My visit to San Francisco State University’s corpse flower

June 30, 2009

I took the kids to see San Francisco State University’s corpse flower — also know as a titan arum or Amorphophallus titanum — on Monday afternoon. It wasn’t fully open, but the fellow who cares for it said he thought it might be open by Wednesday morning.

If you go, you should keep in mind that the greenhouse is small, and crowded with plants. No more than six or eight people can get a good look at the flower (actually an inflorescence) at any one time. The aisles of the greenhouse don’t look wheelchair-accessible, but the corpse flower itself is near a door and it should be easy to get a wheelchair in the door and up close to the flower.

While we were there I took a look around SFSU’s greenhouse complex, which is pretty nifty. They have one room dedicated to California native plants, and even though it wasn’t open it was cool to see they had several varieties of manzanita to demonstrate adaptations to various water, soil and fire regimes.

Corpse flower, also known as titan arum or Amorphophallus titanum, at San Francisco State Universitys greenhouse, Monday, June 29, 2009.

Corpse flower, also known as titan arum or Amorphophallus titanum, at San Francisco State University's greenhouse, Monday, June 29, 2009.

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Wordle of Obama remarks on Iran

June 23, 2009

I made this wordle of President Barack Obama’s opening remarks on Iran at his June 23, 2009 press conference. This is based on the prepared remarks as provided by the White House, not on an actual transcript. It does not include Obama’s responses to any of the press questions about Iran.

Wordle: Obama_preparedtext_Iran_090623

Here is the text on which the wordle is based:

First, I’d like to say a few words about the situation in Iran. The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people have a universal right to assembly and free speech. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights, and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent, not coercion. That is what Iran’s own people are calling for, and the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government.

I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.

The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in the Iranian government are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others outside of Iran of instigating protests over the elections. These accusations are patently false and absurd. They are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran’s borders. This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.

The Iranian people can speak for themselves. That is precisely what has happened these last few days. In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice. Despite the Iranian government’s efforts to expel journalists and isolate itself, powerful images and poignant words have made their way to us through cell phones and computers, and so we have watched what the Iranian people are doing.

This is what we have witnessed. We have seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands Iranians marching in silence. We have seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and their voices heard. Above all, we have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets. While this loss is raw and painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.

Follow Tom Prete on Twitter.

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Tips for the eco-friendly fisherman

June 8, 2009

June 8 is World Oceans Day, which means stories about local beach cleanups and how to choose the most environmentally sustainable fish at the restaurant or market. We’re also hearing a great deal about the perils excessive harvesting by the commercial fishing industry.

But what of the individual saltwater angler – the recreational fisherman (or woman) who fishes for relaxation, for a challenge, for a few tasty meals, or just for an excuse to get out of the house? How can these fishermen pursue their hobby in a way that will help ensure good catches in the future and sustainable fisheries for their grandchildren to enjoy?

Unfortunately, as a fairly regular – if not particularly skillful – fisherman, I know it’s not easy to know when I’m doing the right thing. I undertook a little online research for advice, recommendations and products. What I found was that there’s not enough good information out there. However, I’ve come up with some recommendations based not only on research, but also my own firsthand experience fishing San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean in Northern California.

I don’t want to point fingers or preach to anyone, but I do want to foster a forward-thinking mindset among my fellow fishermen by providing recommendations that will apply to most people in most places. If you have thoughts on what you read here, please leave a comment.

Please feel free to republish this post in part or in whole, as long as you credit me as the source.

The basics of eco-friendly fishing

The basic foundation of eco-friendly fishing is legal and ethical fishing. Follow this part of the recommendations, and you’ll be well on your way to being an eco-friendly fisherman.

  • Read up on all rules and regulations for the place you intend to fish and the kind of fish you intend to catch. Most of the time, these rules are aimed at ensuring the long-term health of fish populations, so be sure to follow the regulations.
  • Never kill a fish if you don’t intend to eat it.
  • Never deliberately fish for a species when you know the season is closed. Unintended catches are a fact of fishing (and one of the things that keeps it surprising and fun), but going after out-of-season species can put harmful stress on fish that need their energy for migration, spawning or protecting their young. It can also get you in trouble.
  • Respect marine protected areas and other areas closed to fishing. We may not always like it when a favored honey hole is put off-limits by new regulations. But one of the benefits of many closures is the creation of a “seed” population of fish that can produce young that will be available to catch in other locations.
  • Don’t hammer the same spots over and over again. In some situations, such as the sandy Pacific beaches of the United States, fish move quite a lot. A spot that was unproductive in the morning may be full of fish in the afternoon. But in other areas, such as rocky seamounts or rocky shoreline, slow-growing fish may spend their whole lives in a very small area. If you change up the spots you visit, you limit the possibility that you’re depleting the fish in a given location.
  • Pick up your mess. At many of the places I fish in the San Francisco Bay area and the nearby Pacific coast, litter is a significant problem. Cigarette packages, plastic bags, plastic bottles, bits of old line, rubber gloves, broken tackle – I’ve picked up loads of this stuff at some of my favorite spots, and it’s just depressing to find a meticulously cleaned spot littered again later. Don’t be one of Those Guys. Real fishermen clean up after themselves.

Catch-and-release tips

One of the most obvious ways to protect fish stocks is to release fish. But what’s the best way to ensure these fish survive?

  • Minimize touching fish with gloves, a cloth or even your hands if you intend to release them. Too much handling can remove the protective coat of slime from fish, leaving them vulnerable to disease. If you need to hold on to a fish to remove a hook, devices that grip the fish’s jaw are a better alternative.
  • Don’t take fish out of the water if you can avoid it. Fish are meant to be in the water, and any time spent on a dry shore, or the deck of a boat or pier, is stressful. Whenever possible, remove hooks while the fish is still in the water.
  • Use barbless hooks. I know, that little barb provides some reassurance that once you’ve hooked a fish it won’t come unbuttoned and get away. But in my own experience, I mash down the barbs of my hooks much of the time, and I find that the number of times a barb is the make-or-break factor in landing a fish is extremely small. And when I use circle hooks, I’ve never had a fish throw the hook even when there’s no barb. On the other hand, a barb may make it impossible to get a hook out without further injuring a fish.
  • Use circle hooks when fishing with bait. The point of a circle hook points toward the shank, an arrangement that would seem counterproductive. But in practice, circle hooks are easy to use and make it harder for fish to throw the hook. Best of all, circle hooks hook fish in the corner of the mouth nearly all the time, which means means less injury for the fish and makes it easy to reach and remove the hook.
  • Use knotless, rubber-coated landing nets. Rubber and rubber-coated nets are gentler on the fish’s slime coat. Some fish, such as halibut, are particularly susceptible to tail rot because their tails are easily split by the cord of traditional landing nets. Rubber, knotless landing nets reduce the possibility that the fish you release today will later die of disease.

Low-impact fishing tackle and other products

  • Use biodegradable line. Just this weekend, as I was picking a bird’s nest out of my casting reel, I thought about all the line I’ve unintentionally left behind when fishing. That line is slow to break down, and remains a hazard to birds and fish – and an annoying snag for other anglers. Makers of biodegradable lines claim that whereas regular monofilament can take 600 years to break down, their products disappear in about five years. As far as I can tell, these new lines still are available only in limited strengths and quantities, but they seem to provide an attractive alternative to leaving long-lasting line in the water after snags or break-offs.
  • Use non-lead sinkers. Standard gear for California salmon fishermen used to include big “cannonball” sinkers for trolling, which would be released to fall to the bottom when a fish was hooked. On the sea floor, these balls of lead might not do much harm. But closer to shore, fish and birds can ingest smaller sinkers. Many tackle manufacturers offer alternative sinkers that don’t use any lead at all. They’re a little more expensive, but I like them because they’re harder than lead and I think I can feel the bottom better with these sinkers. There’s at least one tackle manufacturer that takes the alternative sinker to an extreme, drilling holes in rocks. On California’s rocky shores, fishermen have long used small pouches filled with pebbles or sand as cheap sinkers in this tackle-grabbing environment. I’ve sometimes tied up a rock in a bit of cotton kitchen twine for a sinker in these areas, and it works quite well.
  • Use plain bronze hooks. Corrosion-resistant steel hooks have the advantage of lasting for season after season – or at least, being tolerant of not being rinsed off after being used in salt water. But a bronze hook that’s left in a fish that breaks off quickly corrodes away, leaving the fish free to feed naturally. I’ve looked for bronze circle hooks, but as far as I can tell these aren’t made.

Other products and practices for eco-friendly fishing

  • Use locally sourced bait when possible, and avoid non-native bait species. Live baits can carry parasites or diseases, or come packaged with materials such as seaweed that can harbor other organisms and unintentionally introduce them to your fishing environment. Locally sourced baits don’t have to be transported by air, truck or boat, and local fish already are used to feeding on them.
  • What about bait vs. lures? Some sources I found when researching eco-friendly fishing suggested that bait is better than lures because baits are biodegradable, whereas a lost lure means a chunk of metal or plastic left in the environment. That’s a good point, but I find that unless I’m using circle hooks, fish caught on bait too often swallow a hook deeply, meaning that it’s harder to land and release those fish without permanent harm. I’m not yet sure what I think about this question. However, one way of getting the best of both worlds is with biodegradable soft baits. They can’t replace Kastmasters, diamond bars and other metal lures, but the variety and quality of these products is impressive. And of course, one can always go old-school and carve plugs out of broom handles.

For more on journalism, politics, cities and the environment, follow Tom Prete on Twitter.

June 8 is World Oceans Day, which means stories about local beach cleanups and how to choose the most environmentally sustainable fish at the restaurant or market. We’re also hearing a great deal about the perils excessive harvesting by the commercial fishing industry.

But what of the individual saltwater angler – the recreational fisherman (or woman) who fishes for relaxation, for a challenge, for a few tasty meals, or just for an excuse to get out of the house? How can these fishermen pursue their hobby in a way that will help ensure good catches in the future and sustainable fisheries for their grandchildren to enjoy?

Unfortunately, as a fairly regular – if not particularly skillful – fisherman, I know it’s not easy to know when I’m doing the right thing. I undertook a little online research for advice, recommendations and products. What I found was that there’s not enough good information out there. However, I’ve come up with some recommendations based not only on research, but also my own firsthand experience fishing San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean in Northern California.

I don’t want to point fingers or preach to anyone, but I do want to foster a forward-thinking mindset among my fellow fishermen by providing recommendations that will apply to most people in most places. If you have thoughts on what you read here, please leave a comment.

Please feel free to republish this post in part or in whole, as long as you credit me as the source.

The basics

The basic foundation of eco-friendly fishing is legal and ethical fishing. Follow this part of the recommendations, and you’ll be well on your way to being an eco-friendly fisherman.

BEGIN LIST

Read up on all rules and regulations for the place you intend to fish and the kind of fish you intend to catch. Most of the time, these rules are aimed at ensuring the long-term health of fish populations, so be sure to follow the regulations.

Never kill a fish if you don’t intend to eat it.

Never deliberately fish for a species when you know the season is closed. Unintended catches are a fact of fishing (and one of the things that keeps it surprising and fun), but going after out-of-season species can put harmful stress on fish that need their energy for migration, spawning or protecting their young. It can also get you in trouble.

Respect marine protected areas and other areas closed to fishing. We may not always like it when a favored honey hole is put off-limits by new regulations. But one of the benefits of many closures is the creation of a “seed” population of fish that can produce young that will be available to catch in other locations.

Don’t hammer the same spots over and over again. In some situations, such as the sandy Pacific beaches of the United States, fish move quite a lot. A spot that was unproductive in the morning may be full of fish in the afternoon. But in other areas, such as rocky seamounts or rocky shoreline, slow-growing fish may spend their whole lives in a very small area. If you change up the spots you visit, you limit the possibility that you’re depleting the fish in a given location.

Pick up your mess. At many of the places I fish in the San Francisco Bay area and the nearby Pacific coast, litter is a significant problem. Cigarette packages, plastic bags, plastic bottles, bits of old line, rubber gloves, broken tackle – I’ve picked up loads of this stuff at some of my favorite spots, and it’s just depressing to find a meticulously cleaned spot littered again later. Don’t be one of Those Guys. Real fishermen clean up after themselves.

END LIST

Catch-and-release tips

One of the most obvious ways to protect fish stocks is to

BEGIN LIST

Minimize touching fish with gloves, cloths or even your hands if you intend to release them. Too much handling can remove the protective coat of slime from fish, leaving them vulnerable to disease. If you need to hold on to a fish to remove a hook, devices that grip the fish’s jaw are a better alternative.

Don’t take fish out of the water if you can avoid it. Fish are meant to be in the water, and any time spent on a dry shore, or the deck of a boat or pier, is stressful. Whenever possible, remove hooks while the fish is still in the water.

Use barbless hooks. I know, that little barb provides some reassurance that once you’ve hooked a fish it won’t come unbuttoned and get away. But in my own experience, I mash down the barbs of my hooks much of the time, and I find that the number of times a barb is the make-or-break factor in landing a fish is extremely small. And when I use circle hooks, I’ve never had a fish throw the hook even when there’s no barb. On the other hand, a barb may make it impossible to get a hook out without further injuring a fish.

Use circle hooks when fishing with bait. The point of a circle hook points toward the shank, an arrangement that would seem counterproductive. But in practice, circle hooks are easy to use and make it harder for fish to throw the hook. Best of all, circle hooks hook fish in the corner of the mouth nearly all the time, which means that it’s easy to reach and remove the hook.

Use knotless, rubber-coated landing nets. Rubber and rubber-coated nets are gentler on the fish’s slime coat. Some fish, such as halibut, are particularly susceptible to tail rot because their tails are easily split by the cord of traditional landing nets. Rubber, knotless landing nets reduce the possibility that the fish you release today will later die of disease.

END LIST

Low-impact tackle and other products

Use biodegradable line. Just this weekend, as I was picking a bird’s nest out of my casting reel, I thought about all the line I’ve unintentionally left behind when fishing. That line is slow to break down, and remains a hazard to birds and fish – and an annoying snag for other anglers. Makers of biodegradable lines claim that whereas regular monofilament can take 600 years to break down, their products disappear in about five years. As far as I can tell, these new lines still are available only in limited strengths and quantities, but they seem to provide an attractive alternative to leaving long-lasting line in the water after snags or break-offs.

Use non-lead sinkers. Standard gear for California salmon fishermen used to include big “cannonball” sinkers for trolling, which would be released to fall to the bottom when a fish was hooked. On the sea floor, these balls of lead might not do much harm. But closer to shore, fish and birds can ingest smaller sinkers. Many tackle manufacturers offer alternative sinkers that don’t use any lead at all. They’re a little more expensive, but I like them because they’re harder than lead and I think I can feel the bottom better with these sinkers. There’s at least one tackle manufacturer that takes the alternative sinker to an extreme, drilling holes in rocks. On California’s rocky shores, fishermen have long used small pouches filled with pebbles or sand as cheap sinkers in this tackle-grabbing environment. I’ve sometimes tied up a rock in a bit of cotton kitchen twine for a sinker in these areas, and it works quite well.

Use plain bronze hooks. Corrosion-resistant steel hooks have the advantage of lasting for season after season – or at least, being tolerant of not being rinsed off after being used in salt water. But a bronze hook that’s left in a fish that breaks off quickly corrodes away, leaving the fish free to feed naturally. I’ve looked for bronze circle hooks, but as far as I can tell these aren’t made.

other products and practices for eco-friendly fishing

BEGIN LIST

Use locally sourced bait when possible, and avoid non-native bait species. Live baits can carry parasites or diseases, or come packaged with materials such as seaweed that can harbor other organisms and unintentionally introduce them to your fishing environment. Locally sourced baits don’t have to be transported by air, truck or boat, and local fish already are used to feeding on them.

What about bait vs. lures? Some sources I found when researching eco-friendly fishing suggested that bait is better than lures because baits are biodegradable, whereas a lost lure means a chunk of metal or plastic left in the environment. That’s a good point, but I find that unless I’m using circle hooks, fish caught on bait too often swallow a hook deeply, meaning that it’s harder to land and release those fish without permanent harm. I’m not yet sure what I think about this question. However, one way of getting the best of both worlds is with biodegradable soft baits. They can’t replace Kastmasters, diamond bars and other metal lures, but the variety and quality of these products is impressive. And of course, one can always go old-school and carve plugs out of broom handles.

END LIST

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Two decades after Tiananmen

June 3, 2009
Man vs. tanks in Tiananmen Square, 1989. This picture speaks for itself.

Man vs. tanks in Tiananmen Square, 1989. This picture speaks for itself.


Why budget disaster may save California

June 2, 2009

California is broke, its elected officials are paralyzed in mortal fear of making tough decisions, and the people are angry.

Good.

Total system failure may be the only thing that can save California

I’m a father of two native Californians and a nearly lifelong resident of the state. I visit my state parks and beaches regularly, and I’m disappointed that most of them seem set to close. I believe that government is an appropriate tool for addressing some of California’s biggest issues. So, how can I believe that mess we’re in now is good?

It’s good because utter failure may be the only thing that can possibly snap California out of some long-cherished illusions and eventually set it back on a path toward government that is efficient, appropriate and responsible.

Let’s be clear about this. No matter what short-term steps the state takes to keep itself in business, including the measures Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is scheduled to discuss before a joint session of the California Legislature Tuesday, to a lot of people are going to be hurt. Consider yourself lucky if the only pinch you feel is that your favorite state park closes or starts charging a fee – and spare some thought for those whose families will see diminished opportunities for work, education and health.

California’s leaders and voters must take this crisis as an opportunity to disillusion themselves from the idea that the problems with the state’s budget and governance are temporary, and the mistaken belief that once we round the next corner everything will be fine. As painful as the coming budget cuts will be, greater harm would come from refusing to face up to the fact that the state’s structures for gathering income, spending funds and agreeing on a budget completely fail to serve the needs of Californians.

I don’t share anti-tax groups’ confidence that the only possible reading of May’s special election vote is a mandate for big cuts in state services, or the liberal interpretation that voters were rejecting spending limits. I think it just as likely that voters’ rejection of the proposed budget “solutions” reflects a simple annoyance that they were asked to make the decisions they elected other people to make.

But the reality is that we cannot deny the state government income while also demanding it provide a high level of service. The reality is that we have created a system that encourages elected officials to duck responsibility and dodge compromise in favor of pushing decisions onto the voters who put them in office. The reality is that until California examines itself under a very bright light, it will continue to operate in a fantasy of vain hopes and fake fixes.

Eight questions for California

California must address some questions at the foundation of the state’s problem with governance. I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, and it’s possible that we can fix our state by addressing only some of these issues. But all of these matters bear strongly on California’s ability to govern itself and to find the level of services and costs that Californians really want.

  1. Does California need a full-time Legislature? Often, laws proposed in the Legislature can’t gain enough support to pass as they are first written. In most law-making bodies, this is when legislators alter their proposals to make them acceptable to more of their colleagues, or offer to exchange support of an opponent’s proposals for support of their own. In California, however, many times these failed proposals are simply kicked to the voters in the hope that political campaigning can achieve what compromise could not. This isn’t a problem with the people who hold office today, it’s a problem with the system. If legislators are unable or unwilling to fulfill their basic function of making law through debate and compromise, why pay them for a full-time job when they only do part of the work?

  2. Is California’s system of voter initiatives doing more harm than good? According to a new survey conducted by students at the University of California, Riverside, voters still favor using ballot initiatives to decide budget matters. Perhaps this means that voters view initiatives as a way to make decisions the Legislature cannot or will not make, an understandable sentiment, but ballot measures are imprecise tools that institute changes that can’t be modified without another vote of the people. If California wants to hang on to this tradition of direct democracy, maybe it’s time for at least a common-sense change to our initiative process to require propositions to deal with only one subject at a time instead of mixing often unrelated issues in the same measure.

  3. Does Proposition 13 still make sense? Prop. 13, which limited increases to property taxes in California, is still an untouchable issue to many state politicians. And indeed, voters may not yet be ready to change it. But more and more Californians have acquired their property long after the proposition passed, and some of them don’t see themselves as sharing the interests of those who still pay property taxes at 30-year-old rates. What we’re doing in California with Prop. 13 is penalizing new investment in the state – new buyers of homes – without producing any gain for the state on the surge in value some owners have realized simply by virtue of having bought a long time ago. Another effect of Prop. 13 that works against the interests of many Californians is the shift it produced in where local governments get their money. Prop. 13 is a big part of the reason so many small to mid-sized municipalities seem to keep building the same retail outlets instead of producing needed housing: Because of the limits on property taxes, local governments can’t get enough money out of new housing to pay for the increased level of services new residents require. In other words, because of Prop. 13, in many cases new housing costs local governments money. Retail development, on the other hand, does allow governments to obtain the necessary funding to support government services.

  4. Are term limits causing more harm than good? I’ve never liked the idea of someone else telling me who to vote for, or when to stop voting for them, so I’ve always opposed term limits. But beyond my philosophical opposition, there are some important reasons why California might want to reconsider its term limits. One is that under our current term limits, legislators know they’ll be moving around so fast it’s unlikely they’ll be held accountable for the decisions they make – or dodge – in any single year. The effort required to build expertise on any given topic of governance and build the consensus required for substantive new laws just doesn’t pencil out for legislators who won’t be in their current office for long.

  5. Are state electoral districts still favoring extreme politics? Last year, voters approved Proposition 11, which created a new method to set the geographic boundaries of state electoral districts. New district lines are expected to be in place for 2012 elections, but it remains to be seen if the new districts will be any more effective than the old in producing lawmakers who can meet in the middle of their ideologies to govern effectively. In the meantime, what’s certain is that we’re still stuck with too many legislators who occupy the far edges of the Republican and Democratic parties.

  6. Is it time to eliminate the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget? The idea of modifying the requirement for a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to approve a state budget is particularly popular among Democratic lawmakers and activists. I don’t oppose a change on ideological grounds, but I think this proposal is looking at California’s problems from the wrong direction. If we change the structures that favor a flaccid and unaccountable Legislature, it’s far less likely the two-thirds vote requirement will be a problem. In any case, that UC Riverside survey found that the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget is still popular among voters.

  7. Is it time to change the requirement that tax increases require a two-thirds vote of the people? As with the two-thirds vote requirement for the Legislature to approve a budget, many on the left are talking about trying to modify the requirement that many taxes require a two-thirds majority approval from voters. I can’t say that I think California’s tax income is always well-spent, and I’m wary of making the leash on new taxes too loose. But when voters decide whether they want low taxes or lots of services, this is one option they might very well choose.

  8. Does California need a constitutional convention? This is the big gun of California reform efforts, and it’s already gathered some good momentum. A constitutional convention would be able to undertake fundamental changes to the most basic structures and systems of California government. I don’t think a constitutional convention is the only possible solution to California’s situation, but it certainly would provide a means to resolve many issues at once and to produce a relatively simple, clear proposal for reform instead of relying on a bunch of disparate plans. In spite of the uncertainty of what kind of new constitution we might end up with, this is one idea California must consider seriously.

What’s your idea to fix California’s broken systems?

I’ve presented a handful of ideas for changing the way California does business, but there are many others out there. Do you have a plan, a solution, a proposal? Leave a comment and join the debate, and if you’re on Twitter, @ me a reply.

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