A Nobel Prize Winner and questions about Nagasaki

There was a very interesting profile in the New York Times Science section this week about Osamu Shimomura the Nobel Prize winning chemist.  Never heard of him?  Me either.  It was his life, not his science I found most interesting.  My mother’s family is from a small town near Hiroshima and I grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sixty-eight years ago, Osamu Shimomura was a 16-year-old high school student working in a factory seven and a half miles from Nagasaki, Japan. Sitting down to work, a light flashed, briefly blinding him, and the pressure wave from an explosion came rolling through.

On his walk home from the factory, he was drenched with a black rain. His grandmother immediately had him bathe, most likely saving him from radiation-related illness.

Dr. Shimomura has said that he mostly doesn’t think about the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, but he recently delivered a lecture at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Los Alamos is the home of the Manhattan Project and the birthplace of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The bomb was not the topic of Dr. Shimonura’s lecture.

Instead, he recounted the discovery and development of one of the most significant tools for modern biotechnology: the green fluorescent protein, or G.F.P., used widely in cell and molecular biology as a visual tracer. The discovery, which has deepened the understanding of a wide range of fundamental biological processes, brought him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008, along with Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien.

Together with my father who returned briefly from Manchuria in 1939. Front row from left: my mother Yukie, grandmother Tsuki, grandfather Kosaburo, father Chikara, younger brother Sadamu, and myself behind Sadamu, together with my uncle Eijiro Sata's family in back row.

Together with my father who returned briefly from Manchuria in 1939. Front row from left: my mother Yukie, grandmother Tsuki, grandfather Kosaburo, father Chikara, younger brother Sadamu, and myself behind Sadamu, together with my uncle Eijiro Sata’s family in back row.

In his autobiography accompanying his Nobel information, Dr. Shimomura did talk about Nagasaki.

On August 6, 1945, news reports informed us that the city of Hiroshima had been completely destroyed by a new type of bomb; we didn’t know what kind. Three days later, shortly before 11 AM, a siren sounded at the Isahaya factory, notifying us of an air raid. As usual, rather than going into a bunker, I went to the top of a nearby hill with a couple of friends and looked at the sky. We saw a single B-29 going from north to south towards Nagasaki, about 15 km away. I thought that its course was unusual. The B-29 dropped two or three parachutes and I heard sporadic gunshots. Watching carefully, I saw no people attached to the parachutes. Within a few minutes, another B-29 followed the first one, and a siren sounded the “all clear” signal. We returned to our factory building.

At the moment I sat down on my work stool, a powerful flash of light came through the small windows. We were blinded for about 30 seconds. Then, about 40 seconds after the flash, a loud sound and sudden change of air pressure followed. We were sure there was a huge explosion somewhere, but we didn’t know where. The sky was rapidly filling with dark clouds, and when I left the factory to walk home, about three miles away, a drizzling rain started. It was black rain. By the time I arrived home, my white shirt had turned gray. My grandmother quickly readied a bath for me. That bath might have saved me from the ill effects of the strong radiation that presumably existed in the black rain.    The next morning, a technical officer told us that the parachutes we had seen the day before contained measurement instruments and a transmitter. He also mentioned that there was serious damage in Nagasaki, but the details were unknown. The chief of the factory organized a rescue party. We tried to enter Nagasaki, but could not because the roads and the railroad were impassable. Later that afternoon, the railroad was opened to Michinoo, near Nagasaki station, and rescuers began to transport injured people to Isahaya and other cities.

On August 15, in a radio broadcast, Emperor Hirohito declared unconditional surrender. This was the first time that most Japanese citizens had heard the emperor’s voice. I think there was a widespread feeling of relief, and also fear for an uncertain future.    Many years passed before we had detailed information about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb was a different type and far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Even if the use of the Hiroshima bomb was justifiable in order to precipitate an end to the war, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later was clearly a test of new arms. It cannot be justified.

It cannot be justified.  I have always had questions about Nagasaki.  Why didn’t the Emperor call for surrender immediately?  Why didn’t we wait a few more days before dropping the second bomb?

The Times story recounts others at the Los Alamos dinner raising the subject.

At a dinner, Bette Korber, a theoretical biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told of how her father had been on a troop ship preparing for the invasion of Japan. For years, she said, he had credited the decision to drop the bombs with sparing his life. Years later, however, when declassified documents reopened questions about whether the Nagasaki bomb had been necessary to end the war, he was in despair, she said.

Gary Doolen, a physicist who had been a weapon designer at the lab, said there was evidence that the second bomb had been dropped as a demonstration of American power to Russians, who were then massing troops in East Asia.

Dr. Shimomura, tall and stooped, mostly listened.

The next day he and his wife returned to the museum.

…Moments before the Nagasaki bombing, Dr. Shimomura had seen a B-29 bomber drop three parachutes. The drop had puzzled him. He would later learn that they carried instruments for data transmission and measurement.

He asked John E. Pearson, the Los Alamos physicist who had invited him to lecture, about the instruments. After some hunting they found models of the original parachute payloads.

“Some guy came up and started explaining what we were looking at,” said Dr. Pearson. “Osamu said, ‘Yes. I watched them falling.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite as stunned as that guy.”

I wonder what those instruments recorded.  I wonder if the information would be useful as we try to deal with other nuclear disasters.  I wonder if they were destroyed by the bomb.

Shimomura

Photograph of the family from Shimomura’s Nobel Autobiography

Photograph of Shimomura Josh Reynolds/Associated Press

Taxes, taxes, taxes

Who was it that said, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes”?  They should have added tax loopholes and exemptions to that list.

Here in Massachusetts we have a Senate candidate who took at $281,000 tax credit for agreeing not to made changes to the facade of his home located in a historic district.  I don’t know how this works in other states but here local city and town councils can pass by-laws regulating historic districts.  Cohasset, the town where Gabriel Gomez lives, has a by-law on the books that says owners of homes in the historic district may not change the facades of their homes.  So Mr. Gomez basically took a tax credit for something he was prohibited from doing anyway.  Adrian Walker wrote this in the Globe this morning.

Challenged to explain, a testy Gomez set a new standard for chutzpah. He claimed that his tax break is really the fault of his opponent, Ed Markey — because in 1981, Markey voted for the law that established tax breaks for historical preservation.

OK.  So maybe taking the tax break was not illegal, but there is something about it that makes me – and it appears – other voters wonder if this is the guy we want representing us.  Plus there is the fact that most of us don’t make $281K over many years much less get to take that much off our taxes.

Walker continues

Andy Hiller of WHDH-TV cornered Gomez and asked a few questions about it, or tried to. What he got back from Gomez was this: “I don’t apologize for any success I’ve had. Absolutely not. I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I’ve worked for everything I’ve done. I’ve earned everything I’ve done.”

Gomez is an accomplished military veteran who has earned many things in his life, but he certainly didn’t earn this. Even the Internal Revenue Service has decried the historical-preservation deduction he took as a farce.

The questions about Gomez’s taxes probably haven’t ended, either.

On a financial disclosure form filed in March, Gomez said that under his separation agreement from the private equity firm Advent International, he received something called “carried interests.”

Carried interests are fees paid to equity firms and hedge funds to manage portfolios. They are taxed as capital gains, at a rate of 20 percent, rather than the top income rate of 39.5 percent.

Carried interests are fees paid to equity firms and hedge funds to manage portfolios. They are taxed as capital gains, at a rate of 20 percent, rather than the top income rate of 39.5 percent.

The carried interest rate — which costs taxpayers an estimated $1.3 billion a year — has long been the subject of dispute, with some critics arguing that this is one of the first tax loopholes lawmakers should close.

How much of Gomez’s income falls under the “carried interest” loophole is unclear from the disclosure form.

Gabriel Gomez is running as a reformer, as an outsider but as Walker points out, he already knows all the tricks.  Maybe we need someone like him to help reform the tax code – not!

Internal Revenue Service Building

Internal Revenue Service Building

Taxes are also at the heart of what the Republicans hope will be the scandal that brings down the Obama Administration if Benghazi doesn’t work out for them.  According to the New York Times this is what we know.

The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status went beyond keyword hunts for organizations with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names, to a more overtly ideological search for applicants seeking to “make America a better place to live” or “criticize how the country is being run,” according to part of a draft audit by the inspector general that has been given to Capitol Hill.

The head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, was briefed on the effort in June 2011, seemingly contradicting her assertion on Friday that she learned of the effort from news reports. But the audit shows that she seemed to work hard to rein in the focus on conservatives and change it to a look at any political advocacy group of any stripe.

Since last year’s elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Obama’s re-election and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.

But the accusations of I.R.S. abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.

“The bottom line is they used keywords to go after conservatives,” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Sunday on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.” He requested the inspector general’s audit along with another Republican, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. As an audit, it will not find blame or refer anyone for criminal prosecution.

This all goes back to the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Count and the flood of organization, most it seems on the right to register as 501(c)4 social welfare groups.  This leaves me puzzled.  How can a group which supports political lobbying be tax exempt?  I give money to Planned Parenthood to support clinics.  I also give money for the political operations.  The first is tax exempt, the second is not.  So maybe the problem is, once again, with the tax code.  Ezra Klein explains.

Let’s try to keep two things in mind simultaneously: The IRS does need some kind of test that helps them weed out political organizations attempting to register as tax-exempt 501(c)4 social welfare groups. But that test has to be studiously, unquestionably neutral.

The story thus far seems both chilling and cheering. Employees at the agency’s Cincinnati branch did employ a test that, in effect, targeted tea party groups. Whether they meant it to be discriminatory or they simply created one that was discriminatory is in contention, but ultimately immaterial. The IRS, more so than almost any other agency, must act in ways above  reproach.

But when the Cincinnati group explained their test to IRS exempt organizations division chief Lois G. Lerner, she objected to it and it was changed. A few months later, the IRS would release new guidance that suggested scrutinizing “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” and after that, “organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political  campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit.)”

The context for all this is that after Citizens United and some related decisions, the number of groups registering as 501(c)4s doubled. Because the timing of that doubling coincided with a rise in political activism on the right rather than the left, a lot of the politicized groups attempting to register as 501(c)4s were describing their purpose in tea party terms. A popular conceit, for  instance, was that they existed to educate on the Constitution — even if the particular pedagogical method meant participating in Republican Party primaries and pressuring incumbent politicians.

In looking for that kind of language in 2010, the Cincinnati employees were attempting to create a usable shortcut. Like Willie Sutton robbing banks, they were going where the action was. But they needed a clearer test that also identified the language of the left, even if left-leaning  groups weren’t exhibiting the same surge in activism. And, frankly, it shouldn’t have been left to career employees in Cincinnati. The IRS needed clearer rules coming from the top. But the top didn’t know what to do with these 501(c)4s, in part because it feared a situation precisely like this one.

It is worth remembering an important fact here: The IRS is supposed to reject groups that are primarily political from registering as 501(c)4s. If they’re going to do  that, then they need some kind of test that helps them flag problematic applicants. And that test will have to be a bit impressionistic. It will mean taking the political rhetoric of the moment and watching for it in applications. It will require digging into the finances and activities of groups on the left and the right that seem to be political even as they’re promising their activities are primarily non-political.

If we’re not comfortable with that, then we need to either  loosen the definition of 501(c)4s or create a new designation that gives explicitly political groups the benefits of the 501(c)4s (namely, they don’t have to pay taxes and they can keep their donors anonymous). But either way, as I wrote on Friday, the only way to make sure this doesn’t keep happening is for the IRS — or the Congress and White House that control it — to make some tough decisions about 501(c)4s.

To make things look even more suspicious, Ms. Lerner appears to have been confused about the order in which events unfolded.  But, is there a scandal here?   It does not appear that any group, on the right or left has been denied 501(c)4 status.  I believe that to get 501(c)3 status which most community development groups and organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Boys and Girls clubs have one must provide a lot of information including board membership and by-laws.  The problem here is that many these new groups appear to be political organizations regardless of whether or not they claim to be educational.  I question whether any of these groups, right or left, should be tax exempt.

“Tax-exempt social-welfare groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code are allowed to engage in some political activity, but the primary focus of their efforts must remain promoting social welfare. That social-welfare activity can include lobbying and advocating for issues and legislation, but not outright political-campaign activity. But some of the rules leave room for IRS officials to make judgment calls and probe individual groups for further information. Organizing as such a group is desirable, not just because such entities typically don’t have to pay taxes, but also because they generally don’t have to identify their donors.” John D. McKinnon and Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

The odds are against Mr. Gomez being elected to the Senate and they are likely to be against the Republicans making a credible argument about the IRS, but taxes and tax exemptions are clearly land mines for anyone in politics today.  But if the Republicans are right, that is a place where the Obama Administration and I will part company.  As my Congressman Mike Capuano said today, “There’s no way in the world, I’m going to defend that. [if the accounts are true] Hell, I spent my youth vilifying the Nixon administration for doing the same thing.”

Photograph:  Reuters

Let’s Define Hypocrisy

Best summary of what is up with the Republicans and Benghazi, including a reminder from Steve Lynch of MA that the Republicans all voted to cut the embassy security budger.

Desert Dogmeh

Republicans remind us not to politicize something that they have been, and are currently, hell-bent on politicizing.

Seems fair.

Republicans lead a witch hunt on Benghazi

By Eugene Robinson,

May 09, 2013 11:31 PM EDT

The Washington Post

Those who are trying to make the Benghazi tragedy into a scandal for the Obama administration really ought to decide what story line they want to sell.

Actually, by “those” I mean Republicans, and by “the Obama administration” I mean Hillary Clinton. The only coherent purpose I can discern in all of this is to sully Clinton’s record as secretary of state in case she runs for president in 2016.

Did Clinton’s State Department fail to provide adequate security for the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi? In retrospect, obviously so. But the three diplomats who testified at the hearing gave no evidence that this failure sprang from anything other than the need to…

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Burying the dead

Tamerlan Tsarnaev hijacked a car and kidnapped the owner but did not kill him.  He died in a shootout with police – maybe from gunshots, maybe from his younger brother running over him.  These are facts.  It is likely he set off at least two explosive devices near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Either he or his brother shot a MIT police officer in cold blood.  Does this mean he does not deserve to be buried in his adopted hometown of Cambridge?  Or barring that, somewhere in the Boston area.

We have a long history of abusing the bodies of our enemies.  Antigone wants to bury of the body of her brother, Polyneices.  At the beginning of the play named for her, she tells her sister

…they say he [Creon] has proclaimed to the whole town

that none may bury him and none bewail,

but leave him unwept, untombed, a rich sweet sight

for the hungry birds’ beholding.

Antigone is trying to persuade her sister they should commit what we would call civil disobedience and bury Polyneices anyway.

Achilles dragged the body of Hector behind his chariot for days after the Trojan had killed his best friend, Patroclus.  Achilles finally relents to Hector’s father.  We are told that the gods had kept the body from showing signs of abuse.

Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, and Albert DeSalvo perhaps the Boston Strangler, were both buried in private cemeteries.  So was Lee Harvey Oswald.

Massachusetts law gives a cemetery the right to refuse burial, but I haven’t seen any stories that discuss how often this right is invoked.  A number of funeral home directors have spoken out saying that the protests outside the funeral home are not right.  The most interesting comment came from a North Carolina Republican who sponsored legislation to limit protests by groups like Westboro Church.

“The family can have peace and say goodbye to their loved ones without hearing screaming and noise,” says North Carolina Republican state Rep. John Szoka, who sponsored a bill this year to strengthen that state’s ban.

Most Americans find the Westboro protests outrageous because they believe deeply in the right of a family to bury their dead and not be challenged about it, Sloane [David C. Sloane, author of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History] says.

That’s what makes the protests in Worcester unusual. Tradition dictates that bodies of even the most heinous criminals be given over to the families to deal with in their private grief.

Regardless of his actions, though, a funeral home is not the appropriate place for such public expression of anger, says Szoka, the North Carolina legislator.

“I’m not really in favor of protesting outside funeral homes, no matter how disgusting the individual or whatever he did,” Szoka says. “There are other venues for that.”

Cemeteries in Massachusetts may have the legal right to refuse, but they should think more about why they exist and what their mission is.  The problem they are thinking of is future vandalism.  Another act that most of those protesting would normally find outrageous.

Protesters outside the funeral home.

Protesters outside the funeral home.

As I understand it, Muslim dead, like Jewish dead need to be buried as soon as possible.  They cannot be cremated.  Quite honestly, I think the statements of all the Massachusetts politicians who have spoken including Representative and Senate candidate Ed Markey, Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez, Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick have been less than worthy of them.  They are behaving like so many Creons.  The Worcester funeral home director, Peter A. Stefan and the Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme seem to be the only ones actively and constuctively working toward a solution.

Whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body is buried in another state or sent back to Russia, what is going on is not worthy of Massachusetts.  It is not worthy of “OneBoston.”  We are better than this.

Photograph:  AP

Translation of Antigone: Richmond Lattimore

Voting for MVP

As Gary Washburn put it in his Boston Globe column this morning

…this isn’t the Best Player in the Game award, it’s the Most Valuable Player award, and I think what [Carmelo]Anthony accomplished this season was worthy of my vote. He led the Knicks to their first division title in 19 years.

That’s a long time ago.

I have to admit that for some reason I didn’t follow basketball – college or pro – much this past season so I don’t know much about the teams in the playoffs although I know that the Knicks beat the Celtics in the first round.  I also know that I think LeBron James may be a great basketball player, but he has yet to win me over as a human being.  I’m with Cleveland here.

121 votes cast and only one not for LeBron James.   Last night I was listening to the BBC news and even they wanted to know who the voter who didn’t pick James was.  And now we know:  Gary Washburn from the Boston Globe.

Gary Washburn voted for Carmelo Anthony based on his importance to the New York Knicks

Gary Washburn voted for Carmelo Anthony based on his importance to the New York Knicks

Washburn continued

Anthony led the league in scoring average and basically carried an old Knicks team to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Amar’e Stoudemire missed most of the season with knee issues, Raymond Felton missed six weeks, and Tyson Chandler dealt with nagging injuries, leaving Anthony, J.R. Smith, and a bunch of lottery picks from the mid-1990s to win 54 games and beat the Miami Heat three times.

LeBron can win the MVP award every year. He is that good. And it’s to the point where I put him on a Michael Jordan scale. Jordan won five MVP awards but could have earned 10. In the 1992-93 season, Jordan averaged 32.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.8 steals and shot 49.5 percent from the field.

And the MVP award went to Charles Barkley.

So my vote had more to do with Anthony and less to do with the dominance of LeBron. If you were to take Anthony off the Knicks, they are a lottery team. James plays with two other All-Stars, the league’s all-time 3-point leader, a defensive stalwart, and a fearless point guard. The Heat are loaded.

If LeBron was taken away from the Heat, they still would be a fifth or sixth seed. He is the best player of this generation, a multifaceted superstar with the physical prowess of Adonis, but I chose to reward a player who has lifted his team to new heights.

Does James have the other writers so snowed they forgot the meaning of MVP?  Bravo to Gary Washburn!

Photograph:  EPA

If you have a gun…

If you decided to own a gun, you may be certain that you are someone who will store and use it safely, that it will not be used except for (hunting, self-defense, target shooting).  But we are realizing what has probably always been true:  If you own a gun, you really don’t have control over how or when it is used.

We can begin with Columbine.  The weapons used were in a locked gun cabinet broken into by the two teenaged shooters.  I’m sure that the grandfather thought they were safe.  I haven’t seen any stories yet about the Newtown shooter and how he and his mother stored their many guns.  I imagine that she thought they were safe until she was shot with one of them.  Reading the column in the New York Times yesterday by Joe Nocera and listening to the speeches at the NRA convention made me realize that there are parallel worlds here and maybe they will never meet.

Nocera writes about two incidents.  The first happened last year.

On the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2012, Greg Imhoff — a big, friendly 61-year-old construction superintendent from Madison, Wis., who had moved to Florida with his partner, Shari Telvick — went to check on the home of a neighbor.

The neighbor, Richard Detlor, was a friend, someone Imhoff had known back in Madison, where the Detlors still lived for part of the year. Whenever the Detlors went back to Wisconsin, Imhoff would look in on their house, something he did for many of his neighbors.

It is impossible to know whether, on that August afternoon, Imhoff ever saw the stranger in the house with the .22 caliber revolver; all we know for sure is that Imhoff was shot in the head. When Telvick and a friend found him that evening, he was lying in a pool of blood, dead.

The killer turned out to be a man named Billy Ray Retherford, who was on the lam after killing a woman two weeks earlier and was hiding in the Detlors’ empty home. The next day, Retherford was killed in a shootout with the police. He was using the same .22 handgun.

The gun, however, was not his. It belonged to Richard Detlor, who, according to the police report, had left it, loaded, in the nightstand by his bed before departing for Wisconsin several months earlier.

Gregory Imhoff (Photograph from online obituary)

Gregory Imhoff
(Photograph from online obituary)

OK.  So Detlor probably thought the gun was safe even though he didn’t unload it and lock it up.  I know the argument:  If the gun isn’t loaded then it really isn’t any good for self-defense in the case of a home invasion.  Same with trigger locks.  But what about the various technologies that could prevent anyone by Detlor from firing it?  How can one be opposed to that?  Want your wife to be able to use it if you aren’t around?  I don’t know for sure, but I imagine there is technology to allow that, too.  In Florida, safe storage laws apply only when there is a minor in the household so leaving a loaded, unsecured weapon in an empty house is not illegal.  But it is stupid.

And you have the two year old killed by her five year old brother.

Just the other day, in Burkesville, Ky., a 5-year-old boy shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a small rifle that had been given to him as a present. Who gives a 5-year-old a gun? (The rifle is called a Crickett; incredibly, it is marketed specifically to children.) Who leaves the room where their children are playing without checking whether the rifle in the corner is loaded? For that matter, who puts a shotgun within such easy reach of a child?

Gary White, the county coroner, was quick to say that no charges would be brought because it was an accident — and, after all, “accidents happen.” But it was a completely preventable accident. When a passenger dies in a car accident that is the result of negligence, there are usually serious legal consequences for the driver. If we really want to reduce gun violence, there must be consequences for negligent gun owners, too. The entire culture of gun ownership has to begin emphasizing safety in a way it doesn’t now. It is as important as universal background checks, or limits on magazine rounds.

And her family says that it was an accident and that she is with God.  Gun deaths and hunting accidents may be part of rural life, but does that mean things can never be different?

We are clearly living in a parallel universe and I’m not sure what we can do to make the lines meet.  Perhaps beginning with changes in the laws relating to negligence would be a place to start.

And the question is…

I’m sure that Roz Chast had Jeopardy in mind when she did this cartoon for the April 29, 2013 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

How many can you get?  The answer must be in the form of a question, remember.  The category is Music.

R. Chast, April 29, 2013

R. Chast, April 29, 2013

Bonus points if you get the writer of the song.