“We need to be experimental because we’re not up to the task at hand; there’s a real practical and ethical call to responsibility, that drives that experimental commitment.”
Kim Fortun, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, author of ‘Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New World Orders’ which won the 2003 Sharon Stephens Prize from the American Ethnological Society, current president of 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science), and founder of The Disaster-STS Network established during the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, spoke to our own Julia Brown about the beneficial role of anthropologists in the wake of disaster. They discuss the importance of fieldwork – particularly being situated in unfamiliar places – to offer new ways of understanding society, the possibilities of teaching anthropological methods to engineering students or even six year olds, about the lived experience as an anthropologist of science during disasters, and about the intersection of different worlds of expertise as science and politics interact in these disaster zones.
Find more of Kim’s work on her website: http://kfortun.org
“Anthropologists can be useful during disasters and not just afterwards when we sort through our ethnographic findings. This is also about being interdisciplinary in practice to contribute to both theory and policy.”
“A key teaching was that we can use empirical studies, and ethnographic studies in particular, to really question the explanatory power of an established social theory … And I think in Bhopal I learned that kind of using ethnographic work to query entrenched ideas certainly had social theoretical mandate but also profoundly political mandate”
“Even after the disaster, if you knew how to fix it, you’d just fix it. But in a disaster you don’t know how.”
“Disaster often causes scholars to respond quicker than we’re used to.”
“Even after the disaster if you knew how to fix it, you’d just fix it… but in a disaster, you don’t know how.”
Althusser, L. (1977). Reading capital (2nd ed.). London: Nlb.
Bateson, G. et al (1956) “Toward a theory of schizophrenia.” Behavioral Science 1(4): 251-254
Felman, S. (1991). Education and crisis, or the vicissitudes of teaching. American Imago, 48(1), 13-73
Fortun, K. (2001). Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.
For ‘Computational toxicology,’ look here:
Fortun, K. and Fortun, M. (2005). Scientific imaginaries and ethical plateaus in contemporary US toxicology. American Anthropologist, 107 (1), 43-54.
Morris, R. C., & Spivak, G. C. (2010). Can the subaltern speak?: Reflections on the history of an idea. New York: Columbia University Press.
The TFS blog post Julia mentions:
This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
Show notes by Deanna Catto and Ian Pollock
[Image: “NRC Commissioner visits Fukushima Dai-ich Site Emergency Response Center,” via NRC on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nrcgov/14666390241%5D
[00:00] Julia: Hey, everyone. First off, we at The Familiar Strange want to acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose traditional lands we are recording this podcast and pay our respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people's past, present, and emerging. Let's go.
Hello, and welcome to The Familiar Strange. I'm Julia Brown, your Familiar Stranger today. Welcome to the podcast brought to you with support from the Australian Anthropological Society, The Australian National University's College of Asia Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science and produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association. My guest today is UC Irvine, Professor of Anthropology, Kim Fortun. Kim is an anthropologist of science and what we now call Science and Technology studies or STS and is currently serving as president of 4S, which is the Society for the Social Studies of Science. Try saying that four times fast!
Her book Advocacy after Bhopal, about the aftermath of the Union Carbide gas leak disaster, won the 2003 Sharon Stephens Prize from the American Ethnological Society. Kim is also the founder of the Disaster STS Research Network, established in the wake of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in 2011 in Japan. Kim's research suggests that anthropologists can be useful during disasters and not just afterwards when we sort through our ethnographic findings. This is also about being interdisciplinary in practice to contribute to both theory and policy.
We recorded this interview at the 4S Conference in Sydney on Gadigal Land. In the opening address, Kim suggested that STS researchers can challenge how people see and act in toxic times - environmental, political, technological, et cetera - and that indigenous knowledge can be part of what we have come to call science, and how all kinds of knowledge can be enriched through a coming together of different disciplines, and the inclusion of marginalized perspectives.
Kim and I talk about how political restlessness drives the development of new theories. We talk about teaching ethnographic methods and pushing the boundaries of where and how anthropology is taught, including to elementary students, and also experimental ethnography, and writing a thesis when you're also an activist. I loved that we talked about Gregory Bateson's Double Bind theory, which I mentioned in a TFS blog post on ethics in psychiatric anthropology, and which Kim applies to expertise, and how anthropologists try to avoid centralizing the views of their participants.
We'll have resources in the show notes for that and other concepts you might not be familiar with, such as computational toxicology. Now, I had a bit of a cold at the time of the interview, hence my slightly blocked vocals, sorry.But our conversation, and the 4S Conference generally, kept sparking my energy. In fact, it left me pondering whether STS and indigenous STS provides a stronger future for anthropology altogether. If you've got any further thoughts on this, and anything we talk about, please do join this conversation by emailing us at email@example.com or tweeting us @TFSTweets. Here it is, my conversation with Professor Kim Fortun.
[03:17] Professor Kim: I wasn't an anthropology student. As an undergraduate, I studied history and philosophy and I was very, very theory-oriented. I thought that was the quick way to a new understanding of the world. I ended up in an anthropology department because I took a few courses and as a non-matriculated student of Rice, where I ended up doing my PhD, and just became enthralled by the capacity of anthropology to get you outside of your own usual ways of thinking. But a confession I've made many times is I really didn't respect how much fieldwork can contribute to that transformative process, until I was actually in the field. I tried to not do fieldwork for a long time and I would hole up with my Althusser or Spivak.
But I ended up doing fieldwork in India, and ultimately, at this site of the 1984 Bhopal disaster - I was there many years later - butin the course of that fieldwork, I realized how the empirical world, if you can really just let yourself encounter it, can help you understand the limits of your own entrenched ways of thinking better than any theoretical framework can, no matter how brilliant that theoretical framework is.
[04:35] Julia: Yes. And I'm wondering how then you teach ethnographic methodology to students who have not yet experienced fieldwork. Because I, like you, had this realization only when I was there doing ethnography, what it was really about. So I'm always curious to know better ways that we can actually teach it and prepare students.
[04:56] Professor Kim: It's hard to teach it before you do it. I think one way is telling fieldwork stories about the ways that the world runs beyond what you can explain because I think that's something that students can hear. I also think that teaching ethnographic research design, which is really puzzling through how do you study something that you know not yet what you study, is you begin to become an ethnographer then. Because it really is an extraordinarily patient mode of understanding, you really have to hold back your own assertions of thought.
And so I think research design when you're playing with ‘what is it I'm studying’, and ‘how do I get at it’, is a great training to be an ethnographer. Then, of course, just jaunts into the field. A story I like to tell is that, for many years, I taught, most of my undergraduate students were engineering students and they didn't need to learn anthropological theory, I wanted them to learn to think and act with it. And one of the most successful ways I felt like I did that is when I took them with me into school children's environment - schools from 6 to 10-year-olds - and asked them to understand how children had been socialized to think. And then to try and enroll them in ways of thinking that were more able to apprehend the kind of complexity, especially of environmental problems, that was our focus.
And the way that situated these engineering students in a deeply socio-cultural environment, they would come back to our university campus with their hands-on how culture works in the world, really understanding how school teachers are cultural producers, how children are cultural actors. Just a few hours where you're situated in a context that you're unfamiliar with, I think, can create an ethnographic sensibility.
[07:00] Julia: When it comes to teaching Ethnography 101 to elementary children, as I've heard that you have done, how do you go about opening up those critical thinking skills for children?
[07:12] Professor Kim: Children are amazing thinkers. They're also very socialized even at age six, or seven. And so asking them to think about what they think is taking them through talking exercises about what they think is normal, impossible, and right. And I think rendering it explicit invokes a kind of reflexivity in them. But then also asking them to think about what others in their space, close and far, how they think they might think about it.
We taught a lot with scenarios. You know, what would happen if there was a shop across the street from the school that was sending big black smoke, but it was their shop, and they were making money for their families? And what do you think people would think and what they would do. And you know sort of pulling young kids and part of the challenge for my university students was getting them to design those scenarios where you could actually enroll younger kids with language different than what my students were used to, even the kind of word choice.
So imagining how you draw out an imagination for different ways of understanding the world, was the pedagogical challenge for the university students and then watching them-- Sometimes it didn't work, and they would draw out a scenario and the six-year-olds would just stare back at them. [laughs] That kind of creating social moments that we could participate in together was really the tactic, I guess.
[08:52] Julia: Do you see a space for anthropology being taught all the way through school then?
[08:57] Professor Kim: I would love for it to be and I would like it to be taught where it's a habit of mind and where it comes very kind of intuitively to young students. But also where they're able to name the kind of knowledge it is. Because they'll learn to both do and think about the value of science. I want them to learn and be able to articulate the value of more interpretive forms of knowledge because I think that we want them to grow into citizens that are advocates for cultivating that form of knowledge in our societies. And I think we too easily fall into thinking of anthropology as illegible to the public or it's hard to convey. And my sense is, well, we better work on that. [laughs]
[09:46] Julia: Absolutely. So when it comes to experimental ethnographic methods, which I know was something that was born largely from your work in Bhopal. I was reading a bit of your ethnography and I was really resonating with how you described how difficult it was to confine what you were looking at and that process of sorting through what's going to be significant at the expense of letting go of other focus points.
And Then you came to an empirical focus on advocacy as something that you were participating in. I think you established two things that you felt were important in being able to narrow down your ethnographic focus. And one of them was establishing field site parameters, and the limits of that, and also learning to work with inconsistencies and that incompleteness in regard to how the social formations of disaster play out. This requires a continual interpretation of what other researchers might disregard as noise.
So Part of your process, as I understood it, was working out how much of that noise was of ethnographic significance, and then analyzing that through this lens of advocacy, and then negotiating what ethics means as well, in that context. Can you elaborate on any of that that might be particularly useful for young ethnographers to think about because I feel that we're often very overwhelmed in any situation. In a disaster zone, what you were dealing with, that is certainly an extreme situation where you must have felt compelled to do something perhaps more immediately than other ethnographers might. Anyway, I will hand it over to you before I skip the mark.
[11:43] Professor Kim: That's a great tangle of things to be asking about. so I'll back up. One of the things I say is a core research interest and focus is experimental ethnography itself. And It really does go back to my time in Bhopal. I was in graduate school in the late '80s and it was a time of really great theoretical vibrancy - feminist theory, post-colonial theory, critical race theory was coming into anthropology and just revitalizing from the middle. A key teaching was that we can use empirical studies and ethnographic studies, in particular, to really question the explanatory power of established social theory.
And so how do you decide what to focus on ethnographically, but to query is our understanding of gender or social groups or whatever, actively querying that, kind of presuming that those constructs were tiredt That was a starting point. And I think in Bhopal, I learned that that kind of using ethnographic work to query entrenched ideas certainly had social theoretical mandate, but also profoundly political mandate. Because one of the experiences of disaster is the way we're thinking is clearly not working. Like You really are humbled by the limits of established institutions, legal frameworks, ways of scientific understanding, where disaster's humbling at a really core level.
Wanting to do ethnography that was responsive to the limits of established ways of dealing with things. Of course, what's that? I learned to think of it as looping of you have to do the ethnography of the discursive space you're going to work in, in order to even decide what the focus of your ethnographic work should be. And so the experimental is not just in doing something different, because different is interesting and edgy, which it sometimes becomes, but the experimental commitment as being a profoundly political restlessness, like what we're doing and thinking is not up for the job.
And so The experimental as in actively trying to get to the next iteration and frankly, not with hope that you're going to arrive at the perfect place, so the experimental commitment really is continuing. I finally figured out what I would write the Bhopal book about, which was different than my dissertation. After -- It's like, "What is the center? Am I writing about gas survivors, am I'm I writing about the legal process?"
[14:48] Julia: What was your dissertation about?
[14:51] Professor Kim: My dissertation was about the way that activists used writing as a practice to do their work, meaning to understand what they should be doing, and to push it out into the world. The activists that I worked alongside, we wrote in many different modalities. We wrote for the courts, we wrote press releases, we wrote for student groups, we wrote in the idiom of human rights reports.
And so I wrote this quite crazy little dissertation that was full of flaws, but that emulated the different writing forms that we actually wrote in in the field to show that the form of the writing actually-- Because when you decide how to write as an activist, and I would argue as an ethnographer, it literally embodies your understanding of who you're writing to because as an activist you're trying to reach, you're reading the world in orders to reach that world.
And the way that figuring out what idiom to write in is a way of saying, "Who's out there, what's the discourse of tensions that we're entering into?" So That was my dissertation but my book ended up having an American side to it. And that was very clearly responsive to my ethnography, which is the multinational corporate response to Bhopal was that it, Bhopal, could not happen here in the United States. One, I wanted to learn if that was true, but I also felt like I needed to respond to that. So I did years of fieldwork in Bhopal-like communities in the US to try and understand whether the structural conditions that lead to the Bhopal disaster, if there were similar conditions in the US, and there were.
[16:51] Julia Brown: And so that has led to this STS disaster network, because you've been able to apply some of your thinking to situations like Hurricane Katrina, is that--
[17:02] Professor Kim: There's an interesting--
[17:05] Julia Brown: Might be a bit of a stretch but-- [laughs]
[17:07] Professor Kim: Well, it’s actually there's a funny stretch to it.So in my early-- I got my PhD in 1993, so I did the American part in the mid-'90s. And at the time, there was some NGO money at the environmental grassroots. And so Bhopal did raise keen awareness of industrial risk in the US that had not been there before. And The primary legislation in the US after Bhopal pushed more of that risk information into the public domain. So There was a lot of activity. But In the days, in the mid-'90s, the new idiom that I was considered a global studies scholar because globalization was really just cohering as something anthropologists studied - I know it sounds very funny today, but I didn't really think of myself as a disaster studies scholar.
Barely most environmental anthropology at the time was not industrial environmental issues. Now, there's a wealth of really important work on toxicity and chemicals, that was not around then. So I was really a critical globalization scholar then. Around Hurricane Katrina, I started getting pulled in as a disaster scholar who, I was like a grandma of [laughs] disaster studies.
And so I taught a little class on theorizing disaster to students who are going to Katrina and earn internship programs. And By then, there was a growing body of work. For example, there's in disaster studies, the way that the 9/11 disaster in the US formed the way that Katrina was responded to. This sense that cross disaster studies, there was something there that we needed to attend to.
[18:57] Julia Brown: What was there specifically to attend to?
[18:59] Professor Kim: Well, the way that the management of disaster, you learn from one disaster and it conditions how you're ready for the next disaster. An example that the anthropologist David Bond uses, which I repeat in teaching a lot, is after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the US Coast Guard promised to be more ready for such spills. So when the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon disaster happened they were ready for a surface spill, not a spill. So All on the ready for the wrong disaster.
That's even within one domain of oil spill disasters much less and that's a real interest of mine now is coupled disasters, where you've got extreme weather, chemical plants, social stratification, that kind of all boils together. And still most risk management is very siloed. The flood people are a different world than the chemical plant people. Now it's a real coordinational challenge to bring those communities together and I think there's a role for anthropologists and STS scholars to help convey back to those communities why they're so siloed, what it looks like.
We know a lot about when different cultural communities come together, how can we help them with that coordinational task. Similarly, after Fukushima, I was pulled into some discussions, as someone - not as a Japanese specialist, or even a nuclear specialist - but as someone who knew how to think about the structural conditions of disaster. In Fukushima, there was painful realization amongst scholars, that even among scholars, we didn't know how to talk to each other across our specializations. Flood people, nuclear people, Japanese specialist, and realizing that we really should be better prepared to coordinate, and disaster often cause scholars to respond quicker than we're used to.
And that was something I learned in Bhopal where I mostly was a writer for the activist groups that I work with. And you don't write for a year, you need something ready to go in 24 hours, and so the temporality of disaster is really demanding. On the other hand, it's really important that scholars of disaster keep a very long duré historical view. That oscillating between very tight responsiveness and a structural, big picture view is, I think, the task of anthropologists of disaster.
There are many kinds of disaster researchers, some of whom are most responsible for what they call boots on the ground, like how many trucks do you need, how many-- That's not our job, we should be able to help those disaster researchers zoom out when they have a second to do that. And so nderstanding your role on a kind of ecology of researchers is, I think, really important, and it's really particularly visible, the need to do that in disaster research.
[22:17] Julia: Perhaps the ethnographic sensibility to realize that, you know, even by acting in an immediate way while you're doing fieldwork, when it's called for, for you to act immediately, doesn't mean that you can't then reflect on those experiences differently later. Perhaps that is where other people not trained in ethnographic thinking might feel quite paralyzed, because it's a commitment to everything then and there. Whereas, we can commit to things then and there, but we can also step back later and change our minds.
[22:51] Professor Kim: Yes. I actually came to think of that as a core teaching of anthropology to, for example, an engineering student. Where you want them to own and be very good at the form of expertise they're developing as an engineer, but also realize that expertise in its very nature focuses you on some things and not on others. And so you need to be able to do your job and then step back and actively seek other perspectives. Expertise really is a double bind, it's a way of seeing the world, that's why it's so powerful and important. The same time, it puts blinders on all of us.
[23:32] Julia: Yes. Could you explain if it's possible to simplify how you apply the double-bind theory to environmental risk in the case of Bhopal?
[23:43] Professor Kim: Yes. Double-bind theory was largely associated with Gregory Bateson and his colleagues. It came from a theory of communication where when you're asked to do two things at once and you can't do both - one without undermining the other. It was critical to a theory of schizophrenia where you're asked to do that it, it can induce pathology, it just kind of--
[24:07] Julia: The mixed messages.
[24:08] Professor Kim: Yes, the mixed messages. Bateson himself argues this can be a site of quite profound creativity, because no established rules tell you what to do. In a sense, this is what a disaster is. If the old rules apply, you just go fix it. Even if it was after the disaster, if you knew how to fix it, you just go fix it and call in more people to help you. In a real disaster, part of the disaster is you don't know how to fix it! The need to be both operational and aware of the limits of your available operational forums, that simultaneity is critical to what a disaster is. And I think recognizing that is the space of work and it's where expertise is actually at its best.
If we can help experts of many kinds, whether they're engineers or boots on the ground, disaster responders, or school teachers realize the double-bind of expertise where with the teacher -- Shoshana Feldman, who's a great feminist theorist of education, she said, there's something- I don't think she uses the term double-bind, butcontradictory about being a teacher - because if you teach in a masterful way, you haven't taught because you've over imposed what is learned. The dance of teaching is in creating a space where you're not conveying what you already know.
[25:47] Julia: There can be a dialogue.
[25:48] Professor Kim: Yes. The double-bind, Gayatri Spivak uses it quite deeply in her work as both the space of teaching and the space of politics. Where it is a space of dance between knowledge and a recognition of the limits of knowledge. Relations across the difference are often riven with double-bind, because if you value the coming together across difference, the last thing you want is to wash out those differences, and yet, how do you create a space of encounter.
[26:25] Julia: Another line of work that you're doing at the moment and that is largely relevant to this STS Conference that we're at, is about the emerging field of toxigenic genomics. Is that correct? How is difference conceptualized there?
[26:43] Professor Kim: That's a great question. Since my work in Bhopal, I've come to focus a lot on the environmental health sciences and working really as an anthropologist of science even more than as anthropologist of law, which was one way you could have described me back then. And that was really driven by frustration with what science became when it became part of a legal dispute.
Even when you've got very clear harm to people like in the Bhopal disaster, the difficulty of representing environmental injury in courts of law is just astounding. It still astounds me all these years later, the illegibility of toxics before the law. I've actually thought a lot in terms of Spivak's notion of the subaltern. It's not that the subaltern doesn't speak, it's not legible in the dominant idiom, and toxics still are there. Despite a huge amount of powerful research, there's a kind of resistance to legibility.
My interest in environmental health sciences toxicology, toxicogenomics is where toxicology started using genomic methods in trying to get at toxicity. It's been in the last two or three decades the wealth of work in the environmental health sciences to better understand toxicity. But part of what they've learned is that if you can look at a given toxicant or a given health outcome from different lenses, you actually understand the phenomena more. It's like not trying to objectify and study.
One of the ways they talk about it is if you just study what they call the apical outcome, the tumor, that's one way to understand it. But there’s also a lot -- You can understand it in terms of genomically, in terms of the outdoor monitoring, the exposure data, there's a lot of different data that would point to the possible outcome of toxic exposure. Toxicogenomics became something called computational toxicology where what it does is bring together a lot of different ways of looking at toxicity, where you can look at it through this data set or this analytic lens.
Interestingly, it reminds me of Bateson's early anthropological book, Naven, where the presentation of the book is it looked at one ritual through three different analytic lenses. Where the argument is really you understand it better if you understand it from these different partial perspectives, the aggregate of partial perspectives. And in many ways, that's what computational toxicology has done is recognize that their subject is difficult. And rather than trying to get it right, keep pushing just one analytic lens, but to multiply the ways that they try and get at what's going on.
It's actually something that I think that both anthropology and STS bring to knowledge politics, is I think we have a record of research that demonstrates that explanatory pluralism enriches the knowledge space. I think we can point to that in order to remind our colleagues in more narrow fields of expertise, that there's a record of that that they should build on.
[30:24] Julia: Yes. I think this is the big challenge in neuroscience, for instance, which I am vaguely familiar with, because of my research. There was always this emphasis on a really micro level. Then when I talk to neuroscientists about understanding things more holistically, it can be quite overwhelming, and there will be a sense that expertise could be lost by zooming out too far. So it's an exciting area that will hopefully become a little bit more tangible, perhaps, in the future.
But I think at the moment, we just have to hope that we can come up with clear ways of conceptualizing these complexities.
[31:04] Professor Kim: Well, and I think we can give our colleagues in other fields some language for articulating and thinking about how different knowledge forms come together. Which is not, really leveraging what they bring to it, but just showing them how they can put their knowledge form alongside others, and it's a richer knowledge space.
[31:29] Julia: One last question. We've talked a lot at this conference about indigenous STS and difficulties in integrating indigenous knowledge with Western science paradigms. I'm wondering if there is a way from what you've been thinking about to avoid a recolonization of marginal perspectives?
[31:51] Professor Kim: It's a hard question. I think that the historical weight of old stratifications don't go away. We have to be very mindful of the tendency to reproduce those. I think, very proactively bringing what have been marginal or repressed knowledge forms into dialogue, but with a tension to never forgetting that history. I think it shouldn't make us shy to bring them into the dialogue. I also think that it's the translation into a dominant idiom, is not at all straightforward.
It's much in designing the space of coming together. It's like designing curriculum for eight-year-olds. It's like being very thoughtful about what the coming together looks like, not assuming it comes organically. Just to link different knowledge forms.
[32:52] Julia: Yes andI think what you said about having a kaleidoscopic view is really powerful in terms of capturing that idea of shifting and reconceptualizing all the time as we need to. What did you say yesterday? Basically, the problem is the center does not hold, and the more we can reinforce that idea the more we can create/collaborate.
[33:15] Professor Kim: It certainly creates a better space of collaboration to recognize that. This is the experimental commitment, not in sensibility. We need to be experimental because we're not up to the task at hand. There's a real practical and ethical call to responsibility that drives that experimental commitment.
[33:54] Julia: And that was it, me and Professor Kim Fortun. Today's episode was produced by me, Julie Brown, with help from the other Familiar Strangers, Jodie-Lee Trembath and Simon Theobald. Our executive producer is Ian Pollock. Our system producers are Deanna Catto and Matthew Phung, and our interns are Alina Rizvi, and Alisa Asmalovskaya.
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If you want to contribute to the blog, or have anything to say to me or the other hosts of this program, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet us at TFS tweets or look us up on Facebook and Instagram. Music is by Pete Dabro. Special thanks to Nick Farely, Will Grant, and Maude Rowe. Thanks so much for listening. See you in two weeks and until next time, keep talking strange.
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2 thoughts on “Ep. #24 Learning in disaster: Kim Fortun talks STS, knowledge politics & anthropology’s role in a crisis”
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This waas great to read