Archive for the “Environment” Category
I wasn’t there when they first invented the TV. But I do recall once watching an early era black and white set before colour broadcasting began. I remember the wooden box-like set. I remember the small glass screen. I remember the single mono speaker and the big fuel tank filler cap-like channel switcher. I remember the turned cylinder legs and the flower pot permanently planted on the top. I do definitely remember that all this felt so amazingly modern. And I do not ever recall thinking that all this technology would be in for much in the way of change. Colour was not something that ever occurred to me. Yes, that little Pye set was bigger and better in every way than its predecessors that more resembled a gramophone set with a window than a Jurassic Home Theatre array. But progress felt… gradual. Not frantic. We didn’t purchase on the knife edge of fast paced imminent redundancy. We didn’t worry that what we might purchase today would become an antique the very next day.
Which is how I feel when I buy a TV these days. Which is exactly how I feel two days after installing the one I have just bought. Two days after purchase, that model has been deleted. But it was current two days before. So now, apparently, I have an antique…
But it’s not just TV’s that give me this riding-a-technology whirlwind feeling these days, And that’s not because I am some kind of grumpy technologically outpaced old man either, I might add…
This latest model Macbook Air I am using here was fresh for five days. Then Apple added USB 3. So now I am a legacy user disconnected from the world of high speed devices to which, it seems, every other Mac user now has access, except me. Now I’m stuck with USB 2.0. One day I was on the cutting edge. Now I am in the dust. Feeling like the victim of technological assault. Inadequate. Left behind. Old. Which is all very odd because before the latest Macbook update, USB 2.0 was just fine. I was happy using the equivalent of black and white TV serial bus technology. USB 3.0 was for PC users and I wasn’t one of them. And that was just fine.
Which is why, and I am sure I am not alone, so many folk are having such fun with LP records once again. Vinyl has become a concrete barricade of protection from the howling gale of technological change. We can tinker and enjoy without any fear of becoming out-of-date. Indeed, in those Jurassic vinyl grooves is a sound that even the highest end computer audio would find it hard to match. But I digress.
If you are a person subject to techno-adadequacies or insecurities of this kind, the whole world becomes a little unsettling. We seem to be tuned to the pace of being left technologically behind. Most of us know that what we have today is not going to cut it by some time mid next week. Some of us don’t care at all (to a degree that improves the closer we get to the nursing home), some are mildly unnerved. And some are in a perpetual state of panic (like those who choose to queue every time Apple releases a new iPhone).
My bandwidth of concern is pretty wide. Relishing, as I do, the technological resilience of bicycles and vinyl LP’s, I can drift off to an island of unconcern. But when it comes to computer IT, I dread every upgrade. I am, after all, that guy who bought into DCC and MD (remember those?) only to watch both music formats completely disappear within a space of two years, along with the media needed to keep that equipment in use. Go on, try to buy a Digital Compact Cassette these days. Go on. Try. I feel like I have been robbed. Dropped. Ditched. Redundant without redundancy pay. And no one cares…
All of which explains why I seem to be permanently carrying a back pack of worry around whenever I enter some kind of electronics store, or search for a new car, or search for a new ebook to download. Will I be left with unusable stuff all over again? It’s like carrying a permanent virus, or having to live with a permanent limp. All the while knowing that, really, it’s all self-inflicted and induced by the evils of modern marketing and a raging culture of consumerism. Which is why it’s so great to know that I can aways drift off to that moated barricade of bicycles and vinyl LP’s when ever I like. In that place, I can overtake anyone’s million dollar cutting-edge super car when all that oil-fuming technology trickles down to a sludge in congested city streets; and from where I can nuance away all I like to the nth degree of fidelity on my LP’s while the techno buffs are all reinventing bit rates and DAC codecs in a battlefield mess of unsettling audio attrition.
But all this presents a context through which to frame every visit I choose to make to my local bookstore, my local record shop, or even to my local newsagent. I pick up a book and find myself Amazoning the price of its ebook counterpoint for my iPad. I pick up a magazine and check out the price of subscriptions on Zinio. The latest issue of Peloton magazine is $15.99. An annual sub for my iPad is $12. Knowing these choices makes it so hard to commit. Which translates into a non- commitment to the continued existence of these stores dancing their death throes on the tipping point of relentless change. Every time I buy an ebook, my local book store is one page closer to that final closing down sale. I can’t enjoy buying the latest cycling ezine without reflecting on the abject economic disaster about to dump on my friendly local newsagent. What’s life going to be like without those local stores? Is our community to become an array of disconnected social recluses all hardwired to the internet while the village green transcends to jungle and unemployment reaches 100 per cent?
Stop the bus. It’s time to get off.
I’m done with all those awkward silences of unsaid condolence I feel whenever I visit my newsagent, bookshop or that last, assaulted record store. Is it time to become a technological recluse?
It’s hard to listen to music on my bike with a LP turntable strapped to my handlebars. I want the latest toys but want the social infrastructure of community commerce as well.
It’s hard to put my head in the sand. But I don’t want to put a knife into those gentle decent folk who run their Last Stand book/record/newsagency stores, waiting for the vultures to finally swarm the poverty of their final days.
Where do they all go in these days of 10 per cent plus unemployment and global recession? Too young to retire, too old to begin again. Do they all just go off and die? Do they all just go off to live under a bridge? What happens to the human-centred purveyors of technologies-left-behind. Who’s going to provide the spare parts for TV sets rendered obsolete when the product cycles cycle around to less than a week? Who’s going to service anything when all commerce is transacted by faceless drones in cyber space. What happens when the economic efficiency of technological improvement leaves us all unemployed? Do we only ever reflect on such things when the impacts hit us hard in the face?
Of course, the world these days is not just transmitted in black and white. Fortunately there are lots of shades of grey in between. But I do fear that it’s that grey scale that’s the real issue under assault. Are those shades reducing to a five tone scale? At one end, we have the Made-in-China globalised cess pit of the economic rationalist’s sado-massochistic perverted world view. On the other end we have us cyclists and LP lovers ignoring the assault. But in the middle are all the struggling record stores, magazine sellers and book store purveyors bleeding tears as they reconcile their tills at closing time. I can see a time when the technologies of the recent past reduce to be serviced by niche markets of residual cranks and luddites perverse in their pleasures from stuff from the past. Like readers of paper books and magazines. And cyclists eschewing the bestialities of e-motors and even stupider electronic gears. What’s the ideal market size for a niche of paper books and plastic compact discs? One store per town or one store per million of population? Who’s going to catch a plane flight to visit the nearest record store? What’s the business plan for my local newsagent these days? Or worse, for that local record store? We know that technologies get left behind (remember the Digital Compact Cassette and Mini Disc?). So stuff will fail and markets will crash. They can’t all be sustained by niche markets for the hardcore. The grey scale between no market and the global market place is going to get really thin. And we all need to consider this final point. How many local jobs will there be when the global market place has entirely diverted to an exclusive serenade between the Chinese shop floor and their faceless, country-less global corporate sponsors?
Which is why, maybe, this current post- Global Financial Crisis Crisis is a good thing after all. When the world economy slows to a crawl, the wheels of commerce slow and we get time to work out a better plan. There are some economists who have given this process a name: Creative Destruction.
Which is why, in turn, I have that unsettled feeling of impermanence and insecurity when it comes to making technology choices these days. We are in a world just like we were when black and white TV became mature. We are sitting on the edge of a great tipping point. The grey scale is about to turn into colour. Hopefully the next spectrum of our economy will be displayed in something better than VGA. Hopefully, the middle will fill out and niche markets will return to a broader base; just like the LP industry these days where more and more and ever more people are re-introducing themselves to the latest technical iterations of the good-old turntable and the latest grades of heavy weight vinyl. And, yes, as more and more people discover the whole-of-life enhancement of cycling as a wondrously steam punk synthesis of the old and the new, cycling and re-cycling all over and over again.
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Are there any truly wild places left on earth? Are there any places where the local ecology is completely unspoiled? Well, that depends on your definitions of ‘wild’ and ‘unspoiled’ and on your appreciation of Chaos Theory. If a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can chaotically unleash a hurricane in Japan, then no place is safe from at least the most subtle influences of mankind. Perhaps a wild, ecologically coherent place is simply defined as one where the disturbances of adjoining ecologies are somehow contained to the level of ‘hard to observe’. Present, but you need to really look to notice. If that’s our working definition, then I am wondering how to classify the pure, un-taintedness of the place where I have just walked for the past three days.
You see, I’ve just been walking in my favourite wilderness church; a remote wild river gorge. I’m not going to say where because the ‘disturbances’ I noticed enroute might encourage our park management bureaucrats to take to their helicopter gunships again. Last time the wild horses flashed too much hoof, our Park managers unleashed a holocaust on this seedstock of the Australian Lighthorse.
I can understand the thinking to a degree. But the basic premise is as ignorant as their militant response. Wild places are rare these days. And this place is one of the rarest, most magnificent and most human-unaccommodating of all. If any place was worthy of ecological lock-down, this would have to be it. Wilderness end on end from one seemingly infinitely remote distance into another. There are no accommodations here to man. No paths. No huts, no mobile phone connections! The only way to navigate is via a good set of maps, and a GPS if you really want to come back. Too steep even for mountain bikes (unless you want to carry a bike on your back for the 3 hour 50% gradient hill you need to climb to enter or leave this wild spectacular place).
Horses don’t naturally belong, in an ecological sense. But then again, they belong there more than us. Horses don’t unleash toxic spills; they don’t level forests; they don’t build dams across wild streams. And they certainly don’t sit around campfires chucking beer cans after a wild afternoon of bush-taming conquest via the wheels of their oversized phallically suggestive 4WD’s.
So it’s more than understandable why there’s a will to lock such places away. Especially places where the depradations of humans are contained via inhospitality rather than locked gates. There are so few people willing to take up genuine wilderness walking these days. Thank the gods of this unimaginably gorgeous place.
The path down the river was made by horses’ hooves. You know this every time you step over a stallion’s personal patch. Walk quietly and you will find a family of mares, foals and their vigilant stallion grazing the lush riparian grass. Walk on and they follow via the compulsion of equine curiosity moderated by rightful suspicious fear. I can’t imagine any domesticated horse not wanting to immediately escape to a place such as this. This must be a horses’ vision of heaven. If ever there was a sight to signal harmony of place, this would have to be it. You just know in a deeply intuitive way that it’s you, not the horses who really do not belong. You with your heavy backpack of life-sustaining connection to the alien place from whence you came. Could you survive like they can as permanent residents of this place?
These are the smart, human-shy residues of a population culled by zealous park managers overburdened with good, but ill-conceived intent. These days, the best survivors are those horses who have learned to hide at the merest scent of man and, in particular, at the faintest sound of their noisy flying machines. Over my walk, I observed their hiding places under deeply thatched casaurina stands.
As my bearings re-aligned with the solitude and pristine purity of this place, I too began to reel at even the vaguest hint of man. On the second day, I found some historical catching yards; a bit of wire strung to a tree; a few stakes in the ground; a fire place long long gone cold. Those are the remnants of men who ran cattle through here. Inconceivably tough men who’s heroic pathways could only be described on an Everest climbing scale. All gone now. Locked out by World Heritage dedication and intent. Which only makes me feel even more out of place. A privileged observer who has earn’t this prize to observe and admire via legs cramped via unaccustomed strain (I’ve discovered that cycling fitness does not translate to fitness on the level of a bushwalking boot!). On my third day I came upon a tyre washed up against a river standing tree. What a flood that must have been! But other than that, the world outside has disappeared.
What a lonely, slightly more barren place this would be if the horses were gone. I am sure this place would retain its status as a sacred awe-inspiring wilderness with all the horses gone, but it would be a different place. It would be a more flora-balanced kind of place; a bit like those lichen-moss drenched rain forests found in shaded ridge hollows and straddling river banks in more tropical climates. It would be a quieter, stiller kind of place. It would become (or revert to) a place where you need you to look deeper and with even greater dedication to find and observe wildlife than it takes to notice the in-your-face presence of trees. All this means that my culture of aesthetics is probably skewed towards places with the noisier, busier dynamic of horses and other mega fauna than being a true fit to Australia’s more secretive wildlife ecologies. And I am sure I would still visit this place with the horses gone; and adapt back to the place it would become. But I like what it is now with a passion I am sure others find in church. So I’ll keep hoping that our park managers can manage to maintain a more pragmatic stance in relation to the rather pointless and unreachable goal of ecological purity to which they seem to be rather over-esoterically attached.
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I know how to fix the world… But it’s complicated. It will work but it’s not a solution you get from a vending machine; or through sitting all Cargo Cult-like waiting for politicians to deliver their solutions. It’s to do with what I call ‘Car-Mind’; and how to get rid of it…
The story starts with the concept of how ‘big’ might an idea be before it makes our brains hurt and retreat back to watching The Simpsons instead. Let’s start with some mind-hurting ideas like ‘the world view of the infinite’ versus the more localised notion of ‘our finite mental backyard’. Finite versus infinite. What’s the tipping point that separates these two dimensions? Presumably, somewhere along the line, the finite breaks apart to become the infinite. Where’s that point? And why should we care?
Now the mathematical boffins out there will be able to provide some ideas on this. But anything they will say on this would side-track us from the argument I want to present. You see, the tipping point from the finite to the infinite is all in our minds. And every person’s mind will have a different take on that particular journey. Because the concept of the infinite is, as much as anything else, what we might all a ‘cultural construction’ (rather than just a technical mathematical construction).
Now all this might sound pretty abstract. But it’s not. This is actually the killer argument that explains everything! So keep reading.
Consider a story through which to illustrate the ideas here. Consider Global Warming (or Climate Change to be more politically correct). Our Globe is a pretty big place. The Earth is bigger than your local neighbourhood. It’s even bigger than your local State. We know this. But do we really know this?
Here’s where I need to define infinite and finite as the cultural notions that they are. In my view, finite is the local reality space our minds can grasp. The infinite is everything outside that zone of localised reality. We appreciate that super-local stuff exists. We can go visit super-local stuff by plane. That’s what tourism is. We might even hop on a rocket and visit the moon, and the moon is hardly in the local zone of most peoples’ mental back yard. The point here is that the border between the locally finite and the otherworldliness of infinity is a changing context thing. It depends on time and place; it’s shaped by the journey of your life.
Returning to Global Warming, I think that this separation between the lived-reality of the locally finite and the abstractions of the infinite explains the mess we are now in. You see, I reckon most people really consider that Global Warming is a notion from the infinities of beyond; beyond our zones of local relevance and lived realities. We know about the idea of Global Warming. But most of us haven’t really adopted the idea as a part of the furniture of the localised-reality of our mental backyard. If it’s outside of the finite, then it’s an idea that sits in the abstractions of the infinite beyond. And that’s always in Someone Else’s Backyard. My sense of responsibility only extends within the white painted picket-fenced boundary of my home mental zone.
Now, let’s extend this argument to cars and bicycles. Let me put it this way. We are told that Global Warming is to do (at least significantly, in part) by the fumes emitted from cars. You might have a car. You might know that your own car is a contributor to Global Warming. But you know that your car is only one of millions (700 million or thereabouts). So the contribution of your car is pretty darn small! So, working the the idea of finite realities and the incomprehensibility of the infinite beyond, you might conclude that your bit is soooooo small as to not be a major concern. It’s all those Chinese motorists out there… Or all those folk in Pakistan. Or pick any other place outside the place you call home. That’s ‘Car-Mind’. Your world is nicely bordered by a reality zone of the finite you can touch, feel and smell. A car is a perfect illustration of a local reality zone contained within a hard, emphatic skin. That tin and glass separates the realities of your space from the spaces of everywhere else. You can touch, see and smell everything within your car. That’s your space. Beyond, is someplace else. Outside is the infinite beyond (unless you crash in which case the infinities of beyond can then become an exercise in instant augmented reality…). Your fumes are, importantly, outside the bubble of that mobile reality zone you might otherwise describe as your car. So, you might not take ownership of the fumes your car emits. Those fumes have become part of the abstraction of the infinite beyond. Just like the idea of Global Warming.
Now, take a bicycle. With a bicycle, there’s no roof. No tin walls. No glass. Your reality is a twisted space. Outside is inside and woven all around. The borderlands of your mobile world are less ‘precise’. Now you can smell, feel, and touch everything around you and, as you are continually moving, you keep on keeping on touching, smelling and feeling places as places merge into other places and then into places beyond. Your mind is relieved of the hard mental comforter of a metallically reinforced skin through which to calm the mental challenges of interfacing with the infinities of beyond. The unsettling metaphysical challenges of opening to the ungrounded infinities of beyond are harder to escape. You can’t air-condition off your mental comfort zones with walls of tin and glass. ‘Cycling-Mind’ is a bigger metaphysical embrace than anything with which the driver of even the largest monster SUV can contend. Cycling-Mind is a more expansively worldly place to be.
Now try this. If we are to really convert the infinite abstraction of Global Warming into the lived-zone of peoples’ finite local reality, you might want to think about this. To insert the reality of their fumes into the backyard of their minds, perhaps you might conduct an experiment. Take a Car-Mind afflicted, constrained reality thinker, sit them in their car, place a tube on the back-end of their car’s exhaust and channel it back inside the cabin. They’d start to notice a few things about the realities of their fumes pretty quick smart. That’s precisely the kind of reality zone twisting that cyclists live with all the time. The borderlands of finite local realities and the un-realities of the infinite beyond would be twisted around pretty profoundly as those fumes pump back inside. The physical barriers of the car would separate from the mental barriers they were once held to be. Consequences would twist back into the actions that gave them cause. Just as is always the case with those blessed with the more expansive possibilities of reality-extending Cycling-Mind.
I bet you this. If we tried this little exhaust re-plumbing twist with the more ‘finitely-bordered’ minds out there (any gas guzzing SUV driver will do), Global Warming would become a more lived reality for those with the most closed-off minds. The tide would then turn pretty fast. As the folk begin to take ownership of the consequences of their environmental actions, progress would make pace at last. Then Car-Mind might open out to the more infinitely-touched realities of Cycling-Mind.
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Imagine, if you can, the sensation of visiting an Earthly city from a more advanced off-world civilisation where cycling prevails. Your culture is one where journeys are an adventure to be enjoyed; where the folk live to ride and ride to live, all blended into a whole of splendid harmony.
But as you come in to land on this strange, strange land, you are about as disappointed as an Earth-bound tourist off to visit the ancient lane ways of Paris or Seville… The place of interest is surrounded by a cordon-blight of what appears to be concrete industrial estate. Acres and acres of car parks; and every street is cess’d with the detritus of the peoples’ parked cars. On every otherwise picturesque leafy street, they’ve blighted their world with their ugly piles of mobile tin. The grand historical lane ways, boulevards and parades are encrusted with cars like an eye rimmed by the seepage of chronic conjunctivitis. The aesthetic assault is profound. People invest a lifetime of toil to build homes and communities as a statement of their artistic, landscaped vision. Then they blight and soil the result with the detritus of their cars… Worse, they invite these metallic monstrosities into their homes! Contemplate the modern homebuilder who devotes 25 per cent of her roof space to the housing of a car; more, perhaps, than they would provide to shelter their kids. Why would anyone want such a stinky ugly thing under the same roof as themselves?
Our off-world visitor would, by now, be wondering if this might be some strange cargo cult religious thing. Like the freeway of cattle on an Indian street. Do these people worship their cars? Do their cars demand rights of obedience that inflict an aesthetic, environmental assault as testimony to their disciples’ strength of faith? As these cars slime and otherwise blight the landscapes they despoil with the impunity of the tin gods they surely must be, surely mankind worships these things?
Then our visitor would notice something curious; something hopeful and something of a telltale of possibilities to come. They’d notice that a few, only a few, but a few nonetheless reject the hegemony of the autocratic, sacrifice-demanding car. They ride a bicycle! Or progress by their feet.
These wonderful folk travel with pleasure instead of engorged rage. Their parking rituals are light-of-touch indeed. They leave no residues of oiled-fumed slime. They power their travels with the honest, self-contained efforts of their muscles instead of the ecology-raping pillage of toxic oil. Surely, given the parlous state of the planet they all share, these cyclists must be the enlightened ones. They certainly look the part; pedaling away the ugly obesity-tainted physical flatulence that the car drivers wear like some sort of uniform of servitude to their gods of tin.
There’s a theory I like from the annals of complexity theory. It goes something like this: the world is a complex place. Only the omniscient know all there is to know about how things work. Omniscience is the delusion of those who aspire to be monstrously overpaid corporate gods, academics and the drug-plumbers of the medical profession. The world does not work like a clock. Command and control is like driving a ship with blinkers on. We can pretend, but the hidden surprises and mysterious depths of systems we can never completely understand always get in the way of the grand delusions of the managerialist machine. To manage a complex system is to manage with our eyes wide open, not wired shut.
The enlightened game to play is the game of levers. Find a likely lever, pull it and see what happens. The game is to find the best, most strategic levers to pull. Big outcomes might come from the smallest nudge. Cleverness pays the biggest rewards.
I have a theory about the best lever to pull in relation to fixing the linked problems of global warming, physical obesity and urban decay. I have a theory about how to redress the uglification of our landscapes through the slime trailing blight of the automobile. The lever I’ve found would reduce rage on the roads. The lever I’ve found would redress the physical decay of those who avoid the attractions of exercise. The lever I’ve found would restore the majesty of our more illustrious landscapes. The lever I’ve found would reduce the gassing of our planet and the warming of the globe.
It’s an astonishingly lateral lever! A simple lever. A free lever to pull! A lever that would double the living space within our cities; extend the area for growing crops, extend the space where our kids can play. This lever will engage through a holocaust of short term howling rage. But sanity will eventually prevail; the folk will eventually calm; like the sea after a cyclonic storm. This lever will take gumption to pull. But it will deliver the goods; guaranteed.
The lever I recommend is to cancel all car parking.
Dig up the car parks. Ban the parking of cars on the side of roads. Force those who drive to park way away on landfills. Restore our urban places to the access of feet, rail and pedals. Reinvent a culture of trains. Free our homes from the hijacking terrorism of cars. Turn our garages to romper rooms for kids, or home studies from which so many of us could now choose to work. I am not advocating the banning of cars; just the rationalisation of where we put them when not in use. People can still drive to town. But they must be prepared to walk the final mile or so. Or ride a bicycle. Or take a tram, train or cycle powered rickshaw. Or even a moving footway if they insist. But ban parking in the streets. And ban those hideous, monstrous concrete parking lots visitors can see from space… Now that would really be something! A world where cars are relegated downwards from the throne of enthrallment to which they have for so very long been raised.
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Some things are universal. A universal mindset that recommends the motorcar as a replacement for our legs, a universal mindset that medical doctors ‘know best’, that qualifications are a fool-proof measure of intelligence, that we really do need to earn $300k plus a year to be happy, that football is an entertaining pursuit for the post-Neanderthal generations…
I have another one. This is for those already on the inside of the cycling promised land. That it’s always a struggle to find time for riding. Get together with any group of fellow-bicyclists and you will hear the complaint: ‘I need to ride more but never seem to get the time’. How often do you hear non-professional cyclists complaining about ‘too much’ riding? It’s always ‘never enough’.
I love to watch the games we play under the direction – if not dictatorship – of the mental models of our minds. Watching your own mental models is a bit like watching yourself from a mirror. It’s hard to see past the reflection of the vision we self-project. Remember Arnie Schwarzenegger in Total Recall? That’s the one where our hero took a holiday from himself to become a spy to unravel the intrigues of subterranean Mars. That’s what taking on a different mental model is like: taking a holiday from yourself.
So if the person you are insists that you never get time for a ride, why not take a holiday from yourself and become someone who does make time? Perhaps in that other parallel universe the reasons you currently cite for accumulating frustration instead of miles might simply cease to exist. Putting it all another way: are you SURE you can’t find the time to ride? Or is that your inner-dictator mental model trying to strangle your fun?
Now the universal first response to questions such as these is this: ‘I don’t have a mental model’ and ‘what you say simply does not apply to me’. That’s basically the same logic we might use to claim that ‘global warming is caused by everyone else but me’; that it’s always them, the other folk out there, who do bad things. ‘My issues that prevent me from riding are real’. ‘I can’t possibly change the way things are’. Sieg Heil!
Here’s how I did a coup on my own inner Fascist-In-Charge.
Work and cycling, were, for me, different spaces within my mind. Work was work and riding was something I did for fun. Work is not fun and fun stays at home… I didn’t ride to work. The commute was 60km (about 40 miles). 60 km in a car seems like such a long way. 60km by bike is… Hey! wait a minute. I do 100km rides on weekends and that is OK. I did 250km rides in my serious training days… I CAN ride 60km. But not to work. Why not? Because… See what I mean by mental models? So I rode. Once. It was a bit like going off to Mars. This was cycling of a different, new, kind. I did it again. I did it for a week. I did it for two weeks. Then it became routine. My mental model admitted a new culture of riding to work as a normal thing to do. Then, in that new world, I had the occasion to drive to work. Now that felt wrong. Bad. Ugly. The essence of giving in. Defeat. Never again…
The key point is that to transcend one mental model to the other will indeed seem like a change of life. But, and there’s the thing. You DO get used to life on the other side. And life on that other side can actually be far better! I suspect that all the excuses we make to stick with the models of life we currently lead is to do with our fear of the unknown; a fear of leaving the familiarities of life as it is currently lived. A bit like heading off in a boat when we all used to believe the world was flat; and fringed by this dirty great waterfall…
So I made time to ride through riding to work. But that’s not all. No, not even by half.
The ‘V’ shaped channel of my life had excluded time before 7am. ‘Ha!’ I hear you say… ‘I knew that was coming.’ You are now reacting just like the old me. ‘You’re not going to recommend rising at dawn…to ride – are you?’ That’s not for me! Not according to the mental model that tells me life starts each day at 8. You’ve seen them out on the road when the exigencies of work demand an early flight or that early early trip by car. Flashing-lighted cyclists riding the tragedy of their fate in the cold misery of dawn. The tragedy you attribute is the attribution of your dawn-excluding mental model. To see things in any other light is to take another trip up the hill of the mental model range that blinkers all our minds. You can’t see life on the other side until you climb that range. Climbing is so very hard; the hardest thing that many of us will ever do. I am not going to disguise that fact. But once you stand on top of Great Dividing Range of your mind, the views can reveal a life to be lived that you might never have imagined could be yours to have!. Those dawn rides are, simply, magic. Tragic are they who perceive what it is you do as a tragedy of being out of bed.
That’s two mental model shifts I’ve taken to shift from a casual tinkerer with cycling to become a real life-cycling cyclist for real. The shifts were hard; the excuses were palpably real. But as any mountain climber will tell, once you make the climb, life is never the same again. That’s how we can all make time for cycling. By re-inventing the lives we live to live a life of a more active, fulfilling, environmentally resilient kind.
Speaking of changes… I am sure you won’t mind me giving my new ‘other’ blog a plug. Some of you were readers of my environmental blog: EnviroBlog. I discontinued that blog yesterday after two years of regular posts. I have decided to consolidate all my interests more completely via a new web space that I’ve modestly named rodericgill.com. Attached to that site is my brand new blog called PhotoEssays. PhotoEssays is the second generation of EnviroBlog. It’s a place to combine my environmental ponderings with my passion for environmentally-focused photo image making. I’d be more than curious to hear what you think! There’s already a couple of posts there to read (the latest is an essay on how religion appears to profoundly un-religious types such as me…)
Naturally, Bicyclism.net and this bicyclism blog remain unchanged. Like Enviroblog before it, PhotoEssays is to be my ‘other’ blog.
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Cycling to podcasts presents a great space for deep reflection. I especially love to hear discussion around ideas with which I have personally staked a claim. That’s what happened while I was out riding yesterday to my favourite podcast, Late Night Live with Phillip Adams. The story concerned the campaign of an engineer, Steven Burgess, who has been given the task of reviewing the design codes for streets in the Australian state of Queensland. Steven Burgess’s main angle is the degree to which the car has enthroned itself at the centre of all community, urban and related infrastructure design. Mr Burgess believes we have become so enthralled by the car that our suburbs and houses are designed around it, to the point where we cannot survive without it. He said people don’t move about the streets except in cars and kids are no longer safe because the streets have become a dangerous place.
While I have not been shy to mention my concerns about our car-blighted society in this humble blog, it’s so nice to see that someone else saying roughly the same thing seems to have the ear of a government organisation. That means that such things are at least on someone’s officially privileged planning table. Let’s hope that Steven Burgess’s thoughts can push the start button on some meaningful change; rather than just inspire yet more mutterings of officially endorsed agreement and an intent to agree to agree to yet more meetings to endorse sentiments such as these…(which all usually results in the line painting of yet more pointless cycling lanes).
What’s flagged here is the sheer monumental con that has enthralled our civilisation to its very core. Like some kind of symbiotic, yet malignant bacterial implant, cars really have taken hold of our civilisation to a degree that is truly breathtaking to behold. Absolutely everything to do with the buildings we build, the places we design and the communities we construct are contexted by our apparent need for the car.
Take the family home. As the biggest single investment most people ever make, building or buying a home is an important event. You’d think that all the angles of a purchase such as this would be pretty well considered. So why, then, do most people give up around 30% of the space they call their home to house their car?! As I ride my bike around our local urban places, I keep on noticing all the double and sometimes triple garages people insist on building to dominate their homes. The space left over once their cars are housed becomes little less than a lean-to to the alterpice given over to their cars. The homes we give our cars seem to aspire to the meaning we otherwise provide to town squares or the village church of our local urban landscapes.
Speaking of which, what were once town squares and other central meeting places are now parking spaces for cars. The car dominates here as well. We are so careful to accommodate these things that there’s usually precious little space left over for people to gather. And if they do gather, it’s usually off to the side of that core ground now given over to park their cars. Social mingling is now constrained by both the fumes cars gas through our public places and by the timing of the parking metres that celebrate the occupation we sycophants have provided to this fume belching occupier of our space, lives and regard.
I recall breathtaking walks through the ancient city of Segovia in Spain. A truly wonderful place of cobbled paths and hand made buildings with monumental stories to tell. Until, that is, some goon in a car decides to push through over laneways designed for feet, or horse drawn carts. The astonishing clash, or cultural assault, of a car proceeding through precincts such as these is an indicator and a monument to the stupidity that has taken hold of our species. This virtually universal adulation of the car must now be regarded as a generic plague.
Consider the hold cars now have over the activities with which we engage and the possibilities for community enterprise of any kind. Kids can no longer play in the streets outside their homes lest they become more at one with the road than most parents would desire. Walking is a dangerous enterprise as cars swerve around our paths, elbow us out for room and generally assert the ascendency of machines over the people who gave them birth. Cars spark rage; shrill screams of abuse and outrage are vomited from one car armoured territory to the next. The space inside our cars is ours. Our mobile territory. We have erected shields of steel and glass to make our claims clear. When once our turfs were rooted to a simple hill or a home base bog, now we carry our spaces around to more emphatically challenge the spaces others would claim. Hence the escalation of rage; road rage spite and unending warfare on any and all who dare to cross the space our cars proclaim. Be they other cars, people on foot or, most rageworthy of all, incomprehensible cyclists!
Consider the simple task of commerce. When once we might have walked a kimometre or less to the local shop or school, now we sally forth in our chariots of spite. Disconnected, territorially defensive and offensive all at the same time. Cars disconnect us from all those spaces outside our homes. We bypass local places to visit car accommodating hubs instead. The local shop is all but dead. Schools are now circled by the warfare of parent pickups and dropoffs. Nowhere is safe anymore. The car has won. We have lost. We are now the batteries that power the machinery of a higher order; the cult of the car.
So it was that the recent fuel crisis inspired so much hope. We cyclists dared to maintain our thrill that one day, soon, all this insanity might go away.
I saw a vision of the human race a million years from now. I saw the ultimate marriage of car and man. Man bloated out to occupy all the space within; now incapable of leaving the car that is now biologically connected to an anatomy that once could walk, ride and swim. Now no more. The car had won the ultimate cause; to convert people to the role of fuel; of emphatic and perpetual subservience. I saw these man-cars endlessly circling in a toxic black fog of car composite friendly nutrient baths. Baths fed by the contributions of people as their anatomy grew past the spaces defined by cars for their growth. By cars now intent on harvesting these fleshy once-human protuberances like the one time mowing of lawns. When once an elbow might have ridden out the window of a car, now it had become food to fuel future vehicular progress.
But there is an escape from this matrix world of insanity. It’s called the bicycle. The ever faithful, efficient, effective, magnificent machine that waits and waits to serve a master that seems to have forgotten this splendid monument to human ingenuity and the artistry of inspired design. The answer is right there for us all. A cycling symbiosis sounds like a vastly nicer place to be, it seems to me.
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Get Used to It — Sky-High Oil Prices Are Here to Stay ( Wired, May 13, 2008)
The spiralling price of oil seems to be driving an equally impassioned crescendo of panic, depression and gloom. Civilisation as we know it is over, some say from the Peak Oil press. Imagine if every Chinese and Indian citizen started to demand entry into the car shined culture of the West? They loom like a tide held back by barriers now crumbling.
Our modern urban landscapes are forged around the car. Our lifestyles and careers slide on the hegemony of oil. Life, these days, is a seemingly never ending display of devotion to the centred and sainted position of cars as the lifeblood of all that we do and to which we aspire. Imagine if cars should instantly be taken away. Our imaginations conjure landscapes of bloodied zombies stalking the streets, starvation, industry transformed to the stone age. The end of work, the end of TV! Taking our cars might be just like extracting our bones. No more mobility, a life severed just like all those cyclists cars have maimed. Wheel chair bound and staring vacantly out of empty windows upon an inferno of barbarism and invading hoards.
The decline and fall will, of course, never be that quick. Market economics will keep the dreams alive in a punctured, patched and flailing way for many years to come. As the price goes up, we ration our use. New reserves will be found; new technologies will surface and fade to cushion the fall. As we enter the era of the hybrid car, solar and hydrogen fuel cells will keep the candle burning, for a while. Society will adapt and emerge, sometimes through trauma, sometimes with pain; with new heroes and the death of addictions perceived, finally, to be the tyrants they once were (as our historic guzzlers are put, finally, to bed, in the shed).
We can agree, though, that we sit here waiting for some kind of strange new dawn; we don’t know how the vista will unfold as the first glimpse of light now touches only the tops of the hills.
As we sit here dreaming about what will unfold, my own vision is one of extraordinary, cautious optimism. When I look back at this our car formed culture of today, I can see only the misery of displaced loyalty. I see a civilisation that prays to false gods. I see a civilisation infatuated with the very thing that is fast killing it; and inflicting pain. There is, I say, nothing glamorous about this era of the car; of a society drip fed on oil. The fumes from our cars, perhaps, dull the brain, and blinker the light of opportunity smogged out by this tyrannical reign.
There is a small much cherished corner of economics that most consider only to be the plaything of over romantic dreamers. A perspective that paints pictures of rural landscapes and joyous, self-contained village life. It’s the Small is Beautiful thesis of E F Schumacher. If you could imagine a giant set of scales, and put on one side all those arguments in favour of globalisation and the ascencency of wealth, Schumacher’s ideas level the balance from the other side. The oil industry is the cement of globalisation. It is the lifeblood of that particular perception of wealth. The net that holds the baggage of globalisation together is the network of oil. It’s a grimy, fumed unpleasant mass of tar. Of a road raged society bloated by inactivity, complacency and vicious cycles of toxic dependency.
The vision painted by Schumacher is of a landscape focused more inwards than outwards. Where communities operate towards integrated self-sufficiency; where the things we despoil remain in our own backyards, not shipped off to communities without the capacity to refuse, or respond. There is a different currency of sustainability on the Schumacher side. It’s a three dimensioned vision, where economy, environment and community merge. Where our obsession for growth is redefined. Now growth might be expressed equally in terms of happiness as it might be by money. Compare and contrast with what’s on the globalisation pile. There we ship the excesses of what we do to someone else, to someplace else. We extract our needs without the need to live the consequences. We devote ourselves to the worship of money.
But oil is eroding the walls. The excesses of our globalised lifestyles have drifted over to where we live now. Now we breath the fumes of our fury to consume. Our planet is warming, the limits have been reached. Gaia is screaming. The scale is falling.
So what does this new dawn of the Small and Beautiful look like?
We will travel less. We will be more self-contained. Globalisation requires us to take wings, Schumacher’s landscape is more regionally framed. Food production is also more localised; yes, probably at greater cost. But then again, by how much will food costs rise as the costs of transportation increase when the oil runs out? Rural – urban communities will move back towards the balanced integration they once had, a long time ago. Cultures become more regionally defined. Difference will matter, once again. Instead of us all sharing the diseased psychoses of nebulous, uncentred contemporary plastic culture, we will revert once again to the solid and locally real. Communities become the keystones of our culture.
Zealots of the global village will immediately suggest Schumacher’s vision implies our reversion to a hoard of feuding states; of never ending wars of nation building all over again. But we can never really, truly reel back time and start out from the middle ages, all over again. That’s not what Schumacher is about. Our ascendency towards being more self-contained does not imply breaking off. The internet, for starters, is already connecting us from the isolation of our individual homes. We have lived this recent history and know what to avoid. Democracy should be stronger when we cease to insist on imposing the dictates of cultures with which we are out of tune.
So what for oil? We will need it less. Regionalisation, to my eyes, recommends a return to more fights on the internet than on a plane. To more frequent and shorter trips through which to connect; which to my mind, of course, implies the rebirth of the bicycle. You knew I would get to that! And what a culture a bicycle based society would be!
Now I can just hear some readers scream. This loony has cataracts of over romanticised clouding in his eyes. A burnt out hippy; a rural fundamentalist. Perhaps. But I bet one thing. I bet my vision is better than the one we must all live now! Where cyclists are mowed down by drunken road raged car drivers seeking oblivion to their car blighted lives. Where we bloat from the excesses raped from globally distant societies too poor to protest. Where wars are fought for oil on the pretext of imposing democracy. I bet my vision is better than the spectre of zombified crumbling civilisation as the zeppelin of oil gassed society finally burns.
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Take a look at this adervtisment (in the December 17 edition of the New Yorker). Take a good look. What’s your immediate reaction? Quickly now. No deep thought. What comes immediately to mind?
Notice all the green paint. The truck is green. There are green tints all over the page. The headline text is green. The message is that the vehicle is green (well, that’s its colour). Green is good. Green is ‘caring for the environment’. Green is ‘fightback’ to reclaim the damage done by the …errr…oil industry and the automobile…Green is a statement of how caring you are. How in tune you are with a ‘sustainable future’ (can I possibly fit in any more vacuous platitudes here?). And if you take in the images on sale here without some kind of mental fuse blowing; you, dear reader, are the problem. Your unquestioning, non-critical, herd-flocking gullibility is indeed the ruination of us all. But of course, there are no readers like that in this place, are there!
Take a look at the claims on offer here. 34MPG! Wow! Imagine that. One gallon gives you 34 miles in this wondrously ‘green’ and ‘environmentally benign’ green vehicular extension of your advanced sense of social consciousness. Green green green. Green is also the colour of bad vomit. And that is my personal reaction to this appalling statement that the human intellect could possibly sink this low. Or that any corporation could possibly think that its clients have such a feeble wit.
I am very sure that the Ford motor company could not possibly be inserting this advertisment as some kind of parody; or masterful statement of loaded irony. No, these people seriously think that such an appalling message could possibly meet some kind of sympathetic reception. Not only that, that the astoundingly stupid people who are sucked into this would actually buy such a piece of environmental vandalism as this pile of oil fuming garbage.
Come on! This truck is about as in tune with meeting contemporary environmental challenges as is the tobacco industry with human health. Actually, it rather seems that the automobile industry and the tobacco industry are using the same marketing strategy, if not the same advertising agency for their declarations of social responsibility. Green cars and cigarettes with alpine freshness. Same deal.
Is this the kind of response we can expect from the residents of the tar pit (the oil industry and its attendant automobile peripherals) to address the global warming catastrophe that now threatens us all with ultimate extinction? Do they think that the insertion of hybrid engines into urban trucks is likely to mitigate anything at all? That is the same thing as a bunch of astronauts busily redecorating the exterior of their spaceship with nice apocalyptic scenes as it plunges out of control into a nearby sun.
Intriguingly and poignantly, check out this letter to the editor of the exact same edition of the New Yorker that carried this deplorable advertisment:
Elizabeth Kilbert argues that, in view of the atrocious average gas milage of current cars, the present rate of global oil consumption, and the anticipated exponential growth in Indian and Chinese car ownership, the very existance of the automobile is imperilled (Books, November 5th). Only the invention of a ‘super car’ that runs on a ‘safe, inexpensive, and …inexhaustible’ power source would save it from extinction. But we already have a ‘super car’: the bicycle, whose fuel source is indeed safe, inexpensive (free), and inexhaustible. Considering that forty percent of this country’s oil use comes from passenger cars, and that cars account for eighty-two per cent of trips of five miles or less – a distance easily travelled by bike – it is clear that the bicycle can do more for our health and fuel security than any concept car developed by G.M., Chrysler, or Ford. Our real job is not to pursue the ever-elusive technology that will allow our car addiction to continue but to transform our cities from sprawling suburban jungles into compact, human-sized neighborhoods where bicycling can flourish.
Andra Brosy, Portland, Ore.
Do the citizens of the tar pit worry that their 4WD ‘green’ truck campaign is sitting in the same place as letters (and associated sentiments) such as that?
I rather think that Ford is doing us a favour. They are helping those currently addicted to the marketing-driven, intellectually-disabled cult of the car to approach the tipping point of the great, inevitable culture shift of genuine transport alternatives. What miniscule proportion of humanity could possibly be stupid enough to continue their adulation of these metalic mostrosities once the automobile industry has so profoundly announced their own lack of intellect via proclamations such as this? The car industry has lowered their intellectual bar to such a degree that their followers must now be intellectually incapacitated to the point of coma. And you can’t drive a truck/car then, can you!
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I was intrigued by a recent article on yet another new community-galvanising social awareness campaign to take hold in North America and, apparently in some parts of Europe (Idle Hands, New Yorker, October 15, 2007, p. 36). As the New Yorker correspondent put it, this new movement involves the mobilisation of ‘academic-looking women’ wielding clip pads and pens outside schools and related places where car congestion and exhaust fumes are at their worst. The are, apparently, taking notes on motorists who persist with idling their cars when stopped. Those exhaust fumes, and the ignorance of those who produce them, are the new ‘toxin of concern’ to infuriate those campaigners fresh from victory in the anti smoking wars, or so it would seem.
As a cyclist having to breathe in the toxins from motorists unconcernedly idling at traffic lights and powering up steep hills in vehicles sadly lacking timely maintenance, I had just figured that this fallout from uninformed and uncaring transportation choices was another blight to bear. I was, thus, excited to learn that in some places like Switzerland, it is now against the law to keep one’s engine going when more than four cars behind a stoplight. This news was revelatory! At last, evidence of a long overdue social reaction against the environmental-community assaults of motoring is starting. The other great news to really make my end of year transition joyous was the news that oil prices are now at international record highs. The future of cycling and clean air looks brighter as the oil besotted set are due, at last, to start paying something even vaguely approaching the true costs of their extraordinarily bad habits.
As it happens, campaigns against car fuming are taking hold in many paces, sometimes with legislative endorsement (as in Switzerland, and, interestingly, in New York City where idling for spurts longer than three minutes is illegal, with fines ranging from US$350 to US$2000). The catch cry is that ‘Idling gets you nowhere’. The Canadians are very serious about this with active government endorsed campaigns in place. Advocacy web sites are encouraging direct community action and ownership of the problem. One site allows the user to send an ‘Idling Gets You Nowhere’ sign-posted ecard to friends, and presumably, to those the sender thinks are in need of a reminder.
The tide seems to be shifting; just as it did so successfully in the anti smoking campaigns of recent years (I may now consider returning to France where smoking in restaurants is now banned – at last!. What, after all, was the point of all that delicate French cuisine when we had to gasp in the noxious fumes of fag smoking patrons). Community sentiment is swelling into what I hope is yet another unstoppable flood. Is this a sign of the inevitable anti-car cultural shift that the world so desperately needs? It is certainly a step in the direction towards community-level intolerance of health and environment-destroying oil fuelled transportation choices.
It is the subtle things like this that catalyse a shift from one paradigm to the next. As we start to embed disquiet and assertive reactions against prevailing cultural and technology choices, the pathway towards a reconfiguration of the social fabric is prepared. That certain manifestations of environmental harm-making (like the overuse of motor vehicles for commuting) become embedded at the socio-cultural level, our paradigm shift is on the way; it is launched and probably unstoppable.
The implications of swelling intolerance towards the oil fumigation of our world are worthy of animated exploration. Will this lead to a more general level of social intolerance towards the use of motor vehicles; perhaps exacerbated by spiralling fuel prices? Will commuting by car become the new ‘smoking in public’ blight to focus our collective outrage? What will the car addicted do to regain social acceptability? Shifting to train, bus (perhaps) and cycling (best of all) are the obvious alternatives. Of course, I am personally waiting with glee until that time when we cyclists ascend to the heights of social acceptability. Perhaps there will be a day when the lycra clad anomalies of contemporary society become the new heroes of the modern age. Then we will have turned a rather interesting 360 degrees. Especially if that shift takes hold in China; a place where once village life was defined by the bicycle, and where it could, via the force of wholesale social endorsement, ascend back to that enlightened status once more. The blueprints are already in place. Amsterdam has long shown one vision of that future.
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I have been reflecting of late on the rather large gap between the rhetoric of ‘environmentally virtuous living’; on the notions that many of us have on what exactly it takes to live a ‘right livelihood’. Like the tidal flows of most popular sentiments and cultural shifts, it seems to me that most people enact adaptions to the popular sentiments of environmentally sensitive living the same way they take care of their hair. When you need to fix your hair, you head off to the hair dresser. You pay your money and you come back with a new hairdo. When the urge takes hold to declare your empathy and commitment to the environmental cause, the deal is the same. You locate your favourite ‘environmental cause’, contribute some cash and wear your new caring halo for weeks until the perm runs out. We tend, in other words, to treat our environmental responsibilities just like every other aspect of our lives; we reach for the wallet or the purse. Our capacity to express our environmental concerns is given over to the universal fantasy of the marketplace. Following on from a previous posting on carbon credit trading, I find it hard to fathom the ease with which we unload all our concerns into the dimension of commerce.
I’ve been reading Thoreau’s Walden again. As a nice audio book downloaded from the ‘ethernet’ to play through my hours of cycling solitude.
Henry David Thoreau sat contemplating these things through his two year squat on the shores of Walden Pond. He wondered (in the 1850’s) at the inclination of people to build walls between ourselves and the power of raw environmental connection through remaining closeted within the swamp of the human constructed economy. Thoreau had no problems with valuing the returns from his solitude in terms beyond the understandings of the marketplace. He could fill a day watching his pond and feel the satisfaction of a good day’s work. I particularly liked his attitude to housecleaning… He had, he said, some rocks. They seemed to attract dust. These possessions then enslaved him to the tyranny of maintenance. So he threw them out. A slave no more to the cause of maintaining one’s material wealth.I wonder, though, how he would react if he could re-visit the site of his cabin as it is now. I think he would be less than pleased.
One can still visit Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts. It is now a shrine to Henry David Thoreau. The visitor will find a replica of his simple cabin. It is conveniently near to the Walden Pond Car Park, Gift Shop and Visitor Rest Rooms. For an outlay of one to several hundred dollars, the modern transcendentalist can consume all the Thoreau he or she can afford. You can purchase a nice leather bound copy of Thoreau’s major works, sport your designer T Shirt, purchase a musical soundtrack and then head off for an organised walk. You can spectate in the replica cabin and capture its essence in your digital camera, and you can spend one minute and ten contemplating the lake’s edge. Wondering what it might be like to live in a world untouched by the dictates of the marketplace. Or perhaps, more realistically, you might simply reflect on how one might procure a replica cabin for your own lake.
I wonder why Thoreau still has such a hold. What is it that the modern consumer sees? Is it the thrill of seeing a life that one cannot comprehend? Is it some kind of devotion to a life we hold as some kind of unrealisable ideal? Is it to reflect on the loss of something that we can, these days, barely describe? And isn’t it amazingly poignant that when we think these thoughts, on the banks of Walden Pond, that we are never too far from the comfort zone of the Thoreau Gift Shop. Like a lifeline back into the world of cash that has so profoundly captured our souls, sensibilities and wit.
Thoreau liked his solitude. He liked his time for contemplation. He liked the completeness of hard work and reflection combined. Searching around for a modern Pond to sit by, he might these days declare defeat. But he might not give up. He might think laterally. He would, I am sure, find all that he once found through heading off on a mountain bike instead.
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