Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Tegmark’s Vast Math

I recently had a surprise chance to meet Max Tegmark, and so I first quickly read his enjoyable new book The Mathematical Universe. It covers many foundations of physics topics that he correctly says are unfairly neglected. Since I’ve collected many opinions on foundation of physics over decades, I can’t resist mentioning the many ways I agree and disagree with him.

Let me start with what Tegmark presents as his main point, which is that the total universe is BIG, almost as big as it could possibly be. There’s a vast universe out there that we can’t see, and will never see. That is, not only does space extent far beyond our cosmological horizon, but out there are places where physics sits in very different equilibria of fundamental physics (e.g., has a different number of useful dimensions), and nearby are the different “many worlds” of quantum mechanics.

Furthermore, and this is Tegmark’s most unique point, there are whole different places “out there” completely causally (and spatially) disconnected from our universe, which follow completely different fundamental physics. In fact, all such mathematically describable places really exist, in the sense that any self-aware creatures there actually feel. Tegmark seems to stop short, however, of David Lewis, who said that all self-consistent possible worlds really exist.

Tegmark’s strongest argument for his distinctive claim, I think, is that we might find that the basic math of our physics is rare in allowing for intelligent life. In that case, the fact of our existence should make us suspect that many places with physics based on other maths are out there somewhere: Continue reading "Tegmark’s Vast Math" »

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SciCast Pays Big Again

Back in May I said that while SciCast hadn’t previously been allowed to pay participants, we were finally running a four week experiment to reward random activities. That experiment paid big and showed big effects; we saw far more activity on days when we paid cash.

In the next four weeks we’ll run another experiment that pays even more:

SciCast is running a new special! For four weeks, you can win prizes on some days of the week:

  • On Tuesdays, win a $25 Amazon gift card with activity.
  • On Wednesdays, win an activity badge for your profile.
  • On Thursdays, win a $25 Amazon gift card with accurate forecasting.
  • On Fridays, win an accuracy badge for your profile.

On each activity prize day, up to 80 valid forecasts and comments made that day will be randomly selected to win. On each accuracy prize day, your chance of winning any of 80 prizes is proportional to your forecasting accuracy. Be sure to use SciCast from July 22 to August 15!

So this time we’ll compare activity incentives to accuracy incentives. Will we get more activity on days when we reward activity, and more accuracy on days when we reward accuracy? Now our accuracy incentives are admittedly weak, in that we’ll evaluate the accuracy of each trade/edit via price changes over only a few weeks after the trade. But hey, its something. Hopefully we can do a better experiment next year.

SciCast now has 532 questions on science and technology, and you can make conditional forecasts on most of them. Come!

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Bets As Loyalty Signals

Why do men give women engagement rings? A standard story is that a ring shows commitment; by paying a cost that one would lose if the marriage fails, one shows that one places a high value on the marriage.

However, as a signal the ring has two problems. On the one hand, if the ring is easy to sell for its purchase price, then it detracts from the woman’s signal of the value she places on the marriage. Accepting a ring makes her look mercenary. On the other hand, if the ring can’t be sold for near its purchase price, and if the woman values the ring itself at less than its price, then the couple destroys value in order to allow the signal.

These are common problems with loyalty signals – either value is destroyed, or stronger signals on one side weakens signals from other sides. Value-destroying loyalty signals are very common in couples, clubs, churches, firms, professions, and nations. For example, we might give up poker nights for a spouse, pork food for a religion, casual clothes to be a manager, or old-world customs for a new nation.

A few days ago I had an idea for a more efficient loyalty signal. Imagine that when he was twenty a man made a $5000 bet that he would never marry before the age of fifty. Then when he is thirty-five and wants to marry, he can send a strong signal of his desire to marry just by his willingness to lose this bet. Since the bet is lost to a third party, it doesn’t hinder the bride’s ability to signal her loyalty. And assuming the bet is made at fair odds, the lost bets are on average paid to versions of this man in alternative scenarios where he doesn’t marry by fifty. So he retains the value, which is not destroyed.

Today this approach probably suffers from being weird, so doing this would also send an unwelcome signal of weirdness. But it is only a signal of one’s weirdness when one made the bet – maybe one can credibly claim to be less weird later when marrying. And the bet would remain potent as a signal of devotion.

There are many related applications. For example, a young person who bet that they would never join a religion might later credibly signal their devotion to that religion, and perhaps avoid having to eat and dress funny to show such devotion. Also, someone who bet that they would never change countries might signal their loyalty when they moved to a new nation. To let my future self signal his devotion to his political party, perhaps I should bet today that I’ll never join a political party. Do I have any takers?

Added 20July: Of course the need to lose a bet to get married would discourage some from getting married. But the same harm happens for any expectation of needing to send a loyalty signal if one gets married. This effect isn’t particular to bets as loyalty signals; it happens for all kinds of loyalty signals.

Mechanically one way to implement marriage bets as loyalty signals would be for parents to buy their sons male spinster insurance, which pays money to the son when he is fifty if he never marries, and otherwise gives him a nice visible cheap pin/brooch when he gets married. His new wife can wear the pin to brag about his devotion. The pin might be color coded to indicate how much money he sacrificed.

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More Stories As Religion

Most people who say they are atheist or agnostic still believe in supernatural powers:

In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power. While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey … found that … only 13 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. …

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

This is plausibly reinforced by fiction, which (as I’ve said) serves similar functions to religion:

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

In manuals for writers (see “Screenplay” by Syd Field, for example) this process is often defined in some detail. Would-be screenwriters are taught that during the build-up of the story, the villain can sin (take unfair advantages) to his or her heart’s content without punishment, but the heroic protagonist must be karmically punished for even the slightest deviation from the path of moral rectitude. The hero does eventually win the fight, not by being bigger or stronger, but because of the choices he makes.

This process is so well-established in narrative creation that the literati have even created a specific category for the minority of tales which fail to follow this pattern. They are known as “bleak” narratives. An example is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, in which the likable central characters suffer terrible fates while the horrible faceless villains triumph entirely unmolested.

While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show. (more)

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Boston Talks This Week

Monday: Why is Abstraction both Statusful and Silly? 7:00p, 98 Elm St Apt 1, Somerville.
Tuesday: Shall We Vote On Values, But Bet On Beliefs? noon, 206 Lake Hall, Northeastern Univ.
Wednesday: Factoring Geopolitical Risk Into Decision-Making, 12:20p, Global ICON Conf.

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Near-Far Work Continues

I haven’t posted as much on near-far theory (= “construal level theory”) lately, but that’s more because my interests have wandered; research progress has continued. Here are four recent papers.

People who use more abstract language seem more powerful:

Power can be gained through appearances: People who exhibit behavioral signals of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power. In the current article, we examine power signals within interpersonal communication, exploring whether use of concrete versus abstract language is seen as a signal of power. Because power activates abstraction, perceivers may expect higher power individuals to speak more abstractly and therefore will infer that speakers who use more abstract language have a higher degree of power. Across a variety of contexts and conversational subjects in 7 experiments, participants perceived respondents as more powerful when they used more abstract language (vs. more concrete language). Abstract language use appears to affect perceived power because it seems to reflect both a willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking. (more)

Sounds evoke far mode when they are novel, slow, and reverberate more:

Psychological distance and abstractness primes have been shown to increase one’s level of construal. We tested the idea that auditory cues which are related to distance and abstractness (vs. proximity and concreteness) trigger abstract (vs. concrete) construal. Participants listened to musical sounds that varied in reverberation, novelty of harmonic modulation, and metrical segmentation. In line with the hypothesis, distance/abstractness cues in the sounds instigated the formation of broader categories, increased the preference for global as compared to local aspects of visual patterns, and caused participants to put more weight on aggregated than on individualized product evaluations. The relative influence of distance/abstractness cues in sounds, as well as broader implications of the findings for basic research and applied settings, is discussed. (more)

Employees want concrete feedback from direct leaders and abstract vision from higher leaders:

Three studies tested the hypothesis, derived from construal-level theory, that hierarchical distance between leaders and followers moderates the effectiveness of leader behaviors such that abstract behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across large hierarchical distances, whereas concrete behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across small hierarchical distances. In Study 1 (N = 2,206 employees of a telecommunication organization), job satisfaction was higher when direct supervisors provided employees with concrete feedback and hierarchically distant leaders shared with them their abstract vision rather than vice versa. Study 2 orthogonally crossed hierarchical distances with communication type, operationalized as articulating abstract values versus sharing a detailed story exemplifying the same values; construal misfit mediated the interactive effects of hierarchical distance and communication type on organizational commitment and social bonding. Study 3 similarly manipulated hierarchical distances and communication type, operationalized as concrete versus abstract calls for action in the context of a severe professional crisis. Group commitment and participation in collective action were higher when a hierarchically proximate leader communicated a concrete call for action and a hierarchically distant leader communicated an abstract call for action rather than vice versa. These findings highlight construal fit’s positive consequences for individuals and organizations. (more)

Tasks look easier when they are far away:

Psychological distance can reduce the subjective experience of difficulty caused by task complexity and task anxiety. Four experiments were conducted to test several related hypotheses. Psychological distance was altered by activating a construal mind-set and by varying bodily distance from a given task. Activating an abstract mind-set reduced the feeling of difficulty. A direct manipulation of distance from the task produced the same effect: participants found the task to be less difficult when they distanced themselves from the task by leaning back in their seats. The experiments not only identify psychological distance as a hitherto unexplored but ubiquitous determinant of task difficulty but also identify bodily distance as an antecedent of psychological distance. (more)

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Will Rituals Return?

Many social trends seem to have lasted for centuries. Some of these plausibly result from the high spatial densities, task specialization, and work coordination needed by industry production methods. Other industry-era trends plausibly result from increasing wealth weakening the fear that made us farmers, so that we revert to forager ways.

An especially interesting industry-era trend is the great fall in overt rituals – we industry folks have far fewer overt rituals than did foragers or farmers. From Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains:

Only around the nineteenth century, when mansions were build with separate entrance corridors, instead of one room connecting to the next) and back stairways for servants, did the fully private peerless introvert become common. … Until the beginning of the nineteenth century where is no distinctive ideology of intellectuals as withdrawn and at odds with the world. … The marketing of cultural products … put a premium on innovativeness, forcing periodic changes in fashion, and concentrating a new level of attention on the distinctive personality of the writer, musician, or artist. … The political ideology of individual freedom – which arose in a movement concerned largely to break into the aristocratic monopoly on power rather than to withdraw from it – was often blended with the ideology of the freelance writer, musician, or artist. … Alienation, rebellion, glorification of the inward, autonomous self, an oppositional self taking dominant society as its foil – this has become part of intellectual discourse. …

The daily and annual rounds of activity in premodern societies were permeated with rituals that we would easily recognize as such by their formality; living in a patrimonial household in a medieval community (not to mention living in a tribal society) would have been something like what our lives would be if Christmas or Thanksgiving happened several times a month, along with many lessor ceremonies that punctuated every day. … Modern life has its points of focused attention and emotional entrainment largely were we choose to make them, and largely in informal rituals, that it takes a sociologist to point out that they are indeed rituals. (pp. 362-368)

We can plausibly attribute our industry-era loss of rituals to many factors. Increasing wealth has given us more spatial privacy. Innovation has become increasingly important, and density and wealth are high enough to support fashion cycles, all of which raise the status of people with unusual behavior. These encourage us to signal our increasing wealth with more product and behavioral variety, instead of with more stuff. With increasing wealth our values have consistently moved away from conformity and tradition and toward self-direction and tolerance. Also, more forager-like egalitarianism has made us less ok with the explicit class distinctions that supported many farmer-era rituals. And our suppression of family clans has also suppressed many related rituals.

These factors seem likely to continue while per-capita wealth continues to increase. In that case overt ritual is likely to continue to decline. But there is no guaranteed that wealth will always increase. If we find ways (as with ems) to increase the population faster than we can increase wealth, wealth per person will fall. And if wealth falls, we may well see a revival of overt ritual.

I can’t think of a historical novel that makes clear not only how common was ritual and conformity in farmer or forager societies, but how well that comforted and satisfied people. Nor can I think of science fiction stories portraying a future full of beloved ritual. Or any stories that show how lonely and disconnected we modern folks often feel because we lack the rituals that gave deep meaning to so many humans before us. We tend to love novels that celebrate the values we hold dear, but that can blind us to seeing how others held different values dear.

Perhaps the closest examples are war stories, where soldiers find comfort in finding distinct roles and statuses that relate them to each other, and where they act out regular intense synchronized actions that lead to their security and protection. But that is usually seen as applying only to the special case of war, rather than to life more generally.

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Firm Inefficiency

Economists are often stereotyped as claiming that firms are very economically efficient, i.e., that they very effectively minimize costs and maximize profits. This is a common source of derision of economists by other social scientists. And it is true that efficiency is the standard assumption made in textbooks and in math models. But over time I’ve been persuaded that it is often far from an accurate assumption. (And I doubt that most older economists believe it.)

I’ve been persuaded by a steady accumulation of plausible examples of widespread persistent inefficiencies. No one example is overwhelmingly obvious – all have stories for why they are only apparent inefficiencies. But added all together, they persuade me. Some examples:

  1. Threats Help Productivity – When firms face more competition, they often have big bursts of productivity. But if increases were possible, why not do them before?
  2. Long-Lasting Deadwood – Firms often keep employees who are widely known within the firm to not be pulling their weight relative to other employees. They tend to be fired during a downturn, or after a takeover.
  3. Not Invented Here – Firms are famously reluctant to adopt changes that appear to have been developed elsewhere, preferring instead changes for which someone internal can take credit.
  4. Shooting Messengers – Many firms greatly discourage passing bad news up to bosses. GM was just exposed as such a firm via a safety issue. Those who do pass bad news up are punished as if they were personally a big cause of the bad news.
  5. Yes Men – If bosses keep quiet about their opinion, they can evaluate subordinates via comparing employee opinions with boss opinion. But bosses consistently forgo this by telling subordinates lots of opinions and punishing those who question such opinions.
  6. Mergers & Acquisitions – Firms that buy and merge with other firms seem to consistently lose money.
  7. Poison Pills – Rules that discourage takeover attempts by financially penalizing such attempts prevent investors from getting more for their shares.
  8. Overpaid CEOs – It is far from clear that firms actually earn more when they hire more expensive CEOs.
  9. Too Many Meetings – It is widely believed that most firms hold too many meetings that go on too long with too many people.
  10. Too Many Interviews – It is hard to find much evidence that interviews add info on job performance. So why do candidates go through so many interviews?
  11. Biased Evaluations – Bosses consistently give lower evaluations to people they didn’t hire, relative to people they did hire. Yet official evaluations don’t correct for this.
  12. Excess Credentials – People consistently feel pressure to hire people whose credentials make them look good on paper, relative to people they believe would do a better job.
  13. Few Experiments – Firms tend to be reluctant to do experiments, such as to find preferred product variations. Experiments would force them to admit they don’t yet know.
  14. Few Track Records – Meetings are full of people making predictions on decision consequences, but firms almost never keep formal track records to rate accuracy.
  15. Reward Braggarts – Firms consistently neglect people who don’t toot their own horn, even when their superior features are widely known.
  16. Allow Info Silos – Groups and divisions with a firm are allowed to keep a lot of info secret within their group. Yet if the firm works together toward a common goal, what can be the benefit of keeping such secrets?
  17. Predictable Consultants – Management consultants are often hired at great expense to give advice that is quite predictable given the opinions of those who hired them.
  18. Little Telecommuting – Telecommuting seems to save big on costs, yet is not adopted much.
  19. I’ll add more here in response to suggestions.

My working hypothesis to explain these inefficiencies is that the people and supporting coalitions closest to them tend to gain from them, and that selection pressures on political coalitions are often much stronger than selection pressures on firms.

If many of these inefficiencies are real, then yes government regulators can also see them, and yes it might not be that hard for smart sincere people to design regulations to increase welfare by correcting for them. However, government regulatory agencies are also “inefficient” in many ways, leading them to choose and enforce regulations which differ from those that would most increase welfare. To judge if we are better off giving regulators more powers over firms, we must judge the relative magnitudes of these two types of inefficiencies.

Note that firm efficiency may still be a reasonable assumption to make in models, even if it is not an accurate assumption. Modeling is always a tradeoff between realism and understanding.

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Trustworthy Telepresence

In a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, which questioned 11,383 people in 24 countries, about half believed that they would be at a disadvantage in earning promotions because of the lack of face-to-face contact. Previous research suggests part-time telecommuters do not communicate less frequently with managers. … After four years of experience, the average male telecommuter will earn about 6.9% less than a non-telecommuter. (more)

Telecommuting requires the use of various types of media to communicate, such as the telephone and email. Emails have a time lag that does not allow for immediate feedback; telephone conversations make it harder to decipher the emotions of the person or team on the phone; and both of these forms of communication do not allow one to see the other person. Typical organization communication patterns are thus altered in telecommuting. For instance, teams using computer-mediated communication with computer conferencing take longer to make group decisions than face-to-face groups. (more)

Decades ago many futurists predicted that many workers would soon telecommute, and empty out cities. Their argument seemed persuasive: workers who work mainly on computers, or who don’t have to move much physical product, seem able to achieve enough coordination to do their jobs via phone, email, and infrequent in-person meetings. And huge cost savings could come from avoiding central city offices, homes near them, and commuting between the two. (For example, five firms might share the same offices, with each firm using them one day per week.)

But it hasn’t remotely happened that way. And the big question is: why?

Some say telecommuters would shirk and not work as much, but it is hard to see that would remain much of a problem with a constant video feed watching them. Bryan Caplan favors a signaling explain, that we show up in person to show our commitment to the firm. But a firm should prefer employees who show devotion via more total work, instead of wasting hours on the road. Yes inefficient signaling equilibria can exist, but firms have many ways to push for this alternate equilibrium.

The standard proximate cause, described in the quote above, is that workers and their bosses get a lot of detailed emotional info via frequent in-person meetings. Such detailed emotional info can help to build stronger feelings of mutual trust and affiliation. But the key question is, why are firms willing to pay so much for that? How does it help firm productivity enough to pay for its huge costs?

My guess: frequent detailed emotional info helps political coalitions, even if not firms. Being able to read detailed loyalty signals is central to maintaining political coalitions. The strongest coalitions take over firms and push policies that help them resist their rivals. If a firm part adopted local policies that weakened the abilities of locals to play politics, that part would be taken over by coalitions from other parts of the firm, who would then push for policies that help them. A lack of telecommuting is only one of a long list of examples of inefficient firm policies than can be reasonably be attributed to coalition politics.

Some people hope that very high resolution telepresence could finally give enough detailed emotional info to make telecommuting workable. And that might indeed give enough info to build strong mutual trust and loyalty. But it is hard to make very high resolution telepresence feel natural, and we still far from having enough bandwidth to cheaply send that much info.

Furthermore, by the time we do we may also have powerful robust ways to fake that info. That is, we might have software that takes outgoing video and audio feeds and edits them to remove signs of disloyalty, to make people seem more trusting and trustworthy than they actually are. And if we all know this is possible, we won’t trust what we see in telepresence.

So, for telepresence to actually foster enough loyalty and trust to make telecommuting viable, not only does it need to feel comfortable and natural and give very high bandwidth info, but the process would need to be controlled by some trusted party, who ensures that people aren’t faking their appearances in ways that make it hard to read real feelings. Setting up a system like that would be much more challenging that just distributing something like Skype software.

Of course eventually humans might have chips under their skin to manipulate their sight and sound in real physical meetings. And then they might want ways to assure others aren’t using those. But that is probably much further off. (And of course ems might always “fake” their physical appearance.)

Again, I have hopes, but only weak hopes, for telepresence allowing for mass human telecommuting.

Added 3July: Perhaps I could have been clearer. The individual telecommuter could clearly be at a political disadvantage by not being part of informal gossip and political conversation. He would have fewer useful allies, and they would thus prefer that he or she not telecommute.

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Auto-Auto Deadline Looms

It is well-known that while electricity led to big gains in factory productivity, few gains were realized until factories were reorganized to take full advantage of the new possibilities which electric motors allowed. Similarly, computers didn’t create big productivity gains in offices until work flow and tasks were reorganized to take full advantage.

Auto autos, i.e., self-driving cars, seem similar: while there could be modest immediate gains from reducing accident rates and lost productive time commuting, the biggest gains should come from reorganizing our cities to match them. Self-driving cars could drive fast close together to increase road throughput, and be shared to eliminate the need for parking. This should allow for larger higher-density cities. For example, four times bigger cities could plausibly be twenty-five percent more productive.

But to achieve most of these gain, we must make new buildings with matching heights and locations. And this requires that self-driving cars make their appearance before we stop making so many new buildings. Let me explain.

Since buildings tend to last for many decades, one of the main reasons that cities have been adding many new buildings is that they have had more people who need buildings in which to live and work. But world population growth is slowing down, and may peak around 2055. It should peak earlier in rich nations, and later in poor nations.

Cities with stable or declining population build a lot fewer buildings; it would take them a lot longer to change city organization to take advantage of self-driving cars. So the main hope for rapidly achieving big gains would be in rapidly growing cities. What we need is for self-driving cars to become available and cheap enough in cities that are still growing fast enough, and which have legal and political support for driving such cars fast close together, so they can achieve high throughput. That is, people need to be sufficiently rewarded for using cars in ways that allow more road throughput. And then economic activity needs to move from old cities to the new more efficient cities.

This actually seems like a pretty challenging goal. China and India are making lots of buildings today, but those buildings are not well-matched to self-driving cars. Self-driving cars aren’t about to explode there, and by the time they are cheap the building boom may be over. Google announced its self-driving car program almost four years ago, and that hasn’t exactly sparked a tidal wave of change. Furthermore, even if self-driving cars arrive soon enough, city-region politics may well not be up to the task of coordinating to encourage such cars to drive fast close together. And national borders, regulation, etc. may not let larger economies be flexible enough to move much activity to the new cities who manage to support auto autos well.

Alas, overall it is hard to be very optimistic here. I have hopes, but only weak hopes.

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