The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 25 2015 5:05 PM

This Week’s East Coast Blizzard Could Be the Biggest on Record

After a relatively snow-free winter so far, a major blizzard is set to bring parts of the Northeast to a standstill early this week.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in New York City is calling the potential for epic snowfall “historic,” while the Boston office says the incoming storm is a “textbook case for a major winter storm/blizzard.” Three-day snow totals could reach 24-36 inches in each city—good enough to rival the biggest Northeast snowstorms on record.

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This week’s storm has the makings of a record-breaker in New York City. Since 1869, the biggest single storm on record was 26.9 inches at Central Park in 2006.

Image: National Weather Service

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That kind of forecast is jaw-dropping, even for the most jaded meteorological aficionado. Blizzard warnings have been posted from coastal New Jersey to Maine, including New York City and Boston. “Blizzard” is actually a technical meteorological term that requires near-zero visibilities and sustained winds or frequent gusts exceeding 35 mph for at least three consecutive hours. These criteria are typically met in the Northeast only once every few years. The Boston NWS office warns “travel may become impossible and life-threatening.” If the storm comes as forecast, it would be enough to temporarily cripple the region. In its latest update Sunday afternoon, the New York City NWS office said to expect gusts to 50 mph in the city, with brief gusts up to hurricane force on Eastern Long Island. Wow.

In addition to the snow and wind, the NWS warns that coastal storm surge could reach four feet in Western Long Island Sound and in Eastern Massachusetts—that’s on top of 10- to 15-foot waves, which would be big enough to damage coastal properties. If you live on the waterfront, it’s probably best to treat this storm more like a close brush with a tropical storm or hurricane. The NWS in Boston says, “[T]his is a storm that could produce one or more new inlets along exposed east and northeast facing barrier beaches.”

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The latest snowfall maps show a 50-50 chance of New York City’s biggest snowstorm on record. Expect one to three feet of snow plus near whiteout conditions from Philadelphia to Maine.

Image: NWS

For snow lovers, this is the stuff of legend. For everyone else, it’s a time to take a deep breath and prepare to ride out a whopper. If you find yourself stuck at home this week, hyperbole aside, take solace in the fact that it’s very likely no one has experienced a storm quite like this for centuries. I mean, New York City could break its all-time snowfall record for a single storm by 10 inches.

What’s making this particular storm so potent? In sharp contrast to last week’s nor’easter, there’s no shortage of cold air this time around. A blocking high-pressure system to the north will slow the storm’s advance to a crawl—with the center spending up to 24 hours just off Long Island—right as it is peaking in strength. Combine that with a roaring, perfectly kinked jet stream, and you have all the ingredients for an explosive storm that will reach “bomb” criteria, funneling Arctic air southwards and converting it into a thick blanket of wind-whipped white. All the extra cold air may also boost snow totals, because “drier,” colder snow is up to 50 percent fluffier than “wet” snow that falls with temperatures nearer the freezing point. Very strong winds should create drifts the height of humans. The NWS in Boston expects “pockets of thundersnow” during the overnight hours late Monday.

All this means there’s very little chance of a bust. An experimental probabilistic snow forecast by the National Weather Service shows a 67 percent chance of at least 18 inches in New York City. In Boston, the odds are 75 percent. I don’t know about you, but that’s seems good enough to invest in a snowblower.

Not that long ago, the thing to do on a week like this would be to camp out in front of the Weather Channel and live vicariously through Jim Cantore. But now the best place to watch a storm is on Twitter. Predictably, weather Twitter is already freaking out over this storm:

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A reverse trajectory model shows a Siberian weekend in store for New York City.

Image: NOAA ARL

The suddenly very active weather pattern may produce yet another snowstorm on Thursday night, with at least two major blasts of frigid Arctic air plunging Northeast temperatures to near zero Fahrenheit this weekend and next week. The air that’s set to comprise Saturday’s atmosphere over New York City is now somewhere over Eastern Siberia.

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Jan. 23 2015 5:52 PM

State Department Wants Frozen PSAs About Climate Change

The apocalypse is closer than ever and people are taking private jets to climate change talks. This is not good. We need a new idea. Something to cut through the partisan rhetoric about global warming and give people the facts. Something that harnasses the power of imagination and Idina Menzel's voice. We need a Frozen sequel about climate change.

Conveniently, State Department envoy for the Arctic Robert Papp is all over it. As the Hill reports, he says he recently met with a Disney executive about how the Frozen characters could be used to teach kids about the effects of climate change. He's especially interested in getting the word out about “the plight of the polar bear, about the thawing tundra, [and] about Alaskan villages that run the risk of falling into the sea.”

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Speaking at a conference in Norway, Papp said that during the meeting he applauded Disney for teaching kids about the Arctic in Frozen. But he added that the movie's Arctic was, well, Disney-fied—it's a magical place without any sustainability issues. Meanwhile, the actual Arctic is in critical danger. “As I continued to talk I could see the executive getting more and more perplexed,” Papp said. “And he said, ‘Admiral, you might not understand. Here at Disney it’s in our culture to tell stories that project optimism and have happy endings.’ ”

You can see how a Frozen sequel called Thawed might not do so well at the box office.

Jan. 23 2015 4:06 PM

People Who Are Great at Reading Social Cues Are Also Great With the Internet

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

Some people are better at navigating cocktail parties, family gatherings, and office meetings. And, as it turns out, they are better at the Internet, too.

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That’s the word from Anita Woolley, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. She’s been studying what it takes for groups to make smart decisions online, and her latest research unearthed a surprising discovery: People who were good at reading emotional cues face-to-face also happened to be pretty good at reading these cues in online discussions.

Even without seeing the other person’s face, they were able to read other’s mental states online, where misunderstanding can easily occur. And if you include these people in your online groups, your group will be smarter, too.

Scientists refer to this ability as “theory of mind.” There’s even a test for the thing. It’s called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, and it’s hard. You look at close-up photos of dozens of sets of eyes and try to determine whether the person is angry, despondent, jealous, panicked, or in some other state. “People who have this are able to represent what others are thinking or feeling based on subtle cues,” says Woolley. “What this enables somebody to do is to really fill in the blanks for somebody.”

According to researchers, if a group is filled with people who are good at this, it’s collectively smarter than groups who are not. And Woolley’s study shows this is true in the chat room as well as the board room.

This suggests that the way we figure out what other people are thinking may be deeper than we previously thought. And for managers and online group moderators, there’s a lesson here: It’s better to pad the group with good listeners rather than brainiacs.

In a sense, that’s one of the operating principles governing the online question-and-answer website, Quora, which is merciless toward trolls and even people who simply have to get the last word in during any discussion. “If you let jerks run the show, then they drive out everyone who is reasonable,” says Marc Bodnick, Quora’s community team manager.

In the online context, people who are strong at theory of mind are better at interpreting emoticon-free text, and even silence. “One of the toughest things to interpret in online communities is silence,” Woolley says. “When you don’t hear from somebody, [you wonder] ‘Are they offended by what I said, are they mad at me, do they not know the answer, or are they on vacation?' ”

And beware blowhards. People who make your online groups smarter are the ones who will tend to draw colleagues out in discussions, too. As the research shows, “how damaging it is if all you’re hearing from are one or two people and there are a bunch of people you’re not hearing from at all,” Woolley says.

Oh, and there’s one more important contributing factor when it comes to collective intelligence. Groups that have more women, she says, also tend to be smarter. Women, on average, score higher on the theory of mind test, Woolley says, “so when you have more women in the group, you raise the average.”

More from WIRED:

Jan. 23 2015 2:08 PM

Netflix Says Piracy Is Still Its Biggest Competitor

Amazon Instant, Hulu, HBO Go, and lots of other streaming services all vie for users, but Netflix still has a solid lead. By most accounts it controls close to 60 percent of video-streaming market share. So which opponent is Netflix itself most concerned about? Pirates.

In a letter to shareholders on Tuesday, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and CFO David Wells wrote, “Piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors.” It’s a surprising statement from a company that led the charge in erroding piracy’s appeal. But Netflix cites services—like Popcorn Time—that provide a simple interface for connecting people with torrents as a major concern.

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The letter links to this graph, which compares prevalence of Google searches for “netflix,” “HBO” and “Popcorn Time” in the Netherlands. “Popcorn Time’s sharp rise ... is sobering,” it says. But it doesn’t make a terribly strong case. Netflix has 50 million subscribers. It’s difficult to get a definitive total for Popcorn Time because the service is offered by multiple developers, but TorrentFreak reports that the most popular version of Popcorn Time has perhaps 5 or 6 million installs. Only a portion of that would represent active users.

Netflix could be raising the point to remind content owners that piracy is still a threat and motivate them to make sharing deals. Since the graph provided by Netflix shows keyword searches and not actual downloads or active use, it’s difficult to use is as conclusive proof of piracy’s sway. But if Netflix is saying it’s worried, it may be because access to torrents is getting easier. It’s hard to be cheaper than free, but at least Netflix is pretty close.

Jan. 23 2015 2:01 PM

Here’s How We’re Going to Solve the Global Chocolate Shortage

Witch’s broom. Frosty pod. Horse hair blight. No, those aren’t medieval hexes—they’re modern diseases that plague cacao trees, creating a worldwide chocolate shortage that experts say will only get worse.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve had this problem. In the 19th century, Trinidad and Tobego was among the world’s top five producers of cacao until disease decimated the country’s crop and its economy. That’s why Trinidad created the Cocoa Research Centre, which, along with the accompanying International Cocoa Genebank, houses 2,400 types of cacao. Now the center may just solve our current cacao conundrum and make chocolate taste better while doing so.

Jan. 23 2015 12:59 PM

Hundreds of Private Jets Delivered People to Davos. Also, It’s Climate Change Day at Davos.

It’s climate day at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which means 2,500 of the world’s elite—many of whom flew in on one of the hundreds of private jets servicing the conference—are talking about how burning fossil fuels is slowly but steadily making our planet uninhabitable.

This is the kind of day that was on my mind when I permanently gave up flying in 2013. Now, I’m not saying that sort of decision is for everyone. But there came a point where, as a journalist who frequently writes about climate change, I just couldn’t live with my ballooning carbon footprint anymore. Yes, there are things that can only be accomplished in person (like shaking hands and going skiing), but if the world needs to shift away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, why not start today? Imagine for a moment a world in which leaders embody for themselves the kind of deep decarbonization scientists say is necessary to defuse global warming. Suddenly, the task before us might seem a little more manageable.

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Earlier this week, one of the Davos attendees, billionaire Jeff Greene, railed against American excess … after taking his wife, children, and two nannies along to Switzerland with him in one of those private jets.

“America’s lifestyle expectations are far too high and need to be adjusted so we have less things and a smaller, better existence,” Greene told Bloomberg. “We need to reinvent our whole system of life.”

Greene, who ran for U.S. Senate in Florida in 2010, has a less-than-stellar track record when it comes to being an advocate for environmental sustainability. According to a 2010 article in the Tampa Bay Times, in March 2005 Greene’s three-story, 145-foot yacht Summerwind—the size of ”a 14-story building turned on its side”—dropped anchor onto one of the planet’s most pristine coral reefs in Belize, inflicting a 50-by-200-foot swath of damage. Greene wasn’t aboard at the time and denies the incident ever took place, despite scientific damage surveys and an open case file maintained by Belize’s Department of the Environment. In 2010, Belize said that if Greene or the Summerwind—whose gas tank costs about $100,000 to fill—ever returned to the country, he would be subject to a $1.87 million fine. (It’s not clear where the situation stands now.)

It seems Greene, like so many other thought leaders, is taking a “you first” strategy on that whole “smaller, better existence” thing.

Setting massive income inequality aside for a moment, if those that live in excess agree to pay their fair share of the damage they’re inflicting on the climate, it would be a start. A global tax on carbon could do the trick, and help shift incentives toward less resource-intensive but still very comfortable lifestyles. But to truly solve climate change, it’s going to take a bit of imagination and forward thinking—exactly the kinds of big ideas Davos was designed to provide.

During this week’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama ratcheted up his language on the issue, saying “no challenge  poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” I just wish our leaders would start acting like it.

Jan. 23 2015 10:00 AM

A Haunting Timelapse Video Shows Arctic Sea Ice Slowly Slip Away

A warning: The video you’re about to watch is heartbreaking. In just a few seconds, you’ll see 27 years of Arctic sea ice melt like a handful of snowflakes next to a space heater.

The animation is beautiful, until you realize the implications. Sea ice has become the canary in the coal mine of global climate change.

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This animation was produced by painstakingly tracking individual bergs of sea ice for years by satellite and ocean buoys. According to climate.gov, as the animation begins in the 1980s, 26 percent of the Arctic ice pack was four years old or older. By last year, that number had dropped to 10 percent. The oldest ice, once common throughout the Arctic, is now banished to a narrow region near northern Canada.

The Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet in recent years, due in part to the loss of the bright white reflecting surface of sea ice. Darker water is able to retain more heat, leading to a self-reinforcing cycle of melting. A recent study showed that as more of the Arctic reverts to open water, winds are increasing and waves are growing larger—which are further enhancing ice loss. Another study showed that changes in the Arctic may be altering the weather, too.

Here’s what’s happening: For the last 15 years or so, increasingly warm water has been making its way northward, through the narrow gap between Alaska and Russia. Once inside the Arctic, the warm water turns into an ice-eating machine. The summer surge of warmth gnaws away at the edges of the ever-shrinking gyre of floating ice, a relic of the Arctic’s frozen past. New ice can no longer replace the ice that is naturally lost through the Fram Strait, east of Greenland. The result has been a sharp decline in old ice in recent years, with much less resilient younger ice taking its place.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the 10 lowest Arctic sea ice seasons have all occurred in the last 10 years.

Last year’s melt season was more of the same—resulting in the sixth-lowest extent on record, with open water as far north as 300 miles from the North Pole. That was a new record for the satellite era, which began in 1979.

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Arctic sea ice is shrinking at a rate of 13.3 percent per decade, making an ice-free Arctic inevitable should the trend hold, as expected.

Image: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Profound changes to the Arctic may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean climate change is a lost cause. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said there’s still two precious decades left before the world is locked in to “dangerous” levels of global warming. That ought to be all the motivation we need.

Jan. 22 2015 6:46 PM

This Vampire Bat Robot Can Both Walk and Fly

It's difficult to design robots so they can walk on different types of terrain. But giving them two distinct modes of locomotion is even more complicated. That's why it's pretty amazing to see the Deployable Air-Land Exploration Robot (DALER) fly around, land, and start ambling about.

Created by researchers at three Swiss labs (LIS, EPFL, and NCCR Robotics), DALER's design was inspired by vampire bats. The skeleton of the "wings" is covered in fabric, and on land they can serve as legs for walking. The goal is to use DALER for search-and-rescue missions in which the robot first surveys a scene from the air, and then lands to provide assistance.

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The research, published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics on Tuesday, takes advantage of the bat design concept by allowing the wings to partially fold in to create a smaller overall footprint, while also improving DALER's walking ability. As Robohub points out, though, the wings were designed first, because flying is DALER's primary functioning.  

DALER is a ways off from actual deployment, especially because of its wobbly walking, but it's another example of how effective it is to pull design ideas from real animals.

Jan. 22 2015 6:35 PM

We Haven’t Been This Close to the Apocalypse Since 1984, Scientists Say

In 1947, the specter of nuclear holocaust prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to come up with a “Doomsday Clock.” The clock was meant to highlight just how close humans had come to wiping ourselves off the map. Midnight on the clock represented global catastrophe—the end of civilization as we know it.

Back then, the Bulletin set the clock to 11:53 p.m. The group has revisited the setting each year since, occasionally adjusting it forward or backward to reflect changes in world events.

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On Thursday, it moved the clock forward two minutes, to 11:57 p.m.

That’s the closest it has been to midnight since 1984, at the Cold War’s peak. The only time humanity has been closer to self-destruction, according to the clock, was from 1953 to 1960, when it read 11:58 p.m. thanks to the nuclear brinksmanship between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War’s end turned the clock all the way back to 11:43 p.m. in 1991. So how did we end up right back at 11:57 p.m., just 24 years later?*

The answer is that nuclear war is no longer the only plausible, existential threat we face, according to the Bulletin’s science and security board. The other: climate change. And, more specifically, the world’s lackluster response to climate change. As Lawrence Krauss explained in Slate two years ago, climate change was added to the clock-setting calculations in 2007, along with the dangers presented by biotechnology and bioterrorism. Despite ever-growing public awareness of the problem, global inaction on climate change has only darkened the picture since then. In a statement Thursday, the Bulletin warned:

Current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth. Absent a dramatic course correction, the countries of the world will have emitted enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the end of this century to profoundly transform Earth's climate, harming millions upon millions of people and threatening many key ecological systems on which civilization relies.

This is not a new sentiment. Earlier this week, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama called climate change the world’s greatest threat to future generations. He wasn’t trying to be hyperbolic. And he might be right.

What’s interesting about the Doomsday Clock, though, is that it represents an attempt—albeit an inherently subjective one, by a group of scientists with their own interests and biases—to put the threat of climate change in context. How bad is it? Really, really bad. And yet, in the Bulletin’s view, the threat of a warming planet is not quite as bad as the nuclear threat in 1953. Nor is it quite on par with the threat of nuclear war in 1984.

Remember, it isn’t only climate change that has us poised precipitously at 11:57 p.m. today. It’s the combination of climate change and some discouraging recent developments on the nuclear-proliferation front. At a press conference Thursday, Bulletin executive director Kennette Benedict emphasized both. About the nuclear threat, she said:

The arms-reduction process has ground to a halt, with the United States and Russia embarking on massive programs to modernize their nuclear forces—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties. At the same time, other nuclear-weapons states are joining this expensive and extremely dangerous modernization craze.

The two threats may seem unrelated, but it’s worthwhile to think about them in the same breath, because there are some interesting parallels between them. The greatest danger posed by nuclear bombs is not their explosive power. It’s the prospect of a nuclear winter—that is, a form of very sudden, human-caused, climate change.

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The chart above shows the settings of the Doomsday Clock between 1947 and 2012. The lower the graph, the higher the probability of catastrophe.

Wikimedia Commons

When we talk about the effects of anthropogenic global warming, we talk a lot about uncertainty. Actually though, the threats posed by climate change are not nearly as uncertain as those posed by nuclear proliferation. We may not know the precise effects of a warming planet, but we do know that it’s happening, and we have a pretty good idea of what will ensue if we don’t change course soon: crop failures, extinctions, famines, water shortages, regional conflicts, coastal floods, and more extreme weather events.

In contrast, we really have no idea what will happen if we fail to rein in the world’s nuclear arsenals. In the worst case, it could lead to all-out nuclear world war, which would change the climate far more rapidly than our current pace of greenhouse gas emissions. In the best case, countries will continue to maintain nuclear arsenals, but no one will ever use them again. And of course there are a lot of plausible scenarios in between.

We could spend years arguing about which is more dangerous, climate change or nuclear proliferation. But that would be like standing around in a burning building, arguing about whether it would be worse to die from smoke inhalation or get crushed by a falling beam.

Likewise, we could have a lively debate about whether the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is right that we’re slightly closer to the brink of disaster today than we were a few years ago, or in 1984, or in 1947. But the real point of the Doomsday Clock is to remind us that we have the power to wind it back. We just haven’t been doing much of that lately.   

*Correction, Jan. 22, 2015: This post originally misstated that the Doomsday Clock had moved forward from 11:43 to 11:57 in a span of 14 years. It was actually a span of 24 years.

Previously in Slate:

Jan. 22 2015 4:38 PM

“Bomb” Nor’easter Will Bring Weekend Snow Chances—Finally!—to East Coast

East Coast snow lovers have had a rough go this winter. They won’t have to wait much longer for what could be the biggest storm of the season.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a coastal storm peaking on Saturday that could bring all manner of wintry peril to snow-starved city-dwellers from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Another storm Sunday night could bring more accumulating snow to the same areas.

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The first storm is expected to undergo rapid intensification as it slides up the coast, packing tropical storm force winds and a plume of tropical moisture stretching all the way down to the Caribbean. The storm’s low pressure center is expected to deepen fast enough to attain the status of a meteorological “bomb,” a technical term meaning a drop in air pressure exceeding 24 millibars in 24 hours. In fact, Thursday morning’s GFS model predicted a drop twice that fast, from 988 millibars Saturday morning to 964 millibars just 12 hours later.

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Saturday’s nor’easter could bring heavy snow to New York City and Boston, though ice or rain seem likely at the outset.

Image: GFS/Levi Cowan

The storm’s anticipated rapid strengthening throws an extra layer of uncertainty as to what we can expect, weatherwise. Quickly growing storms like this one sometimes exhibit dynamic cooling, which can help nudge the atmosphere toward producing more snow. Think of popping the top off a soda can under pressure—the exterior of the can quickly gets colder.

On the other hand, the overall weather pattern is lacking a substantial reservoir of cold air to the north right now, increasing the chances that warmer air from over the ocean could cut into the potential for what might have otherwise been a blockbuster storm. Snowflakes could turn into a messy mix of ice and slush. That’s giving us an unusually wide range of potential snow totals for a storm less than two days away. In New York City, for example, 2 to 8 inches are expected. In Washington, warm air looks like it will win out, with at best a mix of rain and snow adding up to a dreary gray day. In Boston, Winter Storm Watches have already been posted for areas just inland of the coast, where brief periods of heavy, wet snow may make travel difficult and take a toll on power lines.

Oddly, Sunday night’s storm seems a bit more clear cut even though it’s further away. The storm will be weaker—originating over the Great Lakes—but the atmosphere should be colder. A few more inches of snow is likely, mainly from New York City northward into New England.

After that, a major cold snap could dive as far south as Miami to close out the month of January. Winter is by no means over yet.

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There’s a great chance the last days of January will be more wintry than normal for the East. Even South Florida has a greater than 95 percent chance of colder-than-average weather.

Image: SLU CIPS Analogs

With only three inches since winter began, Washington has half the amount of snow it normally has by this point in January. New York City, which typically has racked up 10 inches by now has fared even worse, with just one-third of normal snowfall. Heck, even Buffalo—Buffalo!—now has a below-normal snow year, running 2 12 inches behind its average pace as of Jan. 21. The East Coast snow drought has led to some interesting statistics:

A 2013 report by Climate Central shows gradually warming temperatures are expected to reduce average snowfall over the next few decades, though year-to-year winter totals will continue to be highly variable.

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