Archive for June, 2011

The Thinker

Homophobia is receding faster than anticipated

New York State recently became the latest state to permit gays and lesbians to wed. That leaves six states, the District of Columbia and the Coquille Indian Tribe that have achieved enlightenment. New York’s approval of gay marriage was especially important because of the size of its population. With its passage, the number of citizens who can marry regardless of their sexual orientation effectively doubled. In addition, six other states allow civil unions but do not allow gay marriage, including the populous state of California.

Even here in Virginia the homophobes are receding. In 2006, Virginia passed a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage in the state (already illegal by law) that also explicitly ruled out civil unions as well. Now just five years later, according to a surprising Washington Post poll, a majority of Virginians now approve of gay marriage. I don’t expect Virginia will approve gay marriage anytime soon, but I now think it is likely that I will live to see gay marriage in Virginia. Back in 2006, I believed it would take at least fifty years. Now I am betting it will take fifteen years.

Even weirder, at least one organization staunchly opposed to gay marriage has given up. Jim Daly, head of Focus on the Family says his organization will no longer try to stop gay marriage legislation. They think it’s a lost cause, in part because they can interpret demographic trends. The younger generation is fine with gay marriage; it’s only those sixty plus who still have heartburn over it.

Overall, homophobia seems to be receding. Even Republicans are caring less. The social conservatives are still against it, but there is a significant libertarian wing of the Republican Party that sees gay marriage as a civil right. More and more Republicans are realizing their inconsistency of promoting a “pro-freedom” agenda while restricting civil liberties for others. Fundamentalists remain largely aghast, but even in conservative communities it’s not unusual for people to know someone who is gay. That’s the problem with homophobia. Once you know someone who is gay, and particularly if you get to know them in any depth, you feel sorry if they do not have the same right to marry as you do. If you have any compassion in your heart, it is hard not to just say yes.

The few opposed to gay marriage who are evidenced-based can look to states like Massachusetts, which instituted gay marriage in 2004, and realize that it has not become a Gomorrah, at least no more than it was before the law took effect. A few years ago I spent a week touring New England, where it’s hard to find a state without gay marriage or civil unions. It felt more like Norman Rockwell territory than many deeply red states I also visited, like Arizona and South Dakota. In New England, there are lots of tidy towns with white picket fences, and more churches per square mile than in the South (perhaps because the population density is higher). For the most part, gay couples are no longer the least bit remarkable in New England. You don’t feel the need to discuss it with your neighbor because you have grown inured to the whole phenomenon. To the extent you think about it, it is to wonder why people in other states are still states up in arms about the whole idea. Where’s the harm? Where’s the implosion of society?

As time passes, the arguments of those opposed to gay marriage only become weaker tea. As I outlined some time ago, marriage between one man and one woman was hardly the historical norm, and in many parts of the world (particularly in Islamic countries) polygamy is as common as monogamy. At least one study suggests that same sex lesbian couples are proving to be better parents than heterosexual parents. In Canada, a study suggests that same sex couples are at least as good as heterosexual parents.

Other studies suggest just how weak other arguments are. Gay-friendly Massachusetts also has the nation’s lowest divorce rate. Divorce rates have not budged since gay marriage became law, as Charles Colson asserted they would in 2004. In fact, being evangelical is apparently more dangerous to your marriage than marrying a same sex partner. Divorce.com notes a study that evangelicals have a 43% divorce rate, which is greater than the national average.

President Obama says his views on gay marriage are “evolving”, but at a news conference yesterday he still could not come out and say he was in favor of gay marriage. He is in favor of equal rights for gays, including civil unions as long as “marriage” is reserved for heterosexual couples. One strongly gets the feeling that Obama is all for gay marriage, but he just does not have the courage to “come out of the closet” on the issue. I expect it will happen after elections next year, whether or not he wins.

It is easiest to manipulate people when you give them something to fear, but it’s clear that the more Americans encounter gays the less they are bothered by them and the more they are in favor of their equal rights, including the right to marry. Saying gay marriage should be illegal because it is immoral is not working too well either, as plenty of activities are immoral, but are not necessarily criminal (adultery and drunkenness comes to mind). Gay marriage seems to have no effect on society whatsoever, either for good or bad. The only thing that is clear is that more people who were denied certain freedoms based purely on their sexual orientation no longer have legalized discrimination working against them. They are freer to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

As a man married to the same woman for a quarter century, I want to give gays and lesbians the same chance at an enduring relationship that I have. Gay marriage clearly says that society wants to encourage serial monogamy between same sex couples, which seems moral to most people as well as inhibits the spread of social diseases. I suspect gay spouses will soon realize that a marriage is no panacea; it is not for us heterosexuals either. Any intimate relationship comes full of landmines as well as benefits.

Wise conservatives are realizing there is little traction on the issue anymore, so they best move on and find new bogeymen instead. Eventually all states will allow gay marriage, not because they necessarily agree it is moral, but because the costs of discriminating against gays will become too high. Over time, gays and lesbians will find incentives to move to gay-friendly states, and they will take their talents (and income) with them. In fact, it is easy to predict that states and cities will highlight their gay-friendliness as a marketing tool. In the end, it will be good old capitalism, not liberal values that are likely to give gays the right to marriage from sea to shining sea. When it happens, it is unlikely to be a moment for celebration. We will simply shrug our shoulders.

 
The Thinker

In which I attempt to psychoanalyze Scott Adams

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed Scott Adams, the author and artist behind the comic strip Dilbert. Scott has been in the news, or perhaps I should say in the blogosphere, because in addition to his comic strip he also has a blog. And back in March, Scott penned an entry called Men’s Rights. When I read it in my news reader, I immediately thought, “Scott’s going to have to take that one down” which in fact he did less than a day later.

I feel Scott’s pain because some years back I also wrote not exactly on the topic of men’s rights, but on the stereotypes that men assume, particularly here in the United States. I argued that it is hard for us men to be human beings because of the expectations that come with being a man. I caught some grief on that post, but it is nothing like the grief that Scott got for his Men’s Rights entry, a copy of which he posted in his belated response to the controversy. America’s feminists were all over Scott and in their critiques the world misogynist came up a lot. Perhaps it was for paragraphs like this:

The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone. You don’t argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn’t eat candy for dinner. You don’t punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don’t argue when a women tells you she’s only making 80 cents to your dollar. It’s the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.

I have wondered for years if Scott was a misogynist. Why? Well, I have virtually all of his Dilbert comic books, not to mention most of his books and I have read them repeatedly. I confess I enjoy Dilbert and I often find Scott amusing. I could be wrong but in all his published material I cannot come across anything in which a woman comes across in a complementary manner. Every woman Dilbert dates, for example, comes across as self-centered and shallow. Dilbert rarely makes it to a second date and when he does his girlfriend likes to treat him like a fly caught in a spider’s web. All of his recurring female characters are at best annoying. Carol the secretary hates everyone and love being malicious. Alice lets her temper fly regularly and likes throwing things off or out of buildings. Tina the Tech Writer feels persecuted for being an English major and earning a fraction of the engineers’ salaries. If through one’s writings one could be convicted of misogyny, Scott would be easily convicted as women are never shown as admirable creatures. Alice comes the closest to having a good point. She at least is a Type A overachiever, but somehow never learned how to be tactful.

And that’s basically how it goes in the land of Dilbert. Its humor mainly comes from its characters and their entire lack of tact, not to mention the constant victimization that goes on at all levels. Dilbert’s world is a wholly nihilist one. The real world of white collar tech people is not quite that bad, but there are places that are nearly as bad as Dilbert’s company. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a fascinating now defunct site called NetSlaves.com where various Dilberts and Alices conveyed real life stories of impossible deadlines and overtime as technology companies pushed for dominance, profits and market share. It made fascinating and quite frankly horrifying reading. There but for the grace of God go I, I thought. While overall they were a small sliver of the technology market, they did exist and some of them closely resembled Dilbert’s company. I am sure there are companies like this still out there, burning through series of dispirited and overworked employees. I know they exist in retail. Visit any Wal-Mart store.

Most of us have to be concerned what other people think and consider that before opening our mouths. Scott is literally a one in a million person who now usually doesn’t have to care what other people think, because Dilbert has made him independently wealthy. Twenty years of reading Scott has also convinced me that he is Dilbert. Granted, he is not an engineer, but he hung around them. At least in print or on the web he has freedom that the rest of us can only dream about: the freedom to express himself fully and without restraints, to basically just be who he is. And so he does. Readers of his blog, however, are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions who read his comic strip every day. Scott argues that they are their own peculiar community, and when he wrote Men’s Rights it was for that community, not the world at large. Men’s Rights was, however, a bridge too far. I bet his wife Shelley beat him up about it too, because it’s the only entry on his blog that I’ve seen withdrawn in the six months or so I’ve been reading his blog.

Is Scott a misogynist? If he is, does it matter? When I first read Men’s Rights, it cemented the idea in my mind that he was one, perhaps not explicitly but implicitly. I could find zero evidence to suggest otherwise and twenty years of reading the guy made me feel I knew him pretty well. I have since reconsidered myself. I don’t think Scott is a misogynist, I just think he largely lacks the empathy gene. If he were alive, his biggest fan would be Niccolò Machiavelli, the famously dispassionate political scientist who wrote The Prince back in the 16th century. What Scott really is is supremely dispassionate. There are likely a few things he is passionate about, including tennis, but he has an excessive engineering and scientific outlook to life. He sees things as they are, or as he thinks they are if you could remove these annoying feelings from the human equation. Then he has the audacity to write or blog about them. Moreover, lacking much in the way of self-restraint and sanctions for speaking his mind, he speaks his mind.

Feminists and others can rail against Scott’s heretical thoughts and opinions, but I’d suggest they just save their breath. I don’t think Scott is a misogynist. I think he likes women just fine, but is not tuned into their feelings, and probably isn’t tuned into anyone’s feelings in particular, except maybe his wife’s. For the most part he is not hurt when they attack him; he just sort of shrugs his shoulders. He does his best to explain himself from his point of view, and it largely doesn’t work, but if it doesn’t, it mostly doesn’t matter to him. He is who he is. And he is largely Dilbert. Read him if you find him amusing, or don’t. It won’t bother Scott at all. Even if Dilbert never earned him another dime, he is set for life. He has the freedom most of us can only dream about: to be who he is on the inside on the outside. And for him it works, because it is consistent with whom he is. It is the rest of us who must live dual lives. We must be one person on the inside but project something of a façade to the rest of the world. We do this so we can get harmoniously through another day. We have learned painfully to keep our lips buttoned in polite society. Much of the rage against Scott may be that he has the resources not to have to live this duality, and just be who he is, warts and all.

I might have turned out that way if I had Scott’s money and talent too. My empathy gene is also somewhat recessive. This blog allows me to speak my mind about lots of things, but even so there are topics I will not discuss, or have learned not to discuss anymore. For example, I learned not to discuss much about where I work or people I know personally, because some of them have discovered my blog and as a result it has made my life difficult. So I obscure my real name and am circumspect discussing certain topics, like pornography, because I might say something that some friend of my spouse will come after me with.

The fact is that Scott could be a whole lot more annoying than he is. For the most part he is civilized, weird but civilized. His example of living an authentic life suggests to me though that maybe I am healthier and happier being somewhat inauthentic. I suspect I am, but I also suspect Scott never was wholly authentic until money gave him the freedom and opportunity to be publicly the flawed person he so clearly is. It’s just easier to see it in him than in the rest of us.

 
The Thinker

Playing Public Debt Poker

Predictably, Republicans walked away yesterday from negotiations on extending the federal debt ceiling. It was predictable but it was also childish. Led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republicans attending the talks led by Vice President Joe Biden said there was no point in continuing negotiations unless all tax increases were taken off the table.

Essentially, Republicans at the talks no longer believe in negotiations. By definition, when parties are negotiate each side has to compromise. In negotiation, no side gets to have it completely their way, particularly when Republicans control only one house of Congress. Republicans do not want negotiations; instead, they putting all their chips on the capitulation square.

That’s sticking to principle, but it’s not going over well with voters. Voters are completely comfortable with tax increases as part of reducing the deficit, particularly on the well off. Naturally, Republicans contend otherwise, although numerous polls contradict them. The only poll that seems to matter to Republicans are surveys of other Republicans. The rest of us are, after all, something lesser. We are those little people that the late Leona Helmsley despised. Yet voters, like Republicans, also suffer from cognitive dissonance. A majority of voters also do not favor extending the federal debt ceiling, so in that sense Republicans are following the will of the people. Voters also want to keep Medicare in its current form. Voters, like Republicans, want to have it both ways.

Only of course you can’t have it both ways. Our debt problem is a direct result of decades of doing just this. Republicans at least realize that if you cannot raise taxes then to reduce the deficit significantly you have to butcher entitlements like Medicare. If they succeed in their plan, then they guarantee their own political irrelevance in the next election. What is needed is some give and take. What is needed, frankly, is something rarely seen in Washington of late: statesmanship.

Statesmanship means looking out for the good of the nation as a whole instead of just your own partisan interests. It means that to achieve a larger goal, everyone has to make sacrifices. So far Democrats have given a lot, and have largely conceded on the point that expenditures need to go down to balance the budget. Now is time for Republicans to show some statesmanship as well and agree that at least some taxes need to be raised. Some of it can be done by removing subsidies, which, contrary to the opinions of Grover Norquist are not tax increases. In any event, when you have a budget deficit as large as we have now and have divided government, it cannot be fixed instantly. It happens slowly and incrementally. It’s very much like trying to instantly turn an aircraft carrier. You can’t turn one of them on a dime.

The federal government, for better or worse, is a huge institution and an economic machine with intricate ties into our economy. Defaulting on our debt would exacerbate our problems. It would make borrowing money more expensive. If we needed to fight another war, no matter how noble, and needed to borrow money to wage it, if we default we might not be able to do so. No one knows exactly what would happen if we did in fact default but almost everyone agrees it would be very bad. Some Republicans live in La-La Land, and think a short-term default would have no negative consequences but would give way for capitulation to their demands. If default happens, it is likely to be calamitous to economies and markets not just in the United States, but also across the world. Default is also the greatest way to ensure the irrelevance of the Republican Party. If they are seen in retrospect as responsible for default, a new depression is no way to garner political capital.

It may not be convenient and it may be politically painful, but this problem will resolve itself not through capitulation but only through negotiation. Where to go from here? Eric Cantor suggested that the big boys need to step up: President Obama, Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Reed have to cut a deal and try to sell it.

To make the deal though will take some external actors as well as some smart tactics. Thankfully, the external actors are already nervous. Bond rating firms are threatening to lower our nation’s bond ratings if an agreement is not in place by early July. This means fewer will want to lend to us, and those that do will demand higher interest rates. The biggest stick out there is probably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has threatened to work against Republicans who refuse to extend the debt ceiling. Generally, only big business gets the undivided attention of Republicans.

Lastly, it’s time for the President to make an aggressive case to voters. Thus far he has been under the radar on the issue. It would involve not just Oval Office speeches, but going on the road, outlining the scope of the problem, making the case for tax increases as part of a solution, and noting that deep cuts have already been agreed to. He needs to use the power of his office to peel off just enough nervous Republicans to make a deal happen. He needs to paint a potential doomsday scenario if default occurs, and bring with him noted and credible authorities, like the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. There are still no guarantees, as Republicans are obviously not playing with a full deck. But it might work. If it doesn’t, it will be clear which party was not interested in negotiation, but only in capitulation.

To most Americans, the debt ceiling is abstract. They are against debt in general, but have little idea that not raising the debt ceiling means defaulting on our debt. They do understand the importance of having a job, so it will be important to make the link between a default and an economy that could tailspin.

The most likely outcome will be last minute incremental extensions to the debt ceiling without real political accommodation, simply dragging on political paralysis. The economy is faltering for many reasons, but given the huge effect of the federal government on the economy, what is really making everyone nervous is that Washington’s deeply partisan politicians simply refuse to give and take. Business likes predictability in affairs, and unless there is bipartisan plan forward, there will be none.

 
The Thinker

Backtalk, Part 3

Time for more belated replies to dated comments.

  • To C.R. Lea on Thoughts on Buddhism, Part One. My study of Buddhism is somewhat superficial, but I don’t believe that Buddha claimed God had told him to tell others about his thoughts. Buddha likely did believe in reincarnation, as did the Hindus whose community he inhabited. I am guessing that living in 500 B.C. was more strife than sorrow, and thus the thought of endless reincarnation on earth was not necessarily a pleasant one. In any event, as best we can tell Buddha never wrote any of his teachings down, so anything we do know about him is shrouded in mist at best. It is likely that we lost many of Buddha’s teachings and picked up other things that he never said, but were inventions of those building on his philosophy. Just as most Christians would not recognize Jesus if he walked among them, it is likely that the real Buddha bears scant resemblance to his legend.
  • To tag1555 on Greater national dysfunction dead ahead. I will grant you that our national economic recovery is painfully slow, particularly when it comes to regaining the jobs we lost, but I just don’t accept that by cutting the size of government and thus our economy we will make things better in the short run. Something transformational is underway in this country, and I doubt we will emerge a heartier and healthier country. As for divided government, if it leads to political accommodation it might be good. I see little evidence of that happening at present.
  • To deanna on Will my daughter be gay? And does it matter? Over the last two weeks, we hosted a newlywed lesbian couple for a few days. Now that I’ve observed it close up for a period of time, I really cannot tell the difference between romantic homosexual and heterosexual love. I see exactly the same needs, the same relationship problems, the same strengths and the same weaknesses as in heterosexual relationships. I wish them well but I am confident their odds at maintaining a long-term marriage are no better nor worse than mine. (And yes they are legally married, not here in Virginia of course, but in Germany.) As for your daughter, I wouldn’t worry too much. People take relationships at different rates, and not all feel the pull toward higher degrees of intimacy. As for my daughter, as best I can tell she is more heterosexual than lesbian. Only time will tell. Like your daughter, she may opt to be “none of the above” and avoid intimate (i.e. soul baring) relationships altogether.
  • To Elli D. on Moving day. What a difference ten months makes! For a couple of months I was pretty disturbed with my daughter being far away from home in a strange city with a reasonably high crime rate. Now I hardly give it a thought, in part because I so often see her online and that helps me relax. I enjoy seeing her when she comes for visits, but I rarely worry about her anymore. More and more I am as happy to see her go when her visit is over as joyful when she arrives. Separation is not only necessary for both parent and child, at a certain point it is healthy.
  • To Kara and Rage on Michael Jackson: Pedophile. I am sorry Michael Jackson met a premature end, and I agree that he is not legally guilty of pedophilia. I still feel he engaged in it, given there is so much evidence anecdotal and otherwise that he was drawn to close relationships with children. No child of mine would have come close to the man, no matter how much charm and money he threw our way. He was clearly addicted to various drugs before he died, and I have to wonder if his chronic insomnia might have something to do with a guilt that gnawed at his soul. I hope I am wrong but my gut instinct suggests I probably was not. In the past, it’s been a reliable barometer.
  • To Michelle on Real Life 101, Lesson 13: Great sex is not pornography come to life. Thank you belatedly for your complement. Pornography in whatever form is like a sugar high for the libido, but it is a poor guide to having a meaningful sex life and may actually retard the likelihood of having a good one. Unfortunately, when modeling how a sex life should be, most youth model what is readily available, and pornography tends to be readily available.
  • To homeimprovementninja on The dangers of deficit fever. Is it possible we both live in our own delusions? Why are your reference sources any inherently more trustworthy than mine are?
  • To Jonathan on Kindling in search of a spark. Let me assure you, I have no interest in ruling your life. I believe the Civil War answered the question of whether states’ rights triumph over federal rights, and such rulings that have been reaffirmed many times by many conservative justices. Ironically, in a unanimous ruling today by the U.S. Supreme Court, the court reaffirmed that the EPA can determine acceptable greenhouse gas emissions, not the states.
 
The Thinker

Review: Super 8

Before watching  Super 8, I was forced to watch four trailers for upcoming movies, all featuring either monsters, aliens or superheroes, some with combinations or all of the above. Mark is bored, bored, bored by movies that rely on special effects as a substitute for a better plot. So a movie taking me back thirty some years when disco still was popular and people mostly drove bad American cars seemed like it would not be the typical summer fare. Alas, Super 8 may take place in 1979, but director J.J. Abrams (who gave us Star Trek) still took a fundamentally engaging plot about a bunch of young teens making their own movie on Super 8 film and gives us, you guessed it: a temperamental extraterrestrial, things blowing  up and plenty of special effects that would be amazing ten years ago but now is sort of ho hum. Super 8 would have been a much better movie if it had added more character development and subtracted the special effects.

Abrams is a bit younger than I am, but my friend Tom and I had our own Super 8 years in the early 1970s. In 1979, film was about to give way to video cameras, which then were not quite yet affordable for the home market. To make amateur movies you plunked down five bucks or so for a Super 8 movie cartridge that you plugged into your Super 8 movie camera. You ended up with about three minutes of film. What made Super 8 “super”? It was still 8mm film, but its sprocket holes were narrower, allowing for a somewhat larger screen. Mostly you made silent movies but if you had one of the fancier cameras you could record sound as well. However, it was an affordable hobby, even for a bunch of teenagers on an allowance.

J.J. Abrams at least does a good job of recapturing his youth. Not since Dazed and Confused has the late 1970s been so faithfully rendered at the movies. Thankfully, Super 8 is a better movie than Dazed and Confused. That it is populated with unknown young actors is part of its charm. None of its adult actors are box office names either. Whether young or old, the acting is uniformly good with Elle Fanning perhaps the only breakaway new actor in the film (at least to me). She plays Alice Dainard, the hot young blonde at the middle school from a dysfunctional single parent family where the Dad tends to drink all day. Alice joins a bunch of nerdy and antisocial boys as an actress in their zombie movie. She quickly leaves the boys speechless when they discover, in addition to her Emma Watson-like appearance (just without the British accent) that she is a stunning actress. She is not the only teen who is a product of a single parent family. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) lost his mother to an accident at the local foundry. His mother died tragically while substituting for Alice’s father, who was stone dead drunk that day and could not report to work.

Things get really weird when they shoot a scene at an old train depot outside of town. A train, apparently chartered by the U.S. Air Force, comes barreling through town. They use the train as an unexpected character in their pivotal scene. No one expects the train to crash, but this happens only because a truck gets on the track and deliberately runs headfirst into the train. The derailment is huge and nasty, and it’s amazing the youth are not killed. With all the mayhem they don’t notice that something big and powerful escaped from the train in the train wreck. There are also these funky metal things that vibrate and look sort of like a Rubik’s Cube, one of which Joe takes one home as a souvenir.

Soon all sorts of weird things are happening in their sleepy town of Lillian, Ohio. Big metallic things like cars are getting tossed around, family pooches are on the lam and lights flicker and buzz a lot. The local sheriff goes missing, leaving Joe’s father, a local deputy, to try to manage the police department. Meanwhile, the Air Force has sealed off much of the crash site and don’t seem inclined to share much information with the local police. Suffice to say if you have heard some of the rumors about Area 51 at Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada, you can discern something otherworldly is at work.

So this movie is basically a “what if a bunch of nerdy kids had a close encounter with a bad-ass alien” movie. This has, in fact, been done before, many times in fact. The only distinguishing difference here is that J.J. Abrams uses this recurring movie plot to relive his own teen years with an eerie and almost natural authenticity. I guess after the success of Star Trek he’s entitled. The movie’s real energy though comes simply from the relationship between these teens and the various personal issues they are struggling with. The alien stuff turns out to be mostly a distraction. Any teens dealing a powerful extraterrestrial are going to find themselves freaked out by the experience. It might have been more interesting to put these teens through tests of their mettle that would have been more true to life, such as a kidnapping.

Overall, it’s a well executed movie with enjoyable characters. You may miss the best part of the movie if you shuffle out immediately after the credits start. Instead, during the credits you get to see the teen’s completed home movie, which is quite fun. As for aliens trying to go home like E.T. (the plot must have looked familiar to producer Steven Spielberg), yawn, wish I could have phoned home that one. That part didn’t need to be rendered yet again.

Super 8 is not really a bad movie, just a disappointment because it could have been so much better. The premise was interesting but was needlessly diminished by special effects and memes we’ve seen too often in other movies. J.J. Abrams should have used his time taking us back to 1979 for better effect, for there is a richness in those nostalgic memories that could have been better mined with a different plot.

3.1 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

If the shoe fits, wear it

I need to add owning good shoes to my list of things I must do from now on.

Finding properly fitting shoes is no problem for most people. Go to Payless, find something that fits and feels sort of comfortable, spend fifty bucks or less and you are done. Finding comfortable shoes is harder. Sometimes you can find a comfy pair at Payless, and the younger you are the more likely they are to feel comfortable. Get up in years and even with a pair of custom orthotic shoes inserts (like me) and a pair of Payless shoes is still likely to feel uncomfortable, if not hurt. If you have larger, wider or narrower feet than average (like me), you often find yourself buying okay shoes instead of the right shoes.

That’s what I have done throughout life. I generally don’t shop at Payless, but have bought most of my shoes at DSW, where it is hard to walk out of the store without a good pair of shoes. However, even DSW does not normally stock unusual sizes. If you are a guy with long feet like me you can usually find a size 13, and sometimes a size 14 but if you want a 13 ½ then you are out of luck. Moreover, if your feet are size AA, like mine are, then likely whatever you buy will not feel snug. In my case, the right foot is size 13 ½ and the left foot is a size 14. When I slip into a size 14 at DSW unless I wear thick socks its extra width means my feet will tend to slosh from side to side. Size 13 is usually a wee bit too small; my toes end up right against the front of the shoes. This means that if I kick something with my shoe, it is usually a painful experience. What this has meant is I have bought size 13 shoes most of my life, because a size 14 was either too big or not in stock, and a size 13 ½ was simply never available. My feet have not been that happy with my pragmatic choices, but there did not seem to be a whole lot of alternatives.

Yet in any city of any appreciable size, if you search them out you can find stores that sell odd sized shoes. The Holy Grail is to find a store that has both odd sized shoes that are also well-constructed, well-engineered and attractive shoes. I struck out at the first store my podiatrist had on his list. I was told to try the store’s web site. The idea of buying a pair of shoes via the mail seemed a bad approach. Still, having dealt with more than my share of foot problems over the years, and with my new orthotics in place, I was determined to get shoes that both fit and were well constructed.

I finally found a shoe company that met my standards. Now I could kick myself for having settled for less for so long. Wearing shoes has finally become a comfortable if not welcome experience. I don’t mean comfortable in the sense that my feet now feet like they are walking on pillows. I mean comfortable in the sense that my feet now feel solidly anchored in my shoes, they don’t hurt from an active day of walking around, my toes don’t end up occasionally sore and squished and, thanks to these foot orthotics and a lot of chiropractic therapy, my chronic case of sciatica is largely gone. I am considering taking up running again, but I want to take things slowly. I am afraid that I will jinx things otherwise.

I never spent more than $100 for a pair of shoes before. This pair of “slim” size 14 shoes cost me $159 at a SAS Shoes outlet. Moreover, I discovered that Made in America can mean much better quality than Made in Some Third World Country. SAS stands for San Antonio Shoes. They are hardly alone in the high quality shoe industry, but they do not outsource their shoe making. Their shoes are meticulously crafted in their factory in San Antonio, Texas. It’s clear that whoever is making these shoes knows how to engineer shoes, and part of it is making them in half sizes, often going up to size 15, and making normal, slim and wide width shoes in all sizes. “Slim” is probably an A width, not a perfect fit but so close to my AA width that I cannot tell the difference. I’ve rarely been able to find a size 14 shoe, but never found a size 14 in a narrow width before.

Weeks into wearing this new comfy pair of shoes, I keep discovering features of this Pathfinder model that I bought that attest to its quality. One is the quality of the leather: soft, flexible and yielding around the sides but engineered with a sole just a tiny bit larger than most so that, at least so far, I’ve managed to not scuff them even once.  Inside I find that the shoe has a sturdy floor with partially aerated pads near the toes and in the heels.  The ringlets for the shoelaces are a brushed metal, and the shoelaces are wide, flat and nylon reinforced, which makes them easy to tie and unlikely to untie themselves. The shoe’s tongue has a small piece of elastic connecting it to the inner side of the shoe, facilitating proper placement and movement of the foot in the shoe. The stitching is well done and flawless. Aeration holes on the shoe facilitate the shoe’s ability to breath. My only complaint about the shoe is that it cannot be re-soled. But I do like the style because it allows me to wear it both casually and as a dress shoe.

People with unusual shoe sizes have always had problems finding the right size of shoe, but I am suspecting that Americans overall have elected to trade a shoe that fits for a shoe that is okay to save money. Now that I understand otherwise, it is unlikely that I will ever spend less than $150 for a pair of shoes again, unless maybe I am in San Antonio at the SAS Shoes factory outlet. I don’t see myself traveling to San Antonio any time soon, but if I do I have found a new destination.

It’s better late than never for me and maybe you as well. $150 is actually a reasonable price to pay for a comfortable and well fit pair of shoes. I am glad to know that in doing so I am employing actual Americans.

Some things are made better here in America if you don’t mind paying the actual cost to manufacture them here in America. I will not rue that cost anymore.

 
The Thinker

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Who wants to live forever?
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die

“Who wants to live forever”, Queen

We all secretly lust to be immortal. It’s too bad that our cells are programmed to reproduce only a finite number of times. If nothing else kills you, at some point your own cells will betray you and refuse to replicate themselves. It’s called dying of age. We are all programmed to die.

In the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button we are entertained by the fictional story of a man who lives his life backwards. In the biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot we learn about the curious case of a woman who actually achieved immortality, sort of. Unfortunately, this poor African American woman from the largely unknown town of Clover in Virginia’s tobacco belt did in fact die in 1951. Henrietta Lacks died an excruciatingly painful death from cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the age of 31.

Henrietta Lacks (circa 1945-1950)

Henrietta Lacks (circa 1945-1950)

However, some months before she died her physician performed a biopsy on her cervix to study her cancer cells. Her cancer cells turned out to be something of a Holy Grail in medicine: human cancer cells so virulent that they were almost impossible to kill and could be reproduced en masse for research. HeLa cells (HeLa for Henrietta Lacks), as they are known today, are used around the world today to test the efficacy of various drugs. HeLa cells have led directly to the discovery of all sorts of medical insights and cures. Unlike your cells, these cancerous HeLa cells prevent the incremental shortening of telomeres, which eventually causes a cell to not replicate. While the woman Henrietta Lacks has been dead nearly sixty years, her HeLa cells have survived and flourished and can be found in thousands of biomedical laboratories around the world. It seems likely that while there is life on the earth, HeLa cells will keep replicating. They may end up being the last thing alive on Earth. Some small and cancerous part of Henrietta Lacks has effectively achieved immortality.

This book by the Jewish author Rebecca Skloot not only tells the fascinating medical story of the HeLa cells, but also the much more fascinating and often grim story of Henrietta’s family. The book is a candid story of Henrietta Lacks’s all too short life, her death and the largely dysfunctional African American family she left behind. It is also the story of a family whose lives were changed forever by their mother’s notoriety, even though they mostly lived lives in the shadows in Baltimore’s poorer and crime infested wards. It is also the remarkable story of its author Rebecca Skloot, a white Jew from Pittsburgh and her friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who bore much of the baggage from her mother’s death.

The book takes us into an intimate space unknown to most whites: poverty, systematic discrimination and the suboptimal African American experience. Those of us who truly believe that African Americans are still not being discriminated against need to read this often-heartbreaking book. Skloot was able to win over the family’s trust, but it literally took many years and required enormous perseverance. Skloot supplements the book with years of research, much of it spent with distant and not so distant relatives of Henrietta in and around Baltimore and Clover, Virginia.

It turns out that the heart of this story is not Henrietta, whose life is already viewed through something of a distant mirror, but her daughter Deborah and her family. Their lack of advanced education made it impossible to understand why her mother’s cells were important. In a time of horrifying incidents like Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where African Americans were used in medical research by whites without their consent, it was not surprising that Deborah and the Lacks family believed that there were clones of their mother alive, or that others had profited off their mother’s cells while the family lived in poverty. Back in 1951 when Henrietta’s cervix was biopsied, there were no informed consent laws. Even today, tissues that you give to your doctor may be used for medical experiments without your consent. Billions were made from drugs made possible by the unique properties of HeLa cells. Research using HeLa cells arguably saved or extended millions of lives. The Lacks family certainly had reasonable grounds to feel that they were being shafted. However, no such “share the wealth” precedent existed, and no one was really to blame. In particular, Johns Hopkins Hospital was not to blame, as it was required by its founder to provide free care to the poor, which Henrietta Lacks used. Without Johns Hopkins Hospital, at best the Lacks family would have been deeply indebted by her getting treatment elsewhere. Finding treatment at all was challenging for African Americans at the time, as Jim Crow laws existed in Maryland.

Today, the descendants of Henrietta Lacks still live largely in poverty in and around Baltimore. Most of Henrietta’s children are now dead, including the pivotal daughter Deborah. Many of Henrietta’s children and grandchildren came loaded with baggage and great anger. Many went to prison, some murdered and at least one remains in prison today. We also learn of a mentally ill daughter of Henrietta who was turned over to an asylum in Crownsville, Maryland, an institution so badly managed that it killed her daughter. Back in the 1950s, since it served Negroes, the citizens of Maryland for the most part did not care that it was overcrowded, understaffed, and filthy and crime ridden. Negroes were effectively second-class citizens.

Skloot offers perhaps an unprecedented work of investigative journalism, a work that required an extraordinary amount of time, trust, probing and listening to the Lacks family. It was a labor of love that took more than a decade. I do hope that sales from this remarkable book will in fact be sufficient to create a substantial endowment fund for the Lacks family, as Skloot promised Deborah. And yet their story is simply one of millions of American families systematically marginalized and discriminated against, largely because they were born black.

This book will haunt me for a while, and should haunt you as well if you read it. It is well worth your time to inhabit the world of Henrietta Lacks and her extended family. If this book is not a contender for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, it should be.

 
The Thinker

Weiner is guilty of being a male

I told former Representative Chris Lee when he abruptly resigned in February that he would not be at the back of the line of unfaithful politicians for long. Perhaps I should claim an award for precognition but really, it’s a no-brainer. Philandering (almost always male) politicians are a dime a dozen, and every couple of months at most another one gets caught. The latest, of course, was Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY) who was exposed by the puritanical and anally obsessed conservative Andrew Brietbart for the political sin of posting pictures of his, well, wiener on YFrog, which is a sort of Twitter server optimized for linking Twitter content to pictures.

Like Chris Lee, Weiner does not appear to have done anything actually illegal. Unlike former executive of Prince Georges County Maryland, Jack B. Johnson, Weiner won’t be going to prison for accepting more than $400,000 in bribes. Rather, Weiner is guilty in the court of public opinion of “emotional infidelity”, general stupidity and the egregious misuse of Twitter to badly seduce women over the internet. He did this by sending pictures of what appears to be his erect penis masked behind some briefs (and allegedly more explicit pictures) to one or more woman not his wife over the Internet, none of whom he actually met. Weiner apologized to his wife and family and says he plans to stay in Congress. No other member of Congress will come within a hundred feet of him, of course, probably because they are afraid they will get cooties. Washington’s neo-Puritans, of course, are calling for his head. Thou shalt have no member of Congress who cannot successfully mask his or her sexual urges for someone other than their spouse because, as we all know, one moral slip means you cannot do your job.

Occasionally though a politician finds himself with his pants down publicly and manages to hang on anyhow. Bill Clinton did it, even though it was pretty clear that he was guilty of perjury. I too might have perjured myself rather than admit I had an oral affair with a buxom and comely office intern half my age. (I might have bragged about it in the shower room, however.) Clinton was impeached anyhow, but not convicted. His bar license was taken away from him, but he left office happily, established charities, worked for international peace and made tons of money as a speaker and author. In fact, he left office with some of the highest approval ratings of any president, in spite of his sins. It turned out that Americans judged their president more by whether they had a job and their standard of living increased than about a minor bit of philandering and lying about sex. So my advice to Andrew Weiner: if you were as effective as they say you are, hang in there anyhow. You may be guilty of emotional infidelity (what exactly is that anyhow?) and, like Chris Lee, bad judgment likely due in part to your sky high testosterone levels, but your work in Congress until now has been excellent.

I will not claim that I am holier than Andrew Weiner. I can truthfully state that I have not sent pictures of my privates over the Internet. Why would I feel the need to do so? It helps for me to be married, of course, but my experience with women is they are much more interested in the whole person than your junk, so if you really want to seduce a woman on the Internet, do it with your words, not pictures of your crotch. Also, I suspect I am not as “gifted” as Weiner.

However, if I was gay, then I might have sent such a lewd photo because guys, regardless of their sexual orientation, find penises professionally interesting. We find pictures of penises in relation to other mostly naked people arranged in a prurient fashion particularly interesting. Unlike ladies, we don’t need a mirror to see our private parts. If we didn’t touch our private parts multiple times a day, we would soil our clothes. If I was gay and hunting for a hot date over the internet, and I might be able to close the deal for a meeting with a picture of my privates, I might have done it. I certainly would not have done it using my real name, however.

Andrew Weiner is guilty of stupidity, something that happens to otherwise intelligent men more frequently than we would care to admit. It is likelier to happen particularly when our testosterone levels are high, or our spouses are on their periods or (like many spouses) they just aren’t in the mood to fool around, which sometimes can go on for months. Insurance actuaries can attest that high testosterone causes otherwise sensible teenage boys to wrap their cars and themselves around telephone poles, and even the smart students do it, but perhaps less often. In middle age, high testosterone sometimes makes men like Andrew Weiner send pictures of their engorged underwear to very unlikely romantic prospects electronically over the Internet. In earlier generations these guys acted more like Andy Capp, hung out at the local tavern and pinched the bums of the local wenches. We’re so much more discreet about it now that we have the Internet thing. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Weiner is a reasonably handsome guy, but he must have realized that his chances of scoring a home run were about one in a thousand. What this did for him, at least for a short while, is scratch his chronic itch in what likely seemed to him to be a relatively safe way. You may catch an Internet virus sending that photo to a distant potential paramour, but Norton Antivirus will kill it. You sure won’t catch a STD. Weiner’s action was still stupid but as any guy with sufficiently high hormone levels knows, your probability of doing something stupid increases with elevated testosterone levels. That’s just a fact. Ask any guy, but those who claim otherwise are probably guilty of being sanctimonious liars.

Here’s the thing though: even when your hormone levels are high, a guy can still exercise reasonable judgment about other things as long as they are not sexual. You still can multitask. You can still ask a probing question in a committee hearing. You can even do stupid stuff like Weiner did and still love your spouse. Now I know what you women will probably say: he does not love me if he does stuff like this in the first place. Duh! Yes, it is possible that he does not love you and he has mentally left the marriage. It’s much more likely that he still loves you, but loves you on his terms, not yours. Most likely it was either you or society which imposed either explicitly or implicitly what those terms were going to be. To a guy, except for those so deep into the bowels of religion that they cannot recognize their own legitimate feelings anymore, this duality is all perfectly consistent, particularly when your hormones are surging.

One of the virtues of middle age in men is that your hormone levels tend to surge less often, so you are less likely to do overtly stupid stuff like Weiner did. Still, the likelihood remains as long as you are a male. We didn’t ask for it, but we men are programmed to be overtly sexual. Masking it in any way is somewhat unnatural. We control it, to the extent we can, by having an excellent sex life with our spouse (which rarely happens) and by daily mindfulness. But it’s sort of like being an ex-smoker asked to never smoke another cigarette again. You can follow strategies to reduce the likelihood of smoking, but the craving will always be there.

Many of you will disagree with me, particularly if you are a female, but I assure you there is a huge Alleluia Chorus of guys out there too shy to leave comments singing “Ahem”. Yes, what Weiner did was hurtful to his spouse and family, but it was not illegal. From the standpoint of fitting into polite society and advancing in a social hierarchy, which is very important to politicians, it was extraordinarily stupid. Yes, if he meditated on it long enough he probably could have prevented it. Still, Weiner is basically guilty of being a guy with an active endocrine system. Give him a break for a first offense.

 
The Thinker

Sherlock: The reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes was part vampire. It seems that no matter what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did to get rid of him, the public demanded more Sherlock Holmes. So, following a tradition that would be repeated in movies and TV shows too numerous to mention, Sir Arthur was forced to reincarnate him, or at least explain why his certain death at Reichenbach Falls was not quite what it appeared. He had to keep inventing more stories of his famous detective to pay the bills and satisfy his fans, even though he was bored to tears with his character. Even turning him into an opium addict would not cool his readers’ ardor for Holmes.

Sir Arthur eventually met his maker but Holmes proved immortal. Sherlock Holmes books never go out of print. Most of his stories have been made into TV shows; many have been reprised in plays. There is probably no more frequently recurring character in the movies. Most fans would agree that no actor did a more memorable job of portraying Holmes than the late Jeremy Brett, who along with Edward Hardwicke (who sadly died last month) as his sidekick Dr. Watson acted in various BBC Sherlock Holmes series produced between 1984 and 1994. Real aficionados require a complete set of DVDs to enjoy over and over again.

No, you can’t kill Sherlock Holmes, just like you can’t seem to kill a vampire or Star Trek. You can’t kill their reincarnations either. Still, it’s getting harder and more expensive to do period Sherlock Holmes movies. Recreating a late 19th century London is expensive. So perhaps with the death of Edward Hardwicke the timing was right to reimagine Sherlock Holmes cast in modern times instead of the 19th century.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

That’s the premise behind Sherlock, a slim Sherlock Holmes series from the BBC now on its second season which is, in a word, terrific. Its limited availability here across the pond is probably inhibiting more widespread knowledge, as is its very limited “season” (three episodes each in 2010 and 2011). An actor with a name every bit as peculiar as Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, gets to create a modern day Sherlock Holmes at the same address of 221B Baker Street, with the same side kick Dr. Watson and the same landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). It’s just that it all takes place about a hundred or so years later. This reincarnation and modernization of Sherlock Holmes is strangely and unusually compelling and is in many ways better than the series featuring Jeremy Brett. Freed from its 19th century constraints, and a fifty-something version of Holmes (Cumberbatch is 34) we get a much more fun and in many ways more interesting interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.

And strangely, it all works so very well. Lord of the Rings fans quickly forgave Peter Jackson for casting Frodo with an actor thirty years younger than the character in the books. You will quickly forgive creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for casting Cumberbatch as a younger version of Holmes, putting him in the modern day, and for removing his pipe (although he does wear three nicotine patches to get a similar high). Still, I do see similarities with the last BBC series. Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Holmes is about thirty percent Jeremy Brett. There are times when watching him act that you see a younger Jeremy Brett. Like Brett’s interpretation of Holmes, this is not a detective who can stay for long in a stuffed chair. He is like a panther, constantly in motion, his mind always racing ahead of the rest of us. And he is completely comfortable with technology, with his smartphone ready at hand.

All the characters you have come to know and love are generally around, including his gifted brother Mycroft (who shows up in the first episode) and even the evil Moriarity (who shows up early, in episode three), but also Inspector LeStrade (Rupert Graves). Mrs. Hudson is a whole lot more fun than the dowdy lady who is usually portrayed as well. Perhaps the most welcome change in this recasting is with Dr. Watson, now a fully fleshed out human being played by Martin Freeman. This Dr. Watson is a war veteran too, but of the Afghan war, and navigates through London’s infamous fogs in a mental fog of his own. He’s not quite the starry-eyed intellectual lightweight that Sir Arthur portrays him, but a guy with issues whose life almost through happenstance gets wrapped around Sherlock Holmes. Holmes brings him some measure of the crazy excitement he found in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, this is principally a series about Sherlock Holmes and fans should not be the least bit disappointed by Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the detective. It is every bit as good as Jeremy Brett’s but still distinctive and in many ways much more fun. Holmes’s sexual identity was always suspect. Cumberbatch portrays a Holmes more asexual than sexual; it’s just way down on his list of priorities. Besides, it seems there is no woman out there who can begin to keep up with him. When he is on a case minor matters like eating and sleeping simply recede.

If you have cable TV, there is a good chance you have BBC America as well. If so, check its schedule carefully so you can sample the series. Or throw caution to the wind and order its slim set of DVDs. Even if they can only produce less than a handful of new episodes per season, you will find them worth the wait. Sherlock transcends mere television. Whatever this reincarnation is, it is really, really good. If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t drag yourself out of Edwardian England and enjoy this contemporary version.

 
The Thinker

Backtalk, Part 2

Time for more belated replies to dated comments.

  • To Kim, on my post Psychiatrists agree: Republicans are insane. The title of this post could perhaps be improved because insanity suggests randomness and a lack of culpability, not deliberate malice. In this latter sense, I don’t think Republicans are insane. I wrote another post suggesting that Republicans were sadists. This is closer to the truth. I went further on Facebook and suggested Republicans were “a bunch of filthy sadists”. Perhaps the truest thing that can be said about them is that they are almost wholly lacking in empathy for anyone not like them. Inability to feel empathy also suggests a psychopathy. This was borne home to me yesterday in conversation with my wife, who recently saw her ophthalmologist. Her ophthalmologist was promoting the ideas of Rep. Paul Ryan, specifically his suggestion to reform Medicare by giving senior vouchers to provide health insurance. She was all for it, and cared not a whit if it didn’t buy them the services they needed. I guess the Hippocratic Oath is now optional reading in medical school. Sadly, I suspect she is representative of most physicians I have interacted with. If anyone should care about relieving suffering, you would think it would be a physician. I fear for our nation since it is full of people in charge with such callous and cruel natures.
  • To bruce, on my post The potential of Google Visualizations. The technology is very neat but I am sorry to say it is not catching on, which is a shame. What is catching on is jQuery, arguably a more generic approach. jQuery graphics is just one aspect of using this Javascript framework. We (the unit I manage) are betting on jQuery, in part due to its wide use and endorsement by Google, and are embedding it into our user interface.
  • To spleeness, on my post Rep. Chris Lee fails Infidelity 101. I think politicians by their nature are drawn to risk, so I am not surprised the hornier of them are drawn toward infidelity. Like Las Vegas gamblers, most assume their skill and charms will allow them to beat the odds. Until, as in the case of John Edwards this week, infidelity not only becomes immoral but also could land you in prison with a felony.
  • To Dave Gunderson, on my post The View at 54. I am now less than a year away from being able to retire. All civil servants should be very nervous about their retirements and pensions, old CSRS types like us included, and plan a second career after retirement, for you are likely to need the income. My feeling is that we are going to have the rug pulled from under us, and soon. I am asking my financial advisor to let me know how my retirement would look like if my pension were reduced by a quarter. I can easily foresee the day when, using the excuse of our indebtedness, a Republican Congress and President declares the country bankrupt and all federal pensions null and void, treating us just like autoworkers. Keep putting as much money as you can into the Thrift Savings Plan and other investments, my friend. I get the feeling that whatever budget package results from deficit talks that are underway, federal workers will be considered the most expedient to hit. Expect taxes to rise for federal workers under the guise of pay cuts and being forced to contribute more toward your own retirement. There may be pension cuts as well, including for those already retired.
  • To Anonymous, on my post The rags to riches myth. If I could rewrite the post, I would add a few asterisks. Like all myths there are germs of truth. Oprah Winfrey, for example, defied virtually all odds. However, she is one in three hundred million Americans; you have much better odds of winning the lottery. President Abraham Lincoln beat the odds too, but you can rest assured that he would not today, and the Illinois Supreme Court will not give an uneducated person a law license by simply appearing before them and looking intelligent enough to practice law in the state. No doubt, they want an endorsement from the American Bar Association today.
  • To Erik, on my post Psychiatrists agree: Republicans are insane. I believe in karma, and the United States will pay in lives, treasure and possibly in the loss of our nationhood for the harm we inflicted in so many places, including most recently Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m selfish enough though to hope I’ll be dead before then, but I think it is already underway and is being evidenced, in part, by our declining standard of living.
 

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