Whose invasion is just?

There is brouhaha in the media these days about the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the subsequent referendum in that territory. Western governments call the invasion unjust, and the subsequent referendum invalid; Putin is labelled a blackguard – a throwback to Hitler, they say. By whose standards are these incursions into sovereign territories judged? By whose standards are referendums that are put together with obscure questions that deliver confused answers considered just?

I’m going to flip the coin to other “invasions”; Iraq by the USA and its allies on the hunt for mythical weapons of mass destruction comes to mind. The trail of destruction and the political vacuum created in that country has still not been accounted for. The Quebec referendum of 1995 asked a vague question: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” – Joe Q Public was left wondering whether voting “Yes” or “No” would still end up in Quebec going its own way. So how just were these western invasions and referendums? Is there some western hypocrisy at work in the latest accusations on the Russians?

Winston Churchill is accredited with the quote “history is written by the victors.” There is an adjunct to this: “The other guy is always wrong.” While I am not a fan of Putin, who is trying to return Russia to the Rule of One, I question our home team’s profit-seeking end runs during this latest Crimean debacle. For example, how much would our Canadian PM like to see Canadian oil and gas replace Russian exports to the European Union? Is that why he is playing David in front of the Russian Goliath while the rest of his G7 counterparts are playing lambs?

The unfortunate fact is that most regimes that have fallen in recent times, be it Egypt, Libya and now Ukraine, in these “spring- like” civilian uprisings were corrupt; that much is clear from the economic wreckage left behind when their leaders fled or were killed. The populations of these countries were left liberated but confused, angry but unaware of how to chart their lives. To arbitrarily walk into a country and take over, create a vacuum, or prop up equally inept replacement regimes just because they show support to either the West or the East does not help; these places will sink into dysfunction and failed statehood in no time. And then East and West will look at each other and ask, “What happened?” Just ask a poor Afghan who in this lifetime saw Russians followed by Westerners run over his country and leave with their tails between their legs having accomplished only what their propaganda machines made us believe, just ask him whether he is better off today, whether the invasions from the East or the West were just?

Perhaps what is needed is that the people of these hot spots decide for themselves, in however crude a manner, and over however long a period of time, how they wish to govern their lives, and all do-gooders from the outside need butt-out. Isn’t that How The West Was Won?


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Flipping the Switch, or the Coin?

Once upon a time, I lived in a country that was emerging from socialism into capitalism. Locals were highly educated and poorly paid, essential goods were rationed, industry was inefficient, bureaucracy bloated, tourists were awarded a higher rate of exchange, and the black market outperformed the official one.

Times in the old country were historical and hysterical: bullock carts, traffic-less streets, antique vehicles belching noxious black fumes, shared food, material envy, assistance from friends and relatives living abroad who gave a few scraps and achieved hero status.

Then the equalization happened, the switch was flipped. Locals had to pay what foreigners paid, the black market was eliminated but its prices became the standard, the dual exchange rate merged, and imports were allowed. Galloping inflation that resulted was recognized when the price of bread was adjusted upwards, twice a day. The privileged became more privileged, and erected walls and placed barbed wire on their tops to keep those falling below the poverty line from invading their space. The middle class faced two choices: embrace entrepreneurship by hook or by crook, or grab hold of the vanishing subsidies in the hope that they would be sustainable and sustain life in the long term. And if all failed, get thick skinned enough to ask for assistance, that is, get ready to beg, bum or borrow with never an intention of paying back.

Recently I visited another such country, one of the last bastions of communism, where after generations of isolation, the truth has come home to roost: the old model, utopian in concept, is unsustainable. “We need to unleash greed, fear and enterprise to make things tick again,” is the grim realization. No one remembers past mistakes made in other places, because the proletarian rulers need to drown them out and focus the masses into believing the perfection of their new model. And anyway, it will be too embarrassing to turn back the clock now and let global lessons bare the truth.

“We are going to do this gradually,” say the rulers. Tell that to the frog who winds up burned anyway, whether you throw him into a pan of boiling oil, or whether you place him gently in a pan of cold water and increase the temperature slowly to a boil.

We live in a world of man-made, imperfect political systems and no one has invented the flawless one yet, the utopia that we dream of. Greed and fear vs. inefficiency and poverty – a hell of a choice to make! Let’s flip a coin, shall we?

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The Blank Page

All writers face this terror at one time or the other: the blank page. What to write next when all that must be said has already been written, when the next chapter of revelation lies just out of reach. During these moments, the desire to write is propelled by the need for output, the sign that we have not dried up. The writer’s raison d’être, the imperative to record the results of reflection married to imagination, is forgotten in our temporary panic, and we write for the sake of writing.

Writing that does not inspire reflection in the reader is empty, wasteful, and a contribution to the flotsam that clogs libraries, bookstores and the internet, making everyone go away with diminishing returns. How many books were written because of a writer’s need to make money and nothing more, or because of a writer’s desire to convince himself that he can still do it? And how many readers fell for them? Fell for the story-boarded plot, the choreographed puzzle, the exotic setting conjured off Wikipedia and Google, the sentimentalist situation that tugged the heartstrings, and the “this could be me” identification manufactured by cleverly studied demographic archetypes. “Entertainments,” I call them. They make blockbuster movies.

Fear of the blank page may have driven writers to have written those entertainments in order to keep their muscles active until the “real stories” returned. But those potboilers are like drugs, blinding you with fame and money and keeping you churning them out until any real story is stillborn and your imagination is rendered sterile.  For it is easy to tweak the formula, replace the villain, change the setting, and voila, more of the same, and another fat cheque hits the bank. But all the while, the writer is sinking deeper into a limbo that he cannot emerge from, and being typecast for posterity.

Where are the books that came from the writer’s reflections and learning from her own life, from close observations of people, and from that other source that we dare not question but what we have secretly come to admit as the “other side?” Where was the reproduction that came from the fusion of these sources of material with the writer’s vivid imagination?

I have come to respect the blank page. It informs me that the problem is not with me, but that there is a major job going on upstream, waiting to form into an intelligible form that could subsequently flow down to my pen. And the longer the blank page remains, the bigger the job heading my way. All I can do is still the mind, rest the hand, listen, and wait. And never let the blank page scare me.

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Crowdfunding for Fiction

A new source of funding, but will it last?

I have been following this new phenomenon as it relates to fiction writers, and have often wondered where it would lead. On the surface, it looks like a pretty cool thing – a funding source that never existed before, a replacement to the publisher’s advance, this time, paid forward by readers. But then I tried to look at the pros and cons (I’m cautious by nature) and this is what I came up with:


a)Money paid up front to recognize the writer’s effort.

b)A vote of confidence by readers on the success of the book.

c)Advance publicity for the writer and her work

d)The opportunity to create new followers from the crowdfunding space.

e)A yardstick to measure the book’s potential before going through the expense of publishing it.


a)Publicly perceived failure if the sum of funds targeted is not raised.

b)An expectation of performance by readers that can put undue pressure on the writer.

c)Intrusion by readers through discussion forums (some call it collaboration) on the writer’s idea and delivery, thus cramping his style or forcing him to make tough choices.

d)Withdrawal by traditional funding sources (i.e. publishers, grants organizations etc.) when they know that this public funding source is now a mainstream event and should be a writer’s first port of call for financial assistance.

e)Withdrawal by crowdfunders when the space gets “crowded” and choices have to be made, or when diminishing returns accrue.

Crowdfunding, or any other patronage model for that matter, had to happen, as traditional sources began to dry up. But as it relates to fiction, where we have created a culture of “content is free” I am finding it hard to understand why consumers will pay it forward to fund a book, and pay far more than the price of a copy (which they were reluctant to buy in the first instance due to the “free” thing we cultivated) when they do not know its outcome. When the faddishness dies out, will crowdfunding for fiction dry up? Or has crowdfunding opened readers’ eyes to the plight of writers who spend lives of quiet desperation on their creations that have then to go through myriad channels of gate keeping and rejection before a lucky few spill out through the front doors of traditional channels? Are crowdfunders fighting the battle on behalf of writers?

Whatever the outcome, this new development in the world of writers is a welcome one and I shall follow it closely, perhaps even dip my foot in the waters when it comes the time for the release of my next book.


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Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants & Resident Aliens

The above are new terms that have emerged to describe the young, middle-aged and old people in our digital society today; a radical immigration model for a new world where one’s degree of foreignness grows with age.

The theory goes that young people, “the digital natives,” i.e. those born after the Internet know nothing about paper encyclopaedias, postal mail and about paying for content. Their preferred shop for most things is found online. They don’t have to memorize anything – just ask God, I mean, Google. Their relationships are vast and temporary, their attention spans are fragile and they outgrow things pretty quick, not just clothes – just ask Facebook. They are often seen talking to themselves in public, and if you see the little earpiece called a tooth, you know that they are not mad.

On the other side of the divide are the old people, “the resident aliens,” born and matured before the Internet. They wonder why postal rates are going up and door-to-door postal delivery is vanishing as their limbs are just starting to give way. They still like to connect with people in person at the mall or at the church, and they use the telephone a lot, especially to call long distance. They maintain lifelong relationships with friends and family and volunteer spare time to worthy causes, as long as retirement incomes remain steady and recession-proof. The Internet is a mystery, another pesky thing that they need to stay away from for there is all that reputed scamming and pornography out there (unless one is into that kinda thing, heh, heh!).

Then there are those in the middle, the digital immigrants, who were born before the Internet but who matured during the period when cyberspace went from a mild pastime to a robust highway along which most information began to flow. Some of these people gave up desk jobs of pushing paper and started pushing buttons on their desktops instead. Some careers changed, some were lost forever. The digital immigrants had to adapt or perish with each subsequent wave of technology, and they found it hard, for their retirements were diminished or vanished and they were re-inventing themselves to just stay relevant, even if they did not believe in the roles they now had to play. They compete with the digital natives for jobs and yet long to be resident aliens.

Being an immigrant (a real one) and now being classified a digital immigrant, suits me, for the art of survival is similar: stay alert, continuously learn, do not be afraid to experiment and make mistakes, take nothing for granted, work smart, and live lean. And yet, every new version of technology takes me further away from the centre.  I wonder how tough it must be for real world natives who have come to expect a world of order and entitlement, and who now find themselves as digital immigrants or resident aliens in digital society? They did not consciously immigrate anywhere, like I did, but their world changed on them nevertheless, landing them in a foreign place. This is the hardest kind of immigration to undertake – the reluctant kind. It likens one to a refugee of war or other social upheaval.

I wonder if these considerations are taken into account as we push along our relentless path to automate everything, or whether these costs will have to be borne by the larger society when we end up with a majority of jobless digital immigrants and resident aliens run by a minority of digital natives and their tech toys.

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The Famine of Time

We live in an abundance of printed matter but we are facing a famine of time.

Every time I write an article, a short story, or even commence writing a novel, I feel like a thief. With this act, I am suggesting that another soul sets aside her time to read my work and assimilate it, for better or worse. Her time that could have been otherwise spent doing necessary housework, doing paid work, caring for loved ones, reading a better book, or simply communing with our rapidly disappearing nature. With my article, I am robbing my reader of her time.

We live in an abundance of printed matter, available today in various media, but we are facing a famine of time. There are more things we have to do today in order to be counted, or so we believe: we need to hunt for work (the old 9-5 with a pension at the end of the rainbow has vanished); we also need to do the work of five due to the new mantra of “doing more with less”; we need to care for children and elders, both who are living longer in those states; we need to check-in with our myriad followers on social media and keep them advised of every move we make, every meal we eat (replete with pictures); we need to paraphrase, cut & paste or re-tweet news content from prominent people and disseminate it to our followers and thereby promulgate those prominent writers’ fame while proving to our followers that we are still alive, kicking and reading; we need to keep current with consumer trends in case we wear the wrong accoutrements for the wrong occasion; we need to read the latest book on the best seller list to stay relevant on the cocktail circuit, we need…we need…we need to separate “need” from “want” for the two have become inseparable. Unfortunately, the day has only 24 hours, and all these activities have to fit into it. And on top of all that I go and write another article with the implied insinuation: “Read It!”

I wonder whether we can take an example from the corporate world and try to re-engineer our lives to free up some time. Corporate re-structuring happens when fat builds up over time, especially during periods of growth. When the corporate famine occurs – it’s called recession or economic downturn – the re-engineers arrive. Anything and everything that is not “core” to the company’s business is slashed. Out go training programs, investment projects, workplace health, senior employees nearing retirement, consultants, and travel & entertainment. Could this approach be used to re-structure our lives now that we are in a famine of time?

Let’s see, what would I cut or re-structure? I would cut out those peripheral activities that bring little benefit to me. Out will go shopping, the cocktail circuit, the bestseller list (it’s the NY Times’ list – not mine), the re-tweets, the personal GPS (“Shane just checked in at LaGuardia” – I’m not suffering from dementia yet, and no one else gives a rat’s ass about where I am anyway); social media will become optional – I never had it 10 years ago and lived comfortably then. Next comes my reading list; any book that does not get to the point in its first three chapters, is out — sorry, fellow writer, we are living in a famine of time! And most importantly, every time I think of writing something, I will reflect on whether it helps me or another person. If it doesn’t, it gets cut too. Of late, I have been rather silent on Facebook for that reason.

As you may be asking, yes, I did think long and hard before writing this article. I hope it gets you thinking of what you will cut out, otherwise I would have wasted your precious time.

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The Print Dilemma

I was on a TV interview last week, promoting my recent book, and was asked whether print is dead? How could I answer this but with a resounding “NO!” me, a writer who churns out reams of print matter all the time? How dare the interviewer ask me this question when I was on the show promoting…well…print!

Coming out of the interview however, I got to thinking about this question more deeply. If he had asked me whether “print for money” was dead, I may have been inclined to say that “the patient was in the emergency room.” When you consider that writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Salinger were paid in the $’000s per story during the glory days of magazine publishing in the ’30’s and ’40’s, and that now those payouts are down in the $’00’s or less, inflation seems to have worked in reverse here. But if he had asked me whether more people are reading like never before, and therefore whether print is a more integral part of people’s lives today, I’d have said, “Yes, the patient has left the hospital in fine fettle, is fiddling with Twitter and Facebook, is surfing the web, and reading her e-book – channels filled with print, channels that previous generations never had.”

If he’d asked me whether the payment model for print has changed, I would have said “Yes” again, and if those who are reluctant to accept the new model, whether due to pride or principle, are the ones who will be left behind from making their efforts pay, I’d have said a capital “YES!” And yet this change is the most difficult one to make, and has become a moral dilemma for conscientious writers.  I recently visited a site on which my blogs are syndicated; certain keywords had been hyperlinked – this was not of my doing. When I placed my cursor on these words, advertisements that synchronized with the hyperlinked words popped up. Someone was making money off my content, no longer with mere banner ads on the periphery of the frame but with commercials embedded inside my content! I went a step further and placed my cursor over some hyperlinked text in one of my syndicated articles and it took me to a site for casual adult encounters. I was shocked and deflated. So, is this the way to be paid for one’s content these days? And in this case I wasn’t even being paid, I was being used. Needless to say, if they do not delete those hyperlinks, I will be deleting myself from that site, platform building notwithstanding.

I have never let commercials dictate my content. I am also not a fan of “advertorial” which seems to be commanding larger and larger chunks of the daily newspapers these days. But if advertizing is the only paymaster left, because readers have been conditioned to get their print for free, then content creators (writers) need some radical re-adjustments to their moral compasses, for sometimes the content and their hyperlinked ads are incongruent, and writers have no control here.

Now, if the next TV interviewer asks me, “Would you let your content be commercialized on your own website so that you can move it from an altruistic content portal to a source of paying your bills?” my answer will be a resounding “NO” —I will remain “commercial free.”  My content will be my sole message.

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A Writer’s Repeating Themes

I have been writing a blog for over five years, so I took the time to pause and review what I had written. I have written over 180 articles, averaging three a month, on a variety of subjects, all of which I thought were quite original and topical at the time. But when I re-read them, some key themes kept appearing and re-appearing. My articles seemed to fall into the following broad categories:

1)      The Writing Life, its rewards and travails

2)      Politics & Society, especially an exploration of the parts that do not work

3)      Business Life, its necessity and its incompleteness

4)      Travel

5)      Social Media, its opportunities and pitfalls

6)      Life Stages

So, that’s it really. One hundred and eighty articles circling around six themes. I could have written six large essays, one on each of the topics, and have had my say, packed my pen, and gone fishing. Instead, I circled around pet peeves, unearthing new material and coming at them from different angles each time, a veritable dog with a bone, or six of them.

Is this what most writers do? Exorcise their ghosts by repeatedly confronting them, or do they stand on a platform and make their point until people turn a blind eye and a deaf ear? Dickens returned to the nemesis of his childhood, the workhouse, time and time again; Twain sailed the Mississippi back and forth; Hemingway confronted death not only in the afternoon but everywhere and all the time until the last instant of his life; Lawrence was trapped in the sex act; and Joyce walked the streets of Dublin even when he no longer lived there.

This question went through my mind as I pored over my 180 articles, thinking of the time and effort that had gone into writing them. I know that thousands of readers have read them, if I can trust the tracking meters on all the sites I had them posted on. But did anyone change their life as a result of these articles? Did anyone even say, “Ah, ha!” That, I will never know. All I know is that my life stayed in balance for having written them, perhaps it even changed for the better, when I realized that I could not change the world but could change myself and accept the unchangeable.

So that’s it, I concluded: I was not writing for an audience, I was writing for my own therapy and survival. These themes were important to me and still are; that’s why I keep returning to them time and time again. And in rereading them, I have come to appreciate them even more. The issues I have been absorbed with are unsolvable and need to be confronted in their many guises. The more aggressive minded may join political organizations, non-profit organizations and/or service clubs to deal with matters that are important to them, matters that will prevail long after the activists have shuffled off this mortal coil. But like them, the writer too shows his activism by continuing to write about those unsolvable issues that matter most to him. The act of confronting them is the sign of never giving up. To give up is to die.

Okay, back to the grind. What shall I write about next? Should it be on the writing life, or politics and society, or business life….?


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Is it time for the Un-University?

I was watching a news program in which a young man was proposing the “Un-University.” I wondered whether it was another buzzword like the Un-Mortgage, a.k.a. a different mousetrap, but then I slowly realized that this young man was making a lot of sense, with a few caveats.

The Un-University works on the premise that there is so much knowledge available in cyberspace these days that all one needs is the right band of mentors to network with and expand one’s education along the right channels. Seems simple enough, as long as these mentors are findable and willing to contribute for free. But then I have seen writers collectives emerge the same way; when traditional channels became restrictive and irrelevant, collectives went on to publish breakthrough literature.

The traditional university has a few things that do not sit well with us. First off, it takes in students at an age when they really do not know what the heck they want to do with the rest of their lives. Five years later perhaps, and a few changes to their major, and they may stumble on their chosen path—an expensive way to find one’s soul.  I have often heard the term “universities teach you a lifestyle, colleges teach you to get a job,” in other words, you still have to learn a skill or a trade, after university, if you want to earn a living; or get an employer to train you when they are busy outsourcing employees and jobs. And universities charge a heck of a lot of money for the experience; so much that our governments (most governments) cannot afford to cover this cost anymore. And universities dislike standardizing their programs between each other for reasons of differentiation, reputation and brand – all necessary to create distinction and command a premium price. A situation that is ripe for the introduction of disruptive innovation, the start of one of those dreaded S curves. Hence the Un-University.

However, the university has a few things going for it too. Years of conditioning have convinced us that one has to have a tertiary education to be taken seriously and act responsibly; that non-university educated people are blue collar and the university-educated ones have collars starched in white; that without a tertiary education one is a black-and-white kind of a guy, not used to accommodating new ideas or seeing a different perspective or practicing critical thinking and problem solving. One is supposed to gain depth during those university years (along with a copious appetite for alcohol, partying and sex). That the one who is disciplined enough to have attended all those lectures and written those dreadfully boring exams, while flowering adulthood could have led to many other gratifying pursuits, is a testament to the quality of the university graduate, they say.  These are perceptually difficult hurdles for the Un-University to overcome.

I can’t take a side here, as many of the next generation in my family are university-educated and are passionately defensive of their status, and I would like to continue to be invited to family gatherings in future. But I would like to support the Un-University concept, given that it has been my experience, more by accident than by design.  I wonder how much more depth, critical thinking, problem solving and all those other university –educated attributes would accrete to the young person who leaves the nest and goes out on his own to earn a living, preferably far away from home, and who carves out a couple of hours a day towards furthering his education by forming the discipline of reading and discussing all there is out in the fields of literature, economics, politics, mathematics, science and technology? Not for a year or two but for the rest of her life. This lifelong learner would be far more valuable than the guy who slapped a degree behind his name and never learned a thing afterwards.

I’d really like to support the Un-University concept under these conditions, but who would listen? And more importantly, who would hire a Un-University graduate?

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Why the West is in Decline

We go on about the decline of the West and the rise of the East but that seems to be an oversimplification of a more fundamental problem. A couple of centuries before, when colonial empires were at their height, we may have proposed the reverse. I have tried to come up with my own reasons for why civilizations grow and decline, in particular our present one.

A Declining Population:  “Me, Myself and I” is the motto of boomers (and to a large extent, of those who come after them as well) in the West. There is so much to “do” today in order to define who we are: education, career, home and car purchase, retirement savings, vacations, marriage, divorce, writing our memoirs. There is no time for children, and if there are any children, their arrival has to be carefully planned, because there is private school and college to pay for, extra-curricular activities to drive them to, designer clothes to adorn them with, teenage therapy sessions for those difficult years, the odd abortion or two for when they get careless. The list is endless. Oh, and lest we forget, our kids need to be equipped with laptop, cell phone, internet account and charge card before they can even figure out the bills. Bottom line: affluent societies procreate increasingly self-indulgent citizens who are unable or unwilling to regenerate themselves. Even Ancient Rome ultimately fell when citizens were more interested in feasting while barbarians lurked outside the gate.

Surrender to the Corporation: by empowering corporations with the same rights as citizens, we have created entities with huge amounts of citizen wealth (i.e. shareholder funds) that can be moved to where the best production deals are with no respect for national borders or needs. So we outsource jobs to cheaper locales, and reduce wages and buying power at home. Ultimately the newly emergent outsourced countries also suffer because the products cannot be sold back in the once-wealthy West. Global corporations ultimately die or change, leaving their hosts stranded; remember the great East India Companies of the Dutch, English and French? Where are they today? And did not their demise also spell the beginning of the end for their respective countries’ colonial empires? Closer to home, there is a historic echo taking right now in Waterloo, Ontario – the home of the once mighty Blackberry.

Weak Governance: when politicians lack the will to make tough decisions that may lose them the next election but will place their countries on paths to prosperity, then we are facing the inevitable ticking time bomb. Printing money and providing failed companies with unconditional bailouts are signs of this weakness, and we have seen a lot of this in the last five years.

Death of the Middle Class: when the tax base (aka. the middle class) erodes by its members going upmarket (where they usually don’t pay taxes due to umpteen loopholes for the wealthy) or sliding downhill into subsistence (where they don’t need to pay taxes because their contribution is insignificant), or when they just simply evade taxes (as we have seen in some European nations that imploded recently), then the great levelling instrument for providing a decent lifestyle to all citizens fails.

The death of fair competition: when markets get cornered between a few players (aided by weak governments) who can raise prices out of whack with the demand/supply curve, it creates reduced demand, reduced employment, reduced taxes and begins the downward race to the bottom. The telecom market in Canada is a good example.

Countries that avoid these signs of decline seem to be those that have community bases, where wealth is not the sole measure of success and where the battle for survival is ever present. I seem to think that the West was like this after the end of the Second World War, when the personal losses and rebuilding effort brought people together in a shared purpose. While I am not advocating another global cataclysm to shock the complacent West out of its dazed march into decline, I wonder if that is exactly what is required to get everyone working together again?


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