Was Charles Fort a Fortean?



Was Charles Fort a Fortean? What would he make of the current culture that bears his name? 

Unlike some of those who've adopted his name today, Fort wasn't a dilletante, he was an obsessive (some might even call him a "hoarder"). He wasn't a moderate in any sense of the word, he was a man of deep fixations, of passionate opinions, of radical convictions and, despite the protestations of the fashionable agnosticism of the time, a man of deep beliefs.

According to Jeff Kripal, Fort was also a postmodern before the term was coined. Fort was deeply immersed in quantum physics while the giants of the field were giving birth to the science. To him, it only validated his convictions that materialism was an illusion. Fort also knocked around a prototype of the idea of the holographic universe, if not an admittedly primitive and literalist one.

Unlike many Forteans, who dabble in the "weird" but usually reflexively defer to scientific orthodoxy, Fort saw science as  the latest incarnation of the ancient priesthoods, mesmerizing a cowed public with arcane language, secret rites and boiling cauldrons. Would that Fort had lived to see Hiroshima- his every dark warning and paranoid suspicion would have been confirmed. Ironically, it just might have killed him.

Fort condemned scientists (and believers in Scientism) for doing then what they do with absolute impunity today; ignoring and/or throwing out evidence that challenges the dominant materialist paradigm. Fort wrote: “Scientists, in matters of our data , have been like somebody in Europe, before 1492, hearing stories of lands to the west, going out for an hour or so, in a row-boat, and then saying, whether exactly in these words, or not: “Oh, Hell! There ain’t no America.”

The loathing was mutual. The high priests of Scientism hated Fort and his work with a urgent passion, all the more so since Fort was so meticulous and methodical in cataloging his contrarian data. Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells wrote this to Fort's supporter, Theodore  Dreiser, expressing a majority opinion among the materialist ascendancy of the early 20th Century:
I’m having Fort’s Book of the Damned sent back to you. Fort seems to be one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out of the way newspapers. I thought they were facts. And he writes like a drunkard. 
Lo! has been sent to me but has gone into my wastepaper basket. And what do you mean by forcing “orthodox science” to do this or that? Science is a continuing exploration and how in the devil can it have an orthodoxy? The next you’ll be writing is the “dogmas of science” like some blasted Roman Catholic priest on the defensive. …God dissolve (and forgive) your Fortean Society.  
How bitter, how ironic Wells' words sound, since even he would be forced to acknowledge that the scientific priesthood behaves exactly like the Medieval Church today (and when it had the power of the state, as it did in Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Cambodia, it enforced its will with roughly the same methods). Back then, Wells merely wrote with the disgust of a priest whose sanctuary of privilege and power has been violated. 

Knowing the history, Fort wrote of a endless game of musical chairs, reminding his readers that he opposed science and religion equally as vehicles of state power: 
Witchcraft always has a hard time, until it becomes established and changes its name. 
We hear much of the conflict between science and religion, but our conflict is with both of these. Science and religion always have agreed in opposing and suppressing the various witchcrafts. Now that religion is inglorious, one of the most fantastic of transferences of worships is that of glorifying science, as a beneficent being. It is the attributing of all that is of development, or of possible betterment to science. But no scientist has ever upheld a new idea, without bringing upon himself abuse from other scientists.
But that also cuts to the core of Fort's essential pessimism. Having read of the endless catalogue of pre-Arnold, pre-Roswell sightings, Fort was a UFOlogist before anyone ever conceived of such a thing. But his cosmology feels more like Hypostasis of the Archons than Hangar 1. And here get to what is perhaps Fort's most famous quotation, one you'd be hard-pressed to get most "Forteans" to actually agree with:
Would we, if we could, educate and sophisticate pigs, geese, cattle? 
Would it be wise to establish diplomatic relation with the hen that now functions, satisfied with mere sense of achievement by way of compensation? 
I think we're property.
I should say we belong to something: That once upon a time, this earth was No-man's Land, that other worlds explored and colonized here, and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it's owned by something: That something owns this earth—all others warned off. 


Oh, the hilarity

Today, we are fed the false choice of the extraterrestrial (meaning the extrasolar) hypothesis, but the length, depth and intimacy of this phenomenon suggest- to anyone willing to consider the implications of the evidence- that this phenomenon is a permanent condition of the planet and of our species. Fort wrote of this a century ago but no one seems to be able to face up to this yet. Certainly not most of the most visible Forteans.

Indeed, Forteans seem to operate in that territory occupied by Subgenii and Discordians, a subculture of entertainment, characterized by an essential state of disbelief and ironic distance.  

These cultures have the external trappings of a counter-culture but in fact seem to be animated by an essential conventionality. This isn't a judgement call, it's a simple observation. It's the kind of thing you see manifested in "Weird News" in sites like Huffington Post, where Forteana is really just a joke, a brief diversion from the mandatory scientistic, materialist orthodoxy. "Believers" are usually identified as suckers and bumpkins.

But Fort wrote “People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.” This is not a position you'll see among many current branches of Forteanism, which sometimes seem bent on an endless crusade against "believers" and belief. 

It's as if it's OK to dabble in this stuff for lulz, just don't actually take any of it seriously. 

Certainly that's takeaway you'll get from Fortean Times, and other venues that constantly attack their ostensible allies but never question received authority. Attacking "believers", a powerless constituency, is a cost and consequence-free way of looking like a freethinking iconoclast when in fact you're actually anything but. 

But it's not what I would call "Fortean."

Fort is like Philip K. Dick and Jack Kirby, admired by an audience who find their beliefs a curiosity at best, an embarrassment at worst. Fort was a humorist and was smart enough to give his audience some wiggle room but on the really controversial issues he seems remarkably stringent (eg., "we are property"). In many ways his jokiness is gallows humor, a respite from his existential pessimism. 

Jeff Kripal identifies Fort as a 20th Century Gnostic in Authors of the Impossible, and from what I've read of the man I think that's not too far from the truth. The question is how he'll be regarded when the upheaval comes and things now taken for granted face their existential dilemma.

51 comments:

  1. I <3 this post, Chris. I personally find the ironic, Hipster "look at this weird stuff" attitude as tiresome as the SkepDicks are.

    I don't claim to have the answers, mostly questions. I'm starting to think that asking the questions about the weird stuffs is the most important part. Not the destination, but the journey.

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  2. Thank you, Anna. And you hit on my point there- that the pseudo-Forteans usually are just skeptics letting their hair down. Which is all fine and good but should be recognized for what it is, especially since these types seem to be attacking "believers" all the time.

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    1. I agree, they should just be honest about it.

      I keep saying this, but just *why* does anyone else care if I'm into UFOs, the Paranormal, or High Weirdness? I'm no longer into Major League Baseball or WWE Wrestling, but I don't criticize the fans of those things. If they enjoy it, more power to them.

      Could it be that the Hipster-types *want* to believe? Like you were saying about David Clarke in the last post, he's darn near the cliche of the disappointed Ufologist.

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  3. Thank you Christopher. It is heartening to read a post that does not seek to keep Charles Fort safely ensconced in the (admittedly fascinating) world of raining fish. Mr. Fort is difficult to approach because, as you noted, his gleeful use of black humor coupled with the truly brutal amount of inexplicable strange phenomena he catalogued can disorient the casual reader.

    Years ago, I sat down and read The Complete Books of Charles Fort. I went in wanting to be entertained by Fortean weirdness and came out with the impression I had just encountered the first Punk Rocker Epistemologist.

    One of my favorite Fort quotes:

    “Everybody who is attacking something is sailing on a windmill, while denouncing merry-go-rounds.” – Charles Fort, LO!

    Disappointing that old H.G. Wells didn't recognise his brilliance

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    1. Alas, Wells had his own moment of truth, when his beloved scientific socialism didn't quite turn out to be the great emancipator he once envisioned.

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  4. “People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.”

    I think I disagree with this. I've never met someone in a church or someone who went to a faith healing, or someone that frequents any given new age/UFO/bigfoot forum, meetup, blog, or get together whose entire identity wasn't hung on NEEDING these things to be real. I've never heard someone who doesn't care whether or not bigfoot is real talk about that time they saw bigfoot. I've never talked to someone who had god speak to them who didn't have an absolute psychological need for that particular marvel. I've never met a stage magician who didn't need an audience.

    I think Fort wasn't being pessimist enough. I think everyone's fantastically gullible, it just depends on how fashionable your gullibility (eg witchcraft vs. Christianity 400 years ago), or how effective (abstinence vs. birth control). But to imply that desire doesn't influence outcome is naive. Even white coated logical materialists that claim to be above things like opinion and belief often influence their outcomes.

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    1. I think this is precisely what Fort is on about with that quote. He's saying the "believers" are just as prejudiced and gullible as the debunkers and skeptics. You just misread it.

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    2. Well, as we saw debunkers are just disillusioned believers, desperate for that moment of deliverance. Skepticism is a mixed bag, mostly a bunch of neckbeards playing "I'm smarter than you" and waging internecine war amongst themselves.

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    3. Agreed, Christopher! Their (debunkers) level of obsession with the subject is on par with believers. But I think Fort may have also been saying that debunkers buy wholesale into the "scientific" explanations without question just as much as the believers like to jump to paranormal conclusions. Just to clarify I was responding to The Horns above. I think he's the one who misread the quote.

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    4. I don't get the debunker hate. I mean, I'm not a debunker - I love reading this blog and it's a force of will to just comment here let alone spend time compelling evidence for or against pretty much anything - but I'm also not a believer. I guess I'm like a super position of a skeptic and a believer: I've yet to experience anything supernaturally significant, and until I do and I sort of have to fall on one side or the other, I inhabit both worlds. Anyways - from my position, I am shocked at the silly nonsense people will believe. From my own time growing up in church to faith in political parties to people thinking digital noise in pictures is proof of UFOs and reptilians to people thinking it must be true if it's on TV, I am stymied at the extent to which people seem to have suffocated their own wariness. Which is why, if I had to come down on a side, skeptics seem to have a more solid case, barring subjectivity which cannot be proved or disproved.

      But I also haven't seen any of these skeptics like Chris mentioned in another comment who "who runs around screaming how horrible UFOlogy is and casting aspersions left and right, but that doesn't stop him from appearing on Hangar 1 and Ancient Aliens ." I guess I don't seek that stuff out.

      But nevertheless, I'm still baffled by how easily people throw their whole body into obvious sham beliefs. It seems to me that this stuff is perhaps THE most important stuff, so shouldn't we really take the time to see how durable these ideas are? Maybe that's the problem with debunkers: no matter what they view their mission as naysayer regardless of virtually anything. Again: the only way to see what works is to see what breaks.

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    5. Hawk, I don't think you make your arguments in good faith. Every comment you've made dismisses our experiences, and you've offered nothing but denials, excuses, and dog whistles in response.

      I get the feeling that, now that you've proven that you're smarter than the religious people by leaving it behind, you're now out to prove you're smarter than me, and Chris, and anyone else who likes to look into High Weirdness.

      Well, speaking for myself, I don't care. I'm looking into patterns, into the weird, and the strange, and into conspiracies. My strongest interest is to look into the things we're told not to look at, the "how dare you think that?" and "only the stupid would doubt that" things. I'm finding some interesting truths.

      Like when the airmen drew the most withering fire over "Downtown", ( the Hanoi/Haiphong area), I think I must be getting closer to the target the more pushback I get.

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    6. So there certainly is a tendency toward blind acceptance of fantastical ideas and confirmation bias is a universal human condition that requires one be constantly wary of oneself. However, there are three categories of believers in this instance.

      Those who believe as a form of conspicuous consumption, believe in order to signal personal traits and group identity to others. Those are the ones that you are frustrated with and that the link that is alluding you. There are those that investigate these subjects as in individual persuit and accept by virtue of their own inner predispositions the physical reality of some, but not all mysterious phenomena. Those are the ones that seem to frustrate Chris because in their dabbling they arbitrarily seem to accept or reject one form of the phenomena or another and feel compelled to scoff at anything that isn't cool enough to hold their attention. Then there are those of us for whom the belief in mysterious phenomena boils down to: the thing in itself is. That while elusive there is an underlying something that we are confronting that while we may not agree on all the details we agree is a fundamental aspect of human existence and possibly reality in general.

      Basing ones belief on the mysterious aspects of the world on personal experience is not helpful. The point is that these contacts are universal, documented, ingrained in the cultures of all peoples, and seem to have preexisted human consciousness as they are recorded in art that precedes evidence of human self- consciousness. What makes the "neck-beards" so frustrating is that they deny all evidence contrary to their world view as superstition, etc. The evidence that humanity has been interacting with something outside the boundaries of our normal day to day reality since we first emerged as a species is incontrovertible.

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    7. Well, I'd like to thank Horns and the Hawk for stopping by and wish him good luck on his journey. I don't think there's anything more to be said.

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    8. I don't understand everyone's reactions to my comments. I don't think I'm being mean. Is it not OK to disagree?

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    9. It's fine. But I think you have some personal issues with your upbringing to work out and this really isn't the place to do that.

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    10. "But I think you have some personal issues with your upbringing to work out and this really isn't the place to do that."

      I think it's simpler than that: I'm looking to discuss issues you bring up, and instead I'm being condescended at. Do you only want people to comment if they're just going to agree and nothing else? I'm genuinely trying to absorb this perspective, but the lack of willingness to actually discuss is frustrating. Instead I get aspersions about my childhood? Absurd.

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    11. No, you keep bringing it up and it obviously colors everything. I have no way of arguing against your experience since I didn't share. If your experience is so influential on how you perceive everything I write about I am at a distinct disadvantage, don't you think? We all are. And again, you continually bring it up. We don't.

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    12. What? I've referenced my childhood once in the past four posts I've commented on (which are something like 4/5 of the your posts I've commented on), and I referenced growing up on this post in the four words "growing up in church," and therefore I have personal issues with my upbringing? That's pretty weak.

      Again, I don't understand what's happening.

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    13. Let's just stick to the topics and take it from there.

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  5. Hey, Chris

    I just had to say that your line, "It's as if it's OK to dabble in this stuff for lulz, just don't actually take any of it seriously" perfectly describes my experiences with the discordian/subgenii "fringe" in my twenties.

    I think there's a lot to be said about it, although I'm probably not the person to do it. The ironic disattachment that it stems from seems unavoidable and nearly prerequisite to being a young person at this time. I'd also wager to bet that a lot of people who fall into the discordant trap/approach towards Fortean topics do so lacking any better models, and not having the wherewithal to go about the dirty business of finding better ones. If that makes any sense.

    This was a great post. Thanks for your work!

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    1. You're welcome. Thanks for this insight. Discordianism is like trying to make a philosophy out of the Archie McPhee catalog. It makes me sad because it makes think of late-period RAW, when he was unwell and we started hearing more of that evasive talk about "reality tunnels" and "chapel perilous" and "convictions make convicts" and that awful, awful book on conspiracies.

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    2. Just out of curiosity, what book are you referring to (awful, awful book on conspiracies)? I haven't read much by RAW, what I have was all fiction.

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    3. The book is Everything is Under Control. A book that is quite embarrassing in light of recent revelations and situations.

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  6. Today at about 7:30PM I saw a white cigar shaped object float silently over the woods near my home. It was close enough so that if there was sound it would have been heard. There was none. A neighbor was down the road with his son watching this event at the same time. It appeared solid but of uniform white color.

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    1. Yeah. It's picking up. Why and what for is anyone's guess.

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  7. But I am a total optimist and have total hope is a more positive future. This is the healthy and non pessimistic way. It is my way and that will never change.

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  8. Nice post, Chris. I think you hit several nails on the head with this one. I've been musing a lot lately about this idea of we being alien "property", cattle, branding, and the post-modern tattoo fad.

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    1. I never made that connection, but it's a scary one. I just wish there wasn't so much crappy tattoo art out there. If you're going to mark your body for life, put some thought into it.

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  9. Of course, Fort would have never called himself a "Fortean," as he was a private person who did not endorse narcissistic tendencies in himself. As biographical scholars in Fort's lives had noted often, Fort refused to join the Fortean Society. But, of course, Fort was Fort for 1920s-1930s, so he thought like Fort. He was a Fortean without the label.

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    1. You think leaving the shack and wanting to make something positive out of the experience narcissistic? I think that is a kind of negative narcissism. Totally self absorbed in a negative way, too self absorbed to want to share and to shine.

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    2. I'd say he was *Fort*, not a Fortean. I can see why he wouldn't want to join a scoiety. All of a sudden there's a bureaucracy telling him what being a Fortean is all about. History is filled with these examples.

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  10. Now I have two visual proofs, one yesterday and one event in July of 2001. That, plus synchronicities innumerable and statistically impossible. I need no more proof. Gnosis. The rest is within and my own.

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  11. Great post Chris. I understand the "Fortean" approach to be a determined effort to look at phenomena that doesn't fit either scientism or mainstream religion with as much objectivity as possible. I think Vallee is the true inheritor of Fort's mantle.

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  12. Yeah, thanks for this post Chris, it's great (as usual). I have never read anything by Fort, and obviously need to remedy this. I have read things from Fortean Times before, which is why I never read any Fort. Now I understand why.......he wasn't even a Fortean.

    On the topic of the ironic hipster looking at weird stuff entirely for entertainment purposes......me and a coworker who are students of the weird and non-materialist mind set, often talk about how we don't want other people at work to know what we really think because of the ridicule we would inevitably receive. Or the people who would say something to the effect of, "yeah I find that stuff really fun to think about, but you don't really take that seriously, do you?". Thankfully, we don't seem to have any full fledged skepdicks at my workplace, but their influence can certainly be felt (we are in the IT tech field, so I'm sure there are some, just not in my immediate area).

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    1. Fortean Times is a product of a certain kind of malaise, a deep inertia that seemed to take hold in the mid 1990s. I don't know if it was ever worth reading, I only saw it in the "sneer years."

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    2. The sneer years, I was one once, I admit it. They sucked. Such poison either kills or forces a change for the better.

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  13. Great article, and a great introduction for me to your blog as well. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment being expressed above.

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    1. You're welcome, this quote alone is worth the price of admission: "These cultures have the external trappings of a counter-culture but in fact seem to be animated by an essential conventionality." - this is EXACTLY the case, and I've never seen it quite so succinctly put.

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  14. High Weirdness is what IS. It's the way things really are. What makes me laugh is that materialism and atheism sells itself as what is, when it's incomplete conjecture at best, and total bullshit at worst. Reductionist materialism presents itself as the hard unvarnished truth stripped of all pretense, and only for the intelligent and intellectually sober. But it's the opposite of that, and elitist. High Weirdness is the unvarnished truth stripped of all pretense. Not this or that interpretation but the fact that it IS, and always has been. Reductionist materialism and everything that goes with it tries to present itself as a closed system. There are no closed systems. It's a fairytale, in the pejorative sense of the term. The truth is messy and anomalous and spooky as fuck. THAT is reality. The rest is just someone else's mind-war. All this sneering imperious jive is just the masses out in the field, picking someone else's cotton.

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  15. And it's amazing how much time, money and effort is spent keeping the illusion in place. It's not even a question of high weirdness, really- it's that we are required to believe in a mechanistic, reductionistic way of thinking to keep our consumer economy going. Note that nearly all of the original CSICOP fellows relied on the government for their income and many of them were, uh, shall we say eminently persuadable for certain personal indulgences. That's how the system works. Look at how heavily they rely on shame and ridicule in place of argument. And yet people buy into it because it appeals to the fragile egos of the mediocre.

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  16. Raj, you knocked it out of the park with your comment. :)

    One thing I hated about CSICOP is that name. "Cop". They are here to lay down the law, kiddies. Reality is what CSICOP *says* it is, Baby. And like Chris has said, while the Fundies were starting their power grab, CSICOP were taking on those dangerous spoon-benders and astrologists.

    Sneering shills. Mercenaries. CSICOPs. (spit)

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    1. You know they're not actually cops, nor do they represent themselves as such, right? PS - UNCLE in "The Man From UNCLE" weren't people's uncles.

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    2. Yes, I comprehend that, Thank you.

      What I'm complaining about is their attitude. It's the typical attitude I get from Atheists, Freethinkers, and SkepDicks: that they are the arbiters of "truth", and I should be grateful for their condescending pronouncements.

      That's why I say I see no functional difference between religious people and Skeptical Atheist people. That's why I just do my thing and stay by myself.

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  18. The person impersonating Anna Elizabeth- Google has been contacted.

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  19. Anna- you can report the individual for identity theft here. Click the down arrow and select "report." https://plus.google.com/114236812220959334998/posts

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