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The Household Covid Budget

Full length of young female friends using smart phones while relaxing on bed at home during slumber party

Since the arrival of Covid-19 even popping to the shop for some milk has become a risk — and if you live with people, it is also a risk for them. In a shared housing situation figuring out what is acceptable behavior has become harder, and even the clearest advice “doesn’t address many of the subtle situations in which we find ourselves.” Gregory Barber asks in Wired what to do if you are a group of six people, including polyamorous members, living together in a house share? For such a group in San Francisco, the answer lay in maths — they came up with a calculator to work out risk, giving each other a points budget to use each week. 

Some activities were trickier to translate into points. First dates, in particular, would trigger a reversion to what Olsson calls a “one-off person-risk estimate.” The fact-finding missions these estimates required were a little strange and intrusive. The housemates wanted to know how often a new person shopped for groceries, who they lived with. Were they a gym rat? An ER doctor? Bachar found these interrogations uncomfortable. It felt as if she was implying that her friends were behaving badly. But others felt the questions were a reasonable concession to the pandemic. Dobro says that polyamory had prepared her for these awkward conversations around trade-offs. “We’re used to having conversations that are linked to risk,” she says. If you choose to be indoors with someone, the roommates agreed, make it count. Make it a deep conversation. Make it sex.

This was a house share better suited to calculating risk than most — Olsson works for a Silicon Valley foundation on projects that seek to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of advanced AI — and the other residents, to various degrees, are adherents to “rationalist modes of thinking.” The calculator this particular house came up with has now been used around the world — including by Bob Wachter, the chair of internal medicine at UC San Francisco and a frequent public commentator on all matters Covid-19.

Olsson called their risk points microcovids, in a tip of the hat to Howard, and one microcovid equaled a one-in-a-million chance of catching the virus. They pulled epidemiology papers from Google Scholar and gathered around the table in the hearth to go through the data. The first step was to impose a top-line risk budget that would anchor all of their calculations. They debated this question at length. Olsson floated the idea of 10,000 microcovids per person per year—the equivalent of a 1 percent chance of catching Covid. But what was the actual cost of 10,000 microcovids? By their estimations, for people their age, a 1 percent chance of getting sick was about as risky as driving, which was something they did without thinking. And besides, they figured, if other people who could stay home kept to a similar budget, the hospitals would not overflow. The virus might even disappear.

To some extent, governments around the world are using their version of Covid point calculators. It may seem strange that in some areas regulations mean we cannot meet friends while children are still going to school, but it is how risk has been allocated across a community to keep it at an acceptable level. 

This was the initial premise of shutdowns and social distancing and sheltering in place. Our common infection budget was tied to hospital capacity—the number of ICU beds and respirators and medical staff able to respond. For those who could work from home, the task was to contribute as little as possible to the overall sum. This left more points for those who couldn’t. Then, as the first infection curve began to flatten, the foundation of the societal budget seemed to shift. Yes, we still had to worry about public health, but that concern was being stretched by other considerations: business closures, job losses, some ideal of liberty, the desire to eat burritos.

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Leap of Faith

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Last July, an apartment in the Grenoble suburb of La Villeneuve caught on fire and quickly became an inescapable inferno of flames and smoke. Two young boys stood on the balcony, desperate to escape, but with no way out behind them. They had to jump. 

In her description for the BBC, Myriam Lahouari examines the seven men who stood on the ground ready to catch them. These men were strangers to the boys, and to each other, but shared in their bravery — catching a child flying through the air like a cannonball is no mean feat, and several received injuries requiring surgery in the attempt.

Ten-year-old Sofiane is much bigger and heavier than his brother. Mouhsine, a former security forces officer with the Royal Palace in Rabat, looks up and tries to estimate. About 40 kilos, he guesses. He knows the force will be much more difficult to absorb.

Guelord is to his right, strong enough, Mouhsine reckons, that between them they can lock together to brace against the impact. He grabs the 29-year-old’s arm.

The men are worried – they can’t see Sofiane. But he soon reappears through the thickening smoke. He climbs through the open window to sit on the sill. His feet dangle over the edge, and he looks down at the ground.

The men wait. It seems like an eternity but it’s only a few seconds. Finally, he levers himself over the windowsill, hangs, then lets go. 

His right foot strikes Mouhsine, his left foot Guelord. Both fall under the impact. Mouhsine screams in pain. The bone in his wrist looks deformed. Guelord realises he has broken his thumb. Walid has fractured his wrist, Lucas his hand. Bilal is thought to have broken a finger.  

But Sofiane is unharmed. “He landed directly into our arms,” says Walid.  Elyasse weeps in relief. “The two children were unscathed – it’s a miracle,” he reflects.

“We didn’t have much time to discuss and decide, everything was done by instinct,” adds Mouhsine.

The seven men are all from the local area, and their efforts, along with the dozens of other residents involved in the rescue effort, highlighted a real sense of community. Not many people realize that this camaraderie exists in La Villeneuve, an area with such a bad reputation that the address has become “so stigmatized that its young residents struggle to get a job.” Does this suburb deserve this image, or did “the catch” prove it to be something different? There is certainly a troubled history here — the men who saved the boys are all immigrants — on an estate that ten years previously erupted in violent rioting that provoked an anti-immigration speech by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the summer of 2010, a man from La Villeneuve was suspected of stealing from a local casino, and was killed in the police shoot-out that followed. His death triggered three nights of looting and arson in the area. A few days later Sarkozy made a hard-hitting and widely criticised security speech in Grenoble.

“We are seeing the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently controlled immigration, which have ended in the failure of integration,” he said. “We are so proud of our integration system. Perhaps we need to wake up? To see what it has produced. It worked. It doesn’t work any more.” 

He called for foreign-born residents threatening the police to be stripped of their citizenship.

 

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The Unseen in a Pandemic without Technology

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Zoom has become a lifeline for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you’re not allowed to use it? Michael Barajas explains in The Texas Observer that the majority of Texas state lockups still don’t have video visitation, and, with in-person visitation suspended, thousands of people have spent nine months in near-total isolation from their families. For the children of inmates, this can be particularly difficult — at a young age not seeing a parent for a long time can render them a stranger: “Justin still tries to communicate by phone with his son but months without seeing each other has made him painfully distant.” Visitation is a lifeline even for those without children, with the social ties it creates vitally important to rehabilitation, especially during frightening times —  more people incarcerated in Texas are dying “from COVID-19 than in any other prison system.” Without the comfort of family, even via video, mental health in prisons has faced an inevitable decline. 

Even before the pandemic hit, suicides and suicide attempts inside the Texas prison system were already the highest they’d been since the 1990s. By September of this year, more people incarcerated by TDCJ had taken their own lives than in all of 2019. One of them was Ricky Hernandez, 26, who struggled with mental illness throughout his life, according to his family. Treatment records show Ricky was hospitalized for a major depressive disorder and put on multiple psychiatric medications before he entered prison in 2017 on charges of harassment and violating a protective order. Henry, his older brother, says that Ricky struggled in prison because of his illness. To try and cheer him up, a big group of family members used to visit him every other week at the Coffield Unit, the East Texas prison where he lived in solitary confinement

“It was always me, my mom, some aunts, our brother and sisters, just as many as could make it because we knew he liked seeing us,” Henry says. At the start of most visits, his brother seemed on edge, eyes darting around the room, but usually seemed to relax somewhere in the middle, he says. “I think we helped settle him down.” 

Henry says his brother stopped writing as frequently after visitation stopped in March. Prison officials called the family in early May to say Ricky had tried to take his own life. Then, on May 22, Ricky was “discovered unresponsive and hanging in his cell,” according to a report the prison filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. After his death, someone housed near Ricky wrote to the family claiming that officers hadn’t checked on him for hours before his death. For months, Henry has called the prison system’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which investigates deaths in custody, asking whether his brother was treated for mental illness or checked on by guards the day he died. They have yet to give him any answers. OIG did not respond to the Observer’s questions about Ricky’s death.

 

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2020: One Year, Lifetime Consequences

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As a partner at True Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital group, Om Malik is easily able to work from home during the pandemic — a privilege he does not take lightly. In his ebook, The Longest Year, he reflects from his unique perspective on both the benefits technology has brought us, and the disparity it has created.

How often have you seen images of kids sitting in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants to access WiFi and attend their classes over Zoom? The Federal Communications Commission says that over 21 million people in the U.S. lack high-speed connectivity, though it should not be surprising that this is most likely a significant undercount.

Even from his more privileged position, Malik finds isolation hard, as he lives through not only the pandemic but the devastating wildfires that hit California, turning his home of San Francisco into a world where the “colors that one normally associates with movies such as Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, Mad Max, and Dune are all around us …” In this ebook, Malik journals his thoughts throughout the year that was 2020, allowing us to see, and learn from, his personal struggles over hundreds of days of self-isolation. 

I recently found myself on a beach off the California hamlet of Bolinas in the middle of a seasonal transition. For a couple of hours, I watched multiple whales frolicking in the waters as they dove for food. I am not enough of a nature expert to say for certain if these were the blue whales that have been making appearances in Northern California. I could see these with my naked eye. It was easy to find them, as well, because the ocean was relatively calm. A gigantic, ever-changing swarm of sea birds was also taking part in this alfresco dining.

The sight in front of me was a reminder of the gentle rotation of the planet, which will keep going long after I am gone. Similarly, these whales will migrate elsewhere. 

Locked in my cave, as I have been for the last many months, I feel the passage of time. I don’t mean that in a rigid, mathematical sense. I feel its ebbs and flows. Time has fluidity and adaptability. It is fungible, only represented in the rhythms of the world around us. As I grow older, I realize that impermanence and time are part of the same journey. The biggest lesson of standing in place — especially during this pandemic — is the importance of listening to the heart’s rhythm and letting that define what time and life are.

Malik also thinks beyond his personal experience — considering the human psyche that quickly moved from selflessness at the start of the pandemic, to our social media “post-algorithmic reality,” where it is every man for himself. Malik goes on to share interesting reflections on the huge shift to humankind that the pandemic has fast-forwarded, and how “we are in a period of extreme, rapid change that will redefine how we interact with the world around us.”

Now as we prepare to welcome 2021, we are changed in many ways. Perhaps most significantly, the distinctions between our physical and digital worlds have largely disintegrated. We now work and we live online just as much, if not more, than we do offline. We may have always been heading this way, but this year significantly — and irreversibly — accelerated our pace. Transitioning to this new normal comes with tremendous opportunity, but we must remain aware that some will require assistance to make the adjustment.

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The Music of the Cave

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Cueva de los Tayos — Cave of the Oilbirds — is a giant cave in the Andes guarded over by the Shuar, the Indigenous people of the region. This cave has compelled visitors for hundreds of years, who have linked it to UFOs, ancient metal tablets, and burial grounds. Writing for Outside, David Kushner tells us how the allure of this cave even reached as far as Scotland, to a civil engineer named Stan Hall. 

As a young married man in Dunbar, a seaside town near Edinburgh, he was a mild-mannered civil engineer with a bookish interest in science, history, and travel. “He got interested in explorers,” ­Eileen says. “People like Lawrence of Arabia who would go off into the unknown.” Reading about Tayos in The Gold of the Gods captured his imagination like nothing before. Von Däniken claimed that an Argentine-Hungarian explorer, Juan Moricz, had taken him to the cave, where they found the tablets that, he wrote, “might contain a synopsis of the history of humanity, as well as an account of the origin of mankind on earth and information of a vanished civilization.”

The fantastical account gripped Hall, who on a whim decided to write to Neil Armstrong and invite him to take a trip to the cave in 1976. Armstrong, recently world-famous from his moon walk, could draw enormous attention to the venture, and as Hall had learned, the astronaut had Scottish roots, so he just might consider the idea. To Hall’s shock, Armstrong wrote back saying he was interested. With that letter in hand, Hall approached both the British and Ecuadorean governments, which agreed to provide funding and helicopter transportation to the site. Within a year, Hall had organized one of the largest cave expeditions of his time.

After Stan Hall passed away, his daughter, Eileen, also felt the call of the cave. Kushner joins her on one of her expeditions and discovers that her motivation is very different from that of her father. Eileen is not treasure hunting in the traditional sense, feeling “a growing sense of alienation in a male-dominated adventure narrative,” Eileen was drawn to the spiritual side of the cave. She wants to record music there, an idea, which after some resistance, was welcomed to help “spread the word about the fragility of the region’s landscape and the Shuar people.” And so it is with musical instruments that Kushner descends with her into the deep. 

The deeper we go into Tayos, the more spectacular it becomes. We step into a giant cavern, which I nickname King Kong’s Palace. Boulders cover the ground like fallen ruins, and the cave’s ceiling looms at least a couple hundred feet overhead. In the distance, there’s another passageway with perfectly smooth walls that rise and meet at close to a right angle.

Around the corner, we come to the gargantuan Main Chamber. It could hold a 20-story building lying on its side, and it’s just as tall. The light from our headlamps fades before it reaches the far side. The ground is rocky, lunar, and black, but unlike the moon it’s teeming with life. Giant brown tarantulas stroll between stones. I catch the glimmer of the silvery back of a three-inch beetle before it scurries into the shadows. On a small boulder, we spy what looks like a steampunk insect, part flesh, part machine. It’s an Amblypygi, or whip spider, and as we get closer, we see that it has a beetle in its mandibles.

After pitching our tents and filling up on lentils and rice, we fall asleep to the cries of the oilbirds, which gradually fade to silence.

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The Rehab of Big Sky Country

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In this personal essay for Beside, Simon Hudson reflects on the time he spent as a teenager in a wilderness rehabilitation center in Montana. It was not somewhere he went willingly. His parents, scared of the path Hudson was on, signed over custody to “two ex-Marine types” who turned up in his bedroom at 3am to take him on a plane to the woods of Montana. Initially, Hudson was filled with rage at his lack of choice, and his only thoughts were of escape — managing to leave the facility and hitchhike the 483 kilometers to Missouri. However, Hudson was soon sent back, and when he finally accepted his time in the woods, he found that the wilderness did have something to teach him. 

Montana is known as “big sky country.” On our long hikes through the mountains, the wide summer sky framed everything we saw: eagles perched on cliffs looked like giant boulders before swooping into the valley below; mountain lions took a path along the ridge that ominously intersected with our bearing. Beneath our feet the snow melted, edible glacier lilies and berries spread out, the colour of the rocks shifted from deep reds and blacks to translucent pinks and blues of quartzite and rare lightning glass.

I remembered the things I wanted to do and create, the things that sparked my curiosity, but mostly the people that were important to me with whom I wanted to share those things. I understood how I had intentionally broken off relationships as a way to hide from my shame of being a terrible friend. I had such an outpouring of old, packed-away ideas to examine and process that the long walks were never boring.

These intense moments of clarity persisted even in my sleep. Each night as I lay in a bivy sack under my tarp hooch, my thoughts morphed into dreams that were as vivid as real life—my subconscious working out what I couldn’t when I was awake. I once dreamt our group was trekking through a park back home in Seattle and we encountered some of my friends in a circle getting high. I left the trek to go join them and I sat down in the circle just in time for my turn in the rotation. One of the counsellors came up to me and asked, “What are you doing?” I was surprised at how I hadn’t even managed to muster a doubt about rejoining my old life. At the same time, I was also certain it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I got up and got back on the trail. Then I woke up.

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A Bit of Mud is Good for You

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In the Western world, humans spend 90% of their time indoors, more since the impact of COVID-19 — but disconnecting ourselves from the outside into sanitized boxes is not as safe as we may think. Caroline Winter explains in Bloomberg Businessweek that while light and air pollution are obvious issues, so is the microbiome of the built environment. The buildings we inhabit are full of microbes; inhale deeply and, “With each breath you bring oxygen deep into the alveoli of your lungs, along with hundreds or thousands of species.” Indoor microbe populations tend to be less healthy for us than those that exist outdoors — and, if you live in a green area, simply opening a window can promote a healthier environment. It may also help to be just a little less clean — ease up on the bleach and we won’t wipe out all the good bacteria with the bad. So don’t be afraid to breathe in a bit of the outside world, or get some mud on you: The microbes from species found on plants and leaves may actually be good for us.

Of course, the most urgent microbe-related question is where to find SARS-CoV-2 and how to kill it. Beyond that, there are also long-term questions. How can we promote indoor microbe populations that don’t make us chronically ill or harbor deadly pathogens? Can we actually cultivate beneficial microbes in our buildings the way a farmer cultivates a field? Experts including Van den Wymelenberg are confident all this is possible. “I really believe our building operators of the future and our designers will be thinking about how to shape the microbiome,” he says.

The term “microbiome” is most often used to refer to the population of microbes that inhabit our body, many of which help produce vitamins, hormones, and other chemicals vital to our immune system, metabolism, mood, and much more. In the typical person, microbial cells are as numerous as those containing human DNA and cumulatively weigh about 2 pounds. In recent decades our personal microbiomes have been altered by factors such as poor dietary habits, a rise in cesarean-section births, overprescription of antibiotics, overuse of disinfectants and other germ fighters, and dwindling contact with beneficial microbes on animals and in nature. According a 2015 study, Americans’ microbiomes are about half as diverse as those of the Yanomami, a remote Amazonian tribe.

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Alzheimer’s Before Forty

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At the age of 37, Jo Giles was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease. He first shared his story with Shannon Proudfoot for Maclean’s at the age of 38. In the three years since, the disease has progressed in “plateaus connected by sudden declines,” and in this latest piece, Proudfoot looks at the agonizing decision Jo’s wife Robin is now facing. Robin “knows a reckoning is imminent”— with Jo becoming more and more difficult to care for at home. She is considering a nursing home, but before Jo lost the ability to verbalize his thoughts he told her he despised that idea and would prefer to end his life. This is not possible: “… when medical assistance in dying became law in 2016, excluded were “advance requests” that would have permitted people with dementia to set out terms for their death while they still had capacity to consent.” And Robin herself is struggling to imagine a home without her husband — although they stopped being “husband and wife” a long time ago, he is still “her person,” even as his former self slips further and further away. 

Mostly, Jo looks like any guy in his early 40s and just like he always has, because even as he’s had to switch to comfortable clothing with no buttons or zippers, Robin has stuck close to his personal style; his wardrobe is still heavy on band T-shirts. But there’s a sort of veil in his gaze now and a relaxed softness in his facial features. When Instagram or Timehop present Robin with old photos, she can see some important source of light in Jo that’s gone now. A trip to the beach two years ago seemed ordinary, but when the photo appears, she can remember the day vividly: a postcard from another world where such things were possible. “It’s pretty devastating,” she says. “But also it’s nice to remember those times.”

Doctors often use the term “insight” to discuss whether a person with dementia is aware of their condition; some people come in for an appointment furious at a spouse who keeps insisting they’re losing track of things when they’re sure they’re not. Jo was acutely aware of his illness early on, and he and Robin talked about it often. “He was just frustrated by the hand he was dealt, and he was always, always worried about being a burden,” Robin says. “We would tell him, ‘You’re not.’ ” Jo stopped having those conversations about a year ago.

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The Grizzly Attack that Created a Bear Advocate

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When Mya Helena Myllykoski and her son were attacked by a grizzly bear whilst hiking they managed to fight it off — partly through luck, and partly through a can of bear spray. As Eva Holland explains in Cottage Life, the fact that they were not completely helpless could be why neither has had any adverse psychological effects from the attack: “For most … a key factor in recovering from trauma is agency, the sense that you have power or control over your own circumstances.” It’s a concept called “post-traumatic growth,” also known as “adversarial growth” or “benefit-finding.” Mya went hiking with her younger son a few days after the attack, and, in fact, the incident ended up giving her a clear sense of purpose —  she now addresses bear-human conflict in speaking gigs and in a book that she is working on. Instead of holding any resentment against bears, she wants to help save them. 

That’s when Mya went for her backpack with the spray, the sound attracting the bear’s attention, and he charged at her. He knocked her onto her back again, pinning her chest with huge, heavy paws. The can of spray was in her hand somehow now, her fingers tangled in the plastic loop below the trigger guard, and she regretted that she hadn’t practised removing the safety recently. She put her hands up as the bear’s jaws came down towards her face. Then the canister exploded between them. It took her a moment to understand that the bear, snapping at her face, had bitten right into the can instead. 

The bear backed away, looking—in Mya’s word—“insulted.” She couldn’t breathe properly, though she didn’t yet feel the searing pain of the high-potency spray that covered her face. The bear moved away into the brush, and she got to her feet. Alex was standing now too, bloody, still swearing. “Fuckin’ A!” he said, riding high on adrenalin. “That was amazing!”

A deep, pained groan from the brush let them know the bear was still close by. Quickly, feeling that continued threat, they emptied all their water onto Mya’s face, hoping to clear the spray. They only succeeded in spreading it around. Her skin burned now, and it hurt to breathe, and she could hardly see. They gathered their things from the ground and retreated down the trail, Alex leading his mother along. He was still jubilant, punching the air.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Science and Nature

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. We’ve searched through our archives to find the science and nature stories that take you into ancient forests, through dark swamps, to the bottom of the sea, and right up into the stars. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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The Social Life of Forests (Ferris Jabr, The New York Times Magazine)

Old-growth forests in North America are like something out of a fairytale — huge trees, luminescent with moss, with boughs arching above your head, and “gnarled roots” beneath your feet, “dicing in and out of the soil like sea serpents.” And, as Ferris Jabr discovers in this story, the magic of these trees goes beyond what we see — with intricate fungal networks weaving them together into an inclusive community that links “nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species.” This is a fascinating piece that shows you these giant sentinels are more than you expect — more than just individuals. 

Jabr goes into the forest with Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia who has studied these systems and proved “a dynamic exchange of resources through mycorrhizal networks” between the two species of paper birch and Douglas fir. Her work has provoked a certain amount of controversy: “Since Darwin, biologists have emphasized the perspective of the individual … the single-minded ambitions of selfish genes.” Simard is proving this is not what is happening in old-growth forests; they are “neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society.” And trees are not just interacting with each other, “trees sense nearby plants and animals and alter their behavior accordingly: The gnashing mandibles of an insect might prompt the production of chemical defenses … Some studies have even suggested that plant roots grow toward the sound of running water.” 

A forest operating as a complicated, sharing society is a powerful notion. Not only does it garner more respect for this ecosystem, but it could prove that cooperation is as central to evolution as competition: “Wherever living things emerge, they find one another, mingle and meld.”  Read more…