Terence Yorks
presents more of a blog variant


The Ruffled Grouse looks at life

These are more dated drafts, without full polishing, so expect errors in both content and details of execution. For more finished work, please refer to my formal publications page.

The latest rough rants are at current blog.

The content of the following does not reflect the point of view of any known institution (if it does, please let me know; I need to get in contact with them!).

Enjoy the following despite its flaws. Its goal is to improve the quality of lives.


29 June 2005

  Spent much of yesterday hiking above Logan Canyon, trying to reduce the pain in my hip, after a day mostly tracking down what turned out to be one wire I’d dislodged while changing the engine side gas filter in my Alfa. Got to thinking about what I do particularly well from noticing patterns resolve themselves in vegetation, landscape, and sounds, whenever I started paying attention carefully. It would be useful to children if I could transfer some of these, but that isn’t the kind of thing contemporary society is willing to pay people like me to do. One in particular was the consistent mix of different plant types, even if the particular species varied. Another, less happily, was the increasing presence of invasive “weeds” that almost exactly parallels intensity of human use. Where vehicles have access, numbers and density of weedy species (like burdock) tends to outnumber native or desirable species at road perimeters. Chemical spraying tends to make things worse over time, beyond always being dangerous and ugly, because the weedy species are more resistant and regrow more readily than their competitors, which are also killed by chemicals, but do not so readily come back.

   More broadly, a radio snippet this morning was praising “good news” about forest regrowth in the northeast. Unfortunately, however nice it may be to restore a simulacrum of what preceded European colonization, what regrows does not contain even nearly all of the original components, and so remains both functionally and aesthetically crippled by comparison. But, because it’s as good as we’re likely to get now, even when somewhat obscured by smoke from distant burning from global climate change, it still can be pretty where the unrestored damage isn’t too great:

Looking towards Logan Peak from the Blind Hollow Trail, 28 June 2005

  Thinking further while doing my Tai Chi stretches on our bridge about the teaching pattern recognition issue, I had a mental comment arise that uncareful and/or uneducated observation of natural scenes gives back a conclusion of disorder or simply messiness. Visually, it is easier to understand a buzz cut bluegrass lawn quickly.

  Then I thought about bringing a class of kids into the field. First, class sizes are almost everywhere much too large for effective two-way communication. Jesus did not stop with 12 disciples because he could not recruit any more. Second, there are way more still kids out there, for most of whom fields with any naturality to them too far away to reach easily. Letting them out of their cells (“classrooms”), while better for them than staying confined, because of its rarity takes away the very ability to focus that’s needed for careful observation. To work, what is needed approaches meditation. Minor White’s zen aphorism, which I once heard him say in a lecture on how to make a photograph, applies, “be still until the object of your attention affirms your presence.”

   An alternative, which might even become profitable for me, could be to put together a set of computer accessible images that the kids (or interested adults) could zoom into, with an associated question and answer set, including sounds, and labeled arrows that could be conjured as appropriate. The questions would be game-like, e.g., why are the trees on only one slope, and what can an observer elicit about location from that? (If one knows approximate date and rough latitude, one can tell direction and time from the shadows and the kind of vegetation, or vice versa, at least in our part of the country). The appearance of varieties of nitrogen producing legumes (like peas and alfalfa), berry producing shrubs (and their less woody counterparts, like strawberries), and root storage species (like lilies and potatoes), and their overlapping characteristics, without going into academic minutia of naming, was what struck me yesterday, along with choices of flower types by bees, fuzzy flies, and hummingbirds. More precision can follow, with its own additional possible values, as one gets sucked into the game of differentiation (just as with words, like that one). It’s probably been at least tried, of course, but that doesn’t preclude doing better, or building from that start.

  Once one learns how much one can learn by looking more carefully, it encourages that in many other situations, as well as getting out without going so fast (and, of course, away from machines), which blurs or wholly removes the observational experience. Once one gets more familiar with what’s out there, then what one sees from windows (moving or still) makes more sense and provides more interest too. It isn’t that one can’t learn in isolation from the outside, but smell, touch, and sound provide important information for understanding what’s going on. So does an associated ability just to let the mind, eyes, and ears have the time/space to drift, pick up something interesting, and follow up on it, including letting cross currents of association arise. Look up at the clouds with dreamy partly focused attention, and the dragonflies, swallows, and hawks that were unnoticed before appear (assuming all are there, as they are out the window before me at the moment). If they aren't, something else interesting still will be.

23 June 2005

On personal experience with mercury

   My dad worked for a large chemical company, and the way they gave sons college help was to put them to work in the plant during breaks. After my freshman college year, in the summers of 1966-8, I worked in a mercury cell high quality chlorine-caustic factory. The chlorine was the thing I worried about at the time; everybody knew it as one of the poison gases during the first World War, an original, all too widely used, WMD. My dad told me that I’d learn a new way to breathe, which I thought was funny, but turned out to be true. The first year, I worked as I night watchman, and had to help with a guy who’d “gotten a snootful”. It wasn’t nice. We wore gas masks around our necks at all times, and learned to sniff slightly before inhaling deeply. If there was a touch of gas, just flip the mask up. Within a couple of weeks, it became automatic. There were a lot of leaks.

   But the joker was the mercury, which wasn’t considered to be a serious safety threat at the time. The Solvay building was about the size of a football field, with meter (3 feet) wide metal boxes running the width, one story up above an open concrete floor. Each “cell” contained about 3 tons of mercury (as I remember it), over which ran brine, while 50,000 amps of electricity (at a small fraction of a volt) ran through the mercury, which acted as an electrolytic cathode. The results were a very pure form of sodium hydroxide (a very much stronger version of household oven cleaner), hydrogen, and chlorine gas. The latter two had to be carefully kept apart; they got together at one of the company’s other plants one night, and the whole place basically vanished. The hydrogen was piped to another building, to be distilled with water into highly concentrated peroxide in another spectacularly dangerous process.

  The magnetic fields were incredible, and the air temperature I once measured at 130° F (50° C). Metal in that awesomely corrosive environment tended to break up, so that the mercury from a cell would regularly crash down to the floor below, where it would form shining pools maybe 30 feet in diameter and an inch deep. The second summer, part of my job when a break happened was to use a hose to wash these toxic pools into channels cut into the floor, where wooden boxes were supposed to separate it from the washing water, which ran on into a neighboring creek. Anyone who knows chemistry can imagine the amount of mercury that moved into the air, and then into workers, including me (where it is absorbed into our bones, to keep on poisoning slowly throughout life). At the end of many days, my 10K gold high school ring would be amalgamated to a silvery hue from mercury on the surface, just from what it picked out of the air (one of mercury’s earliest uses was to separate gold from ore). The regular guys who worked in that plant were tested weekly, and would be furloughed when the amount in their urine got to be above a certain level, not out of charity, but because that amount correlated with getting too crazy to function even at the low level they were expected to. Mercury, after all, is what made the mad hatter(s) that way, when it was used as sizing for felt. I have to shake my head when I see all the worry now over things like thermometers. Of course, I, like a lot more others, have big mercury amalgam fillings in my teeth, too, from the same “what, me worry?” period.

  That Solvay plant was “losing” 160 pounds of mercury a day, which pissed me off at the time not yet environmentally, but because the stuff cost $500 for an 80 pound “flask”, so they were wasting the equivalent of my whole summer salary every 4 days. With that, and the other stupidities I saw, it amazed me how the chemical industry ever made any money. One night, for example, a guy opened the wrong valve, and 10,000 gallons of the pure caustic went down the creek.

  There were minor compensations. Carrying one of those full flasks, which were steel cylinders about the size of a 2 liter bottle of soda, but weighing a total of 90 pounds (40 kg), along the huge electrical input bars that ran open alongside the walkway, was quite entertaining. The mercury would slosh weirdly inside, and the metal canister would be drawn intensely towards the open conductor bars. I weighed all of 125 pounds at the time, so balance was not a trivial issue. It certainly added to my appreciation of the practical usefulness of basic physics. One could easily suspend very large hammers in mid air over the anodes, too, and we did for entertainment sometimes. Although the amperage was huge, and the environment damp, they weren’t instantly deadly, because the voltage was so low. One could actually touch them; they just felt warm and strange. Weren’t good for watches (and probably for nerves or other body cells), though.

  The Minimata stories about catastrophic poisoning of children in Japan (by a plant very similar to the one I worked in), with W. Eugene Smith’s memorable photographs, started coming out a few years later, and the Solvay plant became an original superfund site. No compensation, as far as I know, has ever been even proposed for any of us who worked there, or sister plants. It was only the first of the experiences that have led me to be so doubtful of government or industry protestations about how safe things are, and so critical. I won’t bore anyone with my own symptoms, which differ from those who encountered it as children, but I am very regularly reminded of this poison in my body, as are those who are around me when the anger it enhances surfaces most obviously.

22 June 2005

  According to Salon.com, the fellow who put the following visual calculation and comparison site together originally was a pediatrician, who has gone into "international health": costofwar. It ought to be seen by everyone, regularly.

  The irony, of course, is the degree of practical illiteracy, with a concurrent fear of thinking seriously about numbers, that pervades the American public. The people who need to see, and appreciate, such stuff almost certainly won’t. Nevertheless, bully to him for trying. Please pass it along.

18 June 2005, 06:30

  I seem to rant a lot about noise. Yet, the latest issue of Orion had another piece collecting some of the pieces of science confirming that the various insults of modern society are not trivial to human health, let alone satisfaction with life. There are a wide variety of websites, too, for those interested (e.g., a report in http://www.nonoise.org, which, if read carefully supports the appearance of measurable problems from noise starting as less than the ones I complain about). This morning’s insult for me is a couple of miles away, some part of a gravel operation, that starts at 06:00 precisely, including this otherwise quiet Saturday morning. Our house is wooden, so it resonates, the windows are open on this beautifully cool morning, and the sounds around are concentrated by the lovely surrounding hills, just as they are by an orchestra shell. This particular one is not the kind that gets picked up by regulations, being just at the edge of consciousness, but it is much like a dentist’s drill as it continues its unavoidable humming, clearly above the sounds of our falling stream and refrigerator. It is mostly covered now by the sound of the Arvo Pärt CD I put on, but I am clearly not sleeping, as I would prefer to be in this pre-dawn moment.

   My own situation with sound is complicated because started life with extraordinary capabilities, which I have not fully lost. I have taken at least moderate care of my ears, far more so than most Americans, by avoiding the most egregious abuses, especially including the machines I especially despise because of how horrible they sound, and how deeply those sounds penetrate into my consciousness. As a child and young adult, I could hear bats and “ultrasonic” devices like burglar alarms, "silent" rodent repllers, and dog whistles, up to a measured 40,000 cycles at age 18. What’s left still can make music more wonderful, and the sounds of birds, but it pays a price in interacting with more “normal” humans.

   A gasoline powered lawnmower is far more damaging to the ear than a rock and roll concert, for anyone, because it covers so many frequencies so constantly, and is typically used so much more often. Hearing declines from the edges in; the very high and low frequencies go first. I’ve used the analogy before, but it bears repeating, that the last part of human hearing to go are the vocal ones, since there was an evolutionary advantage in being able to perceive, “Hey, Joe, watch out for the sabertooth over there”. Moderate hearing loss, which afflicts almost all American males, actually makes voices easier to pick out at many circumstances, because there is less relative background, while the reduced capabilities also make dealing with their own and others sonic insults easier. But does this all mean I should put out my own eardrums?

  Somehow, I suspect that they are telling me useful things, as well as serving as a conduit to beauty when it is available.


  Later: The worst part is knowing that it’s better here than most places, and that there are no guarantees even in the otherwise most uncomfortable reaches of the planet. I lived for three years three miles from Washington’s National airport, with planes every three minutes from the somewhat more civilized hour of 07:00 (but of course starting up earlier), even noisier than they are allowed to be now, with a theoretical 10 pm shutdown, but 20 odd planes all cynically scheduled to land at 10. On the other side, once I hiked 3 days into the largest formal wilderness in the U.S., yet found 20 minutes of every hour with aircraft noise louder than any natural sound, and that was 25 years ago, when air traffic was a small fraction of what it has become. Then, recently reading about the invasion into northern Canada of tar sand mining and, like Siberia, uncontrolled logging… As long as human population and fossil energy (or worse, like nuclear) fired greed continue to rise, there is no real hope.

   Why expect anyone to read such dreary expostulations as these? To know one is not alone amidst these inflated numbers around us. The irony of trying to get together to find someway better, matched with the knowledge that previous tries at practically moving towards utopian dreams have uncovered people mostly that are too deeply weird or different even by my rather wide standards. Underneath my radical attitudes, I am still scarily ordinary. At least that raises hope of contact at the words and image level.

  Then again, parts of my particular problems are related to something else, “Early in 2003, Lujene Clark noticed that her 8-year-old son, Devon, was acting up more than he ever had. He had emotional outbursts, stopped responding to simple commands, and became extremely sensitive to noises and smells.” (salon.com...) The cause for that was traced to mercury used as a preservative in vaccines for injections. I got my mercury working for the chemical industry, in much larger doses. ‘twas just another form of trespass, however, and like the medical one, directly connected to corporate executive greed, and the legal (and moral) insulation of guilty parties from feedback responsibility for what they do to others.

14 June 2005

   High Country News has a lead article on “exurbs”, the next farther out places to live from suburbs, and how they are tied to a pervasive American dream. As I was doing my TaiChi warmup exercises on our bridge over our section of mountain stream, I had to reflect on my own participation. Our house has just a half acre, but has maintained (or recovered) much of its original woody riparian zone cover, with an inactive farm across the road one way and steep slopes not far on the other, so gives the illusion of being more isolated than it is. This morning allowed the somewhat small land area to have more of the illusion that the exurban seeks, because none of the half dozen near neighbors was using any of their nefarious machines, nor was traffic significant on the road. Curbing the exurban problem, and allowing even higher densities than traditional surburbia, to be possible is closely tied to the larger problems of pollution, waste, interpersonal interference, and population growth. All but the latter can be dealt with straightforwardly by appreciating sonic, visual, and atmospheric trespass, and how machines (and amplified devices, as in lights and sound) interact with each.

   Too long, American law and philosophy have dealt with trespass as if all that matter was physical presence. Trespass should include anything that disturbs across a border. The Biblical use of the term, as in the oft-repeated “Lord’s Prayer”, didn’t even consider borders, just actions that affect others. In that set of phrases, forgiveness for past acts does not imply that it is good to continue the disturbance.

   I’ve written at length previously about light and sound trespass, especially by truly stupid machines like gas powered lawnmowers and blowers, but to deal with exurbs has to reach further. My nearest neighbor is the utterly classical example, having quite literally bulldozed his native vegetation (in active defiance of a county regulation), and replaced it with a grotty collection of a huge tin shed, gravel, trailers (eight at last count), and scattered invasive weeds, which he can't tell from natives. Around his house is proudly “neat” non-native bluegrass, cropped to an inch with all too regular intrusively noisy mowing, watered incessantly with culinary quality water, and dosed regularly with chemicals that do not remain on his own property. The trailers he uses to clog highways, behind the immense stinking diesel pickup he justifies for that, but drives routinely for everything else, to reach the mountains – and “camp” near what his own property would look like if he hadn’t trashed it. He, unlike many other neighbors, at least has at least cut back on the 600 watt floodlights that used to come on at random intervals.

  I said it best quite a while back, "I'd rather have a meadow than a lawn". Looking at my own property's grass, left over from a previous owner, I had a good laugh about the multilevel pun that having 6 or 7 inches is a lot better than 1 or 2, functionally as well as visually.

   These are reasons people feel like they need to run away to larger property pieces. Most of us quest for natural growth patterns around us, even if they do sometimes contain mosquitoes or similar issues, noting that those who try to generally eliminate insects are one more form of trespasser. There is a difference between control of individuals and exceedingly local problems and broadcast applications, which literally always have unwanted side effects. Most of us do not want our ears disturbed by someone else’s choice of either exhausts (including air conditioners) or amplified music, especially when it is our time of quiet. Most of us do not want our sleep disturbed by other’s choice of exterior lighting, and many of us even want to be able to see the stars. Every one of these issues is tied not just to wasteful, lazy choices, including absolute size of homes. Each, in turn, is directly and indirectly tied to world wide problems, from fuel supplies to oil and radiation spills to other diminishing resource uses to global climate.

   It’s not just machines, chemicals, and lights, of course that cause problems among neighbors. The noisy end of dogs (or caterwauling cats) almost always point away from their owners, while wildlife chasing dogs and their nasty byproducts also tend to elude “owner’s” care, matched by roaming cats that kill desirable birds without regard for boundaries. Many European countries already legally appreciate how it is not the position of human feet that accurately define trespass, it is degree of disturbance of others’ lives or choices.

   With machines, the degree of disturbance, and its likely extent, are directly related to their energy used, and that, in turn, to their weight, as well as length of use.

6 June 2005

  “Carl Sagan had an equation – the Drake equation – for how many intelligent species there are in the galaxy. He figured it out by saying, How many stars are there, how many planets are there around these stars, what’s the probability that life will evolve on a planet, what’s the probability if you have life evolve of having intelligent species evolve, and, once that happens, what’s the average lifetime of a technological civilization? And that last one is the most sensitive number. If the average lifetime is about a hundred years, then probably, in the whole galaxy of four hundred billion stars, there are only a few that have intelligent civilizations.” [Elizabeth Kolbert. 2005. The climate of man. In The New Yorker, May 9, p. 58.]

   Kolbert has Sagan continuing to suggest if that technology’s lifetime is long, there could be a whole lot of civilizations with it, and saying that we don’t know which is the situation. I stopped where I did because that lower probability seems almost certain. Not for the evolution of life in general, which is high, because it is such an efficient organizer of current generation resources, but for that unleash into the present stored energy from millions of years past and concentrate chemicals inimical to the continuance of life, thus literally poisoning both themselves and their planet. More subtle approaches of greater intelligence, like the Amish, which have more respect for sustainability, still must eventually fail for lack of consideration of the impacts of exponential population growth, and even sooner in the face of neighbors’ greed and violence (or internal outbreaks?). The conundrum is between the possibilities for reaching outward that can most easily be achieved by vast energy releases and chemical manipulations, which are overwhelmingly likely to destroy their planet before the successful outward voyaging point is achieved, against intelligence that actively recognizes energy use limits, which is perhaps even more unlikely to reach interstellar travel or communication. There, one could indeed have many intelligent civilizations, but each unaware of the others.

  But, on the other hand, only the aware of limits planets would be likely to produce civilizations that last very long. This could quite neatly account for the lack of received communications among our own searches. They are not wasting resources by broadcasting loudly enough for us to hear.

  Our current culture is so much worse than mythical lemmings, continuing to amass numbers while running towards cliffs and, for them, an endless ocean. Excessive lemmings only leave temporarily denuded grasslands behind, not a planet out of control climatically and denuded of billions of years of evolutionary progress in other species, as technological humans are oh so quickly achieving. Our “leaders” are busy denying limits, including the religious ones with their fantasies that humans are somehow not really animals, and our corporations perverting science by claiming that they can produce and deploy energy “without emissions”, if only they do some more research. Etcetera. Plants and animals often do have boom and bust cycles, but not all, and none with the capabilities for destructiveness like recent humans.

  I was watching a monarch butterfly from our deck yesterday, wondering if that species didn’t exemplify a superior form of evolution to our own. Yes, they do not create art beyond the beauty of their own bodies (which are pretty wonderful), but like hummingbirds, they manage to navigate thousands of miles precisely in time and space, literally to inches (I also watched a pair of hummingbirds checking out the nest they’d been born in last year), without benefit of environmentally destructive tools. They have a stable and mutually productive relationship with their supporting plant resources, and the ability to respond to climatic variations through flight. The only species monarchs cannot survive is humans, with biotechnology and overpopulation related greed killing their summer plants and winter retreats wholesale.

   Even the question of human art, our species’ most philosophically supportable positive product, is not wholly without question vis a vis other species. How much gets properly shared, even among the current generation, with the good emerging from the bad? Of that, how much lasts, for how long? There’s cave art of superior draftsmanship to most recent stuff, and what is the lifespan of digital art? A butterfly lifetime perchance? And how much more costly, with what chance of continuing like butterflies (without technological humans) do (or did)?

   Then, after finishing the above, I ran across this sentence: “The higher the energy required to sustain a system, the less stable it is.” [Tim Folger. 2005. writing about theories of physicist Roger Penrose in Discover 26(6):33.] How apropos!

 Here are the revisitors just before they left their nest last year:

Reasonable Weight Hummers

31 May 2005

  “The lighter the car, the faster it goes.” Robbie Gordon (race driver). 2005, in an AP newspaper report, “Patrick’s weight an advantage” on 29 May about the Indy 500. A simplest statement of one of the most grossly ignored truths in the practical world. It usually gets hidden from the public in racing by rules that do not allow one to do what is right. This is underlined by the latest advertising hogwash from Exxon-Mobil: “As global energy demand grows ... we will not shirk our responsibility to find ways to meet it -- and ways to reduce the emissions this rising demand will inevitably create.” Sorry guys, but more energy, more emissions. Neither advertising nor corporate fantasizing trumps Newton. The only questions are what kind, and where and when the “emissions” will reveal themselves. The real answer to the energy conundrum is the racer’s.

   Danica Patrick’s advantage applies everywhere. Airlines ought to be charging by weight and size, which is what their costs relate to. Ditto use of highways. If we want to reduce consequences of energy use, we have to use less, and in transportation, that means lightening up.

23 May 2005

  Whining about lawnmowers? How trite! Most Americans face worse noise, most of the time. But that’s precisely the bigger point, as I realized when a helicopter came over at 6 AM, drowning the obnoxiously barking dog that had wakened me. The more energy used, the more noise. Always and period. All that varies is where (or when) the problem shows up, with noise, of course, just being one of the issues, ranking for most well below the probability of death, which also rises directly in proportion to energy consumption (beyond a minimum level). Actually the latter is like the rest, there being in initial rise in comfort (or whatever) positive measure for life with modest increments, followed by an even more dramatic, albeit harder to trace, fall off with increasing quantities.

  Cleaner water supplies, for example, follow modest investments in energy, and last a very long time, making the per day energy use almost vanishingly small, even though some heavy equipment did disrupt lives for a few days. On the other end of the scale, when one gets to the energy use, and the noise, pollution, and danger disbursed over vast areas by private (or short range public) jets or helicopters, especially as they (or if they) expand in numbers, there is no viable upside for lack of restraint or appropriately high prices for these transient interruptions, which have so little long term usefulness, but which add up so greatly as disturbances in individual lives.

19 May 2005

  Sergey A. Zimov argues only relatively dense concentrations of diverse species of herbivores keep the land covered with grasses. Otherwise, it goes to shrubs and mosses or tree dominance. With the season turning to serious annoyance for me through all the ear and lung destroying power lawn mowers, and the associated chemicals, emerging from hiding in “modern” America, it occurred to me again that there may indeed be a relationship between the desire for neatly clipped lawns and Zimov’s and others’ ecological contention. Back when humans understood that they depended upon natural productivity and the animals that harvested it for them, a properly balanced system would look somewhat lawn-like, albeit far more three dimensional, being kept neither to the crewcut or putting green level, nor with just a single species, as currently is in so much favor. Having the grasses well-harvested, but never to the point of barrenness, was closely associated with the availability of plenty of meat and hides, so became deeply seated, virtually instinctive, as a deeply useful human species concept.

  We have only a perverse visual remainder, quite literally throwing away the vital production, and by processing it in just about the most harmful possible set of ways, using lots of eventually deadly chemicals, way too much irrigation water, and noxious in every possible sense machines.

  I also happened, while looking for something else, to run across a suggestion I’d come up with in a past year, about at least dealing with all those truly stupid lawn machines. Weld a sharp blade to a golf club handle. Especially if the blade was as highly engineered as good clubs, users could get the practice they desire for better control of their swing, vitally needed modest exercise, and cut their lawn in a far more reasonable way, all at the same time. They could take a few extra moments pause along the way, controlling “weeds” by targeted hand pulling, with better physical usefulness, and thereby avoid future diseases that are inevitable from any lawn chemicals for themselves, their family, and their neighbors. Lawns too large for this kind of tool are cultural insanity, desperately needing real animal grazers, for the benefit of all. Yes, I do already use a crude form of such a tool myself.

  Many, if not most, readers may consider me a wimp for complaining about lawn mower noise. Yet, because of being spared the goddamn (because if there is one, he or she would surely damn them) things by weeks of rain in our desert edge environment, and having had one just start up, reminds me of some facts to underline my contention. There are only a few houses in the narrow canyon where we live. Yet just one mower is louder than any natural sound: for more than a half a mile in a circle around it! That includes a rushing stream, which remains with considerable power from the snowmelt. I came back to this mini essay by noticing a single machine, from inside our home, not only above the stream, but also reaching above a 70+ db stereo system (I do have a meter) … Is this trespass? I think so. Most people have so many other noises around them that mowers are just one more. However, no matter where one lives, there is a difference. Gasoline powered mowers are an utterly unnecessary addition to the overall cacophony. As I’ve often said, how many horsepower does it take to cut a blade of grass?

  It’s worse outside. Basically, any person who uses a power mower is telling his or her neighbors they cannot use their property, if they have much functional hearing remaining. However, using the devices ruins ears quickly; voice frequencies are the last to go, for evolutionarily valuable reasons (Hey Mel, watch out for that cave bear!). Even very loud music has pauses, momentary between beats and longer, to allow hearing to recover, while lawnmowers do not.

   Basically, what anyone does when they go out and use one of the many infernal petroleum powered lawn devices, be it a mower, chipper, blower, or whatever latest salesman’s vision, is to say that the weather may have finally turned nice, but no one but me can go outdoors to do anything in it. These “tools” virtually define selfishness.

3 May 2005

  I did a longer essay in my handwritten journal about the wastefulness of rich people’s use of private jets, which make the hoi polloi’s SUVs pale into energetic insignificance. One couple, featured in Flying magazine, did a 2 hour jaunt from Tampa to Chicago in a charter for them alone, which used more than 1,000 gallons of fuel. That is the same total as what my wife and I use to fuel both of our cars, and to heat our inadequately (by my standards) insulated, oversized, home in a cold climate, as well as to cook and heat water – for an entire year. On the other hand, flying at more reasonable speeds, in lighter weight equipment, can actually be more efficient than ground travel – for the same (as the crow flies) distance. Some of that comes simply from the almost always shorter path through the air – if one is starting and ending from somewhere one can fly from. But trains remain more efficient yet.

   On the starting note, yesterday morning’s newspaper had another of those fantasy future articles, once again (as was done in the 1930’s) touting the possibility, through updated technology, of an airplane in every garage. What that fails to consider is what all too many in Utah, and in related religions, ignore, which is just how many humans there are, and how fast the species continues to increase.

   Back in the 1960’s, when my wife and I were first dating, and having grown up with fantasies of flying [I got as far as being nominated for the Air Force Academy, but thankfully (in retrospect) flunked the physical because of a skiing accident], we took advantage of a Cessna promotion with $5 introductory flight lessons. The demonstration device was as easy to manage as I anticipated, and visually thrilling, but in that upstate New York environment, I was rather shocked to find the experience most easily described as navigating through a three dimensional parking lot. There was a lot of traffic, with no rules about where it could go, and moving a whole faster than cars, against an exceedingly complex visual background. Differentiating what was dangerous was more than a full time job, and this letting alone problems, if one did it often, with storms, icing, in cloud orientation, and so on.

   Soon afterwards, I got to fly in the copilot’s seat on Allied Chemical’s executive plane, which at that time was a big (for the time) twin propeller Convair, as I remember, reconfigured from seating 44 to at most 11. Of course, we went through some of the busiest airspace in the world, but still, the experience was best likened to, even in good weather, carefully following invisible tunnels through the sky, using instruments, detailed maps, and complex voice commands to deduce what to do. It was a very long way from the freewheeling romance of an open cockpit, marveling at sky and scenery as one rambled where one felt like above the landscape.

  The relative speed equation, compared to driving, has to be seen and felt directly to appreciate fully. Closing speeds, and ability to react, at 100 mph are more than six times as fast as experienced commonly on most two lane roads -- but in the air, there are no roads, let alone lanes. Not so long ago, I got to fly with a friend in a particularly small plane. It had gotten no easier to find other traffic, even in a much less crowded western sky, even when the other aircraft had announced where they were relative to the landscape. Very few people fly personally now, relative to the total population, because of the cost and complexity, fewer even than when I tried it first 40 years ago.

  But, start imagining, just for a moment, what the sky would be like if rush hour freeways moved upstairs, no longer constrained by lanes, moving every so much faster… I don’t care how sophisticated avoidance technology becomes, and how cheap the toys may had gotten; I don’t think I would want to be involved! I still do follow dreams of flying begun from a dog-eared copy of Lindberg’s wonderful Sprit of St. Louis, on through the many writings of Richard Bach, and oh so many other tales and photographs, along with the more pleasant hours aloft commercially, some of which have been awesomely beautiful, not least sunsets over the slickrock country and watching fishermen use powerful lights off the coast of Greenland among the icebergs. But there are now so many humans, so that these experiences simply cannot be widely shared, not that most would look anyway if it somehow became possible. The newspaper article touting the joys of more private aircraft had the kids in back watching videos. Arghh!

29 April 2005

  Having recently reached the age at which my dad developed cancer leads me to be even more ruminative about the past and future than usual. His cancer was industrial in origin, since he had been an x-ray crystallographer, and as usual for corporations, followed the safety rules of the time, which were less than needed for safety of employees. His was yet another example of how almost every industrial, and especially chemical or pharmaceutical, process winds up being far more dangerous than its first or second generation users expect. I’ve avoided the particular kind of carcinogenic exposure that he had, but received quite a number of my own that have been proven more dangerous than thought at the time I encountered them, from massive mercury to chlorine to acetone and aflatoxins, while working to support schooling or doing research. Then there have been the industrial, vehicular, agricultural, and those even stupider lawn chemicals and pesticides that neighbors expose even the most careful of us to, whether from ignorance, laziness, carelessness, or malice.

   In the more imminent level, my thinking was jarred in real time just yesterday. I was wakened by rain like I’ve not heard before in this edge of desert environment where we’ve lived these past 17 years. Along with the rising noise of the usually modest stream that bisects our property, in the middle of the night I spent several hours imagining with more intensity than before what it would feel like to be one of those refugees most Americans, including myself, only read about or see on TV. For myself, the flashback is to the 1976 Big Thompson flood, Colorado’s most deadly, which ran through a place where I routinely traveled and had driven up literally the day before, then saw many of the consequences afterwards at first hand, as well as talked with folks I knew well about what it was like that night.

   We base so much of our lives in this country around our stuff, trying to hide our transience and likely meaninglessness. I sure appreciate it most of the time, at least other than during moving it, or fixing unanticipated problems.

   I finally got to sleep for a while, but was awakened shortly after dawn by a neighbor’s phone call (they live all of at most 50 feet away—but this is America) asking if I knew that the road crossing culvert just downstream had plugged up with debris, putting much of our property thoroughly underwater. I had just received a new digital camera the day before, and did not know it well enough to record the peak inundation before calling for help and carrying our thought to be most important stuff up from the lower level of the house, but this photo made later in the afternoon provides some clues, including the newly washed area below right center, to the left of the aspens, and in front of the conifers, which was underwater earlier. Our home is behind those. The stream is normally about a meter wide.

  Receding Flood

  I measured the 24 hour total rainfall at 3.5”, after having already exceeded the “normal” monthly total of 2” during the preceding week, plus melting snow from the stream’s origin in the Mt. Naomi Wilderness, 5 miles to the east. Our thanks to diligent county highway guys for keeping it from being worse; other parts of our area made national TV. A lot less than the Big Thom’s 11” in an hour, but still enough to catch one’s attention.

  Today it is lovely, but more rain is predicted for tomorrow. Utah, land of black and white in human perception, and drought or excess rainfall behind that. I really wouldn’t mind the flood; they are natural and appropriate to recharge riparian systems; except that the idiots that built the otherwise most ways wonderful house that I live in didn’t consider properly just how high a blocked culvert would back the stream. Culverts are stupid devices anyway, always accelerating streamflows, which creates unnecessary erosion, as well as breaking up wildlife passageways. So is building a structure partly underground in a riparian zone. If a stream needs to be crossed by a road, the answer is to built an honest bridge, although these need to be built high enough, too. We disregard mama nature in so many ways, always to our detriment as well as for hers. Yet I can’t afford to do what’s needed to do a better job either, and of course have never failed to properly plan ahead myself (hah!).

27 April 2005
   Meditating again as I walked this morning, and saw yet more machine induced destruction, about equality, on the differences between what we actually have to deal with and common misuse of the Founding Fathers “all men are created equal”. Roughly 7 foot, 350 pound basketball player Shaquille O’Neil has been an example of a statistical outlier in age, genetics, and intensive physical development, with whom older, much shorter, lighter, and less gym-committed folks could in no way compete on the court. I thought then, even more honestly and usefully, how ordinary sized folks like me could have a more appropriate hero in a fellow who currently plays for the Denver team and holds his own at least in some ways against Shaq, despite being just average in height and weight. Because he weighs less than half what Shaq carries and is so much smaller, although he can't keep from being pushed around, he can turn and move that much more quickly, since their genetic and intensive preparation skills are otherwise more nearly equivalent than for the rest of us.

   That comparison reminded me of one of my own seminal moments in thinking at a close friend’s wedding, when I had with me a 5 month old Yorkshire terrier puppy (who grew up to a heavyweight 11 pounds) named Stella Blue. Another guest had an equal-aged, mostly wolf pup. We were training them in more or less equally intensive ways, including taking our animal friends outside with us for at least 5 miles everyday, so they did not become obnoxious for lack of exercise, as most human constrained canids seem to. For perspective, since Yorkies may be thought of as wimps, at that time, I was doing quite a bit of traveling, and needed my small companion to respond quickly when it came time to leave places. The key moment for my Stella came one day when we were quite a ways up a dirt road, and she was dawdling, interested in some immediate phenomenon. I just hoped in the car and took off, then clocking her over a full mile, chasing behind at a steady 28 mph, before she began to tire. Never again had problems when it came time to go (I did take her on a satisfying, to both of us, extended hike shortly after the run).

   Out with the wolf that December long ago in Texas, that far larger pup knew enough to carefully bite no harder than would make a point without interrupting play. Even then, Stella could consistently move quickly enough to keep those even bigger teeth (if wolves had teeth in proportion to body size as do Yorkies, they'd look like sabertooths) away from her vitals. Most to the point, as the two would chase each other around the rural Texas property, the wolf would have to shift down to a lower based gait to run faster than Stella could, with a transition interestingly enough almost exactly at the smaller pup's top capability. But the wolf could never catch her, when she didn't want to be (in the picture, Stella was actually attacking the wolf’s neck, not what it appears at first glance, like so much of the rest of life -- note that the wolf is backing off, or is being pushed back by the feisty little one...).

Stella and the wolf

   From the wolf’s higher speed posture, and because of her far larger mass, the bigger animal could not turn anywhere nearly as quickly, and would always fall over when attempting to follow Stella’s sharper corners. This is not trying to argue that in the wild, a wolf can't kill a smaller canid; they routinely do -- just like without rules, Shaq could simply crush his smaller opponents. But the wider point remains that although mass and power each can change the equality in relationships, when muscles are the only force involved, those changes are in ways that at least potentially remain true to America’s Founding Father visions.

   However, when fossil fuels and machinery enter any scene, the potential for balance shifts inalterably. Shaq, and others among the very largest athletes, weigh only a bit more than twice my 170 pounds, with a probable power differential to match. On the other hand, most ATVs or snowmobiles when added to their riders exceed average human weight by at least four times, with power capabilities exceeding a normal human’s 1/8 horsepower capability routinely by hundreds of times. Then, the pickups or SUVs used to haul them outweigh unaided humans by more than 25 times, and have more than a thousand times as much power available. There is no equality there, ever, at any point, in any way.

   Once again, people or animals may be considered equal, or at least begin with the potential to be equal, with tradeoffs for differences being on a reasonable plane. But when a machine and/or fossil fuels enter the equation, consitutional level equality is literally impossible. This nation, and our world, need to both philosophically and legally come to grips with this vast difference. Not just land use, but so many other confrontations and issues depend upon retooling our appreciation of the difference between people with and without machines, and among machines. All men may have been created equal, but no machines are likely ever to be created equal, especially to any human. Their users should have no claim to equal rights, rather their rights should decline in proportion to their advantage over (and consequent damage to) people.

   Should we not be using machines fairly, instead of being trampled by them? And differentially trampled by the bigger, heavier, and more wasteful ones?

20 April 2005

   Meditating on ephemerality since seeing in the morning paper more obituaries of folks younger than older than I am. Too, I’d been updating my blog page, which I do not do daily, after having a look at what Molly Holzschlag has been up to in hers of late. I encountered her through her 1998 book, Web by Design, when I first needed to prepare a web page, and liked the clarity of her pages and descriptions of how to create them. Looking at the code and capabilities she’s using now does bring up the idea of ephemeralness of knowledge! For the nonce, and the likely future, I expect to continue to evolve far more slowly.

   Of course, if the time back to that book and its approaches seems prehistoric, the first computer project I got involved in was a model of the flow of energy in the U.S. beef production system, searching for points of possible improvement. “Interactive” was the forecasted coming thing then, still pretty much on the practical horizon. We used linear programming optimization, relying upon a 3500 card (each of which held all of 80 characters, for you younguns) deck that I fed into a kitchen stove size IBM reader. It had a “mean time between failures” of 2500 cards, which meant not just a lot of time feeding that big box in, but also figuring out which card in the middle of the deck it had eaten when that “failure” occurred, and trying to recreate its bit of data.

   I often delve as background during my lunch into my wife’s journal of medieval studies, Speculum. Given the new pope yesterday, and the controversies over related points of view so well distilled by the one web outlet that I do subscribe to (Salon), it was amusing to read an account of a new book about the 1380’s conflicts swirling around John Wycliff and the Lollards, much of which started with questions over how much of, and in what form, the body of Christ was found (at least in theory) in the communion “host”. Over that unanswerable question in part, the English kingship changed, and many died, in what one author (in a place I cannot find again) called “premature reformation”. Lest one think medieval study purely boring, in this particular review, author Andrew Galloway noted Chaucer’s thinly hidden parody of the issue through a joke about dividing a fart in the Summoner’s Tale. It should put the ephemeralness of computers, and their content, into a bit better perspective.

   Then, as I worked on this blog, I was listening to our wonderful local radio station, KRCL (which webcasts) “broadcasting from deep behind the Zion curtain”, which between songs, in a promo for its noon program (that I do not follow, since it has nothing but talk) did have the neat summary phrase about the history and place of theocracy in Utah, “much argument, little change”.

  Meanwhile, Molly wrote yesterday about how fast time was passing for her. In the evening, I ran across:

“‘Annihilating time and space’ is what most new technologies aspire to do: technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome.”
  — Rebecca Solnit. 2003. River of Shadows – Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild west. (Viking, NY).

   On the issue of ephemerality, I spent part of the day working up to print (far larger than this) an image that I recorded on film in England back in 1986:

Stonehenge 1986
19 April 05

  Did a bit of wondering last evening about why I don’t walk as much as I used to or should, and quickly realized it’s tied to several of the usual problems I grouse about. My wife and I went out on Sunday by the short private trail that connects to a dirt road that leads in what should be a sheltered canyon to the formal wilderness three miles above our home. After we passed many serious signs of off road vehicle damage done by trespassers along the trail, as soon as we got to the road we immediately encountered a couple of kids, all decked out in matching suits and vision encompassing helmets on a souped up ATV, immense dust plume stretching far behind, screaming past after forcing us into the brush alongside. The driver could not have been much more than 8 years old.

   This is typical of most users of such, for whom it is utter horsefeathers to claim that they’re out to see or otherwise enjoy the country they are tearing through. They are there only to play with their machines. There is no human way to drive them fast and either see or hear anything else contemplatively, and no reason to bother driving them slowly. I’m not saying that this kind of play might not be a kind of fun, if one doesn’t care about either one’s own hearing or anyone else’s rights, and if the doer’s brain could usefully distinguish machine riding activity from a computer game, which I sincerely doubt.

   This kind of activity quite simply does not belong in otherwise quiet places. It is completely incompatible with any other use, by any species of plant or animal, for literally miles around it’s already extensive area physically occupied by users over the course of their day. There already millions of miles of paved roads that could be played on, as well as used, by entertaining machines, and at higher speeds, at least if most of that activity wasn’t so clogged by the obesity epidemic that has slowly overwhelmed our highways. The irony there is that not least among those actively causing the clogging are people who bought their grossly overweight, oversized, and glacially accelerating trucks to tow an ATV or snowmobile.

   Once we got back to the paved way to return home, we encountered some of that industrial strength fat. The average American vehicle now weighs more than 25 times as much as the average American. Being much less efficient converting energy to motion than humans, these vehicles are (even if fully muffled) thus more than 25 times as noisy, polluting, and smelly – if they covered the same distance. Unfortunately, they go far further, so any walker or jogger will encounter many more. They are also much wider than a human, and more dangerous to all others in proportion to their weight, height, and speed. The higher the driver sits, the less likely they are to see a walker, animal, or bike rider. In the neighboring city to ours, it was just proven that operators of the most potentially deadly machines (i.e., high, wide, and heavy) are not punished at all for killing walkers who try to share their “public” roadway.

   On weekdays, one has to add not just private vehicle obesity, with their resultant noise, dust, fumes, and danger, but also the far greater one of still bigger commercial trucks. A significant part of all these problems is that so few others have actually encountered them while on foot themselves, especially where it is quiet enough, or the road narrow enough, to fully appreciate the intensity of their threat and associated disturbances.

   Inside one’s own overweight, heavily insulated behemoth the competition is momentarily belittled, even though its manifold dangers are little reduced in fact for the individual, while one’s own dramatically increased upon all others, and eventually also rebounding even on the doers of the damage over the longer term. Even the best of insulation can keep out only so much, while ignoring problems only works for a limited period.

   Not coincidentally just finished reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse. It should be required reading, even if he does understate and underestimate the present fragility of America. Unfortunately, those in power, or who influence those in power, do not read, or if they do, not books like that, from which they might actually learn something useful.


10 April 2005
  An obituary ran again in the local newspaper this morning, of a 75 year old who was killed while innocently walking along a sidewalk-free road by an unspecified truck-type vehicle (pickup, SUV, or van). The driver claimed they could see the man because they were driving into the sun. No citation was issued, let alone the more appropriate prosecution for murder. So North Logan, Utah gets the prize; at least Ogden saw fit to fine a similar sort of driver $40 each for the two motorcyclists he killed a while back. This one followed 2 incidents in recent weeks where a pickup hit a car, and the car driver was killed, but the pickups got added to the “safe” statistical category because their drivers weren’t as badly injured. Doesn’t seem to matter to the law or anyone else that the others all might have lived if the killing vehicles were lighter and/or lower, or that there might not have been an “accident” at all if there was not an essentially uncontrollable truck involved. Real safety is not just an issue for those inside any one vehicle.

   Almost no one fully appreciates how much more dangerous truck-based vehicles are; there'd be a lot fewer purchased or driven if folks did. Sitting high gives the impression of being able to see well. Unfortunately, that works only at a distance. Important stuff, like pedestrians, animals, and smaller vehicles are below higher drivers’ line of sight, and since all too few drivers are paying serious attention to the task at hand anyway, it is far easier to literally overlook vital problems. Once the unanticipated targets are hit, the combination of weight and height each multiply the damage done.

  If the truck based vehicle does happen to notice first, their combination of size and weight makes the likelihood of successful avoidance decline as their weight or size increases. Since speed also plays a role, the irony is that ponderous monstrosities tend to move faster once they do (eventually) get moving. Sitting higher makes one less aware of speed, so in the most dangerous situations, where there is a lot of stuff nearby to hit, like residential areas, one doesn’t notice as readily how fast one is moving relative to it. I’ve tested that one myself, and anyone else can do likewise. SUVs, pickups, and vans drive through residential areas, on the average, faster than any other vehicle types.

   Lighter and lower is always safer for others, not just for the environment because it wastes less fuel. One can see important things more easily, because they are at eye level, and then stop or turn more quickly to avoid them. The combination will do much less damage even if a mistake is made.

   Are not others’ lives important? It can become safer for the driver as well, if the same amount of money is invested in the vehicle as something heavier. The payoff in terms of awareness and controllability can return additional investment manifold for safety for all, and allow more comfort than in the plushest barge. If everyone cared, traffic could even begin to move far more rapidly, because acceleration is so much easier if weight falls, and with less space occupied on the road, there is more for everyone. Meanwhile, pollution and road breakup both increase with vehicle weight, among other things.

   The problems are part of the bigger obesity epidemic, the one on the highway.

8 April 2005

  A. V. Krebs addresses just the issue below in “Workin’ on the Railroad” on page 7 of the 15 April 2005 issue of the Populist Progressive. (In the associated notes, he is said to ‘publish’ an online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner, at avkrebs@earthlink.net). His article contains more explicit bitching about the consistently self- and even more other-destructive management choices of railroad executives, including actively discouraging passenger traffic. Like Wal-Mart and the energy companies, all they seem to be able see is the quickest buck from the smallest possible investment in either labor or material, with no consideration whatsoever for any wider social impacts. In the case of railroads, their choices currently are constrained somewhat by unfair competition by much more heavily subsidized roads and air. Nevertheless, because both industry and government are being, and long have been, idiots should not preclude continually re-examining rail-based operating technology for its comparative potential.

  Factoring in energy intensiveness, and the systemic destruction that results there from, leads to some very different conclusions about where money and regulations should be deployed, when compared to virtually all current strategies. The public, and decision makers, must be regularly reminded that all forms of energy are costly, in all possible senses, and that it is the total amount used, not the form, that eventually will determine the planetary and personal consequences. For transporting people and goods, rails are darned imperfect (though subject to dramatic improvement, if anyone cared to), but still a far better choice than any competitive method yet invented.

  Once again, that potential superiority consistently runs into the snag that because rails are inherently more efficient, more profits can be wrung out of them, with less effort on the part of management and investment. So both industry and governments keep being satisfied with relatively trivial increments. As long as a year or two is seen as long-term, and paying attention to social good is not required of businesses (especially as they grow larger), there will remain little hope for doing what is really needed.

  Fear of “socialism” does not help. Why it is not common knowledge that the most true socialistic countries are by almost any indicator, including economic, more healthy than any others suggests dominance of the media by socially destructive forces. The longstanding problem in that perception is related to so many others, the misappropriation of the label. Neither the Nazis nor the Russian or Chinese form of Communism had much real socialism involved in them, despite its place in their party names and rhetoric. Those governments may have controlled more resources, but assuredly did not manage those resources for the benefit of the wider public. A better description of those regimes would be army-and-selected-bureaucrat owned, absolutely unfettered capitalism. Those groups were the by far the primary choice makers and beneficiaries, at least before the wider systems they were draining by their greed collapsed.

  Scandinavia stands in dramatic contrast. Not perfect societies, of course, and benefiting from a sane approach to population growth (i.e., that there have been for some time too many, not too few humans), they have over the last half century consistently outperformed all other nations, despite having fewer natural resources than many. Unlike the United States, they are not standing on the brink of economic and environmental collapse, unless the U.S. takes them down with us. Creativity is especially strong there, in direct contrast to the rhetoric of those favoring allowing the rich to steal without consequence, which is what ungraduated taxation invariably becomes. They are not, of course, without constant temptation to undo their own successes.

30 March 2005
  Perhaps hardest of all to deal with in addressing the utility of rails as a transportation system is to separate the advantages and possibilities from the greedy thieves and shortsighted fools that have so consistently dominated railroad corporation management. One possible way is to view their operation as strictly a public service, and to revoke and replace existing charters with ones to that effect. After all, railbeds were deeded for that purpose by the government in the first place. They should be reclaimed into public ownership when they are no longer being public services, as they almost never, except coincidentally, have been.

  “That’s a lot of what magic is, understanding how things work and turning them to your advantage.” Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. 2000. The Burning City. Pocket Books, NY.

  Now, since I think I do have a handle on quite a bit of the first part, all I’ve got to do is the second part…

  The problem is that part of my understanding is what happens when one starts concentrating on that turn to personal advantage. Few indeed escape unharmed by it, or do those affected by them, as it so easily turns to greed, whether for power or for money. As the focus shifts away from understanding towards “profitable” action, the ability to see clearly what is happening around one blurs with the intensity of the shift. Like the proverbial frog on the way to boiling, or addiction to drugs or alcohol, addiction to increasing 'wealth' creeps up upon the shifter.

  Sure, it’s been said a lot before, but with what paltry income I’ve been getting soon to vanish, I am getting increasingly concerned about how I still could use a few more dollars and/or penetration of the ideas from my understanding. What remains to find is how to achieve a fair balance in return for quality of life for pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps it is enough just to know, but one wants at least a bit more… and the excuses are so easy to find. I wouldn’t get these words out without a good computer, and travel teaches… Living based in a cardboard box restrains one’s further understanding, at least in some ways, just like working too hard, or in the wrong ways, for a bigger, solider one also damages appreciation.

  Jesus’s admonitions, taken literally, require living on gifts from others, which in turn require someone else to do the work. But then, how many executives, or other white collar types, grow their own food? As the Moody Blues said long ago, "it’s all a question of balance".



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Updated 1 December 2005


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