Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Moo Moo & Baa Baa

I have been to both North and South islands of New Zealand and I have fond memories of the beautiful scenery.

The two South Pacific islands make up more than 95% of New Zealand's land mass and they are so called simply because of their respective geographical locations, I think. I have never thought that there is anything wrong calling these islands that way, just like how North/South Korea and East/West Berlin are named.

I find it amusing when I read that these two huge masses of land have not actually been officially named.

In New Zealand, the New Zealand Geographic Board is responsible for assigning and approving names for all New Zealand places. In a research conducted by the board to investigate Maori names for the two islands, they discovered that for more than 200 years, the islands have never been legally registered.

After more than two centuries of oversight came an opportunity for the kiwis to have a hand in naming the islands. The board have decided that they will officiate the names of North and South Islands and at the same time, they will consult their people on alternative Maori names for the islands.

In early maps and documents, the North Island was marked with Maori name "Te Ika a Maui" which means "the fish of Maui" and "Te Wai Pounamu" meaning "the waters of greenstone" for the South Island.

I am as amused as I am perplexed at the newly discovered illegitimacy of these two long and well accepted island names. Why should there be such a big fuss about whether the names have been officially registered or not. If they are not, the board can just proceed to have it done and not many people would really have cared about the "correction" any way.

I do not think that the "non-official" status of the island names causes any dent to the sovereignty of New Zealand. So, does it matter that the names have not been registered for more than 200 years? I am sure there are more pressing issues to address, especially now that the global economic crisis is sparing no one.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that naming a place is a trivial matter. On the contrary, I think that the name of a place is more than just a label on the maps as it carries the essence of the history and the culture of the place as well. For a long time, New Zealand has been trying to do justice to Maori names. For that, they have come up with the idea of joint-language names as the official names. For example, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Stewart Island/Rakiura are now the official names for these places.

These joint-names have equal status and they are meant to be used as a single name and not two alternative names. As much as that being the intention, no one has stopped calling Mount Cook as Mount Cook and Stewart Island as Stewart Island.

New Zealand's bilingual situation is not new, especially to people here in Singapore. We have more than two languages to juggle with. The places in Singapore has an official name which may have their origins from Western, Malay, Chinese or Indian names. Where necessary, these names have been romanised into names such as 'Bukit Merah' or 'Choa Chu Kang".

Being a multi-lingual country, the issue of location names will continue to be touchy at times.

Public signages are meant to inform and guide and thus it is important that the public understands what is written on them. While most of the signages here are only displayed in English, some are supplemented with Chinese, Malay or Indian names as well.

You may say, 'the more the merrier' as that supposedly adds clarity to the signages. However, there are practical problems to have every sign cluttered with all four languages. I cannot imagine the chaos and confusion on the road if all the road signs and directions are multi-lingual.

Nonetheless, there are some attempts to accommodate all or some of the other three languages.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) spent more than S$2 million to put up signages in train stations in four languages. I am not sure how that has helped to make direction clearer, since majority of the people here read English.

When it comes to naming a new public place, the LTA also seek feedback and ideas from the public on official names of new train stations. Right now, the polling for the Downtown Line (Stage 1) is open to all from 17 Apr till 1 May and the public are given an opportunity to vote for their choice names. The preferred names will later be submitted to the Street and Building Names Board for approval.

So, should the new station outside Haw Par Villa be named "West Coast" or "Haw Par Villa"? You can give your preference at the poll. My choice - West Coast, as it is less mouthful. Go and pick yours.

Name is important. No doubt it a label to tell one apart from the other, it also accords some uniqueness to the named object. I have earlier written "What's In A Name" and "What's In A Gr8 Name" on why naming a person can be such a joy and pain.

I have an official name just like every else. However, at work and at home, the official name gives way to other unofficially given names. I do not feel that I am less recognisable just because hardly anyone calls me by the name which appears on my birth certificate.

Back to the bizarre (at least, it is to me) kiwi naming episode, I have this final advice to the Kiwis:

"Get that official registration thing done and over with. The names have worked well more 200 years and changing it now will only cause confusion. Move on to graver issues such as unemployment and inflation. But if you really must change them, you might want to consider 'Moo Moo' for the North Island and 'Baa Baa' for the South Island, duly named after what you are famous for."

I may sound like I have an issue with the names but I am perfectly fine with the place. I definitely would love to go back to the beautiful 'Moo Moo' and 'Baa Baa' one day.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

FYI Is "For Your Indigestion"

I wrote "Be Fairer To The Fairer Sex" on 7 Apr.

In the article, I lamented how women are expected to be better than men before they are considered equal. At about that time, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua was to become the first woman minister. I thought I just had to mention that notable milestone in the Singapore political scene as well as its significance in our journey towards gender equality.

I posted the article at 8.33 PM that day and what I did not expect was for Mrs Lim to drop me an email hours later at 1.26 AM, technically the next day, expressing her agreement with what I have written. It was not a long email but yet it has said so much. It was trully amazing.

This is what she wrote:

RE: Your Random Thoughts

Hi there

Enjoyed reading your thoughtful and interesting piece "Be Fairer to the Fairer Sex". You are spot on in many observations. There are indeed biases, intended or otherwise, that we women face. We can protest or raise awareness while seizing the opportunities as they come along.

Many women have told me they are very pleased with the appointment as the talk about gender-blindness in political appointments has been translated into action. Let's indeed see this for what it's intended to be and rally even more women into leadership positions.

Take care.

Lim Hwee Hua

Being a public figure, she must be used to reading comments about her in the Internet by now. For that, she probably would have a way to 'scan' relevant net contents, no differently from most other politicians.

Knowing what others say about you is one thing but responding to them is something else altogether.

Holding a portfolio as the Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, as well as Second Minister in both the Finance and Transport ministries, coupled with her traditional role as a wife and a mother, her schedule must be very tight. Amidst all the important and urgent tasks on hand, I could not have imagined seeing "Reply Vanilla" on her 'to do list'.

And yet, she did.

My job keeps me really busy and email is one of the major time-sucker. Typically, I would receive more than a hundred emails a day and I spend a considerable amount of time just opening them. Every other email appears to be screaming for my attention and the urge to ignore and delete is over-powering.

Some of the emails are junks while many others are chunks.

Junk mails are spams and they just add up to the number of unread mails in the inbox. "Chunk mail" is my own "endearing" term for super duper long emails or emails with a gazillion attachments. Both junk and chunk mails set my daily battle scene in my email inbox.

Many of my emails say "FYI".

On the surface, they do not seem to need anything from me. However, I have learnt not to be so gullible. These "Just for your info and no action is required" emails usually make a malicious about turn to haunt me. The senders find it legitimate to come to me for some actions subsequently because they have been 'keeping me informed' and thus I am assumed to have sufficient knowledge on the matter to do something for them. After awhile, "FYI" becomes "for your indigestion".

Then, there are loads of cc emails. It is tough to know for sure if the sender has conscientiously included me in the cc list, well, just to 'keep me informed', or, it is just a mindless action of clicking the "reply to all" button.

There is another type of email which I call "Singa" mails, named after "Singa, the Courtesy Lion". These emails really do not need my action and are usually very short. They are sent because the senders have been taught to say "please" and "thank you" from young. So they felt obligated to end the email exchanges by saying a nice last word such as 'Thanks".

More often than not, these "Singa" emails are nothing more than "Yes, noted" or "OK, will do". I find all these niceties totally unneeded in email communication. Together with spam mails, these "Singa" mails further hike my unread mails and thus giving an illusion that I have more undone tasks.

I realise that many office workers have developed the "Pavlov's dog-type" reaction to email alerts. The moment the "you've a mail" chime is sounded, productivity drops. Somehow, the need to at least look at the inbox becomes compulsive. After looking at the subject headers, it becomes irresistible to click on the newly received unread mail.

Some studies have suggested that by turning off that "you've a mail' alert, productivity can improve by 5% to 10%. So, it makes sense to have the right discipline on "email management" and not to be victimised by this pervasive technology.

Here are some of the ways you can stay sane:

1. Turn off "auto scan unread mail" - If you set it to 5 minutes, your work will be interrupted every 5 minutes with "you've a new mail" alerts. If you are doing something which requires uninterrupted attention, replace "5 minutes" with something more reasonable or switch the "auto check" feature off altogether.

2. Rid the easy ones - If you can get rid of an email within 1-2 lines, do it. Get it off your plate and get back to your work. Don't be too caught up in spending 45 minutes to compose one reply.

3. Write less - Verbose writing is frown upon. Emails are not epic literature and stop annoying your readers with lengthy replies. However, that does not mean that you should write elliptically, ignoring standard grammar. Singlish is also another great no no in official writing.

4. Don't reinvent the wheel - If you need to give similar replies, consider creating templates using built in 'mail template' feature or have them stored in word processor applications such as MS Word. Spending time doing things from scratch is not going to earn you any extra praises or bonus from your boss.

5. Be honest - If you know in your heart that you are never going to respond or do anything to an email, delete or archive it right from the beginning. Sometimes we keep these emails aside and tell ourselves that we will come back to them soon. Usually, nothing happens in the months to come. So, trust your instincts, listen to them, and stop trying to be perfect.

I have a busy schedule but it pales next to Mrs. Lim's. She probably has her way to manage her inbox and that is why she could afford to reply me.

Perhaps I can devise mine too. Any good tips?

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ugly Duckling No More

You have got to watch Susan Boyle sing, if you have not.

Two weeks ago, when I first read about the news that she has become a global phenomenon after her performance at the "Britain's Got Talent " show, I did not give it a damn. Almost every other season of such talent shows would unveil some "sensational singers" anyway. Do I really have to care if they have found another Kelly Clarkson, Jordin Sparks, Jennifer Hudson or David Archuleta? When I looked at Boyle's photos, I was even more sure that I was not interested to know more about her.

My reason was simple: Susan Boyle does not have the star look, at all.

Not just that, Susan Boyle is 47, plump, with unkempt hair, looking frumpy, far from being pretty and with an air of eccentricity.

However, I could not really put Susan Boyle aside as more news and talks continued to flood the media and the Internet.

I decided to watch the video of her performance, just to check out what this big fuss is all about.

At the talent show, she proclaimed that she dreamed of being a professional singer like the famous British West End star Elaine Page and she told the judges that she was going to sing "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables, which is not an easy number. You could see that the audience and the judges were showing their cynical expressions as if saying, "Oh, please! You are such a joke!"

I joined thousands of other viewers, snickered at her unreservedly. I was totally unimpressed with her overall appearance, even though I kept reminding myself that one shall not judge a book by its cover.

All this while, Boyle remained confident and she kept her smile on, as if oblivious to the audience's ridicule. The moment she opened her mouth, everyone was dumbstruck. All the sardonic grins instantly morphed into expressions of disbelief and even apology. The judges' eyes were wide open, the crowd went wild and by the time Boyle was done with her song, the judges and the audience were giving her a standing ovation.

Boyle became an instant star and I became an instant idiot, flushed with shame.

I was totally unprepared for what I heard and saw. At some point, I was closed to being moved to tears. It struck me hard that I should never have pre-judged anyone based on appearance. I am sure many others, including the judges, felt the same way too.

One of the judges, Amanda Holden, admitted that they had been "very cynical", and that the performance was the "biggest wake-up call ever". Even the usually cynical and blunt judge, Simon Cowell, could not stop smiling from ear to ear.

In the few days following that, her pictures were splashed on the front pages of papers in and outside Britain. She was also offered a seat on the Oprah's talk show and has appeared on Larry King's CNN show.

From time immemorial, people have been obsessed with packaging, especially in the entertainment industry. To be famous, an artist is expected to come with the right face, wear the right clothes, carry the right attitude, say the right stuff and preferably young. In this regard, Susan Boyle is a total contrast. She demonstrated how an ugly duckling can reach for the star without turning into a swan. She removed the deep-set prejudice we all have and showed that there is still so much human grace in this world.

First the audience was booing her at the British talent show and now the world is wooing her like a fairytale princess. By now, her video clips in YouTube would have more than 85 millions hits and it just tickles me to learn that Boyle had not even heard of YouTube before this. It looks like Boyle is set to stage a singing career for herself, just like how she has dreamed for.

Notwithstanding comments and interest hovering around her appearance, or the lack of it, Boyle was not the least bothered. It appears that she was not about to embark on some big time makeover with any image consultant. I believe that she is not going to put her energy on changing what she lacks but rather she will point her focus on where her strength lies.

Smart move.

I cannot imagine Boyle dolling herself up, trying to look like Mariah Carey or some hot puss. She is better off staying the way she is. After all, that is exactly why she is so loved.

The whole Boyle story represents hope. Somehow, it just reminds me of the story in Slumdog Millionaire, except that this time, it is real. May be it is the underdog thing or may be it is our love for fairytales. Whatever it is, Boyle's story is utterly moving.

Indeed, Susan Boyle does not need a makeover. Rather, those people with a stereotype bias mindset are in a great need of mental model reform. It is easy for anyone to spot a beautiful face but it takes real grace to see one's inner beauty.

It takes courage for us to face the world without trying to mask our flaws, however minor they may be. That is the kind of courage Boyle has. She is confident that the world should love her the way she is.

Boyle, oh, Boyle, way to go and continue to be yourself, your true self.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Are You Into Social "Nutworking"?

Lately, there has been a wave of quizzes in my Facebook (FB) newsfeed.

More than half of my FB homepage is flowing with results of my FB friends' quizzes and I cannot do anything about it. Almost every other person is attempting the sea of quizzes, especially ever since FB got its facelift.

The wide variety partly explains why these quizzes are so popular. You can find quizzes for the "younger", like "What Pokemon are you?" and for the "Young" like "What 17again character are you?".

Most of the quizzes are pointless like "Which animal are you?" and some are clueless, like "Ho, Ho, Ho". Occasionally, I see a normal looking one that goes, "Are you happy?".

There are also those which are down right silly like, "What kind of poop are you?" and those which are morbid and tell you, "When will you die?" and "How will you die?".

What explains this phenomenon? Why is everyone so keen on taking these quizzes and enthusiastically share the results with their friends?

Here's my reasoning.

People are naturally curious and interested about themselves. By doing a quiz, they get to find out about who they are, well, at least from the quiz-maker's point of view. Once they try some, they get the high from the results which are in their favor. They want more, and more. Sometimes the results may not please them. So, they will hit the 'More Awesome Quizzes' button and attempt other quizzes to make up for it. Before they know it, they are addicted to this new cyber drug.

Why would Mark Zuckerberg want this to happen in FB? I reckon that his idea of fun in FB could not be far from some element of commercialism. So, what exactly is in it for him?

First of all, think of the quizzes as a means for you to click from page to page as you attempt the questions. FB needs you to move to those pages where the advertisers have parked their commercial messages. You must have noticed by now that there are so many blinking buttons at various parts of the pages, waving at you, persuading you to click on them.

FB is selling eyeballs to the advertisers and they need yours to ogle at those commercial messages. In return, you get a few minutes of fun doing the quizzes and laughing at the silly outcome. So, in essence, FB users who are addicted, err... i mean, avid quiz takers, are actually helping FB to maximise their commercial cause. On top of that, FB also allows users to create their own quizzes so that they can help to further propagate the popularity of these quizzes and hence FB's profitability.

Afterall, FB is a free social networking site and it needs to get its money from somewhere. I take it that, this is the users' way of paying back.

However, you may be paying FB with more than just your eyeballs.

Each time you attempt a quiz, you will be asked to 'Allow' the application to use your profile information, photos, your friend's info, and 'other content' that is required for it to work. You will never know what is "other content" and you should also wonder why the application need your information in order for it to 'work'.

Some users are aware about the possibility of info abuse and infringement of privacy. However, not all are that bothered. Others are plain ignorant of the down side of social networking, while some are totally paranoid and will not click on any button.

Just what are we supposed to do anyway?

My take is that, nothing we do inside or outside the cyberspace is entirely safe. The way to manage our lives is not by sheer avoidance but by acquaintance. We need to learn about the DOs and DON'Ts of whatever we are engaged in, whether it is a matter of cyber social networking, driving on the road, diving in the ocean or trekking on the mountains. All of these can be fun and dangerous at the same time.

Social networking has been popular but it has received lots of criticisms, especially on the danger of data mining. The easiest way to stay away from this danger is to stay away from social networking sites like FB altogether. Alternatively, you can choose to learn more about it and follow some
simple advice.

Back to the FB quizzes... life is full of choices and I can suggest some. You can,

1. Stop doing the quizzes (and miss out some fun)

2. Hide them from your newsfeed so that no one knows "What kind of flower you are." (then, what is the point of doing them?)

3. Encourage your friends not to do it (and endure their snigger)

4. Go to 'application setting' and remove them (require quite a bit of effort)

5. Get rid of all third party newsfeeds, including the quizzes, by using Firefox add-on such as
Greasemonkey (if you now how)

6. Ignore everything I say above and continue to find out the result of "Are you stupid?" or "What kind of idiot are you?" quiz, and get loads of fun from them.

The choice is yours. Whatever it is, nothing is entirely safe or dangerous. Caveat emptor.

Now, wanna try "
What kind of Facebook user are you?" quiz? :]

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

PS I Love You: From The Ironman

I have something to say about Ironman - the race, not the movie.

To begin with, I do not even run or do anything close to being athletic. But I think I am getting a little overdose on Ironman, for a good reason.

A couple of months ago, I received a video clip on the Hoyt Team. It was so moving that I became sensitive at the mention of 'Ironman'.

The father and son team, Dick and Rick Hoyt, completed an Ironman race recently. There is nothing too unusual about the story initially until it hit me that Rick, suffers from cerebral palsy at birth in 1962 after his umbilical cord became wrapped around his neck. Notwithstanding that, his dad, Dick, has been participating in nearly 1000 marathons and triathlons with him. Their incredible feat is founded on a simple belief that "THEY CAN".

In those demanding races, Dick would push his son in a wheelchair, dragged him on an inflatable boat in the water and Rick would sit in front of a specially-built bike during the cycling leg.

Isn't that something?

Not yet. Not until you have watched the
video played with the Australia Hillsongs, 'My Redeemer Lives' . Many who have done so had tears welling in their eyes, moved by the love of the father. I was one of them.

Not too long after that, Aviva Ironman was held here in Singapore. I did not follow the event closely but a particular story caught my eyes. This time, it did not inspire me at all.

During the race on 22 March, someone scattered metal tacks on the road. As a result, about 30 to 40 participants had their bike punctured by the tacks and had to drop out from the race.

The incident marred the sportsmanship spirit of the event and brought shame to the race and Singapore. Totally uninspiring! I fail to understand why anyone would want to even do that.

Last week, I spotted another story which re-inspired me.

It was reported in the news that, Anthony Paine (above), who moved to Singapore from UK 15 months ago, will be taking part in the upcoming Asian Women's Welfare Association School (AWWA) triathlon on 19 April.
AWWA is a school for disabled children.

He is a first timer in triathlon. He is a dad of a 10-year old boy, Ralph, who is disabled. He is inspired by the Hoyts. He is doing the race to help raise funds for AWWA . He is aiming to change the perceptions in Singapore about disabled children. But most of all, Anthony is in the race because he loves his son.

The race is not going to be easy for Anthony but he knows he will get the much needed encouragement when he said, "When I'm out with the push chair and the bike, Ralph looks back at me and gives me an absolutely beaming smile and that's all I need."

You too can encourage him on that day at the Changi Beach Park or by making a donation to AWWA.

Love can really push the physical limits of Dick Hoyt and Anthony Paine and allows them to discharge so much positive energy they probably never knew they had.

In life, we need all the strength to overcome trying moments we encounter from time to time. The last thing we want is to drain the precious energy in us. I preserve mine by not letting any negative thoughts intoxicate me. You can do the same too.

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at, change.

"Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves." - Nathaniel Branden (Writer/Psychotherapist)

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Say NO To Plastic Bags

I close my eyes and try to imagine a modern world without plastic bags.... Err! I can't!!

Every year, people discard tons of plastic bags. Most of these made their way to landfills and incinerators. Those which went astray ended up choking the drains, cluttering streets, polluting water and causing harm to the environment in terms of visual blight.

It has been a long time since we started using plastic bags. The first plastic sandwich bags were introduced in 1957. In the 1970s, plastic bags became popular in department stores. Later, in the 1980s, they were widely used in the supermarkets too. Today, almost every purchase comes with a plastic bag or two and we cannot do without them.

Each time we bring home a plastic bag, we may not be conscious that we are bringing back a killer.

Every year, about 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and other marine animals are killed by plastic bags. They are victimised because we use about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags every year. These bags were probably used for a short while but they take hundreds of years to break down.

In the recent years, the awareness of this lethal monster is increasing and the global war against plastic bag is gaining momentum. That is really nice but the tough question is how fast we can contain environmental damage to the Earth.

Many countries have taken action to discourage the use of plastic bags. Some of these have rallied to imposed taxes or ban them altogether. Countries which have said no to plastic bags include Australia, Ireland, South Africa, Taiwan, India and Bangladesh.

In 1994, Denmark created the first plastic bag tax. By 2005, consumption declined by more than 50%.

In 2002, the Republic of Ireland saw the success of imposing a tax of 15 cents for each plastic bag. In five months, the new measure helped to cut their use by more than 90% and raise millions of Euros in revenue.

In 2003, a northern state in India introduced a new law to put anyone who used plastic bags behind bars for seven years or a fine up to 100,000 rupees (US$2000). In the same year, South Africa also got rid of thin plastic bags by law.

In 2006, Butan (below), which put happiness at the heart of government policy, decided to ban plastic bags on the ground that they make their people less happy.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the USA to ban plastic shopping bags. In the same year, Paris also joined the list to impose a ban with the rest of France following suit by 2010. Similarly in Belgium, the government introduced a tax on plastic bags.

In 2008, Shanghai in China took the first step to ban thin plastic bags to reduce pollution and save resources.

In Jan this year, South Australia became the first state in Australia to ban plastic shopping bags. In Spain, they hope to see the consumption of plastic bags down by half in 2009. Next year, Italy will ban the use of plastic bags after imposing a levy on it a decade ago.

Now, let's come back to Singapore.

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore consume
s about 2.5 billion plastic bags a year. Since 2005, the debate about the use of plastic bags has been getting louder. As a baby step to create awareness, the first "Bring Your Own Bag Day" (BYOB) was marked on 18 April 2007. Since then, every first Wednesday of the month is also marked as the BYOB day.

Will this initial soft approach be a prelude to making plastic bags illegal or a stepping stone to the imposition of tax? I am not entirely sure although I do not rule them out.

This year, we mark the 2nd anniversary of BYOB. But, I must say that I am not seeing any visible result in the campaign so far.

What would it take for our lawmaker to introduce a ban? Is NEA actively checking on the consumers' behavior? Or, is this just a show so that Singapore does not look out of place amidst the rest of the world, which is fighting the global war against the use of plastic bags?

If a total ban on plastic bags is not feasible, will the government consider imposing a plastic bag tax? After all, we already have tobacco tax and liquor tax and one more sin tax would not be unthinkable. Well, perhaps not now but after the current economic situation improves.

Earth Day 2009 has just passed. Thousands of Singaporeans participated in the event on 28 Mar and voted for Earth. Some switched off their lights for an hour and others supported the cause in some other ways. The whole idea of Earth Day is to save the Earth. Similarly, Singapore can also play a more active role in cutting down the use of plastic bags for the same reason.

The solution is simple: Bring a reusable shopping bag with you all the time. It is almost effortless as it weighs much less than your mobile phone, iPod or PSP. Besides, it is also affordable and there is really no excuse not to have one. For years, I have been carrying a reusable bag with me. You can do the same too.

The next time you shop:

1. Use your own reusable bag, otherwise,
2. Decline bags for small purchases
3. Ask the cashiers to pack more purchases into the bags
4. Ask the cashiers to avoid double-bagging

Come on, you know you have been guilty. It's time for redemption.

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