MT VOID 08/29/03 (Vol. 22, Number 9)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/29/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 9

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

What Time Is It? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

What breed of information does nobody know absolutely correctly yet everybody considers to be public property? Well, as you might guess from the title of this comment, it is the time. Everybody seems to want to know what time it is, and what is more they consider they have a right to know the answer. It has not always been so, but these days the current time is considered to be everybody's entitlement to know.

In my college Honors Lounge (where, it should be explained, the coin of the realm was more ideas than it was common courtesy) when I was asked the time I would often catch the person asking off- guard responding with, "what business is it of yours?" It is not so easy to say what business a person has of knowing the time. Lots of things are useful but are not free to everyone. People were taken aback by the question having always assumed that the current time was OF COURSE their business and their right. Still they were hard-pressed to say why. (They knew that I was responding like that out of being philosophical rather than being nasty--at least I hope they knew.) Still people are frequently at a loss to explain why they have a right to know the time.

(Many years later a variant on that same joke showed up in Neil Simon's THE CHEAP DETECTIVE. Private eye Lou Peckinpaw (Peter Falk) gets a call in the middle of the night from a woman (Madeline Kahn) who says she must meet with him at his office in half an hour. "What time is it now?" "I'd rather not tell you that until I know I can trust you.")

I should at the same time add that some people have a very hard time asking the simple question "What time is it?" In the same Honors Lounge people would ask me, "Do you have a watch?" "Yup." "Can you tell me what time it is?" "Yup." "WILL you tell me what time it is?" "Probably." "What do I have to do to get you to tell me the time?" "Ask me." "Dammit, what time is it?" "10:27."

My passion for knowing the exact time was ignited long ago. When I was in junior high, one morning in homeroom I heard one of the kids counting down to zero and at zero the bell for the first class went off. My watch was not that accurate and I was impressed. I wanted to be able to do that with my watch and it just was not that accurate. I have to admit to being a little bit manic on the subject of precise time ever since.

The truth is we all feel we have a right to know the correct time, but the world is full of people wanting to give you the wrong time. You see more inaccurate clocks than you see accurate ones. A clock that is off by two minutes still renders some service. A clock that is off by two hours merely proclaims itself to be lame. But a clock that is off by 30 minutes is a genuine menace.

I do not have this idiosyncrasy to the extent that I buy myself a really precise watch. But I still want to be pretty sure I have a good approximation of the right time. More recently and frequently when working with computers I have seen inaccurate times causing genuine real-world problems. It is commonly important to know that one computer file on one machine was created after another file on another machine. Each machine had its time set by an operator and usually by no better means than using a wristwatch. More often than you might guess that causes trouble, particularly in issues of file distribution.

There are some places where you would think time is essential, where people have refused to give the accurate time. Airports, for example, have stopped putting up clocks to tell the time at all. You would think that is where they would be really needed. But I have heard it is a legal point. If the clock stops and somebody misses an important flight they can sue. So airports are less and less willing to tell waiting passengers what the real times it.

Next week I will talk about the problem of getting not just the time, but the right time. [-mrl]

ENOUGH by Bill McKibben (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):

I will warn the reader right up front that I am not likely to be especially friendly to Mr. McKibben, a sort of "deep-green" philosopher who seems quite pleased with himself and his cushy life in the north New York woods. He ends the introduction with the following, "Must we forever grow in reach and power? Or can we, should we, ever say, "Enough"?

I on the other hand, always resonated to the concluding lines of H.G. Wells "Things to Come" (the movie version) - (perhaps misquoted) "It is everything, or it is nothing. Rest enough for the individual, but never an end for man." I should also mention that I am on good terms with some of the "bad guys" he is arguing against. In fact, while reading the book I realized that I not only had met several, but actually talked with one (Freeman Dyson) while I was reading the book. Finally, I am one of those hated entrepreneurs/engineers/scientists who are the main villains in "Enough."

Still, McKibben is correct that these are, indeed, important issues, and worthy of deep thought and balanced consideration. However, I think it will be left to others to apply that deep thought, as McKibben is not that deep a thinker, or that fair. In fact, in some ways he seems a more slick, less rabid Rifkin, but with some quite dangerous ideas, which I will elaborate on.

In chapter one "Too Much" he spends a great deal of time making the case that if one possesses genetic enhancements, i.e. that allow for a greater heart/lung capacity, this will surely diminish the pleasure one feels in running a marathon. He envisions a series of John-Henry like races between "old humans" and "enhanced athletes," with the "enhanced" finding little fulfillment in their victories. He dismisses that idea that there is any interest in engineering competitions, i.e., car races, saying "But the skill, the engagement, the meaning reside mostly in those who design the machines. No one goes out and drives in honor of a dying sister."

Apparently McKibben's reading has left him ignorant of the popularity of NASCAR and Formula racing, not to mention yachting competitions. I guess the drivers and sailors have no pride in their efforts since those beastly engineers steal all the credit. Even in Formula 1 racing, the drivers get the lion's share of the credit, but we can't let facts interfere with rhetoric. In any case, the main flaw I find with McKibben's reasoning is in this notion that there will be no personal challenge once we are engineered. Surely the super-person will have just as great a need to test their limits as McKibben does. And surely running is just as "spiritual" for the enhanced runner as for the un-enhanced runner.

Consider two runners, myself and a champion marathon runner. I am ill suited genetically to the race, but the champion is well adapted. We each run, and we each finish, but my time is, like McKibben's, rather poor. The champion sets a new world record. We have all pushed our *personal* limits. Now add in a genetic super-man (we're all men here!). He runs, pushing his limits (whatever they are) and sets a still better world record. McKibben asks us to believe that I, McKibben, and the current world champion will be very happy with our personal efforts to push our genetic limits (which already vary widely) while the poor superman will be *unhappy* as he constantly reminds himself that he is running well only as a result of the engineering efforts of the team at AcmeSuperGene. Yet in all four cases, there is nothing practically important about the race. It is just for fun, or for pride, or just for the hell of it. I find it difficult to understand how the superman is going to be any more or less unhappy that any of the rest of us. We have received a varying genetic endowment via some process, natural or artificial. We all have some ability to run, and some ability to push ourselves. None of us had *any* control over our genetic endowment; we're stuck with it. Yet it is of supreme irrelevance as we can all get in our cars and drive at a much faster pace than any of us could ever run. Thus, this whole line of argument, which is key to McKibben's approach, seems a slender reed indeed to argue against genetic engineering.

One of McKibben's slights of hand is to constantly shift back and forth between different kinds of genetic enhancements as though they all had the same moral and practical stature. I would break them down thusly:

McKibben has read a good bit of SF, but "Brave New World" seems to be the last word in this limited biological syllabus. The baseline book for a realistic treatment of a genetic society should surely be Heinlein's "Beyond this Horizon" instead. I am not endorsing every detail of this society, but the main feature was that genetic engineering was regulated in sensible fashion:

  1. Big changes in human nature, i.e., to make people more peaceful, etc. were forbidden based on past bad results. Heinlein spins a couple of cautionary tales in this regard.
  2. Some part of the population is maintained as a genetic baseline, a sort of "genetic Amish" as a check against a really bad mistake.
  3. Modest changes are gradually introduced into the larger society, focusing on things like eliminating the common cold, etc. These changes seem to be brought out only via the selection of traits from a particular couple; i.e., producing the best possible child that you and your spouse can have.
  4. An experimental program exists to allow careful testing of more radical enhancements. Heinlein's story involves PK powers, but this could be taken as a placeholder for any radical idea such as raising IQ.
  5. Specialization (i.e., runners with long legs, smart guys with big brains, etc.) is frowned on, as the generality of the human form is viewed as a survival advantage.
  6. Traits that enhance human survival in a non-civilized condition are conserved.

This kind of approach to germline genetic engineering addresses most or all of McKibben's practical issues, including his valid concern about a kind of "keeping up with the Jones" competitive escalator. It could be implemented to a large degree today using embryo selection without any further major technical advance. It is a conservative approach to introducing large-scale germline engineering into the human genome with minimal to no risks.

So let's take a look at those different categories again and try to apply some good-ole Heinlein style reasoning:

Playing this game out a bit further, the Skran/Heinlein plan calls for:

One thing that wasn't fully addressed is the "I'm last year's model" syndrome mentioned by McKibbin. A possible solution is to (a) first recognize that some enhancements (e.g. night vision) don't need to be regulated that closely since they won't be socially significant while others (e.g., IQ) might be rolled out in non-disruptive increments. For example, we might limit the IQ growth per generation to 20 points, i.e., moving the average from 100 to 120. This would create enough overlap in the ranges to avoid major social problems. Keep in mind that our current society operates with IQs in a range from under 70 to as high as 200; this is a much wider range than is generally appreciated.

Any society that flies toward a high-tech future needs to squarely address the issue of how to create a society where persons with a wide range of abilities and interests can all have interesting and fruitful lives. This is not the place to address this group of issues, but I believe solutions can (and must) be found.

Finally, one of the big arguments raised about germline therapy is that the engineered kids have no choice in the matter. This is, of course, true, but neither you nor I had any choice in the genes we got from our parents. They chose each other, and hence completely determined the range of genes that would create us. The only random element is which chromosome comes from which parent. Unfortunately, sometimes our parents impose on us bad or even fatal genes. In any case, we have no choice. It is hard for me to understand the moral difference between assortive mating (which has been going on for millions of years and probably has had a significant effect on the human genotype), and a technology based process of removing bad genes or inserting good ones. McKibbin enobles the random element of sex in such as way that he seems to believe gene engineered children will run around in a perpetual funk that they are limited by their "designed" genetic structure, somehow missing the point that this is just the human condition, which both I and McKibben will share with them - we all have to play the cards dealt us. I would argue the opposite - if we have the technology to remove bad genes from our children, it is irresponsible and cruel to not make use of this blessing. Can you imagine a circumstance in which your children would complain about how you removed the potential for cystic fibrosis from their genes?

McKibben is generally supportive of somatic gene therapy, which he seems to feel is just another kind of drug. I think he completely underestimates the long run potential of somatic gene therapy. For one possible vision, see Charles Sheffield's "Sight of Proteus." The point is that we change out all the cells in our body over a fairly short period of time (brain excepted) so that with the right gene therapy and physical support, you can do pretty much anything.

McKibben puts cloning "... on the far side of ... the enough point." His supposed objection is that "... they would never have the sense of being their own person; ...", a line of thought which utterly fails to address how identical twins deal with this issue. His true colors come out when he says "... the first clones would break down the door to all other forms of genetic enhancement." He knows full well than cloning of people is never going to be more than a side-show; the main event is germ line genetic manipulation.

On stem cells McKibben apes the pro-life line (albeit for different reasons), supporting Bush's ban on federal funding of research on new cell lines. In the end his logic suffers the same flaw as that of the so-called "pro-life" groups - he (and they) are willing to sacrifice millions of living, breathing adult humans who are sick and dieing right now in the name of abstract philosophical propositions of a dubious nature, i.e., that fertilized eggs with a few tens of cells ought to be assigned by society the same set of legal, moral, and political rights as a person walking the street.

McKibben is honest enough to argue with himself, positing in Chapter 3 (Enough?) that there are three projects that might "... legitimately need a quantum leap in technological power... " which include [page 122]:

- "... helping medicine deal with illness..." - "... aiding the vast numbers of poor around the world ..." - "... conquering death ..."

I tend to agree that aiding the poor around the world does not really justify any particular program of technology, as the issues that keep countries poor are mainly political and cultural.

However, I find McKibben's optimism that current medical science can overcome disease without a major forward push simply na´ve. We are realistically decades to centuries from any humane person's idea of an "enough point" in terms of medial progress. We will probably need the full fruit of the genetic revolution, nanotech, and advanced computers to really put this set of problems to bed. Let me just list a few things I want to see done, and done *well*:

- Cure for AIDS - Cure for Lyme - Effective anti-virals - A much better set of defenses against infectious disease. - Cure for Hepetitus C - Malaria vaccine - Complete eye and ear replacements, preferably biological in nature - Spinal cord regeneration - A cure for MS

Also, McKibben misses a big point, which is that most of the big killers are really just some aspect of aging itself. We need to put down heart disease, cancer, Alzheimers, etc. and my guess is this is just not going to happen without a direct assault on death itself.

And it is here that McKibben joins Leon Kass on his crusade to insist that we all ought to suffer and die the good old-fashioned way. A lot of the argumentation assumes that being physically immortal is the same as being invulnerable. I have read some analysis that suggests that even if we were physically immortal and disease-free, the average life-span would be in the 300-400 year range, with most folks dying from accidents, crime, etc. McKibben seems to confuse the use of genetic engineering to extend the human lifespan with the usage of nano-tech to crate robot bodies or the usage of downloading. These vastly different technologies have quite different moral and philosophical implications. It is hard for me to see extending the average lifespan from 76 years to 300 years as anything but a welcome addition to the almost doubling of lifespan seen in the 20th century. But this will not change anyone's life in a fundamental way. We will all still die - someday. On the other hand, downloading into robot bodies or cyberspace is so far off that a serious discussion is premature. If this becomes possible, it will indeed be a "divorce" for those who take that path.

McKibben is surprisingly well informed for a Luddite - certainly more so than Rifkin. He has met or is aware of most of the major figures in the high-tech and SF communities, and generally does a good job of presenting the actual science and technology, although as you might expect his portraits of technophiles are less than flattering. He has also read a fair amount of SF related to the topics at hand, although as will be implied by the reading list at the end of this review, he has missed many of the better efforts. McKibben finds that SF "... now offers a glimpse into ... hell." [page 105, para 2].

He notes that Star Trek (at least classic Trek) has banned genetic engineering from their cozy socialist adventure future. As you may know, this inconsistency has long been one of my beefs with Star Trek, although the background of the Eugenic Wars in the 90s leading to a ban on genetic engineering is at least plausible back-story. I have never read anything about why the creators of Trek disliked genetic engineering so much, but I would speculate that it is for pretty much the same reason that all real hard SF never goes very far into the future - beyond a certain point you just can't tell the story anymore since too much, including the humans, have changed, and banning genetic engineering is one way of slowing down change and allowing current day viewers to follow the story.

McKibben's cyberspace/nanotech reading includes Gibson, Stephenson, Crichton and Egan. However, he often seems to miss the point. While calling "The Diamond Age" a "nanotech dystopia" [page 106, para 1] he seems to have missed the idea that like all technologies, nanotech gives and takes away, and the book is more a catalogue of wonders than horrors. I saw the "self-teaching-AI-nano-book" aspect of the story as one of how knowledge (and technology) empowers the downtrodden, and that this is not a bad thing. McKibben then describes Permutation City as "a story of epic desolation." [page 106, para 1] where I would describe it as a tale of unbounded potentiality.

Finally we come to McKibben's most egregious and offensive misinterpretation of an SF novel, Clarke's "The City and the Stars." He completely misses the point that Diaspar (get it - despair!) was created by people like McKibben as an implementation of their "enough point." In Diaspar life is perfect, yet static and recurring. People live long, and then are recycled via a computer memory to new lives. Health is perfect, IQ is high, but there is no progress and no invention, just endless social chattering and art. Diaspar was created by a human race that turned away from space, away from AI, and away from the universe in general, closing itself down to two cities - Diaspar and Lys, each representing one of two final human factions. Clarke is not trying to suggest that immortality is a trap, but that Diaspar and/or Lys (or any other static, mature environment) is a trap humanity needs to avoid. Yet this is precisely the fate McKibben attempts to lure the reader toward.

McKibben also mocks the reasons given by technology advocates for moving forward, saying "The men who propose this leap into the unbounded future don't seem to know themselves quite why they want to jump. ... (some quotes) ... These sound like the things people say to each other in the parking lot at a Plish concert before they drop acid." [page 225, para 2]. If he had done a bit more research McKibben would have discovered that far from being focused on nebulous philosophical questions, folks like Dyson, Drexler, and Henson (just to mention the ones that I know personally) want nanotech, immortality, and AI mainly to advance the cause of human survival. Some of the goals that I would want achieved (and which I assure you, so do Dyson, Drexler, and Henson) before any "enough point" include:

All of these require a quantum leap (perhaps many such leaps!) forward in technology. Thus McKibben's "Enough" is really a blueprint for racial suicide or a slow slide to poverty and/or pollution.

Finally, in a more over-wrought tone, McKibben suggests that biotech will destroy democracy itself (page 199). Here he seems mainly concerned with changes to human nature and personality, and although in the long run there may be some things to consider here, I would agree with McKibben that these are not a set of changes we ought to be messing with right now, or for a long time.

So what does McKibben propose? That "... we need to declare that we have enough stuff. Enough intelligence. Enough capability. Enough." [page 109, para 1]. And how is this to be accomplished? He proposes three examples where societies have turned back from technologies.

One is the Amish. As the Amish are not against *others* enjoying the fruits of advanced technology, it is hard to see how this helps McKibben much. His problem is that he can't tolerate a small group doing genetic engineering because ultimately he thinks everyone would be pressured into it to keep up. Thus, like pro-lifers who wish to ban abortion because they personally are tempted to have abortions as long as they are legal, McKibben must wipe out genetic engineering to a large degree to feel secure (he acknowledges that a small number of clones and genengineered kids will surely come; he just wants to hold back the flood).

The second example is the rejection of ocean exploration by China about 1424. Says McKibben admiringly "The Chinese chose their definition of meaning - progress within tradition - over the pell-mell dynamism of the West." [page 171, para 2]. Although this decision may have led to a couple of hundred years of inwardly focused peace, the end was a complete disaster for China, which fell far behind the West, and now is playing catch-up at a terrible price in human suffering. Space advocates tend to quote this example as well - as just the kind of thing we need to avoid at all costs!! If anything, the Chinese example suggests that rejecting technologies is harmful to the nations that do so, and will not be of a lasting nature.

The third example is the rejection of gun-powder in the early 1600s by Japan. The results were not quite as bad for Japan as for China, but as we all know, in the end Japan rejected this view, re-armed, and started World War II. McKibben does not mention that Japan pushed out Christianity at the same time as gun-powder, with more lasting results. This suggests that rejecting technology is actually harder than rejecting a powerful religion.

Even McKibben admits (page 172) that these two examples were of limited scope and carried out by rather harsh authoritarian regimes. Still, I do agree with him that "progress" is not "an inexorable force outside human control." In fact, it is my concern that he will be too successful which motivates my efforts in writing this review.

He then pats us all on the back for restraining nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. He congratulates the environmental movement for stopping DDT, dams, and Freon. However, none of these technologies represented a wholesale rejection of a whole line of technology, as McKibben proposes in his rejection of germline engineering, nanotech, and AI. There are, after all, many other pesticides than DDT, many other ways to make electricity than dams, and other substances to make refrigerators cool than Freon. The closest thing to real rejections of technological possibility are (a) nuclear power and (b) the SST. But even here, we are rejecting a loud, expensive, fast airplane, not the *idea of airplanes*. We are rejecting an expensive and potentially dangerous power source, not the *idea of electricity*. And I am not aware of any medical technology that actually worked being rejected - ever.

In his heart, McKibben is profoundly anti-intellectual and in practice would instigate a reign of terror against technologists and their supporters. Among other things, McKibben really has a Jones for those evil engineers and scientists:

"It's a challenge even to think such heretical thoughts, for we're used to bowing and scraping before the engineers." [page 117, para 2]

"Journalists are, like the rest of us, intimidated by scientists." [page 180, para 3]

"But there's a deeper reason to give no special weight to the judgment of scientists: in truth, .... The devil is not in the details; it's the basic thrust of these technologies that's diabolical." [page 182, para 2]

"Perhaps childhoods devoted to rewriting computers had no room for such tales, but one wishes that, say, King Midas was as well known as HAL 9000."

"In fact, say the proponents, the politicians will be behaving in totalitarian fashion only if they try to stop anyone from breeding their own little Einstein." [page 189, para 2]

"Human beings, in other words, can be more complex than the engineers give them credit for." [page 207, para 2]

"But if Brooks [a robotics engineer] pursues his quest to the end - well, it's not just an eccentric and charming notion. It's one that erases everyone else's vision." [page 214, para 2].

I find McKibben's distaste and fear of technologists disturbing. The fact that Watson is a jerk (something McKibben and I agree on, and which McKibben does not begin to do justice to; Watson is a mega-jerk!) does not make Henson a jerk, or Dyson a menace, or Drexler a twit. McKibben seems to push this further than mere animus against engineers and scientists - he is especially disturbed at the thought of people "breeding their own little Einstein." He has apparently implicitly bought into the idea that more intelligent people are heartless and less concerned about the human condition, so intelligence is an undesirable trait.

On some level, McKibben is upset that people other than him and his fellow journalists may have a significant impact on the future of the human race. In fact, the greater the impact, the more upset McKibben becomes. He must also be concerned about his own kids being relegated to "taking out the trash" in the world of the future. He is not content to join the Amish (which would be a honorable choice) but instead calls for a Butlurian Jihad (see Herbert's "Dune") against AI, against Robotics, against germline research, and against nanotech.

Given McKibben's high level of concern with these new technologies, you might have thought he would focus on the following problem:

He does make some mention of these issues, but almost in passing, since his main concern is the possible loss of meaning associated with the new technologies. Personally, I am most concerned with the potential loss of my own life!!!

Clearly, biotech is the great risk here. A student gets a copy of the influenza genome, makes few key changes, uses his or her mega-gene-assembly gizmo to make the virus, infects themselves, buys a plane ticket, and - good by world. Trying to suppress the technology seems of limited value as the capability to do this seems to either exist today, or to be extremely close to being ready. It is possible to manage access to some of this, but in the end, over a long period of time, this *is* going to happen. Making sure we survive requires one of the two below events happening, both of which require very advanced technology:

1. Improvements to the human immune system (by whatever means) with the result that such attacks have little effect 2. Disbursement of the human race throughout the solar system, allowing distance and time to prevent a wipe-out blow against the human race. This would work better with interstellar colonization.

I have never thought this would end well, and continue to hold that view. There will be a struggle for the soul of America, with the technology companies, libertarians, technologists, and many average Americans that want an expansive future opposing a fiendish joining of environmentalists, religious fundamentalists, and left-wing intellectuals. If we are lucky it will not result in a civil war, but I wouldn't count on it. And then the way America goes may well decide the fate of the world, with greened Europe joining the conservative Muslim world in fighting the new technologies, opposed by China and the Pacific Rim.

McKibben and I do agree strongly on one more thing - this fight will be for all the marbles, every damn one. Welcome to the 21st century!

Reading list (the good stuff!!):


This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

A few months ago, I claimed, "Plutarch ... is not chock-a-block with humor." Some people claimed that he did have humorous passages, but I had missed them. However, Pliny the Elder *is* definitely full of humor, albeit unintentional. Like Herodotus, Pliny seems to have believed everything he heard--or at least he included it in his "Natural History".

(I'm doing my readings from Penguin's NATURAL HISTORY: A SELECTION, translated by John F. Healy. The blurb describes the full work by saying, "It certainly includes more than 20,000 facts derived from over 2,000 earlier texts, which makes it *the* major source for ancient beliefs about every form of useful knowledge....")

Some of what Pliny says is certainly true. And some of what he says may be true; for example, it may be true that babies don't smile until they are forty days old (VII:2). However, he also claims that Man has to be taught how to walk and how to eat (VII:4). I'm skeptical of the former, and flat-out disbelieve the latter. He also claims "Man alone of all living creatures has been given grief" and that only Man fights with his own kind (VII:5). The latter is known to be false (and probably was then as well). The former is typical anthropocentrism--Pliny has no real evidence of this, but it *seems* true to him.

Sometimes he is clear that he is just reporting other people's claims. For example, he says, "Megasthenes records that on Mount Nulus there are men with their feet reversed and with eight toes on each foot.... Ctesias writes that in a certain Indian tribe women bear children only once in their lifetime...." (VII:22). (Apparently he doesn't note that Ctesias's observation doesn't make sense arithmetically.) But often he doesn't give an attribution at all.

I can remember my mother saying that if you measure a child's height on their third birthday, their adult height will be twice this. I don't think she read Pliny, but that's what he says (VII:73).

This is all a bit unfair to Pliny, who did the best he could with the science (and reportage) of his time. And he was certainly an early martyr to science--he died overcome by fumes when he tried to get too close to Vesuvius to report on its eruption in 79 C.E. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Boredom is a vital problem for the moralist, 
           since at least half the sins of mankind are 
           caused by the fear of it.
                                          --Bertrand Russell

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