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Michael Schrage

Michael Schrage examines the various roles of models, prototypes, and simulations as collaborative media for innovation risk management. He has served as an advisor on innovation issues and investments to[…]
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Question:rnWhat is the major problem right now in transportation?

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Michael Schrage: The major problem with transportation technology andrntransportation policy is that you have a battle between utopians who believernthat they can get whatever they want, faster, better, cheaper, and thernpragmatist, the hard ball economic types who say, "No, no, no, let's banrnthe car from the city, let's create calming zones, zero-emission vehicles,"rnetc., etc.  You have a realrndialectic, a real tension, and my view is, when you have that kind ofrnschizophrenia, when you have that kind of chasm, not just of technologies andrnexpectations, but of values, I think you get into a lot of gridlock--punrnintended.

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Question: Are there any promising advancements that will take us intornthat next era of transportation?

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MichaelrnSchrage:  Oh, my gosh!  There's so many things going on that are so exciting thatrnit's not clear to me what's the best bet. rnWe have smart vehicles, smart devices, smarter people, better sensors,rnmore information, the ability to have the technology act in a more nimblernway.  We have the ability to playrnwith tax policy and congestion charges. rnSo to me, the question is going to be, there's a tension betweenrndisruptive innovation and rapid iderative incremental innovation.  But if you have enough incrementalrninnovation in a short period of time, you got a revolution.  You know, the simple model for that isrnlike a Mapquest, or putting an accelerometer in an iPhone.  The fact of the matter is, betweenrnmobile phones, between iPhones, between Rim's, between GPS, every car in thernworld, every bicycle in the world, can be made smarter.  Heck, we can make every street corner,rnevery streetlamp smarter, more nimble, more agile.  The issue is, what's the organizing principal underlyingrnthat?  Haven't a clue. 

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Question:rnDo you think we need to build on what we have, or revolutionize mobility?

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Michael Schrage:  Being anrnMIT person, I'm very, very sympathetic to that view of, gee, let's just startrnfrom scratch, let's reinvent everything. rnBut basically, I think it's a bunch of crap.  You know, that's basically like saying, gee, we've sequencedrnthe human genome, let's reengineer human beings so they'll make less, they'llrntake up less space, they'll do less waste, they'll be more energyrnefficient.  As I said earlier,rnthere's always going to be a tension between the incremental and thernrevolutionary.  Folks at MIT tendrnto self-select towards the revolutionary side, but ordinary human beings,rntypical human beings, human beings who have, shall we say, real lives, not MITrnlives, are more prepared to have a mix of the disruptive innovation and thernincremental innovation.  And that'srnhow I think that's going to play out, particularly in transportationrnpolicy.  I don't believe people arerngoing to give up on the wheels of a car for the foreseeable future.

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Question:rnIs there something we’ll have to give up in order to get there?

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Michael Schrage:  Well, yournknow, frankly I don't care if there's an internal combustion engine in a car, arnfuel cell in a car, a battery in a car—I don't care.  My friends who are incredibly green care a lot.  Now, do I think they've actually donernthe math and calculated the carbon footprint of fuel cells versus batteriesrnversus internal combustion engines throughout the entire supply and valuernchain?  Heck, no.  And I think that's where we're going tornsee a lot of the policy battles because there are all manner of ways ofrnallocating costs and responsibilities for the carbon footprint of anrnautomobile, for the carbon footprint of a person.  Or should we say the carbon tire track?

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Question:rnWill we ever not have a congestion problem?

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Michael Schrage:  We willrnalways have congestion problems. rnThe issue is what's tolerable. rnIf you had told me that I would be on a 40-minute commute, I would sayrnyou're crazy, but I've gotten adjusted to it.

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By the way,rnlet's deal with that as an example. 25 years ago, being stuck in traffic was arnhorrible, horrible waste of time. rnIf you got a mobile phone, if your kids are watching TV in the backrnseat, it's not so bad!  It's not sornbad.  Now, what transportationrnplanner anticipated the impact of mobile phones in the car and TV screens,rnLCD's in the back seat?  None ofrnthem!  None of them!  And heck, I've read a lot of sciencernfiction; I didn't see those scenarios being played out by Isaac Asimov orrnHarlan Ellison either.

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Question:rnWhere do you see intelligent transport systems fitting in?

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Michael Schrage:  Well,rnthey already are.  The issue aboutrnintelligent systems is almost like the question associated with governance,rnwhich is where do you want the power? rnDo you want intelligent transport systems defined by centralization orrndecentralization?  It's like, dornyou want to consolidate power in Washington or do you want to distribute it outrnto the states, to the cities, to the individual people?  Are we going to end up with morernefficient and more effective transport systems by giving people who arerntraveling more intelligence?  Or byrngiving the highway engineers or the tollbooths or the city center people morernintelligence and control?  Again,rnthat's a political question, that's not a technology question.  So I'm going to circle back to the wayrnI began this, which is the real battle that we're going to have, the technologyrnis incidental to the politics, to the aspiration.

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Question:rnWhat role should the government have when it comes to transportation issues?

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Michael Schrage:  Yes, Irnthink the federal government should buy up, in addition to buying up thernautomobile companies, it should buy up the cities—no.  I am not a government person.  I'm more of a libertarian kind of guy.  I believe that the role of the federalrngovernment should be to facilitate opportunity and choice for people who wishrnto travel.  And the real challengernthat the federal government in that kind of context has is, who do wernsubsidize, who do we tax?  Do wernreally want to penalize motorists in favor of subsidizing people who take lightrnrail?  Or more public forms ofrntransport?  Or can you make thernroads, the cars, more environmentally effective, improve through-put, improvernefficiencies, have the right kind of congestion in a manner in which you havernan economic balance?  You strike arnbalance that the commuters are comfortable commuting and the people takingrnbusses and trains are comfortable.

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And that leavesrnout other variables, which is perhaps one of the roles of local government isrnto facilitate carpooling kind of arrangements, where we didn't have mobilerndevices a few years back.  Whatrnkind of self-organization can there be for the future of carpooling?  For the future of group travel?  I haven't a clue, but I'll tell yournthis--neither does anybody in the government.

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Question:rnShould we copy London’s congestion pricing system? 

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Michael Schrage:  I thinkrnLondon is an excellent example, as is Stockholm, of how not to do congestionrnpricing.  It is the laziest, mostrnpunitive form of taxation, regressive taxation, around.  It's operating, it's doing arthroscopicrnsurgery with a machete instead of a laser beam.  I think the principal of congestion pricing, the principalrnof pricing for managing congestion, or access to space, to minimize or smoothrnpeak times, completely logical, completely reasonable, completely rational, andrnconsistent with the fact, you know, of my background in economics and computerrnscience.

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However, as isrnalways the case, politics intrude and I think cities have become lessrninterested in congestion pricing for improving the quality of life or improvingrnthe quality of traffic than as a means to raise revenue.  So I'm afraid we've come full circlernback to the pathology of politics.

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Question:rnWhat are some tangible examples of people working on very promisingrnadvancements?

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Michael Schrage:  I'll takernthe path of least resistance, the easiest examples of incrementalism come rightrnout of Moore's Law and Metcalf's Law, that is to say leveraging our enormouslyrneffective investments in digital media, virtually every car coming off thernline, be it in Japan or Europe or in America, comes with a GPS system.  But you know, if you don't have a GPSrnin your car, you probably have one on your phone, so you can have GPS for arnbike. 

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I rememberrnflying into Sydney, Australia, and there was a taxi driver, based on myrninteractions with him, I'd been in the country longer than he had, but he wasrnusing the GPS to navigate Sydney. He was a recent immigrant.  In theory, there is no reason forrnanyone to be lost.  In fact, notrnonly is there no reason for anyone to be lost, there's no reason for anyone notrnto have the most efficient route to where they're going, to budget their timernbetter and accordingly.  When yournput that power of being to do route planning and time management in everyrnsingle car, every single bike, every single bus, you would think that we'rerngoing to end up with not just incremental improvements and congestion, butrndisruptive, dramatic improvements. rnPeople can make more intelligent decisions based on better quality ofrninformation.

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But wait!  It gets better!  Once we start putting sensors on thernroads and link them to the traffic lights, we can now create a different kindrnof an ecosystem where we can further improve efficiencies.  So these things can all build on onernanother.  Unfortunately, I am notrnclever enough to figure out what the ultimate impact is of these very complexrninteractions, but my bet is that that's where real innovation is going to comernfrom.  Not just from discreternbreakthroughs in technology, but from the interoperability of thosernbreakthroughs.

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Question:rnHow viable are high-speed trains?

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Michael Schrage:  Speakingrnas somebody who will probably be taking the Acela some time this week, it wouldrnbe nice if we had higher speed trains, let alone high-speed trains. I thinkrnthat when you do back of the envelope, capital internal rate of returnrncalculations and the number of people moved and the value of these things, itrnreally doesn't work out very well. rnI am not an optimist on light rail or high-speed rail.  I think I would rather invest in arncounterpart of Ryanair, than in fixed track locations.  I think it may work for Asia andrnEurope, but people are closer together, the city densities are different, thernlifestyles are different, the cultures are different.  And I'm one of these old fashioned people who take culturernand lifestyle differences very seriously.

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I believe thatrnregions and states and cities should be doing experimentation.  But it's been my unfortunaternobservation that a lot of what people call experiments are really ways ofrnthrowing money at a problem.  Onernwould think that California would have all manner of dedicated, fasterrnrail.  But you look at the economicrnsuccess that Bart is not in the Bay area, despite the fact that there are goodrnpopulation densities, despite the fact that there's a variety of different waysrnto create complements between the rail and the car, and they haven't managed tornpull it off.  And I don't thinkrnpeople in California are stupid, so there must be other reasons.

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Question:rnHow viable is shared mobility?

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Michael Schrage:  Yeah,rnpeople are doing the Zip car thing, they're doing the bike thing.  I know that they've tried this in Parisrnand have discovered that sometimes people aren't as well behaved or asrnaltruistic or as nice as they should be. 

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Let me sayrnsomething politically incorrect and I'm going to argue that some communitiesrnwill do the shared thing very, very well. rnIf you held a gun to my head, I think that many of these things will gornover well in Denmark and parts of Sweden, rather than in parts of Paris. 

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I think sharedrnmobility is a perfect example of something that technologically we could dornwith a snap of our fingers.  Thernproblem ain't the technology, it's--altogether now--the value and the politics,rnit's the differences in lifestyles. rnDo I think shared mobility will do gangbusters in Tokyo and Kyoto andrnlarge parts of Shanghai and Beijing? rnYou betcha!

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By the way, thernreason why it's going to do really well in Beijing and Shanghai?  Is if you don't share nicely, they'rerngoing to put you in jail.  That'srnjust not going to happen in America. rnNo matter how much certain people want it.

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Question:rnWhat is the history of concealing research in America?

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Michael Schrage: The notion of what constitutes adequate sharing hasrnalways been a problem.  I mean,rnthat's not an American issue, we're talking about a Galileo and Newton issuernhere.  Individuals and communitiesrnhave understandably different notions about what they wish to share and whatrnthey don't wish to share.  Thisrngoes right back to playing in the sandbox, you know.  Now, in science, we have the cultural phenomenon of peerrnreview and that begs two questions, what's a peer and what's being reviewed?  It's not enough if you're arnsophisticated scientist, or frankly a sophisticated person, it's not enough tornreview the data, you know, what goes in and what goes out, you want to see thernmachine.  You want to see thernnature of the experiments.  Yournwant to see the code, now with digital stuff, you want to see the code, thernsoftware.  Was it biased in anyrnsort of way?  Was there a bug thatrnmight account for some of the phenomenon that we're observing?

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So there's arnreal tension here between what constitutes effective sharing and whatrnconstitutes the desire that many people have to make their science, theirrnscience.  To make their research,rntheir research.  Not in arnproprietary, ownership sense, but in the sense of, you know, it's a little toornsoon for me to completely open the kimono.

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Therncomplicating factor, just to build on that is, when you begin to inject marketrnforces, when you begin to inject political forces, climate change, should Irnpatent this finding?  Do I want tornlicense this to somebody who will give me lots of money to do research? You'vernnow created a mix of motivations and incentives.  Does it make more sense for me as a scientist to share myrnmethodology, to show people how good my work is and to get credit from myrnpeers?  Or does it make more sensernfor me to make some of it secret so that I can get private funding to continuernthe research along a route that I consider very good and important?

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I mean, it isrnamazing, I'm a child of an academic, a child of a science academic, and I grewrnup in a very, very elite research university environment.  And I am astonished by what scientistsrnare capable of getting away with, even prestigious scientists are capable ofrngetting away with, in terms of withholding and sharing things.  The ideal, the platonic ideal, is that,rnyou know, it's like a--let's create a nice phrase here—it’s like a kibbutz andrneverybody shares.  That science isrna form of socialism and everybody shares the results and everybody shares theirrninstruments.  And to a certainrnextent, large parts of that are true, but there are very large parts where it'srn70-80 percent accurate, and in that missing 20-30 percent, there are a lot ofrnissues.  A lot of issues.

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Question:rnWhat can we do to fix it?

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Michael Schrage:  You know,rnas I get older, I have come to the conclusion that there are certain kinds ofrnproblems you don't look for solutions, you look for approaches.  And if you asked me with a wave of thernhands, what would be the one thing I would do to really encourage healthyrnsharing, because I can understand there's certain things that need to bernwithheld, or it makes sense to withhold or at least limit, I would make fundingrncontingent upon disclosure rules. rnIt used to be, just to give you a real world example, it used to be thatrnscientists, medical researchers could publish their work in the New EnglandrnJournal of Medicine, and other medical journals, without disclosing that somernof their research had been financed by pharmaceutical companies or devicerncompanies.  For completelyrnunderstandable reasons, that concealment, that nondisclosure is no longerrnacceptable.

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I feel thatrnthose same kind of pressures can be brought to bear to people who don't sharerncode.  If you are running arncomputer model that predicts the earth is getting warmer, the atmosphere isrngetting warmer and it will go up 7 degrees Celsius in the next 50 years, thatrnthe oceans will rise, the coral will die, etc., show me your code.  Show me the code.  I don't want to just see the equations,rnshow me the code.  Because, and I'mrnsaying this as somebody who's written code, I know how you game the code tornkind of put a thumb on the scale. rnAnd some of these things are done subconsciously or unconsciously.

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They have arnsaying in the open source development community, many eyes shallow bugs.  The more people that see the code, thernquicker you spot the bugs and eliminate them.  It's good enough for software, good enough for science.

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Question:rnAre there leaders in the open science movement?

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Michael Schrage:  There arernindividuals who are leaders.  Therernare certain, because I think the Royal Society in the UK has done a better jobrnthan our own AAAS of aggressively and energetically promoting disclosure andrnsharing of code.  That's not to sayrnthat the AAAS has done a bad job, I actually believe that there are forcesrnthere where they're trying to push for more openness in science.  But established institutions,rnparticularly research universities and the tenured faculty therein, I think,rnshould step up. 

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Question:rnWhat would be the incentive for scientists to disclose research?

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Michael Schrage:  Theyrnalready have, they already do it! rnIt's really important that we deal with the premise of yourrnquestion.  Many scientists havernalready been doing these things. rnThere are many cultures and sub-cultures within science where mentoringrnand sharing and helping people out and picking up the phone or sending, that'srnnot an aberration at all.  I'm notrnasking people to do things that are inimical to culture.  The incentives are oftentimes ego relatedrnand opportunity related.  Peoplerncollaborate because it makes sense for them to collaborate.  We should be promoting free exchange. 

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There arerncomplicating factors, if your school says, if your institution says anythingrnthat you invent while you are on the faculty is our property, not yours, orrnyour compulsory license for that, that creates tensions.  Should it be a 50/50 split?   An 80/20 split?  What should the split be?

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So what we'rerntalking about here are tensions and tradeoffs.  What we really have to address is, what are the reasonablernand rational and fair ways to manage those trade offs.  We're not asking people to behavernabnormally or against their best interest.  All policies that ask people to behave against their bestrninterests are doomed to fail. 

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Question:rnWho would make the rules? 

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Michael Schrage:  Oh,rnagain, you know, believing as I do in good governance and democracy, I wouldrnlike government funding agencies to insist that taxpayers, when our taxes payrnfor something, when Europeans' taxes pay for something, when Asian taxpayersrnpay for something, that these publicly-funded science funders, foundations,rnthat they make it a condition of their funding that people disclose in thernmanner that makes sense.  Not justrnthe findings, but the code.  Itrnshould be throughout the value change of knowledge and discovery, not justrnblack box.

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Question:rnWouldn’t we still have the problem of privately funded research?

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Michael Schrage:  No.  No.  If people want to, if you have something, you know, nowrnagain, this is turning into an economics kind of conversation, which I'm quiterncomfortable having. Here is Apple, if Apple versus Google, okay?  Apple has decided to, and Facebook,rnthese companies have what we would call walled gardens.  They limit the amount of interoperabilityrnand sharing.  There are some walls,rnthere are some windows.  Okay?  Google, more of an open source kind ofrnthing.  It's easier to interoperaternwith Google.  Their business modelrnis different, they want to sell more advertising.  What you want, if you're in the private sector, is what'srnthe reason that we have to share and collaborate?  And this is the classic question, what many organizationsrnhave discovered amidst the digital revolution, is that it's more profitable,rnit's more reasonable, it's better business to share.  Not necessarily everything.  By the way, I don't necessarily want everything shared.  I just want to change, to use yourrnword, I want to change the incentive structures associated with sharing.  I do not want proprietary to be therndefault position.  I want it to berna secondary or tertiary default.  Irndon't want it to be the prime option, I want it to be a lower down in the queuernoption.  I want the default to be,rnlet's err on the side of being open rather than on the side of being closed. 

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I'll give you arnreally good example.  If I werernrunning the City of New York, if the City of New York came to me—now, there's arnslight complication here, because of terrorism sort of issues, okay?  So we have to deal with, but if thernCity of New York came to me and said, "Michael, what's the fastest, best,rncheapest thing that we could do to improve transportation in NewrnYork?"  I would say, "Putrneverything up online.  Let peoplernbe able to run analytics and observe how the subways are running, how thernbusses are running, what times are peak times for congestion, what parts havernpeople figured out clever work-arounds. rnEnable people to have raw data so they can run simulations and come tornyou with proposals for reducing congestion times, doing better link-ups betweenrntrains, subways, busses, etc., intermodal things.  Make it more transparent.  Make transportation more transparent.  We'll call it the Trans Initiative.

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Question:rnCould crowd sourcing ideas help solve the transportation problem?

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Michael Schrage: rnAbsolutely.  I think it wouldrnbe a fantastic thing if the Mayor of New York, currently Mayor Bloomberg, whorncould bloody well afford it, instead of basically saying, "Nope!  Nobody can go into Times Square,"rnthere should be the, that would be a great idea, the Bloomberg prize in transportation.  Minimizing congestion designrnconstraints for improving quality of transportation and quality of life, becausernthere is such a thing as perverse outcomes.

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I'll tell you arntrue story in that regard.  Forrnreasons I won't bore you with, I became an expert in the history of trafficrnlights.  It is a true story thatrnNew York, for almost two years, tried to economize on traffic lights byrneliminating the amber light.  Theyrngot rid of the middle light and they went from red and green because it wouldrnsave, it would save money, it was cleaner, it was binary.  Let's just say that the accident raternwent up rather significantly.  Sornalways, you've got to come to grips with the notion that transportation isn'trnjust about cars and streets.  It'srnan eco system that deals with people. rnYou know, people watching this, probably, it's worth their time lookingrnat Tom Vanderbilt's book on traffic, because traffic is as much a story ofrnhuman behavior as it is about technological innovation.  Prizes that come up with clever ways ofrnaligning human behavior and technological innovation, great idea, fullyrnsupportive. 

Recorded on January 22, 2010

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