Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 1 Jan 05 07:19
Happy 2005, and welcome to our annual "state of the world" discussion with Bruce Sterling. 2004 was twisted, so we should have a lot to talk about. First, (probably overlong) bios for Bruce and discussion leader Jon L. The Bruce bio was borrowed from The Bruce Sterling Online Index (http://www.chriswaltrip.com/sterling/), with thanks to Chris Waltrip for all the goodies there, including Cheap Truth, the Catscan columns, and the complete Hacker Crackdown. Bruce Sterling was born in Brownsville, Texas on April 14th, 1954. When he was six months old, his parents moved to Austin where his father received a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas. After his father's graduation the family moved to Galveston, where Bruce spent his formative years. He began writing at the age of twelve in what he would later describe as "a frank bid for attention". When he was fifteen, his family moved to India, where his father worked on a fertilizer plant project. He spent two and a half years traveling extensively overseas, and then returned to Austin to attend classes at the University of Texas. There Bruce became involved with a group of other science fiction fans and writers who called themselves the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, and with their encouragement began writing science fiction more seriously. In 1976, he graduated with a degree in journalism and sold his first science fiction story, Man-Made Self. A year later, Harlan Ellison published his first novel, Involution Ocean, as part of his Discovery Series. In 1980, Sterling published The Artificial Kid. For the next several years, he wrote and sold a number of short stories set in what would eventually be called the "Shaper-Mechanist universe". In 1985, he published a full-length novel in this setting, called Schismatrix. At the same time, he began writing and editing a photocopied "zine" called Cheap Truth in which he (under the pseudonym Vincent Omniveritas) and a number of collaborators mocked the science fiction establishment and called for a new, more vibrant, and more culturally relevant approach to the genre. This viewpoint and the fiction associated with it eventually became known as "cyberpunk". Along with William Gibson, John Shirley, and Rudy Rucker, Sterling became one of the most prominent voices of this growing movement. His eloquence, intensity, and gift for rhetoric combined to make him such a powerful presence on science fiction convention panels that some people referred to him as "Chairman Bruce". In 1986, he edited an anthology of cyberpunk science fiction, Mirrorshades, which is considered to be one of the most important documents of the genre. By 1988, the "cyberpunk" movement had run its course, and Sterling began to move beyond it with his aggressively down-to-earth science fiction novel Islands in the Net and a diverse short story collection, Crystal Express, in 1989. He then collaborated with William Gibson on a "steampunk" novel, The Difference Engine, which was published in 1990. Also in 1990, the U.S. Secret Service raided the offices of Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas as part of a nationwide "hacker crackdown". Sterling was so alarmed by these events that he chronicled them in his first non-fiction novel, The Hacker Crackdown, published in 1992. After publishing the book in a conventional format, Sterling released the work in free electronic form as part of his bid to support a new communications medium known as the Internet. The electronic version of the book was widely disseminated, and can today be found on hundreds of websites around the world. He also gave the book away on disk at speaking engagements, to the considerable horror of his paper publishers. Following the publication of The Hacker Crackdown, Sterling began to write more journalism and non-fiction work, as well as embark upon a notable second career as a much sought-after public speaker. He continued to write science fiction, and in 1994 he published his dark tale of a global-warming future, Heavy Weather. In 1995, Sterling gave a series of speeches explaining his interest in the life and death of new types of media. This led to the development of The Dead Media Project, an Internet mailing list and discussion group through which Sterling and a number of collaborators catalogued "dead" media of the past and present. Sterling's original aim was to organize a research project that would culminate in a book on dead media written collaboratively by the members of the mailing list. However the project eventually sputtered out and no book has yet been published. In 1996, Sterling published Holy Fire, and some of his research for this novel led him to a new interest in design, especially industrial design. This interest and a growing concern about global climate change moved him to launch the Viridian Design movement. The movement was developed in a series of speeches given by Sterling in 1998 and 1999, and officially declared by a manifesto of January 3rd, 2000. The goal of the movement is to advance environmental awareness through revolutionary art and design, or as phrased on the Viridians' official website, to "create irrestible demand for a global atmosphere upgrade." Like the Dead Media Project, the movement is organized mostly by Sterling through an Internet mailing list. Unlike the Dead Media Project, the Viridian Design movement has produced considerably more "real world" products, which include two magazines, graphics and fonts, a website, a weblog, and a number of design projects. The Viridian Design movement continues to thrive to this day. In 1998, Sterling published Distraction, a novel about politics and bioengineering. This was followed by a short story collection, A Good Old-Fashioned Future, in 1999. In 2000, he published Zeitgeist, a postmodern fantasy set at the turn of the millenium. His most recent work, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years, is a nonfiction work of futurist speculation. Sterling continues to produce a steady output of novels, short stories, journalism, media appearances, speeches, weblog posts and email screeds. *** Jon Lebkowsky is CEO of Polycot, an innovative team of Internet technology experts with broad experience creating and managing information systems for businesses and nonprofit organizations. An authority on computer-mediated communications, virtual communities, and online social networks, he has worked as project manager, systems analyst, technology director, and online community developer. He was cofounder and CEO of one of the first virtual corporations, FringeWare, Inc. He is currently President of EFF-Austin, President of the Austin Free-Net Board of Directors, a cofounder of the Open Source Business Alliance, the Austin Wireless City Project, and the national Social Software Alliance, and advisor for the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference. He serves on the Advisory Board for the University of Texas Science, Technology, and Society Program. A longtime Internet activist, he is co-editing a book on technology, democracy, and advocacy, and served on the organizing committee for O'Reilly's Digital Democracy Teach-In (February 9, 2004). He recently completed a year-long engagement with IC² Institute at the University of Texas, where he managed Wireless Future, a project that produced a major economic development report as well as a national wireless track within South by Southwest Interactive. He contributes to weblogs at weblogsky.com, worldchanging.com, and smartmobs.com. He has written about technology for publications such as Mondo 2000, 21C, Whole Earth Review, Fringe Ware Review, Wired Magazine, 21C, and the Austin Chronicle.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 1 Jan 05 07:29
Ice caps are melting, the US was slammed by a succession of major hurricanes this year, the U.S. is struggling with a painful war in Iraq... where do we start? And how did you get a gig teaching industrial design?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 2 Jan 05 07:17
Well, for two years I've been trying to write a science fiction novel about "ubiquitous computation." However, I'm now so close to my material that, when I went to lecture about it, I got asked to join the faculty of a design school. It's not like I get tenure, mind you. I'm merely guest-artist for a year, or, as they like to put it at my new alma mater, Art Center College of Design, I'm "Provocateur-in-Residence." But I get a salary, and, more to the point, I get to play in the prototype lab. I could have said, "No, I've got to finish sci-fi novel number umpteen here," but, gee whiz, if they're asking, why not go? ACCD is one of the world's most-famed design schools, and justly so. I was flattered. I was in residence for a couple of weeks at Cranbrook School of Design back in the early 90s, and I wrote the outline and proposal for my novel HOLY FIRE there. That turned out to be one of my better books. So, y'know, I'll do it. What the hey. What's the worst that can happen, right? The entire coast of Southern California being wiped out in a giant Pacific tsunami, that would be about "the worst," right? And what's that got to do with me doing some lively futuristic dabbling at a cool art college in Pasadena? Nothing, right? It's all upside! You know what the problem is with "ubiquitous computation"? It took me two years to figure this out, but first, it isn't "ubiquitous," and second, it isn't "computation." Now all I have to do is go back to the concrete and rebar of my sci-fi novel and start over. In the meantime, I wrote some short stories. They're a departure for me. They're breaking the mold -- to the extent that I ever had a mold. Here's one: http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 2 Jan 05 12:20
That's great; "A Bug's Life" on steroids (with a few pheromones thrown in)... Is ubiquitous computing dead? Or did we just apply the wrong label? I always thought there would be more devices embedded in the environment, but assigning addresses to many devices seemed challenging, and there was the issue of power supply. And I still hear a lot of buzz about nanotechnology. Is the book just shelved for a bit, or are you blowing it off and waiting for a blast from the muse?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 3 Jan 05 02:16
*Well, I do hope to work on the book this year. After all, I'm under contract to do it. Never having been a teacher, I naively don't know how grueling teaching is, but it's not like they made me head of the department. *It's a really profound notion, "ubiquitous computation," but I think it's badly formulated, because it implies this smooth layer of magic wireless fudge that's uniform everywhere, and it also suggests that number-crunching on heavy iron is the main thing that gets done with that capacity. I believe "Internet of Things" is a somewhat better way to put it, because here we get to think with some proper wariness of a phenomenon that's hugely powerful and transformative, but also screwed-up, corrupt, invasive, patchy and dangerous -- in other words, we start thinking about it as if it were a real technology. My novel is about people who understand this and live with it on a daily basis, in various subcultures and situations, so, once I've figured out the conceptual core of it, I'm hoping it comes along fairly briskly. I'm assuming I can stop myself from making lamps. http://wiredblogs.tripod.com/sterling/index.blog?start=1087486844
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 3 Jan 05 15:34
What are your educational objectives for the design class?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 3 Jan 05 20:32
(Note: Bruce reminds me that he's traveling tomorrow, therefore might be silent for a bit.)
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 4 Jan 05 00:06
I don't board the plane till 2. It'll be interesting to see if I can do this while hopping through planetary airports in puddles of credit-card wi-fi. My so-called "classes" are gonna be a series of futurist labs where we ponder big flashy near-term tech trends and speculate about what designers ought to do to exploit them. My educational objectives are to learn something myself. In design schools, people do projects and actually design stuff, so presumably I'll be sitting in at a lot of "crit sessions." If you've never been in one of these, they're kinda like psychoanalysis, but for objects. As a further fillip, I'm officially part of the ACCD photography department, which, at least, ought to give me an excuse to buy a decent digital camera. For some reason, my blog, "Beyond the Beyond," has grown ever more thick with snapshots. Last week, I stuck some video in it. It's lousy video, but hey -- I'm Mr Multimedia now, look out, http://www.warrenellis.com.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 4 Jan 05 04:48
Getting to the state of the world (which is increasingly well-dcoumented by amateur video these days), we've just had an epic disaster of another kind in Southeast Asia, and earlier in the year the US coast was slammed by a succession of intense hurricanes, and we'll probably see more catastrophic weather as a result of climate change. What are your thoughts about the social and political impact of catastrophic disruptions? How much battering will our essential systems (electrical power, water and food distribution, etc.) take?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 4 Jan 05 04:59
As a reference for that last question, here's an interesting op-ed by Simon Winchester, the author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883": http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/29/opinion/29winchester.html?pagewanted=1 "Given these cascades of disasters past and present, one can only wonder: might there be some kind of butterfly effect, latent and deadly, lying out in the seismic world? There is of course no hard scientific truth - no firm certainty that a rupture on a tectonic boundary in the western Pacific (in Honshu, say) can lead directly to a break in a boundary in the eastern Pacific (in Parkfield), or another in the eastern Indian ocean (off Sumatra, say). But anecdotally, as this year has so tragically shown, there is evidence aplenty."
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 4 Jan 05 08:24
In Zurich, slurping email off wifi, boarding for Paris....
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 4 Jan 05 10:22
Wildly hopping about! Jon, as a former geology student, (whether that makes me more or less credible), I had a strong take on that quote. While Bruce circles the planet, I'll go out on a limb and say that regions can have relatively quiet times and then wake up again, but overall the patterns take place on such a long time frame that most patterns we can perceive in our lives are more likely coincidence. Now perhaps we can get others who know more than I on this subject to read that article and comment on it.
David Gault (dgault) Tue 4 Jan 05 13:35
Hi Bruce, Snappy New Year This is a good chance to thank you for the work you highlight on the Viridian site. I have felt since I heard that there had been a big ass quake underwater off Indonesia that I had a line on the worst case and so far it's coming true. As the recovery of the infrastructure moves along, I fear the results, but at least I can picture it, again thanks to the stuff I read via Viridian. Specifically, the projections of threat to coastlines with low elevation rise as global warming proceeds seem to have come true in about 45 minutes. I hope you or your cohort get involved in the recovery planning.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 4 Jan 05 14:03
Now inside Charles De Gaulle airport, hiring wifi and sucking laptop voltage off the plug of a defunct Coke machine. This French airport is lavishly hung with worshipful poster portraits of various Nobel Peace Prize winners. Could there be a message here, I wonder? This tsunami is a healthy reminder that the world has disasters worse than those we inflict on ourselves. We seem to be in the time of the "Sixth Great Extinction" thanks to the human impact on the biosphere, but hey, there were five other Great Extinctions that really did happen long before we started playing with matches. I also saw that Winchester thing and was kind of nonplussed with it. So, okay, suppose there were a ghastly "butterfly effect in the seismic world." Suppose, say, some godforsaken place in Siberia or the Deccan yawns open and disgorges forty cubic kilometers of red-hot volcanic basalt. (Such things have been known to happen.) I reckon that'd be mighty bad, a real scifi disaster, but what are we supposed to do about that, send each other SMS messages? Should we walk up the Embarcadero and Market Street with "THE END IS NEAR" signs? Let's face, civilization's goose would be thoroughly cooked through no fault of our own! Most species would die, like they customarily do in Great Extinctions. The scattered remnants of the human race would just try not to be one of 'em. I doubt there's anything constructive much we could do to save civilization from such an eventuality, even if we knew that the event was coming. What can't be cured must be endured, so I'm inclined not to worry my pretty head about it. Let's talk about it from another perspective. If you've got a choice between two worst-case scenarios: a planet whose atmosphere is wrecked by giant volcanoes, and a planet whose atmosphere was wrecked by Exxon-Mobil, hey, there's no question that first one is vastly preferable. Natural disasters, as opposed to human-inflicted ones, can actually improve our morale. I mean, look at the warm, snuggly, aren't-we-wonderful reaction to the mayhem that hit the shores of Tamil Nadu, compared to the who-us, no-way, talk-to-my-lawyer reaction that still surrounds Bhopal. When a giant tidal wave hits Asia, Bush pulls his own dad out of mothballs, but when the Arctic melts from climate change, permafrost forests fall over drunkenly and Eskimo villages slide into the thawing muck, everybody in the Republican Party looks all pie--eyed, quotes the Bible and blames hurricanes on lesbians. We're doing practically nothing useful about climate change and it's a steadily mounting disaster. I do think the next decades are going to see a whole lot of paramilitary Operations Other Than War in reaction to astonishingly bad weather. So, well, an event like the tsunami gives us the chance to refine our disaster-response chops. They could use the improvement. I'm digging the tsunami coverage on WORLDCHANGING. Those guys rock so hard, I almost stopped crying in my beer over WHOLE EARTH REVIEW. http://www.worldchanging.com
Dave Christenson (jonl) Tue 4 Jan 05 14:28
Email from Dave Christenson: To me, the case for anthropogenic global warming is strong enough to justify (democraticly approved) public policy changes. Nonetheless the connection between anthropogenic emissions and the global climate clearly still has unknown complex interactions, and its even possible that other "natural" (non human) forces are far more signifigant climate factors. Thus, I find that the poplular and media belief in of the scientific certainty of anthropogenic global warming to be another example of the wrong headedness of "common sense." Do you have any concern that popular misconceptions about the certainty of the science (art?) of global climate forcasting will have adverse impacts on public policy?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 4 Jan 05 14:30
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Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 4 Jan 05 14:49
Bruce, as a member of the WorldChanging team, thanks for the kind words. WorldChanging bloggers also started the web site coordinating tsunami resource and relief information at http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com, and the tsunami help section at WikiNews (http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Tsunami_Help). Speaking of great extinctions... the reverse seems to be happening. I keep seeing news accounts of new species discovery. Can't recall seeing so many new species appear in the past... though perhaps it's not unusual, and I just hadn't noticed. Cryptozoology may be a growth industry?
David Gault (dgault) Tue 4 Jan 05 19:36
Are new species really "appearing"? Aren't they new only in the sense of newly classified?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 4 Jan 05 20:09
It's probably more accurate to say "new species discovered," rather than "appearing," and in some cases, like those discovered in the murky depths of ocean trenches, that makes sense. But when we hear that they're discovering new species of mammals and birds - where were they before we discovered 'em? (One answer is at http://www.indystar.com/articles/5/206358-5475-010.html: "Dr. Colleen McCann, curator of primates at the Bronx Zoo, said these discoveries suggested that, despite the destructive activities of people, there were still 'tiny pockets of habitat that have yet to be discovered.'") It still throws me, though, given the extensive searches and researches done today. But I digress... Dave Christenson's question is still in queue: "Do you have any concern that popular misconceptions about the certainty of the science (art?) of global climate forcasting will have adverse impacts on public policy?"
Emily J. Gertz (emilyg) Tue 4 Jan 05 20:42
Hiya, Bruce. Thanks from me as well for the nice words for WorldChanging.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 5 Jan 05 02:16
Nonetheless the connection between anthropogenic emissions and the global climate clearly still has unknown complex interactions, "Unknown complex interactions." You can say the same for lung cancer. You a three-pack a day man, Dave? Nobody can predict what particular shape and size a stormcloud is going to be, but that doesn't mean you ought to go play golf in the lightning. I'm now back in the Paris airport again where we just observed a three minute silence, mandated by the European Union, in solidarity with the tsunami victims. At least, I think that's what just went down; my French is one of the best. Also, this &*&%$#^ wifi provider doesn't want to play nice with Safari. Here's a great place to go look for some scientific doubts about global warming, because, y'know, there aren't any any more. The denial is all spin now, it's the stormy twin of Creationism. The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change (Science Magazine December 3, 2004) http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/306/5702/1686 In recent years, all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members' expertise bears directly on the matter have issued similar statements to the effect that that Earth's climate is being affected by human activities. 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords "climate change". The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position. Admittedly, authors evaluating impacts, developing methods, or studying paleoclimatic change might believe that current climate change is natural. However, none of these papers argued that point.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 5 Jan 05 04:30
I keep going back to my interview with Dr. James White of the University of Colorado when I was writing "Being Green in 2001" for the issue of Whole Earth Review that you edited. Here's a relevant excerpt: (begin quote) James White: My own research tells me that climate change is not this give and take, push and shove kind of linear system where if we increase CO² by X, we get X climate change; if we increase it by 2X, we get 2X climate change. And that is really what the models give us back, because the models don't have mode changes, the models don't have... if North Atlantic deep water fails, a sophisticated model that can handle that. But if you look at the way climate has changed historically, going back over the history of the earth, it's not a little bit here, a little bit there. It's more like my little brother, when we were kids. I would pester him, and he didn't respond, and I would pester him more, and he would blow up, and yell and scream at me. When Mom asked me what I did, I said "All I did was poke him once, Mom." Not talking about all that energy I built up in my little brother with all those other tormenting little pokes. And it's that kind of nonlinear behavior that makes waiting for the shoe to drop a rather dangerous activity. You don't really want to wait until you get a big climate change before you do something. Jon Lebkowsky: We don't know what all the factors are, correct? James White: I think the sad reality is that we may, before all is said and done, get a big climate change, and that may be the mobilizing factor. Some people have argued that we'll need that. We'll need the big change, the grizzly bear set free in the house before we deal with the bears in the yard. Jon Lebkowsky: Won't it be too late? James White: It'll be too late to handle that climate change. It won't be too late to adapt. I find it very difficult to support the notion of Armageddon. We may be heading for rough times in terms of growing the food we need. We may be headed for tough times particularly in terms of the first world/third world relationship. But we're already on rough times now. For crying out loud, the net flow of wealth in this world is from poor nations to rich nations. (end quote) A couple of important points in that discussion: first, it's important to think in terms of climate change rather than global warming, because, because it's not necessarily "warming," and manifestations can vary in different parts of the world and across time. The other point is that we're too late to counter our impact on climate change, and because it's so complex, we can't exactly predict the effects of climate change. But we have to learn how to adapt. The "Attention Conservation Notice" in your last Viridian message a month ago said "This may be the last Viridian Note you read this year, because I'm wintering in Belgrade, Serbia. Once I'm teaching design in Pasadena, however, you can expect all Viridian hell to break loose." So you're back from Belgrade and on your way to Pasadena: what are your Viridian plans?
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Wed 5 Jan 05 09:14
From off-Well: As for these 'new species eruptions' we've been experiencing, I hope that most of the increase is due to the increased fine-tunedness of our classifications, as well as the searching (anything new from J. Craig Venter's exploits, anyone?), but there's also the 'flushing factor' - get enough people beating the environment at the edges, we're bound to drive a few 'new' species out of their hidey holes and into the harsh light of day. I'm rather surprised that we haven't exposed some really virulent ones, myself. I fully expect an avian bird flu / Hanta virus crossbreed to make an appearance in the not-too-distant future, but maybe it's just the post-holiday/travel blues talking... Duncan Stewart
from HENRY (tnf) Wed 5 Jan 05 09:43
Henry writes: Hi Bruce, I've recently become aware of the emerging technology of 3D printing and consumer-level computer controlled manufacturing (partly through reading your blog). The technology is in its earliest stages and has yet to show its full range of possibilities, but the potential advantages are certainly numerous and exciting. However, I also wonder about other implications. First, the potential "Napsterization" of physical objects: why buy, for example, the latest Star Wars action figure when you could download a hacked CAD file free from the Web and make one for the price of materials? I know the costs won't bear out initially, but I assume such "makers" will get cheaper over time, and just the above scenario could kill the toy industry (which is usually wobbly in the best of times). What are the future social and economic effects of this technology? Then there's the possibility of homemade (no engineering skills required) high-tech weapons: time-delay bombs, mines, antitank weapons, antiaircraft missile components. Would "makers" be classified (and restricted) as weapons? How would nations and global organizations react? I imagine you'll have more to say on this subject once you start at school, but I'd love to hear any initial thoughts.
from JELLY BEAN QUEEN (tnf) Wed 5 Jan 05 09:52
Jelly Bean Queen writes: Hi Jon, Love reading your stuff, keep up the good work!! I'd like to add this (utopian) question to the chat with Bruce Sterling if you agree. Perhaps you could comment on this too? Thanks, Jel Although world 'issues' are increasingly interrelated and complex, individual issues are usually singled out (for convenience or for practical reasons - NGO's or pressure groups usually only have resources to attempt one 'issue' at a time). Eg: A spokesperson cites evidence that denies man-influenced climate change and justifies proceeding with business as usual, ignoring other factors such as pollution, wilderness destruction or worldwide equity and insufficient natural resources to allow all countries to consume at the same rate as developed nations. How can we shift focus & accountability to the broader picture, ie: a 'Nasty Factor' - a combination of burning issues (such as global equity, pollution, health, human rights, climate change, natural resource limits, biodiversity and wilderness protection). Imagine a corporation says it isn't convinced about climate change per se, but acknowledges its (widget) undoubtably has an excess of 'Nasty Factors' , so they develop a new eco-friendly, sustainable (widget)". Ostensibly, the growth of CSR should facilitate this, but well, you know... Jel
Berliner (captward) Wed 5 Jan 05 09:58
And Bruce, since this won't take a minute, could you remind us how to subscribe to your always-exciting Viridian newsletter? This will benefit both those who are just tuning in and the Very Stupid who changed e-mail addresses this spring and then couldn't figure out how to get back on!
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