If there is one progressive benefit of internet, I would unequivocally state that it has given millions of people all around the world, a voice. Over the years we have seen how the voice metamorphized into a roar as more and more people are exposed to the power of this amazing medium. One of the most important aspects of internet is that, you can find answers to your most pressing questions with the help of an array of ‘experts’ from around the world — the prominent one being online reviews. Let’s consider that you want to buy something from online — the first feedback that you would seek to ensure that the purchase is a sensible one, would be to check how well is it rated; 5 stars vs 4 stars vs… The next stop likely would be user comments. By relying on these two sources, the mind naturally starts to develop an opinion. This generation of opinion today has been manipulated heavily to such an extent that one can be really unsure of what is actually happening.

I do Google Rewards surveys regularly, where I answer few non-intrusive questions for paltry Google Play credits which I can use later for purchasing movies, eBooks etc. I regularly check the Google surveys of establishments that I frequent to get an indicator of how well they are performing. Recently I discovered to my aghast, the power of how these reviews can conversely result in bloody consequences. One of the establishments I frequent, on one occasion had a receptionist who was having a particularly bad day. The next day, I received a notification of a new review for that establishment completed by one of Google’s empowered local guides. The receptionist was blasted with the unkindest words in this review by reviewer who even went far to blame the former’s callousness to a spate of mishaps happening external to the establishment, that had affected its patrons. The receptionist was soon let go from their job based on this one review since the corporate office had zero tolerance to negative reviews. As I witnessed this farce, I was flabbergasted at the sheer impunity of ruthlessness — one that takes the human away from the equation and allows livelihoods to be trampled based on some John Doe’s opinions formulated from behind a screen.

To add to this facade, I came across a news article that showed how competitors in the world’s largest online marketplace employs fake reviewers to promote one’s products and demean competitors’ products — including the extent to which these companies stoop in these efforts. These disturbing tendencies have only increased in a commercialized and increasingly competitive world. I have heard that AI provides the employers of today with sophisticated tools that vet people based on their online presence (or even lack of) and develop highly intelligent virtual models of them on which variables can be applied to measure responses. Based on these responses, significant insights on personalities and how they are a ‘best fit’ to the organization can be developed.

To summarize, online reviews has now been reduced an artificial banter of no substance that has been harmful and undermining the purpose of why the internet was established in the first place. It has become a cancer that is slowly devouring online consciousness due to the scale of its savagery. Since this has remained unchecked for a long time and that no one wanted to make the needed efforts, only time will tell what will become of this anomaly.

Oil may be Back

The end of last week has seen oil begin to make its slow and painful recovery after being in the dumps for a long time. There are however no indications that the price will bounce back to the earlier highs of yesteryears. It is a tough proposition for the industry but it does provide it with an amazing opportunity. One is the fact that baby boomer generation would have completely moved on to retirement and there are opportunities for the new generation to bring in newer ideas and much needed innovation/disruption to the industry. But the industry definitely need to put its foot down for the next boom cycle and bite less and chew properly because such regular devastating lows will drive out talent and create long-term consequences.

How I found my first job and learnt from it

There is always a job prepared for you somewhere. It is for you to see it, believe in it, chase it with all you have and get it.

Like any graduate student I was at the top of my world, the day I completed my four year program in Chemical Engineering. After all the learnings and hardships from the years gone by and reaching the summit of achievement, I felt like a king and waited to take on my next big challenge-the world. I was mighty excited as I felt myself to be extremely skilled and qualified to do fantabulously well in the next big chapter of my life – a job.

Since my parents lived in Abu Dhabi, I didn’t bother to spend time looking for a job in India. Also apart from IT based jobs, there were very few jobs that came calling in my speciality-Chemical Engineering. Considering my engineering background it made sense for me to look for a job in Abu Dhabi as it is an oil rich province with several upstream and downstream processes. I thought it would be easy for me to find a job and I arrived in Abu Dhabi without much preparation just before the advent of summer.

In those days, Internet was just getting mainstream and hence most of the job postings appeared in the newspapers. I began earnestly applying for jobs that I found in the classified section of the local newspaper. Very quickly I found out that most of the plum chemical engineering jobs were in the national oil companies and they were ready to hire me on any given day provided I had ‘experience’. The word ‘experience’ is a dreadful word to any fresher looking for a job anywhere in this world. For the next six months I kept hearing this word again and again and came to the conclusion that I should have done a degree in ‘experience’ and not in Chemical Engineering.

The private sector of Abu Dhabi that worked in oil and gas were service providers with a majority of employees as hardcore salesmen. I was able to land a few interviews in many of these sales companies but I had to turn them down as had I taken the offer, I would have to bid adieu to all the technical knowledge that I painstakingly acquired in the past four years.

As months passed by, I began to grow desperate. I wasn’t able to land any good job. adding insult to injury it was the year when the oil price touched record highs and there were expansion or maintenance projects in the entire oil and gas sector of the Middle East. I realized that my resume which was basically an achievement based resume did not make any sense since I did not have the requisite experience for the position that I was applying. I then decided to redraft my entire resume to one where my skills gained prominence.

Next I decided to knock on doorsteps of as many oil services companies with print copies of my modified resume. With a keen attention to my presentation, I tirelessly walked towards many companies and did the honours. Incidentally it was in one of those companies that I landed my first job months later due to other reasons as will be explained later in this post. The next strategy was to ‘fax bomb’ all the companies with my resumes and some of the prestigious ones with both my resume and cover letter attached. Both the endeavours failed miserably. I did feel desperate, but I was not willing to give up.

Networking was the next thing I employed. In my community church, among our family friends, I made it a point to discuss about employment options in their companies. Many of them helped me with timely advice and forwarded my resume within their companies and to their contacts working in other companies. Most of the efforts were unsuccessful, but I kept hope and did my follow-ups.

Eight months later I received the call that would finally launch my career. It was for an oilfield services company that was looking for a Chemical Engineer to work both in onshore and offshore projects for their oil recovery equipments. One of the senior managers in that company on his visit to a subsidiary of my dad’s company remarked during a casual talk  that his company was looking for a chemical engineer. One of my dad’s friend with whom I conversed about my job search, quickly reminisced  and provided him with my resume. He took the resume to his company and I secured my interview.

During my first interview I realized how my education was so inadequate to the job that I was embarking upon and the only thing that helped me ace that interview was the skills that I cultivated during my education and job search period. I resolved to work hard even for a very low paycheque because I needed experience. As I made my way out following a successful interview, I noticed a person standing in the reception and dropping his resume to receptionist asking for a job. As he turned around, the receptionist threw it into the bin.

Some of the main lessons that I learnt from my experience is as follows:

  1. Finding a job is like trying to catch a butterfly. You need to be tenacious, focussed and remember never to give up.
  2. Education is good as long as you can show it as a skill and not as an accreditation. More the skills, the merrier your job search would be.
  3. Timing is very important. One of the main reasons why I had to wait 8 months to get a break was that I started searching for a job just when half of the city was planning to go on summer holidays!!
  4. Networking is very important in landing a job. If you can network far and wide and sell yourself extensively, you will be able to find your opening. However never forget any of your networking contacts or colleagues. They are your life-long friends.
  5. Always keep applying to jobs near and far. Be tenacious, focussed and aggressive. Remember all you need is that foot through the door.
  6. Presentation of your resume and even yourself matters. In today’s world, you do need a vibrant social media profile to complement yourselves. Remember that you are selling a product which coincidentally is you, your life and your dreams.

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The Hydrocarbon Conundrum

Hydrocarbons have always been a blessing and a curse. Their utility remains a conundrum of the 21st century.

Since 2003, one of the main events in world history would be the astronomical surge of the oil prices. In 1999, the oil price was at $20 and the forecast for the next ten years was that it would hit $10. But everything changed from 2001 when the Bush administration allowed a trillion dollar tax cut that favored the upper income groups so as to increase spending and another trillion dollars to wage two never ending wars. This depressed the dollar causing the investors to buy oil futures as an asset play and as a surrogate currency to protect against a weakening dollar. The oil prices surged to $147 in 2008 before plunging again in 2009. It did increase for following four years as the American economy began recovering and the Chinese economy grew at a rapid pace. During this time, there was a marked increase in conflicts across the world, creating economic boom and opportunities for many countries with higher costs of oil production like Iran, Canada, and Russia etc. With a strong dollar and slowed growth in China it has decreased significantly this year causing economic stagnation in many places that enjoyed the fruits of the boom earlier.

Welcome to the hydrocarbon economy. As the name suggests, organically hydrocarbon is comprised of hydrogen and carbon with a majority off them naturally occurring in crude oil. They are the primary energy source for the 21st century mankind, contributing to most of our human progress since the late 18th century. One of the earliest mentions about hydrocarbons were in the usage of asphalt during the construction of the wall of Babylon (as per Herodotus) and during the time of Moses’ birth, where he was placed in a papyrus basket coated with tar and pitch. There have been documented uses of oil at various times since then across the world in Persia, China, Burma and in places that constitute the current Middle East. Since 1847 when James Young first discovered the process to distill kerosene, hydrocarbons have changed the course of human progress for the better by their uses in lighting (kerosene), lubrication (heavy ends that remained from distilling kerosene) during the early stages to wars (most of the conflicts since Second World War) and modern transportation (till date 90% of the transportation needs are met by hydrocarbons). Between 80-90 million barrels of oil are being produced daily (this figure was in 2014, in January 2015 it stood at 94 million barrels) and the consumption rate slightly north of 90 million barrels. The margin between consumption and production is around 5-10 million barrels and the main consumers were US (19%) followed by China (12%). Technological, political and economic developments in these countries play a major factor in determining oil prices, till such a day when the Indian economy should take off.

The greatest uses of hydrocarbons are as fuel of combustion, particularly in motor fuel and heating application. When hydrocarbons are burned, they release carbon di-oxide which is a greenhouse gas that causes ocean acidification and increase in world temperatures by one degree Celsius contributing to global warming and climate change. As explained in an earlier post, many of the commodities, which are created to feed the urge to consume, are derived from an increased use of hydrocarbons. If materialism can be a cause for climate change, the effects from an increased consumption of hydrocarbons cannot be denied.

Conundrum in its simple definition by Merriam Webster means a confusing or difficult problem. A majority of the hydrocarbons being consumed today are being used to feed the world’s surging population because the whole concept of Green Revolution has been built on the availability of cheap oil. One startling estimate by world renowned Michael Pollan puts its as follows:- 10 calories of fossil fuel energy is needed to produce one calorie of food energy. The major consumers in this wasteful equation are the industrial practices on which the food system is built- inefficient growing practices, food processing & storage and the food transportation system that stretches for kilometers between the producer and consumer. 40% of the energy used in the food system goes towards the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, 23% percent is being used in processing and packaging and another 32% is used in home refrigeration and cooking.

Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo once said, “Oil is the Devil’s excrement”. Most of the conflicts in today’s world can be traced to petroleum politics a fact highlighted by movies like Syriana including others. Much as today’s evangelists on climate change and global warming doesn’t want to confess, hydrocarbon economy remains a conundrum till date. Whether you like it or not, the course of modern human history will continue to be determined by hydrocarbons.

Image Courtesy: BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2014

Materialism & Climate change

I wouldn’t say that it is bad to be rich or prosperous, but with increasing wealth, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we need to have a balance with respect to our consumption patterns.

Have you guys ever heard about the Little Ice Age? After Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1491, there was a surge in exploration activity, resulting in one of the earliest intercontinental human migrations from Europe to the Americas. The natives, who used to clear the forest regularly with fire and agriculture, were destroyed in swaths not by weapon but by 20 lethal diseases that accompanied the explorers. These diseases are now believed to have resulted in the death of about 95% of the natives that lived in North America, in what is now known as the ‘greatest demographic catastrophe in human history’.  This resulted in a huge reforesting exercise that drew down the atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting in the Little Ice Age (1550-1800).

2015 has been a very hard year. Plunging oil prices has resulted in a brutal economic slowdown especially in my home province of Alberta, Canada, which is also home to one of the largest oil deposits outside Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The Canadian dollar has fallen and so has the purchasing power of many common people including myself. These days I get inundated with emails from various retailers trying to sell merchandise at basically rock bottom prices. Target has already closed shop and many stores including Future Shop has been dismantled. Shopping malls are literally empty with a sombre mood everywhere.

When I look back to those booming days, I could remember that there was a time when we simply brought stuff incessantly. Sometimes I get this lingering thought in the back of my mind as to why this consumerism that causes the subsequent materialism. Yes, these are indeed the fruits of capitalism. Advertising and marketing has reached an advanced level where it coerces us to queue in front of stores for hours, just to get hold of the latest electronic device; we are also ready to part with our personal information to software companies who makes windfall profits from them. One has to just look at the craze that accompanies Black Friday, Boxing Day or those flash sales that happen every now and then. Every day of the year is being commemorated for something and we just buy, buy and buy to gift someone or even ourselves. I still remember an old acquaintance that actually had to buy a bigger house because his small house became filled with stuff as he was simply addicted to shopping. Do you remember those home renovation series on HGTV where the presenters plead with the people to get rid of what they do not need before purchasing anything, most of the time to deaf ears ?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fifth assessment report (AR5) released in 2014 reported that the scientists were more than 95% certain that most of the global warming is caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other human activities. The United Nations framework of climate change mentions that deep cuts in emissions are required and future global warming must be limited to below 2C, relative to pre-industrial level. In a paper written by the Worldwatch Institute in its annual report, State of the World 2004, unsustainable over-consumption which till recently was associated with developed countries is now widely prevalent in developing countries. The report had these words to talk about the rising ‘consumer class’ of the world which is at least 30% of the world’s population and are mostly concentrated in the developing countries:

“Consumer class”—the group of people characterized by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.

Is consumption bad? No. It had helped initially to meet the basic demands for proper living standards and creating jobs. But the over consumption due to an aggressive consumerism has resulted in challenging the basic natural systems that we depend on such as air, water and not to mention its devastating toll on ecosystems, natural resources etc. It has also made it harder for the world’s poor to even meet their basic needs. Rapid globalisation has ensured that what was once considered, as a luxury is now a necessity in many of the developing countries. The whole debate on climate change has been cleverly manipulated by the western powers to poke the developing countries to reduce their emissions, slow down economic progress and subsequent consumption. Little do they realise that all these are a consequence of their lifestyle and subsequent materialism. William Rees a professor at the University of British Columbia mentions that the current economic paradigm, which is based on increasing human population, economic development and standard of living, is no longer compatible with the biophysical limits of the finite earth.

Materialism is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “way of thinking that gives too much importance to material possessions rather than to spiritual or intellectual things. In North America, it is widely believed that materialism is important to pursue the good life. It has been documented that from 1970-1990s, the percentage of people who actually believed that attending college or further education to obtain financial gain increased from 40-75%. Today that number may be higher.

I wouldn’t say that it is bad to be rich or prosperous, but with increasing wealth, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we need to have a balance with respect to our consumption patterns. We cannot keep buying clothes that we do not wear, food that we do not eat and throw away, electronic items with incremental changes without recycling what we already have, incessant shopping of materials that we do not need. We need to understand that every commodity that we purchase has a human value to it and also an environmental value to it. An iPhone uses all sorts of materials from glass, silicon (semiconductors), lithium (batteries) etc. most of which are sourced from mining. These do have an adverse effect on the environment.

I do not want to sound as a hypocrite here. I am a big consumer of electronics and am equally responsible for many of the cardinal sins that are mentioned in this post. In the beginning of this post I mentioned how we had a Little Ice Age when diseases killed millions of American natives. Today the debate on climate change centers on reducing the warming temperatures to less than 2C. With an increasing global population tipped to be 9 billion by 2040, the only leverage that you and me has in our hands today is adjust our consumption accordingly to what we actually need and not what we want. Only then can we leave an earth for our future generation to call as home.

“I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.” Emile Gauvreau

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Why I hate M&A?

I am a big big opponent of mergers and acquisitions and no matter whatever is being promised, most often people who spend day and night striving to build the company end up paying a heavy price.

On the morning of March 28, a horrendous news broke about Best Buy closing all the Future Shop locations in Canada. Eventually that day which was feared for a long time by many Canadians loyal to Future Shop finally happened. Future Shop was a Canadian-only brick and mortar consumer electronic store, which was purchased by Best Buy years ago. I was a frequent visitor at both these shops,  but the better terms and conditions meted out to the Future Shop employees made it a better place with a great customer experience over Best Buy. If you have visited any Best Buy location in North America you would know why the company is in red mainly because of the poor customer service. Sadly Future Shop is no more and the brand has been terminated with 500 full-time and 1,000 part-time positions that will also be eliminated. I am a big, big opponent of mergers and acquisitions and no matter whatever is being promised,  most often people who spend day and night striving to build the company end up paying a heavy price.

The true reason why a company gets bought in majority of cases is purely commercial in nature. When a big company gobbles up a smaller company,  it’s a period of transformation for both companies. If proper infusion of talent is allowed between the companies, often it ends up being a good business proposition. When two companies with different cultures collide and amalgamate,  most of the time it ends up acrimoniously. The last company I worked with was gobbled up by a large state owned foreign company.  Even though promises were made to retain all employees, hundreds of people were sadly laid off eventually. I moved on quickly before anything like that happened to me. But I personally witnessed the bloodshed of the culture,  values and the spirit of the company that I once was proudly part of. There are many examples like that all over the world. One good example would be when Microsoft took over Nokia’s mobility division, it led to one of the most beloved names in cellphone business ceasing operations for a while and in the name of consolidation, it butchered the livelihood of thousands of people.

Another fact that you must have noticed is that M&A might be designed to stifling competition but  doesn’t always achieve the desired outcome. I hate monopolies created by M&A and most of the time they falter after a while as they forget to innovate. Sirius and XM were two satellite radio companies. Today they are one company that was formed when Sirius Radio purchased XM radio. Recently I was reading how the company is faltering as no one cares about satellite radio anymore and would only day prefer a music streaming app like Spotify. When Best Buy monopolized the Canadian electronic market,  it wasn’t able to match up to the nimbleness of an Internet giant like, which rendered the brick and mortar shops to the status of window-shopping centres. It would be years before Best Buy could come up with a coherent strategy to counter the latter.

I have always believed that each company has an agenda for profit making, set of values and culture that it wants to follow to conduct the business and the humans who toil to perform and achieve the business outcomes or objectives. The leadership sets the culture and the vision to steer the company forward. Most of the time, I have seen that once the leadership runs out of ideas, instead of gracefully stepping aside, they end up selling the company, with deals mostly done over a  round of golf (P.S:- I am being figurative here :)).

Today everyone speaks volumes about wireless charging.  Did you know that over a century ago an amazing man called Tesla discovered wireless charging? Since he was unlucky to stand against the might of Thomas Alva Edison, many of his inventions today are sadly footnotes. If the mighty utility companies had the courage to adopt his inventions,  we wouldn’t be seeing these ugly electric transmission lines in our eyesight in today’s modern towns and cities. Also energy would have been made available seamlessly to millions of people who till date live without the benefits of energy.

I have read tales of how Google buys up independent apps, absorb the developers,  shut down the app and move on by trying to incorporate it as a feature in one of their offerings. Most of the time the app developers,  fattened with a huge paycheck leave after couple of years to a relaxing life elsewhere. This pattern has seen itself manifest again and again in the Silicon Valley with all the major companies. Hence due to this profit motive, M&A renders any technology disruption initiatives to a mere whimper.

I understand that the true nature of a business is to generate profit and also to maximize it’s potential to generate greater incomes year after year. But I do believe that it can only happen with a leadership that has the vision and a nimble, inspired workforce that can execute the vision and in fact exceed the expectations demanded by that vision. The company should always keep disrupting it’s field of business through continuous innovation and relentless pursuit of creative, sustainable and meaningful ideas. It should take calculated risks and learn quickly from them to become bigger and better each year. This is the hard way.  M&A is the easiest. Which one would your company take?

Image courtesy:*600/FullSizeRender[1]2.jpg

My experiences with Corruption in India

Corruption happens because as citizens we allow it to happen. Both hands are needed to make a clap.

Corruption is a pandemic in India. Every sector of the Indian society has been gravely infested with this malaise. Last year because of the slew of corruption scandals under the Indian government, there were widespread protests by a very frustrated middle class.

I had a memorable experience with corruption during my time in India. It was way back during the years 2001-2005. It was during the days when dial up connections were your only source to be connected with the internet. My hometown was on a hilly terrain and the telephone cables were aboveground drawn through plastic conduits. This had both a positive and negative side to it. Maintenance of these lines if there were faults was relatively easy. But the above ground pipes also proved heavily fault prone, especially when large vehicles had to traverse through the narrow roads.

We had a really cocky telephone operator. If at all there were any faults with the line connection, it was really difficult to get him to come and have a look at them, without persuasion and in most cases wads of cash. If one dint pay up, he never returned in the future should there be any problem with their connection. Thanks to the monsoon season and the bad state of roads in my hometown, problems were frequent.

This corrupt telephone operator made it a habit to fleece everybody and with time, newer bad habits were developed. He made a list of the homes in the area where their sons and daughters worked outside India, and ensured that their telephone lines failed frequently, most of the time on the advent of visits by these children to their hometown. He promptly showed up once the rich children on holidays availed of his services, and pocketed huge amounts of money for his ‘efficient’ services.

I was also a frequent victim to his machinations. Most of the time it was easy to blame it on the state of roads or the weather. But slowly I started realizing a pattern. It was most of the time when I was in town or we had cousins or relatives over, that the telephone lines kept failing, even when we had good weather or roads that just returned from periodic maintenance.

Many times, I did confront him on his alleged misdemeanours and he sheepishly looked away, ignoring them most of the time. I yearned for a time when I could teach him a lesson. It wasn’t easy to report him to his superiors as the erstwhile Department of Telecom was corrupt, lazy and a bureaucratic quagmire.

Things started changing as the DoT was rechristened into a public company called BSNL. Since it was a full fledged company and once the sector was opened to private entrants, they had no choice but to change and become professional. But the protagonist of our story never changed.

Later on I moved out of India and I kept hearing tales about him with alarming regularity, as he perfected his art. I kept thinking to myself, ‘this is simply not right’. Whatever he is doing is not right and by not doing something about it, I am allowing such habits to go unpunished. After spending some days thinking about what I need to do, I decided on a plan. I drafted up an email to the higher-ups in BSNL, clearly explaining what he has been doing, and how his actions are becoming a social evil that was affecting everyone. I also explained to them in detail how helpless parents (whose children were working abroad) were held hostage by his machinations. Though a great deal was made in the media about the professionalism of this newly formed company BSNL, I dint expect anything great out of that email and quickly forgot about it.

Within a week, I heard something that made me startled. There was a huge delegation of BSNL managers, police and anti corruption squad (within BSNL) who took this telephone operator into custody, temporarily suspending him, that descended into our hometown. With just a couple of months to go into his retirement, his entire life and career looked jeopardized.

This delegation headed to our house and gently met up with my (now late) grandmother. She saw the pitiful condition this telephone operator and having known him for many years, denied all allegations out of sympathy for him. The delegation did exonerate him, but the whole experience just months before his retirement, unsettled him.

When I visited my hometown years after this, I heard that he changed a great deal in his last months and the whole tale of his experience was a warning to his successor who became an effective operator to this day.

This story always reminds me about how it is important for us to fight these vices of the society head on. I learnt a lot of lessons from this experience. Some of them were:

  1. Corruption happens because as citizens we allow it to happen. Both hands are needed to make a clap.

  2. In any modern society, it’s always about the people. They are the foundation of any modern society. The social institutions are there to serve the people and not the other way around.

  3. Corruption can be tackled, if we the citizens gang-up to fight it.

  4. Corruption is also a result of ineffective democratic systems and practises. Think about this for a change: Which is more easier, fill up paperwork and spend days chasing the paperwork across the inefficient bureaucratic chain for days and weeks-or to pay up and get the work done within hours? These ineffective democratic systems and practises arise from inept and lazy political representatives who are busy filling their pockets than to be worried about some actual work, that they were elected to do in the first place.

To conclude, participation in  the democratic process is not merely casting a vote on the day of election, but a continuous and aggressive demand for better vision, services from their representatives.

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