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The Labyrinth Key by Howard V. Hendrix
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The Labyrinth Key by Howard V. Hendrix
Jan 31, 2006 | ISBN 9780345491022

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  • Jan 31, 2006 | ISBN 9780345491022

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"Hendrix’s sentences have punch, his plots have points, and he knows his science–what more can one ask of cutting edge science fiction?"
—Gregory Benford, physicist and Nebula Award-winning author of Timescape

"One of the very best novelists writing in science fiction today."
—Kim Stanley Robinson, Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of The Years of Rice and Salt

"Stephen Hawking meets Tom Clancy! Quantum physics and international intrigue combine in the best novel yet by the finest new SF writer of the last decade. Howard V. Hendrix’s THE LABYRINTH KEY is the book everyone will be talking about this year, not just in science-fiction circles, but also in the halls of power in Washington."
—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids

"With the hip fecundity of Neal Stephenson, the speculative acuity of John Brunner, and the suspense-building audacity of John LeCarre, Howard Hendrix fashions a science-fiction thriller that’s truly twenty-first-century in its tone, subject matter and style. Blending metaphysics with quantum physics, THE LABYRINTH KEY explores a possible future fusion of magic and science that is truly revolutionary. Hopping from exotic real-world locales to even more outré virtualities, this tale will keep the reader guessing till its climax.”
—Paul DiFilippo, author of Fuzzy Dice and A Mouthful of Tongues

"If Robert Ludlum or Eric Ambler had written a science fiction novel, then it might have resembled THE LABYRINTH KEY. An intriguing thriller, it’s also first-rate speculation: a masterful blend of genres. If you searching for thought-provoking novel, this shouldn’t be missed."
—Alan Steele, Hugo Award-winning author of Chronospace

—KIM STANLEY ROBINSON, award-winning author of the Mars Trilogy

“One could almost imagine that some of the action sequences of this novel were written by Tom Clancy, while some of the scientific discussions remind one of Gregory Benford, and two sequences involving hiking in the Sierra Nevadas could have been written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The past few years have spawned several other novels of cryptology and secret histories, most notably Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, but Hendrix has been perhaps the most successful incorporating such concepts into a hard-SF context.”–Off the Shelf,

Author Q&A

Howard Hendrix, author of this month’s new title THE LABYRINTH KEY, questions himself and provides the answers that lead to…


Ernest Hemingway once remarked that a story should be like an iceberg: nine-tenths of it should be out of view, below the waterline. That’s definitely the case with the research for THE LABYRINTH KEY, the vast majority of which never appears in the novel itself. My editor, Steve Saffel, suggested in an evolving e-mail exchange some questions I might want to address in order to give readers a better sense of the historical and scientific background of the novel — particularly in regard to the historical persons who appear, and the contemporary science of “alternate” or “parallel” universes, which is much more real than the reader might suspect. I hope this Q & A will provide readers with clues about that “invisible” research.

Q. Why a “labyrinth” — and why a “key”?

A: Labyrinths — along with geometrically related forms such as mazes, spirals, helices, meanders, and Greek keys — crop up in all my novels. Novels are themselves like labyrinths, in that the reader follows the twisting path of the book and at the end of the journey has (one hopes) been changed by the experience.

There’s a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges, first published more than sixty years ago, called “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in which an immense unfinished novel by fictional Chinese writer Ts‘ui Pên, figures prominently. In the Donald Yates translation of the Borges story, there’s a passage that reads as follows:

After more than a hundred years, the details are irretrievable; but
it is not hard to conjecture what happened. Ts‘ui Pên must
have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another
time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth. Everyone
imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and
the maze were one and the same thing.

My only complaint about this fine passage is that Borges uses “labyrinth” and “maze” as if they, too, were one and the same thing. They’re not, and the distinction between them is an important one.

There is only one path through a labyrinth, but there are many paths that lead through a maze. With very few exceptions, a novel is a labyrinth, because the writer has already laid out the path and the reader’s only choice is whether or not to keep reading. For the characters within the book, however, the novel is a maze, because the characters are constantly confronted with a variety of choices, some of which may be “wrong” or lead nowhere.

In our everyday existence, we are like the characters in a novel, constantly confronted by a variety of choices in the mazes of our daily lives. In some ways, these mazes are about immediate smaller choices, while labyrinths are more about memories and anticipations — and the single global choice of whether or not to go on.

The confusion between labyrinths and mazes is as old as the first story of the Labyrinth itself. Even in that ancient Greek tale, however, we find labyrinths associated with the cryptic — with what is both hidden and potentially deadly.

Daedalus, the master scientist and engineer, built the Labyrinth for Minos, King of Crete, in the palace at Knossos. The purpose of the Labyrinth was to hide a shameful secret. Because Minos would not agree to sacrifice a particularly beautiful bull to the god Poseidon, as he had promised, Poseidon afflicted Minos’s wife Pasiphae with a violently passionate love for that animal. Pasiphae commanded Daedalus to build an artificial cow, inside which she hid herself so that she might have sexual relations with that beautiful beast. Her passion satisfied, Pasiphae later gave birth to the monstrous bull-headed man known as the Minotaur, or “bull of Minos.” Unwilling to kill the monster, Minos had Daedalus build the Labyrinth, in which the Minotaur was hidden away.

It was the Greek hero Theseus who, with help from Minos’s daughter Ariadne and from Daedalus himself, slew the Minotaur. Daedalus and Ariadne gave Theseus a thread, which he attached to the entrance of the Labyrinth, and which he could follow back to the entrance after he journeyed to its center and slew the monster. In honor of this legend, the winding path one makes when walking through a labyrinth — the “key” to the labyrinth — is conventionally called “Ariadne’s thread.”

The ancient but still common design motif known as a “Greek key,” when bent into a circle, forms the essential recursive element found in the classical labyrinth. This is the basis of one character’s important assertion in this novel: “The key is in the labyrinth, as the labyrinth is in the key.” Keys, of course, can be many things. Buttons or levers used to operate machines or musical instruments are called keys. The tonalities and tonal systems of music are called keys. In the study of cryptology, the tables, glosses, or ciphers used for decoding or interpreting information are also referred to as keys. All of these figure prominently in this novel.

The relationship between labyrinths and keys is deeply mathematical and geometrical. When a burglar “cracks” or unlocks a safe by figuring the path he must twist on the dial to open the vault, he is tracing a thread of Ariadne. When a cryptanalyst “cracks” or unlocks a code, he too is tracing a thread of Ariadne through the labyrinth of possibilities.

Q: What are memory palaces — and how are they related to labyrinths?

A: The history and meaning of the memory palace idea is best explained through a story to which all the best books on the art of memory refer.

A Thessalian nobleman named Scopas, we are told, gave a banquet. There, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a panegyric in honor of Scopas, but that lyric poem also included a lengthy passage praising the twin gods, Castor and Pollux. Scopas, who was apparently a bit of an egomaniac, was miffed at Simonides for including the Castor and Pollux passage and would only pay Simonides half the sum they had agreed on for the poem, telling the poet that he should go to the twins for the balance of the money.

During the banquet, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside to speak with him. While Simonides was outside, the roof and the banqueting hall were hit by a sudden wind of overwhelming power and came tumbling down. The collapse of the building crushed and killed Scopas and all the rest of his guests. The relatives who came to bury their dead found that the bodies were so pulverized and mangled that they could not be identified, but Simonides, recalling where each guest had been sitting at the table, was able to identify each body for the relatives.

Although this may at first seem to be a story admonishing us not to short-change poets or mess with the gods, it suggested to Simonides the principles for the art of memory, which he then reportedly went on to invent. According to Cicero in DE ORATORE,

[Simonides] inferred that persons desiring to train the
faculty of memory must select places and form mental images
of the things they wish to remember and store those images in
those places, so that the order of the places will preserve
the order of the things, and the images of the things will
denote the things themselves . . . .

That was the theory, at least. Images of things were to be stored in imagined places.

Many Medieval and Renaissance treatises called for those studying memory to imagine a complex edifice — usually a palace or theatre — in which to store their images. A number of archaeologists studying the ruins in Knossos believe the royal palace was just such a "complex edifice," and that that palace and the labyrinth which housed the Minotaur were in fact the same structure. Like Theseus, a student of memory had to find his or her way into and out of a labyrinthine edifice in order to retrieve what they sought, but in the case of the students, their edifices were of the mind.

Later memory masters, like Giordano Bruno, went beyond the idea of imagining a particular building and instead created systems in which the universe itself was the complex edifice in which memories were to be stored and retrieved.

Q: Giordano Bruno seems to be one of several figures — along with Matteo Ricci, Felix Forrest, Shimon Ginsburg, and Ai Hao — who figure into the “prehistory” of the events in THE LABYRINTH KEY. How historically real are these people?

A: Despite the strangeness of their lives, some of those people are very real. I found that, almost as soon as I started reading histories of the art of memory, those texts reacquainted me with an old friend, the shadowy — but quite real — Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). A defrocked Dominican priest, Bruno was an early supporter of the Copernican sun-centered cosmology. In attempting to unify Kabbalah and Hermeticism in his cosmology, though, Bruno went far beyond Copernicus. The ex-Dominican was the first to conceptualize “infinite earths in infinite space,” all inhabited by intelligent beings. For that heresy, and several others, he was burned at the stake in 1600.

Bruno was a quintessential early modern man, particularly in the way his life intersected with the rise of secret societies and governmental secret services, as well as with the cryptographic arts and the scientific method — all of which blossomed at the beginning of the early modern period. Not only did memory palaces meet cryptology and magic meet science in his wonderfully weird life but, to my mind, in Bruno’s work and experiences, Kabbalah also met parallel-universe cosmology. The fact that he was an intellectual rebel who suffered a dramatic martyrdom at the hands of the Inquisition (and got a goodly amount of coverage in James Joyce’s FINNEGAN’S WAKE) didn’t hurt his appeal for me, either.

Like Bruno, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was also an actual historical figure, a member of the not-so-secret Society of Jesus — the Jesuits — for whom he served as a missionary to China from 1583 until his death. Ricci was a strong believer in memory palace techniques and apparently viewed them as a means for winning converts to Roman Catholicism, particularly among the members of the Chinese intelligentsia and imperial bureaucracy.

The Asia specialist and CIA operative who wrote science fiction, whom I have called Felix Forrest, is also very strongly based on an actual person, about whom one may find clues in PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE by Paul M. A. Linebarger. Shimon Ginsburg and Ai Hao are fictional, but rabbis with knowledge of Kabbalah who fled Germany for China — only to be captured by the Japanese and returned to the German concentration camps — did exist, as did the Chinese Jewish community in Hangzhou, with whose members Matteo Ricci was acquainted. Ricci was even better acquainted with the Kaifeng synagogue, particularly one of its members, Ai Tian, who served as model for Ai Hao.

Q: There seems to be a large political component in the stories of all those characters. Are governments today rearranging the furniture in our own memory palaces?

A: They always have. Not only governments, but also corporations. I have a robust distrust of any large social organization which perennially uses secrecy to keep itself in a position of power. The governments and corporations just have more powerful tools these days, is all.

For me, the processes of memory and those of secrecy seem to resemble each other in many ways, and that was the golden braid that tied together all of those characters you mentioned. If there is an art of memory, then secrecy is, arguably, often concerned with an art of forgetting. What better way to hide something than to forget its location, or even its existence? Think of Orwell’s idea of things and events forced into oblivion, “down the memory hole.” Or the idea that those who control the past also control the present, and those who control the present also control the future.

In the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, for instance, I became aware of how the collective memory palace of everyday life in America was being shifted and manipulated. We were, for instance, told by our government that America’s economic woes were all somehow the result of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when in fact the stock market’s bubble had burst a year and a half earlier — and, according to historian Robert Brenner of UCLA, the overall economy of the USA had already been in what he called “the long downturn” since 1973.

Those who call upon the citizenry to “Remember the Alamo!” or “Remember the Maine!” or “Remember Pearl Harbor!” or “Remember 9/11!” also are quite often engaged in enforcing a collective amnesia about the history leading up to those cataclysmic moments. This isn’t very difficult to do because we humans, in retrospect, tend to bestow upon “events that have undergone the formality of actually occurring” an inevitability that, quantum physics tells us, those events did not in fact possess.

Q: You’ve commented on how memory palaces relate to labyrinths, which came before such systems, but how are they related to computers, which came afterward?

A: In some ways, memory palaces and memory theatres formed a sort of ancient virtual-reality system. There are strong parallels between the human mind running a memory palace and a computer running a virtual reality program.

The memory palace, like the modern computer, was primarily a system for the storage, retrieval, and manipulation of information. I sometimes think that the path of the labyrinth walker and the halls of a memory palace both resemble, well, circuits like those found in the guts of the computer on which I’m writing this.

That’s not to say they are the same, by any means. In a way, they are mirror opposites. In computer systems, there is no memory without (electrical) resistance. In human social systems, there is no (political) resistance without memory. I found that, the more I studied memory and secrecy, the more I had to learn about history and politics, and about computers, mathematics, and quantum physics.

In fact, the specific situation that sparked this novel occurred at the 2001 Eaton Hong Kong Conference, which was subtitled “East Meets West in the Emerging Global Village.” There, as both a science fiction writer and critic, I was lucky enough to be a keynote speaker before an international audience. During the conference, literary critic Takayuki Tatsumi presented a wonderfully speculative paper suggesting parallels between the representation of cyberspace in books and films on the one hand, and, on the other, the introduction of the Western memory-palace concept to China by the late-Renaissance Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci. That suggestion was what really got me going on this book.

Q: You mentioned quantum physics earlier. Can you give us a quick overview of what exactly that is?

A: Basically, Newtonian or “classical” physics still dominates most of our understanding of the everyday world, but it began to be displaced nearly a century ago, first by Einstein’s theory of relativity, and soon thereafter by quantum theory. Relativity is most powerfully a physics of great distances and high velocities. Quantum physics, by contrast, is a physics of the microcosmic scale, of the tiny world within the atom — of photons, electrons, quarks, and the like.

Even more important than this difference in scale, however, is the difference in the nature of the reality each theory describes. A key concept of relativity theory is the idea of a continuum, which like the classical physics from which it grew, emphasizes the continuous, like the story a film shows or the path through a classical labyrinth.

A central concept of quantum physics, by contrast, is the idea of the quantum, the unit or bit or quantity or amount of something. Quantum physics is a physics of “lumps” and “jumps” — discontinuous, discrete, like the individual frames of a film, or the stops, choices, and starts of a maze.

In the quantum world, cause and effect don’t hold sway the way they do in the classical world. Events just happen, and they happen in every direction at once. All of those lost possibilities, all those roads and directions not taken, are the source of what are referred to as “superpositions” or “superposed states.”

For example, we’ll consider a single particle—an electron. Even the idea of the electron as a particle is something of misnomer, since an electron, like many other subatomic entities, is neither fully a particle nor fully a wave. We can call it a wave packet, or a probability wave; we can measure its wave nature or its particle nature, but we cannot measure both at one and the same time. One or the other, but not both. This is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and where it leads us is to quantum indeterminism. That displaces the fixed, determined, and measurable physical reality proclaimed by Newton.

In response to the dual nature of wave and particle, quantum theorists developed the Principle of Complementarity which says that you cannot describe what an electron is unless you describe both its particle nature and its wave nature. These two descriptions complement each other and only when taken together do they provide a whole picture of the electron.

In many-worlds theory — an outgrowth of quantum theory — the issue of wave and particle transforms into an issue of having one’s cake and eating it, too. Probability-waved, superposed, or “virtual” states don’t collapse into singular “real” particles, but rather new universes fork off at the choice-point of observation. The road not taken in this universe is instead taken in a parallel or alternate one. From within any given universe in an essentially infinite ensemble of universes, only the universe you’re in looks “real”; all others appear “virtual.”

But that’s true in any universe. Our universe looks like a one-path labyrinth because its “mazedness” is hidden from us — in other universes. So you can have your cake and eat it too, only the you who has it will live in a different universe from the you who eats it.

Q: What are quantum computers, and how plausible are they?

A: Not only are they plausible, but they already exist, at least in primitive form. The Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University has developed one, as have other institutions

Classical computing bits exist as either zero or one, but not both. Quantum bits can exist as both zero and one, simultaneously. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s not. Although our daily lives appear to function at classical scales, it is in fact quantum theory that explains the workings of DNA, or cell phones, or the sun. The uncertainty principle, for instance, contributes to the buildup of genetic mistakes in cell code that results in aging, cancer, and evolution itself.

As early as 1984, David Deutsch realized that computers too ought to obey the laws of quantum physics, as those laws are more fundamental than the laws of classical physics. A classical computer can address only one question at a time — a sequential approach that is much slower than if the computer can address many questions at the same time, as a quantum computer can. For cryptology, think of keys and locks: a classical computer faced with many billions of possible keys for a lock must try each key in the lock, one after the other. A quantum computer, however, can try all the keys in the lock simultaneously.

Q: How is this done?

A: One group of physicists (the superpositionists) view the quantum computer as performing all those billions of keyings simultaneously in a single machine. Another group of physicists (the many-worlders or multiversalists) view the quantum computer as billions of quantum computers, each machine in a separate universe, each trying just one key. For the former group, the answer arises from summing over the billions of superposed states of a single machine in a single universe. For the latter group, the answer arises from summing over billions of universes, each with its own machine. Curiously enough, the latter explanation is now becoming increasingly accepted.

Q: How are governments and corporations using computers for cryptology, cryptography, and cryptanalysis?

A: First we need to define those terms. Cryptology, the study of the hidden, is usually broken down into cryptography (the creation of hidden writing, or codemaking) and cryptanalysis (the analytical revealing of the hidden, or codebreaking). Computers are the paramount tool in all these areas today, because most codes are broken mathematically. That’s why the US National Security Agency is the world’s single largest employer of mathematicians.

Quantum computing is a logical extension in all these areas. It also, however, generates interesting results for the whole secrecy business. Looked at one way, quantum computing is the death of cryptography, for with such systems it should be possible to break any code. Looked at another way, quantum computing is the death of cryptanalysis, since with such systems it should be possible to create codes that cannot be broken. The entire situation is like the old theological conundrum about whether or not God could create a rock so heavy that God could not lift it.

Many theorists believe that, in the long informational arms race between the cryptographers and the cryptanalysts, quantum computing means that the cryptographers have at last won out. That’s why a quantum crypto hardline runs from the Pentagon to the White House — for supposedly invulnerable encrypted communication.

I don’t think such invulnerability can really be achieved, however. Even when messages are successfully transferred over channels that cannot be eavesdropped or otherwise compromised, those messages must eventually become plaintext in machines that are not quantum-secure, or in the minds of human beings who are also notoriously prone to side-band attacks (which can include just about anything, from bribes to sexual favors).

As for the cryptanalysts, especially those working in more complex contexts, it is appropriately humbling to recall Hamlet’s words to his college friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Q: Might these “more things in heaven and earth” include multiple universes?

A: They might.

Q: What are the schools of thought relating to single vs. multiple universes? What studies are being done in relation to multiple universes, and by whom?

A: As mentioned earlier, the primary split is between the superpositionists, who propose a single real universe, and the multiversalists, who hold with multiple, apparently virtual universes. The labyrinthists and the mazists, as I like to think of them.

I would like to think that a Principle of Complementarity applies here too, where mazes precipitate into labyrinths and labyrinths sublime into mazes. One of the most important developments out of this contest between superpositionists and multiversalists concerns the finitude or infinitude of the cosmos, and the plurality or singularity of its components.

Among those who tend to talk about universes in the singular are the supporters of the holographic principle, who believe that, just as all the information describing a 3-D scene can be encoded into patterns of light and dark on a 2-D piece of film, so too can our seemingly 3-D universe be understood as completely equivalent to quantum fields and physical laws “painted” on a distant, vast (but usually spherical and finite) surface.

Among those who tend to talk about universes in the plural, the multiversalists most prominently speak about an infinitude of universes in essentially infinite space.

These positions may appear irreconcilable, but I don’t think they are. The holographic position stems from Albert Einstein’s work on gravity and Claude E. Shannon’s work in information theory, pushed by John A. Wheeler in his suggestion that the physical world should be regarded as made of information, with matter and energy as secondary in importance. This position is particularly popular around Princeton — both the university and the Institute for Advanced Study — and includes among its proponents people like Edward Witten, Steven Gubser, Igor Klebanov, and Alexander Polyakov.

Appropriately, those who are fans of the multiversalist position tend to be more thinly spread over more institutions, and they have proposed at least four different types of multiverses: limit-of-observation, bubble nucleation, quantum, physical law-differentiated. Oddly enough, the work of John A. Wheeler is very important to this group, too.

What I try to get at with my vast memory palace in this novel is a reconciliation of the two, through the reconciling of infinite number with finite extent. The finite space from 0 to 1 on the number line, for instance, can be infinitely divided so as to represent all possible numbers in that space. Likewise, perhaps the system of all possible universes exists in a space — spherical, finite, unbounded, and consistent — in whose surface is holographically encoded an infinite number of possible universes, all mutually inconsistent with each other, all literally bounded by infinity. An infinity of discrete universes bounded by the finite continuum of the plenum.

Q: What are the ramifications of these studies in relation to our lives?

A: The more the idea of parallel universes, multiverses, and what I have called the “plenum” become scientifically accepted, the more likely it is that the idea of “historic inevitability” will be discredited. And, if and when full scientific acceptance of the alternativity of universes does come, that acceptance will in many ways be due to quantum computing and quantum cryptology.

Even here on the classical (as opposed to quantum) scale, when we are told to “Remember!” the singular event — rather than think about its possible causes — we are led to obliterate the possibility of considering what might otherwise have been. We are not allowed to think about how American economic and foreign policy might have influenced the events of 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor, or 11 September 2001 in New York City and Washington, DC. We are told that, given the enormity of such events, there’s no reason to make use of reason—and that the only response to an unalterable inevitability is unthinking reaction.

However, a quantum understanding of reality significantly undermines this idea of blind, historical inevitability. We are free to think again, no matter what the enormity of the event, because we are able to realize that even the most tragic event was not an act of God or Nature, but something done by human beings, for human reasons, and therefore may properly be analyzed by human reason.

In discussing "apocalyptic" events, it is all too appropriate to speak of religion here — and science, too. The Greek root word of apocalypse (apokaluptein) means to “reveal”, to “lift the veil” of this world and see through to truth — a fundamentally cryptanalytic operation. Science, too, has long been obsessed with revealing secrets, or as the sixteenth century French diplomat and cryptologist Vigenère (who is quoted in The Labyrinth Key) actually said:

All the things in the world constitute a cipher. All nature
is merely a cipher and a secret writing. The great name and
essence of God and his wonders, the very deeds, projects,
words, actions, and demeanor of mankind — what are they for
the most part but a cipher?

So perhaps it’s not so very strange that my research eventually led me from the mathematical and cryptological into the numerological and mystical.

The final limiting cases — and ultimate side-band attacks — on all of this are to be found in the “wetwar” dimension, the realm of hearts and minds where ethics and morals are the deciding factors. What we do with our classical “hardwar” or quantum “softwar” machinery is up to the subtler “wetwar” machineries found in our cultures and in our heads. Machineries that may, one day, overcome the desire for war itself.

In the end, it’s up to us whether the “apocalypse” we choose is the cryptanalytic “lifting” of the veil in our search for truth — or the cryptographic “rending” of that veil in destruction, extinction, and oblivion. As we move more deeply into the Age of Code — that epoch begun with the decoding of organic life and DNA begun by Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin, and the encoding of an artificial life of bits and bytes begun by Turing, von Neuman, and Gödel — our choice becomes more important than we can remember, more important than we can know, more important than we can even imagine.

I suggest we choose carefully — and, let us hope, wisely.

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