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Old 09-28-2016, 09:18 PM   #1
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The Doomed Mouse Utopia That Inspired the 'Rats of NIMH'

Dr. John Bumpass Calhoun spent the '60s and '70s playing god to thousands of rodents.


By Cara Giaimo SEPTEMBER 14, 2016



Calhoun inside Universe 25, his biggest, baddest mouse utopia.

On July 9th, 1968, eight white mice were placed into a strange box at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Maybe "box" isn't the right word for it; the space was more like a room, known as Universe 25, about the size of a small storage unit. The mice themselves were bright and healthy, hand-picked from the institute's breeding stock. They were given the run of the place, which had everything they might need: food, water, climate control, hundreds of nesting boxes to choose from, and a lush floor of shredded paper and ground corn cob.

This is a far cry from a wild mouse's life—no cats, no traps, no long winters. It's even better than your average lab mouse's, which is constantly interrupted by white-coated humans with scalpels or syringes. The residents of Universe 25 were mostly left alone, save for one man who would peer at them from above, and his team of similarly interested assistants. They must have thought they were the luckiest mice in the world. They couldn't have known the truth: that within a few years, they and their descendants would all be dead.

The man who played mouse-God and came up with this doomed universe was named John Bumpass Calhoun. As Edmund Ramsden and Jon Adams detail in a paper, "Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B. Calhoun & Their Cultural Influence," Calhoun spent his childhood traipsing around Tennessee, chasing toads, collecting turtles, and banding birds. These adventures eventually led him to a doctorate in biology, and then a job in Baltimore, where he was tasked with studying the habits of Norway rats, one of the city's chief pests.


Calhoun displaying scarring on the tail of a color-coded Universe 25 mouse.

In 1947, to keep a close eye on his charges, Calhoun constructed a quarter-acre "rat city" behind his house, and filled it with breeding pairs. He expected to be able to house 5,000 rats there, but over the two years he observed the city, the population never exceeded 150. At that point, the rats became too stressed to reproduce. They started acting weirdly, rolling dirt into ***** rather than digging normal tunnels. They hissed and fought.

This fascinated Calhoun—if the rats had everything they needed, what was keeping them from overrunning his little city, just as they had all of Baltimore?

Intrigued, Calhoun built another, slightly bigger rat metropolis—this time in a barn, with ramps connecting several different rooms. Then he built another and another, hopping between patrons that supported his research, and framing his work in terms of population: How many individuals could a rodent city hold without losing its collective mind? By 1954, he was working under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health, which gave him whole rooms to build his rodentopias. Some of these featured rats, while others focused on mice instead. Like a rodent real estate developer, he incorporated ever-better amenities: climbable walls, food hoppers that could serve two dozen customers at once, lodging he described as "walk-up one-room apartments." Video records of his experiments show Calhoun with a pleased smile and a pipe in his mouth, color-coded mice scurrying over his boots.

Still, at a certain point, each of these paradises collapsed. "There could be no escape from the behavioral consequences of rising population density," Calhoun wrote in an early paper. Even Universe 25—the biggest, best mousetopia of all, built after a quarter century of research—failed to break this pattern. In late October, the first litter of mouse pups was born. After that, the population doubled every two months—20 mice, then 40, then 80. The babies grew up and had babies of their own. Families became dynasties, carving out and holding down the best in-cage real estate. By August of 1969, the population numbered 620.


Then, as always, things took a turn. Such rapid growth put too much pressure on the mouse way of life. As new generations reached adulthood, many couldn't find mates, or places in the social order—the mouse equivalent of a spouse and a job. Spinster females retreated to high-up nesting boxes, where they lived alone, far from the family neighborhoods. Washed-up males gathered in the center of the Universe, near the food, where they fretted, languished, and attacked each other. Meanwhile, overextended mouse moms and dads began moving nests constantly to avoid their unsavory neighbors. They also took their stress out on their babies, kicking them out of the nest too early, or even losing them during moves.

Population growth slowed way down again. Most of the adolescent mice retreated even further from societal expectations, spending all their time eating, drinking, sleeping and grooming, and refusing to fight or to even attempt to mate. (These individuals were forever changed—when Calhoun's colleague attempted to transplant some of them to more normal situations, they didn't remember how to do anything.) In May of 1970, just under 2 years into the study, the last baby was born, and the population entered a swan dive of perpetual senescence. It's unclear exactly when the last resident of Universe 25 perished, but it was probably sometime in 1973.

Paradise couldn't even last half a decade.


Universe 25, forboding from the outside.

In 1973, Calhoun published his Universe 25 research as "Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population." It is, to put it lightly, an intense academic reading experience. He quotes liberally from the Book of Revelation, italicizing certain words for emphasis (e.g. "to kill with the sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts"). He gave his claimed discoveries catchy names—the mice who forgot how to mate were "the beautiful ones"' rats who crowded around water bottles were "social drinkers"; the overall societal breakdown was the "behavioral sink." In other words, it was exactly the kind of diction you'd expect from someone who spent his entire life perfecting the art of the mouse dystopia.

Most frightening are the parallels he draws between rodent and human society. "I shall largely speak of mice," he begins, "but my thoughts are on man." Both species, he explains, are vulnerable to two types of death—that of the spirit and that of the body. Even though he had removed physical threats, doing so had forced the residents of Universe 25 into a spiritually unhealthy situation, full of crowding, overstimulation, and contact with various mouse strangers. To a society experiencing the rapid growth of cities—and reacting, in various ways, quite poorly—this story seemed familiar. Senators brought it up in meetings. It showed up in science fiction and comic books. Even Tom Wolfe, never lost for description, used Calhounian terms to describe New York City, calling all of Gotham a "behavioral sink."


Calhoun in 1986, nearly forty years after his first experiments.

Convinced that he had found a real problem, Calhoun quickly began using his mouse models to try and fix it. If mice and humans weren't afforded enough physical space, he thought, perhaps they could make up for it with conceptual space—creativity, artistry, and the type of community not built around social hierarchies. His later Universes were designed to be spiritually as well as physically utopic, with rodent interactions carefully controlled to maximize happiness (he was particularly fascinated by some early rats who had created an innovative form of tunneling, where they rolled dirt into *****). He extrapolated this, too, to human concerns, becoming an early supporter of environmental design and H.G. Wells's hypothetical "World Brain," an international information network that was a clear precursor to the internet.

But the public held on hard to his earlier work—as Ramsden and Adams put it, "everyone want[ed] to hear the diagnosis, no one want[ed] to hear the cure." Gradually, Calhoun lost attention, standing, and funding. In 1986, he was forced to retired from the National Institute of Mental Health. Nine years later, he died.

But there was one person who paid attention to his more optimistic experiments, a writer named Robert C. O'Brien. In the late '60s, O'Brien allegedly visited Calhoun's lab, met the man trying to build a true and creative rodent paradise, and took note of the Frisbee on the door, the scientists' own attempt "to help when things got too stressful," as Calhoun put it. Soon after, O'Brien wrote Ms. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH—a story about rats who, having escaped from a lab full of blundering humans, attempt to build their own utopia. Next time, maybe we should put the rats in charge.
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Old 09-29-2016, 11:38 AM   #2
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This made me think of Japan with its densely populated cities.
This in particular stood out to me, "As new generations reached adulthood, many couldn't find mates, or places in the social order"
Japan's birthrate per woman (2012) is 1.41 and falling.
As a comparison, the US and UK rates are 1.88 and 1.9 respectively.
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Old 09-29-2016, 06:14 PM   #3
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Really interesting read.
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Old 09-29-2016, 06:55 PM   #4
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The rats of Nimh was a personal favorite of mine, very interesting read! Thanks!
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Old 09-29-2016, 07:36 PM   #5
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thanks for that. I really enjoyed it
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Old 09-29-2016, 07:55 PM   #6
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Overcrowding has negatively impacted human social order as well - consider the ghettos, entitled brats, social justice warriors, vegans, gays, and democrats...

You just don't find those things in the country.
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Old 09-29-2016, 09:26 PM   #7
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To be fair, you do find a lot of democrats in the bible-belt, as well as in the poorer rural regions of the western states. Not so many vegans and SJWs.

Anyway, while we're on the subject of rodents and places near to my heart. I'll be perfectly honest- I know this sounds idiotic, but I honestly do miss the rats... They were a part of the fabric of the city.


Just How Huge Are New York’s Rats?

March 03, 2016, Sarah Laskow



Matt Combs, a doctoral student at Fordham University, studies rats, and the rat in the picture above is one of the largest he’s ever seen.

“I’ve caught rats all over the city, and I’ve seen the ones that I didn’t catch," he says. "I think it’s among the biggest that live in New York City."

In life, the rat weighed 675 grams, which is edging up on one and half pounds. There may be some rats out there in the city that are larger, maybe 700 or 800 grams, Combs says. Rats even bigger than that have been found, on occasion; the species of rat that lives in New York City, Rattus norvegicus, can grow as large as two pounds.

A 675 gram rat, though—that’s a big rat. One and half pounds is about the size of a two-month old Pomeranian or of a small adult guinea pig, so it doesn’t entirely make sense that a 1.5 pound rat should seem so big. But it does. A one and half pound rat is chunky, and compared to many New York City rats, even a 500 gram rat, just over one pound, is a big rat.



Wild rats lives in colonies, but most people generally don’t see rats in the context of their fellow rodents. In New York, maybe you see a rat from a few feet away, while it’s poking around in the trough of a subway track. Maybe you see a dark blur scurrying across the sidewalk. Maybe you think: that was a big rat.

Rarely does anyone have the chance to juxtapose the size of rats that live in the city, as Combs did while he and Elizabeth Carlen, a PhD candidate in the same lab, were preparing rat specimens to send off to the Peabody Museum, at Yale University. They were able to directly compare a big New York City rat to a small New York City rat and to New York City rats of every size in between:


Specimens of the New York City Rattus norvegicus, from small to large

These rats were just some of the hundreds that the lab Combs and Carlen work for has collected. They’re trying to understand how rats spread through the city and what makes rats succeed or fail when colonizing new areas. Primarily, the scientists look at the rats’ genes, which can show how a lineage of rats has dispersed as young rats move into new neighborhoods and try to establish new colonies.

The taxidermied rats that are heading to the Peabody, along with their skeletons, can show the particular, subtle characteristics, like color of fur or shape of bones, that might distinguish New York City Rattus norvegicus from R. norvegicus elsewhere. Combs, Carlen and their colleagues don't actually need whole rats to get genetic samples, but they do need whole rats to collect and examine the rats’ organs, in search of parasites.

If they can understand how rats spread across the city, they may be able to understand more about how disease spreads, and the parasites living in the rats’ insides are another clue to how rat colonies move and interact with one another.


These rat specimens will be kept for future research

It’s standard practice to weigh specimens like these, and it’s possible that the researchers could see some patterns in the data collected—perhaps adult rats in one area of the city are heavier than in another. Most of the rats they caught, though, were on the small side, since the traps they use tend to attract juvenile rats.

The larger rats above were caught using trained dogs, and Combs remembers exactly where they were caught. Big rats tends to live really close to their food sources, because the less energy and the less stress they have to expend to get to their food, the more calories they can pack away.

“I was staring at the dumpster where the rats eat every day,” says Combs. “These are the laziest rats.”

They lived within 20 to 30 feet of an unending feast, and their lives consisted of ferrying back and forth that short distance between home and meals. That easy access to food made a huge impact on their size. According to the Combs, the average size of an adult rat caught in the study was around 200 to 250 grams. Those large rats, the 500 to 675 gram ones, were two to three times as heavy.

If you see a rat that lives next to a dumpster? That’s a big rat.
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Old 09-30-2016, 07:51 AM   #8
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I feel like I'm auditing a rodent studies class.
Looking forward to your next lecture, Professor Perez.
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Old 09-30-2016, 10:13 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Guardiola View Post
I feel like I'm auditing a rodent studies class.
Looking forward to your next lecture, Professor Perez.


I feel the same, first post was a good read.

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Old 10-02-2016, 12:28 AM   #10
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Has there been any falsification of the hypothesis that overcrowding ***** up the rat psyche?
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Old 10-12-2016, 10:48 AM   #11
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This article reminded me of this thread.

A Modest Proposal: Let?s just cut the big cities loose ? AgainstCronyCapitalism.org

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Pack people too tightly and the natural tendency to get along morphs into a psychological hardening (if not outright hostility) out of necessity. In the city one can’t say hello to everyone one sees on the street. There are obviously too many people. One may not even want tosmile at a stranger in a doorway for fear that the exiting or entering person might be some kind of nut who then might follow one home. In order to survive people in cities often revert to being jerks. I have seen this in every urban area I’ve ever visited. It’s just the way it is. (Again I’ve known many wonderful, friendly people from the city. They are usually more fun though once we get off the street.)

Unfortunately the people who choose to live in the city (or often who are trapped in the city*) let this “jerkiness” bleed into their politics. In an effort to deal with their fellow humans voters in cities often acquiesce to draconian regulations in order to keep order. They tacitly accept the rampant corruption endemic to 1 party municipalities (as most large cities in the US are). Voters often abdicate personal responsibility and place this responsibility with the government out of what some would argue is necessity. Hey, let the cops figure it out. I’ve got things to do.

And unfortunately many people in cities think that the rest of us, those of us familiar with sunshine and quiet should be concerned with the same issues that they are. Don’t you want extensive (and expensive) government services? Don’t you want a massive welfare state? Aren’t you afraid that employers might use the wrong pronouns when referring to their employees? Don’t you want mass transit? And so on.

For most of America, at least in the geographical sense anyway, the answer is and has been – NO.

Of course this mystifies the urbanites. Clearly if the suburbs and the countryside don’t want these things they must then be a bunch of rubes. We of course know far better in the city.
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Old 10-12-2016, 12:36 PM   #12
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Thomas Jefferson:

"I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."
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Old 10-12-2016, 01:27 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by JasonC SBB View Post
Clearly written by someone who is uncomfortable being around people...

I grew up in a rural area. I've lived in suburban areas, I've lived in midtown Manhattan, I've lived in upscale Carlsbad, CA, and now I live on the outskirts of Chicago proper.

Is everything great about city life? Of course not. But I'll tell you this- I vastly preferred living in Manhattan, where the taxes are high, but where I can walk (or take the train) anywhere I need to go and have all of the cultural and social amenities a person could dream of, to living in a place where I need a car to get pretty much everywhere, and where there are no street-food vendors, no Central Park, no old university campuses to roam around in, and generally, just no sense of life.

There's a reason that people of a certain intellectual leaning are attracted to city life. Cities are incubators of innovation and culture. Without New York City, we'd have no Wall Street or Madison Ave. Without Boston, we'd have no Internet. Without Silicon Valley, we'd have no personal computers. Without Atlanta, well...

Skip Atlanta.

But calling large cities "welfare states" ignores the fact that America wouldn't have become an industrial superpower in the first place without Detroit and Cincinnati, and wouldn't set the world's standards in fashion, music, and entertainment without LA and NYC. How do you quantify the global economic value of Hollywood, and compare that against the comparatively minuscule size of all entitlement spending in all of LA county combined?


Sure, you can argue that rural life is great. But rural life is dull and uninspiring. Not to mention that if America has remained a principally agrarian society, then The Man in the High Castle would have been a historical documentary, not a work of fiction.


People, cultures, and nations, aspire to build great cities. This has been so since the dawn of written history and modern civilization. Green Acres taught us that city life ain't for everyone, and I'm fine with that. But rural / suburban life ain't for everyone either.
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Old 10-12-2016, 02:23 PM   #14
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Not to mention the bit about cities being "welfare states" is completely wrong. Look at what "red" states and their take of federal funding vs what the "blue" states put in.
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Old 10-12-2016, 04:54 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by z31maniac View Post
Not to mention the bit about cities being "welfare states" is completely wrong. Look at what "red" states and their take of federal funding vs what the "blue" states put in.
That old argument is not nearly as compelling if you actually look at those states more closely.
Many "red" states actually have "blue" state legislatures and vice versa.
Those figures also include spending on military bases, whos distribution tends to be more heavily concentrated in red states.
There are shitty blue states and shitty red states.
I agree with most of what Joe said, but I don't find rural living to be dull whatsoever, but I am an outdoorsy self-sufficient type.
I totally understand the appeal of urban living, but I am happy to no longer be living in a city.

Last edited by Monk; 10-12-2016 at 05:54 PM.
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Old 10-12-2016, 05:13 PM   #16
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I agree with most of what Joe said, but I don't find rural living to be dull wwhatsoeve, but I am an outdoorsy self-sufficient type.
I totally understand the appeal of urban living, but I am happy to no longer be living in a city.
Obviously it's a personal-preference thing, and I didn't mean to sound judgmental. If you're the kind that prefers living out in the country, do that. If a white-picket suburb if your preference, go there. Personally, I prefer living right in the heart of it, and Manhattan was perfect for me.

The only reason I'm not there right now is that WGN offered me $30k more than I was making at WPIX, and my old station couldn't match that. It's unfortunate that, unlike most TV stations in town, WGN isn't downtown. We're located in what New Yorkers would call the outer boroughs, way uptown near Wrigley. I actually considered getting an apartment downtown in the Loop or River North, but then realized I'd be spending an hour and a half or more each day in my car, and that sort of defeats the whole point of city living.

Point is- absolute generalizations are usually incorrect. There are many who would argue that the development of the suburb was a harmful innovation in terms of resource allocation, economic distribution, and socialization. Many argue for a return to the dense urban lifestyle and the abandonment of the commute. This works fine for me, but I'm not so narrow-minded as to ignore the fact that there's a reason people moved out to the 'burbs after WWII in the first place.

The author of Jason's article doesn't seem to be able to think in those terms.
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Old 10-12-2016, 06:00 PM   #17
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Quote:
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Obviously it's a personal-preference thing, and I didn't mean to sound judgmental.
I didn't take it that way.
In fact, my time living in San Diego was very enjoyable.
I lament that I may never again get hit in the head by a beach ball thrown from a pool full of gay men on the walk home to my apartment next to Balboa park.

By the way, go eat at Grange Hall sometime. It seems to change every time I visit, but the food has never been disappointing.
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Old 10-13-2016, 09:34 AM   #18
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Joe, hit up a restaurant near you called Uncommon Ground. Go there on a warm evening and sit outside. You're welcome.
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Old 10-13-2016, 11:35 AM   #19
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I lament that I may never again get hit in the head by a beach ball thrown from a pool full of gay men on the walk home to my apartment next to Balboa park.
See, that's what I love about city life- the diversity and unpredictability. Whether it's concert-grade string quartet performances in the train station, people boxing in the park, bouquets of dead rats hanging from a scaffold, or just some random ******* climbing the outside of the Trump Tower, it's an interesting and stimulating environment.

I also found the following excerpt from Jason's article interesting:
"In the city one can’t say hello to everyone one sees on the street. There are obviously too many people. One may not even want to smile at a stranger in a doorway for fear that the exiting or entering person might be some kind of nut who then might follow one home. In order to survive people in cities often revert to being jerks."
The author of this seems to be living in some kind of Maybury fantasy world. In NYC, most people are in fact friendly in polite. The daily life of a city dweller goes something like this:

1: Wake up, shower, leave the apartment.
2: Say "hello" to your neighbor on the elevator. Exchange some quick pleasantries with the doorman and the building super on the way out.
3: Hit the subway. Observe humanity at its most interesting.
4: Above-ground. Stop for coffee and a bagel from your regular morning food cart guy. He knows your name, and you have a quick chat.
5: Head into the office. Greet the lady at the security desk on your way into the building, exchange a few words about the weather.
6: Work.
7: Lunchtime. Head outside to the halal cart on the corner. Order lamb over rice, or a falafel, or whatever. This cart guy also knows your name. Chat briefly. Saunter over to the little park, and dine outside while observing more humanity.
8: Work again.
9: Leave, repeat the subway routine.
10: Stop by the deli on your way home to get some pastrami and a few rolls. The old Jewish guy behind the counter knows your name, and talks to you about his kids.
11: Stop by the fruit cart to get some $1 avocados and a few vegetables. Mr. Nungh doesn't really speak much English, but he recognizes you, and you know that when me manages to squeak out "have good day" that he's the kind of guy who genuinely means it.
12: Home. The evening doorman greets you by name, and hands you the package that arrived earlier.


Compare this to the life of the suburbanite:

1: Wake up, shower, walk out to the garage.
2: Get in car, leave house, drive directly to office. Interact with no one.
3: Park, enter office, interact only with co-workers.
4: Lunch goes from the freezer to the microwave, since there are no sidewalk restaurants within walking distance.
5: More work.
6: Leave office and see the outside for the first time since you got here this morning.
7: Get in car, drive to Costco. Still haven't interacted with a single human outside the office.
8: Load up cart, go to checkout, interact briefly with random minimum-wage person who doesn't know your name, and robotically says "have a nice day" as programmed.
9: Drive home, enter garage, get out of car, go inside. Total number of meaningful human interactions outside the office: zero.



Yeah... It's the city folk who don't know how to interact with people?
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Old 10-13-2016, 11:47 AM   #20
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I was going to say, I've found NYC to be perfectly friendly the times I've visited. I'd love to find a way to live there, buy I don't have the type of job that would pay me enough to still maintain a car and decent place to live without a roommate like it does here in "flyover country."
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