kenny hodgart


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A mess of Cameron’s own making

This column can also be read at SCMP.COM

On the morning of June 23, the people of Britain will wake up, look outside, and ask themselves how well-disposed they feel towards the French.

If the answer comes back that for all their faults they are charming and dependable neighbours, then Britain’s place in the European Union is safe. If, on the other hand, it’s one of those days where France brews up in the mind as wholly smug and irritating, then the whole European project may be imperilled.

Yes, that’s probably a distortion of what will happen next week. The point stands, however, that the outcome of Britain’s referendum on whether or not to leave the EU will hinge on voters’ gut instincts. With the entire debate consisting of two sets of campaigners (Remain and Leave) lobbing forth outlandish predictions of the dire future that awaits if the result goes the other way, how could things be otherwise?

Depending on who you listen to, staying in the EU will either leave Britons richer, more empowered on the world stage and happier, both at work and in their personal lives, or shoeless, hatless and overrun by foreign criminals. The chasm between these competing views can only fuel distaste for politicians. More fundamentally, though, it should warn us, if warning were needed, that referendums are no way to arrive at practical policy decisions.

There are, after all, good reasons why they are used sparingly in most democracies and hardly at all in Britain. Not the least of these is that they normalise decision-making without personal accountability. The most extreme example of direct democracy is also the nuttiest. The state of California’s ballot initiative allows voters to take much of the business of policy into their own hands. The result is that limits on tax rates permanently depress revenues, which in turn enrages those who vote on bills to spend money on services only to find the legislature has none.

The European country with the greatest appetite for referendums, meanwhile, is France. Charles de Gaulle, who incidentally wanted Britain nowhere near any supranational European body, had them introduced into the Fifth Republic’s constitution in order to override Parliament when it suited him.

There are circumstances where referendums seem entirely justified, of course. Specifically, where existential or constitutional issues pertaining to sovereignty arise, people want straightforward questions to which they can give straightforward answers. Those in favour of “Brexit” frame Britain’s relationship with Europe in such terms, and are committed to re-establishing (as they see it) the sovereignty of Britain’s own parliament – albeit by circumventing it on this occasion. For their part, Remain campaigners, headed by sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, consider Britain to be perfectly sovereign inside the EU. Tellingly, that view seems to be shared by the rest of the world.

What, then, motivated Mr Cameron to call this referendum? In the most charitable analysis, he did so because he wanted to finally give the British people their say on a political union which they had never directly endorsed: the European Economic Community, continued membership of which Britons backed in a referendum in 1975, was merely a framework for trade. Judged in a harsher light, he did it because he thought it would get him off the hook for a while with the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, which he leads. There was, certainly, no great popular clamour for this vote before he committed to it back in 2013.

In the latter scenario, things have backfired. The modest proposals for EU reform Mr Cameron extracted from other European leaders prior to announcing a referendum date are now viewed by his opponents as evidence of a lack of sincerity all along. To be sure, a week out from polling day, victory is within sight: Leave has made gains but most credible observers predict Remain will make it over the line. And yet, even so, there’s something – dare one say it – un-British about throwing a lot of graphs and projections at people and asking them to fight your internal party battles. If they decide to stick it to the French, it’s your mess.


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Her Majesty was probably just trying to be polite

This column can also be read at SCMP.COM

If you didn’t know better, you might have been excused last week for thinking The Global Times had suddenly unearthed a sense of humour.

In a piece only published in its Chinese-language edition, the sister paper of The People’s Daily lambasted the “barbarians” in the British media responsible for reporting on Queen Elizabeth being captured on video describing Chinese officials as “very rude”. “As they experience constant exposure to the 5,000 years of continuous Eastern civilisation, we believe they will make progress” when it comes to manners, the paper declared, adding a description of British journalists as “’gossip fiends’… who bare fangs, brandish claws and are very narcissistic.”

It is quite probable that some British journalists merit this characterisation. Some may even feel flattered by it. In their narcissism, moreover, they may not have considered how fortunate they are not to be bundled off at airports for crossing their political masters, as happens in China. Whatever their feelings, though, one must resist the urge to discern satire in the pages of a Communist Party mouthpiece. Indeed, the view expressed by The Global Times rather confirms something we all knew anyway and which the British monarch has exposed afresh: that the Chinese state takes itself rather more seriously than is good for it.

Let’s just recap how an off-the-cuff remark blew up into what the world’s news channels were on hand to label an “explosive” diplomatic wedge. At a garden party at Buckingham Palace last Tuesday, Her Majesty was introduced to the police commander who had been responsible for overseeing security arrangements ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain last October. As this police commander related how a Chinese delegation had walked out of a meeting with the British ambassador to Beijing, Barbara Woodward, the Queen said: “They were very rude to the ambassador.”

Pressed into welcoming Xi with the full pomp and pageantry of the British state by a government desperate to grease up to the world’s rising superpower, the Queen would have been well aware that his emissaries had been, well, somewhat demanding. It has been reported that they wanted Chinese security officials to be allowed to carry guns and for anti-Chinese protests to be banned. Both requests were denied; however, during the visit a bodyguard tried to insert himself alongside Xi and the Queen in her royal carriage. Sources have revealed, too, that the Palace had to insist that none of the delegation use laptops or tablets during the state banquet in Xi’s honour. The President’s support staff had their own food flown over from Beijing. Moreover, on a previous visit to Britain, in 2014, premier Li Keqiang’s minders complained that the red carpet rolled out for him at Heathrow Airport was not long enough.

In short, if the Queen felt that Chinese officials had at various turns been “very rude”, she almost certainly had good reason for it. Unfortunately for her on this occasion, her own officials let her down by allowing a private conversation to be first filmed then released to media outlets. It has been suggested that she might have been more guarded, but for goodness’ sake, the woman is 90 years old and has spent her entire adult life being guarded. Not for nothing is she parodied for being anodyne in conversation.

One can only speculate as to what Xi Jinping might have had to say in private about his visit to Britain. Perhaps he thought the beer he shared with Prime Minister David Cameron revolting; perhaps he found it amusing that the English Football Association inducted a Chinese player, Sun Jihai, into its Hall of “Fame” when very few people in England know who he is; perhaps he misinterpreted protestors’ two-fingered salutes as gestures of friendship. In any event, some poor hack would be made to pay the price if it ever got out.

As for the Queen, in this day and age she has no choice but to tolerate members of her own fourth estate dragging up their country’s imperial past, and the opium wars, and calling her a hypocrite. In reality, when it comes down to it, she probably just thought it polite to agree with a policewoman.


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Saying women are more ethical than men does not make it so

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

“Women are not only stronger… they’re more ethical,” said the fashion designer Donatella Versace in a recent interview, adding: “the future belongs to women.”

I have been reminded of these comments over the past few days, by the fall from grace of Brazil’s female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is being impeached, having failed to dispel links to a scandal involving kickbacks from Petrobras, the state-owned oil conglomerate, while she was the country’s energy minister. In that fate, she is rather less fortunate than Cristina Kirchner, who was president of neighbouring Argentina until last December: Kirchner managed two full terms, despite numerous claims of corruption, misuse of public funds and falsification of public statistics against her administration.

I grant you, being completely and utterly bent is something for which Latin American politicians are renowned. And sure enough, most of Rousseff’s political opponents, including the male ones waiting to supplant her regime, also stand accused of offences: perjury, money laundering, misappropriating dosh, forging documents, you name it. Politics in Brazil sounds like a barrel of laughs, unless you’re one of the governed. But, anyway, the point is this: the route to advancing equality of the sexes taken by women like Rousseff appears to be equality of venality. What happened to being more ethical? Eh, Donatella?

In the US, however vile and unpleasant Hillary Clinton’s opponents on the right, she knows better than to campaign on an ethics ticket. Firstly, she is a Clinton. And secondly, it seems improbable that she has ever held a position on any issue that hasn’t been tradeable for votes. Nevertheless, a two-fold pitch of being a woman and, by way of corollary, not Donald Trump, should be enough to put her in the White House. If that sounds like an oversimplification, it’s one that’s backed up by the polls: electing America’s first female president is the top reason given for backing the otherwise unloved Hillary in 2016.

The notion that women are a pacifying force in public life, that they are more collaborative and compassionate than men, who all want to be Julius Caesar, was perpetuated in the U.S. by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Plenty of evidence contradicts that thesis, however. In a meta-analysis of  studies involving more than 12 million people, researchers at Iowa State University found an almost 80 per cent overlap between men and women on more than 75 per cent of psychological characteristics. In everything from morality to risk-taking, intelligence, personality traits, leadership style and satisfaction with life, they discovered men and women are just about the same.

The problem here for men arises in deciding which of these competing narratives is less likely to rouse feminists to anger. On the one hand, while they may encourage us to question what we think of as male characteristics, what moron among us would dare to deny any aspect of what women decide constitutes womanhood? On the other hand, it is probably as reckless, if not more, to state a belief in differences between the genders – unless one is willing to go the way of the gelded sycophant and admit that women are just better all-round at being human in the 21st century. That may well be the case but, Jesus, get some spine lads.

Back to actual politics, and women in it, though. For every Catherine the Great, Russia’s enlightened despot, and every Cory Aquino, who was regarded in the Philippines as a national treasure, I will show you a Wu Zetain and a Gloria Arroyo. Wu, who ruled China for 15 years from 690 AD, is thought to have strangled her own daughter in order to frame a rival. Arroyo, who left office in 2010, remains under hospital arrest in Manila, charged with plundering state coffers.

In Britain, opinion is still divided on Margaret Thatcher, but compassion and collaboration are not words unhesitatingly thrown her way. When she died, the singer Morrissey called her “A barbaric terror without an atom of humanity.” Another conservative, Angela Merkel, fares rather better in her country’s affections, but her approach to diplomacy has been described as “Kissingerian”, for which read cunning as a rat.

On the left, Indira Ghandi was a ruthless political operator who went to war with Pakistan and ruled India by decree during a two-year state of emergency. Julia Gillard’s backdoor grab for power in Australia would have impressed Machiavelli. And, seemingly quiescent over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, even Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has let her halo slip since her release from house arrest in 2010.

None of this is to argue against having more female politicians. According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in politics globally has almost doubled in the past two decades, but it’s still only at 22 per cent. Some places are going at the issue with less zeal than others. Lots of countries now have some kind of gender quota system in place, though. And where I come from, the government in the devolved Scottish parliament has a completely gender-balanced cabinet, in addition to its three main parties all having female leaders.

It is rare nowadays that we get to say Scotland represents the future of anything. In this instance, though, it does. Personally, I think anyone who wants a career in politics should be put in chains, but the quotas? I’m all for them. In the west, women are doing better in education than men and they’re starting businesses at a higher rate too. Online, social media networks are culturally feminised spaces. Why shouldn’t public life fall in line? More quotas, I say. Women-only shortlists. Ban men from standing for election. Ban them from leaving the house. Just don’t tell me women are going to run the world differently.


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Tokyo’s Olympic organisers are smarter than the PR hustlers think

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

You have probably noticed that there is something of a backlash underway against the free movement of money. In America and Europe, even people who were for it have looked at how the wind’s blowing and are suddenly against it. Borders and barriers and sounding like you’ve read a Noam Chomsky book are in vogue. Free trade is being spoken of in tones usually reserved by conspiracy theorists for the Jesuits or the Bilderberg Group.

Some aspects of globalisation are likely invulnerable, though. However far the nations of the world opt to go in protecting their own industries against foreign encroachment, or in turning the screws on capital flows, the universal triumph of branding seems a fait accompli.

Branding has gone viral – in the way that pathogens are viral. It is both a pollutant and a parasite. Every organisation under the sun has been hoodwinked into adopting a “vision”, and a “mission”, and “values”. It is all so much tumescent mumbo jumbo, but the hubris of the so-called creative industries has conquered the globe.

That is why when the PR and marketing monkeys mess up, it becomes news. On the face of it, this is what has happened with the Tokyo Olympic Games over the last year. First the British architect Zaha Hadid’s winning design for a new stadium for 2020 was thrown over due to exorbitant costs and another bid hastily selected. Then along came a plagiarism controversy over the logo. I am not so sure, though: I think perhaps the Japanese organisers are smarter than all the PR hustlers competing for their largesse give them credit for.

The original winning proposal for the Games emblem, by Kenjiro Sano, was withdrawn late last year. A theatre in the Belgian city of Liege had said it must have been copied from their own logotype and threatened to sue. Sano’s design, an assortment of shapes arranged to form a “T”, certainly looked like something you had seen before. Quite possibly a “T”. At any rate, it hardly rivalled Caravaggio in its originality.

A few days ago, a new design shortlist was revealed. The selection process had been opened to the public and the 15,000 entries received have been whittled down to four. Stressing their “outstanding” qualities, Ryohei Miyata, head of the Tokyo 2020 emblem committee, told journalists: “I’m proud to say that these are the best works at this point.”

I have long believed having a sense of humour to be among the most vital qualities in a public functionary. Mr Miyata is therefore to be congratulated. Unkind appraisals of previous Olympic logos have likened them to drawings done by slightly backwards children. At least two of the four presented for public consultation by Miyata et al fall into this category, which may or may not be explicable by the fact that over a thousand Japanese schoolchildren entered.

In any event, the important thing is that throwing the contest open has irked the creative wallahs. The American Institute of Graphic Arts says the design profession has been “disrespected”. I don’t know; maybe they’re miffed about the money. The emblem for the London Olympics, which looked like some pieces of broken glass, cost the British public £400,000 (HK$4.5 million). The winning design in Japan will be awarded ¥1 million (HK$70,000) and a ticket to the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Same result, fraction of the cost.

The joke gets even better, though, when you consider the stress put on the committee’s rigorous “international trademark verification procedures” to ensure that the designs were all original this time. According to a statement on the subject, applicants were referred to the Tokyo 2020 Games Vision and “key concepts” for inspiration.

Alas, there is nothing original whatsoever contained in these sources of inspiration. They tell us that the Games are “innovative”. There is some drivel about diversity (“Accepting one another”) and some equally nebulous stuff about legacy. And there is a derisory nod to actual sport: “Striving for your personal best”. One could be reading about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong government, or hell, who knows, the Bilderberg Group.

It’s conceivable that I’m wrong about this but what I’d like to believe the Japanese are saying here is that all corporate emblems are rubbish, modern corporate branding is stupid and we hope you enjoy the Games, lol. As with the stadium, they’re just not up for being rinsed financially. Fair play to them.


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Are we training students for a world where robots work for free?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

According to research, levels of happiness among Hong Kong schoolchildren have plummeted to new lows. Homework and extra lessons are eating into students’ time for sleep and exercise and are held to be their chief source of distress. The findings follow a spate of recent suicides that have made the mental well-being of young people an especially vexed issue. It is all very alarming – but don’t expect to see attitudes changing any time soon. The educational stakes are just too high.

In a competitive society, the imperative not to set one’s children at any disadvantage is an understandable one. A minimalist definition of aspiration might be the desire for your loved ones not to have to end up working until they drop.

What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

What, though, if everything we thought we knew about getting ahead, acquiring knowledge and expertise and securing an attractive career was being shaken up? What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

At some point in the present decade, we entered an age of drones, 3D printing, robots and artificial intelligence. Such marvels, it is a fair bet, will eliminate millions of low-skilled and unskilled jobs involving everyday tasks from cleaning and washing up to driving vans, sorting mail and serving food. In the United States alone, the predicted wave will make the offshoring of the country’s manufacturing in recent years look like small beer. Skilled jobs will be at risk, too, though.

Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, said recently on BBC radio: “In the industrial age we automated a lot of physical work, the work of our muscles. In the new machine age, we’re doing the same things for mental work. This is having as big an impact on humanity as the industrial revolution did.” Machines could end up doing the jobs of surgeons, teachers, firefighters, entertainers – even, one imagines, bankers.

Beyond that, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all warned about an existential threat arising when super-intelligent computers become capable of designing and building machines smarter than themselves – a moment that is being referred to as “the singularity” and which experts believe will arrive in about 40 years. If this forecast becomes reality, what use the study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects then to mere mortals? Why bother learning about the nature of an exponential function, or how to write source code? (Note: these questions will be even more redundant if the machines opt to murder us all in our beds, Terminator-style.)

A more medium-term outlook is that many of us will be looking for new forms of employment. We might also be forced to reconsider what will benefit our children to learn. For Brynjolfsson, that means focusing on things that humans do well and machines don’t, or don’t yet: “creative” things like coaching football teams, or writing novels, or conceiving of new products and services.

The problem with the last of these, I hear you object (you’re objecting to the first two as well, on account of there being a finite number of football teams and already enough crap novels? Fair enough) is that if machines are doing everything workers used to, then there will be no workers / consumers left to buy the things smarty-pants entrepreneurial people are producing. This is to presume that without proper work we’d most of us be poor, though. In fact, in a world where machines make and do everything, the cost of buying stuff should also nosedive, meaning that we can survive on very little, helped along by governments paying some kind of “living wage”.

That’s the rosy, utopian version of a workless future enabled by A.I. in which we all become part of one big leisure class, at liberty to create or to volunteer, or simply to exist. No doubt people in every century in history have felt like they were at the end of something that went before, but the notion of the end of work feels a bit more significant than the end of, say, witch-burning, or rock ‘n’ roll, or communism, or even religion. Freed to be artists and idlers, perhaps we’d have more time to think about human values, and about how they might survive the singularity. Perhaps we’d gain self-worth entirely from sources other than our careers. Either way, you would hope we’d be less inclined to overload the young with tests and homework.


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What’s really driving China’s ambition to buy up Hollywood and win the World Cup?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The globalisation of the film industry is going to mean that “you can’t tell whether it’s a Chinese film or a Hollywood film any more.” That was according to Warner Bros’ CEO and Chairman Kevin Tsujihara last week as he heralded Sino-American co-productions now in the pipeline at Flagship Entertainment, a joint venture involving WB, Hong Kong broadcaster TVB and China Media Capital, the Chinese state-backed investment firm.

Perhaps you are a film fan. If so, how does this make you feel? Do you want to watch films that scramble all evidence of who made them and why – films with nothing to offer in the way of cultural specificity? You don’t? Well, that’s simply inconvenient. Chinese tycoons, in league with enthusiastic American partners, have their sights on establishing new global entertainment empires capable of capturing box office gravy in both East and West alike, and they want your money.

There’s nothing new about people in the entertainment business trying to maximise profits, you might protest, and you’d be right. What’s grating, I think, is the subtle suggestion that this coming together of cash, talent and storytelling – One Script, One Road, if you like – is just one big exercise in global cuddliness.

There have been other deals. Perfect World Pictures last month announced a co-financing partnership with Universal Pictures. Hunan TV is sinking US$1.5 billion into Lionsgate. Huayi Brothers and Fosun International are also investing heavily in American movie ventures. Moreover, the purchase in January of Legendary Pictures (Godzilla, Jurassic World) by the world’s biggest cinema chain operator (and China’s biggest private property developer), Wanda Group, for US$3.5 billion, has been branded “China’s largest-ever cultural takeover.”

U.S. anti-trust laws – look up the Paramount Decrees – are supposed to prohibit ownership of both movies and theatres. Wanda already owned AMC Entertainment, America’s second-biggest theatre chain. Why has nothing been made of this? Cynics might say it’s because the Yanks really, really want direct access to China’s booming box office, which is forecast to outstrip their own in the next couple of years. In that mission, however, they are also likely to find themselves dancing to the tune of the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), a body whose latest set of rules, targeted at TV producers, amounts to a laundry list of prohibitions, including bans on content that is “to the detriment of national image [or] endangers national unity and social stability”, “exaggerates social problems, displays excess, or shows the dark side of society”, “sets a negative character as a main character”, or “breaks with national sentiment”.

It is inconceivable that the propaganda risks and opportunities associated with inviting Hollywood into the Chinese multiplex have not been weighed by Beijing. Equally unlikely is that Xi Jinping himself has not had a hand in urging Hollywood-bound cash outflows. Establishing a modern consumer society in China that bears at least some of the hallmarks of America’s is a recurring theme of his leadership. One need only consider cinema’s counterpart on Xi’s two-pronged fork of consumerist expansionism to forget the notion that this is entirely about “rebalancing” the economy, however.

That other prong is sport – or, more specifically, football (the proper variety, not the American version). Led by Li Ruigang, a man dubbed “China’s Rupert Murdoch”, in November the very same China Media Capital paid 8 billion yuan (HK$9.5 billion) for the broadcast rights to the Chinese Super League for the next five years. For their part, meanwhile, Wanda last year not only took a 20 per cent stake in the Spanish football club Atletico Madrid but paid US$1.2 billion for the Swiss-based sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media, a company that holds the exclusive sales rights to broadcast Fifa events from 2015 to 2022, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Until very recently, global interest in the CSL was trace to non-existent. As reported diligently by the Post’s own James Porteous, it has increased somewhat in 2016 as Chinese clubs have taken to offering players double what they’re earning in Europe in a frenzied spree of spending fuelled by that injection of cash from CMC – who are evidently betting on a huge increase in demand for domestic football content and increased interest in the game generally.

To that end, China plans to have 20,000 designated football schools by 2017, raising participation to unprecedented levels. Professing himself a fan of the game, Xi has also made it known he wants China to host a World Cup and ultimately to win one. To be clear, then, the objective is to become a global power in the world’s most popular sport.

In his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson wrote about China trying to replicate the West’s historical va va voom in pursuit of prosperity, or “downloading its best apps”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, the Protestant work ethic and consumerism. The evidence suggests China has a few problems with its version of the third-mentioned, but in terms of consumerism, well, blockbuster movies and football as drivers of economic growth would seem like straightforward rips.

Only nothing’s as straightforward as Xi might wish. Just as Western moviegoers are likely to vote with their feet and stay away from the kind of films that adhere to SARFT’s worldview, Chinese football isn’t about to become exportable any time soon, and it’s far from certain that the subscription base needed to make the numbers add up domestically will materialise.

Matthew Syed argued in The Times (of London) the other week that Xi’s backing for football is about political indoctrination and control, that it is characterised by “top-down planning and the use of vast (unaccounted for) resources”, and that the paramount leader has rallied tycoons behind his cause in return for political favour.” “The attempt to rise up the rankings, and to stage the World Cup,” he wrote, “is testimony to the growing paranoia of China’s elite. Repression has escalated under Xi as the economy has slowed and propaganda is set to do precisely the same. In that sense, football is a mere pawn in a game of much higher stakes.”

It is certainly true that China’s leadership is facing multiple headwinds: slowing economic growth, shrinking employment, crashing markets, a growing suspicion that serious financial, economic and social problems are being papered over. And indeed, building up the nation’s leisure-industrial complex might be viewed, by the Marxist and the capitalist alike, as a useful expedient via which citizens / consumers can keep themselves (and not the streets) occupied. The official narrative is that buying Hollywood in order to censor it and demanding domination of a sport at which you are currently useless speaks of cultural confidence. It could just as easily be read as stemming from profound insecurity.

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