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Sat, Jul. 30th, 2011, 04:32 pm
Trees/plants "share" with competitors in nature through Mycorrhizal Networks


I knew that sometimes multiple trees of the same species fuse their roots to share water and nutrients. Elm trees do this in urban settings; it's one of the reason why a diseased elm needs to be "trenched" to sever its roots from surrounding elms, to keep the disease from circulating into other trees and killing a whole yard or park full of mature trees. Roses also graft together below ground and spread nutrients, as well as diseases, through a network.

In nature, Redwood trees are known to form massive conglomerated root systems combining hundrets of individuals - and whole forests - into nutrient-sharing systems. One demonstration of how thorough this network is, is "albino" trees; Redwoods are the only tree species in which individuals that are genetically mutated so can't photosynthesize (and appear white) actually survive and grow in the nature because other trees feed them sugar through root connections.

(More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albino_redwood ... pretty cool huh?)

(In other circumstances, there are parisitic plants that don't photosynthesize, but they cannot parasatize thier own species because none of the others photosynthesize either. In this case, it's less like parasitism and more like welfare.)

But it goes beyond that. I JUST READ: in most forests, ALL trees connect to large underground mycelial (fungus) networks to pass minerals, water and sugars... through the networks... EVEN TO "COMPETING" TREE SPECIES!

Here's one source for more info which in turn contains references to further scientific data: http://www.mykoweb.com/articles/MycorrhizalNetworks.html

Studies showed that seedlings that would have died ended up surviving when they tapped in to the mycorrhizal network and fed off competitors. But this isn't "parasitism" because when they grow they end up giving back, and it's much more than "symbiotism" because the whole forest is plugged in to the network.


Take a minute to comprehend the implications of this. It basically undermines everything we were taught about the nature of... well, nature. Since Darwin we've thought of the wild as a cruel place in which aiding your competitors would mean disadvantage and even death, where the "fittest" survive and selfish motives drive success. Humans were a rare exception because many of us choose to care for the sick, the elderly, adopt children who are not our own, choose not to reproduce genetically, make altruistic sacrifices - even sacrifice our own lives for causes - and value the common good.

As it turns out, well yes competition still exists in nature (no one would deny that), but nature also "cooperates" and forms much more than occasional relationships. Entire eco-communities of common interest develop; civilizations basically.

Both competition and cooperation can aid survival through natural processes, and if your rivals are cooperating you'd damn well better get on board if you want to make it because they have a huge advantage in doing so.

And what if your willingness to cooperate was so thorough that you were willing to help anybody and everybody who would team up with you? Would that be the ultimate trump card in survival?

I did learn about symbiotic relationships in school biology (the classic example is lichens http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichen ), but we were taught that it was an anomaly in nature. We never learned the "rare exception" would be an individual organism that is NOT in a directly-symbiotic relationship.

The movie Avatar IS TRUE. On Earth.

I have a hypothesis. I think an unexplored tendency in metabiology is that, over eons, ecosystems evolve from competitive to cooperative.

Think about how life "colonizes" a barren place like a new island or forest wiped out by fire; pioneering plants creep in and begin growing in a rough environment. They live, die and add organic material to soil, which in turn allows other plants to grow there. Slowly, ecological communities develop.

The Earth itself has followed that route as a whole: the biosphere has gradually expanded since life's beginning, due to species aiding each other. It took a long time for any life at all to exist on land, and when it started, only wet swamps were hospitable enough for plants to grow or animals to live; the fossil record shows that even when life was evolving rapidly on Earth, huge expanses of dry land were barren. Nothing we now see as plains, deserts, or subarctic regions would have any species at all.

Slowly, a few plants moved in - plants that could better regulate their water and get through the heat of the day, plants with more developed roots so they could stay green long after rain, plants that could store water for weeks, months, even years. Plants that could go dormant in rough times and spring back to life when rare rains came. Even plants that could get water from the air.

Places we now know as plains, prairie, Savannah, and even some forests are actually quite dry in the scheme of things, and would be barren if not for innovative strategies.

Those plants improved soils, provided food sources, altered weather patterns to make them rainier, and diverged into even more species that filled even more niches.

I'd suspect that in another half billion years, the concept we currently term "deserts" will no longer exist on Earth. More adaptave species of plants will colonized them and be able to grow lush without water. You might find enormous canopies of the descendants of joshua trees and saguaros that grow so thick they shade the ground. Maybe plants will be able to extract water exclusively from the air and share it with other plants, or they'll be able to purify salty water, or water from extremely deep underground reserves.

And perhaps in so doing they will cause rain to fall more often, or at least make rain more or less irrelevant to the ecosystem.

I don't think there's even anything far-fetched or speculative about what I am saying; it's a pretty well-known concept that ecosystems can gradually tame adverse settings.

So to go along with my hypothesis - ecosystems evolve to become cooperative - perhaps Homo Sapiens, with our ability to domesticate & partner with thousands of plants and animals are unwittingly part of that process. We "cooperate" with our crop plants, our pets, animals we have domesticated, ornamental plants, bacteria and fungus we use in food processing as well as creating industrial products. I would suggest that human beings are probably the most symbiotic species on Earth, forming mutual relationships with new species all the time.

Maybe human beings are a natural process, of cooperation, that will someday allow Earth's biosphere to expand into space.

Imagine it. By the same process that oceanic life came to live on land (species taking small steps and aiding each other), Earth's life could grow and thrive in greenhouses on the Moon, on Mars, on Saturn's moons, and beyond, because in this case, Humans had the survival strategy of technology, to transport, and build habitat for, other life forms.

That's sort of an "expansionist" mindset that is very American; perhaps it's more pertinent to talk about our species' ability to symbiotize as a call to nurture and protect natural spaces in land that we already live in, to improve the quality of life for everybody, and to have the wisdom to check some of our worst impulses. But it's worth noting that the most relevant criticism of American expansionism is that it wasn't cooperative, but exploitative, and that doesn't fit the arrow of nature's natural process.

In a Darwinistic sense, though we aid other species by breeding them for slaughter or growing them as crops, we aren't exactly doing very much for the organisms as individuals; it surely sucks to be a farmed chicken or pig. I'll note that's not what I'm talking about here, but there is still - interestingly - a process going on (a political one, albeit) to be more aware of these kinds of human impacts and reduce them.

...but even if we weren't around, Earth's biosphere would still be driven to expand as it becomes increasingly cooperative; to the poles, to deep crevices, to high altitudes, and so forth.

In conclusion.

1) Nature is secretly communist

2) AVATAR IS A TRUE STORY. (Not the "Cowboy/Indian" social commentary, just the part about the trees.)

3) Humans are the ultimate symbiote.

Or ignore all that, and just know that trees feed each other, which is still pretty awesome.

Sat, Dec. 4th, 2010, 02:22 pm
The Era of "Safe" Causes

Maybe I lack the perspective of age, but it seems that politics are getting lazier and lazier.

It was only a few years ago - 40 at most - that people would take to the streets and protest or riot, putting themselves at major risk to express something, or try to change something that seemed impossible to change. Granted, even in the thick of the tumultuous 1960s, Suburban America was thriving in its quaint monotony, and most kids were going to school like ordinary kids and most dads worked and most moms stayed at home and cooked. So perhaps it is only the Left that has lost its spark in 2010.

In 1969, the Stonewall riots sparked the modern gay rights movement when a bunch of drag queens and transvestites and a few gay men and lesbians battled the New York City Police Department for days in an all-out brawl. And the gays won - it was the moment they switched from being a deviant underclass to an oppressed minority. Just ten years earlier, freedom riders fighting for civil rights were yanked off of buses and beaten, and some were killed, in a fight to end the brutality of racial segregation.

Now, the Facebook "like" button is the venue for expressions of solidarity.

I get dozens of "causes" invites per week, and yes, I support the troops, yes I support repairing cleft lips in Thailand, yes I support ending breast cancer, yes I support feeding the hungry, yes I agree child abuse is bad, yes I support people with diabetes. To make that stuff easier to follow, can there just be one general button that says "I'm generally in favor of things that nobody in her right mind would oppose?"

How about this cause: "if you are against the Earth getting sucked into a gigantic intergalactic black hole, put a '<3 EARTH' in your Facebook profile."


Imagine asking your friends about it; "well it's not smart to talk politics on a first date, but I'm just curious where you stand on an gigantic intergalactic black hole swallowing the Earth."

"I don't know who I'm voting for for state representative, I'll have to see how the candidates would vote on the Earth getting sucked into the intergalactic black hole."

"You know Anderson I'd love to answer your question about the Senate blocking a vote on tax cuts for the middle class, but first I must take a moment to bring up an important issue and say that I absolutely condemn the idea of a gigantic intergalactic black hole sucking in the Earth."

Thanks for taking a tough stance on a divisive issue, everyone.

What if we took it a step up in controversy: instead of saying "I support American troops not dying in war," say "I support NOBODY dying in war, I support there not being a war." Instead of saying "I support feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving," saying "I support asking why the 1 in 5 Americans are jobless when corporations are turning record profits, I support asking why there are still hungry and homeless people who need psychiatric or medical attention for disabilities that keep them unemployed in a country that spends $2.5 trillion annually on healthcare." Instead of saying "I think animal cruelty is wrong" which really only means pet cruelty, what if we said "I will only buy pets from shelters and refuse to eat animals slaughtered in factory farms" and put major institutions of suffering out of business. Instead of saying "I am against bullying," saying "I will question every judgmental instinct that comes into my mind and will call out other people on their judgmental instincts against people they see as socially inferior, to stop the kind of culture that causes kids to kill themselves."

Instead of saying "I'm against racism" as in not being a member of a hate group, saying "I'm against racism" as in being against a society that wants to call "truce" after hundreds of years of one-sided bullying, when the damage is still there, when a sense of cultural superiority is still there, and white people still enjoy higher income, more wealth, longer life expectancies, better representation in public office and better access to higher education than people of color.

So instead of putting cartoons in our profiles to protest child abuse, why don't we protest it vows of nonviolence in our own lives. That means physical, verbal and psychological, towards our friends, our families, and ourselves. Lets make a sacrifice for what we believe in. Lets do something that takes effort and ask each other to do something that takes effort. Without effort there is no change.

Or, you know... <3 Earth.

Tue, Aug. 10th, 2010, 03:08 pm
Why President Obama is Going to Be OK

This is a short post, but I wanted to point something out that is quite important nowadays amidst howling opposition to President Obama and the perception, true or false, that our country as a whole has lurched to the Right.

First, some key statistics from Open Left:

In 2008, according to exit polls, 89% self-identified liberals voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama's approval rating among self-identified liberals has averaged 74%. That is a decline of 15 points.

In 2008, according to exit polls, 60% of self-identified moderates voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama's approval rating among self-identified moderates has averaged 54%. That is a decline of 6 points.

In 2008, according to exit polls, 20% of self-identified conservatives voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama's approval rating has averaged 24% among self-identified conservatives. That is an increase of 4 points.

President Obama got 53 percent of the vote in November 2008. His approval ratings are now about seven points lower, meaning that around fourteen percent of those who voted for Barack Obama are now claiming to "disapprove" of the President's performance today (because 14 percent of 50 percent is 7 percent of the whole sample).

Some of that deficit has come from a drop in support among moderates. A lot of that deficit has come from discontent among liberals and progressives.

That doesn't mean Democrats are not in trouble in the midterms: because young people and poor people often think midterms are too unimportant to vote in them, or they're too busy with other issues in their lives, much of the Democratic base is gone, which is always a major boost to Republicans. Democrats tend to do poorly in midterm elections, especially when their party is in charge.

But it does mean that, things looking as they are now, the President will easily be able to shore up his support in 2008 against a Republican opponent. Progressives who think Obama hasn't done enough for them aren't going to turn and vote for Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney.

Of course, the numbers that Gallup found and Open Left reported are a bit misleading when some "moderates" have switched to defining themselves as conservative, and some "liberals" have switched to defining themselves as moderate, since the election. As I have pointed out many times before, Americans are devils' advocates and lovers of balance, and position themselves in contrast to whatever they see as the most powerful party. Still, one thing that is definitely true is that the numbers for Obama are not as bad as they seem.

Anti-Obama conservatives are numerous, are certainly loud, and they have grown in prominence and attention-getting ability since the 2008 election. But they aren't more numerous than they were in 2008. Ask a few of Barack Obama's most vehement opponents who they voted for in 2008: it almost certainly wasn't Barack Obama, and the president will do just fine if only the people who voted for him in 2008 vote for him again in 2012. All things considered, when he comes head-to-head with a Republican candidate he will still have their support.

Fri, Jun. 4th, 2010, 09:05 pm
The Media Needs To Focus on Where Economy is Working

Economies are mobs. Prices are set by the number of people who are willing to buy something and what they are willing to pay for it - they are determined by collective, rather than individual decisions. In times like these, they are increasingly characterized by mass panics and mass rallies - by emotions and fear.

As much as economists like to cite historic trends or graphs or abstract indicators about what is going to happen and when, there is no intrinsic rule that says oil will become less expensive in the month of June or that gold will skyrocket in even-numbered years. There is especially no intrinsic reason why all stocks should rise and fall together, like they did today, by news stories that have nothing to do with the individual companies being traded, but rather, the collective abstract sense of the entire economy's well-being. They move together because of collective emotion. The prices of these things go up or down because of our collective choices, which essentially means they go up or down as much because of other peoples' choices as our own, and under the premise that people tend to act alike under similar circumstances.

For all the Objectivist's claims about the intrinsic ties between capitalism and individuality, there is no one less individualistic in this world than an investor in a volatile market.

Similarly, the rise and fall of the entire economy is determined, not so much by complicated graphs and hidden variables that nobody can understand, as much as by one simple thing: our collective actions.

So when you're trying to figure out whether the economy is going to grow or shrink over the next six months, it boils down to one simple question: are people going to be more productive over the next six months than they are now, or less? That breaks down into two specific areas to look at: are people going to spend more money, or less? Are companies going to hire more employees, or fewer?

Businesses right now are in a place of hesitation. Collectively, when you read the stories you hear nearly all of them saying that they've been making more money than they were last year. On its face, that is proof-positive that the economy is growing. On the other hand, they've been saying that they don't want to respond to this growth by hiring more employees - even when they feel they could use them - because they don't know if the boost in sales is going to last. Sales are tied to the collective actions of all potential customers, choosing to buy or not to buy. They are tied to the entire economy.

In other words, Companies don't want to hire and be more productive because they don't know what the whole economy is going to do over the next six months.

Imagine the absurdity of that statement, considered simplistically. When businesses hire and do more, that is growth in the economy. If every company in America decided today to add 1 employee for every 10 employees currently working - a 10 percent expansion in workforce - the entire economy would roar ahead at a tremendous speed. Unemployment would plummet. Profits would skyrocket. The vast majority of the companies would almost certainly be able to profit from the investment, because more people working would mean more people would have money to spend, there would be more demand for goods and services, and on top of that there would be more work actually being done. So refusing to hire because you don't know what the economy is going to do is literally stagnating the economy in case it stagnates. It's circular.

This would imply that taking action, choosing to hire or invest, is good. The only downside of action, is being the only person to make the choice you are making. Companies are timid. In one sense, being first to act can be good; being first to buy stock that suddenly rises in value can be immensely profitable because you get it cheap and can sell it for more money. That's part of why the stock market has done well over the last year, as the first segment of the economy to expand. Being first to come up with a product that people need has produced millionaires and billionaires throughout recent history. On the other hand, if nobody acts - if you attempt to be first in a trend and the trend never materializes, the outcome could be rocky and even a loss. Hiring ten people and not having sales increase means that everything you paid those employees is a loss for you. In other words, adding employees to your workforce only works when all other companies do so too.

Ideally, the best economic stimulus that the government could possibly offer is an order that every business expand workforce by five percent. This, of course, is illegal and unconstitutional. But it would work.

This is an extremely simplistic view of the economy. People don't pay thousands of dollars and work for four years to learn economics in a form as simple as this, which is something a fifth grader can understand. Still, the fact that the economy is as much a matter of psychology as it is material remains true.

We are now in an economy ruled by fear. Growth boomed in April, but then in May, bad news abounded. A leaky pipe in the Gulf of Mexico is pumping millions of gallons of petroleum into the ocean, which is shutting down the fishing and tourism industries in the area. A bad financial situation in some of the smaller economies in Europe is creating a financial crisis there, which has the potential to impact the United States. It's causing the Euro to decline in value, which causes the U.S. dollar to rise relative to other currencies, which causes a state of deflation in which stocks decrease in numerical value even if they are keeping the same absolute value. These things have little real impact on you and me. However, they have immense psychological impact in the U.S. American companies are saying maybe right now isn't the best time to invest or hire, even as their bottom lines show that it would be relatively safe to make such an investment, just because, you know, we're watching the news and it looks like it might be risky.

That is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If a huge number of CEO's and managers decide it may be too risky to hire now, based on a slight possibility that the economy won't grow, then the economy won't grow. They will make it become true.

Right now it is those who are mediating the information that have all the power.

Optimism is the medicine that will save us right now. That can come from a number of places. One potential source of optimism is inflation. If the value of a rising dollar can create the perception that everything is worth less and less than it used to be (which can have a very detrimental effect when you are trying to sell your product or wondering if you should invest in a new home or in stocks), then it reasons that the alternative, inflation - the lessening of the value of currency so that people will have a sense that things are increasing in value - has a huge positive psychological effect. People get paid more than they were getting paid last year. People can sell their product for more money.

In a state of inflation, even stagnating wealth feels like growth. It's an illusion, but a very effective one. That's why the last ten years - an era of absolute stagnation for most middle-class Americans - wasn't perceived as a total loss for Americans during those years. If you make a thousand dollars more this year than you did last year, you're quite proud of yourself, even if it is exactly as much as the price of everything you buy increased.

Printing more money and causing inflation also has the effect of making a given federal debt less significant, and increases the dollar value of GDP so that current government expenditures shrink by comparison. Economic conservatives call it a hidden tax, but it's hard to see how even economic conservatives want to stagnate the economy when deflation is part of what is destroying it.

Another thing that can have a huge difference is to focus on the good when it comes to media and news. That's something that nobody, regardless of their ideology, should dispute. Newspapers and magazines should run regular features on businesses that have been thriving in spite of the recession; they should feature companies that choose to hire anyway, and root in favor of them. Give investors the sense that the economy is doing better, and it will.

My cynical suspicion is that secretly, a lot of people either want or think the economy will fail because the government is now run by Democrats, and they distrust the Democrats on economic matters. A lot of people with money prefer a divided or Republican government. Whether it be by desire or just circumstantial, they can refuse to invest right now out of distrust, and the economy will suffer.

Thus, my suspicion is that whatever happens, November 2010 will be a month of growth. The moment midterm elections are over, Democrats will have either won or lost. Conservative economists and investors may want to see Obama out of office, but they are not going to want to wait another 2 years until 2012 to move; they'll act in November 2010. If Democrats win, conservative investors get over it and start investing anyway, and the economy will grow, because they aren't going to sit around and get older without doing anything productive. If Democrats lose and Republicans take Congress, they will be elated that we now have a divided government that is now more favorable to the wealthy, they will start investing, and the economy will grow.

This, of course, is all psychological. They could choose to invest right now and the economy would grow.

Or, we could talk up what's going right with this country, try to put all the bad news in perspective, and watch growth and prosperity begin to return right now as people glean some hope and make an effort to do something with their time.

Wed, May. 19th, 2010, 02:57 pm
2010: The Era of Incompetent Punditry

I wanted to point out some the most absurd explanation for yesterday's anti-incumbent storm that raged through the Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania primaries, which I came across on RealClearPolitics.com - a site that seems to be increasingly a spot for ridiculous ideas to be collected and disseminated.

Michael Barone's first "lesson of the day" is that Americans are fed up with legislators who sit on the Appropriations Committee, because three losing incumbents were on it. That's right, Barone thinks that the majority of Republicans and Democrats follow and give a shit about who's on the Appropriations Committee, or even know what the Appropriations Committee is, and that this is one of their main issues as voters. Nonwithstanding that Specter's primary challenge was founded on the fact that he switched parties and was not a true Democrat, Bennett's challenge was basically a strategic "we can find someone slightly more conservative in this blood-red state of Utah," and Mollohan lost the Democratic nomination for his congressional seat in West Virginia because West Virginia an "ethnic white" conservative state, and also a very Democratic state which throws back to the Dixiecrat era in the South, and the Democratic primary is essentially the general election where Black Big City Obama's guy just lost to a Good Country Folk.

There isn't some easy connection to explain what happened today on both sides of the aisle, when factors are very different from Republicans to Democrats. Republicans are still trying to prove that Bush was so unpopular not because he was conservative but because he wasn't conservative enough (yikes!), so they've been punishing their establishment in favor of nontraditional candidates in what is an essentially a pipe dream that politicians who are dispositionally vitriolic, irrational and quick-tempered will lead them to political success. Rand Paul is as colorful a character as his father, so Republicans went for him as their senate nominee in Kentucky, over mainstream conservative Trey Grayson, who Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had endorsed. This also explains uberconservative JD Hayworth's pending primary challenge of John McCain in Arizona, GOP senator Bennett's loss in Utah and Marco Rubio forcing Charlie Crist to run as an Independent in Florida. (If you are a Democrat, you ought to be cheering these Republican efforts on because even if they are short-term successful, they will marginalize the party later on.)

Democrats, on the other hand, are probably just sticking their finger in the wind and realizing that incumbents are unpopular, so might as well defeat them in the primaries so they have at least a chance of winning a general election, and if they fail then it's no sweat off their back. They aren't running from Obama, who, with approval ratings of about 50, are one of the highest for any U.S. figure in a time of high unemployment and abounding economic trouble. Sitting Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln is dead in the water whether she wins her primary or not. Her primary opponent Bill Halter will face an uphill battle in the general election if he wins the primary, but polls show him doing a little better against the Republican opponent than Lincoln, so Democrats abandoned Lincoln for Halter and now there will be a run-off contest because neither one got 50%. It was sweet revenge for Democratic progressives, who are still sore after Lincoln made herself a major stumbling block for healthcare reform in order to appear moderate, but Democrats in Arkansas wouldn't have voted for Halter if he didn't seem to have a better chance of winning than Lincoln. In Pennsylvania, Sestak beat former-Republican Arlen Specter because he was doing a little better in polls and voters are keen on anti-incumbent attitudes.

If you want an overarching narrative to explain all of this, it's simply that Democrats won on the Change narrative in 2008, but now that narrative is over so both parties are looking for a new one, and their candidates can only guess at what the electorate will decide on so always risk being dumped.

Tue, May. 4th, 2010, 11:54 am
Six Steps to Improve Urban Education in America

I've been talking a lot about what doesn't fix the achievement gap in public schools. Programs designed to fire teachers who have low-scoring students is an example of a fatally wrong-headed approach to education, because it creates animosity between teachers and low-performing students who drag scores down, and discourages teachers from working in the very schools that are hardest to recruit in.

So instead of being all negative and listing only bad proposals, here are the positive steps I would suggest that would create the greatest possible difference in the lives of students in schools that struggle most.

1) Recruit more minority teachers.

People who know what it's like to be part of a minority group in America are intrinsically better prepared to connect with and understand students who know what it's like to be a part of a minority group in America. Teachers of color and teachers who grew up in tough urban environments are most likely to apply criticism and praise in the right way to encourage students to take the path that they themselves took, to react positively towards challenging situations in which a student's behavior is part of her or his culture, and to become good role models that the students can identify with. Teachers of color model success for students of color whereas an all-white teaching staff creates the image that white people are successful community builders who people of color are subjugated to. Having teachers from minority communities gives students hope that they, too can be successful, and that the path society generally sets for them - telling them that college and well-paying jobs are out of reach - can be changed if they focus on school.

A school with a student body that is primarily of color should be taught by a faculty that is primarily of color, and teachers of color should have a strong voice in explaining to their white colleagues how charged racial or cultural situations should be dealt with.

2) Reduce class size.

No teacher, no matter how skilled or brilliant, is going to be at her or his best in a class of 40 students. Dicipline issues will take up more class time than learning, and students who are diciplined in this way will become uninvested from school. Lecturing to a class of kids who are at different levels of ability is hard, and content always suffers; the best way to compensate is when teachers are able to answer individual questions and spend 1-on-1 time with students during work time. But 1-on-1 time is more or less impossible when class sizes are huge; there shouldn't be more than 25 students in a classroom at at time under most circumstances, and the ideal is probably closer to 17 students. What this ultimately comes down to is funding, because increasing class size is unavoidable when schools have to cut positions.

4) Make education a community effort.

Schools should not be seen as places where kids disappear in for 8 hours a day after they wake up, and educators should not see the community as a place that students disappear to for 16 hours after the bell rings. Schools and communities need to be intrinsically connected to improve student achievement.

Again, this reflects on the need to recruit more minority teachers. An all-white teaching staff is often uncomfortable around or even adversarial to parents of color, who the teachers may blame for their students' poverty or juge critically when they do not understand the community's culture. Students are savier than they may seem, and pick up on animosity teachers have for the community, which further informs them that they don't have much of a future as members of their race.

There should be thorough coordination between a school and the community, and local businesses, colleges, city councils and politicians need to play a direct role in educationg students. Legislators and community leaders should regularly put politics aside and take time to have non-political talks with students. Local scientists should visit classrooms. Businesses should encourage students to work with them in paid internships. Colleges should send tutors to work with younger students and writers and artists should be involved. The community should provide the manpower and interest, but the facilitators of this kind of activity will have to come from inside the school.

5) Increase the number of nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers in schools.

A lot of students in tough school districts spend more of their thoughts unpacking traumatic or challenging life situations than they do learning. How is a student who is homeless or living out of a car supposed to get homework done, or even care about homework? How is a student who has been subjugated to racism or homophobia in school supposed to feel good about going there again and again each day? How is a student with diabetes, epilepsy or any other potentially serious condition without regular access to health care that parents can afford supposed to get through the day where physical symptoms are interfering with work? How is a student with ADHD or depression supposed to deal when she or he is not getting professional help?

Students in challenging situations need to be allowed more time with school psychologists and counselors, and schools should provide these services to carefully monitor student achievement, and to be willing to investigate further and solve problems when disconnects show up. Someone in the school needs to know how to get a kid on Medicaid. Someone in the school needs to be able to talk to the parents about supplying medications. Someone in the school needs to be able to create a safe space for students to talk about their lives and ensure students are socially and psychologically healthy, so that class time can be spent on learning rather than other issues.

6) Ban junk foods from cafeterias.

Schools that provide free lunches are often relied on to give their kids nutrition that their parents are unable to afford, or to have time to prepare when they're working multiple jobss. That being the case, it's tragic when schools respond by providing salty fried potatoes with oil-based cheese sauce every day for lunch because it is the cheapest food they can get that the kids will eat.

It is known that the healthiness in childhood sets the tone for healthiness in adulthood, and sugar and junk food can have measurable negative effects on behavior and concentration. Of course, kids are going to order what tastes good, and it is often junk food that tastes the best, and it takes a while for kids (and adults) to adjust their tastes to prefer healthy foods - so junk food shouldn't even be an option. Schools should outright ban sugars and chips, and should instead provide only whole wheat bread for sandwiches, non-sugar cereals, sauces that are not loaded with oil or white flour, fresh fruits and vegetables, cooked fruits and vegetables, and other whole meals.

This, again, comes down to funding, since it is slightly more expensive to provide this kind of food. But good health is the foundation for good behavior and productivity.

Wed, Apr. 21st, 2010, 10:05 pm
On Religion

I have been, and am, somewhat critical of organized religion from time to time. However, a lot of people will note, and have noted, that I am a lot less critical of religion than a lot of other liberals, and I don't rant against it or argue that it is all nonsense. I am also quite critical of those who condemn religion or refer to all believers as idiots or selfish miscreants. My thinking is very different from that of Bill Maher or other famous iconoclasts.

I'll note that I grew up Catholic and do not "hate" my religion of birth (though I am extremely critical of Church politics at times), I spent two years of my life leading a youth program in a Unitarian Universalist church, I minored in Religions Studies in college, and I have and continue to support groups that use the word "ministry" or "stewardship" as part of their mission statement. Those who read my theological views know I differ greatly from many on the concept of "god," the "soul," and "afterlife." Still, I find myself siding with certain kinds of "believers" or religions adherents quite often.

Religion is complicated, and people in the West living in the shadow of European-originated Christianity critique along the same paradigmatic lines that Christian conservatives/conservative Christians support it. This seems complicated; hopefully this will make sense as I explain.

Different religions (and different believers) use religion to answer different "questions."

For example, most Americans think religion asks/answers:

1) what happens to me when I die?
2) who does God love/favor and who does he not love/favor?
3) how do I get to heaven/how am I saved from hell?
4) what is the origin of the universe and what is historically/factually true and untrue?

Even atheists and agnostics may accept a "Christian" definition of religion, so they oppose it for what they see to be rational reasons. I agree that religion is BAD at answering most of these questions; people who pursue these kinds of faith tend to favor their group and hate others, have unrealistic certainty about the nature of life, and decide that mythological stories are factually true. In most of these cases, science and philosophy are better at answering them, and in some of them nobody knows the answer and its foolish for a devout person to claim certainty or even any kind of evidence for belief.

However, for some people, religion addresses:

1) what is the ultimate purpose of my life?
2) how can I get out of my individual experience and care for others/community?
3) what is the value of deep reflection and how is it enhanced when we pursue it as a community?

These questions are asked by "humanistic" religions such as Unitarian Universalism, Progressive Christianity, Reform Judaism and others. Other religions will ask:

1) what is the nature of the individual/mind/consciousness?
2) how do I liberate the individual/mind/consciousness?

These are questions asked by Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as other lesser-known religions around the world. Still other religions ask:

1) how do I define my people and what are our shared values?
2) what defines membership in my community?
3) what are our most valued/sacred traditions and histories?
4) what defines my community's struggle and what are the lessons we learn from it? How does it tie to other kinds of knowledge such as scriptural/spiritual knowledge?

These questions are asked by ethnic religions such as Judaism and a lot of Indigenous religions in the world. It might also refer to "non-practicing" Muslims, who encompass a surprising percentage of the world's adherents of Islam; in some cases even the majority of people in Muslim-dominated countries are not particularly religions and see "Muslim" as being primarily an ethnic identity. These questions are also, to an extent, addressed by Black churches and other religions groups that are associated with a community. Finally:

1) where did we come from?
2) how do I explain my connection to the objects/creatures/living things around me?
3) what is the value and being of me and of these objects? How are they like me and not like me?

This encompasses the rest of the indigenous religions in the world.

In most cases and for most believers, a particular religion or spiritual worldview will leak over into other categories; there are plenty of Humanist Christians, mystic Muslims, radical Buddhists and followers of indigenous religions who shun other groups or "prophesize." There are plenty of American New Agers who fancy themselves Buddhist or Hindu but still have Christian-esque concepts of the soul, prophesy, and the afterlife, even with a more liberal moral system and an embracing of alternate mind states or reincarnation. These are general categories, addressing the fact that not all believers are concerned with the same things, and there are certainly many of them who distance themselves from our most recognized concepts of the "supernatural," from the afterlife, and from heaven vs. hell.

Religion is mutli-faceted and complicated. One person's religion is another person's "philosophy" and another person's "culture." You cannot affirm or condemn religion in broad strokes. When you step outside of a Euro-centric, American-centric and Anglo-centric look at the world, it becomes harder to pigeonhole.

Most people who condemn religion do so because they see it as conservative. Ironically, they are taking a rather conservative position in regards to religion.

Tue, Apr. 20th, 2010, 03:03 pm
An Open Letter to Mitt Romney

Dear Mr. Romney,

In 2006, as governor of Massachusetts, you worked with a Democratic legislature and signed a law that gave your state close to universal access to health insurance.

In it was an individual mandate, requiring everyone to buy health insurance to expand the pool reduce health insurance costs in the state, and subsidies for those who could not afford health insurance. The bill in Massachusetts forced insurers to accept all willing customers. It was not a perfect bill, and is not enough to solve all problems with healthcare, but it was a commendable step.

In 2008 you explained why healthcare in Massachusetts was in line with conservative principles. You explained that the individual mandate asked people to care for themselves, and that the bill would save costs and improve the efficiency of the health care system. Conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation supported you and argued in favor of your bill.

Fast-forward to 2010. President Obama has signed a bill with crucial elements that are virtually identical to what you, a Republican, supported in Massachusetts four years ago. Its keystones are the individual mandate to expand the pool and subsidies for those who cannot afford health insurance, and the guarantee that anyone seeking health insurance coverage can get a plan.

The Republican Party has cast its lot against the White House, distancing itself in every way possible from President Obama and Democrats, in order to deny them any sense of accomplishment. When the President proposes policies that are Republican in origin, the Republican Party quickly disavows them to claim that Barack Obama is an angry leftist. This has done damage to your presidential ambitious, as countless pundits and policymakers on the Right announce that your plan - which they once hailed - is an epic failure and an example of a Leftist vision.

It is unlikely that the Republican party will ever come around on you; it won't happen unless they come around on Barack Obama, which is a long shot, and that fact makes your current course of action even more perplexing.

Why have you, now, attacked "Obamacare" and favored its repeal? You have gone back on virtually everything you stood for in Massachusetts, and have gone back on your view that the individual mandate and universal healthcare are compatible with conservative principles - now you prefer to claim that your own policies via Barack Obama are leftist and dangerous.

Now you have not only your policies to explain to the Right, but you have a bizzare change in positions to account for. It is difficult for anyone to determine where you stand on anything; the only thing that is clear is that you will unequivocally oppose anything that a political rival supports, even if it is good policy that you favor. That doesn't make you a leader, Mr. Romney, nor is it smart: it makes you cynical, bitter and opportunistic. Transparently so. And it makes you one of a pack of Republicans who did the same thing when they united their caucus against a moderate, even conservative, healthcare reform bill.

Truth be told, you have a chance to stand as one of the few Republicans who could publically approve of Obamacare. This will not endear you to the far-Right, who you are lost on anyway. It will, however, endear you to the center and make you palatable on the Left. It would help Presient Obama greatly - which is why you will not do it, since the President of the United States is your chosen enemy - but it would also greatly benefit America, and likely benefit your political future. It will help heal deep wounds in this country and I daresay even make you a leader.

You may never win a Republican primary. But you may take other jobs in either Republican or Democratic administrations, as a moderate, if you would simply tell the truth.

The Right has abandoned you, Mr. Romney. Conservative organizations are fleeing from you in an attempt to discredit Obama, and they will continue to do so regardless of what you do. They are not your allies.

There is only one hope for you to have any credibility and a political future: stand against your party. Tell them they are wrong on their efforts to repeal the Health Insurance Reform Law, and should support President Obama's plan, which is centrist and indeed is far to the right of many other possible plans that could have been popular this year and could yet appear in America's future. Tell them that Obama's plan involves the least government intrusion possible to solve dire present problems, and with it is a significant reduction on government financial obligations. Tell Republicans that the plan will reduce the deficit, and is in line of what you approved (and many Conservative policy organizations supported, in theory) in Massachusetts.

Tell them that though you may remain a Republican, you will gladly ally with your president on this specific proposal, and explain why Health Insurance Reform is a good step for America.

Nobody is beleiving this bizarre tightrope act you are currently doing, arguing that your own proposals are great when you propose them, and terrible when a Democrat proposes them. The Right doesn't beleive it, Republican primary voters don't believe it, moderate voters don't believe it and the Left doesn't believe it. Its time to experiment with telling the truth.

It may be impossible now for you to be elected President someday, given the chaos on the Right. It is certainly becoming more impossible with each and every day that you continue to tow the party line with political doublespeak on healthcare reform. But it is not too late for you to claim some dignity and respect; stand against your party, and with your own beleifs, and stand with the people in America who will benefit from President Obama's very moderate health care plan.

Thank you,
Matt Pizzuti

Thu, Apr. 15th, 2010, 02:57 pm
Yes, This is Really what I Believe about the Opponents of Healthcare Reform

We've gone over the suffering that people without access to health insurance face.

We've gone over how expanding access to healthcare can save costs.

We've gone over countless plans at making access to healthcare universal, with minimal impact on those who already have health insurance.

We've gone over countless plans at making access to healthcare universal that would actually benefit most of those who already have health insurance.

And for many Americans, the answer is still, no. We don't want that. It's too expensive, it's "too much government," it's too big, it's too fast; those are the arguments that generally rise to the surface in the news. You hear polls indicating that people continue to believe that the uninsured still have reasonable access to healthcare even though this is clearly not true. People seem to be willing themselves into denial.

But if you listen closer to ordinary Americans who oppose healthcare reform, you hear things like "healthcare should be a privilege, not a right," and "I don't think everyone deserves healthcare."

It's time to admit what's really at play here.

The opponents of healthcare reform, or anything that expands access, are not really concerned with compassion, cost, with the role of government or even with taxes.

It's about protecting their privilege. "What good is my health plan," they ask, "if people without my health plan can actually see a doctor too?" You don't want to win a coupon to pay $2 for a sandwich and get to the stand and find out that the sandwiches are free anyway. If another country were to come in to the United States offering "foreign aid," saying "we will pay for your uninsured to have healthcare at absolutely no cost to you," I believe that many Americans who oppose healthcare reform would see even this as a negative.

The history of humanity is full of undeniable cruelty, and undeniable persecution based on constructs of class, race, or other identifiers. Think about American segregation, where white southerners overtly perpetrated their cruelty towards Black Americans for decades, to no benefit of their own. Think about the American Civil War, where poor white Southerners who did not own slaves or personally benefit from slavery still fought and died to protect slavery as an institution.

Look at Roman society, where people of all kinds derived immense pleasure from watching poorer people be tortured and killed in the arena. Look at Greek and Roman slavery, look at South African oppression of blacks, and look at the American genocide of the Native Americans, where white Americans actually overtly stated that extermination of another group of people was the goal. Look at the Holocaust, the irrational hatred so many Germans had for Jewish people, and the cruelties enacted that were of no tangible benefit to their perpetrators.

Look at every school yard where bullies taunt and persecute the outcasts, and you'll see that even in Suburban America humans continue to exhibit a natural enjoyment of cruelty before they reach the self-criticism and maturity of adulthood.

It seems to be quite an audacious accusation to say that class cruelty is at play today; it is a thought that has been more or less banished from the general rhetoric. But if humanity is so wrought with unnecessary suffering, and even our own history is wrought with it, why do we think that we, modern America, are exempt, uniquely enlightened, and suddenly the only motivation of American Conservatism is economic pragmatism?

It's not that rich or middle-class Americans don't want to pay for universal healthcare, it's that they think that limiting access is a good thing, that privilege is something to be enjoyed when you have it, and that one's wealth or advantages are discernibly less enjoyable when they are given to others. Classism still exists. Americans feel good thinking the United States is the richest country in the world. Americans feel good thinking that their neighborhood is wealthier than another neighborhood, and that their home is bigger than another home. Americans, in a tendency that all human beings are prone to, feel good knowing how bad others have it. In other words, when you are not suffering, you see others' suffering as deserved or even good.

The idea that this is what motivates American politics is cringeworthy. It suggests that the views of some on the Right come damned near being definable as hatred; it paints Tea Partiers or other status-quo groups clearly unethical, while we all like to see ourselves as moral and kind. That is why we come up with all kinds of rationalizations to explain the causes we support or oppose: Americans will argue that the uninsured don't suffer that much, they'll say fixing the problem would be nice but is too expensive, or they'll say that they don't believe it is a realistic goal. Most of these arguments are tacitly false, as demonstrated by many successful programs in other countries that make access to healthcare universal, but it is impossible to win the debate over healthcare by pointing out the falsehood of those arguments when those arguments are not what is actually motivating their proponents.

If you listen closely to Right-wing rhetoric, to the Tea Party protesters and to Conservatives who are not in public office who explain their views on healthcare, you will catch this - many people see universal access to medicine as a NEGATIVE thing. In other words, they'd pay extra to maintain their privilege and others' suffering. They derive joy from a stratified world in which others are disadvantaged.

If you open up the New Testament, you see Jesus talking quite a bit about the Kingdom of God, and Heaven and Hell. When he talks about who is going where, the conversation is not about "sin." It's about how you view the structure of society. The rich and powerful are condemned. The poor and destitute are lifted up. Jesus forgives countless sinners, be they sexual deviants or tax collectors or adulterers. He does not forgive authorities who neglect the poor.

In the many parables in which Jesus discusses someone who is not forgiven, there stories of people literally entering Hell. The Rich Man from the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is an example. They are people who hoard their wealth and enjoy their privilege so that others may suffer; they are people who refuse to share their table scraps with a beggar. Jesus says that your treatment in the hereafter will be determined on how you treated "the least of these," the poorest and most reviled in your society.

I am not a Christian, and am not advocating the view that rich or conservative Americans are going to Hell. I don't believe that the Bible is literally true nor do I think it is free of countless distortions favored by the early Church. But of the reasons I will likely never be a Christian again (aside from lack of evidence and some absurdities in Christian theology) is that the modern church continues to be so self-damningly silent on the issue of privilege, which Jesus opposed more than anything else. The Church condemns homosexuals and birth control, to the extent that it advocates against the election of pro-choice Democrats, yet it allows the persecution of immigrants and uninsured people? The hypocrisy is palpable, and so is the hypocrisy of those who think our current stratification is a good thing.

But that is, ultimately, why people opposing universal healthcare are so careful to couch their sentiments in other arguments, to claim their opposition to reform is simply selfishness and not overt hate, or to claim it is pragmatism and that the bleeding-hearts are the ones who are irrational. Conservative Americans overwhelmingly identify as Christian, and don't want to position themselves as the one group the Bible condemns more vehemently than any other. What intellectual acrobatics they'll go through to claim other motives for supporting the same general consequence, of concentrating human suffering on one class of people: look to the last 18 months of healthcare reform to find the answer.

Thu, Apr. 15th, 2010, 03:44 am
Another Stupid Legal Response to HIV

Darren Chiacchia, an American equestrian athlete who won an Olympic medal in Athens in 2004, is on trial.

The charge? Exposing his partner to HIV in the state of Florida, where it is illegal for an HIV+ person to have sex with someone without disclosing HIV status. According to Chiacchia's bitter ex-lover, Chiacchia hid his status from his boyfriend for years. Chiacchia said he was afraid to tell his lover about his HIV status because he was afraid it would go public. His lover found out and made it public anyway. Chiacchia probably deserves that much.

I don't need to go into detail to explain that knowingly exposing someone to HIV is a shitty thing to do. I'm not going to talk about it - not because I don't think it's terrible - but because it is already obvious to everyone reading this and nothing needs to be added. There will be plenty who pile on Chiacchia for his actions.

But what I will say is that the situation has already been irredeemably mishandled, and that the law is bogus in the first place.

Laws criminalizing the transmission or HIV have been misused by ignorant prosecutors and public. In 2008, for example, a Dallas homeless man who is HIV+ was sent to prison for 30 years for spitting on a police officer. The jury, either unaware or indifferent to the fact that HIV is not transmitable through saliva, decided that the saliva was a "deadly weapon" before issuing a guilty verdict.

This is like charging someone with attempted murder for shooting somebody with a squirt gun.

It is hard to get HIV. There are two ways for adults outside a medical setting to get it: through sexual intercourse, and through injections. Inject HIV+ blood into your body, and you stand a good chance of getting HIV. Have unprotected sex with an HIV+ and you have chance of having HIV (between 1 in 50 and 1 in 200; have unprotected sex with an HIV+ person 100 times, as people in a new relationship may do over the course of a year, and your chance of having HIV is pretty high.) But getting HIV through tears, saliva, urine, feces or skin is impossible. Oxygen kills HIV. Nobody has ever gotten HIV through a cut or scratch; you can roll in a puddle of HIV+ blood on the floor, even with cuts on your body, and it's not going to infect you.

HIV needs to be injected fresh, without exposure to air, from one body directly into your body. This happens during IV drug usage and through sex, it happens through organ transplants, it can potentially happen when an infant drinks dozen gallons of her or his mother's infected breast milk over the course of a year, and can happen to an infant during childbirth if the mother is infected.

Source: Wikipedia: HIV Transmission

In the Florida case, too, there is much to question. It is more likely here that the two had sex, which can lead to transmission, but prosecutors have not said what risky behavior Chiacchia and his partner engaged in, or if protection was used. Chiacchia could have feasibly insisted on condoms knowing he was infected. Nor can anybody ever prove whether Chiacchia really lied about his HIV status; it is possible for any person in a relationship with an HIV+ person to claim not to have known about his partner's status to satisfy a vendetta. Chiacchia's partner has not become infected with HIV; the charge is that Chiacchia wrongly placed his partner at risk, though his partner has not been harmed.

The problems with criminalizing HIV transmission are numerous, but in my mind, the ultimate reason why I think the laws fail is because they do not prevent the spread of HIV - they actually promote it. I am more concerned with stopping a deadly disease than with some sentimental form of "justice" where people are locked up for selfish behavior. When the goals conflict, I side with the practical: with preserving human life and health is paramount. I do not allow innocent people to suffer to punish guilty people; that is not a good trade.

The reason criminalizing HIV is dangerous is explained:

Imagine you are a person who has engaged in some risky behavior; perhaps drug use, perhaps unprotected sex, and you are unsure of your HIV status. You think (as many hypochondriacs do) you might have it, but your mind waffles. You might wake up in the morning convinced you are going to die and go to bed at night feeling reassured, talking yourself out of it: "I felt great today," you might think; "I had so much energy!" You might panic every time you get a cold or allergies thinking it is an early sign of AIDS. Even without treatment you will probably live for 10 years as an HIV+ person - which is why many people procrastinate on getting tested. You can put it off for a few months. It is February: lets say you resolve to get tested before the end of December.

An added deterrent is that if you do get tested and the result is positive, it will suddenly become illegal for you to have sex, and you know this. Perhaps you are already in a relationship, perhaps there is someone you have your eye on. Sure, if you tell your partner or partners your status and they consent to having sex using protection, it would be safe and not illegal. But you are convinced no one would have sex with you if they find out you have HIV. You are scared and irrational, and still believe that the world ends when you find out you have HIV. You still think that everyone you love turns their back on you - and sometimes they do. You wake up each morning terrified. You talk yourself down during the day; you've had panics before, and in the past you got tested and everything turned out OK. Almost everyone has a false panic sooner or later. You go to bed convincing yourself that all is well.

In the midst of this, you have sex with several people. You go to a bar and get drunk, and in your intoxicated euphoria you don't even think about your risk; when drunk you decide that you are sure you don't have HIV, and you have sex. Your anxiety actually drives you to the bars more often, or to use other drugs that lead to unprotected sex.

Lets say for the sake of the scenario that you actually are unknowingly HIV+, and infect several other people.

This could have been avoided had you been tested, and told, through counseling that is often provided with the test, that you have a wide number of options available to you as an HIV+ person, that you are not likely to die anytime soon because medication works very well now, that it is still safe to have sex if you follow certain procedures, that HIV+ people continue to find and have romantic relationships and this is actually encouraged by their doctors, and that the first step to reducing the spread of the disease is knowledge.

Instead, you have unknowingly infected people with HIV (and this is not illegal, since you never knew you had it), because the law terrified you away from getting tested. Many will say that putting others at risk in this way is still selfish and wrong, and sure, that is true, but many, many many people do it, far more than would knowingly infect others with HIV. Many people alive and healthy and HIV- today have had sex while not knowing their status, and are all equally guilty of putting others at risk though they got lucky.

That is just one way that criminalizing HIV transmission leads to more transmissions. The other problem is that it gives the community a false sense of security; if you are in a high-risk group, you may think it's safe to have unprotected sex with strangers because they are required by law to tell the truth. You ask your partner or your acquaintance if he has HIV, he says no, so you decide not to use a condom. This is a common assumption. HIV activists fight to prevent it all costs and think it's wrong, wrong, wrong, but many people do it anyway.

The problem is, most HIV transmissions come from someone who didn't know her or his status in the first place. Your partner may say "I tested negative two months ago - I'm negative" and still infect you. You are most contagious when newly infected, which is ironically before you know you are contagious; it could be days after a test. The false sense of security encourages people to take more risks. The risks lead to more HIV transmission.

People who work full time to stop the spread of HIV know: the answer is to educate people to get over their fear, to encourage testing, openness, honesty, and to most of all, remove the stigma associated with HIV+ people. The view is that human beings are naturally good. They don't want to spread HIV around. Very, very few want to willingly infect others, especially when they are given positive support and hope. Remove the fear, and they will get tested, live openly and honestly, and take steps to protect those around them. Research has shown that people do this and it works.

I do think that Chiacchia's public trial will have a chilling effect on people considering getting tested in Florida. It will put unnecessary stigma on HIV+ people and it almost definitely will lead to more people getting HIV than would have otherwise. Is that a fair tradeoff in the District Attourney's mind?

That's up to the prosecutors, and apparently their answer is yes.

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