The Metric Hearings of 1975 — The Limits of Social Norm in Metrication

Senator Clayborn Pell (1918-2009)

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Senator Pell

Senator Daniel K. Inouye presided over the 1975 Metric Hearings as Chairman. The first person to speak at the 1975 Senate Metric Hearings (SMH) was Senator Clayborn Pell. He was probably the most dedicated Senator in favor of a metric changeover in the US since John Shafroth. After Clayborn Pell, there  appears to have been no one to champion The Metric System in Congress. There have only been complete obstructionists or those who see metrication as a non-issue since.

The speech given by Senator Pell at the metric hearing is an odd one for an avowed metric advocate.  Senator Pell is convinced that “metric is inevitable” and that the  implementation of legislation which is completely voluntary will bring metric to the US. I have to admit, my jaw dropped when I read this. The Legislation proposed by John Shafroth in the 1904-1906 period was mandatory. It’s  detractors called Shafroth’s legislation “The Metric Force Bill.”  In the end the committee on which Shafroth served was stacked with two anti-metric people. He would be outvoted no matter what he did. Shafroth decided to fight other legislative battles and resigned. In 1921 the persons testifying at the metric hearings stated over and over that voluntary doesn’t work, and that a time limit of  2-3 years maximum worked best for all other countries that changed to metric. Over and over they stressed these points. Over and over the chairman of the 1921 metric hearings stated that voluntary metication was fine and would work. Fifty-Four years passed. It didn’t. Then in 1975 Senator Pell somehow came to believe that a voluntary law, with an oxymoronic ten year time “limit,” would bring about metrication? How could this have happened?

I can only conclude two things. One,  that Senator Pell had not researched the history of the metric hearings. It was hard to imagine that his staff didn’t. Assuming that Pell did know the history, then why would he now believe that a voluntary metric bill would have an affect? Unless Senator Pell was a stealth anti-metric mole, then I have to take him at his word that he actually believed this feckless legislation would bring about metric conversion. Here is what he said:

Mr. Chairman, previous efforts to enact metric conversion legislation have foundered on conflicts over mandatory versus voluntary conversion, and over the question of compensation for conversion costs, at least in hardship cases, versus the principle of letting conversion costs lie where they fall. The two issues are closely linked. The case for some Government compensation in cases of hardship is obviously much stronger when the Government mandates conversion action.

To a great extent, however, these disputes have been overrun by events. As you pointed out, Mr. Chairman, metric conversion is going forward at an accelerating pace in the United States, on a voluntary basis.

 Indeed, metric conversion is moving ahead so rapidly now that the critical need is for Government action to provide essential mechanisms for coordination, planning, and information among Government agencies, among industrial groups, and between industry, Government, and labor.

The most charitable view I can offer is that Senator Pell relied on what Pat Naughtin called “social norm.” Pat used the example of a group of people standing at a stop light waiting to cross. The crossing sign indicated they should wait. The group waited, but as soon as one person crossed against the light, a few others would feel it was ok to ignore the signal, they would begin crossing, then the group as a whole would accept that it was actually alright to ignore the sign and cross.

Given the times, I think that Clayborn Pell may have actually believed that “metric was inevitable” and that the pressure of social norm from other countries would compel the US to convert to metric. Why would this be? Why would Senator Pell rely on such a notion for US policy? Well in the 1970s country after country was converting to metric. There was an avalanche of metrication occurring. Like the group at the stoplight, Senator Pell may have believed that the pressure of “social norm” would finally compel the US to become metric.

How wrong he would be. Almost 40 years later, we are essentially the last nation on earth who does not have the metric system,  And when Ronald Reagan terminated the Metric Board in 1982, who’s function it was to help with this “inevitable” metric changeover, only Clayborn Pell stood up and objected:

It’s inevitable that the United States will change to the metric system, and it would be best for American businesses if the conversion were to take place in 10 to 15 years instead of 30 to 40 years.

Well Senator Pell, you were far too optimistic. It is nearly 40 years later, and the US is as non-metric as ever. The fact that the bill was S-100 clearly was of no consequence. The testimony of the time is enlightening. I offer excerpts below from numerous participants to provide some context:

The DOD Statement in The 1975 Hearings

Department of Defense

Established metrication panel to assist Defense Material Specifications Board in planning.

Departmental plan and policy statement issued by Secretary’s Office; directs the use of the metric system consistent with operational, economical, technical and safety considerations.

I can translate this for my readers as: “Will the DOD become metric?”

DOD: “No!”


It is premature, therefore, for Congress to pass any legislation which would commit the Federal Government to any official policy of facilitating or encouraging metric conversion. Conversion must not be compulsory. We believe conversion to the metric system must be entirely voluntary.

● ● ●

Senator Inouye. We have heard from educators who suggest that the metric system is much easier to learn and understand than the English standard.

Mr. Hannman. Again, I think that is a subject that can be debated among educators themselves. The customary system is a binary system which divides halves and thus is more rational and easier to conceptualize. I think it would be more difficult for a child to conceptualize a millimeter as opposed to an inch.

This of course should be news to anyone in the US who has actually used “the customary system.”  Let’s see 12 inches = 1 foot, 3 feet = 1 yard, 1660 yards = 1 mile. It doesn’t look like it’s based on two for the primary units of length.

It is surprising that Labor would then decide to quote Congressman Symington’s view:

The Committee feels strongly that in any sector, the marketplace—not the Congress or the Metric Board—should provide the impetus in deciding whether, when and how metric conversion activities should proceed.

Well, we’ve been waiting for 160 year or so to witness the power of Market Darwinsim to provide a metric change over in the US. The AFL-CIO seems to only know “weez again’ it.” The Labor Union cited the cost of tools as being prohibitive, and indicated that metrication would cause some small businessmen to go broke from the associated costs of new tools. It is amazing that the cost of his members already having to purchase two sets of tools is not cost prohibitive. Then this bombshell:

The AFL-CIO is concerned about the impact of metric conversion on its members as workers, as consumers, and as taxpayers.

 First and foremost, we are concerned that metric conversion will accelerate the deindustrialization of the United States, thus cause soaring unemployment

The AFL-CIO predicts a Metric Apocalypse!  Adopting metric will do nothing less than reduce us to an agrarian nation raising sheep and goats! They also assert that if the DOD changes to metric the costs will be so large that “…they cannot be absorbed without deterioration of the military posture.”  Not only will metric de-industrialize the United States, it will allow enemies to get us. That’s a serious amount of FUD promotion.

But there is one more snake in the grass, and the AFL-CIO is there to help identify it:

The question is thus reduced to determining if what is good for transnational corporations is also good for the U.S. economy and society in general.

Ironically, these multinational giants, the champions of the private enterprise system, will, as pockets of resistance develop, pressure Congress to force metric conversion. This is the tragic situation in the United Kingdom today.

If only!—-where is my metric!—-after 40 years on?  I guess Transnational Corporations just aren’t what they used to be. They were powerless to force congress to impose metric, I guess they didn’t have enough lobbyists.

The American Bar Association

The idea of reading through what lawyers have to say about metric seemed daunting. If I never see another patent to read the rest of my life, I could live with that. Then surprising candor was offered, which completely caught me off-guard:

The point is that Government by its nature cannot be neutral, and in many cases so-called voluntary conversion cannot occur until there has been significant governmental action.

The ABA offers a number of reasons why metric is just untenable in the US, but then is candid again. They state “Given the nature of the foregoing problems, the narrow legal scope of the pending metric bills is remarkable.”  And:

The House-passed bill, rather than simply expressing a national policy in favor of a coordinated approach to voluntary conversion and establishing housekeeping details for the proposed Metric Board, makes no change in existing law

makes no change in existing law.”  This is what I’ve been asserting over and over. The 1975 and 1988 metric legislation is just so many empty words on a page. They have as much compulsory affect as declaring it “National Look at Pretty Flowers Day.” The ABA then points out that this does not have to be the case:

By the fifth clause of article I, section 8, of the Constitution of the United States, Congress is given express power to “fix the standard of weights and measures.”

Under this clause, under the commerce clause, and under the necessary and proper clause, Congress unquestionably has adequate constitutional authority to create a “measurement czar ” whose metric conversion directives would preempt all inconsistent State laws.

This observation  by the ABA representative essentially states the new metric legislation is feckless:

As H.R. 8674 has emerged from the House, the policy direction apparently given by the Congress is circular: to plan planning.

But what is the objective of this planning? When you plan you ordinarily have an objective?

Engineers Joint Council

Next a surprisingly short amount of testimony was given by a group called the Engineer’s Joint Council. They claim to represent 38 engineering societies and have resolved:

That the Board of Directors of Engineers Joint Council endorse the adoption of a single system of measurement in the United States, and that System shall be the International System of units commonly known as SI, as described by the resolutions of the General Conference of Weights and Measures.

Well, that’s great, I’m glad to see my fellow engineers are supporting metric only without any wishy-washy prose. Then the unexpected is proposed:

We believe that engineers will use SI in engineering design and communication. It is not important, in our opinion, that the general public use every one of these units in their everyday life.

WHAT!  SI is just for engineers? Where do they think engineers obtain their preparatory education? They obtain it from the public schools and from common measurement usage in the US. Can’t they see that? I take Mega-Umbrage at the very idea of it’s not important for the public to use metric exclusively. I would argue this is why Aerospace and the DOD along with NASA are not metric. When the multi-generational measurement bias is never broken, and continues to chain us to the past, metric never is adopted. I find the statement irresponsible. The metric system is designed for everyone. It is the easiest way to unambiguously express quantities when used properly.

When asked if he was concerned about what the ABA said “…I think what we do now in  a voluntary way is taking care of a great many of the problems and I really don’t anticipate quite the trouble  that the ABA does.”  Well, with historical hindsight, we know this was a completely ill-conceived viewpoint.

American National Metric Council

The ANMC was created to be a non-partisan arbiter of metric standards for industry like ANSI. The existence of this organization would make sense under a mandatory metrication, but with the vacuous metric “legislation” produced in 1975 there would be no impetus for private industry to meet and establish metric standards for their industries, when metric was not going to happen. They did have an interesting statement about the costs of metrication:

An immediate concern is the cost of metric conversion. There are costs, but experience has shown that realistic cost estimates are difficult to determine. At General Motors Corp. they are finding that their actual costs are far below original estimates.

I might add, sir, that [this] has been generally the reporting of companies that [are] well along in the[ir] metric conversion program. Current cost realizations are lower than their original expectations.

Actual cost is far, far below “fear” driven costs, but that has never altered the view of those who fear. In every metric hearing from 1905 to 1921 to 1975 massive estimates of metric conversion costs are offered, but any actual metrication costs provided by entities who converted to metric are ignored.

Esther Peterson  Giant Foods

Guidance in the form of Federal legislation is needed. We need a uniform approach in order to implement a smooth and total conversion in all areas … where standards are set and followed, target dates are met, and uniformity in practice exists. The American Bar Association recently adopted a resolution urging Congress to enact legislation to ease the transition to metric units in statutes and regulations at all levels of government. We need dynamic leadership from the top. Coupled with creative initiative from all sectors of our society, our transition to metric Should be as orderly and easy as possible.

Herbert Johnson Department of Mathematical Sciences Winona State University

A further danger is involved in a lack of congressional action and a subsequent national plan for metrication. Many students at different levels are being taught something about metric measurement. These students who could well be “metric missionaries ” are finding little application in their everyday lives beyond that of a few temperatures being reported in degrees Celsius, a few informational road signs, and an occasional reference to sale of grain in metric tonnage. Their enthusiasm for the simplicity of the metric system is soon dampened since they have no place to apply their new-found knowledge. There are many citizens who will not be convinced of the necessity to learn the metric system until Federal action occurs. There are industries in this country that recognize the need to switch to metric but are deferring action until a Federal plan is announced. I believe we need that Federal plan.

● ● ●

I have no studies to document my belief; however, I believe that a good many students are “turned off” to mathematics about the time, they are in the upper elementary grades—about the time they are being taught fundamental manipulations with fractions. I have found entering freshmen at the university, and possibly graduates, who cannot manipulate fractions. Why were they taught fractional manipulation? Primarily because our antiquated form of measurement depends upon a knowledge of fractions. The modern metric system does not. Can we not, therefore, rationalize and simplify our curriculum?

Richard L. Thompson Chief of Weights and Measures for the State of Maryland

The United States is the only technologically advanced Nation with weights and measures regulatory programs legislated and administered at the State and local level and the system works primarily because of the success of the National Conference on Weights and Measures and the effort put into the National Conference by the NBS.

Carl Beck National Small Business Association

…and there’s no question that our best conversion period would be about 20 years, and to try to do it in 10 years would be horrendous and practically put us out of business, and we made quite a study of it.

● ● ●

It is our understanding the Small Business Administration has determined that under existing authority it may make economic disaster-type loans under Section 7(b) (5) of the SBA Act. It is also our understanding that the Office of Management and Budget and the Commerce Department concur in this decision.

 We have just in the last couple of days checked again with the Small Business Administration and are advised that they believe that since this is a voluntary conversion act as opposed to a less voluntary act, which was discussed in the House last year, that they would not have authority at present to make hardship loans for metric conversion.

● ● ●

…but I do feel that if we are to go too fast we tend to ride roughshod over small business, which so frequently is not adequately heard, that it may do a real disservice to the country. In fact, as I said in the closing of my written statement, and as I have said for many years, and I believe it to be very true:

 If the United States can complete the metric conversion process in a manner which inures to the economic advantage of small business—the 98 or 99 percent of the private economy—the conversion will have been a success; if this does not occur, the cost of conversion to the U.S. economy will require decades to be overcome, and may actually incur irreparable damage to the position of the United States in the economy of the world.

● ● ●

Senator Ford. Yes, sir. I understand it a little bit better. I understand what you’re saying about the problems that would face you. It could be an economic disaster to convert involuntarily. There is a problem, even though it could be economically helpful. It also could be an economic disaster if it’s implemented too fast.

 Mr. Beck. That’s right. We all recognize that there is a large one-time conversion cost which we want to get through as inexpensively as possible, admittedly, but on the other hand, the only way this is going to work is that there’s going to be a long-term economic benefit. To the small businessman, the large conversion cost, whatever its size may be, is considerable to him because he’s small and he maybe needs help to get over this hump in order that the benefits repay him over a period of years.

So what have we learned from the 1975 hearings?

First, it was believed that “metric would just happen” and so the legislation was “voluntary.” Essentially since the days of John Kasson in 1866 we’ve been running an experiment with “voluntary metrication.” For over 140 years in 1975 it had not worked. Was the legislation naive, or just plain cynical on the part of our legislators? The ABA indicated the law “makes no change to existing law.” Was that the idea?  Was it just a sop to prevent social norm from having any affect over the short period of time in the 1970s when the rest of the world completed its metrication and it would never happen again. The other countries will not convert to metric again, as they already are, and not one has decided it was a mistake. Today social norm no longer exerts any influence, so we can just keep wasting money and live with a set of weights and measures so antiquated they can’t even describe electricity.

Second It was also believed that if metric were forced upon us, it would lead to the de-industrialization of the United States, which in turn would produce high unemployment. The coerced implementation of metric would  destroy our military posture, and cost so much the US would have to provide disaster relieve SBA loans to small business as if a hurricane had hit them. Senator Ford comes to the conclusion that “It could be an economic disaster to convert [to metric] involuntarily.” This is serious Mega-Histrionics, but it worked, and we still use horsepower in an age when most people have almost no familiarity with a horse.

If it was cynicism that drove the 1975 hearings and legislation, then they set a very low bar. But that would be lowered even further by the 1996 hearings. However, that is another blog. To those who say “we already have the legislation in place” and to the Metric Philosophers who believe in evolutionary metrication, I recommend for your punishment, that you actually read the entire body of the 1975 hearings. It has been punishment enough for me.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page.

Related Essays:

How Did We Get Here?

John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

Testimony from the 1921 Metric Hearings

A Tale of Two Iowans

Australian Metrication & US Procrastination

John Quincy Adams and The Metric System

And now for something completely different….

By Sven

Guest Post

Ok, not completely, as it obviously has to do with the metric system. But we think we have something unique: a detailed—and nearly forgotten—history of one of the world’s most successful national metrications. It will shortly be filed in Metrication Resources, where we hope it will gain recognition as the pride of the collection.

For some years, a couple of fellow metric advocates in Australia had been telling us of a mysterious book. Mike Joy, who had gotten us some excellent measuring tapes and rulers, unlike anything available here, was the first to mention it: If there was any metrication we had to understand, it was Australia’s, and if there was anything about Australia’s we had to read, it was Metrication in Australia, by Kevin Joseph Wilks. His own copy was lost, lent and never returned, but he could put us in touch with the author. Unfortunately, Mr Wilks was down to his last author copy, which he understandably would not part with. He had tried to get the publisher, DITAC, the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce, to reprint the book, but without success: the copyright was held by the Commonwealth of Australia, so he had no control. We could find only two libraries in the US claiming a copy: one in Los Angeles, unavailable at the time; one closer to home, but after diligent search the librarians had to report the book presumed lost. We were getting the impression—no great surprise—that the one-and-only edition had been very small.

It was another friend from Oz, Peter Goodyear, who finally tracked one down, and scanned the pages for us, giving us our first look. It was instantly clear that everything Mike and Peter were saying was true. (Aside: Peter’s task was much easier than it would have been in the US, because the library copy machine had a USB port. No need to create a huge pile of waste paper, just bring your own flash drive. What a fantastic and blatantly obvious idea. I’m sure this technology is available in the US, but I’ve yet to see it in libraries, or for that matter, aerospace companies. The US may catch up with Oz someday, but until then I am envious.) So, what is all the fuss about?

In 1972, Australia was an imperial nation. In 1982, it was as metric as any on earth. It got from point A to point B, not only in a single decade, but with the support of its citizens, with little trouble, opposition, or resentment—and very few missteps. The monetary cost was small, and recovered instantly. Australians have been enjoying the dividends ever since. This brief book—less than 90 pages in its original form—tells the story. How then did Australia metricate so rapidly, and so painlessly? A number of reasons, but here is one elephant-in-the-room clue, from page one:

It was sometimes asked why the decision to go metric was not reached by referendum. This would have presupposed that people would have had a comparable knowledge of both the imperial and the metric systems and of the impact such a change might have. While metrication has certainly had a massive cultural impact on people in their lives as ordinary citizens it is, nevertheless, a predominantly technical change, affecting commerce, industry, engineering, science and education. For referendum purposes, relatively few people would have had sufficient knowledge of both systems to make an informed decision.

The decision to go metric was achieved through an open committee of inquiry, appointed by the Government, which collected evidence from any person who felt interested or competent enough to give it.

In other words, it was recognized from the beginning that there was more than one way to frame the debate. The magnitude of the cultural change wasn’t ignored, but it wasn’t allowed to dominate the discussion to the exclusion of all else.

Metrication began with an Act of Parliament: the Metric Conversion Act 1970. This was binding legislation that committed the nation to an active program of metrication. Curiously, once this commitment was made at the national level, very little other legislation was needed:

The change was largely voluntary and no new legislation, other than the Metric Conversion Act, was introduced by State or Federal Governments to enforce metrication. In some cases where compulsion was necessary, metric units were substituted for imperial units in existing Acts and Regulations.

A Metrication Conversion Board was formed to conduct conversion at the national level. Although established in law, the Board sought to act as a coordinating service within and between industries and constituencies. What will be astonishing to US metric advocates is that the kind of inertia and obstructionism we’ve become inured to, apparently never developed:

At no stage did the Board seek to force a decision of its own on an industry committee. Instead, each industry, within the requirements of the Metric Conversion Act, decided, by consensus, when and in what way it would be practicable to metricate its industry. To that extent, conversion to metric must be seen as one of the most democratically executed government projects in Australia’s history.

What about the costs of metrication: weren’t they significant, even if only one-time? Here the problem was that Australian metrication was so highly coordinated and well-planned that, ironically, it was very difficult to say. One figure given at the time by metrication opponents was $2,500,000,000:

Even assuming, for a moment, this cost to be accurate, it represented $179 per person or $18 per person per year for ten years which was a small enough cost compared with the benefits which resulted from metric conversion.

One problem with such figures was that they probably included all sorts of things that weren’t really costs of metrication. Petrol pumps (gas pumps to us Yanks), may have been an example: prices were rapidly approaching $1.00 per gallon, at which point the mechanical counting mechanisms then in use would have overflowed. Their replacement was imminent, metrication or not. (With modern electronic pumps, the cost of switching to liters might be near zero.)

One extremely effective strategy for metrication was the “M-Day.”  Each industry would prepare for metrication on a given date, quite often within a year or less, while continuing to do business in imperial units. Dates for related industries were coordinated by the government Metrication Conversion Board. On its M-day the entire industry would switch, sometimes within particular states or regions, but the most successful M-Days were nationwide. So-called “transition periods” were reduced to near zero. The greatest success was in changing the road signs of the nation. Technically, it should probably be called an M-Month, but given the magnitude of the task, it was still spectacular:

One of the most important and publicly visible of the metric changes was the change in road speed and distance signs and the accompanying change in road traffic regulations. M-Day for this change was 1 July 1974 and, by virtue of careful planning, practically every road sign in Australia was converted within one month. This involved installation of covered metric signs alongside the imperial sign prior to the change and then removal of the imperial sign and the cover from the metric during the month of conversion.

Except on bridge clearance and flood depth signs, dual marking was avoided. Despite suggestions by people opposed to metrication that ignorance of the meaning of metric speeds would lead to slaughter on the roads, such slaughter did not occur.

The book is a how-to manual for national metrication. Most of it is an industry-by-industry account of the Australian experience. A wide selection of industries, products, and services is represented: agriculture, light and heavy manufacturing, raw materials, finished goods, health care services, sport and recreation. It is here that the value of the book for today may be greatest: it’s hard to imagine anyone reading through the success stories, and the few failures, without being disabused of the notion that metrication just happens. Nor is it possible to maintain that two disjoint systems of measurement can coexist, anymore than it’s possible to jump on a horse and “gallop madly off in all directions.”

The Maven and I were convinced this was something special, but while we might have shared it privately with other metric advocates, we both wanted a wider distribution. The problem was that it was still copyright Commonwealth of Australia. In its dead tree form it was very nearly a lost document, but it dealt with matters that should be of some national pride to Australia. Throwing caution to the winds, we decided to contact Canberra about the possibility of an electronic distribution. DITAC, the original publishing agency, no longer existed, but finding the proper people to speak with was fairly simple, and we were pleased and surprised when our request was not dismissed out of hand. We then learned that, even in a relatively civilized universe like Oz, the mills of government grind slowly—but to our amazement, they do grind. We had several indications that things were, in fact, going on, and probably our anxiety made this period seem longer than it was. Actually, it was quite short: a few months. And just last month, we were informed that Metrication in Australia was now licensed under the Creative Commons. Better still, it was “the most accommodating type” of license, allowing us to create a searchable PDF. This turned out to be essential, as the scan files were huge, and we could never have put them up in that form.

The book was formatted in the A4 (ISO 216) paper size. Our PDF retains this, but we increased the original font size slightly, and renumbered the pages as a result. The file is set up for double-sided printing, suitable for four-hole “888” punching, or comb binding. It should also print well single-sided, or on the bizarre “US Letter” paper size if you “scale to fit” (the margins will just look a bit odd). Not that we expect many Americans to try to find a ream of A4 paper, but if anyone still doubts the existence of the Invisible Metric Embargo, it might be an instructive exercise. Yes, you can find it, but online, not at your local office megamart. And lest our Australian friends are cringing: we were careful to have only the Australian English dictionary loaded in the spelling checker during all proofreading, so we’re pretty sure no American orthography has crept in. We’ve tried to make this book as good looking as our limited desktop publishing experience permitted.

Finally, some acknowledgments. To Mike Joy and Peter Goodyear for the initial heads up, a great deal of detective work, and a list of Australian terms that we used as the basis of a short glossary for non-Australians. To all persons involved in this effort, known and unknown to us, at the National Measurement Institute, Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. (Whew!) We have no idea what was going on behind the scenes, but we suspect it was significant. And to the author, Kevin Joseph Wilks, for having given us this record of a remarkable cultural transformation. We hope it may now inform metrication efforts for years to come. It’s almost enough to make us believe the Land of Oz really has intersected our own space time continuum.

Here is a link to download Metrication in Australia (built 2013-06-24).

Postscript: We’ve been notified of three minor OCR errors in our original PDF file of Metrication in Australia. Two occurrences of modern were rendered modem, and one occurrence of the word be was rendered he in the final paragraph. The current file corrects these. The glossary has also been slightly augmented. (Thanks again to Peter Goodyear.)

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