Bertrand Russell Reveals the 4 Human Desires That Make Our World: Acquisitiveness, Rivalry, Vanity & Love of Power

Contrary to Aristotle, the eminent logician, philosopher, and activist Bertrand Russell believed that virtue and morality play little part in political life. Rather, what most drives us to action, he argued, is selfish desire. Russell's political philosophy could seem almost Machiavellian, most notably in his Nobel Prize speech 1950, in which he proclaims that “all human activity is prompted by desire.” (Hear Russell read an excerpt above.)

There is a wholly fallacious theory advanced by some earnest moralists to the effect that it is possible to resist desire in the interests of duty and moral principle. I say this is fallacious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be dutiful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.

Russell’s argument about desire admits “there is no limit to the efforts that men will make, or to the violence that they will display” in the face of perceived scarcity, and his observations recall not only the realpolitik of Machiavelli, but the insights of that most prominent theorist of desire, Sigmund Freud.

Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this. 

Rather than libidinous instincts, however, Russell names four main political desires that cannot be satisfied: Acquisitiveness (“the wish to possess as much as possible), Rivalry (“a much stronger motive”), Vanity (“a motive of immense potency”), and Love of Power (“which outweighs them all”). We may note the tremendous degree to which all four desires seem actively at work in shaping our current world. All four of these qualities greet us every morning on our smartphones and never let up, day after day. But it has always been so to one degree or another, Russell argues. The important thing is to be clearsighted on the matter. Although selfish political desires can and largely are destructive, they need not always be so.

Political desires like the love of power may “have other sides which are more desirable.” Scholarly and scientific endeavors may be “mainly actuated by a love of power..... In politics, also, a reformer may have just as strong a love of power as a despot. It would be a complete mistake to decry love of power altogether as a motive.” “Russell,” writes Maria Popova, is “a thinker of exceptional sensitivity to nuance and to the dualities of which life is woven.” He cautions that we cannot simply dismiss our most powerful motive as "a wholesale negative driver."

The real problem, as Russell sees it, lies in “circumstances in which populations will fall below selfishness, if selfishness is interpreted as enlightened self-interest.” The phenomenon we observe of people “voting against their interests” is for Russell an occasion "on which they are convinced that they are acting from idealistic motives.”

Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power. When you see large masses of men swayed by what appear to be noble motives, it is as well to look below the surface and ask yourself what it is that makes these motives effective. It is partly because it is so easy to be taken in by a facade of nobility that a psychological inquiry, such as I have been attempting, is worth making.

Rather than virtue or morality, politics most requires “intelligence,” Russell concludes, “a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education.” These are not the forms of education we generally receive: “Schools are out to teach patriotism,” he says, “newspapers are out to stir up excitement; and politicians are out to get re-elected. None of the three, therefore, can do anything towards saving the human race from reciprocal suicide.”

The Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation hangs heavy over Russell’s speech. As long as humans are gripped by hatred and fear of others and held in thrall to political delusions, he suggests, the possibility of mutually assured destruction remains. On the other hand, if we were honest about our desires, and "if men were actuated by self-interest,” Russell writes, “which they are not.... if men desired their own happiness as ardently as they desired the misery of their neighbors.... the whole human race would cooperate.” Read the full text of Russell's Nobel speech here.

via BrainPickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

James Franco Hosts Philosophy Time, a New Videos Series Created to Help Philosophy Reach a Wider Audience

How do you get ordinary people interested in philosophy? If we are to believe the accounts of Plato, this wasn’t so difficult in ancient Athens. One simply lounged around the Acropolis harassing passersby, a tactic sure to fail in most city centers, town squares, and strip malls today. Podcasts and YouTube videos grab their share of eyes and ears, though many in their audiences also sing in the choir. Former Python John Cleese has done his part to popularize philosophical thinking. As someone who has moved between the worlds of academia and popular culture, Cleese has both credibility and visibility on his side. Some younger audiences (I write with apologies to Cleese) may be inclined to tune him out.

How about another actor with both fame and higher ed cred? Someone “very appealing to a younger demographic”? Someone like... James Franco—currently a doctoral student at Yale, and formerly a lecturer and/or student/graduate of UCLA, Columbia, NYU, Brooklyn College, Warren Wilson College, and the Rhode Island School of Design? This might seem like the resume either of an academic dilettante, or of a lifelong student and lover of knowledge.




Given Franco’s commitment to teaching, writing, and developing and starring in literary films like As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, The Broken Tower, and Howl, we might give him the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone’s a fan, but he does bring a good deal of academic enthusiasm to the role of philosophy popularizer.

Franco also brings along an actual philosopher, Eliot Michaelson, of King’s College, a former teacher of his. He proposed the idea of their project, “Philosophy Time,” while the two were at UCLA together, Michaelson as a grad student and Franco as an undergrad finishing his English degree after taking a hiatus from college to become a star. “We had somehow ended up becoming friends,” writes Michaelson, “In part, probably because I had no idea who he was.” Their long-gestating idea—an attempt to widen philosophy’s audience—has finally come to fruition. In the short episodes here, you can see the two in conversation with Rutgers University’s Andy Egan, at the top (on beauty), Princeton’s Liz Harmon, further up (on the fraught topic of abortion), and Rutgers’ Liz Camp, above and below (on imagination and metaphor).

Michaelson is a moderating influence. Franco’s laid back presentation will remind you of his performances in stoner comedy Pineapple Express, the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony, and the 2008 High Times Stoner of the Year event (though he swears he doesn’t touch the stuff anymore). Squiggly, animated word and thought bubbles add another comic touch. But whether or not viewers are charmed by his persona, they’ll find that he lets his guests do most of the talking, and they each make it plain that philosophy can be fascinating and imminently relevant to our ordinary modern lives. The kinds of questions Socrates needled hapless Athenians with—about beauty, ethics, and language—are just as pressing now as they were 2400 years ago.

You can find the emerging trove of "Philosophy Time" videos on YouTube here.

via Leiter Reports

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Aristotle Invented Computer Science

In popular conceptions, we take the computer to be the natural outcome of empirical science, an inheritance of the Enlightenment and subsequent scientific revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course, modern computers have their ancient precursors, like the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,200-year-old bronze and wood machine capable of predicting the positions of the planets, eclipses, and phases of the moon. But even this fascinating artifact fits into the narrative of computer science as “a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II.” Much less do we invoke the names of “philosopher-mathematicians,” writes Chris Dixon at The Atlantic, like George Boole and Gottlob Frege, “who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal ‘concept language,’ and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.” But these thinkers are as essential, if not more so, to computer science, especially, Dixon argues, Aristotle.

The ancient Greek thinker did not invent a calculating machine, though they may have existed in his lifetime. Instead, as Dixon writes in his recent piece, “How Aristotle Created the Computer,” Aristotle laid the foundations of mathematical logic, “a field that would have more impact on the modern world than any other.”




The claim may strike historians of philosophy as somewhat ironic, given that Enlightenment philosophers like Francis Bacon and John Locke announced their modern projects by thoroughly repudiating the medieval scholastics, whom they alleged were guilty of a slavish devotion to Aristotle. Their criticisms of medieval thought were varied and greatly warranted in many ways, and yet, like many an empiricist since, they often overlooked the critical importance of Aristotelian logic to scientific thought.

At the turn of the 20th century, almost three hundred years after Bacon sought to transcend Aristotle’s Organon with his form of natural philosophy, the formal logic of Aristotle could still be “considered a hopelessly abstract subject with no conceivable applications.” But Dixon traces the “evolution of computer science from mathematical logic” and Aristotelian thought, beginning in the 1930s with Claude Shannon, author of the groundbreaking essay "A Symbolic Analysis of Switching and Relay Circuits.” Shannon drew on the work of George Boole, whose name is now known to every computer scientist and engineer but who, in 1938, “was rarely read outside of philosophy departments.” And Boole owed his principle intellectual debt, as he acknowledged in his 1854 The Laws of Thought, to Aristotle’s syllogistic reasoning.

Boole derived his operations by replacing the terms in a syllogism with variables, “and the logical words ‘all’ and ‘are’ with arithmetical operators.” Shannon discovered that “Boole’s system could be mapped directly onto electrical circuits,” which hitherto “had no systematic theory governing their design.” The insight “allowed computer scientists to import decades of work in logic and mathematics by Boole and subsequent logicians.” Shannon, Dixon writes, “was the first to distinguish between the logical and the physical layer of computers,” a distinction now “so fundamental to computer science that it might seem surprising to modern readers how insightful it was at the time.” And yet, the field could not move forward without it—without, that is, a return to ancient categories of thought.

Since the 1940s, computer programming has become significantly more sophisticated. One thing that hasn’t changed is that it still primarily consists of programmers specifying rules for computers to follow. In philosophical terms, we’d say that computer programming has followed in the tradition of deductive logic, the branch of logic discussed above, which deals with the manipulation of symbols according to formal rules.

Dixon’s argument for the centrality of Aristotle to modern computer science takes many turns—through the quasi-mystical thought of 13th-century Ramon Llull and, later, his admirer Gottfried Leibniz. Through Descartes, and later Frege and Bertrand Russell. Through Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. Nowhere do we see Aristotle, wrapped in a toga, building a circuit board in his garage, but his modes of reasoning are everywhere in evidence as the scaffolding upon which all modern computer science has been built. Aristotle’s attempts to understand the laws of the human mind “helped create machines that could reason according to the rules of deductive logic.” The application of ancient philosophical principles may, Dixon concludes, “result in the creation of new minds—artificial minds—that might someday match or even exceed our own.” Read Dixon’s essay at The Atlantic, or hear it read in its entirety in the audio above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

 

New Archive Is Digitizing the Entirety of Phenomenology: Browse Works by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and More

Chances are, if you can define the word phenomenology, you’re already a student of the 20th century philosophical school, field, movement, or—as its earliest expositor, Edmund Husserl wrote in a preface to the English edition of his 1913 Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, “new science—though, indeed, the whole course of philosophical development since Descartes has been preparing the way for it."

Husserl’s messianic claim for phenomenological thinking–that which, broadly, deals with the contents of consciousness and the objects of experience–presages the discipline’s enormity, well represented by the totalizing thought of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher who intended with his 1927 Being and Time to accomplish the “destruction” of philosophy. In a way, writes Simon Critchley, he succeeded. “There is no way of understanding what took place in continental philosophy after Heidegger without coming to terms with Being and Time.”




Another prominent phenomenologist, French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty, asserts a no less mind-bogglingly huge mandate for the method: “phenomenology is the study of essences,” he writes in his 1947 Phenomenology of Perception. “It is the search for a philosophy which shall be a ‘rigorous science,’ but it also offers an account of space, time and the world as we ‘live’ them.” Again, if this makes sense to you, you may already be a student of phenomenology, and you've probably read a lot of it.

Philosophy students and professors must have ready access to a huge number of texts by a wide range of authors, most of whom are having multiple conversations with each other at once. It is, of course, ideal to have at hand the kinds of resources one might find at the Stadtbibliothek in Berlin, one of the largest libraries in the world, or even at most large university libraries. But if you don’t have such access, you can still gather a fair number of full texts by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and their many famous students and colleagues on the web.

Soon, you will be able to do so all in one place, in multiple languages and formats, at the Open Commons of Phenomenology, a “non-profit, international scholarly association” aiming to “provide free access to the full corpus of phenomenology” by 2020. A suitably ambitious task for a very ambitious school of thought. Currently, project founders Patrick Flack (whom you’ll see in the promo video at the top), Rodney ParkerNicolas de Warren, and the Husserl Archives have compiled “about 12000 bibliographic entries,” close to a quarter of which link to open access pdfs.

The project still needs to iron out a number kinks, and broken links, but it plans in the coming years to collect not only previously online essays and books, but also newly digitized texts and translations, “enhanced with a number of powerful tools, such as interactive timelines and genealogies of phenomenologists and psychologists, .xml versions of texts,” and much more. Read more about the project at Daily Nous, at the now-closed Indiegogo page from its funding campaign last year, and at the Open Commons site itself, where you'll also find reviews, calls for papers, lists of events, and more. The dense outline on the site's About page promises great things for this new "digital infrastructure" of phenomenology research. Enter the Open Commons of Phenomenology here.

via Daily Nous

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An Animated Introduction to Stoicism, the Ancient Greek Philosophy That Lets You Lead a Happy, Fulfilling Life

Forever known, it seems, as keeping a “stiff upper lip,” Stoicism—like its predecessor, Cynicism—is an ancient school of Greek philosophy that has been reduced into an attitude, a pose rather than a way of life. “We do this to our philosophies,” writes Lary Wallace at Aeon, “We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasizing all the wrong features.” We do this especially to schools as obscure to most people as Stoicism and Cynicism.

“In reality,” however, writes Massimo Pigliucci at The Stone, “practicing Stoicism is not really that different from, say, practicing Buddhism (or even certain forms of modern Christianity): it is a mix of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and the like.” Would the ancient Stoics have agreed with this assessment? In the short TED-Ed lesson above, written by Pigliucci and animated by Compote Collective, we learn about Zeno of Cyprus, “stranded miles from home, with no money or possessions.”




Destitute and “shipwrecked in Athens around 300 BCE,” the once-wealthy merchant discovered Socrates, and decided to “seek out and study with the city’s noted philosophers.” Zeno then taught his own students the principles of “virtue, tolerance, and self-control” that underlie Stoic philosophy (called so for “the porch (stoa poikilê) in the Agora at Athens” where the group congregated). Although the ability to remain calm and composed in a crisis—the quality most associated with Stoicism—occupies a prominent place in Stoic thought, it is centrally concerned with two questions.

As the site 99u puts it, Stoics ask: “1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?” and “2. How can we become better human beings?” In brief, we do so not by obeying or submitting to some kind of capricious divine will, but by attending to the rational structure of the universe, the Logos, an intricate web of cause and effect that determines the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The Stoic cultivates four virtues—Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, and Courage—and the character recommended by Stoic philosophy makes it plain why Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, as Pigliucci notes, was “actually modeled after [Gene Roddenberry’s]—mistaken—understanding of Stoicism.”

Given Stoicism’s concern with happiness and virtue, we might expect Alain de Botton’s School of Life to be an advocate, and we would be right. In the animated introduction to Stoicism above, de Botton assures viewers “you need more of it in your life.” Why? Because “life is difficult,” and Stoicism is “helpful,” for commoners and aristocrats alike. Indeed the most famous of Stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE. Considered one of the greatest works of ancient thought, Aurelius’ Meditations is also perhaps one of the most accessible of philosophical texts.

In plain, straightforward language, the emperor-philosopher recommends a series of Greco-Roman virtues, and gives credit to his many teachers. In book two, he writes, “Why should any of these things that happen externally, so much distract thee? Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wandering to and fro. Thou must also take heed of another kind of wandering, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labour in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.” In other words, rather than suffering in courageous silence—the caricature of Stoicism—Aurelius distills much of its essence to this: “Don’t worry about what you can't control, find good work to do, and do it well and wisely.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985

We might assume that philosophy is an ivory tower discipline that has little effect on the unlovely operations of government, driven as they are by the concerns of middle class wallets, upper class stock portfolios, and the ever-present problem of poverty. But we would be wrong. In times when presidents, cabinet members, or senators have been thoughtful and well-read, the ideas of thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, Leo Strauss, Jurgen Habermas, and John Rawls—a favorite of the previous president—have exercised considerable sway. Few philosophers have been as historically influential as the German thinker Carl Schmitt, though in a thoroughly destructive way. Then there’s John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle… even Socrates, who made himself a thorn in the side of the powerful.

But when it comes to the mostly French school of thinkers we associate with postmodernism—Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, the Jacques Lacan and Derrida, and many others—such influence is far less direct. The work of these writers has been often dismissed as frivolous and inconsequential, speaking a language no one understands to out of touch coastal elites on the left edge of the spectrum. Perhaps this is so in the United States, where power is often theorized but rarely radically critiqued in mainstream publications. But it has not been so in France. At least not according to the CIA, who closely monitored the effects of French philosophy on the country's domestic and foreign policy during their long-running culture war against Communism and “anti-Americanism,” and who, in 1985, compiled a research paper to document their investigations. (See a sample page above.)




Recently made available to the public in a "sanitized copy" through a Freedom of Information Act request, the document, titled “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals,” shows itself surprisingly approving of the political direction post-structuralist thinkers had taken. Villanova University professor of philosophy and author of Radical History and the Politics of Art Gabriel Rockhill summarizes the tenor of the agency’s assessment in the L.A. Review of Books’ Philosophical Salon:

…the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.

The “spirit of anti-Marxism and anti-Sovietism,” write the agents in their report, “will make it difficult for anyone to mobilize significant intellectual opposition to US policies.” The influence of “New Left intellectuals” over French culture and government was such, they surmised, that “President [Francois] Mitterrand’s notable coolness toward Moscow derives, at least in part, from this pervasive attitude.”

These observations stand in contrast to the previous generation of “left-leaning intellectuals of the immediate postwar period,” writes Rockhill, who “had been openly critical of US imperialism” and actively worked against the machinations of American operatives. Jean-Paul Sartre even played a role in “blowing the cover of the CIA station officer in Paris and dozens of undercover operatives,” and as a result was “closely monitored by the Agency and considered a very serious problem.” By the mid-eighties, the Agency stated, triumphantly, “there are no more Sartres, no more Gides.” The “last clique of Communist savants,” they write, “came under fire from their former proteges, but none had any stomach for fighting a rearguard defense of Marxism.” As such, the late Cold War period saw a “broader retreat from ideology among intellectuals of all political colors.”

A certain weariness had taken hold, brought about by the indefensible totalitarian abuses of the “cult of Stalinism” and the seeming inescapability of the Washington Consensus and the multinational corporatism engendered by it. By the time of Communism’s collapse, U.S. philosophers waxed apocalyptic, even as they celebrated the triumph of what Francis Fukuyama called “liberal democracy” over socialism. Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man made its startling thesis plain in the title. There would be no more revolutions. Harvard thinker Samuel Huntington declared it the era of “endism,” amidst a rash of hyperbolic arguments about “the end of art," the “end of nature," and so on. And, in France, in the years just prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, the previously vigorous philosophical left, the CIA believed, had “succumbed to a kind of listlessness.”

While the agency credited the diffidence of post-structuralist philosophers with swaying popular opinion away from socialism and “hardening public attitudes toward Marxism and the Soviet Union,” it also wrote that “their influence appears to be waning, and they are unlikely to have much direct impact on political affairs any time soon.” Is this true? If we take seriously critics of so-called “Identity Politics,” the answer is a resounding No. As those who closely identify postmodern philosophy with several recent waves of leftist thought and activism might argue, the CIA was shortsighted in its conclusions. Perhaps, bound to a Manichean view fostered by decades of Cold War maneuvering, they could not conceive of a politics that opposed both American and Soviet empire at once.

And yet, the retreat from ideology was hardly a retreat from politics. We might say, over thirty years since this curious research essay circulated among intelligence gatherers, that concepts like Foucault’s biopower or Derrida’s skeptical interrogations of identity have more currency and relevance than ever, even if we don’t always understand, or read, their work. But while the agency may not have foreseen the pervasive impact of postmodern thought, they never dismissed it as obscurantist or inconsequential sophistry. Their newly-released report, writes Rockhill, “should be a cogent reminder that if some presume that intellectuals are powerless, and that our political orientations do not matter, the organization that has been one of the most potent power brokers in contemporary world politics does not agree.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Composer and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, above, feels music profoundly. For her, there is no question that listening should be a whole body experience:

Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.

It’s a philosophy born of necessity—her hearing began to deteriorate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was profoundly deaf. Music lessons at that time included touching the wall of the practice room to feel the vibrations as her teacher played.

While she acknowledges that her disability is a publicity hook, it’s not her preferred lede, a conundrum she explores in her "Hearing Essay." Rather than be celebrated as a deaf musician, she’d like to be known as the musician who is teaching the world to listen.

In her TED Talk, How To Truly Listen, she differentiates between the ability to translate notations on a musical score and the subtler, more soulful skill of interpretation. This involves connecting to the instrument with every part of her physical being. Others may listen with ears alone. Dame Evelyn encourages everyone to listen with fingers, arms, stomach, heart, cheekbones… a phenomenon many teenagers experience organically, no matter what their earbuds are plugging.

And while the vibrations may be subtler, her philosophy could cause us to listen more attentively to both our loved ones and our adversaries, by staying attuned to visual and emotional pitches, as well as slight variations in volume and tone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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