Later On

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Archive for November 2014

Jonathan Schell: Seeing the Reality of the Vietnam War, 50 Years Late

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Very interesting column at TomDispatch.com:

For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that MovesNick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.

Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture.  No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.

Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:

“If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians — then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?”

Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war — a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.

Scorched Earth in I Corps

My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam.  I was there to report for the New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer.  The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no “war” of that description.

There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam.  These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into “free-fire” zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.

By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.

As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation.  In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps.  But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.

The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result.  Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle.  I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds.  “You wouldn’t believe it so I’m not going to tell you,” he said to me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”

In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war.  What I had seen was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the conduct of the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of a courageous soldier, Ron Ridenhour, and the persistence of a reporter,Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corp came to light.

It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, of the Americal Division. In subsequent years, news of other atrocities in the area filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 the Toledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a “reconnaissance” squad called Tiger Force.  Still, no comprehensive picture of the generality of ground operations in the area emerged.

It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light. Almost immediately after the American troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed.

Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm.  A marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had in fact had been mostly burned down by other American forces a few days earlier.  Some villagers had, however, returned for their belongings. Now, the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing their M-16s, setting fire to any intact houses, and tossing grenades into bomb shelters.

A Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her.  Another reported that there were children in the shelters that were being blown up.  His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC [Vietcong].”  Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it.  They were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments:

“In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small.  Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire… Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps… Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey — that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.”

The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, slaughter of children and babies, gang rape.  Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th infantry beginning in October 1967:

“The company stumbled upon an unarmed young boy.  ‘Someone caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…’ medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job.  The radioman… ’kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic…’

“A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive…

“A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…

“And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…

“Unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company… [including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on…”

Pumping Up the Body Count

Turse’s findings completed the picture of the war in I Corps for me.  Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the Forward Air Control planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actually waging systematic war against the people of the region.

And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country.  Details differed from area to area but the broad picture was the same as the one in I Corps. A case in point is the war in the Mekong Delta, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 3:31 pm

Posted in Government, Military

Shaving bowl in a restaurant

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You can tell The Wife has picked up on the shaving stuff. We had dinner at Fandango’s for our Thanksgiving meal, and she pointed out that her dessert bowl would make a good shaving bowl:

photo 2

And another view:

photo 1

It held baba au rhum, in case you’re wondering.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 3:28 pm

Posted in Shaving

Extremely interesting movie on Netflix streaming: Whitey: U.S.A. v. James J. Bulger

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I sort of knew about the trial, but seeing it as a movie—a documentary with some extraordinary footage and audio conversations… man! what an impact!

Highly recommended.

Interesting to see just how corrupt the FBI is. And you see the same sort of determined and methodical and systematic cover-up of wrong-doing as we saw in the Catholic church—probably because both the FBI and Catholic church are highly regimented authoritarian hierarchical organizations that place their officials on a pedestal as being better than the common lot, and thus both are terribly frightened of scandal, which undermines the (unrealistically) high moral position they try to occupy. And both organizations seem shot through with corruption and incompetence. For example, see the documentary, or think about the scandal of the FBI forensics incompetence.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 3:08 pm

Conservatives can be persuaded to care more about the environment, study finds

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Yasmin Anwar reports for the UC Berkeley News Center:

When it comes to climate change, deforestation and toxic waste, the assumption has been that conservative views on these topics are intractable. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that such viewpoints can be changed after all, when the messages about the need to be better stewards of the land are couched in terms of fending off threats to the “purity” and “sanctity” of Earth and our bodies.

drinking300

A UC Berkeley study has found that while people who identified themselves as conservatives tend to be less concerned about the environment than their liberal counterparts, their motivation increased significantly when they read articles that stressed the need to “protect the purity of the environment” and were shown such repellant images as a person drinking dirty water, a forest filled with garbage, and a city under a cloud of smog.

Published today (Dec. 10)  in the online issue of the journal Psychological Science, the findings indicate that reframing pro-environmental rhetoric according to values that resonate strongly with conservatives can reduce partisan polarization on ecological matters.

“These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines,” said Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of the study. “Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to deal effectively with climate change, in particular.”

Researchers conducted a content analysis of more than 200 op-eds published in such newspapers as The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, and found the pro-environmental arguments were most often pitched in terms of moral obligations to care about the natural environment and protect it from harm, a theme that resonates more powerfully with liberals, they added, than with conservatives.

They hypothesized that conservatives would be more responsive to environmental arguments focused on such principles as purity, patriotism and reverence for a higher authority. In their study, the authors specifically tested the effectiveness of arguments for protecting the purity of the environment. They said the results suggest they were on the right track:

“When individuals view protecting the environment as a moral issue, they are more likely to recycle and support government legislation to curb carbon emissions,” said Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study which he conducted while at UC Berkeley.

Scientific consensus on the existence of warming global land and ocean temperatures – attributed in large part to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions – continues to grow and influence public opinion, especially with such extreme weather events as Hurricane Sandy. A recent Rasmussen poll reported that 68 percent of Americans view climate change as a “serious problem,” compared to a 2010 Gallup poll in which 48 percent of Americans said they thought global warming was exaggerated.

In the first experiment, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 11:46 am

Posted in Environment, GOP, Science

Political identity from dissimilar cognitive biases

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Very interesting column by Paul Rosenberg in Salon:

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, it marked the first time in 70 years that conservative Republicans controlled all three branches of government. By the time Bush left office, we were all reminded why. The financial crisis and resulting global economic meltdown Bush left us with were eerily reminiscent of the Great Depression, but there was also 9/11, the Iraq War and Katrina—a multifaceted record of spectacular failure so stunning that it should have disqualified conservative Republicans from holding power for at least another seven decades.  Yet, the Democrats’ political response to the many messes Bush left behind has been so spectacularly inept that they’ve not only lost both houses of Congress, they’ve also lost more state legislative seats than any time since before the Great Recession.

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs—and certainly the rise of Wall Street Democrats and the decline of labor played crucial roles. But beyond any particular issue area, there’s also the matter of differences in how liberals and conservatives think—and how they act and organize as a result.

As I’ve written before, a growing body of literature reveals that liberals and conservatives think differently from one another in ways that can even be traced back, in part, to the level of instinctual response, reflecting conservatives’ heightened sensitivity to threat bias. This work is congruent with an integrated multi-factor account offered by John Jost and three co-authors in the 2003 meta-analysis “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” In their abstract, they explained,  “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” Their meta-analysis integrated findings from 88 sample studies in 12 countries, with 22,818 individual subjects—meaning it drew on a substantial body of work by others.

Yet, once publicized, it drew such a hostile response there was even talk of Congress defunding the entire field of research into political attitudes. In response, Jost and one co-author wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed, which defused the crisis. In it, they wrote:

True, we find some support for the traditional “rigidity-of-the-right” hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity — all of which may be liabilities in mass politics and other public and professional domains.

This statement underscores the point that liberal cognitive tendencies can be as problematic in their way as conservative ones are.

The multi-factor distinction Jost and his colleagues analyzed is roughly congruent with a broader distinction, discussed by Chris Mooney in”The Republican Brain” (which  I wrote about here), related to two of the “Big Five” personality traits—conservatives score higher on conscientiousness, while liberals score higher on openness to new experience.

As these few examples suggest, there are multiple ways to characterize the differences in how liberals and conservatives think. For instance, Mooney argued that liberals, still fundamentally inspired by the Enlightenment promise of ever-growing knowledge about the world, are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of human reason, which they see as knowledge- and truth-seeking. But modern cognitive science teaches us that our brains are much more fundamentally shaped by the need to make persuasive arguments, which only require the appearance of rational argument.

In “The Battle for God,” Karen Armstrong illuminates a slightly different, though related, difference, contrasting the modalities of mythos and logos. As Armstrong explains, logosis concerned with the practical understanding of how things work in the world, whilemythos is concerned with ultimate meaning. Either modality can be used by liberals and conservatives alike in their everyday lives. But macro-historically, there’s been a distinct bias—and weird twist on top of it—at least since the dawn of the modern era. That’s whenlogos began becoming so all-pervasive that it seemed destined to dislodge mythos, and some defenders of mythos (now commonly known as fundamentalists) fought back paradoxically by assuming the framework of logos, and arguing that their mythos was literally true—a move that true traditionalists would have found to be deeply in error, because it devalued the essential purpose of mythos.

The congruence with Mooney’s argument is obvious: There’s a clear kinship betweenlogos and the Enlightenment model of reason on the one hand, and mythos and persuasion on the other. If conservatives under George W. Bush once again proved themselves incompetent in the logos of governing, liberals under Obama proved themselves incompetent in its mythos.

Or so I hypothesized. But I wanted to check things out with perhaps the world’s leading expert on incompetence, psychologist David Dunning, the senior researcher in the team that discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect, which Wikpedepia defines as “a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.” Wikipedia added that “This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” Or, as Dunning explained to Errol Morris, writing an essay series, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is,” for the New York Times, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”  A recent article by Dunning, “We Are All Confident Idiots,” provides both humorous and serious examples showing just how pervasive the problem is.

Like many, I first learned of the Dunning-Kruger effect from that NYT series—and made some observations based on it at the time. There are obvious conclusions one can draw from the Dunning-Kruger effect: perhaps most important, that none of those obvious conclusions will apply to your own shortcomings, even though those are the ones that ought to concern you most. But this is specifically an individual effect, and my observation was about groups—and rather large ones, at that. So in reaching out to talk with Dunning, behind any specifics, I had two questions in mind: Could it apply to groups as well as individuals? And was it possible to do something about it?

In both cases, he answered yes, but some of the specifics surprised me. Which is just what I should have expected—to discover some limits of my own understanding. (Dunning himself has referenced Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase “unknown unknowns” to describe what we’re up against, just by the very nature of being human. But don’t have a cow, man. He’s also referenced Socrates, as well.)

To begin with, I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. An example that came readily to mind was the GOP’s claims to have 46 jobs bills that had passed the House, and were languishing in the Senate. If only Obama and Harry Reid would act on them!  The reality, of course, is that these bills would not actually do very much in the way of job creation, as critics have pointed out repeatedly over the past several years. In late October, the New York Times even interviewed some top GOP economists who admitted as much, along with independent analysts who said it would be hard to measure much impact.

In short, the GOP “jobs bills” aren’t seriously intended to create jobs. They’re intended to create talking points about creating jobs — and to counter Democratic talking points (while also doing favors for GOP donors, of course). They reflect both the persuasive nature of human cognition highlighted by Chris Mooney, and the meaning-making function of mythos described by Karen Armstrong. They might not create many jobs, I noted early in my conversation with Dunning—it’s aggregate demand that’s the primary driver in doing that—but they do resonate with the “job creator” mythos, which has been so prominent in conservative circles these past several years, and which makes perfect sense in the world of small businessmen I’ve known.

Dunning thought it was an apt example. He noted that people are often perplexed over where a never-ending, chicken-and-egg cycle begins. “You have business people, they don’t just decide there is going to be a market, they respond to the market, they respond to a demand,” Dunning said. “But they start the process where they enter the picture … People tend to think of themselves sort of as creators who come in and are imposing their will and their desires on the environment, and sort of filter out the conditions that they are really reacting to. They can recognize it pretty accurately for everybody else, they just miss that for themselves. Which I think is interesting.”

Understanding an example of how conservatives’ thinking leads them astray is the easy part, however. It helped to get our thinking in sync. But the real challenge would be making sense of how liberals and Democrats make comparable kinds of errors—errors they cannot see. And here is where things had to get a bit tricky, since

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 9:52 am

Posted in Politics, Science

Work for Uber is roughly like working in a sweat shop

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Management doesn’t care about its employees because they’re not employees—they’re “independent contractors.” And so management doesn’t bother to fix the tools on which these independent contractors depend. Claire Goodman reports in Salon:

Uber just lost a really good driver.

As a mom who had stopped working to raise my child, I decided to try driving for Uber part-time, for flexibility and some extra cash. I am a native English speaker who grew up in my major metropolitan area (San Francisco Bay Area), and these are two big advantages for a driver.  Having actually lived and worked from San Jose to Marin, I know how to get from point A to point B without maps or a GPS,  and I do not have to use Uber’s incredibly bad and misleading GPS, which comes with its driver app.  I also have a brand-new Prius and don’t mind keeping it clean.

It took Uber two months to complete my required background check and to “process” my driver’s license, proof of insurance and a $20 car inspection.  It took many weeks for Uber to mail me its iPhone 4 (loaded with its app).  I could not begin driving without it — or possibly, I could have used my own iPhone 5, but they didn’t mention that, because they wanted to charge me $10 per week for their iPhone 4.  The minute I found out I could be using my own phone, I sent theirs back, but not before they had deducted $30 for “phone rental.”

As a former software developer, I was interested to see how the apps work together to get the closest driver to the rider as fast as possible.  The first thing I found out was that Uber’s software sometimes wildly underestimates the number of minutes it takes to reach a rider.  The driver has 10 seconds (and sometimes less) to accept a request, which shows the number of minutes to reach the rider.  If you accept the request, you see the address of the rider.  About half the time, the number of minutes estimated is substantially less than the real time it will take.

Let me give you an example. I received a request indicating it would take “three minutes” to reach a rider.  I was in downtown Oakland and the rider was north of the Berkeley campus.  With stoplights and traffic I knew it would take 15-20 minutes to reach the rider.  As I began driving, I phoned the rider and gave him my ETA.  He canceled to try again for a closer driver – and I don’t blame him.

This happened to me over and over again that night.  At one point, I was on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, and I kept getting ride requests “three minutes” away – that is, three minutes away from Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley.  Could it be possible that Uber’s GPS software does not use map coordinates to calculate distance?  It certainly seemed to be true, considering that this same error happened all night, until I finally logged off in order not to get “dinged” for too many cancellations.

Having accepted a rider, the driver has no idea of the destination.  The rider(s) get in, and tell you where they’re going.  I often had four riders at a time.  Many times, I drove two miles to pick up four college kids and drive them six blocks to a different pub.  This was a typical experience in my college town.  That’s a money-losing ride.

If you accept each ride request sent to you, you will end up a long way from home.  You must then go “offline” and drive home.  This is standard taxi driving – but for less money.

I didn’t want to do this job full-time.  Hourly rate is what mattered to me.  Uber kept me very busy, but the software malfunctioned at least 50 percent of the time, leading to cancellations when I let the rider know the real ETA. Uber has lots of hidden charges and fees.  However, since I was driving during “surge” hours, with back-to-back riders, my hourly rate should reflect the best hourly rate one can earn, driving for Uber. Bottom line: After subtracting all their charges and fees — plus Uber’s 20 percent — driving for Uber during surge pricing, with a constant flow of riders, pays less than $10 per hour.  Then you must deduct insurance, fuel, maintenance and taxes.  At least for me, driving for Uber is not worth it. And that’s a shame. Because I know the area, speak English and communicate professionally with riders.  But I also demand closer to $15 per hour.

Also, considering the company’s huge profits, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 8:52 am

The ISIS videos seem to be the next step after the Abu Ghraib photos

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US troops working at Abu Ghraib (and elsewhere) took many photos of themselves gleefully abusing and torturing prisoners, threatening them with dogs, and so on. We saw some of the photos and Obama promised to release the lot so we could see what our military was up to, but Obama quite often promises things and then fails to deliver. In this case, it seems likely that the national-security state simply did not allow him to release more of the photos.

But what was released was quite disturbing and apparently people in those parts paid attention. Many of those swept up into Abu Ghraib had done nothing wrong, as we know: they were simply captured and imprisoned to be tortured and interrogated (much like a junior-varsity Guantánamo, which also had quite a few prisoners who were innocent of nothing).

I think we should view the ISIS videos in the context of how the US military has treated prisoners.

Similarly, the next step after confrontations like the stand-off in Ferguson MO, between protesters and  militarized police forces, is for the police to fire upon the protesters, a step already taken in Israel, where police fired upon a group of protesters, leaving one Dutch journalist critically wounded.

Of course, in the US we have also had a militarized response to a protest in May of 1970: in the Kent State shootings, the Ohio National Guard fired on protesters, killing four and wounding nine, one of whom suffered paralysis. That should show us that it is quite possible for US authorities to respond to protests by shooting down protesters—in that case, it was college students protesting the illegal military campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 5:05 am

Posted in Mideast Conflict

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