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SETI Pioneer Jill Tarter Retires 82

Posted by samzenpus
from the time-to-go-home dept.
ananyo writes "After 35 years, astronomer Jill Tarter is retiring from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) — a field she helped pioneer and popularize, most recently at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Tarter, who inspired the late Carl Sagan to create the fictional character Ellie Arroway, heroine of the book and movie Contact, says she will instead focus her efforts on what she calls 'the search for intelligent funding.'"
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SETI Pioneer Jill Tarter Retires

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  • by QQBoss (2527196) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @04:02AM (#40097633)

    That would be a first.

    • by crazyjj (2598719) *

      The intelligent funding doesn't waste its money on pointless projects for hopeless dreamers.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...aliens everywhere can sleep easy.

  • Results? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mwvdlee (775178) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @04:28AM (#40097737) Homepage

    Not limited to actually finding aliens but looking at everything coming out of SETI: What good has come out of SETI so far?

    • Re:Results? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Thanshin (1188877) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @04:52AM (#40097813)

      Not limited to actually finding aliens but looking at everything coming out of SETI: What good has come out of SETI so far?

      I don't think that's a valid argument.

      Imagine a game that gives you a million times your bet once every thousand tries. It would be reasonable to play that game. Not winning any of the first hundred times wouldn't change the reasonability of playing that game.

      Maybe you dont't value as high as I do the results of finding there's extraterrestrial intelligence. I do think it would change humanity in a fundamental way and it's such a big price that the current cost of trying is negligible.

      Such a big price that if I were to define humanity's priorities, finding whether we're alone would probably fall in my top twenty.

      • Re:Results? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by qbast (1265706) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @05:24AM (#40097951)
        Well, the thing is that this is not a game that gives a million every thousand tries. Instead it will give a complete surprise - maybe a million bucks, maybe a bullet to the head. Why do you assume that result of finding aliens will be positive development? There are at least three possible scenarios with unknown probability of happening: 1) Welcome, lesser developed culture! Let us give you all our cool alien tech, cure cancer and end world hunger. 2) So you are humans? Nice, we don't really care. Go away and stop bothering us. Or maybe "Solaris" kind of contact. 3) Oh hello you poor defenseless bastards. We were just in a need of new food source/hunting ground/slave labour.
        • Re:Results? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Thanshin (1188877) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @05:48AM (#40098051)

          Well, the thing is that this is not a game that gives a million every thousand tries. Instead it will give a complete surprise - maybe a million bucks, maybe a bullet to the head.

          Why do you assume that result of finding aliens will be positive development? There are at least three possible scenarios with unknown probability of happening:
          1) Welcome, lesser developed culture! Let us give you all our cool alien tech, cure cancer and end world hunger.
          2) So you are humans? Nice, we don't really care. Go away and stop bothering us. Or maybe "Solaris" kind of contact.
          3) Oh hello you poor defenseless bastards. We were just in a need of new food source/hunting ground/slave labour.

          Why do you assume finding aliens is equal to revealing ourselves to them? Maybe we find them, study them and then decide to push a large meteorite in their general direction. Ignorance is not the solution to dangerous neighbours.

          "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." - Sun Tzu

          • by Anonymous Coward

            "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." - Sun Tzu

            Sadly, since we know not much about ourselves, and currently know nothing of the enemy, we are likely doomed if ET comes to our neigborhood. As a society, we are often diluded in what we think our defensive capabilites are (we are generally at the mercy of the weather and the protista). Also, if hollywood movies are any indication, our scientific community will likely abandon our species and side with the enemy (because our species abused the planet with its anthopogenic stamp and the grass is always gree

        • Re:Results? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by tgd (2822) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @07:34AM (#40098379)

          Unless we find intelligent life living on Saturn, they're going to be a very long ways away. Far enough to be extremely useful in the "stop being solar-centric, stop thinking some magical God invented man, everyone grow the fuck up" kind of way. But so far there's no plausible possibility of external risk at all. I'd be more worried about the religious zealots (of all denominations) and how they're going to react to having their minds forcefully opened to a bigger world.

          The three scenarios you listed have essentially zero possibility of happening. Science rules the universe, not science fiction.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by qbast (1265706)

            Unless we find intelligent life living on Saturn, they're going to be a very long ways away.

            Long way for us, yes. Which means we won't be able to do anything to them. Will opposite be true? Who knows.

            Far enough to be extremely useful in the "stop being solar-centric, stop thinking some magical God invented man, everyone grow the fuck up" kind of way.

            Right, I am sure everybody will immediately let go of their irrational thinking. Religions will adapt, as they always did to changes in man's understanding of the world.

            But so far there's no plausible possibility of external risk at all. I'd be more worried about the religious zealots (of all denominations) and how they're going to react to having their minds forcefully opened to a bigger world.

            The three scenarios you listed have essentially zero possibility of happening. Science rules the universe, not science fiction.

            And you seem to be sure that we know enough of physics to be decide what is 'safe' distance. At end of 19th century Lord Kelving proclaimed that physics is finished, we pretty much know how the world works and only some loose ends are

          • "Science rules the universe, not science fiction."

            Anyone who thinks that the current view we have of physics is more or less complete with just a couple of things left to fill in here or there is deluded. I would wager a large amount of money that in 1000 years technology based on physics we know nothing about yet will as Arthur C Clarke said - be indistinguishable from magic. And that may well include some method of faster than light travel. And if that physics is possible then its also possible that an in

            • That is so true. It is amazing to consider that ~100 years ago there were no cars, phones, planes, spaceships, electricity, antibiotics, etc. More has been discovered in the last 100 years than ever before. I think it is likely that 100 years from now people will be amazed about all the things we don't know about but are commonplace and affordable.
          • ... we find intelligent life ...extremely useful in the "stop thinking ... God invented man..." ... kind of way. I'd be more worried about the religious zealots (of all denominations) and how they're going to react to having their minds forcefully opened

            What, in the name of God, are you babbling about? You seem to be very hostile against Classical Man's idea of a deity, i.e. the conceptions pietious men had over 2 millenia ago. Personally, I hope we discover intelligent life more locally, so that morons could have their eyes open to the fact that the almighty ubiquitous magical Straw Man actually weakens an argument.

            • by Agent0013 (828350)

              ... we find intelligent life ...extremely useful in the "stop thinking ... God invented man..." ... kind of way. I'd be more worried about the religious zealots (of all denominations) and how they're going to react to having their minds forcefully opened

              What, in the name of God, are you babbling about? You seem to be very hostile against Classical Man's idea of a deity,

              And what if the gods of our ancestors were actually alien visitors to our planet? I have been watching the "Ancient Astronauts" [wikipedia.org] series lately on Netflix Streaming and some of the findings make you wonder. In fact, humans might have been a genetic manipulation so we could be useful slaves and mine gold and other valuable resources. If that was true, then god did invent man.

              • by dudpixel (1429789)

                ... we find intelligent life ...extremely useful in the "stop thinking ... God invented man..." ... kind of way. I'd be more worried about the religious zealots (of all denominations) and how they're going to react to having their minds forcefully opened

                What, in the name of God, are you babbling about? You seem to be very hostile against Classical Man's idea of a deity,

                And what if the gods of our ancestors were actually alien visitors to our planet? I have been watching the "Ancient Astronauts" [wikipedia.org] series lately on Netflix Streaming and some of the findings make you wonder. In fact, humans might have been a genetic manipulation so we could be useful slaves and mine gold and other valuable resources. If that was true, then god did invent man.

                but what about animals? are you suggesting the alien visitors created them too?

                I'm not disagreeing with you (I dont think any of us know all the answers) - I'm just showing that this, if true, just raises more questions. It is far from a complete theory.

                And yes, I've entertained the possibility of this idea before, but I'm not sold on it.

          • Wait 20 years, you'll have your answer...

            In the meantime the rest of use are fascinated with real footage.

            The URZI UFO Case - The Full Story - Authentic & Complete
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_09AQClOIQ [youtube.com]

            At 54:12 - 54:28 there are some great hi-res shots! The craft(s) definitely look Pleiadian.

            The answer to "Are we alone?" will spawn a million questions ...

          • by dudpixel (1429789)

            Unless we find intelligent life living on Saturn, they're going to be a very long ways away. Far enough to be extremely useful in the "stop being solar-centric, stop thinking some magical God invented man, everyone grow the fuck up" kind of way. But so far there's no plausible possibility of external risk at all. I'd be more worried about the religious zealots (of all denominations) and how they're going to react to having their minds forcefully opened to a bigger world.

            The three scenarios you listed have essentially zero possibility of happening. Science rules the universe, not science fiction.

            Just putting it out there, but if one accepts that God created the "bigger world" and that the earth is just one part (and not necessarily among the first) of God's creative works, I dont see how your argument disproves this.

            I'm not asking you to believe in a God at all, this is not the debate here. I'm just saying that your reasoning does not disprove anything.

            The Bible accepts that there are lots of stars ("innumerable" if you will - "as the sand of the seashore" in number, to use the figure of speech). I

        • by tacet (1142479)

          If you refer to the third option as "solaris" kind of contact, then You might want to reread the book.

          There wasn't even clear agreement if ocean realised, what it was, that it was interacting with.

          • by qbast (1265706)
            Actually "Solaris" was attached to point 2). Formatting got screwed up though.
            • by tacet (1142479)

              So I misunderstood. I should have realised, that point 2) pretty much has the same meaning as i wrote. Sorry about that.

      • by mwissel (869864)

        Not limited to actually finding aliens but looking at everything coming out of SETI: What good has come out of SETI so far?

        Imagine a game that gives you a million times your bet once every thousand tries. It would be reasonable to play that game. Not winning any of the first hundred times wouldn't change the reasonability of playing that game.

        You mean like .. a lottery? Yeah, perfectly reasonable ;-)

        • by Thanshin (1188877)

          Imagine a game that gives you a million times your bet once every thousand tries. It would be reasonable to play that game. Not winning any of the first hundred times wouldn't change the reasonability of playing that game.

          You mean like .. a lottery? Yeah, perfectly reasonable ;-)

          I've decided to take that as a joke. :) (the alternative made me sad and also required a much longer a pedantic answer)

          • by mwissel (869864)

            I've decided to take that as a joke. :) (the alternative made me sad and also required a much longer a pedantic answer)

            Yeah you may rest assured that it was intended to be a joke.

            (Admittedly grumpy - but that's how we kid where I do live)

        • My fantasy is perhaps more modest. I would purchase a Powerball ticket, win a couple-hundred million dollar jackpot, and then make a telephone call to Gilbert Levin, sewage plant engineer, to see if that amount of swag could put a life-sciences package on the surface of Mars.

          You see, the LR (labeled release) technique was developed by Levin to do assays on treatment plant effluent without having to streak plates, which doesn't work if the levels are too low. Levin's LR on the Mars Viking Lander gave a p

      • by flirno (945854)

        I think you mean prize, not price.

      • It's interesting how on one end of the scale you have the sort of people who want to build a clock that will last 10,000 years [longnow.org] and on the other end you have people who say "SETI hasn't found any evidence of ET's in 35 years - why fund it?".

        At least we've found that there is no evidence so far. If we hadn't looked, we wouldn't even know that much. If I'm not mistaken, SETI@Home was a pioneer in in distributed public computing. That's a pretty cool output of the program. I'm not trying to suggest any conc

    • Re:Results? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rogerborg (306625) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @05:51AM (#40098055) Homepage
      SETI helps our reach to exceed our grasp. What else are the heavens for?
      • by crazyjj (2598719) *

        SETI helps our reach to exceed our grasp. What else are the heavens for?

        No it doesn't. It's an exercise in futility. When I was a kid, I believed in Star Trek. I also believed in Santa Claus. When I grew up, I realized why both are laughably implausible.

        But some people never grow up. They never gain an appreciation of the scale of the universe, the limitations that Einsteinian physics places on communication and exploration of it, the incredible odds of finding coincidental intelligent life in close proximity to us on the kind of time scale and size scale of a 14 billion year o

        • Re:Results? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Dusty101 (765661) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @11:10AM (#40099921)

          With all due respect, I would probably be able to plausibly argue as an astrophysicist (but not a SETI-affiliated one) that I do have "an appreciation of the scale of the universe, the limitations that Einsteinian physics places on communication and exploration of it, the incredible odds of finding coincidental intelligent life in close proximity to us on the kind of time scale and size scale of a 14 billion year old, 14 billion light year diameter universe". After 35 years in the field, Jill Tarter probably does, too.

          Your position is not an unreasonable one to adopt, even if I think that characterizing SETI as "just a time sink for big children" is unfair, sounds fairly juvenile itself and makes your argument sound weaker than it actually is.

          I personally feel, however, that while the SETI effort is like looking for a nearby needle in universe full of haystacks (and the SETI folk have never claimed otherwise), the cultural, philosophical and other implications of scoring an admittedly spectacularly unlikely "hit" are worth the relatively modest investment. A big chunk of SETI's money already comes from private donations these days, anyway, and a lot more public money has been wasted on totally pointless things totally lacking the world-changing implications of something like SETI.

          And in the meantime, they've (at the very least) been able to do some interesting things in terms of radio telescope technology and other research, and inspired a bunch of kids and adults to think enthusiastically about science.

          • by Asmodae (1155077)

            inspired a bunch of kids and adults to think enthusiastically about science.

            Even if we disregard everything else (which we shouldn't), this right here is more than worth the price of entry.

          • Another take away from the SETI project is that we haven't found evidence of radio signals from ETs. Had SETI not spent years searching, we would not know one way or the other whether there were alien broadcasts reaching the Earth.
        • You seem to be conflating two issues, the difficulty of physically travelling to a star and the much less difficult task of communicating with another star system.

          So what if we are never likely to get out of our solar system, it has no bearing on whether we could detect an extraterrestrial signal.

          At the very least SETI is showing us that there are no nearby signals of the kind they are looking for. That is a thing worth knowing and the costs of establishing it were relatively modest.

          The difficultie
          • by bledri (1283728)

            I personally am pretty pessimistic about there being intelligent life out there, partly because of SETI, partly because of how long it took intelligent life to occur on the only place we know it has occurred. After all our planet only has a lifespan of about 8 billion years or so and it took 4.5 billion for it to happen. If it was somehow inevitable you'd have thought it would have happened a lot sooner.

            I think that the only conclusion we can come to based on a sample of one is that given the right conditions, it is possible for intelligent life to evolve on a planet in this universe. Maybe it took longer than average, maybe not. It does not seem likely it's inevitable, but we really have no clue what the odds are nor how long it usually takes...

            • I agree that it's not sensible to try to read too much into our sample of one. That said if intelligent life had occurred 5% of the way through the lifespan of the planet rather than 50% of the way in I'd be a lot more optimistic about it happening elsewhere.
        • by bledri (1283728)

          ... But some people never grow up. They never gain an appreciation of the scale of the universe, the limitations that Einsteinian physics places on communication and exploration of it, the incredible odds of finding coincidental intelligent life in close proximity to us on the kind of time scale and size scale of a 14 billion year old, 14 billion light year diameter universe. ...

          You really think that SETI scientists, astronomers and astro physicists, don't understand the scale of the universe?

          They don't realize the odds of finding that life at the EXACT RIGHT MOMENT when it happens to be using radio waves for communications. They have no appreciation of just how vast and empty the universe is, ...

          Again, you don't think astronomers appreciate how vast and empty the universe is?

          ... how a probe that takes 9 years to get to Pluto would take over 100,000 years to get to even the next nearest solar system to us--a mere 4.2 light years away.

          What does SETI, listening for signals, have to do with space travel?

          They think you can just hop in the old Enterprise, say "Warp 9, Mr. Sulu" and find life everywhere out there. They're big children.

          Who the hell are you talking about that thinks this?

          And being a big child is fine, being a hopelessly unrealistic dreamer is fine. And if people want to be big kids on this issue and waste their time and money on it, more power to them. Just don't waste my tax dollars on them. And don't try to sell me on it as some sort of noble dream, when it's essentially just a time sink for big children.

          Well, you're in luck. If you RTFA, you'd know that no federal funds have been used since 1993, so your $0.03/year is yours to keep and invest as you see fit (yes, that's a totally made up numb

        • Wow....thank you for two things:

          1) bringing forth such a blatant example of why this country (and the majority of the "developed" world) can be described as "under-developed"

          ...and...

          2) reminding me to never, ever give up my imagination...nor day dreaming....because I'd hate to live in this world with an attitude like yours.
    • What good has come out of SETI so far?

      Millions of us in the gutter, looked up at the stars.

    • Re:Results? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by codewarren (927270) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @08:04AM (#40098495)

      We now know how not to find aliens. Sounds like a joke, but in all seriousness, we didn't know that before we tried and it's a very useful thing to know. This doesn't answer the question of whether aliens exist (a question that can never be definitively answered "no"), but it does answer the question of whether they're so ubiquitous that you can't help but detect them by trying.

    • I'm guessing you were out sick from class the day the "compare/contrast basic & applied science" syllabus topic was discussed.

  • 1. Might the resources at her command be in any way useful as a backup system for commercial space endeavors?
    2. Is SETI funded to any degree by foreign institutions?
    3. What possibilities might there be to get money from Hollywood? Aliens in movies are certainly popular.

  • by MacTO (1161105) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @05:08AM (#40097881)

    I am fairly certain that a lot of good work has been done by the SETI Institute in terms of science (e.g. consistent monitoring of parts of the RF spectrum and identifying new sources) and engineering (e.g. signal processing and distributed computing). Of course, I would also love to find an extraterrestrial funding.

    But the Intelligent Funding has never been with SETI. When SETI started, we did not even know if extrasolar planets existed. Smart money would say that they did, since the abundance of stars in our galaxy alone puts the odds in favour of there being an awful lot of planets out there, but we only had a rough idea of how planetary systems formed based upon a sample of one. That left major gaps in our knowledge, such as the probability of finding a planet around any given star and what the composition of those planets would be. Even our present knowledge of extrasolar planets is skewed because of observational limitations.

    There remain many limitations to the idea of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Searching for weak signals is challenging even if you knew what to look for and where to look. Because of that, I believe that the Intelligent Funding should be directed towards astronomical research that would lay down a foundation for a real SETI in the future. This would be things like finding and characterizing extrasolar planets, creating better models of star formation (particularly with respect to the protoplanetary disc), and getting a better handle on the chemistry of the objects that we are observing.

    • This is a very conservative approach, i.e. only searching for what you expect to be there, but many of the most important scientific breakthroughs have been the result of bold breaks with dogma. SETI has, as it would seem, a low probability of success but with small costs and a high payoff. The Fermi paradox not withstanding, the search should continue and be adequately funded.
  • Intelligent spending (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I respect what Jill Tarter has helped accomplish in terms of constructing a (half-finished) radio telescope optimized for SETI, but overall I must say that the quest she had been entrusted with is in shambles - and her successor likely won't do much better. We're at a point in time in which both human and computer resources are more abundantly available on the internet than ever before. SETI Institute, on Jill Tarter's watch, has chosen to forego the opportunity to utilize these resources to vastly expand t

  • It was well worth looking for alien signals but when none have been found after so long it's time for a rethink. Either there are no signals or we're looking for completely the wrong things in the wrong way. Time to try something else.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      A "long time"? What is a "long time"? Shouldn't the metric be how much of the available sky you have searched, not how "long" you have been searching? A small percentage has been searched. Space is really big.

  • Would suggest money is better spent curing cancer then finding intelligent life in the proverbial haystack that is the the galaxy.

    While I would be fascinated by the idea we are not alone in the universe, ultimately I really don't care. While other "pure" scientific investigation might yield off-shoot technologies, having radio scanners record and computers process Fourier transforms trying to find some pattern to space noise pretty much has yielded about all the scientific discovery that is going to come o

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      Would suggest money is better spent curing cancer then finding intelligent life in the proverbial haystack that is the the galaxy.

      While I would be fascinated by the idea we are not alone in the universe, ultimately I really don't care. While other "pure" scientific investigation might yield off-shoot technologies, having radio scanners record and computers process Fourier transforms trying to find some pattern to space noise pretty much has yielded about all the scientific discovery that is going to come ou

    • by bledri (1283728)

      Would suggest money is better spent curing cancer then finding intelligent life in the proverbial haystack that is the the galaxy.

      Must we spend all our money on one thing?

      While I would be fascinated by the idea we are not alone in the universe, ultimately I really don't care.

      So if you cared would it be OK for private citizens to spend money on SETI?

      While other "pure" scientific investigation might yield off-shoot technologies, having radio scanners record and computers process Fourier transforms trying to find some pattern to space noise pretty much has yielded about all the scientific discovery that is going to come out of the project. Nothing is going to be cured, improved, or evolve out of a continued dumping of money into Seti.

      So people interested in SETI are wrong to invest in it, because you know it won't yield any meaningful results?

      While I would love to live in a society that has the luxury of spending money on esoteric concepts like asking if we are alone in the universe, with the current crumbling of financial markets, looming crisis in Global Warming and loss of fossil fuel, and an increase in disease and cancer with an ageing and forever expanding world population suggests that wasting money scanning the heavens for alien life makes you an asshat.

      Ah, now I'm an asshat because I donate [teamseti.org] some money to SETI. I'd hate to be an asshat, I'll ask for my money back and spend it on something you find worthwhile. Do you yell at people driving nicer cars, wearing more expensive clothes, drinking better alcohol and eating better food "t

  • Deniers (Score:5, Insightful)

    I am really looking forward to the day when SETI announces evidence of an intelligent signal from deep space. Not only will it be exciting to learn about out interstellar neighbors, it will be great fun watching young earth creationists develop wild and elaborate denials of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Let's have very thorough background screenings of stargate workers this time, please.

    • by crazyjj (2598719) *

      I am really looking forward to the day when SETI announces evidence of an intelligent signal from deep space.

      You'll never see it.

  • I am all for SETI, let me point that out now. I also believe that SETI has made scientific contributions. We have always been looking for a needle in a haystack, but the haystack is getting larger.
    We are searching for radio signals. Using our history as a guide, with the spectrum getting dividd into smaller, lower power pieces, it appears there may only be a 100-200 year window of detectable signal from an intelligent civilization. That span is tiny compared to the possible time frame such a civilizat
  • Maybe I'm stretching it a bit. But outside of military applications, it was pretty scare before the 1940s. Then scientists have become addicted to it like crack. Its nice to see tech moguls occasionally fund things like space & rocket science, medical aid etc.
  • It breaks my heart (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Grayhand (2610049) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @10:07AM (#40099289)
    In many ways she is SETI and she is definitely the soul of SETI. She isn't throwing in the towel but it still feels that way. It was sad Sagan didn't live to see first contact but to potentially stop looking during Miss Tarter's life makes me feel like it is truly hopeless. The science is there but the will as a society isn't. SETI could be funded for a 100 years for 1/10th of one percent of what we just spent banging our dicks on the table in Iraq and Afghanistan but it'll never happen. Having her retire so she can devote a 100% of her time to look for funding is a crime against science and a serious waste of creative talent. The movie Contact made an excellent point. Hollywood lately is spending more each year making aliens attack Earth films than SETI has spent in it's entire history. EACH YEAR! Most people think there has been a serious effort and they found nothing. What has been done to date is the equivalent of looking under one rock in a dry valley in Antarctica and declaring there is no life on Earth.
  • Seems like she is a good candidate for the "answer your questions" section of /.

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