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Apophenia

My next big project is to form a rock band called The Why and release a double-length concept album titled “Apophenia”.

—Twitter post, 15 October 2014

Kat and Carolyn were in New York City this past weekend for a brief trip, and when they got back Kat was in a bad way.  I picked them up from the airport and Kat’s symptoms were such that I drove her straight to the Cleveland Clinic ER on suspicion of a cardiac event.  (It wasn’t.)  With the help of friends, I got the kids off to their scheduled activities and stayed with Kat.  By late in the afternoon, we knew she’d be staying overnight, and we decided that I should go to be with the kids.

I gathered up the backpacks and dirty clothes from their weekend trip, slung them over my shoulder, and then stood at Kat’s bedside, holding her hand.  Not speaking, just standing.  Eventually she gave me a small smile and said, “Go on.”

I twitched toward the door, and failed to actually move.  Kept standing.  Kept holding.

“I’ll be all right, Eric.  It’s fine.  Go.”

“I know it’s stupid, but I’m afraid to.  The two times I walked away from Rebecca in a hospital, it didn’t end well.”


We spent our last few hours of innocent ignorance in an emergency room in New Jersey, getting Rebecca rehydrated and hoping to figure out what was going on.  She was so lethargic and tired, and we feared spinal meningitis.  As the day wore on, she seemed stable, neither better nor worse, but one of us had to go get the other kids.  We decided to have Kat stay, since she was the medical professional.  I gave Rebecca a hug and kiss, told her I loved her so much and to feel better soon, and walked out the door.  Not long after that, she had her first seizure.

Just a few months later, after the surgeries and protons and initial chemotherapy and our return back home to Cleveland, Rebecca finally came down with a fever.  It was of course at a time that we could only take her to the ER for evaluation, to make sure she wasn’t neutropenic.  It was evening, and we were hungry, so I went over to the food court while the last few tests were run before they discharged us.  While I was gone, the staff gave Rebecca a routine dose of ceftriaxone, and she immediately had a strong anaphylactic reaction.  We had never known she was allergic to it.  Antihistamines were quickly administered, and she had to spend the night at the hospital in case the reaction flared up again.  It didn’t.


Twice I walked away from a loved one lying in a hospital bed.  Twice something went terribly, horribly wrong.

And of course there’s nothing to that but coincidence, but we evolved to spot patterns.  It was a survival skill of the savannah, to see how disparate and apparently unconnected events tied together into a cohesive story.

Now we drag it around with us like a growth that we’ve long since ceased to notice.  We see stories written in the stars and meaning imposed on our mundanity.  The most common question we ask is “Why?”, and that can lead us to wonderful discoveries and insight, but it seems just as often to mislead us into an egotistic reordering of the world.  Our obsessive quest for causes can all too easily cause us to invest in illusions.  That pattern-recognizer that coils through the hindbrain can and does turn on us.

Think of all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard or believed.  Think of all the times you’ve heard of something terrible happening to someone and asked yourself why it happened.  Think of all the people who get blamed for what has happened to or even near them, regardless of whether we know all they did or didn’t do.

Think of all the Greek or Roman or any other culture’s myths, the stories where some person draws the notice of the gods, who then proceed to punish them for hubris or mischievously grant their prayer according to its letter but opposite its spirit.  That impulse is no less strong in us.  So many people ask themselves what they could have done differently to avoid their current situation, or what they’ve done to deserve what’s happened to them.

And even our language enforces this view, subtly and persistently.  In the last paragraph, I could have written “So many people ask themselves what they could have done differently to avoid their fate”, but “fate” is a concept born of stories.  It carries with it meanings of destiny, of supernatural forces directing a specific outcome.  I even started to type the word, and then replaced it with “current situation”, which is a far more accurate rendition of what I want to say, but not nearly so poetic.

Not nearly so story-like.

We optimize our language’s patterns to favor the concepts that feel the best to us.  All languages do.  And in doing so, we not only reflect the patterns we see, but reinforce them.  Powerfully.  We reorder the way we see the world, we create patterns of filtering, and when we talk to each other we transmit those patterns to each other, self-reinforcing.

I could say the patterns are living, memetic symbiotes, and thus fall victim to the overactive pattern-recognizer in my own hindbrain.

So we ask ourselves what we could have done to save Rebecca.  I can and do believe as strongly as I believe anything that there was never any hope for Rebecca.  Her genetic makeup, some accident of her conception or fetal development or whatever, meant that she was always going to die of cancer as a child.  We could have tried anything from megadoses of chemotherapy to experimental surgery to the latest woo-woo herbal treatments, and she still would have died.  All we could affect was how long that took, and what her short life would be like as it came to an end.  And we had no way to know which choices struck the best balance of lifespan and life quality.

I like to think that we did well, but for all I know some other set of choices would have given her another six or twelve months with the same quality of life she had.  I don’t know, and I don’t torture myself over that; we did the best we possibly could.  Perhaps that’s me imposing an absent pattern on disparate points of data again, but she did have great quality of life, up until the last week or so, and we fought ourselves to safeguard that for her.  It will have to be enough.

And yet, I still ask myself sometimes if we somehow could have saved her.  If there was a moment when the doctors said X, that we were supposed to do Y instead.  And there’s that pattern-recognizer, affecting our language again: “we were supposed to”.  As if her life was meant to be a long and perfect story, and we were too blind and stupid to see it and fulfill it.  As if we failed to understand what we were supposed to do.

That same impulse is only a short step away from taking responsibility for the cancer itself.  Wondering if we could have avoided the cancer entirely if we’d fed her a different diet, or lived in a different city with different air, or taken a different approach in infant medications, or to vaccination.  Or if we’d been less satisfied with our lives.  Maybe she’d be all right if we hadn’t had the impulse to thank whatever gods or demons might lurk beyond the horizon for our lives that seemed so right, and say no more than that; maybe she suffered for our being humbly grateful for what we had and not thinking that we needed to beg for that state to continue.  Punished for the hubris of believing that our lives were good and in no need of improvement.

“What did I do to deserve this?” it’s so easy to ask.  “What did she do to deserve this?  Why her?  Why us?”

“Why”.  “Deserve”.

Patterns of instinct, encoded in language, enforced in thought, imposed on the world.

Capricious deities, lurking in the clouds.  Heroes and monsters, written in the stars.


Twice I walked away from a loved one lying in a hospital bed.  Twice something went terribly, horribly wrong in my absence.

So I stood there holding Kat’s hand, wanting to stay with her even if it meant sleeping in a hospital chair all night, because deep in my hindbrain, the pattern-recognizer was screaming that something would go wrong, just like those other times.  That she would die if I left.

I squeezed her hand and gave her a kiss, told her I loved her and to feel better, and walked out the door.

She’s fine.

If Harry Befriended Sally

I really want to see a mainstream Hollywood movie, preferably with stars in the lead roles, that goes basically like this:  a couple of single people meet cute, become very good friends, meet and fall in love with other people, and stay very good friends.  The End.

It’s been pointed out to me that this is basically the Harry Potter series, which causes me to applaud J. K. Rowling all over again…but note that I said “movie”, not “movie series”.  That is to say, while I love that Rowling resisted having Harry and Hermione hook up, I’d like to see that same sort of arc played out over ninety minutes, not nineteen hours.

Here are some other limits I would place on my ideal movie:

  • The friends never have sex.  Not even drunken one-night-stand sex.
  • In fact, they never even date.  They hang out and do stuff together, but the way that people hang out and do stuff with people they aren’t dating.
  • Related: neither of them develops a crush on the other.  Their love for each other is that of really good friends, period.
  • Possibly optional: show through various grace notes in the scenes that while these are great friends, they wouldn’t work well as a romantic couple, and that they realize and are totally fine with that.
  • Their friendship is not broken or externally threatened.  It’s okay if they argue and even fight from time to time—friends often do.  Misunderstandings are part of any relationship.  Show those, but don’t make it into some kind of world-shattering drama or seem like they’re going to part ways.  Just normal human struggles.
  • Related: neither of them hates or is jealous of their friend’s choice of romantic partner, and vice versa.  I’m not going to insist they all four become super-best friends, but what we’re looking for here is healthy (if imperfect) relationships all the way around.

In a lot of ways, this would look like When Harry Met Sally… without the sex and the stuff at the end.  I’m not saying it’s exactly that, because it’s been a long time since I saw that movie and there may be other things that would need to change.  But, in a broad sense, that.

Why do I want this?  Because I’m really tired of seeing movies (and TV shows and video games and on and on) that essentially insist that any two people who could potentially fall in love must fall in love.  Or even just lust.  Those things are not requirements of all human interaction, and I’d like to see—even if it’s just once—something that looks like a rom-com, but ends up being something a lot more interesting and true to life.  Even more, I’d like my children to see it.  They see it in real life, but a little extra backup wouldn’t hurt.

If anyone knows of a movie that meets these criteria, whether Hollywood-based or not, I’d love to know about it.

Glasshouse

Our youngest tends to wake up fairly early in the morning, at least as compared to his sisters, and since I need less sleep than Kat I’m usually the one who gets up with him.  This morning, he put away a box he’d just emptied of toys and I told him, “Well done!”  He turned to me, stuck his hand up in the air, and said with glee, “Hive!”

I gave him the requested high-five, of course, and then another for being proactive.  It was the first time he’d ever asked for one.  He could not have looked more pleased with himself.

And I suddenly realized that I wanted to be able to say to my glasses, “Okay, dump the last 30 seconds of livestream to permanent storage.”

There have been concerns raised about the impending crowdsourced panopticon that Google Glass represents.  I share those concerns, though I also wonder if the pairing of constant individual surveillance with cloud-based storage mediated through wearable CPUs will prove out an old if slightly recapitalized adage: that an ARMed society is a polite society.  Will it?  We’ll see—pun unintentional but unavoidable, very much like the future itself.

And yet.  You think that you’ll remember all those precious milestones, that there is no way on Earth you could ever forget your child’s first word, or the first time they took their first steps, or the time they suddenly put on an impromptu comedy show that had you on the floor laughing.  But you do forget.  Time piles up and you forget most of everything that ever happened to you.  A few shining moments stay preserved, and the rest fade into the indistinct fog of your former existence.

I’m not going to hold up my iPhone or Android or any other piece of hardware all the time, hoping that I’ll manage to catch a few moments to save.  That solution doesn’t scale at all, but I still want to save those moments.  If my glasses (or some other device) were always capturing a video buffer that could be dumped to permanent storage at any time, I could capture all of those truly important things.  I could go back and see that word, that step, that comedy show.  I would do that.  I wanted to do it, sitting on the floor of my child’s room this morning.

That was when I realized that Glass is inevitable.  We’re going to observe each other because we want to preserve our own lives—not every last second, but the parts that really matter to us.  There will be a whole host of side effects, some of which we can predict but most of which will surprise us.  I just don’t believe that we can avoid it.  Even if Google fails with Glass, someone else will succeed with a very similar project, and sooner than we expect.  I’ve started thinking about how to cope with that outcome.  Have you?

The Web Behind

Whenever I meet a new person and we get to talking about our personal lives, one of the things that seems to surprise people the most, besides the fact that I live in Cleveland and not in New York City or San Francisco, is that I have a Bachelor’s of Art in History.  The closest I came to Computer Science was a minor concentration in Artifical Intelligence, and in all honesty it was more of a philosophical study.

To me, history is vital.  As a species, we’ve made a plethora of mistakes and done myriad things right, and the record (and outcomes) of those successes and failures can tell us a great deal about how we got to where we are as well as where we might go.  (Also, from a narrative standpoint, history is the greatest and most authentic story we’ve ever told—even the parts that are untrue.)  The combination of that interest and my ongoing passion for the web is what led me to join the W3C’s recently formed Web History Community Group, where efforts to preserve (digital) historical artifacts are slowly coalescing.

But even more importantly, it’s what has led me to establish a new web history podcast in association with Jen Simmons of The Web Ahead.  The goal of this podcast, which is a subset of The Web Ahead, is to interview people who made the web today possible.  The guests will be authors, programmers, designers, vendors, toolmakers, hobbyists, academics: some whose names you’ll instantly recognize, and others who you’ve never heard of even though they helped shape everything we do.  We want to bring you their stories, get their insights and perspectives, and find out what they’ve been doing of late.  The Mac community has folklore.org; I hope that this podcast will help start to build an similar archive for the web.  You can hear us talk about it a bit on The Web Ahead #34, where we announce our first guest as well as the date and time for our first show!  (Semi-spoiler: it’s next week.)

Jen and I have took to calling this project The Web Behind in our emails, and the name stuck.  It really is a subset of The Web Ahead, so if you’re already subscribed to The Web Ahead, then episodes of The Web Behind will come to you automatically!  If not, and you’re interested, then please subscribe!  We already have some great guests lined up, and will announce the first few very soon.

I haven’t been this excited about a new project in quite some time, so I very much hope you’ll join Jen and me (and be patient as I relearn my radio chops) for a look back that will help to illuminate both our present and our future.

Vigilance and Victory

After the blackout on Wednesday, it seems that the political tides are shifting against SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act—as of this writing, there are now more members of Congress in opposition to the bills than in favor.  That’s good news.

I wil reiterate something I said on Twitter, though:  the members of tech community, particularly those who are intimately familiar with the basic protocols of the Internet, need to keep working on ways to counteract SOPA/PIPA.  What form that would take, I’m not sure.  Maybe a truly distributed DNS system, one that can’t be selectively filtered by any one government or other entity.  I’m not an expert in the area, so I don’t actually know if that’s feasible.  There’s probably a much more clever solution, or better still suite of solutions.

The point is, SOPA and PIPA may soon go down to defeat, but they will return in another form.  There is too much money in the hands of those who first drafted these bills, and they’re willing to give a fair chunk of that money to those who introduced the bills in Congress.  Never mistake winning a battle with winning the war.  As someone else observed on Twitter (and I wish I could find their tweet now), the Internet community fought hard against the DMCA, and it’s been US law for more than a decade.

By all means, take a moment to applaud the widespread and effective community effort to oppose and (hopefully) defeat bad legislation.  When that’s done, take notes on what worked and what didn’t, and then prepare to fight again and harder.  Fill the gap between battles with outreach to your elected representatives and with efforts to educate the non-technical in your life to explain why SOPA/PIPA were and are a bad idea.

Days of action feel great.  Months of effort are wearying.  But it’s only the latter that can slowly and painfully bring about long-term change.

Standing In Opposition

Though I certainly do not support SOPA or the PROTECT IP Act (the complete, rather contrived acronym of PIPA), I will not be blacking out meyerweb.  This is largely because the vast majority of my readers already know about these bills, and very likely oppose them; as for anyone who visits but does not know about these bills, I feel I’ll do better to speak out than to black out.  (Which is not a criticism of those who do black out.  We all fight in our own ways.)

Instead, I will reproduce here the letter I attempted to send via contact form to my state Senator this morning, and which I will print out and send by regular postal service later today.

Senator Brown:

I grew up in Lexington, Ohio.  I moved to Cleveland in pursuit of a career, and found success.  Through a combination of good luck and hard work, I have (rather to my surprise) become a widely recognized name in my field, which is web design and development.  Along the way, I co-founded a web design conference with an even more widely respected colleague that has become one of the most respected and successful web design events in the world.  This business is headquartered in Ohio—I live in Cleveland Heights with my family, and I intend to stay here until I either retire to Florida or die.  Politically I’m best described as a moderate independent, though I do tend to lean a bit to the left.

As you can imagine, given my line of work, I have an opinion regarding the PROTECT IP Act which you have co-sponsored.  The aims of PROTECT IP are understandable, but the methods are unacceptable.  Put another way, if you wish to combat piracy and intellectual property theft, there are far better ways to go about it.

As someone with twenty years of technical experience with the Internet and nearly as many with the web—I started creating web pages in late 1993—please believe me when I say the enforcement mechanisms of the bill are deeply flawed and attack the very features of the Web that make it what it is.  They are akin to making a criminal of anyone who gives directions to a park where drug trafficking takes place, regardless of whether they knew about the drug trafficking.  You don’t have to be in favor of drug trafficking to oppose that.

This is not a case where tweaking a clause or two will fix it; correction in this case would mean starting from scratch.  Again, the objection is not with the general intent of the bill.  It is with how the bill goes about achieving those aims.

If you would like to discuss this with me further, I would be delighted to do whatever I can to help, but in any event I strongly urge you to reconsider your co-sponsorship of the PROTECT IP Act.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Eric A. Meyer (http://meyerweb.com/)

Partner and co-founder, An Event Apart (http://aneventapart.com/)

If you agree that the PROTECT IP Act is poorly conceived, find out if your senator supports PIPA.  If they do, get in touch and let them know about your opposition.  If they oppose the bill, get in touch and thank them for their opposition.  If their support or opposition isn’t known, get in touch and ask them to please speak out in opposition to the bill.

As others have said, postal letters are better than phone calls, which are in turn better than e-mail, which is in turn better than signing petitions.  Do what you can, please.  The web site you save might be your own.

Memetic Epidemiology

I had planned to spend yesterday goofing off, as is my tradition for the day after I return from a conference and don’t have anything immediately pressing on my plate.  Instead I watched and documented, as best I could, a case of memetic epidemiology happen in realtime.

The meme was the Cooks Source story, which I stumbled across relatively early in the day.  I won’t recap the story here, as the original LiveJournal post by Monica Gaudio and Edward Champion’s very well-researched article do a much better job of that.  The latter piece is particularly commendable if you’re new to the story, as it not only explains the genesis of the incident but also lays bare a number of other things that were discovered as the story went ballistic.

I’m not sure exactly where I first came across the story—probably a retweet of Adam Banks by a friend of mine—but at the time the meme was really just getting started.  At that point there were quite a few people posting on the Cooks Source Facebook Wall to chastise the editor, and the rate of posting was accelerating.  I threw in my own tweet on the topic and kept watching the Wall to see if there would be a response, if the Facebook page would be deleted, or something else.  At the same time, I was seeing more and more tweets and retweets of the story, and based on just what I could see, it seemed primed to go crazy.  I was rewteeted by swissmiss, who has four times as many followers as me (and way more influential followers than me), and it was hitting the feeds of more and more people I follow.

When it showed up on John Scalzi’s tweet stream, I actually got a little dizzy.  This was the moment where I felt like the scientist at the beginning of a viral-apocalypse movie, staring at a monitor showing the sites of reported infection in red.  Then, in a burst of tense, ominous music, the dots show up in New York City and around JFK.  Game over.

I got that feeling because I knew that not only is Mr. Scalzi followed by both Neil Gaiman (1.5 million followers) and Wil Wheaton (1.7 million followers), but he is respected and therefore paid attention to by both.  Furthermore, both, as net-savvy content creators like Mr. Scalzi, are exquisitely sensitive to such stories.  It was only a matter of time before one of them passed the story on to their followers.  And sure enough, within minutes, Neil Gaiman did so.

At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before traditional media channels took interest, and though it took a little while, many did.  It literally became an international news story.

Throughout the day, I tracked the situation and tweeted about it as new developments happened.  I almost couldn’t help myself; I was completely captivated by watching a meme unfold and spread in realtime.  Eventually I hit on a crude measurement of the story’s reach, which I dubbed the Speed of Chastisement (SoC).  This was measured by loading the Cooks Source Wall and then scrolling to the bottom of the page, down to the “Older posts” button.  The time elapsed since the last of the Wall posts was the SoC.  When I started looking at it, it was measurable in minutes, but as the day went on the interval dropped.  At one point, it was as low as 34 seconds, and may well have dropped lower when I wasn’t looking.

I wish I could’ve automatically captured that number, say, every minute, because the timeline graph I could make with that data would be fascinating—especially if mapped against various developments, like Neil Gaiman’s retweet of John Scalzi or the time of various article publications.

One of the things I found most fascinating was how the outraged mob used Cooks Source’s own digital presence against it.  I don’t actually mean all the Wall posts, which served as an emotional outlet but otherwise only indicated the story’s memetic velocity (the SoC I mentioned earlier).  What people did was start new threads in the Discussions tab of Cooks Source’s own Facebook page to document the original sources of Cooks Source articles and to compile the contact information for all of the advertisers in Cooks Source.  The speed at which the crowd operated was awesome in the older sense of that word as inspiring of awe, which is itself defined as power to inspire fear or reverence.  As I told a friend, I was fascinated in the same way I’d be fascinated watching, from a distance, a predator hunting down its prey.  Awe-struck.  It was almost frightening to watch how fast people tracked down the various text and image sources, uncovering more and more evidence of bad behavior at full-bore, redlined Internet speed.

On a related point, I was very impressed by the quality of reporting in Edward Champion’s article about the story.  Alone of all the articles I’ve seen (beyond the first couple of LJ posts), his laid out specific examples of repurposed content, and furthermore he had talked to people involved and gotten their perspective and to people at some of the sites and companies whose material had been re-used.  Read the article, if you didn’t already follow one of the links.  It is investigative journalism done far better than any reporter has yet done for any traditional, or even “new media”, news outlet.

I could write about all this for much longer, but I’m going to hold off.  My day wasn’t all just observation and tweets, though.  A few questions kept hovering in the back of my mind.

  • What if the mob had been wrong?

    Imagine with me for a moment that a small crocheting magazine is accused of copyright violation by an author.  The editor, knowing this to be false, sends a dismissive or even sarcastic letter (we’ve all done it).  The author posts their side of the story and excerpts of the letter to their blog, people notice, and suddenly the Flash Mob of Righteousness is back in business.

    What then?  Is it possible, once the rope is out and being tied into a noose, to put it away again?

  • Did Cooks Source actually win?

    As I write this, about 24 hours after the story really blew up, the Cooks Source Facebook page has gone from 110 people who “Like This” to almost 3,400.  Most of those are because in order to comment on the Wall, you have to Like the page, and a whole lot of people hit “Like”, commented, and then hit “Unlike”.  Some of them are still listed because they’re still posting.  Still, assume that by the time it’s all over, between people who want to keep harassing Cooks Source and people who just forgot to hit “Unlike”, they’ll have well over a thousand people listed.  That’s a full order of magnitude jump in claimed like.

    Is that a measure of success?  Will it, in fact, end up a net positive for Cooks Source as it tries to entice advertisers for future issues?  Of course, that assumes the magazine survives the attention of lawyers from Disney, Paula Deen Enterprises, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the Food Network, Sunset, National Public Radio, and so on and so on.

  • What about Gene Simmons?

    A few weeks back, Gene Simmons (of KISS fame) said that anyone who illegally shares files should be “sued off the face of the earth” and that bands should be litigious about people copying their music.  In response, his web site was cracked and a good deal of derision was directed his way.

    Interesting.  In one case, a content creator who calls for vigorous defense of copyright is attacked for it.  In another, a violator of copyright is attacked.  How many of the people who Wall-bombed Cooks Source’s Facebook page were also cheering the anonymous crackers who harassed Gene Simmons?  Why the disconnect?

    There are many reasons we could cite, and I think the most likely factor is that in both cases, the targets of attack were publicly arrogant and uncompromising about their positions.  That, however, is absolutely no excuse.  If you were outraged by Cooks Source, shouldn’t you cheer Gene Simmons’ stance?  If you rolled your eyes Gene Simmons, shouldn’t you be on the side of Cooks Source?

    I imagine there are people who did one or the other of those things.  But not many.  The contrast says something about how we collectively view intellectual property, and it may not be something we want to face.

This isn’t the first time someone will set off an outrage swarm, and it won’t be the last.  There is much to think about here, about both ourselves and the medium we inhabit.

A Matter of Conscience

So Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell has gained national notoriety for refusing to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, referring them instead to another justice to have the marriage performed.  His action has, of course, provoked a great deal of condemnation.  Pretty much every elected Louisiana official above Mr. Bardwell (and plenty of them to either side) in the administrative hierarchy has called for his removal from his position.  That goes all the way up to Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who said:

“This is a clear violation of constitutional rights and federal and state law. Mr. Bardwell’s actions should be fully reviewed by the Judiciary Commission and disciplinary action should be taken immediately – including the revoking of his license.”

As for Mr. Bardwell himself, he has claimed not to be racist, but instead concerned for the biracial children that result from mixed-race marriage.  Of all that he’s said, though, I was particularly interested by the following:

“I didn’t tell this couple they couldn’t get married. I just told them I wouldn’t do it.”

It interested me because it’s exactly the kind of reasoning that underlies “conscience protection” laws that exempt medical professionals who wish to refuse participation in abortion, or dispensation of contraception.

So now I’m very curious to know whether what pro-life groups have to say about what this man has done and how he’s done it.  Or, for that matter, what Governor Jindal himself now thinks of the bill he recently signed into law.

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