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Authors@Google: Sam Harris - Comments

manicstreetpreacher's Avatar Comment 1 by manicstreetpreacher

First comment!!!

Excellent talk by Harris. The Monty Hall Problem blew my mind. I’ve looked it up on Wikipedia and I’m still not sure I get it!

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 14:15:00 UTC | #453334

hal2011's Avatar Comment 2 by hal2011

Great talk. Presentation is just like being there.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 14:37:00 UTC | #453335

bethe123's Avatar Comment 3 by bethe123

It is good to see Sam expound on the ideas in the TED talk since maybe 20 minutes at TED was not enough for him to properly discuss his ideas. Still, even in this longer talk, it is more of the same, and I consider the rebuttals given in the TED thread apply equally well here.

Always nice to see a mention of Bertrand Russell and also the Monty Hall problem. If Sam really wants to note that peoples’ probabilistic intuitions can be fooled -- which is what I take to be the point of even mentioning the Monty Hall is -- and that therefore their moral intuitions can be fooled also...fine.

I was somewhat under-whelmed by the Google audience. Unless I misunderstood the Google questioners, not one objected to Sam's "value=fact" claim. All were interested in the origin of the ‘happiness’ function, which is a valid point, but perhaps not the main one.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 15:12:00 UTC | #453349

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 4 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #473694 by bethe123

It's a fact I'm better off happy. I know it is. I've had the necessary experiences to learn this empirically. It's a fact you're worse off miserable. You know it is for empirical reasons. Minds have enough similarities, born of the similarities of bodies, for each of these facts to be common knowledge. We can list in great detail what improves individuals, including nonhuman ones, but nothing unconscious. This already makes facts of many values. Harris observed that any view of values unconcerned with minds' welfare could never be of concern to anyone. That such things could not be valued is another example of a fact, and such values are mistakes, and indeed mistakes no-one can make. Harris may not have fleshed out all the reasoning I present here, but I am unsurprised no-one from Google considered such ideas objectionable. Do you, or any claimed moral non-cognitivists, genuinely have such a neutrality with regards to their own private mental states?

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 15:37:00 UTC | #453356

NewEnglandBob's Avatar Comment 5 by NewEnglandBob

I wonder when Sam Harris' new book on this topic is coming out. What will it be called?

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 15:50:00 UTC | #453360

bethe123's Avatar Comment 6 by bethe123

Jos,

I do not think it is a fact that a person is better off happy. Our moral values will therefore differ.
Further, I would not want you, or anybody who agreed with you on that point, to be elevated to a position of moral expert.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 16:10:00 UTC | #453371

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 7 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #473723 by bethe123

Does this doubt of yours over what improves a person extend to your self? Or do you view your self differently from other people?

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 16:38:00 UTC | #453387

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 8 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #473710 by NewEnglandBob

5 Oct, The Moral Landscape (see Amazon).

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 16:39:00 UTC | #453389

bethe123's Avatar Comment 9 by bethe123

Jos,

I said nothing about doubt. I said I do not think it is a fact that a person is better off happy.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 16:44:00 UTC | #453394

wildhog's Avatar Comment 10 by wildhog

Jos, I think the idea we are "better off happy" is certainly debatable. For one thing, many people would say their most miserable times in life were invaluable to them and made them "better off" in some way other than happiness. (For things like building character, for example). For another thing, there seems to be a common trait in our species for some people to actually desire suffering. This manifests in all kinds of strict rituals and lifestyles people put upon themselves. We can blame religion for some of them, but even then we are left to ask why people invent and adopt such religions when they dont have to.


As for Sam's talk, I think questions of morality are more complex than Sam seems to give them credit for.

Sam's example of the veiling of women in Islamic countries is one example. Sam is looking only at the veiled women and concluding that they are oppressed and that therefore the practice is "wrong". But that practice comes about as a result of the fact that those societies are so polygamous. When one man can have 15 wives it means 14 others get none, and thus women become a valuable "resource" to be protected and controlled". To ban the practice of veiling without addressing the reasons the practice exists seems like a recipe for failure. One might argue then that polygamy should be banned, but now we are dealing with even more complexity. For one thing, humans are not a species that naturally forms lifelong monogamous relationships. And evolutionary biologists tell us that females opt for polygamy when the difference between the most wealthy / desirable males and the least wealthy / desirable males becomes extreme. (In other words, most women would rather share Bill Gates with another woman than have Joe Sixpack all to herself.) So to ban polygamy works against human nature, and polygamy becomes more "natural" when the distribution of wealth is extremely uneven. How would Sam suggest to solve that? Obviously Im making big oversimplifications here, but the point is that solving society's moral issues seems too complex to say we can apply a little scientific thought and come up with "scientific" solutions that everyone should be able to agree on.

Im certainly not advocating religion as a solution though.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 17:42:00 UTC | #453426

secularjew's Avatar Comment 11 by secularjew

Excellent speech. Sam is brilliant as always.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 18:42:00 UTC | #453448

Stephen of Wimbledon's Avatar Comment 12 by Stephen of Wimbledon

Sam's TED version of this presentation (also available here at www.richarddawkins.net) was more polished - clearly a function of Sam having had time to refine it, as TED came later.

Still, I liked this version better because it gave Sam a chance to properly explore the Vales versus Well-Being question. As bethe123 points out there are plenty of people who

... do not think it is a fact that a person is better off happy
Or, to put that another way: There are plenty of people who are better off unhappy. Presumably that includes those who are the unhappiest of all, i.e.: Some people are better off dead?

Sam was much clearer in this talk. Moral values are:
- Misunderstood, and therefore often misapplied, in that people try to pretend that moral issues are under discussion when what is really under discussion is religious dogma (or should that be bigotry?)
- Never universal (unless you are practising cultural imperialism)
- Actively undermined by the choice between religions
- Actively undermined by any religion that claims to know moral values because religious morality is often not based on fact

Sam is basically working his way back up this stack. Because science is increasingly discovering more facts about how and why we make moral decisions religion is coming under increasing pressure to qualify why we need them and there value systems to help us decide what is right and wrong - the subjectivity in their value systems is being exposed (not to say their corruption and falsehood).

Religions are increasingly engaged in so-called inter-faith dialogue. However, once people start to question one religion they become skilled at asking the questions that expose the fact that religions essentially compete - and their competing value systems go to the heart of this problem. Thus those who are religious, and are exposed to the subjectivity of religious moral values are more likely to become agnostic, or even atheistic, rather than to switch religions.

Once people have made the above journey (and people today do not have to escape religion as many in my generation did) then the obvious thing is to look at morality and at the science of thinking and ask the question: Why values?

Sam postulates that the best answer will be a humanist based philosophy that says: Because there clearly is no moral value that can be set above our current existence the best measure of human value in existence is happiness in this life.

Sam also recognises that there are many paths to human happiness. This is an interesting aside - particularly where he recognises that there are a number of subjects where there are wide variations in current social norms.

But Sam's main point - as he reaches the top of the stack - is that the science project continues to march on and is beginning to research areas that will have an unavoidably profound influence on how people view religions' last citadels - the notion that morality requires something beyond the human. Like Jerico, science will march round the walls of this last great bastion of religious power beating its drums, sounding its horns and stamping its feet until the walls come tumbling down.

Sam only hints at one problem, and its possible solution. When he talked about {paraphrase} ' ... on a good day you can go and ask your neighbours and only about a fifth to a quarter will tell you that evolution is true' which basically translates as: Just because science is true doesn't mean people will believe it. Indeed they may resist it...

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 19:45:00 UTC | #453471

unclexbob's Avatar Comment 13 by unclexbob

I agree with most of what Harris said, but one thing that I thought of, when only focusing on the well being.....what about drugs? Granted, many drugs ultimately harm the body if over exposed, but wouldn't it be logical to say, you are happier on drugs than when not on drugs, therefore drugs are morally good?

The complexity of all such questions, taken on a societal level requires a level of vague assertions, it is very hard to quantify anything accurately. There is no doubt we can speak in very broad generalizations, IE, extreme examples tend to increase harm on the whole, but on the more detailed scale, it seems almost impossible to assign accurate value that could ever be trusted enough to claim which two options are more definitively better.

I do think the overall concept is worth pursuing, I just can't imagine it actually helping inform people much on getting to concrete answers.

I think the more pressing thing he is pushing for, which obviously we will all agree with, ditching the ideologies that assume our actions have metaphysical implications that transcend our physical existence, will always be negative to our well being.

But then, that is a pretty good summary of the problem with religion, period.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 19:48:00 UTC | #453472

kbpeterson's Avatar Comment 14 by kbpeterson

Jos and bethe123 – It seems to me that Sam is not making the claim that happiness is "better", he is making the claim that there are facts about what is good or bad for human minds. What those facts are is another story, but they should be able to be represented on Sam's "moral landscape."

His claim is that values are reducible to facts, they are not equal or equivalent. Values held in human minds affect the behavior of those minds, and that behavior will either be good or bad for that and other minds. Therefore values can be reduced (at least in principle) to facts about what is good and bad for minds.

wildhog – Sam never mentions banning the practice of veiling women. He merely suggests that it may not be conducive to producing healthy and flourishing minds.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 19:48:00 UTC | #453473

bethe123's Avatar Comment 15 by bethe123

wildhog-- excellent points.

steve_r_W-- When I say it is not a fact people are better off happy, in addition to wild hog’s points, you must understand what a person takes happiness in is in reality a statement about his beliefs.

If I subscribe to certain beliefs, I can be very happy being a suicide bomber and killing people. If my happiness is contingent on some rather destructive beliefs, it might be better that I stay unhappy. Alternately, if somebody is not happy, by changing their beliefs and expectations (the outside world is still the same, only one has to change ones beliefs for this to work) they can be made happy. The work of Seligman on expectation theory and depression comes to mind in this regard.

Due to NLP, we know that by simply assuming the state of a happy person, one can be happy. That is, by adjusting your physiology and your internal dialog and pictures to mirror that of when you were in a happy state, you can largely create the state of being happy.

Happiness alone is not a foundation for a system of ethics.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 20:11:00 UTC | #453475

The Hogfather's Avatar Comment 16 by The Hogfather

Like many who have already commented on this new thesis by Sam, I am not convinced by the claim that values are a type of fact. Although this may not be exactly what Sam is claiming, and his book (due later this year) might persuade me otherwise. The claim that values are reducible to facts is more interesting though. I am more inclined to agree with that.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 20:59:00 UTC | #453490

simonchase's Avatar Comment 17 by simonchase

Happiness alone is exactly the only foundation for a system of ethics

a suicide bomber may well be happy but he will decreace overall happiness among entities capable of feeling it and this is the only reason to stop him.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 21:28:00 UTC | #453497

blaine's Avatar Comment 18 by blaine

I remain an appreciative fan of Sam's, especially being an excellent presenter and his ideas and his expertise in neurology, but I really don't think he cuts it as a Philosopher. Everything he says here is a rather primitive reinvention of utilitarianism.

I don't see where he has added in any substantial way to J.S. Mill's important elaborations on Bentham's Utilitarianism. Harris has not made any progress on the very difficult points recognized by Mill himself, as well as difficulties raised and debated by generations of utilitarians and their detractors in the intervening century.

I really don't understand how somebody with a degree in Philosophy would not feel an obligation to at least mention predecessors who have enunciated every non-trivial point being related (without the modern examples and analogies). For non-philosophers who want a more broad and encompassing introduction to this system of quantifying ethical values (with a very gentle and non-technical presentation), spend the 1:15 minutes reading On Liberty instead of watching this video. Harris just calls the thing being quantified "human flourishing" and "human wellbeing" instead of "happiness".


[I sure wish that the "Comment Posting Guidlines" link wasn't broken, so I could add links for terms in my post!]

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 21:35:00 UTC | #453502

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 19 by Carl Sai Baba

The great thing about the Monty Hall problem is that it is so counter-intuitive that even knowing the answer doesn't make it cease to be confusing without walking through a full explanation. You know how you sometimes say of a great movie, "I wish I could forget everything so I could see it again for the first time"? It's almost like that.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 21:49:00 UTC | #453509

Stephen of Wimbledon's Avatar Comment 20 by Stephen of Wimbledon

bethe123:

… what a person takes happiness in is in reality a statement about his beliefs
I needed no beliefs to take happiness in my weekend: A glass of wine, the company of friends, some jokes, spring sunshine through my window in the morning, a bacon sandwich, a book, a walk in the Park and helping my daughter with her baking for the school cake sale. No scripture, no priest, no value set, no reference to any ’higher power’, no prayer or meditation.

To be sure; I live in a World where most people have a similar moral outlook and I could therefore (just to take one example) take that walk in the Park without fear of being molested. However, that is very different from saying that I need beliefs, in myself or in others, to be happy.
If I subscribe to certain beliefs, I can be very happy being a suicide bomber and killing people
Are you a suicide bomber? Have you seen any? The tiny number who fail, are caught, and then get a chance to present themselves via the media certainly all seem to go through an initial phase of disappointment and reflection. Why wouldn’t they. But those reports I have seen on suicide bombers post-failure strongly suggest that they eventually realise that they were not, in fact, happy. Or, perhaps that they realise they were happy but only because they had been manipulated unto that position – i.e. their happiness had been a delusion and, the only people who had been really happy were their murderous, psychotic, controllers.
If my happiness is contingent on some rather destructive beliefs, it might be better that I stay unhappy
For the example you gave – suicide bombers – that is clearly true. It is probably better if we do not structure our society to make deluded psychotics happy.

However, I am not clear how I, or Sam Harris, said that making psychos happy was a worthy goal. Sam Harris’s presentation did make the assumption that most people are sane, open to debate and prepared to make small changes to how they live their lives and so create more happy people.
Alternately, if somebody is not happy, by changing their beliefs and expectations (the outside world is still the same, only one has to change ones beliefs for this to work) they can be made happy
That’s true, providing you are not being attacked – providing your unhappiness is not rooted in oppression.

I am currently pursuing a civil case on exactly that basis. At the moment this is making me unhappy. I will be damned if I will change my worldview in order to compromise with people who so undermined my self esteem as to make me seriously ill. Only if I win my case will I eventually feel really great about this – because I stood up for myself. Now, if you say that this reflects my beliefs I will agree this far: I believe in myself, and I believe in the morality of my cause. However, that is still far distant from making the claim that I am better off unhappy because my morality is out of whack.

Many people are oppressed by the religion of their parents (as was I). This is a far more invidious form of coercion than I discussed above. My solution, and an answer today that I find is the option chosen more than ever before, is simply to drop belief and their ’value systems’ altogether.

You mention the controversial approach to psychotherapy Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

NLP is completely without scientific basis. The principal psychologist of Sheffield Health Authority, David Heap looked at 70 papers on NLP and concluded that its theoretical underpinning was not serious science, and that there was no scientific evidence for the claim that NLP techniques improve rapport.

Stephen G. Cody found that NLP therapists, using language matching, were actually rated as untrustworthy and ineffective (The stability and impact of the primary representational system in neurolinguistic programming: a critical examination).

David Platt, drawing from German NLP research, found no evidence to support representational systems, predicates or eye accessing clues.

NLP’s linguistic theories were debunked years ago. Beyerstein (Brain scams: neuromythologies of the new age - International journal of mental health) accuses NLP of being a total con, new-age fakery to be classed alongside scientology and astrology.
Happiness alone is not a foundation for a system of ethics
Why?

wildhog:
… many people would say their most miserable times in life were invaluable to them and made them "better off" in some way other than happiness
Happiness is a currency of human emotion and wellbeing, and so too is strength of character, and self esteem, and, and, and … All you have to do is calculate your own, personal, exchange rates.
… there seems to be a common trait in our species for some people to actually desire suffering
People suffer from mental illness, just as we suffer from physical illnesses. Your point would be?
… I think questions of morality are more complex than Sam seems to give them credit for … veiling of women in Islamic countries is one example. Sam is … concluding that they are oppressed and that therefore the practice is "wrong"
No, Sam was looking at veiled women and women as depicted in Western media and concluding that both, may be wrong. Sam made a joke about the magazine covers to make this point so the treatment looked different, superficially, but was not. Sam did not joke about the veiled women. Perhaps Sam hasn’t met enough Muslims with a sense of humour – I wouldn’t know – but I do find that I have that problem.
… those societies are so polygamous. When one man can have 15 wives it means 14 others get none, and thus women become a valuable "resource" to be protected and controlled
Muslims claim it is out of respect for women. Thanks for clearing that up.
To ban the practice of veiling without addressing the reasons the practice exists seems like … One might argue … that polygamy should be banned
You think?

I liked the humour in the rest of your post wildhog – up to this point:
Obviously I’m making big oversimplifications here, but the point is that solving society's moral issues seems too complex to say we can apply a little scientific thought and come up with "scientific" solutions that everyone should be able to agree on
Well, when someone says that, I’ll get back to you on that one Dude.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 21:57:00 UTC | #453511

robotaholic's Avatar Comment 21 by robotaholic

I agree with Sam and am of the opinion that people who disagree with the point that morals can be scientifically derived are just being difficult and are full of themselves!

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 23:06:00 UTC | #453521

bethe123's Avatar Comment 22 by bethe123

steve_r_w:
Steve, if talking with friends, telling jokes, drinking wine were not compatible with your beliefs, you would not have taken pleasure in them. Beliefs don't have to be about religion.
Your beliefs can be arbitrary, and therefore what one finds happiness in can be arbitrary also. A system of ethics that I would find useful would also answer the question of what things are worthwhile and worth taking pleasure in.

Regarding NLP, in your Googling, did you also happen to Google the NLP phobia cure? Perhaps you have access to information on this that I do not have-- in which case I would be more than happy to modify my views. Early in his career, Anthony Robbins used to be routinely attacked for claiming the NLP phobia cure, until he issued the challenge to his detractors, had them bring in a phobic of their choice, and he cured them on the spot. I suppose it is possible those cures could have been frauds, and if you could show that, I would be very interested. I have watched video of Robbins curing a snake phobia in a matter of minutes. It is very possible it could have been a con job and the lady was not really a phobic…but I have never heard that claim being made before.

Sun, 28 Mar 2010 23:45:00 UTC | #453533

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 23 by Carl Sai Baba

The objections are circular. They are basically saying, "you haven't proven that being well is the basis for well-being".

It's a self-defining concept. Our understanding of it may be wrong, but it is interesting to note that hardly anyone actually disagrees with the current concept of health and happiness. We only disagree on what is necessary to achieve it.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 01:11:00 UTC | #453545

infinitum17's Avatar Comment 24 by infinitum17

Sam is wrong about there not being worldviews based upon something other than the well-being of sentient beings.

I have encountered many religious people who believe that morality is based solely upon the will of God, and that if it is God's will that we suffer, then that is what is moral.

Of course, these people also incorporate notions of flourishing into their moral understanding, and clearly they run two different moral systems in their head at the same time.

As a scientist, I'm surprised that he's not emphasizing the evolutionary aspect to all this. Everything about every living thing is the result of evolution by natural selection, and our moral instincts are no different. I actually think he recognizes this, but is willing to put that to the side and instead dissimulate that there is an objective moral truth, because he knows people won't listen to him if he comes out as a moral skeptic. He hints at it when he says that there can be different right answers to moral questions, though.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 01:25:00 UTC | #453547

wildhog's Avatar Comment 25 by wildhog

Infinitum,
I thought the same thing (surprise that he's not emphasizing the evolutionary aspect of morality). The questioner at the end touched on it. Sam even said things like "evolution didnt evolve us to care about designing a safe airplane" (or something like that). But evolution DID evolve us to care about our survival and the survival of those in our group. Airplane safety is just a logical function of that, given the reality of air travel.

I highly recommend author/primatologist Frans de Waal to anyone who is interested in the evolutionary nature of morality. Here's a good article he wrote:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frans-de-waal/morals-without-god_b_316473.html

Frans has a book Im eager to read called "The Age of Empathy". I'm still reading another of his books, "Our Inner Ape".

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 01:56:00 UTC | #453551

nother person's Avatar Comment 26 by nother person

increased well being = better off. In Kantian terms this is analytic a priori. These are just synonyms. Therefore you can't argue that people are not better off if their well being is increased—it's true by definition.

increased well being = increased happiness. Again in Kantian terms this is synthetic a posteriori. For any given definition of 'well being' and 'happiness' this is an empirical question. The problem is in defining 'well being' and 'happiness.'

Sam uses the term happiness rhetorically. He is trying to communicate a simple idea to his audience. In my opinion his rhetoric fails—he has oversimplified. A portion of his audience is more sophisticated than he expects and rejects the second proposition. Another portion accepts the proposition and immediately plug in their own definitions as the 'correct' ones. (There are many sets of definitions that will make the proposition true and many that will make it false—it is pointless to argue about it.) Sam's remarks show that he is not fooled by his own oversimplification. He s just trying to avoid some of the details in his presentation.

Is there a single universal definition of well being? No. Sam doesn't say there is, he argues for an open ended conception analogous to 'health.' Is it possible that some definitions will conflict? Yes, so what?

Is there an objective measure for well being? Yes, for any given definition of well being (and there are/will be many) there will be at least one measure.

So, multiple definitions of well being and multiple measures... does that mean well being is nothing more than a matter of opinion? No. On the surface the problem here is just picking an appropriate definition and measure to fit circumstances. But underlying that is the larger problem of getting people to agree on the appropriateness of a given definition and measure in a given context. Why won't people agree?

1) Because people like to define their own well being? People like to think they define their own well being. Sam's map of world religions shows that, actually people accept having their well being defined for them. So one approach to a 'universal' morality would be a homogenous world culture.

2) Because people don't always know their own self-interest? Likely true. The question is what to do about it? Perhaps show them examples of people experiencing a greater degree of well being than themselves and explain the conditions underlying that?

3) Because people have bad experience with social authorities? Certainly. A fix might be to place a high value on non-coercive dissemination of moral technology. Put the tech in the hands of the people rather than have the state use the tech on people...

4) Because the proposed definition and measure is 'just wrong'? Then it is not appropriate to that situation. Try to find another approach. Bit of circularity here? How is this different from how things are currently? What would be different would be basing the conversation on some empirical measures. If the first measure is rejected further measures can be sought. If you claim that a change is good for people along some dimension, and if your claim has some empirical basis, it should be possible to show that to people. Failure is always a possibility. That is not necessarily a reason not to try.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 02:33:00 UTC | #453559

wildhog's Avatar Comment 27 by wildhog

nother person,
You wrote:
Because people don't always know their own self-interest? Likely true. The question is what to do about it? Perhaps show them examples of people experiencing a greater degree of well being than themselves and explain the conditions underlying that?

Yes, there are lots of people who dont know whats in their own best interests. I certainly see lots of people voting against their own best interests here in America. People will oppose their very own health care because they're convinced its "socialist". I dont think its hard to find Islamic women who will defend veiling, or even female circumcision. Getting people to recognize whats in their own best interests is an impossible task, in my opinion.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 02:46:00 UTC | #453561

Alternative Carpark's Avatar Comment 28 by Alternative Carpark

I do like that biblical contradiction chart! I wonder if it is available to download anywhere.

You'd think a google audience would be a little more lively - not a giggle at Sam's jokes...no, wait, we've got a live one at 33:47.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 02:54:00 UTC | #453562

mattyohe's Avatar Comment 29 by mattyohe

Alternative Carpark:

Yes the biblical contradiction chart is available and at a size suitable for printing as well: http://www.project-reason.org/gallery3/image/105/

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 03:41:00 UTC | #453566

Alternative Carpark's Avatar Comment 30 by Alternative Carpark

Thanks, mattyohe.


Every third should walk in darkness...


Hilarious! But don't go giving people ideas now, Mr. Harris.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 04:45:00 UTC | #453577