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      As many have heard, John Tory, the mainstream right wing candidate, won convincingly in Toronto and Olivia Chow came in third place, even doing worse than Doug Ford (brother of the famous crack-smoking Rob Ford.)  Much hand wringing has ensued that progressive just can’t win elections in Toronto. While it’s true that Toronto is hard [...]
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Magical thinking is not limited to Fundamentalist Christians:apostates on the left

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline found this confession of  former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas:

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

. . .(This was) explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it. . .

. . .desperately-needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.

[...]

Lynas concludes that people who want to stick with organic are entitled to—but they should not stand in the way of others who would use science to find more efficient ways to feed billions. “[T]he  GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. … You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food,” he says.

Now, I don’t think Lynas is advocating that we just give GMO stuff a pass and never test it or monitor its effects, because that would be reckless.  But Lynas does seem to have taken the time to understand what the heck he was talking about and once he understood GMO, he lost his irrational fear of it.  It’s still ok to have rational fear.

He’s also had a change of heart about nuclear energy and now believes that it may be one of the most sensible solutions to global warming.

Lynas: It’s blindingly obvious, actually, and I don’t know why it took me so long. The current deployment of nuclear power worldwide of 430 reactors reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 2 billion tons per year. And that really is the beginning and the end of the argument if you’re in the slightest bit concerned about global warming. And all of the oft-stated green objections to nuclear power are either urban myths or an order of magnitude less important than global climate change.

Does that mean he’s onboard with all nuclear power plants built willy-nilly in any configuration on any active fault?  No.  It means he is open to the idea of modern nuclear power using new technologies and to a rigorous regulatory process.  Rigorous does not mean strangulation.

As you can imagine, he’s not popular with some of the left’s most ardent activists.  Apostates rarely are.  Apostates have moved beyond faith to inquiry and evidence.

As someone who grew up in one of the least rational religious cults out there, I can see a lot of similarities between the anti-GMO, anti-nuke, anti-vacc crew and the glassy eyed, Watchtower bearing door knockers.  I can’t take either set seriously.  It’s hard to reason with people who are committed to a point of view regardless of the evidence or the damage they are doing to their own cause.  It would be great if more people on the left would follow Lynas’ example because right now, it’s easy to ignore the lefty activists.  They’re not doing environmentalism any good.  To some of us on the left, such as myself, the anti-GMO, anti-nuclear energy crowd is as embarrassing, nutty and non-productive as the Tea Partiers are to the right.  It’s one of the reasons I will never vote Green.

I’m sure this post will bring offend many people who are adamant about their beliefs and have a bunch of silly papers to prove it but up until now, I’ve found them unconvincing.  You are entitled to your own beliefs but not your own facts.  But there are people on the left who have made a career and an industry out of belief based environmentalism just like there are televangelists hawking their latest faith healing.  You might as well be trying to prove the existence of Noah’s ark in the mountains of Turkey.

A simple experiment for climate change skeptics- slightly geeky

Digby linked to a post about climate change skeptics on the Republican side of the fence.  It seems that many right wing politicians were onboard with the idea that human activity was contributing to climate change but now, er, they’re not:

In his first week of campaigning for president, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that climate change was a theory that “still has not been proven” and was driven in part by a “substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data” to secure research grants. In his book Fed Up! he dismissed climate science as a “contrived phony mess that is falling apart.”

Mitt Romney, who as governor tasked the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Division with creating a policy to fight climate change, has now walked back his pronouncements that human activity causes global warming.

Newt Gingrich, who in 2009 recorded an ad with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling on Congress to take action on climate change, recently called that ad “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.” Jon Huntsman, the one Republican presidential candidate who stands by views that climate change is real and caused by humans, is reaping support from about 1 percent of GOP primary voters.

Despite the rhetoric on the campaign trail, a quiet but significant number of prominent Republican politicians and strategists accept the science of climate change and fear that rejecting it could not only tar the party as “antiscience” but also drive away the independent voters who are key to winning general elections. “There’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the Republican caucus that believes that global warming is happening, and it’s caused at least in part by mankind,” said Mike McKenna, a strategist with close ties to the GOP’s leadership. “You can tell these guys are uncomfortable when you start to talk about science.”

As recently as the last presidential election, the debate in Republican circles was far different. John McCain’s 2008 campaign ads promised that as president, he would tackle climate change. Not only that, but McCain was a lead sponsor of the first major Senate cap-and-trade bill in 2003. In a 2008 interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Sarah Palin asserted that climate change was affecting Alaska, and in the vice presidential debate she said she would support a cap on carbon emissions. In January 2008, then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was head of the National Governors Association, recorded a radio ad with Democrat Janet Napolitano, then Arizona governor, urging Congress to act. “Come on, Congress: Let’s get moving.… Cap greenhouse-gas pollution now,” Pawlenty urged.

Note that I said “contributing”.  The earth goes through periodic phases of heating and cooling which have nothing to do with human activity and any study of climate has to take this periodicity into account.  The last thing we want is a lot of breathlessly hysterical crunchy granola types shrieking about how evil humans are when the evidence shows that it’s just nature doing its thing again.  Come to think of it, don’t hysterical crunchy granola types shrieking about the end of the world caused by evil human activity sound a bit like flaky apocalyptic nutcase “christians” shrieking about how the liberated wimmin and The Gays are going to make this “system of things” so bad that Jesus will have to come back and smite us all?  Something to think about in your free time.

Anyway, the geeky side of me eschews (another word I’ve been dying to use), eschews both the deniers and the Gore disciples.  I want to know, excluding all other possible explanations for the melting of the ice caps, is it possible that the gradual heating up of the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuel has the capacity to significantly impact the climate of the planet?  I am not a climate specialist but there are some things I would have to take into consideration: the change in temperature over time of ocean water, the change in concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time, the volume of ice formation in the arctic regions, the heat capacity of water, the change in amount of fuel consumed over time, etc. Then we have to ask if our sample size is big enough.  Have we collected enough data points over a sufficiently long period of time?  Since we weren’t around over the past couple thousand years of human civilization, what other means do we have to measure the temperature of the planet over that period of time?  Collect this data, make your correlations and see if it makes any sense.  Apparently, the verdict is in and human activity is having a significant impact on climate.

OK, but some people still don’t understand how significant and serious this is.  In fact, I’m not actually sure how serious it is yet either.  As a chemist, it would be like looking at a melting point.  How far along are we in the melting point stage?  Is the sample starting to sweat?  Is it starting to glisten and look more crystalline?  Are we starting to see real liquification?  Is it too late to turn off the heating apparatus to let things cool down?

Maybe this video will give a better idea of what might be happening.  It’s about how to take a melting point in organic chemistry lab.  Now, why should you care about this?  No reason in particular.  A melting point is a physical property of the compound being measured.  Everything melts at one particular temperature.  Here’s how we take a melting point: we tap a small amount of sample compound into a capillary tube.  We insert the tube into an apparatus that will gradually and linearly increase the temperature of compound in the tube.  We record when the compound starts and finishes melting.  You would think that melting would be as gradual and smooth as the increase in temperature.  But you would be wrong.  This video shows you what happens to just about every compound.

Ok, isn’t that cool?  Er, hot? Nothing happens for awhile.  It looks very gradual at first and then, VOOM!, everything turns liquid almost at once.  Note that when the compound first starts to sweat, the instruction is to back off on heating it so fast.  That is, you can reduce the rate of temperature increase but the sucker is still going to melt.  It’s just easier to get an accurate measurement.

We can observe localized melting points of water.  But what is that like on a global scale?  The temperature of the globe is not uniform everywhere.  But what if it were uniformly elevated everywhere gradually over time?  At what temperature do we pass the point of no return even if we back off on heating it so fast?  Something to think about.  If I were an observer from space watching this happen, I might be fascinated.  As a person trapped here on the sample for the rest of my life, I’m considerably less fascinated.

And then you have to wonder, the politicians who are flip-flopping on this issue, why are they doing it?  If global warming is real and there is a point of no return that we have not firmly established yet, who benefits from pretending that burning fossil fuel isn’t really harming anyone?

Just askin’.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

History shows that . . .

[CO2] Levels similar to those now commonly regarded as adequate to tackle climate change were associated with sea levels 25-40m (80-130 ft) higher than today.

That’s meters. That’s enough to drown a 10-story building. That’s enough to make several billion people move to higher ground or die. Or both. It won’t be pleasant for the people they move in on either.

And that is not conjecture or a probability statement or an extrapolation.

The new research was able to look back to the Miocene period, which began a little over 20 million years ago.

At the start of the period, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere stood at about 400 parts per million (ppm) before beginning to decline about 14 million years ago – a trend that eventually led to formation of the Antarctic icecap and perennial sea ice cover in the Arctic.

The high concentrations were probably sustained by prolonged volcanic activity in what is now the Columbia River basin of North America, where rock formations called flood basalts relate a history of molten rock flowing routinely onto the planet’s surface.

In the intervening millennia, CO2 concentrations have been much lower; in the last few million years they cycled between 180ppm and 280ppm in rhythm with the sequence of ice ages and warmer interglacial periods.

Now, humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases are pushing towards the 400ppm range [c. 380ppm now], which will very likely be reached within a decade.

“What we have shown is that in the last period when CO2 levels were sustained at levels close to where they are today, there was no icecap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25-40m higher,” said research leader Aradhna Tripati from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

“At CO2 levels that are sustained at or near modern day values, you don’t need to have a major change in CO2 levels to get major changes in ice sheets,” she told BBC News.

The elevated CO2 and sea levels were associated with temperatures about 3-6C (5-11F) higher than today.

So, there you have it. The last time greenhouse gases were this high, there wasn’t a 2% chance of melting ice sheets. There was a 100% chance.

Does that mean it will happen again? We’ll probably see. Because the answer to, “Do you want to risk the whole planet to find out?” appears to be “Yes.”

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Is it absurd to try to weather the storm?

stormIs it beyond our ken to maintain a noble purpose as we guide our battered ships of state through the dark shadows of this mild squall of an economic crisis? Whom of us will risk life and limb to keep the ships afloat? Who will cast away possessions for the same purpose? Who will act to subvert these sacrifices? How will the storm weather us, as we weather the storm?

I ask these question because these darkling foreshadows are pallid compared to those that will attend the forthcoming Category Six typhoon of environmental collapse. How will that storm weather us, if we weather the storm? Given the tendency of people to adopt default positions in crisis situations, how we perform now, should give us some indication of how we’ll perform in much more dire circumstances.

Curiously, given the introduction, the point of this post is not to delve into the ugliness which portends. The point of this post is to ask the question, “How should we behave when faced with the absurdity that the cultural virtues that we cherish undermine the existential preconditions of our culture?” In other words, what does a wine-inspired poet do, when he finds that greater amounts of drink are fueling his muse, but not curing his cirrhosis and, in fact, killing him?

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This is how the world ends

Not with a financial collapse. Not with death by insurance company. Those are all just human disasters. We hear them loud and clear, but they drown out the faint thrumming which is the hoofbeats of all four horsemen of the Apocalypse. They’re coming up way too fast for us. This is the worst news out there:

BBC | Methane seeps from Arctic sea bed

Scientists … have evidence that the powerful greenhouse gas methane is escaping from the Arctic sea bed. …

As temperatures rise, the sea bed grows warmer and frozen water crystals in the sediment break down, allowing methane trapped inside them to escape.

The research team found that more than 250 plumes of methane bubbles are rising from the sea bed off Norway. …

Writing in Geophysical Research Letters, the team says the methane was rising from an area of sea bed off West Spitsbergen, from depths between 150 and 400m.

The gas is normally trapped as “methane hydrate” in sediment under the ocean floor.

“Methane hydrate” is an ice-like substance composed of water and methane which is stable under conditions of high pressure and low temperature.

As temperatures rise, the hydrate breaks down. So this new evidence shows that methane is stable at water depths greater than 400m off Spitsbergen.

However data collected over 30 years shows it was then stable at water depths as shallow as 360m.

Ocean has warmed

Temperature records show that this area of the ocean has warmed by 1C during the same period. …

Their most significant finding is that climate change means the gas is being released from more and deeper areas of the Arctic ocean. …

The team found that most of the methane is being dissolved into the seawater and did not detect evidence of the gas breaking the surface of the ocean and getting into the atmosphere.

They stress that this does not mean that the gas does not enter the atmosphere. They point out that the methane seeps are unpredictable and erratic in quantity, size and duration. …

Most of the methane reacts with the oxygen in the water to form carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas. In sea water, this forms carbonic acid which adds to ocean acidification, with consequent problems for biodiversity.

Graham Westbrook, lead author and professor of geophysics at the University of Birmingham said: “If this process becomes widespread along Arctic continental margins, tens of megatonnes of methane a year – equivalent to 5-10% of the total amount released globally by natural sources, could be released into the ocean.”

Can you say “feedback loop”? Or, to be more precise, “vicious circle”? This is what everyone who understands the situation has been dreading.

At some point — you never know when until it happens — it won’t just be us belching out greenhouse gases. So far, if we’d only stopped belching, that would have been the end of it. The greenhouse gases would have gradually been recycled out of the atmosphere and the climate could have returned to normal.

But the next phase is that the whole planet starts emitting extra CO2 and extra methane because it’s warmer. That makes it even warmer. That makes the planet emit even more greenhouse gases.

At that point we can stop our own idiocy cold … and it won’t make much difference. When the permafrost in the Arctic tundras melts, it releases greenhouse gases. When the ocean warms, it releases greenhouse gases. Molecule per molecule, methane is about eight times stronger as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The best we can hope at that point is most of it will turn into CO2 in the ocean, and acidify that instead.

The grim news is that we’ve reached that point. The permafrost is melting (pdf). The shallower methane hydrates are bubbling up. Ocean circulation rates are changing. (There is variation.)

I’m beginning to think the saddest words a human being can say are, “I do not envy the young.”

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Wednesday Morning News

Continuing our collaboration from yesterday, BostonBoomer has made an incredible contribution to today’s list of links!  This time though we’re mixing them up.

  • Is the U.S. Attorney case still going on? Who knew? Rove deposed in US attorney probe

    Rove’s deposition began at 10 a.m. and ended around 6:30 p.m, with several breaks, Conyers said
    . . . .
    “He was deposed today,” Conyers said in an interview. “That’s all I can tell you.”


  • US Senators have second thoughts on health benefits tax

    “It remains a significant option, but we’re looking at other options,” Conrad told reporters Tuesday. “When you go out and ask people across the country, their initial reaction is, they don’t like it.”


  • Bernie Sanders takes on Rahm Emanuel on health care.

    “I think that it is fair to say that there are a number of us who would not be voting for anything resembling a Baucus-type plan as we understand it right now,” the senator told the Huffington Post, referring to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’ effort at constructing a reform bill.


  • Howard Dean: Private Health Care Is Breaking Our Economy

    This is one of the many problems the Senate is now having. They are focused on anything but the American people. But the insurance companies will be fine. It won’t happen overnight, and they’ll make plenty of money. But this is not a matter of making the insurance companies happy. This is a matter of making the 72 percent of the people who want a public option happy, including the 50 percent of Republicans who want a public option.


  • Amadinejad waves away large insect during speech:
    Dark humor and shouts in response to Ahmadinejad speech (this definitely makes more sense AFTER watching the video!)


  • Obama says the US has “absolutely not” given Israel the go ahead to attack Iran’s nukes.

    However, he did defend his deputy, who was accused of being gaffe-prone by rivals during the 2008 presidential election campaign.”I think Vice-President Biden stated a categorical fact which is we can’t dictate to other countries what their security interests are,” Mr Obama added.

    We wonder where Biden will be going next? Siberia?


  • Reid slams door on second stimulus

    “A little less than 90 percent still needs to be put out to the American people, and we’re in the process of doing that. It’s going to move more quickly now. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no showing to me that another stimulus is needed,” Reid said emphatically.


  • Why the imp in your brain gets out

    Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.


  • Ahhh…. Dogs who can tell when their owner’s blood sugar gets too low or can detect cancer.

    Last year, researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast decided to investigate anecdotal reports from dog owners who said their pets warned them of hypoglycemic attacks.


  • Taibbi: New Secrecy Rule Lets Goldman Sachs Control Stock Prices Unmolested by Public Scrutiny

    “The NYSE announced that it will no longer be releasing its weekly program trading data,” Taibbi wrote in a blog posting. “This is quiet obviously a move designed to make it even more impossible to track what’s going on in the NYSE and shield, in particular, Goldman Sachs.”


  • The Man Who Crashed the World

    “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak,” Obama said testily. “All right?”

    It’s unlikely that he actually did know what he was talking about, except in the broadest outlines. Nor, for that matter, did the people who had engineered the bailout. How could they? At no point did anyone from the U.S. Treasury or the U.S. Congress, or any of the various New York State authorities that had gotten involved, call them up, much less visit A.I.G.

    Inside the collapse of A.I.G.


  • Wildfires Are Linked to Global Warming — But Media Obscure the Relationship

    Early last summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that California’s fire season now lasts all 365 days of the year. At the time, nearly 2,000 separate wildfires were burning across the Golden State;
    . . .
    With one notable exception, from the San Francisco Chronicle, none of the coverage explored the possibility that the fire might be linked to climate change, despite ample evidence that such a link exists.


  • Alec Baldwin interested in congressional run

    “I’ll put it this way,” he told the magazine. “The desire is there; that’s one component. The other component is opportunity.”


  • Remembering the funny Al Franken. I’ve loved Al since his days doing The Franken & Davis show on Saturday Night Live. I’ll never forget when he broadcast “LIVE” from the first Gulf War with a satellite dish taped to his head!

  • You won’t want to miss this! Be sure to set your alarms. . . . Today is 123456789 Day!

    Plenty on Facebook and Twitter are spreading reminders or cluing others in. Rainn Wilson, the actor who plays Dwight on “The Office,” tweeted about it, and on Facebook, pages popped up commemorating the date. Jon Everett, a 23-year-old University of Texas at Austin employee, created a Facebook page about the date with more than 600 Facebook users R.S.V.P.-ing yes to his “two-second celebration.”


  • Researchers: Social Security Numbers Can Be Guessed

    The Social Security number’s first three digits — called the “area number” — is issued according to the Zip code of the mailing address provided in the application form. The fourth and fifth digits — known as the “group number” — transition slowly, and often remain constant over several years for a given region. The last four digits are assigned sequentially.

    As a result, SSNs assigned in the same state to applicants born on consecutive days are likely to contain the same first four or five digits, particularly in states with smaller populations and rates of birth.

    THAT’s easy enough to test. . . Just find someone with the same birthday as you and see how close your SSNs are (My experience?  2 digits off).


Condemned to repeat?

Ecological disaster bad enough to destroy people has happened before. The only difference was the limited technology of the times, and therefore the limited scope of the dying.

Sean Gallagher has a striking report, a series of pictures each worth thousands of words.

Parched hills of Yinpan. Soil erosion has uncovered a few skulls in the foreground.  Photo by Sean Gallagher.

That was then. Two thousand years ago, Yinpan in Central Asia was a major stop on the Silk Road. The water table changed. People couldn’t or didn’t adapt, until the water –and the people — disappeared over a thousand years ago. Soil erosion still uncovers traces of them, but the water never came back.

This is now.

Brownout sky from blowing dust, a sickly tree being shredded in the wind, and rock-strewn waterless ground.  Photo by Sean Gallagher.

A dust storm raised from the desertified former farm land in China. Life stops. If you have to go outside, you wear a dust mask and choke. The dust is fine as talc and gets everywhere. It’s in your toothbrush, your clothes, your dishes. It clogs your car, it ruins machinery, it gums up your mp3 player. It costs money. It shortens lifespans. The dust travels for hundreds of miles, blanketing Beijing during dry seasons, and sometimes even making murk in the skies of the Western U.S.

The earliest signature of anthropogenic global warming was polar and nighttime warming. We got that, but we’re not polar bears so it wasn’t important. One of the next symptoms is higher temperatures in the middle of large continents. That’s where most of the world’s grain grows. Places like Kansas won’t just be hot in the summer. They’ll be hot enough for old people and babies to die. Plants will wither in the heat no matter how much they’re watered. And it won’t take long before there’s nothing to water them with. If people can’t or won’t adapt, the water table will sink lower and lower. The surface will get drier and drier. There will be dust storms.

Then there’s the future. Photo #1 will describe the future as well as the past.

And you know what’s the worst of it? It doesn’t have to be that way. It Does Not Have To Be That Way. This isn’t the sun going nova on us and frying all life on earth no matter what we do. This isn’t beyond our control. Yet. All we’d have to do is little things, lots and lots of little things, all together, all the time. Nothing heroic, unfortunately. Just wimpy stuff like cooperation and keeping promises.

Sometimes, when the alternative is photo #1, people can do the most amazing things. Even work together.

Here’s just one example of a small unheroic thing that could be part of the solution. I saw this in the news recently.

yellow pontoon-looking thing with the wave power generation unit between the two floats
1) A new, small-scale way of making electricity from wave power. It’s more or less a buoy that bobs up and down, has some gizmos to harvest the energy of the bobbing, and some failsafes in case of storms. It’s easier to maintain and less sinkable than huge megawatt projects, and units can be chained together to yield more power.

2) When a weak electric current is applied to metal scaffolding in seawater, limestone precipitates out of the water onto the metal where it builds up for a while, until the encrustation is thick enough to insulate the current. But — there are two important buts — some limestone forms and the scaffold is colonized by corals if it’s an area where they can grow. It’s not clear yet whether the current helps the corals to grow, but since something to grow on is their limiting factor, some scaffolds mean more corals than no scaffolds. (More here and here.)

Why does that matter, aside from the fact that corals are gorgeous? They’re basically blocks of limestone with a film of life on the surface. And that matters because limestone is calcium carbonate. CaCO3. A molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) goes into every molecule of calcium carbonate.

Imagine fleets of those pontoon wave power things, towing their webs of scaffolding. Besides generating some energy and helping corals to grow, carbon dioxide would be taken out of circulation, one tiny invisible bit at a time. Imagine millions of wave power pontoons, doing this. And when the weight of all those corals and barnacles and whatnot made the thing sink, we’d float out another one. And another one, and another one.

Same as with all the other things we have to do to reverse global warming, it would cost some money and we’d have to keep doing it, all together, all the time. That’s all.

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