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From constant reader and commenter “forgot to buy tinfoil” on his brand-new blog, Staggering Implications:

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I’ve just joined a social network, and I didn’t mean to.

All I wanted was to start a blog. On the advice of pretty much everyone, I chose WordPress, expecting an environment for creating web sites and managing user comments. What I didn’t expect was WordPress’ way of connecting users, The Reader.

By default The Reader is an endless list of websites of all kinds, presumably curated. But you can also use it to find bloggers who have tagged their posts “optimism,” or “coffee,” or “sunshine,” or whatever you like. If you’re interested in sunshine — any aspect of sunshine at all — you’re sure to find at least one blogger with similar interests, and a multitude interested in sunshine for reasons you would never have imagined. It’s as though you’re in a cafe, and at every table, an animated discussion of sunshine is going on.

You may choose to join a table that interests you, and dive into the discussion. Thus WordPress promises a salon of ideas, a place where you can explore and develop your formerly lonely fascination with whatever makes you blog, and together with like minds, reach higher and clearer conclusions.

Whether it can fulfill that promise is another matter. Unlike other social media, WordPress does not (at least, not that I’ve discovered so far) offer a common space for direct discussion, with everybody piping up in the here and now . Rather it offers a field of individual, preserved narratives. For the most part, the structure of its blogging templates confines these narratives to a simple chronological unfolding. The result is that people can stay “in their own movie,” as a friend once expressively described a certain social attitude, and no real communication need take place.

For better or worse, I’ve tried to transcend the linear narrative of WordPress, taking greater control of the links and sequences in the fashion of a technical manual, which is the model I know best. My aim is to be “in his own book,” a qualitatively different experience that I hope works better for extended discussion. I’ll probably be blogging about it! And that’s my shameless plug for

https://staggeringimplications.wordpress.com/

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Dr. Dawg

That letter

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We’ve all seen it; we’ve all read it; some have nodded; some have shaken their heads. Never mind that it was dishonestly constructed. Never mind that some of the signatories have tried their hand at cancelling views they didn’t like. That letter is a thing, even if “cancel culture” isn’t, and let the debate continue here.

This could be either a very long piece or a short one. I have chosen the latter, because some pretty wise heads have already explored this issue in some depth.

Propositions and questions:

  • If “cancel culture” can be said to exist, it is far more prevalent on the Right than on the Left. (Here I am not referring to the countless on-the-ground “cancellations” of free assembly and of the actual lives of individuals by militarized and racist police forces.)

  • The evidence that free speech is being squelched at universities is wildly overblown.

  • The signatories of this letter, overwhelmingly privileged and white, with more cultural and social capital than most of us could dream of, aim it solely at the Left. Why is that?

  • What does this letter add to the current agonizing struggles against racism, sexism and heterosexism? Or does it undermine those struggles? Is it helpful to wag fingers at those actually fighting for their lives, admonishing them to use their indoor voices?

  • The letter is virtue-signalling at its most irritating, demonstrating the very thing it criticizes: “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

  • The best that the letter signatories can do is muster up a few anecdotes, but anyone can do that to advance any position. Meanwhile, the Right wants to kill us, and by “us” I include a lot of the aforementioned signatories.

Comments encouraged.

UPDATE: Irony is dead.

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Since at least the 1605 publication of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, scientific curiosity has been regarded as a positive emotion. But there are obvious downsides. While “curiosity-driven research” or “pure science” may sound abstract and detached from the so-called real world, it tends to find application down the road. It’s what led to the atomic bomb, grotesque wartime medical experiments, and, closer to home, horrific nutritional tests in residential schools.

Whether positively or negatively directed, curiosity is inextricably bound up in the social and even the political. The field of genetics is a clear case in point.

I review two books for the Literary Review of Canada on what may appear to be distinct topics: racism and CRISPR gene-splicing technology. But those subjects merge: speaking historically, racism and eugenics are inseparable ideologies, and CRISPR, whatever its therapeutic promise, has opened up a gateway to a genetic dystopia of inequality and selective breeding.

Comments are welcome, as always.

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Dr. Dawg

A note on statues

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May we finally lay to rest the notion that statues have anything to do with history? Despite the disingenuous squawking about “erasing” it, the current spate of statue-removal does nothing of the kind.

Statues are not pages from a history book; they are statements of triumphalism. If they merely commemorated history, they would not invariably be given a positive gloss: they do not simply speak, but affirm.

Like a distributed pantheon, these representations in parks and squares mimic immortality. After the flesh has crumbled to dust, they press forward into the future, oblivious of tempora or mores. If anything, they are ahistorical, pretending to exist outside time, their creators attempting to deny the very dimension that makes history possible.

But, as Ozymandias reminds us, this is futile. Statues are very much in this world and in this time, and even if their physical substance doesn’t erode, their significance may change. Statues of Lenin were hauled down by their hundreds in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism, for example, and statues of the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein were toppled all over Iraq. (As an aside, I didn’t hear any of the Usual Suspects whinging on about the “erasure of history” then.)

In the eddying current of events, meanings are unstable. The first Prime Minister of Canada may have built that railroad (with assistance, one supposes), but he was also a génocidaire who was criticized even in his day for his racism. The statue of Samuel de Champlain in Ottawa’s Nepean Point once included a kneeling, apparently subservient, First Nations scout—that portion of the monument was moved, with little or no opposition. Confederate generals fought for the noble institution of slavery, and for the breakup of the country that now hosts innumerable monuments to them, and even names military bases after them. The fellow in the photo, above, was Edward Colston, an English slave-trader who hailed from Bristol. (A furious local Conservative lauded Colston as a “hero.”)

Pull ‘em down, I say. Damnatio memoriae. Re-name streets, while you’re at it, and those US bases. Make your statement, of the word or of the deed, to counter the triumphalist cheers crystallized in these appalling memorials. You’re not erasing history. You’re making it.

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Dr. Dawg

The high art of 'Tiger King'

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The recent Netflix series is not everyone’s jug of hooch, but Tiger King is a a serious work of art—a brilliant inverted comédie de moeurs that refracts America in the Age of Trump. Once you step back from its visceral entanglements, if you can, it rewards the critical gaze.

The grotesque is hardly new in art. From Goya to Kafka, from Francis Bacon to Shakespeare, this figure, not wholly evil, excites both revulsion and empathy at once. Joe Exotic is just such a recrudescence of a trope that appears throughout art and literature, from ancient Greece and Rome to the present day. Helpfully, however, he didn’t have to be invented: he is a genuine objet trouvé, lying in wait for his audience.

The Tiger King is, to use the current term, a mash-up: distinct and dissonant threads of American culture are here assembled in one individual. Joe is not so much a person as a human collage. You really couldn’t make this guy up without a meth assist: a gay, polygamous redneck with a collection of big cats, a man prone to bloviating self-love and fits of rage, and one with a less-than-reverent attitude to the rule of law. (He ran for President of the United States in 2016. Don’t laugh.)

The risible phrase “based on a true story” should, however, be kept in mind. “True story” is a contradiction in terms in the first place, and this is at one more remove, reminding us of Plato’s dark view of art as a lie about a lie. But that’s what narrative is, of necessity: facts are selected, bent or fabricated to fit a tragi-comic tale.

Only in present-day America could such a narrative be constructed, yet it has a kind of mythic resonance about it. Joe is a classic bouffon, the quintessential odd-looking outsider, surrounded by his gang of lesser characters: toothless, armless, or lowlife grifters looking to score. He’s doomed—we know this instinctively—because jesters do not become kings. Their performance is always edgy and defensive; they know where the real power lies, and part of their attraction, I suspect, is the inevitability of their subjugation should they step over the line. The Lord of Misrule has a very short reign, one that serves to reinforce, in a kind of participatory theatre, the order that it mocks. And Joe’s ignominious end is the conclusion we are waiting for.

Tiger King is, therefore, a morality play, but within those narrative bounds it’s a subtle one. This is no stylized war of good versus evil. Those of us who watch this thing to the end do—admit it—empathize with the protagonist to some degree, especially when his chief antagonist is the annoying, sanctimonious and overly-cute Carole Baskin. Their skirmishes are often funny as hell, other times not so much, but Joe gives as good as he gets until the inevitable forces fell him, and there are moments when we (or at least some of us) find ourselves cheering him on.

A word about the animals. No cruelty is depicted in the series: on the contrary, we see Joe nuzzling with his tigers as though they were house cats. They look well-fed enough, too, dining on their expired Walmart meat—which also fed his staff. But for those who oppose zoos on principle, and object to using animals for human entertainment, there’s plenty of reason to switch off the TV after a few minutes.

For those others who can swallow the premise, though, Tiger King offers the possibility of a full-on engagement with modern-day myth. But be warned: like all myth, Tiger King is—to borrow the words of the series’ full title—chock full of murder, mayhem and madness.

[Acknowledgements to my friend Terry Rudden, who encouraged me to expand on a couple of remarks I made on Facebook. —DD]

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Dr. Dawg

WHO's on first

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Suddenly the World Health Organization has become everybody’s favourite target. Australia and our own Liberal leaders have joined in the pile-on. Prime Minister Trudeau sounded sensible enough a few days ago, but the Liberals have apparently caved at least to some degree to the tantrum-prone toddler in the White House.

From the margins to the mainstream, as the saying goes. Right-wing conspiracy theories about the global Covid-19 disease have abounded for weeks: it’s the gummint, or globalism, or non-whites, or (in its more fantastic versions) germ warfare, microwave radiation, a plot to inject us with microchips, und so weiter. Armed militias in the US are facing the virus with an array of heavy weaponry, as The Donald urges them to overthrow state governments that have locked their precincts down. The WHO is seen as part of the problem, and the “very stable genius” in the White House has just cut off funding to it in the midst of a global pandemic. Now, in more moderate language, our government is falling into line with the anti-WHO scapegoating, hindsight bringing everything into the usual sharp focus.

The WHO is a UN agency, and it is only as good as its information. Those two facts need to be underlined. China behaved from the beginning in its usual heavy-handed fashion, first disappearing medical personnel and journalists who spoke up about the dangers of the new virus, then locking the stable once the horse had departed, and finally dealing with that by building a larger stable around the horse. To be blunt, we can’t believe a word China says regarding their numbers of deaths and infections. But that was what WHO has been having to work with from the beginning.

Looking back, we now know that the WHO’s prudential caution, and the information that it had at its disposal, led it into errors of omission. It initially underestimated the lethality and virulence of Covid-19—but so did nearly everyone else. Ontario premier Doug Ford, before stepping up responsibly when the full dimensions of the crisis became apparent, was telling people to go enjoy March break. Trump was suggesting that the 15 then-identified cases would dwindle to zero.

How long ago all of that that seems now.

The attacks on WHO at this moment seem misplaced at best, disingenuous and irresponsible at worst. Take the Taiwan red herring, for example. Taiwan is not a member state of the UN: China is. As a UN agency, WHO deals with member states. It is not its role to get involved in arguments about the One China policy, or any other political disputes. Yet it is being excoriated for staying away from this sensitive issue: there have even been demands that WHO admit Taiwan as a member, and a senior Canadian WHO advisor has been sharply attacked for avoiding questions about it.

That’s latter-day Cold War foolishness, no matter how exemplary Taiwan’s approach to the pandemic has been. Dealing state-to-state with Taiwan would be like giving Quebec a seat at the WHO table in addition to Canada’s. Imagine how the Usual Suspects, joining this time with the Liberals, would react to that. Obviously, intelligent arguments could be made either way, in a vacuum: but it’s not up to the WHO to make them here, now, in this world of Realpolitik.

In addition, everyone has been learning as we go on, week after week. Naturally, positions have changed as more knowledge is acquired, on the wearing of masks, for example, or restrictions on cross-border travellers. The WHO, as noted, relies upon the information available to it, and its handling of the pandemic has evolved as more information arrived. To criticize it for not having had all of the answers in January is fatuous and dishonest. We still don’t have those answers in mid-April.

Finally, the WHO needs its teams on the ground, and their effectiveness is entirely dependent upon the goodwill of the host states. If that involves a little bowing and scraping, or at least a refusal to denounce the host governments, so what? Had this virus originated in the US, would it have moved things forward for the WHO to publicly castigate Donald Trump, however justifiable that might have been? The point is to get things done, under imperfect conditions. And, while hampered, the WHO is doing just that. Let them work.

[Note: Reader Peggy Mason has a first-rate piece on all this at the Ceasefire blog.]

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From constant reader and contributor ForgotToBuyTinfoil:

As the Covid-19 crisis of early 2020 unfolds, two major concerns have begun competing for attention: the health of citizens, and the health of the economy. On the face of it, these concerns seem mutually incompatible, calling to mind the old protest slogan, “People before profits.” It’s vitally important to save lives and prevent the health system from becoming disastrously overwhelmed; but at the same time, we run the risk of stalling an economic system that ensures the availability of goods and services, as well as the means for people to buy them. Without workers, there can be no harvesting of food, no manufacturing of masks or gloves, no shipping and distribution of supplies. But perhaps more significantly, there can also be no earned income to allow consumers to pay for these things.

Some governments, including those of Canada and the USA, have responded to the problem of income essentially by printing money and giving it away, either directly to individuals, or indirectly through subsidies to idled employers. This runs counter to two popular economic views: that governments should not run large debts, and that people should not get money for doing nothing. The former view has a basis in simple bookkeeping; the latter has a basis, not just in economics, but crucially in morality, and is related to what Max Weber called “the Protestant ethic.” But both views incorporate a belief at the core of much traditional economic thinking: new wealth must be justified by new value.

The applicability of this belief to certain modern investment instruments is moot. As Thomas Piketty’s critique of the relative rate of returns of investment income and earned income in the 20th century implies, modern capitalism makes it possible to generate significant wealth without creating any new value. This distortion of revered “free-market” principles is problematic for traditional conservative thinking, but for our present purposes it can be set aside. Whether or not leveraged investment is the real significant source of modern wealth, the expectation remains that people must work to earn money, so they can pay their own way.

This expectation was recently given an unusual twist by the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, who at a press conference on April 4, 2020 made this peculiar comment about the government’s program to subsidize incomes: “We’re paying people to stay home. Think of it, we’re paying people not to go to work. How about that? How does that play? And they want to go to work by the way. They don’t want money.”

“They don’t want money.” This unreflective utterance from the President reveals something interesting about the transformation of Weber’s Protestant ethic over the centuries. According to Weber, the Calvinist Protestants of early America interpreted prosperity as a sign of God’s favour, effectively transforming industriousness into a virtue. In Trump’s inadvertently trenchant observation, we see how the virtue of work itself has become detached from the original impetus of prosperity as a sign of God’s favour. Industriousness alone is the way to earn God’s favour; money and wealth have nothing to do with it.

This curious detachment of the dignity of work from the dignity of food, clothing, and shelter, or more abstractly the dignity of human rights, has the potential to explain much about modern capitalist society: how, for example, a system that pays people as little as possible while extracting as much labour as possible can be considered not only acceptable, but virtuous. But it also illuminates a subtle point of Marxist thought, identified by Ellen Meikins Wood in her 1999 book The Origin of Capitalism: that capital is not just wealth or profit, but a social relation. This social relation manifests itself as an imperative, acting between all members of society, to compete with one another in industriousness and efficiency. The ever-ratcheting pressure to work as hard as possible, to extract as much value as possible, and to transform as many things as possible into commodities to support this relentless goal, is what drives capitalism. And underlying it is the ethic that work has intrinsic virtue.

Ultimately, this means that people themselves are transformed into commodities; this is not an economic equation, but a social relation. Thus, slogans such as “People before profits” miss the point. In the current system, people are profits. This is why, as the effort to save lives in the Covid-19 crisis threatens to bring the economy to a halt, we face a dilemma over how we can manage such a prospect without threatening lives in other ways. It’s also why the idea of universal basic income seems, to some, inconceivable.

If the crisis were short-lived, our economic system might be able to sustain the shock, right itself, and carry on as usual. But there are signs that the crisis will be prolonged, and the consequences for our economy extremely serious. This is the time to begin questioning our assumptions about the value of work and its relationship to wealth. Trump is right: people do want to work. They want to be active and productive as a means of self-fulfilment. At the same time, he is wrong: people do want money. They want it so that they can obtain what they need to support their quest for fulfilment. We have at last come to the point where we can separate these two strands, so inextricably tangled by the social relations of capitalism.

The Covid-19 crisis has the potential to force a radical shift in thinking, as traditional capitalist social relations are placed under threat of breakdown. We have an opportunity to forge new social relations, ones that value freedom over economic imperatives; ones where the slogan “People before profits” is at least a practical possibility.

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Balbulican

Genesis 2020

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Some time ago, I lost my life partner to cancer. Two prominent right-wing bloggers, with whom I had crossed swords many a time, expressed what I believed were sincere commiserations, a genuine reaching across the aisle.

It was much appreciated: I was touched, in fact. One likes to believe that, underneath the hurly-burly of political struggles and the raucous cries they elicit from all sides, there is a well of common humanity from which we all imbibe—at least from time to time. The Christmas Truce during World War I is a well-known example.

But, as in that poignant case, matters did not end there. The blog-battles resumed with the usual fury. For me, that was entirely natural: politics do persist, and with them, division. It shouldn’t get personal, although it all-too-frequently does. Perhaps I have been no angel in that respect myself. But I do like to drill down to the underlying ideological issues and the values that underlie them, and engage in good faith with those of different opinions.

One of my best friends is on the right-hand side of the spectrum, but for us, the issues we debate “robustly,” to use his term, are fodder for engagement and inquiry: we might stray into the personal on occasion, but only after a good dinner and a couple of bottles of wine, and we have no clear memories of those lapses afterwards.

What surprised and disappointed me, however, was that the two bloggers I mentioned, during what could admittedly be considered acrimonious debate on whatever, felt it necessary to revisit their commiserations in consequence, and retroactively withdraw them. It had never occurred to me that some kind of obligation was implied, a return, as it were, for what I had imagined were genuine, spontaneous expressions of sympathy. I like to believe that, had our situations been reversed, my own sympathy would not have been predicated upon the expectation that their politics, and the intense forms those politics took, would be altered in any fundamental way.

This all came back to me after the news that President #45 had made flippant and uncaring remarks about the late Congressman John Dingell and his surviving spouse at one of those triumphalist rallies he loves to host. He was evidently stung by the fact that Dingell’s widow, Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her husband in his Congressional seat in 2014, had been among those who voted for his impeachment.

Hadn’t he given her “A+ treatment” when he died? he asked. Hadn’t he called her with his commiserations, and hadn’t she responded with gratitude? Didn’t he allow the late Congressman to lie in state in the Rotunda? (No, in fact, he didn’t. The man lives in his own alternate universe.) And this is the thanks he gets! “Debbie Dingell, that’s a real beauty,” he began, and then suggested her husband was in Hell. This was a few days before the first Christmas she would be spending without him in nearly forty years of marriage.

One can hardly be surprised by his crassness: it’s in his very DNA, and his rock-solid base loves him for it. Decency is for betas and soy drinkers, after all. But the specific issue I’m addressing here is the notion that human feelings of sympathy for some are a form of negotiation: the opening position of one side where some kind of a deal is eventually to be struck.

Certainly, emotion is social, and it’s also transactional: it calls for a response. But there is something disquieting in the suggestion that the expression of sympathetic emotion is a mere bargaining ploy, or that it requires a specific form of reciprocation.

Yet, for conservatives, this is what we seem to be left with: a kind of reductive functionalism in which human feelings such as love, compassion, empathy and sympathy are effectively just goods to be traded for advantage.

The limit case here is, of course, the sociopath, although they do not feel emotion the way others do, but fake it. For many on the conservative end of the spectrum, however, while the feelings may indeed be genuine, they are almost immediately transformed into commodities: the expectation is that these must be paid for.

That emotion as commodity is an integral part of the late capitalist economy is hardly news. But the ease with which capitalism can refashion even deeply personal interactions into profit-or-loss calculations is dispiriting for anyone with an optimistic view of human progress. To what degree can an “authentic” social self be rediscovered in this sticky web of bourgeois relations?

And with that, let me wish everyone, without expectation of reward, a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or any other seasonal holiday that applies, and a fulfilling 2020.

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Let me be clear: when it comes to Meghan Murphy and her followers at the Toronto Public Library versus the protesters outside, I stand with the protesters.

Now, let me be less clear. At this point, I’m beginning to wish a plague—well, a seasonal cold—upon both houses. Neither house seems like home to me. The furniture is large and clunky, and I keep tripping over it.

I propose a new house. One that has more than two overcrowded main rooms, labelled “Gents” and “Ladies,” which, like the marble banks of song, have a guard at every door. (The bathroom,however, will be non-gendered, like my own.) One where difficult questions can be raised in conversation without being “called out,” but in actual hope that these questions can someday be answered.

The framing of the current scream-fest is all wrong, and that is what’s been raising the temperature. Two sides are entrenched in what I see as indefensible positions: very broadly speaking, one reduces everything to biology, the other essentializes gender. But a little humanity, please. Trans people are beaten, killed and generally marginalized in our society, and when they say that something hurts, decent folks ought to listen, not bang on about “freedom of speech” (which often proves to be variable in its application, but that’s a whole other discussion).

I find that I can’t improve on my own thinking—more questioning, really—since this blogpost from 2015 (banned by Rabble.ca as “transphobic,” if you please), and the ensuing discussion is one of the best on the subject in my experience. If readers want to check it out, please pay particular attention to Jaime’s constructive comments. And, to delve a little deeper, read this article in The Advocate, which outlines the framing problem.

The occupants of both houses are actually living in prisons. Gender may well be a social construct, but that doesn’t make it unreal to the people who live it. Social constructs are real enough, but they don’t just drop out of the sky. The complex interplay between social scripts and individual socialization/contestation can produce a variety of gender subject-positions, including a whole range of “gender-nonconforming” ones. But the current binary lens employed by much of society, and weaponized by the TERFs, sees everyone as a man or a woman, based solely upon body, not mind.

That brute reductionism forces people into boxes in which some uneasily fit. But instead of rejecting the boxes, too many just insist on the other box, although that can come with its own attendant discomforts, discrimination aside.

Can the discussion be reframed? Samoa (and Polynesia more generally) proves that another way is possible. Fa’afafine are not marginalized in Samoan society, but generally respected, if not universally. (Take note that the author of the first-hand account at the link is woman-identified, but does not refer to themself as fafine.) Much of what differentiates fa’afafine comes down to social roles, highly gendered in Samoa.

Samoans don’t have anxious, angry arguments about washrooms and sports events, or hateful panels on fa’afafine denouncing them as mentally ill and a threat to women. Nor are there, in response, militant fa’afafine denouncing all and sundry as “transphobic.” Common sense and social acceptance prevail. Nobody gives a damn what bathroom they use, and as for sports—well, check this out. As I said—common sense.

The current “debate” here at home is so woefully torqued, so vicious, so cluttered with red herrings like Jessica Yaniv and Danielle Muscato, so founded on questionable assumptions, so vulnerable to right-wing ideological exploitation, that I find myself stepping back from the fray in spite of myself.

Yes, I was with those Toronto protesters in spirit, because I dislike exclusion on principle. But why can’t we all be more like the laid-back Samoans?

[Note: I have been absent for a long time, for a number of reasons, but my sincere thanks to the hardy band of visitors and co-bloggers who have kept this space from collapsing into a singularity. I hope to resume posting on at least an irregular basis. -DD]

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