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Food & Diet – Part 2

Posted by publius2point0 on 2014/03/26


The colonialist systems that took over India and Southeast Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries were largely focused on securing sources of spice and tea. That is to say, Asia was invaded and its people subjugated for the sake of cinnamon.

There’s a recent belief that sugar is addictive, but based on the simple fact above, I think it’s safe to say that anything delicious is, effectively, addictive. Once someone who has lived on the British diet has tasted a curry, there is simply no going back. Really, anything that our bodies consider to be joyful, delicious, or beautiful is likely to fall in the same class. “Joy” is, after all, the release of dopamine in the brain, which is the same thing that most drugs (cannabis, cocaine, nicotine, etc.) cause the brain to produce. We’re built to obey dopamine.

As someone who never started drinking, I have a somewhat unique perspective on addiction. For instance, some months ago I went on a couple of dates with a woman. Each date seemed successful – we got along, laughed at each other’s jokes, etc. – but on the last one, she had been out drinking the night before and was still reeling from it a little bit. The next time I asked her out, she declined and told me it wasn’t going to work. I have no idea why, but when you look at profile after profile on dating sites where each person comments that they like to “curl up with a glass of wine”, you can’t help but suspect that the idea of not being able to enjoy a drink with someone, ever, turns a lot of people away. And that makes sense, until you think of it from my perspective, where a majority of women are basing their decision on the fitness of their partner for supporting a family, raising children, etc. on whether he drinks a particular fashion of grape juice.

People are impressed when a heroine addict robs a store, but as pointed out above, the conquest of the Asias is almost certainly the biggest indication of the sheer force of power that addiction has on the people under its sway.

So what does this have to do with food?

Well the very definition of “progress” in reference to technology, government, economics, etc. is the attempt to develop things which are more pleasing for the people of Earth than what we had yesterday. Some company out there is dumping major money into figuring out how to make clothes which dry themselves, how to help the elderly to be able to run up and down stairs, and Kraft is spending millions to reverse engineer your taste buds.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese might seem like cheap crap, but in a sense it’s also the food equivalent of the iPhone. Some megacorp figured out how to create something that can be mass-produced, sold for a reasonable price, and oohs & ahs your senses so you keep coming back to buy more. We’re just less impressed with it because all of the science and technology behind it is in a laboratory or factory somewhere far away, rather than sitting in our hands. But make no mistake, leaving the “artists” who populate high-end restaurants aside, most of the food industry in any modern nation is geared around finding things which your body says is delicious, not nutritious. (Technically, there are also considerations made for transportability, price, and color, but the point remains that nutrition is generally not the first priority.)

I’m not the first person to notice this, and hence the start of things like the paleo diet, where people try to eat a diet similar to our ancestors, before science got its hands on our food, with the hope of having a more nutritious diet.

Personally, I’m suspicious of the potential success of something like this, or really any diet beyond the one I suggested in my previous post. Like I have often pointed out when talking about Climate Change (though apparently, not in my official discussion of the topic) I don’t think the majority of people are willing to go back on progress. Particularly, if you have reason to believe that something is addictive, I really don’t see people forgoing it. Indeed, my brother has commented that if you look at what paleo dieters eat, they coat everything in honey, dried dates, add other fruits, or otherwise sweeten their foods – which is almost certainly not the flavor profile of what most neanderthals ate. Just eating a modern-day fruit is likely to be a significantly different experience from what people ate 10,000 years ago. People have been practicing selective and cross-breeding for millenia to produce delicious food, not nutritious, and I suspect that fruit have been the largest recipient of this sort of interference.

For whatever reason, there does seem to be a fairly strong link between “good for you” and tastelessness, bitterness, and grittiness. The last one makes sense. Fiber is a technical term for things like fruit skin, nut shells, and other bits of a plant that are hard, so anything which hasn’t been processed much, to remove fiber, is going to have lots of small, hard bits. And of course, a lot of traditional diets consisted of insects, with their crunchy outsides, and all of the parts of an animal – not just the muscle. And of course, while fiber is good for you, it’s not really nutritious, nor are insect shells or cartilage. For the most part, they are just waste product, and since your body is going to ignore them, perhaps so does your tongue?

But oddly, actual vitamins tend to not be all the tasty – hence why parents have to force their kids to “eat their greens” – which seems counter-intuitive to the evolution of the human race. My only thought is that vitamins are generally easy enough to come buy in nature that, while we developed taste receptors for them, evolution really only favored the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, salt, etc.) since those require more effort to track down and secure. (Obviously, people can learn to enjoy their greens, given time and sufficient prodding.)

Overall, nutrition seems to runs counter to deliciousness, but if we’re addicted to all of the delicious things that we’ve developed over the millenia, then doesn’t that mean that we’re in an unfixable situation?

Well no. While I said in the previous article that you should try and verify that you’re eating a wide enough variety of foods to meet all your nutritional needs, and consider modifying your diet based on that, my only objection to buying and taking vitamin pills is that they’re expensive. There might be some vegetable out there that you’ll discover that you like, which gives you the same benefit, while also being delicious and cheaper. (And there’s also hypervitaminosis which is an indicator that if you’re meeting your nutrient requirements, taking EVEN MORE NUTRITION in the form of vitamin pills is unlikely to be helping you in any way.) Certainly, you’re free to eat loads of kale, liver, sardines, etc. if it makes you feel good about yourself, but really you’re not gaining anything over eating some Mac & Cheese and popping a few vitamins. The primary question is which you can sustain and enjoy for the rest of your life?

The greater worry is that an all-macronutrient diet may not be good for us.

Our bodies may be rewarding us for eating lots of sugar, salt, and protein but – similar to hypervitaminosis – there’s almost certainly a point at which too much is too much. With sugar, in particular, just comparing how often animals need to brush their teeth to prevent cavities versus how often we do, is a pretty good indicator that the levels we intake is not something that our bodies were built to handle. (Besides living alcohol-free, I’ve also had the chance to live in a country that had a modern diet introduced in the last ~50 years, and seen what effect that had on the teeth of its unprepared inhabitants. Rotted out and green teeth remain horrifying no matter how many time you see them.)

It may be true that it’s progress that got us into the situation we have today, and that until modern-day “progress” meant making life more pleasant, that doesn’t mean that it can’t start making lives longer and healthier as well. We’ve already started to invent sugar substitutes, and there’s nothing to say that we can’t invent salt substitutes or figure out ways to infuse tasty foods with more nutrients. While I realize that many people are tech-phobic and worried about unnatural, processed, artificial products and the effects they have on the human body, that doesn’t mean that natural products are good for you either. Sugar will kill you. Aspartame probably isn’t the healthiest thing you could eat, but it may well be the lesser of two evils and between the option of foregoing sweet or switching to Sweet & Low, the latter might be all that the majority of you will be able to maintain.

I’ll discuss the safeties and dangers of artificial and GMO foods in my next blog, but let me reiterate a point that I think a lot of people talking about diet also make: Eating healthy is a life decision. It’s something that you do every day, for the rest of your life, not just for the few weeks leading up to a trip to the beach. Whatever path you decide to take, to make sure that you’re eating healthy, it needs to be something that you can hold to (more or less) every day, for the next 40-60 years. The point that they don’t make, which I do, is that sacrifice has nothing to do with any of this.

As a society, we’ve voted for the establishment of public shelter, food stamps, libraries, etc. to make sure that everyone has access to food, shelter, education, and entertainment. Yet, even knowing that any money we give a beggar will be spent on getting drunk or high, we still feel a need to give them money. Even though we know that replacing our light bulbs with LEDs will save the environment faster than buying a Prius, we still focus more attention on the automobile market. As an individual, I want to feel good about myself. Sure, I may have voted for food stamps, but only I know that and there’s only so good that you can feel about yourself when everything good you have done is kept private. But at the same time, boasting doesn’t look good either. Buying a Prius or giving money to a beggar are ways that you can show off your goodness, without boasting. And invariably, that means sacrificing something (money, a better driving experience, etc.).

So you can walk into a store and buy Organic, Locally Grown produce in full sight of everyone else in the market, or you can buy a Mac & Cheese and vitamin D pills. In today’s society, the latter isn’t going to get you any knowing nods. By all means, feel free to eat organic, local, paleo foods. I’m not saying that, that’s bad, that there’s no benefit to doing so, nor that your intentions are misguided. My point is that if you can’t afford organic, you can’t cut the sugar, or you just really don’t like anything green, you shouldn’t feel like a bad person because you eat at McDonalds and buy Kraft. It may (or may not) be better for the world to eat local, but that has nothing to do with eating healthy. Eat healthy first. Eat in a way that makes you feel good about yourself second.

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Romney 5-59 – Part 2

Posted by publius2point0 on 2012/10/25


Trade Policy

Trade Promotion Authority

Starting roughly a century ago, the legislature began to cede the creation of trade agreements to the executive branch as it was found that attempting to have a foreign nation negotiate with several hundred people lead to massive, complex, and silly trade agreements. It’s also been found that the prospect of having to meet the demands of hundreds of senators and congressmen discourages other nations from even entering into negotiations with us. It made more sense for the Executive branch to negotiate the deal and for the legislature to either approve it whole or not at all, with no ability to modify the agreement.

While there does not appear to be a strong argument against Trade Promotion Authority, as outlined above, the legislature has always put a time limit on the power, revoking it whenever the executive branch has displeased them.

Obama has never sought to have TPA re-instated, but Romney does. Specifically, he hopes to enter into agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Personally, I don’t know what business we are missing out on with these three countries, but overall I do not see any negative to the proposition. Trade isn’t a zero-sum game.

Copyright, Patent, and Trademark Protection

The document is either poorly worded or is explicitly attempting to be enigmatic about its intent, but as I read it, it appears to be suggesting an open trade agreement between any nations willing to genuinely ascribe to the global laws on copyright, patent, and trademark protection. This is, of course, an attempt to lessen China’s power – though it would also affect Russia and many other nations with questionable practices.

Unlike Romney’s “plan” to denounce China as a currency manipulator, I think that one could rightly confront China on this front. Whereas it sounds petty to hit China on their financial honesty when they are our creditor, pointing out that they are actively preventing us from making money via unlawful means is a much stronger argument. If China did not allow their people to flagrantly infringe on copyrights and patents, China would be buying much more from the US or allowing the US to sell much more in China.

Unfortunately, the currency manipulator idea and calling this free trade agreement the “Reagan Economic Zone” are, in conjunction, almost certainly going to throw the idea into the rubbish bin. I find it questionable that Romney actually seeks to have any sort of real plan for dealing with China, let alone the ideas he proposes in this document.

Energy Policy

The first several pages re-iterate what was said in the third of Romney’s high-level 5-point plan, so I will not address it further. He also comments on attempting to revise the Clean Air Act., but I am doubtful of the President’s power to have much effect on that – other than by using his power as the Executive to order to EPA to act in a certain manner during his tenure.

Following this, Romney seems to come out strongly in support of nuclear energy, talking about streamlining the process for approval and (presumably) construction. This is significantly better than Bush II’s plan of simply dumping a few billion into the industry and hoping that something would come undone, but otherwise not trying to remove any of the blocks that prevent the US from taking advantage of this technology.

Romney has a stronger goal of trying to increase the supply of gas and oil, domestically, and by dealing with Canada and Mexico. While I have no strong objection to this, I would note that, as I understand it, it can take a decade to locate an ideal spot for mining, set up a pump or oil rig, and put into place a steady method of transportation. By the time any oil sources that Romney lead to the creation of started to deliver oil to Americans, starting around 2023, I question how integral oil will still be to our economy. While still probably money better spent than on solar panels and wind farms, since oil can be packaged up and sold to India, Africa, or Russia in 2023 at the worst, I’m not sure that Romney’s plan to invest in oil is the best of all investments the US government could make.

On the other hand his idea of establishing “ARPA-E”, an agency dedicated to financing the study of energy production technologies in a similar manner that DARPA finances research into military technology, sounds fairly positive. I personally feel quite let-down that all of the big fusion-reactor research in the world is currently being pioneered in Europe.

 

To be continued in Part 3.

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Romney 5-59

Posted by publius2point0 on 2012/10/14


Mitt Romney, candidate for President of the US, has been reluctant to discuss policy in public beyond high level soundbites like, “I will reduce the deficit.” To many, this has seemed a dishonest method to go about running your campaign, but as he has pointed out, anyone who so cares to do so can look up his 59-point plan for turning around the economy – the economic situation of the nation being his principal running issue for the election.

Now, I have realized by going back over some of my old posts that I have never been great at bringing quotes from materials into the body of my text. This may be unfortunate, but I’ll just note that I am going to maintain this standard for at least this one article, given that the full document is some 153 pages and I don’t have an interest in writing something of equal length, nor of breaking the document into sections to be discussed over many weeks. I would recommend to read the plan alongside my text.

Here is the full document.

One general commentary that I will make is that I am quite pleased with the honesty of the document. The numbers it cites come from the OECD, the Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, etc. Up to page 63 (the Heritage Foundation), there isn’t a number in the document that anyone could decry as patently deceitful (which people are liable to do, when discussing a partisan think-tank). Most significantly, the Office of Management and Budget is a cabinet office, and hence no number from this source can Obama decry.

Starting off, it mentions the larger 5-point plan:

End Obamacare

After this bold proclamation of a title the explanation then waffles about any specifics. In plain speech, it effectively says, “We’re going to direct all the agencies who were tasked with choosing how to implement Obamacare to cut out anything that they believe is wasteful.” I am not impressed, and otherwise he doesn’t seem to actually comment on Obamacare anywhere in the document except as the occasional pejorative. Turning instead to places where he has actually been questioned on his stance on health care, the result seems to be that he supports a personal mandate to purchase health care, with the government stepping in to pay it for those who can’t. He pushes towards making the only insurance providers private, not public, which I also encourage, but that is not significantly different from ObamaCare in any short nor long-term way. What he does say, that is different, is that private insurers should be no different from insurance gained via an employer. That is the one step that the nation needs to make, and a good one. Saying that he wants to end ObamaCare is a meaningless soundbite, which I’m sure he’s aware of. The real plan here seems solid.

Cut Red Tape

Again, “I will tell everyone to stop doing all those bad, costly things they shouldn’t be doing.” We will have to see what the document says further along as this is meaningless as stated.

Boost Domestic Energy Production

“I will direct the government to rubber stamp any applications to drill, where the application is a clone of one which has been submitted before.” I.e., if Charlie has used a Turboencabulator x5000 to make widgets before and everything went well, with no complaints, and now Charlie wants to use the exact same Turboencabulator x5000 to do the same thing in basically the same conditions, there’s no purpose in re-doing all the red-tape and paperwork that was involved the first time. Romney wants to streamline this process.

I suppose that this seems reasonable. But I would really need to question just how frequent an occurrence this is? Given advances in technology and the difference in geological makeup from one location to the next, I’m not sure that I would trust that there’s ever really two setups that are so similar as to merit a pass. And of course, this would mean that companies need to file paperwork to get checked for whether they should go on the fast-track or the old, slow path. For those who are rejected, they now have even more red tape to get through than before.

More importantly, I would rather see something more dynamic as regards our energy future – nuclear, natural gas, smart grids, etc. Overall, I’m reading this as a fluff piece to keep the average Republican who wants to thumb their nose at the Democrats happy, when in reality, Romney has basically committed to nothing.

Call out China as a Liar

To actually quote the body of the text, “Directs the Department of the Treasury to list China as a currency manipulator in its biannual report and directs the Department of Commerce to assess countervailing duties on Chinese imports if China does not quickly move to float its currency.”

I think the main thing to say about this is that it’s never going to happen. The grand majority of American debt is held by China. For us to start down a warpath of trying to ruin their credit rating around the world is just going to be met by them coming to call for us to repay what we owe them.

While I think we would be the ones with the more morally righteous foundation to stand on in that particular game of chicken, the end result will be that we’ll be the ones to swerve. China doesn’t feel bad about behaving badly, they’re never going to admit that they’re lying about their financial situation. The US will continue to honestly admit that we owe them quite a bit of money and quickly come to realize that we just look like buttheads to go after our creditor, however bad they are.

Overall, Romney would be a fool to do this, and certainly Congress and the Senate will do their best to shut it down.

Remove any Pro-Union Laws Initiated by Obama

Unfortunately, I don’t know much about this. My belief had been that Obama was relatively tepid about unions. For years, GM was making awful, archaic vehicles. Starting a couple of years ago, they began to see their reappearance in the limelight with car shows featuring their vehicles and positive reviews coming out about them. This had lead me to believe that GM (by order of Obama) had gone union busting in an attempt to curb the thinking processes that spoiled innovation, as well as shutting down the unfeasible pension plans the unions had bargained themselves into that were ultimately killing the company. Apparently, this was not the case. The unions are now part owners of GM and outside of some contract workers, Obama only seems to have been working to preserve the full payment of those pensions. Given that, I suppose that my only fallback explanation for how GM started to make a few decent cars is in the same manner that the Russians got into space: Technological theft and pointed political pressure to create one or two reasonable items, at the expense of everything else. It may be that GM bankruptcy #2 is just around the bend.

Anyways, we shall have to see what Romney says further on in the document, if anything. Not enough is said here for me to evaluate his approach.

 

Going on to the rest of the document, the first section is his Tax Plan, starting on page 40.

Tax Plan

I will skip over a few of the lesser items that are mentioned, but the general gist is the lowering of taxes. The big items follow.

Simplify the Tax Code

Romney desires to restructure the tax code and make it simpler and more rigorous. This appears to be less out of a desire to raise or lower the tax rate so much as due to the realization that an additional 36.4% beyond what is paid in taxes is spent on avoiding taxes. While it may be true that people can reduce their tax burden to 0% if they get sufficiently creative, it’s still likely that most people pay more to avoid a percentage of their taxes than they would pay just by paying their taxes. Making that the case saves the people money and allows the government to lower tax rates without lowering receipts.

While I question the accuracy of these numbers – it doesn’t seem like something one can accurately quantify without a lot of assumptions – overall this seems like a reasonable goal on the face of it.

The problem with this proposal is two-fold. Firstly, reducing spending is always equivalent to laying someone off. Specifically, if this measure reduces the spending on tax lawyers and tax advisers across the nation by 50%, then that is equivalent to laying off 50% of all tax lawyers and tax advisers across the nation.

Secondly, the reason for the bizarre tax code is because the principal method by which politicians hog trade or otherwise seek to achieve political ends is by affecting the tax code. In example, if you are the governor of a state which relied on corn sales to support the populace, getting tax breaks for the local corn businesses from the federal government is a big win. If you’re a president who is pro-union, removing the tax burden on union-guaranteed pension plans is a method of accomplishing your aims.

At the end of the day, all tax loopholes or disincentives that have been imposed are due to the political might of some corporation, party, coalition, or other entity. While it may be the case that to the majority of those who are taxed, these tax oddities are annoyances, and if we all voted on it we would vote to simplify and standardize tax code, the reality is that we don’t live in a democracy. Those who are willing to make their way to Washington DC and play hardball are the ones who get the grease, and the rest of us do not.

Fundamentally, I don’t think that Romney could hope to have much if any traction on this issue short of removing the lobbying system. But minus an alternative method for protecting against the tyranny of the majority (i.e. the lobbying system), I don’t know that I could really advocate this. I’m more concerned with the rights of advocacy groups like the NRA, the ACLU, or the Financial Industry. Minus pushback from the Financial Industry after Obama was elected, for example, I’m sure that ObamaCare would have done more than simply establish a new government health care agency. Private health care may well have gone away entirely.

Transition to a Territorial Tax System

Apparently, at the moment, the US taxes money which was earned abroad by a corporation as soon as the money hits American shores (though only if the US tax rate on that money is higher than the foreign tax rate, and only for the difference of the two). The theory that Romney offers is that this reduces the desire for American companies to bring the money home and invest in American growth.

According to Warren Buffet, “I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone—not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77—shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off.” I’ve seen people take this to mean that taxes don’t factor into business decisions in the real world – it’s all just a myth. It’s possible that Buffet meant it that way – though it’s also possible that he was being political and adjusted his phrasing of the truth towards that sort of interpretation. It’s probably true that people don’t invest in places with low tax rates and shy away from places with high tax rates. Rather they invest based on the sum total of all numbers – which includes tax rates, but also includes expected profit margins, growth rates, etc. – which overall form a “sensible” or “nonsensical” investment. The fact of the matter is that all the big box stores in the Seattle area are in the city of SeaTac because it offered them a tax incentive to settle there.

Delaware has a large number of the incorporated business of the US as “legal denizens” even though the headquarters are in other states, because Delaware has a long history of dealing with business law and its easier for businesses to work together if they’re all under the same legal system. So certainly taxes aren’t the only factor that a business or an investor takes into account, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when the number that makes everything come together be the tax rate at location X. Ultimately, every point you have in your favor as someone making a bid for new business is one more point in your favor.

So while I believe that Romney is correct in his assessment here, this still comes down to Keanesian math. He’s proposing to raise the deficit by cutting taxes for the sake of stimulating the economy. While the specific methodology is different, the big picture isn’t much different from Obama.

Regulatory Policy

The majority of this section of the document talks about the amount of money spent by businesses in dealing with Federal Regulation (specifically, $1.75 trillion), in a generally negative tone. Of course, this disregards the fact that regulations are (at least in theory) intended to provide benefits. For example, say that my preferred method of doing business is to literally work my employees to death and then replace them with fresh new employees. The government does some math and determines that giving trained workers 20% more personal time so that they do not die on the job ends up sparing the economy the losses incurred by training row after row of unskilled labor, while freeing those bodies for other, new industries. Overall, this regulation on my business, while costing me money in the sense that I must now close down the factory for a few hours each day, it will end up benefiting me by an even greater amount, such that I actually end up profiting.

The question isn’t how much regulation is costing us, it’s what is the cost-benefit tradeoff on average? Since 1997, the Office of Management and Budget has been required to analyse and report these values to the best of their extent. For example, here is the 2011 report. If you look over their numbers, you will note that the average ratio is positive. Of course this makes sense. If anyone was reporting a detrimental regulation, financially, you would expect it to be cut. Of course, if your livelihood thus depended on the financial cost/benefit ratio of a particular regulation, you might be inclined to provide favorable estimates. Still, one can pontificate on the true reliability of this report till his head starts to float off blissfully into the clouds, the fact would remain that you’re limited to what data there is in existence, and this is it.

But so what, precisely, does Romney intend to do about any of this? This seems to come down to the REINS Act.

I think we will need to take a step back to understand this.

Most government regulatory agencies, like the EPA, are part of the Executive Branch of the government. At some point in the past, Congress and the Senate were convinced to cede the day-to-day nitty-gritty of managing the welfare of the environment to a group with greater technical knowledge of the impact of particular technologies and wastes. Now that they have ceded this power, their ability to control the regulations created by these groups is limited to that they have over any Executive power – not much.

Technically, they can veto anything which the President or other body of the Executive Branch has passed, but this takes some effort. The Congressional Review Act de-ceded some of this power, stating that new regulations have to be passed by Congress – though if Congress doesn’t care to bother reading through or voting on the regulation within X amount of time from submission, then it will become law on its own. This spares them having to vote on every single thing the regulatory agencies are doing, while giving them the theoretic ability to block anything whatsoever that they do not want.

The REINS Act strengthens this by further stating that if the cost analysis of a new regulation exceeds $100 million (presumably, in today’s dollars), then it does not get the automatic pass. It must be passed by the Legislative branch officially.

Now that we understand the act…so what? To date, the Legislative branch has largely ignored their power to review legislation. Unless something makes headlines, they really don’t care and very few people are so bored as to sift through Federal regulations, hoping that a body which is specifically designed and crewed to review and monitor one particular bailiwick of the world will flub up in some glorious fashion.

If I work in a research group in the Department of Agriculture and want to propose something to my superiors that will have a noteworthy impact on the economy of the nation, I’m doubtful that I’ll do so flippantly. Is the bar for me to prove my work to my bosses in the DoA lower than it is for them to sell my work to the Legislature? Given that they have the technical background to analyze my work, probably not.

Overall, I don’t see a large demerit to the passage of this law, but nor do I see a great bonus. Romney has failed to make any strong case for using 1/7th of his plan target Federal Regulations. The most favorable thing I can say is that perhaps the number of specifics was too large for him to present in a document like this. The document doesn’t make any indication to this effect, though.

 

To be continued in a part 2.

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