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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Received from a well-read friend: Four articles about Monsanto. Can a gene that already exists naturally be patented? Can an animal be patented? Can a plant be patented? Can a Human being be patented? What are the limits? An example: A gene for increased height is found in humans. By attaching this gene to a virus (which is only a packet of DNA surrounded by a coating of RNA) that carries it to the egg cells of a woman, the woman stands an increased chance of producing taller offspring. Such a genetic manipulation would be very popular among people who come from short families or among races of people tending toward smaller body types. Can that gene or the simple process of attaching the gene to a virus (which can occur naturally) be patented? Could all tall people have to prove that they are not the products of this patented process? Once the gene is in the familial gene pool, would tall decendents of the first woman to receive the gene through the patented process have to pay royalties for the use of that gene? What if there is an introduction of the naturally occurring gene in the gene pool by, say, a tall father or mother from a family of naturally tall people? How could they prove that their height is not the result of an introduced gene? Or would the gene for height be patented regardless of it's source? We are at a point at which science, law, and ethics are being challenged as never before. What should be done to ensure the ethical use of the law in regard to scientific advances? Where do we draw the line between Nature and commerce? When a scientific process is clearly beneficial to humans (such as a vaccine against a devastating disease), should any commercial entity have the right to control the use of that process for commercial profit?

At the same time that the profit motive over-rides human concerns in the development of beneficial scientific applications, we have also to look at attempts to stop the development, research, and/or distribution of beneficial systems in order to protect the profits of commercial entities that would be lowered by the application of a more advanced or beneficial process. The use of alternative energy sources is one such example. Cars can be made that do not pollute and that do not use scarce resources. Yet established technologies are successfully preventing the introduction of such vehicles. This is the other side of the coin in regard to scientific change. Research into the development of inexpensive mechanisms for delivering energy from the sun is not supported because sunshine cannot be patented or controlled. What can an individual do to bring about changes that would benefit all of Humankind?

I personally do not see punishing commerce as a solution. At least, not at this stage. How can commerce be rewarded with increased profits without limiting benefits to the whole species? In other words, how can Monsanto make a profit by giving away beneficial technology? If we look at the natural world for examples, we can see that the worker bees, ants, or termites benefit by NOT passing on their own genes, but by assuring that the new generations are cared for and protected. We see that individual Bufo marinus toads do not benefit by exuding a toxic substance when they are attacked. They still die. But in their own deaths, they either kill the attacker or make the attacker so sick that it will avoid attacking other Bufo marinus toads. In this way the individual protects the species. Some plants and animals develop a symbiotic relationship with other plants or animals which benefits both. Wouldn't you rather buy products from a company that helps people rather than one that hurts people? Perhaps, that is the answer. Perhaps you have a better idea!

These are not simplistic problems with simplistic solutions. "Feel good" speeches and laws won't solve these complicated issues. Are there any real thinkers out there who would care to respond? I'll publish any well expressed letters, comments, or articles you care to send. The more, the better.

The following is the email I received from that thoughtful friend:

Monsanto has something important in common with both Captain Ahab
(from Herman Melville?s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick) and the Nazi regime.
Each represents a strange combination of rationality and madness. As
I?ve written elsewhere, Melville?s captain has an utterly irrational
obsession with the White Whale, but his suicidal pursuit of that
creature draws upon years of technical expertise and deliberate
planning. He and his men on the ship Pequod were supposed to be
hunting as many sperm whales as possible, in order to harvest oil ,
but the whales, and therefore the oil, were being depleted at a rate
far faster than their natural replenishment. And just when the
commercial rationale for hunting the whales became untenable, along
comes Ahab the damaged genius on his hunt for Moby-Dick, this time
for revenge, not oil. Ring a bell?
Like Ahab, the Nazis were bent on death in a way that failed to distinguish between their own murderous ambitions and the cultic yearning for suicide that helped to draw them into an unwinnable war Ð one which the Nazis lost because they failed to secure Russian oil reserves in Baku. Scarce resources were still being diverted to the strategically useless death camps long
after it became unmistakably clear, even to the stupidest Nazis on the team, that the war would end in defeat. The avowed motive for Hitler?s genocidal expansion into the territory of the Slavs and others was "Lebensraum," room for living, not totally different from the American Manifest Destiny with its smallpox blankets. But the big difference was the Nazi?s cool efficiency, the bizarre prominence of rational calculation in the midst of the most irrational depravity. What Himmler had, that Custer did not, was the combination of bureaucracy, technology, and an ideology of transgressive, taboo-breaking, hubristic scientism . There?s that tolling bell, again.
Monsanto is pursuing a rational policy of the maximization of profit. Like all bureaucracies, its internal organization works by conducting ethical responsibility away from individual actors. You can sell your own mother to perdition, provided your uniform (with a pay-stub in the pocket) shows that the person responsible is not really you: it?s the corporate person. Left to work its designs, Monsanto will extend and maintain its control over the world?s food supply - just at the moment when grain stocks and yields are falling farther short of demand, and Peak Oil and Gas begin to close in on the kitchen table. Large scale famine would be difficult to avoid. How can they permit themselves this behavior? By narrowing their focus on the wrong object (profit), and keeping it there no matter what. -- JAH]

Patenting a Pig
From AxisofLogic.com

By Paul Harris
Aug 6, 2005, 18:39


In a report released August 2, 2005, Greenpeace has alerted the world, and thereby God, to the fact that Monsanto is about to challenge God?s patent rights to his creationsÉ again. This time, it?s the pig.

Canadian readers might remember the plight of Percy Shmeiser, a Western farmer who lost a Supreme Court battle against Monsanto in 2004 over their genetically modified canola seed. People the world over have sat up and taken notice.

Shmeiser?s troubles began in 1997. He was routinely spraying herbicide along a ditch and discovered that some of his canola plants appeared to have become herbicide resistant. It turned out that his canola had been contaminated by pollen from Monsanto?s patented herbicide-resistant canola that was being grown in a nearby field. Shmeiser wasn?t impressed to find his canola tainted but he continued with his normal crop cycle, which includes harvesting and replanting some of the seed from his field. He also sold some of the seed he gathered.
In 1998, Monsanto sued him for patent infringement. They alleged that he had acquired and
planted their patented seeds without obtaining a license from them, and that he then sold his harvested seed and further infringed their patent. Ultimately, Monsanto had to take Shmeiser all the way to the Supreme Court where, in a stunning 5-4 decision, Monsanto earned the right, for themselves and all other corporations, to patent life. The issues the court had to decide were whether genetic patents were valid and with what scope, how exactly would such a patent be infringed, and whether contamination caused by an outside party imposes obligations on the party contaminated.

Shmeiser argued that it should not be possible to patent life. Period. Further, since he never sprayed his crop with Monsanto?s product Roundup, he had not taken advantage of the herbicide-resistant quality of the crop and never benefited in any way from the presence of their patented material in his fields. In other words, he argued that since he didn?t exploit their invention, he could not have infringed Monsanto?s patent. He also argued that he was an innocent bystander: patented material "passively and inadvertently" mixed with his personal property and he should not be held accountable to the patent holder for that. The court sided with Monsanto on all points and created a huge problem for grain producers. Farmers say that cross-contamination from Monsanto?s products is wide-spread and uncontrollable. Essentially, the court has made individual farmers liable to Monsanto for crop contamination created by Monsanto.

Beyond the absolutely absurdity that 'life? can be patented, Monsanto is not a newcomer to such controversial attempts to purchase the rights to Mother Nature. Nor are they shy about trying to control every bit of food we eat. They are also responsible for something called 'terminator? technology in which they sell you seed for a certain crop. The crop grows normally but is sterile and can?t produce seed. The idea is that you then have to buy more seed from Monsanto in
order to plant the next crop. In effect, this upsets a balance that has existed over many millennia where farmers have traditionally grown crops and harvested some of the seed to produce the next crop. Crop planting from harvested seed appears to be what nature intended when these crops were domesticated many thousands of years ago. But by manipulating just a small gene within one of these crops, they are no longer part of the natural heritage of this planet: they are the private property of Monsanto.

Worse for Canadians, it appears the Government of Canada may be complicit in assisting Monsanto to develop these terminator crops. What possible value this can provide to the world, other than Monsanto shareholders, is beyond comprehension. These so-called 'suicide seeds? strike a hard blow at the many millions of scratch farmers around the world who have existed for millennia by harvesting and replanting the crops that nature gave them. They are increasingly finding themselves in the clutches of this monolithic corporation whose sole purpose appears to be to find a way of ensuring that no food is grown that is not owned by Monsanto.

Greenpeace?s release of August 2 reveals that Monsanto has applied for patent rights in more than 160 countries for The Monsanto Pig. The documents were filed in Geneva in February 2005 at the World Intellectual Property Organization. The language in the patent applications is sufficient vague that Monsanto is clearly seeking patent not only on the methods of breeding pigs, but on the actual act of breeding and the offspring of said breeding. Here?s what they?re doing: Monsanto?s patent application (WO 2005/015989) describes in very general terms methods of swine crossbreeding and selection, types of artificial insemination and other breeding methods, all of which are already in use. Monsanto?s 'invention? is the particular combination of these elements which they claim is designed to speed up the breeding cycle to make the animals (known as products) more commercially profitable. According to Greenpeace, Monsanto isn?t seeking only a patent on their Ônew? method, they?re seeking also to patent the actual pigs which are produced by this method. Naturally, that would then give them a patent on all the little piglets and bacon that followed.

In another application (WO 2005/017204), Monsanto refers to pigs in which a certain gene sequence related to faster growth is detected. This same sequence has been noted in mice and humans and is a variation on a naturally occurring sequence; Monsanto did not invent it. But they are trying to patent it.

If the patents are granted, Monsanto would be legally able to prevent pig breeders from breeding pigs whose characteristics are described in the broad and vague patent claims. Or pay royalties. Or go to jail. This appears to be Monsanto?s first step toward acquiring ownership of the animal kingdom. They have aggressively pursued already ownership of various grain and vegetable crops with the same kind of manipulative patent application language. This company used to make its money through agrochemicals; but in recent years they have aggressively bought up seed companies and they now hold a wide range of broad patents on seeds, most of which are Genetically Modified Organisms.

Monsanto has even tried to claim patent rights on traditionally bred wheat from India and soy from China, with the patent claims attempting to apply not only to the seed but to all uses of the plants and harvest from those seeds. It is evident that they are trying to wrap up the whole food cycle as their personal property, to be resold to those able to afford Monsanto?s price.

Canada?s Supreme Court made a mistake: the very premise that a corporation can own 'life?, that it can take ownership of something that has developed through evolution merely by placing some obscure gene marker in it is patent nonsense (forgive the pun). But the corporations will run with this, and they will vigorously pursue malefactors through the legal system in an attempt to crush farmers.

In light of the efforts of other corporations to sew up ownership rights to the world?s water, it is but a small leap to seeing the very basics of our existence in the clutches of a few faceless corporations. We would do well to recall that central control of food and water has been a standard tool for political and social control throughout much of our history. We could ultimately be seeing the merging of the entire global food and water supply into just a few hands. And it is not much of a reach to see food and water wars on the horizon. No one will give a damn about oil, the fight will be over much more basic needs.

In the end, the corporations will lose because billions of people are not going to die of thirst and starvation because some foolish court rules that they don?t have the right to eat or drink. They will take what they need, and life will degenerate into a fierce fight for survival. It?s hard to imagine God being happy about all of this and it is surprising that he has not taken Monsanto to court for infringing his invention rights. But maybe he figures this is all our own stupid fault and we deserve it; we?ve done it to ourselves.

Monsanto's Big Deal
Published on Food
First/Institute for Food and Development Policy
Authors: Karl Beitel
and Nick Parker
February 9, 2005


Monsanto's announcement of their plans to purchase Seminis, the largest fruit and vegetable seed producer in the world, was quickly followed by a statement that Monsanto does not intend to apply biotech to develop these seeds-at least not yet. This is a curious assertion from a dominant biotech company. Biotech crops and food remain unpopular throughout much of the world. In the United States, biotech corporations successfully fought labeling and slipped the foods into grocery stores, knowing that these products would likely have been rejected if consumers had a choice.

Europeans actively oppose genetically engineered (GE) foods to the point that major grocery chains in the European Union have vowed to remove GE ingredients from their name-brand products. Subsequently, biotech corporations have increasingly turned to the developing world to find additional markets for GE foods. Even there resistance builds. The biotech industry promotes GE foods by claiming these technologies will help break the cycle of hunger and increase food production. These claims are not supported by available scientific evidence. Tests run by the University of Nebraska, and in Australia and Argentina, discovered significant drops in production associated with the switch to biotech crops on the order of 10 to 30 percent. But what if production increases are not the only reason biotech companies invest in GE foods?
Many have argued that the real motive driving the development of GE seeds is expanding control over the food system. Biotech crops are not only a profitable patented product in and of themselves, they are also a vehicle to sell other products. Monsanto sells "Roundup Ready" soybeans as a proprietary package in which GE seeds are conveniently mated to their Roundup pesticide. Farmers, who raditionally save seeds each year, are prohibited from doing so with these GE seeds, which must be purchased anew each growing season.

Now Monsanto plans to acquire a seed company and conventionally breed the seeds. No biotech. Despite this, it is doubtful Monsanto is retreating from the biotech frontier. The world's food system is quickly consolidating. Five corporations control 90 percent of the global grain market while five supermarket chains control most of the global retail trade. Monsanto knows that consolidation of the global food system in the hands of a small number of corporations is likely to continue. Wall Street analysts believe Monsanto's future is dependent on the success of GE seed development. Increasing its share of the proprietary seed market will allow Monsanto to exercise significant control over the food we grow and eat. They already control most of the biotech soy and corn markets. Now they've extended that reach to the global seed market. What this means is you and I, not to mention the farmer, will have less choice over what we eat and grow as Monsanto's grip on the seed supply tightens. And, if the labeling issue in the United States is any indication, we will be less informed as a result. There can be no free consumer choice when one company controls so much of the seed, and, by extension, when so few companies own so much.

The Monsanto purchase has yet to be approved while anti-trust issues are investigated. We face a crucial juncture on the direction our food supply will take. This Monsanto deal certainly favors a course that those concerned with food security, equity, and real consumer choice would do well to oppose.

Nick Parker is the Media Coordinator and Karl Beitel is the Policy Analyst at Food First.

Warming hits 'tipping point': Siberia feels the heat
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Thursday August 11, 2005
The Guardian


It's a frozen peat bog the size of France and Germany combined, contains billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas and - for the first time since the ice age - it is melting. A vast expanse of western Sibera is undergoing an unprecedented thaw that could dramatically increase the
rate of global warming, climate scientists warn today.

Researchers who have recently returned from the region found that an area of permafrost spanning a million square kilometres - the size of France and Germany combined - has started to melt for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.
The area, which covers the entire sub-Arctic region of western Siberia, is the world's largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that as it thaws, it will release billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. It is a scenario climate scientists have feared since first identifying "tipping points" - delicate thresholds where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature can cause a dramatic change in the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures.

The discovery was made by Sergei Kirpotin at Tomsk State University in western Siberia and Judith Marquand at Oxford University and is reported in New Scientist today. The researchers
found that what was until recently a barren expanse of frozen peat is turning into a broken landscape of mud and lakes, some more than a kilometre across. Dr Kirpotin told the magazine the situation was an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming". He added that the thaw had probably begun in the past three or four years.

Climate scientists yesterday reacted with alarm to the finding, and warned that predictions of future global temperatures would have to be revised upwards. "When you start messing around with these natural systems, you can end up in situations where it's unstoppable. There are no brakes you can apply," said David Viner, a senior scientist at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. "This is a big deal because you can't put the permafrost back once it's gone. The causal effect is human activity and it will ramp up temperatures even more than our emissions are doing."

In its last major report in 2001, the intergovernmental panel on climate change predicted a rise in global temperatures of 1.4C-5.8C between 1990 and 2100, but the estimate only takesaccount of global warming driven by known greenhouse gas emissions. "These positive feedbacks with landmasses weren't known about then. They had no idea how much they would add to global warming," said Dr Viner.

Western Siberia is heating up faster than anywhere else in the world, having experienced a rise of some 3C in the past 40 years. Scientists are particularly concerned about the permafrost, because as it thaws, it reveals bare ground which warms up more quickly than ice and snow, and so accelerates the rate at which the permafrost thaws. Siberia 's peat bogs have been producing methane since they formed at the end of the last ice age, but most of the gas had been trapped in the permafrost. According to Larry Smith, a hydrologist at the University of California, LosAngeles, the west Siberian peat bog could hold some 70bn tonnes of methane, a quarter of all of the methane stored in the ground around the world. The permafrost is likely to take many decades at least to thaw, so the methane locked within it will not be released into the atmosphere in one burst, said Stephen Sitch, a climate scientist at the Met Office's HadleyCentre in Exeter. But calculations by Dr Sitch and his colleagues show that even if methane seeped from the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would add around 700m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, roughly the same amount that is released annually from the world's wetlands and agriculture. It would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10% to 25% increase in global warming, he said.

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said the finding was a stark message to politicians to take concerted action on climate change. "We knew at some point we'd get these feedbacks happening that exacerbate global warming, but this could lead to a massive injection of greenhouse gases. "If we don't take action very soon, we could unleash runaway global warming that will be beyond our control and it will lead to social, economic and environmental devastation worldwide," he said. "There's still time to take action, but not much."The assumption has been that we wouldn't see these kinds of changes until the world is a little warmer, but this suggests we're running out of time."

In May this year, another group of researchers reported signs that global warming was damaging the permafrost. Katey Walter of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, told a meeting of the Arctic Research Consortium of the US that her team had found methane hotspots in eastern Siberia. At the hotspots, methane was bubbling to the surface of the permafrost so quickly that it was preventing the surface from freezing over.

Last month, some of the world's worst air polluters, including the US and Australia, announced apartnership to cut greenhouse gas emissions through the use of new technologies. The deal came after Tony Blair struggled at the G8 summit to get the US president, George Bush, to commit to any concerted action on climate change and has been heavily criticised for setting no targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Worst Midwest drought in years is wilting crops
By Scott Kilman
The Wall Street Journal


"We're getting to the point where the plants don't have much flowers left. It's not good news." - Agronomist Bill Wiebold

The worst drought across the east-central United States since 1988 is shrinking potential harvests of corn and soybeans, and slowing commercial shipping on some rivers. The dry spell, now in its fifth month, is blistering productive farmland and draining tributaries that feed the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Those are crucial pathways for hauling commodities such as salt, petroleum products and cement-making materials to Midwest cities. Several barge operators are reducing their loads to keep vessels from scraping the bottom. The move is threatening to slow the delivery of building materials to some construction projects in Chicago and could snarl the movement this fall of newly harvested crops. If river levels don't rise soon, the U.S. grain industry "will have significant delays," said Royce Wilken, president of American River Transportation Co., the barge unit of Archer Daniels Midland Co. So far, the economic fallout from the prolonged drought isn't as broad as the impact of the 1988 dry spell, which shrank the U.S. corn harvest by 31 percent and sped the consolidation of American farms. The swath of affected land this time is much narrower than it was 17 years ago. Moreover, the economic damage from the drought is being partly offset by a marked easing of a drought across the northern Plains that baked farms and ranches for more than five years. Most economists, for example, expect the rate of overall food inflation to cool this year, largely because of weakening cattle prices.

The Midwest state hardest hit by the drought has been Illinois, typically the nation's biggest producer of soybeans and the second-largest producer of corn, behind Iowa. Much of Missouri has suffered, except for the northwest part of the state. Kansas' corn and soybean crops also have been hit, though not as hard as Missouri's. Kansas biggest crop, wheat, has been harvested, and it is estimated at 384 million bushels, up from 314 million bushels last year. In Illinois, much of the state has received less than half of its normal rainfall since March. According to state authorities, tens of thousands of Illinois farmers already have lost one-third of their potential crops, which is worrying merchants in farm towns across the state. A survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 55 percent of the Illinois corn crop was in very poor or poor condition last week, as well as 34 percent of the soybean crop and 74 percent of Illinois pastures.

"We're putting off as many spending plans as we can," said John Ackerman, a 44-year-old farmer in Morton, Ill., who had wanted to buy a chemical sprayer for his apple orchard but isn't.

"It's amazing how one bad year can set you back." Managers of many Illinois grain elevators, which buy crops from farmers and sell to processors, are resigning themselves to lower grain volumes and profits. Minier Cooperative Grain Co. in Minier, Ill., has tabled plans to invest in new grain storage tanks. Production of corn nationwide should fall 16 percent this year, to 9.9 billion bushels from last year's record harvest of 11.8 billion bushels, mostly because of drought damage in Illinois, eastern Iowa and Missouri, said Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co., a commodity forecasting concern in Chicago. In Missouri, the corn crop is about shot, said Bill Wiebold, extension agronomist with the University of Missouri-Columbia. Wiebold said that while some northwest Missouri growing areas fared better because of rain, much of the rest of the state was suffering. "Corn yields have been hurt considerably," Wiebold said. Initial projections were that yield losses could run 30 percent to 40 percent, but Wiebold said it will be more than that.

Missouri soybeans also are suffering, he said. Soybean plants will reset blossoms several times trying to set pods if pollination does not occur the first time. But Wiebold added, "We're getting to the point where the plants don't have much flowers left. It's not good news." Wiebold said some areas of the state were looking at a 50 percent decrease in yields. In Kansas, row crops such as corn and soybeans also are being affected by a lack of moisture, although not quite as much as in some other states, said Eldon Thiessen, director of Kansas Agricultural Statistics. "Missouri is experiencing a more severe drought than we are, but we are deteriorating," he said. Topsoil and subsoil moisture levels have declined at least 10 to 12 percentage points a week over the past three weeks, he said. Nevertheless, Thiessen said that 54 percent of the Kansas corn crop currently is in good to excellent condition and 58 percent of the soybean crop is in good to excellent condition. But, he said, if the dry weather continues, "it will have some negative effects."

U.S. companies use corn for everything from sweetening soda pop to making ethanol fuel to fattening hogs and chickens for slaughter. Based on current conditions, Stewart Ramsey, an economist at Global Insight Inc., said he expects U.S. soybean production to fall 10.8 percent, to 2.8 billion bushels from last year's record harvest of 3.14 billion bushels. The shrinking harvest forecasts are fueling worry on Wall Street that Midwest-based grain processors will have fewer crops to process next year and that meat companies such as Tyson Foods Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc. will see their costs of feeding livestock climb. A Smithfield spokesman said there weren't any drought-related problems so far at its hog farms. A Tyson spokesman declined to comment on the drought's effect on costs, although he noted that the company's grain costs during the nine months ending July 2 were lower than the year-ago period.Helping to offset the Illinois-centered drought is that many fields in places such as Nebraska, Minnesota and western Iowa are thriving. And across the northern Plains, a five-year drought is fading. Many Montana farmers, for example, are reaping record yields from their wheat fields this summer. Pasture conditions are improving enough there and across the northern Plains for many ranchers to think about rebuilding their cattle herds. Likewise, the reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas that feed the Missouri River are slowly refilling. The upshot is that commodity analysts are projecting that corn and soybean harvests this year should still be relatively large, just not a repeat of last year's records. Most economists expect food prices to climb at a slower rate than the 3.4 percent increase of last year, which was the biggest increase since 1990, when retail food prices climbed 5.8 percent. Michael J. Swanson, an agricultural economist at Wells Fargo & Co., said he expects U.S. food prices to rise between 2.5 percent and 3 percent this year. Ramsey, the economist at Global Insight, said he expects an increase of between 2 percent and 2.5 percent.

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I live on the Pacific slopes of the Talamanca mountain range in southern Costa Rica. My adult children live in the United States. I have a Masters Degree in Gerontology but have worked as a migrant laborer, chicken egg collector, radio broadcaster, secretary, social worker, research director, bureaucrat, writer, editor, political organizer, publicist, telephone operator, and more. My hobby of photography has garnered some awards.

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