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When I was in middle school, there was a year when I was obsessed with jeans from The Gap. (If you weren't alive or don't remember the 90s, The Gap was super cool then.) Everyone at school was talking about them and wearing them—and eventually I got a pair too. It's one of my earliest memories of "cool" consumption.
Research into conspicuous consumption has come a long way since those days, with economists, marketing professors, psychologists, and neuroscientists all applying their methods to understanding what it is about owning certain products that makes us feel so, well, cool.
Steven Quartz, a philosopher and neuroscientist at Caltech, along with Anette Asp, a political scientist and neuromarketer, investigate the underlying neurological and cultural processes that play a part in our decisions as consumers in their new book, Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our WorldThey draw on research from theSocial Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Caltech (where Quartz is the director, and Asp a former project manager) and detail how our drive for "cool" and social status informs the way we spend money and the things we choose to buy.
I recently spoke with Quartz and Asp about their new book, and why we should care about how the concept of cool influences human beings. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: How did the book project come about for the both of you?
Steven Quartz: It actually originated in a query from Lisa Ling, who at the time was working at MSNBC on a show and was doing an episode on cool. We were working on a project at Caltech on decision-making and the brain, and thought it was an intriguing possibility.
Anette Asp: What is so interesting with neuromarketing and brain scanning is that the sky is the limit. It really has endless possibilities and we wanted to see if we could measure responses to cool products. And of course it was possible.

Lam: What is neuroeconomics and neuromarketing?
Quartz: Neuroeconomics was developed at Caltech around 2000, in part because we had an outstanding group of behavioral economists who had developed very sophisticated ways to investigate how people actually make economic decisions (in contrast to much of traditional economics which uses formal theories of optimal behavior). When we built an imaging center, it was an organic process of translating these behavioral studies to the brain and to investigate especially the unconscious processes that weren’t observable or measurable with the behavioral studies. Neuromarketing was the application of these studies to product testing, development, and consumer preferences in real situations.
Asp: Neuroeconomics is a way to answer questions about how the brain processes decisions involving everything from risk-taking, risk aversion, trust in other people, and so on. Neuromarketing on the other hand focuses on how we perceive brands, products, and status signaling objects.
Both tell us about the unconscious processes that a survey or focus group wouldn’t reveal. Often people don’t dare to reveal that they prefer Gucci, when the focus group is arranged by Prada.
Lam: How exactly do you conduct neuroeconomics research?
Quartz: We use the tasks that behavioral economics has developed—to see how people think about others during social exchange or strategic interactions—and further uses brain imaging to measure how the brain represents these values. We can look at very basic decisions like a simple gamble to very complex ones, like how people represent the value of products.
Asp: What is essential is that it captures emotional reactions in real-time as opposed to general rationalizations. When it comes to trust for example, it’s not always about how one might optimize the pay-off.
Lam: One question about brain imaging studies is that the sample sizes tend to be quite small. Is that a legitimate problem?
Quartz: We’ve done some studies with large sample sizes for imaging (upwards of 100 subjects), but the sample size issue really depends on what the question is. In neuromarketing it’s very difficult to get representation of the country, say, if you want demographic groups, age, gender, geographical location, etc. But if you want to see how a certain design affects the brain, or if the brain processes unconscious information about a product, that can be done with relatively small samples sizes.

Lam: What are some of the myths and assumptions about consumerism, and how does your research on cool consumption challenge that?
Quartz: There are four especially damaging myths about consumerism. First, that it doesn’t make us happy. Second, that it relies on instilling false needs in us because it’s contrary to our real nature. Third, that it erodes public life.  Fourth, that it’s primarily about “stuff.”
The first myth depended on something called the Easterlin Paradox. In 1974, Richard Easterlin reported that although richer people were happier than poorer people in the same country, people in wealthier countries were no happier than those in poorer ones. The implication was that happiness depended on relative income—how we stack up against the proverbial Joneses. But new studies question whether there ever was an Easterlin Paradox: The people of sub-Saharan Africa are not as satisfied with their lives as people in India, who are not as satisfied with their lives as the people of France or Denmark. There’s a global relationship between income and life satisfaction that shows no sign of a satiation point.
Our research show why the second myth is false. By examining how the brain responds to “cool” products, we discovered that they help fulfill a basic human need: to be recognized and respected by others. Our brains contain what’s basically a “social calculator” that keeps track of how we think other people are thinking about us—we feel its results as social emotions like pride and shame. Today, it’s typically called “social status,” but that has lingering negative connotations. We found that products are basically extensions of ourselves that reflect who we are—we use them to bond with others who share the same values. Doing this successfully was key to survival throughout human evolutionary history—you really needed allies, friends, and partners to survive. There are lots of ways to gain status—it’s what even drives some Westerners to join ISIS—but integrating our need for status into the economy was, in our opinion, an enormously important feat. It allows the ways to gain status to expand over time, and it shows why the third myth is false—we use products to create lifestyles and community. That also reveals why the fourth myth is false. Consumerism isn’t just about materialism. We use products socially—music is a great example. Look at all the lifestyles arranged around various musical tastes.
Asp: One example of a myth is that expensive equals cool. Apple products are, today, expensive because they’re seen as cool; they’re not cool because they’re expensive (which is still the case for many luxury goods).
Lam: How does the brain perceive and respond to “cool”ness?
Quartz: The brain processes cool in terms of its impact on our social identity. Cool is more about the social life of products than their functional properties. It can fetch a premium (Apple is a good example), but it doesn’t have to be expensive—finding a retro shirt in a thrift shop can also be cool. Specifically, we found that it impacts a part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex. This is where our social identity and our social calculator is located.
Asp: I think it’s really fascinating how cool is so closely related to our sense of self.
Lam: Does that, in turn, affect what we buy?
Quartz: Yes, we buy products that reflect who we are and how we want others to think of us as well. We do so because the medial prefrontal cortex houses our affiliative impulses and consumption taps into our social life and most basic social instincts.
Asp: Certainly. We consume these cool products to get higher social status, and the effect boosts the way we feel about ourselves. Higher social status; happier human being.

Lam: Is that why status seeking and Darwinian competition are both related to how we buy things?
Quartz: We definitely compete for social status, but traditional accounts stop at the idea that we just compete for its own sake—trying to outdo each other. This is captured in theories that talk about the need for “distinction” and building fences between people. But we don’t compete just for it’s own sake. We compete to cooperate. That might sound like a minor difference, but it makes all the difference. Darwin also emphasized “social selection,” the idea that our fitness depends on the quality of our friendships, alliances, and relationships. So we compete to get social partners who we then cooperate with. That’s one reason why people are so obsessed with celebrities—our brains see them as great potential social partners—they are connected, influential, and powerful. We also see people who use certain products to reflect their lifestyle as desirable social partners.
Lam: Why did you look at the history of "cool"ness for your book? And what is "DotCool"?
Quartz: We were interested in why cool emerged in the 1950s. Why were people getting so rebellious during one of the greatest periods of economic expansion in our history? It doesn’t make any sense in some ways. People were enjoying higher standards of living, more discretionary income, so why start rebelling? We saw that it was because the competition for the limited status of a traditional social hierarchy was getting too intense. It was the right conditions for the rebel instinct to ignite, and it started to drive consumption through rejecting the traditional routes to status and creating cool new lifestyles.
In looking at the rise of cool consumption, we found that by the early 90s “rebel cool” had really reshaped the social landscape. The social hierarchy of the 1950s was increasingly fragmented, and the creative energy cool unleashed had helped create an emerging “knowledge society.” In 1994, this really took off with the emergence of the Internet. We coined the term “DotCool” to reflect the changes in cool that were taking shape. It was no longer about rejecting the stifling conformity of the 1950s. The most crucial difference was that work no longer meant having to give up your individuality to become the bureaucratic “Organization Man.” Work started to be cool. And it rewarded innovation and unconventionality. So, cool shifted to reflect the values that are important in a knowledge economy—the ability to learn, to be unconventional and innovative.
Lam: So the notion of cool is an ever-evolving one. But what if a person doesn’t care about being cool, or do we all care unconsciously? In other words, is it possible to be a social animal without being a consumer if all these things are related?
Quartz: We found that there are a lot of individual differences in terms of how people respond to “cool” products. Some people are more motivated by the negative emotions associated with being uncool—their brains “repel” at the uncool rather than being motivated primarily by the cool. Others don’t respond as much to either cool or uncool products. They buy things for their practicality. Still others rebel against consumerism itself—but being an anti-consumerism is different from being someone who just doesn’t care. The irony of anti-consumers is that they often reflect their distaste for consumerism through their consumption—they don’t wear generic clothing simply because it gets the job done. They wear it as a rebellion against consumerism, so they end up being anti-consumer consumers!
Lam: Right, that’s the whole idea behind “normcore.”
Quartz: Yes, I love the quote from one of the "normcore" followers who said it was “exhaustingly plain”!
Lam: What is the coolest thing you bought recently, and what does it say about you?
Quartz: Well, I just bought a Scott Foil bike frame—it’s a pretty cool bike, and that reflects the fact that a lot of my own identity centers around cycling, which I’ve done for a long time.
Asp: It must have been concert tickets to my favorite Swedish rock artist, Joakim Thåström. I like his music so much that I had to buy two concert tickets, two nights in a row. This guy certainly represents rebel cool in his way of paving new ground. He started off in a punk band in the 70s and now he’s continuing as a solo artist with more of a rock and industrial sound.

  • Doesn't it seem a little absurd to hear Caltech researchers talk about purchases that make them "cool," like insecure middle schoolers? The best way to be cool is to avoid consciously trying to shape your behavior and instead focusing on surrounding yourself with things that you love. The coolest people are authentic (and by cool, I mean in the deeper sense, like "what a cool person"), and self-conscious reflection on how to act destroys that authenticity.
    I have a scientific background and I love science, but scientists and psychologists always get it wrong when they comment on more philosophical matters such as how to best live your life. They're busy looking at a few variables whereas philosophy, religion and the rest of the humanities tries to understand what it's like to live life more holisitically. If you want to understand how to best live your life, listen to the wisdom humans have repeated throughout the ages because human nature hasn't changed. Stop worrying about being cool. Stop worrying about accumulating social status. Live the best life possible and ignore the rest.
    Also, tangential point: the researchers misunderstand anti-consumerism. I'm more or less an anti-consumerist, but that doesn't mean I'm obviously against all products. I am in fact wearing clothes right now. But I believe that the current levels of consumption in America are absurd, and I try to bring my consumption down to a level that's more reasonable.
    While I'm quiet about it, I also typically avoid corporate branding. I realize I'm still buying clothes from companies, some of them large corporations. For me it's just a simple matter of taste, just as one person might prefer a flashy car and someone else might like one a little more low-key. 
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        I wonder if the test subjects came mostly from the student body at these schools? Brains of 18-24 year olds work differently than that of older people. And people this age are more concerned with fitting into the cool group.
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          The title of this article should be "How Cool Created Capitalism", not the other way around, since that is literally the point of the authors.
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              Capitalism existed when humans were selling their spare corn or ox to a neighbor. Not sure how that would be cool, but okay.
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                  Exactly. The qualities of "cool" weren't created by capitalism, they were mimicked by the marketing process. "Co-opted", as we used to say.
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                      Without the excesses of prosperity, there is no time, room, resources, or audience for "cool".
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                          Yes there is. If you don't think Caveman A was jealous of Caveman B and his cool-ass tiger-pelt outfit, which kept getting him laid, and decided he needed to get his own, you are missing what people tend to care most about. Cool really just means social status. And even animals compete to be cool. Peacocks for example, or members of a troop of baboons.
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                              In starvation days, the tiger pelt was proof that the caveman could hunt a tiger. Very important. Post-industrial ideas of cool are very far removed from and mostly antithetical to proof of personal survival qualities. The high school kid with the worst test scores and the coolest sneakers only proves his parents have skewed priorities, and if he wins the procreation race at the expense of a smart, hardworking, uncool kid with no fashion sense, the idiots will surely win. Like now.
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                                  "Caveman A was jealous of Caveman B and his cool-ass tiger-pelt outfit, which kept getting him laid,"
                                  You win.
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                                What a terribly sad article.
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                                    I like my beige Members Only jacket. A LOT.
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                                      "The people of sub-Saharan Africa are not as satisfied with their lives as people in India, who are not as satisfied with their lives as the people of France or Denmark. There’s a global relationship between income and life satisfaction that shows no sign of a satiation point"
                                      Sure, but the person in sub-Saharan Africa or India you are mentioning doesn't have their basic needs met. If you suffer from food scarcity or are worried your children might get kidnapped by Boko Haram of course you're not going to be as happy as someone in the first world. I don't think that really has anything to do with consumerism. A better comparison would be Bill Gates and Mark Wahlberg. Bill Gates has vast multiples of the wealth that Mark Wahlberg has, but both are members of the first world that have their basic needs met (and a whole lot more). By your logic Bill Gates should be many many times happier than Mark Wahlberg (if there is no satiation point). Clearly there's no way to measure this, but I highly doubt that's true.
                                      "The irony of anti-consumers is that they often reflect their distaste for consumerism through their consumption—they don’t wear generic clothing simply because it gets the job done. They wear it as a rebellion against consumerism, so they end up being anti-consumer consumers!"
                                      First of all, how do you know why people wear the clothes they wear? That seems presumptuous. Second, you're confusing apples and oranges. A consumer (someone who literally consumes anything, which includes every human who has ever existed... and Ghandi) is not the same as a consumerist (someone with materialistic values or who consumes to excess). You are confusing the two. Buying plain clothes because you don't appreciate the consumerism of our culture makes you a consumer, technically; but it does not make you a consumerist. Clothing is a basic necessity.
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                                          Comparing two people at the top of their respective social heaps is not the same as comparing a burger flipper and the same two people.
                                          I'm one of those 'practical people'. If I have to I'll wear something nice, and I have a fair idea of what 'nice' is for whatever event, but if not then it's fuzzy pants to the grocery store, to the doctor, to the school, to the job.
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                                              You raise a good point that reflects the often reckless practice of applying concepts developed in the West in a manner that wrongly suggests universal congruence. It is unclear to me why many writers fail to understand that theories (or concepts) when applied across cultures stand to collapse. It is frustrating that none of these writers make any attempt to differentiate between cultural settings so as to integrate their findings. As you correctly point out, consumerism cannot just be compared across cultures. How? Should we understand it in terms of the context of exchange function? Ethical conduct? Personal empowerment? Freedom of choice? And if it is the latter, wouldn't that be personal choice (for the west)? Well, wouldn't that neglect the social compulsion associated with choice (for eastern cultures? So, as seen, here we are with the ideology of consumerism and its various problematic dimensions, including the absurdity of trying applying the term across cultures.
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                                                  Yeah. What is "cool" among US college students is very different from what would be socially desirable in a Maasai village in Kenya or Jakarta or rural Mongolia. We are very confused if we think the whole world is just like the US.
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                                                  In 1974, Richard Easterlin reported that although richer people were happier than poorer people in the same country, people in wealthier countries were no happier than those in poorer ones.
                                                  It has been said that Money can't buy happiness.
                                                  However, David Lee Roth has said-
                                                  "Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it."
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                                                    Ah, is it cool to disagree with this article? More of a reaction than a disagreement. Sounds like what everyone knows already gussied up to sound new. Not sure I've learned anything, other than the fact that young academics need to get published--is that "cool"? Hardly.
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                                                        My problem with the quest for cool as a kid was that I knew what was cool, and eventually I could get it, but the the very fact that I could attain the item meant that it was at the point where anyone could get it, and thus, it lost a great deal of its coolness.
                                                        If people stopped looking for cool, the economies of the First World would fall into a deep depression, dragging the low-wage manufacturing economies down with it. It's staggering to think of how little we'd spend on consumer goods if we waited until they wore out to replace them, and got minor problems fixed instead of throwing things out. Look how long the old cars have lasted on Cuba. There would not be much of an automotive industry if the whole world was like that.
                                                        Human nature doesn't change, though, so unless there's something like the Communist movement that suppresses consumerism by force, it will be with us forever.
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                                                            The car owners in Cuba have no choice but to keep those cars running. We would too if the cost of repairs was negligible compared to the cost of a new car and the value of the old one. Bad tranny - 4 grand, bad engine - 8 grand. Yeah maybe a used part but who will put it in since the shop wants you to buy the rebuilt one that they take a cut of (even if they pretend you are only being charged it's cost).
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                                                              These geniuses should now publish on the psychological and social rewards of yard sales and flea markets. You know, where all the cool stuff goes next.
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                                                                You're either cool or you're not. It is an internal quality that some have and most do not. Surrounding yourself with the trappings of cool (or, alternately rejecting them) in order to be cool is a dead giveaway of lack of coolness. It only communicates a desire to be socially approved. Also uncool.
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                                                                  Suspiciously, these researchers didn't start with the role of marketing before launching into their 'uncanny' findings of our brains' reaction to Cool Stuff. Surprise! We've been conditioned. You'd have to do a major billboard campaign, sustained radio spots and direct mailings to make tribes in the Amazon give a crap about the yoga pants and cellphone accessories that we are pre-occupied with.
                                                                  Where there is no need, demand is created through exploiting our abstract feelings of insecurity, and teaching us that the answer may lie in smelling better with some vacuous celebrity's new fragrance. It is as ridiculous as it sounds. And we are slowly waking up to it. The fact that the researchers are mystified by why the 50s were a turning point is also disingenuous. American industries were the only ones left standing in the world--businesses had to groom markets to have a reason to make something, Western propaganda and ideals reigned supreme, Hollywood happened to find a hook in Marlon Brando and James Dean as 'rebels' in their manufactured stories, AND it was the era of engineered consent, Madison Ave. and Edward Bernays--who, among many of his golden nuggets, convinced women they'd be 'empowered' if they smoked.
                                                                  Articles like these are probably native advertising, meta-level. The mountain of jersey-knit crap and snake pit of phone chargers in each of our homes can't all be honourable by-products of natural human community-building. This is excessive, it's wasteful, probably unnecessary to our esteem needs and it's not cool.
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                                                                      It is in fact stunning to see how psychologically, socially and spiritually naive these alleged scientists are. The debunking of the consumerist myths is especially entertaining. Let's consider this point for example: "By examining how the brain responds to “cool” products, we discovered that they help fulfill a basic human need: to be recognized and respected by others." Well, to respect smbdy for that person having purchased a "cool" product is already to operate within the consumerist mindset and is an incredibly narrow, even useless conceptualization of what respect means. 
                                                                      The same goes for their definition of happiness: they claim their is no material "satiation point" – exactly! People will always want more stuff (consumption)! And thus happiness (defined in a meaningful way) is never attainable via consumption. qed. 
                                                                      One could go on and on. The basic problem is that they have extremely narrow (even distorted) conceptions of the basic parameters of human well-being they work with. And they quantify aspects of the human condition that are not, on any reasonable account, quantifiable (e.g. The Dalai Lama, being a great TV watcher, would probably not see his happiness increased by having one more TV in his office... Meditation can lead to happiness and it is precisely NOT consumption.)
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                                                                          Consumerism is a policing mechanism to keep citizens competitively spending.
                                                                          The labor market serves as a black hole sucking human energy so that most are kept alive just well enough to have them obediently produce for a corporate machine.
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                                                                              Who does the policing? Corporations? Maybe if people weren't sheep consumerism wouldn't have this dark power you attribute it
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                                                                                  Yes, but the thought of "competitive spending" actually being something that exists is pretty preposterous. If anything a more accurate term would be passive spending because the consumer doesn't have much of a say at all. When was the last time you saw someone bargaining for a burrito bowl?
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                                                                                      It's very possible that this is an unintended consequence - not the main objective of consumerism. The main objective is to make money by making everyone think they need the latest model of the hot new product.
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                                                                                          Very possible? What are you people talking about? Of course it's not the master plan. There's no one in control.
                                                                                          Here's how it works: you develop a product. To make more money, you try to sell it to more people. Eventually your company becomes a corporation with outside investors, and you hire a CEO whose fundamental duty is increasing "shareholder value," so to do that he tries to sell as much of the product to as many people as possible. All those companies pouring tons of money into selling you expensive doodads in aggregate create a consumer's paradise (or hell, depending on your perspective). A culture of consumerism forms out of the void.
                                                                                          I mean, I understand there are many different ways of interpreting the truth, but to believe that there are shady powerful entities controlling it is paranoid nonsense.
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                                                                                              I would think that describing something as an unintendedconsequence rather than a main objective would indicate that I do NOT believe it's the intended goal, no? The intended goal is to sell stuff - everything else "forms out of the void" (unintentionally). "Unintended" doesn't imply a master plan. Sorry you misunderstood me.
                                                                                              Marketers do intentionally create new models of products that work no better than the old one, though, making cosmetic differences simply to have people buy basically the same thing over again.
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                                                                                            The day I realized that most people engage more readily with image than substance or content was like the fall of spirit into matter.
                                                                                            I'm coping.
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                                                                                              These are rehashed and slightly repackaged ideas that were articulated more clearly in Luc Sante's article here:
                                                                                              And Sante was probably inspired by Georg Simmel's earlier work on fashion and identity (although Sante doesn't credit Simmel at all).
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                                                                                                The researchers no doubt realize their research will be used by business to help sell more products by manipulating peoples needs and wants on a deeper psychological level. In other words the research's will make lots of money so they can buy more cool products.
                                                                                                Makes me think of those researches who said smoking cigarettes is not bad for your health.
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                                                                                                    I get off on getting things I like at a ridiculously cheap price. Must live in NYC or some comparable place to achieve that goal. Know where to go. In NY it isn't hard. Do I care about cool? I care about learning and pleasure. Nature's in there too. None of these addressed by these cub academics. A shame.

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