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Monthly Archives: February 2013

A church in Paris with a Greek temple front.The other day at lunch, my mother was sitting with several other women with whom she works. My mother asked if anyone would be going to a musical concert that was being held at a nearby church. Although it was taking place in the church, it was not an explicitly religious event.

“Do you belong to that church?” one woman, known by my mother to be religious, asked.

“No,” my mother answered simply, hoping that a short answer would discourage further questions.

“What church do you belong to?” the woman persisted.

My mother said, a little bit concerned because she knew where this was going, “None.”

“Well, what religion are you?”

“No religion.” At this point my mother paused in her story explained why she didn’t just say that she was an atheist. If you haven’t had the experience of watching a roomful of people tighten their lips and exchange significantly glances, you might not understand why. I find myself also responding evasively sometimes, saying “I’m not religious.”

Another woman at the table, whom my mother described as a zealot, said, “That’s okay. It’s really about relationships.”

“Relationships?” my mother asked. “With whom.”

“With Him.”

With that my mother decided to put an end to the conversation that was getting more and more uncomfortable. She said, “You don’t understand. I’m an atheist.”

My mother reported that jaws fell open and eyes bugged out and there was an uncomfortable silence until my mother said, “Excuse me. I need to get back to work.”

Later at home she told me, “I don’t think they’ll be inviting me to eat lunch with them again.”

 

A big, wooly, adult male cat submits impatiently to being washed by his small delicate mother cat.This is probably as close to a kiss as I’m liable to get in the near future. I’ve posted pictures of both of these two separately. Here they are together. The cat on the right is the mother of the boy on the left. I’ve read that adult cats don’t recognize their young as their own, but baby is about seven years old and his mother has never stopped treating him like he’s still a kitten. He doesn’t really like it when she washes him like this. He’ll put up with it for a minute, then he’ll try to walk away. She’ll push him down with her paw, hold him there, and keep on going.

At the beginning of the week, my internet connection wasn’t working well and, later in the week, I started spending my time doing some reading about freedom of speech, so I don’t have much in the line of interesting links. The one thing I would link to got quite a bit of attention on its own and, if you’re an American, you’re probably already aware of it. That would be Wayne LaPierre’s hysterical rant on the Daily Caller website. (ht Tytalus)

Two students wait for a bus near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.Until today, I’ve remained silent on the subject of guns. However, Wayne LaPierre would like to impose on me a lifestyle I do not want. I lived in South Brooklyn, an area where a townhouse sells for between one and a half million dollars to three and a half million. I didn’t move there because I wanted to live like a survivalist in Montana. I moved there because I like to go to the theater and the opera. I used to go visit the galleries regularly. The local library was aimed at kids, but the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is one of the best in the country. I went out dancing and listened to live popular music every weekend. I didn’t move to a city where the biggest struggle is paying the rent by accident. I wanted to be there.

But apparently “live and let live” is no longer a good enough credo for Mr. LaPierre and his minions. He says he wants to “fight.” He’d better watch what he wishes for. I value my elegant, refined lifestyle and if you try to take it away from me, you’ll get your fight. Or, to put it in terms Mr. LaPierre can understand, you’ll have to pry this lifestyle from my cold dead hands. I am not buying a gun, Mr. LaPierre.

With that said, I want to suggest an approach that goes beyond simply passing laws. Much more in line with my own values of self-determination based on education and information, I would like to suggest that we start a series of public service announcements aimed at reducing the prevalence of gun ownership. Guns are dangerous items and if you don’t have a concrete reason to have one, maybe you shouldn’t. Let’s counter the myth of self-defense. Maybe you need a locksmith, not a gun.

We’ve seen PSAs about the dangers of drug use, about cigarettes. I even remember being told not to play with matches and I can remember when the strike strip was put on the other side of the book with a little warning, “close before striking.” Would it be too much to have a public service announcement informing people about the benefits of storing their ammunition and their guns in a separate location and other advertisements that help people make informed decisions whichever way the legislation goes.

When reading LaPierre’s article, I was incredibly puzzled over his weird obsession with New York City’s wealthy Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg. For the record, I was still living in New York City during the last mayoral election and I didn’t vote for Bloomberg. He is far too conservative for me. During repeated natural disasters he has failed to show sensible leadership. Progressives and liberals have regularly opposed many of his policies, so the failure of local government to respond to Hurricane Sandy effectively in New York City was not caused by liberals. When looking for some objective sources for information on gun safety, I came across the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The research center is part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Bloomberg is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and gives a lot of money to the school. The NRA has fought to keep Americans dumb and ignorant about guns by preventing federal money from being spent to study virtually anything having to do with gun violence. So I guess that’s why they hate Bloomberg so very much. He’s opposed to ignorance. Apparently, if you really want to incur the wrath of the NRA, you won’t promote broad gun bans. You’ll promote information.

One last note. If you’re really worried about the collapse of civilization, the silliest thing you could do is send your money to a lobbying organization. In the apocalyptic scenario LaPierre conjures up, Supreme Court appointments won’t matter much.

Now, if you pardon me, I would like to master a piece by Shostakovich before the zombie apocalypse ends my life.

There’s a subject I’d like to bring up, having a soapbox, modest though it be. That is the subject of the freedom of speech and the Internet. I would really like to encourage people to take an interest in this because the Internet has become a primary means of communication and any laws or policies regulating its use is likely to have a significant impact on all of us, whether you see yourself as a heavy internet user or not. Thus far, the debate seems to be dominated by a couple of fairly narrow interest groups who have a disproportionate voice on a subject where the public good should be a deciding factor.

A red-bellied woodpecker and some house sparrows at a bird feeder.

Since I didn’t have any images that screamed “Internet” at me, you’re going to have to suffer through my latest bird feeder pictures.

Freedom of speech has long been a concern of mine. The particular set of concerns related to it brought up by the internet was reignited by a post on EOS Horizon. which talked about a debate currently happening in Sweden regarding the regulation of hate speech on the Internet. Reading the article as an American, I had forgotten at first that hate speech is regulated in many parts of the world. The Internet is global in scope, yet many of the laws regulating it are local. That should make for an interesting discussion.

There are quite a few overlapping issues and I have not fully developed my own ideas on the subject. I will be publishing a series of posts and I expect that my ideas will develop over time. One of the great things about blogging is the lack of any pretense towards authority. This allows me to engage in some thinking out loud.

Some of the subjects that I will be exploring will be:

  • Hate speech
  • Cyberbullying
  • Copyright laws
  • Copyright violations
  • Internet access
  • Government surveillance
  • Net neutrality

Usually theses subjects are discussed in isolation, but I believe that they are best approached as a group.

Two red-bellied woodpeckers, one male and one female, at a bird feeder.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen both Mr. and Mrs. Red at the bird feeder at the same time.

For this first post, I would simply like to cover some basic information about the technology. If you feel like I’m talking down to you, it’s because this preface is not for you. A great many people have asked me very basic questions about the Internet and the applications which use it, so I have reason to believe there is quite a bit of ignorance and confusion out there that hampers a broad discussion of the topic. For the purposes of discussing laws and policies that affect internet communication, everyone is capable of understanding the basics of the technology.

What is the Internet?

The same two woodpeckers as in the previous photo still at the feeder.

They’re probably loading up on calories and saving their strength for breeding season.

A number of years ago, a United States Congressman was mocked mercilessly for describing the Internet as a “series of tubes.” However, it’s not that bad an analogy. A better analogy might be a phrase that’s fallen out of use, “The Information Superhighway.” It’s that network of phone lines, fiber optic cables, television cables, wireless connections, and whatever else that carries information that can be accessed by a computer, including the little computer you carry in your pocket that doubles as a phone.

The Internet can carry all formats of information. For years most of us used the internet mainly for email and the World Wide Web, which we usually simply call the Web. Since then, we’ve come to use it for voice over IP (VoIP) functions like Skype, as a delivery system for movies and a variety of other things.

Large institutions, like corporations and universities, frequently have their own private networks, called “intranets.” The Internet is the large, widely shared, network that can be accessed by everyone.

Who Owns That Network?

This is an important point, because it’s definitely going to arise in some of the discussions. Networks cost money to install and maintain.

The Internet is comprised of many smaller networks that are connected together. Although no one owns the Internet, those smaller networks are owned by a variety of entities including private companies and governments. The Internet can only exist because these entities cooperate with one another.

What Is the Web?

The Web is a service that runs over the Internet. It is comprised of a huge number of documents, or computer files, that are formatted in a consistent way. This format allows them to be viewed by a web browser.

For our purposes, a characteristic that distinguishes the Web from many other services that run over the Internet is that it is non-proprietary. Everyone can use this format with out paying fees to the organization that created it.

What Are Apps?

The male woodpecker is still on the feeder and the female woodpecker is flying away.

Each spring, these two have a couple of young. That’s when the drumming starts, usually at dawn. This is one instance in which I wouldn’t mind limiting someone’s freedom of speech. They’re a beautiful family, but noisy.

The current usage of the word “app” that I find among my computer illiterate friends and family is a little concerning because people seem to be quite confused about what they are. The word “app” is simply a shortened form of the word “application.” In other words, an “app” is just another word for a computer program. However, these days, when people talk about apps, they seem to be thinking of the applications that are purchased, or downloaded for free, from services such as the Apple’s App Store and are usually intended for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers.

These applications make an excellent contrast with the Web. Many of these applications access information over the Internet. However, their format is often proprietary. No one else can use that format without permission of the owners. So, for instance, you can read articles published by the New York Times on their website via the Web, using a web browser. You can also have a New York Times app on your tablet computer and use that to read articles published by the Times. The New York Times App performs a function similar to the web browser. Both applications display The New York Time’s articles which have been delivered over the Internet. The difference is that The New York Times App only displays articles from The New York Times. The web browser can display articles from anyone who formats its information appropriately. Anyone includes you, because the format is non-proprietary – and that’s an important point to remember.

A Note to Techies

I’ve left out as much technical information as possible in this description and have tried to include only things that have a direct bearing on policy discussions so the broadest number of people can take part in this discussion. I’m far more knowledgeable than this simplification would suggest. I’ve tried to avoid all jargon, avoiding talking about protocol layering, gateways, routers and so on. In doing so, I have probably made some little errors. I almost certainly have left out some things that will turn out to be relevant. If you think of anything, please let me know, either in the comments or through the contact form on the About page so I can either update this page or include it in future posts. Thanks.

At some point, I’m going to be discussing specific legislation that’s been proposed to regulate the Internet. As an American, most of my familiarity is with U.S. laws. If anyone has links to legislation, either implemented or seriously proposed, in other countries, I’d appreciate the input. I can read articles in French as well as English. Unfortunately, any other languages will have to suffer through something like Google translate.

Now that I have thrown all standards out the window, I am finding this blogging business to be far easier and more enjoyable than my previous attempts. I have so many things to say, I could post multiple times a day – only I’d have avoid sleeping, eating and other necessary actions.

So it was with a heavy heart that I had to choose from among my many pictures of adorable animals. The blogging tempo is what decided it, and I am already far behind any reasonable time frame for claiming inspiration from Interesting Literature‘s post, Nine Unusual Author Deaths. That was posted over a month ago, which in internet time, approximately seven times dog years, is over two years ago.

Interesting Literature actually notes that quite a few of these bizarre deaths are not believed to be true. However, I’m inclined to believe the story about Aeschylus dying after having a turtle fall on his head because I once had a frog fall on me. Fortunately, frogs have soft squishy bodies and I emerged from this near death experience quite unscathed. I had some vague recollection that according to the Christian holy book that there was supposed to be something bad about frogs falling from the sky and I braced for Armegeddon. Then I took a picture.

Voilà – adorable cuddle gray tree frog.

A Gray Tree Frog on the ground among some grass and dried leaves.

Shortly after the start of the school year, I was called down to the office. This was the first time in the seven years that I’d been in school that such a thing had happened and I was terrified. As a child, you live in a world of ill-defined rules that have been made for you by fearsome adults and you live in terror of violating a rule you didn’t know existed. That is what I thought must have happened. Somehow, I had failed to negotiate the maze of right and wrong, I had been found wanting and now I would be punished.

A city street with a traffic light and a school bus.I trembled as I walked down the linoleum tiles of the corridor, a line of gray metal lockers on my left and a cinder block wall on my right. In my mind’s eye, buildings have a front and a back. It is the orientation buildings have when I think of them and it may, or may not, correspond to the orientation objectively understood by such terms as primary facade. Schools, in my mind, have always had an orientation different from the official one. The front for me is usually the door through which I enter on most days. The primary facade for the architects, principals and school superintendents is the one with the door the adults call the main entrance, the one the students never use. Set alongside the main entrance in this school, as in most I have attended, was the office. From my perspective, the office was located at the back of the building, a place I had never been, a scary place where punishment was meted out.

When I got to the office, I was told to go the of office of the guidance counselors, which was located in an annex. Back down the corridor I went, still apprehensive. Clearly, this wasn’t a simple matter of a rule being broken followed by an arbitrary punishment. Still, I had been singled out by adults for some reason which could only be bad. Weren’t we in school primarily to learn to fit in? To be ignored was a sign of success.

I sat in the anteroom of a group of offices, the social worker, the psychologist, the guidance counselors, people whom I’d never met before. I was called into the room of one of the guidance counselors.

“You look nervous. Did they tell you why you’re here?” he asked.

“Did I do something wrong?”

He laughed. “Not at all. You’re here because the teachers say you’re a good student, you’re well-behaved and well-liked by the other students.”

The last part of the sentence was news to me. I was hardly friendless, but I wasn’t popular like my sister who had many friends and even more frienemies, girls who copied her clothes and imitated her manner of speech. A roll of her eyes could send another student to social purgatory for a week. Now that I look back, I can see I was an adult’s idea of what a middle school student should be.

“We have a new student in school. We want you to show her around – introduce her to the other students, you know, the nice kids. She’s from Vietnam. She speaks English pretty well, but sometimes she has difficulty, so it would be really helpful if she had someone who show her how things work around here.”

I was taken into the office next door where I met T, to whom I was supposed to show all the rules I still didn’t understand myself.

Usually, when I do artwork directly on the computer, I work on a “desktop replacement” laptop with a comparatively large screen and I use a Wacom Intuos digitizer tablet as an imput device. Maybe someday I’ll have a desktop computer with a huge screen and a Cintiq. Until then, I can only dream.

Well, as it happens, my internet connection was as slow as molasses the other day, so I went out to my sister’s place to put up my last post. I took a smaller laptop I bought specifically for traveling. It works pretty well for putting up a short, written posts, and when I was in France I used it for photos. With a thirteen inch screen, I wouldn’t want to do extensive editing with it, but I downloaded Paint.NET and it works very well for minor tweaking. At home I use Photoshop.

The lightweight laptop is significantly newer. It has a touch screen and the operating system is Windows8. Since it was such a nice day, I thought I’d stay at my Sis’s place and spend some time outdoors. I also thought I would try out drawing directly on the touch screen. I found it a little frustrating because the precision isn’t there.

Here is a sketch I did with the free version of Artweaver. It looks like a nice drawing program and I’ll have to try it more extensively when I am at home.

A rough sketch of a landscape with a bird bath and a  young dogwood tree.

Very rough sketch of a woman in gray sweat pants lyig on a red sofa.Here is another sketch that I did of my sister lying on the sofa last night. This was done with the Fresh Paint program that came with Windows8. It feels much too much like finger painting for me, although I could see kids having some fun with it. Unlike Artweaver and most other drawing programs, it doesn’t have more advanced features like layers. Also, last night I tried Project Dogwaffle, but I couldn’t figure out how to change the paper size and I just abandoned trying to make heads or tails of that program.

On the other hand, it was nice being able to take the computer outside with me and use it much like a sketch pad to make drawings from life.

Two titmice perched in an azalea bush.

The birds…

Two bloggers over at Patheos Blogs, Libby Ann and Daniel Finke, have started a project that they call “Forward Thinking.”  In Libby Ann’s words:

It is our hope that this series will serve as an invitation to readers and fellow bloggers big and small to participate in forming values and grappling with thorny questions. 

Like many other bloggers, I spend most of my time criticizing the ideas of others – toxic religious beliefs, patriarchal gender roles, the elevation of virginity, and the agenda of the religious right – and comparatively less time building positive alternatives. While it’s critical to contest values and ideas we find harmful, it’s also important to build up positive alternatives, and it’s that understanding that birthed Forward Thinking.

They describe it as a “values development project.” I already went on at enough length about Alain de Botton for any regular readers to know that I’m not jumping for joy at a “values development project.” I’ve had, as it has turned out, quite a few reversals of fortune in my life, enough to have questioned all the received wisdom I’ve ever heard and to make me scoff at people like Alain de Botton. Yes, I’m one of those miserable people who did all the “right” things and everything still wound up wrong. Are the well-intentioned bloggers participating in their project any wiser than the people they hope to advise? And once the values are developed, what are they going to do with them?

The exterior of a topbar beehive.

the bees…

Besides having my doubts about the project in general, I also didn’t participate because I didn’t feel like I had anything relevant to say about the first subject: civic responsibility. Sure, I could have blathered on for at least five hundred words on the topic, but who am I to tell anyone about civic responsibility. I have no special insight on the subject – at all. I’d just be another person thrusting my ill-considered beliefs on other people.

This month’s subject, however, is one that I feel strongly about, “what would you tell teenagers about sex.” Sex is right up there in my tag line. It’s a subject I’ve spent a huge amount of time thinking about. I really got very little guidance one way or another about sex and a tremendous amount of things people told me were self-evidently incorrect. My mother felt that everything she had been told about sex was infected with the shaming beliefs of the Catholic Church and tried hard to not pass them on to her daughters. The moment I lost my virginity, I discovered that sex is my single greatest pleasure. Period. Nothing even comes close. When I was younger, I spent a very large amount of time trying to develop my own ideas about how to think and act on the subject of sex. One of the primary reasons I started this blog was to talk about sex because I am in such strong disagreement with much of what I read on it. When I was in my early twenties, I wished there was a career option such as sex guru, that’s how strongly I felt about the subject. Now that I’m going on fifty, I have some perspective, I believe, to see what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

A three legged squirrel in a tree eating a peanut.

and a squirrel called Tripod.

Although they’re often written with a tone of voice that implies an objective perspective, in reality there’s always a personal bias in these sorts of advisories. So I want to acknowledge up front that my own personal experiences have informed my ideas, as well as things I read or was told by people in authority when I was young, though more often than not those authorities were wrong, whether they were teachers, preachers, moralizing parents of friends (I got a lot of this!), or feminists. Being female, at first I thought my statements applied to girls, but after thinking about it a bit, I realized that they apply to boys equally as well. In either case, take it where it comes from.

First, know that you have a right to your own body and your own thoughts. Sexual feelings are normal, healthy and natural. Pleasure is a good thing. We should enjoy pleasure without guilt. Many people will try to tell you otherwise. Some will tell you that any sexual thoughts are bad. Others will try to tell you that some thoughts are bad and some are good. Know that we cannot influence reality merely with our thoughts alone. We do not enter the realm of ethics until we start to act on our thoughts and involve other people in our actions.

It is important to get in touch with your feelings and your thoughts, to not be alienated from them. We are especially inclined to be alienated from our sexual thoughts because we are told from so many sources that certain impulses are good or bad. However, it is really important to be in touch with your thoughts. Consciously acknowledge your thoughts. Work on accepting them without feelings of guilt. Know that you are in control of your own actions, and thought and action are not identical. You can act, or not act, on your thoughts. That is a separate question. Do not feel uncomfortable for simply having sexual thoughts.

Accept that we are animals. We have desires and needs like food and shelter. These desires and needs are, in and of themselves, morally neutral. Before we can make good decisions about how to behave sexually, we need to acknowledge those desires, frankly.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you should feel.

If you are a young person, congratulations, you have years of fun times ahead of you. There are ecstasies in store for you of which you have not yet dreamed. All portrayals of the pleasures of sex, whether written, drawn or filmed, pale in comparison to what you can experience in real life.

For most of us, our desires involve other people.

First, you need to find an appropriate partner or partners. Unfortunately, all sorts of received wisdom, from religious prudes to people who think they’re being politically correct to people who think they’re saving you from disease by grossing you out and scaring you, will bombard you. It can be hard to find a partner who has not had his or her mind polluted with this nonsense. Try to engage with partners who are comfortable with their own sexuality. If you find yourself drawn to someone who isn’t, encourage him or her to become more comfortable. If that person tries to burden you with their own brainwashing about sex, you need to move on. Anyone that makes you feel uncomfortable with the fact that you are a sexual being with sexual desires is a bad partner. They will make you miserable in the long run.

Find someone with whom you can engage in sexual exploration. You must find someone with whom you feel comfortable being naked, someone who you feel is not sitting in judgement on you. You should try to empty your minds of preconceived notions of what sex is supposed to be. Try to explore one another’s bodies so you can find what is physically pleasurable to you and what is physically pleasurable to your partner. It may or may not  be what you expect.

Sex with another person needs to be about mutual pleasure. I like to think it’s called intercourse for a reason. Try to be generous with your partner and insist, really insist, on a having a partner who is generous to you. If your partner doesn’t have a genuine interest in giving you sexual pleasure, find a new partner. If you are a generous lover who treats his or her partners well, there will be a lot of potential partners out there for you.

Now that I am older, I can look back and say that my main regrets regarding sex when I was a teenager are all the times I didn’t indulge when I coud have. If I could go back, I would have lots more sex. Lots. Actually, that goes for just about any period of my life except when I was married, because we had tons of sex when we were married.

So take advantage of your youth. It’s going to be fun. Savor the moment. Most of the reasons to say “no” to sex when you’d like to say “yes” are fatuous. At fifty, you won’t give a damn about your high school reputation, but you can feel good about not have wasted your youth trying to live out someone else’s notion of what your life should be. You’ll never get these years back. Have all the fun you can manage.

A tall narrow nineteenth century townhouse sandwiched between two large twentieth century structures, an office building and a parking garage.After the theme, home, was posted on Friday, it seemed to me that I could go in a variety of ways about it. I do have my own photos of birds’ nests. I also had photos of a variety of other animals, including a chipmunk at the entrance to his burrow, and an old oak tree that was home to a wide variety of animals and later fell on the neighbor’s home. I decided not to put up a picture of my own home because I live in an apartment building which, although I love it, is a severe modernist building that doesn’t say “home” to most people. I’ve posted photos of it on the internet before because I think it’s a great building and inevitably I have people tell me how horrible it is.

So what would say “home” to people. Then I remembered a building about a mile or so away from where I live. It is a tall narrow nineteenth century town house. Much of the city of Baltimore is made up of townhouses from all eras of the city. Usually, they are built in groups and they share wall with their neighbors. The one that I thought of, however, was stuck between two hulking modern buildings. I wonder how this happened. Did the individual who lived there refuse to sell their home? So on Saturday, I went out to take a bunch of pictures of it.

For images of other people’s interpretation of the theme, go to the comments section of the Weekly Photo Challenge.

Two benches facing one another inside an outdoor structure made of rough hewn logs.Researchers now think that polyandry, a woman marrying more than one man, was a more common social system than previously thought. From The Atlantic: When Taking Multiple Husbands Makes Sense.

For people who are interested in the more theoretical ideas having to do with liberalism, there’s an interesting debate going on in South Africa right now about whether or not the concept of ubuntu is compatible with liberalism. Why Ubuntu Is a Liberal Value: @zilevandamme; What’s Behind Liberalism’s Unseemly Attack on Ubuntu: The Modular Man ; Liberalism, the Democratic Alliance and Identity: Synapses

In the New York Review of Books, Russell Baker discusses how the resurgence of wildlife in North America has been caused by our changing attitudes towards nature and has, in return, changed our attitudes.

I have decided to request to join the Atheist Blogroll. I probably won’t be posting on that particular subject especially often, but I think it’s a good idea to identify myself as an atheist just to get across the notion that we exist, we’re pretty diverse and we’re interested in a whole lot of things. It’s important to let people know that people who don’t believe in the existence of any gods consist of more than just a handful of authors and active members of the atheist blogosphere. Since I’m not a former Christian, I won’t be spending much, if any, time criticizing that religion. Although, I haven’t been put on their blogroll yet, I can’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be, so I went ahead and posted the badge in the right hand column. The link will take you to a list of blogs maintained by atheists. Since you don’t have to write about atheism, you just have to be an atheist, I think it’s a good idea for people who post about a variety of things to think about joining.

Again, if anyone wants to share links of interesting things they’ve come across recently, please feel free to post them in the comments.