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I've never been a horse guy (or really any kind of animal guy, really), but my parents both had them when they were young, and of the many observations I was subjected to regarding the basic idiocy of these creatures* was their tendency to denude the landscape they inhabited.  Horses in pens quickly reduce the earth to a bladeless, rootless desert, chomping and stomping down the vegetation well beyond any level of sustainability.

All barnyard animals will do this if you cage them in tightly enough.  Horses in the lost wild could run around indefinitely, finding new grass (or fleeing predators or chasing horsey tail, but definitely running) as they liked, giving the old stuff time to grow back.  If things got too easy for the mustangs, grass running too thin or whatever, then population pressures of one sort or another would kill enough off, keeping nature in its steady thermodynamic equilibrium (except of course, when it didn't).

We humans are, by human definition, way better than barnyard animals.  Using not only thumbs but cognition too, we've staved off those population pressures, tricking grass to keep coming out of the earth and feeding more and more of us.  But thermodynamics is a tough mistress; nobody's yet found a way to get past rule 1 (you can't win), and never you mind rule 2 (but we'll be long since vaporized when the house finally demands its cut).  Anyway, the point is that in order to keep conjuring fruit out of the ground, we've had to pump more than our allotted 160 watts per square meter into it.  And even George Bush knows where that extra measure comes from, more or less (after all we've got to eat some).  I find the thought fascinating that we've pumped the substance of half of our population--the atoms that make up the very meat and bones of us--from deep in the bowels of the earth's crust.  We keep making people out of oil.

And we've made a hell of a lot more than people.  We've fashioned a whole society on oil, and while I'm in general a subscriber to "the will of the people" as a driving force in grand demographic trends, that will can be crudely manipulated by the motivated and the powerful.  Those vague forces of opinion will seek out an energetic minimum--water will always run downhill, but the course of the flow can be shaped to direct it into one valley or another.  It was a hell of a post-war ride, and if we owe labor laws and catfood-free retirement to FDR's New Deal, then we have to owe that swell house in Levittown to Eisenhower's interstate system.  The former may have been sustainable (depending on whom you ask, and on who's skimming the funds), but the latter planted the seeds of doom.  It did two things: it centralized agriculture (which was needed to turn the old farms into subdivisions and in turn requiring more power and fertilizer to optimize the remaining ones) and it diluted the population so we could travel miles from our homes to work, sucking down the petrol like hogs at a trough.  

I've been reading jolly Jim Kuntsler lately, but I can't share his readers' smug disdain of the successor to the working Joe Sixpack: hummer-commuting, beef-eating, McMansion-dwelling Joe Suburb.  Joe S. has got it tough; he's only going where the forces of nature dictate.  

If you've ever wanted to know why coffee stains make rings instead of even beige smudges, you need to look at the thermodynamics of them.  Specifically, the surface energy balance at the edge of the coffee puddle has got to be equilibrated, driving the angle it makes with the flat surface to always be the same.  To do this, liquid (and usually anything suspended in it) must be drawn from the center of the puddle, which then thins and dries first.  

Joe's a tiny speck floating in the great oil slick, drawn out to the geographic edges of civilization by economic and social forces.  Joe can't afford to live where he works because the cost of living is too damn high in the tolerable places, and the affordable places are broken hellholes.  So he keeps bulging out the edge, where there's a balance between his quality of life and his cost, and meanwhile the middle keeps evaporating behind him.  And unless we keep pumping gas into our puddle, it's going to dry out from the inside first.

This is getting long, but the point is that we can't keep up the expansion without the black stuff.  We need a better model than we have, and while it's a trite matter to imagine one (maybe another post), I have to point out that the current strategy, built on highways, is as artificial a situation as anything else that might have come to be.  I'm just worried that the grass is already killed, we've bred too vigorously, and our stain is spread too thin.  I'm worried that maybe the bridge on the freeway was out thirty years ago, and we don't yet know we're standing on air.  

Don't look down.


Disclaimer: except for Kunstler's, I haven't read the cited blogs more than once.

* Evidently the true hippophiles out there--the ones that actually have horses--love the animals in spite of this characteristic.

Originally posted to Keifus on Sat Jun 03, 2006 at 05:12 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Interesting analogies (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Real History Lisa, Keifus

    You capture the poetry of your analogies well and you're making me think.

    I guess my bottom line response is such a strong belief in self-determination that I can't accept humans as either horses or caught in a drying coffee ring but I guess a lot of people do get caught up in a difficult situation before they've thought about what they're getting into.

    •  Hey, thanks (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Thursday Next, Real History Lisa

      ...for reading.  I posted this a couple of weeks ago to Slate's "Best of the Fray."  I like to think about the big picture stuff, and I've been halfheartedly shopping for the right audience.

      I think people tend to drift in the direction that's downhill, puddling into their local minima.  Not that I advocate it making it (more) difficult (than necessary) for them, but then there's a matter of fairness, and there's a matter of intelligent planning.  And mostly those things have been igrnored.

      Thermodynamics is a bitch--it always gets you in the end, and we've collectively been in denial for decades now.

      Thanks again.


      •  I guess people get distracted (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Real History Lisa

        We're living in a time where there are so many distractions, so many things that are supposed to be important, e.g. a new barbeque, new iPod, new car, that it is easy to lose sight of the differences we need to make in our lives.

        People subscribe to ideas about how they should live. For instance, I heard recently that in someplace in the southern US, people want to buy a new house rather than a used one, even a 2 or 3 yr old one. Well, no wonder they have to move farther and farther out into the suburbs.

        I hope our ability to think puts us ahead of horses and coffee rings. And I hope we can get people to think about the impact of the decisions they make. The question is how.

      •  I'm glad I'm in Europe (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        where the cities are still highly concentrated, the greenbelt laws protect the countryside, and even though our populations are growing we try to make sensible choices.

        Thanks for an excellent thought-provoking (taken with first cup of coffee) read.

        "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing - after they have exhausted all other possibilities." Winston Churchill

        by LondonYank on Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 11:24:32 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  ah, but (0+ / 0-)

        as Ken Kesey noted in Demon Box, it only applies to a closed system.

    •  Fantastic (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Liberal Thinking, Tinfoil Hat

      I loved this diary.  Thanks for writing it and thanks to Susan G for rescuing it.  

      I also love horses and coffee.

  •  The End of Oil (0+ / 0-)

    I'm reading a good book called The End of Oil, by Paul Roberts, which is scary as hell - as scary as Gore's excellent film "An Inconvenient Truth". Here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say. I wish everyone on Kos could read it. Much to discuss.

    All economic activity is rooted in the energy economy, which means a substantial portion of the current world economy is linked to the production and distribution of oil. But what will happen, Roberts asks, when the well starts to run dry? Walking readers through the modern energy economy, he suggests that grim prospect may not be as far off as we'd like to think and points out how political unrest could disrupt the world's oil supply with disastrous results. But that could be the least of our worries; some of Roberts's most persuasive passages describe an almost inevitable future shaped by global warming, especially as rapidly industrializing countries like China begin to replicate the pollution history of the U.S. Some signs of hope are visible, he believes, especially in Europe, but the stumbling progress of potential alternatives such as hydrogen power or fuel cells is additional cause for concern. And though the current administration's energy policy gets plenty of criticism, Roberts (a regular contributor to Harper's) saves some of his harshest barbs for American consumers, described as "the least energy-conscious people on the planet." If the government won't create stricter fuel efficiency standards, he argues, blame must be placed equally on our eagerness to drive around in gas-guzzling SUVs and on corporate lobbying. Stressing the dire need to act now to create any meaningful long-term effect, this measured snapshot of our oil-dependent economy forces readers to confront unsettling truths without sinking into stridency. This book may very well become for fossil fuels what Fast Food Nation was to food or High and Mighty to SUVs.

  •  Btw - great title (0+ / 0-)

    I didn't know who you were, but the title was great. Had to see what you were going to do with Horses and Coffee Stains. Have you read Jared Diamond's books? He makes great analogies, asking what a Zebra, a failed marriage, and Anna Karenina have in common, etc. I plan to read his book Collapse next. Loved his Guns, Germs, and Steel book too, about how the haves and have nots got to be that way. Highly recommended.

  •  Yep (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Real History Lisa

    Saw an article somewher, some time ago, that talked about energy and agriculture and declared that essentially, we're eating oil. You've captured that, and more, really well.

    Great diary. Write more.

    •  Richard Manning's "The Oil We Eat" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tinfoil Hat
      an excellent and sobering account of the history of agriculture and oil, first publishend in Harpers in Feb 2004. If you haven't read it--you need to.

      find it here:

      He also invokes the First Law of Thermodynamics. And his piece is filled with rich metaphor--a real joy to read:

         Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can find what Iowans call a "postage stamp" remnant of some, it most likely will abut a cornfield. This allows an observation. Walk from the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you. Settlers' accounts of the prairie conquest mention a sound, a series of pops, like pistol shots, the sound of stout grass roots breaking before a moldboard plow. A robbery was in progress.

          When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as rich in energy as an oil well. A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat. Much of the energy moves from the earth to the rings of fat around our necks and waists. And much of the energy is simply wasted, a trail of dollars billowing from the burglar's satchel.

  •  The omnivores dilemna addresses (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Geronimo, Real History Lisa

    the eating of oil as well.  A fascinating book I highly  recommend.  It makes you examine your relationship with your food.

    But to your point...
    I live in Saint Louis and have been here for 4 years now.  It is the perfect urban example of what you describe.  It is an expanding donut of a metropolis.  Not that the center disappears it just becomes undesirable.  What give me hope is the hole is increasingly getting filled back in.  Maybe it just become too hard to spend 2 hours of your day in a car, but whatever the cause people are returning to the city.  I can only hope this is happening elsewhere as well as continues to accelerate here.

    •  They're building lofts like crazy in downtown LA (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      In Dowtown Los Angeles, all kinds of new residences are being built. There's even a full scale grocery store going in. Someone knows what's coming.

      •  Crazy in La (0+ / 0-)

        Another Analogy for you surfers on the west coast.

        See that wave coming? Start paddling HARD...the first ones on the wave enjoy more of it's benefits. Wait to long and the wave will pass you by, or become too crowded to jump on. If you need a roomie to help paddle, get one. You can't beat the benefits of getting  on EARLY.

        And a little side note for just the two of us,..
        (builders will deal directly, and give you %'s back)
        (builders will give you goodies to get in early)

    •  St. Louis (0+ / 0-)
      My impression of St. Louis is (eek!) that it's actually not a bad model for a city.  Much of it is walkable and pleasant, I thought, but then I hardly saw the whole thing in a few days and on business.


  •  I loooove analogies (5+ / 0-)

    I've been interested n this for a long time. As a home builder in Chicago and the area. I ve been fascinated that no overall planning commision has been able to be put in place.  Seems like no one,governments included want to give up their piece of pie. The 20 homes that I built and sold in the suburbs( 30 miles sw of Chicago) were the result of white flight. (I have since become an infill builder, building homes and condos in the city.) I am utterly amazed that people will move 40 miles out of the city to buy their suburban home, wasting away in their car stalled n traffic.  The costs of these homes, range from the $150,000 and up, are staggering when you add in the time that it takes to get to work, the costs of infastructure that has to be built when these subdivisions go in, the value of land that gets plowed under,( The area outside of Chicago is the richest agricultural land in the WORLD, bulldozed for streets and garages), and the taxes that are always trying to catch up to the new costs.
    What I find the most outragous is these people drive right past the areas that have the infastructure in place, just in need of spit and polish and maybe a bulldozer and a host of tradespeople,  with public transportation,schools, hospitals and libraries with in walking distance.  
    So now Im an infill builder, and what I find is that the people I sell to are not bigots,maybe one exception, all love not taking the car to work-when they can, and all love being part of a community. And for the most part it has been done under "market forces"
    So is the answer in the gov? To the Cities that are already built it would be Yes, stopping grow at the edges and ushering money back into the center,(More coffee for the cofers please) with underused properties back on the tax rolls, increased employment opportunity .. for the small towns that want to grow, they dry up and become the quaint coffee stain on the map of the area.
    When your throwing a party (and say that party was seeing your property values double in 5 years or less, and setting you up in retirement when nothing else seems too)People might not want to go to the party, but they want to know that they were invited, and that is why Smart growth is a tough sell.

    I think that trying to get your electricty from PVs are going to be a long term investment.  I think that using Solar Collectors for the Hot Water collection is a better bet, along with better insulation and passive solar design, using the collector with radiant heating is probably the most cost effective right now.  
    Lets talk geo thermal heat pumps some day,..A great enviromental disaster waiting to happen.

    All the best
    •  Geothermal (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tinfoil Hat

      In response to my post above someone has asked me to expand about the Geothermal
      So a sample of the emails Ive sent.

      I'm just have a very pessimistic attitude that we're going to have a lot of "half baked",19 year old, non union types drilling holes into the ground and filling them up with plastic pipes, which then are filled with  an Ethylene-glycol mixture.  What could possibly go wrong there.?
      In comparison to the Gold industry, or other mining industries, gas stations, and such its small potatoes, until of course you rely on your well for potable water.
      OR you contaminate your neighbors well or subsurface.  The above industries have laws in their favor to minimize potential claims.  Im not a lawyer but i would suspect that in the event of a leak you'd be looking back to the installer or your homeowners policy to cover the costs. In Chicago, we're in the Great Lakes region, holding 70% of the worlds fresh water supply. now granted one home is not going to do a lot of damage just like one car doesn't either.

      Before you think Im otherwise:
      I am absolutely 100% in favor of the idea of geothermal energy.  Just look at REYKJAVIK, Iceland for an example of it's potential

      Im just very pessimistic about the ability of plastic not to degrade, the quality of joints mechanical or chemical over the lifetime that the system is going to be relied upon to work, and the ability of people to see their work is performed correctly
      For the record:
      I just rehabbed a Historic Chicago building originally built in 1895-
      so I see how long things can actually last.
      I also cook on a restored 1951 oven.
      I just got through suing a plumber over his failure to properly "glue" pvc pipes together.  
      If a "pro", and I use that term lightly, can't glue 2 pieces together correctly, and that is an extremely basic part of the job, I have no faith in more complex details, especially when performed by half-baked,non union 19 year olds
      As a general contractor, Im constantly looking at subcontractors work,
      so I see great and I see otherwise.

      So my bottom line is this.
      Anything put together well and maintained on schedule is going to last.

      Geothermal heat pumps are going to be in my next project.

      Great system, go for it, Just :
            be on top of the contractor like your married to him/her,
            demand a pressure test in excess of the system norms,
            visually verify that test.
            And when something goes wrong get it corrected promptly!

      All the Best

      David Funcheon
      Aon Development, LLC

    •  PVs and analogies (0+ / 0-)
      I'm a big fan of analogies myself: nothign I like better than extending a metaphor.

      As far as solar power goes, heating water is inherently more efficient, up to 60-something percent.  That's above the theoretical max efficiency of PVs by like a factor of two.  (though that max does have some assumptions built in that may actually be conquerable...)

      In the Boston area, it's by no means economical to live in, or even very much near the city.  (I don't work in Boston, but still...)  The parts which might be affordable (and in Boston that'd include some very white parts, though not sure how affortable these days) aren't usually good places for families.


      •  There once was a woman who lived in a shoe..... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        What im seeing/seen in chicago is that areas that are bad areas (and have been for years) are being changed. I would have to say that about half of the new parents in the city are chosing to stay in the city. Areas that were not pretty even 5yrs. ago are now full and I mean FULL of strollers and bikes with training wheels. As a builder and realtor, I recommend looking for that wave you can ride (see Crazy in La).
        I told a friend who just moved to DC, find the absoluetly worst neighborhood, and take a look around, in that neighborhood find the best location and buy something around there.  (Now in all fairness he's an Air Marshall & carries a gun.  If your not an Air Marshall- invest in an home alarm, a garage and an Akita)

        If you can afford a $4,000,000 home on 8 acres -skip to the bottom paragraph.

        The point that I made to him is the same that I'll make to you. Your home is your number one asset, treat it like stock that you own.  Do not be afraid to trade that stock for stock somewhere else if you can get a better return on your investment.  that requires looking at it rather harshly.

        I know that in the Boston area, people are moving to Providence RI to live. If you find a good deal in Providence, and you can live less expensively, start paddling & catch that wave. Before you know it,....

        There'll be so many kids you won't know what to do.

        All the Best
  •  Thermodynamics (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ghostofaflea, Geronimo, kay dub

    has been a life long philosophy for me for decades.  It just keeps getting better and richer and truer the older I get.
    Universal laws are the greatest equalizer.  There is no God above or separate from it all.  This is it.  This IS the divine.

  •  Enjoyed that. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    SueG's Diary Rescue to the........rescue.

    "A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they're dead." - L. C. Rosten

    by Wayneman on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 06:56:47 AM PDT

  •  This issue is what brought me to dKos (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Liberal Thinking

    I've read all the books (that I can find anyways) on this subject. I've read "The End of Oil," "The Long Emergency," "The Party's Over," "Powerdown," "Twilight in the Desert," and, recently, a counter-argument in "The Deep, Hot Biosphere," as well as a number of web sites from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil to the most pessimistic bunch I've found to date, the good folks at I've been interested in alternative energy for a long time. Back in the pre-web days I even authored the FAQ for the newsgroup.

    This kind of basic educational essay is very much needed (and this one is quite well done, BTW). But what is needed far more is work on the public policy issues of energy and growth. To that end, if you haven't yet checked out Energize America, you should do so as soon as possible.

    I live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. We're are blessed and cursed here. We actually have a regional planning body (the Metropolitan Council) here. But this group is largely controlled (as so much of politics is) by moneyed interests (the Met Council members are appointed by the Governor). Thus, even though we have this body, it remains rather insensitive to this issue. The other problem we have is that our geography imposes virtually no constraints on expansion. We have ample water, good soil for closed septic systems. Only roads and energy constrain development.

    In any case, having studied this issue as extensively as a layman might, I think the analogies are of limited value. There is so much that can be done to revise the present structure without abandoning it altogether. So much of the material produced about the dire future seems to be a sort of wish fulfillment by people who inherently hate suburban "culture" and want to see it collapse.

    Make no mistake! I'm not minimizing the energy issue! But rather the notion that only suburbia is at stake. The issue of peak oil is really one of derivatives (in the mathematical sense; the slope of the curves). If we can adapt our high-tech and manufacturing systems to a set of lower waste and sustainable technologies, then things can probably adapt "naturally" and economics will allow the sprawl to convert back to the model of about 75+ years ago, namely villiages linked by rail and road.

    But right now we could build small, single passenger lightweight electric vehicles that could carry a commuter and a bunch of groceries 150 miles on a charge and would get the equivalent of about 200 MPG (net energy equivalent). But we don't. Because "tiny" and "lightweight" and "single passenger" don't sell. Nope. Big ass SUVs sell.

    Now, the economists are right in that the price of oil will drive market choices. Efficiency will become the market choice. The question is whether the slope of the price curve will be so steep that the whole economy will collapse before the market can adapt towards efficiency. That why we need the make the hard choices now rather than later. That's why we need Energize America or something like it now.

    What the peak oil folks recognize that economists seem to ignore is, as you rightly point out, thermdynamics. Economists seems to believe that demand creates supply when it comes to energy. That works for widgets, but you can't create energy. You have to live on what you have.

    The good news is that we have a lot. All life on earth lives on a tiny fraction of the incident solar energy. Most of the energy that hits the earth is radiated back to space. If we tap just a small part of that and keep it here, we have abundant energy.

    The problem is capturing it in forms convenient for our use. The most efficient way to capture it is solar PV, which converts as much as 30% of the sunlight to usable electrical energy. After that, wind energy, biomass, solar thermal and so on capture more of that (of course there is geothermal and tidal and other non-solar sources, but the sun is the "big guy.")

    The problems with these are obvious. They aren't always on, always there. Solar energy is also diffuse, whereas oil is nicely concentrated.

    It is true, the game will change. Our use will have to change. We need to come up with better ways to store intermittent energy than we now have. We will have to do more with less and we will have to get used to having less.

    I don't pretend to know whether we will be able to engineer our way out of catastrophe. I tend to think we will because we have done it again and again in the past. But in any case, what we do know for sure is that the present system is unsustainable and if we are to have a chance of avoiding catastrophe, we have to start changing the game now.

    Dick Cheney says "The American Way of Life is not negotiable." We need to ask ourselves if want to follow what Richard Heinberg in "Powerdown" calls "Last Man Standing." I don't think we do.

    I think we want to follow something like Energize America (no, they don't pay me!)

    For myself, yes, I live in a suburban area on 2 acres. But I have a home designed for energy efficiency with excellent passive solar gain, high thermal mass flooring where the sun comes in, solar thermal water and in-floor heating, and a plan for both wind and solar PV.

    The best things I do for energy and the environment? I telecommute 3 days a week (being a software engineer makes this feasible) and my wife and I decided not to have children.

    The worst things I do for energy and the environment? I do have an air conditioner, and I do use it. I hope to put in a ground-source heat pump in the coming years so I have a lower energy way to cool (and heat) my home.

    Here's to a shallow slope! I'd like to see us adapt to the new structure rather than die back.

    •  helluva reply (0+ / 0-)
      Thanks for it.

      It'll hit us all in one way or another.  Question is how painfully, and when.  I doubt our capacity to soften the blow frankly, but maybe the market will gradualize the transition enough...bending without breaking sort of thing (i doubt it but...).  


  •  Im not pessimistic about the end of oil (0+ / 0-)

    In fact, I wish oil would run out sooner, rather than later. Our problem is not too little fossil fuels, it's too much fossil fuels. Global Warming is more dangerous than no more oil.

    We dont need oil to heat our homes, our water or to grow our crops.

    We don't need oil for transportation.

    Solar power can heat suburbia, for little cost.

    Bicycles with electric assist motors can zip us around to the store, to the bank, to the market. Bikes can have trailers attached to them to move  garbage, cargo, deliveries even as big as a refrigerator or a couch.

    Velomobiles are covered bikes that can be ridden in the rain.

    All we have to do is make our roads safe for bicycles, and lightweight hybrid human-electric vehicles can move us around.

    electrified rail powered by wind generated electricity will move big shipments long distances.

    Don't worry about peak oil, its a good thing. Just think about how clean the air will be.

  •  Good metaphor as far as it goes. (0+ / 0-)

    But humans are not coffee particles.  We will not stick to the edge permanently.  We will migrate backwards when we have no choice left.  Watch for cities with good public transit to accelerate growth as the price of oil climbs.  You can see this already in Chicago, where similar housing costs almost double if it is within walking distace of a train station.

    "Out here in the middle, where the center's on the right, and the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night..."

    by Nineteen Kilo on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 10:47:32 AM PDT

  •  Solar Survival Show (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tinfoil Hat

    I've invested in a table at YearlyKos to present my Solar Survival Show, posters and models, some working, of ways to transition to a renewable, restorative society.  My idea is to show others how they might be able to present some of the same information, do local organizing around these issues, and provide practical solutions to their neighbors.  

    My vision is groups of people doing public displays of solar and energy information at many of the over 3,700 farmers markets that take place each week around the USA from Memorial Day to Halloween.  The hook is Solar Is Civil Defense and farmers market customers are a core constituency for self-reliance and ecological living.

    Now I've got to get back to work on some posters for YearlyKos.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

    by gmoke on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 12:40:44 PM PDT

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