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EMILY O’MARA: My family has a tradition every year — this has been going on since before I was born and still goes on now — we have, for our big Christmas Eve dinner, we have White Castles.

STEPHEN DUBNER: No you don’t!

O’MARA: That is our Christmas Eve dinners. This has been going on for 40-plus years. It is not Christmas in my family unless we have White Castles.

DUBNER: Wow. What do you have on Christmas Day then? You’re just recovering?

O’MARA: Left over White Castles.

I’d like you to meet Emily O’Mara.

O’MARA: I’m a software consultant for Oracle Consulting Services.

DUBNER: Ok, so that sounds important and impressive, but Emily, I just want to know. What I want to talk to you about today — is something that I love and I think that you love. And it’s the cheeseburger.

O’MARA: Yes, sir.

DUBNER: What happens when I say the word cheeseburger? Does your pulse race?

O’MARA: Yes, I get very hungry. I start having fantasies.

DUBNER: Can you describe that fantasy? Close your eyes if you must.

O’MARA: I see big, greasy, gooey cheese. Fresh bread. Good fries — that is very important, often overlooked. I like greasy, seasoned meat. The greasier, the better.

O’Mara is 38 years old. Married, for eight years; her husband works in retail. She was born and raised in Louisville, Ky.; went to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and eventually returned to Louisville.

DUBNER: Are you in Louisville as we speak?

O’MARA: Yep. Downtown.

DUBNER: Does Louisville have some special connection with the cheeseburger?

O’MARA: Yeah, depending on which urban legend you want to believe, the cheeseburger was invented in Louisville, Ky.


O’MARA: At a defunct restaurant called Kaelin’s. And I’m talking about the cheeseburger.

Meaning, not the hamburger. That honor belongs to Athens, Texas, or maybe New Haven, Connecticut, or maybe somewhere else. These things can be hard to verify. In any case, Louisville didn’t invent the hamburger; Louisville put cheese on the hamburger – although that too may have first happened elsewhere, maybe in Pasadena, California. Anyway: Louisville has a long cheeseburger tradition and a vibrant cheeseburger scene. Emily O’Mara is a part of it.

O’MARA: Like a lot of people, I love cheeseburgers and French fries. And like a lot of people, I love to argue about which place in town has the best cheeseburger and French fries.  And then I realized that I don’t know what the best cheeseburger and fries are because I just go to the same places over and over again. And all my friends and family go to the same places over and over again. So we think it’s the best because it’s our favorite, it’s familiar to us.

I realize O’Mara’s only talking about cheeseburgers here. But, if you inspect that moment of self-realization of hers — that we consider something “the best” primarily because it’s what we’re familiar with, it’s what we’re comfortable with — well, isn’t that how a lot of us come to conclusions about a lot of things — about our political ideas or religious ideas, about art, about the kind of people we think are okay and those who aren’t?

O’MARA: And I realized, how do I know who’s got the best burger and fries? You know, most of these places in town who offer burgers and fries, I had never even been there. I had never even heard of some of them.

So she worked up a plan.

O’MARA: I decided I was going to do two burgers a week for a year. That roughly ended up being 101 burgers during a year.

Today on Freakonomics Radio, one woman’s Year of the Cheeseburger, and what it can teach the rest of us about how we eat.

*     *     *

Emily O’Mara — currently a software consultant, formerly a business-systems analyst with the municipal water company in Louisville, Kentucky — she is pretty well-traveled.

O’MARA: Went to Hamburg simply because that is where the word “hamburger” comes from.  I have been to the Great Wall of China. I have been to Poland. I have been to El Salvador. I also like to do things that may not be in character for me to do, but just to say that I do them: I’ve jumped out of a plane; I’ve shaved my head completely bald twice. You know, it’s just all kinda for the heck of it.

But O’Mara’s latest adventure kept her close to home. She wanted to find the best cheeseburger and fries in Louisville, keeping in mind that “the best” is a subjective measure.

O’MARA:  I know people like to get fancy with their cheese. I don’t when it comes to burgers. I prefer a tomato if it’s in season — very fresh tomato. Some nice lettuce, maybe like a Boston lettuce would be good. Little bit of onion, not too much. And I am not a fan of condiments at all. I don’t do mayonnaise; I don’t do ketchup; I don’t do mustard.

You also have to understand that O’Mara calls herself a “fast-food foodie” and a “junk-food junkie.”

O’MARA: I love it. I know it’s not good for me, and I did read that book Fast Food Nation. It made me very, very hungry. I watched the documentary Super Size Me. I thought it was the best commercial for McDonald’s I’d ever seen.

When O’Mara first thought about eating two cheeseburgers a week for a year, she was beyond excited.

O’MARA: It’s going to be so much fun, so great.

But she hadn’t really thought it through.

O’MARA: And my coworker said, “Well, aren’t you afraid you’re going to gain like 100 pounds and your cholesterol is going to go sky high?” And I thought, “Oh, shoot. That’s really something to think about.” I was so caught up in how much fun it was going to be, I didn’t think of any negative effects it could have on my health. So that made me pause, and I really thought about it. And I almost thought about not doing it. Because no one wants to gain weight or put their health in jeopardy.

DUBNER: But then you thought, “burgers, burgers, burgers, and fries.”

O’MARA:  And I resolved to get a cholesterol test the first day of my study and the last day of my study. And I was going to weigh myself about once a month, take my blood pressure, all that good stuff, and just kinda watch it.

DUBNER: Gotcha.

O’MARA: You know, if I found after a month or two it was just out of control then I would stop.

DUBNER: Ok. Very good. And would you go to these burger meals alone? With your husband? With friends? With strangers?

O’MARA: It was pretty much divided three ways. A third of them I went with my husband. He was very enthusiastic at first, but I think he got a little tired of it toward the end. A third of them I went with friends. And a third I went by myself.

DUBNER: Did you have them grade as well? Or were they just there for the ride?

O’MARA: I definitely asked for their input.

DUBNER: And did it influence you?

O’MARA: No, it never did.

DUBNER: Was it kind of like becoming a restaurant critic every week?  Find two new places to eat a burger and fries?

O’MARA: Absolutely.  When I went to the restaurants I came armed with a notebook and a pen.  I took lots and lots of notes. I had a complex rating system for the burgers and the fries.

DUBNER: Can you walk us through a bit of it?

O’MARA: Sure. It was 100 points. Twenty-five points were allocated for the taste of the cheeseburger. That’s the most important thing to me. How does it taste? Twenty-five points were allocated for the taste of the fries. Twenty-five percent was allocated for cost because I am a major cheapskate, and the cheaper the better. And then with the remaining 25 percent I broke that out: 10 percent for service, — I’m not very picky about service — and 15 percent for ambiance.

And Emily O’Mara proceeded to eat 101 burgers in one year, at all kinds of places. Some of the categories she came up with were: “Louisville institutions,” “burger-centric establishments,” “recommended chains,” “food trucks,” “hipster hangouts.” By the end of the year, a winner had emerged.

O’MARA: Based on all my results, all my calculations, the best burger was from a little family-owned drive-in here in Louisville called Dizzy Whizz. They’ve been around since 1946.  They do not try to be old-school, they just are old-school. Very greasy burger. Really greasy, tasty French fries, amazing experience. My favorite. In my opinion, the best.

Now, we should note here that O’Mara was familiar with Dizzy Whizz before her quest. So it wasn’t as though she turned up something entirely new. But Dizzy Whizz clearly rocked her world. O’Mara wrote a book-length manuscript chronicling her Year of the Cheeseburger — an unpublished manuscript, unfortunately. It’s called Eat, Pay, Grub. Here, I’ll read a bit about Dizzy Whizz: The Dizzy Whizz cheeseburger, O’Mara writes, “gave me a very primal feeling that I usually don’t otherwise feel unless I watch a couple episodes of The Sopranos or listen to Led Zeppelin II.” About the French fries? “We’d have peace in the Middle East if they could only get a load of how good these fries are.” And how about the Dizzy Whizz ambience? “This place tends to attract a working class/non-hipster Old Louisville crowd — the tattoos come with stretch marks.”

DUBNER: Dizzy Whizz was number one, yeah?

O’MARA: Mhmm.

DUBNER: It was number one by a whisper?

O’MARA: They got 98 out of 100 points. And I did have some that got like 96 and 97 points.

DUBNER: And tell me about the worst burger you had and where you had it.

O’MARA: The worst burger, I don’t like to mention names—

DUBNER: It’s just us here on the phone, Emily. Just us on the phone.

O’MARA: Yeah. The worst burger I had, they got a 37 out of 100 points. And I think the next lowest burger had, like, at least 50 points.

DUBNER: Wow. So describe this 37 burger.

O’MARA: This 37 burger, it was from a very beloved food truck here in Louisville. All the foodies, all the hipsters just love it because it’s locally owned, and they grind their own meat, and oh, you can have gorgonzola cheese on top of it. I thought it was just absolutely tasteless. It took me half an hour to get it. They did not offer fries — they got zero points for fries. It cost me $9. Just really not a very good experience.

DUBNER: Alright, so forgive me for saying this — but you, it sounds as though from what you are saying, you must weigh about 900 pounds.

O’MARA: No. I weigh, let’s see, I’m about five-foot-five-and-a-half.

DUBNER: Five feet, five-and-half inches?

O’MARA: Yes.

DUBNER: OK. What was your beginning weight?

O’MARA: My weight was 126 pounds.

DUBNER: OK. And what was your cholesterol at the outset?

O’MARA: My total cholesterol the day I started my study was 160.

DUBNER: Oh, pretty good.

O’MARA: That’s good. Anything under 200 is considered good.

DUBNER: And do you know your breakdown of the LDL and HDL by any chance?

O’MARA: Yes. So my LDL — that’s the bad cholesterol — it was 93. Anything under 100 is good. My HDL — that’s good cholesterol — that was 49. It should be over 50 if you’re female, so I was just at the break there of having good cholesterol.

DUBNER: And you’re going to weigh yourself monthly. And you’re going to check cholesterol and a few other things maybe only at the end. Is that right?

O’MARA: Correct.

DUBNER:  OK, so then you ate two cheeseburgers and fries a week for a year. What’d you weigh and what was your cholesterol, etc. afterwards?

O’MARA: I weighed 126 pounds on the money the month that I ended it.

DUBNER: So  your weight was unchanged after your Year of the Cheeseburger?

O’MARA: Correct. And then my cholesterol, my total cholesterol was 179.

DUBNER: So it rose a bit, but still safe.

O’MARA: Still good. And then if you want to get into the cholesterol—

DUBNER: Oh, I do.

O’MARA: Looks like my good cholesterol improved. It went up to 56, which for a woman, again, it should be over 50. So my good cholesterol was at a good level. My bad, my LDL was 107. That’s a little bit high, but not too bad. And then my triglycerides actually went down. I think triglycerides are bad—

DUBNER: They are.

O’MARA: They went down from when I first started.

DUBNER: Oh. You’re not a 900-pound lady at all.

O’MARA: Right.

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, should the Cheeseburger Diet be a thing? Also, how helpful is it to tell people how many calories they’re eating? And Emily O’Mara tries a New York cheeseburger: mine.

*     *     *

One reason I found Emily O’Mara’s Year of the Cheeseburger interesting is that the cheeseburger has become perhaps the most famous food villain of our era. You need a quick shorthand reference for unhealthy eating? The cheeseburger. Indeed, the economist Kevin Murphy once calculated that a cheeseburger costs $2.50 more than a salad in long-term health implications. More famously, for his documentary film Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s – including lots of cheeseburgers – for a month.

DUBNER: So Morgan Spurlock gains a ton of weight and gets really sickly. Why not you?

O’MARA: There a lot of differences between what I did and what Morgan Spurlock did. He was eating at McDonald’s three meals every day for a month. I was eating twice per week. So out of 21 meals a week, two of them were burgers and fries. He also made an effort to wear a pedometer. And he made sure never got more than three or four thousand steps a day. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not.

DUBNER: That’s really nothing.

O’MARA: I had pedometer, too. I made sure I got at least 10,000 steps or in that range everyday. I also increased my exercise a lot more than I normally did. Even on burger days, when I would go to these places to have burgers, if I could, I would walk to them, or sometimes even ride my bike. I definitely stepped up the exercise — stepped up my walking everyday. And because I was so afraid of gaining weight from these burgers and fries I ate much healthier than I normally did. I didn’t go to fast-food restaurants that I so loved. I didn’t go to bakeries. I didn’t eat fried food. Didn’t eat pizza or pasta. Didn’t eat ice cream. We had one of the hottest summers on record. I didn’t eat ice cream once that summer. So, I think I well compensated for the fact that I was eating these burgers and fries twice a week. My consciousness went up about my health on all those days when I wasn’t eating burgers and fries. I ate much healthier.

DUBNER: So wait a minute, Emily. You’re saying that a year of eating cheeseburgers and fries twice a week turned you into a healthier eater overall?

O’MARA: It did. And I didn’t even realize it, because I was so focused on these burgers and fries.

But the sentiments behind Super Size Me — dramatic and scary, maybe evil — are a lot sexier than Emily O’Mara’s compensatory behaviors. And those sentiments have driven our collective urge to limit the consumption of unhealthy foods. This urge has taken many forms: public exhortations from people like Michelle Obama; legislation that requires restaurants to post the calorie counts of the food they sell …

BRIAN ELBEL: It’s posted on the menu board, so you get up there and you can see a Big Mac and what it costs and right next to that you can see how many calories are in that Big Mac.

That’s Brian Elbel.

ELBEL: I’m an associate professor at NYU’s School of Medicine and the NYU Wagner School of Public Policy. My work is in understanding how people make decisions that influence their health and I do a lot of work about obesity and obesity policy in particular.

Which means that Elbel is working in what you might call a growth industry.

ELBEL: About two-thirds of Americans are obese or overweight, and it’s a problem that’s been going up over time, particularly in the last 30-40 years. We’re fighting with Mexico to see which of us is going to be the most obese country, but they’re our best competition. We’re number one or two.

New York was the first city to require calorie counts on some restaurant menus, back in 2008, and many cities have since followed. And soon, as part of ObamaCare, the practice is scheduled to go national. The question is: do calorie-counts work? Do they lead people to consume fewer calories?

ELBEL: There is not a lot of evidence that at a population level we’re super calorie-illiterate.

Okay, so that’s problem number one.

ELBEL: We found that when we asked people, “How many calories do you think you should eat in a day?” about a quarter of the people just said, “I don’t know.” Of people who gave us an answer, the modal answer — the most popular answer — was some number less than 500, when the answer is almost assuredly over 2,000 for most people.

There is some evidence, Elbel tells us, that when you put on a menu something like, “The average person should eat 2,000 calories a day” – and then list the calories for each item – people will eat a little bit less.

ELBEL:  But they tended to make up for it later in the day, and ended up eating a little bit more than people who didn’t have calories on their menu.

Uh-oh, that sounds like problem number two. There’s also the important fact that all calories are not created equal. Now, this is a much larger discussion than we’re going to have now but, briefly, it’s worth remembering that a calorie is technically a unit of energy — in this case, the energy that fuels the human body. In that regard, a calorie isn’t a very precise proxy for what we think of as “nutrition.”

Two thousand calories in a day that are all carbohydrates will have a very different effect than 2,000 calories of proteins or fats. So, using calories as your only measure of nutrition can be a bit misleading. Like using speed — miles-per-hour — as your only measure of how good a driver you are. There are plenty of good fast drivers and plenty of lousy slow drivers; you also need to know how to steer, and hit the brakes.

That said, calories are, at the moment, one of the main metrics we use to assess nutrition and, especially these days, obesity. And so, in anticipation of the federal calorie-count legislation, NYU’s Brian Elbel has been conducting studies in places where the restaurants already post calorie counts.

ELBEL:  The basic goals of these studies are to understand: are people’s purchasing behaviors changing in particularly fast-food restaurants after calorie labeling policies begin. So how we do this is by situating research assistants outside fast-food restaurants. People come out, we ask for their receipt and therefore we have an objective measure of the number of calories they’ve purchased. We ask them a few questions about that. We ask them if they saw the information. We do that before and then again after labeling started and we do that in the city that labeling was implemented in and we also do that in a comparison city.  We focused on McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s, mostly.

And how effective were the calorie-count signs?

EBEL: So, we found that  just over half of the people said they saw the information in New York. And we found that about a quarter of those people said that they actually used it to purchase fewer calories. So, about 12 to 15 percent of people ended up saying, “Yes, I saw the information. Yes, it influenced my choice. And I used it to purchase fewer calories.”

Now you may be thinking, “Wait a minute.” Since calories are units of necessary human energy, and since calories cost money, maybe some people use those calorie-count sign to buy more calories. If one sandwich costs $5 and gives me 250 calories and another sandwich costs $5 and gives me 500 calories, well, behold the law of unintended consequences.

ELBEL: There is this subset, ten or so percent, say that they are using the information to purchase more calories. And in some respects that’s maybe not an irrational thing, right? They want to get the most bang for their caloric buck.

Okay, so some people do use the new calorie counts to buy more calories; some use them to buy fewer. What’s the net effect?

ELBEL: We didn’t see any change at the population level in the number of calories purchased.

Meaning that, across the board, the calorie-count signs had no net effect on the calories that people buy.

ELBEL: That’s pretty consistent with other studies that have shown that calories, at the population level, don’t change.

Elbel and his colleagues recently repeated their study, to measure the effect of calorie counts after they’ve been for several years. Turns out that people notice and care about the calorie information even less now than when it was new — which just goes to show how hard it can be to legislate something as personal as what people decide to put in their mouths.

And one more challenge: What kind of person, you might wonder, has the incentive to get the most calories for their money? Probably a low-income person, right? So here’s another paradox: Considering that obesity is pretty common among low-income people — especially low-income women — the calorie-count legislation meant to curb obesity might backfire worst among the very people it’s most designed to help. And, who will these calorie counts work for? What kind of person will see them and take a second thought? Probably the kind of person who’s already counting her calories, or is at least already pretty aware of what calories are and how many should be consumed. Someone like Emily O’Mara, cheeseburger queen.

O’MARA: Yeah, what I realize now that I’m thinking back on it, and I didn’t realize it at the time, is that if you want to get on like a diet, or you want to be more healthy and you talk to dietician or personal trainer, the first thing they’re going to say to you is you need to have a goal. Like, I want to lose 20 pounds in 6 months, or I want to be able to run a marathon in the fall. Well, I had a goal and it was to find the best cheeseburger and fries in Louisville, Ky. And if I had any health-related goals, it was like, “yeah, and try not to gain weight and have your cholesterol go through the roof in the process.” So, my goal really was, was burgers and fries. And then they also tell you things like, “OK, so you need to write down all the foods you eat. You need to count calories. You need to weigh your food. You need to have eight to 11 servings of whole grains. You need to have two to three servings of fruit everyday. Blah, blah, blah.” And instead of being obsessed with all that, I was obsessed with the burgers and the fries. I just feel like I inadvertently kinda just turned, turned the diet conventional wisdom on it’s head. And I disciplined the fun, which sounds like an oxymoron. But it really was fun, and it really was disciplined. And, like I said, I didn’t even worry about like, “Oh, today I’ve gotta have fruits and vegetables. I just ate ’em.” Didn’t even think about it.

O’Mara’s cheeseburger diet – if you even want to call it a diet – was based on what you might call compensatory behavior. If you take on some extra risk in one area of your life, you might need to compensate by adding some precautionary behavior in another area. Some of us are certainly better at this than others, but it is a nice act of faith, isn’t it? Faith in ourselves, and our ability to self-regulate, as opposed to relying on some top-down guideline that may produce the behavior you’re hoping for — or, given the power of the law of unintended consequences, may produce the opposite behavior. There’s one final paradox in our story today. It was only when Emily O’Mara’s Year of the Cheeseburger ended that she started having trouble. After the discipline of the hunt, she became undisciplined.

O’MARA:  I did get a little bit sloppy the further away from this year that I went, in that I didn’t exercise as much. Got back into this pattern where I was just kinda eating whatever I want, whenever I wanted. And this year when the weather started getting warmer, I put on a pair of shorts that I wore last year and they were too tight; I almost couldn’t button them up.  And I thought back to my eating habits, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, you know what? Last night I had pizza, the night before that I had Taco Bell, I’ve been eating ice cream everyday, I really haven’t been good about my vegetables and my fruits.” And I realized I probably need a new project to get me back on track.

DUBNER: So what are you going to do about it?

O’MARA: I am smack dab in the middle of a new project now where I am trying to find the best pizza in Louisville, Ky. So, I’m still getting together my lists, but I’ve already gone to a few places. My husband is 110 percent on board and supporting this. He is a pizza nut, too.

DUBNER: Do you make burgers at home?

O’MARA: Nope.

DUBNER: Just out, you eat ’em?

O’MARA: Yep.

DUBNER: Is the reason you don’t make burgers at home because they come out in a way that is just so pale in comparison to the burgers that you eat out?

O’MARA: Yeah, typically yes.

DUBNER: Ok. So this is going to solve your problem. You can thank me later. Generations of your family will thank you. OK, here’s what you do. You get yourself some hamburger meat. Fat is good. Two small fists of hamburger meat. Then smush them with your hands. Make them as thin as you can without just totally falling apart. Then, when the pan is super, super, super hot you throw ’em in there and you know what sound that would make. Let me hear you make the sound.

O’MARA: [Sizzling sound]

DUBNER: Nicely done. And now you season them a little bit with just salt.  Get under both of ’em and flip ’em . And then you’re going to hear:

O’MARA: [Crackling sound]

DUBNER: One slice of cheese.

O’MARA: Plop.

DUBNER: Now you’re making the cheese blanket.

O’MARA: Plink.

DUBNER: Take the two halves of the bun, and put them in the pan a little bit.

O’MARA: [Pretty decent impression of a bun hitting a pan]

DUBNER: Nicely done. You want to use your spatula to again press each patty down really, really hard to squeeze out all the fat you can, which produces fat extraction and more sizzle.

O’MARA: [Sizzling sound, with gusto]

DUBNER: So, Emily , you coming to New York anytime soon?

O’MARA: Oh, I hope so. I hope so.

DUBNER: When you do, then I get to make my burgers for you. And I know you’re skeptical that homemade burgers can’t stand up to your cheeseburgers, but will you please give me at least one chance to persuade you?

O’MARA: You have got a deal. Sold.

As it happened, not too long after Emily O’Mara and I spoke by phone, her work did bring her to New York. As promised, she stopped by and she let me make her my best homemade cheeseburgers.


O’MARA: I made it!

DUBNER: How are you?

O’MARA: Good, this is my husband Sami.


DUBNER: Nice to meet you. How’s your hunger level?

O’MARA: I am extremely hungry.

ALKHATEEB: She is starving.

DUBNER: OK, I’m going to wash my hands just so you know the hygiene in this restaurant is very good. I’ve got my pan — nothing in it, dry as a bone — and I’m going to make it really hot. Super hot. I’m going to have to turn on the fan, because it’s going to be smoky. And here are my two, roughly  — what do you call those size? I call them meatball size. Racquetball! OK? I’m going to smush them really hard, and they’re going in. That’s the sound we like. Now we are going to salt them. Never salt before. OK, I’m going to put a slice of your American cheese because I know you don’t like anything too fancy. Your cheese is getting molten. And that is your —

O’MARA: Oh, wow.

DUBNER: Emily O’Mara, unique patented New York City homestyle cheeseburger, with your fixings.

O’MARA: Oh, wow. I did something right in this world. Let’s see. OK, you want my honest opinion?

DUBNER: Sami, do I want her honest opinion?

ALKHATEEB: Yes, you have to.

DUBNER: Yes, I want your honest opinion.

O’MARA: OK, I’m putting you up against all the cheeseburgers I’ve had in New York City.

DUBNER: OK, not Louisville?

O’MARA: Not Louisville. OK, this one with one bite ranks number two.

DUNBER: Really?

O’MARA: It ranks just below Shake Shack. It ranks above the burger at the Spotted Pig. And I’m totally being honest about that. This is very, very good.

DUBNER: Thank you. Glad you like it!

O’MARA: If I didn’t have dinner reservations, I’d ask for another, seriously.

*     *     *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Kasia Mychajlowycz, with help from Suzie Lechtenberg and Alex Goldmark. Our staff also includes Arwa GunjaJay CowitMerritt JacobGreg RosalskyChristopher WerthAlison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.

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