Keeping Trapped Chilean Miners Sane
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Thirty-three miners trapped in two rooms, half a mile underground. Food, water, electricity and fresh air come through a hole four inches wide. Yesterday, engineers started to drill a rescue tunnel just over two feet wide, but that may take as long as four months.
Psychologists say the miners face stress similar to astronauts stranded in space, polar explorers trapped in ice or soldiers in combat. Officials in Chile are getting all kinds of advice on group dynamics and morale.
If you've worked with people who faced extended isolation, if you've experienced that yourself, tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, as technology provides a device to drive away teenage loiterers, we want to hear more about traditional methods. If you've had to discourage youngsters hanging out, if you've ever been chased off yourself, email us. The address again is firstname.lastname@example.org.
But first, the plight of the miners in Chile. Ian O'Neill is a space producer for Discovery News, and he's been following the situation there, and he joins us from his home in Woodland Hills, California. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. IAN O'NEILL (Space Science Producer, Discovery News): Thanks for inviting me on the show, Neal.
CONAN: And I'm sure you're also following the plight of your coworkers in Silver Spring, Maryland. There's a hostage situation underway there. We certainly hope that all works out pretty well.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah, it's pretty terrifying. I mean, we know that all the Discovery News staff, they've been evacuated, and we believe most of the Discovery Channel staff have been pulled out, as well. So our hopes are really with them that everybody's okay.
CONAN: All right. Well, obviously, more on that later today from NPR News. But back to the miners. Are they aware of their situation, of how long they're likely to be stuck there?
Mr. O'NEILL: I believe so. And that's really one of the main tactics that have been used by the support team, that they have to be very honest with all the miners that are trapped down there. And that really comes from years of experience of dealing with astronauts in space and also with the military, as well.
Apparently, there's - that's a very good psychological basis for dealing with these kind of problems, and apparently, you have to stay honest. You have to be very trustworthy. And also, you've got to be a familiar voice. So apparently, a lot of their colleagues are actually communicating with them from the surface. So they actually have familiar voices for all these - the news that's coming from the surface.
So yeah, they are - I believe they are acutely aware of how long it could take.
CONAN: I understand they've also brought some celebrities in, famous Chilean football stars, soccer stars we would call them. And I think that's part of the idea, is to make sure that these men know that they're not being forgotten, that they're being regarded as special, efforts are underway.
Mr. O'NEILL: Absolutely. And that's all part of the morale-boosting exercise because if you're trapped in that kind of, those kind of conditions for such a long period, any news is great news for them.
So to have celebrities in the area, as well, is just a wonderful morale booster. And it makes them feel special, and they are, you know, international celebrities now, and I'm sure that they're communicating that to them, that what they're doing down there is, you know, known all over the world.
And, of course, if celebrities are there, that really does push home that point.
CONAN: Let's - you are an astrophysicist, and you cover science. You cover space a lot. Is NASA an appropriate place to go for advice, do you think?
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah, I think so. And on Discovery News, we've been following NASA's efforts quite closely to communicate and help out with the ground crew.
And, in fact, me and another Discovery News correspondent, Larry O'Hanlon, he actually wrote an article. You can actually find that on discoverynews.com, under our Human section. And it's really based on - he was basing it on very much a psychological basis.
And he actually kind of disagreed with me originally, when we first spoke about this, because we heard that NASA was going to be getting involved because, of course, they've got very - they've got a lot of experience with dealing with astronauts in very difficult situations, very confined circumstances, especially on board the International Space Station, and earlier with the Mir space station.
And he was saying that probably a closer analogy to what the miners are going through are probably with combat soldiers, because they've got very uncertain lifestyles. You know, they don't know how long they're going to be in the warzone. They don't know if each day is going to be their last, whereas with astronauts, they have a very definite mission length.
It's certainly a dangerous career to have. Being an astronaut is certainly not a walk in the park. But your life isn't always on the line.
And so perhaps that's not the best psychological connection to make, but then again, NASA are experts in support networks, and one of the main things why the U.S. space program is such a massive success with manned space flight is that you have the support structure on Earth.
They're always in communication with the astronauts, always making sure they're occupied. They have a very structured lifestyle in space. So psychological problems are mitigated. There is a very heightened awareness about the human influence in space.
So I think it's fantastic they are going there and sharing their expertise, because to build that support network, to support the miners trapped nearly half a mile deep, I think is a very good thing to be doing. And I think it's wonderful that NASA should be helping out in this way.
CONAN: You'd think that there'd be some similarities. The psychological pressure of feeling all of that rock above you, trapped in a mine, or feeling the immensity of space just outside the thin wall of the capsule, would be similar.
But, obviously, NASA probably does some psychological testing to make sure that the people are likely to be able to hold up under those kinds of stresses, and I'm not sure there's a whole lot of psychological testing for miners in Chile, or anywhere else, for that matter.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah, and I suppose the miners in Chile, they - this is their lifestyle. They work underground every single day. And, in fact, one of the solutions that was put forward by psychologists was to continue business as usual.
So although they're stuck down there probably for about four more months, perhaps they could do some prospecting because they're actually - they're stuck in a chamber, I think, of about, what two kilometers' worth of tunnels. So there's a lot of space.
They're not actually cramped in a very small area. It's still not pleasant, because it's pitch black down there, apart from the light that they're sort of provided from the surface, but perhaps they should go about, you know, perhaps doing some prospecting, perhaps have a structure to your day which is work-related so that they can relate to that.
And I suppose that would stop you from going a bit stir crazy. And also, I suppose, another great thing that these miners have adopted, they're noticed there's an emerging leadership.
So if, like, there's a definite leader who is very capable, who was kind of put in that position through democracy within this group of 33 miners. So he's become the point of contact for the surface, and that's very, very important for a community that's under such stress to have somebody to look up to.
So hopefully, that structure should hold for much longer. So, yeah, and I think, you know, NASA will certainly help out with building that camaraderie.
But, again, it's all about communication, all about being honest. And that's the key thing. You have to be honest with these miners, because there's no point in giving them unrealistic hopes they're going to be set free anytime soon, because you're just setting yourself up for a fall later down the line.
CONAN: Joining us now is Colonel Tom Kolditz, chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point. He has studied human behavior in these kinds of dangerous, extreme situations. He joins us now from his office. Colonel, thanks very much for being with us today.
Colonel TOM KOLDITZ (Chairman, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, West Point): Well, good afternoon. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And these miners waited 17 days just to be found alive. Obviously, it's a huge boost when you realize you have been found, rescue is underway. But then there's this enormous gulf of time before rescue is likely.
Col. KOLDITZ: Absolutely. And they'll need to begin to pattern that time and begin to add structure to their days and to their lives in order to gain some predictability that they otherwise don't have.
CONAN: Could it - there's got to be some fear, we hear "Lord of the Flies" mentioned. Could this go wrong?
Col. KOLDITZ: Well, I mean, in any group, you can have conflict, and that conflict can be significant, to extend to violence. But I think everything that we've seen from this group thus far indicates that there's a tremendous amount of mutual support and cooperation.
We watched as an individual who was being interviewed on video broke down and began to cry, and all of his comrades clapped for him, which was a key indication that they're providing emotional support to one another.
So I'm very optimistic that if they are properly led and coached through this, that they'll be successful.
CONAN: Is it likely that groups, sub-groups are like - will form amongst the men?
Col. KOLDITZ: Well, they will, but I think also, this group has common goals, has a common challenge. And the more that the leadership - whether it's the leadership that has emerged in the mine or the leadership from above -capitalizes on that common threat to pull the whole group together will determine how tight they are going forward.
CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in the conversation, as well. If you have worked with people involved in these kinds of situations of extreme isolation, if you've been in that situation yourself, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. And let's see if we can start with Heather, Heather with us from Warrens in Wisconsin.
HEATHER (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. My husband and I were both in the Navy, and my husband was in the submarine service. Submariners, when they go underwater, they can go underwater for very long periods of time, and I believe the longest time he was underwater was 89 days.
HEATHER: These men are absolutely fun-loving, crazy. You wouldn't believe the stuff they do on the beach. But when they go underwater, they are the most professional. They follow strict time schedules. They have tasks. Everything is very scheduled and structured.
And they also build in fun time, like halfway night: Halfway through the deployment, they try and auction off a pie to throw in the captain's face, that kind of thing.
But they're very structured. They're very professional underway, and they build in time for fun.
CONAN: That's very interesting. Colonel Kolditz, is that an analogy? Obviously, these are volunteers on submarines.
Col. KOLDITZ: Right. But the common enemy between the submariners in their circumstance and the miners is unpredictability and uncertainty.
So in the case of the Navy, it's clear that the leadership there has been careful to structure their experience, and it gives them the predictability that they wouldn't otherwise have.
I mean, these miners don't even know when it's light outside. And so the ability to bring that kind of structure into their lives and into their experience is what's going to prevent much of the stress and anxiety and negative - potential negative outcomes of being buried.
CONAN: Heather, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
HEATHER: Thank you. Have a good day.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about the 33 trapped miners in Chile and what we've learned from previous cases about keeping people mentally sound in long pieces - long periods of isolation.
In a few minutes, we'll also talk with an astronaut who was trapped on the Mir space station for 132 days. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Experts have passed along some basic tips for the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile. According to an article in today's Washington Post: Keep track of day and night, even if you can't see the sunlight; make friends, but avoid cliques; maintain your privacy, but do not become a loner.
We're talking today about some lessons we can draw from previous situations where people have been isolated for long periods of time. If you've worked with people who have faced extended isolation, if you've experienced that yourself, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are: Ian O'Neill, space science producer for Discovery News. He wrote an article asking whether NASA is the resource to consult for expertise. There's a link to that at our website, go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Also with us, Colonel Tom Kolditz, who studies human behavior and leadership in extreme situations and chairs the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point.
And an email question from Ford(ph) in Saratoga, California: How would you compare miners' situation with people sentenced to years of solitary confinement? Colonel Kolditz?
Col. KOLDITZ: Well, I think surviving solitary confinement, when we look at some of the poignant stories coming back from, for example, Vietnam, where we had pilots who were imprisoned in solitary for long periods of time, you can read about them structuring their days and their environments, everything from sewing together small flags to keeping track of the number of times they recited poetry.
And so again, it's not so much where or how you're isolated. It's the fact that you need predictability and certainty as you go through life, and you have to build that in these circumstances.
CONAN: Let's go next to Allen(ph), Allen with us from Watertown in Minnesota.
ALLEN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead.
ALLEN: In the early '90s I did asbestos removal, and we were sent out to a job in the badlands of North Dakota. And we were so far out in the badlands doing a removal, there was no radio station, there was no other contact.
You know, there was only four of us on the crew, and we worked out there for about a week, a little bit more than a week, and they sent out the guy to approve the job, and then he found out that there we had made some mistakes and we were going to stay for another, even longer period of time, a couple weeks, to work on it.
We were there for, you know, over two weeks, and we were completely untrained, completely out of touch with everybody, and at the worst of it I fantasized about killing this guy because he snored. It was really bad.
CONAN: So you felt like you were on the other side of the moon.
ALLEN: Absolutely. I mean the mosquitoes were so bad, they drove us into this building. We couldn't basically leave it. It was just a trailer house. But you know, that is a school, because some families are remote out there.
CONAN: Sure, and the guy drove you crazy because of his snoring, and I bet you drove the others crazy too.
ALLEN: Absolutely. I mean, I was the only one that wasn't a smoker, and they ran out of cigarettes after, like, three days. And so I had to deal with them going through withdrawal. And then me being all high and mighty because I wasn't going through withdrawal, they kind of teamed up against me.
CONAN: They teamed up against you because you were the non-smoker.
ALLEN: Right, because I was the only one that wasn't going through what they were going through. It was just ridiculous.
CONAN: Wow, everybody got out alright though.
ALLEN: We did.
CONAN: Well, that's interesting. Allen, thanks very much for the contribution. We appreciate it.
CONAN: People who aren't trained, who don't get help, Colonel Kolditz, well, things can go a little wacky, as we just heard.
Col. KOLDITZ: Well, absolutely. And the caller never once mentioned a leader in that group who was trying to structure the event for people, mediating disputes, you know, helping people get through the difficult parts.
CONAN: Here's an email from Scott(ph) in Nevada City, California, who writes: I have no experience with being trapped like this, but as a father, I guarantee one question all those men have is: Is my family okay?
Ian O'Neill, are they in touch with their families?
Mr. O'NEILL: Apparently so, yeah, and that's another key thing with the support network that's going on at the moment. It's not only to keep some kind of structure to their day, they also need to be in contact with their families.
But one of the key things I read about is that the families have been advised not to say anything too negative because of course any negative impacts, anything that they say that's negative that's perhaps affecting the family that the miners can't control, that's obviously going to have a massive psychological factor to play, and that's going to cause depression.
So you know, regular contact with the family is certainly a key, a key strategy, really, to look after the miners.
CONAN: Now turn to someone who has firsthand experience with what we're talking about. Jerry Linenger was a U.S. astronaut aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1997 when a fire broke out. He was trapped with two Russian crewmates for 132 days in a malfunctioning ship. And he joins us now from his home in Suttons Bay, Michigan. And Jerry Linenger, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. JERRY LINENGER (Former Astronaut): My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And a lot of experts have given their input about what's going through the minds of these miners. You've actually been in a similar situation. What do you think they're thinking about?
Mr. LINENGER: Yeah, I think that was on the extreme. I'm just thinking about the bad news with the family, for example. And I know before we go into space, we sit down with psychiatrists and different people and say, okay, what - if there's a death in the family and you're gone for five months, do you want to know about it?
And you sort of make those decisions a priori. But family communication is a critical thing.
In my case, it was myself, two Russians. They spoke no English. I have never felt so cut off, isolated and stuck with myself as I did during those four or five months out in space.
I can really relate, I guess, to the miners. I wish I had 32 other people to talk to. They have that group, which is a major difference. But I think I was on the extreme.
In the discussion I heard so far, I think the one thing we think you can screen people, and you know they're going to do okay, and the astronauts are very well-screened, but it is one tough, isolated place out there, when you're in a failing space station, at least - no radio communication to the Earth, essentially, for five months.
And even a person that's really trained and knows what to expect and is psychologically sound, you've got to hit every resource you can and dig very deep to get through that thing on an even keel.
CONAN: Did you ever get and I'm this is by no means a technical term, the heebie-jeebies?
Mr. LINENGER: I got no, not really. And I never had really any anxiety. I slept well at night. But it was life support systems failure, you know, low power. We had the day-night cycle every, you know, 15 times a day, day-night-day-night.
Miners have the darkness. We had sort of a dark, dingy place because we didn't have the power. We had 90-plus degrees. I heard they're about 85 degrees down there.
We were reduced to, you know, a couple drops of water on a four-by-four gauze pad for our shower.
So you know, we had the extreme, and I'll tell you, I guess my experience, the one thing, it was probably the most surprising thing going into space was how isolated I felt.
And then on return, and we're not talking about that yet, and you know, hopefully they all get out of there alive and everything is perfect with them there, but that return, I would say physically it took me about a year and a half before I got the bone strength and the muscle strength back, physiologically - you know, the travails of space, floating, not doing anything. But even more so and more surprising was the psychological healing I sort of had to go through.
And I ended up writing a book when I got back, and it was a cathartic process. I'd have to step away from that computer from time to time as I sort of relived what happened. And I realized in retrospect that I was just sort of repressing a lot of feelings, a lot of psychological hurts, all the loneliness, the anxieties and just tucked them away so that I could get that mission accomplished.
But you know, eventually you've got to catch up with that and you've got to deal with it.
CONAN: I assume your Russian got a lot better.
Mr. LINENGER: My Russian was pretty good. I had about a year and a half in Russia. That was a bit of isolation in itself. And then up in space, again, they spoke no English. Communication system pretty much broke down. (Speaking Russian). I talked quite a bit of Russian.
On the other hand, you have to think to talk a foreign language, and at the end of a day I was exhausted, and to make small talk was not relaxation by any means.
CONAN: You talked about there was an interview with you in the Washington Post today about expectations and the difficulties when those are not fulfilled.
Mr. LINENGER: You've only got so much psychological reserve, and I applaud what they're doing down there, and that is being forthright and truthful and telling them it looks like it's going to be four months.
You know, they've got 17 days of true survival under their belt as a group. They all made it. They've got that as a strength. And so they do have some psychological reserve.
When the bore hole goes down and they drop a communication line down there and they tell them it's going to be four months, you know, it's a bad day, obviously, but you can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
They are miners. They understand it's not easy to dig through rock. I was an astronaut, understood it's not easy to launch a shuttle. And so, you know, you be forthright, you be honest, just what all your guests have been saying, and you can rise to that occasion.
But you can't repeatedly dig yourself out of some psychological depths that you can get into very easily.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Aaron(ph) in Tulsa: Is there an address we can write to to send letters to show support for the miners, to keep their morale up?
Ian O'Neill, do you know anything about that?
Mr. O'NEILL: I'm not too sure, but that's certainly an interesting idea. And I'm sure that kind of thing would help the miners. I mean, obviously they don't want to get inundated with fan mail, but to know that they are being thought of by the international community, I'm sure that would help a lot.
But I'm not aware of any address or anything like that. But it's certainly a nice idea. And I'm sure that kind of support would be welcome.
CONAN: Jerry Linenger mentioned the book that he wrote after his experience. I'm sure that more than a few agents might like to get in touch with him as well. To make sure they're taking notes.
Mr. LINENGER: And they are, I heard, Neal. I heard they're actually getting some people - one guy is in charge with the diary of the group. So it's pretty interesting. I'll tell you, the outside world - knowing that they're caring about you, you know, I'm up in the heavens but I am cut off from mankind. They're down on the depths of the earth, cut off. I think it's huge. And the soccer stars and different people trying to keep their spirits up and the world caring about them, and that's the message I would send them, is just - you know, I'm astronaut up here in Suttons Bay, Michigan and they are on my mind. They're in my prayers. I am proud of them.
I think it's a testament to mankind, how we still have in our DNA the ability to get through tough times. We live such a pampered life, but it's still in us. And they should walk out of that thing when they get pulled out of - you know, think of this pull out. This is going to be a cool thing as an astronaut. I love this. Put a harness down there and pull them up on a half a mile to a little diameter, you know, small. You barely - better not eat too much or your waist gets too big. You know, what a ride that's going to be. But when they pop out, they should have their chest out and their head held high, and mankind should be proud that we have that in us, you know? That's in our DNA.
CONAN: May need a pair of sunglasses too.
Mr. LINENGER: Yes.
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CONAN: Difficult transition. Jerry Linenger, thanks so much for your time today. We appreciate your relating your experiences with us.
Mr. LINENGER: My pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: Jerry Linenger was aboard the Russian Mir Space Station for 132 days in 1997, from January 12th to May 24th, with us on the phone from Suttons Bay in Michigan.
Let's see if we can go next Cassius(ph), Cassius with us from Watertown in Wisconsin.
CASSIUS (Caller): Hello. Yes. I experienced quite a bit of isolation when I signed up to be a guinea pig, a test subject, basically, for an osteoporosis medication. And what they had us do, was to lay in bed for two months straight, unable to get up except to go to the bathroom and to shower on certain occasions. And - oh, geez. And we were stuck with needles every half hour or so during those two months. And I found that something that I thought a lot of people were turning to - that was going to help them through the isolation, didn't seem to help them. It was their religion. They seem to turn in on themselves and isolate themselves from people, the more religious people who tend to turn to God for their guidance. And that totally surprised me. The people that...
CONAN: Let me ask Colonel Kolditz about that. You'd think religion would be a support on this situation?
Col. KOLDITZ: Well, I think it depends. I think it depends on the individual and where they are in terms of how they view their own mortality. One of the things that we studied in the military is something called mortality salience, how do people react when they are conscious of their own potential death. And one way of mitigating mortality salience, of course, is to believe in an afterlife. So I think it depends on the individual.
CONAN: All right. Cassius, thanks very much. We appreciate it and glad - you got paid for that, I assume.
CASSIUS: Yes. Yes, we got paid. And thanks for having me.
CONAN: All right. Appreciate it. We're talking about the psychology and the stress faced by the miners trapped underground in Chile.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let me reintroduce our guests. Ian O'Neill, a space science producer for Discovery News, who's written about this. There's a link to his story on our website. You can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Colonel Tom Kolditz also, chairman of the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at West Point, with us from his office there.
And here's an email from Mark(ph) in Aurora, Illinois. It is natural enough to think of the psychological ills of being cooped up for so long. But having thus - been thus imprisoned then having grown inured, what readjustment traumas will the miners be up against once they get out? And, Colonel Kolditz, that's going to be difficult, too, isn't it?
Col. KOLDITZ: Well, that's a very perceptive question. And, of course, we reintegrate soldiers with their families after they've been gone for long periods of time as well. Part of the challenge here, I think, is that, you know, these are strong family men in a male dominated culture, and their families are getting, right now, better and better at living without them. And so, consequently, when they go back and they're reunited with their families, there's going to be some adjustment. It's not going to be exactly the same way it was when they left.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Mike(ph), and Mike's with us from Boulder, Colorado.
MIKE (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. It's been fascinating listening to the various guests here. I have several experiences that are similar. I've been a commercial fisherman up in Alaska. I delivered a sailboat, from Hawaii to San Francisco, crossed Greenland by ski. That was a small party of two. But I spend many years working in Antarctica, and probably the most significant comparative experience would be wintering over down there.
CONAN: And you don't see the sun for months at a time down there.
MIKE: Exactly. Yes. We - I was McMurdo Station and you go about four months without seeing the sun. We had a pre-selected group. As for your first caller mentioned, I think her husband's in a submarine service.
MIKE: We were interviewed by U.S. Navy psychologists and we were given the submariner's test. So we went in as a pre-qualified group, whereas this other -these miners, they didn't go through that. And even with the prequalification, we have quite a bit of variance on how different people experience that isolation. And we had, you know, people that turned to violence. We had two different people that got involved in a very serious fight, actually using pipe. We call it the pipe beating. And some people just couldn't handle the separation from family, maybe the friction of coworkers too, became too much far. So, even a pre-selected group, I think, you're going to find variances. And when I was commercial fishing in Alaska, it was pretty rough and tumble crowd. And I sort of have a feeling that maybe the minors are a bit like that.
MIKE: So, I'm not quite sure, you know, that the group that's down there, you know, the ideal group to be sharing this experience, but perhaps, they can work through it. And I think, like, made our experience successful, for most folks, was having common goals. And, you know, you think your goal would be to survive, but I think people view that in different ways. You know, initially, I thought I liked the idea one of your callers had, about, you know, them continuing working.
MIKE: But, you know, what if somebody gets hurt? You know, you're mining. What if a rock falls on someone or someone gets caught in some machinery, how you're going to deal with that incident?
CONAN: Mike, that's a good question. And I'm afraid we're going to have to end the conversation there, but we appreciate your phone call. Our thanks also to Ian O'Neall from Discovery News and Colonel Tom Kolditz at West Point for joining us today. We thank them for their time.
Coming up, why one-quarter in Washington D.C. is blasting teenagers with a strange sound. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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