The Women Who Mapped the Stars

The pivotal scene in last season’s Nora Theater Company production of The Women Who Mapped the Stars takes place around a dinner table in the year 1900. Or maybe it’s 1910. Or perhaps 1923.


Four nineteenth century women scientists from Harvard’s Observatory (Williamina Fleming, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Antonia Maury, though few called them ‘scientist’ in those days) are celebrating the New Year, the new century, and imagining new possibilities for women. Cecilia Payne, a British woman who studied at Cambridge (though could not earn a degree), who’s crossed the Atlantic to pursue a PhD. at Harvard, crashes her mentor’s party. It’s a wonderful scene, layered in scientific irony. Bending time confounds the Victorians who, though deep thinkers, know nothing of Einstein. Yet collecting generations of female scientists in a singular place across time confirms a central fact of Cecilia’s reality: relativity.

Satisfying as that scene is, the purest nugget of wisdom in The Women Who Mapped The Stars occurs later. Cecilia is frustrated by observations and calculations that consistently indicate stars are composed primarily of hydrogen; when everyone ‘knows’ they are primarily metals. She craves to see something fresh, new, to be the first, the ‘discoverer.’ Annie Jump Cannon appears at her side and offers a completely opposite perspective; how every time she looks at the night sky, she feels a connection, a unity, with every other creature enjoying that very same view.


Although Cecilia is most definitely female, her 1920’s garb and short bob, render her masculine beside her nineteenth century forebears. Similarly, her desire to stand out, rather than fit in, conforms to our traditional notions of male versus female behavior.

The charm and depth of The Woman Who Mapped the Stars is how it confounds our ideas of women, of science, of progress without hitting us over the head with it (except maybe in the too long finale). The play’s message—a feminist call to enable curiosity and creativity wherever it’s found—lingers well beyond the play’s end.

I don’t what the future holds for this intriguing piece of theater. Although it was developed at MIT and Harvard and caters to Cambridge’s uber rationality, it warrants a wide audience. If you get a chance to see it, grab the opportunity. Like relativity, what The Women Who Mapped the Stars reveals applies to all of us, everywhere.



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A Soft Landing: Impact Taxes

This is the sixth in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

Taxes are a most effective form of behavior modification. Every kind of tax, no matter how seemingly universal, affects our actions. When we tax a product, a service, a piece of land, we shrink its net value by jacking up its opportunity costs, thus driving people to either pay more, find alternatives, or do without.

A simple example. For five bucks and change in tolls, I can drive from Cambridge to Albany in three hours on the Mass Pike. Or, I can drive Route 2 for free. Route 2 is more scenic, but the journey takes over four hours. Which route I follow depends on how much time I have. If my time is worth more than five dollars an hour, I take the Pike, correct? Actually, it’s not so simple. A deeper level analysis changes the calculation. If the weather is bad, the Mass Pike is safer. In addition, Route 2 requires more gas and vehicle wear, so that route actually costs more than the Pike, despite the toll. However, like most humans, I am more sensitive to direct pay costs (a toll) than deferred costs (maintenance), so I don’t properly factor the real cost of my trip. As this simple tax example grows complex, we see that although taxes modify our behavior, the causation is neither linear nor direct.

A more extreme example. The State of Colorado extracts a 39% cumulative tax on recreational marijuana. That’s a lot. If I live in Colorado, I have three options: buy pot legally and pay the tax, purchase it illegally, or forgo getting high. For many, the third choice is not an option, and so Colorado collects an impressive amount of tax on marijuana because the other alternative, the black market, comes with significant downsides.

Similarly, tax credits and deductions modify behavior by reducing opportunity costs, thereby increasing economic activity accordingly. When Massachusetts offered credits for installing residential solar panels, we became a national leader in residential solar, despite our cold and grey weather. When the credits expired, the solar market shrank, as reduced utility bills alone were insufficient incentive for many people to convert.

How government distributes tax revenue also affects behavior. The Mass Pike is essentially a do-loop. Tolls are used to maintain the Pike, which keeps it the premier highway in our state, thus promoting more use. Colorado’s marijuana taxes are more complicated. Some revenue is recycled into drug rehab and prevention programs, but more goes to education, building schools and affordable housing. People who do not participate in the legal marijuana market benefit from its proceeds, which contributes to Coloradan’s overwhelming support of legalized marijuana.

There are so many ways we get taxed, but most of us confront three forms on a regular basis: property tax, sales tax, and income tax. All three are general levies assessed across a broad population, and though there is some inherent behavior modification (tobacco is taxed at a higher rate than milk), we are wary of using taxes to guide behavior. Witness the uproar against New York Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed soda tax.

This fear is wrongheaded. First, because our existing tax structure already encourages specific behaviors. It promotes consuming over saving, driving cars over public transit, purchasing a house over renting. Only when we acknowledge how deeply taxes influence behavior, can we restructure them to promote the kind of long-term objectives that are so difficult for us short-term humans to apply (why we bristle at tolls yet dismiss costs like maintenance and deprecation). We need to move beyond taxing income, property, or goods. We need to tax impact; to use taxes to encourage our better natures.

In America, the so-called land of opportunity, every person ought to be able to do whatever he wants and buy whatever she can afford, so long as it does not impinge directly on others. We cannot abide ‘Thou shalt not…’ However, the more expansive, intrusive, and unsustainable thing a person wants to do or own, the higher he or she should be taxed for the privilege.

A 5,000 square foot house on five acres should be taxed at a much higher rate than a 2,000 square foot house on a two-acre lot, which should be taxed at a higher rate than a 1400 square foot townhouse on a transit line. There might even be certain forms of housing (maybe less than 1200 square foot, net-zero, in urban areas) that are not taxed at all. A second house ought to be taxed at a higher rate than a primary residence. The tax rate on a foreign-owned condo that sells for $4000 per square foot (all too common in New York, and San Francisco; coming soon to Boston) should be taxed higher still.

We can reframe property taxes to reflect the true impact of development. Similar shifts can also occur for sales taxes, maybe even income tax.

Is this a practical idea? Not yet. A country that can’t grapple with carbon cap and trade (a straightforward impact tax) is far from being able to assess people’s private consumption in a balanced manner. It will be fractious, it will be complicated, but if we decide that we want our taxes to do more than fund our government, they can also reflect our values, promote long-term interests, and extend our habitation on this planet.

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F.A.T. Chain Reaction

On the day after Thanksgiving, a non-shopper like me has time on his hands. I stumbled upon a satisfying Big Box alternative: the F.A.T. Chain Reaction (F.A.T. = Friday After Thanksgiving).

For 21 years, the MIT Museum has sponsored a team-build chain reaction event, though I’d never heard of it until last week, when an invite to volunteer showed up in my inbox. As always, when I say ‘yes’ to something, I get more out of it than I anticipate. In this case, donating a wintry afternoon rewarded me with an inspiring snapshot of humanity.

Here’s how F.A.T. Chain Reaction works. Teams of people—some families, some clubs, some ad hoc geeks—sign up to design and build a segment of a chain reaction. Each team gets one folding tabletop, upon which to construct something that will move a force (a tug of string) from one end of their table to the other end, and impart an equal force onto a string connected to the next table. The force can be transmitted by string: but also ping-pong ball, metal washer, marble, domino, magnetic motor, whatever.

On Friday morning, teams gather and assemble their gizmos on tables lined up in MIT’s field house. The public begins to arrive at one o’clock. They check out the entries while Arthur Ganson, a kinetic sculptor, interviews each team and projects their creations on large screens. The crowd grows. By 3:30 p.m. over 1500 people cram the bleachers and spill out onto the floor. Mr. Ganson makes everyone feel welcome. “These constructions illustrate principles of physics. Sometimes, they may need an extra push, or an external hand. These other forces of spirit are welcome.” A poetic way of saying, don’t sweat a glitch.

The countdown. The initial pull. The chain reaction begins. Two nimble guys with microphones trace the cacophony each contraption makes; two cameramen project the progress of the force on monumental screens. The crowd gasps at each dramatic explosion. We can’t help but pick favorites when three plush animals mounted on photovoltaics teeter along parallel labyrinths, jockeying for the lead until one finally reaches the far end of the table and releases its string. Further on, a ball tethered to the end of a string mounted on a pole winds into a spiral. It unwinds. We can see that the ball must knock against a wooden spoon in order to trigger a row of dominoes. The string winds back upon itself. Unwinds again. Will the ball hit the spoon? A third spin tight to the pole. We hold our breath. The third unspooling. The ball hitting the spoon seems to be the most pressing concern in the world. It just misses. The string spools onto the pole yet again. Unwinds. Voila! The ball nudges the spoon, the spoon pivots against a domino, dominoes fall until the final one triggers the string. The chain continues.

The force moves through 27 constructions, hundreds of pulleys, wheels, labyrinths, musical instruments, and cannons. For me, F.A.T. Chain Reaction is an ideal metaphor for our world: an exercise in collaboration as well as trust. Each group believes in their own concoction, and also harbors faith that their fellow engineers will transmit the force across their respective tables.


Everybody works hard; everybody revels in each other’s success. When an external hand is required, it represents a complementary force rather than a failure. The resulting chain reaction is greater than any constituent part.


Twenty-two minutes and four seconds after it starts, the chain reaction runs its course. The crowd applauds. The tinkerers pack up. Other volunteers and I dismantle their tables. There are no trophies, no losers; just bright-eyed kids dissembling their contraptions, already conceiving ideas for how they will make them better—next year.


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The Balance Economy

This is the fifth in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

A new Constitution, discussed in the last three essays of ‘A Soft Landing,’ is insufficient alone to ensure a peaceful transition to a more equitable society. We will need tidal change in our economic, social, political, and educational perspectives as well. Perhaps the most challenging shift will be dialing back our fixation on economic growth to embrace economic balance. The American mantra of ‘economic growth’ is universal. It transcends ideology, party, race, and class. It even transcends our boundaries: the entire world aspires to accelerated consumption. We proclaim that economic growth is essential to our wellbeing. On the contrary, it hastens our doom.

For the first ten thousand years or so of human existence, as we evolved from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, economic activity was minimal; our needs were basic and we provided them for ourselves. Great civilizations rose and fell based on their military/security apparatus more than their facility in production or trade. The vast majority of people built their own houses, wove their own clothes, and grew their own food.

Then, a few hundred years ago, capitalism sparked. Sturdier ships, steam engines, emerging cities, division of labor, financial markets, fossil fuels, mass production, military industrial complex, hyper-specialization, increased affluence. Each economic advance created new problems: pubic health crises, mass immigration, income inequality. Yet, for most of us, life improved. Sustained economic growth led to longer, healthier lives.

But that trajectory is stalling. Escalating consumption, far beyond adequate food, shelter, and security, delivers diminishing satisfaction. So much stuff enables autonomy, and weakens our human connections. The collateral damage of our excess—accelerating climate change and environmental degradation—creates new health hazards and ecological imbalance that undermine the very foundation of human existence.


Economic activity is fueled by the incentives we supply, and those incentives yield specific consequences. When cheap land and gasoline promote building 3,000 square foot houses on two-acre lots, the consequences are strained water supplies, sprawl development, and increased carbon emissions. If our incentives promote 1400 square foot net-zero townhouses on public transit lines, the global consequences are more benign.

In order to evolve from a society premised on economic growth to one centered on economic balance, we must shift incentives to better achieve sustainable consequences. This will entail revising our social safety net, our tax strategies, and our regulatory structure (to be addressed in later posts). But there’s one fundamental shift in economic thought that underlies all other changes. We need to start assessing real cost to the natural resources we use.

All economic activity includes three principle attributes: raw materials, human manipulation, and capital. When we build a car, we determine the cost of the steel, glass, and vinyl based on the cost of extraction; design, fabrication and assembly are manipulation costs, and capital keeps everything greased. What we don’t do, at present, is ascribe a value to the actual materials themselves. As a result, we underestimate the consequences of everything we take from the earth. Ore, sand, and oil are plentiful, but they are not infinite. When we remove them, we tinker with the natural order. We create repercussions among fellow creatures and in our environment that are woefully underacccounted in our current economy. Acknowledging and ascribing value to every component of our planet, in place, will help offset the pollution, erosion, and destruction we create when we extract materials. It will incentivize us to be more prudent in how we use them.

How we will do this will be difficult, and imperfect. But as a basic first step toward a world in economic balance, we need to start.

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Affirmative Action Admissions

If you’re interested in what’s happening at Harvard these days (as everyone in Cambridge is) I suggest you read Hua Hsu’s recent article, ‘School Colors: The Fight About Who Gets into the Ivy League,’ in The New Yorker, October 15, 2018. It’s all there. How affirmative action evolved from being a strategy aimed at leveling the playing field of every stratum in America to becoming a lightening rod in elite education. How it’s more difficult for Asian-American applicants to get into top schools than any other race (including whites). How the conservative right champions this case as a means to permanently topple affirmative action; ultimately helping white kids. And how Harvard defends its admissions process.

The article is thorough. Yet it contains one hilarious bit of irony, and one glaring omission.

Irony first.


The case dates back to 2012, when a Bay Area high school senior named Michael Wang with a 4.67 GPA got shut out of all the Ivies plus Stanford. He is the named plaintiff. But since legal time passes at a much slower rate than even academic time, Michael has already graduated from college. Williams. Not too shabby. Towards the end of the article, Mr. Wang confides to the author, “The education I got at Williams was incomparable to what I would get at Harvard. I still would have gone to Williams, even if I had gotten into those other schools, now that I’ve been to Williams.”

Mr. Wang’s comment doesn’t really make sense, confirming that a 24-year-old’s hubris is scarcely more refined than that of an eighteen-year-old. If Harvard is a Rolls Royce, perhaps Williams is a Bentley; it’s certainly not a Prius. But an education is not a car that you can test drive and compare. Every person extracts something different from the experience. Mr. Wang did not attend Harvard; he cannot compare his William’s education with the education he did not receive.

Even more ironic is the twisted comment about going to Williams, now that he’s been there. Isn’t the whole point of this lawsuit that Harvard is better than Williams? That if Mr. Wang had been admitted to Harvard, he would have chosen it? If Harvard is not preferred to Williams, then where’s the so-called discrimination? Truth is, few of us, at age eighteen, know what’s ‘best’ for us. I am happy for Mr. Wang that Williams turned out to be so good for him. I wish he would realize his good fortune is reason enough to drop this suit.

Which leads to the glaring omission.

Nothing in this article, or the extensive media coverage this case gets in my adopted hometown, states the most obvious aspect of the case: many, many more students are capable of succeeding at Harvard than get the opportunity. For all the angst over the fact that Harvard admits Black and Brown students with lower measurable criteria (offset by qualitative attributes such as life experience or Harvard’s desire for diversity among its student body), no one argues that these Black or Brown students are unsuccessful at Harvard. They are successful. They can do the work. Perhaps not with the same élan as a 4.67 GPA Asian American whiz kid. But they get it done.

I know this because, skin color notwithstanding, I was one of them. In 1973, I was admitted to MIT (not exactly Harvard, but pretty darn close). I accepted, showed up at the introductory picnic, guitar in hand, and realized by nightfall that I was the dubious occupant of the one percentile. In a school where numbers mean everything, trading SAT scores is common as shaking hands. After I met Ben 1560 and Alicia 1520, Tommy 1440, and Kate 1480, not to mention a trio of perfect 1600’s, I knew my measly 1280 combined SAT score was the rock bottom. In four years at MIT I never—I mean never—met another student with lower SAT scores.

So what was I doing there? I graduated from high school in Oklahoma, and MIT wants students from every state. I was demonstratively motivated (I’d already worked in an architectural firm) and, by Tech standards, quite personable.

Did I crash and burn? No. I worked harder than many because I didn’t have as much grey matter. Still, I managed to graduate, with honors, continued to graduate school, became a contributing professional, and valuable alumni.

Did going to MIT change my life? Probably more than any single event I have experienced.


Was MIT wrong to tip the scale of geography and accept me over someone with more quantifiable attributes? I don’t think so. In my forty years around Cambridge, I’ve confounded hundreds of New Englanders with the marvels of my fly-over state: an immeasurable contribution to a community cloaked in Puritan snobbery.

Do I feel bad about the ‘more qualified’ applicant whose place I took at MIT? Not really. I figure she probably liked Williams more than I would.

Harvard University exerts outsize influence in our world. Their admissions policies need to be uniform and transparent because a Harvard education is a scare resource that, by design, grows more exclusive, since it’s class size does not expand with our population, while a Harvard degree bestows privilege beyond a mere diploma. Justified or not, Harvard graduates enter adulthood on a higher rung. Harvard admissions also warrant scrutiny due to its chequered record of discrimination against women, Blacks, and Jews, as well as its collusion among fellow Ivies.

But I do not believe the way to monitor Harvard is to abolish an admissions process that includes both qualitative and quantitative measures. Because Harvard is the incubator of our future leaders, it ought to represent our society as best it can. Their process is making strides with regards to race, even as it falls short in other areas (Harvard should admit fewer legacies, more veterans). We can take a blunt ax to Harvard’s qualitative admissions criteria and kill affirmative action. And cripple the aspirations our universities represent: to reflect whom we are, and enlighten who we want to be.


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A Soft Landing: Conundrum of the States

This is the fourth in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

The Achilles’ heel of our present government is the idiosyncratic status of our fifty States. They vary widely in breadth (Alaska claims 17% of our total land area; Rhode Island a mere 0.03%), population (12% of us live in California, only 0.18% in Wyoming) and income (Maryland’s median household income of $75K+ is almost twice that of Mississippi’s $40K). They have to the power to legislate, litigate, and tax, oftentimes contrary to the Federal government (consider today’s havoc about marijuana). In theory, state and federal governments address different aspects of our society. In truth, ever since we abandoned the Articles of Confederation in favor of a stronger national government, the Feds have selectively absorbed more and more functions. Whether under the guise of fairness, equity, or simply to expand power; whether labeled the New Deal, the New Frontier, or the New Federalism, today’s Federal government has its fingers in every aspect of local life.

In a world of increased interdependence, there’s logic to Federal ascendency. Despite the current vogue of tribal and nationalist sentiment; centralized government, corporate business, and mass communication is spreading all over the earth. The trend is inevitable: we will become more and more technologically, economically, and politically interconnected until we collapse under our own weight and trigger the next Dark Age.

In the meantime, the United States is saddled with historical states that guarantee outsize influence to our rural populace and white people. I can’t foresee how we create a new Constitution that doesn’t continue, in some form, this hodgepodge of states. For starters, states are the mechanism for assembling a Constitutional Convention, as well as the vehicle of ratification. Perhaps others can envision a way to transition states out of active governance—let them be cultural and historical artifacts—but I just don’t see them voting themselves out of existence.

I can, however, suggest a simple yet potent way to counter the influence of states. Not by diminishing their power, but by giving them more.

Our current Constitution outlines how a state can join the Union. Yet it is silent on whether and how a state might partition itself or even leave the U.S. Typical human hubris: proclaiming a path to growth without even conceiving that we might wish to shrink. Our bloodiest war centered on this oversight. Our new Constitution ought to enable it.


Becoming one of the United States should not be easy; partitioning a state or exiting the country should be even harder. The criteria should be rigorous, involving multiple ballot initiatives over time, maybe even super majorities. But secession should be feasible, and the Constitution should spell out how.

Why would a libertarian liberal like me espouse an idea so often attributed to the deep right? First, because it’s the kind of bold idea that can trigger meaningful discussion across ideological bounds. Second, because if we are to be a nation of states that choose to come together for our common good, we ought to allow states to leave if our common good is exhausted. Third, in the era of 50% divorce rates and the age of Brexit, we must acknowledge that sometimes, parting ways is for the best.

The most important reason, however, to grant states the right to partition or secede, is that it will enable us all to get along better. I’ve spent enough time in enough outposts of our nation to hear all variety of arguments for states rights, most often in the form of bile spewed against the Federal government. I’ve heard folks in economically exhausted areas pine for greater autonomy, even independence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we ought to give them what they desire—the chance to go it on their own—with the certainty that once that right is available, they will think better of the idea.

If we give the passionate citizens of rural Northern California the right to actually create the State of Jefferson, they will quickly calculate the lost aid that flows north to them and change their mind. If we allow South Carolina, the birthplace of state’s rights, to become an independent nation, it won’t take long to factor the economic impact that independence will wreck on the state that receives the most federal dollars per dollar of federal tax paid ($7.87 to $1 according to The Atlantic WalletHub.)

A few places within the United States could probably function as independent nations, yet they are among the least likely to secede. Could California be an independent country? For sure. Texas? Probably, though they already tried it and they asked us to let them in. New England may be wealthy and geographically distinct enough to function autonomously. But the South? It would certainly become poorer.


As long as we deny states the right to secede, they fester an easy complaint against the national government. But if we create a Constitution that provides a right and process for secession, I’m confident those complaints will cease, and we’ll realize that we’re all better off if we hang together

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Craigslist: For Sale By Owner / Free Stuff

There are thousands, millions, of ways to describe our world as opposing dualities: ‘Can’t do’ folks versus ‘Can do’ folks; foodies versus refuelers; Patriots fans versus the other 98% of Americans. It’s fun to figure out which camp I occupy (Can do, refueler, Pats fan). But even more, I enjoy discovering new ways to characterize our bizarre society, and get a glimpse at how the other side, however defined, operates.

Lately I’ve clicked into a fascinating corner of Craigslist: For Sale by Owner / Free Stuff. It’s a whole world of peeps that want to give stuff away, and peeps that flock after it.

I find garage sales tedious exercises in sorting, labeling, and bargaining over a quarter; I extract no joy in squeezing out a final tidbit of value from something that’s exhausted its value to me; yet my recycling gene rebels against tossing anything in a garbage can. All of which makes me the ideal candidate to offer up leftovers on Craigslist: For Sale by Owner / Free Stuff. Although I make no money on these transactions, interacting with the folks seeking free stuff offers a profitable study in human nature.

First thing to understand: whatever you don’t want, somebody else does. I have given away scrap wood, rotten wood, old magazines, rusty saws, and all manner of broken appliances. True, I could not find a taker for plaster ceiling debris, but that’s a mighty low threshold of utility.

Second thing to realize: how many people troll this stuff. I found four tires in my tenants’ basement. I know nothing about automobile tires, so I posted pics of the detailed data embossed on the sides. Within hours, dozens of people wanted my Bridgestone Studless / Tubeless Steel Belted Radials Blizzak WS-15 195/60 R15 8800 / K9304. If so many people want such a specific item in so short a time, how many people are spending their days noodling through Craigslist? Apparently quite a few.


Third, the stuff goes fast. Post an old lawnmower, tracks for ceiling lights, and cross-country skis: gone within an hour.

The most challenging thing about Craigslist is this: when you have a hot item—i.e. anything more substantial than plaster dust—how do you actually give it away? If I put it on the curb and post, ‘First come, first serve’ I incite a parade of vehicles along Fountain Terrace and generate more environmental damage than I avert by giving my excess away. It’s wasteful; it’s rude. If I offer it to the first person that responds and then pull the ad, more often than not the bloke won’t show. Free stuff ain’t worth much, and once a guy’s promised a free hacksaw, he’s in no rush to claim it.

Here’s what I do. First person to request something gets sole privilege to pick it up, for a period of three to four hours. Forget about the Wednesday afternoon gent who swears he’ll collect that table saw on Saturday morning; I’d be a chump to hold it that long. Being first in line carries some privilege, but there are statutes of limitations on the prize.

Once I’ve offered the item to someone, all other inquiries receive a standard email response that the has been claimed, but if it’s not picked up in agreed time, I will offer it to the next person in the order requests are received.

Time passes. The first, or second, or maybe even the third responder swings by to pick up that electric air pump. When it’s gone, I delete the ad and send every respondent a follow-up message: Thank you for your interest, the item has been claimed.

All this correspondence takes a bit of work, but in the game of Craigslist, I try to be fair. Folks appreciate it. I get follow-up emails from the woman who didn’t respond fast enough to claim those Nalgene bottles and the guy who missed out on the toaster oven, thanking me for being informative and fair. Because even though we can divvy up the world between those who post on Craigslist: For Sale by Owner / Free Stuff and those who seek what’s offered, everyone appreciates being treated as if our time and our pursuits warrant respect.

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