Tag Archives: science

Constructing immortality

I have become an aficionado of science documentaries; a connoisseur of Cosmos, a knower of Nova and a devotee of the Discovery Channel.

Because space remains the iron core of my son’s interests, I’ve been to the edge of the known universe and the inner spaces of the quantum realm hundreds of times (with the help of CGI animation).  For six years, I’ve lived with an almost constant awareness of the infinite without as well as the infinite within.

Thinking about all of that vastness, it is now hard for me to imagine religion at odds with science. My throat gets caught in moments when scientists reflect on things like the stardust that created us, the possibilities that lie within all that we don’t know and how fantastic and improbable humans really are.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, which routinely takes on big questions that science cannot answer definitively. The season premiere  investigated the possibilities of life after death.

After circulating through heaven-like scenarios, the possibilities of existing without form or blipping into nothingness, one scientist, who had lost his wife to a brain tumor, declared that there is one indisputable form of an afterlife: memory. You and I are each a mosaic, he said, a swarm of finite characteristics and memories and experiences. And a rougher version of us — a portrait made up of thumbnail-sized porcelain shards instead of so many billions of pinpoints— is carried within all of the people that love us.

Having been through recent losses and facing new ones, this thought is like a nice warm bath. I think of all of the people who make up me, the ways that I fashion them into my own design. The first ones are obvious, living and dead. But those people I didn’t know all that well, yet still feel the loss of because of one moment of connection? This gives me permission to let that solitary moment glimmer. Those people I’ve perhaps known too well, who left me feeling damaged? Let me reach for the lotus growing out of all of that muck and flatten its soft petals.  That vulnerable person I just met today? Let me hold on to her, reflect her.

There is so much you are that I can carry. There is so much I can be that you can carry. And chances are that we’ll both do that whether we mean to or not.

When I hear about God, I have a hard time keeping myself from getting tangled up in his long, angry beard.  When I hear about science, I have a hard time keeping myself from turning up my nose at religion. Cynicism has sometimes made me likeable or funny at parties, but truthfully, it’s not nearly as useful as I thought it was.

A little over a year ago, I started putting faith in people, not knowing what they would do with it and not exactly caring anymore. I desperately needed to put faith somewhere. I stopped worrying about where. Now I find that it is alive and breathing all on its own.

I am the haphazard engineer of immortality for others and for myself. A scientist told me so. And these crazy ruins are among the most extraordinary places that I have ever chanced to visit.

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I guess I picked the wrong night to fall asleep at nine

My mom broke into bedtime last night to deliver “good news and bad news” to me.

Apparently we are descendants of early U.S. settler Richard Treat, which means that we are distant relations of many historical figures I’m not all that fond of, including Samuel Colt (who popularized the revolver), Henry Ford II and (ahem) the Bush presidents. It’s no wonder these people have gotten under my skin so much over the years… they’re family!

This also makes us distant relatives of Thomas Edison, author Stephen Crane, Robert Treat Payne (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), actor Treat Williams and writer/playwright Tennessee Williams. Some good news there, indeed.

I really didn’t have time to process this as I was trying to get my son to sleep early for the last night of spring break. We were reading “Merlin’s Tour of the Universe” by Neil de Grasse Tyson (in which he pretends to be an omniscient visitor from the Andromeda Galaxy).  As I read the evening’s last paragraph, there was a joke about restaurants on the moon having no atmosphere.

“I don’t get it,” said Declan.

He knows that the moon has no atmosphere. but had no idea what would be different about a restaurant’s atmosphere than anyplace else on Earth.

“It’s a pun,” I said, and began describing restaurant atmosphere to him. He interrupted me when the switch went off in his brain: “Oh I get it, I get it. It’s an idiom and a pun.”

I lay there, hugging his soon-to-be-six-year-old body in my arms, wondering how long it will be before he starts correcting my grammar. This time next year? I fell asleep.

I woke up at 4:30, looked at my phone and found out that Osama Bin Laden is dead. I watched a recording of Obama’s speech and accidentally woke Declan up, who sat up and said, with a start:  “Morgan Freeman said that! He said dogs were escaping, the hills were falling down…”

I’m not sure at all what that means, but, like most dream statements, I believe it to be true.

So I missed the news and the social media frenzy because I was dreaming about lightbulbs. Since I am rested this morning, I don’t think I’ll turn on the news for a while.

Usually, when I think of September 11, 2001, I feel a catch in my left knee. It’s a muscle memory of the last time I visited the south tower observation deck as a teenager, when it was so windy we couldn’t go outside. You could feel the structure swaying. I remember how my body tried to compensate for that unsettling feeling.

Today I don’t feel that, but I don’t think it’s because someone died. It’s because it’s disarming news, and my inner Pollyanna would like it to be just that. Disarming. News.

“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.” – Tennessee Willliams

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Arrow came along about one year before my son did. A rescue puppy, he’s always been a bit troubled, and a regular pain in the butt. Since we only know that he was born sometime in April, we decided his birthday must be Tax Day.

He’s still a bit troubled, but he is so adored. He got belly rubs galore for his birthday, along with the loveliest serenade and a squeaky toy that Declan picked out because it resembles an atom.

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The re-education of a science mom

The other day, my son was asked to draw a picture of something he is grateful for.

He made semi-scribbly, red twisty lines. Above them, he wrote “DNA.”

I asked him why. Why DNA?

“Because it’s here,” he said. “No life would be here without it. Not the trees, not you or me. Nothing.”

To be honest, I am far more grateful that he is happy we exist than I am that he understands DNA.

I asked him if I could blog about what he said and he agreed.

“What should I say about DNA?” I asked him.

“Life needs it in order to be here, just think about it,” he said. “Just write about it in a long sentence. Write that it controls cells. That cancer happens when DNA is broken.”

I think back on high school and remember myself as a girl with an aversion to science.  Today, I don’t know that it was an aversion so much as something that my teachers presented in a way that I couldn’t find relevant to my daily life. I was technically adept, but confounded by chemistry. And if there were programs designed to promote women and girls in science and math in 1980s Central Ohio, we never crossed paths. I veered into social science and the arts and humanities, where the world seemed to invite me.

So now I live with an almost six-year-old whose aptitude for understanding quantum mechanics, geology, biology and especially astronomy have long since dwarfed my own. This is thanks to Google, several extremely cool kids’ science books, our fantastic local science center. a great, old-school observatory, the vast array of images in discounted Hubble Telescope picture books, PBS, National Geographic, the History, Science and Discovery channels and the availability of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Netflix.

When my son was two, he was in love with everything he could find out about the planets, moons, stars, dark matter and endless nebulae (he loved watching the short film Powers of Ten over and over, which we found on a now-defunct kids’ astronomy site). Around that time, Neil DeGrasse Tyson floated the idea on some talk show or other that he was working on a book that would tell parents the key things they needed to know to be scientifically literate and raise scientifically literate children.

I’ve longed for this book, although I think my re-education in science has gone okay without it. My son used to get frustrated with me over the things I couldn’t answer. Now we’re both content to let him do most of the teaching.  Truthfully, he always has.

Here’s the thing, though: If it all went away tomorrow, if his interests suddenly took a radical turn into Batman and baseball and fart jokes, I like to think that I wouldn’t turn into a judgmental parent who turned her nose up at “lesser” pursuits. I’d be sad to see interests that have been so fun and exciting and integral to his life diminished, but our lives would be easier. I wouldn’t have to evaluate, every year, the thorny politics of introducing him to a new classroom and new teachers. Parents wouldn’t dislike me because I’m worried about my smart kid.  To most, it doesn’t sound like a problem. It sounds like bragging.

If you go around telling people that your kid is smart, special, or at least has a high aptitude for a particular subject, I’ve found out that you’re likely to do that child more harm than good in the classroom, on the playground, in life. What you say can turn morph into a temporary blind spot for teacher, who has heard a thousand parents’ confident descriptions, many of them wrong, or at least lacking the perspective on a sea of children that an experienced educator has.

I try to let my son unfold before his teachers without my assistance. And if they are good teachers, they find him. They see him.  And if they are very good, they know how complicated it can be for sweet-faced boy who still has all of his baby teeth to know so much, so very, very much. Together, we see him recognize the reality of things that once just seemed cool or interesting to know before, not scary or heavy. I see it suddenly weigh on him and I sometimes wish I could erase that thing he learned a year ago, that thing I thought he would forget. He rarely forgets.

And so I let him explore Super Mario Galaxy, joke books, America’s Funniest Home Videos and Justin Beiber. I am relieved when dances like a lion, puts a pylon on his head or tells me about playing “crazy baby” on the playground with a friend. I don’t want him to be the ultimate brainiac of the universe. That’s lonely. I want him to be every bit his brilliant self, but I also want him to be happy. I want him to feel okay and whole when he’s not feeling brilliant.

I imagine Sagan, as well as Tyson and the wide host of living celebrity science advocates I am now acquainted with as people with a dark blue sense of humor.

I keep joking with friends: “If you’re going to raise an astrophysicist, better to raise an astrophysicist who can make jokes about his balls.”

Or maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s my science mommy prayer.

This post is a contribution to the #scimom collection, an experimental conjunction of mom and science bloggers.

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Plant an alveolus for Earth Day

We visited with some fine local women and children yesterday after recovering from the news that we didn’t hit the lottery for any of the urban magnet kindergartens that we were hoping to. We’re waitlisted everywhere, and only certain to get into the one that I’m most lukewarm about and Declan is a little afraid of.

I’m feeling oddly okay about it because I have other hopes in reserve. And I know that my kid is the kind of learner that any good teacher dreams of teaching. I don’t expect that there will be many years ahead of us that won’t require us to find him a number of challenges beyond school walls.

We went to a science-y library program yesterday too, where the kids learned a few things about trees. After getting over a bout of complete and total shyness, Declan told the librarians that “trees are the lungs of the earth.” A fact gleaned— not from school or any eco-moralizing on my part — but from his kids’ yoga video.

When we got in the car, he seemed puzzled.

“How was that science?” he asked me, though he liked it. It was earth science, I told him.

“Huh,” he said, thoughtfully. “I thought that all science had to be really cool or really gross.”

“You don’t think photosynthesis is cool?”

“Oh yeah, I guess it is.”

Seriously, you lousy schools, it’s your loss.

If only there were grants out there that parents could apply for to spend a year taking a kid like mine to the Met, CERN, a bunch of Smithsonian museums, every NASA site that’s open to the public and a few natural wonders.

That would be the education my son deserves.

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Team WhyMommy Virtual Science Fair

Known to the blogging world as WhyMommy, Susan Niebur is an astrophysicist, a mother to two young boys, an advocate for cancer education and research, and a survivor. Since 2007, she’s graciously, frankly and bravely let us into her life through her blog, Toddler Planet. She’s let her readers walk with her as she’s battled Inflammatory Breast Cancer and dealt with its physical and emotional fallout, all the while advocating for women in planetary science.

She’s had a recurrence, and is slated to have surgery today. So, to let her know that we’re all thinking about her – thinking of the whole of who she is, not just this tenacious disease she keeps kicking — Stimeyland is holding a virtual science fair. People have been making an effort to do something science related (with kids or on their own) and posting about it today in Susan’s honor.

If you read Tiny Mantras at all regularly, you might guess that I don’t go through a day without doing something science-related. And you’d be right.

So far this week, I’ve overseen the assembly of an anatomy floor puzzle and helped my son navigate CERNland — a kids’ site designed to explain particle physics and illuminate what the Large Hadron Collider is doing. We’ve snapped together models of the Ares Launch Vehicles that NASA is developing to take people back to the moon, and eventually to Mars. We’ve read Millions to Measure.

I thought I would compile a list of a few of my favorite posts about raising a science-inclined child and the things we’ve done to keep up with him, focusing particularly on Susan’s passion (also Declan’s) — space:

I gave birth to the whole universe — This is the way we tell a bedtime story.

Beginnings of a solar system magnum opus
– This is the way we write a song.

Sometimes, science makes us anxious. It makes us dream. We sleep in the rings of Saturn.

Every placemat, book and ball in our house has been part of the solar system at one point or another.

Space changed the way I look at art.

Halloween costumes — My son has actually been getting smaller every year. First he was space, then the solar system and last year he was Jupiter.

I once had to convince my son he was on Triton (Neptune’s moon) to get him to take a bath.

There is really nothing cuter than a 2-year-old talking about space or going through Hubble Space Telescope images or interpreting the world through space or warning you about impending doom.

Spaced out at NASA’s Plum Brook Station — This is a huge NASA site in Ohio that’s rarely open to the public, but they had an open house in 2008 and we went. We also like hanging out in Space Shuttle tires in Wapakoneta.

Here are some kids’ space books we love. Here is one Carnival of Space. And another.

Be well, Susan. Kick this cancer to the Kuiper Belt.

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Interview at Mama Joules’ place

If you are looking for ideas about how to engage children with science, Mama Joules has got resources and fresh ideas about everything from physics to geology to gardening. I plan to make her site a regular destination.

She and I exchanged emails through the crazy holiday time, and she’s published an interview with me about keeping up with a child whose scientific interests are greater than those of his/her parents. It was a lovely opportunity for me to reflect on the parts of motherhood I expected the least – those that have required me to become an amateur astronomer.

I also think it’s super cool to be among the ranks of her interview subjects, which also include the President of the National Tarantula Society and a beekeper.

Check out Meet Jupiter’s Mother. That’s the first part, here is the second.

I’ll update this post and Twitter (@TinyMantras) when part two is published.

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It’s my 500th post! Let’s talk about death…

“Why are these big rocks covering them?” he asked me, as though someone had put the gravestone there to hold my grandparents under the earth.

“They help you and I to find the place where their bodies are buried,” I told him.

“Where are they? Have they turned to dust yet? Why can’t I see them?”

My last grandmother died a year before Declan was born. My grandfather five years before that. He knows them from pictures and stories.

“They’re buried six feet below here. Inside of a casket – a big wooden box with… pillows.”

“But why can’t I see them?”

“Most people don’t like to be remembered the way they look when they’re dead and turning into dust — they want to be remembered the way they looked when they were alive, like they look in the pictures we have.”

When I went to a parent education session about sex, death and lying in early spring of this year, the teachers warned me that age 4 is when these issues come calling. Don’t offer him a bunch of information about it, they suggested. But when the questions come, be honest and answer them. If you make stuff up because you don’t want to worry or upset them, they’ll eventually find out. Better to be with them through the hard feelings instead of thinking we need to protect them from them. Better to be compassionate and someone they can trust.

It took Dec all of a month after turning four before the questions began this summer. We had big tears before bedtime for two weeks in a row when the thought of my ill stepfather (Dec calls him grandfafa), dying left him breathless. And the questions… Does it hurt when you die? When will grandfafa die? Will I have to die when grandfafa dies?

For weeks, it continued to emerge at all hours. We’d be talking about kids at play camp in the car, then I’d hear his throat suddenly start to tighten and he’d ask me “why does everything have to die? I don’t want anyone to die, I don’t want things to change.”

I was afraid that science was going to be our foil as the intransigence of these biological truths hit him. I was afraid of the day when his knowledge of black holes and colliding galaxies and dark matter began to merge with an understanding of mortality. How overwhelming to be four and have such a sense of the vastness and forces of space, which often make Earth’s Mother Nature look as ferocious as a gnat.

For a few weeks, that fear felt justified. He was scared about the sun, because he knows it will expand in 4.6 billion years and likely incinerate the Earth, but it was hard to convince him what a long time from now that really is. He came up with complicated methods to save the earth from burning. I tried, gingerly, to explain that we, and no one that we now know will be here when that happens. He worried that the sun could become a black hole until a nice physics student told him it wasn’t big enough to do that. And somewhere in that barrage of constant questions and explanations, he finally drew his own tear-filled conclusion that he will die, too.

But science has actually been our savior though this process. I took the box with my dog Samson’s ashes from the china cabinet and let him examine them, tried to help him understand how much I loved my dog and that I knew it didn’t hurt when he burned because he was dead. We’ve talked about all of the things that dust has helped create – planets, moons, dinosaurs, us. We talk about perennial and annual flowers and how things regenerate. Our cat brought us a dead mouse the other day and I buried it in the yard. For days afterwards he asked me, “is it turning to dust yet?”

We explained heaven and reincarnation as ideas that some people believe in. We told him that death is one of those things that no one understands for certain. He seems to find the greatest comfort in some of the scientific certainties about what happens to a body or a flower or a star, which I honestly didn’t see coming.

He likes to die dramatically, repeatedly on the playground, preferably in slow motion. And we are still constantly addressing questions about what dies, how it dies, how long it takes it to die. I’m sure we’ll be in this process for a long time. But I’m so much more hopeful and less afraid about his capacity to emotionally process these things now.

Last night we were talking about what he dreams his life might be like when he’s older. Do you want to dance? Sell tomatoes? Be a dog doctor? Teach kids? Study the stars? Paint pictures?
(I try not to make a career in science a foregone conclusion. I want him to be comfortable choosing whatever he wants to be.)

Becoming a daddy keeps coming up first on his list.

“Someday, when I die, I’ll be a grandfather, and then I will turn to dust,” he told me. “It’s all part of my journey to become part of everything in the universe.”

Declan= MC2

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Does Brian Williams live in our world?

Sesame Workshops 7th Annual Benefit Gala
The last few weeks of no camp and parental work scrambling and no preschool have led to far more television consumption in this house than I would like to admit. Combine that with the onset of four, which has meant a thousand questions about death and birth, and I’ve been dancing in between the real and fictional universe, trying to draw lines in the air that help make the distinction between the two a little clearer to Declan without diminishing the fun and beauty of fiction and fantasy.

Enter questions like:

“Will Santa Claus ever die?”

“Will I ever be trapped in a warp bubble?” (In a kid world where I keep meeting Star Wars kids, mine is Star Trek kid, which I’ve found to be far less common, possibly because it’s easier to describe combat and war than it is to venture into “a warp bubble is a scientific theory, sweetie.”)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing the fact that cartoon characters come out of someone’s imagination, even if they do regular-people type things. Then he sees commercials for things like Dora Live! where cartoon characters seem suddenly touchable. He gets really excited and yells “MOMMY, WE NEED TO GO SEE DORA LIVE! WE NEED TO SEE THE PLACE WHERE DORA EXISTS IN OUR WORLD! DORA! IS IN! OUR! WORLD!”

Sesame Street is one of those shows that I love most of all, but can be hard to explain because of the combo of real people and puppets. Brian Williams recently guest starred on Sesame Street and reported on all of the characters coming down with a case of “Mine-itis.” A chicken kept stealing his microphone and yelling “MINE!” (As much as Dec loves science and documentaries that seem way beyond him, he also loves to get his little kid on.)

So last night, as I was explaining that the president was about to give a speech that was really important to mommy, Brian Williams appeared. Declan’s brow furrowed. He grabbed my chin and turned my face to the screen.

“Mommy? Does Brian Williams live in our world?”

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The Carnival of Space #81

Happy Thanksgiving and welcome to the Carnival of Space!

It’s fitting that Tiny Mantras was given the chance to host this weekly collection of cosmological articles on this holiday, because I am definitely thankful for the wealth of astronomy blogs and sites out there. You see, you’ve reached what some would call a “mommy blog,” but one in which I do a lot of reflecting on how to keep up with and nurture my son’s intense passion for space and other scientific interests. Between this carnival and the blogs in my reader, we always have something new to talk about.

I am also thankful to him for requiring that I learn so much about space every day. When you get into this parenting gig, you expect some profound and life-changing experiences, but inspiring me to learn vastly more about my place in the universe wasn’t one I saw coming. It is an awesome gift.

To start the holiday shopping season, I put together a round-up of my favorite space books for kids (the ones we actually read over and over). What’s Up Astronomy is also ready to help you get in gear with ten tips for buying a telescope.

Now on to the reason most of you are here – gobs of great new posts about space:

From Collect Space, a video of Dr. Don Petit as he demonstrates how to improve the coffee drinking experience in a weightless environment.

Alan Dyer was in the hot seat last week, handling news media calls about about the big meteor that exploded over western Canada on November 20: Tracking the Big Fall.

News and photos from the current space shuttle mission, STS-126, courtesy of Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson.

Mars has large, buried glaciers near its equator, detected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Spacecraft this week. (The Meridiani Journal)

Phoenix Pictures Gallery heralds the beauty of NASA technology in “The Day I Met Phoenix.

For the first time this week, it was reported that carbon dioxide has been detected in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star.

With Barack Obama announcing new cabinet and staff appointments daily, several folks are weighing in on the future of U.S. space policy. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy makes a case for the funding for NASA, as well as its need for greater oversight.

At Music of the Spheres, FlyingSinger shares a letter he sent to Obama’s transition team (via change.gov) about the future of NASA and private space ventures.

The Moon is Not Enough! says Bruce Cordell of 21st Century Waves, as he considers the strengths and potential pitfalls of The Planetary Society’s road map for space exploration in the 21st century.

Ian O’Neill of astroEngine ponders the reasons that so many robotic missions into space are constructed around the search for life, and whether or not they are worth the effort.

Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang poses the question “what happens when we move at the speed of light?” He warns that it “isn’t pretty.”

At Centauri Dreams, two stories look at recent findings of strong cosmic ray sources, an anomalous situation since it has been assumed until recently that cosmic rays arrived at the Earth without any clear direction of origin. Are there astrophysical objects near the Earth that are accelerating these particles, or is this evidence for dark matter? The jury is out, but the data keeps coming in.

At Colony Worlds, “Uranus: One Planetary System to Fuel Them All?” posits that though the blueish-green giant may lack large lunar children like Titan and Triton (not to mention a set of dazzling rings), Uranus may be the key that enables humanity to not only conquer the outer limits of our own solar system, but perhaps enable us to reach the next one as well.

If measures are not taken to address the effects of the greenhouse gases produced by our civilization, extreme climate changes will occur: droughts, heat waves, and floods. Understanding the behavior of greenhouse gases is critical for developing effective measures to fight climate change. The Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) is the first satellite to observe greenhouse gases from space. Check out GOSAT a.k.a. IBUKI Scheduled for Launch at OrbitalHub.

Sean Welton explains why Saturn’s rings will look closed from Earth’s vantage point by the end of the year at Visual Astronomy.

Amanda Bauer of Astropixie describes those two bright lights currently shining in the westerly evening sky: Venus and Jupiter. They are approaching each other quickly this week as they move in opposite directions along the ecliptic. My Dark Sky also has a post about this pair, and how to get the most out of looking at them.

Looking for stars that host exoplanets can be a pain, says Ian Musgrave
n> of Astroblog, but two of the most recent stars hosting exoplanets can be easily seen from your backyard.

Form the annals of space history, Altair VI’s David Portree has written a two-part post about Philip Bono’s 1960 plans for a delta-winged glider that could make it to Mars, replete with scans of several of Bono’s original drawings.

At One Astronomer’s Noise, Nicole looks at evidence of an ancient asteroid impact near present-day New York City.

The Space Video of the Week looks at how a very old technology – balloons – is being used to accomplish space science.

From A Babe in the Universe: On November 20, 1998 the first module of the International Space Station was orbited. Read about the tenth anniversary/ISS Birthday Party at Space Center Houston.

On the lighter side, when marketers get involved with astronomy the results can be a bit strange, see Tipsy Orion.

Finally, at the Planetary Society, read Solar Conjunction: Holiday for Mars Missions, and an Opportunity Update.

If you’re interested in perusing the archives of the Carnival of Space, submitting something for a future carnival or hosting it yourself, you can find all of the details at Universe Today.

Well that was intimidating, but fun. If you catch any errors, let me know and I will fix them pronto. Thanks to Fraser for letting me host this week.

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