Thursday, 1 June 2017

Fast Company/Elizabeth Grace Saunders: Forget Focus—Here’s When Task Switching Makes You More Productive

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    06.01.17 8:00 am work smart

Forget Focus—Here’s When Task Switching Makes You More Productive

Your brain can’t focus forever. In fact, even two hours is pushing it. Here’s how a little variety can help.


By Elizabeth Grace Saunders 4 minute Read

“Focus. Focus. Focus.” It’s a mantra I repeat to myself when I want to kick my brain into high gear.
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The only hitch is that it doesn’t always work. In fact, some situations just aren’t meant for long stretches of intense, unbroken focus. You know all about the futility of multitasking, but there are actually times when your “monotasking” efforts go too far—or at least go on for too long, and lead to diminishing returns.

That being so, here are three common situations when intentionally switching tasks (sooner than you might think) is the most efficient thing you can do to stay productive.
1. Knocking Out Small, Boring Tasks

Most of us tend to procrastinate on our most mundane, mindless work, leaving certain tasks lingering on our to-do lists for weeks, months, or even years. Soon enough, they grow mold like long-forgotten leftovers jammed into the back of the refrigerator.

One little trick I’ve found to help overcome small-task fatigue—not to mention boring-task avoidance—is to stop trying to polish them all off in one sitting. Instead, I try to deliberately switch gears between different types of activities, even if they’re all minor, tedious to-do list items. Letting your mind wander at will within a certain type of task can reduce your resistance to them.

For example, when I sit down in the morning to plan my workday, I go through the same checklist every time. This can be a pretty dry process. However, I give myself freedom to accomplish the checklist in any order I like. I might start by answering some business emails, then look over calendar tasks, then flip back to answering more business emails, then hop over to rattle off a few quick replies to my most pressing personal emails, then finally finish clearing out my business inbox, and then go through my tickler files. By giving myself the flexibility to switch back and forth between tasks, I keep myself from getting bogged down on any one activity.

Another effective way to task-switch is to toggle between boring and (relatively) exciting tasks. For example, I know I need to get certain administrative tasks done each day, but it can be really hard to motivate myself if there’s no clear deadline. I somehow always find something “more important” to do.

So I made it a rule that before I can do anything from my book-marketing task list—an activity I actually find exciting—I needed to do one small item from my administrative to-do list.
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By sticking with this intentional task-switching, I find that I manage to get paperwork filled out that I’ve been putting off and still manage to make some real headway on my book marketing efforts; I don’t have to choose between them. The promise of soon being able to do something fun helps me quit procrastinating on what’s not fun.
2. Rotating Your Most Deep-Focus Tasks

For most modern workers, getting in even an hour or two of concentrated work time is a feat. But if you’re among the lucky few who can clear even longer stretches to focus on tasks requiring thoughtful attention, you should still plan on setting a timer.

According to author Cal Newport, “If you study [the] absolute world-class, best virtuoso violin players, none of them put in more than about four or so hours of practice in a day, because that’s the cognitive limit.” As he explained in an Accidental Creative podcast in 2013, “this limit actually shows up in a lot of different fields where people do intense training.”

Instead, Newport continued, “they often break this into two sessions, of two hours and then two hours . . . I think if you’re able to do three, maybe four hours of this sort of deep work in a typical day, you’re hitting basically the mental speed limit.”

Related: Constant Connectivity Is Killing Your Focus—Here’s What To Do About It

So when it comes to the most difficult tasks of your workweek, you might want to plan ahead for task switching. Maybe you’ll start your day with with background reading or research, then work on problem-solving or writing, take a break for lunch, do more reading, complete another deep work session, and then end the day with something much lighter, like email. This way you’ll have devoted most of your day to deeply focused work without getting drained by a single, high-concentration task.

Building in variety doesn’t mean constantly breaking concentration to do something mindless. By switching gears periodically, you can stay in a focused headspace without getting mentally fatigued, then struggling to refocus after your powers of concentration inevitably fail you.
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3. Problem-Solving

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to stop trying to solve it. When you feel stumped, Fast Company columnist Art Markman recently pointed out, it’s usually because your brain is having difficulty retrieving new bits of information from your memory. That’s when procrastination (of a sort) can help.

Related: Your Brain Has A “Shuffle” Button—Here’s How To Use It

Switching tasks can break your brain out of a focused mode that isn’t getting you anywhere and lead you into a more diffuse mental state—where useful ideas are more likely to shake loose.

That could mean working on a different sort of task for the rest of the day, or even not working at all for awhile; sometimes just going for a walk or chatting with a colleague is exactly what your brain needs. Maybe you need to start work on a new project you haven’t begun digging into at all just yet. (Or maybe you just need a vacation.) Whether it’s stepping away for a few hours, days, or even weeks before coming back with fresh eyes, breaks like these can help you problem-solve better than forced focus might.

Just remember: You aren’t procrastinating. You’re just giving your brain the variety it needs to stay alert—and productive—for longer.
About the author

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time coach, the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training, and the author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money and The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress.

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    05.22.17 future of philanthropy

The 5 Books On Bill Gates’s Summer Reading List–From Jimmy Carter To Trevor Noah
If you are worried your beach reads might be a little too easy this summer, Gates has some more heady suggestions for you.
The 5 Books On Bill Gates’s Summer Reading List–From Jimmy Carter To Trevor Noah
The list, Gates says, “pushed me out of my own experiences, and I learned some things that made me question my own thinking about how the world works.”[Photo: courtesy GatesNotes]

By Ben Paynter3 minute Read

As one of the world’s top philanthropists, perhaps it makes sense that Bill Gates is treating beach reading like an intellectual cause: Each year, he offers up his list of the most important beach reads, none of which have ever featured Fabio on the cover.
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Most tackle headier world topics including 2016 choices like The Vital Question, a scientific investigation by into how energy transfers between cells, to How to Not to Be Wrong, which offered plenty of life-improving equations built on math principles.

This year’s list is different, though, because it has a slightly more philosophical bent. As Gates writes on his personal blog, GatesNotes, the list “pushed me out of my own experiences, and I learned some things that made me question my own thinking about how the world works.” His five book lineup includes musing from a well-known talk show host, former president, and a few lesser-known people whose perspectives will definitely be better known now, which is sort of the point. As Gates puts it “I hope you’ll find that others make you think deeper about what it means to truly connect with other people and to have purpose in your life.” It’s a message that seems particularly on-point in these divisive political times.
[Cover: Random House]
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

In his memoir, The Daily Show host riffs on what it was like to grow up biracial in apartheid South Africa, and how it propelled his particularly pointed albeit humor-seeking worldview. “As a longtime fan of The Daily Show, I loved reading this memoir about how its host honed his outsider approach to comedy over a lifetime of never quite fitting in,” Gates writes.
[Cover: Farrar, Straus & Giroux]
The Heart, by Maylis de Kerangal

This novel chronicles the journey of a man’s heart from his accidental death to its eventual transplant and all who encounter it along the way. Gates calls it “an exploration of grief” that is “closer to poetry than anything else.” As in, even super cerebral thinkers should step back to meditate the fragility of life and our human condition.
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

This memoir explores what it takes to overcome rural poverty in Appalachia. There isn’t really a simple solution for places with deeply systemic problems (and Vance’s book has come under quite a bit of criticism for its views on those systemic problems). Gates calls this an “against all odds” tale that offers “insights into some of the complex cultural and family issues behind poverty.” Spoiler alert: Vance is now a successful venture capitalist in San Francisco.
[Cover: Harper]
Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

This is another big question book, a philosophical look at the potential future of humanity, powered by advances in technology and human potential. “So far, the things that have shaped society–what we measure ourselves by–have been either religious rules about how to live a good life, or more earthly goals like getting rid of sickness, hunger, and war,” Gates writes. “What would the world be like if we actually achieved those things? I don’t agree with everything Harari has to say, but he has written a smart look at what may be ahead for humanity.”
[Cover: Simon & Schuster]
A Full Life, by Jimmy Carter

The peanut farmer’s son who went on to became president offers up anecdotes about what it takes to become successful. For Gates, the real power of the book is that it shows what happens “for better and for worse” when a Have Not eventually takes high office. As he puts it, “A Full Life feels timely in an era when the public’s confidence in national political figures and institutions is low.”
About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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    05.18.17 the future of work

Five Skills You’ll Need To Lead The Company Of The Future
What worked in the past doesn’t work now.
Five Skills You’ll Need To Lead The Company Of The Future
[Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images]

By Jared Lindzon4 minute Read

In the traditional corporate model, strong leaders pursued a singular vision through the strong command of an organization. Today, we live in a time of rapid change, when products and services often become obsolete overnight, and competition includes startups and companies in adjacent industries–the traditional leadership archetypes need not apply.
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Instead an entirely new value system is beginning to emerge for the leaders of the future, one that will continue to grow with the rise of new tools like artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation.

“There’s been a transition from thinking about corporations solely as revenues and profits, and thinking about the organization in a more inclusive way,” says Ernst & Young’s (EY) global chief innovation officer, Jeff Wong. “Clearly revenue and profits are still important, but the leading companies are starting to think beyond that.”

Wong adds that while organizations used to select leaders based on relevant management experience, there is now a premium on leaders who demonstrate drastically different skill sets; the ones that experts believe will help organizations navigate a rapidly changing business environment.
1. The Ability To Think Of New Solutions

While leaders of the past were often tasked with executing predetermined strategies, increasing efficiency, and improving preexisting processes, one of the most valuable assets of future leaders is their willingness and ability to create something entirely new.

“We know the world is changing rapidly, we know that change is accelerating, we know that when you look at companies and industries that are evolving rapidly that there will be a series of new opportunities to go after, which will also be a chance to help define the evolution of their industry,” explains Wong.

Wong explains that as industries, processes, and business models are reinvented by disruptive technologies, the most valuable leaders of tomorrow are those that can shape the impact of those changes, rather than react to them.

“They’re leaders who can seek out new opportunities, who can deliver those new opportunities, but can also help redefine their own business into what it needs to be for the future,” he says.
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2. Being Comfortable With Chaos

In an increasingly chaotic business landscape, the leaders who thrive are those who work well in unknown conditions.

“There are systems and processes that have been built up from the past that were fantastic for that era, but they aren’t fast or nimble enough to match this pace of change,”says Wong.

Leaders who can demonstrate a level of comfort with the chaos that results from reinventing long-standing processes are better prepared for the challenges that await them in the future, he says.
3. An Understanding Of Technology

While the leaders of the future won’t necessarily need to be the ones writing code, experts suggest that they will at least be required to demonstrate a robust understanding of the capabilities, applications, and future potential of emerging technologies.

“Information technology is moving from more of a supporting role that creates efficiency to a differentiating role that will increase effectiveness,” says Guo Xiao, the president and CEO of ThoughtWorks, a global technology consultancy. “Corporations are taking tech more and more seriously, regardless of what industry they’re working in.”

Xiao explains that industries as diverse as retail, agriculture, and manufacturing are increasingly naming technology experts to their advisory boards, while adding more C-level positions in the information and technology space. These efforts, he explains, are in recognition of the fact that technology needs to drive core business functions in order for companies to remain competitive.

“IT staff are now sitting in the center of innovation teams, because the company understands that with ever-changing technologies their business models are facing opportunities to be disrupted or evolved,” he says.
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4. High Emotional Intelligence

In a future that incorporates more artificial intelligence in the workplace, leaders who are emotionally intelligent will ultimately thrive.

“If you think about the assembly line in a very hierarchal organization, it was about measurement and control,” explains Accenture’s chief technology and innovation officer, Paul Daugherty. “Then we moved to the second generation of management, which was still about control over sequential processes.”

As part of management’s ongoing evolution that military-like control over subordinates has gone from a key leadership value to a competitive disadvantage, suggests Daugherty.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous in business processes, organizations have become flatter and less hierarchal, he explains. “As you have work processes evolving more organically, it’s going to be driven by leaders that understand and invest in people.”

Daugherty points to five traits of successful future business leaders, each emphasizing traits that cannot be replicated by artificial intelligence anytime soon. They include accountability, transparency, fairness, honesty, and an ability to design systems and processes for humans.
5. The Ability To Work With People and Technology Together

With the increasing influence of technology on businesses both within and beyond the tech industry, the most effective leaders of tomorrow will understand how to delegate between humans and machines in a way that maximizes the capabilities of both.

“The obligation of leaders is to step back and look at not just how you apply AI to the business, but how you change a process,” says Daugherty. “Look at the roles that people play in that process and apply technology that optimizes the value of the people in those roles.”
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While some look at emerging technologies with fear and anxiety, the most future-ready leaders are excited to integrate them into their workforce, explains Wong.

“The best leaders love the benefits of the two working together,” he says. “They love AI, they love bots, they love anything that makes them better, helps them make better decisions, and helps them see things more clearly.”
About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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    05.16.17

What’s Your American Dream Score? This Quiz Will Tell You
The results might disabuse you of the idea that everything you achieved was just because of your hard work.
What’s Your American Dream Score? This Quiz Will Tell You
The roles of luck, or circumstance, or the invisible marionette strings of the job market and the economy are never considered. [Photo: Willard/iStock]

By Eillie Anzilotti5 minute Read

Though he didn’t understand the significance of it during his childhood, Bob McKinnon’s hometown of Chelsea, Massachusetts was also where Horatio Alger–19th-century spinner of the rags-to-riches tales that built the sentimental backbone of the American Dream–was born. McKinnon grew up the son of a single mother, a bartender who relocated the family to a rural Pennsylvania trailer park after meeting and marrying a truck driver. His family was on food stamps and Medicaid. His brother became a factory worker; his sister a truck driver. McKinnon was the only one of his family to go to college. After a successful career in marketing, he founded GALEWiLL, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating solutions to social issues and inequities.
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That his own life story should closely ascribe to the structure of a modern-day Horatio Alger story is not lost on McKinnon. “I went through urban poverty and rural poverty, but I was really fortunate and worked hard and was met with success on a whole lot of levels,” McKinnon tells Fast Company. “And of course, going through this, you’re confronted with all these stories about the American Dream and how nothing holds anyone back. But you also stop and reflect and think: Numerically, I’m not supposed to be where I am right now.”

Cresting the heights of the American Dream is, in the popular imagination, often seen as a matter of brute-force bootstrapping: Who can work the hardest to overcome their odds? Who can persevere in the face of the harshest adversity? The roles of luck, or circumstance, or the invisible marionette strings of the job market and the economy are never considered, McKinnon says. Success in America is a marketed as a man-made phenomenon.

“You have this idea of the American Dream, and that’s important to have in a way because it gives people hope. But then I started wondering: Is it actually limiting?” [Photo: sergey02/iStock]
A new project from GALEWiLL and funded by the Ford Foundation, called the Your American Dream Score, deflates that idea that success–or lack thereof–is purely one’s own doing. The calculator is a part of a larger initiative, Moving Up: The Truth About Getting Ahead In America, which comprehensively examines the factors that contribute to mobility in America, and why changing one’s circumstances is far more difficult than the folklore leads up to believe (Fast Company has syndicated some of Moving Up’s articles). The reasons are myriad: wide disparities in educational quality, access to resources like healthy food, and social and familial support are just a slice. But too often, McKinnon says, when someone “makes it out”–like him–the only reason offered up is: “He worked hard.” When someone doesn’t make it out, the reason is: “He didn’t work hard enough.”

Using the Your American Dream Score, you see how many factors beyond the self play into one’s outcomes. The five-minute-long quiz, developed by the firm Sol Design, first asks you to enter your demographic information, then moves into more personal questions: What personality traits would your friends ascribe to you? What was your family situation growing up? How has your health been your whole life? How about your friendships? Have you received government benefits?

You’re then given a score out of 100, with scores starting at 45 to reflect a baseline of individual effort. “We realized if we did not have that floor some might feel as if their own efforts were being discounted,” McKinnon says. If you score less than 53, that means you have all factors working in your favor and have less to overcome; 54-65, the majority of factors have been on your side; 66-79, you’ve had more working against than for you; 80 and above, you’ve been dealt a tough hand.

By getting people to think more holistically about the factors that contribute to success, McKinnon wants to break down what he sees as the two most harmful fallouts of the self-made-person mythology that still persists in America. “On the one hand, you have this idea of the American Dream, and that’s important to have in a way because it gives people hope,” McKinnon says. “But then I started wondering: Is it actually limiting?” Take a school that’s clearly underperforming, McKinnon says. “Instead of fixing the school, people can point to the two kids that made it out and say: Why doesn’t everyone work as hard as they do?”

And then there’s the fact often, people who “make it” forget the path they took to arrive where they are now. This phenomenon is called fundamental attribution bias, and it’s perhaps best explained by a 2012 study done by Paul Piff, a researcher at UC Berkeley who set up a rigged game of Monopoly, in which one player–determined by a coin flip–started out with twice the money as the other, and got to drive a model Rolls Royce around the board, while the opponent was relegated to an old shoe. While the player who started out with the most money invariably won the game, they never, Piff found, attributed their victory to their initial advantage–instead, they pointed to their superior strategy or skill.
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This type of reasoning infects the American understanding of success, and McKinnon wants to put an end to it. “There’s a growing body of research that suggests that when people reflect in a more nuanced way on their own journey or other people’s, they become more grateful for the things that have helped them, they become more supportive of those who are struggling, and they more actively engage in ways to help people,” McKinnon says. By being more upfront about the substantial difference external factors make–especially those like food stamps and housing assistance, which people often avoid discussion out of fear of stigma–we can, McKinnon says, begin to turn more attention to supporting those very systems that make mobility possible.

Part of the Your American Dream Score’s efficacy, McKinnon says, will lie in its reach–Moving Up partnered with WNET, the flagship station of PBS which will host Your American Dream Score through its Chasing the Dream initiative, and is engaging celebrities and business leaders to ensure the web platform is publicized in all communities in America, where the tool can offer perspective on people’s circumstances. But the calculator also tells users what they can do with that perspective: At the end of the quiz, users are directed to a number of resources for support and further information, as well as volunteer opportunities and prompts to thank people in their lives. The Moving Up team will also be releasing a discussion guide for schools and other organizations to discuss the factors in a structured way.

Through getting that conversation going, McKinnon hopes to “begin to figure out how we can make more investments in these tailwinds–these things that we know do help people move forward,” he says. “But it has to start with figuring out how we can tell the story better.”
About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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    05.15.17

Companies Steal $15 Billion From Their Employees Every Year
The amount of money employers take from their employees each year–by refusing to pay overtime or misclassifying workers so they don’t get minimum wage–is larger than the value of all the theft by criminals.
Companies Steal $15 Billion From Their Employees Every Year
An average wage theft victim earns just $10,500 in wages a year–and loses up to $3,300 of that to unscrupulous bosses. [Photo: Raphye Alexius/Getty Images]

By Ben Schiller3 minute Read

When employers fail to pay overtime, withhold tips from waitresses and waiters, or misclassify workers as exempt from minimum wage regulations, they’re stealing income from the poorest members of society. “Wage theft,” the collective term for this practice, can take many forms. But it comes down to something simple: bosses stiffing workers out what they are legally owed.
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This workplace larceny is worse than you might think. The Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank that investigates labor issues, analyzed records for the 10 most populous states. Looking just at one form of wage theft–failure to pay minimum wages in each state–it documents $8 billion in annual underpayments. Extrapolated across the U.S. as a whole, it calculates a total of $15 billion a year in employer misappropriation, which is more than the value of all the property stolen during robberies, burglaries, and auto thefts across the country.
Workers suffering minimum wage violations lose an average of $64 per week, almost a quarter of their weekly earnings.

The report finds 2.4 million workers affected across the ten states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. And it says workers suffering minimum wage violations lose an average of $64 per week, almost a quarter of their weekly earnings. An average wage theft victim earns just $10,500 in wages a year–and loses up to $3,300 of that to unscrupulous bosses.

“Property crime is a better understood, more tangible form of crime than wage theft, and federal, state, and local governments spend tremendous resources to combat it,” the report, written by EPI analyst David Cooper and research assistant Teresa Kroeger, says. “In contrast, lawmakers in much of the country allocate little, if any, resources to fighting wage theft, yet the cost of wage theft is at least comparable to–and likely much higher than–the cost of property crime.”

Cooper and Kroeger say that wage theft could be reduced through better enforcement of labor laws, including increasing penalties for violators, protecting workers from retaliation, and improving collective bargaining rights. It notes that the U.S. Department of Labor, which is responsible for investigating minimum violations, is chronically under-staffed. In 2015, its Wage and Hour Division (WHD) employed about the same number of investigators as 70 years ago–about 1000–despite a huge expansion of the economy over that time. The U.S. workforce is about six times larger today (135 million in 2015) compared to the 1940s (22.6 million in 1948).

The Obama Administration expanded the WHD from 700 to 1,000 staff and appointed the first WHD administrator in more than a decade (other appointees had been held up in Senate confirmation battles). David Weil, a professor at Boston University and author of the book The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done To Improve It, is credited with stepping up misclassification investigations and helping to prosecute several offenders of labor law. By contrast, President Trump has yet to appoint a WHD administrator (or many other positions at the U.S. Department of Labor). His original choice for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder–a rapid opponent of minimum wage laws–was never confirmed amid domestic abuse allegations. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Trump’s second choice, is considered to be more favorable towards labor. But it remains to be seen how independent he’ll be from the White House and whether he builds on the enforcement regime of the last administration.

Though it might be nice to think that employers wouldn’t need reminding of their responsibilities, or that workers (or their unions, if they have one–which they probably don’t) could enforce the rules, the EPI doesn’t sound hopeful. Enforcement makes the difference over time, it says (a point that Weil and other labor advocates echo). “The ability of employers to steal earned wages from their employees–largely with impunity–is but one more factor that has kept a generation of American workers from achieving greater improvements in their standard of living,” it says. “Lawmakers who care about the long-term economic health of American households and the ability of ordinary working people to get ahead should be paying more attention to whether those workers are actually being paid all the wages they have earned.”
About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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