We met with highly influential political scientist, Dr. Kristian Gleditsch to talk about the power of listening, how governments tackle big issues, and so much more. Enjoy!
"Is just to try to listen more to people. I think part of the reason for populism is that people feel ignored and the feel that they're not taken seriously."” – Dr. Kristian Gleditsch
Influential political scientist Dr. Kristian Gleditsch discusses how governments tackle big issues such as Brexit, globalization, and COVID-19. He also shares about the life-changing nature of libraries, the power of listening, and how noble concepts such as democracy spread through diffusion. Dr. Gleditsch talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko, at AcademicInfluence.com, and we have a wonderful guest coming to us today from Europe who has made a big influence in political science. Our guest today is Professor Kristian Gleditsch, and I’m going to turn it over to him to tell a little bit about how he got started in his career.
Kristian Gleditsch: I don’t think I had any master plan for how to get started in my career. In fact, I was always interested in politics, but I tried very hard to study things other than political science. I think I was drawn towards political science because most of the other subjects that I studied had something missing in them. So I tried to become an anthropologist because I was attracted to the idea of doing comparative studies with culture, but then I discovered that most anthropology, it was very non-comparative, they tend to focus on studying individual cultures.
And I think I was drawn into political science by the breadth of the topics covered. I was also studying in the early ’90s, which was a very interesting time, with a lot of change both in national politics and within countries.
Jed: What country did you grow up in, by the way, Professor Gleditsch?
Kristian: I grew up in Norway.
Kristian: Yes, I am familiar with him, and I was actually an undergraduate student at the university of Oslo, and I attended some of his lectures.
Jed: Oh, wonderful. We interviewed him the other day. He was very animated. So don’t say anything bad about... [chuckle] Just kidding. I was just kidding. But he does...
Kristian: I think, yeah, what I said was not really meant to be a bad thing about him.
Jed: No, I was kidding. I’m totally kidding.
Kristian: I think then my research interest of all, along with the things you learn, the things that I wanted to study when I was an undergraduate were not exactly the things that I came to study later, but I think I was very fortunate then getting the Fulbright Scholarship to do a PhD in the US. And there I think I was lucky in being integrated in a large and interdisciplinary research group. So I shared an office with not just political scientists, but also geographers and people from other disciplines.
Jed: What university was that at?
Kristian: That was the University of Colorado.
Jed: Wonderful. In Boulder?
Kristian: Correct? Yes.
Jed: Great, did you enjoy the change of pace? Were you’re coming straight from Norway to Colorado?
Kristian: Yes, I was coming straight from Norway. I had a bit of a break because I had to do my national service.
Jed: Oh, okay.
Kristian: And I think the other thing which was a major change for me was having access to a 24-hour library. This was a complete revelation. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oslo, we had to fill in a form, ask for a book, and someone would come and bring it up from the repository. And then after two days, you could then pick up the book, but the library desk closed at 3:30.
Jed: [chuckle] Oh my gosh.
Kristian: Whereas in Boulder, I had access to stacks and stacks of books and journals, of course.
Jed: So for you, just to put it in terms people watching this interview will understand, it was like going from before Netflix to after Netflix. You could just binge watch your favorite shows, but in your case it was... You were binging on your favorite books, you could just go from one book to the next book to the next book. It must have just been amazing for you.
Kristian: Exactly, and I think the way things were before is often difficult for students to understand now, because we have access to so many electronic resources. I think one good thing about going to the library is that a lot of times when you’re looking for one book, you might try a really interesting book that you were not aware of next to it. And so I think a lot of the things that I learned were often from this kind of slightly random searches, where you come across something while you’re looking for a specific source.
Jed: Okay, that’s good. So it’s actually good, general information for anybody who’s wanting to be more academic, scholarly, that books can be a wonderful resource, going from one to the next, and now with electronic resources, it’s even easier.
So after Boulder, Colorado, where did you go?
Kristian: So I did my degree in Boulder, but I had extended stays in two other places. I spent a year at the University of Maryland and then I had a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Harvard-MIT Data Center.
Kristian: And then after that, because I had a Fulbright Scholarship, I was subject to the so-called home residency requirement. And at that point, I had a job offer from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. And that’s where I then took my first permanent post, and I spent two years there.
Jed: Okay. But as soon as you said the word Glasgow, you sort of slipped into a Scottish accent. [chuckle] I don’t know if that’s on purpose or your brain just went into that mode.
Kristian: I find it difficult to say Glasgow with an American “a”.
Kristian: I have alternated between working in the US and Britain, but at this point I’ve spent much more of my career in Britain than in the US.
Jed: That’s right. And are you at the University of Glasgow now or are you somewhere else?
Kristian: No, no. I am now at the University of Essex.
Jed: That’s what I saw, yeah. Okay. So tell us how you... How did you get from... Sorry to interrupt you, but how did you get from Glasgow to Essex? And what kinds of things have you learned about in political science at the different institutions?
Kristian: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, at Glasgow, I didn’t have any kind of a department affiliation, I was hired primarily to teach research methods to the doctoral students. So on the one hand, I think I was fortunate in that I had a limited teaching load, but what I was missing was a connection to a larger political science research community. So for that reason, I later had a job offer from the University of California, San Diego. And that was very attractive because it was a large department with an excellent PhD program, and I think I learned a lot there from interacting, not just with colleagues, but also working with very talented and very bright PhD students.
So I really liked working at UCSD. I found it harder to get used to living in Southern California, spending an hour and a half every day in the car. And because my wife is European, at that point, we became interested in exploring opportunities in Europe.
And I then went to the University of Essex in part because they expressed an interest. But Essex I should say also has a long history in doing innovative political science in Europe. It’s not Oxford and Cambridge, perhaps precisely because of that, they’ve often had people that have approached political science in unusual ways and they have a long history of doing very innovative work. So in fact, on your list of political scientists, you will find that there are many people that have University of Essex connections.
Jed: Wow, that’s wonderful. And just out of curiosity, what European country is your wife from, and are you close to your country, home country, of Norway and her home country or...
Kristian: Yeah, so my wife is Greek.
Kristian: And it’s much easier to travel from Britain to Greece, and Norway. In fact, I have a part-time position with something called the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Jed: Oh, wonderful.
Kristian: One of the good things about being here is that I have an opportunity to spend more time there and collaborate more with colleagues there.
Jed: Oh, wonderful and hopefully you get to spend some time in Greece as well and enjoy the nice climate down there, when Essex gets a little bit too rainy and cold for you.
Kristian: Yeah, although it doesn’t feel like that today since we have a heatwave. But, yes.
Jed: Yes. Well, what advice can you give to young students who are interested in maybe one of the humanities? You’ve been in the different humanities when you were younger and you’ve taught, it sounds like, research methods to all kinds of different grad students in the humanities. You mentioned earlier about electronic resources and libraries that stay open 24 hours and the privilege of that, but what can you talk about in terms of someone who really likes humanities and wants to do some research in that? What advice do you have?
"…in order to do research, the main aim is to make a novel contribution, and I think many people often underestimate the power of their own ideas."” – Dr. Kristian Gleditsch
Kristian: Yeah, well I think the research process can often be daunting for students, because it’s one thing to acquire knowledge, it’s often interesting to read about what other people have done. But in order to do research, the main aim is to make a novel contribution, and I think many people often underestimate the power of their own ideas. They are often reluctant to pursue the questions that they have, thinking that their ideas or questions are not sophisticated enough when they’re comparing them to work of other people.
Now, the second piece of advice I would have is that they should also think about their own comparative advantage. There are many questions very interesting to pursue, but the one that you’re best placed to pursue is often one for which you have some kind of personal expertise, and that could be many things. You might have noticed questions that other people have overlooked. You might have experiences based on where you live, your family background.
"…I think the mistake that many people do is that they give up too easily and then move over to something else, and we can really only discover the challenges and the problems by trying to work through them."” – Dr. Kristian Gleditsch
And I guess the most important piece of advice that I can give someone is to try and work through your project, because even if your first project is not a complete success, you will learn a lot in the process of doing so. And I think the mistake that many people do is that they give up too easily and then move over to something else, and we can really only discover the challenges and the problems by trying to work through them.
Jed: Well, those are three really good pieces of advice. I really like those and just to summarize those. The first one is to not sell yourself short, that you have maybe many good ideas as a young person. The second one is to use your own strengths and also your passion; if you’re passionate about something, I’m sure that would be what you described as a competitive advantage in studying that particular area that you’re passionate about. And then the third one is kind of a little bit like the first one, is just don’t give up, don’t sell yourself short, on one hand, but also don’t give up too easily, on the other hand, because that process will be helpful. So those are three really good pieces of advice to younger people.
But now, of course, I have the question is, you’re talking about good ideas, not selling yourself short, what have been your best ideas in your opinion, and what has allowed you to become a very influential political science scientist?
Kristian: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’m best placed to answer that question. If I’ve had some influence then that’s great. I think, the work that I’ve done that probably has been influential has been to try to think about novel topics that people could see the relevance of but they hadn’t been studied in much detail. So one of the things that I’ve worked quite a lot on is diffusion in the social sciences.
Jed: Okay, we won’t understand what diffusion in the social science, means but I’m sure you’re about to explain it.
Kristian: So, by diffusion we mean basically how outcomes or events or institutions, like democracy, may spread from one country or one place to another. So in my dissertation research, I was doing work on the spread of democracy, how changes in one country can influence the prospects for democratization in another country. At the time, a lot of the thinking about democratization was very much geared towards things that happened within countries. So it was believed that in order for countries to become democratic, they would need to have a certain level of income. There would need to be a certain economic structure or type of cultural values for democratic ideals to take hold.
And all of these things may be important, but there are many cases where the push away from dictatorship has been driven by events in other countries. And I think this was something that was easy to see for many people, because we had a lot of transitions taking place at the same time in Latin America and Eastern Europe, but there hadn’t been much work on how this could be measured and conceptualized. And so I think I was lucky to come to a topic that I was interested in and having something new to say about it.
"You don't always know what other people will respond to and what will become influential."” – Dr. Kristian Gleditsch
Later on, I worked on what we can call the international linkages in civil war. So likewise, people think of civil war as something that occurs within countries, and it’s true that we don’t have states fighting each other as we do in interstate wars, but that’s not to say that international factors do not influence the risk of civil war. And I think I was lucky to come to a topic that was very fruitful, and there was then a lot of subsequent research. And, now having said that, there are also many things that I’ve worked on that I’ve been excited about that has not generated the same amount of attention. So I think it’s difficult to pick when you’re ahead of time. You don’t always know what other people will respond to and what will become influential. And so for that reason, I know I said you should focus on pursuing your ideas, but it’s also good to not put all your eggs in one basket, and diversify a bit in terms of the topics and projects that you’re working on.
Jed: That’s a good fourth piece of advice there for younger people. Well, it does seem that the two things you mentioned, the spread of democracy and the influence and spread of civil wars, are both things that you’ve approached from a comparative political science, like comparing, sounded like, the Latin American struggles for democracy or dictatorships and that what was happening in Eastern Europe around the same time. Is that a fair... That you were comparing those two things?
Kristian: That’s very much the case.
Jed: And what about with civil war? What different regions did you compare when you were... Or did you not take as much of a comparison approach with the civil war project?
Kristian: I tend to work more at the general level. So instead of starting from individual civil wars, I often find it more useful to think about general frameworks and see how individual events will fit into that. Having said that, I think there’s also value from studying particular events in more depth, and one of the advantages there is that you can often get information on mechanisms and individual actors, at a much more detailed level.
So over the last couple of years, I’ve been interested in the peace process in Colombia. And there we’ve done some work on, where we’ve used individual data, that’s more on people’s attitudes to the peace process and the risk of resurgence from individual factions. So I think that there’s a value in both doing things that are very comparative and things that are more detailed. But personally, I think it is important to always keep the broad comparative picture in mind.
Jed: Yeah. And that seems to have been your way of doing things from the very beginning, just take a very broad view of things and try to make comparisons that will be helpful.
Kristian: I think in general that’s often a useful approach.
Jed: Very cool. Well, I have a few more questions for you. I always like to know what other political scientists have influenced you, or that you really look to as being similar or different to the way you approach things but you have a high regard for them, who are currently doing political science right now. It’s just always fun to hear how you see your field.
So, are there any names that come to mind that are currently working out there now?
Kristian: I think there are a lot of very talented political scientists, and there’s a lot of creativity in the field in general. I think when I was growing up I was often drawn towards people that had good general ideas and were prepared to make bold assertions, and I think about them. So in the area of democratization, for instance, there was a book that influenced me quite a bit when I was undergraduate, by Lipset, called Political Man.
Now many of the things that are in that book may not be considered to be state of the art now, but I think science progresses in part by learning more. So if we do not change our views at any point in time then there would be no progress. But I very much admired the ambition of coming up with a lot of broad microscopic theory of political institutions. Then there are other people that I admire for their working habits. When I was a pre-doctoral fellow at Harvard-MIT Data Centre, I observed the way that Gary King worked. Gary King is a very prolific researcher, and one of the things that I admired with him was his ability to get people to work together in teams.
So he would start with a topic, he would bring different people together, and then he would look to see what could different people contribute to the project, and managed to create synergies.
Jed: Wow, that’s good. That’s very inspirational. Well, my final questions are more about current topics. So you obviously are living through Brexit in Essex, you are also watching from across the pond what’s going on in the United States with the 2020 elections, the response to the pandemic here and also in your countries.
So how would you, through the lens of civil war, democratization, the big picture that you’ve looked at your whole career, how would you see some of these recent events? And give us some of your wisdom and insight into Brexit and what’s going on in the United States.
Kristian: Yeah, I think we’re moving into somewhat uncharted territory. I think we’re seeing a lot more political dissatisfaction, even in what we thought of as being established democracies, and so populism and things like Brexit, I think, is a reflection not necessarily that the people believe strongly in Brexit but that they are disillusioned with the current state of affairs. And that’s probably in part created by things like globalization, where in aggregate, globalization has many benefits but individuals in many sectors do not necessarily fare better. And I think we’ve seen in some ways a political failure to try to re-distribute the spoils of globalization and make the rewards more evenly distributed.
I know less about pandemics. I think with COVID, there are many things that we don’t know, so we don’t know much about what the appropriate response will be, given the properties of the disease. But I think we can still say that there are many similar problems in that institutions are often not effective at responding to things. And there will be massive social consequences from COVID, both in terms of direct effects, and effects on political and social and economic outcomes that I think have very scary political implications.
On the one hand, I do believe that democracies have been remarkably resilient, but I think we should not underestimate the challenges that we’re likely to see now, and the fact that there are many people who have not felt the benefits of globalization in a way that they could have with more proactive political governance.
Jed: Now, you don’t strike me as someone who longed for a career as a politician. Standing in front of everybody, winning the votes and setting the rules for the country or the direction for a particular country. Am I right about that? That that was never your goal?
Kristian: Yeah, no, I have been... I was moderately active in politics when I was a teenager, but I don’t think I would be a particularly good politician, and that is in part because science, research and politics are very different animals. In many cases, politicians, they have to make decisions about priorities. These are not really knowledge questions, and they also have to sell things to people, and that means that in many cases, a lot of it will depend on presentation, persuasion, and in some cases they may advocate policies, not because they think they’re effective, but because they think that they will sound good and persuade the public. And many people are very cynical about politicians. I suspect that many politicians are quite well-meaning, but it would be a very different animal than research and science.
Jed: That’s right.
Kristian: I don’t think I would be very good at it.
Jed: Well, it might be difficult, but yeah, my next question was going to be, if you were the king of the world or if you did have the ear of the king of the world or the leader of a country, how would you handle globalization? How would you handle this problem that seems to be making the populists in the United States, in England, feel like they don’t have any say anymore in their democracy, and that they feel the need to do kind of crazy things like vote for Brexit or vote for this or that, that might not even be in their best interests? What would you do to help alleviate that problem?
Kristian: So I think that there were things that were done better before the financial crisis. If you look at many countries, we did have programs that improved health and improved access to education, and many of these things were rolled back with the financial crisis. So I think if I had any influence over politicians, I would encourage them to look more at the tools that they have at their disposal, and things that could be effective.
"I think part of the reason for populism is that people feel ignored, and they feel that they're not taken seriously. You don't have to agree with someone to listen to what they have to say."” – Dr. Kristian Gleditsch
I think the other thing I would advise, not that I’m necessarily very good at this, is to try to listen more to people. I think part of the reason for populism is that people feel ignored, and they feel that they’re not taken seriously. You don’t have to agree with someone to listen to what they have to say. And taking people more seriously and engaging with them might, I think, prevent some of the more emotional responses for people...
Jed: How would you advise your king of the world or the leader of a particular country to listen better? What kind of mechanisms would you try to put in place, so that this person you’re advising would be more of a listener?
Kristian: Yeah. Well, I think the very best politicians, they have some ability to go out and have emotional connections with people. I think both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair had many elements of that. What I don’t really know is, why do we not have anyone like that at the moment. And to that, I can only say that I think, probably, politics is driven a little bit by waves and visions. And we are currently at a bit of an impasse, so that no one can offer a very clear vision or guidance to current problems. So we don’t have a... We have people that are anti-globalization and we have people that have enhanced approach, but we don’t really have many people that offer a clear prescription or vision for how globalization could be managed to distribute the benefits more widely.
Jed: Do you have an idea of how it could be distributed? [chuckle] Do you have plans that would work?
Kristian: So after the financial crisis... And I should say now, that now I’m really talking about something which is outside my own area of competence, but I think after the financial crisis we had a very strict austerity agenda, which was quite damaging. I think, or at least in some countries, the responses to COVID tend to be a bit less austerity-driven; there’s more emphasis now on trying to look at compensation programs, and try to mitigate the consequences. Maybe not so much in the US, but at least in some European countries. I do think that this perhaps reflects some learning over, that the way that the financial crisis was handled was not very sustainable and might have created many of the problems that we see today.
Jed: So like in your wife’s home country of Greece, where there were a lot of austerity measures put on people, you feel like those back after the 2008 financial crisis actually didn’t do what they should have done? That they were...
Kristian: I think that the measures probably on some level worked in the long run, by driving wages down and driving costs down. But it did so at a high human cost. And I think if it had been combined with a more active program of debt relief, then it might not have needed to be so painful.
Jed: Interesting. Well, my final question is about COVID. We’ve had some people, actually it was your old professor, Thomas Eriksen, talk about the different responses in Norway and Sweden.
So do you have any thoughts about the... He was speaking as an anthropologist, but as a politician, political scientist, do you see the differences between those two countries in their responses?
Kristian: Well, there was a lot of interest in comparing different approaches in the beginning. And some people thought the Nordic countries would be a great comparison set, because they looked very similar in other respects, yet they chose slightly different approaches. I think my perspective on COVID would be more based on... It would probably be, I think, that the role of chance and stochastic phenomena is underrated. If you look at Sweden, for instance, you will find that many areas of Sweden have had relatively low infection rates, but that the entire infection rates in Sweden is due to a larger number of infections in Stockholm and also more infections in care home. And it seems like in other countries, like in Italy, you also have very strong regional concentration in where outbreaks happen. So therefore, it’s not so surprising that the larger the country is, the larger the probability would be that it would get some infection cluster. Probably due to slightly random factors.
Jed: Sorry to interrupt, but most people are blaming the higher infection rates in Sweden on the policy of not shutting down the country the way that Norway did. But you’re saying maybe it’s underrated how much there’s just a bit of a stochastic, random process going on.
Kristian: Yes, I think that’s one part. And actually, I think in the long run, the policies in Sweden and Norway did not diverge that dramatically.
Kristian: I think the difference is that in Sweden, they chose a more limited set of restrictions at the outset, but then made fewer changes afterwards. So you still had behavioral change. It just wasn’t backed up with the same level of restrictions.
Kristian: And Norway eventually ended up with something that looks very similar to the Swedish guidelines. I think... And this again, I’m not a behavioral economist, I don’t know very much about this. I think one problem in many countries might be that there’s a rapid change in the rules and regulations at a very frequent pace, and this leads to a lot of confusion about what people should do. And so, I think that there has been perhaps a tendency that some people were overly scared in the beginning, and then became overly complacent once the infection rate started going down. And that we would have been better off if we’d tried to emphasize some simple rules about hygiene, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings.
Jed: Well I see that in the United States. People get tired. They start off really trying and then they are out, walking around with friends, [chuckle] and just giving it all up. So it almost sounds like you’re saying that Sweden took a good approach, that they kept a certain set of rules from the very beginning, they’ve kept it consistent all the way through, and they weren’t overly burdensome. And yet we see that there are more deaths per capita in Sweden than in Norway, so are you saying that that’s more just stochastic, random, that things just happen...
Kristian: I don’t think you can rule out that Norway got lucky and Sweden got slightly unlucky, at least...
Jed: That’s a new one for me, so I’m glad you mentioned that. That’s good. [chuckle] Of course, there is a bit of a difference in character that I’ve heard between the Swedes and the Norwegians. Swedes maybe tend to be more trusting in very limited set of people, the scientists, and they just go with what the scientists tell them is right, and they don’t look around at maybe the bigger picture, and they may tend to think, “Well, this is the right way to do things, and who cares what other people are doing in other countries.” Whereas maybe Norway, and the leaders in Norway, are a little bit more humble about what their own ideas are, and they’re looking at what South Korea and other countries are doing.
Would that have played a role? That was something actually suggested by Professor Eriksen.
Kristian: I think it’s certainly appears that in Sweden there’s much more of a technocratic approach. When the epidemiologists said that, “This is what we should do, this is what we recommend,” then the politicians were likely to go along on with it. Now, my understanding is that in Norway, the Department of Public Health, they actually made relatively similar recommendations, but they were often overruled by politicians. So for instance they did not recommend closures of nurseries and travel restrictions. And I think that these things are partly introduced because it’s very important for politicians to show that they are responsive, that they take things seriously. And so these kind of policies could be a way to show that you’re taking the problem seriously and trying to address it. The problem then, of course, is that it may be very difficult to maintain these things in the long run.
Kristian: I remember driving to the nursery, listening to the response to Donald Trump’s travel ban on the radio, and there were all these European countries that were condemning it, but then they introduced very similar policies just a couple of day afterwards. And this really shows that, I think, a lot of time for politicians there’s a pressure to do something and they often adopt policies that are not recommended by experts or bureaucrats.
Jed: Now, the experts and bureaucrats may have though made a mistake in the case of Sweden, because here we are, much later, it seems that Sweden had more [35:56] ____ than Norway, even though Norway didn’t go with the recommendations of their scientists and bureaucrats.
Kristian: Well it did, but... If there’s an element of stochastic variation in this, then it’s not surprising that we will see some differences that may not be due to the policies. I think if you look around Europe more widely, you can say that there were some countries like Belgium that had a relatively strict lockdown yet had a higher number of deaths, and other countries which had relatively little lockdowns but seem to have fewer deaths.
Jed: This is why I like your approach of looking at the bigger picture. To get too myopic on just the Nordic countries and who did what, then you miss some of the stochastic nature of what was happening in Europe in this COVID time. So I really... Oh, that’s really appreciated.
Is there anything else you wanted to say in this interview? You’ve given us so much of your time today. Is there anything else you wanted to share?
Kristian: I would be interested in how you think this information may be useful for people choosing institutions and colleges. Well, how you are intending to use information and make this available, and what would be your best case scenario for how this would inspire someone?
Jed: I think that there are two big decisions that a lot of American students need to make, and probably students around the world, and that is, where do I go to college, and what do I major in. And I think that this interview, as well as the interviews with the other political science professors we’ve managed to talk to, really helps a person who says, “I’m interested in politics, not sure if I wanna be a politician or maybe study this.” Now they’ll know what it’s like. You’ve just explained, a person who’s made a big difference in the political science field, how you went through that and some of the research you’ve done, and your own take on the field, which is to have a more broad perspective; we’ve heard from other people that take a very smaller or narrow perspective and learn a lot that way too.
Jed: So I think once they listen to all these interviews, they will be able to say, “I can see myself in that career.” And then of course, we’re doing anthropologists and we’re gonna look at biologists next. And so I think that it’ll really help students make that second decision about, what do I major in? Does that make sense?
Kristian: Yeah, no, that makes sense.
Kristian: That’s very interesting. I look forward to seeing it.
Jed: I do too. And thank you again for your time, Professor Gleditsch. We really appreciate that you spent some time with us today.
Kristian: My pleasure.
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