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May 12, 2005

Global warming and that river in Egypt

I have to say, I don't know why it's so important for conservatives who don't work for GM or ExxonMobil to take up the anti-science position on global warming. I mean, what's in it for them? Why do they have a dog in that fight at all, except that the folks who are attacking the science are nominally conservative? I really don't get it.

So, I've been taking up the cause on a conservative Yale kid's blog. Maybe I'm wasting my time, but I figure we've got to do the convincing one person at a time. How'm I doin?

Posted by Charley on the MTA at 05:11 PM in National | Permalink


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What a lot of sane-sounding, completely boneheaded people...

Why is their main argument "I believe global climate change is happening, and it might even be man-caused, but I think we can't do anything about it"???

Look, it's all about the carbon locks. Carbon is locked in many ways - in trees (which do eventually die and release carbon, but en masse, they hold a lot of carbon), in oil under the ground, and in stuff like coal, etc.

Once you start unlocking that carbon, you have an unnatural situation. Do the math. X carbon has been locked since forever. Y amount of that carbon is now being released in the form of CO2 into the atmosphere by man-made efforts. We burn thousands of acres of Brazilian forests for farm land. We consume gastly amounts of oil. We blow the tops off of mountains and take the coal and burn that in our plants. The sheer level is astounding when you think about it.

And that's what you gotta do to stop, reverse, or at least MITIGATE the effects - find alternatives to carbon-based energy, stop burning down trees for the hell of it, so that time and maybe even a little help from Man can lock up that carbon again. If you keep sending up carbon at the rates we do, THAT IN ITSELF is something we are not doing to prevent or reduce the impact we're having.

Anyway, why talk science to selectively listening audiences? *sighs*

Posted by: Lynne | May 12, 2005 5:35:29 PM

"Anyway, why talk science to selectively listening audiences? *sighs*"

Because I hope that persistence will win the day.

They do sound sane, and that's why I'm talking to them. *All* sane people believe certain things that are probably not true. I wish I were better at convincing them.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | May 12, 2005 5:45:10 PM

After he said this:

I do not ask the Yale profs because I know where they stand--in the same place as just about every other science professor at just about every university in the country. Oh, and, just about every other professor in the country.

what else can you possibly do?

Posted by: worldcitizen | May 12, 2005 6:07:28 PM

I guess I'm in cynical mode at the moment...the only bright political spot in my day was watching Barak Obama wax all smart regarding that gastly Bolton guy.

However, I do make the effort to talk to what seem like reasonable thinking people regarding this and other issues...my family. The whole damn lot of them are smart people, but really really stupid (save one uncle and two cousins). It gets to the point where you finally discover it's freaking pointless.

People don't get talked out of behaviors or beliefs. They come to conclusions on their own. No amount of debate will win most folks over, no matter how reasonable they sound on the surface. Or at least, that's how it seems to me at times...

Posted by: Lynne | May 12, 2005 6:24:43 PM

Hey worldcitizen... yeah, that's quite an acknowledgment on his part. It's interesting how people assign inconvenient facts to their messengers: "Media bias", "academic bias" ... anything but admitting that the facts don't support their position.

That's because pride gets in the way. Somehow we need to make it easier for people to save face. I'm not sure I've done that at this fellow's blog. I'll try harder next time. :(

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | May 12, 2005 6:47:36 PM

I suspect one difference is that some institutional memories are shorter than others due to the memory hole effect. Back in the olden days, it was certain that there was a 'global cooling' which would lead to an ice age.

And, remember the ozone hole? We stopped using some ozone-depleting products, but other people had not. The science says it got a lot better, way faster than could be accounted for by that change, and that it was more or less on its own. Is there really a causal relationship between the two? Or just an unfortunate statistical correlation.

Only then did the cry become 'global warming', which at the time didn't come from particularly good science, and still doesn't.

For one thing, why is extra energy going to translate to sunburns and rising tides - why not just more kinetic energy? Extra wind. Bigger thunderstorms. One extra hurricane every few years. It takes energy to move mass, and there's a ginormous mass of air that can be moved around which ends up sloughing off extra energy from the atmosphere. We've got some built-in climate control, we haven't been around this long without it, and the sun dumps more energy and more varied energy in a day than we can account for effecting in our existence as a species.

Now, that's not to say global warming doesn't exist: it _is_ plausable, but there's nothing determinative about the causality between climate change (which, statistically, is just gonna happen) and the stuff we spew in the air. In the 80s, I remember being told in 20 years that Boston would be like Carolina. Not so much this last winter, I noticed.

Climate change has been driven by hyperbole from the start. Why is that?

Haven't you noticed it is a _very_ good way to get people up in arms about something, and that it gets people giving money to 'causes' to help eliminate, money to political parties to fix. It's generated a lot of book sales and academic grants too.

Why is it that the answer to global warming is using less oil - but the means the left takes to get there is mass protests, bigger government, and fundraising?

Why does it seem that those people who are most agitated on the subject are those same people who want, basically, a marxist centrally-managed, government controlled economy? Why aren't the capitalists onboard?

If it were such a slam-dunk problem and it's as serious as you assert, why aren't there more dedicated young people becoming engineers and physicists with a goal of developing solutions to fix the problem (increase effiency, alternate fuel), or businesspeople to exploit those solutions without a government-imposed devestation on the economy, than there are people who just carp and bitch about it? How many of you have bought new latest, nifty hybrid cars? I plan on buying one when the price is comparable, but not until. You should be paying a huge 'conscience premium' (after all, it's only money, and this is the environment we are talking about) for them to help them get the technology better. But, most of you don't either.

For me, I'm agnostic on global warming. If you can figure out a way to harness and transport energy from here to there without oil and without screwing up our economy, it will increase our security by decreasing our dependence on Arab countries. I'm on board. I don't care.

But, when entitled limosine liberals says wind farms make the Cape look ugly, so that's out, and populist charlitans constantly propose 'renewable sources' that won't work on a large scale but need government funding anyway, and the psychonauts of your party exibit mass irrational fear-protests and NIMBYism of new nuclear power plants, you've left little practical to go on.

Posted by: jrp | May 12, 2005 7:37:26 PM

I always thought it was because they were dicks.

Posted by: The troll | May 12, 2005 8:03:59 PM

JRP: You take the prize for the longest comment ever. :) Thanks for contributing. I'll just address a couple of things.

1. You are totally right about NIMBYism and the wind farm. I'm completely with you there.

2. Ozone: nope, it's still diminishing.

3. Look, I'm a practical guy. If the market is going to move in the direction of environmentally responsible technologies, that's fantastic. For instance, I'm tickled, thrilled, overjoyed, whatever, that GE has decided to pour so much into environmental technology. I hope they make zillions, and their shareholders fabulously rich. No protests, no long hair, no folk songs, OK? I'm totally bourgeois that way, honest. But most of all, I hope the technologies *work* at preventing damage from global warming.

Also, we pay a premium in taxes and blood for our gasoline and heating oil. $2.23 a gallon (or whatever it is now) is not the total price. Again, this is not some lefty-peacenik thing: I went to see Newt Gingrich at Harvard a couple of weeks ago, and he talked about China's growing need to secure its oil supply, which takes military power, and therefore $. It just does.

So, *until* the market decides to move in the direction of clean and renewable sources because of high prices, it's perfectly reasonable, for environmental, military, and economic reasons, for government to "incentivize" good kinds of energy. I actually think we may agree on that...

4. Regarding the science: Look, I'm a musician. I'm not an expert on this stuff. So I would tell you the same thing I told the Yale fellow: Let's ask the scientists! Ask the people whose *job* it is to study this stuff. And this (and this) is what they say.

Again, we don't agree on a lot of things, but I thank you for your respectful posting.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | May 12, 2005 8:28:39 PM

JRP: regarding ozone, check this out. It's got cool animations of the ozone layer. Graphs too. Nifty.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | May 12, 2005 8:37:16 PM

JRP: RE the temps in the northeast - the prediction now is that we'd get much, much colder - because we're kept (strangely) temperate by the Gulf Stream, which would likely be weakened in a global warming scenario. Northern Europe will also be losing their temperate climates as well. That data is starting to come in - more snow in England (which rarely sees it), nastier winters and cooler temps year-round here. Have you been noticing anything lately? I have.

The fact is, the world climate system is heavily complicated. There are always better and newer models being made (thanks to computers and more data) and predictions do change. One place's warming is another place's cooling is another place's drought is another place's flooding. But the fact of our interferance isn't in question.

Oh, and I'm pro-wind farm, definitely. I wish they'd just build it already!

Posted by: Lynne | May 13, 2005 11:14:14 AM

I think some people just want to avoid responsibility. As soon as you admit the problem exists and that you are part of the problem, now you either have to take some responsibility and do something, or have to feel guilty if you don't.

Deny the problem, and you can go on with your cushy view of the world that takes care of itself so you don't have to. Endless oil, endless trees, safe nuclear energy, etc. Then there is the far right that believes God will take care of everything.

Posted by: Andrew | May 13, 2005 12:26:26 PM

I thought you did pretty well, Charley, though it was a bit like a tactical nuclear strike on a mosquito! It would be difficult to achieve any tangible satisfaction from a discussion with one so close-minded. I don't wish to sound condescending, but for a blogger who went out of his way to proclaim even-handedness, Yale guy's phrase, "you've baited me long enough" is something of a tip-off to the contrary.

My own conclusions, if I were motivated enough to do some research, would not differ from yours in principle. I confess I am critical of any study, or op-ed piece for that matter, until I am assured of who commissioned and/or paid for it. But, bottom-line: a weblogger needs to defend his arguments coherently. His response is the metaphorical equivalent of taking one's toys & going home. The contrasting opinions posted by jrp on this blog set a far superior example.

Props to AAAS...my grandad's been a subscriber for as long as I can recall!


Posted by: Alex from Troy | May 14, 2005 10:02:49 PM

Hi, Charley.

I know I'm a latecomer here; I found this post via a chain of links from a post I wrote on the subject here. I know this discussion is basically over, but I find one thing you've written particularly interesting. You say

"Look, I'm a musician. I'm not an expert on this stuff. So I would tell you the same thing I told the Yale fellow: Let's ask the scientists!"

That attitude disturbs me, and it will not lead you where you want to go. For example, I'm a scientist. And I say that the global warming data we have are suspect and the computational models are unsound.

Do you take my word for it? Of course not; nor should you. But if you won't take my word for it, why should you take some other scientist's word for it? Isn't this how false consensus is born? A few very vocal climate researchers start hollering that they "know" the world's going to end. A few others defer to their expertise and start echoing their arguments without really examining the data. And then a few more. And pretty soon "scientists agree" on global warming. But in reality, not very many of those scientists have ever really looked at the data or thought about the theory. They're just all deferring to a very few, vocal experts who have staked their careers on global warming theory. So the sheer number of scientists who buy into warming theory is not relevant to the issue of whether warming is happening or what ought to be done about it.

Look, I'm not claiming that I know global warming isn't happening. I'm just acknowledging that I don't know if it is, or what's causing it, or exactly what ought to be done about it. Lots of people feel they do know all of those things. But very few of them base their confidence in the theory on actual examination of the data.

Understand that capping CO2 emissions carries real consequences for real people. People will lose their jobs; people will go hungry. If you want to advocate capping CO2 emissions anyhow, that's your right. But coupled to that right is a responsibility to educate yourself on the meat of the issue: the nature of the data, models, and theory upon which your argument rests. Advocating emission caps purely on other peoples' thinking is a nontrivial abdication of your responsibility to the real people who would be really, meaningfully hurt by the policies you would implement.

Posted by: Brian | May 16, 2005 1:46:54 PM

Hi Brian,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate your thoughtful challenges.

In response, I would say that I acknowledge that my argument is predicated on an "appeal to authority" -- that is, the vast majority of people in the relevant sciences who believe that 1. Global warming is real, and 2. Humans are causing it. Now, why do I do this? Simply because I lack the expertise and training to conduct studies and analyze data in a meaningful way. Therefore I am indeed at the mercy of those who *are* trained and able to draw conclusions from such data. I am not a scientist of any sort, (although I did take classes in college); I'm just a normal citizen, doing the best I can to come to a responsible conclusion.

Please note that you've not accurately characterized my argument. I said, "Let's ask the scientists [plural]", not "Let's ask any old scientist." Of course, individual climatologists/geologists/people in related sciences will differ in their assessments of the problem. However, *in the aggregate*, there is a consensus that global warming is happening and that we are causing it. To say that there is disagreement about whether it exists is analogous to saying that people in Boston are "divided" about whether they prefer the Yankees or the Red Sox: technically true (there are some Yanks fans hiding out around here), but absolutely misleading.

Now, you've also mischaracterized the discussion in the scientific community as "false consensus". Why and how do you think that climate scientists have "not really looked at the data or thought about the conclusions"? You write: "Lots of people feel they do know all of those things. But very few of them base their confidence in the theory on actual examination of the data." Well, just because you say so don't make it so. I challenge you to ask them yourself. Start with the Yale folks here, as I suggested to the Running for the Right fellow, and tell me what answer you get.

Really: ask the Yale profs this question, in virtually your own words: "Have you really looked at the data, or thought about the conclusions?"

As you've noted on your blog, there is not perfect data; and studies will differ as to the implications. In the real world, there is *never* perfect data. You have set the bar so high for the kind of data that you would accept as definitive, as to be totally unrealistic.

There are many, many studies of climate change which indicate the Big Two conclusions above. To my mind, from a public policy perspective, it's irresponsible to ask for *perfect* data when you've got mounds of "good" stuff -- data points unto themselves, if you like -- to look at.

Look, I sincerely applaud your effort to engage with the data, and critique the methods. But you and I are both out of our depth (even though you're a chemist) -- and it doesn't help matters to pretend otherwise.

By the way, there's lots more stuff at RealClimate. Get in a tangle with those folks, if you question the science. I am perfectly happy to hide behind their skirts, in the same way as I would depend on a surgeon to remove an appendix, or trust my car to a mechanic to fix my clutch. If you think you know better than them, I'd love to see the exchange. Post your dialogue here, if you like.

It seems to me that if you've got problems with how the science is being conducted, you need to take that up with the folks doing to the science, not folks who read your blog or who get your comments (although I'm glad to get them!).

And as for future consequences, and my "nontrivial abdication of responsibility": This *whole discussion* is all about future consequences: Will we have more severe weather? Will my city of Boston flood over the next century? How much will that cost? What about people who live in coastal areas who will be flooded out if this is true, as it seems to be? What about diseases?

"Nontrivial"? Tell me about it.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | May 16, 2005 10:17:15 PM

This is good. Now we're getting somewhere.

I'll leave aside for a moment your spurious suggestion that I ask some of the core group of global warming experts whether they've really looked at the data. Of course they have. But realize that many of the scientists who stand to be counted as in agreement with global warming theory are not experts; they're biologists and physicists and chemists like me. I guess we're talking about two different things: I was using "scientific consensus" in the vernacular, news-media sense that includes lots of non-climatologists; you seem to be using it to include only those who are experts in climate science. I agree with you that this particular group of scientists does, in the aggregate, buy into global warming theory. So let's go from there.

I'm not sure that limiting the field this way helps you very much. You say that you "acknowledge that [your] argument is predicated on an 'appeal to authority'". The rest of your response seems to me to simply elaborate on this point (advising me, for instance, to go and take it up with the RealClimate people). That's OK, I suppose, but I wonder: what did these experts ever do to win such deference?

I must say that I find your faith in the experts distressing, because these particular experts have said lots of really outlandish things and made lots of really bad predictions. Doesn't it bother you, for instance, that essentially every single quantitaive prediction made by climatologist on how much warming we would see over the last 15 years was wrong? When global warming theory was new, they talked about warming of 10K per decade. Then it was 5K, then 4K, then 2K. All told, what was really 'observed' (I use the term loosely, for the reasons described in my post) was something like a 1-1.5K increase in the 1990s.

Furthermore, doesn't it bother you that most of the data presented by global warming theorists clearly don't pass the snicker test? I mean, these guys continuously make bold statement like "last year was the hottest it's been in 900 years". When you hear that, isn't there some tiny voice in the back of your head that says "now, how the hell do they know what the global temperature was like 900 years ago?" The answer, of course, is that they don't know; they've formed some estimate based on tree trings and ice cores and some fragmented historical records. Then they ask us to believe the numbers are accurate enough to distinguish a couple of Kelvins of warming across the millenium. Aren't you, well, skeptical? For refernce, room temperature is nearly 300K. So to distinguish warming of 3K (the same as 3 degrees Celsius), measurements have to be accurate to within 1%. Do you think tree rings and ice cores give us that? Hell, do you think even modern thermometers give us that? And do you think, maybe, that the climate people who claim to have observed 3K worth of warming are a little too confident?

Look, if you want to blow off everything I say because I'm not a climatologist, then that's your business. But to my mind, not everything requires expertise. You're a musician, and I'm not. But I don't have to be an expert in your field to recognize brilliance when Elvis or BB King come on my radio, or to recognize tripe when it's Brittney Spears. And I don't have to be an expert in climatology to recognize that data claiming 1% accuracy over 1000 years are suspicious in the extreme, or to see that computer models whose every prediction is quantitatively wrong are not to be trusted.

This is already really long, but I want to do this one more thing. You say I set the bar impossibly high; I disagree. (I think models that are based on real physics and measurements taken the same way every time are a minimum standard, not a high one.) But try this thought experiment. Imagine that you live in a little mill town out West somewhere. Everyone in your town depends on the mill for support, either because they work for the mill or serve the people that do. Then, one day, some folks come in and announce that your mill is in imminent danger of destroying the world. They're real sorry, they say, but you'll have to shut it down. And yes, this means you and everyone you know will be out of work. Yes, it means radical (and not beneficial) changes in your way of life. But for the greater good, these experts say, it's got to be done. Now, what sort of standard would you apply to these experts' evidence and reasoning? Wouldn't you set the bar "impossibly high?"

Please make no mistake. Any attempt to cap or reduce CO2 emissions in the US by regulation *will* have serious economic consequences. If we are to bear these costs, we must be certain that we're not doing so for no reason. You deflected this criticism before by harping on about ever-more spectacular disasters that might happen. But I'm talking about what will happen. Millions of people *will* die of cancer and AIDS this year. Millions of people *will* go to bed hungry this year. Millions of people *will* live and die in filth and poverty this year. And every dollar we spend on deflecting what *might* happen with the climate is a dollar we don't spend helping all of those people. If we need to do that, fine. But many of us are unconvinced that the current state of the science justifies making the requisite sacrifices. If you are convinced, that's your business. But realize that the policies you advocate will effect real people profoundly. The least you can do is to have a look at the evidence and decide for yourself whether it looks like Elvis or Brittney.

Posted by: Brian | May 17, 2005 11:35:43 AM

Hi Brian, thanks for writing back. I'll address a couple of things, and then you can have the last word, if you like.

First, as for the "snicker test" and Britney Spears: personal incredulity is no substitute for data and the expertise to interpret it. There's a lot of data out there, and simply because some one or two studies make conclusions that *sound* unlikely to you, doesn't make it so. (By the way, if you could link to the studies you've mentioned, I'd appreciate it.) And, the general anxiety about this problem is based on many many such studies (in fact, the entire field of paleoclimatology). So, if you want to apply your personal incredulity to all of them ... you've got your work cut out for you.

And as for predictions, like the weather, they are difficult to make -- even people most intimate with climatology will tell you that. However, again like the weather, you do not need to have perfect information to know that there is a grave danger of continuing on our present course. Follow me into analogy-land, if you will:

You live on the east coast of Florida. There's a hurricane in the Caribbean. The storm is getting closer, and from meteorological modeling (the best information you have, though by no means perfect), day by day it becomes more likely that your house is right in the middle of the predicted path of the storm. So, the day before the storm is supposed to hit, what's your plan? Do you: 1. board up the house and go inland -- disrupting your family and work life, playing havoc with your routine, doubtless -- or do you 2. stick around, thinking, "Ah, those weathermen get it wrong all the time. I'm staying put."

I think you see what I mean. There is definitely a cost to doing (1), but in any event you will likely avoid disaster, if not disruption. If you do (2), hey, maybe nothing happens and you're sitting pretty, but if the storm hits, you're #@$%ed. Calamity.

I suppose that we disagree about how far off the storm is. But at least I'm looking at the Doppler radar map and listening to the weatherman.

In your last paragraph, your point about tradeoffs is very well taken indeed. I would say two things to that:

1. I am not at all convinced that converting to lower-emission technologies needs to be a hit to the economy -- actually, just the opposite. Frankly, I think the Fed. Government should "incentivize" the whole Rust Belt to become the Wind Belt, or Solar Belt, or what have you. We need an arms race for energy, for economic and national security reasons as much as anything. Wind power will be cheap, after the initial investment. And by the way, GE and BP are really getting into alternative energies. Why? Because they want to make money and create jobs.

2. Doesn't it make sense to do everything we can to avert *future* humanitarian disasters? It is a natural human tendency to discount future tradeoffs, but you know, I plan on having grandchildren some day.

Anyway, you have the floor. Thanks for coming by.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | May 17, 2005 3:35:57 PM

You're very gracious in offerring me tha last word here, so I want to use it to focus on common ground.

I like your analogy; especially the part where you say "I suppose that we disagree about how far off the storm is." Yes, we do. But that's not the only thing to consider here.

In a hurricane evacuation, there are more variables in play than you're letting on. That is, it's not a simple, digital decision of "will we evacuate." Rather, the decision must be made quantitatively based on how several factors balance out.

First, how likely is the storm to hit? Even with something so simple as a hurrucane (a giant storm everybody can see and whose motion everybody can watch), forecasters are very often wrong. Last year Ivan was predicted to devastate the Mississippi Gulf Coast; shortly before landing it abruptly turned and went ashore in Alabama. Meanwhile, New Orleans (and its multibillion-dollar-a-year port) were shut down and evacuated over what was essentially a rainy day.

Second, how bad is it likely to be? There are all kinds of hurricanes, which range in intensity from really bad to catastrophic. Again, it's really hard to get a handle on this. A couple of years ago a Cat 5 hurricane bore down on New Orleans; it was predicted to be devastating. Shortly before it came ashore, it abruptly weakened to a Cat 3. Again, huge tracts of the coast were evacuated for a windy day.

Third, how far will we have to run to avoid it? How much of a pain in the ass will it be? This has to effect your decision, right? If you're in the Keys, you might have to go all the way to Georgia to escape the danger zone. You'll be gone for days; the cost in time and money will be extreme. By contrast, if you live in Biloxi a simple 2 hour drive will take you to 100 miles inland to safety. You can, essentially, go to dinner and a show in Jackson then drive home.

During hurricane season, everybody looks at the same data and reaches different conclusions. That's not because some of them aren't paying attention, as you suggest. It's because they all try to judge for themselves how likely the storm is to hit, how bad it will be, and how much it will cost to evacuate to safety. Then they try to put this all together in sort of a risk-benefit analysis and come to a decision on what to do.

Sometimes it's easy to make these decisions. Sometimes the probability of landing is very high, the storm is very strong, and the cost of evacuation is very low. In that case you obviously evacuate. What do you do, though, when the likelihood is high, the severity is low, and the cost is high? It's hard to say. You have to strike your own balance based on your own experience, intuition, and perspective.

That's what we're all doing with global warming, you know. We're judging how likely it is to be real, how bad we really think it will be, and what (if anything) we think we'll have to do to prevent it. Then we decide if we think the risk justifies the cost. That we all come to different conclusions is perfectly natural; it simply reflects the fact that we all come at the problem with different perspectives.

When I started writing my comments here, and even earlier when I started writing my own series of posts on global warming theory, I didn't really expect to change anyone's mind. I realize I lack the authority for that; I am, after all, just a quantum chemist. So my goals were more modest than that. All I wanted was to:

1. Open some dialogue, and get some people thinking. I think we've done that.

2. Try to help people who believe in global warming see the point of view of those of us who do not.

That last is the most important to me, because I'm all about bulding bridges. Your original post asks the question

"I don't know why it's so important for conservatives who don't work for GM or ExxonMobil to take up the anti-science position on global warming."

I wrote these comments (much longer than any I've ever written before) because I wanted to answer this question. While I know I haven't won you over to my point of view, I hope you can at least see that it's possible for sane, thoughtful people to come to different conclusions than you about the soundness of global warming theory. In other words, I hope you and some of your commenters come away from this realizing that not all global warming skeptics are "boneheaded" or just a bunch of "dicks."

Thanks for the space. Stay warm up there, yankee.

Posted by: Brian | May 18, 2005 3:14:12 PM

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