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Bug Buzz

Posted byAlison Aten on 12 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: Authors, Children, Event, Interview, Nature/Enviroment

Bruce GiebinkBill JohnsonMinnesota Bug Hunt

It may be snowing in Minnesota, but bugs will be crawling out soon. Today we chat with Bruce “the Bug Guy” Giebink and photographer Bill Johnson, collaborators on Minnesota Bug Hunt, a new children’s book about insects big and small, fierce and friendly.

Find out why they are both fascinated by the Mantisfly.

How did you become interested in bugs?

Bruce:

Although I’ve had naturalist tendencies since I was a kid, I wasn’t especially fascinated with insects as a group until I took an introductory entomology course in college. I had no idea of the incredible diversity that exists in the insects. They come in a nearly endless variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and more species continue to be discovered on a daily basis.  Many truly do look like mini alien creatures! Once I began to study them more closely, I started to appreciate their amazing ability to survive and adapt to their environment.  As a group, they interact with each other and the environment in some truly amazing ways. One area I find particularly fascinating is how insects interact with each other and plants on a chemical  level. Although many insects live in a visual world, even more exist within an amazing world of smells.

Bill:

One of my earliest memories is from around age three or four and I was looking at some hollyhock flowers and saw something fly into one. Being very curious, I walked up to the flower and for some reason stuck my finger in it. Well, the flower bit back. That was a big surprise for me! After a few seconds, I realized that it wasn’t the flower that bit me, but some large insect that quickly flew out of the flower. Later I determined that it was a large bumblebee that had stung me, only because I had just poked it. Because of that, I made it a point to find out what did that and why it did that.  To this day, happily, that investigation continues.

If you were a bug, what bug would you be?

Bruce:

I’d want to be a praying mantis. Mantids are very active and alert predators with excellent vision. They have a very good idea of what’s going on around them. Within the bug world, they are a top predator, so there aren’t many other bugs you’d have to worry about eating you–except perhaps a larger, hungrier mantis! Most can fly, so you’d be able to fly around, just for the sheer joy of flying or to escape danger or to check out different habitats. For an insect, they also live a fairly long time (2.5–4.5 months).

How do you get such detailed images?

Bill:

With the right equipment, patience, and practice, it’s really not that hard to do. The best lenses to use are referred to as “macro lenses,” specifically made for close-up photography. When working at such a small scale and subject matter, depth of field is almost nonexistent, so the addition of a flash or multiple flash units is required to achieve sharp detail.

What is your favorite cool fact in the book?

Bruce:

The crazy life cycle of the Mantisfly. By appearance alone, the Mantisfly definitely qualifies as a bizarre bug! It’s got grabbing front legs (like a praying mantis), a really long neck (about the only other bug I know with a long neck is the Giraffe Beetle, another bizarre bug!), and beautifully patterned wings (like a lacewing). The life cycle of the Mantisfly is so unusual and detailed that I had a very difficult time keeping the description as short as it is. I wanted to say a LOT more! The world of bugs is truly full of weird and wacky characters. The more you look, the more you find. If I had been a part of creating the movie A Bug’s Life you would have seen some REALLY WEIRD and CRAZY bugs, some behaving in a truly WEIRD manner!

Bill:

I like the Mantisfly life cycle story. In the insect world, it’s eat or be eaten, and you do what you can to be successful in one and try to avoid the other. To do that sometimes requires being really sneaky or devious as well as being able to show off bright colors, startling patterns, and weird body shapes.

What do you hope readers will get out of this book?

Bruce:

When readers (or even those just looking at the pictures) pick up this book, I hope they’ll appreciate the incredibly detailed pictures and want to know more about what they’re looking at. When they read about a particular insect, I hope they’ll say, “Cool!  I didn’t know they did that!”

After seeing all the different sizes, shapes, and colors of the insects in this small book, I hope they’ll appreciate the incredible variety or diversity that exists in the world of insects, even in a temperate location like Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. I hope this tiny glimpse into the hidden and mysterious world of insects will pique their interest enough to want to explore their own backyards, woods, and ponds to find their own bugs. Once they find them, I hope they’ll want to learn more about them, such as what they are, what they eat, how they protect themselves, etc.

More than anything, I hope they develop an appreciation for all the many important jobs that insects do and begin to realize how important they are to the natural world. In many respects they truly are “the little things that run the (natural) world.”

Meet Bruce, Bill, and some bugs tomorrow at Red Balloon in St. Paul at 10:30 a.m. Click on the hyperlink for the title, above, for more events with the authors.

Tasteful Taxidermy

Posted byAlison Aten on 27 Nov 2012 | Tagged as: Interview, Nature/Enviroment, Videos

“DIY Death Rituals,” “Sing Like a Voyageur,” “Field Dress a Deer,” “Crop Art 101,” “Detasseling Corn: The Hows and Whys,” and “Tasteful Taxidermy” are just a few of the chapter titles in The Minnesota Books of Skills: Your Guide to Smoking Whitefish, Sauna Etiquette, Tick Extraction, and More by Chris Niskanen.

Chris is no stranger to the art of taxidermy. In his book he profiles Marv and Betty Gaston of Taxidermy Unlimited, but for today’s blog post he wrote up the story of Francis, below:

I was driving home from Best Buy in Woodbury when I saw a badger lying on the shoulder of a two-lane highway. It appeared to be perfectly intact after getting hit by a car. It was August.

Another SUV had stopped in front of me, and a woman with several older children were inside. About the time I pulled over to investigate, a teenage boy jumped out of the SUV, and soon the two of us were standing over the dead badger. He couldn’t believe what he was looking at. I was surprised, too, to find a badger in Woodbury. We discussed the matter with his mother, and while she was intrigued by the idea of bringing it home (they had stopped first, so had dibs), she understood that on such a warm day she needed to get it either in a freezer quickly or to the taxidermist. I volunteered to take it because I knew a taxidermist who could do the job immediately. When I brought it home, my five-year-old daughter was fascinated by the story and the face of this young badger, struck down in the prime of its life.

The taxidermist did a marvelous job, and later that winter (taxidermy takes a while to complete) the entire family went to pick it up. My daughter was now in love with the adorable young male badger mounted tastefully on a board, looking like he was peering through grass. She insisted on putting it in her room, and ever since, Francis (named after the children’s book character, also a badger) has been adorned in pearls, earrings, and doll clothes. Up close, Francis is an amazing animal, with his flat head, powerful shoulders, and long, sharp claws, but he doesn’t appear menacing.

He’s been a great way to talk about wildlife and science with our kids, plus he’s a swell conversation piece. My wife, bless her heart, has always embraced the idea of having Francis in the house, which is key if you ever plan to do something like this (warning to any spouses who see roadkill and fancy having it mounted for display in the home). The other lesson learned here is that taxidermy isn’t what is used to be. Francis is like a museum piece, and because we enjoy nature so much and have designed our home around the nature that surrounds us, he fits pretty well into our decor.

*****

For a glimpse at more of the Niskanen taxidermy decor, watch Fox 9’s M.A. Rosko as she sharpens her Minnesota skills with Chris in his home.

Chris will be on KARE 11 Sunrise tomorrow (11/28/12) around 6 a.m., and listen for him on Minnesota Public Radio soon too. (We’ll update links here.) Please click on the book title link, above, for upcoming signings with Chris.

“Paddle! Paddle! The rocks!”

Posted byAlison Aten on 15 Nov 2012 | Tagged as: Book Excerpt, Nature/Enviroment

Canoeing with the Cree Collector\'s Edition Canoeing with the Cree Collector\'s Edition

Just in time for the holidays, this limited edition of the classic Canoeing with the Cree by Eric Sevareid is the perfect gift for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers. In 1930, Sevareid and Walter C. Port set out on an ambitious summer-long journey from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay–a 2,500-mile voyage through a vast and remote land. This handsome set includes a newly designed book with the retro, iconic cover packaged in a multipurpose storage tin, with a colorful art-quality map annotated by Ann Raiho–suitable for framing! Raiho and Natalie Warren were the first women to replicate Sevareid and Port’s route, in 2011.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“We headed in a northwesterly direction, mostly out to sea as I endeavored to get beyond the boundary of the rocks, which lay just below the surface. The breakers were nearly six feet high now, and we were taking water over the gunwales steadily. We dared not take our eyes from the kicking spray ahead of us, where, we knew, lay the end of the reef.

“‘I’m out far enough,’ I thought, ‘and here we go north,’ and I swung the nose of the canoe. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the coming waves, which lifted us up and down, each time throwing us farther ahead. Paddling was very hard and trying to steer in that wind and water was tiring on the muscles of my arms and stomach.

“Now we were beside the rocks, I judged. At that moment, a great wall of water lifted the stern high into the air and as it ran along the bottom of the canoe, spray pouring in, Walt yelled, ‘Paddle! Paddle! The rocks!’”

Great Backyard Bird Count, February 17-20

Posted byAlison Aten on 16 Feb 2012 | Tagged as: Nature/Enviroment

Great Gray Owl by Bill Marchel

The Great Backyard Bird Count begins tomorrow. Check out the website for more information on how to participate and where to submit your results.

Need some help identifying birds? Adele Porter and Bill Marchel’s children’s book, Birds in Our Backyard, introduces birds season by season with stunning photographs.

Photographer Bill Marchel recently won the 2011 Nikonians Wildlife Forum Challenge for the image shown here. A similar view of the Great Gray Owl is in the book .

Newly updated iPhone App for Family Fun in the Twin Cities

Posted byAlison Aten on 20 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: Authors, Children, MHS press, Nature/Enviroment, Travel

Dad's Eye View iPhone app Home ScreenDad's Eye View Activities iPhone App Page

Twin Cities iPhone App

 After the presents have all been opened, the cookies are gone, and the tree needles start to fall, what are you going to do with the kids for the whole week?!

Check out our newly updated iPhone app, Dad’s Eye View: 52 Family Adventures in the Twin Cities.

Twin Cities digital dad Michael Hartford added twenty-four new family venues to the app this month. This past May we released the print edition of the book Dad’s Eye View with an accompanying free iPhone app that allows readers and users to discover the most affordable, educational, and, yes, fun things to do and see throughout the year in the Twin Cities.

Some of the updated venues for kids with cabin fever include Edinborough Park, Maple Maze, Memory Lanes, The Landing, and Elm Creek Park Reserve.

The app has a number of convenient features for busy dads and caregivers, giving users a fun new way to explore and share your experiences:

* Search all locations by season, venue (indoor/outdoor), and price
* Read a short description of this digital dad’s experience at the location
* Contact any location with the touch of a finger
* Locate your destination on a map
* Rate and share your outing on Facebook and Twitter or on the Dad’s Eye View Facebook page and @Dads_Eye_View!

A Great Gray Winter? (And a contest!)

Posted byAlison Aten on 13 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: Contest, Nature/Enviroment

Great Gray Owl photo by Bill MarchelToday’s blog post is by Adele Porter and Bill Marchel, author and photographer of Birds in Our Backyard: Say Hello to Minnesota’s Feathered Friends.

In Minnesota, we are hoping for a great gray winter.

How can winter be both great and gray?  It is if there is an “irruption” of Great Gray Owls moving southward out of Canada into Minnesota.

When conditions are just right, keep your eyes wide open for this large northern owl sitting on top of a roadside tree or pole, scanning and listening for movement of its favorite meal of meadow vole (Microtus pennsylanicus.)

All it takes is a very wet, very cold spring and summer in the Canadian peatlands, and the population of meadow voles plummets. This happens on the average of once every three to four years, sending Great Gray Owls further south in search of food. Nearly 80 percent of the Great Gray Owl’s carnivorous diet comes from meadow voles. That’s a big lean on just one food item.

Meadow voles live in moist, grassy areas. In the winter, they keep to the zone of deep snow that provides protection from the cold, wind, and some predators. But watch out below! Great Gray Owls have a keen sense of hearing and can locate a vole two feet under the snow. Never mind if the snow is deep and crusted: Great Gray Owls have adapted a hunting maneuver of diving through the snow with their head and sharp talons, called “snow plunging.”

“I remember a particular Great Gray Owl I photographed one cold and clear winter day a few years ago,” said wildlife photographer Bill Marchel. ”The snow was nearly waist-deep that year, and I wore snowshoes to help me get around in a tamarack bog. Over my shoulder I carried a tripod-mounted camera and a backpack full of photography gear.

“It was sunny but cold that day. My cheeks were rosy and fingertips numb.  It was nearly sunset when I spotted a Great Gray Owl perched on the tip-top of a small tamarack.

“The bird allowed a close approach–as they often do–and after snapping a few pictures, I relaxed while I studied the owl. Totally ignoring me, the owl swiveled its huge head left and right on what I figured must be a neck containing well-oiled ball bearings. But it was the bird’s yellow eyes that demanded the most attention. I thought for a minute.  Piercing?  Sort of.  Striking?  Maybe. Captivating, that’s it!  It’s those captivating yellow eyes. That’s what is so alluring about Great Gray Owls–those captivating yellow eyes. I snapped a few more photos.

“Peering through the camera’s viewfinder, I noticed the owl suddenly become alert.  Its attention was focused somewhere in the open bog beyond me. Then the bird took flight. It started out low and in my direction. My camera whirred as it advanced from frame to frame while the owl approached. The big raptor passed so close to me that I felt the wind from its giant spreading wings. But I heard not a sound. Its flight was totally silent.

“As the owl passed me it rose slightly in the air. As it did its wings abruptly became rigid. Then the bird went into a midair stall about twenty yards away. Next, without warning, the predator plunged downward into the snow with wings back and talons outstretched. The prey, a vole I assumed, was secure in the owl’s grasp nearly a foot under the snow.  After briefly glancing about, the Great Gray Owl downed its victim in one gulp. Once again it thrilled me by flying close while returning to its original perch to continue its hunt.”

What to Look For

The name Great Gray Owl is a clue that this gray owl indeed looks large. Take away the dense feather mass, however, and this owl is taller but lighter in weight than its northern cousin the Snowy Owl. Great Gray Owls can measure about 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall with a 4- to 5-foot wingspan (about 50 to 60 inches). They wear a white bow-tie with a black knot and have yellow eyes. Their two large feathered facial disks serve to funnel sound directly to their ears, which are under the feathers on the outer edge of each disc. The owl’s ears are positioned at different levels on each side of its head, which allows it to “triangulate” the sound and pinpoint the vole under the grass or snow cover.

When and Where to Look

To get a look at this large owl, take to the roadsides, fields, and open coniferous forest edges near a river, bog, or stream at dawn and dusk this winter. It dines most often in the low light of sunrise and sunset. If we are fortunate enough to see the wide wings of this predator ranging over the northern states in the next months, our hopes may have materialized into a great gray winter.

Win a copy of Birds in Our Backyard!

Visit photographer Bill Marchel’s website for the answers to these questions, and submit links to pictures of the birds from his website in the comments section of this blog. Deadline for submissions is Thursday, December 15, at noon. One winner will be randomly selected from correct submissions.

Clue # 1
This bird is orange and black and builds a hanging sock-like nest.  Icterus galbula

Clue #2
This bird is blue and white and has a crown atop its head, and is not a belted kingfisher. What is it?

Clue #3
The state bird of Minnesota.

Look for another chance to win a copy of the book on Thursday!

Lake Superior: Facts that DO hold water

Posted byreyescarlosa on 11 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: Authors, MHS press, Nature/Enviroment, Videos

Sunday’s Yahoo News column, Who Knew, celebrated the 332nd anniversary of the first European journey into the Great Lakes. Lucky for us, we have one of those great natural landmarks in our backyard, the mighty Lake Superior.

Among the wonderful details featured in the video, here are some more fun facts about our very own great lake.

Did you know?

  • Lake Superior, by surface area, is the world’s largest freshwater lake.
  • With an average underwater visibility of 27 feet, Lake Superior is the cleanest lake out of the chain of Great Lakes.
  • There have been more than 350 recorded shipwrecks, most of them happening during “Northeasters,” when high winds and rainy low pressure systems fly over the lake, creating dangerous conditions.
  • More than 60 fish species call Lake Superior home.

For more on the majestic Lake Superior, check out Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior by Norman K. Risjord. A compelling history of the lake’s glacial origins all the way through its present-day uses, this book also offers helpful travel tips and new tidbits about this great lake.

P.S. Don’t forget to enter for a chance to win a copy of Cathy Wurzer’s Tales of the Road: Highway 61. Share your favorite highway 61 travel destinations by leaving a comment, and who knows: you might just get to have your very own copy courtesy of MHS Press and Borealis Books!

Hot Topics, Cool Reads

Posted byAlison Aten on 02 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: African American, History, Nature/Enviroment

Minnesota History Summer 2011Looking for some insight into today’s vexing issues? Some perspective? A measure of progress? Or maybe some fun? C’mon, it’s not too hot to lift a finger and turn a page!

Check out the new Summer issue of Minnesota History, our quarterly magazine.  Begin with photo essays on sexy lingerie, a ’50s sock hop, and an old brick schoolhouse reborn as condos. End with book reviews and a photo essay on stunning Dakota ribbonwork. In between, take a leisurely stroll through the articles.

Father Francis Gilligan and the Struggle for Civil Rights: Yes, right here in Minnesota and well before the activist years of the 1960s. He was called to the Twin Cities to teach moral theology at St. Paul Seminary in the early 1930s and got right to work. Inside and out of the classroom, Gilligan argued that racism was a grave sin. He merged Catholic social-justice teachings with sociology to fight discrimination in housing, hiring, and even burial practices.

Frances Densmore Gets the Depression Blues: Suddenly unemployed and no longer young, this self-trained ethnomusicologist from Red Wing struggled to keep working in tough economic times. She wasn’t poor enough to qualify for relief programs, and who needs music collectors when people are starving? Cultural ideals and popular interest in folk culture were changing, too. Densmore did manage to get by, and she amassed a huge archive of recordings, transcriptions, and writings. Modest renown came late to her, yet people today are still assessing her legacy.

From Emission to Pollution: Regulation and Changing Ideas about Smoke in the Twin Cities: It was an uphill battle to convince folks that smoking chimneys didn’t necessarily signal prosperity. Factories, ships, trains, office buildings, and homes belched thick, sooty coal smoke into the air as the industrial era moved into the early 1900s. In the end, St. Paul and Minneapolis took different paths to abating the nuisance, with the capital city in the lead. The secret to success? Regulation, yes, but also enforcement. And it helped to have a charismatic, energetic health commissioner, too.

The Summer 2011 issue (volume 62, number 6) is available for sale in the MHS museum store, 651-259-3010. Or subscribe–four issues a year delivered to your door!

Guest blog post by Minnesota History editor Anne Kaplan

Working Together to Save the Minnesota River

Posted byAlison Aten on 07 Jun 2011 | Tagged as: Event, History, Nature/Enviroment, Nonprofit, Travel

A coalition of organizations has launched a website for the documentary River Revival: Working Together to Save the Minnesota River, which will air on KARE 11 TV on Sunday, June 12, at 6:00 p.m. The hour-long  film, narrated by Minnesota Bound’s Ron Schara, features a geological and cultural history of the Minnesota River and focuses on the many types of pollution affecting the river and its basin, paired with success stories of people working together to restore the river.

The Minnesota River has been listed as one of the dirtiest in the nation. The Star Tribune recently ran a front-page photo showing the river dumping sediment into the Mississippi at Fort Snelling.

A report released last month from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency highlights how much sediment is being deposited in Lake Pepin, a 20-mile-long wide spot in the Mississippi River. Given the sheer amount of sediment, in a mere 300 years Lake Pepin could disappear.

On Sunday, there are “Watershed-Wide Viewing Parties” at locations around the state where you can watch the film, meet fellow concerned citizens, and discuss community solutions.

Looking Ahead: Watershed Management

Posted byAlison Aten on 29 Mar 2011 | Tagged as: History, Nature/Enviroment

Red River Rising Cover

Guest blog post by Ashley Shelby, author of Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City

When it comes to the work of flood prevention, management, and mitigation, we don’t all speak the same language. Where a city engineer sees sluice gates, a homeowner sees a sump pump. Where a hydrologist sees—or doesn’t—a loop in a rating curve, a city emergency manager sees potential sandbagging capacity. But over the last fifteen years, and years of severe to catastrophic floods in the Upper Midwest’s river valleys, it has become critical that we share a common parlance when it comes to the decisions we make about how to live with rivers and other bodies of water.

For too long, we have remained complacent tenants of floodplains and watersheds. Human beings are drawn to bodies of water, often at their own peril. That’s why we see people continue to build homes on floodplains, on sandy barrier islands in the Gulf that are continually battered by hurricanes, on rocky cliffs on the West Coast that are washed away in mudslides. It’s a risk we take, and yet, for so many people—so many communities—surprise and shock are the responses when these disasters take place, even though these “disasters” are actually natural occurrences. In fact, they are only disasters because they occur at a place of human habitation. The truth is, disasters are largely social products.

In Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1997, people had lived on the Red for generations. It’s typically a mild-mannered stream-like river that cuts a narrow channel, flows north, and is generally sluggish. It climbs no grand inclines, except the ancient shores of glacial Lake Agassiz. However, it is prone to flood almost every year because of that very flatness. There just isn’t anywhere for excess water to go.


In the decades preceding 1997, flooding had been kept in check. Yes, there had been a catastrophic flood in 1897 and a few close calls through the years, but 1997 was shaping up to be a do-able flood season. The crest would be high, but the hardy folks of Grand Forks had been through this many times before. Sandbag until you collapse, turn on your sump pump, and hunker down.

But the advance of time and technology has made us arguably overly reliant on technology and perhaps not as in tune with the environment, the watershed, and the way rivers historically behave—and, perhaps more important, the chance every year that they will do something totally unexpected. While the hydrologists at the National River Forecast Center in Chanhassen were unable to see a strange loop in the rating curve detailing flow and velocity of the Red at East Grand Forks (in fact, it is patently impossible to see a loop in a rating curve until after the event), the waters of the Red poured into downtown Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the face—and the soul—of both communities were changed forever. Floodplains were cleared, homes razed, dikes built, floodwalls raised, and while these efforts were necessary, they caused great heartache for the residents of Grand Forks.

Fargo recently had to make some tough decisions as well; it cleared some of its floodplain of homes in order to enlarge that plain and ensure that flooding of the kind that took place last year doesn’t have quite the same human impact it did. That wasn’t an easy decision, I am certain, and the city council probably got an earful, just as the Grand Forks city council did.

People may understand, logically, that keeping their home on a floodplain, near a river that regularly floods, doesn’t make sense. But when that home has been their castle for decades, when they have—as many in Grand Forks maintained—survived all floods with nothing more than a wet basement, these decisions are very difficult to swallow, especially when they are being made for you.

It’s important to try to avoid such scenarios, if at all possible, and that’s where watershed management and pre-flood mitigation comes into play. What’s being done in the Lac Qui Parle-Yellow Bank Watershed, for example, is providing critical flood prevention and mitigation to the communities on that part of the Minnesota River: the Lazarus Creek Dam, the Fish Lake Outlet Repair, stream bank stabilization projects, the levee on the West Branch. The Hansonville 34 new dam was the result of the district working with a single landowner to construct a dam for flood retention by doing some cost sharing. Efforts like this save millions upon millions of dollars in flood damage and also put these issues in front of the community at large, making flood mitigation and prevention a community-wide effort. Perhaps more important, they give citizens the feeling that they can become part of the dialogue and have some say in the way their town fights floods.

Watershed management and flood mitigation is something that just about everyone in a community has an opinion on, and making this process perhaps even more complicated is that many of these decisions don’t come in the aftermath of a major flood, when the “evidence” is pooling around your boots. Often preventative measures cause at least as much angst, if not a little more, because there is no compelling, concrete reason to make changes to, say, farming practices or existing flood prevention infrastructure while the major flood is still hypothetical. (In rural areas, for example, the biggest bone of contention often turns out to be the way farmers tend their land and what effect those practices have on the watershed.)

The National Weather Service released its first flood outlook for the Red River Valley in late January, and it told flood watchers that there was a 50 percent chance the Red at East Grand Forks will rise to fifty feet or higher this spring. Only twice before in its recorded history has it done that: in 1897, when it hit 50.2 feet, and in 1997, when it rose to the apocalyptic 54.35 feet. It may be a spring to watch the way decisions made in the midst of catastrophe and loss can prevent catastrophe and loss from happening again.

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