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New Year in a World at War

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 161st installment in the series.

December 31, 1914-January 1, 1915: New Year in a World at War

“What does this New Year which rises before us, veiled like Isis and as enigmatic as the Sphinx, hold concealed in its cloak? Of what are our great military chiefs and politicians thinking? What decisions will they come to about us?” This entry from a Frenchwoman’s diary captured the sense of anxiety and helplessness felt by ordinary Europeans as the year 1914 drew to a close, bringing down the curtain on a world in upheaval. Elsewhere the young British poet Roland Leighton described the scene in London’s Piccadilly Circus in a letter to his girlfriend Vera Brittain:

"There was very little demonstration; two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the ‘Marseillaise’; a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ When twelve o’clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer and then everyone seemed to melt away again, leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched."

Indeed, as 1914 drew to a close there was nothing to celebrate. In just five months the worst manmade catastrophe ever to befall Europe had undone centuries of progress, stripping away illusory notions of reason, honor, and glory as it tore up treaties, targeted civilians, desecrated cultural heritage, and tested new methods of anonymous mass destruction. When the war began many believed it would be over by Christmas, but now that seemed like a bad joke. A German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, wrote in his diary: “This terrible war goes on and on, and whereas you thought at the start that it would be over in a few weeks, there is now no end in sight. Your feelings harden, you become increasingly indifferent, you don’t think about the next day any more…”

Sulzbach and Leighton were just two among millions of young men wrenched from their ordinary day-to-day lives and plunged into the cauldron of war. On the Allied side, by December 1914 France had mobilized 4.8 million men, Russia 6.6 million men, and Britain 1.4 million men, for a total of around 13.8 million troops under arms (when Serbian, Belgian, and Montenegrin forces are included). Opposing them in the Central Powers, Germany had mobilized 4.4 million men, Austria-Hungary 3.4 million men, and the Ottoman Empire 500,000 men, for a total of around 8.3 million troops under arms.

The casualties inflicted in the opening war of maneuver and the first months of trench warfare, culminating on the Western Front in the inferno of Ypres, were nothing short of mindboggling. On the Allied side, Britain’s total losses of around 100,000 men, including 16,374 dead, were only the tip of the iceberg. While estimates vary, by the end of December 1914 France may have suffered almost a million casualties, including 306,000 killed, 220,000 taken prisoner, and 490,000 wounded, and Russian losses were even worse. At Tannenberg alone the Russians lost 30,000 killed and missing, 50,000 wounded, and 90,000 taken prisoner; by the end of December 1914 total Russian casualties came to around 1.8 million – half its prewar strength – including 396,000 dead, 485,000 taken prisoner, and countless wounded (below, wounded in a Moscow military hospital).

Credit: Englishrussia

The Central Powers suffered comparable losses. German casualties also came to about a million, including 241,000 dead, 155,000 taken prisoner, and 540,000 wounded, while Austria-Hungary – its pre-war army all but destroyed by multiple debacles on the Eastern Front and in the Balkans – suffered over 1.3 million casualties, including around 145,000 killed, 485,000 wounded, 412,000 missing or taken prisoner, and 283,000 sick or injured (the last figure reflecting the looming menace of typhus, one of the war’s worst nonhuman killers).

Tallying these figures, across Europe over 1.1 million young men had already died by the end of December 1914, roughly twice the number killed on both sides in the four years of the American Civil War. Shocked by the magnitude of losses produced by modern warfare, all the belligerent governments were frantically recruiting or drafting more young men to fill the gaps.

Financing the Fighting

While leftwing conspiracy theorists accused Europe’s financial and industrial elites of somehow engineering the war for private gain, in fact it was generally a disaster for business interests (on top of its obvious human costs). On that note the Welsh Liberal politician David Lloyd George, hardly a conservative plutocrat, later dismissed the idea that bankers and businessmen wanted war, recalling:

"I was Chancellor of the Exchequer and, as such, I saw Money before the war; I saw it immediately after the outbreak of war; I lived with it for days, and did my best to steady its nerve, for I knew how much depended on restoring its confidence; and I say that Money was a frightened and trembling thing: Money shivered at the prospect. It is a foolish and ignorant libel to call this a financiers’ war."

For governments accustomed to (mostly) sound fiscal management, the massive expense meant a sudden free fall into staggering debt. By early October the French Finance Ministry announced it had already advanced over two billion francs, or around $420 million in contemporary U.S. dollars, for the war effort, which it estimated was costing $7 million per day. A little over a month later, in mid-November, British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith told Parliament the war was costing Britain around £1 million or $5 million per day, and Lloyd George, asking Parliament to approve a budget with an initial loan of $1.75 billion, estimated the first year of war would cost $2.25 billion. By the end of the year the first British war loan, financed by selling bonds to ordinary Britons, was “oversubscribed” to the tune of $3 billion, reflecting the country’s patriotic fervor.

Meanwhile by mid-November the Russian Finance Ministry estimated that the war had cost Russia around 43 billion rubles, or nearly $900 million, and a first loan for $250 million was floated on November 1; the ministry also proposed a new income tax to offset borrowing. In Germany, on October 22 the regional parliament of Prussia, the largest German state, voted an initial war credit of around $375 million, and on December 1 the German Reichstag voted an additional war credit of $100 million – notably with the support of most of the leftwing Social Democrats, abandoning their traditional pacifism.

Bank of America

This was only the beginning: as the war went on, all the belligerent nations would accumulate mountains of debt by borrowing from their own people as well as foreign banks and governments. Predictably Paris and St. Petersburg immediately tapped London, the world financial capital, for loans, but it wasn’t long before all three Allies were turning to the world’s new economic powerhouse, the United States, for financing. (Germany and Austria-Hungary were effectively cut off from American trade and finance by the Allied blockade.)

As early as August, France was approaching American bankers in New York for loans, although the pacifist Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, concerned to preserve U.S. neutrality, voiced his disapproval when J.P. Morgan asked him Washington’s position on lending to belligerents. On October 18 Russian finance minister Sergei Witte officially notified U.S. ambassador Charles Wilson that he would be traveling to the U.S. to arrange loans; London banks, backed by the British government, also helped secure loans from New York on behalf of the Allies.

At the same time, British and French governments were forced to sell overseas assets (and compelled their own banks and businesses to do the same) to secure currency, especially U.S. dollars, for purchases of foreign goods. Thus Britain’s total stock of foreign direct investment around the world fell from around £4.3 billion in 1914 to £3.1 billion by 1919, and British interests liquidated about $2 billion of American securities to buy U.S. products (mostly weapons). Over the same period the total stock of French FDI around the world fell by a third, from around 45 billion francs in 1914 to 30 billion francs in 1918.

These retreats translated into less leverage for Britain and France financial interests and more leverage for their American counterparts, which in many cases benefited by picking up British and French assets on advantageous terms. As total foreign-controlled FDI in the U.S. fell from around $7.2 billion in 1914 to $4 billion in 1919, American private FDI abroad almost doubled from $3.5 billion to $6.1 billion. In other words, the First World War converted the United States from a net recipient of investment to a net investor in other countries – foreshadowing its role as a leader in globalization.

Meanwhile the New York Stock Exchange, closed in the early days of the war, reopened for limited trading on December 12, 1914, with no evidence of panic selling (European counterparts were also opening their doors again, led by the Paris Bourse on December 7 and the London Stock Exchange on January 4). Although foreign trade was disrupted in the short term, far-sighted American investors were already anticipating huge gains as the Allies turned to America for food, fuel, and armaments – paid for, as often as not, with American loans.

Already in September 1914 the French government had placed a huge contract with Chicago-based meatpackers Armour & Co., calling for the delivery of one million pounds of meat per day for a year, and in October the French Army ordered 600 trucks from a Cleveland firm. That same month the British government ordered two million army blankets from a company in West Virginia, followed by another four million in November. In early December the Allies placed additional food contracts worth $32.5 million in Chicago, and towards the end of the month France and Russia placed orders for 65,000 tons of steel with American manufacturers.

U.S., Britain Clash over Blockade

Even as American firms benefited from Allied contracts, diplomatic tensions were rising between Washington and London over the de facto British blockade of the Central Powers, which saw the Royal Navy stopping and searching American ships and occasionally seizing cargoes deemed contraband. As early as August 6, 1914, the U.S. demanded that both sides abide by the 1909 Declaration of London concerning the Laws of Naval War, which defined contraband and protected neutral shipping – but the treaty had never been ratified by any of its signatories, so the British brushed off the suggestion.

Conflict arose almost immediately when the British diverted a cargo of grain in August 1914, prompting American exporters to stop all wheat shipments and complain to the U.S. government. On September 26, 1914 (the same day Congress established the Federal Trade Commission) the U.S. lodged a formal complaint with the British about their refusal to abide by the Declaration of London and their open-ended policy on contraband; four days later the U.S. Senate demanded to know why British ships were intercepting shipments of American copper destined for the Netherlands.

Leery of offending the world’s most powerful neutral state, in early October the British responded with vague offers of compromise – but they remained determined to interdict anything which could aid the German war effort, and the situation was bound to get worse as the war dragged on.

On October 21 the U.S. protested Britain’s seizure of three oil tankers, again demanding the Allies respect the rights of neutral countries; instead, on October 29 the British declared copper, oil, and rubber contraband and on November 2 announced the doctrine of “continuous voyage,” giving themselves the right to seize neutral ships headed for neutral ports if their cargo was ultimately intended for one of the Central Powers (a doctrine which had helped stoke tensions leading up to the War of 1812, although the Union was later happy to employ it during the Civil War).

Adding insult to injury, on November 7 the French revoked their earlier acceptance of the Declaration of London, and on November 23 the State Department sternly warned all sides (but especially the Allies) that it would protect its rights under international maritime law, hinting at the use of force. Then at the end of December 1914 Washington delivered its strongest protest yet condemning Allied interference with American shipping, forcing the British cabinet to hold an emergency meeting on December 30 to discuss their strained relations.

As the New Year began there was scarcely any prospect of this conflict being resolved, but the British were about to get some help from an unexpected quarter: in February 1915 the Germans decided to retaliate for the British blockade with their own “counter-blockade” using a shocking new method of warfare – U-boat attacks against unarmed merchant shipping. Although tension persisted between Britain and the U.S., unrestricted submarine warfare was even more outrageous to American public opinion, making British actions look relatively inoffensive by comparison.

Shortages and Economic Control

It’s worth noting that Americans weren’t just pursuing profit. When Germany proved unable to feed the Belgian civilian population in the fall of 1914, American philanthropic impulses won the world’s admiration with the establishment of the Committee for Relief in Belgium, led by chairman Herbert Hoover, an American engineer with boundless energy and a genius for organization. Altogether the CRB delivered 5.7 million tons of food during the course of the war, feeding 9.5 million Belgian civilians.

Although Belgium was suffering the worst shortages during this period, in fact all the belligerent nations were struggling to provide for their civilian populations while sustaining colossal military efforts. As the war settled into deadlock on the Western Front, governments on both sides began taking control of key industries and regulating the production and distribution of necessities like food, clothing, and fuel, eventually instituting rationing and price controls. Not coincidentally, some of these measures also gave them more control over the civilian workforce.  

In Britain, on September 17 Parliament gave the Board of Trade the right to seize any item deemed necessary for the war effort if it was being withheld from the market, and on November 27 it passed the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act, giving the military the right to take over factories producing a range of war-related products; these moves foreshadowed even greater government involvement in industry following the “Shell Crisis” in the spring of 1915, when newspapers accused the government and industry of massive inefficiency resulting in needless loss of British lives.

Meanwhile on September 8 the French government created a new Civil Food Supply Service, a precursor to rationing, followed in October by a new Office of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Products to oversee production of key chemicals, including explosives. In Russia, during October the Tsar’s Council of Ministers passed industrial regulations enabling police and factory owners to suppress labor unrest – although this didn’t stop workers from carrying out a brief stoppage on January 22, 1915 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in the Revolution of 1905.

The Central Powers employed similar measures. On September 26 Germany’s new Office of Industrial Mobilization began regulating chemical manufacturing, which would soon include fixing atmospheric nitrogen on an industrial scale using the Haber-Bosch Process. In October the German government introduced “Kriegsbrot,” bread made with artificial ingredients that was soon widely loathed by the German public, and in November formed the War Wheat Corporation to regulate the grain trade, while fixing the prices of staples like potatoes and flour. For its part on October 29 the Austrian Parliament passed the War Precautions Act, empowering the government to direct commercial activity whenever necessary during wartime.

Loss of the Formidable

In 1914 the Germans had already been employing U-boats to devastating effect against British warships, and the New Year brought yet another submarine triumph with the sinking of HMS Formidable by U-24 in the English Channel in the early morning of January 1, 1915. Another humiliating loss for the Royal Navy, the Formidable took 547 officers and men to a watery grave, out of a full complement of 780 crewmembers.

The tragedy is associated with an unusual piece of trivia: the fictional canine hero “Lassie” was supposedly inspired by a dog of the same name who helped save a British sailor, John Cowman, pulled out of the ocean after the sinking of the Formidable. The human rescuers believed Cowman to be dead, but Lassie, the denizen of a local pub in Lyme Regis, licked his face and lay down next to him, apparently helping revive him with her body heat.

Germans Shift Focus to Eastern Front

On January 1, 1915, the German high command made a momentous decision: with the war on the Western Front deadlocked following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, they would shift their focus to the Eastern Front in an attempt to defeat Russia and end the war.

This decision was a victory for Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the heroes of Tannenberg, who led the “Eastern” faction in the German Army, so-called because its adherents believed that the war in the east should take priority. They were supported by Austrian chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, who was understandably alarmed by Russian gains in the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia.  It also represented a defeat for the “Western” faction, which wanted to continue the effort in the Western Front, and which included Kaiser Wilhelm II and chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn.

The Easterners argued that the disorganized Russian armies were ripe for destruction, and that the Russians could be forced to abandon the Western Allies and make a separate peace, or risk internal revolution. After much wrangling, Ludendorff and Conrad forced Falkenhayn to agree to the formation of a new hybrid army composed of German and Austrian troops, the Südarmee or “South Army,” under General Alexander von Linsingen, to spearhead the new campaign in the south (see map above). They also created a new Tenth Army to drive the Russian Tenth Army out of East Prussia, where it was holding on to a substantial slice of German territory. Meanwhile the Russians were also forming a new force, the Twelfth Army, to renew their own attack on East Prussia.

Misery in the Trenches

Of course for ordinary soldiers all these grand strategic matters had little apparent relevance to their day-to-day lives in the trenches, which remained unspeakably miserable as the winter of 1915 unfolded. Inclement weather, frostbite, hunger and body lice were constant companions for troops on both sides – and now, after several months of fighting, death was ubiquitous and routine. On the Western Front a German soldier from Alsace, Dominik Richert, encountered a terrible sight after his unit occupied former British trenches:

"The bottoms of these trenches were full of dead Englishmen. We had to bury the dead who were lying in the positions. We removed some earth at the rear wall of the trench, laid down the dead, and covered them with earth. As there was no other place to sit in the trench, these little hills were used as seats. It started to rain again. The trenches soon filled up with water and mud, and soon we were so filthy that you could see nothing of us but the whites of our eyes, there was so much dirt. Then I was sent to collect ammunition; everywhere I saw the toes of boots, clutching hands, and hair stuck together by mud sticking out of the earth. It was a gruesome sight, which nearly made me despair. It put me off so much that I did not want anything more from life."

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
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10 Things You Might Not Know About Tina Fey
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Tina Fey has transformed modern comedy more than just about anyone else. From the main stage of Second City to the writer’s room of SNL to extremely fetch comedy blockbusters, Elizabeth Stamatina Fey has built a national stage with a dry, eye-popping sarcasm and political satire where no one is safe. She has a slew of Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG, PGA, and WGA awards to prove it—plus a recent Tony nomination (her first). But, more importantly, she’s the closest thing we have to a national comic laureate.

Here are 10 facts about a fantastically blorft American icon.

1. SHE DID A BOOK REPORT ON COMEDY WHEN SHE WAS 11.

Fey got a very early start in comedy, watching a lot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and Norman Lear shows as a kid. Her father and mother sneaked her in to see Young Frankenstein and would let her stay up late to watch The Honeymooners. So it’s no surprise that she chose comedy as the subject of a middle school project. The only book she could get her hands on was Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians, but at least she made a friend. "I remember me and one other girl in my 8th grade class got to do an independent study because we finished the regular material early, and she chose to do hers on communism, and I chose to do mine on comedy," Fey told The A.V. Club. "We kept bumping into each other at the card catalog."

2. THE SCAR ON HER FACE CAME FROM A BIZARRE ATTACK THAT OCCURRED WHEN SHE WAS A CHILD.

Fey’s facial scar had been recognizable but unexplained for years until a profile in Vanity Fair revealed that the mark on her left cheek came from being slashed by a strange man when she was five years old. “She just thought somebody marked her with a pen,” her husband Jeff Richmond said. Fey wrote in Bossypants that it happened in an alleyway behind her Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, home when she was in kindergarten.

3. HER FIRST TV APPEARANCE WAS IN A BANK COMMERCIAL.

Saturday Night Live hired Fey as a writer in 1997. In 1995 she had the slightly more glamorous job of pitching Mutual Savings Bank with a radical floral applique vest and a handful of puns on the word “Hi.” In a bit of life imitating art, just as Liz Lemon’s 1-900-OKFACE commercial was unearthed and mocked on 30 Rock, the internet discovered Fey’s stint awkwardly cheering on high interest rates a few years ago and had a lot to say about her '90s hair.

4. SHE WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO BE NAMED HEAD WRITER OF SNL.

Four years after that commercial and two after she joined Saturday Night Live’s writing staff, Fey earned a promotion to head writer. Up until that point, the head writers were named Michael, Herb, Bob, Jim, Steve. You get the picture. She acted as head writer for six seasons until moving on to write and executive produce 30 Rock. Since her departure, two more women (Paula Pell and Sara Schneider) have been head writers for the iconic show.

5. SHE’S THE YOUNGEST MARK TWAIN PRIZE WINNER.

Established in 1998, the Kennedy Center’s hilarious honor has mostly been awarded to funny people in the twilight of their careers. Richard Pryor was the first recipient, and comedians who made their marks decades prior like Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and George Carlin followed. Fey earned the award in 2010 when she was 40 years old, and the age of her successors (Carol Burnett, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman ...) signals that she may hold the title of youngest recipient for some time.

6. SHE WROTE SATIRE FOR HER HIGH SCHOOL NEWSPAPER.

Fey was an outstanding student who was involved in choir, drama, and tennis, and co-edited the school’s newspaper, The Acorn. She also wrote a satirical column addressing “school policy and teachers” under the pun-tastic pseudonym “The Colonel.” Fey also recalled getting in trouble because she tried to make a pun on the phrase “annals of history.” Cheeky.

7. SHE MADE HER RAP DEBUT WITH CHILDISH GAMBINO ON "REAL ESTATE."

Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) first gained notice as a member of Derrick Comedy in college, and Fey hired him at the age of 23 to write for 30 Rock. Before jumping from that show to Community, Glover put out his first mixtape under his stage name. After releasing his debut album, Camp, in 2011, Gambino dropped a sixth mixtape called Royalty that featured Fey rapping on a song called “Real Estate.” “My president is black, and my Prius is blue!"

8. SHE VOICED PRINCESSES IN A BELOVED PINBALL GAME.

Between the bank commercial and Saturday Night Live, Fey has an intriguing credit on her resume: the arcade pinball machine “Medieval Madness.” Most of the game’s Arthurian dialogue was written by Second City members Scott Adsit (Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock) and Kevin Dorff, who pulled in fellow Second City castmate Fey to voice for an “Opera Singer” princess, Cockney-speaking princesses, and a character with a southern drawl. (You can hear some of the outtakes here.)

9. SHE USED MEAN GIRLS TO PUSH BACK AGAINST STEREOTYPES OF WOMEN IN MATH.

Tina Fey and Lindsay Lohan in 'Mean Girls' (2004)
Paramount Home Entertainment

There’s a ton of interesting trivia about Mean Girls, Fey’s first foray into feature film screenwriting. She bid on the rights to Rosalind Wiseman’s book that inspired the movie without realizing it didn’t have a plot. She initially wrote a large part for herself but kept whittling it down to focus on the teenagers, and her first draft was “for sure R-rated.” Fey also chose to play a math teacher to fight prejudice. “It was an attempt on my part to counteract the stereotype that girls can’t do math. Even though I did not understand a word I was saying.” Fey used a friend’s calculus teacher boyfriend’s lesson plans in the script.

10. SHE SET UP A SCHOLARSHIP IN HER FATHER’S NAME TO HELP VETERANS.

Fey’s father Donald was a Korean War veteran who also studied journalism at Temple University. When he died in 2015, Fey and her brother Peter founded a memorial scholarship in his name that seeks to aid veterans who want to study journalism at Temple.

"He was really inspiring," Fey said. "A lot of kids grow up with dreams of doing those things and their parents are fearful and want them to get a law degree and have things to fall back on, but he and our mom always encouraged us to pursue whatever truly interested us." Fey also supports Autism Speaks, Mercy Corps, Love Our Children USA, and other charities.

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Deadpool Fans Have a Wild Theory About Who Cable Really Is
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Deadpool 2 is officially in theaters and ruling the box office just like its predecessor did back in 2015. But this installment is about more than just crude jokes and over-the-top action scenes; it also includes the debut of a longtime Marvel character that fans have been clamoring to see on the big screen since 2000’s X-Men hit theaters: Cable.

But the Cable in Deadpool 2 isn’t quite the one fans have gotten used to in the books—for starters, his powers and backstory are reined in considerably. While it’s easy to assume that’s by design, so that audiences can better relate to the character (which is played by Josh Brolin), some fans have speculated that the changes are because, well, this character isn’t really Cable at all; instead, Screen Rant has a theory that this version of the character is actually none other than an older Wolverine from the future.

So how can Wolverine be Cable? Well, it’s actually quite easy, considering that Wolverine was Cable in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe comics, which was a series of books in the 2000s that completely reimagined the regular Marvel Universe. In this reality, a grizzled, aged Wolverine takes on the Cable nickname and travels back in time to prevent a takeover of Earth from the villain Apocalypse.

We were already introduced to Apocalypse in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and while he was defeated in the end, Screen Rant theorizes that he could return like he does in the Ultimate X-Men comics: by inhabiting the body of Nathaniel Essex, a.k.a. Mister Sinister. Essex was already name-dropped in Apocalypse and Deadpool 2, so it stands to reason that there might be some larger story on the horizon for him.

This would, of course, lead to more X-Men movies down the road, with Cable revealing his true nature and teaming with a crew of mutants that includes the classic X-Men cast as well as their younger selves to battle a newly formed Apocalypse. It’d also allow the character of Wolverine to live on in Brolin, leaving Hugh Jackman to enjoy a retired life without claws.

Obviously this is just one fan theory based on a comic storyline from over a decade ago. It would also have to ignore a whole host of continuity problems—including the events of Logan. But having a twist with Cable actually being Wolverine from the future (and likely from a different reality) is the type of headache-inducing madness the comics are known for.

[h/t: Screen Rant]

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