Who By Fire

I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

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Myth and Meaning

From My Buddhist Life on Facebook
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us find within ourselves.

So says Joseph Campbell in an interview with Bill Moyers, 1987, published in the book, The Power of Myth. The book is based on a 1988 PBS documentary about Campbell’s life and studies. You can see the episodes of the show on billmoyers.com and read the transcript. The above quote comes from the book (paperback edn, p.4) which has considerable material not aired in the TV series.

Campbell was the doyen of mythology and comparative religion studies, and author of numerous books on the subjects. He was closely associated with the Jungian school of psychology, too. He died just before the TV series was aired.*

Campbell wrote the now-famous The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949, a book that has hugely influenced writers and screenwriters ever since. It lays out the core ‘hero’s journey’ in all mythology and great literature. Anyone interested in becoming a novelist will have read it by now, or at least read one of the many spin-off titles that explain the progression and cycle Campbell expounds.

In The Power of Myth, Campbell explains why reading mythology – and by extension by reading fiction – we humanize ourselves and connect with our collective past. And how it broadens our understanding of the world and other cultures:

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.

When you consider the parallel rise of the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists – the scripture literalists – you can appreciate Campbell’s advice. Reading only the mythologies of our own religion and culture, we fail to appreciate that they are myths. Without the broader vision, we collectively interpret our myths as facts, rather than allegories and metaphors.

One of the reasons I oppose home schooling as dangerous is that it tends to breed this sort of inward-looking approach; to keep children within the narrow confines of a particular religious interpretation, rather than let them experience the culture and myths of others. It creates irrational beings.

Home-schooled children never get to glimpse the rich possibilities of life, to see the choices and the options available to other children. They never get to realize their own visions, only to fulfill the visions of their parents. They never get to go through what Campbell called the necessary rituals to become members of the tribe and the community. They cannot function rationally in the world without those rituals.

Home schooling instead rolls out easily-indoctrinated child soldiers, sexist and racist, armed for the culture wars against the heathens, the pagans and other inferiors.

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Why I Still Watch M*A*S*H

Harry MorganThe news of Harry Morgan’s death at 96, back in 2011, saddened me. I’m at the age when it seems far too many icons of my youth are dying off. Not from some misspent life or accident; from old age. And the process accelerates as I age. I now understand why my grandparents and then parents read the newspaper obituaries. I haven’t quite succumbed to that, but I’m sure the day will come.

No, I’m not being morbid. Or maudlin. I have, I believe, a healthy attitude towards death. Death moves me, sometimes fascinates me (as our collective attitude towards it fascinates me), but it doesn’t frighten me. But when someone dies, it’s a row of dominoes that tumble. We’re all connected, even if only through the TV screen.

Morgan played Colonel Sherman Potter in the latter part of the long-running TV series, M*A*S*H. he brought to the show a maturity and a softer wit. I recall watching him as a harder character in the 1960s’ crime show, Dragnet. I preferred Colonel Potter.

I was reminded of his death only last week, through a Facebook re-post on the anniversary of his passing. That got me thinking about the show, about the era in which it was made, and how it affected me then and later. I dug out my DVDs so I could start watching the series again. (Susan struggles to watch Columbo, a contemporary show from that age that I recently acquired, but loves M*A*S*H).

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Houses of Cards

Francis UrquhartWhile there are parallels between them, there is no direct, simple comparison between the original, British mini series, House of Cards, and the American series of the same name. The latter, aired 13 years after the original, owes much of its first-season content to the BBC’s production, but it quickly went its own way. Like its contemporary, The Bridge, the American version took on a life of its own – and a very distinct, American character – and can’t be considered a simple adaptation. Both are excellent shows.

In part, the vast differences between American and British political systems compound the problem of comparison and understanding.

Canadians, on the other hand, will easily understand the machinations of the characters in the British show because our system is quite similar, but they are more opaque in the American version. From the outside, American politics seem designed to increase confrontation and partisanship. And political venality (it seems all American politicians and votes are for sale to the highest bidder…), but that’s not my point here. Americans might find the British version equally incomprehensible.

We finished watching season three of the American series recently and began to watch the British series again, after several years hiatus (it remains one of my favourite series). The latter is somewhat dated – aired before the internet and cell phones – but still well worth watching: the acting is superb. As are in most British series. But the cast in the American House of Cards is, for the most part, among the best I’ve seen in an American series (Kevin Spacey excels).

The British version has more humour, albeit dry, wry wit. It might be best described as either a political satire or dark comedy. I’m not sure everyone will appreciate its subtlety.

The American series has some of this in the first season, but less as it progresses. It’s more of a drama-cum-soap opera with less satire. Underwood speaks to the camera a lot more in the first season than in later ones. And that’s too bad because I think it adds to the viewer’s engagement.

The main characters – Francis Urquhart in the British (Ian Richardson), and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the American – are very different in style and behaviour. Urquhart speaks more to the camera than Underwood, and offers more knowing, sly glances and smiles than his American counterpart. Underwood is far more about raw power; the underlying tongue-in-cheek attitude of the British politicians is absent.

The roles and the power associated with each leader is very different, too. Urquhart has to be more cunning than Underwood because his system is very different from the American. Underwood can sometimes batter his way through to success, where Urquhart has to squirm.

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The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

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Strat Plan Part 6: Culture and the Arts

DilbertThe fifth and final objective in Collingwood’s developing strategic plan (the woo-hoo plan) is culture and the arts. For something so important to the community, with such a huge potential, it encompasses a mere two goals. Disappointingly, neither of them relate to its huge economic potential, which everyone else seems to understand except this committee and its council.

“The rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce. The arts and its related businesses are responsible for billions of dollars in cultural exports for this country. It is imperative that we continue to support the arts and arts education both on the national and local levels. The strength of every democracy is measured by its commitment to the arts.” Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation

Only two goals are suggested for our burgeoning creative/cultural economy, what may easily be the most important sector in our local economy over the next decade or two. There are more items in the first section about using the plan’s logos than there are goals here. At least there are several action items, albeit typically lame, vague ones. I suppose it’s like what La Rochefoucauld wrote:

Fertility of mind does not furnish us with so many resources on the same matter, as the lack of intelligence makes us hesitate at each thing our imagination presents, and hinders us from at first discerning which is the best. Maxim 287.

So little does this group (and by extension, this council) regard arts and culture than they are not even mentioned in the proposed vision statements!

Goal: Promote arts and cultural programs

Duh. Aside from the complete face-palm-plant obviousness of this, it doesn’t say how one promotes programs. Newsletters are obviously out since many of those at the table criticized the previous council’s use of newsletters for public communication. Semaphore? Smoke signals? Tweets?

Nor does it identify whose programs it promotes. Or even who does the promoting. There’s no indication this is even local. Is the town supposed to support, say, the Stratford Festival’s theatrical programs?

And what arts? A male friend of mine will argue seriously pole dancing is an art. Are we going to bring back the Georgian Grill as the new arts centre? I’m not sure if there are programs for pole dancing, however, and this goal clearly states the town should support programs, not the arts and culture themselves.

Goal: Support and expand the diversity of community events and festivals

Another head banger. Who isn’t going to isn’t going to support events and festivals? Well, all those people who hate Elvis, of course.And those downtown merchants who whine and grumble every time the main street is closed or has activity. But there are always people who hate everything.

Does this sentence mean ‘support the diversity and expand the diversity’? Or ‘support community events and expand the diversity’? Improper punctuation makes it unclear.

One wonders how you can expand diversity, since the word means a range of different things which suggests it is already expanded. If it’s already diverse – i.e. varied – does it need to be expanded and if so – how?

Do they mean make single events more diverse? And if so what events? Do they want to make the Elvis Festival into Elvis, Blues and Brews? or the Jazz at the Station into Jazz and Polka music at the Station? How about Local Live Lunch and Sudoku Contest?

Let me reiterate a point I made earlier: a good strategic plan talks in practical terms and specifics: a woo-hoo plan talks in generalities and fuzzy terms. Welcome to woo-hoo.

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Killing Our Culture

No more jazzCollingwood has killed Jazz & Blues at the Station – a popular, long-running, local cultural event second in audience only to the Elvis Festival. It brought some of Ontario’s top jazz and blues talent to play at the Museum. The hundreds of people assembled every Wednesday for the free concert – sometimes more than 400 in a single night, many of them coming from Blue Mountain, Clearview and Wasaga Beach – will be disappointed. As are the organizers, who have been trying unsuccessfully since late last year to get the town to commit to promised funding.

All those people who came downtown for the music then went to local bars and restaurants afterwards, or came to shop before the concert – won’t be giving Collingwood their business this year. They won’t be sitting on a patio on a warm summer night sharing their experience.

One less cultural event to attract visitors and entertain locals.

In previous terms, other councils have helped the non-profit event by funding it to pay for bands and performers.  It’s a tiny expense for a huge return in public relations and public engagement. Some of us at the table last term understood that and made sure the event went ahead.

This council clearly doesn’t give a damn about local events or culture. But it does care about giving itself a raise instead. How open and accountable is that?

This term, council raised your taxes in order to give themselves and staff a raise. This council gave Councillor Jeffrey a $40,000 slush fund to run for a seat on the FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities) board – a position which glorifies her and provides her with free flights, hotels and meals across Canada, but does nothing for the community.

How accountable was that?

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Defining Classical Music


MusicI listen to classical music a lot, even more than before since the arrival of the new classical FM station in Collingwood. But while my listening at home is through a selected collection of CDs, the content played on radio – internet radio included – is more eclectic. Airplay often includes soundtracks, music from musicals, even some modern pieces (the other day I heard a well-known tenor singing a somewhat romanticized version of Besame Mucho in Spanish, with orchestral backup).

While I don’t object to this mix – in fact I enjoy it most of the time – it did get me wondering what the definition of “classical” music really is. I only recently discovered from my internet searches that the very term is relatively new, and the first reference to music as ‘classical’ only dates to 1836, and it was in specific reference to a period that included Baroque music, although we use the term much more broadly today. Wikipedia isn’t helpful because it simply muddies the waters:

Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music (both liturgical and secular). It encompasses a broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period.

I have a personal definition, as we all do, but it’s murky: when I was pondering that question, I realized I find it difficult to express it. I can list composers, conductors, singers, and musicians whom I would label “classical” – Bach and Yo Yo Ma, for example. But what of the music itself?

Among my collection of music is Gregorian chant, Medieval songs, Baroque suites, Enlightenment symphonies, Industrial Age operas, Victorian operettas and post-war tone poems – a range of about a millennium. All of which I vaguely categorizes as ‘classical.’

I have in that collection works by John Cage He’s contemporary avant-garde, but is he classical? Wikipedia’s page allows for a broad temporal range that would allow him to fit in but is his style suitable?

The major time divisions of classical music are as follows: the early music period, which includes the Medieval (500–1400) and the Renaissance (1400–1600) eras; the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1830), and Romantic eras (1804–1910); and the 20th century (1901–2000) which includes the modern (1890–1930) that overlaps from the late 19th-century, the high modern (mid 20th-century), and contemporary or postmodern (1975–2000) eras, the last of which overlaps into the 21st-century.

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns

Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Why Elvis Matters to Collingwood

Elvis festival

There are some things that are pointless to argue, it seems. Creationism with a fundamentalist. Anti-vaccination with a New Age wingnut. Reason and logic with local  bloggers. The value of the Elvis Festival to Collingwood with a closed-minded resident.

I recently heard complaints about the cost of the 2014 festival: $74,000. More than double what the Integrity Commissioner cost taxpayers to investigate bogus, politically-motivated claims last year.

And what did we get for that $74,000? International recognition and widespread media coverage, more than 30,000 visitors, increased revenue for our hospitality sector, a full downtown, busy restaurants and hotels, people shopping in the stores…

One cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python skit in Life of Brian on “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

And what did we get for the almost $33,000 we spent on the Integrity Commissioner last year? Aside from humiliation, puerile finger pointing, adding another smear on our reputation and titillating the sycophant bloggers? Nada.

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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli

The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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