12 Rules for Life: a review of Jordan Peterson’s book by Nitay Arbel


12 Rules for Life: a review of Jordan Peterson’s book

by Nitay Arbel

Two years ago, Jordan Peterson was a respected clinical psychologist and psychology professor at U. of Toronto, and apparently a brilliant, very popular teacher to his students there. (There are many YouTube videos of his lectures, which make for good listening if you are doing something else with your hands and eyes that doesn’t involve the language centers of the brain.) Then he found himself at the center of controversy when he refused to call a leg a tail because the bureaucracy had decreed it was a tail. In the aftermath, he became a media celebrity to some and a bête noire to others. He ended up closing his clinical practice as he felt he was no longer able to give his clients the undivided attention they deserved. Instead, he wrote a book that appears to be at least in part a popularization of an earlier academic work.


This book is currently a #1 bestseller on Amazon and has been for some time. I have just finished reading it, and recommend it without hesitation. Let me first tell you what it is not.

Those looking for an ‘alt-right’ manifesto will be sorely disappointed. Peterson actually says explicitly that on some economic issues (e.g., income disparity) he leans somewhat left, and elsewhere in the book laments that the cultural demonization of anything masculine is (as he describes it) causing a backlash, in terms of a resurgence in popularity of European parties he calls ‘far right’ or even ‘fascist’. (For Trump, to be clear, he uses the term ‘populist’, which undeniably fits.)

Nor will you find a camouflaged Christian revivalist tract here, as some claim. To be sure, Peterson heavily draws on the Bible and particularly on the Christian New Testament for quotes, but there are plenty of references to Eastern religious philosophies as well, particularly Taoism (‘yang vs. yin’, which here becomes ‘order vs. chaos’) and classical Buddhism (the concept that life is suffering). Among Christian theologians, Kierkegaard’s “act of faith” comes up repeatedly. During an interview, he was asked point-blank “Are you a Christian, and do you believe in G-d?” His intriguing answer: “I think the proper response to that is No, but I’m afraid He might exist.”


Nor is it some sort of “EST”-type (quasi-)cult manual, with Peterson setting himself up as a guru.

Moreover, it does not purport to be a reasoned scholarly tome of conservative philosophy. This is where Peter Hitchens (brother of the late Christopher) gets a little dyspeptic in his review in The Spectator, as he found it wanting there. http://archive.is/4eQIE  (h/t: masgramondou)

David Solway, in his much more sympathetic article on PJMedia, hits the nail on the head, I believe. https://pjmedia.com/trending/jordan-peterson-phenomenon/ Like Solway, I find it hard to identify a single new idea in the book—pretty much everything Peterson says would be familiar to those of us who have been reared on Scripture and the Great Books.

But we have reached the level of intellectual corruption where, as George Orwell put it, the first duty of any thinking person is the restatement of the obvious. And that, Peterson does very well indeed. The book is a coherent whole, an engaging read, yea even a compelling ‘recap’ to the well-read. Peterson makes his discourse more engaging through extensive illustrations from psychological research, his own clinical practice, neuroscience, and his own life experience. Most importantly, it will bring wisdom of the ages (and of rational-empirical thinking) to a millennial generation drowning in derp and denial of objective reality. To those who, if you will pardon me the phrase, “know not the gods of the copybook headings”.

Among the non-Western secular authors he draws on for inspiration and illustration, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn take pride of place. The one philosopher quoted most often is Nietzsche, whom he regards as a prophet of what would happen to the West once people lost their religious anchor. In his own words: https://www.patreon.com/jordanbpeterson

The same is true of Nietzsche. In the aftermath of God’s death, he believed humanity, would become entranced, even possessed, by utopian political ideas, such as those of Marx. Nietzsche believed that such possession would kill millions in the twentieth century, as it did. The great German thinker also posited that human beings would have to create their own values, to fill the void left by God’s demise. However, it is not clear that we can create values, voluntarily. Individuals who have forced themselves to manifest interest in something that just didn’t interest them know the limits of our value-creating capacity. We also don’t live particularly long. It’s impossibly difficult to self-generate a complete model for being in the span of a single short life.

Among Freud and his disciples, the one he quotes most is Jung, followed by Adler. Carl Rogers (influenced himself by Jung and Adler) recurs often—it seems that Peterson’s own clinical practice is in the Rogers mold.

The book is organized as a prologue, twelve chapters around one ‘rule’ each, and a coda. The book lends itself reasonably well to reading by chapters. A fil rouge running through the whole book is the order-chaos dichotomy in the universe, and the balance between them. The twelve rules are:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. [Be confident and assertive, project the same.]
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. [Take care of your physical and mental health — you owe it to yourself as well as to those who would otherwise be forced to care for you.]
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you. [Not frenemies, not hangers-on, not energy vampires, not yes-men, not bullies.]
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  5. Do not let children do anything that makes you dislike them. [Do not let children turn into unsocialized little tyrants because you are afraid to set boundaries. Children actively test for boundaries and actually want some set.]
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. [Not just cats.]

One should understand that some of these ‘rules’ are really top-level headings, metaphors, or conversation starters. Obviously rule 11, for instance, isn’t about skateboarding but about the tendency to proscribe all risky play, sports,… from society and thus neuroticizing children and (particularly male) adults allegedly for their own good.

The tone Peterson strikes is conversational, intimate, and mindful of “not having all the answers” (his own rule #9). In one chapter (#10), he does raises his voice, when speaking “postmodernism” (and cultural Marxism more broadly). In this video he pulls no punches: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPojltjv4M0
I can find little fault with this, since I regard postmodernism as a mind virus — arguably the intellectual equivalent of AIDS in the etymological sense of the word (acquired intellectual immunodeficiency syndrome).

All in all, Jordan Peterson is not so much a right-wing prophet  as, to use the words of the above interviewer, “a warrior for common sense and plain speech.” And sorely are those needed today.


102 thoughts on “12 Rules for Life: a review of Jordan Peterson’s book by Nitay Arbel

  1. I cannot agree with Rule #12 — random cat petting is ill advised and rude. Cats ought be approached with the proper polite respect due royalty, with petting only occurring should they deign to tolerate your touch.

      1. I’ve a thirty pound cat who likes–nay, demands, complete with head-slamming the nearest human in the shins–pets from any and all available humans. Also tummy rubs.

        Of course, I’m also pretty sure that he’s a dog who reincarnated as a cat. Just as I am now also sure that one of my parents’ new puppies (schnauzer/westie mix) is a cat that reincarnated as a dog… (She actually pounces on things with her paws, among other cat-like behaviors up to and including, when faced with being told ‘no’ her response is along the lines of “Hold my beer.”)

    1. I wish I could remember the book but I vaguely remember something sci-fi that treated socialism exactly like a mind virus.

      I didn’t really understand at the time but now. . .it makes total sense.

  2. As to Jordan Peterson’s politics. He wasn’t a Conservative, and in fact I think he once described himself as a follower of the Canadian Liberal party. I don’t know how he votes, and don’t particularly care. If he’s a Liberal, I think he would be more under the umbrella of Liberals as they once were. I actually have to spend some time to watch some of his lectures. When I get the time that is between other tasks and responsibilities.

    1. I think I remember reading that Peterson describes himself as 19th century liberal, he’s a Whig at heart.

    2. Having listened to perhaps a couple hundred of his lectures, and read a few samples of his written works… when the book was announced, two minutes later it became the first and only volume I’ve ever pre-ordered. IMO he’s the single most important thinker of our era.

  3. Dammit. I thought just wishlisting this book the other day when Sarah mentioned it was going to suffice, but now I really want to read it. And get my mother to read it, especially the chapter about self care.

    1. You won’t regret reading it. I’m 1/3 through it now, and intend to have some more quality time with Prof. Peterson tonight and tomorrow. After that, I hope it can help my son through his seemingly interminable morass. [NB: If you would rather spend time than money, get on the waiting list @your library.]

      1. As of yesterday, my digital library showed ONE copy and 107 people on the waitlist. At up to 2 weeks checkout time each, that’s about FOUR YEARS to get it. I think I will have to bite the bullet and order the HC from Amazon.

    2. This review has definitely bumped my copy up a whole lot higher on my TBR list…my copy which I purchased from Amazon on Tuesday because it sounded like something I needed to read when Sarah mentioned it the other day, and I already had an Amazon order I was putting together (and my public library didn’t have it in the catalog).

      1. Your library system doesn’t have it yet? Dang. I’ll bet they bought a slew of copies of Fire & Fury, though!

        1. Just checked the system again, and 12 Rules for Life *did* show up this time. One copy, only just received today; who knows how long it will take them to process it. There are nine copies of Fire & Fury, all checked out (and a 16 person hold list). 😛

      1. She won’t need nearly as much booze to get through this.

        I’m on Ch 4 and enjoying it. It’s done something I didn’t think possible, re-ignite my interest in Psychology.

  4. I third (fourth?) the recommendation. Peterson draws on archetypes, as you would expect from someone who leans toward Jung, and he uses the idea of the power of story a great deal. As someone who lives in a world of words, that makes perfect sense, and I suspect it is part of what makes the book so popular. And Peterson pulls no punches about “if you continue this sort of behavior, you will come to a bad end one way or another.” Plus it’s refreshing right now to read a book that makes no specific references to politics!

    I will probably re-read the book, because there is a lot to chew on and think about. I’ve already tidied up some things in my mental house that I knew were not great, and that the book kicked me to get serious about.

  5. I think social scientists are mostly witless so I don’t know what to make of Peterson. I’ve watched a bunch of his videos and I like his overall message but I don’t like how reasons himself into his beliefs. Peterson mentions Jung often and I have hard time taking Freud, Jung ….et al seriously.

    1. I’m not a fan of Freud, Jung, Adler, et al, but I think the way Peterson uses stories and ideas from various traditions works well. There’s a reason for societies having archetypes, and if he found a way to use those to help people find ways to straighten out the chaos in their worlds, more power to him. He makes a point to emphasize that it is the relationship with the therapist, not so much the school the therapist follows, that helps the patient.

      There’s stuff in the book that is helpful, and stuff that I rolled my eyes a little. *shrug* At least he’s not one of the One True Way!!!! types.

      1. I admire Peterson for having bravery, especially in Canada, to speak out about nihilistic era we live in and how it’s bad for people’s mental and spiritual health. But I don’t like all the social science he uses to make his points because, to me, a lot of what Peterson says was folk wisdom until progressives started to rearrange societal rules in 1960s. Lots of people seem to see Peterson almost as a prophet while I think he peddling common sense.

        1. The Social Science is simply bacon wrap to get the recipients to swallow the red pills.

          The scarcity of Common Sense amongst today’s educated is demonstrated by the esteem they grant Peterson’s advice.

    2. There is an anti-Freudian blogger who calls himself a “recovering psychotherapist” – some of his work is quite snarky, but usually useful as well.
      Had Enough Therapy? by Stuart Schneiderman.

      1. Thanks for the tip, I’ve spent past ten minutes reading his site and I will add it my list of blogs I read.

    3. I’m not a fan of Freud/Jung/etc either, but after listening to JP dissect them in his usual way, found myself with a whole new perspective, and a crawling suspicion that they’re generally misinterpreted. Regardless, he extracts valuable insights from them, which doesn’t require that one agree with the source.

      1. Peterson is obviously a smart man who is helping fill void in many peoples lives. I just find it jarring to agree with his insights but hate sources he uses as examples.

  6. “But we have reached the level of intellectual corruption where, as George Orwell put it, the first duty of any thinking person is the restatement of the obvious.”

    Captain Obvious, the great hero of our time.

            1. In defense of horses, the lack of opposable thumbs makes barn raising several orders of magnitude harder.

  7. I love it so far. I finished rule 5 last night… To be honest, it made me think about raising kids in a completely different light. The task at hand is so enormous, and not to be taken lightly. Dr. Peterson is a deep thinker, and I hate to see him painted as alt-right or a neo-Nazi or whatever else gets flung his way. Thanks for sharing the review.

    1. Mr Hart, until people start giving “alt-right” the exact amount of respect and credibility accorded the word “racist” — exactly NONE — they’ll keep using it.

  8. Just did a number 2 this morning. Hand surgery to remove a damn cyst and bone spur on rt thumb. Using the mouse left handed, even with buttons mirrored, and the keyboard partially is an…interesting… exercise. Makes me appreciate what Jerry Pournelle went through post-stroke and post brain surgery.

      1. ROFL, I actually thought the same thing. Did we have an Austin Powers type bathroom scene going on?!

      1. Being aware of the multiple ongoing medical procedures and of common side effects thereof, I presumed that was a status update of the sort appreciable by folks who’ve gone a week without.

        Which is why I repressed the urge to make some crappy joke after reading it.

        1. RES, I’ve had several hospital stays in the last 10 years, and you literally aren’t going to go two days without once you’re not being fed through a tube. “Assistance” WILL be provided.

          1. I beg to differ. Beloved Spouse’s recent* experiences with a blocked intestine (trapped in an abdominal hernia) and subsequent chemotherapy (guess what they found when they went in to extract the “caught” intestine) included at least one or more ten-day periods of I shit you not.

            *for certain values of recent

            1. ProTip: do NOT allow your intestine to become incarcerated. That cute little umbilical hernia is A TRAP!

  9. Re: Skateboarding rule – we let our kids walk to school, all of 0.5 miles away, by themselves. Reckless, I know! Our middle son was the classic dawdler – that 10 min walk might easily take 1/2 hour. Add to this that our school had no set hours of attendance (put in the state-required 4 hrs any time between 9:00 and 5:00) AND didn’t require shoes – and you have a little kid wandering barefoot during school hours. Clearly, my wife and I are MONSTERS!

    The cops were called more than once. Concerned citizens were not only appalled by our awful parenting, but their heads exploded when they found out the school was totally OK with it.

    Best part #1: one cop asked my wife if she knew how many stranger abductions of children had happened in the history of our suburb of 110,000 people. Answer: none. He was cool.

    Best part #2: this is the kid who didn’t learn to read until he was 14, never took a math class until he was in college, and basically showed no academic leanings – and he’s now a junior at a Great Books school pulling A’s (in everything except math – B+ there). And just the nicest young man you’d ever want to meet.

    Living well is the best revenge. Now if they’ll only leave us alone to do so.

  10. In case some here are desperate to put a Hoyting on:

    Is Robert Mueller Mad or a Russian Agent?
    By Sarah Hoyt
    Hey guys, I have a news flash. It will rock your world. Or at least I guarantee it will rock the MSM’s worlds as well as blow the minds of some millennials who believe the dog and pony show.

    Are you ready? Are you seated? Good, because this will require the full response of your shocked face. I know it called up mine.

    Okay, ahem, here it is: believe it or not nations and other political-economic powers try to influence other nations and political-economic powers, including putting out propaganda during the elections, and sometimes, even – gasp – subsidizing propaganda groups in other countries.

    I know! Aren’t you astonished? It’s only been going on since there are been nations, or perhaps even hominid tribes. Even the US has tried to do it though, admittedly not particularly subtly or well. But apparently, this is news to the MSM and children. (I know, I repeat myself.)

    I’m away – for fans of my Instapundit night posting, it probably will resume on Monday – at a writing symposium in Provo, Utah and yesterday was a very busy day. Today is slower, so I woke up late, and haven’t exactly followed the news.

    Therefore, I was surprised by a text from younger son asking me about what these indictments were that Mueller had handed down, and why his liberal friends (look, guys, I’ve warned him, okay, but some of them are girls and cute and he’s in his early twenties) were acting like they’d scored a big, game-ending play.

    Note that I wasn’t even alarmed because I have read everything about the Mueller “investigation” and I have it filed under “if I roll my eyes any harder, they’ll fall off and hit the floor, and then the cats will play with them.”

    When I checked it out, I found this: Special counsel Mueller: Russians conducted ‘information warfare’ against US during election to help Donald Trump win.


    In other breaking news, Investigators working for Special Counsel Mueller’s team have verified that water is wet, fire will burn you, the Pope is Catholic (for certain values of Catholic) and bears go potty pretty much wherever they want.

      1. Can we stop this madness now?

        Oh, no, alas, we ain’t anywhere NEAR ‘Peak Silly’. While the left is increasingly disconnected from and growing ever distant from this Reality thing, they still retain a tenuous connection – but they’re working on it! Eventually it either snaps back (and oh that lashing from the snapping back, it’ll something fierce!) or just snaps and flails, connecting to.. whatever is handy. This Reality world you’ve got? Might get a strange and most unexpected addition. Wanted? Unwanted? Won’t matter. Ya gets what ya gets and ya gots to deal wi’ it. That line about more things in Heaven and Earth? Ol’ Billy Wigglestaff weren’t kiddin’. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

    1. Except the ads places by the Russians were anti-Trump, pro-Antifa, and pro-BLM. . .I can see where drawing more attention to those groups and causing them to garner more public attention could have had a positive impact on Trump’s electoral outcome.

      1. Well, the efforts documented in the indictment were anti- and pro- Trump, anti- and pro-BLM, and they organized both support and protest marches after the election.

        The Russians just wanted to mess us up.

        1. And to that last, the pro-Bernie efforts in this example of a classical “Ham Sandwich” indictment are the only ones that were not accompanied by anti-Bernie anything.

          Just sayin’…

          1. If a person only saw the CNN on-air talent dancing in the streets like Palestinians on 9/11 yesterday, one could be excused for thinking this was a huge win for the effort to delegitimization the Trump Presidency, but the actual indictment says that the effort to delegitimization the Trump Presidency was funded in large part by this Russian front company. That big NYC “not my president” rally that Michael Moore was at? It was organized by these Russians.

            No offense intended, but I’m going to restate the obvious: It is always best to go to primary sources on stuff like this, i.e. read the actual indictment.

              1. Gods forbid we ever descend into a hot CW II but if we do, I wonder if a megaphone would be our best weapon. Before attacking just hurl a out a good round of racial/sexual insults and if 90% of the OF curl up in a ball it’ll make the other 10% easier to deal with. . .

      2. Curiously enough, the two stories I read on WaPo and MSN never mentioned the pro-Bernie, anti-Trump trolling that all of the RW sites noticed. Gee, I wonder how they missed that…

      3. Shhhhh. Shut your mouth! I lived in a ‘battle ground’ state during this last election. Right now studies are being to indicate that most campaign ads produce a null effects when all is factored in. Let them think that, then they might start spending less money on those demmed annoying things.

  11. I’ve been listening to a lot of Peterson lately, but I haven’t got the book yet. The thing that amazes me about the hard left vs. Peterson thing is….apparently, he has the ability to reach disaffected young men. From what I can tell, he has in fact influenced quite a few of them *away* from the alt-right extremism slope they were sliding down. Do you KNOW how HARD that is to do, influence a young person seduced by an extreme ideology? It is practically impossible! And here we have a guy apparently capable of doing it with some! That all by itself should make everybody stop and pay attention, and consider whether trying to ruin him might be a Super-Bad Plan. I mean, it probably endears him all the more to the disaffected young men, but it seems kinda hard on him.

    1. Have you ever seen or heard evidence that the Left is concerned with effectiveness or results? His success at reaching such boys is a bug, not a feature, in their eyes.

      One of the problems afflicting the Progressive left (as opposed to Classical Liberals) is that they seldom admit their true motives, even to themselves, and thus are more concerned with conforming to ideological stances than with achieving results. It reminds me of Bruce Lee’s criticism of Chinese Martial Arts, that they were solely focused on executing katas perfectly than with whether you got your a** kicked.

    2. I think the problem is that those seeking to tear Peterson down are doing so IN LARGE PART because he can reach out to disaffected young men. They don’t want them to be redeemed, or to become righteous, productive men–that would undermine their narrative that all men are all evil, all the time.

      1. Peterson’s application of logic and good sense to the problems they’ve created and the nonsense they cherish acts like sunshine on a coven of vampires.

        1. We need it. At best it’s going to take at least 20 years to fix our education system and start getting the results out of the door. Anything we can do before that happens to lessen the impact is all to the good.

    3. Peterson isn’t the only one to pull people from the alt-right slide: Sargon does it, probably others in the anti-SJW alliance do but I don’t know.

      I think you are overstating the case of how hard it is. For this situation I think what is happening is that people are hopeless and don’t see any anyone fighting the SJWs but the alt-right (thank you media for branding everyone alt-right), so they consign themselves to it. Then if they hear a voice of reason in time they can turn away from that path without paying the full price of leaving an ideology.

          1. There are a lot of people talking, and it is pretty much impossible for any one to know what every one is saying.

            How does one sort the ones one thinks are on net useful from ones on net harmful? Enemies from allies? Those one wishes to associate with from those who one doesn’t?

            Attacks SJWs can be a pretty lousy metric. SJWs are broadly irritating, and so folks from a wide range of cultures and ideologies have motivation to attack or oppose them.

            End goals somewhat change useful methods. Status quo of US culture ante Marxist socialism had certain values that permitted internal relative peace and external dealing with problems. If one is trying to return to that peace, maybe with a side of solving socialist problems, one cultivates different internal qualities than if one is chasing ‘if not peace for me, peace for no one’. Which means perhaps picking and choosing one’s fights, one’s temporary alliances, and whether one ‘counter punches’, ‘dodges’, ‘deflects’, or ‘takes the hit’.

            ‘Black Panther is morally equivalent to Red Skull’ versus ‘#OreoPanther’.

            1. Attacks SJWs can be a pretty lousy metric. SJWs are broadly irritating, and so folks from a wide range of cultures and ideologies have motivation to attack or oppose them.

              What about “Consistently attacks SJWs, and Alt-Righters, and totalitarian collectivists in general”?

              Like, well, an embarrassingly large percentage of the most effective fighters in the meme war, Sargon is a not-insane Lefty who was abandoned by the rest of the Left.

              1. I’m very unfamiliar with the meme war.

                I don’t know who Sargon is, much less who he attacks.

                Part of the issue is branding and classification. The Republican establishment is riddled with dishonest hacks, and Trump sucked up to the worst sort of leftist until he found it didn’t buy him safety. There’s a lot of splintering, distrust, and questions about viable paths forward.

                There are some very solid anticommunists who are likewise former communists, with the convert’s zeal.

                Communism as a religion, as a heresy of Christianity, does not contain the values which permit people to form lasting peaceful relationships with others. This wasn’t obvious because of tactical ceasefires, systemic lying, and that even hard core communists might syncratize it enough with Christianity to retain those values. In the SJW we see the modern ‘peaceful values’ desert. That someone has realized that they cannot appease the left, and will always be at war with the left and splinter factions like (apparently) the alt-right, does not mean that they have discovered and internalized the values that give them the capacity to be at peace with others. ‘Use them if they kill Nazis’ has a place, but that place isn’t every place.

                It isn’t just ‘they fight bad people’, but the whole person, including the capacity for peace. I have to know the person to evaluate that. (Even if I think I know them, my evaluation may not be correct.)

          2. “Alt-right” is simply the latest version of “raaaaacist”. You aren’t agreeing with someone who wants to shut down debate.

  12. He may not be on the Right yet, but another year or two of being vilified and misrepresented by the media, and he may very well be.

  13. “I can find little fault with this, since I regard postmodernism as a mind virus.”

    Exactly. Things like Post Modernism, Communism, some religions I won’t name, these are what I call information attacks. Weapons that target the mind.

  14. Postmodernism… The word itself is an affront to language, and as for meaning, it has none. Everything else follows from there.

    1. I once read (and still have an old copy of) Modern Chemistry. I have yet to see the text Postmodern Chemistry. I suspect it would need Amanda’s … treatment.. were such a thing to be realized.

  15. A couple of things —
    Here is a post by John Wright about the recent confrontation between Peterson and an interviewer whose obvious goal was to score a brace of gotchas rather than to understand his positions or converse intelligently.

    Second, on post-modernism and associated intellectual diseases, an excellent book is “The Killing of History” by Keith Windschuttle (he addresses historians and the decline thereof specifically, but he backgrounds all of the relevant theories very clearly, and also explains how they have infected all academic disciplines and spilled over into the zeitgeist).

  16. Nazi is about the only thing they can call us, because to them “Communist” is A-OK, so that’s Right OUT.

  17. Dr.Peterson takes apart David Benatar’s argument (which strikes me as damn weak, and conflates pleasure and happiness) for “antinatalism” — which strikes me as parallel to Puppy Fiction vs Hugo Fiction:

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