Sunday, December 31, 2017

End of 2017 Pop Quiz: Guess Who Has A Mess Of Tamales In His Refrigerator — Awaiting A Steaming?

Californio Gustavo Arellano takes a tour through Mexicano culture and reveals the place of tamales during the holiday season. Hint: tamales should be steamed (tamales de vapor) in a proper utensil before serving. Serve with the salsa (sauce) of choice. Always remember this saying when eating tamales: Tamales nos cuidan (Tamales take care of us). If this is a (fair & balanced demonstration of gustatory biculturalism, so be it.

[x The New Yorker]
The Comfort Of Tamales At The End Of 2017
By Gustavo Arellano

WordSift Cloud of the following piece of writing


In Mexican-American culture, there is a time each holiday season, beginning around Thanksgiving, when all foods except tamales recede. We eat them fresh at home, one after another, until their corn-husk wrappers are piled high on the table. We pack two or three for lunch at the office, futilely hoping that the microwave doesn’t leave them a soggy mess. We bring tamales by the bagful to holidays gatherings, trading them like baseball cards with friends and cousins—I’ll give you some of my Tía Meme’s pineapple tamales if you hook me up with the potato ones from your Guatemalan sister-in-law. And, once we’ve put on the pounds (the Freshman Fifteen has nothing on the Tamale [sic] Ten) and sworn to reform our ways in the new year, we freeze what’s left to extend the holiday cheer.

Many families buy their tamales; in the parking lots of Latino grocery stores across Southern California, the call of “Tamales! Tamales!” from women selling out of their car trunks is as ubiquitous as the clash of shopping carts. But even more Mexicans make their own from scratch in a tamalada, a daylong ritual performed each year by an army of female relatives and friends. In the American Southwest, television stations offer dispatches from tortillerías (the squat Tamales Liliana’s, in East Los Angeles, or the sprawling Tellez Tamales & Barbacoa, in San Antonio, both equipped with industrial-grade machines), where people line up for hours for the best masa, the dough that serves as the base for tortillas and tamales.

Back in their kitchens, the family chefs—traditionally women—wash the cornhusks (or banana leaves, if they are from Southern Mexico) and cook the tamale’s fillings: guisos (stews) of vegetables, beef, chicken, or pork sluiced in a salsa. Then the real work starts. Spread a husk or leaf with masa, put a dollop of your filling of choice on top, then add more masa to encase it—not too much or too little. Steam the tamales in batches, in a giant pot with a penny at the bottom, which will rattle to alert the cooks when the water level is low.

Many tamaladas take place on Christmas Eve, when Mexicans in the United States typically celebrate Navidad. We eat them for dinner, before opening gifts. (The weakest Mexican joke in the American comedy canon goes like this: Why do Mexicans eat tamales during Christmas? So they can have something to unwrap.) My own fondest tamalada memories are from when my sisters and I were younger, before they had their own families to tend to. Our tías on my mother’s side would take turns hosting the yearly tamalada, setting up tables across their living rooms to create workstations. There was a hierarchy: the older aunts tended to the fillings while teaching the older cousins how to knead the masa so it was smooth. The younger aunts taught the younger cousins how to smear the masa so that the finished tamales could be unfolded without chunks getting stuck to the cornhusks. As a boy, I never even tried to crash a tamalada; it was an unspoken rule that they were a space where women caught up on one another’s lives.

At the end of 2017, a year of persistent chaos and anxiety for Mexican-Americans, tamales are a special kind of comfort food, and the tamalada a time for reflection. A friend recently told me that she and her sisters did their tamalada on Black Friday instead of Christmas this year, “because we just wanted a time-out.” Her husband had lost his job in the fall; she had taken to driving a Lyft. “I’m just stress-eating tamales right now,” she told me.

Marilynn Montaño, a Santa Ana-based artist and writer, does a tamalada with her family each year for Thanksgiving. Her mom’s best, she says, are made with beef and red chile. This year, though, interspersed amid the usual chisme (gossip) in the kitchen was discussion of a more pressing topic: escalating rent. Santa Ana was once predominantly poor and Mexican (in 2004, it was deemed the hardest big city to live in by SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government), but it is quickly becoming gentrified, and Montaño has organized art projects and writing workshops to teach residents how to fight back. For her, tamaladas have become an extension of her activism. “In these times, it’s like going back to your family traditions, whatever they are, because people don’t want to see that,” she said. “People want Mexicans to just be silent and not express who they are.”

I bought my first tamal of the season in front of a bank near downtown Santa Ana, the day after Thanksgiving: rajas con queso, my favorite type, with strips of sautéed jalapeños fused with melted cheese. Lines were forming at the outdoor ATM, and other people walked inside to withdraw money for their Black Friday free-for-all. Sitting near the front door was an old man who wore a straw tejana hat and a fleece jacket despite the unseasonably hot weather. A cooler sat at his feet.

The scene struck me as odd. For one thing, a rotating cast of chocolate-hawking teen-agers, Salvation Army workers, and fund-raisers from a nearby church usually haunt this particular bank; fresh-food venders tend to set up on the street. Moreover, street vending is a pursuit for the young and the middle-aged with children who can help; this man looked like my retired uncles, grizzled and bent from decades working outdoors.

A rush of people bought his tamales, a dollar apiece: bright-red pork ones, a chicken version that was too greasy for me. But the rajas con queso was perfect. It started hearty, got spicy, then ended with a creamy flourish—just like my mami makes them. I asked the man why he was selling tamales. He said that his wife makes them, and that he needed to raise money for a surgery in Tijuana. As an undocumented immigrant, he had no health insurance in the United States.

Sales were strong that day—thirty sold already, and it was only around 11 AM “Tamales nos cuidan,” he said—tamales take care of us. Then he sold a dozen to a millennial in a Crossfit tank top. # # #

[Gustavo Arellano is the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (2012). Arellano is a free-lance writer in Orange County, CA (south of Los Angeles). He received an AA (film/video and photography) from Orange Coast Community College (CA), a BA (journalism) from Chapman University (CA), and an MA (journalism) from the University of California at Los Angeles.]

Copyright © 2017 The New Yorker/Condé Nast Digital



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Saturday, December 30, 2017

How Do You Respond To Someone Who Says, "I'm So Poor, I Can't Afford To Pay Attention"?

Today's essay involves the nailing of jelly to the old barn door.It definitely is not a mile wide and an inch deep. If this is a (fair & balanced) attempt to provide something to think about, so be it.

[x Aeon]
I Attend, Therefore I Am
By Carolyn Dicey Jennings


WordSift Cloud of the following piece of writing


You have thoughts, feelings and desires. You remember your past and imagine your future. Sometimes you make a special effort, other times you are content to simply relax. All of these things are true about you. But do you exist? Is your sense of self an illusion, or is there something in the world that we can point to and say: ‘Ah, yes — that is you’? If you are familiar with the contemporary science of mind, you will know that the concept of a substantive self, separate from the mere experience of self, is unpopular. But this stance is unwarranted. Research on attention points to a self beyond experience, with its own powers and properties.

So what is attention? Attention is what you use to drown out distracting sights and sounds, to focus on whatever it is you need to focus on. You are using attention to read this, right now. It is something that you can control and maintain but it is also strongly influenced by the world around you, which encourages you to focus on new and different stimuli. Sometimes being encouraged to change focus can be good — it is good that you look up from your cellphone when a bike comes barrelling down the sidewalk, for example. But this encouragement can also keep you from completing tasks, as when you get caught in a spiral of mindless clickbait. You might think of your powers of attention as what you use to control the focus of your attention, away from distractions and toward your favoured point of focus.

This same power of attention — what you use in everyday life to stay on task — is what helps you in moments of conflict more generally — moments when you are caught between two (or more) options, both of which appeal to you, and you are torn on which option to choose. The philosopher Robert Kane has a way of talking about these life-defining moments: they are ‘self-forming actions’. Kane’s idea is that our truest expressions of ourselves come at moments in which our will is divided. At such moments, we could go either of two ways, but we go one way, and in doing so we help set in place some feature of ourselves – the feature that aligns with the chosen path.

Imagine that while job-hunting you receive two offers, only one of which is in your current field. The job in your field would provide security and good conditions, but you have come to find yourself more interested in the new field. The job in the new field would be risky, with less security and more challenging conditions, but you hope that it will lead to better opportunities in the future. What should you do?

For Kane, the effort of choosing between these two halves of yourself — the half that is concerned about security and the half that desires change — creates conflict in the brain that can be resolved only through a combination of quantum indeterminacy and chaotic amplification. While this might seem implausible on its face, Kane’s proposed mechanism has some evidentiary support. The result is a self-forming action in two respects. We are responsible for forming the action, whatever the outcome, by putting our efforts behind each of two opposing outcomes and forcing a resolution. And the outcome helps to shape our future self, in that it favours one of two hitherto conflicting motivations.

Although Kane does not explicitly mention attention, it is clear that attention is an essential part of this picture. When faced with conflicting options, we attend to them in turn. You turn your attention from the security of one job to the excitement of the other. Sometimes attention helps to determine the outcome, as when we focus more on either security or excitement. Other times our attention creates the conditions for indeterminacy, as we effortfully keep both options afloat. Either way, attention plays a crucial role.

Would self-forming actions still occur without all this effort of attention? What if the two options — the two halves of ourselves — simply battled it out on their own? Wouldn’t it be a self-forming action regardless of how the conflict is resolved? Let’s call this the Frostian Concern, after Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ (1916). In the poem, Frost is confronted with two paths in the woods that appear ‘really about the same’, and chooses to walk down one, predicting that he will in the future say:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Frostian Concern is that the other path is just as likely to have ‘made all the difference’. In that case, Frost’s future self would have remembered some other difference in the paths to justify his choice, and that would have been woven into his life story. In this view, the effort of attention is not required to form the self – our choices could be entirely determined, or entirely random, and a self with an explanatory narrative would still be formed.

This is a good objection. It fits a line of reasoning that is currently popular in cognitive science: not only is attention not required to form the self, there is no real self at all. In so far as the self exists, it is simply part of a story that we tell ourselves and others. As the neuroscientist Anil Seth puts it: ‘I predict (myself), therefore I am.’ We, biological and minded beings, construct the concept of a self because it is the best way of explaining to ourselves and others certain aspects of our behaviour. When you accidentally knock over something, you might say, for example: ‘I didn’t do that, it was an accident.’ In such cases, it is helpful to have the concept of ‘I’ to distinguish the unintended movements of your body from the intended movements of your body. ‘I’ did this, my body did that.

Once you start using this concept, you are not far from constructing a full-fledged self, with preferences and tendencies. But this doesn’t mean that there really is anything substantive that accounts for all of these happenings – it is enough that in each case there is an intention, a goal, and that you are able to identify and communicate which behaviours are connected to that goal, without there being a further source of these goals and behaviours. Perhaps ‘I didn’t do that, it was an accident’ is just shorthand for ‘There wasn’t an intention to do that, it was an accident.’

Following such considerations, the philosopher Daniel Dennett proposed that the self is simply a ‘centre of narrative gravity’ – just as the centre of gravity in a physical object is not a part of that object, but a useful concept we use to understand the relationship between that object and its environment, the centre of narrative gravity in us is not a part of our bodies, a soul inside of us, but a useful concept we use to make sense of the relationship between our bodies, complete with their own goals and intentions, and our environment. So, you, you, are a construct, albeit a useful one. Or so goes Dennett’s thinking on the self.

And it isn’t just Dennett. The idea that there is a substantive self is passé. When cognitive scientists aim to provide an empirical account of the self, it is simply an account of our sense of self — why it is that we think we have a self. What we don’t find is an account of a self with independent powers, responsible for directing attention and resolving conflicts of will.

There are many reasons for this. One is that many scientists think that the evidence counts in favour of our experience in general being epiphenomenal — something that does not influence our brain, but is influenced by it. In this view, when you experience making a tough decision, for instance, that decision was already made by your brain, and your experience is mere shadow of that decision. So for the very situations in which we might think the self is most active — in resolving difficult decisions — everything is in fact already achieved by the brain.

In support of this view, it is common to cite Benjamin Libet’s brain experiments of the 1980s, or Daniel Wegner’s book The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002). Yet, these findings don’t come close to showing that our experience is epiphenomenal.

Libet’s experiments show that we can predict a participant’s choice to flex her wrist or finger at a specific time through brain monitoring before the participant claims to have made that choice. But Libet and others have noted that the participant is able to change her mind even after that prediction is made, in which case nothing is flexed. So it doesn’t make sense to think that our prediction is based on a final decision made by the brain that’s out of the participant’s control. (Whether choosing a time at which to flex our wrist or finger is sufficiently similar to making a difficult decision is another matter.)

Wegner’s book shows only that participants are subject to illusions of will. Using a device similar to a ouija board, for example, participants sometimes overestimate their influence on the device when it is in fact moved by someone else. But demonstrating the existence of illusions of will is not the same as demonstrating the absence of will. Compare this to the Moon Illusion, in which we judge the Moon to be much larger when it is at the horizon than when it is higher in the night sky – we don’t conclude that the Moon doesn’t exist simply because we overestimate its size in certain cases.

So what gives?

The ultimate source of this trend is an old-fashioned worldview. Most agree that the predictive power of science reveals a Universe that can be captured by laws. When we make an error in prediction, it is because we have not yet discovered the right law. The old-fashioned worldview is that these laws should privilege the microphysical domain, such that all happenings at the macro level — the level at which we experience the world — are ideally described by happenings at the micro level. In this view, even if we cannot provide an account of our conscious experience in terms of electrons, our experience comes down to the movement of electrons.

What’s more, activity at the micro level is ultimately deterministic: the movement of electrons that account for our conscious experience right now comes down to the movement of electrons a moment before, and the movement of electrons a moment before comes down to... the movement of electrons at the very beginning of the Universe. There is no accounting for true indeterminism in this view, nor for effects of scale. There is no room for autonomy or free will (or, at least, one way of thinking about free will), since all microphysical events have already been accounted for by prior microphysical events.

Yet, another worldview is now emerging that emphasises nonlinear dynamics and complex systems. Importantly, this worldview sets aside the assumptions of reductionism and micro-level determinism. In this vein, neuroscientists have begun to argue that the brain’s causal power cannot be reduced to small-scale brain activity. This provides room for a substantive self, with its own powers and properties, distinct from those of individual neurons or mere collections of neurons. (Note that whether it is truly a causal power or some other power, such as what the philosopher Carl Gillet calls ‘machretic determination’, is a complex question that I won’t be answering here.)

So what is a substantive self? It is obvious that to be a substantive self, one must have identifiable traits, separable from others — that is just what it means to be a self. But what are these identifiable traits? A common suggestion is to think of the self as identical to the body, since one’s body is (typically) separable from other bodies. But this won’t work as a complete account of the self because many bodily behaviours don’t belong to the self (e.g., accidents and reflexes). In such cases, intention is used to identify the role of a self. So a better account of the self would define it in terms of its intentions — its interests, goals, desires and needs. These are central to a self.

So far, Dennett would likely nod in agreement — we all certainly have interests, goals, desires and needs. The controversial part is this: in my view, the collection of our interests, goals, desires and needs has a status independent of both its microphysical underpinnings and its microphysical past. This idea is derived from observations of human behaviour. Just about everyone has had the experience of speaking to someone who is responding, but ‘not really listening’. We easily distinguish behaviour that is automatic, such as a reflexive verbal response, from behaviour that is controlled. The difference between these forms of behaviour is that controlled behaviour takes account of a broader spectrum of interests. So there is a difference between a mere collection of interests, one of which is dominant at any one time, and a collection of interests that flexibly determines which interest is dominant. In the latter case, there is an entity present that is not present in the former case – the full set of interests.

This understanding of the self can account for the process of attention. As mentioned above, attention is informed both by your current task and by new stimuli that might appear. ‘Top-down attention’ refers to your ability to direct and maintain focus according to your current goals and interests, whereas ‘bottom-up’ attention directs your focus to new and different stimuli. Your top-down attention might help you to focus on this article, while your bottom-up attention might urge you to focus on a conversation nearby. In the cognitive sciences, these are treated as separable, interacting processes. So what accounts for your ability to balance these forces? How are you able to stay on task and resist the pull of new and interesting stimuli, such as the conversation nearby? In my view, the determination of whether and when to stay focused on a current task versus switching focus to a new stimulus is best explained as directed by a substantive self. This is because the substantive self is more than the current task, incorporating the organism’s full set of interests. So the substantive self will be best able to balance the current task with other potential interests.

That’s why, instead of seeing our behaviour as determined by our interests, and our interests as determined by a mix of genes and environment, I see it this way: our behaviour is determined by the self, or our full set of interests working together, which is not determined by the individual interests or the mere sum of those individual interests. In other words, it is not just your love of udon, poetry or tiger lilies that makes you a self — it is the collection of these and other interests, all working together to guide your behaviour.

Specifically, a collection of interests becomes a substantive self at the moment it exerts control over its component interests. The need for such control comes from constraints faced by the collection that are not faced by its components – the competition for resources that are shared across the components. The resolution of this competition is attention. So, in my view, the self comes into being with the first act of attention, or the first time attention favours one interest over another. This will occur when we have multiple interests, two or more of which are in conflict. At the very moment attention resolves such a conflict, the self is born.

This view of the substantive self need not fall prey to the ‘homunculus fallacy’, in which we explain a phenomenon by introducing a homunculus, which then must also be explained by introducing a new homunculus, and so on. Instead, my understanding of a substantive self is as a physically realised emergent phenomenon — it is made up of parts but it has a property that goes beyond the sum of its parts, in that it has some degree of power or control over its parts. This power might be simply to increase the influence of some parts (e.g., goals or interests) at the expense of others, in keeping with the needs and capacities of the whole.

Further, this substantive self can exist even if our experience of the self is a construct. We might not be able to directly experience the substantive self, as the philosopher Jesse Prinz argues. In that case, our experience of the self could actually be a model of the self that we have constructed based on what we infer to be its role. The neuroscientist Michael Graziano argues that all of our experiences depend on a model in the brain. In that case, we would expect our experience of the self to depend on such a model, even if the self is more than a mere model. And, like all models, our experience of the self might sometimes get it wrong, leading to the illusions of control detected by Wegner and others. (Another explanation of these illusions is that they derive from errors in judgment, rather than experience. That is, our ability to accurately describe our own experience, rather than our experience itself, might be to blame.)

Importantly, this view of the self accounts for one aspect of self-forming actions left unexplained by merely constructed selves. Recall that self-forming actions are both formed by the self and form the self. The Frostian Concern allows us to see how agents later explain their actions to themselves by constructing a narrative, and how the self might be no more than the centre of that narrative. So this explains how self-forming actions can come to form the ‘self’ without the existence of a substantive self. But this view of the self would not account for Kane’s contention that it is the self that drives the conflict in the first place, through effort — for Kane, it is by effortfully attending to two conflicting options at the same time that the self provides space for indeterminism. It might be an illusion that our attention in such matters is (at least in part) up to us, but we have another, I think better, option: it’s not an illusion, because attention is controlled (at least in part) by a substantive self.

Yet, my view is not committed to Kane’s idea that a self exists only if it takes part in these indeterministic self-forming actions. In my picture, which might be closer to that of the philosopher Timothy O’Connor, the self is created the moment attention is first active, regardless of whether that moment is brought about through deterministic or indeterministic processes. What provides space for the self is not indeterminism. Instead, the self has a status independent of microphysical particles, both past and present, because it is an emergent entity that has powers beyond those of its parts, and so cannot be reduced to those parts. Further, it has a status independent of other macro-level objects because it depends on the grouping of physically bounded microphysical particles, and that grouping is unique to that living organism.

I came to this view — that attention comes about due to the interaction between our interests and the resources shared by those interests as a whole — by thinking about flocking behaviour. That is, our interests, goals, desires and needs interact with one another much like birds interact in a flock. Yet, birds also interact with the shared environment of that flock (eg, gusts of wind), which provides special constraints to the flock as a whole. The interactions of the flock with its environment can create beautiful patterns, known to bird watchers as ‘murmurations’. Similarly, the interactions of our interests and the resources shared by those interests can result in real, observable patterns. These patterns reflect the enhancement of some interests at the cost of others. That is, our interests, as a group, lead to changes in our interests, as members of that group.

How might this work in the brain? One possibility is that it relies on a phenomenon much like the synchronisation of metronomes. If you place several metronomes on a table, and start them at different places, they will eventually synchronise. This is because the metronomes share the table, in which the various oscillations cumulate (i.e., forces in opposing directions cancel out, unlike forces in the same direction), leading to an overall push in a specific direction at a specific time. For neurons, it might be a shared electromagnetic field, bound by the meninges and skull, rather than a shared table, that allows for synchronisation. In this case, the electromagnetic field would be a resource shared by the neurons, and patterns of synchronisation within that field would reflect the division of this resource based on the whole set of neurons.

This is a mere ‘how is it possible’ account of the substantive self, and over time it might be shown to be inconsistent with either reason or empirical evidence. Yet, at this time, no reason or evidence exists that I know of that would counsel against this account. Further, a substantive self, as described here, would help to make sense of certain features of attention, discussed above. Thus, I see no reason to reject the existence of a substantive self.

But note that, in my picture, the self is only as strong as its powers of attention. While this might be an uncomfortable idea to some, I take it that it is preferable to losing the self altogether. And now, in the words of Galen Strawson, it is your move.... # # #

[Carolyn Dicey Jennings is an assistant professor of philosophy and cognitive science at University of California at Merced. Her research has been published in Analysis, Synthese, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, Neuroethics, Consciousness & Cognition, and Philosophical Studies. Her first book will be Attention and its Impact on the Mind (forthcoming). Jennings received a BA (philosophy) from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) as well as both an MA (psychology) and a PhD (philosophy) from Boston University (MA).]

Copyright © 2017 The Aeon Media Group



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Friday, December 29, 2017

Today's Blog-Lesson: Do NOT Buy A Huntin' Dog From Jennifer Rubin

Today's essay was recommended by an old (but young at heart) friend and reader of this blog in the Valley of the Sun. This blogger had to force back the gag-reflex at any defense of a member of the Repugnant Party. The author, Jennifer Rubin, is an unapologetic Repugnant and her praise of Repugnant office-holders who have resisted the Moron-in-Chief from time to time is a dog that won't hunt, as old-time Texans would say. The so-called heroes have stood by and watched the Moron's systematic treason and have gone along to get along. If these so-called Repugnant heroes put their political careers on the line and switched parties, this blogger might pay attention, but as long as they go along to get along... all of them are as worthless as a flat tire. If this is a (fair & balanced) search for political truth, so be it.

[x WaPo]
Distinguished Pols Of 2017
By Jennifer Rubin

WordSift Cloud of the following piece of writing


The list of Republicans who fell short in 2017 — discarding intellectual and moral integrity, rationalizing and minimizing President Trump’s racism, overlooking attacks on democratic norms, elevating partisanship over patriotism — was so long as to cause many political-watchers to doubt the viability not only of the GOP but of a functional two-party system.

Well, we largely agree that the GOP will be forever tainted by Trumpism. We also concur that a fleet of “opinion makers” at previously respected publications and think tanks disgraced by their cheerleading for a xenophobic, racist, misogynistic president whose contempt for truth and the rule of law is unprecedented will not regain the stature and credibility they once enjoyed. We also sadly acknowledge that too many on the right talked (or tweeted) a good game, yet crumbled under partisan pressure when it mattered most. We’ve long since stopped crediting those with pithy Twitter feeds but rotten voting records. The hall of shame is crowded to be certain.

Vice President Pence [R-IN] exemplified toadyism. Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) forfeited any claim to intellectual rigor. The GOP, as a whole, refused to properly vet nominees or act as a check on executive branch corruption and self-dealing. Republicans looked the other way — or worse, joined in — while the president attacked the credibility of the courts, the FBI and the Justice Department.

However, there were some heroically honest and decent figures on the right who refused to stoop to nonsensical rationalizations (“But Gorsuch....”) or parrot falsehoods (e.g. climate change denial, anti-immigrant clap-trap). Some valiantly defended democratic norms and refused to pedal long-ago debunked policy nostrums.

Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) again and again rejected ridiculous right-wing policy positions, spoke out against Trump’s attacks on democratic norms and tried to advance sensible policy positions. This week he warned, “With millions of lives hanging in the balance, the last thing we need is to have politicians and pundits predicting odds on the probability of war [with North Korea]. It’s neither an accurate nor a helpful way to treat a complex international challenge.”

Other Republican governors, including Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Brian Sandoval [of Nevada], rallied against destructive health-care legislation and continued to govern from the center.

Former president George W. Bush denounced right-wing demagoguery and xenophobia. Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden lambasted the administration’s anti-Muslim bans and xenophobia while defending the intelligence community against scurrilous attacks from the White House. Former State and Defense Department officials who have served in Republican administrations (e.g. Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, John McLaughlin, Richard Haas, Kori Schake) denounced Trump’s infatuation with autocrats, refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in our elections, abandonment of human rights and decimation of the State Department.

Former independent conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin, through his organization Stand Up Republic defended the First Amendment, objective truth and a values-based foreign policy. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) wrote a book and delivered a searing speech from the Senate floor denouncing Trumpism — and backed up words with a financial donation to Alabama Senator-elect Doug Jones in his contest against avowed racist and accused child predator Roy Moore. Although they supported grossly flawed tax legislation, Flake and fellow Arizona Republican Senator John McCain defended free trade, robust immigration and civic decency. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) announced her retirement but continued to defend human rights, immigration and responsible health-care policy. Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA) admonished Republicans: “Our primary process leads to the candidates who tack to the fringe or tack to the to the base. And I think we’ve seen too much of that, there’s too much political reward for tacking really hard to the base and not enough reward for consensus and agreement, or heaven forbid, compromise.”

The number of figures on the right who stood up for principle, rejected careerism and refused to go along with their former comrades in venerating or even tolerating Trump seems depressingly small, I grant you. Nevertheless, that makes their defiance in the face of criticism even more admirable. They reminded us that it is not one’s position on top marginal tax rates nor support for a single Supreme Court Justice that proves one’s conservative bona fides or patriotism but defense of a free press, respect for an independent judiciary, embrace of the American creed (“We find these truths.... “), adherence to objective reality, advocacy for civic values and dogged rejection of bigotry and xenophobia.

For those who stood firm in the face of the howling mob and relished their sometimes-lonely crusade, we can say well done. We hope your example inspires others in 2018. # # #

[Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective. Previously she worked at Commentary, PJ Media, Human Events, and The Weekly Standard. Rubin received both a BA (political science) and a JD, summa cum laude from the University of California at Berkeley.]

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Post



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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Full Disclosure: This Blogger's Reading Preferences Are Akin To What An Old-Timer Said Of The Platte River — "It's A Mile Wide And An Inch Deep"

One quibble with this essay: the writer gives appreciative mention to the "em dash." This blogger tries to avoid "--" and inserts "—" wherever the "em-dash" appears. Why? The blogger can write the HTML code to produce "—" in the text. A pair of dashes are not nearly as elegant as the HTML-version. To update Jonathan Swift, "The proper words [and symbols] in the proper places are the true definition of style." If that is a (fair & balanced) consideration of good writing, so be it.

[x The Walrus]
The Case Against Reading Everything
By Jason Guriel

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The clichés that writers often share—“show, don’t tell,” “write what you know”—are harmless enough. Like popcorn, they cut a light and fluffy figure and probably got their start as a kernel of truth. Plus, everybody knows not to take them too seriously. When a writer urges you to “write every day” or “always keep a notebook,” you can safely assume that plenty of first-rate talents have broken with these bromides.

But there’s one tip that doesn’t seem optional, one tip that’s practically scripture, as if hunter-gatherers discovered it on clay tablets long ago and transmitted it, via oral tradition, down to your MFA instructor. “Read widely,” says Joyce Carol Oates. “Read widely,” says Stephen King. “Read widely,” says the Google hive mind in deafening, choral unison.

What does “read widely” mean? Perhaps it speaks to the importance of a balanced diet—a comedy of manners today, a concrete poem tomorrow. Or maybe it means toggling fashionably between high and low, between Mina Loy poems and Mini-Wheats boxes. Or maybe it means testing a spectrum of texts, like paint chips, against your monochromatic taste. Or expanding your bandwidth just enough to capture some pirate-radio clamour—to touch the fringe of something fringey and count yourself catholic. As injunctions go, “read widely” goes pretty wide.

Which is part of the problem. At its most obnoxious, the command to “read widely” reflects the more-is-more ethos that courses, like an energy drink, through our literary culture. My Twitter feed is full of writers and critics who relentlessly strive to be up on their field, logging every literary debut like librarians, returning from writing conferences with shareable jpegs of their book-engorged tote bags, or lighting out for yet another reading, the stacks on the book table like some mountain range, the promise of a horizon. Here’s hapless omnivore Aleksandar Hemon, a novelist and critic who will eat anything: “I read compulsively—preferably a book of my choice, but anything would do. I’ve read, with great interest, nutritional information on cereal boxes. I regularly read wedding announcements in the New York Times.”

Some real talk: most writing isn’t worth consuming. That includes cereal boxes and New York Times wedding announcements. More real talk: most people urging you to read widely probably have a hard time ranging outside their comfort zones. There’s no doubt that, in the political realm, we need more connection with those we disagree with. But for the most part, “read widely” belongs to a class of expression that’s good to be heard saying (as in: we need “more dialogue” or we need “to have a national conversation about sheet cake”). In my experience, only a minority of writers like to chase their Leslie Jamison with some Conrad Black, or their Yvor Winters with some Roxane Gay. Many can barely metabolize a Stephen Marche tweet without declaring a stomach ache, and Marche is a reasonable guy who can write a good sentence.

The real problem with telling young writers to fan out across genres and forms is that it doesn’t help them find a voice. If anything, it’s antivoice. Learning the craft of writing isn’t about hopping texts like hyperlinks. It’s about devotion and obsession. It’s about lingering too long in some beloved book’s language, about steeping yourself in someone else’s style until your consciousness changes colour. It’s Tolkien phases and Plath crushes. It’s going embarrassingly, unfashionably all in. (And, eventually, all out.)

To read widely—to flit from book to book, writer to writer—is to flaunt an open mind while never stopping long enough to fill it up. Consider instead what Chris Wiman, the previous editor of Poetry magazine, said about the consumption of poetry: “Seamus Heaney has noted that if a person has a single poem in his head, one that he returns to and through which, even in small ways, he understands his life better, this constitutes a devotion to the art. It is enough.” Devotion to art, in other words, is a devotion to individual works—and not many, at that.

The most useful writing advice, like a doctor’s script, is always specific. It doesn’t widen, it narrows. “Those sentences that begin with the word ‘Although,’” writes Joseph Epstein, “or those sentences requiring a ‘however’ somewhere in their middle, are almost always dead on arrival.” That’s thrillingly precise. So, too, is critic Stephen Metcalf’s urgent warning to avoid overuse of em dashes and, especially, semicolons. Epstein and Metcalf, in other words, aren’t giving permission. They are shutting down otherwise tempting avenues. The greatest teachers I ever had always held firm opinions about the books you should bother with and about how to read and write. You didn’t have to agree with them to be energized by the charge they threw off. The charge was the point.

The call to “read widely” is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices. Leave that to the editors of Canada’s few newspaper book sections, which often resemble arm’s-length marketing departments for publishers. Leave that to the dubious figure of the “arts journalist.”

Instead, shutter your ear against mediocrity. To fall in love with language, don’t fan out. Fall down a rabbit hole. Cynthia Ozick wanted to be Henry James. Nicholson Baker has a whole book about his obsession with John Updike. For a period in high school, all I could countenance was David Foster Wallace. Before that, William Gibson. Lately, I’ve found myself falling into an Alan Furst phase. This doesn’t mean I plan to seek out other writers of historical thrillers. They aren’t Furst, after all. There isn’t any more room in that rabbit hole. As UK critic and poet Michael Hofmann puts it:

Both one’s likes and the basis on which one likes them can only be exceptions. They are personal, they are absolute, and they are nonnegotiable. And there are not very many of them. They even preclude, at times, the least curiosity or desire to add to their number.

If you want to become a writer, here’s my advice: bury yourself in an enthusiasm until it becomes oppressive, then tunnel your way clear of it. Repeat. # # #

[Jason Guriel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Elle, The Atlantic, and Slate. He received two prizes from Poetry magazine: the Editors Prize for Book Reviewing and the Frederick Bock Prize. Guriel received both a BA (creative writing/poetry) and a PhD (English) from York University (Toronto).

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Roll Over King Hubbert — Instead Of Saying, "Oil, RIP" We're Gonna Say, "Planet Earth, You're Fracked — RIP"

Lawrence (Always) Wright provides a quick and dirty survey of the Oll (long O) Bidness (Business) in the Texanese spoken in the Lone Star State. From there, he offers an explanation of the 21st century Oll Bidness that is contributing mightily to environmental disaster. Read Always Wright's essay and be very afraid. If this is a (fair & balanced) prediction that we are fracked, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
The Glut Economy
By Always (Lawrence Wright)

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For more than a century, the economic fortunes of Texas have depended on oil. The image of mighty geysers spewing depreciable assets out of the ground is forever linked to the state. In the popular imagination, a rich Texan is invariably an oil baron. The Austin Chalk, the Barnett Shale, the Wolfcamp: these layers of subterranean Texas have yielded up so much black gold that their names are recognized by oilmen and everyday citizens alike.

In large part because of high oil prices, a disproportionate share of America’s economic growth over the past decade has come from Texas. The gross domestic product of the state is $1.6 trillion; if it were an independent country, its economy would settle in around tenth place, eclipsing those of Canada and Australia. California, with forty per cent more residents, has a GDP of $2.6 trillion, but since 2000 job growth in both Dallas and Houston has expanded by about thirty per cent—three times the rate of Los Angeles.

Texas’s vigorous growth had a rope thrown around it when oil prices, which had climbed to a hundred and forty-five dollars a barrel in 2008, slumped in 2014, ultimately falling below thirty dollars. In 2016, for the first time in twelve years, the state’s job growth lagged behind that of the nation as a whole. Five thousand energy-industry companies make their home in Houston, the world’s oil-and-gas capital, and the crash in oil prices was evident in the emptying of office buildings and the slowdown in home sales. Even the traffic on the freeways got lighter.

Between January, 2015, and December, 2016, more than a hundred US oil and gas producers declared bankruptcy, nearly half of them in Texas. This figure doesn’t count the financial impact on the pipeline, storage, servicing, and shipping companies that depend on the energy business, or the seventy-four billion dollars’ worth of debt that these bankruptcies left behind. As a gesture of sympathy, Ouisie’s Table, a Houston restaurant in the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood, began offering a three-course meal on Wednesday nights that was pegged to the price of a barrel of oil. When I visited in the early spring of 2016, the meal cost about thirty-eight dollars. (Ouisie’s Table dropped the practice when oil prices inched back up. As of December 13th, the Wednesday special would have cost $56.60.)

Now that oil prices have stabilized, Texas’s economy is robust again. In recent years, it has finally begun to diversify, and now tops that of California in exporting technology, from semiconductors to communications equipment. Conservative politicians in Texas like to claim that the state’s low taxes and light regulation are the magic forces propelling its economy. But oil still sets Texas apart. It has been both a gift and a trap.

The grand story of Texas oil is really about three wells. Around the turn of the twentieth century, near Beaumont—on the Gulf Coast, close to the Louisiana state line—there was a sulfurous hill called Sour Spring Mound. Natural gas was perpetually seeping to the surface, and schoolboys sometimes set the hill afire. Patillo Higgins, a disreputable local businessman who had lost an arm in a gunfight with a deputy sheriff, became convinced that oil was trapped below the mound. At the time, wells weren’t drilled; they were essentially pounded into the earth, using a heavy bit that was repeatedly lifted and dropped, chiselling its way through the strata. There was quicksand beneath Sour Spring Mound, and it confounded any attempt to bore a stable hole. Nevertheless, the persistent Higgins forecast that oil would be struck at a thousand feet beneath the surface—a figure he simply made up.

In 1898, Higgins hired a mining engineer, Captain Anthony F. Lucas, to help him dig wells at Sour Spring Mound. Lucas’s first effort delved only five hundred and seventy-five feet before the pipe collapsed. He decided to try a novel device called a rotary bit, which turned out to be more suitable for penetrating soft layers. The drillers at the site also discovered that by pumping mud down the hole a kind of concrete formed, which buttressed the sides. These innovations created the modern drilling industry.

Lucas and his team hoped to establish a well that could produce fifty barrels of oil a day. On January 10, 1901, at a thousand and twenty feet—almost precisely the depth predicted by Higgins’s wild guess—the well suddenly vomited mud, and then ejected six tons of drilling pipe clear over the top of the derrick. Nobody had seen anything like this, and it was terrifying. In the unnerving silence that followed, the drilling team, drenched in mud, crept back to the site and began cleaning up debris. Then they heard a roar from deep in the earth, from an era millions of years ago. More mud flew up, followed by rocks and gas and then by oil, which spouted a hundred and fifty feet into the air: a black fountain surging from the arterial wound that the drillers had made. It was the greatest oil discovery in history. For the next nine days, until the well was capped, the gusher spurted into the air a hundred thousand barrels of oil a day—an output that exceeded the production of all the other wells in America combined. After the first year of operation, the well, which Higgins named Spindletop, was producing seventeen million barrels a year.

In those days, Texas was almost entirely rural. There were no large cities and practically no industry; cotton and cattle were the anchors of the economy. Spindletop changed that. Because native Texans were suspicious of outside corporate interests—especially John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil—two local companies were formed to develop the new field: Gulf Oil and Texaco. (Both companies have since merged with Chevron.) The boom made some prospectors millionaires, but the sudden surfeit of petroleum was not entirely a blessing for Texas. In the nineteen-thirties, oil prices crashed, to the point that in some parts of the United States oil became cheaper than water. This was the beginning of a pattern in Texas’s boom-or-bust oil economy.

In August, 1927, Columbus Marion Joiner, a prospector and a rascally con man widely known as "Dad," began drilling in East Texas, on the Daisy Bradford lease, which was named for a widow who owned the land. Joiner had practically no money and even less luck. His first two wells went bust. To entice investors to help him drill yet another well, he drew up fake geological reports indicating the presence of salt domes and stratified-rock folds, which can trap oil and natural-gas deposits beneath them. The phony report suggested that, at thirty-five hundred feet, a well could tap into one of the greatest oil deposits in the world. Once again, a wild prediction turned out to be true.

Dad Joiner was targeting the Woodbine sands, which sit above a layer of Buda limestone and are thick with the fossils of the dinosaurs and the crocodiles that plied the shallow seas of the Cretaceous period. Over millions of years, plankton, algae, and other materials buried in the sandy strata transformed into oil or gas. Joiner scraped by for three and a half years, paying his workers with scrip; in order to raise enough money to complete the well, he sold twenty-five-dollar stock certificates to farmers. When Daisy Bradford No. 3 reached thirty-four hundred and fifty-six feet, a core sample finally showed oil-saturated sand. Thousands gathered to watch the roughnecks drilling and swabbing through the night. The locals—farmers in bib overalls, ladies in dresses sewn from patterns out of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue—were imagining a life in which they would be strolling down a boulevard in fine clothes, pricing jewels and weighing investments. That dream was about to be realized for many of them. Late in the afternoon on October 3, 1930, a gurgling was heard; at eight o’clock, oil shot into the air in a great and continuous ejaculation. People danced in the black rain, and children painted their faces with oil.

Overnight, new prospectors arrived, along with major oil producers. Within nine months of the Daisy Bradford No. 3 strike, a thousand wells were up and running in the East Texas field, accounting for half of the total U.S. production. Towns sprang into existence, in order to accommodate the saloons and the hotels and the man camps required to service the roughnecks. Established cities, such as Tyler, Kilgore, and Longview, suddenly found themselves in a forest of towering derricks, which rose out of back yards and loomed over downtown buildings. Texans pumped so much oil out of the Woodbine that prices, which had peaked at a dollar and ten cents a barrel, plummeted to thirteen cents. The governor attempted to prop up the price by shutting down wells. In 1930, Joiner, whose years of reckless promises had left him besieged by lawsuits, sold his interest in the Daisy Bradford lease to H. L. Hunt, who eventually became the richest man in the world. Joiner died, broke, in Dallas in 1947.

By the mid-nineties, the oil business in the U.S. was lagging. The industry seemed to be on the verge of Peak Oil—the moment when at least half of all the recoverable oil in the world has been exploited. On the other side of that peak lay an unyielding slope of diminishing returns. The major oil companies began concentrating their exploration efforts outside the US, whose reserves were deemed to be more or less used up. The end of the fossil-fuel era was not exactly imminent, but it was no longer unimaginable.

The situation was brutally clear to George Mitchell, who became one of Texas’s greatest wildcatters. He was the son of Greek immigrants; his father, who had changed the family name from Paraskevopoulos to Mitchell, ran a shoeshine stand in Galveston. George worked his way through Texas A&M, studying geology and petroleum engineering, and graduated at the top of his class. In 1952, he acted on a tip from a bookmaker and made a deal to option a plot of land in Wise County, an area in North Texas that was known as the “wildcatter’s graveyard.” He soon had thirteen producing wells, the first of the ten thousand he went on to develop in his career.

In 1954, Mitchell obtained a contract to supply ten per cent of Chicago’s natural-gas needs. However, the producing wells operated by his company, Mitchell Energy & Development, were declining. He needed to discover new sources of petroleum, or else. Mitchell was convinced that the world was running out of fossil fuels. In 1980, he predicted that there were only about thirty-five years’ worth of conventional sources of petroleum remaining in the U.S. The obvious alternative was coal, which had dire implications for the environment.

Mitchell’s main assets were the leases that he held on three hundred thousand acres, seventy miles northwest of Dallas, in the region known to oilmen as the Fort Worth Basin. A mile and a half below the surface was a formation called the Barnett Shale. Geologists had speculated that the Barnett, which extends five thousand square miles and spreads through seventeen counties, contained the largest gas reserves of any onshore field in the United States. The problem was that nobody knew how to extract the gas. Porous formations, like the Woodbine sands that Dad Joiner had tapped, allow the flow of liquids and gases, but the Barnett Shale is “tight rock,” meaning that it has very low permeability. In the mid-twentieth century, prospectors attempted to liberate petroleum reserves by pulverizing tight rock. Dynamite, machine guns, bazookas, and napalm were all tried, without success. In 1967, the Atomic Energy Commission, working with the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the El Paso Natural Gas Company, exploded a twenty-nine-kiloton nuclear bomb, dubbed Gasbuggy, four thousand feet below the surface, near Farmington, New Mexico. More than thirty other nuclear explosions followed, in what was called Project Plowshare. Natural gas, it turned out, could be extracted from the atomized rubble, but the gas was radioactive.

A safer and more precise method, developed in the seventies, was to use jets of fluid, under intense pressure, to create micro-cracks in the strata, typically in limestone or sandstone. Expensive gels or foams were generally used to thicken the fluid, and biocide was added to kill the bacteria that can clog the cracks. A granular substance called “proppant,” made of sand or ceramics, was pumped into the cracks, keeping pathways open so that the hydrocarbons could make it to the surface. The process, which came to be known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking [emphasis supplied], jostled loose the captured oil or gas molecules, but the technology had a fatal flaw: it was too costly to turn a profit in shale.

In 1981, Mitchell drilled his first fracked well in the Barnett shale, the C. W. Slay No. 1. It lost money, as did many wells that followed it. Year after year, Mitchell continued drilling in the Barnett; he sunk two hundred and fifty million dollars into his venture, hoping to formulate a better, cheaper recipe for fracking. Seventeen years after that first unprofitable well, Mitchell’s company was in real trouble. His shareholders had begun to think that he was a crank—the company was heavily in debt, and its share price had plunged from thirty dollars to ten—and yet Mitchell kept drilling one unprofitable well after another.

To cut costs, one of Mitchell’s engineers, Nick Steinsberger, began tinkering with the fracking-fluid formula. He reduced the quantity of gels and chemicals, making the liquid more watery, and added a cheap lubricant, polyacrylamide, which is used in the manufacture of face creams and soft contact lenses. The resulting “slick water”—aided by a dusting of sand, to act as a proppant—worked beautifully. It also cut the cost of fracking by more than two-thirds.

Mitchell combined his new fracking formula with horizontal-drilling techniques that had been developed offshore; once you bored deep enough to reach a deposit, you could direct the bit into the oil- or gas-bearing seam, a far more efficient means of recovery. In 1998, one of Mitchell’s wells in the Barnett, S. H. Griffin No. 4, made a profit. The shale revolution was under way. Soon the same fracking techniques that Mitchell had pioneered in gas were applied to oil.

For the third time in Texas history, the state flooded the energy market. In July, 2008, prices reached an all-time peak, $145.31 per barrel, but the frackers were just getting started. By 2010, there were more than fourteen thousand wells in the Barnett alone, and the economic equation of past Texas booms held: a sudden fortune, a glut, a crash in prices. By January, 2016, the price of oil had fallen to less than thirty dollars a barrel. “We’re back where we were in 1931,” Robert Bryce, an author who writes frequently about the energy business, told me after the crash. “Texas drillers are once again determining the price of the marginal barrel in the world market.”

Mack Fowler, an oilman and a philanthropist in Houston, showed me a graph that depicted the US production of crude oil over time. In 1970, American oil production reached nearly ten million barrels a day; that summit was followed by a slow slide, touching bottom, in 2008, at a little more than five million barrels a day. This decline was abetted by oil embargoes, price shocks, gas lines, shifting geopolitical alliances, and wars in the Middle East. The world economy was in danger of being held captive to oil states that were often intensely anti-American. Then, around the time that Barack Obama became President, US production shot back up, approaching its all-time peak. On Fowler’s graph, it looked like a flagpole. “In the span of five years, we go from 5.5 million barrels a day to 9.5 million, almost doubling the US output,” Fowler explained. It was the fastest growth in oil production ever seen. The difference, Fowler said, was advanced fracking techniques and horizontal drilling.

Recently, I drove north from Austin, in central Texas, where I live, to visit the S. H. Griffin No. 4. It stands amid a little community—older prefabricated houses, tidy new brick bungalows—that marks the extended reach of the Fort Worth suburbs. The town used to be called Clark, but a decade ago its mayor made a deal with a satellite network to provide ten years of free basic service to the two hundred residents, in return for renaming the town after the company. Satellite dishes still sit atop many houses there, and even though the agreement has expired the town’s name remains: DISH.

This part of Texas is flat grassland dotted with scrubby mesquite trees. You see a lot of heavy industry associated with pipelines and drilling. Tanker trucks, which carry the millions of gallons of water required to frack a well, and tractor trailers known as SandCans, which haul silica to the site, have worn down the roads. Each drilling rig is huge and arrives disassembled, in a dozen truckloads of parts. Workers must also install the four-inch metal pipe for the hole, which comes in thirty-foot lengths weighing six hundred pounds apiece; the concrete to encase the pipe; and the carbon-steel transmission pipes, between two and three feet in diameter, that transport the gas to storage containers. About twelve hundred truck deliveries are needed for every well that is fracked.

First, the hole for a fracking well is drilled. In the Barnett, holes go down six to eight thousand feet, substantially below the water table. Once the desired depth is reached, the drill slowly bends until it becomes horizontal, for as much as another ten thousand feet.

There is a science-fiction quality to the fracking process. Several tubes, called perforating guns, are snaked to the end of the well bore. The guns contain explosives that rupture the surrounding strata. Meanwhile, on the surface, twenty or so trucks line up on either side of the well. Pipes and hoses emanating from the trucks connect to a metal apparatus known as a manifold, which looks like a giant insect. A mighty sound suddenly erupts as the trucks begin pumping fluid and proppant into the manifold and down the well, at between five hundred and eight hundred gallons per minute. Ferocious jets of fluid shoot out of the perforating guns, opening up fresh micro-fractures in the shale. The process is repeated, again and again, until the entire horizontal plane of the well has been blasted open. It takes about a month to bring a well into production.

The S. H. Griffin No. 4 is in a grassy field, inside a cage of chain-link fencing. It looked small and inert on the surface. Unlike an oil well, there was no pump jack. Instead, the well was covered by what is known in the industry as a “Christmas tree”—a bunch of pipes and valves that control the flow of gas and direct the emissions into olive-green condensate tanks. On the northern horizon, there was a cloud of black smoke, perhaps from an oil fire or a gas flare.

Fracking is a dark bounty. It has created enormous wealth for some, and the flood of natural gas has lowered energy costs for many, but it has also despoiled communities and created enduring environmental hazards. As in many Texas towns where fracked wells have become commonplace, the citizens of DISH were anxious. In 2010, the town paid fifteen thousand dollars for an air-quality study. It found elevated amounts of benzene, a carcinogen, and other harmful chemicals, but not at levels that are known to endanger health. “If you drew a circle of a mile around my house, there were probably two hundred wells inside it,” the former mayor, Calvin Tillman, told me. His children started getting nosebleeds when gassy odors were present. “One of my boys got a nosebleed that was all over his hands,” Tillman recalled. “There was blood dripping down the walls. It looked like a murder scene. The next morning, my wife said, ‘That’s it.’ ” In 2011, they sold their house, at a loss, and moved to a community that is not on the Barnett Shale. The nosebleeds went away. Since then, additional emission controls have been installed on the wells around DISH.

The frackers advanced fifteen miles northeast, to the city of Denton, on the edge of the Barnett. Locals have echoed the air-quality complaints of DISH’s residents. Denton is now thought to be the most heavily fracked city in the country. Wells have been drilled near schools and hospitals, and next to the football field on the campus of the University of North Texas.

Ed Soph, who used to teach jazz studies there, told me, “People think there are health consequences. Kids were getting asthma. There were nosebleeds and headaches. The silica coated the neighborhood in dust. There was the odor, the noise. The kids couldn’t play outside—they would get sick, it’s that simple.” He says that there are nearly three hundred wells inside the city limits and more to come. “A third of the landmass of the city has been platted for wells,” he said.

In 2008, multiple earthquakes were recorded in North Texas, and, according to a study conducted at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, more than two hundred quakes have followed. The study concluded that the quakes have most likely been caused by the 1.7 billion barrels of waste-water that have been pumped into the region’s hundred and sixty-seven “injection” wells, which are used to dispose of fracking fluids. Even after environmental activists recorded twelve earthquakes in and around Irving, where ExxonMobil is headquartered, over a twenty-four-hour period, in January, 2015, energy executives and state regulators maintained that the earthquakes were a natural phenomenon.

“I started sounding the alarm pretty early,” Sharon Wilson, who once worked in the energy industry, told me. In 2008, she leased the mineral rights on a small horse ranch that she owned, in Wise County. “My air turned brown and my water turned black,” she said. “I moved to Denton, thinking that my family would have some level of safety there.” As she was unpacking, she noticed that a well was being drilled across the street from a nearby city park.

George Mitchell had been reluctant to admit that the fracking revolution that he unleashed had damaging consequences for the environment. “He was caught off-guard by the backlash,” his son Todd, a geologist, recalls. Todd informed his father that, although natural gas caused less air pollution than coal, industrial leakages of natural gas—especially of methane—could render it no better than coal in terms of global warming. George also came to appreciate the damage caused by the industrialization of the landscape in communities subjected to intensive drilling. In 2012, the year before he died, he co-wrote, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, of New York, an op-ed for the Washington Post, arguing for increased regulation of fracking. “The rapid expansion of fracking has invited legitimate concerns about its impact on water, air and climate—concerns that the industry has attempted to gloss over,” they wrote. “Safely fracking natural gas can mean healthier communities, a cleaner environment and a reliable domestic energy supply.” Mitchell expressed himself more succinctly to his son-in-law Perry Lorenz, an Austin developer. “These damn cowboys will wreck the world in order to get an extra one per cent” of profit, Mitchell said. “You got to sit on them.” Unfortunately, Mitchell’s plea has gone unheeded in Texas.

Sharon Wilson began volunteering for a group in Denton called Earthworks. In 2014, she became part of a successful campaign to ban fracking within the city limits. “It should send a signal to industry that if the people in Texas—where fracking was invented—can’t live with it nobody can,” Wilson said at the time.
The state legislature, which is slavishly beholden to the oil-and-gas industry, soon passed a law prohibiting any such ban. Now cities in Texas have almost no recourse when the frackers move in.

If you’ve ever flown over West Texas, in the region near Midland and Odessa, you may have noticed a landscape that looks like graph paper, stretching for hundreds of square miles across the flatland prairie. Each intersection marks an oil or a gas well. This is the Permian Basin. “It has been drilled more than any province on the planet,” Robert Bryce, an Austin-based journalist who reports on the oil industry, observed. “And yet the more the oil companies drill in it the more oil they find.” Nearly thirty billion barrels of low-sulfur, or “sweet,” oil, known as West Texas Intermediate, have come out of this field, which is roughly the size of South Dakota, and much more oil remains. Factor in the fracking revolution, and the Permian Basin is arguably the hottest oil-and-gas play in the world.

Rystad Energy, an oil-and-gas consultancy, estimates that, for the first time in history, the US holds more oil reserves than either Saudi Arabia or Russia. More than half of the US total is embedded in shale. Technological advances have decreased the cost of fracking to the point that it is becoming competitive with traditional means of extraction. Production in the Permian Basin has doubled in the past five years, to two million barrels a day, and the break-even cost of a fracked well in the region has plummeted to as low as twenty-five dollars a barrel. This has had dramatic consequences for more expensive means of production, such as coal-tar extraction and ocean drilling.

In September, 2016, the Apache Corporation, a Houston-based oil-and-gas-exploration company, announced the discovery of a new field in the Permian Basin, called Alpine High, which is estimated to contain seventy-five trillion cubic feet of gas and three billion barrels of oil. Two months after the Alpine High discovery was announced, the US Geological Survey revealed that another area within the Permian, the Wolfcamp shale, likely contains twenty billion barrels of oil. The agency called the deposit “the largest estimated continuous oil accumulation . . . assessed in the United States to date.” Wolfcamp is also thought to have sixteen trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Between 2007 and 2012, assessments of how much recoverable oil remained in the Permian Basin increased by more than eight hundred per cent.

The little town of Balmorhea lies within the Apache Corporation’s vast fracking field, as does one of Texas’s most glorious spring-fed swimming holes—an oasis, more than an acre in size, that attracts tourists from all over the world. The pool is home to two endangered species of fish. Locals are concerned that the water table will be contaminated by gas leaking from a disposal well or by an earthquake. Apache, which maintains that its methods are “safe and proven,” promises not to drill within the town’s boundaries or beneath the state park that contains the swimming hole, and preliminary testing of the local water supply—funded by the company—has found no “significant” deleterious effects. Still, it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be environmental damage from the estimated five thousand wells that will be required to extract all that oil and gas.

Any ecological costs will have to be measured against the benefits, such as the decent jobs that will come to the region and the taxable income that will support city services. There are undeniable geopolitical advantages to reducing American dependence on foreign oil and to lowering the cost of energy. Because of fracking, the United States now has abundant reserves of natural gas, and this is killing demand for coal, a trend that the Trump Administration is unlikely to be able to reverse. Along the Texas Gulf Coast, facilities that were built for importing natural gas are now used to export it. Gas burns far cleaner than coal, and in the U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions have fallen to their lowest point in a quarter century.

Nevertheless, hydrocarbons released by power plants, refineries, extraction wells, and leaky pipelines make Texas the nation’s leading offender in the production of ozone pollutants, which cause smog. Two environmental groups, Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force, predict that, by 2025, oil and gas production will have made Texas the worst place in America for children suffering from asthma. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which, like most Texas politicians, almost invariably stands with the energy companies, claims that stricter emissions standards for the industry aren’t worth the money and won’t improve public health; tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks, the commission insists, are the main source of pollution in Texas. In October, 2014, the commission’s chief toxicologist declared that there would be “little to no public health benefit” from lowering ozone levels—the opposite finding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Texas is the only state that has its own electrical grid. It is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and was created largely to avoid federal regulations. Because of the intense energy needs of the oil-and-gas business—it takes a lot of power to run oil refineries and petrochemical plants—Texas uses more electricity than any other state. (California, the second-largest consumer, uses about two-thirds as much.) Yet electricity in Texas is cheaper than the national average, and in some places it is free at night. That’s because Texas gets about seventeen per cent of its electricity from wind power, and wind generally blows more at night, when demand is lower. The plains and mesas of West Texas, and the coastal region south of Galveston, are lined with regiments of wind turbines. They are so heavily subsidized by the federal government that wind-energy producers sometimes pay companies to take the energy off their hands, in order to receive federal tax credits. In October, 2016, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, broke a bottle of champagne atop a three-hundred-foot turbine to inaugurate a vast new wind farm in Scurry County, three hours west of Fort Worth; it will provide a million megawatt hours a year to the Texas grid.

The state has invested nearly seven billion dollars in high-voltage transmission lines to carry wind power and other energy eastward, from the shrub-covered plains to the cities. On some days, wind satisfies almost half of Texas’s electricity demand. Solar energy has been slower to catch on, despite abundant and intense sunshine. Austin, the state’s liberal enclave, already obtains nearly forty per cent of its power from renewable sources, and aims at almost doubling that figure in ten years. Georgetown, which is thirty miles outside Austin and one of Texas’s most conservative suburbs, has done the capital one better: it already gets all its electricity from renewable sources. Clean-energy approaches are threatened, however, by the Trump Administration’s reluctance to continue subsidies for alternatives to coal and petroleum.

Nick Fowler, the younger brother of Mack Fowler, who showed me the graph about crude-oil production, operates a petrochemical plant in Odessa. Nick is a ruddy man whose striking white hair and mustache look almost like a disguise. He is what is known as a “downstream” oilman. Upstream oilmen are those who find the oil and provide the money to drill. Midstream are the pipeline operators and the people who move the product to refineries and to market. At the end of the stream, Fowler makes a kind of plastic from a by-product of refining gasoline. “We take a hydrocarbon and turn it into a polymer,” he explained as he showed me around the plant, with its inscrutable towers and mazes of pipes and gangplanks. I spent part of my childhood in West Texas, and I remember seeing facilities like this lit up on the flat horizon at night, like an outpost in a “Mad Max” film.

Fowler handed me a sample of his end product, a malleable, sticky glob that in the trade is called a “potato,” although it more closely resembles a pregnant ravioli. “It’s a form of polypropylene used for hot-melt adhesives,” he told me. I recognized it as the same substance that is used in a hot-glue gun. When melted, the potato becomes spreadable. “The biggest use for it is in the assembly of non-woven materials, like in feminine-hygiene products, disposable diapers, panty liners, and adult-incontinence products,” Fowler said. “Our adhesives hold the layers together. Diapers are a very complicated structure.”

As he drove me through the facility, Fowler rolled down the window and stopped to talk to three engineers. The plant had been shut down owing to an equipment malfunction. A train car that had arrived to take the next shipment of polymer to market was sitting idle, and who knew how many fortunes were being lost. But the engineers were unfazed; in fact, they all seemed amused and excited, because they had an interesting problem to work on. The lead engineer, J. J. DeCair, speculated about what might be wrong—possibly a water leak in a condenser. Fowler drove on, praising his crew: DeCair was self-taught, “an American genius of the same ilk as Wilbur and Orville Wright.” It takes a lot of ingenuity to run a petrochemical plant. Here they were, in one of the most desolate parts of Texas, on a hundred-degree day in June, having a pretty great time.

Later that afternoon, Fowler took me to his country club for dinner. On the highway, next to a strip club, there was a fifty-seven-acre lot where unused oil rigs were stored. Every Friday at noon, Baker Hughes, a giant oil-field-services company in Houston, releases a “rig count”: a measure of how many new wells are being drilled in the US. It is the most closely watched barometer of the drilling industry’s health. On that Friday—June 17, 2016—only four hundred and twenty-one rigs were being put to use in the US, less than a tenth of the forty-five hundred rigs that were operational in December, 1981, the highest count since records began to be kept. In the lot that Fowler and I passed, forty-seven rigs were lined up, in even rows. “They cost fifteen to eighteen million dollars apiece,” Fowler observed. He estimated that the total investment in the idle rigs was eight hundred and fifty million dollars.

We sat down in the country club’s empty dining room, watching through a picture window as a storm blew in across the flayed landscape. Golfers raced into the clubhouse as lightning bombarded the giant black sky, as if there were an air war. The rainfall was paltry, typical of the noisy, uncharitable storms of this part of Texas. The idle rigs on the horizon, illuminated by the blinding flashes, looked like ideal lightning rods. There have long been dreams of harvesting the electrical power of Texas’s many lightning strikes. In 2006, a company set up an experimental lightning-capture tower in Houston, where there are lots of electrical storms and a huge demand for power. The company could never make its contraption work.

I asked Fowler if he ever thought of leaving Odessa. “Only on mornings when the sun rises in the East,” he joked. “When the weather’s nice, it’s delightful, although it’s still not very attractive.” On the other hand, he liked being in a place where “the people at the laundry know your name.” Mainly, he was comforted by the two hundred and ten good jobs that he provided.

Fracking had recharged the economy of the Permian Basin, Fowler observed, but, like any boom, it wouldn’t last forever. When he and Mack were boys, their parents took them on a vacation to Colorado, and they stopped in Leadville, the headquarters of the silver boom of the eighteen-seventies. Leadville then had two dozen theatres, including the grand Tabor Opera House, where Oscar Wilde and Harry Houdini performed. The lobby floor of a hotel was paved with silver dollars. Leadville was the second-largest city in the state, after Denver. Today, only a few thousand people live there, and the town relies on nostalgia tourism. At best, Nick Fowler said, the Permian Basin has twenty-five more years before it follows the same dark path. “Fortunes change,” he said. “People move on. How can it be any different in Odessa?”

If you look at a map of pipelines in America, you will be struck by the rat’s nest that covers the Gulf Coast, from South Texas to the eastern border of Louisiana. There are 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the country, and about a sixth of them are in Texas. They carry crude oil, gasoline, heating oil, aviation fuel, and natural gas all over the US. More than forty per cent of the refined product from the Texas Gulf Coast moves through the Colonial Pipeline, which originates in Houston and travels fifty-five hundred miles to New Jersey, with stops in communities along the way. Other lines starting in Houston flow to Colorado, California, and Arizona. Another nexus of pipelines originates in Midland and runs to Chicago, Toledo, and Detroit. Excess gas from North Texas gets sent to salt caverns in Oklahoma and elsewhere for storage. More than thirty thousand miles of new pipeline are planned, or are under construction, in North America, including the long-delayed Keystone XL, which was recently approved by the Trump Administration. It is projected to carry eight hundred thousand barrels of oil per day from the tar sands in Canada to refineries in Texas.

The Gulf Coast acts as a sort of catcher’s mitt for the tropical storms that are stirred to life across the Atlantic Ocean and hurl themselves toward Texas and Louisiana. Until this year, Texas hadn’t had a direct hit since Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston in 2008. Ike was only a Category 2 hurricane, but it was one of the most destructive storms in Texas history, causing a twenty-foot surge of seawater and killing seventy-four people. Most of Texas’s political leaders are complacent about climate change, and publicly express doubt that it is happening—or, at least, that human activity has anything to do with it. Given the scientific consensus on global warming, it is difficult to read this political resistance as anything other than a pledge of allegiance to the oil-and-gas industry, which is headquartered right in the hurricane strike zone.

In August, 2017, a desultory storm named Harvey lumbered across the Yucatán Peninsula into the Gulf, where it gathered only enough strength to become a tropical depression. But, thanks to abnormally warm waters in the Gulf, within fifty-six hours Harvey had exploded into a Category 4 hurricane. At 10 PM on August 25th, Harvey made landfall at Rockport, a fishing village and art colony north of Corpus Christi, with sustained winds of a hundred and thirty miles an hour. It wiped out entire blocks in Rockport and levelled other towns in the area. But the wind wasn’t the main threat; it was the rain.

Harvey poured more rain on Houston and the surrounding region than any storm in US history—51.88 inches were recorded at Cedar Bayou, just east of the city. Nearly a hundred thousand homes were flooded, and as many as a million vehicles were destroyed. Estimates of the damage are as high as two hundred billion dollars, which is nearly equivalent to the costs of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina combined.

Almost a quarter of America’s refining capacity shut down in the aftermath of Harvey, including the two largest refineries in the country. It took weeks before they were fully back online. Fires and lightning strikes released toxic pollutants from storage tanks and petrochemical plants into the air. Ports from Brownsville to Port Arthur were shut down. The storm has called into question the future of the Gulf Coast as a safe repository for the nation’s energy supplies.

And yet, in the short term, Harvey’s effect on the oil-and-gas industry was minimal. The refineries recovered without significant long-term damage. Gasoline prices briefly spiked at the pump, but crude-oil prices barely moved. In economic terms, even a hurricane is less powerful than the current glut of oil.

Texas has never been rich in the way that Maryland and Connecticut and other old-money Eastern states are. Even Nebraska has more millionaires per capita than Texas. And yet, when people all over the world think of Texas, they still think of big money—the kind of cowboy-hat-and-suspenders billionaires depicted on the TV series “Dallas.” In the go-go years before the big bust in the nineteen-eighties, I began hearing the word “unit,” slang for a hundred million dollars—the amount that you needed to have to be judged genuinely rich in Texas. I don’t hear that anymore.

Societies that depend on natural resources tend to have certain inherent problems. The limited concentration of wealth—whether from oil, coal, diamonds, or bauxite—often leads to corruption and authoritarianism. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Louisiana are primary examples. In such a society, the economy rises and falls by a single measure. When the price of oil goes up, the entire Texas economy takes a deep breath. Millionaires blossom like rain lilies. News races through the countryside that the money train is pulling into the station. Hop on board! In places where money comes out of the ground, luck and a willingness to take risks are the main denominators that determine one’s future, not talent or education or hard work. Money that is so easily acquired somehow comes to seem well deserved, because those who have it must be either uniquely perspicacious or divinely favored.

In good times, a kind of forgetfulness falls over the land. It’s easy to make money when the price of oil skyrockets and building cranes loom over the cities like praying mantises and the malls are jammed and you can’t get a dinner reservation. Then the reckoning arrives.

In the late nineteen-eighties, during the savings-and-loan crisis, I was serving on a jury in Travis County, which includes Austin. In Texas, many savings-and-loan companies failed because of a collapse in real-estate prices that had accompanied a fall in the price of oil. During a recess in the trial, I walked outside to get some air, and there was a mob of people on the steps, pushing forward to grab pieces of paper that were being handed out. By then, I had grown used to signs of economic distress. Department stores were shuttered. Vacant skyscrapers were called “see-throughs.” Texan newspapers and banks were being sold off to out-of-state interests, resulting in the loss of control of our sources of information and finance. “NOW SERVING BREAKFAST” banners foretold the next restaurant to close. One of my neighbors, an engineer who worked for the City of Austin, lost his house and moved into his Volkswagen van. Until that day, I had never seen foreclosed properties for sale on the courthouse steps.

I contemplated the legacy of the great oil boom of the seventies and early eighties, which had come to such a crashing halt. The bust lasted twenty years. Where were the cultural institutions, the schools, the public art? What I saw instead were cruddy strip malls, garish beach communities, and the ugly sprawl of car lots and franchise chicken joints and prefab warehouses, which issued out of the heart of every city and crawled along our highways like poisonous vines. After the boom, Texas was revealed to be a society built on greed and impermanence, a civilization that was here to take, not to give. It was odd, because Texans were always talking about how much they loved the state, but I couldn’t find much evidence of that love.

There were bumper stickers back then that read “PLEASE, GOD, SEND ME ONE MORE OIL BOOM. THIS TIME, I PROMISE NOT TO PISS IT AWAY.”

Although the price of oil has been floating above fifty dollars for more than two months, and oil-and-gas exports are now at the highest level in American history, more than seventy thousand oil-and-gas jobs have been lost in Texas since December, 2014, and many of them aren’t coming back. For one thing, the extremely competitive frackers have learned how to automate much of the drilling process. There is now a rig that can assemble itself and also “walk,” unaided, from one drilling site to the next.

Houston personifies the Texas oil economy. The city was a ramshackle, swampy place, notorious for its many alligator holes, until Spindletop hit, and it suddenly found itself the capital of an oil empire. By 1913, there were numerous oil companies in the city, including Humble Oil, a predecessor of ExxonMobil. “Houston was a one-company town,” Stephen Klineberg, the founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said recently, over coffee at a French bakery in Houston. “We did oil the way Detroit did cars.” The city is still the international center of the petroleum industry. “Everyplace else is a backwater,” Walter Light, an independent oilman in Houston, told me.

The city, which has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants in America, has finally begun to diversify its economy as well. For the past thirty-seven years, Klineberg has been conducting an annual survey of the city’s economy. When he began his work, oil and gas accounted for more than eighty per cent of Houston’s economy; now it’s forty. Houston’s medical center—the largest such facility in the world—has more than a hundred thousand workers, in fifty-nine institutions, occupying an area larger than Chicago’s Loop. Houston’s port is now the second largest in the country. Between 2000 and 2014, the city added more than seven hundred thousand jobs, almost twice the number of jobs created in New York City. “People complain about the weather and the flying cockroaches, but the latest survey shows that eighty-one per cent say life in Houston is excellent or good, even with the downturn,” Klineberg told me. “They say that Houston is a crappy place to visit but a wonderful place to live.”

When I was growing up, in Dallas, we viewed Houston as a blue-collar cousin, a fine place to go if you liked country music and barbecue. That’s still true, but Houston is now rated, by the Washington Post, as one of the five best restaurant cities in America. It also has an excellent opera, and claims to have more theatre seats than any city outside New York—achievements that point to Houston’s aspiration to be an international cultural center. Lynn Wyatt, the long-reigning queen of Houston’s social scene, told me, “There was this quote in a local publication. It said, ‘Houston is . . . ’—what’s that awful word? ‘Funky.’ It said, ‘Houston is funky.’ I called them up at once! I told them, ‘Houston’s not funky! You make it sound like Austin, or some such place. Houston is a world-class city.’ ”

The rest of the state has followed Houston’s economic lead, and Texas is at last starting to become less reliant on oil. In addition to its wind-turbine farms, the state has expanded in manufacturing, aviation, aerospace, defense, and biotechnology. Austin has America’s fourth-largest concentration of startups. San Antonio has become a center for cyber-security, with more than eighty firms in the city. Although Texas has only nine per cent of the nation’s population, it accounted for at least a quarter of the new jobs created between 2000 and 2014. The infamous boom-and-bust cycle is less severe. The Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas reports that oil and mineral-related revenue makes up only five per cent of the state’s total tax collection, half of what it was in the nineteen-eighties. One of the state’s most respected economists, Angelos Angelou, argues that low oil prices are actually good for the state economy, a proposition that would have been heresy only a few years ago.

Maybe God, in His wisdom, will decide not to send Texas one more oil boom. # # #

[Lawrence Wright has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. He is also an author, screenwriter, and playwright.

In 1993, Wright published a two-part article in the magazine about recovered memories, titled “Remembering Satan,” which won the National Magazine Award and the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Journalism. He won another National Magazine Award for his 2011 profile of Paul Haggis, “The Apostate.” That article became a part of his book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013). His history of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), was translated into twenty-four languages and won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Parts of that book originally appeared in The New Yorker, including a Profile of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the then-current leader of al-Qaeda, which won the 2002 Overseas Press Club Award for magazine reporting. His most recent book is The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (2016). Wright received a BA (English) from Tulane University (LA} as well as an MA (applied linguistics) from American University in Cairo.]

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