Adieu, Jon Stewart

It’s been a week since Jon Stewart hosted his final The Daily Show

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart: A man who was on TV.

I still haven’t recovered. I may never recover. [salty goggles]

Jon, you will be missed. Sorely.

I appreciate his reasons for leaving, but man, oh man, I feel so bereft. He was head and shoulders above any one else like him. He was, at least for me, a key — perhaps irreplaceable — voice in the world.

Jon Stewart 2

Jon Stewart: Best of Show

If you watched the show, you’ve probably seen his final appearance by now. (As always, I watched all four of the week’s episodes on Sunday.) It was an emotional experience. Clearly for those doing the show, and I imagine for every fan watching.

Unlike The Colber(t) Repor(t), which died when Stephen Colbert left last year, The Daily Show will continue with new host Trevor Noah. The general feeling and hope is that the machinery of the show itself (which is outstanding) will allow the show to be as good and as successful as it has been.

I hope so, because there is nothing else on the TV machine that comes close for me. For me, even The Colber(t) Repor(t), as good — no, outstanding — as it was, played second fiddle in the band. The mix of comedy and news and seriousness on TDS was head and shoulders above anything else of its ilk.

Larry Wilmore

Larry Wilmore. Not funny.

I’ve tried — really tried — to like The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, but I mostly just don’t. I really wish I could like it more, I really do. There needs to be a show that takes on the topic of race in this country.

But, as with all shows on Comedy Central, it is first and foremost a comedy show. One problem I have is that, as with all shows on Comedy Central, I often find the humor infantile. That is to say, not even vaguely funny. If it’s pitched for the groundlings, it’s usually a pitch in the dirt to me.

To me The Nightly Show works too hard for low-brow laughs and doesn’t spend nearly enough time seriously tackling one of the most important social issues we face. (Crucially important, if for no other reason — and there are others, than that it’s been going on for so long. Arguably it’s been going on the entire history of this country.)

So it’s been a huge disappointment for me. Every few weeks, or if there was a key event in the news, I’d give it another shot, but often I only manage to watch a couple of episodes, and rarely manage to watch all four. I often turned it off mid-show in disgust.

John Oliver

John Oliver. Stop laughing!

I may have to give Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO another chance. I’ve never been a fan of the man. I even stopped watching TDS when Oliver hosted during Stewart’s Rosewater absence. Something about him just grates. He laughs at his own funniness way too much, and I don’t perceive him as balanced.

That was the thing about Jon Stewart. He clearly leaned way left, but he didn’t view the right as strictly the territory of idiots and assholes. And he understood very well that idiots and assholes exist on both sides.

Speaking of HBO, I loathdeeply, deeply loath — Bill Maher and trying to watch his show often has me screaming at my TV. Pity, because he usually has guests with substantive, interesting opinions (a lack that is another flaw for me about Larry Wilmore’s show). Maher, to me, is the king of smug liberal assholes who believe the left has all the points.

Make no mistake. I’m way a progressive liberal (even a libertarian on many issues), but I’m under no impression it’s The One True View. In fact, I believe a conservative view is crucial to moderate and balance the excesses of progressives. (All sides can be guilty of excess.)

No CNNSo what’s a person to do if they want news, social and political commentary, a bit of intelligent humor, and a truly balanced perspective? CNN is a joke, MSNBC and FNC are unspeakable, unwelcome party guests (and, to my eyes, just mirror images of each other), and PBS bores me to tears.

I’ve heard that Al Jezeera America offers good news coverage with balance, but I don’t get that on my cable channels. I hate going to websites because of all the ads and other crap websites are loaded and bloated with these days.

Jon: I get it, I wish you the very best (you’ve way earned it), and I’m looking forward to whatever you do next, but I gotta tell you that you’ve left a huge hole in the lives of many. A Grand Canyon-sized gap that will be extremely hard to fill.

Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann. Anyone hated by that many people is doing something right!

This loss is made all the more poignant for me because I recently lost another valued critical voice: Keith Olbermann is no longer doing his show on ESPN. He wasn’t renewed when his contract ran out last month. (Many think it was because he was often critical of the NFL. Which ESPN in deeply in the pockets of.)

Olbermann’s show was a lot like Stewart’s. Both were half-hour shows, both had a guest interview segment, both contained pointed commentary. Stewart went after the whole world. Olbermann went after sports.

Some may remember Keith Olbermann’s Countdown, an hour-long show that used to air on MSNBC. He moved to Al Gore’s Current TV network for a while. Those were both political commentary shows. Then he showed up on ESPN with a sports show, which was a return to his roots as a sportscaster (he worked for ESPN from 1992–1997 and his acrimonious departure came, in part, due to an unauthorized appearance on, ta da, The Daily Show).

In particular, KO is a baseball fan (“fan” being a mild word in his case) as well as a baseball historian and collector. He’s a “sports guy” — yes — but his first love is baseball. (I’m mostly just a baseball guy.)

I can’t help but quote Yeats here:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Sound like a social or political scene appearing near you, perhaps?

So, what to do, what to do? I guess I can only end this as Jon Stewart ended his final The Daily Show episode. With a great Bruce Springsteen tune:

[update 8/14/15: Video deleted by YouTube. Well that didn’t last long. You can find the entire last episode at The Daily Show official website.]

“Go forth and spread beauty… and light.”

Jon Stewart 3

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

39 responses to “Adieu, Jon Stewart

  • Lisa Smestad

    You made me snivel all over again about losing the valuable critical voice. Sad because the intelligent critism made me scream yes, he said it so well.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I wasn’t a Daily Show regular (I get most of my news and commentary from the internet), but I’ll definitely miss occasionally seeing Stewart’s take on things.

    You just reminded me of something he said in an interview years ago (I think c. 2004). A reporter asked him if he gave Nancy Reagan any credit for her work on behalf of Alzheimer’s patients after becoming aware of the challenges they faced when her husband came down with the disease. He said no, replying that if you couldn’t see the humanity in those situations until you had personal experience with it, you weren’t worthy of praise.

    I saw that interview when I was rethinking a lot of my political and philosophical views. That statement was a milestone on my transformation from being a center-right person to a progressive.

    I’ve found Last Week Tonight to be pretty good. Again, I’m not a regular, but the ones I have seen have been funny and very effective at getting complex matters across. Bringing 97 people into the studio to counter the three climate change denialists was a brilliant way to illustrate how marginal climate change denialism is among climatologists. But I can understand that he may not be for everyone.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The comment about Nancy Reagan is pure Stewart. Another one he was noted for was a statement against the bombs we dropped on the Japanese in which he initially called Truman a war criminal. The angry responses caused him to re-think and walk that one back, and part of his reply really stuck with me. He suggested that dropping the bomb many miles off-shore to illustrate what we could do was something he would go along with. But dropping it on many thousands of civilians still seemed criminal to him.

      It’s a good illustration of either-or thinking. The argument about those bomb drops usually presents only two options: drop or not drop. In that context, it’s hard to deny the value of dropping — there’s a strong argument it killed fewer people than not dropping. But opening the options to clear demonstrations of power sets the dropping in a whole other light.

      I suppose one could argue that what we did was so horrific it directly seeded the anti-nukes movement that began soon after. Up to then we thought radioactivity was the bee’s knees. (Although I’ve never been sure what the attraction of the knees of bees was supposed to have. Wings, sure. Stingers, I can see that. The honey and wax, mos def. But the knees? Huh?)

      As for John Oliver, I’ve been meaning to give him another chance, anyway, and now the motivation is even stronger. It’s just that when it comes to news and commentary, I like it with just a dash of humor, not a deluge. Even a generous helping. I just don’t have that much interest in comedy news.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Hmmm. I didn’t know about Stewart’s take on the bombings.

        I’ve read that a demonstration was actually discussed, but rejected. There were fears that the Japanese might regard it as a trick, such as maybe the US attempting to take credit for some natural disaster, or attack the bombing crew if the demonstration was preannounced. Add the possibility of that first bomb not working for some reason and the uncertainty of when subsequent bombs would be ready, and it starts to make sense why they really wanted the first use that the Japanese knew about to be effective.

        I think we have to remember that they didn’t have the vantage point we have after several decades of investigation and subsequent history. They had to make their decision with incomplete information, under the fog of war. Given that they were already firebombing cities throughout Japan (killing hundreds of thousands, with zero apparent effect on Japan’s war resolve), I suspect there was never much of a chance they wouldn’t use them.

        A broader question was whether Japan might have been less fanatical if the US had offered earlier to allow them to keep the Emperor in place post-surrender. Like all counterfactuals in history, opinions are intense but no one really knows.

        On comedy news, I can take it or leave it, which is probably why I’ve never been a regular viewer. But it is cool that they manage to get a lot more people to watch than traditional newcasters.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I think we have to remember that they didn’t have the vantage point we have after several decades of investigation and subsequent history.”

        Absolutely! Stewart acknowledged that when he walked the comment back: “I shouldn’t have said that, and I did. So I say right now, no, I don’t believe that to be the case. The atomic bomb, a very complicated decision in the context of a horrific war, and I walk that back because it was in my estimation a stupid thing to say.”

        BTW, My memory played me false when I described Jon’s comments. Looking at the Wiki article (from whence I got the quote above) I see his suggestion about an off-shore drop was part of his original comment (calling the act criminal), so that was part of what he walked back. As you pointed out, there were reasons why a demonstration might not have worked.

        The part that had stuck with me is the notion of alternatives to drop or not-drop and the humanity of the line he drew between them. The thing about a “demo drop” (so to speak) is that you can always escalate to a city drop if the demo doesn’t work. We did have plans to drop more bombs, as fast as we could make them — a hand process that took weeks — but Truman changed his mind, and then the Japanese surrendered.

        As an aside, a “Little Boy” device like the one dropped on Hiroshima is so simple that, unlike the “Fat Man” device, we never did a test shot of the design. We were that sure the design worked.

        That design gives security experts serious willies. It would be fairly simple (for terrorists, say) to construct a similar device. All that’s really required is a heavy pipe, some high explosive, and two chunks of fissile uranium (U-235; the only tricky part to acquire).

        Such a device would be extremely low-yield, and extremely “dirty” — but those aren’t necessarily a problem for terrorists. Quite to the contrary, in many ways, a dirty bomb is even scarier. The idea of terrorists invading a research lab or university to obtain the U-235 kept a lot of folks up at night! All they’d need to do is get in and hold off security forces long enough to throw the device together and set it off.

        On a somewhat lighter topic:

        “But it is cool that [comedy news manages] to get a lot more people to watch than traditional newcasters.”

        Very true, and whatever it takes! That said, it’s a source of some degree of personal angst that I live among a species that needs to be entertained and amused to be interested in the news. (Coincidentally, this afternoon I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, The Truth, which centers on the invention of the free press. Pratchett makes a similar point.)

        Although, that said, I’m not immune (being a member of said species). As I mentioned in the post, PBS bores me. I like at least a little energy in my news reporting. 😀

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It’s pretty cool that Stewart could acknowledge that further evidence changed his mind. I should have noted above that I fully understand people’s horror about the bombings. They were the horrible culmination of a horrible war.

        Interesting about Little Boy. It seems like we’ve been lucky that Uranium is as rare as it is, and that enriching it is hard. We’d probably be in deep doo doo if anyone ever figured out to generate a nuclear reaction with carbon.

        I know what you mean about PBS. Before the internet became a viable news source, I got my news from the PBS Newshour. I found it the most balanced and reliable of all the sources. But they seemed to go out of their way to be as boring as possible. It was actually kind of funny to watch them talk about sex scandals.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “It was actually kind of funny to watch them talk about sex scandals.”

        ROFL! Good one! Yeah, exactly so. And they love covering really obscure news, which is great in one regard, but kinda useless in others. PBS usually strikes me as mostly for people who don’t like rock-n-roll or rollercoasters.

        I do kind of miss The McNeill/Lehrer Report. My dad was a fan of that, and I came to very much appreciate their approach. My dad had also been a big fan of Walter Cronkite and Huntley & Brinkley. Those guys all kinda ruined me for CNN and others of that sensationalist ilk.

        (If you have any interest in the history of news, and haven’t yet seen it, I can recommend Good Night, and Good Luck which is the story of Edward R. Murrow going after Joseph McCarthy. I saw that just recently.)

        “It seems like we’ve been lucky that Uranium is as rare as it is, and that enriching it is hard.”

        Indeed we are!

        The other day I watched a YT video about that natural reactor in Oklo, Africa. It subsided over a billion years ago after generating 100 kW of thermal power for around 300,000 years. One thing I learned that I hadn’t known is that sea water seeping in from the bottom moderated the reaction, which otherwise would have gone critical!

        They figured out what had gone on due to the unexpectedly low percentage of U-235 in the uranium they were mining.

        Funny thing about uranium (and gold and all really dense elements). You definitely don’t get it from stellar fusion (which pretty much stops at iron), and you don’t even get it from normal supernovas. It takes particularly energetic events emitting vast numbers of neutrons to create the heavy elements.

        One more data point in the confluence of non-typical factors that led to us (supporting, at the least, the Rare Earth Hypothesis). It also means that the otherwise kinda silly SF movie, Cowboys & Aliens might have gotten one thing right (besides casting Olivia Wilde) — gold just might be a fairly rare element. (And gold is a very useful metal outside it’s “oooh, shiney” aspect.)

        “It’s pretty cool that Stewart could acknowledge that further evidence changed his mind.”

        He’s a pretty awesome guy. The thing that’s so personally important for me about him (and others, like, Keith Olbermann and Terry Pratchett and many others) is realizing others see the world the way I do. I seem to live in a world where people in general seem to have priorities and values very different (even seeming inverted) from mine. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

        Not that I’m anywhere near as smart or awesome as those people, but they do give me something to aspire to!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’m definitely going to have to watch ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ one of these days. The whole McCarthy things is disturbing whenever I think about it, because there are people today who would do much the same thing if given half a chance.

        On natural reactors, that reminds me of the Plutonium that NASA often uses for spacecraft sent far from the sun such as Voyager and New Horizons. In the book ‘The Martian’, the protagonist actually retrieves a discarded plutonium core (encased in a protective shell) and uses it as a device to get free heat, since the core would radiate heat for decades.

        Interesting on the origins of uranium and gold. I know that anything higher than iron on the periodic table had to be produced by supernovae. I guess the higher on the periodic table you go, the more energetic the origin had to be. Although I would think any element that could be found on Earth could also be found on the other planets, moons, or asteroids in the solar system without having to contend with bothersome natives.

        Totally agree on the comfort of others being out there that see things as we do. Although for me, it’s almost always domain specific. For instance, I agree with many of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s scientific and philosophical views, but found his views on the academic field of philosophy to be unfortunate.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The whole McCarthy things is disturbing whenever I think about it, because there are people today who would do much the same thing if given half a chance.”

        Exactly so. Disturbing and depressing.

        I often make the claim that the world is changing, and that I’m not entirely down with the changes, and that maybe we need to take a closer look at some of them, to which people often cite that ancient Greek who complained about ‘kids today.’ People make the counter-claim that ‘it was ever thus.’

        As far as people are concerned, yeah, it was ever thus, and is that really a good thing? And if the world is changing, maybe we ought to be as well?

        Funny thing… I’ve been seeing more and more about how the internet and modern life style actually is changing people — rewiring our brains in ways that have never existed before.

        A new era of humanity? Or incalculable damage alien researchers digging through the rubble will eventually identify as the key to our self-destruction? o_O

        Hopefully something in between!

        “I would think any element that could be found on Earth could also be found on the other planets, moons, or asteroids in the solar system without having to contend with bothersome natives.”

        Yeah. That was my second criticism of the movie. Why deal with pesky natives that have Definite Ideas about your taking their gold?

        (The first crit was the whole idea of space-faring slavering monsters. Although I have to admit, those were a little less slavering than usual and might have been drones or clones or whatever.)

        I have got to read The Martian!

        “Although for me, it’s almost always domain specific.”

        Totally! I doubt Jon Stewart even has an opinion on GR vs QFT let alone one that would inform me. Likewise, totally with you on deGrasse Tyson.

        Although the confluence of those two resulted in something that’s amused me ever since. When Neil guested, he pointed out that the Earth in the show’s opening was spinning the wrong way. Which is is. That was years ago, and they never fixed it. Now I smile because of that each time I watch the show.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I definitely think the world is changing. It’s only when people assert that it’s going to hell in a handbasket that I usually mention past historians who all seemed to think the same thing of their time.

        But it’s hard to not think we’re on the cusp of the information age, just as people in late 18th century Britain were on the cusp of the industrial age, neolithic farmers in the fertile crescent were on the cusp of the agricultural age, or the middle paleolithic inhabitants of Blombos cave were on the cusp of symbolic thought. Interesting how these new ages seem to be coming faster and faster.

        Not that we don’t have our challenges.

        I think you’d really enjoy ‘The Martian’. There’s lots of technical details to geek out on in that book.

        On the spinning globe, have you heard the story NDT told of his complaint to James Cameron about the starscape being wrong in the movie ‘Titanic’? It was in the scene where the characters are floating in the water and look up at the sky. Tyson pointed out that Cameron knew the exact location and date and time; there was no excuse. Cameron’s response was that the movie had made over a billion dollars; imagine how much it could have made if he had gotten the stars right. That said, he did let Tyson know when he fixed the stars in the Director’s cut release.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “It’s only when people assert that it’s going to hell in a handbasket that I usually mention past historians who all seemed to think the same thing of their time.”

        Right, and it’s a valid point. The thing that struck me at some point was the thought: Some of them were right!

        I’m sure there must have been observers in ancient Rome who thought their civilization was in peril. They may not have recognized that lead plumbing (and the use of lead as sweetener in wine) was a major problem, but they may have noted the effects. Or that trying to hold together a vast empire was a losing proposition.

        So I’ve spent a lot of thought about objective criteria we might use to measure the state of society. One data point, for example, is has there ever been a need for metal detectors in grade schools?

        OTOH, society often has an amazing ability to self-correct. We’re beginning to recognize a problem with internet porn, for example, and it’s manifesting in ED in young men. But we’re recognizing it and reacting to it.

        (It’s a sad testament to our priorities that we get very alarmed about ED but manage to turn such a blind eye to the homeless and the poor and the racial problems and etc. etc. etc.)

        Part of me thinks we’ll find our way through. Part of me wonders if we’ve finally met our match. I tend to optimism, but it seems a close call.

        “Tyson pointed out that Cameron knew the exact location and date and time; there was no excuse.”

        I have heard that story! And he’s right; there really is no excuse. Such a simple thing to get right. (Not that I’d be likely to notice — unless maybe it was Orion during the summer — but probably any regular star-gazer would. I do know the Moon well enough to have spotted it being used (usually rotated and/or reversed) on supposedly alien planets. Stargate — a movie I loved really hating — had three versions of our Moon in an alien sky!)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Some of the historians were definitely right. The Roman historians in the fifth century were certainly living in a time where things were falling apart, at least in the western half of the empire. I think it helps to put our times in perspective by examining those periods. In the 400s, western Roman cities were regularly being sacked, large armies of barbarians roamed the countryside, and society was in chaos.

        The question is, are there any reliable early warning indicators? I’ve read a fair amount of the literature on this. Much of it is people with an agenda (bring back traditional values, etc). I haven’t seen a compelling common denominator, although Jared Diamond made a good case for a lot of civilizational collapses having to do with ecological problems. (While also pointing out that it isn’t inevitable, since Montana, with its environmental problems, if it were an isolated civilization, might already have collapsed.)

        I know what you mean about Stargate. It was a meh movie for me. I felt puzzlement over all the attention it got. It took me a long time to give the TV series a try, but it evolved in some clever directions, and I actually enjoyed Stargate:Atlantis and Stargate:Universe (never having any illusions that any of it was sophisticated TV).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        This is kinda weird… It’s like that silhouette of a woman that looks like it’s spinning either way… I was reading your reply, and it seemed like you were arguing against imminent social collapse. But then examples occurred to me of each criteria, so I’m no longer sure you’re not for imminent collapse!

        “…Roman cities were regularly being sacked…”

        Collapsing infrastructure (bridges, etc.), aging electrical grid, NYC 9/11, Boston Marathon 2013, Shoe bomber, Underwear bomber, Times Square bomber, Ferguson, Baltimore, school shootings, theatre shootings,…

        Not the same, maybe, as barbarians at the gate, but having much the same effect.

        “…large armies of barbarians roamed the countryside…”

        Spammers, hackers, identity thieves, muggers, burglars, drug dealers, (Wall Street, bankers, TV marketers), the very rich

        They may no longer ride horses and live in tents, but they still roam society.

        “…society was in chaos.”

        Congress is useless with a really low approval rating, part of government opposed to President “on principle,” The Middle East, Russia, Africa, Europe (for that matter), Wall Street, banking, medical care, propaganda as news, science ignorance, inadequate education system…

        See what I mean? The more I think about it, the more scared I get!

        “Jared Diamond made a good case for a lot of civilizational collapses having to do with ecological problems.”

        Climate change, using up oil, using up helium and other elements, a highly inter-connected economy, a highly inter-connected society vulnerable to quick disease spread,…

        Okay, now I’m really scared. o_O

        Two other things to consider: Firstly, we live at a faster pace than any previous society, so changes occur quickly. (Consider that “the web” is only 15 years old, at best. It wasn’t that long ago film cameras and pay phones were things that had been around a long time.) Secondly, the high rate of information flow among people and societies is also unprecedented. That binds us all together more — global village where change affects all.

        All that said, I’m not arguing we’re about to collapse (although I do see danger signs and things we need to address). That’s extreme case, and I’m more curious about objective signs of change, trends and behaviors that are new, and what it all might mean.

        It could go the other way, David Chalmers recently argued your cell phone extends your brain, so forget AI (for a moment), we’re already well into IA — Intelligence Augmentation. Goggle, Wikipedia, and YouTube, extend our intelligence. (When I needed to fix a shower faucet, I found YT videos that showed me exactly what to do.)

        I do think the extension is more metaphorical than literal — do pulleys “extend” our muscles? in a sense — but it is interesting to contemplate where existing trends lead. Goggle Classes and Apple Watches are just the beginning!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Wow, I certainly didn’t mean to make you scared. You list just about every ill our society currently has. But, I’d note that, as bad as those things are, they aren’t anywhere near the scale of the breakdown that happened in the fifth century western empire.

        It’s worth noting that the Roman Empire, a military dictatorship with no clear lines of succession, wasn’t exactly problem free throughout most of its history. It actually lurched from one crisis to another (mostly civil wars) for centuries, yet it held together. Our current problems seem relatively under control in comparison.

        It’s interesting to speculate on what finally caused the empire’s decline. Of course, opinions are legion. Personally, I think it was Theodosius and later emperors mandating a new religion to the populace, discarding the ancient traditional one, causing social chaos, at least for the generations it took for the new religion, Christianity, to become the new traditional one, by which time the western empire was toast. It’s tempting to wonder if the current decline of Christianity might not lead to the same ills in western society, although I doubt it unless some idiot tries to pull a modern day Theodosius.

        I do totally agree that we have problems that need to be addressed. Based on history, I predict we’ll procrastinate until each one is a crisis, then solve them in some suboptimal but ultimately marginally passable manner.

        I think Chalmers has a point. (I’m looking forward to a Google Glass like device; it’d be kind cool to watch videos on my daily walks.) I agree with you that it’s more metaphorical right now, but as the interfaces become more tightly coupled, the distinction between what’s in our organic brain versus what’s in the extended digital one might become a bit blurry.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I certainly didn’t mean to make you scared. You list just about every ill our society currently has.”

        Oh, I’ve been scared all along! I’m sure I could add to the list — I really only touched on the major problems. But I was also being a little tongue-in-cheek; I come neither to bury Caesar nor to praise him. I’m neither Pollyana nor Cassandra. I’m just looking around and wondering what — if anything — it all means.

        I see parallels — not necessarily duplicates — in history. I know that some Cassandras and some Pollyana’s must have been right, just on law of averages. The future is notoriously difficult to predict, and I think we’re similar in not listening much to prophets of any stripe. Proof is in the pudding. Show me!

        I also know that, while humans haven’t changed, the world seems to have, so it can be a mistake to rely too much on precedent or history. The Global Village is something of a game-changer. So, again the wild guesses of prophets. (I’ve mentioned how amusing some 1980s SF is for projecting fax machines into the future and not at all anticipating small personal screen devices. Or that everyone would have a video camera — nearly every author missed that one, despite Dick Tracy!)

        The inter-connectedness and pace of the Global Village seems both problem and strength. Good and bad things both propagate quickly. I think we’ve talked before about dampening effects. Whether society has enough inertia to rumble past rough spots. A single hammer blow can shatter a pane of glass, because the glass is brittle and can’t absorb the blow. Two solutions are to make the glass stronger (takes energy) or make the glass more resilient, less brittle.

        I’m becoming more and more convinced some of that resilience comes from the sheer complexity of society. It’s gotten too complex to just fall apart. Like a tangled mess of wire, its own tangle provides structure and support and binding.

        It’s an interesting testament to what humans (and perhaps some animals) do: they add complexity to their environment. We’re little anti-entropy engines.

        Just think about the world we’ve created in 200 years! Even considering halves is interesting: 1000 years ago. 500 years ago. 250 years ago. 100 years ago. 50. 25, 10. Pretty big changes in each segment.

        “It’s tempting to wonder if the current decline of Christianity might not lead to the same ills in western society,”

        I do wonder sometimes what will happen when people who claim to follow a metaphysical view with a built in morality — one they often ignore — replace that view with a physical or material one with no built in morality to ignore. A more general question might be: What — if any — social loading is required to (try to) compel people to behave? We have social law, but that’s often about the proper, or ethical, thing, not the right thing. Is the law enough?

        Tough questions!

        “Based on history, I predict we’ll procrastinate until each one is a crisis, then solve them in some suboptimal but ultimately marginally passable manner.”

        That’s… kinda how I got through college! 😄

        “…the distinction between what’s in our organic brain versus what’s in the extended digital one might become a bit blurry.”

        Yeah, I think we’re well on our way to that!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Did I ever discuss Ara Norenzayan’s work with you? He’s studied the idea that religion might have been what allowed large scale societies to form. That societies needed the idea of a supernatural agent watching all the time to make people behave. He wrote a book, ‘Big Gods’, that looks at the question in detail. He notes that some countries (Sweden, Norway, Japan) climbed the ladder offered by religion, but have kicked that ladder loose, apparently without any unpleasant consequences.

        Myself, I tend to think that every society’s norms, including morals, are based on its common stories and narratives. The ancient supernatural narratives seem to be in decline, being replaced by non-supernatural ones, or at least existing alongside them. We’ll still have narratives to shape those norms which, as you point out, won’t always agree with our laws.

        I’m right there with you on the college thing, at least for the undergraduate part.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The name, Norenzayan, doesn’t ring a bell, but I’m familiar with the basic idea of religion being an evolutionary tool. I’ve wondered about it myself. It puts religion in the same basic class as language, tool use, and forming large social groups — behaviors strongly correlated with survival and growth.

        A thing about Christianity — specifically — is that, just as a meme, it’s been amazingly successful and persistent. How many significant social behavior patterns are practiced by so many for so long (well over 1000 years by billions)? Whatever it is, it’s very powerful! (In Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson compares it to a computer virus for minds.)

        Terrorism fueled by religious fervor has proven to be effective and hard to combat. People willing to die for a cause have an edge over… well, sane people anyway. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t times to put your life on the line. Different discussion.)

        The point is, as evolutionary tools go, religion seems to have proven itself effective. And to be a hard habit to shake.

        “He notes that some countries (Sweden, Norway, Japan) climbed the ladder offered by religion, but have kicked that ladder loose, apparently without any unpleasant consequences.”

        (As an aside: To say “kicked the ladder loose” paints a picture arguing a point of view. Something as successful and universal as religious beliefs — which may be deep evolutionary drives, like love or fairness — seems more than a ladder or easily kicked away.)

        I’m not sure what he means in citing Sweden, Norway, or Japan:

        Regardless, I think it’s a great double-question: Is religion an evolutionary tool? (I can definitely see it.) Are we ready — now or ever — to move past it?

        Based on what I know about people, my vote is no. 😀

        I think a moral code based on a physical non-teleological universe is intellectually challenging. It requires education, experience, and thought. How many even bother to invent themselves in democracy?

        So make that a definite no vote! 😄

        “I tend to think that every society’s norms, including morals, are based on its common stories and narratives.”

        Could be, sure. What is missing for me is the content of those narratives. They’re not just any narratives; they seek to be normative, and it raises the interesting question of where does that come from?

        Even strict social constructivism asks the question: Why ‘good’ rules rather than ‘evil’ rules? Why a desire for good at all?

        [By “strict social constructivism” I mean a strictly (that is, 100%) physical universe (with no teleology) where all social behavior — including morals — is relative to, and constructed by, the society. Specifically, the phrases “objective good” and “objective evil” are meaningless.]

        “The ancient supernatural narratives seem to be in decline, being replaced by non-supernatural ones…”

        Although that might depend a little on your definition of supernatural! Finance and wealth are abstract and non-physical, but much worshiped. Fame, likewise, is an imaginary modern belief.

        No, you’re right, we don’t worship anthropomorphized reifications of our beliefs — no all-powerful bearded wise men on sky thrones — but if you think about the things we do believe in, we’ve just changed the nature of our gods.

        One of my concerns is how we do seem to worship fame, popularity, wealth, status, and success. It’s not that any of those things are intrinsically bad, but our narratives often seem to lack the counter-balance of “doing the right thing.”

        (As you recall, I just wrote about the embedded narrative in those beef jerky commercials. I see our stories as good indicators of that current social norm you mentioned. They reveal much about our values.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Japan and the Scandinavian countries have among the lowest religiosity in the world. Official church membership numbers aren’t indicative of the actual beliefs in those societies. Surveys have shown that most people in those countries don’t believe in religious tenets. For example in Sweden:

        Norenzayan’s point about the ladder is that these countries may be benefiting from their religious past, but they don’t appear to be paying any penalties for the decline of religiosity in their societies.

        I totally agree that the decline of religion in western societies is historically unprecedented. It’s not like when the communists tried to stamp it out. This appears to be much more of an organic movement. I do think it’s fair to ask if it’ll last. Only time will tell. I think a war, pestilence, or economic collapse could cause a resurgence, although I wonder what kind of religions might arise if the old ones have withered away by then; we might not even call the new movements “religion”?

        On “good” rules versus “evil” rules, I tend to think that our cooperative instincts as social animals drives a lot of our judgment on these. Still, societies often come up with rules that seem “good” at the time, but are viewed as “evil” by later societies. An ancient Greek might be puzzled by modern controversies over homosexuality but could be horrified by the role of women in society today.

        Totally agree that narratives in commercials, at least successful ones, reveal a lot about our values.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        WRT irreligion in countries and what it might mean, I think this isn’t a direction that gets us anywhere. I’ve a got a long comment I’ll post below explaining why I think that in case you’re interested. There are things I’d rather talk about:

        “I do think it’s fair to ask if [religion will] last. […] I think a war, pestilence, or economic collapse could cause a resurgence…”

        D’accord to both points. What does it suggest that we think severe social stress could cause people to return to religion? It’s like we unconsciously see it as a symbol of solace and strength. As far as it lasting…

        “…I wonder what kind of religions might arise if the old ones have withered away by then; we might not even call the new movements ‘religion’?”

        Good question. It needs a definition of ‘religion’ — the most general I can think of is ‘belief in the reality of some metaphysics’ (which may also require a definition — ‘above or beyond physicalism’). In the ‘what does a fish think about water’ sense, I’m not sure what we call such a belief matters. That the belief exists makes the belief a religion to me, not how it’s labeled.

        People do believe in wealth, power, and fame. Many even worship them to one degree or another. They are abstract,… the question is whether they are metaphysical. Ultimately I suppose it boils down to physical dualism. Those who believe in these “material gods” usually believe they exist in the material world.

        Maybe that’s a problem? We’re replacing a belief system that has a dash of dualism with one that is strictly (that is, “100%”) physical. That sounds good in the ‘science is better than fantasy’ sense, but I wonder if it does leave a hole of some kind.

        In any event, I do think we find something to believe in. Whether those things are physical or metaphysical, concrete or abstract, real or imagined, may not be significant in that belief. I’m astonished at how many educated, progressive, non-science-phobic people have some genuine belief in astrology.

        As I said before, religion is a hard habit to break. (I’m reminded of someone I dated who later joined AA. Not because we dated. She’d replaced alcohol with cigarettes and donuts and coffee. The need remained, but was diverted to other channels.)

        “Still, societies often come up with rules that seem “good” at the time, but are viewed as “evil” by later societies.”

        Indeed. Underlying that is the need to define ‘good’ and ‘evil’ just to have the conversation. Moral philosophy is filled with conundrums designed to stress test moral views. We sacrifice thousands of our healthy young to promote a way of life — our ideals — but sacrificing a few dozen homeless for medical experiments that could benefit countless millions raises our moral hackles. Why?

        Of course, some have moral hackles that raise over a single whale, let alone sending sons and daughters off to war. Some people see locally, some see globally. Some value compassion over effectiveness, others reverse that equation.

        We have such interesting ways of defining ‘good’ and ‘evil’ — often to benefit our convenience — so it would be nice to find some objective grounds, some reasonable yardstick. (For me, as I’ve written about, it’s the notion of equality.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Defining religion is a tricky beast. There are a multitude of historical attempts. Most are either too narrow, too broad, or too complicated to be useful. Jared Diamond, after listing sixteen different historical attempts, rather than attempting one of his own, came up with seven functions that religions historically fulfill. I simplified his to three:
        1) explain the world
        2) support the social order
        3) provide existential comfort

        In the modern world, 1) seems mostly handled by science and related endeavors (although fundamentalists typically insist on sticking to their religion’s attempt at it). There are a lot of institutions to handle 2), what some refer to as our “civic religion.” That leaves 3). Western and northern Europe seem to show that the need for 3) can be reduced by a strong social safety net, but there may always be people who need it.

        The question to me is what a historian thousands of years from now may conclude. They may see our syncretization of science, civics, and whatever answer to 3) we come up with, as just a new social system that replaced the ancient social system, labeled with whatever word they use for such a social system.

        On finding an objective basis for good and evil, agreed that that would be beneficial. Unfortunately, I fear Hume was right on this one with the is / ought divide.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Religion,… let’s not go there. I stopped discussing “it” with theists a long time ago, and I’ve recently determined to stop discussing it with atheists. To me, both are gnostics, and, as an agnostic, I can’t help but react (generally negatively) to gnosticism. Discussion with a gnostic is like someone leaning way to the side while sitting in a canoe. I find myself invariably leaning the other way to balance the boat.

        For now I’ll just say we find agreement on your (3). Where you lean is your presumption of physicalism. Under that view, metaphysical views are ultimately wrong and foolish. But there’s more than enough weirdness in physicalism that we shouldn’t think it’s the final answer.

        re morality: Are you saying no objective basis is possible? (See,… I wonder if, even under physicalism, there might be. What if minds are physical and special?)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Oops, sorry. Didn’t see this comment until I’d already typed my other response. Feel free to ignore or delete that other one.

        On whether an objective basis is possible, it seems like people have been trying to find it for a long time, without success. I think Hume blasted a hole in previous attempts, and articulated an obstacle that no one has managed to convincingly overcome. I don’t rule out that someone may find a way someday, but I don’t see it yet.

        That doesn’t mean that we can’t find shared values, and then on the basis of those values evaluate proposed moral statements, but if we don’t share the requisite foundational values, it seems hard to find any objective way to bridge the gap. And a lot of the time it isn’t that we don’t share a value, but that we weigh it differently against other values.

        Consider the tension we now have between safety and privacy. In truth, over time we veer between valuing one or the other of those values more highly. Some people always fall more often on the side of preferring security, others on the side of preferring privacy. Most people would fall somewhere in the middle. But which position is objectively “right”?

        I think if anyone does find a way, they’ll have carved out a place in intellectual history right beside people like Plato, Descartes, and Hume.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “And a lot of the time it isn’t that we don’t share a value, but that we weigh it differently against other values.”

        Yep, exactly. Different worldviews lead to different value systems.

        “But which position is objectively ‘right’?”

        It may be like asking which is the objectively ‘right’ answer to sqrt(4), +2 or -2? Some questions don’t have a single ‘right’ answer. Those with a personal bias towards positive will see +2 as more ‘right’ but objectively it can only be both.

        (In the case of security vs. privacy, there are some good arguments that security can never be effective enough to really be a viable option, so privacy wins kinda by default. I think it’s Franklin who has that famous quote about that.)

  • reocochran

    Jon Stewart was on my youngest daughter’s radar before mine. She also introduced me to Stephen Colbert. Someone probably suggested them to her. I liked Jon Stewart’s intelligence and witty comments. He did not force his opinion and seemed to be even keel on politics, open to moderates and liberals but scathing when necessary. He didn’t pull any punches 🙂

    Not too many lightweight subjects broached. I don’t have DVR so I had to rely on nights with no early am’s, to see Jon Stewart.

    The Yeats quotation was brilliant and so applicable, Smitty. I will always remember Jon fondly and too bad he cannot gave a prime time special with his commentary/updates on the world and our country once a month. This might help you, just small “fixes” of Jon, to get by and cope with this vapid world.

    Like “Field of Dreams,” Jon, if you build it; we will come!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Likewise with me. I discovered The Daily Show after Jon Stewart started hosting it in 1999. I think I got into it somewhere around 2003 or so. (I also discovered The Simpson’s after it had been on the air for many years, but at least there I could buy the DVDs of the seasons I missed!)

      Jon will be back, I have no doubt. As he said at the very end of his final show, this is just a pause. He’s gonna go off and have a drink, and then I’m sure he’ll be back. And we will indeed come to see it!

      I can appreciate that 16 years is a long time to do any single task. And the need to crank out four shows a week is very limiting if you wish to do other topics. I really liked what he said when he announced his exit: That we deserved better than a host who was even a little distracted by other things.

      The thing I value so highly about people like Stewart (and Keith Olbermann and Terry Pratchett and others) is that it confirms I’m not alone in how I see the world. For a decided odd-ball, like me, that is a great value, indeed.

      • reocochran

        Hi, I may have asked you but must head off to bed, (too tired to check if I asked you this on another post, W.S.) Are you satisfied with Stephen Colbert’s new show? The Late Show is too late for me to watch and don’t have DVR to help me out. I have asked people and so far 2 votes “Yes!” and one vote,”No!”

        G’night! You know I try and circle back. . . xo

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh. Sleepy head! You did ask. 😄

        I’ve only seen snippets, so I have no opinion so far. I’m not a fan of the commercials in, or the format of, those hosted late-night TV shows, so I’m not inclined to watch them very often. I do keep meaning to check him out, though. One of these days. (I never even got around to watching the last Letterman show… my interest in all that is so low.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Sorry for the delay… Irreligion isn’t a topic I’ve really looked at before, and I wanted to look at the data before replying…

    “Japan and the Scandinavian countries have among the lowest religiosity in the world.”

    That’s true, I agree with that (although the numbers are worth a look). It’s a different assertion than: “[Norenzayan] notes that some countries (Sweden, Norway, Japan) […] have kicked that ladder loose, apparently without any unpleasant consequences.” It requires definition; what does “kicked that ladder loose” mean in terms of social policy? There is also a question of whether declines in religiosity have had time to show — or not show — “unpleasant consequences.” It’s so sweeping and general that it’s hard to support.

    Japan, for example, is a pretty spiritual nation in terms of folk religion and worship of ancestors and “household” gods. There are forms of Shintoism that the Japanese don’t think of as “religion.” Japan is 35% Buddhist and 5% other formal religion, but 52% are folk Shinto or “not religious” (meaning formal, organized religion). In a Gallup poll, 71% said ‘No’ to “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” But wiki says that 50% to 80% pray or worship ancestors or gods.

    Japan is also problematic as an “unpleasant consequences” example, since the country has a lot of social problems (including words for “death by over work” and “acute social withdrawal”). Japan tends to be a standalone case in nearly all regards — a unique and complicated world all its own.

    The Scandinavian countries (and Estonia) do stand out as showing declines in officially religious people. I agree official church numbers don’t reflect how people think (which is why I’m using polling numbers from the Wiki Irreligion page).

    Sweden, at 88%, ranked #1 answering ‘No’ to that Gallup question. It’s followed by: Denmark (83%), China (82%), Norway (78%), Estonia (78%), UK (76%), France & HK (74%), Czech Rep. (72%), Japan (71%), Finland (69%),…

    Another study, Phil Zuckerman [2005], looks at whether someone is “self-described atheist or agnostic” (as an agnostic, the “or agnostic” part is a problem). Here are the top rankings: Vietnam (81%), Sweden (46-80%), Denmark (43-80%), Norway (31-72%), Japan (65%), Czech Rep. (54-61%), Finland (28-60%), Estonia (49%), Germany (41-49%), France (43-54%), So.Korea (52%),…

    What’s striking to me is the range given for the Scandinavian countries. If you go look at the table, even when a range is provided, only those countries have such a large range. I’d like to know why that is, and which end of the range more represents reality.

    What makes this analysis tough is agnosticism and “non-religious spiritual” belief. If the premise is that ‘Religion is good for society’ then agnostics likely do count with atheists, but spiritual folks likely don’t.

    In Sweden, for example, the Eurobarometer Poll in 2010 shows only 18% saying they “believe there is a god” but 45% saying they “believe there is some sort of spirit or life force” so 63% are ‘believers’ of some kind while 34% say they “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.”

    Norway has a similar split: 66% believe, 29% don’t. France, which is considered a very secular country, has a 60%–40% split. The numbers are fairly close. Yes, Scandinavian countries rank low in religiosity, but it’s not an overwhelming difference.

    And then there’s the health and attractiveness of these countries, whether that has changed, how it’s changed, and whether that change is correlated with prominently secular or non-secular views in public policy. That’s a lot packed into a single phrase.

    My main point here is that the issue is complicated. Irreligion by country doesn’t strike me as a productive place for us to go. The data doesn’t seem striking one way or another.

    (The more important, crucial, vital, necessary point is that after making all those notes, I wanted to actually use them, hence this long comment. 🙂 )

    • SelfAwarePatterns

      I agree with just about everything you write here, particularly the large ranges in Scandinavia survey results, which I also found strange when I first saw them.

      On the ladder verbaige, I think maybe I’m not doing justice to what Norenzayan was saying, in particular I probably gave you an incorrect impression of his views. He’s a social psychologist, one of the people who identified the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) bias in psychological research, and argues that religion was crucial to the formation of large scale societies.

      You might find some of his articles interesting.

      I reviewed his book ‘Big Gods’ a while back.
      (Sorry for the self link, no worries if you don’t want to read it.)
      Note that I did later walk back some of the criticisms I gave in this post.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ll add these to the TODO list. (They’ll have to get in line… so many interesting things to explore!)

        I think we’re on the same page that religion helped society cohere and helped it grow (by including more in the “flock” by preaching charity and moderation). Its persistence and universality begs for an explanation. Like math, at the least, it’s a tool we created to improve society. (Whether it is based on ontological reality is a question I’ll ignore.)

        The premise now is that it’s a tool we should discard as obsolete. Even as actively harmful. That’s a tough row to hoe. The data we have suggests religion is good for society. One argument is that science replaces it. Others argue for coexistence — science and god. Arguing it has negative value isn’t easy. Maybe it’s like beer? Something that some enjoy?

        There is a decline in traditional religion — that’s clear. It’s much less clear whether the world is a better or worse place (in part because the answer might be “both!”). Population, technology, and economics, are huge factors in the state of the world, so trying to separate out the effects of [ir]religion is a challenge (to say the least).

        Showing a correlation is tough enough. Showing causation is really tough, especially given one can argue the data shows the opposite. (Just on the basis of this: How many people do you know who, given the choice, would choose to live in Sweden or Japan. Or even Norway or Estonia. I know I wouldn’t. 😀 )

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’m actually agnostic on whether religion is a net good or bad force today. There are clearly benefits to it, but there are also clearly problems that arise from it. I think too much happens under the label “religion” for simple statements about it being good or bad. And anyone who says science replaces it seems to be ignoring what it means to most adherents.

        On causation, my personal intuition is that most militant atheists get it reversed. I see religion as something that thrives when life is uncertain, but tends to decline as people feel more secure. I think that intuition comes from fairly good data, but I’ll totally admit that causation is very difficult to demonstrate.

        If that intuition is true, the best way to make religion go away would be to eliminate war, poverty, and pestilence worldwide. Trying to do it any other way would probably just move it underground, like what appears to have happened in the communist countries.

        I wouldn’t want to live in Sweden or Estonia; way too cold. And Japan is too uptight for my tastes. And anyway, despite its problems, American culture is my culture; I’d feel like a fish out of water anywhere else. But I would like the US social safety net and criminal justice system to be more like the ones in the Scandinavian countries.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I see religion as something that thrives when life is uncertain, but tends to decline as people feel more secure.”

        I think there is something to that, but I also think there’s more to it. Religion thrives among happy people, too. Many suffer no particular life stress but are still religious. I suspect it does decline sharply among the affluent. Most spiritual paths take a dim view of wealth, so there is a disconnect there. Religion is definitely more common among the poor.

        It would be interesting to see what correlations exists between life contentment and spiritual belief. I have no idea how to go about such a thing. Defining — let alone quantifying — either contentment or belief is a challenge.

        “If that intuition is true, the best way to make religion go away would be to eliminate war, poverty, and pestilence worldwide.”

        Which could be taken to mean it’ll never go away. 😮

        FWIW, I’m not sure I’d like an idyllic pain-free world. Growth comes from challenge, art comes from pain. And for that matter, happy is only meaningful in contrast to not-happy.

        In any event, why seek to “make religion go away”? Why is it something to be removed?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Give me an idyllic pain free world anytime. I’ll take my chances with growth and happiness 🙂

        I wasn’t advocating to make religion go away, just noting where those who do advocate it should focus their efforts. Not that they’ll listen to me.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Give me an idyllic pain free world anytime. I’ll take my chances with growth and happiness.”

        I suspect you’re at least a little tongue-in-cheek there, but to the extent you’re serious, it’s a good illustration of multiple correct answers to a single question. That world sounds nice, but I wouldn’t want to live there! But it’s all a matter of worldview.

        I might have mentioned this before… you remember Babylon5? As you may recall, JMS (the creator) appeared in various internet venues to communicate with fans. At one point, close to halfway through the series, he told us that, by the time it’s all said and done, some will agree with the Shadows. At the time, the Shadows seemed pure villain.

        He was right. I did. The Vorlons are nannies, the Shadows are evolutionists. My values are more aligned with the Shadow idea that conflict and chaos are instrumental to progress. 🐱

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I loved Bablyon 5, and thought JMS was the coolest producer ever for engaging with fans on AOL and Compuserve back in the day. (Although he really let the trolls affect him too much. For his own mental wellbeing, I felt like he should have stopped long before he finally did.)

        Can’t say I agreed with the Shadows, or the Vorlons, once we understood that both of them saw everyone else as livestock to be culled at their discretion.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, yeah, that’s true. 🙂 I just meant that in terms of the worldviews that distinguished them, I’m way more in the mix it up chaos camp than the safe and orderly camp.

        I suppose one can make an argument for the Elder Races interfering. It’s the parent-child argument, the smarter wiser parent steering and defending the child. Really, you could say it’s another form of the security-privacy issue. The perceived benefits of safety versus the perceived benefits of freedom. Our western view tends to side with freedom.

        You know… until it’s threatened.

  • E.D.

    you could always watch Hollywood Housewives – narcissism at its most beautiful and best. 🙂

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