Hey, how's that holiday shopping coming along? It's still a little early to start panicking in earnest, but right now is the best time to start buying stuff if you want it to arrive in time for the holidays. You might have noticed how you'll go to order something online, but it's either completely unavailable or it won’t ship for weeks or months. That's because the global supply chain has been a little screwy lately, set off kilter by a combination of logistical problems, resource shortages, and manufacturing woes. It's a weird time for buying things, and an even weirder time for shipping them.
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior reviews editor Adrienne So joins us to talk about supply chain woes and why now is the time to start your holiday shopping. We also hear from Tim Brown, the managing director of the Supply Chain and Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech.
Adrienne recommends the books in the Wheel of Time series, which comes to Amazon Prime Video as a streaming TV program later this month. Lauren recommends the six-part CNN documentary Lincoln: Divided We Stand. Mike recommends watching Re:Wired, our annual big-ideas conference, which streams for free November 9 and 10.
Adrienne So can be found on Twitter @adriennemso. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
If you have feedback about the show or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.
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Michael Calore: Lauren.
Lauren Goode: Mike.
MC: Lauren, have you started your holiday shopping yet?
LG: No, absolutely not. I'm giving people hugs this year, provided they are vaccinated. No supply chain issues there, just free hugs.
MC: Well, that will be delightful.
LG: Oh, all right. Good to know. I'm glad you approve.
MC: You might want to start hugging now.
LG: Why is that?
MC: We're going to get into that on this week's show.
[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays.]
MC: Hi everyone, welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED.
LG: And I'm Lauren Goode, senior hug giver at WIRED. I'm a writer.
MC: We're also joined this week by WIRED senior associate reviews editor Adrienne So. Hello, Adrienne. Welcome back.
Adrienne So: Hi guys.
MC: Great to have you here, as always, and happy holidays. OK sure, it's probably a little early to be saying that, but that's kind of the point. You have no doubt been hearing a lot about problems with the global supply chain for computers, new cars, ebikes, televisions. The whole consumer products industry seems to be stalling out. You may have even encountered this. You go to order something, it gets delayed during shipping or it just isn't available to begin with. Later on in the show, we are going to go over some advice about how to get your shopping needs taken care of during all of this weirdness. But first we want to talk about the supply chain mess itself. First, maybe we should define what is the supply chain. It's becoming something of a meme, where people often joke that they can't find a date right now because of supply chain problems or they can't show up at work because of the supply chain. But it's actually a very complex system. Adrienne, you recently wrote a story about the supply chain and all its problems. Can you talk us through what's going on here?
AS: Well, I want to start off by saying that it is absolutely insane that for the past couple of years, we've all been conditioned to believe that literally anything we want from anywhere in the world is going to appear at our doorsteps within like 24 hours, that is literally insane. As someone who used to get packages of underwear shipped for three weeks from the Philippines, let's start off by saying that we had unrealistic expectations to begin with. But in the world that we live in now, things get manufactured in other parts of the globe. First they have to get made, and then they have to get packaged, and then they have to get put on a boat or a plane or a truck. And they have to make their way all shepherded by hundreds of people from where they're going to where they're supposed to arrive at, which is at your door.
And I don't know if you guys have heard that saying, "For want of a nail, the war was lost" or something. It's such a huge problem, and there have just been steps failing at every single point of this. And as gear testers, we have been experiencing this personally for months, from not having enough supplies of computer chips for the gadgets that we need to test all the way to packages that are in Portland, where I live, just doing an endless show pony circuit around my house. I can literally see packages arriving in Portland, going up to Alaska, and then coming back. So they're just taking my stuff with them for the grand Western tour. The whole thing is just, it's madness I tell you, it's madness.
LG: Yeah. Just to reiterate what Adrienne's saying, as gadget testers, we've certainly had insight into this for a while. And in the past, if a company announced a new hardware product and then it was delayed for whatever reason, it would often be attributed to something just not being ready with the product. And maybe we'd kind of guess and say, well, the software is not ready, or they're experiencing some feature that they've overpromised that they need to get right before they ship out to consumers.
MC: Or the screens are all glitchy, or there is like a battery problem.
LG: Right. Or a battery, exactly. And now it's like they literally can't make them; they don't have enough parts. Yeah, there are no screens or batteries to go around. In this case, we know it might be chips, because the microchip shortage is certainly what's driving a lot of these problems. In terms of what the supply chain is, I've been wondering about this too, because it does seem like it's just become a catchall phrase for what's going on. And so I reached out to Tim Brown, who is the managing director for the Supply Chain and Logistics Institute at the Georgia Institute of Technology. This has been around for a while, but as you can imagine, they've been really busy the past year. So I had first seen him quoted in a story in the Atlantic written by Amanda Mull about reverse logistics. And I had some questions for him. So I basically asked him that. I was like, “What is the supply chain?” And here's what he had to say.
Tim Brown: So supply chain is physical flows, financial flows, and information flows. So you've got the three types of flows. You can't have any one of them without the other; you can't move goods from point A to point B without having a buyer and a seller exchanging funds. And you can't move the goods without having information about how much needs to move, what the specifications are, and where it needs to go from and to. So the three have to go together. Supply chain is manufacturing; it's the transformation of raw materials into intermediate work and process to finish goods. It's transportation—inbound, outbound transportation between different channel partners. It's warehousing and fulfillment, storing goods, breaking it from large quantities into smaller quantities, those type of activities.
It's inventory management. It's planning, determining how much each level of inventory is needed and where it needs to be stored. And it's procurement. It's buying things, determining where to buy it, who to buy it from, how much, and coming to contract negotiations on pricing. And in addition to all of that, the area of supply chain that people tend to ignore or think the least about is reverse logistics. What do you do with goods at the end of their life cycle? Or what if too much is bought or if the wrong stuff is bought or if you just don't like it? So reverse logistics is also part of supply chain.
LG: But what he said that was interesting was that during this time period, it's not like we're really experiencing disruptions to financial flows or in information flows. In some cases, there are disruptions to information flows, like in the case of cyberattacks, which maybe we'll get to. But for the most part, people do have a little bit of disposable income right now; they're willing to spend on things. A lot of information we have at our fingertips is digitized, so there's still flowing information. Right now what we are primarily experiencing is a physical flow problem. And that is the element of the supply chain: this multi-link supply chain that we're sort of focused on right now.
MC: Right. And like Adrienne was saying earlier, we see packages arriving in the United States. Maybe they're sitting in a shipping container, maybe they're sitting at a customs facility because everything is so backed up that when things actually do start moving, the problem doesn't go away, it just gets worse.
AS: And the thing that, Lauren's point about how it's a physical problem, we forget that we exist. This is something that's easy for us to remember because we're testing gear, we have to hold the gear every day in order to test it. But it's also a people problem, we're not quite at the point where the drone can shepherd the package onto and off the cargo ship and then onto and off the FedEx truck. There're actual human people who need to be walking these packages all the way up to your doors. And in a lot of cases, every shipping company is just dramatically understaffed right now.
MC: Yeah. And that sort of leads to the question of “Is this a pandemic-related problem?” Because everybody is, well, not everybody, but a lot of people are at home more often than not, and they're ordering more things over the internet instead of going to the store. So the shipping companies are overwhelmed. And does the pandemic at all play into any of the supply chain stuff?
LG: It definitely does, but I think that might be an overly simplistic explanation for it.
MC: Yeah, well, I'm a simple guy.
LG: I mean, once again, I can't find a date because of supply chain disruptions. But there are examples where at the start of the pandemic when everyone was sheltering in place and factories were shut down, that was an obvious breaking point in supply, but that actually was resolved relatively quickly. When you think about all the tech companies that we cover, that manufacture goods in China and relatively quickly, those factories were back up and running again.
But then there are other examples where some of the disruptions are completely unrelated to the pandemic. Like there was this cyberattack this past summer on JBS, which is the world's largest meat processor. Which ended up forcing the shutdown of these large beef plants in the United States and disrupted production at poultry and pork plants. And so there was a meat shortage for a while and the prices were really high. And that was because of a cyberattack—now was that about the pandemic specifically? It wasn't 100 percent related to it. Some of those are going to be related to the pandemic, but some aren't necessarily because of what we're living through right now.
AS: It gives me hope actually, that some of these breakdowns can be solved through policy decisions. I know that a few days ago they started finding people who were leaving empty containers in the ports in California, which seemed like a punitive way to get things moving again, but probably necessary. I hope that we can identify some more fixes that are a little bit faster and more efficient than just fixing the whole supply chain.
MC: So aside from the processor shortage, is there anything else that is affecting our ability to buy any sort of gadgets? This is the Gadget Lab, I should ask this question.
LG: I'm really curious about this because I've wanted to know if there are other raw materials or components that we're just overlooking, whether it's, I don't know, some type of glass or something like that, that typically goes into our phones. And so once again, I asked Tim about this and is there anything else, any other components we should be keeping our eye on in terms of the electronics market? And his answer was, “I don't have a simple answer for you, but it has to do with whether or not the goods we're using are complex or simple goods.” And here's how he described it.
TB: I think in terms of complex goods versus simple goods because there's always going to be breakdowns and misalignments between supply and demand, whether it's chips or plastic or petroleum or whatever. The challenges with complex items, say, like with receivers or computers or the latest and greatest—that type of thing … there are so many pieces, different types of metals, different levels of fabrication, different subcomponents made. And all of these pieces are made in different countries.
You might have the core glass sheet made in Kentucky and it be shipped to Taiwan to be cut into smaller sizes and then sent to Hong Kong. And then from Hong Kong, it's made into cell phone-size and then shipped to Shanghai for final assembly with all kinds of other pieces. So when you introduce these complex items with all of these pieces, there's opportunities for breakdowns all along the way. So I think there's going to be continued disruption on complex goods, but things will be easing off and have eased off on more simple goods, where you don't have as many components coming together and there's not as many countries and lanes involved with pulling everything together.
LG: And as we know, a lot of the gadgets we use today are complex. Not all of them, but a lot of them, especially as everything, even your toothbrush, becomes internet-connected and needs some kind of wireless radio or a Bluetooth chip in it, or something like that.
AS: The other shortage that I was thinking about was a paper shortage, which is going from the most complex piece of a product all the way down to the absolute least complex piece. Like paper mills can only produce a certain amount of pulp, and if it all got diverted to toilet paper, as we discovered earlier this year … I'm really interested, not only in physical books, but just the packaging for all of our phones and iPads that have to get to our doors. If all the tablets can get made but they can't get shipped, that is another obstacle that we may be seeing.
MC: Very true. Let's move on now from talking about the problem to talking about the solutions. In our next segment, we will also cover some tips on how to shop for the holidays when you can't buy anything on the internet.
MC: Welcome back. So if the supply chain is borked, what can you do about it? Step one is to be realistic about what sorts of things you'll be able to actually buy. That's why we've got some dos and don'ts of holiday shopping here for you. Adrienne, let's rip off the Band-Aid right away. Is there anything that people should just accept that they're not going to be able to buy this year?
AS: I am preaching to the choir here because everyone who wants a PS5 is probably already aware that it's going to be exceptionally difficult to get a PS5 still a year after release. But the obvious answer there is [that for] gaming consoles and graphic cards this is not the year to, unless you want to spend $800 on your Nvidia, yada, yada, yada, that seems to be the obvious.
LG: Is that their new product for the holiday?
MC: Yeah, that's the official product.
LG: Nvidia Yada, Yada, Yada.
MC: They may as well be at this point, right?
AS: I'm saying that in the most respectful way possible. And you're very important and necessary in video, blah, blah, blah.
MC: That's the other one. That's the really fancy one.
AS: That's the upgraded version. And the other thing that is going to be really hard to get ahold of right now is if you haven't been converted to a Kindle, yet paper books are going to be really difficult to get ahold of, especially if you … Like I do try to patronize independent bookstores. So I really highly recommend getting hold of those as early as you can.
LG: Adrienne, I'm curious as a parent, do your young kids have a sense of what's going on with the supply chain? I'm sure they've heard all the adults talking about it in conversation, but do they know what it means and what that might mean for the holidays in terms of gifts?
AS: I don't know if you've heard Lauren, but Santa has chartered his own transportation vehicles. So he doesn't have to go through the Port of Long Beach or whatever. Another thing that's important to note here is that my kids are young enough that I can find most of the things they want on Amazon. They've already circled and triple-circled all the things in Amazon's special holiday toy catalog. And bigger retailers like Amazon and Walmart are able to charter their own boats and in Amazon's case buy their own air fleet. So if you are in doubt about what retailer you should shop at and whether they're actually going to get to your house, this is the one year where I'm going to tell you, you might want to try a bigger retailer.
MC: What about on the other end, shopping locally or going to a place like Etsy, which is all for the most part one-to-one type transactions, is that a good option?
LG: Yeah, I asked Tim Brown about out this, whether or not shopping local is one way to solve the supply chain issues. And he brought up a good point, which is that just because you're shopping local doesn't mean the thing is going to be on shelves, particularly if it's an imported good or a complex good, as we talked about before. And he actually said he thinks that could end up driving more people to shop online.
TB: I love local stores and all, though I'm not as much of a brick-and-mortar person now I'm mostly online. But if you think about it, when you've got such scarcity, we've got such empty shelves in many places right now. If you're looking for receivers and all and go to certain electronic stores, there's not much out there. So if you're trying to buy in brick-and-mortar stores, it's hit and miss roaming the aisles and seeing what's there. And if it's not there, there's no way to allocate any inventory to yourself. You can't place an order in a brick-and-mortar store on something that's not there. It's either there or it's not.
So it pretty much should be driving consumers to go even more online. Because oftentimes with retailers, they'll go ahead and allow you to place an order, even though the inventory's not there. You just get put in the queue for when the orders come in. So in some ways I hate to say it, I think it should drive more people online because then they know it might not be next day they get it, or next week, but at least two weeks from now, they'll get it. And they're not having to go store to store and come up empty.
LG: So yeah, ultimately even if you try to shop local, you may end up being driven to shop online. But that said, you should still try to support your small businesses and shop local when you can. With Etsy, yes, a lot of the people are craftspeople who are selling one-to-one and running their own small businesses. It probably is just going to depend on whether or not they can get the craft supplies that they typically need, like wood or paper or whatever it is, like Adrienne's talking about, to make the thing that they typically make. But that might be a nice option. I have a suggestion for a gift that as far as I know has not been in short supply yet, which is booze. Not for your kids, Adrienne, of course.
But the other day it was my brother's birthday, and I was a little bit late on getting a gift and I thought, "Well, oh gosh, if I order him something now maybe it's going to get there by Christmas, I don't know." So I went online to an online alcohol retailer and then it's a large website that has distribution centers all over and they have a storefront in his town, which is across the country. And so I ordered him a bottle of bourbon and it arrived the next day. And I was like, and of course I tipped the driver well and just was like, cool, all right, great. This is a nice easy solution. So booze and hugs. There you go, there's my suggestion.
AS: Are you talking about Drizly, Lauren?
LG: No, I did not end up using … I used, I think it's Total Wine and Liquors.
MC: Yeah. That's a good one.
AS: My version of booze and hugs is socks and scotch. So that's going to be everybody is just going to be warm and drunk this Christmas. Not the children.
MC: The children would be warm and drunk on love. My advice to people is to just go for the stuff around the thing. So shop for the accessories. So you're probably not going to be able to get that person the e-bike they want, you can maybe preorder it and let them know that it's going to be coming in like April or May. And in the meantime, you can get them a helmet and maybe a cycling backpack, a nice rain jacket, a pair of cycling shoes, a membership to their local cycling coalition. You can get the things around the thing for somebody. It's a little bit harder with something like a video game console. Like if you have an order in on a PS5, or if you've a line in on a PS5 and it's not going to arrive before the holidays, you may be able to get something like a pair of headphones, like wireless gaming headphones that are made or a controller that's made for that particular thing.
Or you could just get them the subscription to the game pass so that when the thing arrives, they'll be able to just start downloading games. So there are accessories options that I feel like are good if you can also get them the thing that they really want. And it's just not going to arrive for four or five months, at least they'll have something to touch now. Something that they can experience now and actually start using in other ways and then augment the thing that they actually want when it arrives.
AS: I think the theme of this episode has been just kind of recalibrating your expectations. Even if you can order the thing, even if you really wanted the Google Pixel 5a but it's not coming in the exact color you wanted. We all just need to get ahold of ourselves just a little bit here. It's okay if the exact thing that you wanted, as people in the business of recommending the one exact thing, this is particularly difficult to say, but this might be a good holiday season to start letting go of that just a little bit.
LG: Yes. It's a really good recalibration. Maybe we should name the episode that—recalibrating shopping, recalibrating the holidays. Another idea too is if you do want to support local businesses and you don't want to buy, or you can't find the thing that is in the local business, why not support an experience, like get someone a gift certificate. Even if they're not feeling comfortable about going to a restaurant yet, they may feel better about dining indoors in a few months, they may want to get takeout. And in the meantime, you're supporting a local restaurant. You can get someone a gift certificate to, I don't know, a spa or just some other experience that they enjoy. And then the other option we're sort of leaving out but is also obvious is make a donation in someone's name as a gift, the food banks, anywhere where you can basically help others while you're also doing your holiday shopping. We always recommend that.
AS: My 6-year-old is getting vaccinated next week. And the thing that she's been super stoked on is going to an aquarium; she's just become really fixated on going to aquarium, which is something that my parents or anyone … Gadget Lab listeners, if you would like to sponsor the So family to go to the aquarium, I'm just offering that as an option. But kids are getting vaccinated really soon. And all of the things that they've missed over the past couple of years, like kids' museums or aquariums or zoos, this is a really good time to get started jumping back into all that.
MC: One last thing that I'll say would be a good gift is you can always get somebody a gift certificate to their favorite local bookstore. That way they can go in and spend the afternoon browsing and pick out a couple of things they might like. I don't know anybody who doesn't love a good at bookstore.
LG: I love that idea. City Lights all the way.
MC: All right. Well, those are some great tips for everybody. Thanks to both of you. Let's take a break and then when we come back, we will have our recommendations.
MC: All right. Welcome back to the final segment of our show, where every week we talk about some things that we think the listeners might enjoy. It could be a podcast, it could be a song, it could be a television show, it could be a food item, it could be a book. Adrienne, you are our guest, you get to go first. What is your recommendation?
AS: So the longer this pandemic goes on, the more I retreat into my adolescence— video games and high fantasy. So for everybody who was frantically rereading Dune before the movie was streaming on HBO Max, I am just warning you in advance that now is the time to start trying to desperately reread all of the Wheel of Time books because they are about to come out on Amazon. So if you haven't read those since you were like, I don't know, 13 or 14, now is the time. So you can know exactly when the series diverges from all the plot points.
MC: Nice. What's it all about? Wheel of Time.
AS: It's been a while. It's another “the One” story. There's like the world is ending, there's one dude who's been reborn and we got to find him, we're going to get him. So I've just summed up all 14 books for you, like spoil it, I'm kidding. So that's the general gist of it. I'm sure there's some commenters who would like to clarify those points, but that's basically all, there's a lot of robes and stuff.
MC: When is the Amazon series coming out? Like how much time do I have? Because it takes me about eight years to read a book.
AS: So it's going to be available on November 19, and there's a lot of people really super excited about it.
MC: That is not nearly enough time. You should have told me this in January.
AS: I'm sorry, I wasn't keeping you abreast of things.
MC: Okay. Wheel of Time books.
AS: Rosamund Pike is in the trailer! She looks amazing. It's going to be great.
MC: The Wheel of Time books. Thank you for that. The reading list assignment. Lauren, what is your recommendation?
AS: All 14. I will settle for nothing less.
MC: Lauren, what is your recommendation?
LG: My recommendation is, I guess it's not quite as fun as Adrienne's but it's still pretty good. It's the Lincoln–
MC: Yeah, what could be as fun as reading 14 books in a week?
LG: I'm recommending the Lincoln miniseries. I'm a little bit behind on it. It first aired this past winter, winter 2021 on CNN. Now it is available on HBO Max. Everything is on HBO Max, man, I love HBO Max. Isn't it funny to think, just a little side note here, a little tangent if you will, to think about how when HBO Max did its renaming a while ago, we were all just like, what are they doing? That's a terrible, what happened to Go? And now it's Max. And is there HBO Min? What is this? And then the app interface is really still pretty terrible. Like if you're trying to watch HBO Max on the iPad, good luck with that.
But they have all the good stuff now, all the series, they have Succession and the movie Dune, and anyway. So now I've been watching this Lincoln miniseries, it's a six-part series about President Abraham Lincoln. It's very good; it's narrated by Sterling K. Brown. It's got some never-before-seen imagery and information. There's a little bit of—what's it called? Historical reenactment, where there's actors you kind of vaguely see, like a tall, dark-haired man in the background who's supposed to be Lincoln. But a lot of historians contribute as talking heads to it, and it's quite interesting.
And it really, I think, how would I say this, in our modern society I think we tend to be a little bit obsessed with bucketing people into either the hero or the villain category, and actually most high-profile or extremely successful or powerful people are a little bit more nuanced and complex than that. And I think Lincoln certainly falls into that category, and it kind of revisits the idea that I think people believed he was a staunch abolitionist, and it was actually a little more complicated than that. So I'm only on episode three, but I really like it so far and I'm probably going to watch the whole thing. So I recommend watching the Lincoln miniseries on HBO Max.
AS: Do you know what else is on HBO Max is the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Matthew Macfadyen from Succession starring as Mr. Darcy, Tom. And it's just, you cannot go backwards. You cannot watch Succession and then Pride and Prejudice because then you're just like, "Who is this doofus who's supposed to be playing the romantic lead?" So that's my anti-recommendation off of HBO Max is going back to watch the 2005 Pride and Prejudice because it was just impossible to take it seriously.
MC: Does he ask anybody to latte him?
AS: He's just walking around as Mr. Darcy. And I just kept expecting him to just be like, "I'm rich. It feels so good to be rich." But that's not what he does. He's very serious and brooding and you're supposed to be very attracted to him in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. And it just doesn't work anymore because I've already seen him put a towel on his—
LG: He's just not eating enough songbirds in that one.
AS: Yes. I was going to say in Pride and Prejudice, he doesn't put a towel on his head and crunch through an ortolan. So it's just I can't do it, I can't go back.
LG: Mike after that, what is your recommendation?
MC: Well, OK, I'm going to go home team on this one, and I'm going to go strong home team because I want to recommend that everybody watch RE:WIRED, which is our conference that WIRED puts on every year. You may have heard of it. This year it is happening on Tuesday, November 9 and Wednesday, November 10. The tagline is conversations about humanity's biggest bets, and it is conversations with very smart people. It's streaming live on the internet. All you have to do is come to WIRED to go to re.wired.com. It's just like wired.com except instead of www you put the letters R-E where the www goes, and you'll be led to the website, or you can just go to wired.com and you can look at all the streaming interviews that we have.
Really amazing people. Beeple will be there, the NFT artist. John Cho, the actor, and Jony Ive, former Apple designer, who now runs LoveFrom, which is one word. Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex is going to be there. Timnit Gebru, who used to work at Google, who's now an independent scholar. Kai-Fu Lee, Neal Stephenson, the science fiction author. Anna Wintour, our boss, is going to be interviewing them live. It's going to be a really interesting and fun two days and very thought-provoking. And you can watch all of it on wired.com or you can go to re.wired.com to check it out. You have to register and then you can watch it for free. So it's going to be fun. Check it out: RE:WIRED.
LG: That sounds really exciting. It's another year of virtual events for a lot of companies, a lot of folks who are hosting events, and I have to say some of them, they don't play out so well as virtual events, but this one, this is going to be a really good one.
MC: Yeah, I agree. I'm pumped.
AS: This lineup is mind-blowing, honestly. I was like, I don't know, just going to submit questions for Prince Harry. Like can we be friends? Can I hang out at your house? Very hard-hitting intellectual, thought-provoking, conversation-making questions.
LG: I'm really excited for this. Even though it's virtual, I think it's going to be one of those really killer virtual events.
MC: Yes. And even though we do work here, we are excited about it. It's actually legit cool.
AS: Yes. Very pumped.
MC: OK. Well thank you Adrienne, for joining us this week. It's been great to have you back on the show.
AS: Yay, thanks for having me guys.
MC: And thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter, just check the show notes. This show is produced by the excellent, unflappable Boone Ashworth. Goodbye, and we will be back next week.
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