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Daniel Dennett: Autobiography (Part 1) - Comments

Jay Cee's Avatar Comment 1 by Jay Cee

Just bought Darwin's Dangerous Idea. It's brilliant.

Too many philosophers ignore science. Philosophy is lame without it and Dennett is one of the few who knows this.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 10:40:00 UTC | #208917

Upgrade01A's Avatar Comment 2 by Upgrade01A

Nice Autobiography Daniel! Interesting stuff.

I have enjoyed a few of Daniel Dennett's books and liked his talks on TED, YouTube, and the Four Horsemen here at this sight. I do not always agree with him, but he always makes me think.

A couple of his books that I really enjoyed are:

"Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" - it is a little long and dry at times, but well worth the read.

"Freedom Evolves" - I read this one pretty much straight through over just a few visits to my local coffee shop - very interesting approach to the concept of freedom and what is important about it. However, I am still convinced that philosophical free will is an illusion, and I think Dennett's view is really talking about something different than free will... read it and see for yourself. I wonder how much he sees I to I with Douglas Hofstadter's GEB, and "I am a Strange Loop" books. I wish Douglas would put his two cent's worth in on Atheism as well.

http://upgrade01a.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/the-free-will-machine/

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 10:41:00 UTC | #208919

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 3 by Dr. Strangegod

Good stuff. Too bad Tufts doesn't have a graduate program. My old roommate had Dennett as an undergrad advisor; sad to say it was probably wasted on him that he had such a genius advising him. What he's doing at the Center, though, is worth it I suppose. I should really get around to his books.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 11:20:00 UTC | #208957

skyhook87's Avatar Comment 4 by skyhook87

@ Upgrade01A,

You might enjoy a book penned by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett: The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 11:38:00 UTC | #208974

82abhilash's Avatar Comment 5 by 82abhilash


Comment #220382 by Upgrade01A

"Freedom Evolves" - I read this one pretty much straight through over just a few visits to my local coffee shop - very interesting approach to the concept of freedom and what is important about it. However, I am still convinced that philosophical free will is an illusion, and I think Dennett's view is really talking about something different than free will... read it and see for yourself.


You are right, Dennett's view of free will is remarkably different from what people generally understand as free will.

Our intuition of free will has a Biblical origin. Eve wants to bite the apple. Eve is tempted to bite the apple. She is perfectly free to do otherwise, so perfectly in fact that even god cannot foresee what she will do. She may or she may not, no one can know till it happens.

What Dennett calls free will is our innate tendency to willfully perform actions that avoids harm and enhances our well-being. In other words free will is our capacity to act responsibly.

So if Dennett wrote the story of Eve it might go something like this. A talking snake told Eve that eating the apple is good. If you think snakes can talk, you are probably not feeling well. Perhaps you need a rest before you go eating fruits you know little about. Better yet, feed it to the snake that seemed to just talk to you. You can eat the apple, if it is still ok. What if the snake dies? Well, it helps her with the hallucinations about talking snakes. Then maybe Eve won't eat the apple, in fact she better not. Unless she thinks dying is in her best interest. In which case she is probably stupid. Does she have a choice? Of course. The best of kind of choice. The type that allows her to make responsible decisions. So the essence of free-will is not choice, but the capacity to make sound decisions.


Of course Dennett's kind of free will implies there is a co-relation between free will and competence. The more competent (and less stupid) people have more free will. Judging from the state of the world today, I can't help but feel he is right.

I assembled this video about Dennett's lecture on free will for anyone who is interested:

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=20E474C2200FBD05

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 12:04:00 UTC | #208989

PristinePanda's Avatar Comment 6 by PristinePanda

I wish Dennett was about two decades younger so he would stick around with us for a bit longer. XD We need more atheistic philosophers like him!

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 12:11:00 UTC | #208996

Teratornis's Avatar Comment 7 by Teratornis

Darwin's Dangerous Idea is one of my favorite books. Of course like any paper book, it would be better on a well-realized wiki. But at the time I read it, I had not yet been spoiled by the modern incarnation of Wikipedia, which makes paper seem increasingly primitive and unsatisfying.

It will be nice when all the serious scientists are editing on wikis, or on whatever comes after wikis.

I was thinking the other day about the different communication styles of the following six men:

Daniel Dennett
Steven Pinker
Sam Harris

Richard Dawkins
Christopher Hitchens
PZ Myers

While I respect and admire all six, and they all seem to respect and admire each other, it seems to me the first three are somewhat better than the last three at disagreeing with unreasonable people. By "better," I mean the first three appear to have somewhat more ability to present disturbing truths while enabling the disturbed hearers to focus on the disturbing truths somewhat longer before personalizing the disagreement.

Very few people seem to know much about how to disagree. This is why humans fight real wars in the real world, and flame wars in the online world.

Scientists and intellectuals (such as the above six) are quite good at disagreeing with each other, because they maintain a kind of gentlemen's aggreement about rules of evidence and how to run a debate.

But when it comes to arguing with people who explicitly reject reason, the person who depends on the opponent to be reasonable is at something of a disadvantage.

I get the idea that Dennett, Pinker, and Harris are better at communicating with unreasonable people than Dawkins, Hitchens, and Myers are.

For example, one simply cannot picture any of the first three soliciting our letters of support to persuade their employers to overlook their profanity-laced denouncements of Catholic communion rituals. One gets the idea that Dennett, Pinker, and Harris could explain (and have explained) just as well their just as deep objections to superstitious nonsense while being somewhat less likely to incite a lynch mob.

I'm not sure that any of the six are any better at actually bringing the committed devotees of unreason much closer to reason, in anything like the short term - for that, something like divine power is probably necessary - but I like the ability of the first three to popularize the most disturbing truths with perhaps something like the minimum amount of pissing people off.

A classic example was watching Sam Harris remain calm and centered while being "interviewed" (i.e., shouted at and constantly interrupted by) the conservative theocratic FOX blowhard Bill O'Reilly, whose argument style is to compensate for manifold logical deficiencies by getting louder. One imagines that Sam could beat the standing record for waterboarding endurance.

I don't know how much of this is due to innate personal style vs. professional training. Might it be that philosophers and cognitive scientists are better schooled in the art of disagreement than scientists and journalists are?

The former group has to grapple with enormous questions that are, at the moment, largely unanswerable. People who use the mind to study the mind might tend to be somewhat more aware of the nature and unreliability of beliefs and emotions, and thus be less likely to be tricked into becoming, shall we say, a bit testy when crossed, while at the same time choosing their words with a fuller understanding of what sort of emotions they might evoke in the hearer.

In contrast, scientists and intellectuals who use the mind to tackle subjects outside of it might be less aware of how minds work - both their own, and the minds of the people they argue with - and thus be somewhat more prone to fall into unproductive traps of unnecessarily personalized disagreement.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 13:21:00 UTC | #209054

Mark Smith's Avatar Comment 8 by Mark Smith

Great stuff.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 13:38:00 UTC | #209069

Happy Hominid's Avatar Comment 9 by Happy Hominid

Darwin's Dangerous Idea is one of my top 4 or 5 evolution/science books. There is a nice and fairly recent interview with Dan here http://thesciencenetwork.org/the-science-studio/
And The Herd have brought him up a number of times in the weekly atheist discussions. http://anothergoddamnedpodcast.blogspot.com/

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 14:21:00 UTC | #209101

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 10 by Chrysippus_Maximus

Dennett was one of my earliest influences in my foray into philosophy. When I took my first phil. of Mind course, he and the Churchlands were on the syllabus, and I found myself agreeing with much of what they said (and disagreeing vehemently with people like John Searle and Frank Jackson).

I think he's wrong about "freedom" (of the will), in the same way he thought Quine was wrong (in an interesting way!), but I have not had the fortune of being a legacy and going to Oxford/Harvard...

Oh well, we'll just have to see... heh... (by the way, for those above who have sort of started discussing Dennett's views about free will, I think his mistake is in assuming a compatibilist standpoint because of a rejection of deterministic inevitability. I think that's not only incoherent, but decidedly muddled in a rather ordinary way. I, like Spinoza, my namesake, am a "hard determinist" or "necessitarian", and I just think that if Dennett were consistent, he would be too.)

To those who said that philosophy without science is lame, you're about 3/4 right.

Philosophy CREATES sciences... Sometimes after this happens, though, it just needs to be pushed into its other status as a critical and learned observer of the sciences.

There are huge swathes of philosophy that don't particularly need any direct knowledge of sciences... Historical philosophy, for one. You don't need to know any modern biology to be a Descartes scholar.

And when it comes to ethical philosophy, I think there is a need for Philosophy to "scientify" itself, to the chagrin of most people in that branch... but one thing they mustn't do is cave to branches of fields like moral psychology, or political science, since these are at least as speculative and (imho) WRONG as philosophers have been about ethics for quite some time.

But yes, Dan is pretty much THE reason why I too hold the view that philosophers ought to be knowledgeable about at least relevant sciences (which those are for which philosophers is an open question).

It is still an unpopular view to hold.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 14:22:00 UTC | #209102

Thurston's Avatar Comment 11 by Thurston

I love Daniel Dennett; he takes risks. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea the risks paid off and he produced a fantastic book, but in Freedom Evolves, they didn't, but the book was still fantastic; a book to disagree with. As JAMCAM87 said: science (representing the best of modern knowledge) is vital and Dennett does this better than anyone in philosophy.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 15:07:00 UTC | #209122

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 12 by Chrysippus_Maximus

science (representing the best of modern knowledge) is vital and Dennett does this better than anyone in philosophy.


I wouldn't say that. Dennett is just one of the more accessible philosophers who has bridged the gaps between philosophy and science.

Paul and Patricia Churchland are two other more accessible ones.

The ENTIRE FIELD of Philosophy of Science, pretty much, including people like Ruben, Dretske, Mellor, Cartwright, Ruse, and the dead legends Kuhn, Popper, and Hempel... are and were massively knowledgeable about science.

To write off philosophy as wholly unscientific is to commit a massive and greivous error.

The history of philosophy is mostly a history of the development of the sciences, and modern philosophy, though much narrower in many ways, is not dead yet. There are still more sciences to be discovered, and still more philosophy to be done to keep the existing sciences moving ever forward.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 15:18:00 UTC | #209129

ConsciousMachine's Avatar Comment 13 by ConsciousMachine

Upgrade01A@2:
However, I am still convinced that philosophical free will is an illusion, and I think Dennett's view is really talking about something different than free will...

I think that in one sense you are correct. What Dennett is talking about is different from the classical definition of 'free will'. He says as much many times in Freedom Evolves. What he is trying to do is to nudge the definition of free will ever so slightly off its rails so that instead of being synonymous with a malleable future, the concept of free will instead implies only that we have the potential for real and valuable choices, even if those choices happen in some sense (which doesn't really matter to us) to be "pre-determined".

What's great about this autobiography is that he pretty much explicitly admits to employing this strategy:
You seldom talk anybody out of a position by arguing directly with their premises and inferences. Sometimes it is more effective to nudge them sideways with images, examples, helpful formulations that stick to their habits of thought.

So yes, Dennett is talking about something different than "philosophical free will" as it has been traditionally used. But rather than undermine what so many find to be a cherished ideal and also perhaps to avoid the fatalism that seems so often to go hand in hand with determinism, Dennett attempts to bridge the gap between "free will" and "determinism" by re-defining what we mean by free will. He says we can have our cake and eat it too. Free will is real he says, it's just not what you think it is.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 16:35:00 UTC | #209150

IaninPA's Avatar Comment 14 by IaninPA

Teratornis, (Comment #220517)

I really enjoyed your post. Whilst I agree with all of it on balance I wouldn't ignore the influence of the fact that Dawkins and Myers are biologists/evolutionists and thus more directly under attack by the religious than say Dennet or Harris.

Hitchens of course just loves a scrap and revels in it; so he's not even trying.

:-)

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 17:15:00 UTC | #209159

Lisa Bauer's Avatar Comment 15 by Lisa Bauer

Reading this, I couldn't but help notice how incredibly lucky Dan was to come into contact with so many intelligent, thoughtful teachers and mentors during his education, and how his pursuits were encouraged by his family -- and then think, "What about those bright kids who aren't lucky enough to find mentors or to be born in intellectual households?" Not to mention wincing at the savage decline in US education during the ensuing decades! One weeps at the wasted talent and potential.

Interesting that Dan's father was a scholar of Islamic history. Very interesting...I wonder if that, or his early life in Beirut, affected any of his later work.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 18:47:00 UTC | #209179

jwdink's Avatar Comment 16 by jwdink

Spinoza, I must confess that I'm still perplexed by your distaste for moral psychology.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 19:07:00 UTC | #209185

jwdink's Avatar Comment 17 by jwdink

However, I am still convinced that philosophical free will is an illusion, and I think Dennett's view is really talking about something different than free will...


I think that is indeed the idea. If I remember correctly from the book, he makes a good case for why the classical definition is nonsense, but that his re-definition has everything "worth-wanting." And that's the point.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 19:10:00 UTC | #209186

82abhilash's Avatar Comment 18 by 82abhilash


10. Comment #220565 by Spinoza on July 28, 2008 at 3:22 pm


Dennett makes a distinction between fatalism (where the decision you make does not matter) and determinism (where the decision you make does matter). Why is it difficult for you (and most people) to see?

Is it because free will implies choice and determinism implies a lack of free will and therefore a lack of choice? Probably.

But what if all freedom is, is our capacity to make decisions without duress and nothing more? - there may be choice, there may not be choice but there will still be free will. The universe may be deterministic, the universe may be indeterministic, there will still be free will.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 19:40:00 UTC | #209196

karadoc's Avatar Comment 19 by karadoc

I like Dennett's take on free will. Here's how I see it: I sure feel like I have free will, and I'm sure most people feel the same; but I believe that the universe, including my mind and body, are governed by physical laws which we can work out and write down. The decisions that I make in my life are made by my mind, but my mind is doing nothing more than obeying the laws of physics.

What Dennett seems to be doing is defining and describing free will in such a way as to say that we do have it, but that there is nothing unphysical about it.

I find Dennett's description of free will to be the only sensible description I've ever heard! Other versions of free will typically rely on non-physical entities, such as spirits, and so we are usually forced to just say that free will does not exist. Dennett's description at least justifies that feeling we all have which tells us we do indeed make our own decisions. That's certainly better than some other description of free will that can be immediately ruled out as unphysical.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 20:26:00 UTC | #209205

apettway's Avatar Comment 20 by apettway

Dennett is one of my heros. His book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, changed my worldview (as did Dawkins' Selfish Gene). It's funny, I knew these two before the whole so-called "new atheism" thing. When I learned that they both had written books on religion I almost peed my pants.

I'm reading Freedom Evolves now and I have to say that Dennett's version of free will is more satisfying than any other.

Mon, 28 Jul 2008 23:06:00 UTC | #209224

j.mills's Avatar Comment 21 by j.mills

An engaging bio from Dennett and an unusually interesting thread to follow. You've all done very well! :)

I wasn't so impressed by Freedom Evolves as by his other books (Consciousness Explained was a doozey!). The bit where Dennett really addressed the determinists' objection to free will was the most interesting for me, but he was almost dismissive of the argument. He pointed out that to make choices we must be able to judge consequences, and if this did not require determinism, it certainly wasn't hindered by it: an indeterministic universe would by definition be unpredictable. I would have liked to have seen that startling idea developed more.

But every Dennett book is a splendid treat.

Tue, 29 Jul 2008 02:22:00 UTC | #209283

VanYoungman's Avatar Comment 22 by VanYoungman

One of the most beautiful "truths" about Dan Dennett is his accessability. "Consciousness Explained" changed my life forever and set me on a course that inevitably led me to this forum and all its ramifications.

Tue, 29 Jul 2008 04:04:00 UTC | #209318

Teratornis's Avatar Comment 23 by Teratornis

Comment #220630 by Ian Bamlett:


I really enjoyed your post.


Thank you for the kind words.

Think how much better the post could have been if I had worked in a mention of peak oil.


Whilst I agree with all of it on balance I wouldn't ignore the influence of the fact that Dawkins and Myers are biologists/evolutionists and thus more directly under attack by the religious than say Dennet or Harris.


Perhaps that's more true of Pinker than of Dennett, and more true of Dennett than Harris. Sam comes in for his share of attacks from the religious. His Letter to a Christian Nation is in response to these attacks.

I get the idea that Dennett admires religion in something like the way opposing generals in an otherwise bitter conflict might feel impressed by an especially clever move by the opponent, even while deploring the grim consequences for their side.

Sam Harris too seems to have a solid understanding of what he's arguing against. He doesn't spend any time feigning incredulity as Richard Dawkins sometimes does ("You can't really believe in the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, can you?"). It's almost as if Richard cannot believe religion can do what it routinely does - persuade otherwise intelligent people to believe ridiculous things.

Richard writes about appreciating the wonders of nature. Well, religion is as much an aspect of nature as the stars, galaxies, waterfalls, and spider webs. Speaking of spider webs, how "wonderful" might one appear to a sentient struggling fly trapped upon it? Humans can appreciate the wonders of nature just so long as we are immune to their horrors. The AIDS virus, in its own way, is as beautifully equipped by natural selection to do its job as any of the creatures we regard as more charismatic.

In any case, the viciousness of attacks one receives in no way obligates one to respond in kind, especially if we consider that the attacks may be part of a conscious or unconscious strategy to provoke an overreaction, thereby discrediting one's claim to rationality.

People who promote rationality as being superior to other modes of thought should demonstrate by their actions that this is always true.

Selective rationality or conditional rationality are not, in my opinion, rationality at all - because even religious people practice selective rationality.

Theists can call atheism a religion, with some justification, if they can provoke atheists to respond emotionally like religious people do.


Hitchens of course just loves a scrap and revels in it; so he's not even trying.


Hitchens has found a niche from which he can profitably trade on confrontation. Perhaps PZ Myers should similarly find a career in which there is no such thing as bad publicity.

On the other side of the aisle, there's Ann Coulter, a conservative/irrational/creationist pundit who makes a sport of going over the top, and who finds her book sales expanding in proportion to her rhetorical excess.

One simply cannot picture Hitchens or Coulter pleading for a letter-writing campaign to their employers on their behalf. The lesson there is that despite our theoretical rights to free expression, expression is not free of consequences, and the more freely one wishes to express oneself, the more carefully one must arrange one's circumstances to facilitate it.

Tue, 29 Jul 2008 09:36:00 UTC | #209594

ConsciousMachine's Avatar Comment 24 by ConsciousMachine

I get the idea that Dennett admires religion in something like the way opposing generals in an otherwise bitter conflict might feel impressed by an especially clever move by the opponent, even while deploring the grim consequences for their side.


I think you misread Dennett here. I agree that he certainly admires religion, but not in the way that you describe. I think that he sees religion as something that is genuinely beautiful but that has some unfortunate consequences (as you described in your analogy of the spiders web). I distinctly do not get the impression that Dennett views himself as a general or religion as something to be eradicated. I have heard many people say how clever they think Dennett is being with his proposal for universal Religious Education because they are sure that this would be (and that he intends it to be) a death warrant for religion if ever implemented. I think that this is a terrible mischaracterization of both Dennetts motives and the likely result of such a policy. I don't think that Dennett views religion as a dangerous dog that need to be put down but rather as a variety of wild animals some of which might be usefully domesticated. He says as much and to suggest that he sees religion as the enemy is to suggest that he is being disingenuous in expressing such views.

Tue, 29 Jul 2008 11:08:00 UTC | #209674

IanD's Avatar Comment 25 by IanD

Dennett has more space to write about his view on free will in his book "Elbow Room: the varieties of Free Will worth wanting"

Much as I enjoy Freedom Evolves, it doesn't go into the reasons why Dennett picked the version of free will to defend that he has.

And yes, I first heard of Dennett when "Consciousness Explained" became available from my book club, and promptly persuaded me to track down as many of his books as possible...

Tue, 29 Jul 2008 14:20:00 UTC | #209888

Scep's Avatar Comment 26 by Scep

It would be interesting to get some comments about the following Stephen Hawking thought:

"However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers or anyone else except for a few specialists. Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein the most famous philosopher this century, said 'The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.' What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant! (Hawking, 1988)"

Dan Dennett seems to be one of only a few philosophers equally interested science and philosophy.

Tue, 29 Jul 2008 18:48:00 UTC | #210051

huxley_leopard's Avatar Comment 27 by huxley_leopard

Scep, I think you're right.

Let me go a little further: philosophy just vanishes up its own arse.

Philosophy has not advanced beyond arguing about fundamentals - platonists still argue with aristotleians. Science gets somewhere. Engineers build useful things with that knowledge.

The only advances in philosophy are really when:
- they 'discover' that the scope of philosophy should be reduced (e.g. Wittgenstein - he should have stuck to teaching or architecture he might have been a little happier instead of being miserable and torturing students),
- they just sit back and think about the ramifications of new scientific discoveries, e.g. in how the brain works (this is reactive and doesn't discover anything new and often scientists, or philosophers with scientific backgrounds, do this best),
- they write about what people have done or thought about in the past (this is really History, e.g. Kuhn was really a historian)

The only worthwhile discovery philosophers have made that I can think of was possibly the scientific method, and it is arguable whether they weren't just 'discovering' something scientists were doing already.

I think philosophy isn't a subject and all these clever people should go do something worthwhile, even sociology would be a step up!!!!

Imagine what Dennett might have done if he had become an engineer.

Wed, 30 Jul 2008 00:26:00 UTC | #210141

Yadsmood's Avatar Comment 28 by Yadsmood

I think philosophy isn't a subject and all these clever people should go do something worthwhile, even sociology would be a step up!!!!

Imagine what Dennett might have done if he had become an engineer.
Daniel Dennett has done perhaps more than anyone else to help new generations of scientists think about the problem of consciousness. There are not many engineers who can boast of having rendered humanity such a valuable service.

As Marvin Minsky has said, Dennett is redefining the role of a philosopher. Philosophy works best when it restricts itself to clarifying scientists' thinking.

Wed, 30 Jul 2008 00:41:00 UTC | #210148

DanDare's Avatar Comment 29 by DanDare

Teratornis:

Richard writes about appreciating the wonders of nature. Well, religion is as much an aspect of nature as the stars, galaxies, waterfalls, and spider webs. Speaking of spider webs, how "wonderful" might one appear to a sentient struggling fly trapped upon it? Humans can appreciate the wonders of nature just so long as we are immune to their horrors. The AIDS virus, in its own way, is as beautifully equipped by natural selection to do its job as any of the creatures we regard as more charismatic.

Monty Python:

All things dull and ugly,
All creatures, short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.

Wed, 30 Jul 2008 02:13:00 UTC | #210196

huxley_leopard's Avatar Comment 30 by huxley_leopard

Yadsmood - I don't think we disagree about the contribution of DD. I was being deliberately belligerent in the hope of a response.

But saying, "There are not many engineers who can boast of having rendered humanity such a valuable service." however, is a bit over the top, don't you think? Replace humanity with neuroscience and you might have a point. What have engineers done for us apart from basically everything that has improved our lives in any tangible fashion throughout the whole of history? If philosophers stopped philosophising tomorrow, would the world grind to a halt, would scientists lose the ability to think about their own findings, would we all lose our ethical compass? Probably not, but for sure the world wouldn't last very long without engineers to keep everything going.

My argument was not that philosophers are useless (although a lot of them probably are), rather that when they are useful, you could probably describe what they are doing in a more appropriate way than 'philosophy'. If they are thinking and coming up with ideas/hypotheses based on evidence, it sounds more like they are being scientists.

Wed, 30 Jul 2008 03:25:00 UTC | #210231