Politics, et Cetera

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

They Said It:

THE “Red Death” had long devastated the country.  No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. . . . But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.  When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys . . . There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine.  All these and security were within.  Without was the “Red Death.”  . .  But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before.  And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust. . .  and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.  He had come like a thief in the night.  And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.  And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death, 1850.



A week ago Monday, August 4, was the 100th anniversary of the official start of World War I.  We won’t bore you today with a long recitation on the “Great War” and its impact on Western civilization, since we did that in June on the centennial anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  We will, however, use this occasion as a springboard to discuss a handful of other issues that are reminiscent of the chaos that followed World War I and echo in our present epoch.

Understand that this is not a novel ideal on our part.  Indeed, over the past few days, we’ve read all sorts of lamentations about the war, about the global order it destroyed, and about the new global order that arose in the war’s wake.  And as we read these elegies from Peggy Noonan, Mark Steyn, and countless others, along with the latest dark, contemporary dispatches from around the globe, we couldn’t help but return, time and again, to one thought:  penis-snatching sorcerers.

Now, we know what you’re thinking . . . Actually, we don’t know.  In fact, at this point, we probably don’t want to know.  But just bear with us a minute.

Six years ago, in a piece about Africa and the pre-modern problems that still plague that continent, we quoted from a Reuters article written by Joe Bavier.  It read as follows:

Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men’s penises after a wave of panic and attempted lynchings triggered by the alleged witchcraft.

Reports of so-called penis snatching are not uncommon in West Africa, where belief in traditional religions and witchcraft remains widespread, and where ritual killings to obtain blood or body parts still occur.

Rumours of penis theft began circulating last week in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo’s sprawling capital of some eight million inhabitants. They quickly dominated radio call-in shows, with listeners advised to beware of fellow passengers in communal taxis wearing gold rings.

Purported victims, 14 of whom were also detained by police, claimed that sorcerers simply touched them to make their genitals shrink or disappear, in what some residents said was an attempt to extort cash with the promise of a cure. . . .Police arrested the accused sorcerers and their alleged victims in an effort to avoid the sort of bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 suspected penis snatchers were beaten to death by angry mobs.

Now, lest you think this kind of calamity is ancient history in Africa, the kind of thing that used to happen way back in the bad old days when George Bush ran the world, but which could never happen today, in the era of “hopeandchange,” the aforementioned Mark Steyn, in an essay dated May 27 of this year, relayed the following:

I confess I don’t think about the country formerly known as Upper Volta terribly often.  In fact, I believe the last time I did was seven or so years ago, when I was having a drink with my favorite foreign minister, Australia’s Alexander Downer, and, as one does, we got into an argument about Burkina Faso.  Mr Downer had been explaining his reluctance to sign up for some UN body or other because he didn’t want to spend all his time stuck on a pointless committee with “some busted-arse country like Burkina Faso”.  (I believe “busted-arse country” is the stage that comes after “failed state”.)

Anyway, after three or four such references, I demanded to know whether the minister could even name Burkina Faso’s present head of government.  He acknowledged that, alas, he hadn’t been paying as close attention to the affairs of Burkina Faso as he might, and, pulling out his BlackBerry, he went to the BBC website and read from their comprehensive and authoritative page on the nation, which began:

Burkina Faso is a poor country by West African standards.

“Crikey,” said Minister Downer.

As it turns out, Burkina Faso is not a busted-arse country but a busted-penis country:

A man was killed by a mob Monday in Koudougou, a town in central Burkina Faso, after being accused of making another man’s penis “disappear”.  It was not an isolated incident: there has been an increase in the number of these strange accusations being made in recent weeks.

The trouble started at a local restaurant:

The first man, a local mechanic, claimed that his penis had been “stolen” by the second man, who was not from the district.  The first man called the police.  But by then, a crowd had gathered around them.  Incensed, the residents decided to lynch the man in the middle of the street.

Cyrille Zoma, a reporter for L’Observateur Paalga, says there have been a dozen penis disappearances in Koudougou this month:

It’s always the same story: someone complains about being approached and touched by a stranger, someone not from the neighbourhood.  Immediately, the alleged victims complain of lower stomach pains, tremors, and say they can’t feel their genitals anymore.  This only happens with men, and I have been told of it happening in several different parts of town.

The penis snatchers are usually foreigners – in Monday’s lynching it was a Burundian.  Meanwhile, Koudougou’s deputy mayor, Gaston Kagambega, has called for calm:

The mayor has also set up a crisis cell at Koudougou’s medical centre to meet with people who say they’ve been victims of “penis thieves”.

We laugh at this, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not particularly funny.  We like to think of our world as a somewhat homogeneous community.  It may be colder here, warmer there, more mountainous in the other place.  But everyone everywhere has a smart phone, with a camera, no less.  Everyone has some access to the internet, even head-hacking 7th-century-throwback Islamists.  And everyone is somehow connected to the broader, more enlightened “global village.”

Almost all of this, of course, is flatly untrue.  Only a very small percentage of the world’s population has access to adequate living and sanitary conditions, much less internet and basic cable.

As Robert Kaplan noted a full twenty years ago, the world is bifurcating – or has bifurcated, more accurately.  Quoting Thomas Homer-Dixon, the head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Toronto University, Kaplan noted that the world can and perhaps should be thought of as “a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live.  Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways.  Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.”

To emphasize the point, Kaplan described his trip “outside the limo,” to the shantytowns of West Africa.  To wit:

I landed in Conkary in the late afternoon under a leaden, end-of-rainy-season sky.  From the air, the capital of Guinea looked like a canvas of tin-foil wrappers discarded on a bed of wet mud and surrounded by glistening forest, a floating, liquidy green film bordered by the sea.  Never had the earth appeared so fragile.  Outside the terminal, the taxi drivers fought over me.  The winner led me to an old stripped-down Renault, its yellow paint peeling, with gaping, skull-like cavities where the headlights used to be.  The forty-five-minute journey in heavy traffic from the airport to the city center was through a single, never-ending shantytown: a nightmarish, Dickensian vision that Dickens himself could probably never have imagined.  The corrugated-metal shacks and scabrous walls were coated with black slime.  I could think only of Burton’s remarks about “the mildewed cankered gangrened aspect” of West African settlements.

Stores were built out of rusted shipping containers, junked cars, and shaky contraptions of wire mesh.  The streets were a long puddle of floating garbage.  Flies and other insects were everywhere.  There were multitudes of children, many of them with swollen bellies.  Pregnant women sat silently on wooden crates, watching their children play amid the mud and broken glass and other refuse.  At the end of the taxi journey there was no downtown, just a few forlorn streets and a few dilapidated office buildings.  Conakry was a city and a national capital only in the technical sense.  What I saw, rather, was a steamy, sprawling growth on the edge of the Atlantic.

The tide had gone out and I noticed dead rats and an automobile chassis exposed on the mucky beach.  By 2020 Guinea’s population would double at current rates.  On average, women in Guinea give birth to over six children.  The infant mortality rate is nearly 15 percent.  Meanwhile, aid workers told me that hardwood logging in the interior was continuing at great speed and that people were fleeing the Guinean countryside for Conakry.  It seemed to me that here, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, man was challenging nature beyond its limits and that nature might in the future demand its revenge.  As African birthrates continue at high levels and slums like Chicago, Washington, and Conakry proliferate, diseases spread rapidly and experts worry that viral mutations and hybridizations might conceivably result in a form of the AIDS virus easier to contact than the present strain.   Conakry might symbolize the new strategic danger – the Fulda Gap of the future: a disease breakthrough far more serious and likely than the Russian army breaking into Europe.

As you may have guessed, gentle reader, this last bit – the bit about disease and its proclivity to spawn in the slums of the Third World – interests us a great deal these days.  Unless you have been living in a cave, you’ve undoubtedly heard that the very part of the world about which Kaplan wrote is in the midst of the worst recorded outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.  At least 1,000 people have thus far died from the disease, and that’s only the official count.  The unofficial count – which is to say the deaths that have gone unreported because relatives are too fearful and too superstitious to report them – is undoubtedly considerably higher.  The outbreak has spread throughout much of the region, continues to spread rapidly, and has, according to the World Health Organization, far outstripped the medical community’s ability to constrain it.  At present, the only known cases outside of West Africa are the two American doctors who were evacuated to Atlanta, but it is only a matter of time before the disease metastasizes outside of the present outbreak area.  Indeed, just last week, the head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) used that exact phrase – “only a matter of time” – to describe the odds that Ebola will eventually make an appearance here in the United States (outside of the evacuees, that is).  In short, what is currently a regional epidemic has most of the makings of a global pandemic.

Does that mean that you should panic, start buying canned goods, and hunkering down in the old fallout shelter?  Well . . . no, at least not yet.  As you well know, the good thing about Ebola – if a hemorrhagic fever can have an upside – is that it is spread only through contact with bodily fluids, which is to say that it is not airborne and is thus a highly unlikely source of a global outbreak.  It can and will spread, but it all but certainly won’t take on the characteristics of a biblical plague.

But that’s not to say that something eventually won’t.

The thing about the area where these diseases tend to metastasize is that they are rather primitive, and not just in terms of technology.  Yes, there is raw sewage running through the streets.  And yes, there are children defecating upstream from where their mothers are washing clothes and dishes.  And yes, sanitation is a concept almost entirely unknown.  But it gets worse.  The “primitiveness” we have in mind here is a much more fundamental kind, a primitiveness that prevents doctors from reaching patients because of superstition; a primitiveness that pushes people to leave dead and decaying bodies in the streets or to bury them in backyard graves for fear of health officials; a primitiveness that scares people away from hospitals because they fear that hospitals are where the disease is being actively spread; the same kind of primitiveness, in short, that leads people to think that there are sorcerers afoot who are ready, willing, and able to steal your genitals.  The following, from the Global Post, is representative of the dozens of stories in recent days detailing the impact of primitiveness and superstition on the current Ebola epidemic.

Ebola, which spreads through blood, sweat, or other bodily fluids, can kill up to 90 percent of its victims.  But aid workers say that in the countries hardest hit by Ebola — Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia — hostility toward Western medical treatment is pushing the outbreak to escalate dramatically.

“What is actually creating the greatest problem is the behavior of the population,” said Fabio Friscia, UN children’s fund (UNICEF) coordinator for the Ebola awareness campaign in the three countries.

Many West Africans see Ebola as a “curse” rather than a medical illness, Friscia said.  As a result, health workers have to fight to get Ebola patients to come forward for treatment — a challenge for controlling the disease in a region already struggling with scant medical resources.

“Medical personnel are being driven out in some of these places,” said Daniel Epstein, a spokesman for the WHO.  “Some of these have become no-go areas.”

In Guinea and Liberia, locals have attacked disease isolation centers as well as doctors.  On at least one occasion, aid workers from Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders (MSF), were forced to evacuate a health center in Guinea because of the threat of violent attacks.  “Health staff actually get [stones thrown at them] and it can become very violent,” Friscia said….

As many of the locals believe that Ebola is spiritual, there is widespread skepticism about Western-trained medical professionals.  Many locals from these West African countries, for instance, fear that the doctors treating them will harvest the bodies of those dying from Ebola for organs, said Epstein.

Others believe that doctors are killing Ebola patients once they are taken to the hospital or that Ebola is a punishment for sexual promiscuity.  This particular rumor, possibly due to a comparison between Ebola and HIV, has led to a strong stigma against Ebola survivors, said Friscia.

What we have here, then, is a an epidemic carried by bodily fluids, occurring in a part of the world in which raw sewage is everywhere, in which sanitation is unheard of, in which hospital and medical staff are poorly trained at best, and in which superstition and primitive animist belief systems dominate.  Just about the only things that could make this worse would be a refusal by the people of the world who should know better to declare that they do indeed know better and should thus be heeded; and for the global order to collapse, fostering war, the rapid deployment of foreign armies, massive numbers of refugees, and unrestricted and unmonitored migration to and from these Third World nations.

And that brings us, in turn, back to the echoes of World War I.

In her commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Great War, Peggy Noonan noted that one of the least appreciated aspects of the war was its personal impact on the leaders of the various warring nations, Kaiser Wilhelm, Czar Nicholas, King George V, and even Woodrow Wilson.

We agree that this aspect of the war is underappreciated, though we’d argue that there is at least one other feature that is even more so and even more critical to our understanding of the contemporary world; that being the impact that the Great War had on Western Civilization itself.

Outside of Mark Steyn, who has made his career writing about the West’s crisis of confidence, one would be hard pressed to find a contemporary commentator on World War I who understands just how damaging it was to the notion that Western Civilization had something particularly unique and valuable to offer the world.  And yet, this may be the most significant of the war’s consequences.

You see, World War I utterly destroyed the West’s conception of itself as a noble and valuable entity, as the repository of the great thinkers, great artists, and great political systems of the modern world.  Indeed, one can argue that World War I destroyed the Western conception of the modern world itself, ushering in the superstition, unreality, and intellectual decadence of the post-modern world.

For starters, World War I delivered Bolshevism, the stalking horse of global communism.  It set the proverbial stage for fascism and National Socialism.  And it laid the foundations for the self-loathing that has been characteristic of Western intellectualism ever since.  The great Western empires fell, not just because of circumstances and indigenous upheaval, but because the elites in the West questioned, to the very pit of their souls, the West’s adequacy, its worthiness to spread any message, much less the message of Western civilization’s supremacy.  In an essay penned just after the end of the Cold War, the author and commentator John Gordon Steele, summed up the War’s effect on the West as follows:

Once it began, the generals found they had no tactical concepts to deal with the new military realities that confronted them.  It had been forty-three years since Great Powers had fought each other in Europe.  In those four decades the instruments of war had undergone an unparalleled evolution, and their destructive power had increased by several orders of magnitude.

Railroads, machine guns, and barbed wire made an entrenched defense invulnerable.  Stalemate—bloody, endless, gloryless stalemate—resulted.  For lack of any better ideas, the generals flung greater and greater numbers of men into the mouths of these machine guns and gained at best mere yards of territory thereby.

In the first day—day!—of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Great Britain suffered twenty thousand men killed.  That was the bloodiest day in the British army’s long history.  Altogether there were more than a million casualties in this one battle alone.  An entire generation was lost in the slaughter of the Somme and other similar battles.

This almost unimaginable destruction of human life, to no purpose whatsoever, struck at the very vitals of Western society.  For this reason alone, among the casualties of the First World War were not only the millions of soldiers who had died for nothing, most of the royalty of Europe, and treasure beyond reckoning but nearly all the fundamental philosophical and cultural assumptions of the civilization that had suffered this self-induced catastrophe.

For there was one thing that was immediately clear to all about the Great War—as the generation who fought it called it—and that was that this awful tragedy was a human and wholly local phenomenon.  There was no volcano, no wrathful God, no horde of barbarians out of the East.  Western culture had done this to itself.  Because of the war, it seemed to many a matter of inescapable logic that Western culture must be deeply, inherently flawed.

The West has never, despite its many undeniable and inexorable contributions to the advancement of the human condition, regained the confidence that it lost on the battlefields of World War I.  The Western crisis of confidence compounded the post-Enlightenment crisis of morality and exacerbated the post-Positivist crisis of epistemology.  In turn, then, it advanced post-modernism, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, and eventually, a suffocating nihilism.  In practice, this lead to the strain of multiculturalism that denied the West’s beneficence and preeminence and insisted that all cultures are equal, one no better than the other, and that the imposition of one on the other was an act aggression and dominance.

As you read about the disasters that are Ghana and Sierra Leone and Nigeria, recall that these were once British colonies, which is to say that once upon a time, they and their people had a chance.  In the wake of World War One, however, and the resultant Western crisis of confidence, these nations – and indeed the entirety of Africa – were slowly but surely abandoned by a civilization that believed it had nothing to offer, no insights to provide, no value to add.  And so the Africans were left with a toxic mix of Leftist resentment and pre-modern backwardness.  None dare call it “backwardness,” of course, since that denotes an arrogance and self-satisfaction unwarranted in light of the Somme and the West’s utter failure.  But backwardness it most definitely is.

Perhaps the other corollary of the Great War that is too often overlooked but which clearly has echoes in the current epoch is the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.  The Spanish Flu, as it turns out, was not much different than most strains of the flu.  Its killing power, however, was the result of timing, for it appeared in the midst of the great tragedy of war, the great dislocation of countless millions of people, and the great migration of soldier and sailors all over the globe.  Just last month, London’s Guardian newspaper published the following account of the 1918 pandemic:

It sounded like science fiction rather than science fact to hear that between 50 and 100 million people (3-6% of the world’s population at the time) perished in less than 18 months’ time — the greatest number of human deaths due to infectious disease ever recorded.

This particular strain of influenza popped up during World War I, “The Great War” as it was known in those brief years before the conclusion of the Second World War . . . .

Despite their comparative silence on the matter, France, Great Britain, and the United States all suffered greatly, too.  Their influenza deaths were much higher than those caused by the war itself.  Much later, archival records revealed that influenza probably struck German and Austrian troops first, and it struck them very hard before expanding into their civilian populations and spilling over into Allied troops.  The resulting losses on both sides were so terrible that many historians think influenza contributed significantly to an early conclusion to the war.

During that last summer of The Great War, flu continued its exceptional rampage, hitchhiking everywhere that people traveled: even the remotest corners of the globe were not safe.  Ninety percent of Western Samoa’s population became infected and twenty percent died in just two months.  Entire villages in Alaska perished . . . .

When stressed people are crowded together, as are students in university dorms, and residents of refugee camps, prisons and hospitals, their close proximity and compromised immune systems provide the perfect opportunity for a pathogen to enhance its virulence.  Unlike people, pathogens have a high mutation rate, a very rapid generation time and they produce immense numbers of progeny.  Individual pathogens carrying mutations that improve replication or dispersal abilities quickly win the infection competition, but when immunologically-naïve hosts are so plentiful and so readily available, there is no selection pressure against developing increased virulence as well.

Influenza, a virus that seems to cultivate its especially high mutation rate, found itself in a perfect supervirus testing ground when it infected stressed-out and often malnourished soldiers crowded together in trenches and in hospitals.  The most virulent influenza strains became widespread when sick soldiers were transported — sometimes long distances — to military hospitals for more intensive treatment, whilst those infected with less debilitating strains remained entrenched.

The point of all of this, if you haven’t yet guessed, is simply to note that the world is a pretty messed up place right now.  We have all been treated of late to scores of articles detailing the physical, social, cultural, and economic destruction wrought by World War I.  It is worth remembering, we think, that despite the fact that that war is now a century in the past, it is undoubtedly still relevant today, as many of the conditions that fostered all of that destruction are still extant in the world.

We are lucky, we suppose, that the epidemic currently ravaging Africa is not airborne, as was the Spanish Flu.  Nevertheless, the Ebola outbreak, if not contained, can and will have significant economic impact on Africa at least, and possibly on other parts of the globe.  Imagine, for example, what would happen if Ebola were to spread to the Middle East, where war, refugees, and lack of sanitation suggest a public health disaster in the making.  Imagine further a different virus, one which might be airborne, spreading in that region.

And then imagine what that might mean, given the staggering number of refugees at present in the Middle East.  Just last week, for example, 50,000 Iraqi Yazidi were displaced from their homes by the advance of ISIS (The Islamic State…).  Just.  Last.  Week.  Currently, there are at least THREE MILLION Syrian refugees who have fled their country’s civil war.  Some of these have fled to Turkey.  Others have gone to Jordan.  But by far and away, the greatest number have gone to Lebanon, the population of which is now estimated to be roughly 1/3rd Syrian refugees.

Just over a week ago, officials in Tunisia – which, for the record, is an Arab state in AFRICA –closed their country’s borders because of the overwhelming numbers of refugees from Libya and Egypt, fleeing both civil war and famine.  Jordanian officials have likewise closed their borders to Syrians of Palestinian ancestry.

All things considered, if also one counts those Syrians and Iraqis who are “internally displaced,” which is to say that they are refugees but have not yet crossed international borders, the Middle East is home to some 10 million or more refugees.  Almost none of these have adequate food, shelter, or sanitary conditions, and almost all are crowded together in makeshift camps.

Now, consider that the Middle East is home to one of the least understood and potentially most dangerous infectious respiratory viruses around.  MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is a potential mass killer.  As the CDC notes:

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is viral respiratory illness first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is caused by a coronavirus called MERS-CoV. Most people who have been confirmed to have MERS-CoV infection developed severe acute respiratory illness. They had fever, cough, and shortness of breath. About 30% of people confirmed to have MERS-CoV infection have died.

So far, all the cases have been linked to countries in and near the Arabian Peninsula. This virus has spread from ill people to others through close contact, such as caring for or living with an infected person. However, there is no evidence of sustained spreading in community settings.

CDC continues to closely monitor the MERS situation globally and work with partners to better understand the risks of this virus, including the source, how it spreads, and how infections might be prevented. CDC recognizes the potential for MERS-CoV to spread further and cause more cases globally and in the U.S. We have provided information for travelers and are working with health departments, hospitals, and other partners to prepare for this.

On May 2, 2014, the first U.S. imported case of MERS was confirmed in a traveler from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. On May 11, 2014, a second U.S. imported case of MERS was confirmed in a traveler also from Saudi Arabia.

New and exotic diseases, of course, are not the only threat.  The United Nations refugee agency, among others, is lamenting the fact that polio vaccinations among the refugees in Lebanon will be unable to continue.  The sheer volume of refugees, combined with the cost of the program makes it impossible to maintain.  And that, in turn, means that these masses of refugees, an estimated half of which are children, will remain vulnerable.

Lastly, consider the fact that the United States alone has nearly 20,000 military personnel deployed in the Middle East and Africa, with an additional 30,000 in Afghanistan.  And the Americans are hardly alone; Australian, British, and EU troops and aid workers join them in the region, as do countless NGO and UN employees.

Think, for a minute, what it would mean to the global economy – and especially to the energy sector – if any one of these highly contagious viruses were to metastasize among the refugee populations in the Middle East and then spread, as it inevitably would, to the aid workers and military personnel stationed there to help.  Said virus could well follow the path travelled by the Spanish Flu, creating a global pandemic.

It is easy to laugh, in short, at penis-stealing sorcerers in Africa.  But given the world as it is, it’s not hard to imagine how this same primitive preoccupation could morph into something that is anything but a laughing matter.

Golf anyone?

Copyright 2014. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.