Sunday, November 30, 2008

China's Sorrow and Pride

China is big and so are some of its problems such as the Yellow River pollution.

The Yellow River is the 2nd longest river in China, after the Yangtze River. It is fondly known as the 'cradle of Chinese Civilization' as it is believed that the Chinese civilization originated in the Yellow River basin.

The river is so named because of the muddy water caused by yellow sediments suspended in the water. It carries as much as 1.4 billion tons of silt to the sea annually and some of the sedimentation slowly forms natural dams and causing the river to change course several times since ancient China.

The Chinese holds a strong love-hate relationship with the Yellow River which explains why it is nicknamed both 'China's Pride' as well as ' China's Sorrow'. The river represents the lifeline for 155 millions people and 15% of Chinese farmland along its 5,400 km course. But the temperamental river is extremely prone to flooding. It brought much miseries when it flooded more than 1,500 times in the last three to four thousand years.

Today, the majestic Yellow River is in a very sorry state. Heavy industries have dumped so much waste into the river and over a third of its length is so polluted that the water cannot be used for drinking, fishing and farming.

In recent years, the river has suffered from heavy pollution and there have been many incidents of serious water contamination. Two years ago, the pollution problem in China gained national attention when a section of the Yellow River literally turned red, twice within a month, due to spillage of red dye.

It was as if the Yellow River was weeping and hemorrhaging from its wounded guts. Take the sign!

China has been enjoying double-digit growth in recent years. People are starting to question whether the ill effects from industrialization are beginning to negate the real economic progress. Some even wonder whether industrialization is strengthening China or threatening its future.

The Chinese government is gradually moving towards the emphasis of 'harmony'. Instead of the previous 'just develop and manage consequences later' approach, it now has the 'develop and manage it at the same time' advice in its propaganda.

A big problem requires a big effort to solve. It will take awhile before the new 'harmonious' approach brings any visible results.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

An Attack on A Grand Dame

If you had not heard of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai, you would have, by now.

The 105-year old hotel, said to be the finest in the East was built in 1903 at a quarter of a million pounds. On 26 Nov, the 565-room hotel was attacked by a group of gunmen.

On that fateful day, a large group of men arrived at Mumbai from the sea at 2100 local time. Once ashore, they split into groups and attacked pre-selected targets and one of them was the city's luxury hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace.

Their senseless acts stormed the famous hotel as well as the world. This morning, I was relieved when the media declared the end of the 60-hour assault on Mumbai's city landmark.

At least 144 people were killed in this mad attack at the hotel and I was saddened to learn that one of them was a fellow Singaporean. There has been some finger-pointing on who should be responsible but the verdict is still out there.

Whoever has done this wanted to send the world a message, whatever that message may be and whatever it is for. In the past 3 days, the media did exactly what was desired, screaming headlines after headlines, reporting what was going on in the tense Mumbai city with 18 million people.

As the stories unfolded over the days, I could not help but noticed that the staff of the hotel have played a vital role in saving many lives. At times like that when most people were preoccupied with fleeing, the hotel staff showed their most admirable bravery. They readily shielded and hid their guests in the midst of gunfire. They also helped to evacuate the guests based on their intimate knowledge on the nooks and corners of the huge hotel, via shortcuts and emergency exits.

Some of the staff lost their lives or wounded in this much condemned terrorist attack and many guests who survived the ordeal felt that they owed their lives to their act of bravery. The owner of the Taj Hotel chain told the media that "Our staff have been very courageous. They have done all they can to help the guests." I think that is somewhat an understatement.

The grand dame was wounded too.

The owners of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel said they were "fully co-operating with the police and the government authorities" and "will rebuild every inch that has been damaged in this attack and bring back the Taj to its full glory."

I went to the official website and took a virtual tour of the Taj and I was totally awed by her beautiful architecture and luxurious lining. Indeed, the grand dame should be nursed to her previous glory.

I tried to do an online booking for a room for the 2009 New Year's day and it seemed that I was allowed to do so. I hope it is a good sign that she would return to her glory in the new year and the years to come and that there will be no more irrational acts of terrorism in India as well as the rest of the world.

The world needs peace.


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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ahoy! The 21st Century Pirates

At the mention of pirates, a bubble pops out of my head saying "Captain Hook".

My knowledge on pirates is not enlightened beyond story books and movies. Images of men with peg legs, iron hook hand, gold earrings, parrots and buried treasures scope my miserable literacy in this aspect.

I know pirates do not just exist in the fictional world. However, the closest I have come to know the real pirates were from the history books discussing about the Vikings in Europe a few hundreds years ago.

Occasionally, I do come across news on piracy just round the corner at the Straits of Malacca. Such stories in the papers are not uncommon but they appear surreal to me. I find it hard to relate such an 'ancient occupation' in this modern times.

Recently, piracy off the Somali coast hits the news every other day. The problem has been a threat to ships which need to sail past the Gulf of Aden near the Red Sea. Since its civil war in the 1990s the acts of piracy in Somalia have been on the rise.

On 15 Nov, the Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, which is the largest vessel ever seized by the Somali pirates. Now the world is paying more attention to Somali, or rather, their pirates.

Obviously, we are no longer talking about pirates with eye patches who fly flags with skulls and crossbones. These pirates are well-armed and use modern equipments such as laptops. They send their accountants to talk about money matters and chief negotiators to cut deals. It all seems like a well set up commercial arena except without any legitimacy.

So far, naval ships from 15 nations have been deployed in the region to help to deter the acts of piracy and that includes the US Navy, the Indian Navy and the Royal Malaysian Navy.

In the last 12 months, the Somali pirates have 'pocketed' US$150 million of ransom money and they are not about to retire. The going rate for ransom payment is between US$300,000 - US$1.5 mil and the whole piracy business has grown into an industry. On 16 Nov, the pirates released the Japanese-owned Stolt Valor and its crew after a 2-month ordeal and a US$2.5 mil ransom.

At the port of Eyl, a coastal town in Somalia, 'piracy industry' is thriving. This is where most of the hijacked vessels and hostages are kept. There are special restaurants that have been set up to prepare food for the crew of hijacked ships. It seems that the pirates do take reasonable care of the hostages pending the payment of ransom.

The political chaos and the lack of a functional central government in the past 20 years are just some favorable backdrops for the Somali pirates. They are making so much money that fancy houses are seen being built and expensive cars are being bought. Such accumulation of wealth also means that they increasingly can afford more sophisticated weapons and speedboats.

The piracy problem at the coast of Somalia has contributed to a rise in shipping costs. About 11% of world's seaborne petroleum passes through the Gulf of Aden and the rise in piracy in the region is leaving the international maritime community at their wits end.

As long as the chaos on land continues, the coast of Somalia will continue to be plagued by piracy. The pirates are currently holding at least 17 ships and more than 250 crew and to them, the climate for their ruleless high sea loot couldn't be better.

Looks like the modern naval warfare and the legacy of ancient sea thievery will need sometime to work things out.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Don't End Up At The Wrong Side

The digital divide is real and which side are you at?

On one side, you have people with effective access to digital and information technology. On the other side, you have people with no knowledge or no access or both. In between, you have people who are constantly chasing to reach the correct end.

Digital divide exists across different social groups and people from different countries. Presumably, the gap is closing but the real question is whether it is closing fast enough.

What is the big fuss about the digital divide and why can't we leave it gaping? The simple answer lies in the way we interact.

In today's society, jobs and education are directly related to the Internet. Not having access to Internet can leave a person vulnerable and he risks being left behind in this fast-paced world.
Increasingly, the traditional tactile world is creeping into the cyber space. It is no longer a case of preference and the shift is hastening.

Companies are getting their businesses done over the Internet. Having at least their presence in the cyber space is what their customers would have expected of them nowadays.
When was the last time you pull out your YellowPages when you needed to contact a restaurant to make reservation? Companies which end up at the wrong end of the digital divide cannot compete effectively and will either struggle to survive or get kicked out of the game.

The government-and-citizen interaction now commonly takes place in the cyber space too. It is no longer fashionable but essential to provide e-government services with portals used as intermediaries replacing the need for people to queue in traditional offices.

In schools, our children are being exposed to the use of computers and they literally have not idea how the world is like without technology. The Generation-Z will grow up knowing how to interact using the computers best. They will not be able to imagine and will show little empathy for those at the wrong side of the digital divide.

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), has a plan to give everyone in Singapore seamless access to intelligent technology within the next decade with the iN2015 blueprint. According IDA, the household broadband penetration in Singapore is 81% in 2008. One of their goals is up this rate to 90% by 2015 and reach 100% PC ownership in homes with school-going children.

When that happens, Singapore, as well as many other similarly developed nations will be more integrated via the cyber world. We will see the first batch of generation-Z coming out of schools and ready to take on the world from within the cyber space.

The digital divide will continue to cast people across the spectrum. If you are on the unfavorable side, you will lose the generation-Z and your ability to connect to the world through them.

We still have some work to do to close the gap but there are those in other parts of the world who are in even more critical need to get help. One of such help is coming from the One Laptop Per Child Association (OLPC) which is a non-profit organisation set up to promote the use of affordable educational device in developing nations.

The OLPC aims to design an affordable laptop under US$100 and a distribution system to provide children in the third world with technological learning opportunities.
Projects like OLPC will offer a partial solution to digital divide for people in countries like Mexico and Peru.

Back here in Singapore, we have less affordability issue. Rather, we lack the sense of urgency to embrace the advent of the real world coming into existence in the virtual space. The digital divide will not go away but you risk sliding further to the wrong side over time. Sticking to the same spot on the scale requires effort and progressing requires even more.

If you are contented with merely knowing how to use emails and searching the Internet, you are in for a 'weeding out' game. When the rest of the world are fused in the cyber space, it will be 'Game Over' for you.

I am doing what I can to shift myself to the right end of the digital divide. The shift can be exhausting but it is not a matter of choice.

Well, I hope I will progress to the right end. See you there!


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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Trash Your 'Just Trash' Attitude

On 21 Nov 2004, Singapore had its very first "Recycling Day". Four years on, has recycling become part of our lives?

In 2007, 54% of of the 5.6 million tonnes of rubbish generated was recycled, up from 40 percent 7 years ago. In the Singapore Green Plan, the National Environment Agency (NEA) aims to up recycling rate to 60% by 2012.

If you compare this to some other countries, we are probably lagging in our recycling effort. However, considering the fact that recycling was quite unheard of several years back, we are progressing pretty well.

Starting from Nov 1, it has become mandatory to provide recycling receptacles in condominiums and private apartments. Since 2002, NEA has been nudging management councils and managing agents to set up recycling facilities but it was only greeted with low take up rate. I guess it is typical of Singapore's rule-based style to now make it mandatory just to get things going.

I welcome the move. With more bins placed within the private estates, inconvenience would now be less of an excuse for not recycling.

In conjunction with Earth Day 2007, NEA worked with major supermarkets and launched the first 'Bring Your Own Bag Day' (BYOBD) on 18 April 07. Since then, every first Wednesday of the month will be designated BYOBD. This is to encourage shoppers to switch to reusable bags instead of the single-use plastic bags.

I was already using reusable bags for grocery shopping way before the BYOBD thingy. I must say that there was visible resistance on the part of the cashiers to accede to my preference, perhaps because I slowed them down.

Since BYOBD, there has been a slight switch in attitude. I would not say that they welcome the use of reusable bags with open arms. Rather, they show less resistance. When I casually look around the other check-out counters, I do not see many other shoppers shoving their reusable bags to the cashiers. I guess it is going to take some time for the habit to change.

In Japan, 99% of Japanese municipalities collect and recycle steel cans despite not being required by law. The environment agency in Japan only mandates the recycling of PET bottle, glass containers, paper and plastic. To make recycling easy, containers are marked with 'Recycling Symbols' which clearly points consumers to direct the waste into the appropriate bins.

In Singapore, most people ping recycled items in the bins provided - any bin. Most of the time, probably 20% of the items ended up in the wrong bins. It is a case of low green awareness and the lack of public education on how each type of waste is to be disposed off or recycled.

For example, battery recycling is rarely heard of here even though there is a great concern about potential contamination to land and water by disposing batteries incorrectly. If you bother to read manuals for electronic products, you will often find instructions on the proper disposal of used batteries. Honestly, have you not been throwing all your used batteries in the same bin as you would have for all your other trash?

Many Singaporeans are not so concerned about recycling. For those who are, their recycling knowledge is often confined to old newspapers and magazines. They are often clueless on how to dispose items which are not commonly known to be recyclable. The next time you scratch your head on how to deal with your used handphones and batteries, the Singapore Environment Council has some tips for you.

If you have watched the movie Wall-E, you would have some ideas on how our planet Earth will look like when it is covered with trash.

Don't make that day come. Start recycling now.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Time Will Heal

The world is soaked in a gloomy mood as economic crisis looms.

The people are urging the Singapore government to extend help to the poor, the businesses and the sandwich class - practically everyone is yelling for help. This is not surprising considering the sharp downturn since September. Giants such as Lehman Brothers and AIG have collapsed or are being nursed, leaving every other person feeling jittery.

The Prime Minister said earlier this week that the 2009 Budget will be advanced by one month to January. All eyes will be watching if they will get what they wish for. Just like previous budgets during bad times, I do not expect a happy ending for everyone. One has to be realistic - the government can only give out so much.

I was at our Dinner and Dance last week. I would not say that it was extravagant in any way but the event gently nudged me to feel out of sync with the somewhat cheerless mood outside the ballroom. The party was planned way before the dark clouds were imminent. Otherwise, I believe that there might not be one considering the thick air of pessimism at the moment.

When the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) retrenched 900 of its workers, it started the wave of jobs cutting. Despite the unhappiness of the Workers' Union, more employers are expected to do the same. 2 days ago, Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) said that they will axed 1,000 jobs. Looks like the party has started.

Else where in the world, companies take turn to announce their job cutting measure. US bank Citigroup group has just announced plans to axe about 52,000 new jobs, on top of 23,000 cuts already made in April this year.

In Croatia, the government has banned Christmas and New Year parties in the public sector because of the global financial crisis. Japan's economy has entered its first recession since 2001 and the eurozone also officially slipped into recession since it was launched in 1999.

Companies on the brim of bankruptcy are looking to their government to render help. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are having some breathing difficulties and it is unclear if the US government, after spending US$700 billion to save the banks, will dish out more money to help the motor industry.

Some economists are arguing against government bailout as that will bring greater damage to the recession. Economic recession is a 'natural cleanser' to weed out weak companies. Companies in dire situations will be forced to reorganize and the winners will come out of recession stronger and the rest will be history.

Spending taxpayers' money to bail out badly run companies will not benefit the economy in the long run. Such government intervention will only delay the much needed 'healing process'.

Companies are not the only ones struggling.

Iceland, with its economy heavily dependent on the banking sector, is on its way to bankruptcy unless other economies come to the rescue. Feeling disappointed that 'old friends' such as UK and US are not willing to help, Iceland turned to Russia. When Iceland sought US$6 billion loan from Russia, many were nervous that Russia might be planning to "buy Iceland or good money". After weeks of delay, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) finally agreed to deliver a financial package to rescue the North Atlantic nation.

No one knows exactly when the dark clouds will be blown over. In a longer term, many believe that the current crisis will end after some kinks in the global economic fundamentals are ironed out.

They always say, 'time will heal'. Meanwhile, you just have to grit you teeth.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

An Unnatural Fate

An unusual and unfortunate incident happened at the Singapore Zoo on 13 Nov.

A zoo cleaner was attacked and mauled to death by the 3 Bengal White Tigers when he was in the enclosure. It is unknown why he went close to the animals but he was reportedly acting erratic.

I visited the zoo last year and the White Tigers were one of my favorites. The big cats were of an unusual coloration and that added a dash of mystery on their regal build. The Singapore Zoo adopts a rather open and 'cage-free' concept and thanks to that, I was able to observe the tigers up close. It was captivating to see them lazing sedately, hardly exhibiting any beastly instinct.

The Bengal White Tigers are usually found in India. Only one White Tiger exists in every 10,000 normal orange-coloured tigers, making them truly rare and amazing. The white coloration of the White Tigers is a result of gene mutation which can be passed from one generation to another. It is possible that both white and orange-colored tigers can be found in a litter. White Tigers grow faster and heavier than their orange relatives.

The White Tigers are often mistaken as albinos, which are completely white with pink eyes. Unlike the White Tigers, the albino tigers do not have any stripes.

There are several hundred White Tigers in the world and all of whom can trace their ancestry back to "Mohan", a White Bengal Tiger caught in India in 1951. There is an interesting story to the origin of all the White Tigers we see today.

One of the royalties in India had killed a white tigress and 3 of the 4 cubs. He had offered his guest to shoot the remaining white cub but he declined. He captured the white cub and named him "Mohan". All the White Tigers in the world today are the descendants of this cub.

The White Tigers are subject to extreme inbreeding because of the demand for their rare coloration. The only way to ensure white cubs is to have 2 white parents. If a White Tiger is bred with an orange-colored tiger, only half of the offspring will be white. Therefore, breeders prefer to breed 2 White Tigers.

Inbreeding is not natural and can lead to deformities, early deaths and still births. This has prompted some animal rights activists to call for a halt to the breeding of White Tigers altogether.

There are only a small quantity of white tigers in existence. The inevitable inbreeding problems have raged an on-going debates over the wisdom of breeding this animal. There are rising angry voices shaming the integrity of zoos which produce White Tigers for economic rather than conservation reasons.

I confess that I enjoy watching the White Tigers in captivities. I am curious of their rarity and I admire their elegance. Our thirst for such rare sights has prompted unscrupulous breeder to continue to breed White Tigers together. I am saddened by the fact that so many white cubs died or suffered in breeding programs just so that we get to feast our eyes and quench our curiosity.

After the attack incident, the White Tiger enclosure in the zoo was temporarily closed as 2 of the 3 tigers exhibited signs of stress. Barely a week later, the enclosure was reopen. This time round, more curious eyes were attracted to the exhibit, and probably adding more trauma to the big cats.

Perhaps, we should just leave the tigers in the wild, where they belong.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

'Wee' Will Not Drink

At the mention of the NeWater, you would either go 'Eww' or "Wow".

Singapore is a little island nation and natural water supply is scarce. In its continuous pursuit of a sustainable self-sufficiency model, NeWater study was initiated in 1998 on the viability of recycling water from treated sewage . Because of its unconventional source, many are taking a long time to accept its suitability as drinking water.

On the other hand, many applauded the success of NeWater and are keen to copy the technology back in their countries.

By now, there are a total of 4 NeWater factories producing about 75 mil liter of NeWater a day. This water is of potable standard but it is largely used for industrial purposes. The main reason for such diversion of use is mainly due to consumers' psychological barrier of drinking treated sewage.

If you are told that NeWater is cleaner and purer than tap water or bottled water, will you easily switch your stand? Perhaps not and you are not alone.

The US space agency is having a similar idea as the NeWater. They will be installing a water regeneration system in its space shuttle Endeavour which will distill, filter, ionize and oxidize wastewater - including urine -- into fresh water for drinking. The gear will help to ensure a good supply of fresh water for the station crew. One astronaut candidly said that the system "will make yesterday's coffee into today's coffee".

Now, the issue of drinking urine is going outer-space!

Space technology is constantly improving allowing spacemen to stay away from Earth over a prolonged time. However, they can only be away as long as their water supply can last them. With the use of the new system, the water issue can be set aside.

Tests have proven that the recycled water is safe and has past the blind taste test. But meanwhile, NASA has to defend criticism that they are taking recycling a little too far. While they have no lack of proof that the recycled water can be purer than the water we drink on Earth, not everyone can stop feeling disgusted.

For now, so long as we are presented with choices, conventional sources of water supply will always be preferred. The 'pee water' idea will take some time to go down well with everyone but I am quite sure that in a few generations' time, we will be looking back and be amused at our baseless fear.

Till then, I guess the idea of drink you own pee is just too much to stomach.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

It's Uncool To Be Hot

If you think global warming is not your problem, you have probably missed out the word 'global'.

Global warming refers to the increase of average temperature of the Earth which is the single one place that all of us live in. No one is immune to the adverse effects of global warming and thus making it everyone's problem.

The global surface temperature has increased in the past 100 years and it has been increasing at a faster rate. Each time the temperate change creeps up a little, it brings about a chain effect on other geographical phenomena such as rise of sea level, Arctic shrinkage and glacier retreat. These changes in turn bring about a domino consequences such as changes in seasonal timing and agricultural patterns.

In short, it affects our lives in an inescapable way.

A recent study discovered that the thickness of Arctic sea ice has dropped by as much as 49cm. The finding has caused a concern as the reading has been constant in the past 5 years. This is but one of the many discoveries that constantly raise concerns on what is going to happen in the near future.

Maldives, which is made up a group of atolls with 1192 islets, has very good reasons to be concern. Many of us know Maldives for its blue ocean and white beaches, ideal for scuba diving, fishing and windsurfing. What some of us may not know is that, Maldives is the country with the lowest 'highest point' in the world. What this means is that, it is under the greatest threat of any consequence of rising sea water.

Out of the islets, only 200 are inhabited with most of the rest less than 1m above sea level. Studies have suggested that the country could be submerged within 100 years. Its newly elected leader recently said that his government are in talks with several countries and they will want to buy land overseas to relocate its 380,000 residents.

The effect of global warming is now being felt in a bigger and visible way. It will not stop here unless something bigger and visible is being done - by everyone.

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol outlined a set of political understanding in relation to an environmental agreement. The main target under this agreement is greenhouse gas emission. 178 countries have since signed the treaty and committed to achieve its objective of "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

Singapore joined the treaty in 2006. Before that, the squeaky clean nation received a fair amount of criticism for not being 'green' in a planetary sense.

We have progressed and more green effort has been seen in recent years.

Interestingly the the green movement here is somewhat 'Uniquely Singapore'. Unlike in the West where green crusade starts from ground up, the 'green direction' here is largely government driven. In fact, consumers in Singapore are quite pathetic in their green awareness. This is probably due the affluent and comfortable life enjoyed in the past decades. It does not help that Singapore is branded one of the cleanest city in the world, causing an illusion that we are well ahead in the green movement.

Way back in the 1960s, the Singapore government was determined to turn the then filthy city into a 'clean and green' nation and it did. The people have since been led into the movement without first embracing and appreciating what green issues are all about. Ask anyone here about green movement, he is likely to share that it is a matter best left to the government.
The Singapore's paternalistic style of green movement is not about to go away so soon. Every year, the environment agencies spend a hefty amount to keep the city clean. They initiated campaigns after campaigns just so that the 'keep our city clean' message does not get diluted over time.

Looks like the 'green papa' in Singapore is not going to stop driving the green movement on its own. In 2005, The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) launched the 'Green Mark Scheme' to move Singapore's construction industry towards more environment-friendly buildings. A suite of incentives has been thrown in to entice participation and more carrots are expected to come along.

Since then, some private sector participation could be seen even though it is not clear to me whether this is a start of ground level consciousness or a good case of coercion. So far, more than 120 projects have been awarded the BCA Green Mark and the BCA aims to achieve 10 mil sqm of Green Mark buildings/year by 2009. I am not certain if the private sector is going to help to achieve this through the route of 'We Want To' or 'We Have To'.

In the long run, green movement in Singapore can only be sustainable if all levels of buy in are attained. That would mean having you and I knowing, believing and doing what is right to keep this planet alive. We live on this planet and just in case you are not aware, there isn't another place to move to, yet.

Do your part, now!

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