Mandelbrot and music: on listening in fractal dimensions

by on Oct.25, 2010, under random

Benoit Mandelbrot died this month. He was the guy who came up with fractal theory, which led to all those gorgeous computer graphics like this one, from Wikimedia Commons:

A Mandelbrot set

Last week, my friend and contradance bandmate Tina Fields wrote an essay about Mandelbrot’s ideas on her blog, Indigenize! I found it quite thought-provoking, and it surprised me how much I learned from her post, since I’m the one with the math degree. My next surprise was how Tina’s thoughts on this mathematician inspired me to think about listening to music.

This essay is in response to ideas she raises in her essay, so go read hers first and then come back here!

First I’d like to amplify her comment about coastlines by quoting this passage from Mandelbrot’s obituary in the New York Times, about how coastlines played a role in the genesis of his theory:

Dr. Mandelbrot traced his work on fractals to a question he first encountered as a young researcher: how long is the coast of Britain? The answer, he was surprised to discover, depends on how closely one looks. On a map an island may appear smooth, but zooming in will reveal jagged edges that add up to a longer coast. Zooming in further will reveal even more coastline.

“Here is a question, a staple of grade-school geometry that, if you think about it, is impossible,” Dr. Mandelbrot told The New York Times earlier this year in an interview. “The length of the coastline, in a sense, is infinite.”

In the 1950s, Dr. Mandelbrot proposed a simple but radical way to quantify the crookedness of such an object by assigning it a “fractal dimension,” an insight that has proved useful well beyond the field of cartography.

To me, that’s the real genius of his discovery—viewing scale as a dimension. If we measure the coastline or the surface of the broccoli from a mile away we get a much different answer than if we measure it from close up and far different still if we measure under a microscope.

So what is scale, really, but a matter of perspective?

Let’s consider the metaphorical potential: if perspective is a dimension, how does it change the way we view truth about our world? You have some truth, I have some truth, and the differences are not necessarily contradictions but spectral variations along the perspective dimension.

Tina’s big gift to me in her essay isn’t so much her point about Mandelbrot’s focus on verbs rather than nouns, although I enjoy that, too, but her encouraging us to think about new things fractally. The first thing that comes to my mind is Beethoven. (Perhaps I should explain that besides working in statistical software and facilitative leadership, I’m also a professional horn player and hold degrees in music performance and music history.)

Beethoven leads my pantheon, and here’s a bit on why: his compositional technique is extraordinary, and the more you know about musical composition and performance, the more you hear in his work. In addition to doing all the usual classical things—the usual structural designs (four-movement symphonic architecture with movements in sonata, menuet or scherzo, sonata-rondo, etc. forms, linked in a progression of related tonalities, yada yada Haydn, blabbety-blabbety Mozart, blah blah Bach), German-Italianate phrases, symphonic devices of his environment and era—he throws in a few more tricks all his own, chief among them his idea of motivic development.

His every melodic gesture is built up from the smallest motives, e.g. his Fifth Symphony‘s four-note “ba-ba-ba-BOM!” opening. That simple four-note figure is sequenced, layered, mutated, and warped all throughout the first movement, each phrase a new assemblage of basic building blocks, each harmonic gesture arising out of layers and layers of sequences of this tiny musical block and several others.

You can easily find YouTube and other recordings of Beethoven 5 if you’d like to remind yourself how it goes, but I’d recommend buying yourself a great recording. There are many excellent options; one I’d particularly recommend is Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic.

All the composers of Beethoven’s time (and throughout most of history, with differing vocabularies, of course) have adhered to various conventions from the largest possible scale (the arc of their developmental style through their lifetimes) down through the structure of each opus, each movement within, etc., down to the smallest-scale assumptions about harmonic structure, idiomatic styles of individual instruments, and so forth, but Beethoven brings it all to a whole new level, honoring all those formal rules while also constructing everything both melodically and harmonically, both vertically and horizontally in each case, out of these tiniest of musical blocks.

(We later see Wagner up Beethoven’s ante with his Romantic adaptation, the leitmotiv, where each character, event, place, and even philosophical concept is represented by its own fragment of musical DNA, all these leitmotivs swirling in a pan-theatrical operatic swamp of continuous through-composition, rejecting while also embracing formal conventions in a megalomaniacal Gesamtkunstwerk.)

Struggling valiantly now to pull back from this tangent to return to fractal theory, I might suggest that we appreciate Beethoven and indeed all music along fractal dimensions. For many, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is, simply, its opening four notes and the loud romp to follow. The scale of observation is large; the perspective is simple. “Fun music!”

Indeed, who wouldn’t appreciate it on such simple terms? When I was hospitalized with pneumonia as a second grader, my parents brought me the best of all possible get-well presents: a portable cassette deck, including a cassette of the first movement of my favorite symphony, which dad had recorded by sitting next to the phonograph (mono, of course) holding the mic near the cabinet speakers while the needle rode its groove. I listened to that tape over and over during my several weeks of long days alone in a hospital room. I’m not sure what I heard, exactly, but I know that by the time I was discharged, I could have sung the whole movement. (I wish he’d recorded the whole symphony for me, because I’l never know the rest of it nearly as well.)

As I’ve developed as a musician, I’ve lost touch with how I used to hear music. I often wonder what normal people hear, and I like to ask people to tell me why they like certain music or what they noticed in a concert.I know that I used to hear the pretty music, and while I can tell you to the minute when it all changed, I can’t for the life of me remember what I used to hear.

It changed the summer after eighth grade. I was at orchestra camp, sitting in a muggy auditorium on a hot summer night, and probably intoxicated by the pheromones of my new friends. We listened to a piano quartet recital. First I noticed that I was hearing a group whose intonation was so tight, they made the freshly, expertly-tuned Steinway sound out of tune. All pianos are out of tune, but it was the first time I heard it for myself. Then I realized I was hearing four virtuosi playing the crap out of their instruments as both individuals and as a collective.

Then my trumpeter friend leaned over and said, “You know, we’re never going to hear music like normal people again,” and for only a moment I wondered what he meant. I spent the rest of the concert hearing, seeing, feeling the compositional structure, the interplay of themes, the exploration of key areas, the work of the individuals and their ensemble, and on and on. The only limits to the depth of scale in my listening were my musical intelligence and attention span.

That night was my awakening as a listener. In the decades that followed, my musical intelligence has evolved tremendously, but I still find that the richness of what I hear is limited only by my abilities and attention span.

So, locating my metaphor in the area of musical perception, I might suggest that our listening has a fractal dimension. Anyone can hear the sounds. But our perspective—the granularity of our musical knowledge and the intensity of our focus—determines in how large a range along the fractal dimension we perceive the music; how much we hear of the infinite possibilities depends on how large or small is the scale of our listening.

How do you hear?

As I said, I’ve long since forgotten how I used to hear music. How do you hear music? What do you hear in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Do you have any musical training? How does this affect your listening (or not)? I’d love your answers, reactions, ideas—please comment!

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Rest in peace, Tina Wuelfing Cargile

by on Sep.10, 2010, under facilitative leadership, localization, program management

My collaborator in “Point/Counterpoint” columns for Multilingual magazine, Tina Wuelfing Cargile, passed away last month after a long illness. Her time on this planet was too short, and my time with her was way too short, so even writing a decent bio is beyond me.

Her LinkedIn profile provides the basics. I’m going to attempt to fill in some of the color that’s missing from the business outlines. Those of you who knew her, just pour yourselves a glass of her favorite, pinot grigio, light a cigarette if you’re a smoker, and use a little imagination as you follow along.

Anyone who knew her would start their description of Tina with her sense of humor. Tina was always cracking a joke, often at her own expense. I can almost hear her explanation right now as my Mini Tina sits on my left shoulder (that’s where the evil angel goes, right?). “Well, of course, Erin—joking at my own expense, I’ve got lots of material!”

Somehow Tina’s adventures always became just a wee bit more absurd than anybody else’s, so her stories could keep us rolling for quite a while. This description of her introduction to country life, from McElroy Translation’s website during Tina’s years as their Business Development Manager, gives a taste of that:

Tina lives with her husband in a small town miles from Austin, where they are quickly filling their 12 acres with dozens of chickens, dogs, cats, geese, turkeys and ducks. She loves gardening, canning, quilting, playing with her “babies,” and listening to the frogs in their pond at night. They enjoy visits from their children and “adopt” their children’s friends, because their idea of family is whoever shows up. She also habitually and gleefully pokes fun at herself, and the description of her current hobbies and lifestyle brought to mind her introduction to country life.

Having spent 35 years in the city and on concrete, she proved totally oblivious to the “real world” on her first date, nearly 20 years ago, with her husband-to-be, a country boy from Honey Grove, Texas. While aware that the excursion involved scouting for arrowheads over fairly rough terrain, Tina:

  1. Wore stiletto heels and dressed in black from head to toe on a 100 degree day
  2. Identified a patch of prickly pear behind a ranch fence as a “cactus farm”
  3. Drank water from the river (who knew?)

He married her anyway.

Her humor wasn’t limited to self-deprecation, though. Recently while struggling with the illness that eventually took her from us, she posted to her friends on Facebook:

Day 7 in hospital: Stockholm Syndrome begins to set in. I’m no better or worse, really, just increasingly dependent upon my captors. Bizarre.

She frequently cracked me up with her quips about meetings that didn’t quite work out:

Reality is sure a lonely place when you can’t get anyone to join you there. What is it I saw on despair.com? At some point, hanging in there just makes you look like an even bigger loser. Worst cumulative score for a business trip EVER! I’ll spare you, which is more than I did for myself.

She grew up outside Washington, D.C., daughter of a test pilot who died in a jet crash in WV in 1957. Knowing that history makes me particularly enjoy this snapshot of Tina taken earlier this year.

We became collaborators in kind of a goofy way, and the better you know Tina, the more fitting that seems. We had both proposed talks at Translation World in Montréal about project management, so the conference organizers asked us to share a session.

That seems reasonable enough on the face of it, but as I read her proposal, I was shaking my head. I was a client-side program manager saying it was time to burn PMBOK (the bible from Project Management Institute, Project Management Book of Knowledge) and start over, and she was in vendor-side sales and saying people should read PMBOK. I thought, “Yeah, right—sharing a session is going to work really well!”

So I wrote to Tina and suggested that since we seemed to be in nearly complete disagreement, did she want to try a point/counterpoint format? I wasn’t sure what to make of her quick agreement, but within a few days we were on the phone trying to write an outline.

What a disaster!

We needed to give a 20 minute talk together, but after two hours on the phone we’d gotten spectacularly nowhere. Instead, we had accomplished the following:

  • We compared menageries—mine maxed out at three Siamese cats and two labrador retrievers, which you’d think would be competitive, but she topped that number in species, to say nothing of headcount.
  • We compared crazy career planning. I have degrees in music performance and have spent twenty-plus years in statistical software, but that was nothing on Tina’s degrees in English leading to a career in the recording industry, typesetting, running a higher ed journal, court reporting, and selling translation.
  • We compared notes on why we both think PowerPoint needs to be blasted off the face of the earth. And then she persuaded me to prepare slides anyway by promising to feature demotivational posters and that video with the cowboys herding cats.
  • We cracked each other up. Over and over again.

Later that week, we made another attempt. We didn’t get much further, but we did promise to send each other drafts, and after a few more email exchanges and seriously unproductive phone calls, we had our presentation. We’d also agreed to recruit Beatriz Bonnet of Syntes Language Group to be our moderator. Since neither of us were doing business with her and we both liked her outspoken style, we figured we could count on her to be neutral and keep us in check.

We finally met in Montréal—the night before we were to give our talk. Tina had arrived two days late thanks to airport closures in Texas. Beatriz had arrived on time, but as far as I know she has yet to be reunited with her luggage—so a few hours before Tina finally landed, Beatriz and I were tromping through the snowdrifts in downtown Montréal in our completely useless dress shoes looking for something for her to wear to our talk. When we got back to the hotel, we met Tina in the bar, where she was seated with a glass of—sing it with me, folks!—pinot grigio. We intended to go over logistics for our talk, but instead we spent several hours cracking each other up and deciding the talk would take care of itself.

It did, despite classic Tina circumstances: although we promised to show up early so we could (finally!) practice our talk together, she was actually late for her own presentation and we had to wing it.

She was late because she’d gotten stuck on the phone, rescuing a client from himself! I came to learn that she did a lot of that: talking clients down from the ledge, talking clients out of absurdly bad ideas, talking clients through technology that was too difficult for them to be buying, talking clients into sticking to plans instead of scrambling things up every few weeks because they didn’t understand the translation process, and so on.

Our talk was well received, and the audience’s questions and comments in the hallway afterward confirmed that they had gotten our point. It turned out that, although we thought we disagreed about the value of classical project management, we actually agreed about it but were looking at it from opposite perspectives. I was viewing it from the perspective of someone who had overdosed on methodology and discovered that facilitating a team’s teamwork was far more effective. She was viewing it from the perspective of someone who’d seen a lot of “project managers” whose training consisted of an endless supply of coffee and too much work. We were coming from opposite extremes—too much vs. not enough—but we met in the middle, recommending some basic tools used in moderation but in combination with compassion and listening skills.

High on the success of our high-wire act, we approached the editors of Multilingual with a proposal that we reprise the chaos in a series of point/counterpoint columns for the magazine. This gave us an excuse to continue getting together when our travels allowed—not that we needed one!

Generating column ideas was no problem. I still have our list, mostly unfinished. The problem was meeting deadlines! We were both overcommitted, so we repeatedly found ourselves trading drafts during the night before our deadlines and finally sending something a few hours after it was due. Editor Katie Botkin was patient with us, though. The results are available to subscribers on the Multilingual website, and they’re reprinted with Multilingual‘s permission on this blog:

I regret that Tina won’t be around to help me write the rest of our columns, because they won’t be nearly as sharp without her point of view. If you review the ones we did write, you’ll see that she was the funny one. She was also the wise one.

And the generous one. When Tina learned that I was leaving SAS after twelve years, she quickly persuaded Shelly Priebe of McElroy Translation to bring me in for interviews. None of us knew what I was interviewing for, exactly, but it was like Tina to work that way: thinking people should know each other and putting them together, and letting the details work themselves out.

Which they did. It was while talking for hours with Shelly in her lakeside guest cottage that I first began to envision Global Pragmatica and understand how my passion for facilitative leadership might fit into the localization industry. It was also Shelly who helped me see that localization was only part of the picture. It’s thanks to Tina that I now count Shelly and others from McElroy among my friends and valued colleagues—Shelly’s now an executive coach and she continues to be generous with her wisdom and encouragement.

I like how Shelly pictures Tina now:

Tina chose to slip away quietly, staying under the radar of our pity or our worry. With lucidity and acerbic wit to the end she passed to the kingdom that awaits her. Will she join the private Catholic school nuns of whom she spoke with such uproarious irreverence? That vision makes me smile. I will continue to smile whenever I think of my friend. Tina outwitted the demons who pursued her.

Tina went on to work with Beatriz at Syntes, and it was Beatriz who sent me the sad news when Tina died. Remembering Tina, Beatriz wrote,

Every time I think of Tina, her wisecracking and self-deprecating sense of humor are the first things that come to mind. She was sharp and witty, and just a lot of fun to be around. And she kept those traits to the end, using her humor to keep her spirits up as she fought the battle against her illness, in typical Tina style. In her last email to me, just a few days before she passed, she wrote, after a funny quote at her own expense and condition: ” ‘Scuse the dark humor. It’s too late to change now!”

Smart, generous, self-reliant, no-nonsense, witty, and just plain fun. That’s how I’ll always remember Tina.

Beatriz passed along a few more Tina gems, too; like the time Beatriz was planning a few days of hard ski-therapy, and Tina replied:

You will never get me on skis. My ankles are like toothpicks.

Or the time Tina emailed the entire office before a group event:

Please be sure to cut a wide parking swath for the confirmed pedestrian driving the really big company van.

Tina, you left us too soon. The world is a more boring place without you. Pinot grigio doesn’t taste right anymore.

Thank you for believing in all of us.

Please share your memories!

A note to Tina’s friends and family: I’d love it if you’d add your thoughts below in the comments. I know Tina would most appreciate your answers to this question: what’s the first time she made you laugh so hard it was embarrassing?

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Tuna noodle hotdish recipe

by on Aug.30, 2010, under random

My recent Multilingual column mentioned tuna noodle hotdish. For those readers who aren’t familiar with this snowbelt classic, here’s a recipe.

This is an old standard for Norwegian-Lutherans in the USA snowbelt—it’s what we make when our neighbor’s recovering from surgery, or when a friend has just had a death in the family, or when we need to bring something for the church potluck, or if it’s a cold night and we’re hungry.

It’s not a fancy recipe—and that’s the whole point. It’s cheap, easy comfort food.

  • one can of tuna
  • one 12 oz bag of egg noodles
  • one can of cream of mushroom soup
  • a few slices of Velveeta
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oregano
  • potato chips

Prepare one package of egg noodles in boiling, salted water according to directions on the bag. Drain. Add tuna, cream of mushroom soup concentrate, about half a soup can of water, Velveeta, salt and pepper, and oregano. Stir, return to heat, and heat through. Correct seasonings. Top with crumbled potato chips.

Variation: top with potato chips and heat in oven-proof casserole at 350˚F for about 30 minutes.

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North America from the outside in and the inside out

by on Aug.30, 2010, under localization, random

This article was originally published in slightly-edited form by Multilingual magazine, September 2010 and is reprinted here with permission. Erin Vang would like to thank Multilingual for graciously consenting to republication of this article in the GlobalPragmatica blog.

In 1998 I planned a trip to Norway and set about educating myself. In addition to the usual stack of guidebooks, language books, and cassettes, I picked up a copy of Norway: Culture Shock! A survival guide to customs and etiquette. I hate being the Ugly American when I travel, so I wanted to learn some of the little niceties that would help me blend in.

I enjoyed the book, but it felt inside-out and backwards to me somehow—all kinds of behaviors and cultural details that I considered normal were explained as if they were completely bizarre. It was astonishing to me that, for example, the book went to the trouble of explaining that you shouldn’t ask Norwegians how much money they make. You shouldn’t expect Norwegians to divulge much about themselves to strangers, or even for that matter to friends. When visiting a Norwegian family in their home, you should decline offers of food and drink at first and only relent after repeated offers are made. Further, an offer of “coffee” doesn’t mean a hot beverage. “Coffee” means a full lunch spread, with open-faced sandwiches, a variety of side dishes, perhaps some fruit soup, and at least an assortment of cookies if not cake for dessert. If you’re lucky, there will be leftover dumplings and ham, sliced and fried up together.

Well, duh! That’s normal, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

I should probably mention that I grew up in the snow belt of North America in a series of small towns settled in large part by Norwegian and German immigrants and still populated mostly by their descendants, who tell Ole and Lena jokes and would call a Norwegian-Swedish couple a “mixed marriage.” It turns out that I grew up with a Norwegian sensibility about things.

Eventually I turned to the “About the author” section in the back of the book and learned that she was an Asian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway.

So the book was inside-out and backwards for me! Ostensibly it described Norwegian customs, but I learned more about which Norwegian customs seem odd to an Asian and in turn what the Asian norms are. I also learned how my sense of normal differs from the rest of North America, because the very things she pointed out about Norwegians are the traits that have made me stick out since I left the snow belt.

North America from the outside in

I’ve since had the privilege of traveling quite a bit in Asia and Europe as a localization program manager, continuing my inside-out cultural learning over dinners and drinks with my localization teams and in-country colleagues.

What particularly strikes me about Japan is its quiet, compact order and elaborate attention to manners, and upon returning home from Japan I’m always startled by how big, messy, and casual we Americans are. We think nothing of taking a sip of a beer as soon as it arrives, and if we pause for a toast, it’s just “Cheers!” with much noisy banging of glasses, and no attention to whose glass clinks higher or lower. We walk down office hallways talking in full voice, we’re more likely to call something sarcastic into our colleagues’ open doors than to notice whether they’re busy, and by the time we’ve gone past three people’s offices, we’ve walked past more space than a dozen comparable Japanese office-workers would use, and all of it is messier.

Over dinner in Korea one night I learned what I’d never noticed before in years of sampling Korean music, dance, and theater: that it reflects millenia of sadness. Korea’s long history is full of invasions, wars, cultural loss, and great deprivation. Korea’s classical and folk arts express the reserved, wary sadness of a people ravaged for tens of centuries by neighbors in every direction. A Korean attending an arts festival in North America would be stunned to see singers smiling, actors laughing, dancers frolicking, and performers of all types making joyful eye contact with their audiences. Korean arts serve a more important purpose than entertainment and fun: they remember loss and struggle, they record perseverance, they offer perspective about daily challenges in a context of surviving the unsurvivable.

North Americans think we are familiar with Chinese food until we actually visit China and are confronted with the real thing. Theirs is a cuisine of poverty, making the most of scarcity by using parts of the animal we call scraps, using plants we call “weeds,” and using elaborate techniques and richly layered flavors to make them all palatable. We might think that “American food” would seem simple and decadent to Chinese visitors, but in fact they are as perplexed by our foods as we are by theirs. The thing that puzzles them the most? That our foods come in big hunks and separated piles—think of a dinner at a typical American steakhouse, where your plate comes with a huge hunk of meat, an enormous baked potato, and a pile of one vegetable, all arranged so that nothing is touching. I was startled to discover that the foods my Chinese colleagues preferred were those that mingled meats and vegetables in one dish, all in one-fork pieces, such as a casserole. Their comfort had nothing to do with the flavors and everything to do with shapes!

North America from the inside out

What most North Americans probably don’t consider is that we are all outsiders in North America. Our planet’s third largest land mass after Asia and Africa is home to twenty more nations besides the biggest three, Canada, the United States, and Mexico. We are all outsiders in twenty-two of those countries. Narrowing the focus to just the US, our nation’s young history is one of myriad immigrant and native cultures settling tiny pockets of a vast continent. Cultures have blended to a certain extent with those of the other peoples in the vicinity, and the resulting regional identities persist to the present. The lines are starting to blur in the age of national and global television, radio, and internet, but the potential for cultural conflict and misunderstanding is far greater than many people realize. I’ll share a few of the more amusing examples from my own life.

When I left my Norwegian enclave in the snow belt and arrived in Chicago for grad school, I couldn’t figure out why my friends never offered me anything to eat or drink when I visited. It wasn’t until some fellow Norwegian-Lutheran-Minnesotans from my alma mater joked about our common tendency to turn things down three times before accepting that I realized what the problem was. My friends did offer me drinks and snacks, but out of Norwegian-American habit, I always said something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m fine–no, thank you.” But that was that! My friends didn’t realize that the first three times you offer something don’t count!

I spent about a dozen years working for SAS and traveling frequently to corporate headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. Much later I found the Culture Shock! series book on the American South and finally began to understand some of my experiences there. When my colleagues had responded to one of my ideas with, “Bless your heart!” they weren’t gratefully commending my cleverness—they were saying, approximately, “Oh, you poor baffled freak… you just don’t understand anything.” When they called me “Yankee,” it wasn’t a slight as I thought; they were just acknowledging that I was different. When I jokingly called myself a “damn Yankee” once, I was corrected with a smile: “You’re not a ‘damn Yankee’! You’re just a Yankee. Damn Yankees are the ones who don’t leave.”

We’re all outsiders

When a friend of yours grieves a death in the family or is recovering from surgery, do you send flowers?

What on earth for? What good are the flowers going to do anyone? Where I’m from, we make a tuna noodle hotdish complete with crumbled potato chips on top, and we bring it over to the house, hot and ready to serve, in a casserole carefully labeled with our last name on a piece of masking tape. We do this whether we like tuna noodle casserole or not, because it’s what is done.

Being an outsider in North America is not a privilege reserved for visitors from other countries.

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Is South Carolina lazy? Um… no, not so much!

by on Aug.30, 2010, under JMP & JSL

We recently had the privilege of helping out the good folks at Moore Data LLC with a SAS data import project. Scott Moore had noticed an article in the Post and Courier claiming that South Carolina was the eighth laziest state in the US. He smelled a rat, though—as he put it, “Typically, subjective words used to describe data pop a red flag that warns me of impending data misuse doom.”

With a little SAS importing help from Global Pragmatica LLC, Scott was able to peruse the data himself in JMP, and he reached a rather different conclusion!

Read Scott’s rebuttal here.

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