Canadian Ex-Defence Minister Says Alien Technology Gonna Save the World

Yes, really.

A former Canadian defence minister says be believes advanced technology from extraterrestrial civilizations offers the best hope to “save our planet” from the perils of climate change.

Which is a tremendous insult to all the people working in alternative energy, technology, science, research, for the environment, studying climate change, studying ecology, and to the mothers and fathers and spouses who tell one another and the kids to turn off the lights when they got to bed.

What an embarrassment.

(And yeah, I read this as a link from a story about Haut’s letter on Roswell, which actually hit Korean news today. Lime asked me what I thought of it, and I was shocked that it was even in the news here. At least the /. thread is interesting.)

Oh, and I liked Jerry Pournelle’s thoughts on the topic.

32 thoughts on “Canadian Ex-Defence Minister Says Alien Technology Gonna Save the World

  1. I don’t know, the alternative energy people can be just as flaky as the UFO people. Did you know producing ethnol actually uses more oil than it ends up saving? Archer Daniel Midlands is a huge contributor to both the Democratic and Republican parties, and is also the company that has the most to gain from generous subsidies.

    Back in Manitoba, the government is very sluggish when it comes to developing hydroelectric dams (which are green and would work well in our province) and prefers to spend money on vanity projects like wind farms. There is nothing wrong per se with wind farms, but when the climate dips below -40 (as it does in Manitoba) the turbines don’t operate at peak efficiency and have to go off the grid for their power supply.

  2. Kwandongbrian,

    Yeah, of course. Actually, I can see a little more than one line on skepticism — there’s a but there — but they’re misusing his openness to talk speculatively as a half-endorsement. Creative quoting indeed.

    Mark,

    Greens are sometimes flaky, but only rarely are they flaky about basic reality, unlike the UFOlogists.

    UFO freaks usually are about as useful as Christian evangelicals in solving the world’s problems: greens, at least, see what the problems are a little better, even when they’re misguided. And yeah, ethanol strikes me as the methadone that heroin addicts get to use to take the edge off… not a real solution at all. Addiction’s a good paradigm when we’re talking about cars, too.

    I’d heard that hydro dams are only “green” with respect to not polluting, but that they’re bad for the river fauna. Is that incorrect?

    Wind farms aren’t a complete solution, but there are houses that can operate with it, even in the prairie winter. I visited one a couple of visits ago in Saskatchewan, the house was completely off the grid… actually, it was pumping power into the grid whenever the house’s energy cells were fully charged, I think. But the wind turbine wasn’t everything: the house was specially designed to maximize sunlight usage and to circulate warm air in the winter, and cool air in the summer, and so on. And it wasn’t a massive house, though I think a family of 4 or 5 could have lived there quite comfortably.

    You’d have trouble making something like that work the same in the city, though.

    As for Archer Midlands: well, the whole campaign finance issue is probably the biggest impediment to the public interest, and the biggest conflict of interest in general, that plagues the US today. Shows you what happens when money is allowed to play a role in everything, I guess. Commercialize religion, you get Ted Haggard. Commercialize politics, you get… well, what you get. Then again, I’m slowly becoming convinced that politics just isn’t fixable. Improvable, yes, and we’re foolish to think we’re at the end point of improvements in human political organization. But not truly fixable.

  3. Regarding the hydro dams, well, everything has trade offs. There are some greens who are opposed to wind turbines because they kill birds that fly through the blades of the turbines – sometimes they kill a lot of them if the turbines are placed on a spot that is on a flocks migratory route.

    Ted Haggard, not that I really have a dog in that fight, isn’t really a symbol of the commercialization of religions but it’s politicization. Haggard didn’t care about money, he just got off on telling people what to do and trying to legislate behaviour.

    That’s what I find so creepy about Christian Fundmentalists and environmentalists. They know what’s good for you, and they’ll come up with legislation to try and fix it.

    Money in politics? The amount of money used to buy advertising time in media (one of the biggest expenses for campaigns) is about the same as the amount of money spent advertising for chewing gum.

  4. Everything does have trade-offs, I’m just very cautious about what I call “green.” I should think that anything that kills the fauna in a river deserves the label no better than something that pollutes the air — though hydro dams are “greener.” My worry is the risk of focusing only on atmospheric pollution. After all, what’s likelier to kill us is a complex set of interlinked problems. I mean, island-sized ocenas plastic bags floating in the middle of the South Pacific (and turning into granules that accumulate PCBs and which plankton-eaters eat in large numbers) scare the shit out of me, where killing the fauna in a major Canadian river is just kind of reprehensible, but not all-life-on-earth threatening. The extinction of coral reefs, that scares the hell out of me, as does the cessation of the counterbalancing effects of Global Dimming as we cut back on particulate emmissions, but that doesn’t mean the stuff that won’t just outright kill us is “green.” Turbines can be placed in spots where flocks come less often, or we could try to find things that repel flocks from them — noise emitters, or occasionally flashing lights. Of course we can’t give up everything that hurts beasts of the wild: I am not going to give up glass windows, for example. I just think it’s important to pay attention to where the line is placed, and why.

    My understanding is that Ted Haggard was part of the commercialization of religion insofar as he was involved in a Megachurch. He’s only one example, of course, and there are worse ones. I’m just picking on him because he’s the evangelicaLA shithead du jour.

    The difference between Christian Fundamentalists and environmentalists is that some people who are seriously fighting for changes in environmental policy actually do know more than you and I (combined, even) and we should respect and listen to them. Not all — I’ve seen environmentalist nutballs too. But there are at least some environmentalists who’s creditably alarmed about things that are part of reality.

    And of course, economics can’t handle all issues. This is the one major mistake in thinking in our increasingly “Objectivist” world, the world imagined by Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan: the mistaken belief that money and the free market can address all values. If humans were rational and good at thinking about the long-term, maybe. Most humans are rarely rational, and frightening numbers of humans make their economic decisions based on unconsciously programmed beliefs like which pair of running shoes will help them make more 3-pointers, or which brand of beer will get them laid, or which kind of makeup with make someone finally notice how pretty they are, or which kind of fabric softener will mend their ailing parent-child relationships.

    And as for money in politics: I’m not talking about the spending on advertising, since campaign money also goes to fund, oh, flying all around the country, staying in hotels, booking events, and keep party coffers topped up… things like that. What I’m talking about is the conflict of interest that is bound to arise when polticians are allowed to take financial contributions from businesses and from individuals. How can the people who are making the laws not be on some level beholden to those people? It’s a fundamental cornerstone of human psychology, this gregarious “cooperation” instinct that forms factions, cliques, and preferential treatments. Meaning it’s a dangerous thing to allow to come into play in politics, especially when money is mostly in the hands of people and orgnizations with the most power to begin with.

  5. Well, I don’t really look at it in objectivist or economic terms, so much as believing that people are fundamentally rational. I’ve never met anyone that believed a particular brand of beer or a pair of sneakers could get them laid or make them a better athelete.

  6. Consciously, no. Humans are not operating on fully conscious, fully rational thought all the time, though. That’s a fundamental principle in advertising, and pretty basic. Nobody consciously thinks Miller or Coors will get them laid, but liquor advertisements worldwide, which mainly target men, often feature supposedly attractive women. Why is that? The unconscious detritus of many exposures to this advertising leaves a subconscious association between beer and sex generally, and with a slight mental emphasis on that brand.

    Either that, or the advertising industry is the biggest sham ever, and all CEOs are gullible morons acting in ways they think are rational, but aren’t. But if consumers are rational, one would expect CEOs — paid tons of money by shareholders to do a good job — would stop wasting money on advertising. Likewise, if consumers were rational, cheaper-cost, equal-quality shoes would sell better than Nike — or for that matter, cheaper Nike shoes would sell better, and top-end Nikes would sell only to a small number of people since, rationally, most of us don’t need top-of-the-line Nikes and lose more in paying for them than we gain in having them (even in social cachet or style points). And for that matter, people would opt to pay a little more so as not to have clothes made my virtual slave labourers. (Well, that assumes morality & rationality, but those slave labourers are usually abroad and are working exported jobs, so for one’s national economy it’s not necessarily a rational choice, either.)

    Of course, maybe I’m conflating ratonality and intelligence or informedness. I suspect most pollsters would note they’re quite different. But rationality means little when one is uninformed, or stupid. Stupid rationality, or uninformed ratonality, still translates into irrational action. A great example is people believing there was any link at all between, say, Iraq and 9-11 and supporting the invasion.

    It makes me sad to admit it, but I think most people act in fundamentally irrational ways most of the time. They don’t have to, of course, but coordinating widespread enough education to equip people to think rationally and question what’s put in front of them takes a lot of effort, and I frankly think most governments aren’t interested in that because such a populace would be even harder to deal with/manage/control. So we settle for roles as taxpayers and consumers instead of thinking of ourselves as citizens — which would be the most rational way to conceive of oneself in the kinds of governments under which both you and I currently live.

  7. I’ve read enough about advertising that I’m not really sure it breaks down like that. In a study of advertising called “The Conquest of Cool” advertisers actually made breakthroughs in the 70’s by throwing a lot of supposedly “scientific” marketing principles out the window and simply making the most creative ads possible.

    Mad Magazine is another interesting example of the limits of advertising. The magazine continually ran in the black despite the fact that it contained no advertising. It was discovered that the ad departments at other magazines were essentially susidizing the ad department and not contributing very much to the bottom line of the department.

    Branding has never really bothered me. At its basic level, it a guide for consumers as to the quality of a product. The point of shopping at the GAP, originally was the fact that they stocked timeless basics (plain khakis, polo’s, t-shirts etc) that nobody else was doing at the time. When they got away from that well, the sales tanked.

    In Japan, Muji and Uniqlo (neither of which has prominent branding) are quite popular, and the movement is beginning to pick up steam in the USA as well. There are quite a few chains specializing in cheap knock offs of designer duds as well as quality (but cheap, around $30) sneaker endorsed by an NBA basketball player.

  8. I’ve read enough about advertising that I’m not really sure it breaks down like that. In a study of advertising called “The Conquest of Cool? advertisers actually made breakthroughs in the 70’s by throwing a lot of supposedly “scientific? marketing principles out the window and simply making the most creative ads possible.

    Yeah, but I still think the point is to set up unconscious associations and to make stuff stick out in one’s memory.

    Mad Magazine is another interesting example of the limits of advertising. The magazine continually ran in the black despite the fact that it contained no advertising. It was discovered that the ad departments at other magazines were essentially susidizing the ad department and not contributing very much to the bottom line of the department.

    Mad Magazine’s probably quite comparable with the old fiction pulps, which also ran very few ads. Of course, pulp paper, sketchy cartoons, black-and-white… I mean, most magazines have higher expenses from the get-go. And sadly, most of the pulps have disappeared, too.

    But the idea that magazine ads don’t make much money for magazines doesn’t show that advertising doesn’t have an effect on readers. I think you’re mixing up the points, though maybe I’m missing something.

    Branding has never really bothered me. At its basic level, it a guide for consumers as to the quality of a product.

    Well, it can do so, but it can also fool people into thinking quality is much higher than it actually is… and that a much higher price is worth it. I have serious trouble understanding how one pair of running shoes is worth $100 (or $200) to a consumer, while another model from the same manufacturer is worth $30. The point isn’t that the shoes aren;t better — they probably are, but not $170 better. Hype is the main reason, and buying into hype is irrational. It just is.

    The point of shopping at the GAP, originally was the fact that they stocked timeless basics (plain khakis, polo’s, t-shirts etc) that nobody else was doing at the time. When they got away from that well, the sales tanked.

    Well, maybe the sales declined, but I can say that when I visit Canada, I notice that Gap stores are still operating. Has there been a massive wave of closures? What exactly does “tanked” mean? And anyway, who said that khakis are timeless classics? That whole conception of that style was manufactured with a conscious revival of Kerouac and of the beat generation — Gap ads invoking Kerouac and swing dancing, in fact, which revived widespread interest in that kind of dance and countless annoying couples throughout North America — of consciously invoked nostalgia for a pre-60s imaginary utopia.

    In Japan, Muji and Uniqlo (neither of which has prominent branding) are quite popular, and the movement is beginning to pick up steam in the USA as well. There are quite a few chains specializing in cheap knock offs of designer duds as well as quality (but cheap, around $30) sneaker endorsed by an NBA basketball player.

    I suspect things might be a little different in Japan — I get the sense that there’s a real space for alternity, underground, or whatever in Japan that got crushed in Korea about a decade ago — but in Korea, prominent branding is on almost all non-formal clothing. Even my underwear has a brand-named tag “visible” on the front of it. It’s very difficult to find a plain T-shirt without a brand name on it.

    Yeah, and this is one thing that might differ from country to country. NBA endorsements for $30 shoes — do they happen in the US? (Though, ahem, the endorsements themselves are still advertising… and I’d wager they outsell the non-endorsed, comparable-quality $28 shoes. I do know that branded clothing endorsements are HUGE in Korea, and it’s very hard to find clothing without prominent branding here, and brands are respected here, so much so that, in Japan major-brand expensive purse manufacturers are cutting back where, in Korea, they’re expanding and still going very strong.

    I don’t know. None of your comment really convinces me that advertising doesn’t work, or that humans (and the consumers they behave as) act on conscious, rational grounds most of the time. That was the thrust of the argument.

  9. GAP has had a problem with declining sales for quite awhile. They’ve had to close stores in the recent past, and they’re recent marketing campaigns have been quite a disaster.

    And anyway, who said that khakis are timeless classics?

    Well, the consumers did themselves. Basic khakis without a lot of bells and whistles look pretty much the same whether you bought them in 1992 or 2007.

    See also “The Bachelor’s Home Companion” by P.J. O’Rourke, “The Official Preppy Handbook” edited by Lisa Birnbach, “Class” by Paul Fussell, and “Style” by Russell Smith. Most of the books were written well before those GAP ad’s, and certain items of clothing are staples (khakis, polo shirts etc) as far as the fashion industry is concerned.

    The GAP rode the wave of the business casual movement in the 90’s, but there are only so many khakis any one consumer needs, and as people built up their business casual wardrobes the need for new khaki’s polo shirts declined.

    To make up for declining sales with “the basics” the GAP has unsuccessfully tried to chase after upper/upper middle income consumers (From a corporate/marketing perspective Banana Republic is top tier, GAP is middle tier, Old Navy is bottom tier) and a more fashion savvy younger demographic.

    You see monolithic entities bent on manipulating public opinion and subverting , I see businesses that are subject to cycles and the whims of consumers, which no amount of advertising can change.

    Ultimately, our differences are philosophical – we have no common points that we can agree on. I don’t see advertising, branding, commercialization, money, fashion, popular tastes or capitalism as inherently bad things. As much as I enjoy reading your blog and comments, I suspect you do.

  10. I’ve corrected the italic error in your comment. I’ll respond to the rest tomorrow, as I have several thousand words to write tonight to meet my write-a-thon goals!

  11. Thank you very much for correcting the italics error, I was multi-tasking and it slipped by when I was proof reading my post.

    Good luck with the write-a-thon!

  12. Right, I’m back for a brief comment.

    GAP has had a problem with declining sales for quite awhile. They’ve had to close stores in the recent past, and they’re recent marketing campaigns have been quite a disaster.

    And anyway, who said that khakis are timeless classics?

    Well, the consumers did themselves. Basic khakis without a lot of bells and whistles look pretty much the same whether you bought them in 1992 or 2007.

    Which is a very short span of time.

    See also “The Bachelor’s Home Companion? by P.J. O’Rourke, “The Official Preppy Handbook? edited by Lisa Birnbach, “Class? by Paul Fussell, and “Style? by Russell Smith.

    Paul Fussell on class, huh? His The Great War and Modern Memory was brilliant, though I’ve heard his analysis went downhill a little in later years. Still, Class sounds interesting.

    Still, I’m sorry, I’m an SF writer, and 15 year time-spans — or even 100 year time spans — look brief to me. When I hear “timeless classics”, I think, voice accompanied by stringed instrument in verse-chorus structured songs. I think of the traditional 4-piece percussion ensembles of Korea (which don’t even date back as far as that in the quartet form, but whatever). I think of the star-crosssed-lovers plot. I think of tunics with tights and leather boots. There’s not much in 20th century fashion that actually is timeless, and all the pundits in the world will not make it so by spilling ink!

    The GAP rode the wave of the business casual movement in the 90’s, but there are only so many khakis any one consumer needs, and as people built up their business casual wardrobes the need for new khaki’s polo shirts declined.

    Doesn’t The Gap being targeted by activists as a “bad company” that uses children in sweat shops also factor in? I know that of the few companies mentioned specifically by quite middle-of-the-road people, The Gap was the most prominent.

    You see monolithic entities bent on manipulating public opinion and subverting , I see businesses that are subject to cycles and the whims of consumers, which no amount of advertising can change.

    Well, I certainly see companies as attempting to manipulate public opinion and subverting rational thought, as well as using money to exert more legal power than the little guy in America (and in any country with an easily rigged juducial system). Really, it’s inherent in the structure of corporations themselves.

    The evidence for a populace that is easily manipulated is certainly abundant, too.

    Ultimately, our differences are philosophical – we have no common points that we can agree on. I don’t see advertising, branding, commercialization, money, fashion, popular tastes or capitalism as inherently bad things. As much as I enjoy reading your blog and comments, I suspect you do.

    Well, I see branding and advertising as annoying nuisances, for which reason I have had popup blockers installed on my PCs for as long as has been possible, and I’ve lived without a TV in my home for five years.

    I see popular tastes as largely manufactured, and I know they are, by commercialization. I worked in a record shop for years, so I was one of the footmen of the beast. There’s a reason so many people think they love the same shitty music, and yet commercialization in a Long Tail market doesn’t bug me so much. Fashion I see as an obsession, mostly, and a ridiculous one. We humans think we can make ourselves something special by the way the cover our skin, and it’s just weird. It like being in some alien tribe where wearing a red scarf around the head means high status, and a blue scarf means low status. It’s arbitrary and stupid, if you ask me, and a waste of human energy, but inherently bad?

    As for money and capitalism — well, I see the system as flawed. I think almost any sane person would agree there are flaws. But I think you’re missing my more basic philosophical assumption, which is that humans are irrational, large numbers of humans are quite silly most of the time, and that any system dealing with or built by humans is going to have flaws, and is very likely to exploit human greed, human laziness, human irrationality, and human fear. Every system will exploit these. Thus every system could be, at least partly, remediable by getting people to face those parts of themselves… but, well, good luck.

  13. Still, I’m sorry, I’m an SF writer, and 15 year time-spans — or even 100 year time spans — look brief to me. When I hear “timeless classics?, I think, voice accompanied by stringed instrument in verse-chorus structured songs. I think of the traditional 4-piece percussion ensembles of Korea (which don’t even date back as far as that in the quartet form, but whatever). I think of the star-crosssed-lovers plot. I think of tunics with tights and leather boots. There’s not much in 20th century fashion that actually is timeless, and all the pundits in the world will not make it so by spilling ink!

    Hey, whatever floats your boat babe, I’m more of a french cuffs man myself, but for the most part I’m pro-choice across the board. If General Douglas McArthur and the British in India aren’t classic enough for you, there isn’t a whole lot I can add.

    I’m not a sci-fi writer, just a young urban professional trying to get ahead in the big city and I want to look as sharp as I can while doing so. I’m taller than average, and Gap, Old Navy, Eddie Bauer, and Banana Republic are usually very good at stocking clothing in my size that is reasonably priced, (I usually wait for sales)durable, comfortable and doesn’t go out of style a year after I’d bought it. Lately, I’m less enthusiastic about shopping at most of these stores since they haven’t been as good at delivering on the last point.

    Doesn’t The Gap being targeted by activists as a “bad company? that uses children in sweat shops also factor in? I know that of the few companies mentioned specifically by quite middle-of-the-road people, The Gap was the most prominent.

    That isn’t an easy question. I’m not pro-choice on child labor. But what about the alternatives to sweatshops? When those sweatshops are closed down, the laborers are frequently left to fend for themselves on the streets, or have to go back to the farm, or end up in brothels. I think sweatshops are wrong, but on the sliding scale of morality I think child prositution is even worse.

    As bizarre as this may sound, you won’t find any (or many) sweat shops in Africa because it’s a basket case. You only find them in places that are developing, albeit slowly and painfully. South Korea had sweat shops until very recently, and from what I understand they’ve begun to move them out of South Korea and into China. Good? No, nobody likes them. A necessary evil? Maybe.

    But I think you’re missing my more basic philosophical assumption, which is that humans are irrational, large numbers of humans are quite silly most of the time, and that any system dealing with or built by humans is going to have flaws, and is very likely to exploit human greed, human laziness, human irrationality, and human fear. Every system will exploit these.

    I’d agree with what you said about systems created by human beings, but I’ve increasingly become uncomfortable with the first part of what you wrote.

    I’d have agreed with you that human beings are irrational and silly when I was younger, but lately I find the attitude that goes hand in hand with that particular belief is just plain patronizing and condescending. This just sounds like a secular argument for “original sin”, a concept I’m not sure I believe in anymore.

    I can heartily recommend Paul Fussell’s Class, a book I’ve read a quite a few times. It has aged rather well. I’ve read quite a few books by Paul Fussell, as well as the book his son Samuel wrote on body buildng. I started weight lifting while in Japan, and while I would never take it to the extremes that Samuel did, there but for the grace of god and a trust fund…

    It’s a shame his son doesn’t write more books, as a I find his attitude a lot more congenial than his father’s, who can come across as a bit of a know it all, looking down on all us silly, irrational human beings.

  14. Have fun at the concert, I probably won’t see your comment until Sunday evening (on this side of the ocean) as I’ll be off to Southern New Jersey to spend time with my wife, sister, nephew and assorted in-laws.

  15. If I could edit the third paragraph to sound a little bit more clear it would read like this:

    I’d have agreed with you that human beings are irrational and silly when I was younger, but lately I think it just sounds like a secular argument for “original sin?, a concept I’m not sure I believe in anymore. I also find the attitude that goes with that particular belief is patronizing and condescending.

  16. Mark,

    Still, I’m sorry, I’m an SF writer, and 15 year time-spans — or even 100 year time spans — look brief to me. When I hear “timeless classics?, I think, voice accompanied by stringed instrument in verse-chorus structured songs. I think of the traditional 4-piece percussion ensembles of Korea (which don’t even date back as far as that in the quartet form, but whatever). I think of the star-crosssed-lovers plot. I think of tunics with tights and leather boots. There’s not much in 20th century fashion that actually is timeless, and all the pundits in the world will not make it so by spilling ink!

    Hey, whatever floats your boat babe, I’m more of a french cuffs man myself, but for the most part I’m pro-choice across the board. If General Douglas McArthur and the British in India aren’t classic enough for you, there isn’t a whole lot I can add.

    Well, actually, I was thinking about this, and I am starting to think that in fact, the stodgy, staid business suit is probably descended from the tunic-and-leggings of old. If you think about it, it makes sense. Anyway, you were missing my point, I think. The point being that terms like “timeless” and “classic” used in the sense you used them are just marketing blabber. There’s nothing timeless about khakis, especially not as we know them. Most of the time they’ve been around in any form at all, they were military clothing, which civilians would not have worn, and it’s only since the 1950s that they’ve come to mean any old cotton pants of a certain range of colors and cut. It certainly wasn’t designed to look sharp — it was original just good desert camouflage, right? So as civilian wear, it’s only 50-some years old.

    Of course, if Richard Morgan’s Market Forces were to come to life, khaki would be a sensible choice for businesspeople, at least in sandy regions, but I don’t see that it’s timeless or classic. Then again, this may be a personal peeve. I’ve also always found the term “classic” rock to be a bit odd. How can it be classic when it’s less than a generation or two old? People seem to stickypaste that word onto anything they happen to like, and it bugs me.

    I’m not a sci-fi writer, just a young urban professional trying to get ahead in the big city and I want to look as sharp as I can while doing so. I’m taller than average, and Gap, Old Navy, Eddie Bauer, and Banana Republic are usually very good at stocking clothing in my size that is reasonably priced, (I usually wait for sales)durable, comfortable and doesn’t go out of style a year after I’d bought it. Lately, I’m less enthusiastic about shopping at most of these stores since they haven’t been as good at delivering on the last point.

    Sure, and I happen to buy Old Navy jeans and khakis too. They’re more relaxed than the suits that I tend to wear to class, and I usually don’t feel like wearing a suit every day, so they are very good for me. (And Old Navy stocks my size, and fits me well, where The Gap almost never does.)

    Doesn’t The Gap being targeted by activists as a “bad company? that uses children in sweat shops also factor in? I know that of the few companies mentioned specifically by quite middle-of-the-road people, The Gap was the most prominent.That isn’t an easy question. I’m not pro-choice on child labor. But what about the alternatives to sweatshops? When those sweatshops are closed down, the laborers are frequently left to fend for themselves on the streets, or have to go back to the farm, or end up in brothels. I think sweatshops are wrong, but on the sliding scale of morality I think child prositution is even worse.

    I agree, but you know, beating your wife is worse than killing your wife — yet I don’t think either should be tolerated. What’s really needed is for companies to be forced to be responsible employers in these areas. To hire adults, not children, or to provide education to child employees. To be barred from just pulling out the stops and leaving the region for a specified length of time (and not just whenever the local laws or situation change) — which is the least they can do after making profits hand over fist over finger for years in these regions. If corporations are legally considered “people”, then let them act the part: become members of the societies they operate in, with a portion of their fate tied to those societies. And let those corporate “persons” face penalties analogous to those that real people would face for crimes against people. Why shouldn’t corporations be beheaded, or put into penal labour, or whatever?

    As bizarre as this may sound, you won’t find any (or many) sweat shops in Africa because it’s a basket case. You only find them in places that are developing, albeit slowly and painfully. South Korea had sweat shops until very recently, and from what I understand they’ve begun to move them out of South Korea and into China. Good? No, nobody likes them. A necessary evil? Maybe.

    I think most of the sweatshops are gone in Korea, though not all. I know that there are factories here that operate in such horrifying conditions that were they reported, netizens would flip out… well, depending on how much race factors into it. It’s people from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa (yes, in at least one case, Africans from Ghana) working in these places. A deep-seated racial bias in Korean culture might mute concerns about these places, but even so, discussion is growing. People working with toxic chemicals and no protective gear, long hours, for dirt pay. They can’t do a damned thing because they’re illegal immigrants and they can’t turn to anyone. They leave, they get no pay. They go to Immigration to find a way out, they get jailed until they cough up the money for a plane ticket home (and of course the employer’s not going to cough up any pay at that point). Things for legal immigrants is a little better, but…

    Anyway, back to your point: the right wing has moved the bar from, “Shall we tolerate Evil X?” to “Shall we tolerate Evil X, folks, since it’s not quite as bas as Evil Y and Evil Z?” There’s a whole mindset tied in with that, that forms of exploitation which need be tolerated can exist. I’m not so sure there are. Who ever said we should tolerate one evil because it’s better than another evil? Who ever said we should stop demanding good of one another — demanding, not just exhorting? Ah, but such a law would never pass — business and government are too in bed with one another. Which brings us back to somewhere much earlier in this comment thread, if I remember right, discussing the idea of “trade-offs” and of “money in politics”. This is what I was talking about, by the way — how certain political issues are insuperable because of the linkage between money and politics. (Not just how much money gets used to advertise for elections.)

    But I think you’re missing my more basic philosophical assumption, which is that humans are irrational, large numbers of humans are quite silly most of the time, and that any system dealing with or built by humans is going to have flaws, and is very likely to exploit human greed, human laziness, human irrationality, and human fear. Every system will exploit these.

    I’d agree with what you said about systems created by human beings, but I’ve increasingly become uncomfortable with the first part of what you wrote.

    I’d have agreed with you that human beings are irrational and silly when I was younger, but lately I find the attitude that goes hand in hand with that particular belief is just plain patronizing and condescending. This just sounds like a secular argument for “original sin?, a concept I’m not sure I believe in anymore.

    It’s funny. People often use the word “condescending” to describe the few people they encounter who have standards for human behaviour and standards for ethics, or specific opinions about art and culture. I’ve been called those things enough times by now that I don’t care anymore. It doesn’t help to say that I try to hope for the best, or that I do try to feel emotionally a kind of connection to all people.

    What I find patronizing, though, is the idea that people are “just people” and that they cannot do better than they are doing. That is what is condescending.

    However, I should note that I do not think myself wholly rational or unsilly, too. If I were to say that I am not one of those irrational, silly people as well, I would be lying. An earlier draft of a comment on this thread dug into that, but I deleted it as the comment was getting long. Suffice it to say I’m amazed how powerfully marketing I encountered as a child has positively predisposed me to McDonald’s, even though I avoid the place like the bubonic plague and have done for quite a few years now.

    I can heartily recommend Paul Fussell’s Class, a book I’ve read a quite a few times. It has aged rather well. I’ve read quite a few books by Paul Fussell, as well as the book his son Samuel wrote on body buildng. I started weight lifting while in Japan, and while I would never take it to the extremes that Samuel did, there but for the grace of god and a trust fund…

    It’s a shame his son doesn’t write more books, as a I find his attitude a lot more congenial than his father’s, who can come across as a bit of a know it all, looking down on all us silly, irrational human beings.

    Frankly, that’s how really smart people tend to look on humanity, and I think for very good reason. I don’t know if I’m as smart as Fussell, to be honest, but I’ve noticed that among people who seem smarter than me, they very often see humanity with blinders off — they’re much more willing to admit that humanity’s often a silly, irrational mess. It doesn’t have to be a hateful denunciation of humanity, by the way. The smartest guy I ever met was also one of the most genuinely friendly, niceest people I’ve ever encountered. He had a genuinely generous nature. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t blind to how kooky humanity is — he just seemed to find some pleasure in it, something to enjoy and shrug his shoulders about. He even seemed to enjoy his own kookiness.

    As for a more nuanced sense of what I mean when I say irrational and silly, I recommend Wendy Kaminer’s Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety is an alright discussion of this. In fact, a really good, scientifically-minded book on why humans are so prone to irrational, superstitious belief systems of a certain kind — focusing on cognition and evolution — is Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained.

    By the way, you heard about this? I wonder what happened to it. I had no idea Paul Fussell had an ex-bodybuilder son. I sometimes do the weights, but mostly I’m trying to get my weight to a manageable level and improve my health, not build muscle. But I have done weights before, and I can certainly understand the allure of being stronger. It’s a rush.

  17. By the way, I’m no “sci-fi” writer, either. “Sci-fi” is, at least to some of us, the pejorative for the schlock that gets onto TV, and which is about 50-60 years behind the best ideas in the field. Movies are a little better — at least they have some style and neat visuals. :)

    The SF I’m interested in has very little in common with the stuff on TV: it’s not, contrary to popular conceptions of the genre, all just allegories about the present. Some of it is near-future extrapolations from the present, some of it is tackling questions that look like they’re “timeless” to us (but may turn out to have a limited shelf life), and some of it is just thought-experiments with scientific ideas pushed so hard that they break your mind, instead of the idea itself.

    I haven’t written anything that is remotely “sci-fi” in at least a decade, in any case.

  18. Sorry about the SF/Sci Fi mix up, I didn’t mean to use it in the perjorative sense of the word, but the best possible Phillip K. Dick meaning of the word.

    I really don’t want to clog up the comments section, but I really just want to be on record as saying that I think child labor and sweatshops are wrong.

    From a cursory glance at the business pages in the newspaper, it does look like the Gap has taken a beating in terms of public opinion and if not bankrupt, it certainly hasn’t been raking in the profits like it used to. Whether that is sufficient punishment for the Gap, well, I’ll let Naomi Klein decide that.

    However, to be perfectly honest with you, as much as I enjoy reading The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Slate from cover to cover from month to month, week to week, or day to day, there are limits to my knowledge of current events.

    Global Warming, disease, and unfair labor practices usually fly under my radar. Strangely enough, I find discussions of alternative energy interesting, and I’m usually willing to wade through an article discussing the merits or demerits of a particular approach.

    As for who is stupid and smart or just plain silly, my views continue to evolve on that subject.

    I found myself becoming less judgemental of others when I was reading up on logic for the LSAT. There are a number of errors that people fall into and even smart people like Doctor’s routinely get something like the double negative mixed up. Reading The Wisdom of Crowds, Blink, The Tipping Point, Freakanomics, and Fooled By Randomness really made me think about what constitutes intelligent, rational behaviour.

    Or consider the case of Linus Pauling, who was a genius in his particular field but on other subjects was a little flaky. It doesn’t undermine his authority in his particular field, but his views on Vitamin C probably should be taken with a pinch of salt.

    I really think it is cool that they are turning Muscle into a movie. The book was a real page turner, and as someone who managed to put on ten pounds after lifting weights for a year (I had the same build as Fussell) it was an eye opener. I picked up some pointers (I do more work on my shoulders and back now) and as for the cautionery elements, well I’ve never been interested in doing steroids or using supplements.

    I could go on and on about clothes forever. I used to be one of those people you’d have to pry out of a pair of blue jeans, but when I was in college I discovered cords did a better job of insulating me from the cold Canadian winters than denim. I was sold on the versatility of khakis while I was working at a library, and when I started finding proper blazers, trousers, dress shirts, and suits in my size online it really drove home the point how much more egalatarian a more formal mode of dress can be.

    I remember sharing an elevator with a lawyer, and we were both looking sharp in our identical blazers. You couldn’t tell the two apart unless you looked really closely at the cuffs. His was a designer label that cost about $300, I’d picked mine up on a clearance rack at the GAP for $40.

  19. Mark,

    No worries on SF/sci-fi. I love P.K.Dick, at least, the stuff he did when he was trying to make it work. (There is, I’m told, a lot of second-rate stuff out there with his name on it too, but my life’s too short.)

    No worries in clogging up the comments section, too. I didn’t mean to suggest you were for child labour and sweatshops. I just feel uncomfortable with the kind of ethics that suggests sliding scales are applicable with things we all agree are wrong, and would never allow institutional enfranchisement for in our own hometowns. (Were we living there.)

    Naomi Klein would probably tell you it’s not her decision to make whether The Gap has suffered enough for its sins. :)

    I can’t tell whether you’re being sarcastic or not with the comment about reading those magazines cover to cover every month. Me, I count myself lucky if I can get through a newspaper once a week, though, so I’ll just say I understand any feeling one might have about not being 100% up to speed on current events. (These days, I’ve mostly been bringing myself up to speed with the history of North Korea and its current state of affairs, and more tangentially, with South Korean politics.)

    Then again, there’s a certain benefit to that: the news cycle seems, to me, to be more of a distraction from the most important issues of our time, some of which I suspect are the ones you say. Our understanding of issues changes mostly slowly, and our understanding doesn’t make sudden radical shifts too often. I’m certainly not advocating complete ignorance and isolation from the news, but the big issues are pretty easy to keep tabs on just by paying attention occasionally.

    Plenty of sensible scientists are saying we should be very careful of global warming, and very few creditable ones (read: ones who aren’t in the pockets of Big Oil and Energy) are saying we should ignore it. Even the most conservative scientists who aren’t panicked — such as Freeman Dyson — are advocating careful study and serious attention. As for disease, well, disease is serious too. Disease is scary. Our preparedness for fighting off something of the scale of Spanish Flu is much lower than it would be if we were sensible, rational creatures with any sense of the past, or any applied understanding of how agriculture is operated worldwide today. Anyone with any sense knows that when it comes to the next pandemic, it’s not if, it’s when. But that’s just too scary, and depressingly, there’s not much one can do about it as long as research and preparations have to be funded by governments (whose hands are sort of tied) and companies (who are more interested in making megaprofits on treating ailing libidos and new unnecessary drugs for invented syndromes).

    Unfair labour practices are less direly, severely threatening to global stability in the short term, but in the long term, they may be important. They certainly pose a danger to any moral high ground we Westerners think we have worldwide. Yes, it’s often rich locals — quislings, basically — who are doing the local exploitation, but who’s reaping the biggest benefits? There’s a reason why The Gap and Old Navy are so much more affordable, and why tailor-made clothing is more expensive.

    As for who is stupid and smart or just plain silly, my views continue to evolve on that subject.

    Me too. My views on everything continue to evolve. I may change my mind next year, or even next month.

    I haven’t read blink, because I’ve found the little bit of Gladwell I’ve read quite disappointing, and my fiancee only reinforced that sense of his work. Blink seemed to her to be endless assertions of his thesis with a little weak evidence thrown in. As for the title The Wisdom of Crowds, is it an explicit attempt to evoke the title of Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds? It sure made me think of it. I haven’t read the whole book, but the bits I have read are amusing, and you gotta admit, Charles MacKay has a point in some of those snipes.

    Or consider the case of Linus Pauling, who was a genius in his particular field but on other subjects was a little flaky. It doesn’t undermine his authority in his particular field, but his views on Vitamin C probably should be taken with a pinch of salt.

    Yeah, but that’s stuff I was teaching undergrads years ago, in my advanced composition class when I was a grad student. This isn’t about appealing to authority in cases of non-expertise. Nor, I should remind you, did I say that I’m not also kooky about some things. Maybe I would have phrased it better if I had written that the human tendency to extravagant silliness and irrationality is inversely proportional to education and intelligence (though there’s a bell curve there, and outright geniuses are often very silly and irrational about a lot of things), and that impatience with general human silliness and irrationality in others is generally directly related to the degre of one’s education and intelligence. By the way, I’m not convinced that Doctors of Law are necessarily very smart. I have a friend or two who’ve studied law, and who said it didn’t necessarily take that much intelligence, as much as a certain kind of mindset. Fear not: I can say the same of literary scholars I’ve known. A Ph.D. is not an absolute guarantee of intelligence, or, indeed, of a successful education. Some PhDs are brilliant, most are genuinely bright (though not intellectual track stars — just equipped with strong endurance and reliable funding) — and some make you wonder who they slept with to get the degree.

    As for cords: I discovered them in Korea. They’re much warmer than jeans, and have less of the aura of informality that jeans have. Unfortunately, they are horrible in summer. Actually, just about everything is horrible in Korean summer, yet somehow they stillhave this idea here that adults should “dress like adults” — ie. men wear suits, regardless of the weather. There are clever workarounds — suit jackets that are sheer and thin in the back but look like normal jackets — but really, what’s the point? It’s outrageous weather, so the point of a suit simply escapes me. Khakis took me through summer — since only on the hottest days was wearing shorts to work acceptable when I was working in a Uni language center — and finally, my last contract required me to wear suits. I bought a few off-the-shelf, and I don’t care for them so much, mostly because they’re suited to temperate weather and it’s almost always too hot or too cold here, but also, because, well, I don’t like suits. Even in a well-fitting one, I don’t feel natural. To me, it’s mentally like wearing Speedoes. (Which is required in some pools in Korea, so I speak from experience, having learned to swim over here.)

    So unlike you, though, I haven’t embraced this kind of formal wear. Formal clothing isn’t egalitarian to my mind: it’s a suit of armor for the modern era. It’s especially bad here, where suits are an immediate signifier of trustworthiness, respectability, and so on. The difference in treatment between wearing a suit and wearing jeans and a t-shirt is shocking, I noticed when I started riding intercity buses to interview for jobs a couple of years ago. People with suits seem to get instant credibility, which is ridiculous because the least credible people I have known have often been the buggest suit-wearers. Honestly, I now trust people in suits less, by default, almost by instinct. I’m sure Paul Fussell had something to say about that in his book, but then again: I’ve never been screwed over on a paycheck by someone not wearing a suit. I’ve never been lied to through the teeth by an employer who wasn’t wearing a suit. Anyway, I can wear one, and I know I’ll like have to do so in the future — so much so that I plan to get some custom made here in East Asia, where it’s affordable to do so, and where I’ll have things that fit me well — but I just don’t embrace the suit at all. All the arguments in its favour strike me as rationalizations.

    But I know that’s probably weird to a lot of people. And strangely, I’m more comfortable with cords and a cheap blazer, though I wish we could all just get our heads out of our asses and wear what we want to, when we want to, because clothing just isn’t important and we fetishize it too much. I’d prefer to have Nehru collars on all my shirts, and wear a tastefulkurta around occasionally — they’re quite comfortable in hot weather, I’m actually wearing one now — but for some reason a sadly large number of people seem to think there’s only one way for professional, credible adult males to dress, and anyone who dresses too differently doesn’t warrant being taken seriously.

  20. I wasn’t being sarcastic about reading the magazines I named from cover to cover. I love reading magazines, and most of the books I read now originally started out as magazine articles. I was trying to be upfront and candid about my tastes, interests, and the limits of my knowledge.

    For example, the series of articles that The New Yorker ran recently on Global Climate Change were like kryptonite to me. I find things like their recent article on Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to take over The Wall Street Journal more interesting.

    On the other hand I’ve enjoyed what Slate contributor Tim Harford wrote about development issues in Africa, but he had to butter me up with explanations of why a Grande Mocha Frappuchino with whipped cream is such a bad deal in the first chapter of The Undercover Economist.

    The Wisdom of Crowds did explicitly refer to the Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I haven’t read the latter, but I suppose that might be one title I’ll get around to reading one day.

  21. Postscript: I know that lawyers are essentially doctors who can’t do math. What I find most impressive about my friends and acquaintances who have done law school is the elbow grease that goes into the LSAT and application. It really is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, and someone who isn’t that bright goes further in the field than the smarter ones simply because of their work ethic.

  22. Mark,

    Oh, okay. Sorry if I sounded like I was assuming the worst… you read more magazines than me, is all. I am the sort of person who delves deeply into a subject and the rest of the world kind of goes on hold while I swim through that limited area for a while. I don’t read anything consistently, and my magazine subscriptions are something I have to concentrate on catching up on every once in a while. Consequently, I know a lot about a few things, a little about a lot of things, and I have some gaping, mile-wide holes in my general knowledge. Then again, we can’t all be reading the same stuff… :) And much as I like the New Yorker, I’ve rarely finished a whole issue, and it’s just more expensive here, to buy occasionally as I used to do in North America.

    I think one reason global climate change has such a good chance of wiping us out is because people writing about it have trouble making it engaging to us, and because the term is neither short, nor medium, nor long — it’s just unknown.

    LOL Grande Frappacino — of course it’s a bad deal! :) What time travel movie was it where people were commenting on ridiculous prices for coffee, at 50 cents a cup? Development issues in Africa depress me. I know I’ll be digging into it sometime — especially since African problems link to so many of my other interests: post-colonial politics and culture, climate change (it’s thought global dimming caused by particulate emissions from Europe was a major contributor to the failure of the rainy seasons and consequent droughts that ravaged North Africa when we were kids and “Ethiopian” was a synonym for “skinny as death”). And of course the fact my family history connects there, briefly, during my grandfather’s and father’s life. (And my mom’s, very briefly.)

    Anyway, I found the bits of Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds that I did read very amusing mostly because there’s this poor, intelligent fellow trying to grapple with how bizarre human beings behave in groups.

    Something we didn’t bring up: a lot of people are more sensible one on one. In groups, though, something happens where the size of the group is inversely correlated to the intelligence and explicability of its actions. Thus relatively average, self-contained citizens suddenly come together and go about smashing windows and attacking cars because a baseball team won a big tournament.

    This happened on 8th Street in Saskatoon when the Blue Jays won something or other, though I only vaguely remember it. But Saskatoon isn’t the kind of place we expect that to happen. Similarly, during World Cup, relatively normal, sedate people did things nobody would dream of doing alone or with a group of a few friends. In a small town I lived in, people were guzzling soju on the street, beating traditional drums on top of cars, rocking cars forcefully, and screaming chants in unison. I’m not saying it was bad, but it drove home the force of grouping on how far people will deviate from behaviour they themselves consider “normal.” It was surreal, though (mostly) innocuous.

    As for 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration — yeah, everything worthwhile is like that. My old teacher, the Governor General Award-winning author Guy Vanderhaeghe, said that in his early writing group, he was the least “talented” of the bunch, but he was the one who wanted it most and worked the hardest and most consistently at it.

    And lots of us SF writers are would-be scientists who can’t do math. I suspect that describes me quite well. Were I better at math, I might have gravitated to a science, but I’m mostly hopeless, so here I am, doing other things.

  23. I’m more of an Atlantic Monthly guy, but The New Yorker is a close second. It comes out more frequently, which is probably why I mention it more often.

    Taken in the aggregate though, large crowds tend to display better judgement than an expert or small group of experts when it comes to making decisions. That was the thrust of The Wisdom of Crowds, and it made me rethink my previously held notions about my friends and neighbors, so to speak. James Surowiecki doesn’t dodge any bullets either, and tackles a lot of the standard objections head on at the start of his book.

  24. Mark,

    It’d take a damned good book to convince me large crowds are wiser than experts.

    Sometimes I think we’re still in Protestant versus Catholic culture-war mode. Protestants are all about questioning the existence of any authority at all, which is a good impulse but wrong sometimes, and Catholic being all about how authorities actually do know better, which they do but only about narrow subjects which may or may not be really related to the world.

    Surowiecki would have to have some pretty astounding arguments, though. Does he explain why crowds of people weep for the dictators who oppressed them for more than a generation? How does he explain away the horrors that happened during, say, the Partitioning of India, or the Nazi regime? Or how millions of people just sat and put up with Stalin? The Cultural Revolution? The North Korean state circa 2007? The degree of support for the invasion of Iraq (on both sides of the political divide)?

  25. Hmm. Yeah, reading that Wikipedia article, I get the sense he’s presenting these “problems” as exceptions when, in fact, they seem to me more like the rule. The failures of “crowd intelligence” get millions of people killed; the successes result in… what? More fuel-efficient cars? Whoops, no.

    The intro to the article says he focuses on economics (the Poor Science, as they say) and psychology. Unsurprising, since those are two fields in which anyone can say anything he likes. Freud actually got a reputation for himself, and he was a drug addict megalomaniac who falsified results willy-nilly and pulled his theories out his back end. Economists may be better — my dealings with Brad De Long have convinced me he’s not the fool I once took all economists to be — but economics is hardly scientific. There’s a great book on Buddhist environmentalism which, despite its religious bent, makes the most devastating argument against secular econonmics: that it excludes from its cost-benefit assessments almost everything important to human life, like the environment, communal health, deep and lasting happiness.

    (While nobody can prescribe what will make the masses happy, it’s pretty damned certain that toxic pollution and plastic-choked oceans will be a barrier to that happiness in the long term.)

    Anyway, I get the impression, from the article, of someone starting with his conclusion — FREE MARKET GOOD! — and working backwards from there, to show us how we’re “wrong” about crowds.

    Of course, since the mass majority of people (the bulk of the “crowd”) think crowds are crazy, Suroweicki must be wrong, right? Heh!

  26. The intro to the article says he focuses on economics (the Poor Science, as they say) and psychology. Unsurprising, since those are two fields in which anyone can say anything he likes.

    There’s a great book on Buddhist environmentalism which, despite its religious bent, makes the most devastating argument against secular econonmics: that it excludes from its cost-benefit assessments almost everything important to human life, like the environment, communal health, deep and lasting happiness.

    Of course theology and literary theory are considered objective social sciences…

    Freud actually got a reputation for himself, and he was a drug addict megalomaniac who falsified results willy-nilly and pulled his theories out his back end.

    This is just an ad hominem attack. As well, from what little I know, the psychologists Suroweicki would be relying on would owe more to Skinner than Freud. Wouldn’t it make more sense to attack Skinner’s methodology rather than Freud’s character?

  27. I think I’ve fixed the tagging. You were forgetting to back-slash the closing tags. :)

    Theology and literary theory certainly are not hard sciences. Of course, the best of both never pretend that they are, either, which is different from in psychology and economics. There are smart people working in economics and psychology, but there are always assumptions and blinders that preclude even anything as remotely objective as in real science.

    Nevertheless, the book of Buddhist environmentalism mostly doesn’t discuss theology. it discusses the environment and how economics relates to it in an unhealthy way. (The vantage point of coming from Buddhist thought just makes the obvious so much easier to figure out.)

    You’re probably right in disagreeing with my associating all of psychology with Freud. From what I hear, nobody outside of Literary Theory, the Fine Arts, and maybe Sociology takes Freud seriously anymore. It’s unfair.

    I don’t know so much about Skinner, though I do know that I’m dubious about Behaviourism. While I find the ideas that it ultimately leads to, such as those in The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, fascinating, I’m not sure it reflects reality all that well. I think the person I’m most sympathetic to is Stephen Pinker — his sense that what we are comes from a mix of environment, culture, but also very importantly development and especially built-in human nature. (I should caveat that saying I’ve not yet gotten to his book The Blank Slate but I’ve been thinking the general idea for years, in part from prior readings of Pinker, Cytowic, Boyer, and others.)

    I should really read up on Skinner a little. But I should also say I’m kind of skeptical right from the outset, because the assumptions of Skinner’s just seem so nutty, so height-of-the-Cold-War, 1950s kooky.

    In any case, I’m not going to offer any other criticism of Surowiecki’s work than that… but I also can’t say I’m strongly inclined to read it. Life’s short and all that. Maybe in a few years, when I have sustained access to a well-stocked anglophone library.

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