« 99% Invisible

361- Built on Sand

2019-07-09 | 🔗

Sand is so tiny and ubiquitous that it's easy to take for granted. But in his book The World in a Grain, author Vince Beiser traces the history of sand, exploring how it fundamentally shaped the world as we know it. "Sand is actually the most important solid substance on Earth," he argues. "It's the literal foundation of modern civilization."

Plus, Roman talks with Kate Simonen of the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington about measuring the embodied carbon in building materials.

Built on Sand

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars today show is about something so tiny and unremarkable and ubiquitous. But I can't quite believe we're doing a whole episode about it? It's sand tiny grains of eroded rock that we sculpt and castles at the beach San may not seem like a topic worthy of our attention, but Vince buys or, a whole book about sand is called the war holding a grain, and I promise you, it is fascinating. Here's my covers events all about sand and how it its formed, our civilization You know when you respond in a few years on this. I imagine he told someone you work out a book about sand. What was the look, their face and how did you explained is about to make them understand how cool an important. This subject is so every single time I would get this look. There was dislike like why trout
you know. Why am I trapped in a conversation with this person, who's about whose so obsessed with the most boring thing on earth and may my come back was. Why would I write a book about what sounds like the most boring thing in the world and the reason is because Sandy actually, the most important, solid substance on earth, it's the literal foundation of modern civilization, and so how do we use sand in our daily lives so, basically if you look around you right now, I don't know where you are, but chances are excellent, no matter what kind of building officer room you're sitting in the floor underneath you, the walls around the ceiling overhead, the bill, you're sitting in his probably made at least partly out of concrete, just like every, shopping. Mall every apartment, building every office are everywhere in the world from Beijing to Laos, is made out of concrete and what is concrete, concrete
nothing, but sand and gravel. That's been stuck together. The roads that connect. All those buildings also made out of sand there, either concrete or their asphalt asphalt, is also just sand. That's been glued together. The windows in every one of those buildings are made of sand glass is nothing but sand. That's been melted down the silicon ships that power. Our computers are cellphones also made from sand, in other words, without and no modern civilization and here's the real kicker we are starting to run out. Is that possible? If it is, if you like, there's so much sand in the world. This There is a lot of sand in the world, it's actually the most abundant thing on the planet, but There are also using way more of it than ever before in human, three, we use more sand than any other natural resource in the world, except for air and water worries about fifty billion tons of this of every single year, which is enough to cover the end.
Higher state of California. Why We just go to the Sahara and take all the sand there right great question, so there is, of course you know practice. Infinite amount of sand in the desert. The problem is that sand is pretty much useless to us. The reason is that desert and has a different shape. The actual grains are shaped differently than to San grains that you find at the bottom of rivers or on beaches. It's been a but it by wind rather than water, over thousands and millions of years and has arisen The greens are a lot rounder and smoother than the crazy find the bottom of it so the number one thing that we need sand for by far is concrete, and that has returned just doesn't lock together to form a strong, stable structure that you need for concrete. It's like the difference between build something out of a stack of little marbles as opposed to a stack of little bricks and all that deserts and pretty much useless.
So we have to get it from water, a sand that comes off of mountains and then accumulates in rivers, and things like that. That's that's the sand. We need exactly exactly- and this is why become such a problem, because you know when you're talking extracting millions of tonnes of sand from the bottom of a lake or the bottom of a river, inevitably we're doing tremendous environmental damage to get at that sand, ripping up river beds, stripping beaches bear stripping. Lake bottoms, bear even digging it up, out of the ocean causing huge. Environmental damage all over the world and in I'm places suppliers, I've gotten so tight that organised I'm has actually moved into the industry, is a black market in sand, so that in four sand is so intense there It's actually leading to global conflict strew there's so much demand for sand that in many
places around the world people are being imprisoned, tortured and murdered, by the hundreds over sand violence is, is probably at its worst in India, where they actually call in the sand, mafia, but its by no means the only place in Kenya in Indonesia in Gambia. In many other places around the world, same kind of thing people are are fighting and Killing and dying over sand MA and you ve actually witness Summum this in India, you witness some of the crime associated with the sand. Trade yeah slowed. This is work on me started. I do is I just tumbled across an article about the murder of a farmer in India and what Can we caught my eye was that he had been killed over sand, and at that point I was like people. I'd never even thought about sand in my life,
Never given it a second thought beyond like how am I going to get this sand out my bathing suit, you know then I did a little more research and found that in especially in Indian, hundreds of people have been murdered over sand in the last few years, and I just thought that was the craziest thing I ever heard of like what What in the world would make sand so valuable, so important people kill for it. And what I discovered was that its sand is really the substance that we need to build cities out of an India, as in most of the developing world right in China in Nigeria. Indonesia, you name it we're building city, he's at a rate and at a speed that has never happened before in human history, which means we need huge amounts of sand. By their says that today, massive amounts of sand are being moved around the world to fuel, are growing appetite for glass and computer chips and asked for and over the years and has morphed from the look.
All ground beneath us into what commodity that's mind and refined and sold in the global marketplace. While sand is the basis of so many different products. By far the biggest driver of the demand for sand is the production of concrete yeah. It's Danny the story of concrete is completely fascinating to Madden, know anything about it. Until I started the research for this book, you may concrete by tee King sand and gravel and glue them together with cement you can make cement and in a few different ways. But basically, you take a substance like lime and you bake it down, and it turns into a powder and no one mix that powder with water. It forms this paste. The gloom together all that send an aggregate, but the real magic of it is. It does more than just harden. It actually forms a chemical bond between all those, the constituent parts between the green
of sand and gravel and the cement, which is widespread, great building material Reich's its really really strong. It's really flexible anyway. There are at least a couple. Three ancient civilizations that some I figured out how to do this. The ancient Mayans used a form of concrete ancient Egyptians might have had a form of cement. There was the Romans who really figured it out and they actually used concrete in a really extensive. Way they build roads out of it, they built aqueducts out of it. They build building however, there are still standing today, like the pantheon in Rome, has a concrete roof that for two thousand years old and it still standing here's. The really bizarre twist to the Romans figured out how to use concrete used it to great effect for centuries, but then, when the roman empire collapsed, the world sort of forgot how to make concrete like the secret of concrete making
kind of disappeared with the roman empire and nobody build anything with concrete for about fifteen hundred years books. I know I love story, because I feel like it's this trope that you a lot of science fiction and fantasy that there's this ancient forgotten knowledge that holds the key to the future. But the thing about the troll Is that a basically never exists in the real world, except for the store of concrete concrete Is this amazing technology that gets completely forgotten for hundreds of years until the turn of the century? And then it we emerges in a big way. And what really made the big change was on an architect name earnest ransom was a british architect. To add emigrated to the United States set up shop in San Francisco and he started tinkering around with cement and with concrete and fear There are different ways to you, not a perfect. The mix and eventually literally
through tinkering in his back yard, he came up with the dear, of reinforced concrete, which has come with those steel bars running through it, and that is was Ernest ransoms, great innovation based and by putting steel bars inside the concrete, the concrete would bind those bars and it would massively increased the tensile strength of the concrete, and he realized wow. This is an increase. Building material. I can build the walls and the roofs of structures with this stuff and it'll be cheap and will be strong and holy smoke. This is the of the future thought or ransom. So here around the country trying to sell people on this idea and basically people laughed at him, they're, just like why in the world, would even try. This is crazy: new building material we build with stone when we build with bricks, we build with timber these things
then tried and trusted for centuries. Why on earth? Would we take a chance your wacky new idea, so he literally tries for years and years cell people on this idea. Any gets a few commissions. He manages to build a few get a few. Who buildings built out of concrete and a couple, a different places three of them in San Francisco, where he lives so then come Nineteen o six, the sand, great San Francisco earthquake. Massive earthquake, demolishes most of the city, followed by an enormous fire that basically burns San from go to the ground. When the smoke clears and the dust is settled. Some of the very few structures left standing in San Francisco are strand sums reinforced concrete, buildings That was a real turning point. People all around the country and in fact all around the world looked at that and said wow that they come
free stuff, that really works, western withstood, the earthquake withstood the fire that stuff looks great and in your book you talk about how the new, concrete industry that was developing really took advantage of these images from the simplest go fire and the concrete warehouses that survived as a way to argue that, like hey check out this amazing new fire, safe and earthquake proof material. Yet absolutely they themselves. You know, too, to builders to engineers to the general public in a real big way advertising themselves really as the material of the future, and in fact it is something concrete is an amazingly subtle and useful material. It's very work with its cheap. And it's really strong as long as you build a correctly, but You can see it. I mean I sort of trawled through a lot of newspapers at the time and Emily
almost like, like computers and digital technology in the nineties. Just the way that journalists were writing about the stuff. Just like ah meeting science has revolutionised are the way building nevermore. Will we have to worry about fire like you As though concrete was gonna solve every problem known to man. It was really people are just ecstatic over it and, in fact, Dad Thomas Edison here just in love with concrete, he thought concrete was gonna, be you know was not only going to be an important building material but that, basically, you could build anything out of concrete. He bit several completely all concrete houses in which he furnished with concrete furniture, even delta com pre piano. That he's touring around the country. It doesn't It does actually allow architects to be quite inventive because of its in its ability to be shaped different kinds of ways:
absolutely absolutely I mean you know, look at things. Structures like like the Guggenheim. Are you know the Sydney opera House. These sooner incredibly fanciful and beauty, four creations, you couldn't make those things out of breath you know or stone. Yet no, concrete, as you know, in a dish entered to making it easier to build. Really strong, durable structures. It makes it possible to build some of them. Beautiful land and inventive structures in the world, not to mention the most useful. I mean things like You know these enormous dams, that's right. They made possible the the modern southwest and a lot of ways and we went through. In the western, where we went through our phase of a building, a lot of concrete in the twentieth century, and now there is a huge gap. Within cities in Asia and Africa. So is that work A lot of the sand is going today, yeah, so we
we're still building. Of course, in the western world we still use a lot of sand and a lot of concrete here, but it is absent. But lead dwarfed. The amounts that we use. The western world is absolutely dwarfed by what's going on in the developing world, and for that is number one, there's more and more people in the world all the time right populations growing. And more and more of them are moving into cities all the time. The same thing, happen in this country? A hundred years ago, people left the aggregate troll countryside, they left farming, villages and into Citys thing is happening in India and China, Oliver Africa, but on em much bigger scale and at a much faster rate, in a much more compressed timeframe, so to give you an idea were adding the equivalent of eight New York cities to the world every single year. Yeah, here's another way to think about it: The amount of concrete that we use every single year is enough to be
the wall. Eighty it feet. High eighty eight feet wide right around the equator. Every year Most of that is happening in the developing create hundreds of millions of people in China, far and away the world's number one consumer sand and of concrete hunt. Tens of millions of people in China have moved from the country tied into cities in the last decade or two Remember, of course, cities are made of concrete ensue, where's China's sand coming from yes the thing with sand. Is you always want to get it from somewhere close to where you can actually use it, because sand is very heavy cubic art of sand ways more than a ton. So if you have the transport it more than a few miles. The cost of it goes up very quickly. So, basically, others in China, and everywhere else are always looking for sand, that's close by so thick
but Shanghai, for example, Shanghais one of these cities that has just exploded. Twenty years more skyscrapers had been built- in Shanghai in the land. Twenty years. Then there are all of New York City, so obvious they they are using chested staggering amount of sand wears an all coming from well fur in the early this century. There are getting most do it from the Yangtse River there just scooping at the bottom of the Yangtze River and that caused a lot problems number one. It was causing river banks to literally collapse right when you dig out the middle of the river. The sides of the river, often just collapse, taking with it cultural land, villages, you know it is. Elsa shipping in a really terrible way, and it also does serious damage to the Rivers Ecosystem Reich's. Anything that was living on the bottom of the river obviously is gone. Their habit. That's just been destroyed and also the when you
silt up the water like that it blocks the sunlight from reaching plants growing, underneath the water so huge damage. And the chinese authorities realise this. They were like well. This is a serious problem for the Yangtse River, which is incredibly important. Source for China is the source of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people fish set up, so they had to ban by sand mining on the Yangtse River, as a result sand. Minors just serve pushed their operations. Few dozen miles upstream, TAT, the big fresh water Lake and China. It's called lake PO, so big pole Yang has now become the biggest sand mine in the world spot. A two hundred thirty odd million tons of Santer scooped out at Us Lake every year and that now, of course, starting to Jenny, its own set of environmental problems, it son, causing real damage to
at the many many fish end and birds that lived there, including endangered species like freshwater porpoises? So ITALY. Where does China get at San from it? Gets it from wherever is handy, and when you wrote that much pressure on whatever river or Laker. Whatever is handy, it causes problems inevitably near I mean. Is this a race to the bottom of WEEE is gonna run of sand, so we're not going to come fleetly run out of sand any time in the foreseeable future. We're not gonna be fighting over the very last little pile of the last few grains on earth, but what's up with sand is is much more like what's happening with oil and gas right There still a lot of it on the planet, but the stuff it's easy to get out has been mostly tapped out the stuff. That's that's close to the surface and cheapen and an easy to get our hands on
increasingly disappearing and we're having to go further and further and do more and more damage to get with the stuff. That's left. The same thing. They see happening with oil, where we're having to do things like fracturing and offshore oil drilling to get at the all. That's left, similar kind of thing is happening with sand, we're having to do dig, deeper and deeper into more and more damage to get at the dwindling supplies of sand. Beyond the damage that you can inflict on the land by mining, the sand? What is the cost of concrete to the plan? Yes, oh concrete, has some very significant costs. Number one is carbon emissions, so many fracturing cement is depending on how you measured either the second or the third biggest carbon dioxide admit our greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, did the energy its required. It takes a lot of a lot of energy to two in sinner
it all down the line that you need to make cement number one, and also the processes, Death gives off a lot of gases, so create somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten percent of all greenhouse gases are created by the cement industry course. Coursing smitten made concrete. So that's that's number one Number two is that by covering so much ground with concrete you create and a lot of places what's called the urban HEAT Island effect. The sun's he'd get soaked up held by all that concrete the temperature. Cities can be raised by as much as ten or fifteen degrees just due to the fact that the concrete is is retaining all of that heat and that's obviously, a big I remain a world, it's getting hot her all the time is another effect impact that it can have, which is that it can make flooding worse because, for the most part, concrete is not poor us right it to water flow,
was over. It so would, for instance, what happened in the let the last set of floods in Houston, is it made those floods worse because when those rivers, rivers, overflow their banks, all the that water goes pouring into cities, and it has no where to go. It just flows through the the concrete streets of the cities so It can really exacerbate flooding in a really some serious way. Doing. To build with as much concrete as we do know that shelf I mean listen. We need concrete. Right is not right. It's not analogous to oil right, which is something that we can actually replace with something cleaner and more sustainable with with do with solar and wind created a great building material. It has created safe herbal housing for billions of people the world over. Who didn't have it twenty thirty years ago? That's too the good, so we need concrete
gotta keep using it, but yet we could use a lot less of it. How can we do that? Well, first, I'll, buy figuring out ways to restructure. How we live. So the one don't need quite as much infrastructure cars being the most obvious example, but also just by making thing, Smaller I mean I just got back Tell us debating of American Irene Day in the Netherlands and the size of the hotel rooms that I stayed in wood shock, any I was thinking of America, I mean they are tiny there. Room for a bed, a single bed and a little desk and a window and a little sink, and that's it there I mean you could literally fit to or three of these rooms in the average motel six room it's kind of shocking when you first walking around that size, but really like who cares
most of these towns. For one night I'd go in, I you know, do little work on my computer go. Sleep, get up pack up and leave? I didn't need more than that I didn't know more than that amount of space to think about millions of hotel in motel rooms this country. We could easily cut many of in half you know or houses, I mean Americans famously we build giant houses. We love tat, big huge sprawling, act. Houses and the size of the average american home by the way has nearly doubled. Just in the last couple of decades, we don't need rang much space. You dont need six bathrooms in your house, I became is you know really we can easily cut down. You know, create a system of of extra taxes or tax incentives or whatever to encourage people to live.
Smaller and I submit we would be no less happy living our brain are there other materials we could be using. Yes, it s. The other thing there is a lot of research going on around the world to come up with their materials that we could use in concrete rather than sand. So there are people who, looking at using a bamboo or shredded plastic, Or recycled tyres, shredded tyres or hemp, actually, there's a thing: there's a protocol, hemp, Crete, which you can actually by right now and Those things I think help I think, they're all to the good. I think they should be encouraged but at the end of the day, there's only so far we can go with with alternative materials, because the end like I said we use fifty billion tons of sand and gravel every year, and even if we could place. All that sand with you know, bamboo, where we can come up with fifty bill. In terms of bamboo every year right, family,
in its own set of problems rights right I mean, I think, the real way to think about the San crisis. Is to kind of rephrase the question a question isn't really what's going to happen, when we run out of sand. The question is: what's gonna happen when we run out of everything we shouldn't just be thinking about like how can we solve the problem of sand because really It sounds familiar right. We know that were using too much fresh water we know that were cutting down too many trees. We know we're harvesting too many fish out of the oceans. We know are burning too much fossil fuel and now come too. Now we're using too much sand. Well to my, These are not separate problems there, all, Sir, victims of the same problem, which is just a We are consuming too much right. The way that we live here western world and not lifestyle that move now exported to the rest of the world. It just
tombs way too many natural resources and the planet simply cannot sustain it. Now we're going. I think we're gonna hit that wall with water. Sooner that were hit with sand, but ultimately it's the same problem, which is just at the way that we live our lives just isn't sustainable. We ve got to find ways to build our cities which is where most human beings now live in ways that use fewer resources That's the only way, we're gonna avoid total calamity Vince wiser book is called the world in a green theirs. Much more to the story of sand that we didn't even touch on here, including how glad change, civilization, that's a big deal! So if you like this discussion, I love the book
There is a lot of sand locked up in all the concrete and built world, but is also a lot of embodied carbon in concrete, we'll talk about it, one if I that and concrete alternatives. After this, we often don't think of winter is a time of growth or creation. But if you think about it, it's the perfect time to greet your own website, because her cooped up your thinking about being productive and now square space can help you do it with squares based into your cool ideas. You ve creative content, your services, goods and you can turn them into a beautiful website in just a few clicks does because there is to use templates.
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novel material you never even heard of, and to do that, I called up Kate synonym Kate seminars, and I'm an architect and structural engineer and faculty member at the University of Washington and my, searches focused on the environmental impact of building materials. When we about the environmental impact of buildings. Most people really do think about the environmental impact of operating them. The because of our brain, a building is stuff. You probably know the energy that it takes to heat the building and cool the building and keep the lights on the case that when we think about buildings and climate change, that is not the full picture there. Are also the emissions associated with the materials themselves, the emission that were required to make all that concrete in he'll and glass, the factories, the steel mills, the trucks that drive around those create emissions and those emissions are termed the embodied emissions, so the emissions that are sort embodied in the matter. Girls. Although there really be emissions that happened when making the materials.
These emissions are known as embodied carbon. The carbon emissions that were needed to create the built environment. All around us, Kate heads The carbon leadership forum at the University of Washington Intergroup a bill there is an designers and academics working. Reduce embodied carbon and she said that new materials and greener manufacturing are important for the future. But the first thing we can do to reduce embody. Carbon is just to keep using buildings we ve already built if we can keep, but we have that's the first best step to reducing, embody carbon, so renovating buildings and maintaining them is key. We ve invested a lot in that concrete, and so, let's make our choices correctly. When we choose to make new
things and maintain and keep the things that we have, but even so we know, there's gonna be a building boom in the coming decades. We need to housing, new, green energy infrastructure, new transportation and if all those structures are being made using traditional deal in concrete, is going to be a problem for the climate, but Kate says they're alive a potential low carbon building materials out there. These days, including alternative, concrete and low carbon steel and there's exciting new technologies that are growing rocks by capturing carbon from the atmosphere or add smokestacks and turning it back into limestone If we talk about carbon capture and storage, think about car, capture and using that carbon to build buildings with so we could take those rocks and turn them into buildings kind of carbon capture. Technology is a long way from becoming a reality, but one them
promising green building materials that people are using right now is actually one of the oldest building materials on earth would a wooden buildings towards carbon within it, and so, if you can build, with more would, instead of concrete, you have the potential to magically reduce the embodied carbon emissions. Potentially even have a building that is a net carbon negative and with that goal in mind. Organ Jackson and engineers are developing large manufactured wood products that they call mass timber at some asked there is a term that defines would build. Things that are made out of large pieces of wood, so massive pieces of wood, You make mass timber products by leering sheets of wood on top of one another and then compressing them to create extremely strong pre fabric, it would panels that can be assembled into all kinds of structures are
ex are beginning to experiment with using mass timber to build anything from skyscrapers two bridges and the advantage as mass timber is that the thick pieces of wood have an inherent fire resistant character, stick to them. So imagine. If you're trying to build a camp fire and you make it out a little small sticks, they all burn up and you get a pile of ash. But if you start with really big pieces of wood and then you fall asleep and let the fire burn itself out, you come back and you still have a log in your fireplace and so does the same thing that happens with buildings with the heavy timber build. And yet sort of almost puts itself out. I mean how skyscraper behaves in fire is one thing, but it feels And to think about skyscrapers made of wood and all Oh, I get a modern age. Why is that thing weird But you would have heard of steel building run had ended, they were worried about cast iron, so they were cast iron buildings and cast iron. Melted and people were very can
They were worried about cast iron. So they were cast iron buildings and cast iron, melted and people were very concerned about it. So if you- even if you look back in time, there has been. May have massive innovations about what we do and if you look back in time, there has been massively large tall would buildings that have built and lasted a long period of time. So. We learn a trade in a wood in it that is handed down to us from other people. So a lot of what we learn. We ve been told about works, and so we have confidence that things because they ve been done before so I dont think its unreasonable to beat A little conservative I mean we wouldn't want to build a high rise building that burns and kills lots of people. Nor would we want to build a building that wasn't able to maintain over a long period of time. You know if I stepped back there
I think, if my driver is climate change and my driver is climate change in order to have the building sector be part of the climate solution, we're gonna have to take some risks, and, and so one of the risks will be trying novel materials and new methods of using those materials to drive to market where we have carbon negative buildings. Cities full of carbon negative wooden skyscrapers is definitely an attractive vision and Kate says that wooden buildings have the potential to be carbon negative. But it's not that straightforward gift, We analyze every aspect of the supply chain before he can make such a declaration, one of them important things to consider is where that would is coming from, because the forest itself is pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and, if you take, would out of the forest your changing the forest carbon balance soon, if it would be a great building material for the climate you have to make
that its being harvested sustainably and would lead products. We need to be careful that we do not set up a system that incentivize wasting the wood and chopping down forests, and not replanting, Kate seamen and says that mass timber isn't a perfect building material, there is no perfect building material, but building stuff always involve difficult choices and tradeoffs and its Kate School to make sure that architects and builders are considering embody carbon when they make their the decisions about what to build and how to build it because we're all. Going to be living with the consequences embody? Carbon is up front. These are the emissions. It happened when we built now we're going to be building a new New York every month until two thousand and fifty across the world there was a missions are huge and if we don't figure out how to address them, we're not going to meet climate targets. So more and more people are recognizing that looking for strategies to figure out how to reduce and drive the market to low carbon solutions,
many represent those balls impact design coverage is funded in part by Autodesk Autodesk Soup What's the design and creation of innovative solutions to the world's most pressing social and environmental challenges, including technologies to anticipate and respond to challenges facing the construction industry, Autodesk proud partner of e c three, the embodied carbon calculator for construction. Deasey three is a free open source tool to help design and construction professionals make climate smart choices about what materials to use in construction, depending on how it was made still being may have much lower, embodied carbon than another one. That looks and performs the same easy. We reveals the embody carbon of materials going into our buildings, empowering tax engineers and contractors to make informed choices, selecting the materials that have the lowest environmental impact and providing conspiracy from more sustainable built environment,
to learn more and check out easy three for yourself, you can best. Building transparency, dot, org or go to Otto does. Not read shift dot com to explore more on the future of making. Ninety nine percent invisible was produced this week by any Fitzgerald music by Sharia. Katy Mingle is the senior producer Kirkwall State is the digital director the resident include senior editor, Delaney Hall Sharif Use of every child, when Vivian Lease opiate Clatter Joe Rosenberg and me roman Mars, whereby Ninety one point: seventy eight w in San Francisco produced on radio row in beautiful, downtown oakland. California, ninety nine percent. Invisible. As a member of Radio Tokyo from PR acts are fiercely independent, collective of the most innovative shows in all upon casting by them all at Radio Tokyo, not offend
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Transcript generated on 2020-02-14.