Uncommon Sense

December 29, 2019

The Fly in the Ointment

I read recently an article about how Amazon.com is creating many, many small businesses to deliver their goods. Amazon originally used USPS, UPS, and FedEx and the like as their delivery agents and negotiated their prices down, down, down but reached a limit of those services which pay their employees fairly well and treat them fairly well. (Trust me, I had a brother in law who worked for UPS and UPS is not a saintly organization. It is just that their jobs weren’t “shit jobs.” Their employees had pension plans, healthcare, decent wages, unions, etc.)

Amazon is creating little entrepreneurs to Uberize the delivery business.

Amazon also squeezes its own employees terrifically for better performance but not for higher wages. For example, Whole Foods, an Amazon subsidiary, announced it would be cutting medical benefits for its entire part-time workforce. The annual saving to Amazon from this cost-cutting move is roughly what Bezos – whose net worth is $110 billion – makes in two hours.

Does the man deliberately cultivate the aura of a Bond villain?

Amazon’s commercials aside about how wonderful some of its employees think the company is, the number of stories of employee abuse hasn’t declined much. And, Amazon raised the wages of its base employees only under considerable pressure from outside.

Now, as Americans, we believe that businesses should be “free” to run their businesses any way they want (within some rough standards of practice, outlined in the law) but the question I am asking here is “To what end?”

I ask, “Why does Amazon need to lower its employee costs, lower its shipping costs?” The “old Amazon” made Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world. He can’t move any higher on that list. So, why are these practices necessary? So Mr. Bezos can make even more money when he cannot possibly spend the wealth he has accumulated so far? Please recall that to spend one billion dollars ($1,000,000,000) one has to spend $532,000 per hour of every business day for an entire year. In just one morning or afternoon, this amounts to as much money as I earned in just under 40 years of working as a college chemistry professor. And Mr. Bezos has in excess of a hundred times that much accumulated wealth at this point.

This is the core problem of capitalism. There are no limits placed upon greed.

Mr. Bezos, like Costco, could settle in and provide high quality jobs for his employees (and reap the loyalty that invokes) and provide quality goods for his customers and make money hand over fist for decades if not longer. But he is not, he is squeezing the system so that more and more money oozes out of the top and into his pockets.

I have come to agree with Bernie Sanders in that a democratic republic such as ours cannot tolerate billionaires. Wealth taxes (such as inheritance taxes and new ones) need to reduce the fortunes of these greedy SOBs. I know this is intolerable to the greedy class but I can’t feel pity for someone whose wealth is limited to the mere hundreds of millions.

Oh, and the right to do this? The right is called self-protection. In this country money is power. People like Bezos and Bill Gates have acquired way too much power for the good of the system. We all have to concede some of our individual rights for the good of the collective whole. This is one of those.

And if you think such a thing is antithetical to capitalism . . . you are just wrong. Consider the case of the capitalist state of . . . Finland.

December 27, 2019

Race to the Bottom?

Filed under: Culture,Race,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:16 am

Today in The Guardian there was a lovely article that explained why we believe in racial stereotypes based upon the work of Angela Saini “How I Changed My Mind About the Biology of Race” by Philip Ball <subtitle> Angela Saini’s book Superior showed me our misconceptions about race and science arise from a habit of the mind.

Here is an excerpt:

“Saini shows that what we have understood by race encodes the belief that literally superficial aspects of our appearance act as markers for innate differences we can’t see. And here’s the problem: it does so for good reason. In times past, and sometimes still today, the strong correlation between your appearance and your culture meant that visual differences really could act as proxies for certain differences in attitudes, traditions and beliefs.

“Our brains are exquisitely adapted to pick up on such correlations – and, unfortunately in this case, to conclude that they are causative. We instinctively assume that differences in behaviour that are in fact due to culture must be linked to – even caused by – characteristics of appearance. That is what the traditional notion of race is all about. But genetics has found no such innate origins of behavioural differences between “races” – and it is highly unlikely, given what we know about genetic variation, that it would.”

This makes a lot of sense, based upon how we behaved when “others” were automatically labeled dangerous.

December 26, 2019

Projection and the Inverted Golden Rule

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 10:15 am
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In an article in Mother Jones I found the following two tidbits. The first was with regard to a survey made by a couple of political scientists:

“[Among] white evangelical Protestants, we found that 60 percent believed that atheists would not allow them First Amendment rights and liberties. More specifically, we asked whether they believed atheists would prevent them from being able to ‘hold rallies, teach, speak freely, and run for public office.’ Similarly, 58 percent believed ‘Democrats in Congress’ would not allow them to exercise these liberties if they were in power.”

and their conjecture . . .

“Their fear comes from an inverted golden rule: Expect from others what you would do unto them.”

The “Inverted Golden Rule,” nice tag that, is what psychologist call “projection.” We tend to project onto others, as an attempt to understand them, the same thoughts and attitudes that we ourselves possess.

Because these evangelicals have blocked atheists from holding public office, railed against the free speech of atheists and made attempts to restrict that, and come from a long line of the religious back to when atheism could get you burned at the stake, they feel that if atheists have power we will “do unto them what was done onto us.” That we have shown no proclivity to do this doesn’t block these thoughts. Their “fears” are real . . . to them.

The social process to make societal outliers more mainstream is long and slow. Look at how long American blacks have sought to be accepted by American white society. Gays have had a much faster arc but they are not full accepted either. We atheists are quite far behind those processes.

This would be less frustrating if the prejudices being projected don’t contradict the teaching of their patron god, but it is what it is.

Time will tell.

Unfortunately the Inverted Golden Rule acts almost instantaneously. And these attitudes are fact proof. Mr. Obama’s first term, not that long ago, was a case in which Democrats controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress. Were the civil liberties of Christians targeted in any way? No? I guess Mr. Obama was too busy taking people’s guns away to attend to that agenda item.












December 25, 2019

A Christmas Missive: Mystery or Not?

Filed under: Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:57 am

An article in The Guardian addresses the issues Christianity has had, since it inception, with sex in “Why Christianity has been struggling with sex ever since the Nativity” by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Subtitle: Was Mary a virgin? Did she stay a virgin? The confusion goes back to Christ’s early followers, who turned a biological necessity into a vice)

The article focuses upon the fictional birth narratives of Jesus and whether Mary was still a virgin after she fictionally gave birth. (This question could be answered very simply at the time. Ask any first century Palestinian Jew, “Was Mary, the mother of Jesus over there, a virgin?” and they would look at you as if you had two heads.)

Christianity didn’t have a problem with sexuality, at least no more than its parent religion Judaism which used sexual mutilation as an initiation rite into their religion, it had leverage.

If you accept or even just consider my premise that religions exist (or continue to exist or grow and prosper) because of their ability to coerce the labor of the masses to serve the interests of the secular and religious elites. They are all large social control constructs.

What better way to exert your control of the “masses” that through regulating their sexuality. Not only is this an exercise of great power, but when believers fail to conform, which they all must, they feel guilty and wanting to make amends to the religion (sacrifices, founding of convents/monasteries, etc.) especially increased zeal to be “better” at their religion.

Jews wanted to restrict their religion to “family/tribe” by forbidding marriage outside of the faith as part of a purity campaign. This has the unfortunate consequence of keeping Judaism small. Consider the following numbers:
Christianity (2.1 billion)
Islam (1.3 billion)
Nonreligious (Secular/Agnostic/Atheist) (1.1 billion)
Hinduism (900 million)
Chinese traditional religion (394 million)
Buddhism 376 million
Primal-indigenous (300 million)
African traditional and Diasporic (100 million)
Sikhism (23 million)
Juche (19 million)
Spiritism (15 million)
Judaism (14 million)

Even adjusting for the holocaust and other persecutions, the numbers of Jews is almost tiny compared to the numbers of Christians and Muslims, which religions accept converts gladly (or sorta gladly).

So, sexual control in Judaism worked counter to any “global domination” schemes they might have had.

No matter how, most religions have something to say about sex because it is a major driving force in human society. It is a powerful lever by which you can move people. Taken to an extreme, you end up like the Shakers, however. (The Apostle Paul came close.)

So there is no mystery why Christianity has had a “problem” with sex. It hasn’t. There was no problem. There was, however, power to be wielded.

Postscript I cannot leave out the rather extraordinary aspect of this birth narrative business and that is “Why did Yahweh go about creating a baby when he was quite adept at creating fully formed adults?” Why consign Jesus to the indignities of being a child? Why delay Jesus’ mission, the supposed important thing, another 30 years?

December 21, 2019

Think About It

I used to say that if rich people didn’t exist then we wouldn’t have all of the gorgeous architecture (mansions, castles, cathedrals, etc.) and whatnot to observe while we were on vacation. I don’t say this any more.

Having a small amount of time with nothing to do I watched part of the first episode of “Monty Don’s French Gardens” which bore the subtitle of “Gardens of Power and Passion.”

The first garden the host gushed over was built by a king’s mistress. He waxed poetic over the design of the garden (It was quite lovely.) and mused glowingly on the royal ladies walking the promenade in their gowns under their parasols. He bragged that the garden was so expensive to build that a special tax was imposed to pay to have it built.

This is the point when I turned off the program. This was partly because of the tone of the presenter who gloried in the “accomplishments” of these people. As I said, even I recognized that only rich people built glorious buildings and lush, exotic gardens. (I have toured a great many of these.)

Now, however, I understand all of this differently.

I now understand that “civilization” was built upon coerced labor. When we were hunter-gatherers life was difficult but it was less difficult than the agricultural lifestyles imposed by “civilization.” The argument is simple: in order for there to be elites, there had to be additional labor to make up for the labor the elites were not doing. (They were doing things, just not making shelters and finding and cooking food, etc.) Agriculture of grains was almost required for this as only grains could be dried and stored (and taxed/confiscated). Making labor-heavy grain meant there was little time to forage and gather other items for their diets. A grain heavy diet made people more susceptible to disease and less healthy overall. (The archaeological record shows that successive generations of human beings became smaller under agriculture and more disease ridden, and. . . .)

So, this shift in human culture allowed for the elites to do what they were doing because the “masses” were supporting them by doing extra work. Since a great many “ordinary” citizens did not want to work that hard, they disappeared into the night, so slave raids were employed to replace the lost labor. And so on and so on.

And I had always wondered why we ended up with kings and their ilk and bowed down to them, and held them to be above us. This apparently is just a matter of leverage. A single elite who can coerce the labor of tens of others, can expand his/her “empire” by coercing the labor of those who coerce the labor of the masses. Just like in multi-level marketing schemes, you can’t do it all yourself, so you need underlings, people who will do it for you. Those people couldn’t help but recognize the strategy was a winning one and they created another level of coercers below them and on and on. All of this worked because the ones at the top of the pyramid got a “taste” of everything below, which meant it was in the best interests of the higher ups to support the lower downs. So, they invented “titles” to represent their positions in the pyramid scheme.

So, back to the French Gardens. How is it possible that a monarch can provide the resources and power for a concubine to create a garden that took four years to build? Where did those resources come from? Clearly, the “money” or “goods” in these schemes flows upward. If it stops flowing upward (e.g. because of a peasant revolt) then the troops are sent in to set things back into place. The troops, of course, are paid for out of the coerced labor of the masses. (An estimate I read was that in the year 1800 half of all human beings were in some form of slavery (peasant tied to the land, serf, indentured servant, chattel slaves, etc.).)

Now, in a utopia, I think it might be possible for the elites to see themselves as public servants of the citizens and that much of their work would go to organizing the collective efforts of “the people” to defend themselves from outsiders, feed themselves, provide medicine when needed, etc. Such a state, were there a political will, might build a lavish garden for all to enjoy and that the “masses” might be willing to “pay” for that effort. But this was not the case.

How do I know this was not the case?

How many peasants were allowed to walk in the royal garden described above? (If you come up with a number other than zero, you are deluded.) And, as the rich fail in their ability to hang onto the ownership of their gardens, they become public property, then and only then do the hoi polloi get welcomed to tour the grounds (often for a fee, of course).

At that realization, I lost my curiosity regarding the beautiful gardens of France. They now appear to be, like holocaust museums, an admonition to “never again” do those things.

And, there are modern lessons here. We are allowing very wealthy people to manipulate our politics so they can get even more wealthy, filthy rich even. Many of these “billionaires” create works that they consider part of their legacy, just like the French Gardens. But who makes the decisions over what gets built? It is the filthy rich, the people who acquired way too much wealth than is healthy for a democracy to allow.

Is It Time to Say “Okay, Boomer” to Barack Obama?

During his Presidency, Barack Obama was as temperate and centrist as one could ask a U.S. president to be. Except that people did not want a temperate or centrist president. Apparently Mr. Obama missed the point of why he was elected. One can give all kinds of reasons but for this still very racist country to elect its first black president, it took a confluence of events. First, people were very fed up with the status quo. The rich kept getting richer and the middle class and poor kept getting poorer, significantly so. So, in an election between a representative of the status quo (John McCain) and a transformative candidate promising “Hope and Change” people decided, well we haven’t tried this yet, let’s see if a Black man can break up our log-jammed politics.

In the next election, the GOP put up Mitt Romney, another icon of the old status quo, so he wasn’t too hard for a sitting president to dispatch. This was even though the federal government went to extraordinary lengths to bail out bankers and shareholders of insurance companies, and little to nothing for homeowners losing their homes. All the while, of course, refusing to jail fat cat bankers who caused the problems and were clearly breaking the law. (And, my pet peeve, supporting the despicable Arne Duncan’s attempts to dismantle public education.)

While I happen to like Mr. Obama and his family, he doesn’t have the high political ground to stand on to tell us that we need to avoid real agents of change (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) when he himself did not deliver the changes that were so desperately sought.

It is time to tell Mr. Obama “Okay, Boomer.” as the phrase fits perfectly: he is a Baby Boomer (born in 1961) and he is pontificating on issues he clearly doesn’t understand.

December 20, 2019

Judges, Not Jurors

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 11:57 am

I am learning more about the impeachment trial process. One detail I was quite unaware of is the Senators who have to decide upon the impeachment charges are acting not as jurors, but more as a panel of judges.

This came up because of many comments by Republican Senators that they have made up their minds already and will be working with the White House to “coordinate” the President’s defense. That resulted in those senators being attacked as not being “impartial jurors,” hence the clarification of their status during the proceedings.

So, how would you feel if the judge in a case important to you were working behind the scenes with the prosecution (or defense) and had already made up how he was going to rule in your case?

Aren’t judges who a prejudiced (think about the roots of that word) supposed to recuse themselves?

The silver lining for Trump is that more congressmen voted for his impeachment than any other impeachment in our history. The guy just keeps breaking records. First the inauguration attendance, now this.

December 13, 2019

Stepping Back in a Major Way

Filed under: Culture,History,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:03 pm
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I have just started reading In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ by Philip R. Davies even though the author has changed his mind on a number of topics he addressed in this book. (He wrote a new introduction laying out some of these.) It apparently is a very profound book and seems to be a good place to start exploring Davies’ work.

Here are a few excerpts:

“(I) had proposed that a kind of identity crisis, confronting a society without an agreed past, or with a contested past, generated the bulk of the origin stories. My conclusion has become modified since then, and I now appreciate more fully the extent to which the negotiation of Israelite identity in the biblical texts reflects a pervasive uncertainty about the relationship between a relatively new ‘Israel’ represented in Judah from the sixth or fifth century onwards, and an ‘old’ Israel that persisted in Samaria.”

“Quite apart from the absence of an Iron Age society resembling ‘ancient Israel’, and which could therefore have created the biblical Israel, it is obvious that literature in the ancient world is not the product of a whole society. It is a scribal activity, and thus confined to less than five per cent of any ancient agrarian society. Of the remaining ninety-five per cent, most of those who had any literacy could not acquire or study this kind of literature, and it is hard to imagine that the peasants, had they the gift of literacy, would have had either the leisure or enthusiasm to exploit something that hardly addressed their own priorities. So whatever the name given to the authors of the biblical literature, they are a small and élite class, and their creation, ‘Israel’, a reflection of their class consciousness (to use a Marxian term). Whatever actual religion (if any) the biblical literature reflects, it is not the religion of people outside this class; and it remains to be demonstrated that the members of the class itself had the kind.”

“Exploring why and how the biblical literature was composed and how it functioned entails first of all recognizing the possibility of a distinction between the creation of the literature itself and the adoption of it as the scripture of a religious system. If we assume that the literature was composed as religious scripture in the first place, we must suppose the prior existence of a religious system that generated it. The Bible, of course, was self-evidently not written as a canon of scripture: a canon is a product of selection; of adoption, not of writing. No author of any biblical literature can be described as a ‘biblical author’ except by means of a kind of shorthand. No author of this literature was writing ‘scripture’ in the sense we now use that word. Now if we cannot establish that in the period before Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were formed there was a single ‘Judaism’ based on ‘scripture’, it becomes very unlikely that the biblical writings ever were the expression of a normative religion, if any religion at all. It is probably closer to the truth to say that the Jewish ‘scriptures’ created Judaism than the other way round. Who, then, created the ‘scriptures’ is a rather important question.”

I found the first excerpt fascinating as I had gotten the impression that Samaritans were disparaged by Jewish elites in the seventh century when they returned from Babylon. The Samaritans hadn’t been forcefully evacuated and thus stayed “home” and practiced their religions as they had. (Yes, religions. I will explain.)

To re-establish themselves as the “rightful” elites in the region (remember the “returnees” had been gone for about a century) they had to pump themselves up and diminish their competition. So, the Samaritans got painted with a “bad” brush. (Even though the Samaritans still had their temple while the “returnees” had theirs demolished.)

The second excerpt points out that while there is some archaeological evidence for the existence of the state of Judah, there is diddly squat regarding the existence of a state called Israel. From there the author goes on to point out the obvious (if you take a step back) that “it is obvious that literature in the ancient world is not the product of a whole society.” This was written by scribes hired by the elites for reasons that do not seem to be religious, but political. The ordinary Hebrews of the time would have known very little of this activity before, during or after. I recently read a book on the folk religions of Israel that backs this up. The folk outside of the major population centers were generally polytheistic, much like their other middle eastern cultures. They were also focused upon pragmatic concerns: giving birth, having a good harvest, being cured of a disease, etc. They also used an astonishing number (many of which have been found) of icons, figurines, etc. to focus their prayers, etc. (Probably the source of “thou shalt not make graven images” as there were these in plenty outside of elite circles.)

And “Whatever actual religion (if any) the biblical literature reflects, it is not the religion of people outside this class; and it remains to be demonstrated that the members of the class itself had the kind.” clearly agrees with my contention that religion is a tool used by the religious and secular elites to coerce the labor of the masses to serve the interests of the elites. (The subsistence farmers didn’t invent the tithe, if you were wondering.) Most of the elites only pay lip service to the religion because, well, it is for the rubes.

The third excerpt is a promise to consider this idea at greater length as the book proceeds and that is answering the question of why the Bible was written in the first place: “it becomes very unlikely that the biblical writings ever were the expression of a normative religion, if any religion at all.”


I promise a book review when I am finished reading it.

Presuppositions To the Left of Me . . .

Filed under: History,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:55 am
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I have been re-reading a bit of Bart Ehrman because I remember being impressed with his work when I first read it but have acquired some doubts now, having read some scholarly criticism of his works. I had at hand Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels so I thought I would delve into that.

I was brought up abruptly by the very first paragraph of the Introduction, which I supply here:

JESUS DIED IN ABOUT the year 30 CE, but our earliest surviving accounts of his life did not start to appear until some forty years later (beginning with the Gospel of Mark). During the intervening years—and even in the years after our Gospels were written—stories about Jesus were in oral circulation, starting with tales told by those who were eye- and earwitnesses to the things he did and said. I am deeply interested in how Jesus was being “remembered” and “misremembered” by those who were telling such stories, both those who actually knew him and those who heard stories from others, some years, or even decades, later, before our written Gospels appeared.

Uh, hello? “During the intervening years . . . stories about Jesus were in oral circulation, starting with tales told by those who were eye- and earwitnesses to the things he did and said.” WTF? How is this known? Were these written down? Is there some record of these? Is there even any mentions of these in historical records?

This is stated as if it were a fact. And stated well before the following:

When it comes to Jesus, all we have are memories. There are no lifelike portraits from his day, no stenographic notes recorded on the spot, no accounts of his activities written at the time. Only memories of his life, of what he said and did. Memories written after the fact. Long after the fact. Memories written by people who were not actually there to observe him.

And, if there were no historical Jesus as described, then what are these “memories”?

Ehrman wants to talk about the studies on the oral transmission of stories, through gossip, by bards (through songs and poetry), etc. But he starts by saying there was an oral tradition. He doesn’t say he is going to establish that there was such a tradition and how we might go about recovering from it what we may. He says “There was an oral tradition.” Why? Because there must have been one to supply the fodder from which the gospels were written. Hello?

Let’s, instead, take a step back (not in time, but away from the narrative being “sold”).

Jesus died circa 30 CE, according to “tradition,” and the first gospel was written shortly after 70 CE, so at least 40 years after any event described. Did anything happen between those years (other than an oral tradition)?

Ever hear of the Apostle Paul?

Paul’s authentic epistles (there were more forgeries than actual letters) were written to “churches” (the word church at the time referred to a congregation, not a building). And these were written (ca 50-64 CE), clearly, with the full knowledge that such letters would be copied and shared around to other groups of Christians. If they had not been copied, we would not now have any copies as all of the originals have perished. (There are some referred to and not, as yet, found; they may still turn up). So, an itinerant preacher, like Paul, had the wherewithal to have letters written for him (he possibly could have done so for himself, but scribes were not hugely expensive, especially scribes recently converted to Paul’s way of thinking).

So, writing things down was possible. “Churches” had the ability to copy documents and clearly did for several decades before the gospels were written. And according to some there were dozens and dozens of Jesus stories flying around . . . but none of them got written down, to share, for 40 years? There is a hypothetical document, Q, which was supposedly a source of Jesus sayings. And, no church copied this or shared it in written form? It was not considered important? So, for forty years the only words associated with Jesus were things people said? Like “Well, you know what Jesus said, blah, blah, blah”? Amazing.

And, as I have suggested before, no rich convert before giving away their wealth wouldn’t have sought out all of the people who knew Jesus in person and debriefed them? Even one such account would have been powerful propaganda. (I am amazed that no one has forged such a document. Maybe the Gospel of Judas might qualify . . . if it hadn’t been written even later than the canonical gospels. FYI The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel whose content consists of conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. It is thought to have been composed in the second century by Gnostic Christians, not by Judas, since it contains late-second century theology.)

When you ask moderns to identify sayings from the book they claim is the word of their god, they get things massively wrong. Many people think that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible, for example (it is not). President Trump has a favorite Bible verse and that is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” the only verse in the OT that Jesus is recorded as speaking against. (Jesus responds with the “turn the other cheek” and “give money to any who ask” idiocy.) Now, granted, the folks of first century Palestine had fewer draws on their attention, but I suspect that the volume of gossip transmitted daily was hardly less than it is now, excepting for the amplification of mass media. People like to talk, even when there is little to talk about.

I do not know whether I will finish Ehrman’s book, having read it before. I may skip over the memory bits as I recall them fairly well. If I think it important I will review the book when finished (if finished).

December 5, 2019

Well, Now They Know

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 7:45 am
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In the news was this: “A furious Donald Trump cut short his attendance at the NATO summit in London after a group of leaders, including Boris Johnson, was caught on video ridiculing the US president at Buckingham Palace for staging lengthy press conferences.” (Source: The Guardian)

So now they know how to get rid of them. Next time there is a confab, don’t be surprised if they don’t stage the Trump chit chat right at the beginning, giving them the hope of having a productive meeting, without the Great Disruptor.

The cardinal rules of politics include “never let them see you sweat,” and “never let them know what your real motivations are.” Since Trump is only a politician by definition, he is unaware of these things. Interestingly, the same principles apply to high-level business, which shows that Trump is only a businessman by definition also.

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