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Sept. 1 2015 8:57 PM

After Decades of Decline, 2015 Murder Rate Unexpectedly Spikes in Many U.S. Cities

The New York Times crunched the homicide numbers in the U.S. this year and found a disturbing trend: The murder rate in American cities is on the rise. The increase in murders counters decades-long declines. Here's a sampling of what the Times found:

[In Milwuakee] 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014. More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.
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What those numbers add up to, over approximately the same period this year compared to 2014, is: Milwaukee’s murder rate is up 76 percent; St. Louis and Baltimore are both up more than 50 percent; murders in Washington, D.C. are up 44 percent, and Chicago has seen a 20 percent rise. Not all metros have seen a similar trend, as cities like Los Angeles and Newark have remained about the same. New York's murder rate is up about 9 percent this year.

“Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing,” according to the Times. “Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.” Increased and more brazen gang activity as well as access to guns are also bounced around as potential motivators for increasing amounts of deadly violence. “But more commonly,” the Times notes, “many top police officials say they are seeing a growing willingness among disenchanted young men in poor neighborhoods to use violence to settle ordinary disputes.”

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Sept. 1 2015 6:39 PM

CNN Rewrites Debate Rules, Opens Door For Carly Fiorina to Join Main Event

Carly Fiorina, who dominated the Fox News undercard debate in Ohio, is now on pace to take part in CNN’s main event in California later this month—thanks to a little help from network executives and the Republican Party.

On Tuesday, CNN rewrote the selection criteria for the pair of GOP presidential debates it will host on Sept. 16 in such a way that should allow Fiorina to snag an invite to the top-tier event even if she doesn’t crack the official top 10 in the network’s chosen polls. The convenient (though not unfounded) reason for the change: A shortage of recent surveys.

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The original selection criteria were set to include an average of polls taken by a pre-selected group of pollsters between July 16th and September 10th. The problem with that, though, was that while there were a slew of approved surveys taken before the Fox News debate on Aug. 6, there have been only a handful of them taken since. Or as CNN officials put it Tuesday: “In a world where we expected there to be at least 15 national polls [taken between the Fox News and CNN debates], based on historic precedent, it appears there will be only five.” Without a change, a candidate’s polling performance prior to the first GOP debate would effectively have been more important than their standing after it. That was good news for the likes of slumping Chris Christie and Rand Paul, but bad news for the surging Fiorina.

With the change, the 10 candidates who would have qualified under the original polling criteria will still earn invites—but so will any candidate who cracks the top 10 in an average of a smaller and more recent sample released between August 7th and September 10th.  According to CNN’s current projections, that means the main stage is on track to include the 10 men who took part in Fox News’ primetime debate—plus Fiorina, whose original CNN polling average was being dragged down by her lackluster showing in polls from before the first debate but who has since climbed to 7th in RealClearPolitics national average and 4th in Huffington Post’s.

GOP officials, who have been quick to stress that the networks are in charge of the selection criteria, gave CNN’s change their blessing. That makes sense for a couple of reasons. For starters, Fiorina performed well in the first debate and voters appear eager to see her try her hand at the adult’s table. As I’ve noted before, though, more important for the party is that Carly’s presence could provide an important counterweight to Donald Trump and his particular brand of misogyny.

Sept. 1 2015 6:02 PM

Los Angeles Named the New U.S. Bid City for the 2024 Olympics

Los Angeles will be the American bid city for the 2024 Olympics, the United States Olympic Committee announced on Tuesday.

Los Angeles, which will be competing against Paris, Rome, Hamburg and Budapest among other potential cities, got the formal USOC endorsement after city council members voted 15-0 to support the bid.

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The move comes after the USOC’s calamitous initial selection of Boston as its 2024 bid city, which resulted in massive public opposition and ultimately a reversal of the decision.

The potential for cost overruns that would have had to be covered by the city, in line with an agreement that the International Olympic Committee forces host cities to sign, was one of the principal concerns for Boston 2024 opponents. According to the Los Angeles Times, the new bid city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, has promised to sign such a contract.

As Henry Grabar outlined in Slate in July, a Los Angeles bid potentially makes more sense than the Boston bid ever did. The city has the experience of hosting the Games successfully in 1932 and 1984, along with the existing facilities with which that comes.

It also has the backing of city officials and the public, with recent USOC polling putting support for the bid at 81 percent and opposition at 11 percent, according to the Times.

While Olympic costs are incredibly difficult to predict and usually result in budget overruns, Garcetti has projected an estimated $161-million surplus in his Olympic plan, which will be centered around the use of established facilities like the Coliseum, Staples Center, and Pauley Pavilion. Such a surplus would not be unprecedented. “With a mix of private-sector funding, television profits, corporate sponsorship, and adaptive reuse, the [1984] Los Angeles Games showed the way toward a profitable Olympics,” Grabar wrote. “The $232 million revenue from the Games funded a nonprofit, LA84, that supported sports in poor communities.”

The draft bid called for a $4.1 billion budget, which did not include hundreds of millions in insurance premiums and a contingency fund for cost overruns, or an estimated additional $1.7 billion from private investors.

While the existing venues might make Olympic costs in Los Angeles more sensible than in other cities, there’s no guarantee that the bid will ultimately meet projections. The Times estimated that renovating the Coliseum would cost $500 million, while another $1 billion is estimated for an athletes village. But city analysts have said village costs could be much higher, according to the Times.

The vote for the 2024 Olympics is scheduled to take place in the summer of 2017.

Sept. 1 2015 5:45 PM

The CIA’s Drone War Comes to Syria

It was probably only a matter of time before the Obama administration employed its preferred fallback counterterrorism strategy against the growing threat posed by ISIS: The Washington Post’s Greg Miller reports today that the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, have launched a secret drone campaign in Syria.

Unnamed U.S. officials tell the Post that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center is only involved in identifying and locating the targets while JSOC is carrying out the strikes, which are exclusively focused on “high value targets.” Officially, the CIA has no established presence within Syria, though it has certainly been involved in the conflict, notably by vetting and supplying rebel groups in the country. The drone program means that its role has escalated, likely due to recent setbacks in the not-secret campaign against ISIS.

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The Obama administration, as part of an overall attempt to roll back the quasi-military role the CIA has taken on since 9/11, has pushed over the last couple of years to transfer control of the drone program to the military, though this has encountered opposition in Congress. The joint operation in Syria seems like a compromise in the turf war between the two agencies. If only the military is operating all the drones, then according to the logic of the past several  years, the operations can be legally justified under the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which has been dubiously applied to Syria thanks to Congress’s failure to take up the issue.

One recent target of the new program, which represents only a small fraction of the thousands of airstrikes in the U.S.-led air campaign, was Junaid Hussain, a British citizen, hacker, and ISIS propagandist linked to a number of international plots, including the attack on a “Draw Muhammad” event in Texas in May. He was killed in a drone strike last month.

Obama’s stated goals of reducing and restricting the controversial drone program have been stymied by the rise of ISIS and the collapse of Yemen. “Signature strikes,” those that target suspected terrorist facilities rather than specific individuals, have continued despite promises that they’d be phased out. There’s also little evidence to support the administration’s claims that it prefers capturing terrorist subjects to targeting them with drones. The number of strikes in Pakistan, once the center of the drone war, has lessened as the threat from al-Qaida central has diminished and the U.S. presence is Afghanistan has been reduced. But Yemen has already seen more drone strikes this year than in all of last year. And now, the secret drone war has expanded to yet another country.

Sept. 1 2015 5:13 PM

Why Jeb Bush’s Newest Attack on Donald Trump Could Backfire

Jeb Bush on Tuesday launched his biggest attack yet on Donald Trump with a new video that paints the current GOP front-runner as an out-of-touch New Yorker who has no place in the Republican Party.

Bush’s “The Real Donald Trump” attack ad—a play on Trump’s much-used @realDonaldTrump Twitter handle—uses the billionaire’s past statements to paint him as a liberal elitist in a conservative candidate’s clothing. “I’ve lived in New York City and Manhattan all my life,” Trump says in the clip that kicks off the spot. “OK? So, you know, my views are a little bit different than if I lived in Iowa.” The 80-second ad then proceeds to show footage of the real estate tycoon praising everything from single-payer health care to President Obama’s stimulus package to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

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Trump’s faced similar Republican-in-name-only criticism before. Megyn Kelly and co. grilled him on his liberal past during the Fox News debate early last month, and Bush and other GOP hopefuls have been increasingly trying to paint him with a Democratic-branded brush of late. Such criticism, though, has failed to strike a chord with Trump’s unique band of supporters, many of whom appear more attracted to the businessman’s anti-establishment anger and brash bluster than his specific policy views. When a well-known GOP pollster recently showed a focus group a few of The Donald’s greatest hits—which included his support for single-payer health care—Trump supporters reported liking their man more than they did before they saw the footage.

So is Bush’s RINO-themed attack doomed to fail? Not in the long run. Trump has a sizeable lead in the polls, both nationally and in the early nominating states—but what he doesn’t have at the moment is enough room to grow his base to remain out in front once the field begins to winnow and his party rallies around one of his more establishment-friendly rivals. Bush, then, needs to keep Trump’s current ceiling in the polls in place. Reminding non-Trump conservatives of his liberal past should help do just that.

Bush’s gambit, though, comes with significant risks. As Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker can all attest, GOP hopefuls who tangle with Trump this campaign cycle rarely get the better of it. If Jeb has any doubts about just how low Trump is willing to go to take him down, he can head on over to Instagram and watch Trump’s brutal “Willie Horton”-style attack ad that went live on Monday and overlays Bush’s “act of love” quote about immigrants who come to the United State illegally on top of mug shots of alleged murderers.

The bigger danger to Bush, though, is also in the long term. The Summer of Trump has been dominated by questions of how long the billionaire’s run atop the polls can last, and whether his GOP campaign will end with a bang or with a whimper. The more important question that looms, though, is whether Trump will launch a third-party bid if or when he’s knocked out of the GOP race. If the former reality star decides to stick around as an independent, he’s likely to hand the general election to the Democratic nominee.

It’s a fool’s errand predicting what Trump will do next week, let alone next summer, but two of the things that the billionaire has been the most consistent on this year are that he doesn’t suffer slights in silence and that he clearly is not a fan of Bush. If Jeb has to tear down The Donald to win the Republican primary, then, he’s more likely to find Trump still standing in his way come the general election.

Sept. 1 2015 4:17 PM

Obama’s Alaska Trip Isn’t Just About Climate Change. It’s Also About Russia.

Most of President Obama’s trip to the Arctic this week is about highlighting his administration’s agenda on climate change (flawed as it may be), but it’s also about a geopolitics. The Arctic has emerged as a potentially dangerous new area of competition with Russia.

The president proposed funding today for new icebreaker ships for the Coast Guard to navigate in frozen Arctic waters, noting that the U.S. has only three icebreakers in its fleet while Russia has 40, with an additional 11 planned. The announcement highlighted the growing sense that, as a lengthy New York Times feature put it, the U.S. is “playing catch-up with Russia in [the] scramble for the Arctic.”

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A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted Russia’s military buildup in the region, which has included the reopening of 50 previously shuttered Soviet-era military bases. In March, Russia conducted military exercises in the Arctic involving 45,000 troops, 15 submarines, and 41 warships. The Arctic has also been the site of recent incursions by Russian jets into or near NATO airspace. Most importantly, Russia submitted a sovereignty claim to the United Nations in March for a 46,000-square-mile area of Arctic territory, including the North Pole, making official the position it staked back in 2007 when a submersible dramatically planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed.

Russia’s newfound interest in the Arctic, which has been compared to the “Red Arctic” development push of the Stalin era, is closely related to the rapid environmental changes taking place in the region. The retreating sea ice opens up new shipping routes between Western Russia and Asia, as well as opportunities to drill for oil, natural gas, and minerals on the newly accessible Arctic seabed. While the Russian government has submitted a plan to reduce carbon emissions ahead of the U.N. Conference on climate change in December, it also likely sees the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity as much as a crisis. Russia notably declined to sign on to a statement on reducing the effects of climate change in the Arctic presented by Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry at an international summit in Anchorage this week, with RT noting that the “upcoming environmental deal brings additional costs to the oil and gas extraction industries.”

The Russian government has vowed that it’s willing to use military force if necessary to protect its Arctic interests, though so far the only semi-violent confrontation has been with the group of Greenpeace activists who scaled an oil platform in 2013. But there’s certainly potential for more conflict. Russia’s Arctic claim, the North Pole in particular, overlaps with area that Canada plans to claim. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is under increasing pressure to respond to Russia’s recent moves and is also moving military resources to the area. Denmark, an Arctic nation thanks to its administration of Greenland, and Norway both have significant Arctic claims as well. Russia’s military exercises in March were partly in response to Norway’s own “Joint Viking” drills involving 5,000 military personnel.

So far, the good news is that despite the military buildup, all parties are calling dibs through legal means, filing territorial claims under the Law of the Sea Treaty to the United Nations, which will adjudicate them, likely several years from now, based on somewhat arbitrary geological criteria.

The U.S., however, is not really in that contest. The United States is an Arctic nation thanks to its decision to purchase Alaska from Russia nearly 150 years ago, but today it’s handicapped in its ability to solidify or expand its territorial claims in the region: Thanks to congressional opposition to almost every international agreement and particularly those involving the U.N., the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty and can’t stake Arctic territorial claims of its own.

Despite Obama’s environmental goals, the U.S. does have interests in Arctic energy resources, as shown by the recent decision to allow Shell to begin drilling off Alaska. More broadly, the U.S. wants to ensure freedom of navigation in newly accessible Arctic waters, contain Russia’s territorial ambitions, and prevent armed conflict on the roof of the world. Doing something to keep the whole place from melting into the sea might also be nice, though whether that’s also a priority will depend on who wins in 2016. 

Sept. 1 2015 3:52 PM

Gun Suicides Plummet in State After New Licensing Law, Skyrocket After Law Repealed in Other State

More stringent gun laws can save lives, while less stringent ones can lead to more deaths. That is the implication of a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins, who found that gun suicides plummeted after a law in Connecticut requiring background checks for handgun purchases was passed. Gun suicides in Missouri, meanwhile, spiked after a similar law was repealed there.

“Contrary to popular belief, suicidal thoughts are often transient, which is why delaying access to a firearm during a period of crisis could prevent suicide,” said study author Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, in a press release announcing the study’s findings on Tuesday. “Just as research indicates that handgun purchaser licensing laws are effective in reducing firearm homicides, they could reduce suicides by firearms as well.”

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The study, published by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in the October issue of Preventive Medicine, found a 15.4 percent reduction in firearm suicide rates in Connecticut after the passage of a 1995 law requiring individuals to obtain a permit or license to purchase a handgun after passing a background check. Similarly, “Missouri’s repeal of its handgun purchaser licensing law in 2007 was associated with a 16.1 percent increase in firearm suicide rates.”

Researchers were careful to point out they couldn’t prove a clear causal relationship, noting that overall suicide rates in Connecticut went down at the same time that gun suicides did. In Missouri, though, there was no significant change in suicide by means other than guns after the state’s repeal of its handgun licensing law.

“Although these laws were not designed to reduce suicides, many of the risk factors that disqualify someone from legal gun ownership—domestic violence, history of committing violent crimes, substance abuse, severe mental illness and adolescence—are also risk factors for suicide,” said lead study author Cassandra Crifasi.

The study confirms similar findings by researchers at George Mason University that more guns result in more suicide, but it was the first to study whether policy changes actually impacted suicide risk over time. Johns Hopkins’ Center for Gun Policy and Research had previously found a 40 percent decrease in gun homicide rates after the Connecticut law was passed, and a 25 percent increase in Missouri rates after the repeal.

Data from the CDC and an analysis by Slate showed that gun suicides were a large—and largely ignored—portion of the overall issue of gun violence in the United States, with about 2 out of 3 gun deaths coming from suicides.

Sept. 1 2015 2:44 PM

Obama Is One Senate Vote Away From Securing the Iran Deal

Supporters of the Iran deal are one vote away from cementing it as United States policy, after Sens. Bob Casey and Chris Coons on Tuesday became the 32nd and 33rd Senate Democrats to announce that they favor the deal. The White House needs to secure 34 Senate votes to assure that Congress would not be able to override a potential veto of a possible vote to undo the deal.

It looks as though that 34th vote is all but guaranteed, with still-undecided Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland saying he expected the outcome would be decided as soon as this week.

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"That number looks like it will clearly get to the 34 number by the end of the week, so it looks pretty clear the president is going to have the support to sustain a veto," Cardin said.

So far only two Democratic senators have broken with the White House over the deal—New Jersey’s Bob Menendez and New York’s Chuck Schumer.

"This agreement will substantially constrain the Iranian nuclear program for its duration, and compared with all realistic alternatives, it is the best option available to us at this time," Pennsylvania’s Casey said in his announcement, which was given to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He was seen as a possible Democrat who might have voted against the deal, the Inquirer reports.

Delaware’s Coons told the Washington Post that he was joining his fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Casey in supporting the deal because "we are better off trying diplomacy first."

The news is not entirely unexpected. Last week Slate’s Fred Kaplan explained why he expected the deal to go through:

Something interesting has happened the past few weeks. Many lawmakers have read the 159-page deal, known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” signed by Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). Many more have been briefed on the deal’s fine points by the American negotiators and technical specialists, as well as by Western ambassadors. And many of them—those who aren’t bound by GOP discipline or constituents’ pressure (and even a few who are)—have concluded that this is a good deal.

The Associated Press reported on Friday that Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin’s efforts to ensure a presidential veto would be secure were all but completed and that supporters of the deal might even have enough votes to prevent a "no" vote with a filibuster:

[T]o the surprise of many, supporters of the Iran deal are piling up enough votes that they may even be able to block a resolution of disapproval in the Senate [in September], meaning President Barack Obama wouldn’t have to use his veto pen—an outcome that looked all but inconceivable in the days after the deal was signed July 14.

The news comes as Republican presidential candidates have remained staunch in their opposition to the deal, which has faced intense opposition from pro-Israel and neoconservative lobbying groups.

Meanwhile, a new opinion survey released by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation revealed a slim majority of Americans supported the deal, with 52 percent in favor of approval and 47 percent opposed.

The survey found that the two camps were split heavily along partisan lines, with nearly 7 in 10 Democrats saying yes and the same number or Republicans saying no.

Sept. 1 2015 12:32 PM

Video Shows Inmate Dying of Diabetes Complications in Rikers as Guards Did Nothing

A shocking new video released by the New York Times on Tuesday showed the final moments of the life of Carlos Mercado, a man who died of diabetes-related complications in police custody in 2013 after guards at Rikers Island failed to respond to his deteriorating condition and alleged repeated pleas for help.

An investigation by the Department of Correction that was reported publicly last week by the New York Daily News and New York Post described how Correction Officer Eric Jacobs stepped over Mercado’s body repeatedly without helping him after he collapsed out of the cell late on the evening of Aug. 23, 2013. He died the next morning.  

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The video shows Mercado, who had been arrested after allegedly trying to sell heroin, lying down after his collapse without being taken for help. The Times reports he was down for three minutes.

“As far as contacting medical staff, CO Jacobs stated: ‘If I didn't do it, I didn't do it,’ ” the investigation read.

Investigators said that “[h]ad Mercado received adequate and appropriate medical care, his death would likely have been prevented,” according to the Post.

The Times reports that after the collapse, inmate witnesses reported hearing Mercado tell officers he was diabetic and needed medical attention. Mercado vomited repeatedly throughout the night and carried the vomit with him in a plastic bag.

More from the Daily News:

“He was tripping, laying down on the floor and throwing up constantly,” inmate Richard Saul said. “He was twisting and turning, moaning and shaking and didn't seem to know what was going on.” [...]
“The inmate was foaming at the mouth, discoloration around his lips and gasping for air. The inmates again shouted out for assistance to DOC staff and medical staff members,” inmate Arthur Cook said.

Afterward, the Daily News reports, three officers were found to have lied to investigators and violated rules regarding care for inmates.

“Mr. Mercado's behavior exhibited obvious signs that he was in dire need of medical attention and officers failed to (afford) him such,” the investigation read.

The report indicates that officers thought Mercado was suffering from heroin withdrawals when they chose not to help him.

Corrections officers didn’t request help for Mercado until 8:25 the morning after his collapse, and even after requesting help, a nurse indicated he didn’t need immediate attention. He died about an hour later.

The family is working on a settlement with the city, while the Correction Department said that the case was still under investigation, the Daily News reported. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office told the Daily News that the case had not been referred to it for investigation.

Earlier this summer New York City reached a settlement in a lawsuit alleging systemic abuse of inmates at Rikers Island and promised a series of reforms to the facility.

Sept. 1 2015 12:15 PM

Donald Trump Loves to Insult China and Mexico. Here’s How They Feel About Him.

Donald Trump talks about China a lot. China’s government, on the other hand, clearly has no interest in talking about Donald Trump.

Asked about the GOP front-runner’s recent accusations that Beijing manipulates its currency and steals U.S. jobs, and his promises to “beat China” at international trade, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded obliquely today, saying, "We understand that in the United States every person has the freedom to make all kinds of comments. But for the Chinese government, we pay even more attention to the U.S. government's policy towards China and mainstream U.S. public opinion.” Hua went on to say, “The history of the development of Sino-U.S. ties in recent years shows that from time to time there will be all sorts of voices, or sometimes certain disturbances.”

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Trump has come up before, at a press briefing in June. Then, government spokesman Lu Kang said, “I believe that despite the frictions that still exist, both sides are able to handle it through existing channels.” Neither response mentioned Trump by name.

Trump’s other favorite foreign punching bag, Mexico, hasn’t been quite as shy. Mexico’s interior minister denounced Trump’s immigration plan as “prejudicial and absurd.” The foreign ministry has said his comments “reflect prejudice, racism or plain ignorance.” The leader of the opposition PAN party has declared the “buffoon and jester” Trump a “public enemy” and criticized the current Mexican government for not doing more to stand up to him.

With anti-Trump anger running high in Mexico, denouncing him is good politics. Though given the low approval ratings for the current Mexican government, Trump’s suggestion that the country’s leaders are so much more clever that the stupid people who run America could be taken as a weird sort of compliment.

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