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Have you ever read Rossum’s Universal Robots?  It is a Czech play from 1921 which introduced the word “robot” to describe a synthetic/machine person manufactured through a state-of-the-art process.  Since the play anteceded the great glut of mid-twentieth century sci-fi/fantasy novels and movies, it does not partake of their familiar narratives of futurism and high adventure, but rather is a brooding meditation on class, alienation, industrialization, and the post-human world.  Rossum’s Universal Robots treats its subject with the solemn dark intensity which Mary Shelley and Kafka brought to these same questions about what it means to be human and to try to pass one’s fundamental values on to one’s offspring.   

I am not asking this question out of idle curiosity (although I am curious if anyone read RUR), but rather as a means for reintroducing our old friend–and occasional guest blogger–Daniel Claymore.  Claymore, an LA-based writer & director, has just published Requiem for a Good Machine, his own science-fiction work about robots replacing humankind.  In Claymore’s sparkling yet chilly future megalopolis, Mirabilis, wise robot masters have built and maintain a perfect paradise habitat for humankind…because natural humans are failing and going extinct.  Some unknown pathology has sapped organic people of their well-known drive to multiply and gobble up all available resources.  The sad spectacle of hauntingly familiar near-future humans barely stumbling through the forms in a world which has lost its purpose makes up the backdrop of Claymore’s series.  But don’t worry, this isn’t Rossum’s Universal Robots and humankind isn’t quite out of the game yet…the protagonist, Leo Song, is a classic gumshoe who will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of a mystery.  And there are mysteries aplenty in Claymore’s novel.

As a human cop in a world where robots solve 99% of all crimes within instants (and make up all the top echelons on the police force—and every other authority-wielding body), Song has his work cut out for him trying to unravel a string of gruesome murders which the robots have not solved.  Also, even if the robot masters do not know who or what is committing these ghastly crimes, they certainly know a lot of things which they aren’t telling Officer Song. 

Like a Dashiell Hammett sleuth, Song must bend all the rules and take terrifying risks to figure out what is going on (his sad oxygen gun is painful but not-very-effective to humans and does nothing at all to robots).  Pursuing this case will take him to the inner sanctum of artificial intelligence, and out to the gritty edges of Mirabilis where the robots haven’t applied any glitter (and where non-conformist humans and trans-humans still have their own agendas).

The most compelling part of Claymore’s work deals with the robots themselves.  At first these characters seem like utterly inhuman constructs of tubes, wires, and abstract shapes.  Yet as we get to know them through Song’s eyes, their humanity starts to become apparent to us (in both good ways and bad).  Likewise, the question of who ripped apart an expectant young mother starts to seem like a subset of the larger questions about what is going on behind the scenes in Mirabilis and how humankind and the robots have gotten to this place to begin with.     

Claymore’s work is a taut thriller which will delight all lovers of action and mystery.  However, the deeper roots of this work tunnel down into flintier bedrock. The dark lights of Mirabilis reflect today’s world of climate crisis, political stalemate, and ever-quickening waves of future shock.  Above all else, the characters’ anomie, loneliness, and meaningless “make-work” jobs reflect the recent pandemic and the pointless nature of our empty economy.   

If Karel Čapek stepped out of 1921 into today, he would not recognize anything, yet he would recognize everything.  The same human drives and industrial alienation shape a world where technology grows tantalizingly close to consciousness. Daniel Claymore has reached into this morass and pulled out a glistening, squirming mass of naked wires and raw emotions which he throws in your face.  You’re going to love Requiem for a Good Machine, but even if you don’t, the algorithms will think you did!

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An Artist’s Conception of the Extinct Vampyropod

Back during the dark depths of the great recession, this blog featured a post concerning the vampire squid. This poor creature (which has become famous as a sort of symbol of the anticompetitive and monopolistic practices of bulge-bracket banks) is neither a vampire nor a squid, but rather a “vampiromorphid” an enigmatic order of cephalopods which is currently represented by only a single living species (although there are many extinct species and maybe there are still new vampiromorphs to be found down in the depths somewhere). Anyway, the vampiromorphids sort of fell off of my radar for a little while until a few weeks ago, when a forgotten piece of 328 million year old limestone from Montana helped paleontologists determine that the vampiromorphids are more closely related to octopuses than to other cephalopods.

The piece of stone was collected in Montana and donated to the Royal Ontario Museum back in 1988. Nobody realized the significance of the ancient rock (above, which reveals little to a layperson) until scientists from the American Museum of Natural History examined it and determined that it was a whole new genus of cephalopod (in fact it probably exemplifies new orders and families as well–but taxonomists are still sorting it out). They named the little vampyropod Syllipsimopodi bideni in honor of the current U.S. President with hopes of bringing attention to his climate initiatives.

Syllipsimopodi bideni, which had ten legs covered in tiny suckers, seemingly shares a common ancestor with vampire squids (which, again, are not really squids) and octopuses. Back when it was alive, during the Carboniferous Period, Montana was a shallow tropical sea, not unlike the Bay of Bengal today. That map of the world the vampyropod lived on is pretty interesting as well!

The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa)

Today’s news featured a story which I wasn’t expecting at all in 2022–a new species of primate has been identified in the Mekong region! Actually the new langur was discovered in 2020 (when it was duly reported by the BBC) but the news did not make it to the World Wildlife Fund’s list of newly discovered species until now thanks to circumstances of the wider world. Indeed, the endearing Popa langur was not alone: there were 224 newly discovered species on the list released by the conservation group. The list highlights the need to protect biodiversity in the Mekong region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam) where new species are still being discovered. Ferrebeekeeper has previously posted about the saola and iridescent snake for similar reasons (you should look at those posts since they rhapsodize about the mysterious hinterlands of Indochina, which are home to all sorts of mysterious and compelling creatures). Speaking of new snakes, this year’s WWF report also included a bright orange snake that lives on slugs!

The new langur species was identified by whiskers which point forward and by broad white circles around its clever eyes…oh and by DNA (in fact the species was originally discovered and collected in the 19th century, but nobody properly identified the bones at Britain’s Natural History Museum as belonging to a new monkey species until now). Unfortunately this “new” primate is already in pretty deep trouble and scientists estimate the total population to be at 200-300 individuals, most of whom seem to live near Myanmar’s dormant Popa Volcano (an otherworldly location pictured immediately below).

Mount Popa also features a fetching monastery

It is easy to wring our hands about the fate of these amazing new rainforest organisms, since they may well disappear forever…right after we have learned they exist. Myanmar, in particular, is going through a destructive era in the aftermath of the 2021 coup d’etat. Yet the pristine forests of Southeast Asia (along with their ghost monkeys, iridescent snakes, and giant catfish) have lasted this long thanks to their remoteness and to the customs and lifestyles of the people who live there. And the national governments are not universally dedicated to economic extraction over all else (Vietnam in particular is serious about protecting its ecological treasures–like their astonishing giant softshell turtles). The rest of us need to find a way to help out. There are wonders in the Mekong jungle (and I never even told you about the new succulent bamboo species).

Ok….last week Ferrebeekeeper proposed brainstorming some fundamentally new ways of doing things to help us out of the worldwide social sclerosis of the last two decades. Time is swiftly marching on… Where are the ideas already? Well, it turns out it is hard to reinvent the world (especially if you are tired out by working at a meaningless & incomprehensible dayjob which you are no good at) and…well…actually, maybe that is a great place to start! Let’s take a look at the worldwide economy, the “invisible hand” which compels so much our behavior. Specifically, let’s launch some broadsides at the self-dealing field of economics.

Sadly, in this iteration of the worldwide society, “the economy” has more recognizable power over your day-to-day life than probably any other entity. Such a conceit is nonsense, of course. If something were to go a tiny bit wrong with, for example, the sun, it could scour away life on the planet in an instant with a bullwhip of crazy radiation (other stars which are not so temperate produce this kind of solar flare all of the time). Yet all of the world’s stellar physicists could probably fit in a Denny’s, whereas there are more economists then there are crabeater seals (one of the most numerous large mammal left in the wild). These highly paid specialists (the economists, not the crabeater seals) accomplish very little except to fill our world with fallacies and misery. How did we end up with such fumble-fingered mechanics tending the great engine which powers all of our enterprises and hopes?

Economists study the ways that humans allocate and use resources. The dismal scientists try to frame basic rules based on the behavior which they observe and measure. Equipped with these axioms and principles, the economists then posit more productive and efficient ways to allocate resources and achieve certain desired outcomes. It is a famously boring and technocratic field filled with statisticians (and even more exotic varieties of advanced number crunchers). A few of the top performers get Nobel prizes or highly paid sinecures in academia. A handful more become talking heads or pundits. The majority are shipped off to be managers, financial consultants, CFOs, finance advisers, and the like.

Unfortunately, economists are infamous for getting all of their predictions and blueprints completely wrong! Just as medieval physicians could not save patients and medieval astronomers could not explain the motions of the stars, there is are basic reasons that economists are not good at explaining or modeling the economy.

Bacterial colonies in petri dish.

At an individual level humans resemble cruel and intemperate monkeys (for good reason–since that is exactly what we are) but seen through a god’s eye view at a global level we look more like a series of codependent yet competing bacterial colonies. This is the critical idea of today’s post. Economics pretends to be a hard-edged applied science like physics or mechanical engineering, but people do not behave like energy vectors or pistons. We really are more like bacterial mats, or corals, or colonies of crab-eater seals. If economics took its language and methodology from evolutionary biology (macro economics) or behavioral biology (micro economics), the discipline would become vastly more efficient at understanding and describing complex human systems of resource use. I suspect that we would also become much better at predicting and guiding our activities in useful and sustainable ways.

The idea that biology is a better template for understanding the activities of people (who are known biological entities) is hardly a new one. The great philosophers and thinkers who invented economics borrowed liberally from the forest and the farm to explain their new discipline. But alas, many of these ideas were burned away in the blast furnaces of the industrial revolution and in the mechanistic efficiency drives of hard-nosed capitalism. After Smith, Bentham, and Stuart Mill, economics quickly fell into the hands not of utilitarians but of rigid formalists, and there it has languished ever since!

Perhaps the great problem with economics is that it is paid for by patrons who have already decided exactly what they want (more of what we have right now, thank you). Economists got bought out. Those think tanks and endowed chairs are paid for by Koch brothers and their ilk. Don’t even ask about the second tier economists (who work as CFOs rather than professors). They are too busy squeezing the balance sheet to be bothered with any other concerns.

Anyway, the net result of the philosophical and scientific errors at the heart of this academic discipline are extreme. Public policy is poisoned by a priori economic assumptions which are obviously false–like the idea that people make economic choices by rationally calculating their best interest! Take a single cursory look at the world and then tell me if you believe that Homo economicus is really at the helm.

It is a shame that I have attacked and belittled economists throughout this article (although I’ll do it again). The economists I have actually met have demonstrated enormous mathematical talent, analytical ability, practical intellect, and quantitative genius (and self-discipline!) in ways I cannot understand, much less emulate. But since their discipline is corrupted by dogmatic faith that people’s behavior fits highly mechanical models (and by moneyed interests) these virtues do not much help us move forward.

All of this is starting to change, however, and there are economists who dream of reclaiming their scholarly discipline from the money men and business weasels. The real point of today’s post is to introduce an economics website which which uses the broader ideas of biology and sociology to inform economic thought. The website is called “evonomics” and it is filled with brilliant insights into how we actually work and spend (and how we could do much better). As you have probably gleaned from even this short essay, even the powerful tools of biology and psychology don’t fully address the full spectrum of economic concerns. Questions of what is fair and what is desirable–humanities questions!–enter into economics as well. As it uses evolutionary biology to rewrite the economics textbook, evonomics also makes space for such liberal arts concerns. After all, humans MADE the economy. We can remake it in better ways, if we can only think and plan better. We will talk more about this, but for the moment, check out that website (and, of course, let me know what you think).

The colors we use to make art and artifacts tend to reflect the affairs of the time in a way which is hard to quickly characterize (but which jumps out at you if you wonder though a really comprehensive museum like the Met). Thus cave paintings are made with ochre; Roman textiles are made with decayed molluscs; Han funerary art is made with sophisticated kiln-fired purple; and Victorian wallpaper is made of industrial poisons. During the twentieth century a broad range of sophisticated (albeit not-always-perfect and often fugitive) pigments came onto the market and pushed the nineteenth century colors like Hooker’s green and Prussian blue to the back of the box. But what about the 21st century? Do we have anything yet other than a disconcerting black which is so dark and expensive it is hard to comprehend?

Yes! Back in 2009, pigment makers discovered how to synthesize a new blue out of rare earth elements yttrium, indium, and manganese (my tube of manganese blue–the color of a tropical swimming pool–is probably my favorite blue in my paint box, but I don’t use it a whole lot). The new blue is known by the not-very-pronounceable name of YInMn blue and is finally reaching the shelves of art supply stores (albeit at exorbitant costs). According to artists who have used it, it is delightful because it is so opaque (this perhaps doesn’t sound exciting until you start seeing all of your drawings and paintings turn into muddy, fussy messes).

One of the more interesting things about YinMn blue is that it is strongly extraspectral/hyper-spectral and reflects frequencies of electromagnetic radiation which are not visual to humans. The pigment does not just strongly reflect blue light, it strongly reflects infrared radiation (which may mean we will be seeing all sorts of stunningly blue refrigerated cartons and devices). Naturally I can’t really show you this color on a computer, but we can look at pictures and they make me excited for a future where this is cheap enough that impoverished Brooklyn artist/bloggers can get their hands on it!

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The Rich Man (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526) woodcut (detail)

Today’s post features three of our favorite topics: crowns, serpents, and China!  But, alas, as sometimes happens, these themes have combined in a terrible manner to make frightening headlines around the world.  The past two decades have seen the emergence of strange flu-like respiratory viruses from Asia.  The most infamous was SARS-CoV which emerged from China in 2003, but there was a sequel in the two thousand teens, MERS-CoV, which seems to have originated in Arabia by jumping species from camels.  Now the world’s communicable disease experts are once more on high alert as a new respiratory virus has been identified.  The new new virus is going by the name 2019-nCoV and it causes similar symptoms to  SARS: unlucky humans infected with the virus suffer severe inflammatory response which can lead to (sometimes fatal) respiratory complications.

The virus has been traced back to Hubei to the city of Wuhan, one of the most ancient cities of China.  Wuhan is also the largest city of central China with a population of 11 million people!  So this explains the China angle, but what about crowns and snakes? that sounds like Russian folktale territory!

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A Diagram of a Coronavirus

It turns out that 2019-nCoV is a coronavirus, a category of virus which takes its name from the appearance of the virion as scanned by an electron microscope.  Tiny knobbed spicules emerge from the caplets of coronaviruses which make the round structures superficially resemble the royal headdress (particularly the classical knobbed crown of Medieval Europe).

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Coronaviruses are highly zoonotic–meaning they can easily be transmitted from animals to humans.  Sars was first thought to originate from Asian palm civets (although it seems the poor civets may ultimately have been a vector).  At this juncture scientists are starting to trace 2019-nCoV back to many-banded kraits (Bungarus multicinctus) a black and white striped elapid snake of coastal and central China.  People are not making out with kraits (which is good, because the snakes are super venomous) but the poor kraits are apparently popular as exotic cuisine.  Edipemiologists have pinpointed the origination of  2019-nCoV as the Wuhan seafood wholesale market, which sells all sorts of animals slated for the table, including many-banded kraits.

Multibanded Krait Bungarus multicinctus multicinctus_Zhuzihu Party_05

 

This conclusion surprises me, since cold-blooded snakes are not a normal virus vector (in fact the word “never” might be applicable). However, with SARS, the palm civets turned out not to be the ultimate source of the disease.  The civets were eating horseshoe bats which were the original source of the virus.  Perhaps these snakes play a similar intermediary role (I can easily imagine nocturnal predatory kraits eating bats).

People should not eat primates or chiropterans for reasons of public health (eating such close cousins strikes me as morally opprobrious anyway, although admittedly, I am spoiled and haven’t had to subsist as a hunter gatherer).  Maybe they shouldn’t eat kraits now either.   Undoubtedly virologists, epidemiologists, and doctors will keep working to figure out the precise relationship between people, kraits, bats, and 2019-nCoV. Hopefully the scientists from the United States who should be dealing with this emerging plague have not all had their position eliminated by budget cuts to the NIH (although our dolt president has probably already tried to appoint 2019-nCoV as the director of the CDC).  Anyway, stay safe out there and we will figure this all out before summer. It’s never the one you see coming, and the Chinese, at least, are getting better at public health measures.

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Last week we checked out the planned city of Palmanova which was built by battle-hardened Venetian egalitarians who were planning for an Ottoman invasion (which never materialized).  Palmanova is shaped like a nine-pointed star and while regular polygons are stylish and exceedingly geometric, if you are like me, you might find them a bit too geometric.   Why couldn’t they build cities in the shape of some magnificent animal like a quoll or a rhinoceros?

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Juba, South Sudan

Well you are in luck! They could very well build a city in the shape of a rhinoceros!  The nation of South Sudan came into existence in 2011 as a direct result of the Second Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2005 (that war followed the First Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1955 to 1972…but I am going to elide over some of the history of Sudan so that we don’t become overwhelmed by despair).  South Sudan is a young nation which faces a lot of problems…one of which is that the capital Juba was built for the convenience of the British army (and the Greek merchants who supplied the army) and it hasn’t really proven very suitable as the capital city of a modern nation state.   The most likely outcome is that the capital will be moved to Ramciel, which is closer to the center of the country and not quite so arid, but urban planners came up with a fascinating alternate proposal to build a whole new Juba in the shape of a mighty rhinoceros.  Here is the plan:

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Now obviously, it isn’t right to build perissodactyl-shaped cities just because you can (although cities certainly used to be designed around horses).  The citizens of South Sudan also have needs which are more urgent than the need for a vanity project in the middle of a site which has already proven problematic.  Yet the sheer nuttiness of the proposed rhinoceros Juba, makes me a bit sad that we are unlikely to see it.

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Of course the fact that it is unlikely doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Like the new Indonesian Capital City, the capital of South Sudan is currently in administrative flux. I will keep you updated on the what happens with the move to Ramciel (nothing worth speaking of has happened so far) or of the rhinoceros, if anybody shows up with backhoes and starts scraping it out of the arid plain.  In the meantime, let us wish the very best to the founding fathers of South Sudan as they try to make their troubled new nation prosperous in a time when deserts are becoming hotter and drier.  And speaking of desert cities, tune in tomorrow when we see what other directions city planners have taken to deal with this challenging environment.

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Today is Nunavut Day!  Long ago, on July 9th of the far distant year of…uh…1993 the Parliament of Canada established the territory of Nunavut, which was carved out of the catch-all Northwest Territories (a vast expanse of tundra, wilderness, and ice at the northern end of the Americas).  Nunavut includes most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as well an innumerable northern islands–including some which are quite huge.  The region has an area of  2,038,722 square km (787,155 sq mi) meaning it is the same size as Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany combined, however Nunavut is rather more sparsely populated than these locations and has a total population of less than 40,000 humans (whereas the collective population of Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany totals approximately half a billion people).

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But we are not here to quibble about a variation of a few zeroes in population size. The important thing about Nunavut is its rich cultural heritage! This is reflected in the flag of Nunavut, which is what I really want to talk about in this blog post.

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Here it is! This flag was crafted in 1999 by an unholy process involving 800 hand drawn submissions from across Canada, a committee of Inuit elders and artists, and Queen Elizabeth II.  This improbable group collaborated to make a vividly unique and colorful  banner.  The red device in the middle of the flag is an inuksuk, a ceremonial land marker from Inuit culture, and the blue star is Niqirtsuituq, the North star.   According to Wikipedia “The colours blue and gold were selected to represent the “riches of land, sea, and sky”, while red is used to represent Canada as a whole.”  Apparently there is no explanation for the white (although a traveler in Nunavut at any time other than mid-July would probably not need an explanation for that particular color).

Although the flag is unique in its appearance and imagery, it has been criticized by vexillologists for having too many colors, having two bright colors as a background, and for the placement of the star.  Seemingly vexillologists are as vexatious as their name makes them sound.  Join me in the future to criticize their flag! In the meantime enjoy Nunavut Day and try to imagine the serene coolness of that vast northern land.

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Astrophysicists have long speculated about the creation of the moon.  Since the late twentieth century, the dominant theory has been “the giant impact hypothesis” which posits that a huge object about the size of Mars smashed into the newly coalesced Earth 4.5 billion years ago.  Astronomers name this mysterious proto-planet “Theia” after the titan who was the mother of the moon is ancient Greek mythology.  They speculate that the Earth and Theia melded together and the iron/heavy metal core of Theia sank into the molten Earth.  A great deal of the light material was thrown into orbit around Earth where it coalesced into two moons (the smaller of which was unstable and pancaked into the dark side of the moon a few million years after formation).

These are pretty intense ideas, however they explain many of the features of the moon and Earth (you can look at a comprehensive list on Wikipedia if you like).  Yet astrophysicists have not been completely satisfied by the current model of the giant impact hypothesis.  The composition of the moon is suspiciously identical to that of Earth (whereas, computer models seem to indicate that it should contain more of Theia).

This week, a scientific paper suggests that the collision was somewhat different than envisioned in the giant impact hypothesis.  The paper’s main author is Natsuki Hosono, and he has a revised version of how Theia hit Earth.  According to this new hypothesis, the freshly formed Earth was still piping hot and its surface was covered with a lava ocean.  Theia banged into Earth and careened off into space like a pool ball but the impact knocked the liquid ocean of lava into space, where it coalesced into one or two moons (which then ultimately amalgamated together).  The new hypothesis answers critical questions about lunar composition (and about the ratios of volatile elements on the moon).  Yet it does tend to beg questions such as what happened to Theia and what the nature of the Earth’s lava ocean was.

I guess we’ll keep watching the sky and the news to see how the world astronomy community reacts to the revised hypothesis.  In the mean time I will see what I can dig up concerning Theia (the goddess or the proto-planet).  That seems like the most intriguing part of the story yet details are weirdly exiguous.

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As mentioned in my previous post, the Japanese space program’s asteroid probe Hayabusa2 is set to fire an impact probe named “Mascot” into Asteroid Ryugu in October. Before that happens, however, there is exciting/alarming news from the Mascot front here on Earth.  The horrifying thing above is “Gritty,” the new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers (a…hockey team from the rough-and-tumble “City of Brotherly Love”).

According to Gritty’s biography, he loves to eat hot dogs and wash them down with ice shavings from the Zamboni.  Apparently his father was also a bully.  Gritty’s name exemplifies the plucky attitude of the Flyers.  These peculiar details explain a lot, but they still doesn’t fully reveal exactly what Gritty is.  He sort of looks like “Animal” from the Muppet show grown to gargantuan size and without the social graces.

During the period I lived outside Philly in the late eighties I seem to recall the Flyers as being dangerous anti-social rejects from a chain gang, but maybe my memory is embellishing this history based on my fear of the kids who played hockey. Those guys were certainly bullies. Is one of them Gritty’s father?  Maybe I should look some old eighth grade acquaintances up on Facebook and ask if any of them slept with a psychedelic mop or a space yeti…or maybe we should relax and enjoy some more of this furry orange garbage fire whom the internet is already learning to love!

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So Gritty!

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