Some More News: Moral Panics And How To Spot Them

I feel like this video is a good follow-up to Renegade Cut’s Halloween video that I posted earlier this month. Moral panics seem to be both a persistent phenomenon in human societies, and a valuable tool for unscrupulous, usually powerful, people. They’re used to distract from real problems, often at the cost of destroyed lives and livelihoods, and often to protect those aforementioned powerful people from accountability for their misdeeds. I also think it’s telling that, in the Tucker Carlson clip right near the beginning (you knew that fascist shit factory had to be involved here, right?), he equates losing your sex drive with losing your soul. That kind of breathless, hyperbolic ranting isn’t new, but it’s a big part of what’s driving the current moral panic(s), with white supremacist fascism as the goal.

Moral panics convince people of absurd stories that make little to no sense if you dig into them – absurdities, if you will – to hide something that’s ongoing by burying it in noise (say, throwing around the accusation of “grooming” so much that people tune it out when evidence of your own sketchy views or behavior arises). If it’s not that, then it’s to build support for new atrocities.

Absurdities, atrocities, and the murder-clowns of fascism

The fact that I’m writing this is, in itself, evidence that things are not going well in the United States. Nick Fuentes is a despicable fascist weirdo who, ideally, none of you would ever have heard about. He’s a holocaust denier, a white supremacist, calls openly for dictatorship, all that jazz. I’ve been aware of him for a while because a few youtubers I follow have talked about him on occasion, but he never seemed worth my writing about. In most ways, he’s still not worth writing about, except for the fact that he’s managed to attach himself to someone far more famous.

I think one thing I never realized about fascist leaders, growing up, was how deeply strange they all are. I suppose that’s partly my fault, given that they’re famous for murdering people over absurd lies, but I think some of it also has to do with the mythologizing of Nazis in U.S. media. They’re portrayed as relentlessly competent, caring only about efficiency and results, capable of great feats of engineering and blah blah blah. The reality is that many of their so-called accomplishments were little more than propaganda. The Autobahn, for example, existed before Hitler rose to power, and he just claimed credit for it.

If I had to guess why this propaganda persists in our society, I’d say it’s probably because of how close fascism is to capitalism in general, and neoliberalism in particular. I might have felt a need to explain that statement a decade ago, but now I feel I can just point to the GOP. They’re not much different from how they’ve been for my whole life, which is why they’ve been able to go so far, with so much support. Likewise, the Democrats aren’t much different from the Republicans, with their efforts to create the mass incarceration crisis, their opposition to universal healthcare, and their habit of going far harder against the left than the right. And that’s ignoring the decades of U.S. support for fascism abroad.

There’s just a little too much coziness there for anyone in power to want the public to have a clear idea who and what fascists are.

For those who are somehow unaware, Kanye West has started openly peddling anti-Semitic and other right-wing propaganda, and in turn has been warmly embraced by a succession of odious people. The two most recent are Milo Yiannopolis (also a fascist – has been filmed singing with saluting neo-Nazis, had a password referring to The Night of the Long Knives, and the list goes on), and Nick Fuentes.

The three of them just had dinner with Donald Trump, and while it apparently didn’t go well, Trump was supposedly very impressed with Fuentes. To me, that means that we’re likely to see more of that piece of shit, so it’s worth knowing who he is. I’m sharing two videos today, because I don’t particularly want to write about him, specifically, again. I feel that these do a good job of covering who he is, who he appeals to, and why it’s not good to have him closer to the halls of power.

I have a bit of a confession to make. During my time as a lurker around the periphery of the New Atheist movement, I frequently heard a Voltaire quote – perhaps you’re familiar:

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.

Until the last few years, I didn’t really get that. I knew that a great many horrible acts had been committed in the name of beliefs I considered absurd, but the same is true of good acts. I still think society would be better if religion was entirely removed from governance, but I think I now have a more complete idea of what that quote’s about. Fascism arose from liberal democracy, and both systems came centuries after Voltaire, but looking at what they believe right at this moment, I’ve gotten a bit more perspective on the scale of absurdity that’s available. These are deeply silly people, who will happily justify torture, murder, terrorism, and genocide.

Fascists are the killer clowns that keep showing up in pop culture. I don’t like the trope, because I’ve known a number of professional clowns in my life, and they’ve all been wonderful people, but I think it’s the best illustration of the problem. Trump, Fuentes, Yiannapolis, Kanye – fascists, including their leaders, tend to be deeply ridiculous people. In some ways, that’s their superpower, not just because it means they’re not taken seriously at first, but also because they seem to be fueled by humiliation. They attract ridicule to themselves like flies to a pile of shit, and they can’t handle even the smallest amount of it. They cannot function in a world where people make fun of them, so they want to murder everyone who does, rather than considering why they might come across that way.

They believe absurdities – more and more of them every year, it seems – and based on those absurdities, they want to murder or enslave most of humanity. As with everything else they do, it might be funny, if our political and economic system didn’t keep giving these people the power to ruin lives.

I don’t think Kanye will ever be president, but this does seem like a way into more “mainstream” politics for those who’ve attached themselves to him, as someone who will reliably get press attention. The GOP’s big divide isn’t between fascism and fash-adjacent neoliberalism, but between which brand of fascism they think will get them into power. By all accounts, Trump loves sycophants, and that seems to be consistent among authoritarians. For those of you who knew nothing about this douchebag when you started reading this post, I’m sorry to have inflicted him upon you. Unfortunately, it’s likely that he and other bozos like him will remain a mutual affliction for as long as fascism is viable in the United States.


“When a movement is selling an image of exceptionalism and strength, their design is to attract patrons who are unexceptional and weak.”

Yanis Varoufakis on Elon Musk’s place in the rise of technofeudalism

It is unfortunate that while almost everything about Elon Musk is fake, his power in our society is very real. I don’t think he had any clear idea what he was going to do with Twitter, but for all some of the wealth of billionaires is illusory, I think Musk has more than enough to survive this debacle. Lives and livelihoods are being destroyed, but the person responsible will be fine. Musk may be more incompetent and foolish than most billionaires, but not by much, and that much wealth is too good of a safety net for him to be put out of our misery.

That said, it’s worth paying attention to what he’s doing, because of that power, and what his motivations might be. Yanis Varoufakis has been saying for a while that he believes capitalism more or less ended in 2008, and since then we’ve been in the early stages of “technofeudalism”. It’s as good a name as any, and it has long been pointed out that feudalism is the inevitable result of neoliberal/libertarian capitalism, but what does that actually mean?

Feudalism was based largely on control of land, but while plenty of billionaires do own a great deal of land, the “techno” of technofeudalism serves as a reminder that control over physical territory and the people therein is not the whole story. The power that Bill Gates has over me has much more to do with the computer I’m using than with the farmland he owns, and similar things can be said about Bezos, and the other oligarchs who are better at staying out of the spotlight.

So, what’s going on with Elon Musk, if we consider him through the technofeudal lens?

Unlike old-fashioned terrestrial or analogue capital, which boils down to produced means of manufacturing things consumers want, cloud capital functions as a produced means of modifying our behavior in line with its owners’ interests. The same algorithm running on the same labyrinth of server farms, optic fiber cables, and cell-phone towers performs multiple simultaneous miracles.

Cloud capital’s first miracle is to get us to work for free to replenish and enhance its stock and productivity with every text, review, photo, or video that we create and upload using its interfaces. In this manner, cloud capital has turned hundreds of millions of us into cloud-serfs – unpaid producers, toiling the landlords’ digital estates and believing, like peasants believed under feudalism, that our labor (creating and sharing our photos and opinions) is part of our character.

The second miracle is cloud capital’s capacity to sell to us the object of the desires it has helped instill in us. Amazon, Alibaba, and their many e-commerce imitators in every country may look to the untrained eye like monopolized markets, but they are nothing like a market – not even a hyper-capitalist digital market. Even in markets that are cornered by a single firm or person, people can interact reasonably freely. In contrast, once you enter a platform like Amazon, the algorithm isolates you from every other buyer and feeds you exclusively the information its owners want you to have.

Buyers cannot talk to each other, form associations, or otherwise organize to force a seller to reduce a price or improve quality. Sellers, too, are in a one-to-one relation with the algorithm and must pay its owner to complete a trade. Everything and everyone is intermediated not by the disinterested invisible hand of the market but by an invisible algorithm that works for one person, or one company, in what is, essentially, a cloud-fief.

Musk is perhaps the only tech lord who had been watching the triumphant march of this new techno-feudalism helplessly from the sidelines. His Tesla car company uses the cloud cleverly to turn its cars into nodes on a digital network that generates big data and ties drivers to Musk’s systems. His SpaceX rocket company, and its flock of low-orbit satellites now littering our planet’s periphery, contributes significantly to the development of other moguls’ cloud capital.

But Musk? Frustratingly for the business world’s enfant terrible, he lacked a gateway to the gigantic rewards cloud capital can furnish. Until now: Twitter could be that missing gateway.

It’s not that he wants to own Twitter, as such, but more than he needs to own a domain of cloud “real estate” that befits his wealth and fame, if he wants his power to be durable, and reliable. Twitter doesn’t need to be what it was, it just needs to be big and influential, and it’s unlikely that Musk’s incompetence can change that. I don’t know if it’s “too big to fail”, but I think the concept applies here, at least to some degree. It’s not the most important infrastructure of the internet, but it is a part of that infrastructure, and it has momentum.

Again, this framing gives Musk a bit more credit that I’m willing to provide, but when someone has this much power, it’s worth thinking about his use of it.

The liberal commentariat is fretting over Donald Trump’s reinstatement. The left is agonizing over the rise of a tech-savvy version of Rupert Murdoch. Decent people of all views are deploring the terrible treatment of Twitter’s employees. And Musk? He seems to be keeping his eye on the ball: In a revealing tweet, he confessed his ambition to turn Twitter into an “everything app.”

An “everything app” is, in my definition, nothing less than a gateway into cloud capital that allows its owner to modify consumer behavior, to extract free labor from users turned into cloud serfs, and, last but not least, to charge vendors a form of cloud rent to sell their wares. So far, Musk has not owned anything capable of evolving into an “everything app” and had no way of creating one from scratch.

For while he was busy working out how to make mass-produced electric cars desirable and to profit from conquering outer space, Amazon, Google, Alibaba, Facebook, and Tencent’s WeChat were wrapping their tentacles firmly around platforms and interfaces with “everything app” potential. Only one such interface was available for purchase. Musk’s challenge now is to enhance Twitter’s own cloud capital and hook it up to his existing Big Data network, while constantly enriching that network with data collected by Tesla cars crisscrossing Earth’s roads and countless satellites crisscrossing its skies. Assuming he can steady the nerves of Twitter’s remaining workforce, his next task will be to eliminate bots and weed out trolls so that New Twitter knows, and owns, its users’ identities.

In a letter to advertisers, Musk correctly noted that irrelevant ads are spam, but relevant ones are content. In these techno-feudal times, this means that messages unable to modify behavior are spam, but those that sway what people think and do are the only content that matters: true power.

As a private fief, Twitter could never be the world’s public square. That was never the point. The pertinent question is whether it will grant its new owner secure membership in the new techno-feudal ruling class.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Twitter will collapse in the coming months, and not return. Whether that happens or not, you can be sure that our overlords will want what Twitter offers them, and they will continue working to shape society to fit their interests. As that happens it’s worth remembering that their “success” is the result of having virtually unlimited wealth and power, so that even when their endeavors fail, they can just try again, or spin what happened until they can claim it was their genius plan all along.

After all, if the King doesn’t deserve his power, why does he have it?

A video and some thoughts on propaganda

Whenever anyone starts discussing the accomplishments of communist governments, someone is likely to pop up to point out that those governments are authoritarian. The example I see most often is that someone on the left will point to Cuba’s high literacy rate, and the rebuttal is to say that that was just part of their efforts to propagandize the population. Now, I’m far from an expert on Cuba, but this is one of those subjects where I actually have at least a little relevant experience.

In 2001, I was invited to be a travelling companion for a friend who felt called to visit the Cuban Quaker community. New England Yearly Meeting, to which we belonged, has a sister relationship with Cuba Yearly Meeting, and exchanging visitors is fairly common, though the ability to do it has varied depending on the whims of politicians. At that time, I spoke effectively no Spanish, and didn’t really have the time or inclination to learn. That was, in hindsight, rather bad manners, but I was going there to keep my friend company, and she had actually been studying the language.

It was an interesting trip, but the thing I want to focus on here is Cuban propaganda. There absolutely was a lot of it. Some took the form of murals and slogans, but the primary medium was the Cubavision channel. It had content 24/7 (as did the other channel, which carried pirated movies and soap operas), including speeches by Fidel, cartoons about Cuba being a thorn in the foot of the U.S. (The U.N. were portrayed as cowardly worms, subservient worms, if memory serves), and other patriotic events. At that point in time, I saw Cuba as pretty unambiguously Authoritarian™, with little clear idea of the island’s history. I did want the embargo to end, and saw it as a big problem for the Cuban people, but I think considered Castro to be as much of a problem. I’m still a bit uncertain on the subject, but it’s less clear-cut to me these days.

I also noticed, as I paid more attention to U.S. affairs, how much our own political pageantry paralleled that which was condemned as authoritarian when communists did it. That could be the patriotic displays at sporting events, the ubiquity of heroizing military recruitment ads, the requirement that all politicians always remember to say that “America is the greatest country in the world”, or political rallies with jingoistic rhetoric and political songs and musical numbers. Fidel had six-year-olds singing about The Revolution, and Bush had six-year-olds singing about him and American greatness. Ditto Obama and Trump, and it was gross in both of those cases too. The enraging reality is that to live in the United States is to move through a miasma of propaganda.

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions.

Again, this is not unique to the United States, but it’s necessary to point this out and discuss it because USians, as a rule, tend not to believe they’re subject to propaganda, or when they do believe it, they tend to see it as “that which supports the opposing side” more than anything. I think part of the problem there is the way the development of capitalism has worked to hide who holds power, by separating economic and political power (at least in terms of rhetoric), and reshaping the law so that the greatest power tends to be held outside the government. That power is wielded through campaign donations, direct advocacy and messaging, lobbying, and the other forms of corruption with which we’ve become so familiar.

It is also wielded through the media – not just the more obvious news and political commentary, but also through entertainment media. I’ve shared some material on “Copaganda” here, but while this is part of Skip Intro‘s Copaganda series, this video is about the Top Gun movies, and the Pentagon’s involvement in Hollywood. This isn’t a comprehensive dive into that subject, but it’s a dive worth taking regardless.

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Miraculous Mushrooms Mitigate Mercury Menace

I never hear people proposing policies for cleaning up chemical pollution. I don’t know whether that’s because the ways to do it are less widely known, or because the issue is just less urgent and less in-vogue than climate change, or a secret third thing. Regardless, it’s an issue that I think is important, and (to the great shock of nobody), a problem that I think is best addressed using the abilities of organisms like plants, fungi, and bacteria.

That’s why I was happy to see this research, showing that not only can a particular fungus clean up mercury, in soil and in water, but we can apparently enhance its ability to do so:

“This project, led by Dr. Fang, found that Metarhizium stops plants from taking up mercury,” said St. Leger. “Despite being planted in polluted soil, the plant grows normally and is edible. What’s more, the fungus alone can quickly clear mercury from both fresh and saltwater.”

Metarhizium is a nearly ubiquitous fungi, and previous work by the St. Leger laboratory had shown that it colonizes plant roots and protects them from herbivorous insects. Scientists have known that Metarhizium is often one of the only living things found in soils from toxic sites like mercury mines. But no one had previously determined how the fungus survived in mercury polluted soils, or if that had implications for the plants the fungus normally lives with.

St. Leger and other colleagues had previously sequenced the genome of Metarhizium, and Fang noticed that it contains two genes that are very similar to genes present in a bacterium known to detoxify, or bioremediate, mercury.

For the current study, the researchers ran a variety of laboratory experiments and found that corn infected with Metarhizium grew just as well whether it was planted in clean soil or mercury-laden soil. What’s more, no mercury was found in the plant tissues of corn grown in polluted soil.

The researchers then genetically modified the fungi, removing the two genes that were similar to those in mercury remediating bacteria. When they replicated their experiments, modified Metarhizium no longer protected corn plants from mercury-laden soil, and the corn died.

To verify that the genes were providing the detoxifying qualities, the researchers inserted them into another fungus that does not normally protect corn from mercury. The newly modified fungus performed like the Metarhizium, protecting the plants from mercury-laden soil.

Microbiological analyses revealed that the genes in question expressed enzymes that break down highly toxic organic forms of mercury into less toxic, inorganic mercury molecules. Lastly, the researchers genetically engineered Metarhizium to express more of the detoxifying genes and increase its production of the detoxifying enzymes.

In their final experiment, the researchers found they could clear mercury from both fresh and salt water in 48 hours by mixing in Metarhizium.

The next step will be to conduct experiments in the field in China to see if Metarhizium can turn toxic environments into productive fields for growing corn and other crops. Current methods of remediating polluted soils require toxins to be removed or neutralized from entire fields before anything can be planted. That can be very expensive and take a long time. But Metarhizium simply detoxifies the soil immediately surrounding the plant roots and prevents the plants from taking up the toxin.

“Allowing plants to grow in mercury-rich environments is one of the ways this fungus protects its plant home,” St. Leger explained. “It’s the only microbe we know of with the potential to be used like this, because the bacteria with the same genetic capabilities to detoxify mercury don’t grow on plants. But you can imagine simply dipping seeds in Metarhizium, and planting crops that are now protected from mercury-rich soils.”

In addition to its potential as a cost-effective tool for reclaiming polluted lands for agriculture, Metarhizium may help clear mercury from wetlands and polluted waterways that are increasingly threatened by mercury pollution as climate change and melting permafrost accelerates the release of the toxic metal into soils and oceans.

This seems like great news! What’s more, if the claims made here are born out in future research, then it means that with the right preparation, even toxic soil could grow food that’s safe to eat. I honestly never would have thought of that, and the implications are fascinating, both as an activist, and as a science fiction writer. This is one of those times where I feel like I could see really amazing biotech innovations in my lifetime, that could help in pretty unambiguous ways, like rendering pollution harmless.


Advances in avian culinary technology open new front in The Toad Wars

One of my favorite “tropes” in modern environmentalism is the idea of solving human problems by improving, amplifying, or adjusting ecosystem services. This covers all sorts of things, but I think the first example I ever heard of was using predatory insects – ladybugs – to control agricultural pests. That was my first example, but not my favorite. My favorite, as I mentioned recently, is the story of cane toads in Australia. It’s an example of an almost-clever idea that has had horrible, and sometimes hilarious results. If nothing else, it has given us this gem of a nature documentary, which you can watch with your family while you eat Thanksgiving dinner!

That’s high art, if ever there was such a thing. Truly a masterpiece of cinema.

Now, why do I bring this up, other than the fact that it lets me write about something easy while my mind is elsewhere? Well, a new front has been opened in the Cane Toad Wars, and it comes to us thanks to the very latest in avian innovation. May I present to you, the Ibis-devised “stress-and-wash” technique for cane toad cuisine?

Ibis are often seen feeding on food dumped by humans, but citizen scientists are increasingly reporting the native species is dining out on toxic cane toads.

Gold Coast coordinator of Watergum’s Cane Toads program Emily Vincent said the “stress and wash” method had been viewed numerous times by citizen scientists.

“It’s quite amusing to watch and it’s quite different from other native species and their methods of eating them,” she said.

“The ibis will pick up cane toads and they will flick them about and stress out the toads.

“What this does is it makes the cane toads release toxins from the parotoid gland at the back of their neck, which is their defence mechanism when they’re faced with predators.

“Then they’ll take them down to the creek and wash them.”
Ms Vincent said it was encouraging to see the ibis capitalising on the food source, which was first introduced into Australia in 1935 to control cane beetles in Queensland’s sugarcane crops.

The cane toad has since spread into New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

“We have lots and lots of ibis in Australia,” she said.

“This is a learned behaviour and it’s been observed in multiple different regions.

“I think it will have an impact, especially as more species tag along and copy the behaviour.”

The article has some other useful information, including the fact that while the toad’s poison is apparently unpleasant for birds, it doesn’t actually do a whole lot to them. They mainly avoid it because of the flavor. I do feel bad for the toads (as I feel bad for some shown in the video above), but Australia’s ecosystem could really use a break, so it’s nice to see this.

Maybe this will finally bring peace between the Australians and the Ibis. I certainly hope so, given that country’s record when it comes to fighting birds, but it’s hard to say. In the meantime, here’s the current state of things as I understand it:

Small blog update, and a video

For the rest of November, I’m going to be doing low-effort posts for the most part. I’m behind on my novel, and the sad truth is that if I want to be able to keep writing, I need more sources of income. As wonderful as my patrons are, they form a pretty small crowd that hasn’t grown much over the last year, so I think it would be foolish to assume that that will change after another year or two.

I intend to keep posting daily, but for the rest of this month, and probably periodically going forward, I’ll be taking time for other work. I doubt it’s just me, but I find it hard to remind myself that yes, writing a novel is work that I actually have a responsibility to keep doing in my current situation, and it’s sometimes discouraging to work on something that only has a possibility of paying off months or years down the line.

Anyway, for a change of tone, here’s a two-parter on U.S. policing, and how it interacts with U.S. culture – television in particular. There are content warnings in the videos, but if you know anything about our “justice” system, you already know this is gonna get dark.

Chevron’s greed and callousness underscore the need for revolutionary change.

Steve Donziger, who became famous for essentially being captive for years for exposing corporate human rights abuses, has shared a document leaked from Chevron, the company whose crimes he exposed.

The memo reads as follows:

Lago Agrio,
June 25th, 1980


Ing. René Buoaram

Attenion: Mr. E. K. Johnson

A study has been completed regarding the cost and necessity of eliminating possible contamination of the enviornment by the earthen pits used in the drilling, producing, and workover operations in the Oriente Region. The Study was requested in your memorandum No. 628 dated June 12, 1980.

In general, the possibility of polution by our current waste disposal into pits is very minimal when liquid levels are monitored and drains are maintained in good operating condition. It is our recommendation that the pits not be lined, filled nor fenced. Further, we recommend that the siphons continue to be used to keep the oil in the pits and the water drained from the pits.

First, the current pits are necessary for efficient and economical operation of our drilling and workover programs and for our production operations. The alternative for using our current pits, is to use steel pits at a prohibitive cost. The additional cost to transport the pits for each workover and swapping operation would also be expensive. A second alternative is to fill the old pits, dig new pits, and line the new pits. The cost to fill the old pits would be US$ 5,180 per well or US$ 1,222,480 for the 236 wells. The cost to dig new pits would be US$ 472,000. Linning the new pit would cost US$ 2,503,488. The total cost of eliminating the old pits and lining new pits would be US$ 4,197,968.

The cost of fencing the current pits would be an additional US$ 700,316. However, it has been our experience that the barbed wire used for these fences would be stolen within a very short time and render the fences useless.

The design of the current syphon system in our pits is such that the oil is retained in the pit and only water is drained from the pit. The water that is discharged from the pit is of low salinity that has little or no detrimental effect on the environment. To attest to this fact, no yellowing or dying vegetation can be found throughout this area of operation.

Therefore, it is recommended that the pits neither be fenced, lined, nor filled, and that the siphons continue to be used.

D. W. Archer

District Superintendent

Again, they’ve spent US$ 2 billion avoiding accountability for the consequences of this decision. When I say that we need to work on environmental cleanup, and on preventing pollution from the new technologies we use to replace fossil fuels, that includes stuff like this, and it includes all forms of resource extraction. This kind of careless waste “disposal” isn’t even close to being unique to the oil industry. It’s the default for everyone, everywhere, and the profit and political power gained from over a century of ruthless and irresponsible profit-seeking is being used not just to shield those most responsible from accountability, but also to prevent any change for the better, for as long as these ghouls can cling to their wealth and power.


Video: How The Good Place Redefines the Sitcom

I’ve bee having a gloomy sort of day, for various reasons, and I don’t have much of anything to post, so here’s this instead. It’s a nice overview of one of the best shows I’ve ever watched, and a look into at least part of why it’s so good. Watching this won’t spoil the show for you in any meaningful capacity, and obviously I highly recommend that if you haven’t seen The Good Place, you should change that.