Sunday, January 23, 2011

Silent Spring Backlash

On a student's recommendation, I checked out the book The Fly in the Ointment by Dr. Joe Schwarcz.  I'm always going on about the increase of toxins in our environment and how to avoid getting overloaded.  Schwarcz insists eating spoonfuls of DDT is perfectly safe and that Rachel Carson (of Silent Spring fame) used junk science to convince the masses that DDT is harmful.

Schwarcz examines one of the many studies from Carson's book and shows how the treatment group of birds (exposed to DDT) had almost as many eggs hatch as the control group (no DDT).  And there are a few studies that show no harm, in fact an improvement in egg hatching.  Therefore, according to Schwarcz, all her studies are flawed.  I was just about to count the number of principle sources she used in her book, but they take up 53 pages of notes, and I don't want to count that many.  Suffice it to say, that study he jumped on wasn't the only study she used to back up her claim that DDT affects fertility in birds and likely affects fertility in people.  Eating a spoonful of DDT won't kill you.  But if you're a woman, and you inhale the stuff over years because you live on a farm or near a golf course, you might end up having problems conceiving.

Schwarcz laments the many children dying of malaria because of Carson, but Carson never advocated for a total ban of DDT, she just wanted it much more controlled than it was back in 1962.  I agree with both of them that spraying to stop deadly malaria is a good use for this pesticide.  Spraying it on our fields as a regular practice here - not so much.  And, most importantly, spraying it on lawns and golf courses to kill off cinch bugs and other "pests" because we love the aesthetics of a monoculture - not at all.

Schwarcz also is a consultant for Monsanto.  Just saying.

There are a lot of conflicting studies and scientific expertise on different scientific topics.  Carson is a marine biologist with a masters in zoology.  She wanted to do a PhD, but had to leave school to support her family. Devra Davis is an epidemiologist with a PhD in sciences and post doc work in oncology.  Schwarcz has a PhD in chemistry.  When PhDs conflict, how do we know what's true?

We can take the time to look at the research the scientists have studied.  It's especially important with "pop" science and social science books.  I did that with The Tipping Point series.  The studies are fun and interesting, but I want to withhold judgment until I read the original studies. It's usually pretty easy to find them on-line.  Look for controlled and treatment groups, large sample sizes, random samples, isolated variables, if the studies were repeated with similar results, and other markers of good scientific research.

A fast method, though, and the bottom line for me is that if we can live without certain synthetic products, then we should.  Eat low on the food chain, free range, organic, when it's possible, and here and now, that's really easy to do.  Avoid plastics and fragrances.  Really none of that is a big deal or difficult.  And I don't think it's paranoid to avoid buying a whole lot of crap we don't need.  Also, when studies conflict, always follow the money.  If Carson made up her studies (or Davis), what would she have to gain from that?  But Monsanto has a whole lot to lose if they can't find some PhDs to rail against these claims that pesticides can harm us.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

God vs Trees: A Confession

Okay, I was totally busted in the paper today.  I wrote a letter to the editor at the Record last Tuesday suggesting that one thing we hadn't considered in the whole giving-Bibles/Korans-to-every-grade-5-in-the-region issue was the number of trees destroyed to make all that paper.  But I used a quotation to further my argument from Revelations 7:3 about not hurting trees.  Truth be told, I knew I was taking the passage out of context.  The point of that bit of writing is that nothing bad will happen to the world (like the apocalypse or the second coming or what have you) until after God saves his loyal servants, not that we should be nice to the planet.

What was I thinking?  Well, I thought for those in the know, it would get a chuckle (if they knew that I knew, that is), and for those not, it might get a following.  The mere suggestion that it's right there in the Bible that we mustn't harm the trees might go a long long way towards their protection - maybe more than would happen from a more secular environmental approach.  Underhanded?  Perhaps.  I'm at a loss for what else can possibly influence people to care about the earth.

But the letter outing me sends the whole dialogue in a different direction.  First the writer suggests that if we get flyers we don't ask for which wastes paper, and the Bible's more valuable than flyers, then it's not a waste of paper to print off tons of copies of the Bible that people don't request.  In other words, since we get some things we don't want, then it should be acceptable to get other things of greater value that we also don't want.  That's two wrongs don't make a right.  I don't like flyers either, so that argument doesn't really convince me.  The Bible is definitely more valuable than flyers, but the question remains:  is it valuable enough to allow many trees to meet an untimely death for copies that might go untouched or get tossed when it can be easily read on-line in full with professional commentary to boot?

But a more interesting thing is how the letter is being interpreted.  Several people told me that there's a rebuttal in the paper that suggests that God is more important than trees.   If you read it carefully, it doesn't really say that.  But that's how it's being interpreted, and it certainly suggests that.  So which matters more:  what's actually said, or how it's understood by the people reading it?  Because the people who brought it to my attention seemed to miss the fact that I was being chastised for quoting out of context, but instead wanted to start a dialogue on which is more important, God or trees.

I'm leaning towards trees, myself, but can't it be both?  And, for some, isn't it the same thing anyway?

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Monday, January 10, 2011

An Eco Rap

Video by EcoPanik
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Sunday, January 2, 2011


I just finished Devra Davis' new book, Disconnect, about cell phones.  Here's the main point:


This is a controversial topic, and she lays out every bit of research out there in heavily annotated detail.  I'll summarize the most compelling pieces of information below with page numbers from the book.  If you want a summary of my summary, just read what's in bold.

She explains how radio waves work and why many think nonionizing radiation shouldn't harm us (16).  "If nonionizing radiation didn't break ionic bonds, and the intensity used was too low to produce any change in temperature, what trouble could it possibly cause?" (19)  One of the biggest arguments against cell phones being a problem is that there's radiation everywhere, right?  The sun radiates us.  So what's the big deal?  Well, nothing sits next to our bodies giving off a constant source of artificial radiation like cell phones do.  And there are many experiments that show a serious problem with nonionizing radiation.


There is more religion in men’s science, that there is science in their religion.” - Henry David Thoreau

There’s no money for independent research in science, so almost all research is funded by industry. (Universities are also funded by industry.) So there is no impartiality any longer. There’s no certainty around cell phones because “this issue has been manufactured by those with deep pockets whose bottom line remains their primary focus…. As it did with tobacco, asbestos, benzene, and hormone replacement therapy” (202).

Several governments (France, Finland, Israel) are acting to reduce exposures to cell phone radiation and insisting on more public information (202). We insist on seeing proof that an epidemic is under way before acting to restrain exposures to an agent that damages DNA, weakens the blood-brain barrier, and unleashes destructive free radials throughout the body (203).

The Stewart Commission recommends limits on cell phone use and advises that children under age sixteen not use cell phones at all (208).

Davis ends the book with this: “Years from now our grandchildren will look back and ask: Did we do the right thing and act to protect them, or did we harm them needlessly, irresponsibly, and permanently, blinded by the addictive delights of our technological age?” (243).

Everything on cell phones here also goes for cordless phones and wireless signals to computers. It’s all the same type of radiation.

But there’s radiation everywhere, right? “The levels of radio frequency signals that started the only world we know were billions of times less than those that are getting into our heads today around the world” (81).

Her information told a compelling story. Below, it’s all chronological.  I’ve been told this concern is just another way to get us afraid. I don’t think so. I don’t think telling people to keep their phones an inch from their bodies when they’re on is any more fear inducing than telling them to wear a seatbelt or a bike helmet. I don’t advocate destroying them, just using them safely. Even if the research is all a big hoax (to whose benefit I must wonder), why fight against taking some very simple precautions?

Absence of research has become the rationale for making no changes. There are many studies finding inconclusive results, but most of these are funded by the cell phone industry including the WHO Electromagnetic Field project (48). Science is limited by political and economic circumstances that determine what questions are asked, who gets to answer them, and whether that work becomes public (52).

Why do similar studies show different results? “Those who set up studies that are supposed to replicate work on the blood-brain barrier, can make changes in the design that are small but critical. Basically what is supposed to be an identical experiment with contrary results turns out to be not similar at all – significant changes have been made to ensure the study won’t work. Studies are done not to clarify the problem, but to confuse people. Most of the studies that find no problem have been sponsored directly by the industry and have used slightly different approaches. The generation of negative studies in this area has been deliberate” – Allan H. Frey (68).

“Because the causes of chronic disease can take decades to be detected, we should not wait for definitive human evidence” (56). “It is far easier to keep doing studies aimed at evaluating whether there is a problem and probing the numerous uncertainties of the field than it is to come up with policies to curtail or control potential sources of that problem while studies continue” (49).

3G and 4G phones use a wider bandwidth, and continually send digitally pulsed signals to base stations to get new information. As a result, they can result in greater cumulative exposure to radio frequency signals (46).


1960s - Milton Zaret, an ophthalmologist in New York – examined 1,600 air force, navy, and army workers to see if their jobs with radar and radio frequency exposure had any impact on their eyes. Typically half of all people age 70 have cataracts in both eyes. Almost no one has cataracts in their 20s or 30s or only one eye unless something has damaged the membrane. He found posterior cataracts in men under 40 uniquely tied with microwave exposure (196).

1962 – Safety standards for radio frequency radiation in the U.S. date back to 1962, long before cell phones moved from theory to reality (74).

1970s - Allan H. Frey, Office of Naval Research, demonstrated that radio frequency radiation relaxed the membrane surrounding the brain. This information was used to help chemotherapeutic agents pass across the brain barrier (65). Exposures to radio frequency add up over time. If the same area gets tweaked over and over again, repair may not happen as easily or at all (90). Frey showed that radio frequency signals opened up the normally closed barrier between the blood and brain. He injected dye into the bloodstream of white rats then exposed them to pulsed microwave signals. Within a few minutes the brains of the injected rats began to darken. The rats not exposed to the microwaves did not get dye into their brains (111). Others claimed the studies were wrong through a repeated study in which, instead of injecting dye into the artery where it could circulate, they injected it into the abdomen, waited a minute before killing the rat, then found no evidence that the dye reached the brain because it did have time to circulate completely – they made sure of that (113).

1973 – Dietrich Beischer found radio frequency signals raised triglycerides and blood pressure in humans. Just before he was going to report the results publically, he called a colleague to apologize that he couldn’t make it, and he couldn’t ever talk to him again (157).

1980s - Leif Salford, a neurosurgeon at the Lund, Sweden, was concerned that if microwaves can help chemo get into the brain, what else do they let in. For the past twenty years at the Rausing Laboratory of Sweden, they examined brain cells from rodents using mobile phone exposures of 2-6 hours a day. Animals exposed to just two hours of cell phone signals were much less able to complete simple tasks at which they usually excelled. Even two months later exposed rats remained less capable (66).

Using computers to characterize gene patterns, Salford showed that rats subject to cell phone radiation have more direct brain damage, less ability to fix this, and greater chances of growing and acting strangely. Once the blood-brain barrier is breached, then anything circulating into our bodies at the time, alcohol, drugs, toxic chemicals, cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, will more readily enter the brain from the blood (66).

Henrietta Nittby has shown that rats exposed to cell phone signals for just two hours a day for a single week began to leak microscopic fluid from their brains into their blood which makes them vulnerable to taking in other agents in the blood that would normally never enter their brains.

The Lund team concludes that cell phone use in children may, “in the long run, result in reduced brain reserve capacity that might be unveiled by other later neuronal disease or even the wear and tear of aging” (67).

1993 – In a memo located by Microwave News, the FDA concluded that several studies showed that microwave radiation increased cancer risk – but by 1997, the FDA changed their mind and decided little is known about the health effects of exposure (44).

1994 - Henry Lai, University of Washington, subjected living rats to two hours of radio frequency radiation at the same level used in cell phones. Brain cells were taken from the animals and evaluated. DNA from the cells of these rats were broken. The broken brain cells found in these cell-phone-exposed animals are the same as those known to occur in cancer. To remain healthy, DNA needs to remain intact. This was the first time we saw direct evidence that cell-phone-type radiation adversely affects DNA (60).

1994 - Mays Swicord, University of Maryland, produced basic research that showed that radio frequency signals at the same frequency as cell phones could disturb the DNA within the center of brain cells for the FDA, but left the year cell phones were approved without any safety testing at all (42).

1996 – The Federal Telecommunication Act prevents local authorities from considering health concerns in deciding where cell phone towers can be placed (42).

1996 - Om P. Gandhi, University of Utah, contracted by the Defense Department, found that radio frequency signals were absorbed much more deeply into the brains of children than those of adults (79). The heads of smaller adults also absorb more radiation. To determine safety levels, the FDA uses a SAM model – a mock-up of a “standard” brain that is similar to a 200 pound man, and uniform in consistency, unlike our own brains which are of varying densities throughout. The SAM model is useless for developing real-life safety standards.

1997 – Jerry Phillips, a Motorola-supported scientist showed that genes of rodents exposed to cell-phone-like radiation looked significantly worse than those of unexposed animals. The paper was published, but someone added a line at the end, “…is probably of no physiologic consequence” that Phillips insists didn’t appear in his original report (43).

2000 – The FDA advised that the National Toxicology Program should test radio frequency radiation for its potential to cause cancer noting that there’s “insufficient scientific basis for concluding that wireless communication technologies are safe” (44).

2000 – Israel – The world’s heaviest cell phone users have triple the rate of cancer in persons under the age of twenty (84).

2000 – A Swedish analysis compared 1,400 people with brain tumors to a similar number without the disease from 1997 to 2000. They found that tumors of the auditory nerve were three times more frequent in people who had used cell phones for more than a decade (182).

2000 – Franz Adlkofer, head of the Verum Foundation which was funded by tobacco money for years. They worked with human cells and rat cells exposed and not exposed to radio frequency radiation found in cell phones. The DNA from the exposed cells looked sick. There was an increase in DNA strand breaks. Not just in this lab, but in two separate facilities as well. They consistently found increases in a type of damage called micro-nuclei, which proves the existence of serious genetic defects leading down the path to cancer (106-7). “The kind and extent of DNA damage became a very inconvenient fact of life.” They found ten times higher rate of broken DNA with the new 3G phones compared to 2G (121 – published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health). Then one of his research assistants suddenly was claimed to have admitted to fudging the data, and Adlkofer was charged with fraud. The assistant later insisted she said no such thing, but his name was already muddied. It didn’t matter that there were, at the time, eleven other independent studies that found similar results (122), the industry published the findings that “Cell Phones Do Not Damage DNA” based on the claims of one piece of fudged research. To make matters worse, the university demanded that all Adlkofer’s research be destroyed (127).

2001 – A commission of the Royal College of Physicians, chaired by William Stewart, said that children might be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure. “We believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for nonessential calls should be discourage.“ By children, they mean anyone under 16 (91).

2002 – Industry did a major study to prove the safety of cell phones. They reviewed health records of over 400,000 people who signed up for private use of cell phones between 1982 and 1995. They kicked out almost half the people – anyone who was part of a business that used cell phones (that is, the heaviest users), and only included people who used cell phones for personally purposes only and for less than eight years in total. They found that there was no evidence of harm. But, duh, they diluted the high-exposure group to lower their chance of finding an effect (181). They did agree, however, that cell phone signals do penetrate the brain. “During operation, the antenna of a cellular telephone emits radio frequency electromagnetic fields that can penetrate 4-6 cm into the human brain” (182), but they insisted it’s not clearly harmful.

2005 – C.K. Chou replaced Gandhi as advisor to the Defense Department. He also was a senior executive with Motorola – a clear conflict of interest. Under Chou, the committee relaxed the standards for cell phones. Today’s standards for cell phones have more than doubled the amount of radio-frequency radiation allowed into the brain (86). They use a model that holds the phone at least half an inch from the brain to determine levels of impact on the brain. Also nowadays phones are smaller with three or four antennas built directly into their backs. As a result, exposure to radio frequency radiation inside the brain is many times higher (87). Four different peer reviews of Chou’s critique of Gandhi’s work indicated that Chou’s critique was scientific junk (87).

All new manuals for cell phones include warnings to keep the phones away from the body – typically almost a full inch. This ensures that people can’t sue if the cell phones cause a problem unless they can prove they used them appropriately.

2008 – Ashok Agarwal, Cleveland Clinic, - Cell phones in the pocket lead to men with fewer sperm with more deformities (138). From a study of 400 men, men with the lowest sperm counts were significantly more likely to keep their phones on their bodies all the time. Men who used no cell phones had far healthier sperm than those who used a phone over two hours/day. Men who used the phone over four hours/day had the sickliest sperm counts. There is a clear and direct correlation between health of sperm and cell phone use (141). These aren’t the first studies to show this – it’s been shown in many different countries over decades (142).

2009 – Melaka Manipal Medial College – “teenaged” white rats exposed for just one hour a day had more damaging free radicals in their blood, reduced sperm counts, and lowered amounts of male hormones.

2009 – German study – Contrasted the life experiences and reported cell phone use of 366 people with deadly tumors of the brain called gliomas and 381 people with slow-growing, benign tumors of the membranes that cover the spinal cord, against 1,500 people between 30 and 69 who did not have brain tumors. Those who reported having used cell phones for ten years or more had twice the risk of gliomas.

2010 – Austria - Children’s brains are smaller and also developing faster. They absorb at least twice as much radio frequency radiation as those of adults. Bone marrow can take in ten times more radiation in children than in adults (82).

2010 – John Aitken, - After little more than a day of exposure to cell phone radiation, sperm becomes sluggish. There’s a dose-response relationship – as the dose goes up, so does the damage. The radiation does not directly damage the sperm’s DNA straight on, as happens when X-rays hit, rather, cell phone radiation weakens the ability of a sperm cell to function (143). Free radicals are generated through leaking mitochondria which harms DNA by weakening the basic structure of the genetic material (143). – Like a rubber band that’s been stretched too many times.

2010 - Lennart Hardell, Sweden, an expert on microwave radiation - “In my studies I find one pattern over and over again. Those who have used their phones the most and for the longest, have more malignant brain tumors than others” (176). Similar findings have been developed by scientists in Israel, Finland, Russian, and England. Hardell has also shown that those who start using cell phones regularly as teenagers have four to five times more brain cancer about ten years later, in their 20s (176).

On-going – For the past five years, scientists in Moscow have been following two groups of children between the ages of 5 and 12 – one group using mobile phone and the other not. Every year the children get a battery of tests. They found changes in the working of the brains of the cell phone users ranging from decreased capacity to work, increased fatigue, decrease in attention and semantic memory, and significant loss of the ability to tell the difference between different sounds. They also have functional problems – difficulties with learning and behaviour (61).

For the past twelve years, Lukas H. Margaritis, at the University of Athens, employs real cordless phones, Wi-Fi systems, and baby monitors and sends signals into cages where rats live. He then does memory tests with the rats. They are taught to swim to a platform – something they learn easily. Exposed rodents get confused and swim around in circles, unable to remember what it learned just a few hours earlier.

Other research from Greece found that the brains of rats whose mothers are exposed to cell phone radiation during pregnancy have cells that look different from those of unexposed rats. Small amounts of pulsed radio frequency radiation leave rat offspring with what looks like brain damage. They also studied a worm that can grow back when the animal is cut in half. After simple exposure, the worm grows back snarled and bent instead of straight and flat (62).

That’s It – Except….
There’s another whole section of the book about other concerns with power lines and particularly electricity used in the treatment of sports injuries strongly correlated to Lou Gehrig’s disease – but I just focused on phones here. That was enough!

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EcoSchools - This Time It's Personal

"I have not failed.  I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work."
       - Thomas Edison

I went to a staff Christmas party where there was, quite literally, some jovial pointing and laughing going on because I don't shop at Wal-Mart, don't eat at McDonalds, and have never owned a car.  Of course there are good reasons for these lifestyle choices, but that's besides the point.  If you're the EcoSchool rep, and you live by your convictions when it's not too difficult, then you might be perceived as being a bit of a freak show.  And that just sucks.

However, I was quite impressed by the instinctive social mechanisms that create community through conformity.  People who are different are relegated to the out-group until they start to tow the line.  That's a useful dynamic if we want to train people to be honest and trustworthy, ostracizing those that lie, cheat or steal.  It's just really unfortunate that what we conform to today has been largely determined by industry - consumerist mantras in the form of jingles.  Have you had a break today?

The question is, how do we make living with a conscientious worldview the in thing to do?  

It's easier not to care, and that won't likely change unless we're willing to elect a totalitarian government who will make us live ethically.  So it can't be a matter of making everything environmental easier to do. It has to be cool to be eco-friendly.  We've got celebrity endorsements on our side, but that's not enough. It has to be younger and hipper.  I wonder if a different teacher could get more people on board.  Hmmm...

But back to me.  One time I walked into a room with colleagues finishing their lunch, and one teacher said to the other, "Uh oh, we'll have to recycle today.  Marie's here."  I'm the bad guy, the eco-police.  People feel like they have to be careful around me.  And, truth be told, it never stops surprising me that people don't automatically recycle or compost or walk places.  Some eco-behaviours that were once ingrained in society, have actually been lost.  We were trained not to litter as kids.  Once the indoctrination between cartoons ended, the behaviour ended for the next generation.  It's curious how briefly good ideas stick around before they disappear and have to be re-introduced.

If someone puts recycling in the garbage, I'll question it because it's so baffling to me, or I'll just take it out myself and put it six inches to the left in the recycling bin which makes me a garbage-picker.  Excellent.  If I see people with a single-use cup every day, or even several times a day, I'll suggest they get a travel mug, or even offer to buy them one.  It's no wonder people avoid me.  It's a tricky line to walk:  reminding and encouraging people to get on board without being a thorn in their side or seeming self-righteous.

Maybe I just take being a gold-standard eco-school way too seriously and should just cut corners:  fudge the results, only compost in the staff room for instance (which still counts as composting), not actually try to decrease waste or energy, but just do the bare minimum to continue to qualify for a sticker each year.  Forget about the whole point of the program, and just go for it as a status symbol to attract more students to our school.  

The situation is reminiscent of when I did my Master's degree.  Many students in my class actually bragged about not reading the books we were assigned.  I read them and did the additional reading as well, not because I was told to, but because it makes sense to get the most out of the educational opportunity.  They could recount details of the previous night's Ally McBeal episode, but had to b.s. their way through questions asked in class.  It's the power of the immediate rewards over distant punishers.  Watching TV is more rewarding than reading regardless of the possible pain it will cause the next day in class - apparently even in grad school.   And getting good deals at WalMart is rewarding despite the long-term impact it may have on the uptown core of a city.

I remember one fellow grad student who shook his head at how much work I put into the program.  "You really don't have to do so much.  It's really easy to get the credits without any effort."  But that was never the goal I was going for - the credits.  I wanted to learn something.  And I'm not into Eco-Schools for the status, but because it really will make a difference if we can get over 1,000 people to care about the world - if we can train them to recycle and compost and use travel mugs and re-usable water bottles, and to think a bit about where they shop and what they eat.  I think when that fellow student chastised me it was really in order to alleviate his own guilt.  He had to convince himself that he wasn't doing anything wrong by ignoring the pile of books in the corner; I was the crazy one for making an effort.    

That grad student successfully jumped enough hoops to be a professor - just so you know.  

It's so ridiculously easy to reduce waste and energy use, to decrease car use, to stop supporting stores with a history of social injustices, but people really really really don't care.   And I don't believe people will begin to care until life gets very very bad for us.

In Australia, after a ten year drought, the government requested that people dramatically cut their water use in their homes last year - stop flushing toilets unless absolutely necessary, wash clothes less often, don't wash cars, etc.  It took just two weeks for the public to cut their water use in half.  It's very possible to do, but we won't budge until the ground is parched.  We are just too stupid to live.

I include myself in that last line.  Having access to a car briefly, I found myself using it for little trips where I used to walk.  It's just so easy.  It's hard to walk past the thing and keep on going.  But in just a few months of driving, I have the weight gain to show for it!  We're a lazy lot, and how do we remember the impact of our actions on the whole world when we're just one single person taking just a short trip by car?  It's hard for sure.

A relative recently asked me if it's depressing reading all those books I read on the problems in the world.  I said:  Absolutely not!  It's exciting and inspiring because we know what harms us, we know what's wrong but we also know all the solutions.  We have the ability to solve all these issues.  And we have the power to act on that knowledge by educating others or writing and protesting corporations and governments.

What's depressing isn't the knowledge; it's the apathy.

Ignorance isn't bliss.  It's just plain ignorance.

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