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February 2014 Archives

Some of my fellow Skeptics have been discussing a homeopath who offers courses in 'homeopathic first-aid for the home'. Might work for dehydration, I suppose, given that a 30C dilution (that's a 1 in 100 dilution, repeated 30 times) will have nothing in it but water... But I rather think that homeopathic arnica - recommended here for acute trauma! - would have been worse than useless the time that the Significant Other's leg interacted with a heavy, sharp, falling object  - give me real-world first aid any day!

Mitchell & Webb said it all, really.



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Whales - competing with us for food, or helping to sustain the phytoplankton production on which most life in the oceans depends? The story and video at this link make a good case for the latter. 

Then there's the wolves - their return to Yellowstone Park in the US has led to a whole cascade of environmental changes: changes that are very much for the better. Because the wolves keep the elk population moving around & to some degree under control in terms of population size, the vegetation has had a chance to recover from overgrazing. Forest regrowth along the riverbanks has stabilised those banks and contributed to an improvement in water quality. Beaver populations have bounced back & their activity has further altered the landscape in ways that have seen other species return or recover. The wolves have benefited the park's ecosystem in ways that nobody had predicted.

As for the final topic, well... I have occasionally been asked by much younger, smaller persons how hedgehogs "do it" (the answer being, "carefully!"). In fact Nanny Ogg had a hum'rous song on that very topic. Brian Switek discusses the issue as it might relate to stegasaurs in My Beloved Brontosaurus. And then there are porcupines, animals for whom it seems all coitus must be consensual (unlike ducks, bedbugs, & dolphins, to name just three). Because anything else really wouldn't work...

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I spent much of today at an international symposium on "Transforming Public Engagement on Controversial Science & Technology". It's been fascinating & I'm looking forward to day 2, having learned a lot from both the formal presentations and the round-table discussions. I also got to lead a discussion session after a keynote address by fellow sciblogger Shaun Hendy (hi Shaun!), who looked at the reasons scientists do - & don't - get into science communication. Set the questions "should scientists be active in science communication, should they be 'brokers' of science knowledge or take on more of a 'science advocacy' role, and how best should we (society) support them in doing so, the participants came up with quite an extensive list. I've riffed on them a bit here in the hope that this may engender even more discussion.

  • Which scientists? Are we talking natural/physical scientists, or should the net be broadened to include social scientists, political scientists, & so on? Should we distinguish between them - there's a case to me made for closer cooperation between the various disciplines (something of a 'hybrid' model). Also, do we really want open slather - there's a risk of dilution of effort if everyone should happen to get involved. It could be better to have clear 'go-to' people for the media, in particular. (Here, of course, we need to remember that there are many ways to get involved in science communication. Fronting to the media is important, yes, but there are other avenues: presenting at Cafe Scientifique or science-in-the-pub events, helping schools during primary science week, & speaking to general interest groups spring to mind, but I'm sure there are many more.)
  • Science vs knowledge: science is only one lens for viewing the world; we also need discussions around ethical implications of novel technologies, for example. (Our table had an involved discussion, in a later session, around different cultural perspectives on assisted reproductive technologies, which had nothing at all to do with the mechanics of the actual technologies, and everything to do with the social and cultural impacts of both the application of those technologies and the very words we use to talk about them.) We can't talk about science without also considering the social context in which it's set, and the question of what society does with the science is up to society as a whole (or its elected representatives).
  • Communication may involve education around a particular aspect of science; advocacy (for the process, the nature, of science or for a particular application - although here you'd surely be moving into the realm of opinion?), or about policy issues. All must be evidence-based. Scientists are also citizens, and it's not possible for us to be entirely objective about our work. We need to be clear about whether we're communicating around our particular field of expertise, as compared to advocating for a particular action. And there does need to be discussion about and engagement with the nature of science, as well as the results of that science (advocacy for the scientific method, if you will).
  • Science communication is a two-way street: we need to listen and learn, as well as speak out.
  • We need to consider other forms of communication besides the spoken & written word - here Siouxsie Wiles and her glow-in-the-dark squid sprang immediately to mind :) More interactivity, more 'non-traditional' modes of communication!
  • Scientists are used to taking time to consider their responses to queries, while the media require quick (if not immediate) answers to requests for information. Shaun touched on this, too, as one of the reasons that some scientists may be reluctant to get involved in dealing with the members of the fourth estate.
  • Issues around conflicts of interest, memoranda of understanding, and confidentiality may affect individuals' availability, willingness, and freedom to speak. The nature of the particular discipline, sources of funding, and potential impacts on job security may also influence decisions.
  • Why would scientists communicate? Should they? In a different, more scientifically-literate world, maybe we wouldn't have to. Or there might not be so much need, anyway. However, these days, with very few specialist science journalists in the media, the need remains. As to the 'why would we' part, as Shaun noted, there are many potential reasons. Some - I think very few - do it simply as a means to raise their own profile or attract more funding. We may do it through sheer frustration with the way the media or society deal with scientific issues. But probably most scientists involved in science communication do it in the hope of making a difference; we're usually motivated by a sense of social responsibility or by an interest in a particular issue. (I originally got into science blogging, for example, as a means of supporting secondary biology teachers and students.)
  • Scientists don't always have to work though the media but may work in the community at the request of that community on local initiatives.
  • How do we enable scientists to communicate about what they do? Basically this activity needs to be incentivised, by funding and/or official recognition. (Writing science blogs, no matter how solid the science in them or how widely they're read and discussed, doesn't count in the PBRF stakes.) We also need to respect the work of those who don't communicate; it's not something that everyone can or should get into.
  • It's a real challenge to communicate the uncertainty of science. This is something I've noticed in the fluoride debates, for example. People want a degree of certainty in their lives, while science is never 100% certain - though we may speak of an issue being 'effectively settled', there remains that hint of uncertainty. This can be unsettling, and it can work against science in some forums.
  • It's also a challenge, at times, to avoid issues with equivalence or 'false balance'. The media in particular are keen on presenting 'both sides' when from a scientific perspective there's only one. (Hence we'll sometimes see stories on vaccination paired with claims that this is linked to autism, or on evolution 'balanced' by the views of intelligent design proponentsists, for example. And no, that was not a spelling mistake on my part.)

Please feel free to add to or comment on any of these points!


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For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest - a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there's always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I'm going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

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I've had a few conversations lately around the topic of Massive Open On-line Courses (or MOOCs). These fully on-line courses, which typically have very high enrolments, have become widely available from overseas providers (my own institution recently developed and ran the first such course in New Zealand, which I see is available again this year). If I had time I'd probably do the occasional one for interest (this one on epigenetics caught my eye).

Sometimes the conversations include the question of whether, and how much, MOOCs might contribute to what's generally known as the 'universities of the future'. This has always puzzled me a bit, as in their current incarnation most MOOCs don't carry credit (there are exceptions), so don't contribute to an actual degree program; they would seem to work better as 'tasters' - a means for people to see what a university might have to offer. Depending on their quality, they could also work to encourage young people into becoming more independent learners, regardless of whether they went on to a university - there's an interesting essay on this issue here. So I thought it would be interesting to look a bit more closely.

Despite the fact that these courses haven't been around all that long, there's already quite a bit published about them, including a systematic review of the literature covering the period 2008-2012 by Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams (2013), and a rather entertaining and somewhat sceptical 2013 presentation by Sir John Daniel, (based largely on this 2012 paper).

The term MOOC has only been in use since 2008, when it was first coined for a course offered by the University of Manitoba, Canada (Liyanagunawardena et al, 2013). Daniel comments that the philosophy behind early courses like this was one of 'connectiveness', such that resources were freely available to anyone, with learning shared by all those in the course. This was underpinned by the use of RSS feeds, Moodle discussions, blogs, Second Life, & on-line meetings. He characterises 'modern' MOOCs as bearing little relation, in their educational philosophy, to these early programs, viewing programs offered by major US universities as 

basically learning resources with some computerised feedback. In terms of pedagogy their quality varies widely, from very poor to OK. 

Part of the problem here lies with the extremely large enrolments in today's MOOCs, whereas those early courses were small enough that some semi-individualised interactions between students and educators were possible. Unfortunately the combination of variable pedagogy plus little in the way of real interpersonal interactions in these huge classes also sees them with very high drop-out rates: Liyanawardena and her colleagues note that the average completion rate is less than 10% of those beginning a course, with the highest being 19.2% for a Coursera offering.

Daniel offers some good advice to those considering setting up MOOCs of their own, given that currently - in his estimation - there are as yet no good business models available for these courses. Firstly: don't rush into it just because others are. Secondly, 

have a university-wide discussion on why you might offer a MOOC or MOOCs and use it to develop a MOOC strategy. The discussion should involve all staff members who might be involved in or affected by the offering of a MOOC.

His third point: ensure that any MOOC initiatives are fully integrated into your University’s strategy for online learning (my emphasis). To me this is an absolute imperative - sort the on-line learning strategy first, & then consider how MOOCs might contribute to this. (Having said that, I notice that the 2014 NMC Horizon report on higher education, by Johnson et al., sees these massive open on-line courses as in competition with the universities, rather than complementary to their on-campus and on-line for-credit offerings. And many thanks to Michael Edmonds for the heads-up on this paper.)

This is in fact true for anything to do with moving into the 'universities of the future' space (with or without MOOCs). Any strategy for online learning must surely consider resourcing: provision not only of the hardware, software, and facilities needed to properly deliver a 'blended' curriculum that may combine both face-to-face and on-line delivery, but also of the professional development needed to ensure that educators have the pedagogical knowledge and skills to deliver excellent learning experiences and outcomes in what for most of us is a novel environment. For there's far more to offering a good on-line program than simply putting the usual materials up on a web page. A good blended learning (hybrid) system must be flexible, for example; it must suit

the interests and desires of students, who are able to choose how they attend lecture - from the comfort of their home, or face-to-face with their teachers. Additionally, ... students [feel] the instructional technology [makes] the subject more interesting, and increase[s] their understanding, as well as encourag[ing] their participation... (Johnson et al., 2014).

This is something that is more likely to encourage the sort of critical thinking and deep learning approaches that we would all like to see in our students.

Furthermore, as part of that hybridisation, social media are increasingly likely to be used in learning experiences as well as for the more established patterns of social communication and entertainment (eg Twitter as a micro-blogging tool: Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013). In fact, 'external' communications (ie outside of learning management systems such as Moodle) are likely to become more significant as a means of supporting learner groups in this new environment - this is something I'm already seeing with the use of Facebook for class discussions and sharing of ideas and resources. Of course, this also places demands on educators:

Understanding how social media can be leveraged for social learning is a key skill for teachers, and teacher training programs are increasingly being expected to include this skill. (Johnson et al., 2014).

There is also a need, in any blended learning system, to ensure skilled moderation of forums and other forms of on-line engagement, along with policies to ensure privacy is maintained and bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour are avoided or nipped in the bud (Liyanawardena et al. 2013; Johnson et al., 2014). And of course there's the issue of flipped classrooms, something that the use of these technologies really encourages but which very few teaching staff have any experience of.

Another issue examined by Liyanagunawardena and her colleagues, in their review of the MOOC literature, is that of digital 'natives': are our students really able to use new learning technologies in the ways that we fondly imagine they can? This is a question that applies just as well to the hybrid learning model of 'universities of the future'. In one recent study cited by the team, researchers found that of all the active participants in a particular MOOC, only one had never been involved in other such courses. This begs the question of "whether a learner has to learn how to learn" (ibid.) in the digital, on-line environment. (Certainly, I've found I need to show students how to download podcasts of lectures, something I'd naively believed that they would know how to do better than I!) In other words, any planning for blended delivery must allow for helping learners, as well as teachers, to become fluent in the new technologies on offer.

We live in interesting times.

And I would love to hear from any readers who have experience in this sort of learning environment.


T.R.Liyanagunawardena, A.A.Adams & S.A.Williams (2013) MOOCs: a systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 14(3): 202-227

L.Johnson, S.Adams Becker, V.Estrada, & A.Freeman (2014) NMC HOrizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas. The New Media Consortium. ISBN 978-0-9897335-5-7

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By accident,  I came across the curriculum document for Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) which provides teaching & learning materials to parents who are homeschooling their children. New Zealand students who complete the program right  to year 13 gain university entrance.

Home Schooling NZ gives parents advice about the ACE program, but makes it clear that HSNZ does not work for Accelerated Christian Education or sell their teaching & assessment materials.  However, I was startled to see the following listed by HSNZ as one of the 'distinctives' [sic] of the ACE program:

Each student is taught from a biblical perspective developing critical thinking skills that will enable them to discern what is truly "...the good and acceptable and perfect will of God." (Romans 12:2)

Having had a fair bit to do with the development of the Science section of the current national curriculum document, specifically, the Living World component, I was naturally interested in seeing how ACE handles a science curriculum. The answer is, poorly.

In fact, I feel that it's most unfortunate that the ACE science program is officially recognised here, given statements such as this from Sir Peter Gluckman (the PM's Chief Science Advisor) about the importance of science and science education. For example, from the curriculum overview material for grade 1 students we learn that students will

  • [pronounce and learn] new vocabulary words as they are defined and used in the text
  • [discover] God's wisdom as he1 learns about God creating Earth...
  • [learn] about the design and care of the human eye and ear; high, low, soft and loud sounds.
  • [learn] about the importance of personal health - clean teeth and hands.
  • [gain] a respect for God as he learns about God's wisdom, goodness, kindness, and that all things belong to God.
  • [read] stories and answer questions about God's creation.
  • [continue] to build eye-hand coordination by drawing shapes, irregular shapes, and directional lines.

That's it.

In contrast, the New Zealand Curriculum document has a number of subject-specific achievement aims for students at this level, in addition to those relating specifically to the nature of science. For example, students in their first year or two of primary school should

  • Learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.
  • Appreciate that scientists ask questions about our world that lead to investigations and that open-mindedness is important because there may be more than one explanation.
  • Explore and act on issues and questions that link their science learning to their daily living.

Remember, that's in addition to the achievement aims for biology (Living World), chemistry (Material World), earth sciences (Planet Earth & Beyond). and physics (Physical World).

And so it continues. I mean, how could this (from the ACE objectives for Grade 3) be construed as science by anyone assessing the document?

Studies Bible topics such as Jesus' return; sin, death, and the curse; man's freedom to choose to love and obey God.

Or this?

Discovers the Bible to be the final authority in scientific matters.

Science, it ain't. It would appear that helping students to gain and enhance critical thinking skills isn't on the curriculum either - after all, teaching students to look to authority for the answers runs completely counter to encouraging critical thinking and teaching students how to weigh up evidence.

While I haven't read all the PACEs available for the curriculum, partly because I am not going to buy them in order to do so, I have read through the samples available on line. Among other things, the materials I viewed encouraged rote learning rather than deep, meaningful understanding of a subject - a long way indeed from current best-practice models of teaching & learning.

However, others have read ACE's PACE documents, & have been extremely critical of them. The Times Education Supplement, for example, was startled to find that ACE materials available in 1995 contained the claim that the Loch Ness Monster has been reliably identified and seems to be a plesiosaur. (It seems this reference has since been removed from new textbooks published in Europe.)

The TES also addressed some rather trenchant comments to the UK educational body responsible for giving the ACE curriculum equivalent status to O and A level examinations. Perhaps the NZ equivalent of that body should give the ACE documents a closer second look.


1 No female pronouns used, that I could see. (No room for female scientists in this curriculum, either - students are introduced to 'early men in science'.)


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I didn't intend to write another post on this subject so soon after the last one, but a story on's news feed has really annoyed me. I know journalists these days are seriously under pressure, but that doesn't really justify taking a 'press release' from a known activist organisation and running it uncritically ie without actually looking into any of the claims made therein. You'll find the story here, & I'm going to comment on some of the claims it contains below. (I would have done it directly on the piece but they don't actually allow comments, grumble grumble mutter.)

Dr Paul Connett is currently visiting NZ and Australia to promote the views of the anti-fluoridation organisation FAN and its antipodean sub-groups. While he has reportedly spent 17 years 'researching' issues associated with community water fluoridation (CWF), he has published neither original research papers on this particular topic nor a systematic review of the existing scientific literature, in leading science journals. He has, however, published a book on the subject, the contents of which formed the basis of an extensive discussion on the Open Parachute science blog (also syndicated to the Science Media Centre's This output doesn't really justify the 'expert' description so adroitly promoted by the FANNZ spokesperson who provided the yahoo item.

Repeated calls for a 'debate' are rather misleading as they suggest that there is in fact something to debate. In the case of the science behind CWF, as Sir Peter Gluckman has said, it is effectively settled. To call for a debate is simply an attempt to sow doubt and fear in people's minds, and any such event would be 'won' by the better demagogue and not necessarily on the basis of the actual science presented. Thus it makes perfect sense for TV3 to seek comment from Dr Jonathan Broadbent, who has a solid research record around oral health, rather than to opt for the flawed 'debate' format & so give some feeling of false equivalency to an issue where none exists. 

The FANNZ claim that our health officials are "[advocating] a highly toxic chemical be added to the drinking water of over 2 million people" is an attempt to imply that this practice is doing harm. However, there is no good evidence that the fluoridated water coming from the taps actually causes significant adverse health effects. Nor have health officicals "gone into hiding" (as stated in the yahoo story), as Dr Broadbent's willingness to be interviewed clearly demonstrates,

What are the facts that FANNZ is so keen for New Zealanders to hear? The organisation certainly seems keen to obscure the evidence that community water fluoridation improves oral health (here, here, and here, for example) and is a cost-effective way of doing so. The spokesperson comments that it "is [health officials'] responsibility to provide people with real factual information" - and appears to be ignoring the fact that the National Fluoride Information Service has been set up to do just that. And just today dental health experts have provided commentary on fluoridation via the Science Media Centre.

As I've said, many large-scale systematic reviews have found that there is good evidence that ingesting fluoride reduces decay - and, contrary to the claim in the original press release - the evidence of "unacceptable health risks" is not "growing daily". For example, the claim that fluoride is implicated in development of osteosarcoma appears to be based on a single preliminary study, and is not supported by more recent large-scale analyses. Similarly the 'Harvard' review, often cited as evidence that fluoridation affects IQ, has a number of flaws, some of which were identified by the authors themselves., it's a real pity you didn't look into this one rather more deeply.

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My friend & blog-buddy Grant drew my attention to a story about osteosarcoma at - and to the comments section, where one commenter raised the issue of a claimed link between this rare form of cancer and community water fluoridation (CWF). This particular claim has surfaced quite a lot lately, as anti-fluoride groups target various local body councils around the country.

The claim is based on a published PhD study by Bassin (Bassin et al. 2006), who looked at a sample of 103 children with osteosarcoma and 215 matched controls, and concluded that there was a link between exposure to fluoride and the development of osteosarcoma in boys, but not in girls. They also noted that the findings were preliminary and needed further study, preferably involving biomarkers eg fluoride levels in bone. (Thus it's interesting, to say the least, that this study is promoted so definitively by those opposed to CWF.) And in fact there have been a number of further studies - none of which support the Bassin group's findings.

For example, in 2011 Kim et al published the results of a case-control study of 137 osteosarcoma patients and 51 controls. They measured the amount of fluoride present in the bones of patients and control individuals (in this case, patients with other forms of cancer), made allowances for age (& thus duration of exposure to fluoride in drinking water) and gender. The team used the bone assay because, since "fluoride has an affiinity for calcified tissues" (ibid.), levels in the bone are a more reliable, objective measure of fluoride exposure than measurements based on residential history or - in the case of the paper by Bassin et al - interviews with patients about their use of fluoridated mouthwashes & supplements, in addition to information on where they'd lived.

The team found there was

no significant difference in bone fluoride levels between cases and controls

and concluded that 

[n]o significant association between bone fluoride levels and osteosarcoma risk was detected in our case-control study, based on controls with other tumor diagnoses.

They also characterised Bassin's study as 'exploratory' and noted that a large number of earlier animal studies, and descriptive and case-control studies in humans, had not found any association between osteosarcoma & fluoride exposure.  

<EDIT Feb 4> Also in 2011, Comber & colleagues compared osteosarcoma in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. While anti-fluoride groups regularly claim that osteosarcoma rates are higher in the Republic of Ireland, where water is fluoridated, and lower in Northern Ireland where CWF has never been implemented, Comber et al found no evidence for such an association:

The results of this study do not support the hypothesis that osteosarcoma incidence in the island of Ireland is significantly related to public water fluoridation. 

Note that they did add a caveat, related to their small sample size: 

this conclusion must be qualified, in view of the relative rarity of the cancer and the correspondingly wide confidence intervals of the risk estimates.

However, subsequent studies have borne out their results. </EDIT>

Again, in 2012 Levy and Leclerc used information covering the period 1999-2006 from the Centres for Disease Control database to probe the supposed link between CWF and this form of cancer. This was a weaker study than that of Kim's team, because it used the proportion of a state's population exposed to CWF as the proxy for fluoride exposure, but it concluded that

the water fluoridation status in the continental U.S. has no influence on osteosarcoma incidence rates during childhood and adolescence.

Most recently, Blakey and colleagues (2014) studied more than 4,000 patients with either osteosarcoma (N = 2566) or Ewings sarcoma (N = 1650), with the aim of their study being

to examine whether increased risk of primary bone cancer was associated with living in areas with higher concentrations of fluoride in drinking water.

Their conclusions?

The findings from this study provide no evidence that higher levels of fluoride (whether natural or artificial) in drinking water in [Great Britain] lead to greater risk of either osteosarcoma or Ewing sarcoma.

In other words, to date the further research Bassin's team called for has not replicated their findings, and means that claims of a causal link are questionable at best.

<EDIT Feb 4> NB The New Zealand National Fluoridation Information Service also has some excellent information around this issue, including an analysis of data from the national cancer registry which again suggests no link between CWF and osteosarcoma.</EDIT>

E.B.Bassin, D.Wypij, R.B.Davis, M.A.Mittleman (2006) Age-specific fluoride exposure in drinking water and osteosarcoma (United States). Cancer Causes Control 2006(17): 421-428

K.Blakey, R.B.Feltbower, R.C.Parslow, P.W.James, B.G.Pozo, C.Stiller, T.J.Vincent, P.Normal, P.A.McKinney, M.F.Murphy, A.W.Craft, & R.J.Q.McNally (2014) Is fluoride a risk factor for bone cancer? Small area analysis of osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma diagnosed among 0-49-year-olds in Great Britain, 1980-2005. Int.J.Epidemiol, doi: 10.1093/ije/dyt259. First published online: January 14, 2014.

H.Comber, S.Deady, E.Montgomery & A.Gavin (2011) Drinking water fluoridation and osteosarcoma incidence on the island of Ireland. Cancer Causes Control 22(6): 919-924. doi: 10.1007/s10552-011-9765-0

F.M.Kim, C.Hayes, P.L.Williams, G.M.Whitford, K.J.Joshipura, R.N.Hoover, C.W.Douglass, & the National Osteosarcoma Etiology Group (2011) An assessment of bone fluoride and osteosarcoma. J.Dent.Res. 90(10): 1171-1176. doi: 10.1177/0022034511418828, PMCID: PMC3173011

M.Levy & B.S.Leclerc (2012) Fluoride in drinking water and osteosarcoma incidence rates in the continental United States among children and adolescents. Cancer Epidemiol. 36(2): e83-88. doi: 10.1016/j.canep.2011.11.008. Epub 2011 Dec 19.

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