Archive for the 'Rant' category

The problem with lawyer-driven society in a nutshell

Nov 30 2009 Published by under Politics, Rant, Technology and Society

This post on Boing-Boing includes the following quote that summarizes the pathological extreme of lawyer-driven society, a pathological extreme that we see too often in our current society:

The reason given was that the potential liabilities involved haven't been settled by a definitive SCOTUS ruling. Which is absolutely true, of course. Just as it is true that the risk of exploring the pyramids hasn't been conclusively settled until we've proven that we won't be attacked there by golden unicorns.

In my (admittedly limited) observations, corporate lawyers (which, I believe, represent the vast majority of legal work out there— far more than Perry Mason style courtroom lawyering) exist to do two things.

The first thing they do is try to write contracts and other similar things that grab absolutely as much control for their employer as possible. When dealing with other corporations, they have to battle other lawyers, but when dealing with individuals who can't afford their own phalanx of lawyers, they usually write egregious things like "Terms of Service" on software and severance agreements that include terms nobody who believes in the principles of the United States should agree to, but that we all agree to as a matter of course all the time just because it's become standard operating procedure.

The second, less sinister but just as harmful, thing that they do is sit around and play paranoid. They think of where their company might get into legal trouble, where there might be liabilities, and then they advise their company on policies that will hopefully avert any such potential liabilities. Here, they're doing their job; they're telling companies what could go wrong. The problem is, just as with our reaction to fears of terrorism, in our society we tend to hear about these things going wrong, and squeeze off all sorts of expression and creativity out of paranoia. Or, if sometimes those things do really go wrong, seemingly undermining my calling them "paranoia", they don't really evaluate the cost of the downsides of policies that stop that thing from going wrong again.

Yeah, lots of the things lots of us do, and lots of the things it would be really neat for companies to do, could potentially expose them to all sorts of liabilities. And, yeah, it's useful to have lawyers around to tell them what the laws really are (since, alas, we live in a society where it takes years of training to understand the laws) and where things might go wrong. But then, sometimes, you have to be willing to take risks. Sometimes, you have to say, yeah, there's no case law that says we'll be safe if we do that, but let's try it anyway because the potential benefits could be great.

Too often, though, we don't do that.

Kind of odd for me as a not-risk-taker to be saying this, but I've seen this happen enough times that it just makes me sad that we've taken what should be a service— the advice of lawyers about the state of the law— and have turned it into a gigantic ballast that prevents us from flying.

2 responses so far

*Horrible* service from Sprint; receive text messages, risk getting signed up for additional billing.

Oct 31 2009 Published by under Rant

I noticed on my Sprint cellphone bill that there was an additional $10/month charge for some mobile alert thingy. I believe it's been there for a few months. This happened before, a year or so ago, and it lingered then; a different thing.

I called the Sprint service folks to get this removed and figure out what happened. Well, it turns out that if you receive a text message from one of these services, and you open it up, you might automatically get signed up for the service. Yes! That's just ridiculous. I asked if that could be blocked, and the guy told me he could block all text messages. It turns out that there is no way to receive text messages without risking being signed up for random third party services just by opening that text message. He tried to disclaim any responsibility for Sprint for this, because it's a third party, but of course Sprint is doing the billing for it (and I'm sure Sprint gets some cut for doing the billing). It's just crazy that Sprint isn't able to block this kind of crap without blocking out all text messages.

My wife and I hardly ever use text messages; our plan doesn't even include any free ones, as we only send a couple a month. Now, we'll be sending (and receiving) none....

This may be enough to make me eat the $400 fee it will take to terminate my Sprint service early, if I figure out that there's another cellphone service provider that doesn't have something stupid like this. Sprint did refund me for the last three months of billing for this service; I'll give them that much. But a service that lets you receive text messages which can get you signed up for additional billing just by opening that text message is an insecure service; I don't care how helpful any given customer service representative is, that's a broken company and a broken service.

ADDENDUM: Can you tell I don't use text messaging much? So there is this thing called "Premium Text Messaging", which is the cellphone equivalent of 1-900 numbers. Some legit, probably, the vast majority probably scams like the one we had. It seems that some mobile providers can block just premium text messages without blocking all text messages (i.e. messages from your friends). I cannot figure out if you can do that with Sprint, as they're very unclear on their website. The customer service guy I talked to certainly wasn't clear; he said he was blocking all text messages. When I asked if there was a way to avoid getting signed up for services without having to block all text messages, he said no. That implies to me, in retrospect, that there's no way to block all premium text messages without blocking text messages altogether; you'd think he'd have said something about it when I asked that question. My next task will be to figure out which companies are able to block all premium SMS without blocking all SMS.

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"Other Peoples' Liberals"

Oct 02 2009 Published by under Politics, Rant

As I listen to the Hollywood Elite fall all over themselves defending Roman Polanski, saying how awful it is that he's been apprehended for the 30-year-old crime of rape of a 13 year old (perhaps not involving physical force, but certainly involving drugs and coercion), I'm reminded of a term I use, "Other Peoples' Liberals". This is related to the term "Limousine Liberal" (or even, at times, "Marin County Liberal" if you happen to live in the right place, although that's too broad a brush).

These are the folks who drive SUVs because they have a "legitimate" reason, but decry the fact that so many people drive cars with low gas mileage and destroy the environment. This is Dianne Feinstein, a staunch gun control advocate but who had a concealed carry permit; when confronted, she said she needed it for her protection. This is parents of a friend of mine who was one of the most out gay people I knew. He said that they were all for gay rights in the abstract, but were not happy to find out their son was gay. This was the father of a women I knew in high school, who was all for racial equality, but who expressed some objections when she was dating a black man.

These are people who are all for tolerance and environmentalism, as long as it doesn't require them to disturb their own back yard.

In a word, hypocrites.

To be sure, it's not at all an exclusively liberal thing. It seems that a few months can't go by without our finding out about the extreme illicit sexual adventures of an extreme outspoken conservative "family values" politician. Rush Limbaugh was all no-tolerance on drugs, until all of a sudden he's up on drug charges. Excessively wealthy executives are for the unregulated free market and treat "socialism" as the dirtiest word ever, until all of a sudden their bank is failing and they need government bailouts to survive.

High standards of behavior that everybody else must be held to, but which are clearly too strict when applied to you.

Hypocrisy is universal. As is the ability for people to be able to overcome cognitive dissonance and justify their own bad behavior, and to come to the defense of the people they have chosen to celebrate, even when they themselves or those they celebrate have violated things they would otherwise speak out against vociferously.

We just need to recognize it for what it is, even when the subject is somebody who's produced challenging art and that has been celebrated for that art.

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The other horrors of 9/11

Sep 11 2009 Published by under Fight Terror with Terror, Politics, Rant

Many people will consider this post to be in extremely poor taste.

But there are things that I think that we really need to keep in mind as we're remembering the lessons that we learned, the tragedies and the horrors of 9/11. (And, this won't be the first time I made a post that many considered in poor taste....)

To frame the whole thing, let's start with what I call George W. Bush's most egregious untruth— not a lie, for I don't doubt that he meant it when he addressed the nation on the evening of 9/11, but what in retrospect turned out not to be true:

None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.

What was the legaciy of this moving forward to defend freedom, justice, and goodness?

  • The passage of the PATRIOT Act, rushed through in less than two months, voted on so fast in a political climate where legislators would be viewed in a light similar to how this blog post will be viewed if they voted against it. It was a massive piece of legislation that incorporated all sorts of expansion of powers for law enforcement and limitations in the checks and balances. Many of the things in there would have been the subject of vigorous debate and public scrutiny if they had been proposed individually. Yet, in the climate of "We MUST do something" after 9/11, it was rammed through, and public opinion would have had it no other way.

    And, yet, despite how controversial the authoritanrian tenets of this act should have been in the "land of the free", one senator and only 15% of the House of Representatives voted against it. Many (all?) of those who voted for it hadn't read the act, and I wouldn't be surprised of most of them didn't really know what was in the act they were voting for.

    This kind of "must do something" response is the legacy of 9/11 that I hope we learn the most from. We open ourselves to manipulation from people who would love to pass all kinds of authoritarian laws when we respond in haste and in fear to a horrific event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

  • The Iraq war. Bush & co. were going to go into Iraq anyway. 9/11 made it easy for them. They could frame the whole war in terms of terrorism and defending America. A large proportion of American citizens were led into believing that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though there is absolutely no evidence for that. (The USA Today article I link to cites 70%; other numbers I've seen are closer to 1/3 or 40%. In any event, a significant fraction of Americans believed the lie.). 3,000 people died on 9/11. In Iraq, 4,200 Americans and something like 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. (And we won't even talk about the cost of this war, rushed into, in compraison to, say, any potential cost of a much-reviled universal health care plan.)

    Was Saddam Hussein evil, and did his regime need to go away? Yes. Did the US make a complete mess out of the war, as a result of disastrous misplanning and lack of understanding about rebuilding after Saddam was ousted? Absolutely. I will say that over the last year or so, I've actually been almost optimistic that Iraq may be able to get back on its feet; I had not been for years before that. And, heck, the war in Afghanistan is looking scary now... I can't help but wonder if much of that results from our redirection of focus from that war (which had broad international support) to Iraq long before the Afghanistan war was anywhere near complete.

  • Many US citizens and many US politicians have started to speak out in favor of torture. Why? Fear. Because 9/11 has convinced us that we have to do whatever it takes to fight back against those who would do those sorts of things. Never mind that torture doesn't work and generates bad intelligence. Never mind that it sullies the image of America internationally, gives those who hate America a great reason to hate America, and will only make things harder on Americans who get captured by terrorists. Never mind that it makes us evil that we do it. We want us our revenge. We suffered from the horrors of 9/11, so we want to make sure somebody else suffers in kind. We have seen it be effective week after week in the TV show 24, so we think we're being courageous and doing the hard thing to support it. It makes me sick. I have some hope that perhaps we're going to hold those at the top accountible for the decisions they've made, but for the most part, we're probably going to throw some lower-level scape goats to the dogs as a way of pretending "accountability" while we still debate whether or not we should continue this barbarous and ineffective tactic.

  • The end of due process. OK, that's overstating it; due process still exists. And, as the link at the bottom of this paragraph shows, finally, years later, we're reevaluating what we did and realizing that it was wrong. But there remain lots of ways for the government to work around it when they want to. Hoards of people picked up for the slightest suspicion have wasted away years of their lives in Guantanamo Bay as they are held without trial, without hearing. Yeah, they may not be American citizens, and thus not subject to protection from our authorities by our Constitution, but what of our ideals? What happened to defending freedom and justice? And, indeed, being an American citizen doesn't stop you from being held without due process if the right part of the executive branch declares that you're a material witness, without any proof whatsoever.

There are other things. The general paranoia we have about photography of public places, and how cops and security guards come down with unreasonable suspicion against those who are just taking pictures. The UK's institution of universal surveillance and a lack of law enforcement oversight. The fact that anybody is still paying any attention to Dick Cheney as he tells us we should be torturing away as his administration always did. Folks' laptops being seized, searched, and (effectively) confiscated at national borders without reasonable suspicion, in blatant violation of the spirit of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. The complete squandering of the sympathy and goodwill that the US had in the international community after 9/11 as a result of our aggressive and self-righteous posturing.

I believe it's just a matter of time before some nutcase— be it a terrorist of the 9/11 variety, or a homegrown white guy of the Oklahoma City bombing variety— is able to get his hand on a "weapon of mass destruction" and blow it off in some highly populated area. And, I'm talking something nuclear here (be it a "dirty bomb" or a small nuke or some such), not just an airplane full of jet fuel— because the N-word makes everything so much scarier. And, I have to admit, I despair in the authoritarian rules that will be passed by widespread popular demand, quickly, in response to that.

We should never forget the horrors of 9/11. But we should also never forget the terrible mistakes we made in response to 9/11.

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Physics GRE Considered Harmful

"As presently constituted, it's quite possible that the GRE physics subject test does more harm than good, and we should either fix it, or seriously consider getting rid of it altogether,"

A quote from Jennifer Siders in this article at aps.org, that really we ought to take seriously. I doubt we will, though, because the Physics GRE is well entrenched at most graduate programs across the country, and making changes like that is always tough. Indeed, the article I linked to (as a result of seeing it in Pamela Gay's Facebook status) was written 13 years ago, and yet the Physics GRE is still going strong.

I've been grouchy about standardized tests for some time. When it comes to things like the general GREs and the SATs, I believe that it does correlate with overall academic performance. Whether or not it's testing the right stuff, there seems to be some correlation between what it tests and what we'd really want to test. But, it's not perfect. That is, for (say-- I'm making this number up) 80% of students, the SAT and general GRE might a good indicator of how successful they'll be in college. As such, from a mercenary college admissions' point of view, it's worth keeping using them. Most of the time, they get the right students, and damn but it's really easy to cut down on the number of applications you actually have to put work into thinking about by sorting on a simple number. Of course, from an individual fairness and a humanity point of view, it's pretty sad to think that the other 20% (or whatever) who would have thrived at a certain college aren't even considered because of a bad test....

The Physics GRE, however, has bothered me since I started as an assistant professor. Now, mind you, this is not personal sour grapes. My Physics GRE score back in 1990 was 89th percentile. At the time, I felt a little bad about that; I was one of those geeks who always did well on standardized tests, and thought that I should get over 90% on anything math/science related. Much later, I realized that 89th percentile is damn good for the Physics GRE. I did not personally suffer as a result of the Physics GRE, so I'm not posting this out of bitterness.

But, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. It seems completely unsurprising. In grad school, you do well by doing well at research. Yeah, you have to pass your classes, but even there it's very different from what the Physics GRE tests. The Physics GRE tests your ability to think uberfast (which may be relevant in conference arguments, but is not terribly relevant for most research), your ability to recall things you've memorized, and your ability to quickly go through canned problems about basic physics. It's not completely irrelevant, but it's not testing what is most important about graduate school.

Of course, all the hand-wavy justifications for why it's the wrong test only mean so much. As I said, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. What's more, there's evidence that women who do just as well as men in grad school on average score lower on the Physics GRE. In other words, either because of societal conditioning or because of intrinsic differences, the Physics GRE is more unfair for women, on average, than it is for men. Given that we've got a recruiting and retention problem for women in Physics, we should take this very seriously.

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Sedalia, MI makes Christians look bad

[T-Shirt Image]

You've probably seen this if you follow the science blogosphere at all. The Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, MI has done a forced recall on T-shirts made for their band. Why? Because the T-shirt riffed on the classic "primate turning into human" motif used as a symbol for evolution.

Parents got all upset about this— the shirt didn't even promote evolution, it just referred to it. I can't help but wonder if parents in similarly backward and ignorant communities might object to iconography of Greek mythology on shirts related to sports teams named appropriately? Or, are they smart enough there to recognize that just because somebody used a very recognizable image, it doesn't mean that it's true? Asserting that the Greek gods are real is, of course, anathema to a strict interpretation of Fundamentalist Christianity, just like evolution.

And, of course, there's also the fact that evolution is real. That there was such an uproar that the school had to repossess the shirts really just makes Christians in America look backward, ignorant, and in denial of reality. It gives fuel to the fire of those who would argue that being religious is inconsistent with accepting modern science— for, assuredly, religion is the reason why many Americans refuse to accept modern science. Those who are small-minded and knee-jerk in their reactions to things that challenge their interpretation of their religion go nuts when a school "associates itself" with Evolution. And, in so doing, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to remind the world that religion doesn't necessarily lead to bad science. It's just extreme wingnut religion that does.

The principal of the school repossessed the shirts claiming that the law required the school to remain neutral on the subject of religion. This is, of course, complete bullshit, because the shirt didn't say anything about religion at all. There is a difference between saying anything about religion, and doing something that might offend some religious sensibilities. This argument he makes is essentially the "politically correct" argument. Yes, usually one associates "politically correct oversensitivity" with political forces on the left, but the truth is that this behavior can come from either side of the political spectrum; it's just a matter of which sensibilities they are oversensitive to.

Rejection of Evolution is just as obsolete a religious concept as is the geocentric Solar System. That something like half of the USA doesn't agree with this doesn't make it any less true. If we're going to object to iconography associated with Evolution, we really ought also to reject to any iconography that suggests the planets orbit the Sun.

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To be clear : Linden is full of really stellar people doing really good things.

May 26 2009 Published by under Linden Lab, Rant, Second Life

I do not want my previous post to be interpreted as me disparaging Linden as a whole.  I am not happy with what I see written in the termination agreement right now, but perhaps my unhappiness comes from the fact that I don't speak Lawyer.  Hopefully I'll find out.

To be clear, though, Linden has a collection of really strong people.  I think that people in support and engineering alike get a really bad rap from a lot of residents, blog posts and comments, and sometimes in the media.  Things like this 1000-prim limit on coalesced objects in server 1.26 (that may or may not change in the near future); that's not the Lindens being capricious and  uncaring about residents, it's them trying to deal with real and thorny problems in the second life server.  There are really good, really smart people at Linden trying to make Second Life the best it can be.  It's a hard problem.  I don't agree with everything Linden does or is doing (obviously, because I was fired), but there are great people there.  I had a great working relationship with the vast majority of the people I worked with, and have nothing but great respsect for them.

6 responses so far

I'm with Arlen Specter

Apr 28 2009 Published by under Politics, Rant

Or rather, he's with me, since I ditched the Republican Party something like 6-7 years ago.  He's been a Republican in the Senate forever... and now he's a Democrat.  What's more, the article has this choice quote from Olympia Snow:

But Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a fellow moderate, didn't seem surprised. On the national level, she says, "you haven't certainly heard warm encouraging words of how [the GOP] views moderates. Either you are with us or against us."

As I observed back when Bush took off his "compassionate conservative moderate" mask shortly after the 2000 election, the Republican Party has increasingly become the party of homophobia and creationism.  (And, yes, also of rationalizing incompetence and of torture.  We knew in 2004 that Bush was the Torture President, and yet somehow we re-eledcted him.)  There are a lot of Republicans-- you know, people like Olympia Snow and Arlen Specter-- who have evidently been rationalizing that their party hasn't been taken over by certain extreme cultural elements.  I know people who remained Republicans even though they are fully rational, because they aren't comfortable with a lot of what the Democrats are doing-- but they had to justify, somehow, that their party was more than the face that it has been presenting to the country and the world for the last decade.  That facade may be falling apart.  Anecdotally I know of Republicans who've fled the party because it has gone from being the fiscally conservative party to being the socially oppressive and scientifically ignorant party.  And now we see at least one, and perhaps more to follow, senators who don't want to toe their party's line leaving the party.

It's very sad to me, because by and large people who aren't creationists or who don't hate homosexuals are left with effectively a one-party system.  I don't by any means agree with everything that the Democratic party does.  But the Republican party has too strongly celebrated and mainstreamed parts of it that I simply can't agree with.  It will be interesting to see if Arlen Specter's switch is a wake-up call-- or if Snow will be next, and the Republican party will become increasingly marginalized as a result of having let itself be taken over by its religious extremists.  But we do need more than one rational party in this country; if the Republicans aren't it, I would hope that, somehow, all rational people won't end up at the mercy of the power structure of the Democratic party.

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Obama's speech to the National Acaemy, my failure at my calling, and bad timing

It is a source of continual angst to me that I'm not teaching college physics at a small college.  It's my calling, it's what I'm supposed to be doing.  I sort of made a mistake by going to a research University (that really wanted to be even more of a research University, and was transitioning away from a balance in valuing teaching), but at the time it was the only job offer I had.  If you want to be faculty in physics and astronomy, you're lucky to get in in the first place....  I would have been happy if I could have kept that job.  Alas, I failed, repeatedly, to get NFS (National Science Foundation) funding.  I tried reinventing my research program in an attempt to make something that would better match the preconception of the funding agencies.  Ironically, this was away from Dark Energy.  However, I was the only professor at my institution who was part of a large collaboration, and funding agencies aren't interested in that.  Indeed, astronomy panels (at least 7 or so years ago) were suspicious of large collaborations in general.  But, still, no luck.  And, in my last few years, the knowledge (confirmed repeatedly by my department chair) that no NFS funding meant zero chance for tenure begin to weigh more and more heavily on me, and I became more and more dispirited, which made it increasingly difficult to produce any papers and to get good proposals written.  I was in a death spiral.

A year before I left Vanderbilt, I applied for jobs at small colleges, and got several interviews.  I did get one offer, but sadly, for family reasons, I wasn't able to take the job.  The next year, I applied again, but only got a couple of phone calls, no actual interviews.  Now that I'm out, barring some particularly interesting angle, there's very little chance of my being able to get back in.  There are just too many young hotshots out there with solid research records, no gap, and who aren't already over 40.  This isn't to say it's inconceivable, but I've been on search committees, and I know what happens when they see somebody who's more than 6 years in and not a superstar.

I can't help but wonder, though, if things might have been different if the economy had crashed several years earlier, and if we didn't have a president openly hostile to actual science in the white house.  In a speech to the National Academies, Obama announced that there's going to be a huge increase in the budget for the NSF.  Mind you, only 1 in 6 grants were being funded, so even if it goes to 1 in 3 (which I doubt will really happen, because assuredly some of that NFS doubling will go to various big projects and other "rich get richer" sorts of things), it's still difficult, you still spend a lot of your creative effort banging your head against thew all.  So, I might have had exactly the same outcome.  However, when grants were turned down, sometimes NFS program officers could only say they didn't know what to say, because money was so tight; in previous years, they might have tried to help people applying figure out how to better tune their grants.  At 1 in 6, it was a complete crap shoot.

I can't help but wonder if it might have been different.  If I was, in part, the victim of bad timing.

"A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams." --John Barrymore

The fact that I'm 40 doesn't so much make me feel old.  The fact that I'm 40 and not spending my primary full-time-job creative effort on physics and astronomy, together with a realistic assessment that I'll be able to get back into the sort of faculty job that I want, makes me realize that many (not all) of my primary dreams have in fact been replaced by regrets.

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Grumbling about MidSouthCon's "science" guest of "honor"

Mar 27 2009 Published by under Rant, science & society, Science Fiction

Last weekend I went to MidSouthCon, a medium-small science fiction convention in Memphis, TN.  (Well, Olive Branch, MS, but who's counting).   It was jolly.  I ran a Fudge game, I hung out with friends new and old, I got a T-shirt that mixes the standard model of particle physics with Dr. Seussian poetry.  And, I was a guest myself; I gave a talk about Second Life, and did a live demo of Second Life.  I was also on a panel about "advising the movies", even though I've never actually done that... I have given a talk about how Newton's Laws hold up in science fiction movies and TV, though, which is probably why the event planners put me on that panel.

However, there was one thing that bothered me greatly.  See, they have a number of guests of honor.  Their writer guest of honor was Mike Resnick, and their artist guest of honor was Vincent de Fate, both of whom are truly excellent choices.  But, even though I'm no longer entirely a working scientist, I have to admit to feeling a little insulted that they chose a crackpot for the scientist guest of honor rather than me.  Not that I'm of the stature to deserve an "of honor" position, but at least I'm something of a scientist. I mean, come on people.  It's fine to listen to the crackpots and have fun with them, but calling a UFO Guy the "science guest of honor?"

It's great to have an open mind.  But there is a difference between having an open mind and an open braincase-- that is, open in the way that an open circle is not a filled circle....

What's sad is that a lot of the people who come to these conventions have a lot of interest in science, but don't know a lot about it.  They may have more interest than many in the general public as a result of reading science fiction.  They may also have a tendency to want to believe some more fantastical things like UFOs.  But we can provide some really interesting real science talks that the public loves.  I've given science talks at Hypericon for the last four years, and they've generally been well received.  My talk about the modern picture of the expanding Universe was as mind-blowing as anything that the crackpots come up with, but is also supported by real actual evidence.  It's sad when an opportunity like this is blown on foo-fa and ignorance.

One response so far

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