Dyslexia: trouble reading ‘four’

Dyslexia affects about every tenth reader. It shows up when trying to read, especially when reading fast. But it is still not fully clear what words dyslexic readers find particularly hard. So, I did some research to find out, and I published the article today.

Carl Spitzweg: the bookworm

The bookworm (presumably non-dyslexic)

Imagine seeing a new word ‘bour’. How would you pronounce it? Similar to ‘four’, similar to ‘flour’ or similar to ‘tour’? It is impossible to know. Therefore, words such as ‘four’, ‘flour’ and ‘tour’ are said to be inconsistent – one doesn’t know how to pronounce them when encountering them for the very first time. Given this pronunciation challenge, I, together with my co-author Christoph Scheepers, hypothesised that such words would be more difficult for readers generally, and for dyslexic readers especially.

Finding evidence for a dyslexia specific problem is challenging because dyslexic participants tend to be slower than non-dyslexic people in most tasks that they do. So, if you force them to be as quick as typical readers they will seem bad readers even though they might be merely slow readers. Therefore, we adopted a new task that gave people a very long time to judge whether a bunch of letters are a word or not.

It turns out that inconsistent words like ‘four’ slow down both dyslexic and typical readers. But on top of that dyslexic readers never quite reach the same accuracy as typical readers with these words. It is as if the additional challenge these words pose can, with time, be surmounted in normal readers while dyslexic readers have trouble no matter how much time you give them. In other words, dyslexic people aren’t just slow. At least for some words they have trouble no matter how long they look at them.

This is my very first publication based on work I did more than four years ago. You should check out whether the waiting was worth it. The article is free to access here. I hope it will convince you that dyslexia is a real challenge to investigate. Still, the pay-off to fully understanding it is enormous: helping dyslexic readers cope in a literate society.

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Kunert, R., & Scheepers, C. (2014). Speed and accuracy of dyslexic versus typical word recognition: an eye-movement investigation Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01129
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Picture: Carl Spitzweg [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Old people are immune against the cocktail party effect

Imagine standing at a cocktail party and somewhere your name gets mentioned. Your attention is immediately grabbed by the sound of your name. It is a classic psychological effect with a new twist: old people are immune.

Someone mention my name?

The so-called cocktail party effect has fascinated researchers for a long time. Even though you do not consciously listen to a conversation around you, your own name can grab your attention. That means that unbeknownst to you, you follow the conversations around you. You check them for salient information like your name, and if it occurs you quickly switch attention to where your name was mentioned.

The cocktail party simulated in the lab

In the lab this is investigated slightly differently. Participants listen to one ear and, for example, repeat whatever they hear. Their name is embedded in what they hear coming in to the other (unattended) ear. After the experiment one simply asks ‘Did you hear your own name?’ In a recent paper published by Moshe Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues (in press), around half of the young student participants noticed their name in such a set-up. Compare this to old people aged around 70: next to nobody (only six out of 76 participants) noticed their name being mentioned in the unattended ear.

Why this age difference? Do old people simply not hear well? Unlikely, when the name was played to the ear that they attended to, 45% of old people noticed their names. Clearly, many old people can hear their names, but they do not notice their names if they do not pay attention to this. Young people do not show such a sharp distinction. Half the time they notice their names, even when concentrating on something else.

Focusing the little attention that is available

Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues instead suggest that old people simply have less attention. When they focus on a conversation, they give it their everything. Nothing is left for the kind of unconscious checking of conversations which young people can do so well.

At the next cocktail party you can safely gossip about your old boss. Just avoid mentioning the name of the young new colleague who just started.

 

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Naveh-Benjamin M, Kilb A, Maddox GB, Thomas J, Fine HC, Chen T, & Cowan N (2014). Older adults do not notice their names: A new twist to a classic attention task. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition PMID: 24820668

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Picture:

By Financial Times (Patrón cocktail bar) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Why are ethical standards higher in science than in business and media?

Facebook manipulates user content in the name of science? Scandalous! It manipulates user content in the name of profit? No worries! Want to run a Milgram study these days? Get bashed by your local ethics committee! Want to show it on TV? No worries. Why do projects which seek knowledge have higher ethical standards than projects which seek profit?

Over half a million people were this mouse.

Just as we were preparing to leave for our well-deserved summer holidays this year, research was shaken by the fall-out to a psychological study (Kramer et al., 2014) which manipulated Facebook content. Many scientists objected to the study’s lack of asking for ‘informed consent’, and I think they are right. However, many ordinary people objected to something else. Here’s how Alex Hern put it over at the guardian:

At least when a multinational company, which knows everything about us and controls the very means of communication with our loved ones, acts to try and maximise its profit, it’s predictable. There’s something altogether unsettling about the possibility that Facebook experiments on its users out of little more than curiosity.

Notice the opposition between ‘maximise profit’ which is somehow thought to be okay and ‘experimenting on users’ which is not. I genuinely do not understand this distinction. Suppose the study had never been published in PNAS but instead in the company’s report to share holders (as a new means of emotionally enhancing advertisements), would there have been the same outcry? I doubt it. Why not?

Having issues with TV experimentation versus scientific experimentation?

Was the double standard around the Facebook study the exception? I do not think so.  In the following youtube clip you see the classic Milgram experiment re-created for British TV. The participants’ task is to follow the experimentor’s instructions to electrocute another participant (who is actually an actor) for bad task performance. Electro shocks increase in strength until they are allegedly lethal. People are obviously distressed in this task.

Yesterday, the New Scientist called the classic Milgram experiment one of ‘the most unethical [experiments] ever carried out’. Why is this okay for TV? Now, imagine a hybrid case. Would it be okay if the behaviour shown on TV was scientifically analysed and published in a respectable journal? I guess that would somehow be fine. Why is it okay to run the study with a TV camera involved, not when the TV camera is switched off? This is not a rhetorical question. I actually do not grasp the underlying principle.

Why is ‘experimenting on people’ bad?

In my experience, ethical guidelines are a real burden on researchers. And this is a good thing because society holds researchers to a high ethical standard. Practically all modern research on humans involves strong ethical safe guards. Compare this to business and media. I do not understand why projects seeking private gains (profit for share holders) have a lower ethical standard than research. Surely, the generation of public knowledge is in the greater public interest than private profit making or TV entertainment.

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Kramer AD, Guillory JE, & Hancock JT (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (24), 8788-90 PMID: 24889601

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 : doi: 10.1037/h0040525

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picture: from http://www.geripal.org/2014/07/informed-consent-in-social-media.html

How to increase children’s patience in 5 seconds

A single act increases adults’ compliance with researchers. The same act makes students more likely to volunteer to solve math problems in front of others. Moreover, it makes four-year-olds more patient. What sounds like a miracle cure to everyday problems is actually the oldest trick in the book: human touch.

How do researchers know this? Here is one experiment. In a recently published study (Leonard et al., 2014), four and five year old children were asked to wait for ten minutes in front of candy. The experimenter told them to wait before eating the candy because he had to finish paperwork. How long would children wait before calling the experimenter in because they wanted to eat the candy earlier? Four-year-olds waited for about six minutes while five-year-olds waited for about eight minutes. The task was similar to the classic Marshmallow test shown in the video.

 

The positive effect of touch

However, it all depends on whether the experimenter gave children a friendly touch on the back during the request to wait. If she did, four-year-olds waited for seven minutes (versus 5 minutes without touch) and five-year-olds waited for nine minutes (versus seven minutes without touch). A simple, five-second-long touch made four-year-olds behave as patiently as five-year-olds. It’s surprising how simple and fast the intervention is.

Touch across the ages

This result nicely fits into a wider literature on the benefits of a friendly touch. Already back in the eighties Patterson and colleagues (1986) found that adults spent more time helping with the tedious task of scoring personality tests if they were touched by the experimenter. Interestingly, the touch on the shoulder was hardly ever reported as noteworthy. In the early noughties Gueguen picked this effect up and moved it to the real world. He showed that touch also increases adults’ willingness to help by watching after a large dog (Gueguen & Fisher-Loku, 2002) as well as students’ willingness to volunteer to solve a math problem in front of a class (Gueguen, 2004).

The reason underlying these effects remains a bit mysterious. Does the touch on the back reduce the anxiety of being faced with a new, possibly difficult, task? Does it increase the rapport between experimenter and experimental participant? Does it make time fly by because being touched feels good? Well, time will tell.

Touch your child?

There are obvious sexual connotations related to touching people, unfortunately this includes touching children. As a result, some schools in the UK have adopted a ‘no touch’ policy: teachers are never allowed to touch children. Research shows that such an approach comes at a cost: children behave less patiently when they are not touched. Should society deny itself the benefits of people innocently touching each other?

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Guéguen N, & Fischer-Lokou J (2002). An evaluation of touch on a large request: a field setting. Psychological reports, 90 (1), 267-9 PMID: 11898995

Guéguen, N. (2004). Nonverbal Encouragement of Participation in a Course: the Effect of Touching Social Psychology of Education, 7 (1), 89-98 DOI: 10.1023/B:SPOE.0000010691.30834.14

Leonard JA, Berkowitz T, & Shusterman A (2014). The effect of friendly touch on delay-of-gratification in preschool children. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 1-11 PMID: 24666195

Patterson, M., Powell, J., & Lenihan, M. (1986). Touch, compliance, and interpersonal affect Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10 (1), 41-50 DOI: 10.1007/BF00987204

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How to ask a conference question

Many people are too shy to ask a question after a talk. They may think that many questions are unnecessary, self-important or off topic. Well, that is true. However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from joining in. With this guide anyone is guaranteed to be able to ask a perfectly normal question at any conference in Psychology/Cognitive Neuroscience and beyond.

 

conference, question, speaker, talk, cartoon

 

Beginning formula

Was the talk any good?

Yes: “I really liked your talk. …”

No: “I really liked your talk. …”

 

Main question

Did the presented study use animal models?

Yes: “How could this research be done with humans and what would you predict to happen?”

No: “What would be a good animal model for this topic and couldn’t this resolve some of the methodological issues of your design.”

 

Was the research fundamental (non-applied)?

Yes: “What would be a practical application of these results?”

No: “What is the underlying mechanism that is behind these results?”

 

Was the research done on children?

Yes: “What do your results say about adult processing?”

No: “What would be the developmental time course of these effects?”

 

Did the study only use typical Western student participants?

Yes: “Have you thought about whether these effects will hold up also in non-Western cultures?”

No: “Have you looked into more detail whether the Western sample itself may have subgroups?”

 

Joker:

“Could you go back to slide 6 and explain something for me.” [Wait for scrolling back and ask what a figure actually means. If no figure on slide 6 appears, ask to go one ahead. Repeat until a slide with a figure appears.]

 

If all fails:

Talk at length about your own research followed by “this is less of a question and more of a comment”.

 

Behaviour after question

Could the presenter influence your career?

Yes: Hold eye-contact and nod (whatever s/he says).

No: Check your smartphone for brainsidea updates.

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Picture: from twitter (https://twitter.com/tammyingram/status/343868282538954752/photo/1). Original source unknown.

The 10,000-Hour rule is nonsense

Have you heard of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule? The key to success in any field is practice, and not just a little. A new publication in the journal Psychological Science had a good look at all the evidence and concludes that this rule is nonsense. No Einstein in you, I am afraid.

Albert Einstein, by Doris Ulmann.jpg

Did he just practice a lot?

The authors of the new publication wanted to look at all major areas of expertise where the relationship between practice and performance had been investigated: music, games, sports, professions, and education. They accumulated all the 88 scientific articles that are available at this point and performed one big analysis on the accumulated data of 11,135 participants. A meta-analysis with a huge sample.

The take-home number is 12%. The amount of practice that you do only explains 12% of your performance in a given task. From the 10,000-Hour rule I expected at least 50%. And this low number of 12% is not due to fishy methods in some low-quality articles that were included. Actually, the better the method to assess the amount of practice the lower the apparent effect of practice. The same goes for the method to assess performance on the practiced task.

However, one should differentiate between different kinds of activities. Practice can have a bigger effect. For example, if the context in which the task is performed is very stable (e.g., running) 24% of performance is explained by practice. Unstable contexts (e.g., handling an aviation emergency) push this down to 4% . The area of expertise also made a difference:

  • games: 26%
  • music: 21%
  • sports: 18%
  • education: 4%
  • professions: 1%

In other words the 10,000-Hour rule is nonsense. Stop believing in it. Sure, practice is important. But other factors (age? intelligence? talent?) appear to play a bigger role.

Personally, I have decided not to become a chess master by practicing chess for 10,000 hours or more. I rather focus on activities that play to my strengths. Let’s hope that blogging is one of them.

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Macnamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., & Oswald, F.L. (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis Psychological Science DOI: 10.1037/e633262013-474

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Albert Einstein, by Doris Ulmann” by Doris Ulmann (1882 – 1934) – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number LC-USZC4-4940]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Play music and you’ll see more

 

Check out the video. It is a short demonstration of the so-called attentional blink. Whenever you try to spot the two letters in the rapid sequence you’ll miss the second one. This effect is so robust that generations of Psychology undergraduates learned about it. And then came music and changed everything.

Test your own attentional blink

Did you see the R in the video? Probably you did, but did you see the C? The full sequence starts at 0:48, the R occurs at 0:50 and the sequence ends at 0:53. As far as I can see each letter is presented for about 130 milliseconds (a typical rate for this sort of experiment).

Z P J E M S B S W P E R X C H W Z H B J P S W E Z S W H B P X J H E B P W Z S

Judging by the youtube comments, of those who did the task properly (14 comments when I checked), only 65% saw the C. This is remarkably close to the average performance during an attentional blink (around 60% or so).

Where does the attentional blink come from?

The idea is that when the C is presented it cannot enter attention because attention is busy with the R. Another theory states that you immediately forget that you’ve seen the C. The R is less vulnerable to rapid forgetting.

What does music do with our attention?

In 2005 Christian Olivers and Sander Nieuwenhuis reported that they could simply abolish this widely known effect by playing a rhythmic tune in the background (unfortunately no more details are given). Try it out yourself. Switch on the radio and play a song with a strong beat. Now try the video again. Can you see both the R and the C? The 16 people in the music condition of Olivers and Nieuwenhuis could. Music actually let them see things which without music were invisible.

It is a bit mysterious why music would have such an effect. The article only speculates that it has something to do with music inducing a more ‘diffuse’ state of mind, greater arousal, or positive mood. I think the answer lies somewhere else. Music, especially songs with a strong beat, change how we perceive the world. On the beat (i.e. when most people would clap to the beat) one pays more attention than off the beat. What music might have done to participants is to restructure attention. Once the R occurs, it is no longer able to dominate attention because people are following the rhythmic attentional structure.

Behind my explanation is the so-called dynamic attending theory. Unfortunately, Olivers and Nieuwenhuis appear not to be familiar with it. Perhaps it is time to include some music cognition lessons in psychology undergraduate classes. After all, a bit of music let’s you see things which otherwise remain hidden to you.

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Jones, M., & Boltz, M. (1989). Dynamic attending and responses to time. Psychological Review, 96 (3), 459-491 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.459

Large, E., & Jones, M. (1999). The dynamics of attending: How people track time-varying events. Psychological Review, 106 (1), 119-159 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.106.1.119

Olivers, C., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2005). The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention Psychological Science, 16 (4), 265-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01526.x

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Everything you always wanted to know about language but were too afraid to ask

MPI Nijmegen

The MPI in Nijmegen: the origin of answers to your questions.

The Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen has started a great initiative which tries nothing less than answer all your questions about language. How does it work?

1) Go to this website: http://www.mpi.nl/q-a/questions-and-answers
2) See whether your question has already been answered
3) If not, scroll to the bottom and ask a question yourself.
The answers are not provided by just anybody but by language researchers themselves. Before they are put on the web they get checked by another researcher and they get translated into German, Dutch and English. It’s a huge enterprise, to be sure..
As an employee of the Max Planck Institute I’ve had my own go at answering a few questions:
- How does manipulating through language work?
- Is it true that people who are good in music can learn a language sooner?
- How do gender articles affect cognition?
.What do think of my answers? What questions would you like to see answered?

 

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Thibodeau, P., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Asaridou, S., & McQueen, J. (2013). Speech and music shape the listening brain: evidence for shared domain-general mechanisms Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00321

Segel, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Grammar in Art Frontiers in Psychology, 1 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244

 

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My Life with Point O Five

This project is now done

A lot of subjects I have run

And all of this was wrong

Since p equals just point one.

.

I test more people just like you

Who are Dutch and have a clue

There is this and more to do

But p only rises to point two.

.

So, I try to save some time

Reject outliers, that is fine

Stats together with some wine

And hop p is down to point O nine

.

Shall this now be my fate?

Ge a result just second rate?

I give the data to a mate,

And hop, p is down to point O eight.

.

And then someone says to me

That more can be done with RT

After ROI’ing I see with glee

That p is down to point O three.

.

And so I feel like I’m in heaven

But a coding error I am havin’

Down I cry in my office at ‘leven

When p equals point O seven.

.

So, I try non-parametrics

You know the part of statistics

Where your results can get a fix

And hop p is down to point O six.

.

I nearly felt my feelings soar

If only I could do some more

There is here an effect for sure

Once p is down to point O four.

.

At this point I lose my drive

If only p would go down and dive

This project is no more alive

As p is greater than point O five.

.

This poem was written for the IMPRS (Nijmegen) Sinterklaas celebration.

How blind people see

Blind people have revolutionised our view on vision. Biology text books still teach us that vision functions roughly as light hitting the eyes where special cells – rods and cones – turn it into neural signals. These travel to the back of the head, the visual cortex, for brain processing leading to something we experience as ‘seeing’. Some blind people have offered a completely new picture. They see without visual cortex. They see without rods or cones. They see without experiencing ‘seeing’.

Stevie Wonder

Wearing sunglasses might impair vision – in the blind.

The visual cortex lies right at the back of the head and it is – as the name suggests – responsible for vision. If you lose it, you can’t see anymore. This happened to a partially blind patient only known by his initials DB, a man brought to scientific fame in 1974 by an article in the journal Brain. In it, Lawrence Weiskrantz and colleagues describe how DB is asked to say whether he is presented an X or an O in an area of his visual field where he is blind. DB performs more than 80% correct despite only guessing.
What happened when DB was told about his visual abilities? ‘[H]e expressed surprise and insisted several times that he thought he was just “guessing.” [H]e was openly astonished’ (p. 721). This phenomenon has been termed blind-sight and it is very unlike normal vision. It is usually much worse but there are exceptions. For example, DB is actually better at ‘blind-seeing’ very faint lines compared to his intact visual field or normal people’s vision (Trevethan et al., 2007). This rules out all sorts of concerns about blindsight such as the suggestions that DB might be lying or falsely describing degraded vision as no vision at all. Unusually good performance can hardly be faked.
If blind-sight is possible without visual awareness or visual cortex, is it also possible without the eye’s rods and cones which turn light into neural signals? Interestingly, yes. Back in 1995 a team led by Charles Czeisler reported an unusual finding in three blind people whose eyes were damaged due to various diseases. When a bright light was shone in their face, they had less melatonin – a hormone related to the sleep cycle – in their blood. Probably a little known cell type – called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells – turned light into neural signals and generally helps us synchronize our sleep-wake cycle with the day-night cycle.
A new article by Vandewalle and collagues shows what the potential of this newly discovered cell type is. They tested three blind people with eye damage and simply asked ‘is there a light or not?’ If a light was on for ten seconds, all three ‘guessed’ significantly differently from chance. This is remarkable as these people reported not seeing anything, electrical brain potentials following light flashes were curiously absent and their eyes were undoubtedly damaged.
When looked at together, these phenomena offer a new picture of the visual system. In the text-books you see a linear picture roughly like this:
light –> rods/cones in the eye –> visual cortex –> rest of brain
A new model is needed because a remarkable range of behaviours can still be performed when the middle elements of this account are removed. Instead of a linear picture we need a collection of parallel pathways all using light to influence the brain. The blind-sight pathway proves that circumventing the visual cortex is possible. People without rods/cones prove that not even these cells are needed to make use of light.
And now imagine that vision is one of the best-understood systems in the brain. If even vision can offer such surprises it is difficult to imagine what other brain systems hide below the surface. However, going ‘below the surface’ also comes with a considerable cost. Ask blind people what they see and they simply say ‘nothing’. Their residual abilities are hidden from them. It takes careful psychological testing to make them aware of what they can do.
So, how do blind people see? Some of them see without even knowing it.

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Czeisler CA, Shanahan TL, Klerman EB, Martens H, Brotman DJ, Emens JS, Klein T, & Rizzo JF 3rd (1995). Suppression of melatonin secretion in some blind patients by exposure to bright light. The New England journal of medicine, 332 (1), 6-11 PMID: 7990870

Trevethan CT, Sahraie A, & Weiskrantz L (2007). Can blindsight be superior to ‘sighted-sight’? Cognition, 103 (3), 491-501 PMID: 16764848

Vandewalle G, Collignon O, Hull JT, Daneault V, Albouy G, Lepore F, Phillips C, Doyon J, Czeisler CA, Dumont M, Lockley SW, & Carrier J (2013). Blue Light Stimulates Cognitive Brain Activity in Visually Blind Individuals. Journal of cognitive neuroscience PMID: 23859643

Weiskrantz L, Warrington EK, Sanders MD, & Marshall J (1974). Visual capacity in the hemianopic field following a restricted occipital ablation. Brain : a journal of neurology, 97 (4), 709-28 PMID: 4434190
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Figures:

1) By Antonio Cruz/ABr (Agência Brasil.) [CC-BY-3.0-br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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