Archive for the ‘Who Knew?’ Category

$5.00 Gasoline?

I originally started this blog item in January of this year [2011], but put it on the shelf because even I wasn’t all that interested in it.  Given the fullness of time and a few Middle Eastern political revolutions and the subject is back.  [Addendum: 2 1/2 years later, there’s more, so additional material has been added at the end of the blog item, and a few minor tweaks have been done in the original text. RO’C]

Well, with the New Year we get the dire threat of $5.00 gasoline and the media are gearing up for yet another crisis.  It all started when a former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, “predicted gasoline prices will spike as the global demand for oil increases“.  Everybody run for the hills!

The Federal administration promptly trotted out one of their lower level flacks, telling everyone with a camera for national media that no, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  Remain Calm!  Included was the kicker, “Golly, that would mean that petroleum would be selling for $180.00 a barrel.”  As of last Friday, Brent (North Sea petroleum) closed at just over $121.00 per barrel, having spiked as high as $126.00 earlier in the week.  Those who regularly read these pages know that I’m not much of a fan of the current administration; no sense saying why, you can make up your own mind.  In any case, either the administration’s attitude reflects a certain naiveté toward market realities or it is their belief that they can tell one more carefully shaded lie and everybody will believe it.  And, say what you will, regardless of their public statements, higher gasoline prices work to the advantage of their causes of high speed trains, windmills and electric cars.  With higher gas prices, these very expensive toys suddenly become more reasonable in price.  Like I said, you can make up your own mind.

Regardless, for something as important as petroleum is toward daily American life, most people really have very little understanding about this commodity.  Truth be told, all they really care is about the price at the pump, and I suppose that is as it should be.  Granted, times have changed, and the gas stations no longer give out jelly glasses with fill-ups nor S&H Green Stamps.  Going back a few decades, Shell Oil used to give away steak knives with a fill-up; given today’s “sensibilities”, that’s certainly not going to happen again.  Regardless, here are a few things to consider:

Unit of Measure

  • In the North American market, petroleum is sold by the barrel.  The standard sized barrel is 42 gallons, smaller than the 55-gallon barrel that comes to mind.  Refined products are often sold in 55’s, but not crude petroleum.  Also, the “barrel” is mostly a unit of measure since petroleum is typically transported in tankers with large holds or via pipelines.

Petroleum Quality

As it comes out of the ground, petroleum can widely vary in quality; even within an individual petroleum field, the output can vary.  The term used to describe a particular petroleum starts with the source location of that oil.  This is usually followed by a term which describes the quality of that petroleum (such as light, sweet, heavy or sour).  A few domestic examples:

  • West Texas IntermediateThe term “price of oil”, as used in the US media, generally means the cost per barrel (42 US gallons) of West Texas Intermediate Crude, to be delivered to Cushing, Oklahoma during the upcoming month. West Texas Intermediate is currently the benchmark standard for crude oil pricing in the United States.  Why?  Because it’s always been that way.  On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, this may no longer be realistic.  More about that later.
  • West Texas Sour –  Another Texas petroleum, but with more stuff in the raw product that has to be processed.  Usually, it is less expensive than Intermediate because it requires more refining.
  • Louisiana Sweet – Typically, this petroleum sells for more than the Texas petroleum.
  • Alaska North Slope – Just what it says, via the Aleyska Pipeline.

These are just a few of America’s various petroleums, the point being that when it comes out of the ground, oil has varying qualities, which results in modestly varying prices.  There are quite a number of other petroleums, such as Nebraska Intermediate, Eastern Kansas, Kansas Common, Oklahoma Sweet, Oklahoma Sour and California’s Midway-Sunset.  Each of these, and others, are different enough to have their own name, but are not as important as West Texas Intermediate.  While you can look up the daily price of Intermediate in the Wall Street Journal, others are not as heavily traded and are more likely reported in local newspapers, right next to the corn futures and pork bellies.  And, the imported stuff has names like Venezuelan Heavy, Arab Light Sweet and Bonny Light.  And Libyan Light Sweet.

Interestingly, although the popular perception is that imported oil comes from the Middle East, our largest petroleum imports come from Canada and Mexico.  Saudi Arabia is third in import volume, followed by a host of other countries from all over the world.  Current projections indicate that: “At the current rate of unchecked import growth, Americans will be 70% to 75% reliant on foreign oil by the middle of the next decade. In short, the U.S. is now more dependent on oil, and less secure in its supply, than at any time in the 145-year history of oil consumption.”  [Forbes.com]. Of course, more than a little of this projection is based upon the absence of expanded domestic petroleum development in the United States.

Oil Well Operation

  • Petroleum’s Geological Structure – In the old days, many of the rough & tumble petroleum landmen knew where the oil was because they understood geology.  This was long before the use of scientific methodology.  The landman would sniff at the oil in front of their colleagues and then point to where the petroleum was.  This was, of course, just for show because underneath it all, they really understood the geology of petroleum.  Not that this method was infallible,  because sometimes there were structures underground that were not visible to the eye.  One West Texas landman bought drilling rights across the road from the Yates Field, simply based on the very strong production of that area (“if there’s oil on one side of the road, there should be oil on the other side of the road“).  His wells discovered no oil; in the intervening years, geological research discovered that the geological structure of the Yates Field followed the path of the road.  The road itself was built upon a naturally occurring path that animals had followed for centuries.  There was oil on the west side of the road, and no oil on the east side.  So, the landman’s payments for drilling rights were gone without any return on investment.
  • Once in production, oil wells can’t be turned off – Another oddity of petroleum wells is that once they are in operation, they cannot be turned off for long periods of time.  The petroleum is not sitting underground in a large cavern, it is located in sandstone, filling in the gaps between the stone’s porous structure.  Even when petroleum was selling for $13.00 per barrel in the 1990’s, the wells were still running.  For if they were turned off, when the time came to turn them back on, there might not be any oil there at all.  After the initial well is drilled, it is the pumpjack that creates a flow of petroleum within the geological structure of the well.  If that flow is allowed to stop for long periods of time, other wells may begin to draw the oil toward them, or gravity allows the oil to fall further into the earth.  Once again, you lose your investment.
  • Well Names – Like mines, most oil wells have names to help identify them.  Many of these are named after the property owners, such as “A. B. Smith” or “Douglas #2”.  Sometimes wives or girlfriends get involved, such as “Karen No. 1”.  My personal favorite is a well in Noble County, Oklahoma; “Mighty Mouser #1”.  Makes you wonder, was it the family cat?

The Products

  • Once the petroleum is removed from the ground, it is usually transported by pipeline to a refinery.  At the refinery, the crude oil is broken down by chemical processes.  The resulting products include gasoline, aviation fuels, diesel fuel, lubricating oil, home heating oil, feed stocks for making plastics, paraffin wax, and a host of other useful products.  It should be noted that the refining process has become considerably more efficient over the years.  In the old days, a lot of the waste products were flared off, burned.  Now, uses for many of these waste products have been developed.  Just look around you at how many plastics we use in everyday life.  What was once burned, dumped into our atmosphere, is now used to make durable, reliable items that make our lives better.
  • A typical refinery is designed to handle a specific variety of crude oil.  Oil from Venezuela is refined at a specific plant because it is heavy oil with a high sulfur content.  Most other refineries are similar in that their feed stocks come from a specific source.  So, once a reliable source of petroleum has been developed, there are a lot of related investments that have to be made before the first gallon of gasoline is pumped.

As an aside, one of the processes used to produce gasoline and other refined products is catalytic cracking, commonly called “Cat Cracking” in the refining industry.  Another term is “Crack Spread”, which is not as interesting as it sounds unless you’re in the petroleum business.  It refers to: “Crack spread is a term used in the oil industry and futures trading for the differential between the price of crude oil and petroleum products extracted from it.”  That said, I fondly remember a headline from the Wall Street Journal: “Increased margins cause refiners to get cracking”.

Peak Oil

A lot of people love to speculate about peak oil.   People such as politicians who believe in solar energy, writers of apocalyptic novels  and those that feel that we should all be sitting under the banyan tree, discussing Greek philosophers.  Simply put, “Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline“.  Certainly, part of this statement is already true, that our petroleum reserves are limited and the day will come when the petroleum will be gone.  Going back to the Yates Field again, it was said in the 1950’s that the Yates Field was “on its last 20%”.  In the 1960’s, it was said that the Yates Field was “on its last 20%”.  And so on through subsequent decades.  In a way, this is exactly true, since the 20% is relative to earlier production.  It also does not mention the improvement of technology, that the operator of the Yates Field is now able to recover far more petroleum, far more efficiently than before.  Yes, the day of peak oil will come, but we will only know it upon reflection.  Anyone who says that we have already reached peak oil production may, or may not be right.  We’ll only know at some point in the future.

When that day of declining petroleum production becomes evident, we still have a host of other sources that can efficiently produce gasoline.  Of course, “efficiently” depends upon the pricing of petroleum.  Consider the Fischer-Tropsch process, which produces a petroleum substitute from coal, natural gas or biomass.  When petroleum is selling for $75.00 a barrel, the Fischer-Tropsch process is not economically feasible.  But if petroleum becomes $300.00 per barrel, then the economic realities kick in.  So, too, a lot of the pie-in-the-sky dreams of the politicians become feasible when petroleum is scarce, when peak oil has been reached.  Until we realize that the day of peak oil has finally happened, these things remain pipe dreams.  For additional information about peak oil, please see here.

Something must be done!

Given those gloomy figures and realities, it seems inevitable that the United States is simply going to burn up and die because of its so-called fuel addiction.  In fact, the entire world is “addicted” to petroleum, because it gives the best bang for the buck.  And you can be sure that whenever there’s crisis and the price of gasoline starts to climb, the opportunists come out of the woodwork with their quick & easy solution to the problem.

  • The Strategic Petroleum Reserve – It is inevitable that some of the addicts will demand that we open up the American Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help lower gasoline prices.  Of course, these are many of the same people that say we must spend more money to save money.  Access to the SPR is after certain conditions have been met, “primarily to counter a severe supply interruption”.  Of course, your emergency is different than mine, but whenever gasoline prices start rising due to supply problems, there are sure to be cries to open the reserves to get those prices down.  Of course, these calls are also a reflection of a mentality that has America in trouble in general, short term thinking without regard to the long term consequences.  By taking oil out of the reserves today, it makes you wonder if there will be oil there next year, when things might get really dicey.  Keep in mind that if we were to continue our current rate of consumption, that the Reserve would only last about 42 days (Reserve size – 727 million barrels divided by 17 million barrels per day consumption). [Actually, a clarification is necessary.  The United States in 2008 used 19.8 million gallons of fuel each day.  This fuel was refined from crude oil, but there is not a one-to-one relationship since there are other products that come out of the refining process.  The 17 million bbl per day number comes from the DoE website, but I neglected to note the year of that consumption rate.  RO’C]
  • Windfall Profits Tax – To quote: “According to the Congressional Research Service, the Act’s title was a misnomer. “Despite its name, the crude oil windfall profit tax… was not a tax on profits. It was an excise tax… imposed on the difference between the market price of oil, which was technically referred to as the removal price, and a statutory 1979 base price that was adjusted quarterly for inflation and state severance taxes.”  In other words, a committee determined what the price of oil should be and taxed the difference.  And while it may have made some people feel good about sticking it to the rich oil companies, it was discovered that this tax cost more to administer than it produced in revenue.  Not to mention that it killed new domestic drilling because whatever profits might have been made were eaten up by the tax.  Passed in the waning years of the Carter administration, the Windfall Profits Tax quietly went away in 1988.  And not a minute too soon.
  • Department of Energy – Another great idea from the Carter administration, the DoE was formed in 1977 to make America energy independent.  Over thirty years later, we’re more dependent than we were before.  Now, in addition to dealing with gasoline supply issues, the DoE also manages our nuclear fuel and weapon supplies.  We have good reason to save the nuclear weapons for special occasions, but we have little excuse to limit the use of nuclear fuel, even with the current problems in Japan.  Something will have to be used to generate the electricity for all those electric cars the politicians dream of.
  • Nationalization – Of course, with rising gasoline prices, any number of politicians and other fuzzy thinkers come up with the great idea of nationalizing the petroleum companies.  They need to think twice and throttle back the overheated rhetoric.  If they really got their wish, there would be unforeseen consequences.  As I opined earlier: 
    Mary Anastasia O’Grady observed in the June 16th number of the Wall Street Journal: “I have another theory. And mine fits the pattern of resource development – or lack thereof – all over the Western Hemisphere. It comes down to this: Where government has the property right, restrictions on development tend to be low. But when the private sector is the owner, environmental concerns blossom.” 
  • In other words, once the government has a financial role in the production of petroleum and the distribution of its products, then the environmental lobby may no longer enjoy the cachet that it did when the energy companies were independent. I can see it now. The government takes over the oil business and discovers the marketplace realities. Out front of the Capitol, the environmental lobby becomes flattened fauna on Pennsylvania Avenue, Schlumberger trucks are parked all over the White House lawn and the Energy Services Group is well on its way to redeeming the tattered reputation of Halliburton. So, given the laws of unintended consequence, the Democrats should be careful for what they wish for.

  • Speculators! – Speaking of overheated rhetoric, the current President has formed yet another task force.  This one addresses the growing problem of oil price speculators, who are not to be confused with gold price speculators.  Of course, a lot of the president’s actions are simply saying the right words to his political base in an effort to make them feel better about market realities.  In the end, the speculators are simply the messengers for the actual market.  They wouldn’t be getting the high priced contracts unless they felt that that is the way that the market is going.  Of course, like the housing market, the oil market is probably overheated.  And like the housing market, a large governmental presence is likely to be fraught with unintended consequences.  Of course, there is one other issue.  By the current administration’s words, these speculators are making a financial killing, so this would put them into the higher tax brackets.  At the same time, it is the taxpayers in those higher brackets that are supposed to be helping us cut the national deficit by “paying their fair share”.  Personally, it sounds like we should leave the speculators alone so that we can tax them on their profits.

The Marketplace

  • West Texas Intermediate – When the media speaks about the price of a barrel of oil, this usually refers to WTI, but an odd problem has cropped up.  Petroleum from Texas, Oklahoma and other states is sent by pipelines to Cushing, Oklahoma.  Oil production from other places, such as Canadian oil sands also goes to Cushing.  Because of fuel storage infrastructure problems (not enough storage tanks) at Cushing, petroleum production is being curtailed, and the pricing of WTI, the world’s standard for petroleum, is artificially low.  This is because the petroleum stored at Cushing has fewer pipeline connections to the refineries.  While Brent might be selling for $120.00 per barrel, WTI is currently selling for much less, around $108.00.  Or, as an oil patch expert put it, Cushing, Oklahoma is the Roach Motel for petroleum; oil checks in but doesn’t check out.  While you might think that this sort of thing doesn’t apply to you, remember that inflation indexes use WTI as a gauge of oil pricing to adjust all “cost of living” rates.  If the price of WTI is lower than what is actually being paid for all petroleum (and thus not necessarily related to gasoline prices), then the oil costs in daily life are being underestimated, too.

[Actually, there was an interesting explanation as to why petroleum was backing up at Cushing.  It turns out that one of those major pipelines that connected the Gulf Coast with Cushing was flowing in the wrong direction.  The “Seaway” pipeline was owned by ConocoPhillips, and they had no interest in reversing the flow to alleviate the backup which was occurring at Cushing.  Why?  Because the backup at Cushing was resulting in lower prices paid for each barrel of West Texas petroleum, which increased ConocoPhillip’s margins, “the crack spread”.  By November, 2011, ConocoPhillips sold its interest in the pipeline to pay off other debts.  The new owner announced that they were changing the flow direction of the pipeline, which will alleviate the backup at Cushing.  This process will take months to achieve, since pipelines are like refineries in their design.  It is worth remembering that all of this occurred without the assistance of politicians.  A free market speaks. RO’C, 2/2012]


The United States of America is a great country, A nation filled with vast resources and long distances. A land of great minds and new ideas.  America is the place of opportunity.    There was a time when we had a well developed railroad passenger system and electric streetcars that served most cities, but they are largely gone.  It would be nice if we had high speed trains that took us where we want to go, but that’s not realistic in many parts of the country.  For the short term, it remains the automobile’s world.

  • The automobile as transport  system – The automobile is blamed for a multitude of sins.  Here in Atlanta, traffic routinely backs up in several different places every weekday.  And, this in a city with an operating heavy rail transit system.  The popular notion is that people should take public transit; well, other people should take public transit.  In all the uproar, the benefits of the automobile are quickly forgotten.  Say what you will, the automobile is the height of transportation convenience.  You go when you want to go, where you want to go, in the style in which you choose to go.  For a country as large as the United States, only the automobile offers appropriate transportation for the long distances involved, especially in the West.
  • The automobile as state of mind – The other part of the automobile equation is rarely discussed.  The ability to just jump in the car and go produces a state of mind.  Some “progressives” are as uncomfortable with this notion as they are with under-regulated financial markets.  But there is an unnoted plus side.  This freedom of movement also has beneficial side effects, for it produces a unfettered state of mind.  Part of the American genius is development of new ideas, and freedom of movement also translates into freedom of thought.  This, of course, cannot be allowed to happen.  Where would it end?
  • Inflation – One other aspect of the current rise in gasoline prices is undiscussed.  In part, the increase in gasoline prices is the result of the decrease in value of the U. S. dollar.  That is, we’re paying more because it takes more of our dollars to buy a commodity.  Because the dollar is not as strong as it once was.  At least a portion of the cause of high gas prices is related to the fact that our money is being deliberately inflated.

A lot of academics and some politicians are obsessed with the prospect that America should become more like Europe.  I even wrote about it a couple years ago.  But the European mindset is also steered by its geography.  Driving from Paris, France to Rome, Italy takes about 13 hours, 35 minutes (the express train takes 14 hours 30 minutes).  Driving from Paris, California to Rome, New York takes 41 hours (a train leaving on Monday evening from Los Angeles gets to New York City on Thursday evening.  You’ll have to find a bus to Rome).

In short, America is a bigger place, but it’s more than that.  We think freely because we are able to move freely at will.  Developing ideas is ingrained in our nation because the freedom which the automobile offers means that we often think without limits.   The real fact is that American ingenuity conquers a lot of things.  We are, or were, a nation of problem solvers, a nation of inventors who find answers to daily problems.  For every pet rock, there also is the transistor.  We are a nation of great wealth, even now.

And, when the politicians strive to make us more like Europe by allowing gasoline prices to rise by restricting domestic energy production to meet political goals, it is sentencing American Ingenuity to a slow and unfortunate death.  It is important to remember that all of the uproar about expensive petroleum will quietly go away once the reliability of supplies returns and the price rises to its natural and appropriate level.  A level determined by the market, not by committee.  If the current administration ever allows it.

And, you should read the Kimberly Strassel interview with Chevron’s President, John Watson.


Of course, things come along that change the equation.  In this case, it would be hydraulic fracturing, “fracking”.  This process, which dates back to 1947, has changed the oil & gas business.  So much so that our friends the Saudi Arabians are now concerned about our ability to become energy independent.  I can’t say that I’m sorry about that prospect.

Nor is fracking just for oil wells.  Consider this satellite view of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado:


All those squiggly lines are gravel roads, and at the end of each squiggly line is a round dot.  Each dot is a gas well created by fracking.  There are literally hundreds of them all over the area, and what’s behind them is an interesting tale.

This area, west of Trinidad, Colorado and west of Raton, New Mexico, was earlier the site of hundreds of mines that worked the Raton Basin, a formation laden with coal.  The southern end of the basin was “steam coal” while the northern end of the basin was “metallurgical coal”.  Originally, back in the 1800’s, the steam coal was mined to fuel the steam locomotives of the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Colorado & Southern railroads or transported out to fuel boilers around the region.  The metallurgical coal was “coked“, with the resulting fuel being transported to steel mills at Pueblo, Colorado.  One major downside to the coal mining in the Raton Basin is that the mines were “gassy”.  Which means that there were numerous mine explosions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of miners.

I’ll let Wikipedia do the talking:

During development of the Morley mine in the early part of the 20th century, two gas relief wells were drilled into the coal, as a safety measure to drain off gas ahead of mining.[8]

The first wells seeking to produce coalbed methane were drilled in the Raton Basin in 1982.[9] Thousands of wells have successfully extracted coalbed methane from the Vermejo Formation and Raton Formation coals. The productive coalbed methane area now covers the central part of the basin, and straddles the ColoradoNew Mexico state line. The two major producing companies are Pioneer Natural Resources (on the Colorado side) and El Paso Corporation (on the New Mexico side).

In 2007, the coalbed methane field of the Raton Basin produced 124 billion cubic feet of gas, making it the 17th largest source of natural gas in the United States.[10]

In other words, fracking has taken the mining process, which is dangerous to human life, and made it safer.  The coal is still down there, producing salable methane, which burns more cleanly than coal.

And, it’s not just new gas wells, but also improved fuel efficiency that is helping, too.  It is against the law for us to export crude petroleum, but it is not against the law to export refined petroleum products.  To, wit:  US becoming ‘refiner to the world’ as diesel demand grows.

No wonder the Saudis are concerned.


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You know the drill, so to speak.  Jed’s out hunting, misses his shot at some wild animal and the next thing you know, he’s moved to Beverly Hills (home of Henry Waxman).  For the purposes of television, it doesn’t really matter how Jed ended up driving down Rodeo Drive with Granny, Ellie May, Jethro and Duke in the 1921 Oldsmobile.  But if you’re curious as to how Jed got there, he went through the same process that countless other land owners did when crude oil was discovered on their property.

Once word got out that there was oil on Jed’s property, he was approached by a landman.  George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, got his start as a landman.  So did T. Boone Pickens.  It’s an unusual job, requiring persuasive skills combined with a thorough understanding of both business and property law.

Once Jed and the oil company landman reached a deal, Jed was likely given a large lump sum of cash up front for rights to drill on the property.  He was also given cash for the “surface rights”, which allowed the drilling company to be on his property at all, even if there wasn’t oil down below.  So, there is an element of financial risk involved with this, since the oil company may discover that there is very little oil on Jed’s land.  They would discover this after the cash payment had been made.  In earlier times, they would just drill a well and see what happened, but now they use advanced methods to determine the size and quality of the underground petroleum reserves.

By the time drilling had started, Jed & Family had removed themselves to Beverly Hills, but the most important part for him was about to arrive.  As part of his deal with the landman and the oil company, Jed also received a royalty payment for every barrel of oil removed from his property.  Typically, this royalty would be 1/8 of the value of the oil.  He would also receive continuing payments for the surface rights.  Those royalties would continue for the life of the well, which is why Mr. Drysdale was so interested in Jed.

Of course, the Beverly Hillbillies was set in the 1960’s, an era long before the stringent influence of bureaucracies.  Back then, the permitting process was relatively easy.  Now, any number of different government agencies could and would halt any petroleum development for a multitude of reasons.  Today’s likely scenario would have Jed still living in his shack in the mountains.  Granny was on Medicaid when she died.  Ellie Mae got a job down at the local Huddle House.  Cousin Jethro’s doing 7 – 10 in the state penitentiary for manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine.  Jed’s not bitter about it, because Jed’s just not that sort of guy, but in the cool of the evening he sits in his rocker on the front porch and talks with friends.  He takes a draw of clear liquid from a jelly jar and shakes his head.  “The oil’s still out there, waiting to be drawn out and used.  It just don’t make no sense“.

And it doesn’t.

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Digital Maoism

The impetus for this posting comes from a Gordon Crovitz column in the Wall Street Journal, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Author“.  The gist of this article is:

Last week one of the large textbook publishers, Macmillan, announced new software to let college instructors rewrite textbooks by substituting new material for what the author wrote. This will allow options such as deleting paragraphs or editing down to the level of individual sentences. The software can bring to print and e-textbooks what’s called a “mashup” in other forms like music and videos……

In other words, if you don’t like what a book says, change it to say what you want it to say.  Well, that’s not the intention of the publisher, but that certainly seems to be the net effect of Macmillan’s plans.  A “mashup” is a “…. a web page or application that uses or combines data or functionality from two or many more external sources to create a new service….”

In a way, many things that we do are mashups; we selectively choose the words of others to present our ideas.  I’m doing it right now, but I also assume that you have the intellectual wit to know more than what I am presenting here.  And that you have the intellectual background to compare my ideas with yours and make a decision as to whether or not I’m talking like an idiot. 

The digital mashup is part of a larger notion, that of collaborative work.  Wikipedia is an example of such work.  I use Wikipedia links frequently to provide background for concepts and thoughts.  This allows you to explore something which you are not familiar with.  Wikipedia does have some flaws, most notably that it can be wildly uneven.

I’ve contributed to Wikipedia myself, in areas such as Rokal trains, Dawson, New Mexico and other areas with which I am quite familiar.  Presumably, other areas are covered equally as well by those who have good knowledge of a subject.  But collaborative works such as Wikipedia also have the weakness of political infighting, digital vandalism and just plain error.  It can also be remarkably trivial.

Consider that there was considerable controversy about a Wikipedia article which detailed the comb over.  Or, what we enthusiasts of the technique refer to as “strategic combing“.   This item proved to be a hot bed of semi-intellectual back & forth, with at least three groups fighting over the “facts”.  One set of entries contained a photograph of politician Carl Levin, an enthusiastic supporter of this technique.  Never mind that Western Civilization was circling the drain, this was a matter of great import.

And, such a controversy points to the fact that the trivialization of information undermines the value of what we as a society “know”.  As more and more “information” gets passed about, it also becomes more difficult to differentiate between trivia and important facts.  Familiarity breeds contempt; or, in this case, you just can’t spot an important idea because of the flurry of useless information.  This is not to say that there should be less information, it is just to recognize that we are being overwhelmed with data and it requires even better intellectual skills to sort things out.

Of course, this ability is a learned skill, and I leave it to you to decide if our children are being given the training for this challenge.  Your response likely depends upon how confident you feel about the educational industry of our great republic.

And, textbook mashups are predicated on the notion that the individual reader is able to  assess the validity of a fact stated in such a document.  Yet, the whole point of textbooks is that the reader does not know and is reading the book to know.  Traditionally, a text book represented the work of a serious scholar or scholars devoted to a specific subject.

Thomas Bailey’s The American Pageant, comes to mind since it was the book that I studied in high school about American history.  Of course, the book took a point of view, that of its author, but Bailey was, and still is, an interesting read.  Now, of course,  a Google search for “American Pageant” is as likely to bring up material on women in swimsuits as it is a serious study of the history of our great Republic.

Likewise, other books have fallen by the wayside.  Consider the three part “The Rise and Development of Western Civilization” by Stipp, Hollister and Dirrim.  Stipp taught Western Civ at the college that I attended, but it appears that his thorough study of the subject is likely to be out of favor since it is probably too white, too male and “not inclusive”.  Which is to say, that it was written in the 1950’s.  I don’t know that for a fact, by the way; just call it an educated guess.

Now, of course, having such a problem textbook can be easily remedied by just culling out all the too white and too male stuff and putting in your own ideas.  Nice in one way, but kind of tough on those who spent their lives studying a subject and trying to bring coherence out of the confusion.  It is also reasonable to question the accuracy of the source material.

The term Digital Maoism first popped up on the collective radar in 2006, with an op-ed column in the New York Times by Steven Johnson commenting on the thoughts of Jaron Lanier.  In part: “Wikipedia may be not too far from the historical reality of Maoism itself: a system propagandized with the language of collectivism that was, in practice, actually run by a small power elite.

You don’t hear the term Maoism very often, and those that say it are often aging hippies and garden variety radicals looking back with fond memories of their past.  Likewise, you don’t hear that sort of stuff very much from the Chinese themselves, who largely seem eager to get those memories behind them.

And what memories they are.  Who can forget the disastrous Great Leap Forward?  The little Red Book?  I even have a copy; alas, it is not a signed edition.

Especially when talking about Maoism, it’s hard to forget the Cultural Revolution.  The Red Guards?  Who could forget that memorable phrase “Completely destroy the old world!  We shall be the master of the new world.”?  Children renouncing their parents.  Books being burned.  Religious icons being destroyed.  All for the sake of the “revolution”.

Humiliate Your Elders Day in China

Of course, things have changed.  Back then, Red China (as it was called by the west), was an impenetrable mystery.  A billion people cut off from the rest of the world.  It would be Richard Nixon who would be the first westerner of consequence to visit the country in the better part of a century.   Back then, China was an elusive mystery; these days, you can’t go three feet without running into something Chinese.

So, Lanier’s choice of words for this cultural phenomenon are harsh ones, but not totally out of context.  While you and I may remember Mao, and Chou En-Lai, Madam Mao and the Gang of Four, the kids today do not.  Not only do they not remember, they do not care.  And, they probably have not heard of them in school either.  In short, they are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Wikipedia is taking the hits here, but the mentality it represents is far larger.  It calls into the question the notion of being an individual in our modern society.  Certainly from health care “reform” to free speech on college campuses, to a variety of other subjects, individualism has fallen out of favor in more than a few districts.  Yet, it is individual expression that has produced so many cultural, artistic and financial assets for our society.

In the end, we can only hope that today’s fractious behavior is yet another example of the constant dynamic of our society.  That there is a give and take action which is, hopefully, constantly improving our culture.  It makes us better for it.  For when this dynamic action ceases, out culture will slowly fade.

How will Stipp’s “The Rise and Development of Western Civilization” end?  “Denounce your parents”, or “I have a better idea”?

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Being For Something

Several years ago, my spouse and I came to an interesting conclusion; many of our friends were, ahem, liberals. This, in itself, was not a tragic discovery, just one which bemused us both.  Being genteel people, we valued our friends for their friendship.  There is no compelling need to “convert” them; they are good friends, and just that.

Publicly admitting that you are a conservative is fraught with negative possibilities, and our friends know what our general political perspective is, but the subject is never brought up.  To be sure, certain other topics are never discussed either, such as someone’s bad toupee, growing waistline, religion, dietary preferences and/or abortion.  Given the long term, closely held, beliefs of all parties, there’s no reason to try and change things.  In short, we have a good time with people that we have a lot of other things in common with.

Our process of analysis about this discovery was much more interesting. We had both grown up in conservative homes, with parents who were solidly Republican; very typical of the 1950’s, when being a Republican meant something.  Nor were we from “fat cat” households.  My late father was a research chemist, working first for a petroleum company and later for the EPA.  My lovely bride’s father had been involved in several businesses, including owning and operating their own motel, which he built from scratch.  After 20 years of the motel, he was a driving license examiner and a deputy sheriff (for a Democratic sheriff).  In short, nice middle-class Republican backgrounds; but at some point, we looked at each other and mutually realized the truth.  Many of our friends are lefties.  Oh, well, let us move on.

I came to conservatism early on, after reading Buckley’s God & Man at Yale. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged really sealed the deal.  As a train enthusiast, Atlas started off to me as a train book and now, of course, it has taken on the eerie reflection of today’s society.  My wife has never been a dyed in the wool conservative, but over the years, I have slowly wooed her over.  She remains an independent mind, but 30 years worth of experience in private enterprise has shown her some truths.  As you get older, you tend toward what was always there.

By coincidence, we both went to the same small college in the Midwest United States.  Although we both have an affection for the place, I have in recent years become disaffected with the school’s left wing perspective, God & Man at a Small Liberal Arts College, if you will.  I blogged about this disaffection, earlier.  What pushed me off the dime to write about this disaffection was when John Ashcroft visited campus.

Our college had a long and wonderful history of progressive thought.  Consider this painting of a major event at this school:

Free Debate of Ideas

Free Debate of Ideas

Now, fast forward to 2008, to this same college:

John Ashcroft, Domestic Terrorist?

John Ashcroft, Domestic Terrorist?

The Free Exchange of Ideas

The Free Exchange of Ideas

I am sure that this is not the stated policy of the College, but the sign was posted on a College building and was not taken down during the event.  Where once the student body and faculty of the College was For something, now it is Against.

To me, one of the core assets of conservatism is being for something and being allowed to be for something without restraint.  It is something that I enjoy with all of our friends, but it is painfully obvious that I would not be happy at our old college in this day and time.  In keeping with my conservative philosophy, our little backwater college is entitled to be whatever it wants to be, but I also know that if I was there now as a student, I would not be able to be what I want to be.

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Independence Day

Today we celebrate our independence from the British Empire.

There are those who are embarrassed to be citizens of the United States of America.  I am not one of them.  There are those who do not believe in the future of the United States.  I am not one of them.

There are differences between many of us, but we leave discussion of our differences for another day.  Rather, consider what we have in common:

  • Freedom of Thought & Expression.  You are pretty much entitled to whatever cockeyed opinion that you have.  And, you can express it; just don’t expect that I should necessarily agree with it.
  • Freedom of Religion.  The same applies here, too.
  • Freedom of Movement.  You don’t need travel papers to drive from Georgia to California.
  • We are a nation of laws.  It is the law that protects us from the predations of others.  You don’t wake up one morning and discover that someone in power has changed the rules that we play under.
  • Our young people are strong and good.  Many of them have voluntarily put their lives at risk, traveled to foreign countries for the purpose of defending democracy.

We are able to guide our own destiny, we are able to live our own lives free of foreign rule.  Many, many people have died to support this country.

We are a fortunate people.

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I found myself quoting Cicero the other day in an email to a college official; I opined “O Tempora, O Mores”. It was said in irony of course, but upon reflection, it may have been closer to the truth than I originally thought. They played rough in ancient Rome. When Cicero hectored his way onto the bad side of Marcus Antonius, they executed him, then cut off his head and hands (the hands that had written so many things), and put them on public display to remind others of the consequences of opposition to the wrong parties. Marc Anthony’s wife, the lovely Fulvia, “took Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in final revenge against Cicero’s power of speech.” In the fullness of time, Marc Anthony would move on to Egypt, gaining a nice house in Alexandria, a torrid relationship with one of the hottest babes of his time and a three movie deal with 20th Century Fox.

Today, of course, we are a cultured and modern society. Now we get the opposing parties to appear on one of the news casts and let them yell at each other until it is time for a commercial. It is just like professional wrestling; at the end of the event, everybody clocks out and goes home to their families.

What prompted me to bewail these modern times was my inadvertent discovery of a recent event that happened at the college that I attended in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. There was an impeachment effort against the President of the college’s Student Senate.

It has been noted on many occasions that the reason that academic arguments are so vituperative is because the stakes are so small. And, viewing this event from the outside world, apparently nothing could be closer to the truth. From what I can gather, this impeachment got underway because: “The petition began largely as a result of Student Senate meetings regarding theme housing. Several students were dissatisfied with the way in which [the President] and Student Senate handled the discussion of, in particular, Queer and Ally House, Feminist House and Asian Cultural House.” Continuing, “…..I would still be having this discussion if we’d gotten the house,” said [name deleted], one of a group of students who applied for Feminist House. “These issues are bigger than houses.”“

Evidently. As a sensitive guy of the 21st Century, I respect their feelings and goals. And, based upon my own college career, I am more than willing to filter things out because, let’s face it, when you are in the 18 – 22 year old demographic, you can say and do some spectacularly odd things. Not that one is willing to admit it at the time, but with the richness of experience, you gradually get better. On the other hand, college is supposed to be a training ground for the contemporary world, and you have to wonder what sort of life these students are being trained for.

The impeachment petition was handled by an online petition site, one that does not reveal the names of the petition signers until the petition reaches 300 signers. In the end, the petition did not reach critical mass, so no names were revealed and the episode ended without any action. It could just as easily handled by ACORN. Apparently, the hard feelings remain. The Student Senate President in question graduated and moved on to become an intern for a U.S. Congressman’s office. In this case, college did indeed train her for the outside world, such as it is.

In a larger sense, however, this event keyed me in on something which has been bothering me about my college for quite a while. My quoting “O Tempora, O Mores” was supposed to be a lament on the state of modern society, but in fact, this is closer to reality than I am comfortable with. Granted, this situation could just as easily be Paul Lynde singing “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie. Nor is this totally out of character for my alma mater; this college has always enjoyed a reputation for a radical bent. Not as bad as Reed College or the late Antioch College, but certainly things were a little more outré on our campus, regardless of the era. Add to this the fact that small colleges are miniature hothouses for interpersonal behavior; like elder care facilities, everybody spends a lot of their time discussing what other people on campus are doing. Further, my alma mater is located in a smallish town that is far from major cities, just the right recipe for the college’s famed odd behavior.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, for it was this same environment that I was comfortable in for four years. Whatever the college experience might have been for me, it did expose me to some interesting ideas. And, of course, since I was a callow youth, a lot of those ideas were wasted on me at the time. It is only in the fullness of life that I have come to appreciate some of the details. And, because of the nature of time, I can’t go back to relive and relearn.

One thing that my college exposed me to was a Mississippi blues player named Bukka White. At the time, whatever encounter I had with Mr. White must have been odd; we were two Southerners on a college campus in the 1960’s filled with people who were not from The South. If I had known then what I know now, I would have invited Mr. White out to a grassy hill along the south side of campus, pulled out a bottle of his favorite hooch and set down to empty that bottle and to talk about trains. Trains are an integral part of blues music; you can’t get out of the Mississippi delta except by train or bus, and you don’t hear that many bus songs. Perhaps, Bukka would have pulled out his National and played…..

Now, I look back and realize that I have a lot more in common with Bukka White than I do with the college that I once attended. My memories of the college have become pale; the campus is like the stage of the play Our Town. The structures were there simply as backdrop for the human events that would happen there. Drama is not the right word, for they were happy times, when we were all young pups, full of life. It was those relationships that made me what I am today, and I am thankful for them. It is also helpful to remember that this was in the past.

Institutions change, things get better, but they don’t necessarily change in a linear fashion. There are missteps along the way, and a series of events has keyed me into the realization that the college that I attended is no longer remotely the institution that it was when I was there. It probably shouldn’t be. I suppose that I could enumerate the little slights and major differences, the tiny panes of glass that make up the stained glass window of my disaffection, but that is not my point.

The discovery of a Student Senate impeachment effort simply serves to remind me of just how far apart I am from my alma mater. It would be easier if everybody there was evil, which is far from the case. Rather, it is the radicals that have taken control and there is little room for moderation. One recent description of the College: “…..is a liberal arts college, in every sense of the word “liberal.” Radicalism has played a key role in our society, for it was the radicals that pointed out the inequities, but it was the vast middle that ultimately made the decisions. Now it is the middle that has been marginalized and it is the radicals that are setting the agenda. The middle has been driven away. This is part of a long rumbling slide away from that school and what it meant to me. And one small college is not an isolated example.

All that is left is the support of an institution that you believe in. And if you have nothing in common with the institution of today, what is there left to do? It is not that I am angry about this; far from it. Rather, I look at the state of my college as it is today and I just don’t really care. It’s like a marriage gone bad, where both partners no longer respect each other. Why support an institution that espouses a philosophy so contrary to the way that I live?

I have migrated away from the zero sum games that some play. I have left places where the free exchange of ideas has been eroded for political or personal gain. The world that they envision is alien to me; rather than enjoy what we have in common, we are now exploited by what makes us different. I have wearied of that because it is so contrary to what I’m in life for. I no longer walk the paths of confrontation; it’s not worth the effort.

With the fullness of time, and a reflection of my life, I have migrated to places of respite from the toxic environment that some parts of this world have become. I have found contemplation and thought, appreciation for what I have earned and been given. I have found institutions that allow me to exist in peace; a wonderful marriage, a fine church, a great neighborhood. It is not that everybody there agrees with what I believe in, far from it. Rather, I have found places where I can consider the hard issues of this life without having people getting in my face about what I think. Would that my alma mater could be so, and perhaps it is, but it does not appear to be so.

Bukka White has left this world on the last GM&O train out of town, gone on to a better reward than the hard life he lived. I headed out on Santa Fe train No. 18 decades ago. That was all in the past, but the delta blues stick with me to this day.

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They Go Back Home

As our economy resets itself downward, interesting things are happening. One interesting development is the departure of a number of people who were here because of plentiful jobs, which is not the situation today. The Wall Street Journal calls one of them an illegal immigrant, as were many of them. CNN waits until the third paragraph to utter the phrase. Certainly, after years of arguing about the status of many of these people, the media is finally coming to grip with the facts of the case. Nor is this strictly limited to the United States; the Czech Republic is paying their illegals to go home. Italy is tightening things up, too.

The immigrants’ presence here was always fluid since they had never made the thorough commitment to become a legal resident of the United States in the first place. The fact is that they are leaving in a more easy fashion than they came. The effects here are uncertain, but there are interesting examples of the effects of recession. Dollar outflows from the United States are dropping. The Border Patrol is making fewer arrests. While some illegals are leaving, many others are still here, staffing the chicken plants and farms that require their inexpensive presence. I leave the full discussion of that matter to another day.

I’m not strident on the topic of illegal immigration on one level, the personal one. The illegal immigrants that I know personally are hard working, honest individuals who truly want to become citizens of the United States. Along the path to citizenship, they have been ripped off by dishonest lawyers and other people promising to make them whole, but only taking their money and leaving. Because they are not citizens, they have little recourse. It’s sad.

On other matters, however, I believe that people who use the services of our governments should also be in the position to be legal voters and taxpayers; i.e., legal citizens. My religious faith says that I should care about these people, and I do. The legal and moral aspects of their behavior are more murky, and our nation remains undecided about what to do. There is the specter of Sweden, which has been overwhelmed by illegal immigration by those seeking the social welfare network that this country generously offers.

I do know that there is one effect that we cannot gauge. As these people return to their home countries, they take with them the lessons learned in the United States. Those that came here showed the initiative to get up and get themselves into the U. S., certainly an entrepreneurial streak. While they were here, they worked hard and sent money back to their families. With their departure, they take few things with them besides themselves, but they also take an idea.

When they return to their homes and families, they come back to a place where the money that they had sent has been invested and spent. Who knows what all those exiting dollars have created there? At the same time, they come home after full exposure to a wide-open democracy, and they will look at their home country with the wizened eyes of those who have seen that there can be a difference.

Although they never fully assimilated, these people were here long enough to see our culture, both the good and the bad. In their time here, they have seen the American people up close and personal, and they know that we are generally a good and honest country. They also have seen the exceptions to that fact.

At a time when capitalism is under threat in the United States, they take with them the experiences and, perhaps, the starting capital for something permanent with their families in their original home.

They are like seeds thrown into the wind. May they find fertile soil in which to grow.

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On Baltic Birch

I have had a long standing relationship with the commercial side of the woodworking business for several decades. It’s an interesting business, which with the exception of the last year or so, has been generally prosperous and enjoyable. Although not directly involved with the woodworking business, I’m still there several days a week, renting an office from a cabinet maker friend. I also do his bookkeeping, which gives one an interesting perspective.

Another friend, who has always been involved with high technology ventures, came by one day at the time when the technology bubble was bursting. He gazed at the tableau of woodworking machinery, hardwoods and sheet goods and commented: “It must be nice to be in a business that actually makes things.” It is.

Years ago, back in the 1980’s, another woodworker stopped by one of the earlier shops, when we were on St. Charles Avenue. As is woodworker custom in the late afternoons, beer was drug out and we were sitting on the loading dock and talking about things wood. He asked an interesting question. “Have you ever wondered why Baltic birch plywood varies so much?” Baltic birch is one of those staples of the cabinet and furniture business, with a clear grain and even color that makes it quite desirable. This woodworker had an interesting point, since Baltic birch ply wood was available for a period of time and then would become unavailable for months. Cabinet shops often stockpiled in anticipation of the eventual shortages. When the shortage ended, the first batches of new birch ply were so bad as to be unusable. After several months of junky plywood, things would even out and everything that you bought from the supplier could be used. Then, without warning, birch ply would simply not be available again, for months.

Baltic birch plywood comes from Finland and Russia, and in that day, “Russia” was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; i.e., the Commies. Our woodworker friend continued: ”Finland accounts for some of the birch ply production, but the vast majority of it comes from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union birch ply comes from state-run forced collective farms, which are directed from a central planning agency. The people working on these farms have no say so in how things are run, with all decisions coming from Moscow.”

“So, what happens is that these collective farmers sit around and drink vodka all day, doing absolutely nothing. Thus, here in the United States, Baltic birch plywood becomes unavailable. Eventually, Moscow discovers what is happening and sends people down to the collective farm to get things into motion. Then you have the poor quality stuff that hits the market because everybody is slamming the stuff out to meet production quotas. Eventually, everybody is sobered up and back working as they should be. Things are cool and the apparatchiks head back to the civilization of Moscow. Quality production continues for a while and prices in the United States go up. With a decline in demand that resulted from the higher prices, the vodka drinking begins again, leading to the next shortage.”

With the fall of communism, the collective farms went away and production is now handled by for-profit companies, which has led to a steady supply of Baltic birch plywood, but it should serve as a cautionary tale. Government run businesses don’t quite have the ability to produce that which privately operated businesses do. The general goals and motives of the two institutions are fundamentally different.

As an aside, I made an interesting discovery about Russian-market vodka. We’re not talking about the stuff that is intended for the North American market. More than a little of that stuff is actually a commodity alcohol from somebody like Archer Daniels Midland. The vodka “manufacturer” buys this industrial product, mixes it with imported water or whatever to create an unique product. No, we’re talking about the street-level Russian vodka, like what the guys out on the Baltic birch collective are drinking.

Years ago, a friend who is a Russian-area studies expert stopped by the house one day to catch up, and he had brought a nice bottle of real Russian vodka as a small tribute. I thanked him for it and started to shelve it when he asked: “Wouldn’t you like to try it?” So, I drug out a couple glasses, he opened the bottle and poured. The stuff was very fine indeed. Then he asked: “So, what are you going to do with the rest of it?” I said that I would save it for a special occasion, to which he snorted: “Take a look at the cap.” It was a pull tab cap, unlike the Stelvin closure type caps. In other words, in Russia, when you opened a bottle of vodka, you were going to drink the whole thing.

ваше здоровье!

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Beach Sand

My late father was an Ivy League educated research chemist, a bright guy who died way too soon after being ravaged by Alzheimer’s. He was a fun bird in his own way, and knew other bright guys who did interesting research. Perhaps the brightest of all was Dr. Willis Adcock, who worked at the Standard Oil of Indiana research facility at Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the early 1950’s, Adcock left Standard and went to work with a startup in Dallas, Texas. His goal was to take silicon and convert it into a form that could be used by electronics devices. His boss at Standard told him at the time of his departure that he was crazy, which is quite possibly true in the corporate sense.

The electronics of the day used vacuum tubes; radios needed to be “warmed up” as the miniature fires were ignited in their glass cylinders. They would glow with warm tones of orange and purple, electrons flowing from filament to plate, pouring out heat as part of the process. Solid state electronics were on the horizon, but the material of choice in that time was germanium. Silicon had the necessary and desirable properties but a process needed to be developed to properly use the element. It was Adcock who developed that process.

We went to visit Dr. Adcock in the early 1960’s, and he gave us a tour of the facility. The humble little startup of a few years earlier was Texas Instruments. In that day, individual transistors were being manufactured by hand by countless rows of technicians, hand soldering each connection on the little one lung transistors. The most advanced machine in the assembly facility was a testing device, a large unit with a rotating wheel that passed the transistors over contact points that would illuminate a green light if the unit was good or a red light if it was bad.

The other advanced device in the facility was the silicon kiln, where rods of silicon were drawn through 1,400° heat, slowly purifying it, pushing the impurities forward as it went. The process left little concentric rings on the surface of the silicon rod.

I have two souvenirs from our visit, one a single transistor from that day’s production. Below, two vacuum tubes and the transistor that would replace them:

Tubes & a Transistor

Tubes & a Transistor

Of course, the irony is that at that time, the vacuum tubes were a commodity while the transistor was a rare and precious thing, hand made in Dallas, Texas.  With the fullness of time, the transistor has been supplanted by the integrated circuit, with thousands of transistors on its small chip, while the vacuum tubes now enjoy prized status on eBay.

My other souvenir is a section of silicon rod from the “tail” of a production run, which would not fit into the slicing machine:

Silicon Rod "Tail"

Silicon Rod "Tail"

Dr. Adcock handed it to me and said: “Here, this is beach sand. It’s going to change the world.”

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