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Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Dying of the Light

I ache, I sob, I whimper, I die[*]

All right. That's enough of that.

The Flea brings us the shocking news that media giant Bertelsmann, having just weeks ago taken sole possession of Bookspan (which runs such venerable outfits as the Book-of-the-Month Club, among others), intends to terminate many of the clubs. This includes the point of this post, the Science Fiction Book Club, of fond memory.

The SFBC did the standard book club thing: Every month it sent you a catalog of books you could order, including two "featured selections". If you didn't send back the response card in time, it sent you the featured selections. These clubs make money from people (like me) who often forgot to send in the cards. You were obligated to buy so many (maybe four, I think) books per year.

The books -- usually special, cheaply-made editions -- cost much less than regular hardbacks. When I joined, many of the books (including one of the "featured selections" each month) cost $1.98. This was at a time when paperbacks cost 95 cents to $1.25.

We had one new bookstore -- that is, a store which sold only new books -- in our county at that time (whereas today, thirty years later, there are...none), and it didn't sell hardback science fiction. So the SFBC was my window into the science fiction world.

(In fact, I believe I joined through a cardboard ad inside one of the paperbacks.)

Shelling out the two or three bucks was a big deal for me, and the cause of much careful consideration over the month's selection. I seem to remember that I asked for my book club membership as a birthday present from my parents, using the argument that a year's worth of books was about what they might spend on a present anyway. And that way I got presents several times a year.

Oh, the memories! Like the time I got Again, Dangerous Visions, which is chock full o' sex 'n gore and "mature themes", and which I received when I was 13 or so. I think my eyes popped out of my head once or twice and had to be surreptitiously replaced. I didn't understand some of the stories; many I did understand caused my eyes to only roll, not pop (quite a number of them cause this reaction today -- oh, of course, the dark night of fascism is nearly upon us, how very transgressive of you to notice).

I tried to keep this book in an inconspicuous place, without actually hiding it. I was afraid my parents might stumble on it and give me hell for buying a book with...sshhhh! sex! it, even though that hadn't been my intention.

I think I last belonged in the early- or mid-Eighties; I still have books I "accidentally" received then which I still haven't read.

There's nothing about this on their web page. Man! Nowadays you can browse their whole catalog. Back in the day you could only choose from the titles on the little flyer they sent. You know, I may still have those flyers stashed away, somewhere.

Looking at their home page was depressing -- nothing but Star Wars and Star Trek and other gunk! But look inside...

The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard!

Down These Dark Spaceways ed. by Mike Resnick! (I believe that was an SFBC original).

Black Seas of Infinity by Lovecraft!


Maybe they'll have a going-out-of-business sale.

[By the way, my mother belonged to the Doubleday Book Club. I still have books she bought through them -- my copy of Gone with the Wind, for example.]

[*] The words of the flower in the third Canto of Sommer's Vehicles, at least according to the terrific Robert Silverberg story, "The Sixth Palace", in the terrific Silverberg-edited anthology Deep Space, which at one time was an SFBC offering.

Why does my brain store minutiae like this, rather than something useful, like Niles's cell phone number?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Foto Friday: Zabriskie Point

On our "real" 1995 vacation, we went to Yosemite, then over Tioga Pass, down US 395, past Mt. Whitney, to Death Valley. Lotta pictures from that trip. I was saving this one until I could try to mosaic it with several others, but that will have to wait for another day.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, Aug. 1995Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California
Aug. 1995

Here's the Google maps link to the area. The round thing at the top of the image (I hope) is the lookout. I believe the dark ridge on the right of my image is part of the dark line that runs diagonally across the bottom of the satellite map. If I get some time to figure it out, I'll see if I can display the Google map later.

The short version is, those wrinkles are a lot further away than they look.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

College for Everyone! And Ponies!

You may have heard about the kerfuffle over John Edwards's speech at UC Davis. Edwards spoke out against poverty, and was paid $55,000 to do it. (Note: This was before he declared his candidacy for President.) The SF Chronicle report linked above said that Edwards was proposing to remove "every financial barrier" for American kids who wanted to go to college.

I was curious about that, and wanted to learn more. Unfortunately, googling around for "John Edwards" and "every financial barrier" only led to pages and pages of links to the fee story. I finally found his proposed policy at his own site. (I'd gone there first thing, but couldn't find a detailed description of the plan.)

It's not very detailed, as you might expect. The only solid proposal is one that would pay for the first year of college for kids who agreed to work ten hours a week. It's kind of funny, because according to this summary (scroll down to "Expand College Opportunity" under "STRENGTHENING EDUCATION"), Research has shown that the first year of college is the most difficult one... In which case maybe they ought to be studying rather than working. Also, that only takes care of the first year of college; a kid who starts college with nothing is not going to be appreciably richer by the end of the year. Apparently Edwards is only concerned that people start college, not whether they finish.

It turns out that one country (at least) has already removed "every financial barrier" to getting into college: France.

The Sorbonne has no cafeteria, no student newspaper, no varsity sports, no desk-side electric plugs for laptops. France's most renowned university also costs next-to-nothing to attend, and admission is open to every high school graduate.

President Nicolas Sarkozy says this picture is emblematic of much that is wrong with France...

Naturally the coddled French student population is up in arms about it. Read the article if you're interested in that. I was more interested in this:

[Sorbonne president Jean-Robert] Pitte says the French system just produces dropouts. Forty-five percent of Sorbonne students do not complete their first year, and 55 percent do not earn a degrees. Without entrance standards, there is a "selection-by-failure" that squanders resources and professors' time on students who "have no real chance of success," he said.

Now that puzzled me, because if that many students are dropping out, surely there's pressure for Someone to Do Something. Surely, at least, their parents are complaining that they're spending all this money for their kids to go to school, and...oh, that's right: they're not paying anything. And since they're not paying anything, since there's no pressure on the university, it doesn't need to change.

This is not a Bad Thing. The Sorbonne is a very respected university, and it can't maintain its quality and still graduate every kid in France. Not everyone is Sorbonne material, and that's just it. So you either have entry standards, or you have mass failures, or you degrade the reputation of the school.

Of course, entry standards are different things from financial barriers, but the point still stands: not everyone is cut out to go to college -- at least, not while a college degree means anything -- and there's no use pretending otherwise.

A colleague of mine who attended the University of Rome told me that much the same situation obtained there: admissions were open to everyone, and as a consequence the place was infested with slackers (and, he said, professional protesters) who would never graduate.

Whatever happened to learning from our European betters? Guess that's all off now that Sarko's in.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hell or Merely Purgatory?: Christopher Hitchens Relives the Seventies

In the Carter years, the United States was an international laughingstock. This was not just because of the prevalence of his ghastly kin: the beer-sodden brother Billy, doing deals with Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, and the grisly matriarch, Miz Lillian. It was not just because of the president's dire lectures on morality and salvation and his weird encounters with lethal rabbits and UFOs. It was not just because of the risible White House "Bible study" sessions run by Bert Lance and his other open-palmed Elmer Gantry pals from Georgia.

Well, you can read the rest, but if you're expecting him to name disco, Qiana, or Quinn Martin, you're going to be disappointed.

Banner Day

It's a banner day here at The Machinery of Night! On account of I have a new banner.

I started to put it in via Blogger's fancy schmancy new template system, what with the layouts and the widgets and the framastans. But I couldn't figure out how to make multicolored text in the sidebar, and I dreaded having to figure out the JavaScript color switching stuff again.

So I just took the image URL from the new template and grafted it onto the old, and it worked much better than I expected. Huzzah!

Background objects are, from left to right:

All are credited to STScI.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Frank Tipler: Evangelical Fundamentalist

This morning Niles and I had the following conversation, prompted by this Instapundit post:

Me: Hey, did you know that Frank Tipler isn't the textbook guy?

Niles: You mean the God guy? He didn't write the textbook?

Me: Right. Frank The Physics of Christianity Tipler is NOT Paul Physics for Scientists and Engineers Tipler.

Niles: I'm relieved!

I am too, especially when I read guff like this.

For example, I am aware of no American university that requires, for an undergraduate degree in physics, a course in general relativity...At the overwhelming majority of American is not even required to take a course in general relativity to get a Ph.D. in physics!

The outrage continues:

And it gets worse. The greatest achievement of physics since World War II has been the discovery of the Standard Model of particle physics, a unified theory of all forces and matter not including gravity...Yet I am aware of no physics department in the United States that requires a course in the Standard Model for an undergraduate degree in physics. Very few, if any, require a course in the Standard Model even for a Ph.D. in physics.

And quite right, too. GR and the Standard Model may be fundamental, but they are just not that important to most working physicists. Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but physics is an enormous field. Besides GR (which is only really useful in certain astrophysical problems) and cosmology/particle physics, physics encompasses things like

  • superconductivity
  • superfluidity
  • solid state physics (practically, the study of electronic movement in a crystal lattice, e.g. semi-conductor physics)
  • materials physics (e.g. the mechanical or thermal properties of matter in bulk)
  • acoustics
  • optics
  • fluid mechanics
  • statistical mechanics/thermodynamics
  • a lot of other stuff I was too lazy to look up

As I started compiling this list, I realized it was going to get difficult because there's a lot of overlap between the fields: e.g. acoustics can be thought of as fluid mechanics -- i.e. the motion of waves in air -- but you can also have sound waves in solid matter, which falls under the realm of "materials physics".

The first four of these fall in the category of "condensed matter" physics, which, according to this (WARNING!) Wikipedia page, is the field of one-third of all physicists. This entire field deals, at the fundamental level, with the interactions of electrons, and requires neither GR nor particle physics. None of the fields above do, and neither does much of atomic & molecular (A&M) physics (e.g. spectroscopy) -- which another huge subfield of physics.

This morning I browbeat Niles into hearing bits of Tipler's article, and he reminded me that his position has always been that undergraduate education as it is known today is crap. You're taught a lot of stuff you'll never ever need, delaying your career until you're old and gray. He thinks that everything should be on-the-job training, and you can still sleep soundly knowing that the Standard Model is a closed book to you.

Then again, he is a victim of the British educational system, which tells its students that scientists have no need of history[2].

I never formally studied GR or particle physics, and have never needed them in my work. Without blowing my s00per-sekrit cover, I can tell you that my work requires:

  • Quantum mechanics (to the extent of understanding the origins of spectroscopic lines)
  • Fluid dynamics
  • Physics of charged fluids[1]
  • Thermodynamics
  • Optics (a bit)

But mostly it requires a lot of stuff I just had to pick up along the way. I never took fluid mechanics, for example, except for some aerodynamics courses in my mis-spent youth.

Niles thinks it should all be like that, but I believe that most of the picked-up stuff was made easier by having studied similar subjects. (As a counter-example, I took quantum mechanics before I took classical mechanics, and was completely mystified by the concept of the Hamiltonian. When I finally got around to classical mechanics, it all became clear. I'm still pretty flummoxed by QM as a whole, though.)

The thing is, you never know what it is you'll need to know. Therefore you try get as general education as possible in the limited amount of time you have.

When I was an undegraduate, here are the sorts of classes you were expected
to take:

  • Two semesters introductory physics, each with a lab
  • Two semesters chemistry, one with a lab
  • Three semesters calculus
  • One semester differential equations
  • One semester electronics lab
  • One semester FORTRAN (yes this was long ago)
  • One semester modern physics Extra Lite
  • One semester modern physics Lite
  • One semester classical mechanics
  • Two semesters electricity and magnetism
  • Two semesters advanced lab
  • One semester thermal physics
  • One semester intro to quantum mechanics

You were also required to take two physics electives and two math electives, plus a semester each of English composition, technical writing, and history, and nine semesters of humanities.

I confess I'm cheating somewhat, cribbing from the current requirements (there seems to be a new class, Intro. to Theoretical Physics, which I didn't have to take back in the day). These current requirements call for four semesters of fifteen hours each, two of sixteen hours, and two of eighteen hours. Eighteen hours, friends, is a full load. (In my day, twelve was considered full-time, and fifteen was about standard. The most I took was 17.)

Anyhow, Tipler's explanation for this is:

The basic reasons why modern physics is not covered in required courses are identical to the basic reasons why Shakespeare is not covered: (1) the faculty in both cases want to teach their narrow specialty rather than the basic courses in their field, (2) the faculty members in both cases no longer understand the basic material in their own field, (3) the faculty no longer believe there are fundamental truths in their own disciplines.

No. 1 is very possibly true. No. 2, even if true, is irrelevant, because the Standard Model is not "basic" to (say) a solid state experimentalist's field. No. 3 is just plain goofy; I don't know whether it's applicable to English departments, but most physicists don't go around in a postmodern nihilistic funk. The ones who ask what are the fundamental truths are the excited ones. Do we know what they are? Are there new ones to be discovered? And how can I get me some of that?

The true reason is much more prosaic: since you only have time for so much, you have to teach courses that will give the most benefit to most people. And however fundamental to the universe (and cool) particle physics and GR might be, they're not fundamental to the research of vast majorities of physicists.

There's also the teeny tiny point that the math required for these classes is hairy, so they'd have to be delayed until the senior year. GR, in particular, requires a knowledge of tensors,[3] so you'd have to have a tensor pre-requisite or teach tensors in class.

Rand Simberg, a man much too smart for the position he's taking here, agrees. See the comments for other views. In there somewhere, Rand seems to acknowledge that a survey class in modern physics would serve the purpose. That, I'm all for. If, for example, the section on the standard model can be thought of as an elaboration on this chart, that would be great.

But to make all physics undergrads take GR and particle theory just because they're "fundamental" is tantamount to requiring all biology students to take quantum mechanics, because, hey, it's "fundamental" to chemistry, which is fundamental to biology. (Even chemists gripe about having to take p-chem, which is a long way from QM.)

[1]My fluids are only weakly charged, else I could call myself a plasma physicist. I remember an Arthur C. Clarke book in which he was describing some phenomenon I've forgotten, and at the end he remarked that, "This field is called magnetohydrodynamics, and those who study it, God help them, are magnetohydrodynamicists." Niles started out as a magnetohydrodynamicist, but he got better.

[2]I tried to work Lavoisier into that sentence, but couldn't quite make it.

[3]Isn't that site great? I know what a tensor is (it's like a vector, but in more than three dimensions) and it still scared the hell out of me. Precision is the enemy of clarity, remember that.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Foto Friday: A Room with a View

40in. Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, Oct. 199940 in. Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory
Oct. 1999

As the caption suggests, this is the 40" telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. According to SSO's Wikipedia page, this telescope is scheduled to be de-comissioned on Jan 1, 2008, but I couldn't find anything about that on any official pages.

I know this building has a library inside it, and I believe there's a kitchen. There probably used to be living quarters, but now these are elsewhere.

Really: a telescope, a library, a kitchen, and a terrific view. Throw in an internet feed and a satellite connection, and you have pretty much all life affords, right there. Besides, you know, food and stuff.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Monday Money: Cambodia

Because something's gotta get posted.

I don't mean this as a regular feature, but occasionally when I'm really really bored and think you should be too, I'll post some scans from my collection of paper money.

Lileks did Cambodia a while back[1], and I thought I'd put this one up to show that Cambodian notes were more than just combines and spirograph patterns: there are also water buffalo.

Cambodia 500 Riel 1972Cambodia 500 Riel 1972 FrontFront

Cambodia 500 Riel 1972 BackBack

The note is old and dingy, yes, but still beautiful. Always look for French on the banknotes: this is your guarantee of beauty. Former French colonies often have gorgeous notes -- until the past couple of decades, when the rot set in. La Belle France herself gave up that ghost even earlier. This is the sort of thing they got up to before the war (50F, 1931). Now, of course, they have that nasty-colored Euro spirograph money. They'll be featuring combines next, just you watch.

Go here for all your money-ogling needs. And here's a site concentrating on the currency of French Indochina (which included Cambodia). Many lovely notes there, featuring lovelies. How French!


Friday, May 11, 2007

Foto Friday: Iao! Needle!

Iao Needle, Maui, Sep. 2003Iao Needle, Maui
Sep. 2003

It's hard to get a good picture of this object, since the site is often overcast, and the top of the Needle sometimes hidden in cloud. I think I went back on three different days, and wasn't able to get a sunny photo. Apparently I was supposed to "get there early for the best view." I did not know that.

This isn't the best of the pictures I got, but it is the best from this angle. This fellow had somewhat better luck from a different perspective.

Down the road from the Needle is the Kepaniwai Heritage Garden, sort of a paen to multiculturalism. There are buildings and statues representing the various ethnic groups that live in Hawaii. The Japanese gardens are lovely. The Portuguese have what ought to be a nice little arbor, but it was pretty scraggly-looking when I was there.

Nearby are the Tropical Gardens of Maui, a little commercial garden. They sell plants, but for a fee you can wander around the gardens and see many interesting flowers and whatnot. If you go, take bug spray. It was very dark under there, but I managed to get a couple nice flower pictures, including one of the rare black[1] bat flower, which I will post some day.

(Hmm. I see the place is for sale. Sadly, I do not have that much in my piggy bank.)

[1]OK, I don't know how rare it is, but doesn't "rare black bat flower" sound cool? Yes.

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Film Festival Calls Attention to Ignored Issue

Gosh, this sounds like fun! There's a film festival in town!

"It is an issue that is at the heart of conflict in the world right now," said Sehba Sarwar, founding director of Voices Breaking Boundaries, which organized the festival. "It is one of the most ignored issues, and it is presented from one perspective generally in the west."

What could this sadly ignored issue be? Here, I'll give you a hint: it's the "Houston Palestine Film Festival".

That's right! One of the most ignored issues that has ONLY BEEN IN THE NEWS EVERY GODDAMNED DAY FOR THE PAST FORTY FLIPPIN' YEARS.

Films include Leila Khaled Hijacker and the jolly-sounding Bethlehem Bandolero. There's a still from the latter film accompanying the article. The caption reads:

Bethlehem Bandolero is a kitsch video featuring Larissa Sansour as a Mexican gunslinger arriving in Bethlehem for a duel with the Israeli Segregation Wall.

No comment.

I wonder if they'll be showing the Hamausketeer Show.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

This Looks Like a Job for NUMISTMATISTMAN!

You remember a while back when US defense contractors were warned that sooper sekrit spy coins were planted on defense contractors in Canada?

The Defense Department is warning its American contractor employees about a new espionage threat seemingly straight from Hollywood: It discovered Canadian coins with tiny radio frequency transmitters hidden inside.

The government insists the incidents happened, and the risk was genuine. "What's in the report is true," said Martha Deutscher, a spokeswoman for the security service. "This is indeed a sanitized version, which leaves a lot of questions."

At the time, several blog commentators (and me, though I don't remember writing about it anywhere) wondered how they'd make a coin identical in weight to a regular coin, yet filled with spy stuph. And how far you could transmit using an antenna no bigger than a coin, encased in metal. And why a coin, for Godsake, which your mark is gonna insert into the nearest vending machine. And...Canada?

Well, it turns out that it was all a big misunderstanding, and that the super duper spy coins were really just commemorative quarters:

The stunning explanation behind the U.S. government's sensational warnings about mysterious Canadian spy coins is the harmless poppy quarter.

The world's first colourized coins were so unfamiliar to suspicious U.S. army contractors travelling in Canada that they filed confidential espionage accounts about them.

Link chosen for its headline: "Canucks are 2-bit spies: U.S." (Here's another good one: Mysterious spy coin simply poppycock. That one has a picture and quotes from peeved Canadians.)

The Royal Canadian Legion (scroll down) has a long write-up about the coins, with some info about the color printing process. Nice V commemorative nickel there, too. Here's a site showing the quarter rolls in their special paper wrappers. Sold out, now, though.

This is my favorite part:

Worried contractors described the coins as "filled with something man-made that looked like nano-technology," according to once-classified U.S. government reports and e-mails. The supposed nano-technology on the coin actually was a protective coating the Royal Canadian Mint applied to prevent the poppy's red colour from rubbing off.

Don't know what it is? It must be NANO-TECHNOLOGY!

"Under high power microscope, it appeared to be complex consisting of several layers of clear, but different material, with a wire-like mesh suspended on top."

So the genius put it under a high power microscope, but it didn't occur to him to Google recent Canadian coin issues, or even to go up to a clerk and ask, in his best hick voice, "Hyuk. Lookit this here quarter. Never seed nothin' like that before. Says it's a "Remember Souvenir." Reckon it's worth somethin'?" And then the clerk would tell him it's just a fancy quarter, and would have a new "stupid American" story to share with friends and family. Canadians love that.

You know, most guys would say, "Whoa, a colored coin! Cool! The kids will get a kick out of this." But I guess when you're a defense contractor, danger is your middle name, and every man's hand is turned against you. They must have to beat off the slinky spy dames with a stick.

Canadian blogger Marian Bantjes has a close-up of the poppy (scroll down) which nicely shows the sinister nano mesh. Apparently up in Canada they have home high-power microscopes. The alternative explanation would be that you don't need a microscope to see the mesh, just a magnifying glass.

(Enjoy the other nice Canadian coins there. I didn't realize Canada changed their coins so often, or that they had such nice designs. At the top, Bantjes rightly notes that Americans are stubborn about their money, resisting changes in its appearance. Damn straight. Those state quarters and president dollars are nice -- I collect 'em -- but I hope we go back to the old designs when that's all done. And bring back the Eisenhower dollar, dammit! And get rid of those peach-colored bills; looks like Monopoly money. OK, money rant over.)

As several of the above sites note, these coins were first available only at Tim Hortons. I guess that poppy does resemble a donut. A cruller, maybe.

Blogger's all weird and slow today. I blame nanotechnology!

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Foto Friday: Camp Curry

As part of their continuing saga of last year's vacation (to be continued, if David plays his cards right, until next year's vacation) the Fleck y Breen griped about Camp Curry. In particular:

The whole thing is raised up about 2 feet off the ground, but is only about eight inches away from its neighbor tents...The canvas walls offer very little privacy; everything that happens in the neighboring tents sounds like it's happening at our very elbows, as, in fact, it is.

Ha! This is an utter calumny, as demonstrated in this photo from, er, 1995. Not 2006.

Camp Curry, Yosemite, June 1995Camp Curry,
Yosemite, June 1995

None of these was our cabin, but it is typical of their spacing at the time. It does look sort of Civil War-ish in the B&W photo, doesn't it? Actually I was trying to capture the impromptu stairstep waterfall above. It had snowed quite a bit that winter, and was just melting in June. Tioga Pass was still closed.

To tell the truth, I was pleasantly surprised by the accommodations. There were actual flush toilets (not in the cabins, but in other buildings) and there wasn't an inch of standing sewage on the floor, so that was better than many campgrounds I've been to (which is why I don't go camping, as a rule).

Even Niles, who is most definitely an indoor boyfriend (always bathing his contacts and flossing his teeth and steam-cleaning his pores and god knows what-all) doesn't remember the bathrooms with horror, but instead bitches about the cold. It was quite cold, and the narrow twin bunks did not permit snuggling together for warmth.

This is one of those pictures I was sure would turn out all Anselly Adamsish, and it, um, didn't. Next time!

For really cool photographs, see Carel Struycken's Spherical Panoramas. Requires Quicktime or DevalVR (whatever that is). Now, when he says "spherical", he does not mean "cylindrical". That is, you can not only do a 360 degree pan, you can pan to zenith and nadir as well. Nadir -- where you'd expect to find a tripod or something. But it's not there! How dey do dat?

Carel Struycken was the tall guy who played Mr. Homn, Lwaxana Troi's manservant, in Star Trek:TNG. Actor, composer, photographer -- pretty interesting guy. Apparently "discovered" walking down the street. (No information on whether he was singing, "Doo wah diddy, diddy dum, diddy doo.") Check out the Trek-themed spherical panoramas here.

UPDATE: Whoa! Coincidence city! Who should appear tonight on Men in Black but Carel Struycken. (He was the friend of the tiny alien in the little old man suit, the one who kept the galaxy on his cat's collar. Whatever the hell that was all about.)

Via Lileks.

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