Techno-Fascism

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In January 2014, for one month, I held a job as a document review attorney in Manhattan. I was a member of a team of 30 attorneys, and we each reviewed about 500 documents a day. This means that 15,000 documents in total were reviewed each day. One day, out of those 15,000, my supervisor (who only had two assistants and was very busy herself) found one document on which I had made a serious mistake, and gave me a talking to about not making that mistake again. I was very embarrassed and promised to do better. But my initial thought was: how did she find my one wrong document out of 15,000? Then I realized: all the documents were stored electronically, and she simply ran a computer search that notified her of which documents contained the error.

My point is simple: there are no needles in haystacks anymore. One document out of 15,000 can be detected using a computerized search, because a computer can read 15,000 documents in a few seconds. If a computer search can find that, what else can it find? A search of every email in the Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook email systems with the word “libertarian” in it? A search of the internet for a list of every libertarian Meetup? Given a set of names from a libertarian mailing list, a list of all addresses? Can you see where I’m going with this? How difficult would it be for a socialist government to round up all the libertarians? Using computers, a government could find us. Using computers, it could monitor every email and every phone call, so that we could never organize any resistance. Using computers, it could even do profiling to identify the people whose personalities would make them sympathetic to liberty, and add those supporters to a list before they made a move to act or even knew what libertarianism is. What Ellsworth Toohey said about “future Roarks,” namely, that they will all be destroyed, comes to mind.

Look at your smartphone. Does it have a webcam? Yes. Is it GPS enabled so it can give you driving directions? Yes. But how easy would it be for a government to turn on that webcam and direct a permanent video feed from your device to a government monitoring station? And to keep a constant record of where you go, every minute of every day? And could the government do it by issuing secret orders to Google and Apple, and to Microsoft, which controls the smartphone operating systems, so that your own device spied on you without your knowledge? I can tell you that your smartphone could easily be turned into a chain around your leg. If 300 million smartphones were so converted, the data could be sent to computers that, as I described above, could analyze the data for trends useful in detecting rebels — for instance, by listening for a conversation including such keywords as “freedom” or “rebel,” or noticing when you go to a place where libertarians are believed to meet in secret. 1984 is a real possibility, though a little late in 2014.

The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment.

Advances in technology bring great joy. But they also bring danger, especially when the advancement of politics lags far behind. Einstein’s work revolutionized physics; it also led to the nuclear bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Similarly, I fear that the rise of computer technology, in the hands of a dictator, could lead to “techno-fascism.” The dictator would not need spies, because cameras and sensors, analyzed by computers, would detect all traces of resistance, and tell the secret police exactly where to go to crush rebellion before it started. Under all dictatorships of the past, rebels could meet in secret, make plans, and try to revolt, because spies could not be everywhere. Now they can be.

The fact that there are no needles in haystacks anymore was actually visualized in Batman: The Dark Knight, where, toward the end of the movie, Batman uses the Bat Computer to hack into Gotham’s cell phones and eavesdrops to locate the Joker. If, in this way, the government spied on people in the name of safety and fighting crime, then the public might let it happen, until it was too late to reverse the practice.

Well, if doom awaits, what do we do? The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment. Read it. In the modern era, no charter of civil liberty is more crucial. We must fight to protect the Fourth Amendment, and to use it in courts.

Meanwhile, we can expect spies to spy on other spies. Because there are no needles in haystacks anymore, every side can see what the other sides are doing. The techno-fascist wants to spy on others while remaining invisible himself, but this is impossible; everything is visible in the world of Big Data.




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In Defense of Intellectual Property

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Libertarianism can be different things to different people. Trying to define it, or characterize it, will leave some libertarians at odds with one another. What follows will isolate me from most libertarians. It is a defense of intellectual property rights (IPR) based on the thesis that there is no normative distinction between IPR and real property rights (RPR). I will use Butler Shaffer's short polemic for the Mises Institute, "A Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property," as my primary foil as it encapsulates many of the arguments against IPR that libertarian thinkers embrace.

Where Shaffer ends I will begin. At the end of his polemic he boils down his rejection of IPR on the ground that a libertarian cannot endorse a right that is created and enforced by the state. The premise that IPR are created by the state is false, while the premise that IPR should be rejected because they are enforced by the state is unpersuasive. This essay will unfold in three parts, with the first demonstrating why Shaffer’s first premise is false, the second section demonstrating why his second premise is unpersuasive, and the third section confronting other objections to IPR.

Section I: Intellectual Property Rights are not created by the state

The only means through which one may defend RP, and not IP, is to say that the manner in which man exerts ownership over RP has nothing to do with his mind. RP and IP are both products of the same process, even though they take different forms. It doesn’t require a great imagination to see this, but because it is an unfamiliar formulation I will elaborate by means of a familiar source: John Locke. A Lockean justification of private property provides a sound defense of IPR by building through a property of conscience.

Unless we assume that man’s arms and legs move without cognition, man’s labor is a product of his mind.

In chapter 5 of his Second Treatise on Government Locke gives his seminal account of property rights. It runs thus: man alone is in possession of himself, and through his drive and ingenuity he extends his dominion beyond himself. Man is in possession of himself because no other individual gave him his will, conscience, or abilities; thus, no one else can exert dominion over him except that to which he consents.

Man takes possession of property when it lies in common and he mixes his labor with it. Simply put, if there is unowned property available, and someone takes it out of its natural state by mixing his labor with it, that property becomes his so long as there is enough left over for others to sustain themselves, for that man has no right to deprive others of providing for themselves. An acorn becomes mine if it is lying on the ground or staying in the tree, and I take it out of its natural state by mixing my labor with it — plucking it from the tree or picking it up from the ground. The mixing of labor makes it mine because that acorn is no longer what it had been. My labor made it something that it had not previously been, by virtue of my efforts. This means that nobody else can stake a claim to it without depriving me of the fruits (or nuts, in this case) of my labor.

The Lockean argument gets a bit more complicated, but in terms of how common property becomes private, this is it. That is why Locke and his intellectual heirs consider private property paramount for the preservation of liberty, for there is no real distinction between man and his property, since property is nothing more than the extension and physical manifestation of a man's liberty.

As it relates to IP, a Lockean position is easy to extract. Unless we assume that man’s arms and legs move without cognition, man’s labor is a product of his mind. Without cognition I would not cut down trees and build a shelter, nor would I engage in any productive activity that would lead to property ownership. Whether it’s writing a book or building a widget, property originates from man’s will and ability to produce.

If the process by which IP is protected is conducted poorly, that is simply the government doing a necessary job poorly and not evidence that the job is unnecessary.

James Madison has a more expansive, and sometimes confusing, articulation of property rights, but he understands them as Locke does. Madison uses property to describe what man possesses within himself (what Locke would call will or labor), and those external objects that become man's possessions through the mixing of himself with them (land, hogs, etc.). This formulation is articulated by Madison in a 1792 essay entitled "Property." Madison writes:

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions. Where there is an excess of liberty, the effect is the same, tho' from an opposite cause. Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

We may conclude that protecting property, broadly understood, is the sole object of government for both Madison and Locke.

Somebody stealing my IP is the same as someone stealing my RP, particularly if IP is what I use to make a living. If the market for my book is 10,000 people, then someone who resells my book, or makes 10,000 copies it and sells them without my permission, has shrunk the market for me, the originator and creator of the book. This is no different from someone breaking into my shop and stealing 10,000 widgets and selling them on the black market when the market for the widget is 10,000 people. In either instance my ability to make a living through my labor has been denied by someone who illegitimately used the product of my labor without my consent. In simple terms: my right to life, liberty, and property has been denied. Nothing gives someone else the right to capitalize on my labor without my consent, for without my labor that product would not be in existence. These considerations give me sole ownership of the property if we follow the Lockean formulation of property rights.

Section II: Rights and the State

It is not a defect of IP that it needs the government to enforce it; it is the fault of libertarians if they cannot accommodate a necessary and just idea, such as IP, without government enforcement. If libertarians reject IP on the ground that it needs government to enforce it, then we have not evaluated IP on its merits but merely through a heuristic defined by ideology rather than logic.

If the process by which IP is protected is conducted poorly, that is simply the government doing a necessary job poorly and not evidence that the job is unnecessary. The focus should be on how to correct what’s wrong, not how to eradicate protections for property. Government is legitimate when it protects life, liberty, and property, and illegitimate when it does not. That does not mean that life, liberty, and property are illegitimate ends when the government does a poor job protecting them. To reject the ends because the means are faulty is a logical error.

Furthermore, libertarians who embrace RP cannot reject IP on enforcement grounds, for RP also requires government enforcement. Perhaps in idealized settings, or at least in smaller, more communal settings than the current nation-state model, RP would not require the government for protection. But we don’t live in those scenarios and must therefore recognize the reality of the situation. We can certainly debate the degree to which the government protects RP well, the means through which it does so, and the externalities associated with government protection of RP, but I don’t think anyone would say that if the police in every city were shuttered up tomorrow, crime would be reduced significantly the following day. In today’s reality, RP requires government protection just as IP does. Thus, unless one is willing to reject RP on these grounds one cannot also reject IP for the same reason.

Section III: Remaining Objections and Rebuttals

Shaffer objects to those who say that IPR promote creativity by protecting the products of one’s creative endeavors. It is true that IPR do not make me more creative, but IPR protection may provide incentives for creative activities rather than other activities that would be more profitable. If I am a musician who is unable to profit from my music because others can steal my ideas, I will have to find another job. This doesn’t prevent me from being creative, but it does reduce my incentive to do so and it impedes my ability to dedicate the necessary time to creative endeavor.

Shaffer uses the Roman aqueducts and the Egyptian pyramids as examples of human achievements in ingenuity and creativity that occurred without IPR. What Shaffer fails to acknowledge is that these were state-sponsored projects that would not have been realized without financing and organization from a large state. Similarly, while Michelangelo did not require IPR to produce his art he did require a wealthy patronage to support him and his products financially. IPR is one reason we no longer have to rely upon a patronage system in the arts and literature.

We must not deny producers security in their life, liberty, and property for fear that the authority we must rely upon to do so may turn against it.

Shaffer endorses the claim by Paul Feyerabend that “science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise” to demonstrate that an open exchange of ideas is beneficial for scientific and artistic achievement. But the passage from Feyerabend goes on to stipulate that “theoretically anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.” Shaffer conveniently ignores the operative term “theoretically” and thus fails to explore the reality of our world and defaults to the theoretical without acknowledging having done so. Shaffer, and all those who endorse stripping producers of their ownership rights, should recognize that producers have bills to pay and those who steal their products deprive them of their ability to provide for themselves through the outcomes of their labor. Moreover, thieves do exist, and having a means to guard against them is necessary albeit unfortunate.

Conclusion

In practical and theoretical terms there is no meaningful distinction between real property and intellectual property. If libertarians accept government protections for real property then they must too accept them for intellectual property if consistency is to be maintained.

I am sympathetic to the concern that when we ask the government to protect us it enfeebles us potentially and opens the door for the government to inch into other areas of our lives. But, the potential does not have to be realized if we do not permit it. It is possible to restrain and confine the government to those means and ends that we think most appropriate. Thus, we must not deny producers security in their life, liberty, and property for fear that the authority we must rely upon to do so may turn against it. We must instead opt for just government rather than reject it outright until such a time comes that we live in a world of entirely honest men and women.

With the permission of the author, a reply to this essay has been invited from Wayland Hunter; it is available here.




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That Instructive Tone

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Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”

I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”

They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.

Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:

WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.

A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.

But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.

Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.

Hagel said:

Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.

Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?

Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:

Wars are messy.

There’s always suffering through [sic] war.

War is not some abstraction.

War is always about human beings.

War is a dirty business.

And just to keep the troops happy:

There’s no glory in war.

What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?

Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.

Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.

In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.

Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!

If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.

But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.

Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.

Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?

Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”

That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.

In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.

But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”

Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”

So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”

“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”

“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”

I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.




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Farmers of Men

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When people use the term “the homeless,” they make them sound like a leper colony of the damned, invaders from outer space, or some sort of creeping fungus. This attitude dehumanizes homeless people. Which is highly ironic, since those most likely to use the term see themselves as brimming with compassion. How can people be recognized as human beings if they aren’t viewed as individuals? Yet almost never do I get the sense, from those who decry the plight of “the homeless,” that they visualize real faces or remember actual names.

We’ve been getting a number of homeless people at church. The sudden influx is startling. One lady brings her four little dogs. She has nowhere to leave them except in the yard of our parish house, next door to the sanctuary. She sits in a pew, slightly off by herself, and soaks up the liturgy the way a flower soaks up sunshine. We are a progressive church — we Care About The Homeless. But nobody seems to know quite what to do with her.

When we hand over to the government the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands.

Some are baffled that she’s got four dogs, when she probably struggles daily just to feed herself. They evidently fail to realize that the dogs may be the only living souls that show her unconditional affection, or perhaps any affection at all. Being one of those annoying people who get big ideas, I have several times wondered aloud what we might do to help our homeless guests. And I mean, really help them — not just go through a few motions to make ourselves feel better. Every time I do this, I get looks of horror.

Then comes the inevitable litany of “we can’ts.” We can’t give them hot meals, baskets of groceries, job referrals, or affordable housing. We are not, after all, a soup kitchen, a food bank, or a social service agency. But I’m pretty sure that though they may not know this the first time they come, it doesn’t take long for them to figure it out. If they keep coming back — as some do — they may actually want the same things out of the experience as the rest of us.

The homeless aren’t as different from us as I suspect we want to think they are. How did we ever come to think of them as a different species? As something alien, strange, and potentially dangerous?

I suspect it began to happen about the time we decided to hand all responsibility for the care of the unfortunate over to the government. It became Someone Else’s Problem — not our own. We tell ourselves we’ve done this because we’re so compassionate, but actually it has made us considerably less so. We have merely pushed the needy out of sight and out of mind, lulling our consciences to sleep with the narcotic delusion that Someone Else can do our caring for us.

We have no evidence, however, that the government overflows with compassion. And when we hand over to it the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands. Once we surrender anything to the state, it never wants to give it back, and certainly resents having to share it.

Much ado is currently being made about how persecuted conservative Christians are when the state does not mandate mass compliance with their beliefs. That this seems to be the highest purpose to which they think the Gospel calls them does not strike them as the least bit odd. But the same government they want to enforce their dictates has taken away much of their ability to minister to the needy. A duty they have surrendered, for the most part, without a whimper.

This past winter, when much of the country was gripped with arctic cold, a number of churches brought homeless people into their buildings to keep them from freezing. In more than a few cases, this may have made the difference between life and death. Now, one might think this was exactly what churches are supposed to do. But several municipal governments thought otherwise.

When we farm the homeless out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human.

Where were the cries of religious persecution, from the Right-wing Umbrage Industry, when these cities ordered churches that were sheltering homeless people to turn them out into the streets, threatening them with hefty fines if they refused to comply? I certainly didn’t hear any, and since I pay close attention to such matters, I listened for them.

Perhaps the best thing we can do for the homeless among us is really to see them as people — and I mean, before they turn into blocks of ice we must step over on the sidewalk. When we farm them out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human. Given the fact that it’s more likely to care for stray dogs or cats than for homeless people, it treats them as even less than animals.

The only way we can treat homeless people as people is to take back our responsibility to care what happens to them. When they come through the doors of our churches, we can recognize them as spiritual beings, who hunger for more than food. They need to know that they are valuable. That it matters whether they find a warm place to belong, or rot into oblivion in a gutter. This, no government can give them, and when we farmed out the responsibility for their care, all understanding of their deeper needs got lost.

Today we clamor, like baby birds, for the government to give us goodies. Our dependence has bred a malignant narcissism, in which we identify primarily as members of some grievance group to be appeased. The very convictions that form our core we see as somebody else’s responsibility to ensure. But the government cannot give us our souls; it can only take them. It’s high time we took them back.




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The Babies are Booming

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According to the Census Bureau, a government agency and therefore one of the sources from which all knowledge proceeds, the post-World War II baby boom lasted from 1946 to 1964. I squeaked in right at the tail end of it. This meant I missed the good stuff: the Summer of Love, Woodstock, all the best riots. Roseanne Conner well summarized what the era meant for those lucky enough to have been born earlier: “Well . . . there was a war going on! Everything was just a lot more fun!”

When I was little, there was a Saturday morning cartoon about the Beatles. I was very surprised when I found out they were real people. In 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was shot, I was genuinely confused. Having already heard quite a lot about the Kennedy assassination, I didn’t see how it could happen to the same man twice.

I like these kids. They don’t take anything at face value. When they spot an injustice, they capture it on their ever-present smartphones and send it into viral immortality.

Those were chaotic, frightening, fascinating years to be a kid. Though I was only 7 when the decade ended, the spirit of freedom had gotten into my blood. I couldn’t wait to become a teenager and do all the great things that had made youth so exciting for my sister and the older siblings of my friends. But high school throbbed to the inane beat of disco, and in my college years, former flower children advised me that all the fun was over, so if I really wanted to have a meaningful life, I’d need to make piles of money. Our elders would yell at me and my friends about “you kids” and how horrible we were — not because of anything we’d ever done, but because of the antics of those who’d gotten there before us. They kept vigil over us like vultures, just to make sure we never got to do any of it.

Eversince the ’60s crashed into the ’70s and burned to cinders, the baby boomers have been pining for the era’s rebirth. When each new generation comes of age, they urge the youngsters to restart the revolution. The boomers are getting old, but their hope remains forever young.

They think they may be seeing the resurrection among the “millennials.” I agree, but I doubt the wilting flower children will recognize themselves in the current crop. The spirit animating today’s youth is one that the oldsters long ago disowned.

According to one of those ancient sayings the boomers love to quote, we can never step into the same river twice. As a fresh generation sets out to reform the world, it looks very different from what’s been expected by those who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War. These aren’t the children of the GIs who battled tyranny overseas; they’re the grandchildren of those children. The boomers pretty much depleted the store of goodies lavished upon them, and left little for those who come after. Today’s youngsters have to make their own breaks.

I see the Age of Aquarius as a time of promise yet to be fulfilled, though I disagree with the boomers about what that might mean. They evidently imagined it would signal the complete takeover of society by a big, benevolent government, run by Those Who Know Best. There’s always been a strain of that in their thinking. They seem to have forgotten that all through the ’60s, running parallel to that river was one of an altogether different color.

Whatever happened to the maxim that all authority should be questioned? What happened to a wide-eyed inquiry into the world, which accepted no truth secondhand? I haven’t seen very much of that until lately, but more and more I see it in today’s youth. I’m happy to say I probably won’t turn into one of the sour old people who grouse about “those kids.” When I spend time around teens and twenty-somethings, I come away feeling hopeful.

I like these kids. They don’t take anything at face value. They’ve been using computers since they were in diapers, and they connect to each other, via the Internet, with a facility that seems almost occult. Nobody’s going to put anything over on them. When they spot an injustice, they capture it on their ever-present smartphones and send it into viral immortality.

They’re not much impressed because some tired, graying frauds burned their draft cards 40 years ago. Haven’t these same onetime antiwar crusaders complacently permitted a war to drag on in the Middle East for over a decade? A war that has taken the lives and limbs of many in the millennial generation? That war was, evidently, only bad when a Republican was Commander-in-Chief. Since its headship switched parties, there’s been nary a grump from Gramps.

Today the Boomers as likely to reminisce about the cool concerts they attended as they are about the protests in which they marched. Many never showed up at the protests at all.

Kids have a built-in BS detector. They can see through a sham. I always wondered why the big kids had so many obviously great ideas, but squandered every chance to make themselves coherently heard. They never seemed to decide whether they wanted to drop out or fit in. Whether to change the world, get laid, or get stoned.

Today they’re as likely to reminisce about the cool concerts they attended as they are about the protests in which they marched. Many never showed up at the protests at all. Getting their heads busted would have been a bummer. Better to let government change the world. As they surrendered more and more of their self-confidence to Big Brother, they settled into a state of complacency they’ve never left.

This hardly seems the same bunch who gave us “Alice’s Restaurant.” Alice has closed her doors and boarded the windows. Perhaps her grandkids will reopen the place as an Internet café. If they do, I’ll be at the corner table.

Maybe it took a kid’s eyes to see the promise of the ’60s clearly. I was too young to get laid, or stoned, or to go to any of the really far-out concerts. I’m just old enough to remember.




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The Road to Potential

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How I hate the word “potential”! While acknowledging innate abilities with faint praise, it reeks of withering disappointment, talents wasted, opportunities lost.

Transcendence is a film with tremendous potential.

It begins with a talented cast of discriminating actors that includes Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Bettany. (OK, scratch Morgan Freeman from the list of “discriminating actors.” Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become as ubiquitous as Michael Caine.) Add a postapocalyptic setting, an army of zombified robotic post-humans, a love story that transcends death, and the time-honored “collision between mankind and technology.” Mix in some dialogue about challenging authority and questioning the meaning of life, and create a metaphor suggesting the thirst for power in the form of the World Wide Web. It seems like the perfect formula for an exciting sci-fi thriller.

Yet Transcendence barely gets off the ground. The story, about terrorists who attack the world’s computer hubs simultaneously in order to stop the Internet, should be powerfully engaging, but it lacks any building of tension or suspense. Instead it is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a computer programmer working on ways to heal the planet through nanotechnology. When terrorists attack his computer lab and infect him with deadly radiation poison, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his research partner Max (Paul Bettany) convince him to let them upload his consciousness onto a hard drive that will allow his sentient self to continue to live within the machine. It’s an interesting concept that ought to cause one to reflect on what makes us human: is it the physical body of flesh and bones that can move and act? Or is it the non-physical collection of memories, thoughts, and personality? Many people have had their heads cryogenically frozen after death, in hopes that someday their minds can be restored within a synthetic body and they can regain life. But that isn’t what this movie is about.

“Transcendence” is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

The plan works, and Will speaks from the computer screen after his death. However, Max immediately and inexplicably regrets having uploaded Will to the machine, so he joins forces with the terrorists (who also join forces with the government — it’s hard to keep all the factions and their motivations straight) to stop Will from doing what he was uploaded to do. Meanwhile, Evelyn joins forces with Will and together they build a solar power grid in an isolated Nevada desert to give Will enough juice to mingle with every scintilla of the Internet.

Yes, this makes Will omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And that’s a definition of God, right? Will is treated like God’s evil twin, set on sucking up all the power in the universe (there’s that metaphor of the power grid.) But he doesn’t do anything evil. He doesn’t steal power from others; he creates his own from the sun — and he pays the Nevada residents a good wage to work for him. He doesn’t kill anyone, destroy anything, or even growl menacingly. In fact, he uses his power to refine his work in nanotechnology, and soon he is able to heal the blind, make the lame walk, and restore life to those who have been killed. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is godlike too.) As they are healed, his new followers become like him — imbued with the Internet and able to communicate with Will through his spirit — that is, the Cloud.

This storyline has the potential for being eerie and scary, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but Will’s followers don’t do anything wrong either, and they aren’t at all zombie-like. They are just humans who once were disabled and now can see, walk, lift, run, hear, and produce. How is that different from living with a pacemaker or a titanium hip, and carrying around a smart phone that keeps one constantly connected to the Internet? Nevertheless, the government is determined to take them out, simply because they are now created in Will’s image and have the ability to communicate worldwide.

All of this has the potential for philosophical discussion, but I had to use all my creativity as a literature professor to reach the potential message I’ve described here. The message is beyond subtle — so subtle, in fact, that I think it went over the director’s own head. I’m not sure what he intended to suggest, except possibly that the collision between mankind and technology is usually good for a studio green light. I doubt that he was even aware of the potential metaphor or deeper meaning of the film he created.

Ah. There’s that word again. “Potential.” A film that had transcendent potential is instead fraught with withering disappointment, wasted talent, and lost opportunities. Insomniacs will love it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister. Alcon Entertainment, 2014, 119 minutes.



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Pigs R Us

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Responding to President Obama’s January 17 speech about intelligence gathering (i.e., spying on people), some anti-NSA activists opined: "Rather than dismantling the NSA's unconstitutional mass surveillance programs, or even substantially restraining them, President Obama today has issued his endorsement of them. . . . The speech today was 'historic' in the worst sense. It represents a historic failure by a president to rein in mass government illegality and violations of fundamental rights." The madcap Julian Assange commented: "I think it's embarrassing for a head of state like that to go on for almost 45 minutes and say almost nothing.”

For once I agree with the supposed progressives (although Assange could have made the same remark about any of Obama’s speeches). The president has no interest in restraining any aspect of government. In this he resembles his immediate predecessor, and the resemblance is becoming uncanny. From government stimulus of “the economy” (i.e., state employees, welfare recipients, and phony capitalists) to government interference with education to government intervention in foreign wars, Obama has been enthusiastically devoted to Bush’s causes and Bush’s ways of working. The difference is that he has been less “transparent” about how he carries on his work.

While listening to Obama’s monotonous, empty speeches, one often feels one’s mind wandering, just as one felt one’s mind wandering while one tried to listen to Bush. You find yourself doing things you seldom do. You dust that odd place behind the DVDs. You inspect the carpet to see if the edges need repair. You see if you’ve got enough cards to send next Christmas. Sometimes you lapse into fantasy. In recent weeks, I’ve been picturing myself on the last page of Animal Farm, where Clover wonders why everything seems “to be melting and changing.” How is it that when you look at the purported animals and the purported men, it’s impossible to say which is which?




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Progress and Poverty

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I remember R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, testing a new keyboard by typing out, “Good news — the depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” Anyone else would have written, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But Bill liked news, and when he could find it, good news.

So I want to begin with some good news. The year now ending witnessed significant reductions in the rates of certain linguistic crimes. And since “law enforcement agencies” (a.k.a. cops) always take credit for any accidental lowering of a crime rate, this column gladly takes credit for these reductions. Congratulations, Word Watch.

After years of pointing out that “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you might too hastily assume it means (the prompting of an inquiry) — that it means, instead, a species of logical fallacy (arguing in a circle, using a proposition to prove itself) — I am happy to find that many public speakers now realize where the trap door is hidden, and do their best to avoid it. The people on Fox News practically break their necks getting to the other side. They used to put “that begs the question” in every other sentence, and always in the wrong way. No more. Now, just when you see that they’re dying to say it, there’s a pause, a deep breath, and a slow rephrasing: “That . . . uh . . . poses the question”; “That . . . leads to the question”; “That . . . makes me want to ask you . . .” Somebody obviously told them to read Liberty.

After years of hammering away at the ridiculous idea that President Obama is a great, or even a good, writer and speaker (a hammering that could be heard as recently as last month’s Word Watch), I am gratified by some faint signs that conservatives don’t always feel obliged to begin their denunciations of an Obama utterance by saying, “Despite his soaring rhetoric,” or “The president’s actions are not as inspiring as his words.” They should be saying, “Despite his bathetic attempts at rhetoric” and “not as insipid as his words,” but that may come later, when pundits learn the existence of “bathetic” and “insipid” — in short, when they read Word Watch more often.

The great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy.

And after years of insisting that celebrity is not the same as significance, or even fame, I find curious indications that Word Watch may be exerting some influence on the crude but candid (i.e., free) media. I refer, for instance, to the reader comments that appeared on TMZ, following the death of Paul Walker. Walker was an action film star. He liked fast cars. On November 30, he was killed in a speeding car that went out of control and hit a light pole. It was a horrible accident, and the reader comments on TMZ were appropriately sympathetic. But they were more. They were self-dramatizing in a way that has become predictable after every death of anyone who might conceivably be regarded as a public figure. Hundreds of readers proclaimed themselves devastated with grief on behalf of Walker, his family, and his friends — people with whom these readers had no acquaintance whatever. Finally, someone had had enough. “Sorry,” he wrote, “RIP, our prayers are with the family, etc.....who is he?”

It’s a good thing that TMZ, like Word Watch, exists in cyberspace, or there would have been mob violence. But somebody had to point out that heartfelt feelings are often nothing but words.

Celebrity is fleeting, and even authentic feelings pass away, but some things never leave us. Word Watch can’t do anything about them. For God’s sake, even the second George Bush is back. He is daily proclaimed “more popular than President Obama.” When you think of it, this isn’t saying much. But now he is being cited as a film authority — and in the most gruesomely authoritative way. In late November, ads appeared for a movie called The Book Thief, and these ads said, “The critics are raving . . . . And President George Bush raves, ‘It’s a truly wonderful movie.’” He certainly put a lot of energy into that one. Not only wonderful but truly wonderful. But what truly conveys the feeling of the perpetual, the eternal, the Egyptian pyramidal, is that word “raves.” Raves. The expression has screamed at me from every film ad I have ever had to sit through. The critics are raving. Even a former president is raving. And as always, the New York Times raves. They’ve all gone crazy together.

Well, let them. We’re used to it. But must we get used to the steady seep of ignorance into the foundations and concrete basements of our language? I know you have your own examples; here are three of mine:

1. The effort to make “which” a universal connective: “I bought a new place in Vista Hills, which I didn’t realize the taxes were so high.”

2. The loss or mangling of strong verbs, and the creation of dumb replacements for them. It’s bad enough to hear that “the suspect spit,” not spat, “at the arresting officer”; but must we hear “spitted at him”? And why can’t people realize that the past tense of “fit” is “fitted,” but the past tense of “shit” is “shat”?

3. The growing movement to ignore the rules about comparatives and superlatives, whenever their use requires a split second of thought. Example: a journalist on Greta van Susteren’s show, commenting (December 10) on the latest Quinnipiac poll about Obama: “It’s on healthcare that people are ranking him the most low.” Most low? The superlative of “low” is ”lowest.” Is that too hard? Yes, if you can’t figure out what to do when an adjective gets two words away from its noun.

“Most low” exemplifies a general problem — people’s increasingly evident inability to keep track of their sentences. Leland Yeager, a friend and expert advisor of this column, has collected many instances of the problem, including offerings by such respectable journals as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Try these exhibits from the Yeager museum of unnatural history:

“A key benefit to [sic] offshore wind power is the lower rate of wind turbulence at sea vs. on land” (WSJ, June 19, 2008). As Yeager suggests, why not just write, “A key advantage of offshore wind power is less wind turbulence at sea than on land”? But here is early documentation of an illiteracy that continues to spread: the use of “versus” (“vs.”) to mean “than.” What next — “My kid is smarter vs. your kid”?

Commentators “take great pride in emphasising how much more sophisticated civilization was in Japan in the 11th century compared with Europe at that time” (Economist, Dec. 20, 2008). It doesn’t take much to compete with the medieval West. But what exactly is being “compared” — “the 11th century” and “Europe”? No, it’s supposed to be . . . let’s see . . . it must be levels of sophistication in Japanese and European civilizations in the 11th century. Commentators apparently like to emphasize the idea that in the 11th century Japan was more sophisticated than Europe.

That’s one way of reforming the sentence, and you can easily think of many others — none of which occurred to the writer. But there are sentences that just make you want to give up and head for the bar. If you have any interest in economics, you’ve seen too many sentences like this one, which Yeager recovered from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (Sept.-Oct. 2008):

But the embedded leverage in these products meant that end-investors were often buying assets with much greater risk characteristics compared with the underlying pool of mortgages, credit card debts, or loans than they might suppose.

Do scholarly journals still have editors?

Still, the great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy: always ignorant, always talking, always striving to influence, always striving, simultaneously, to obscure the truth. The Obamacare fiasco has born teeming litter after teeming litter of repulsive words. Any example will do, but let’s look at a little missive by the irrepressible Julie Bataille, director of communications, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (November 22, 2013). Remember, as you read, that she is a director of communications.

“Today,” she begins, “Jeff Zients [the wizard that Obama appointed to clean up the mess he had made of the merry old land of Oz] offered an update on our efforts to improve HealthCare.gov; data on key metrics on site performance, the progress made this week and the view looking forward.”

Already you know you’re in trouble. You know that Bataille has no intention of rushing forward with any facts. If she did, she would say up front what’s wrong with the site, instead of tucking “site performance” into a box called “metrics,” tucking that box into one called “data,” and tucking that one into an “update” that was “offered” by somebody else. How about just giving us the data? We know that an update on “progress” assumes that progress has been made — but that’s the topic of debate, isn’t it? Could Bataille be begging the question? Clearly, she is a very bad writer. She’s going to give us nothing but happy talk, and the happy talk will consist of slick-sounding clichés, such as the progressive “view looking forward.” Turning worse into worst, she will mangle those clichés. To her, a “view” looks.

As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time?

“In late October,” she continues, “we appointed QSSI as the general contractor to deploy their expertise in technology and program management to lead this project forward.”

So. Since late October, when the nation, as distinguished from Ms. Bataille, realized that Obamacare was a hideous disaster, something called QSSI has been leading the project forward. (There’s that word again.) But how is that leading accomplished? What’s been happening? Oh, it’s all very technical. Let’s just say that the company (singular), here regarded as they (plural), deploy their expertise. Expertise, one gathers, is like an army. Division 1: Attack that defective code! Division 2: You’re in reserve; wait behind the hill. Division 3: Lift the siege of Fort Obama!

“The team from QSSI continues to work with people from CMS [can’t have enough acronyms] and other contractors around the clock [can’t have enough clichés, either] to troubleshoot the system, prioritize fixes, and provide real-time management decision making.”

So you can “troubleshoot” a “system,” can you? I suppose, then, you can “troubleshoot” almost anything. “Hey, honey, I just wanta troubleshoot ya.” OK. But I draw the line at prioritizing fixes. It just sounds so gruesome. As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time? Maybe that’s what went wrong with Obama . . .

We haven’t reached the end of Bataille’s memo — that’s a very long way off — but we have reached the climax, which she has cleverly deployed in the middle. And this is it:

“Thanks to this team effort, we have made measurable progress.”

Measurable progress.Let’s consider how such phrases might work in real time.

Automobile passenger: “Hey, what’s the speed limit, anyway? Seems like we’re going awful slow.”
Automobile driver: “No, we are making measurable progress.

Airline seat holder: “How long before we get to Cleveland?”
Airline attendant: “We are making measurable progress, sir.”

Employer: “When do you expect to get that project done?”
Employee: “I am making measurable progress.”
Employer: “You’re fired.”

Bataille’s communication, horrible as it seems, is a fair sample of the words oozing out of Washington. If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered: do people who write this kind of prose actually think the way they write? Are they just prowling across their keyboard, trying to find enough words to bamboozle everybody else, or does it all come spontaneously and sincerely to them? When their car breaks down, do they look for expertise that can be deployed? When the guy from Triple A arrives, do they reflect that measurable progress is now being made? Which alternative is more terrible to contemplate — that kind of cunning or that kind of sincerity?




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Back in the Lab

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chambers sciencechambers science




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Have You Tried Turning It Off and On Again?

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The following is a printout that fell from a garbage truck on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC when it ran over a protesting veteran.

[Welcome to the USA online support help chat. A representative will assist you shortly.]

[User BarryH is requesting support.]

[Agent PublicSupport is now online.]

PublicSupport: Hi, how can I help you?

BarryH: My government doesn't work.

PublicSupport: Can you describe the error?

BarryH: It has stopped running. Well, 85% of it still runs, but the rest is frozen.

PublicSupport: What did you do last?

BarryH: Nothing! Well, almost. I loaded the application ObamaCare while I had no more free space in my deficit, and the legislative branch went berserk. I should have gotten rid of it.

PublicSupport: One moment while I investigate . . .

BarryH: Well?

PublicSupport: It appears that the system is working as designed. This happened many times already, and users were not complaining. Have you checked the original specifications?

BarryH: Your specifications? You mean that old, musty, handwritten thing that starts with "We the people"? Couldn't read it, I threw it out.

PublicSupport: That's the source of your problems right there.

BarryH: So what? I won. Make it work.

PublicSupport: A new legislative branch is on its way. Estimate time of arrival is 2014. You might not like it. [End of transmission]

[User PublicSupport left the conversation in utter disgust.]

BarryH: What? Hello? Are you there? . . . Hello? . . .




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