Samuel Varg interviews Kenneth Miller

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While searching for the source of this cartoon, I ran across the website of Samuel Varg, a Swedish magician and skeptic. Mr. Varg has posted an interview with Kenneth Miller on YouTube and promises interviews with Candida Moss and John Safran.

Mr. Varg and his colleague Anders Hesselbom were unusually well prepared. Professor Miller, in turn, was an excellent spokesperson for theistic evolution, though I had to take issue with his claim that the universe is “overflowing” with the possibility for life. His position seems to me to be very close to deism, but you can listen to the interview and decide for yourself.

Professor Miller testified in the Kitzmiller trial and probably needs no introduction to PT readers. Candida Moss is a Professor of New Testament at Notre Dame and is the author of The Myth of Persecution, a book that attempts to debunk the conceit that the early Christians were persecuted more or less continuously. John Safran is a documentary filmmaker noted for the movie John Safran versus God.

I asked Mr. Varg a bit about himself, and he told me

You want my background? OK. I’m a Swedish guy, and I’m 31 years old. When I was around 17, I became involved in creationism and bought that whole concept of this black-and-white worldview with evolution as a big lie. Around 20 I started to look into the actual debate and wanted to know “the enemy,” so to speak. So I started to read up on evolution and realized that I had been wrong. So around the age of 22-23 I made a big turnaround, and since then I have been a big promoter of the science of evolution. I also got very interested in why I was able to fool myself and buy this big fat lie of creationism, so I started to look into deception. I always had a big interest in magic, but this really sparked my interest. So now I work as a full-time magician and have seminars about this kind of stuff.

That’s me in a nutshell.

20 Comments

though I had to take issue with his claim that the universe is “overflowing” with the possibility for life.

I don’t know, it could be. Mars, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus are all thought (along with other places–Neptune and Uranus are thought to have vast quantities of liquid water in them, so maybe those planets too) to be candidates for life existing, quite likely (esp. beyond Mars) without common ancestry with Earth life. We won’t know until these places have been thoroughly explored and researched for life’s evidences. Intelligent life might have far smaller odds, but it seems to me that Miller wasn’t especially talking about intelligent life, vs. any and all life.

I think that Miller does point up the big difference between a lot of theistic evolutionists, often of a more Catholic religious background, and US (mostly Protestant) creationism, which is that Catholic tradition basically inherits the Pythagorean sense that there is a mystical order in the universe, that order is what God is supposed to explain, and not stopgap miracles making up for the deficiencies of the cosmos. Deism seems to be an outgrowth of that, which is why Miller’s position probably seems deistic, without necessarily being exactly that.

Yet seriously, are we supposed to believe that life is “so extravagant and so beautiful?” Its “extravagance” seems to be nothing more than exploitation of niches and competition, and isn’t our aesthetic appreciation of life evolved? Is it surprising that we would be impressed by life, since it is what we are and deal with? Is Miller an evolutionist where it comes to our appreciation of life, and, for that matter, of non-living phenomena? Without intelligent life, is life either “extravagant” or “beautiful”? Not obviously.

Miller seems to be playing the game of “why” when he tells us what a Christian should ask the atheist. OK, evolution explains what we see in life, but why does the universe have this possibility of evolutionary “extravagance,” or what-not? Um, seems to me that it’s due to the complexities of environment, complexities greatly increased by evolution. The “why” of evolution seems to be in carbon chemistry plus planetary environments, along with the evolutionary process itself. The atheist does not say “that’s just the way it is,” the atheist asks what allows evolution to get going (cosmological processes to planet formation), with abiogenesis remaining one of the larger mysteries, but one whose answer appears likely to be constrained by environment (the simpler, earlier chemistry is what would be likely enough on early earth).

Miller’s asking questions that in principle can’t be explained by atheists because these aren’t obviously questions that are meaningful except to the phenomenological existence of evolved beings. “Why” evolution has the possibilities it does has no obviously legitimate answer beyond those that involve the enabling conditions of evolution and the unavoidable complexities of planetary geodynamics and of evolutionary processes themselves. Of course I can ask “why do these even exist,” but the only answer we can expect come from the possibilities afforded by physics and cosmic (non-biologic) evolution.

Glen Davidson

I am in some agreement with Miller that life, defined as self replicating organisms, is probably widespread in the universe. The real question is how prevalent intelligent life is. I have argued on these pages previously that an argument can be made that the necessary condition for intelligence, namely encephalization, appears to have a selection advantage, based on the increase in that measure in going from Jurassic to Cretaceous dinosaurs and mammals of 50 million years ago to today’s mammals. However, a sample of 2 is hardly definitive. It is quite possible that this question will never be answered, especially if it is as rare as Ernst Mayr though it is. Even if there were a million stars with planets with intelligent life in the Milky Way galaxy, that’s 1 out of every 200,000 such systems. Pretty slim pickings.

SLC said: encephalization, appears to have a selection advantage

You mean that it appears to have a selective advantage in some populations at some times. If it were a universal advantage we’d see it increasing in all lineages at all times, rather than in some fairly small number at a few times.

And for intelligence, the sample size is arguably one. I say arguably because it might also be considered zero.

John Harshman said:

And for intelligence, the sample size is arguably one. I say arguably because it might also be considered zero.

And the experiment really hasn’t run long enough to determine if it actually is a long-term advantage for the species. It’s not at all unimaginable that we could self-destruct as a species via biological warfare, or a fundamentalist End-Timer with control of a nuclear arsenal.

A great many of us have just enough intelligence to be very dangerous indeed. Remember Hitler’s final orders for a Germany that failed him. What might he have done, if he had the means, to a world that didn’t deserve his genius?

Just one more example of someone who had the courage to examine the evidence and the intellectual honesty to admit that he was wrong. It seems that that is all it takes to convert creationists. Of course it won’t work if your faith is so weak that you refuse to look at the evidence or if you are so fundamentally dishonest that you can never admit to being wrong. Then you are trapped in a pit of lies and forced to live a life of ignorance, always fearful that exposure to any new ideas could spell disaster. Now that must be a miserably existence indeed.

John Harshman said: You mean that it appears to have a selective advantage in some populations at some times.

And, arguably, its a selective advantage only for social animals. IOW the advantage it gives is not “higher chance of surviving predators or finding food in the wild,” but “higher chance you can rise up the social structure of your troupe, which gets you better food and more mating opportunities.” IOW, it’s our equivalent of elk horns; not the sort of trait an objective outsider would necessarily immediately associate with natural selection fitness.

And for intelligence, the sample size is arguably one. I say arguably because it might also be considered zero.

Oh, I think it’s higher than one. There are many other animals who have smaller, less extreme versions of intelligence. Dolphin, other apes, dog, raven, etc… all show many of the components of what we lump under the general heading ‘intelligence.’ They’ve got many of the same tools, they just don’t put them together in a toolbox marked “sentient.”

OK, let’s put it this way, on average, the Cretaceous dinosaurs had a higher encephalization factor then did the Jurassic dinosaurs. On average, today’s mammals have a higher encephalization factor then did their antecedents of 50 million years ago. The average being taken over the entire known population of dinosaurs and mammals in the respective periods. I would note again that encephalization is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. Brain organization is also important as the Neanderthals were close to Cro-Magnons relative to encephalization factor but had a different brain organization and were out competed by the latter.

John Harshman said:

SLC said: encephalization, appears to have a selection advantage

You mean that it appears to have a selective advantage in some populations at some times. If it were a universal advantage we’d see it increasing in all lineages at all times, rather than in some fairly small number at a few times.

And for intelligence, the sample size is arguably one. I say arguably because it might also be considered zero.

SLC said:

OK, let’s put it this way, on average, the Cretaceous dinosaurs had a higher encephalization factor then did the Jurassic dinosaurs. On average, today’s mammals have a higher encephalization factor then did their antecedents of 50 million years ago. The average being taken over the entire known population of dinosaurs and mammals in the respective periods. I would note again that encephalization is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. Brain organization is also important as the Neanderthals were close to Cro-Magnons relative to encephalization factor but had a different brain organization and were out competed by the latter.

While that may be true, let’s keep in mind that there are more species of wasps in existence than all land-dwelling vertebrates combined (the same could be said for beetles, or moths or ants or spiders). The “average” animal succeeds just fine without a big, complex brain. Mammals are fare more the exception than the rule.

SLC said:

OK, let’s put it this way, on average, the Cretaceous dinosaurs had a higher encephalization factor then did the Jurassic dinosaurs. On average, today’s mammals have a higher encephalization factor then did their antecedents of 50 million years ago.

Life’s been on earth 3.5 billion years and for the first 1.5 billion of it, there were only single-celled organisms. For the 2 billion years since then, single-celled organisms have remained dominant in numbers, in varieties, and in total biomass. So if you want to talk averages, then the blunt fact is that on average, living organisms have no brains. By focusing only on things like dinosaurs and mammals, you are limiting your analysis to the long (but low area) tail of an arguably gaussian distribution, produced by random walk. (IOW: if brain size can only go up from it’s starting zero point, then random, nonadvantageous increases and decreases in brain size amongst daughter species will cause the average brain size to creep up over time).

Now I’m already on record as saying I think its advantageous to social animals like apes, dolphins, etc.. I stick by that. But I think the set of species I’m talking about is very small compared to the set of “all species,” and so I would hesitate to draw a conclusion about the general value of intelligence outside of that subset. Evolution produced a niche in which intelligence was useful, creating conditions ripe for a sort of arms race; that does not mean it is generally useful outside of that niche.

Apparently, I didn’t make my self clear. For the Jurassic dinosaurs, the averages are taken over all dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the cretaceous dinosaurs, the average is taken over all the dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the mammals of 50 million years ago, the average is taken over all mammals that existed at the time. For the mammals that exist today, the average is taken over all mammals that exist today. No insects, fish, amphibians, birds, or reptiles included. As an example, on average, todays’ humans have an encephalization factor of 7 which means that the ratio of brain size to body size for humans is 7 times that of the average of all existing mammals.

eric said:

SLC said:

OK, let’s put it this way, on average, the Cretaceous dinosaurs had a higher encephalization factor then did the Jurassic dinosaurs. On average, today’s mammals have a higher encephalization factor then did their antecedents of 50 million years ago.

Life’s been on earth 3.5 billion years and for the first 1.5 billion of it, there were only single-celled organisms. For the 2 billion years since then, single-celled organisms have remained dominant in numbers, in varieties, and in total biomass. So if you want to talk averages, then the blunt fact is that on average, living organisms have no brains. By focusing only on things like dinosaurs and mammals, you are limiting your analysis to the long (but low area) tail of an arguably gaussian distribution, produced by random walk. (IOW: if brain size can only go up from it’s starting zero point, then random, nonadvantageous increases and decreases in brain size amongst daughter species will cause the average brain size to creep up over time).

Now I’m already on record as saying I think its advantageous to social animals like apes, dolphins, etc.. I stick by that. But I think the set of species I’m talking about is very small compared to the set of “all species,” and so I would hesitate to draw a conclusion about the general value of intelligence outside of that subset. Evolution produced a niche in which intelligence was useful, creating conditions ripe for a sort of arms race; that does not mean it is generally useful outside of that niche.

SLC said: Apparently, I didn’t make my self clear. For the Jurassic dinosaurs, the averages are taken over all dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the cretaceous dinosaurs, the average is taken over all the dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the mammals of 50 million years ago, the average is taken over all mammals that existed at the time. For the mammals that exist today, the average is taken over all mammals that exist today.

No, you made yourself clear. One can agree that both your data points (and when you go to averages, you reduce the data to a single point) are true. The question is whether we should draw some general lesson about evolution from these two data points. At least in the case of mammals, it seems driven mostly by an arms race between predators (mostly carnivoran) and prey (mostly artiodactyls and perissodactyls), not by sociality in particular. Don’t know about the dinosaurs, but I’m suspecting that it’s mostly theropods, and mostly maniraptorans, that show the increase. Is that true?

Again, what general lesson are you trying to draw?

Mr. Varg’s second interview, with John Safran, is live here; I have not heard it yet.

Matt Young Wrote:

[Ken Miller’s] position seems to me to be very close to deism, but you can listen to the interview and decide for yourself.

Miller in fact argued against deism in “Finding Darwin’s God.” Rather, he hinted, if not stated outright, that he thought that God intervenes constantly. But he made it very clear that that’s only a personal speculation, and not a testable scientific statement. Ironically, his arch-opponent Michael Behe appears to personally favor a deistic scenario, whereby “some designer” constructed the first cell then sat back and watched its “switched off” genetic material get naturally activated in the various descendent lineages. Like Miller, Behe hopes that the designer is God, but appears to be genuinely unsure that he “caught” the real thing and not just some “delegate.” If I’m wrong then that means that he essentially stated at Dover that he God could be dead!

That irony is one of the few things that keeps my interest in the “debate” after all these years. At first glance, Miller and Behe believe almost the same origins account - ~4 billion years of common descent with modification. And indeed, in NCSEs first version of the “Creation-Evolution” continuum, those positions were adjacent, with flat-earthism and “atheistic evolution” at the extremes. But flat-earthism, heliocentric YEC and OEC at least make testable claims regarding “what happened when,” and occasionally criticize other forms of creationism, so that puts them a bit closer to real science than ID, which is nothing but a big tent scam that will do anything to misrepresent evolution, while merely “distancing” itself from other forms of creationism. The updated “Continuum” shows IDs “big tent” more clearly. But I’d go even further and put ID at one extreme end, and theistic evolution at the other. If only because TE has all the scientific objections to creationism/ID that “atheistic” evolution has plus theological ones. And of course I’d put a huge barrier in the continuum, between the science (evolution) side and pseudoscience (creationism/ID) one.

I mostly agree with you that we can’t draw any hard and fast conclusions as to a selection advantage of encephalization, other then the fact that we have 2 data points (e.g. dinosaurs and mammals) here and that encephalization of the hominid line in particular proceeded with with remarkable rapidity, going from Homo habilis at 600cc to Homo sapiens (both sapiens and neanderthals) at 1400cc over a period of less then 2 million years.

As a recent blog post by PZ Myers points out, there is a considerable difference between biologists and astronomers as the the prevalence of intelligent life (see Carl Sagan vs Ernst Mayr) with the astronomers being rather more optimistic then the biologists. If you believe that life defined as the existence of self-replicating molecules is as ubiquitous as Miller seems to think and you believe that the 2 examples of the history of life on earth are meaningful, then you would might lean towards the Sagan position. On the other hand, if you believe that the 2 examples of the history of life on earth are accidents, then you might lean toward the Mayr position. Obviously with only the sample of one planet, any conclusion is strictly a matter of opinion and argument and even very intelligent folks like Sagan and Mayr can disagree. As to the ubiquity of life in general in the universe, we have Neil Tyson who argues, based on the percentages of elements that life is based on in the universe, that life is very widespread and will develop anywhere where the conditions are suitable. On the other hand, we have Paul Davies who argues that the number of contingencies that have to occur before life can begin add up to in-probabilities that greatly exceed any conceivable number of planets in the universe and that the Earth may be the only such planet. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

John Harshman said:

SLC said: Apparently, I didn’t make my self clear. For the Jurassic dinosaurs, the averages are taken over all dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the cretaceous dinosaurs, the average is taken over all the dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the mammals of 50 million years ago, the average is taken over all mammals that existed at the time. For the mammals that exist today, the average is taken over all mammals that exist today.

No, you made yourself clear. One can agree that both your data points (and when you go to averages, you reduce the data to a single point) are true. The question is whether we should draw some general lesson about evolution from these two data points. At least in the case of mammals, it seems driven mostly by an arms race between predators (mostly carnivoran) and prey (mostly artiodactyls and perissodactyls), not by sociality in particular. Don’t know about the dinosaurs, but I’m suspecting that it’s mostly theropods, and mostly maniraptorans, that show the increase. Is that true?

Again, what general lesson are you trying to draw?

Saying “life will develop anywhere conditions are suitable” is kind of meaningless, like saying “a stone will fall to the ground anywhere conditions are suitable”. You have to specify what those conditions are, and our current ignorance about the origin of life will not allow us to do that. Likewise, claiming that “the number of contingencies that have to occur before life can begin add up to in-probabilities that greatly exceed any conceivable number of planets in the universe and that the Earth may be the only such planet” also assumes a large amount of knowledge that does not yet exist. It requires some special pleading to posit that the Earth’s circumstances are so extraordinary as to be unique, when so far the worst that can be said about Earth’s status is that it appears rather unusual. None of the discoveries in planetary science made so far have led us towards a view of Earth being extraordinary.

As for Kenneth Miller, he’s right to say that his statements are just his opinion and are untestable. Words like “extravagant” and “overflowing” are fine, but I sure don’t see how that can be construed as a reason to believe in some Deity. Even atheists (good heavens!) can be awed and appreciative of the extravagance of life and its exquisite variety – and potential ubiquity.

SLC said:

I mostly agree with you that we can’t draw any hard and fast conclusions as to a selection advantage of encephalization, other then the fact that we have 2 data points (e.g. dinosaurs and mammals) here and that encephalization of the hominid line in particular proceeded with with remarkable rapidity, going from Homo habilis at 600cc to Homo sapiens (both sapiens and neanderthals) at 1400cc over a period of less then 2 million years.

As a recent blog post by PZ Myers points out, there is a considerable difference between biologists and astronomers as the the prevalence of intelligent life (see Carl Sagan vs Ernst Mayr) with the astronomers being rather more optimistic then the biologists. If you believe that life defined as the existence of self-replicating molecules is as ubiquitous as Miller seems to think and you believe that the 2 examples of the history of life on earth are meaningful, then you would might lean towards the Sagan position. On the other hand, if you believe that the 2 examples of the history of life on earth are accidents, then you might lean toward the Mayr position. Obviously with only the sample of one planet, any conclusion is strictly a matter of opinion and argument and even very intelligent folks like Sagan and Mayr can disagree. As to the ubiquity of life in general in the universe, we have Neil Tyson who argues, based on the percentages of elements that life is based on in the universe, that life is very widespread and will develop anywhere where the conditions are suitable. On the other hand, we have Paul Davies who argues that the number of contingencies that have to occur before life can begin add up to in-probabilities that greatly exceed any conceivable number of planets in the universe and that the Earth may be the only such planet. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

John Harshman said:

SLC said: Apparently, I didn’t make my self clear. For the Jurassic dinosaurs, the averages are taken over all dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the cretaceous dinosaurs, the average is taken over all the dinosaurs that existed during that period. For the mammals of 50 million years ago, the average is taken over all mammals that existed at the time. For the mammals that exist today, the average is taken over all mammals that exist today.

No, you made yourself clear. One can agree that both your data points (and when you go to averages, you reduce the data to a single point) are true. The question is whether we should draw some general lesson about evolution from these two data points. At least in the case of mammals, it seems driven mostly by an arms race between predators (mostly carnivoran) and prey (mostly artiodactyls and perissodactyls), not by sociality in particular. Don’t know about the dinosaurs, but I’m suspecting that it’s mostly theropods, and mostly maniraptorans, that show the increase. Is that true?

Again, what general lesson are you trying to draw?

SLC said: If you believe that life defined as the existence of self-replicating molecules is as ubiquitous as Miller seems to think and you believe that the 2 examples of the history of life on earth are meaningful, then you would might lean towards the Sagan position.

I don’t think you would, actually. Your two examples are one example: humans. Any increase in theropod encephalization doesn’t approach what you would need for human intelligence.

Further, these increases are in two closely related groups – both amniotes, with a lot of shared history. Compared to the diversity of life on earth – only one spot in the universe – they’re next door neighbors, and hardly independent samples. This says nothing about the prevalence of humanlike intelligence among independent origins of life. In fact, it says almost nothing about the prevalence of humanlike intelligence among planets on which some sort of amniote-grade intelligence has evolved. When you’re working with almost no data, you really can’t draw much in the way of conclusions, not even soft and slow ones.

Excuse me, nowhere did I imply that the Cretaceous dinosaurs were intelligent, only that they were more highly encephalated then their Jurassic ancestors. By the way, paleontologist Dale Russell has opined that, had the Troodons survived the KT extinction, they might have eventually evolved into intelligent birdlike creatures. In many respects, they were already far ahead of the mammals that existed at the time, already being bipedal.

John Harshman said:

SLC said: If you believe that life defined as the existence of self-replicating molecules is as ubiquitous as Miller seems to think and you believe that the 2 examples of the history of life on earth are meaningful, then you would might lean towards the Sagan position.

I don’t think you would, actually. Your two examples are one example: humans. Any increase in theropod encephalization doesn’t approach what you would need for human intelligence.

Further, these increases are in two closely related groups – both amniotes, with a lot of shared history. Compared to the diversity of life on earth – only one spot in the universe – they’re next door neighbors, and hardly independent samples. This says nothing about the prevalence of humanlike intelligence among independent origins of life. In fact, it says almost nothing about the prevalence of humanlike intelligence among planets on which some sort of amniote-grade intelligence has evolved. When you’re working with almost no data, you really can’t draw much in the way of conclusions, not even soft and slow ones.

SLC said:

Excuse me, nowhere did I imply that the Cretaceous dinosaurs were intelligent, only that they were more highly encephalated then their Jurassic ancestors.

Of course you didn’t imply that. I’m just pointing out that this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the question you were using it to address. Also, I point out that Cretaceous dinosaurs were not more highly encephalated than their Jurassic ancestors. Some of them were, and the fairly small percentage that were are skewing the average upwards. This is not, in other words, a general trend, merely a change in a few lineages.

By the way, paleontologist Dale Russell has opined that, had the Troodons survived the KT extinction, they might have eventually evolved into intelligent birdlike creatures. In many respects, they were already far ahead of the mammals that existed at the time, already being bipedal.

Of course Russell has nothing to back that up with. I, on the other hand, can point out that the extant, highly encephalated, and also bipedal close relatives of troodonts have never evolved into intelligent birdlike creatures. And that suggests that the troodont thing is overblown. It’s a dumb claim.

So, to summarize: there is no general trend toward increasing intelligence in the history of life. There is no evidence that increasing encephalization is generally advantageous. Two instances of increasing average encephalization in two large clades tell us effectively nothing about the probability of human-level intelligence in the universe.

Come on Harshman, the Troodons never developed into intelligent birdlike creatures because they went extinct during the KT extinction.

By the way, what close relatives of the Troodons are you referring to? Certainly not ostriches or emus which have no hands and arms, unlike Troodons and the other Raptors.

John Harshman said:

SLC said:

Excuse me, nowhere did I imply that the Cretaceous dinosaurs were intelligent, only that they were more highly encephalated then their Jurassic ancestors.

Of course you didn’t imply that. I’m just pointing out that this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the question you were using it to address. Also, I point out that Cretaceous dinosaurs were not more highly encephalated than their Jurassic ancestors. Some of them were, and the fairly small percentage that were are skewing the average upwards. This is not, in other words, a general trend, merely a change in a few lineages.

By the way, paleontologist Dale Russell has opined that, had the Troodons survived the KT extinction, they might have eventually evolved into intelligent birdlike creatures. In many respects, they were already far ahead of the mammals that existed at the time, already being bipedal.

Of course Russell has nothing to back that up with. I, on the other hand, can point out that the extant, highly encephalated, and also bipedal close relatives of troodonts have never evolved into intelligent birdlike creatures. And that suggests that the troodont thing is overblown. It’s a dumb claim.

So, to summarize: there is no general trend toward increasing intelligence in the history of life. There is no evidence that increasing encephalization is generally advantageous. Two instances of increasing average encephalization in two large clades tell us effectively nothing about the probability of human-level intelligence in the universe.

SLC said: Come on Harshman, the Troodons never developed into intelligent birdlike creatures because they went extinct during the KT extinction.

That assumes what you assert. I will agree that their extinction made it impossible for them to develop into intelligent beings, but my point is you have no way of knowing whether they would have done so, absent extinction, and the existence of all those birds argues against it.

By the way, what close relatives of the Troodons are you referring to? Certainly not ostriches or emus which have no hands and arms, unlike Troodons and the other Raptors.

The close relatives are of course the birds; all of them. Why do you assume that hands are a requirement for intelligence? Troodonts had hands suitable for grasping in the same way that a squirrel’s hands are: an object between the two paws. Is that sufficient for your intelligent beings? I suspect not. They certainly didn’t have hands suitable for fine manipulation. A parrot’s beak, tongue, and feet, on the other hand, are not bad at that sort of thing.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on July 7, 2014 10:36 AM.

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