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I wrote a diary a year ago, citing the cautionary tale of the Greenland Viking civilization and why, despite every good reason to take a gander at how the Inuit did things, the Vikings simply could not, would not accommodate, and in fact made a point of alienating beyond distraction their (it's true) newer neighbors who, migrating from even colder, nastier climes, had a thing or two to teach the Vikes...but they wouldn't listen.

I was comparing Jared Diamond's case study to the issue of peak oil, but recently I've perused a copy of Toynbee's Study of History, and realized that somewhere along the way, Diamond probably had a copy of the book, too.

Okay, enough foreplay. Let's get to the nookie. :)

We're running out of cheap energy, water, viable habitat, natural resources, and air. There are too many of us, all of us wanted more and more and more of both basics and luxuries, we want them affordably, and we want them immediately. Weaker individuals are willing to do violence to other persons over the crumbs. Powerful individuals are willing to do violence to entire civilizations to keep the cake to themselves.

We insist on outmoded modes of existence, a cargo cult (another diamond from Diamond) that worships consumer totems such as big cars, hot clothes, the latest gadgets and as big a house in as fashionable a school district as we can afford. The retort is a fossilized one: "So, what's the matter with nice things?" Nothing, so long as they are in fact worthy goals that add value, as oppose to enfeud you to other people's cash flow in a condition of debtor-servitude. The counter: "What's good about making yourself poor?"

Expensive energy leads to high transportation costs leading to a diminution of transcontinental, never mind global trade networks. Given that people have been trading luxuries across extreme distances for going on 10,000 years, using far more expensive (read: slower and more dangerous) modes of traffic, I do not anticipate a termination of commerce...but self-sufficiency (a polite way to say autarky or import-substituting development) will enjoy a renaissance.

With reduced commerce will come reduced association, and more alienation and conflict between groups. This will not be exclusive to interstate and international relations, but a pattern of alienation that will percolate throughout all strata of society...and between them. Got class struggle troubles? Ethnic unrest? Sectarian strife? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Something often missed by the ecological karma crowd: The developed economies, the ones most dependent on important energy, will also be the very societies best situated to develop alternatives. Middle economies will be stuck belting it out over oil and coal and natural gas -- or doing without. Lower-tier economies will continue as before: Shut out of the global energy economy, they will convert as much timber and offal and dung into charcoal and desert wasteland as they possibly can, until the only thing left to eat and drink and burn for fuel is one another. Middle and upper-tier economies that either cannot or will not either (a) restructure their fossil fuel situation or (b) develop alternatives will join the lower tier in its race to the other, more terminal kind of oblivion.

And this is the tragedy -- there is so much energy on Earth it's just plain pitiful that lack of same may precipitate both an economic and ecological collapse (see: desert-making, biomass-destroying hordes above). And why a problem: The ignorant kind of oblivion: People either incapable of seeing or refusing to acknowledge that there sure is a lot of sun and wind on this planet, and perhaps somebody ought to consider building a panel or windmill farm or two, to take advantage of that several thousand Terawatts of energy we get for free every day.

Why refuse the obvious? Cultural bias. The dominant mode in the dominant (Americentric) global culture is a contempt for all things...hippy. What could a bunch of pot-smoking, peace-outing, God-hating, free-loving counterculture freaks teach real Amurricans about a complex civilization and how to save it? Why, just about everything you need, thanks for asking. But that's just it. The people who need to know are not only not asking -- They're doing their utmost to eliminate from the discussion the very people who have something constructive to say.

As for the simple things: Suggesting that one cut back on consumption is received as if someone floated the idea that we trade American daughters for Saudi petroleum upon their reaching puberty. No, strike that: The idea of conservation is treated worse, on account human traffic (slavery) in and around the Middle East actually occurs. Why the hostility to saving? Because spending creates growth and the current global culture has, a, er, growth fetish. Very manly...or insecure. No, both.

So what's going to happen if we refuse to cut back on energy, or accept the advice to come up with alternative energy production? Why, we'll import even more oil and coal, of course! And since we need to keep growing, we'll drive SUVs and buy McMansions and even when we see this is patently bad medicine, we'll keep popping the high-consumption pills, regardless. Anything and everything to keep the music playing. And once imports start drying up, we'll convert coal, then oil shale, then all our plastics to oil.

To keep spending on new big-ticket consumer items going, we'll skimp on maintenance of, well, everything else. Use of energy for food, schools, hospitals, even heating will be taxed, rationed or just plain banned. Anything to keep the cars running, and America's economy growing on the backs of home industry!

At this point, someone might remark that there sure are a lot of cold, sick, shivvering people in America these days...but the have-energy people will be calling the shots. To second-guess them is to become one of the have-no-energy multitude. This is not an Emperor's New Clothes moment; people who criticize will be given new clothes and kicked to the curb. And it's cold out in the cold.

As mentioned above, the coal, the oil shale, the plastics will be scavenged for conversion to fuel. Forgot to add one: vegetable oil. Oh, you didn't think people were going to get to eat, did you? Anything to provide energy for the benefit of the energy-haves, handed over to them for a few crumbs and some cargo cult totems to the homegrown coolies...that's most of us.

Juxtapose this sad, sordid decline against the parallel trend -- post-contemporary societies, with advanced technology, abundant alternative energy, with a focus on energy as the unit of value as opposed to a fiat currency. Societies that remain communicative, and save, and create ideas and energy and values, rather than eat into the obsolescent culture's seedcorn to preserve the practices but not the ideals of the older culture.

New energy, new economics, new societies are on the move. They will be the threat that breaks the back of the cargo culture. And they will be fought off with a ferocity that what currently transpires in the Middle East will not even hold a candle to -- for the very basis of the declining civilization will be condemned and sentenced to capital punishment by the existence, then success of the new paradigm.

As a result, wars will occur, small tiffs, then threats and occasions for full-scale conflict -- missile exchanges are a real possibility. And yet again, the new civilization will be vastly more capable than the old to absorb such terrific punishment and prevail. For this reason, such threats, even making good on same, will be done in a desultory fashion, as we have seen when the last superpower, the USSR, checked out for keeps.

"So Whaddya Saying?"

There is no reason that the United States, as a government and as a society, cannot remarry itself to reality, rather than remain divorced from it. However, not all Americans will do anything of the sort; what we see in the ongoing (cough, choke, yack) debate on global warming is that some people will rather die, and send others to die, rather than acknowledge error, accept a new paradigm, or tolerate others doing so.

Regardless, sooner or later all Americans will have to face the consequences of deferring -- thirty years so far -- the moment when it simply will not be affordable for the average U.S. resident (maybe we'll still be citizens) to travel by car to shop, to afford the goods that are available, to visit friends and family, or (since the electricity comes from the same source) communicate often via phone or internet. So sorry. Snail mail will be expensive, too.

And if you think the job drain is bad now, just you wait and see what happens when investors must choose between developed economies with working public transportation infrastructure (and therefore, less exposure to the pinch of expensive energy) and a post-developed America which cannot even afford to maintain its once-glorious interstate highway system.

This is not hyperbole. There will be no magic bullet that cures the petroleum economy, not so long as so many remain addicted to it, both for their comfort and their self-identity, and an entrenched elite requires that nothing change, in order to continue their profit and their power...except that which must change to continue said profit and power a little while longer.

Originally posted to cskendrick on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 10:52 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Ladies and Gentlemen, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, trashablanca

    we seem to have a theme today. One that would be with us still if Israel and Iran sang kumbayaa around the campfire.

  •  have i told you lately (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, snacksandpop

    that you're brilliant?

    anywho my question is "so, what do we do?"

    yeah the end is near. Fascism is about to march across the globe again. I KNOW that much. What do I do about it?

    the last 5 years are what happens when zeeba zeeba eata is let in charge.

    by terrypinder on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 10:53:01 AM PDT

  •  I thought (4+ / 0-)

    you were going to cheer me up??  

    If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. - Cpt. Ian Fishback

    by Rick Oliver on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 10:57:11 AM PDT

  •  It needs to be phased out (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, terrypinder

    Legislate all sales in the US (for commuter-style cars) be electric-hybrids. The exception to this law will be if the potential standard combustion owning driver can afford an environmental protection tariff (even on domestic mfgd cars) then it pays for the cost of the old style cars.

    Privately owned small trucks, SUVs, and mini-type vans would need to be phased out next. Public transportation (trains, planes, boats), the entire fleet of the trucking industry, and finally the military would need to phased out as well.

    The later phases may take quite a long time to implement. IMO, this plan is achievable if it wasn't for those pesky carbon-based corporate contributions to the legislators who would actually write these laws.

    "We're gonna need a bigger boat!"

    by OCMIHOP on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 11:03:38 AM PDT

  •  nice (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, terrypinder

    Always good to see the Peak Oil word spread far and wide.

    If you want to get really "happy"- check out the Hirsch report, straight from the US Dept of Energy-
    http://www.netl.doe.gov/...

    Also for a primer on the background of Peak oil-
    http://en.wikipedia.org/...

    What can you do?  Become energy aware.  Realize that infinite growth cannot occur with finite resources and act accordingly.  Prepare for high fuel prices by living locally, or moving to a place you can live without driving everywhere.  Support public transportation and switching to a non-petrol based economy.  Conserve, reuse.  

  •  Several years back... (4+ / 0-)

    ...I got called up on some kind of a push poll thingy.  Some minimum wage girl, nice enough, wanted to know whether I was for or against America being "competitive" in the global economy.  (This was back when NAFTA was an issue-du-jour.

    To which I said (general paraphrase):  Globalization means that every object we buy has to be shipped long distances, so more and more of the cost goes to oil companies, and shipping companies, and mining companies.  And all the burned oil contributes to global warming that makes everyone's life more miserable.  Why should I be for that?

    Her reply, "There's an 800 number you can call if you have questions."

    Never did call.  Just gave her a break in the routine of the bogus poll she had been hired to protect.

  •  Mother Nature always (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, terrypinder, trashablanca

    gets the last word; cskendrick, the next-to-last.

    :) to you

    Thoughtful, thought-provoking diary.

    As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. - Justice William O. Douglas

    by occams hatchet on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 11:26:03 AM PDT

  •  And I just paid my car off last year! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    terrypinder, trashablanca

    It figures that the moment that I arrive in life when I can afford pay off the loan on my car, and had planned on keeping it for the next 10 years (or longer), is when gas starts to climb.

    So much for trying not to be a part of the consumer based society that's killing the world and trying to keep more money in my bank account than in an auto dealers hands...

    maybe I'll just stick to riding my bicycle.

  •  Great diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, terrypinder

    I would have given a recommend for the title alone.

  •  The Answers (7+ / 0-)

    For some reason, I can't update my diary.

    So I'll have to 'update' it with a big fat comment. :)

    Diversification of Energy

    Diversify the energy supply portfolio of our civilization. We can and should improve capacitor technologies to accumulate near-continuous, low- and/or variable-density energy sources such as winds, tides and sunlight. With primary energy sources becoming the mainstay rather than the marginal source of power, gradually the burning of fossil fuels, charcoal, and dung will fade, as economies of scale for wind, wave and sun will emerge.

    1. Petroleum and natural gas will remain dominant, so long as interested private and political actors can crowd out investment that might accrue to the development of currently-marginal energy sources, and legislate research and innovation out of existence.

    1. With no research and innovation, there is no informed dissent, only discomfort with rising oil and gas prices. In other words, the status quo.

    1. Breaking through the barriers, researching, experimenting, inventing and informing anyway is mission #1. Waiting for Government, God or Godot to come to the rescue is a proven waste of time. Godot helps those who help themselves in this matter.

    1. Few have the combination of talent, temperament and training to build a micro-scale alternative energy economy from scratch. We wish them well, but what can we do to make their lives easier?

    1. Lots. Most people possess the sentiment, sense and sanity to be capable of using less electricity at home, recycling more and driving less for less frivolous reasons. And ironically, the lower demand is for energy, the more margin exists to reinvest in developing alternative energy. Plus conservation adds to the household and business bottom line. There’s no excuse for wasting juice.

    1. With that increased margin, instead of having a Second Coming of the SUV, we sink those savings into investment, both personal and public, into incentives (tax breaks, perhaps) for the development and purchase of hybrid vehicles, which are still partly fossilized, but we’re just looking to diversify our energy portfolio in this half of the century, to buy ourselves the time to save ourselves. And that’s going to be hard enough all by itself.

    1. Build, promote and participate in social and cultural support structures, to fortify yourself with conservation information, new ways to save yourself, your family, your friends and your grateful boss and shareholders more money (and gain mojo for yourself!). They exist in abundance now; find what works for you and if nothing quite fits your ethos, lifestyle and sociological milieu, make something up.

    1. The big thing to develop a personal culture of props for conservation, snaps for wastrels and spendthrifts. I mean, that mofo in the SUV is sucking your planet dry. Get upset about it, then high-five with your peeps afterwards about sticking it to the Man, through sticking it to one of his minions.

    1. And that’s the point of it: Self-preservation, not just money in your pocket, but a planet for your children. If that doesn’t get you fired up, perhaps this isn’t your fight, but we’ll razz you less if you drive a fuel-efficient vehicle, at least.

    1. Bringing it all together: Less consumption means less profits for an entrenched cartel that uses its profits for conserving its prerogatives, not your planet. Fewer profits means a looser hold on investment capital and on the putative servants of the people in government. More innovation in alternative energy happens. More incentivization (or at least less suppression) of scientific research and initiative in energy projects happens. The inventors flourish. The conserving public profits from saving, from cartel-busting, from new products, and the virtuous wheel rolls on and on and on.

    1. To combat and marginalize cultural rescidivism, even outright atavism such as the SUV phenomenon, promote a culture of support for saving, shame for wasting starting with your own household, then sharing the props and snaps, respectively, farther and farther afield as your networking and support builds.

    1. And none of this is that original, or that untested, or that far from the mainstream. Quite the contrary: Guzzling gas isn’t cool anymore. People who do so are defensive about it, as well they should be; they single-handedly tanked the Nineties recovery out of existence. (That’s right: There was never a ‘bubble’, there was cheap energy, then the SUVs sucked that well dry, then there wasn’t) And there’s no reason not to turn up the heat, on people who never turn the heat down.

    Dispersion of Capital

    Miniaturization a go-go. Devolution a go-go. Leverage skilled labor a go-go. Reduce capital inputs per output of product, disperse capital to the small shops and tool shed workbenches of the world, as much as possible. This is practicable by reducing the size and complexity and cost to manufacture, use and maintain tools and machines used in the production of goods and services. We don't need nanotech. All we need in the next decade or so - and have time for - is mini-tech. And anything that can empower the weekend hobbyist can make a factory that much more energy-efficient and competitive.

    1. There is no shortage of basic science – and basic patents – that have yet to be fully developed. And since in our era there is a close correlation between concentration of funds and concentration of intellectual property, let’s explore this thread together in more detail.

    1. One concern of mine is the concentration of ownership of intellectual property rights, and working to make licensing for smaller operators easier to obtain on existing patents, and secure some share of the profits of innovation for subsequent innovations, which seems only fair.

    1. If a structure for sharing/leasing basic patents to small developers can be made affordable to both the patent-lessor and lessee, or if these mechanizations exist already – making knowledge of them widely available, perhaps the cost-benefit calculus of outright theft of intellectual property will diminish, as well. Sort of like selling download rights to music for pennies, instead of Draconian laws against pre-teens using peer-to-peer networks.

    1. Apply this to energy, hi-tech, biological patents, provide a means for sharing the benefits of patenting gene codons and nonorganic molecules more easily and widely, then perhaps objections to corporations ‘owning’ such things will subside somewhat. That alone might be valuable political and economic leverage. Remember, we’re going for more dispersion of capital, not neocommunism. Save that battle for the 22nd century.

    1. The calculus for this reform is thus: Corporations are starving for new ideas, and anxious to fully exploit the economic value of the ideas they already have under patent, but equally anxious to diversify the risks of same. Now, the core product supporting a given patent they know; after all, that’s why they got into the game in the first place, and it’s theirs.

    1. However, every invention has an after-market, basic patents have tons of second-generation potential. But which ideas to go for? Why not all of them? Three reasons: cash, risk and time. Cash, because it’s a finite world with finite resources. Risk, because any new move has a downside as well as an upside, as well as an opportunity cost. Sure, people liked disco. For a while. But they liked not wearing polyester even more.

    1. So what you do is you spread out the risk by leasing to qualified, trustworthy business partners, perhaps fronting some seed capital, too, in return for a share of possible returns. The innovator brings time, talent and ideas of his/her own.

    1. We mentioned time being scarce to companies, as well. This has another implication: patents and the products based on them obsolesce (See: Disco), then a competing product or process kicks all the erstwhile winners to the curb.

    1. Structurally, this jacks up prices on all goods and services by a certain margin, the more idea-intensive the industry, the worse the markup, because firms that incur all the costs of research, time and risk have to get their money back. Distrust is expensive, for both the producer and the consumer. And in the large economy-sized pill bottle that I’ve not mentioning by name so far – pharmaceuticals – there is the countdown until the patent runs out.

    1. It is precisely such companies and industries that could profit the most from lightening up.

    1. For example, aspirin is the most generic, most generically-useful drug we know of. We do not even know if we’ve found all of its uses so far. Somewhere out there is something better than willow bark as a source of medicine, but we’ve yet to find it. Who has time, who can afford the risk, when ‘everybody’ knows the real money is in protein synthesis, and gene therapy, and stem cell research?

    1. Well, that’s just it: A few big super-drug companies cannot. But perhaps some independent researchers can. If they find nothing, no loss. If they find something, woo-hoo!

    1. And my guess is that a lot of very excellent pharmacopeia, using far simpler technologies than those used to create proteins from scratch, can be pulled literally straight from the vine. And there’s no reason for hoarding the capital, both intellectual and otherwise, to keep such goods from being developed.

    1. Now, some companies aren’t going to like this; they LIKE business as usual.

    1. But I assure you, the first major drug company to get onboard this notion will out-cycle and out-produce every one of its competitors combined, because it will be profiting from a piece – not all, just a percentage – of the works of hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller relationships.

    1. Now, we’re not talking kieretsu arrangements, here. All the contracts are temporary, and talent can move about, though one cannot rule out Japanese-style corporate federalism from arising.

    1. Again, the idea is to get ideas moving down the pipeline, in devolved ways.

    1. Oh, forgot the most important thing of all: This is a superlative way to develop all those Earth-shaping inventions that died on restaurant napkins, for want of capital and support to develop same. Got about a few of these, myself. One’s for a helion (heavy ion) rocket propulsion system. Any takers?

    Energy-Based Currency

    Make the currency based not on speculation or precious metal stockpiles or good faith and credit, but on the kilowatt-hour. Make the dollar energy-based. In a sense, it already is. Make this explicitly so, such that a country that spends more than it saves in energy terms will see its currency depreciate, the opposite for thrifty societies. This might require the cooperation of several major currency countries, and a mechanics of crediting savings as well as debiting consumption would have to be in place, else not one of the major economic powers would play along since almost all are net energy debtors. The short-run advantage would fall to net energy producers, but in the long run the depletion of extractable stocks and the incremental appreciation of `energy capital reinvestment' would give a significant advantage to the most technologically progressive countries; the worst-hit would be net energy debtors that made no attempts to invest in the new mode; not only would such countries' productivity falter, their currency would crash, as well.

    1. Materials + Knowledge + Energy + Time = Tangible Value. Well. That’s one simplistic model, anyway. And it’s about to get better: It takes time and energy to obtain materials and knowledge, so the formula can be rendered even more abstract:

    1. Energy + Time = Value. Replace Energy with Exertion if you’re feeling that Labor is being shortchanged (again! Let’s burn something a lot!).

    1. The equation is interchangeable. Spend significant value and energy, and you can buy time – time to think, to breathe, to obtain other resources, to pay the loan, to invent the techno-fix that will save us all, or just hang out and be cool. Or Time + Value can be spent to obtain energy. The gas in your automobile, for example. Or someone paying you Value in return for your Time and Energy. Or Labor, if you’re feeling that urge to burn rising up again, sensing disrespect for the working class. Please don’t. This is just a diary, and this is just blogging.

    1. None of the basic canon of financial mathematics or economics need be thwarted or rendered moot; we’re just cutting to the chase, here, given that as the Holy Trinity of Economics (Stirling, Bonddad and Jerome) have each weighed in that energy (oil) is the critical scarcity of our age, we’re just refining the focus.

    1. Let’s look at the now: The cosmos itself is a case study of energy going from one form to another, with some function of wastage, with accompanying transformation of physical properties of the course of some period of time, and gradual alteration of the coefficients of the equation – you know, how much of x is required to purchase y and how long t it takes to get it and how much ‘tax’ or wastage z is involved, and what by-products (some good) a,b,c…n are generated.

    1. There is not one thing in the human economic experience that precludes, obviates, adds or detracts from this short description, save what meaning we choose to apply to the world, using this equation.

    1. Now, if Energy is a function of Time and Value – of how much of a hurry we are in order to get ‘stuff’ – goods and services, and we are ever in more of a hurry to get more ‘stuff’, or more customers, or more of both, well, that’s going to require more energy.

    1. At the moment there are 6.5 billion people going on 13 billion by the most optimistic projections. I would counter that with my own estimate: 9.5 billion, then crash! Dieback. The fallacy of population projections is that the End of Growth will be attained in a smooth gliding approach to homeostasis. So sorry. That is so not going to happen. Nothing in the history of distressed populations anywhere in history suggests anything of the sort. It is only in those countries with sufficient Value and Energy that the Time to make the smooth landing has happened.

    1. Ask yourself: Are there enough basic essentials to go around? Enough food, water, medicine, diapers? Is there  enough gasoline to get all those needful things to the needy people in time, for a price that either they or someone on their behalf can afford? Now ask: What if you add another three billion babies to the mix? Whatever uncomfortable and affirmative response you might have offered for a world with 6.5 billion mouths to feed just feel off the table. Oops.

    1. I submit that our top priority right now is avoiding a Dieback, which could come in many forms and might well arrive as a cascade of deadly crises: thirst, plague, famine, war, crime, death by a thousand cuts, in rapid succession. What we need to do so is Time: time enough to save a world.

    1. And we need to pay for that time in Value and Energy. Value that we must create by generating a renaissance in creativity, through the devolution of capital, and Energy that we must create – or save, which is one and the same with creating – to spend exerting ourselves to the task of gaining a good steady glide path for the smooth landing that saving the Earth --- from us – requires.

    1. Some might say: just pull the plug on the consumer economy. It’s too late for that, that and wealth equals options equals increased life expectancies, deferred onset of childrearing, greater spacing of subsequent children, equals lower fertility rates and that’s good. It’s also a nonexistent condition in poor, low life expectancy countries, absent the presence of potentially species-ending diseases like HIV. And we’re in the business of fighting the Dieback, not aiding and abetting the end of Humankind.

    1. Some might say: plug the plug on energy, then. So sorry. Energy is what we require: to get the goods to the people who require them. Technological civilization heralded the onset of this crisis, but it did not cause it – overpopulation did, that and delaying in the attainment of sufficient standards of living to the people of the world to reign in high fertility rates (via the explanation above). Rich people, in all lands, in all times, have fewer kids than their poorer brethren.

    1. You want population control? Smother the planet in consumer goods, give them excellent educations so they know their options and the consequences of making bad choices, give them the freedom to find their own way. In every country where all three exist, populations are braking toward zero or negative growth. There is a causation to this; it’s not some sort of genetic senescence of nations. That’s just crazy talk. It’s a change of expectations and norms in response to having options and the knowledge how to exercise them.

    1. And that about does it for today.

    Wrap

    Right now, we are collectively dying under the weight of too many people with too many wants, wanting solutions that other people have to develop, and other people must pay for, sometimes with their lives, and the lives and hopes and dreams of every child they will ever have.

    And that's just not cool.

    I wonder what Tom Friedman will be wrong about next. :)

    by cskendrick on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 11:51:51 AM PDT

  •  This is Cheery (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick

    ...compared to what I've been re-reading at lately at Die Off.

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