: Finding my center of gravity, Part I

The process of retrospection may sometimes yield soggy nostalgia, confusion, or even regret. On other occasions, it delivers a surprising dose of clarity. I experienced a big chunk of the latter, when — and apologies for the cliché — a random trip down memory lane reminded me of the origins of, and connectivity between, so much of the work I’m doing now. I forewarn readers that I’m going to use this post to ponder about this and meander a bit.

Recently I retrieved from my bookshelves Mark Satin‘s Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (2004). Mark is a political author, lawyer, and one-time 60s anti-war and left activist whose writings evolved to a place that he called the “radical middle.” I bore witness to a piece of his political transition. From 1984 to 1992, Mark wrote and published an independent, left leaning but “post-liberal” political newsletter titled New Options. I was among his subscribers, and I found it to be a thought-provoking publication.

However, at 46, and after many years of writing and editing New Options, Mark sought to have a greater impact within the mainstream. He figured that law school would give him some insights on how the worlds of law, policy, and commerce operated, so he set his sights on obtaining a legal education and earning a law degree.

This is how paths can cross in person: In the fall of 1992, I was starting my second year as an instructor in the first-year legal skills program at New York University School of Law, my legal alma mater. I looked at my class list and saw the name “Mark Satin” on it, and I soon confirmed he was the very person whose newsletter I had read. This connection led to many conversations about legal education, politics, and the future of the country.

During his second year at NYU, Mark asked me to supervise an independent study project that he had been contemplating for some time. Always attentive to emerging social and political trends, he wanted to write about the growing confluence between law and psychology. He envisioned putting together a broad-ranging paper that surveyed and analyzed law and psychology linkages in many different aspects of legal thought and practice. I agreed to oversee the paper despite that I only a mild curiosity in the topic that Mark had described. I saw law & policy through a primarily political lens, and while I didn’t disregard the role of psychology informing legal doctrine and practice, it wasn’t a front and center perspective for me.

With characteristic determination, Mark dove into his research project, and eventually producing a law review article, “Law and Psychology: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” published by the Annual Survey of American Law, one of NYU’s student-edited law reviews. (Unfortunately, there is no open online access to this article.)

After graduating from law school, Mark did go mainstream, at least for a short while! For several years he became a commercial lawyer, working for a New York law firm. But the writing/newsletter/policy wonk side of him couldn’t be suppressed for long. Furthermore, Mark’s political worldview was evolving in a direction that he would call the “radical middle.” And so in the late 90s he launched what would become the Radical Middle Newsletter, which he would write and publish from 1999 to 2009. (You may access the newsletter archives here.) He would also author his book, Radical Middle, which was published in 2004.

Although my own political outlook was somewhat to the left of Mark’s, I agreed to join his first board of directors and then later would slide over to his advisory board. During this time, Mark started writing about stuff that I was discovering independently. You see, my work on workplace bullying and dignity at work was drawing me to the law and psychology perspective that he had championed in his law review article. Among other things, Mark wrote feature articles for Radical Middle discussing therapeutic jurisprudence (here), “rankism” and human dignity (here), and workplace bullying (here).

In one of his last Radical Middle pieces (here), he highlighted my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law:

At the risk of sounding immodest, I think my article (pictured at the top) still holds up well. It remains the best articulation of my beliefs of what our system of regulating the workplace and resolving employment disputes should look like. (You may download it without charge, here.)

My political center of gravity is still more left than center, and in many ways I’m an old-fashioned liberal. (Indeed, it makes sense that for many years, I’ve been on the board of Americans for Democratic Action, an old-fashioned liberal advocacy organization.)

But these deep themes of psychology, human dignity, and societal & individual well-being now frame my outlook on the making, implementation, and practice of law and public policy. Furthermore, the overlaps between Mark Satin’s “radical middle” and my back-in-the-day brand of liberalism appear to be many, at least if my other affiliations with the workplace anti-bullying movement, therapeutic jurisprudence movement, and human dignity movement are any indication. Perhaps this also means that while political labels matter at times, maybe the distinctions between them aren’t as sharp as we sometimes imagine them to be, at least at their respective margins. 

To be continued…..

Texting suicide case: When words have terrible consequences

In 2014, Michelle Carter, then 17 years old, used an ongoing series of text messages to repeatedly encourage her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, age 18, to die by suicide. Prodded by Carter, Roy killed himself by using a truck filled with carbon monoxide gas.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction, holding that Carter’s intentions and acts overcame concerns about freedom of speech. As reported by WBUR News:

A young woman who as a teenager encouraged her boyfriend through dozens of text messages to kill himself is responsible for his suicide, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday in upholding her involuntary manslaughter conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a unanimous decision in the novel case that Michelle Carter’s actions caused Conrad Roy III to die in a truck filled with toxic gas in a deserted parking lot nearly five years ago.

…”After she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote.

The Court’s full opinion may be accessed here.

Both of these young people had struggled with mental illness during the time preceding Roy’s death:

Carter and Roy both lived in Massachusetts but met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.

Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in Fairhaven, a town on the state’s south coast, in July 2014. Her case raised thorny legal questions about free speech and provided a disturbing look at teenage depression and suicide.

“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready – just do it babe,” Carter wrote in one message.

“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die,” she wrote in another.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has followed this case closely, expresses concerns that, in the court’s eyes, Carter’s actions didn’t become illegal until she directed him to get back into his poisonous gas-filled truck and then failed to call for assistance:

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.

The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.

Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.

Cullen would like to see the law cover the broader spectrum of Carter’s actions.

When it comes to this particular set of facts, I am comfortable with the legal result: A manslaughter conviction with a very light sentence. The crime for which Carter was found guilty sends the right message, while the sentence imposed takes into account her age, immaturity, and mental health status at the time. As to whether the criminal law should reach deeper into the ongoing course of Carter’s behavior that led to Roy’s death, I think it is worthy of discussion.

Furthermore, Cullen may be hinting at what some of us are thinking: There is something profoundly disturbing about this young woman. Yes, she may have psychiatric problems that call for treatment and understanding. But her own words also reveal how a sharp intellect and a seeming absence of conscience combined to prod and manipulate Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Especially given her age at the time of the act, I will defer to my colleagues with clinical and counseling training to opine on whether this is suggestive of a more baked-in personality disorder that could lead to future like behaviors. That said, in my psychological layperson’s view, she gives me the creeps.

Applications to workplaces

I pay attention to stories like this one in part because I ask how they may be pertinent to workplaces. Alas, there is no shortage of relevancy. The worst instances of workplace bullying and mobbing, and most toxic workplaces generally, are often fueled by intellectually sharp people who lack a conscience. Whether it’s targeted abuse towards an individual, or, say, a wave of ground-level layoffs without an ounce of sacrifice from highly-paid executives, the actions are frequently executed and/or enabled by those who are missing qualities of empathy and kindness. In cases of work abuse, words are typically deployed as weapons.

Here in the U.S., we pride ourselves on boasting that we enjoy the right of free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution. How true that happens to be in reality may be subject to debate, but it is part of our cultural norm nonetheless. In any event, we too often see that right as absolute, rather than acknowledging how freedom of speech should come with a responsibility — moral if not legal — to use it wisely. In some cases, an expression of speech becomes harmful conduct, such as when it is used intentionally to harass, bully, and hurt others. When words are used specifically to wound, and they achieve that desired objective, then we should at least be discussing the possibility of legal interventions.

We’ve already crossed that juncture with employment discrimination laws, under which harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected classes is an unlawful employment practice. We’re also working on creating legal protections against severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse via the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts legislature with over 90 co-sponsors. Adapting from sexual harassment law, the bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to signal needed legal protections.

Freedom of speech is necessary for open, democratic societies. But when words are used to abuse and destroy others, well, that’s not something we should be waving the flag about. A decent nation embraces human dignity as part of free expression.

 

Of maize and blue: Talking about workplace bullying, at the University of Michigan

I just had the distinct pleasure of spending two days on the University of Michigan campus, courtesy of a speaking invitation from the school’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS) and Dr. Lilia Cortina, a psychology and women’s studies professor and leading authority on workplace harassment and incivility. ICOS describes its mission this way:

ICOS, or the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies, has the single goal of enhancing the University of Michigan’s strength as a world center for interdisciplinary research and scholarship on organizations. We seek to enrich the intellectual environment of Ph.D. students and faculty interested in organization studies, by increasing the quality, breadth, depth, and usefulness of organizational research.

It was a wonderfully stimulating and intellectually rewarding visit. My talk, which you may access here, addressed some of the demographic and diversity aspects of workplace bullying. Here’s how I previewed it in my abstract:

This talk will examine bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work, with an emphasis on demographics and diversity. It will briefly sketch out some basics, a sort of “Workplace bullying 101.” It will then look at the demographic and diversity dynamics of these behaviors overall, especially pertaining to aggressors and targets, especially in the context of organizational cultures. Finally, it will take a closer look at gendered aspects of bullying and related behaviors at work, including (1) linkages between bullying and sexual harassment in the midst of the #MeToo movement and (2) complicated issues of bullying-type behaviors between women at work. Plenty of time will be reserved for comments and questions.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of colleges and universities to give guest lectures, and all have been a worthy expenditure of time and energy. What distinguished this visit from most of the others was the way in which the ICOS program goes well beyond the guest lecture to add in lots of additional conversations through small group meetings and meals.

In addition to my talk, my time on campus included meetings and meals with faculty in psychology, English, theatre, engineering, medicine, and business; a deep conversation about diversity initiatives with leaders of the university’s organizational learning programs; and multiple exchanges with U of M Ph.D. students, whose own research in organizations, working conditions, and diversity will no doubt command our attention sooner than later.

Some of my academic colleagues may be thinking, whoa, that’s a lot to be doing during a visit of barely two days. Indeed, when I first previewed the fulsome itinerary, I knew that I’d have to be “on” for most of that time. But I will attest that this is a very smart way to maximize the value of guest speakers’ visits and to give them plenty of opportunities to share their work and insights. It also tells them that their contributions are respected and trusted beyond the inherent boundaries of formal presentations.

Now that I’m back in Boston, I’ve got pages of notes and names from my short trip, some which will result in followup contacts and maybe even another blog post or two. In sum, it was a great visit featuring lively, informed, and appreciative dialogue throughout.

***

My talk can be accessed here. Go to this page to access presentations from other speakers in the ICOS series.

Sculpted tile: A lovely gift from my friends at ICOS

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no)

In a lengthy, detailed investigative piece for Variety magazine last December, Gene Maddaus reports on Live Nation Entertainment’s decision to place leading producer Heather Parry (“A Star is Born”) on leave, in the wake of multiple accusations of severe workplace bullying and verbal abuse directed at subordinates.

The full article (here) provides extensive descriptions of numerous stories of bullying and harassment:

Over the past several months, Variety interviewed 23 former employees of Live Nation Prods. and of Adam Sandler’s production company Happy Madison, where Parry had previously worked for 10 years. Most of the people would only speak on condition of anonymity, but those interviewed on background described Parry as manipulative, demeaning, and verbally abusive.

The many specific accounts of bullying and harassment contained in the piece should help to educate those who dismiss these behaviors as mere personality differences or who claim that it’s simply about being a tough boss. To the contrary, these allegations describe behaviors that repeatedly cross the line into the category of abuse.

When Variety contacted me and explained that they were working on this story, I got the sense of a boss who repeatedly harassed and abused her underlings to ensure that only the subservient ones were left standing:

Experts say that such an environment will screen out people based on their willingness to withstand abuse, and not on their talents.

“The hazing and the breakdown process is trying to identify those who will act in a subservient way,” says David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University. “You end up with people who are technically competent but emotionally subservient.”

Hey, she’s just being a “creative”

Nevertheless, some in Hollywood defend such behaviors, explaining that, among other things, this is part of the creative process:

But bullying employees is still largely accepted in Hollywood. Some argue that there are rationales for it: it toughens people up, it weeds out those who can’t hack it, or it’s an essential part of the creative process.

Indeed, Live Nation CFO Kathy Willard appears to suggest that we need to give abusive “creatives” a break:

Willard also seemed to make allowances for Parry’s behavior because she is “creative.”

“We all know working with creatives, it’s an interesting world,” she said. “Creatives are different personalities.”

Good grief.

Are these folks really claiming that creative people have some innate quality of abusiveness toward others that is outweighed by their productive brilliance? Or maybe it’s another take on the oft-heard defense that we need to give super-talented folks a free pass if they happen to treat other workers like dirt. 

Generally speaking, I think it behooves all of us to be able to work with a wide variety of personalities at work. And maybe that includes extending some understanding toward those who aren’t very good at playing with others in the sandbox. But no one should have to withstand the abuse described in these reports as a condition of remaining employed.

Indeed, this is what the workplace anti-bullying campaign has stood for from the outset: That everyone is entitled to a baseline of dignity and decent treatment at work. It’s that simple.

Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small group: a Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

A tale of two NPR stories: Bringing our best or worst selves to work

On Tuesday morning, two segments on WBUR-FM, Boston’s NPR news station, reminded me of how we can bring our best or worst selves to work. I’m going to start with the bad story so we can save the good one for last.

Federal regulators could’ve saved coal miners

The first story reports on an investigation of how federal mine safety regulators failed to take action on toxic levels of mine dust exposure facing coal miners in Appalachia. Consequently, thousands of them are suffering from advanced black lung disease. Many will die from it, and some at relatively young ages. From the NPR piece:

A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease nationwide from 2011-2016. But NPR identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease in the same time frame, and in just five Appalachian states.

And now, an NPR/Frontline analysis of federal regulatory data — decades of information recorded by dust-collection monitors placed where coal miners work — has revealed a tragic failure to recognize and respond to clear signs of danger.

For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause [black lung disease], as they were happening. They knew that miners . . . were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t.

One expert described black lung disease as “suffocating while alive”:

This advanced stage of black lung leaves lungs crusty and useless, says Dr. Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who has spent decades studying black lung and PMF disease.

“You have a much harder time breathing so that you can’t exercise,” Cohen noted. “Then you can’t do some simple activities. Then you can barely breathe just sitting still. And then you require oxygen. And then even the oxygen isn’t enough. And so … they’re essentially suffocating while alive.”

The NPR report shares individual stories of miners suffering from the disease and goes into detail about the federal bureaucratic failures to act upon mounting evidence of the deadly risks posed.

Helping the poor repair their cars

The second story is about Cathy Heying of Minnesota, who has devoted herself to helping poor and homeless individuals. In her work, she noticed that the people she helped often couldn’t afford the necessary upkeep and repairs on cars that helped them to survive:

“Often the story was, ‘I have this car. It desperately needs brakes. I have a job, but my job is 30 minutes away. And I work second shift, and there’s no bus when I get off at night,’ ” says Cathy. “This car was the linchpin holding everything together, and you pull that pin and everything falls apart.”

Ms. Heying decided to open her own auto shop to help these people. The only problem was that she didn’t know much about repairing cars. So she went to auto mechanic school. At age 38 she was the oldest person in her class and one of three women in a group of 40.

In 2013, Heying opened the Lift Garage, a non-profit auto repair shop for people who cannot afford to pay commercial rates to fix their cars:

It has one car lift, one repair bay and a small volunteer staff.

Cathy’s clients, who all live at or below the federal poverty level, pay for parts at-cost and about $15 per hour in labor costs. The average price for a mechanic in the Twin Cities area is around $100 per hour.

Heying laments that demand for their services far exceeds the available resources, resulting in a three-month waiting list. Still, she knows that they are making a difference to their customers.

Dignity work: A study in contrast

Last month, I posed the term “dignity work” and suggested two meanings for it:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

The mine safety regulators and Cathy Heying were in positions to embody both definitions. The regulators failed on both counts, while Heying embodied the concept of dignity work.

In that November post, I observed that “opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.” Amen.

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