Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 26 2023

Army Days: The Video

A few years ago I was transferring some old VHS tapes to DVDs when I came across footage that I had made during my time as a conscript soldier in Taiwan. I’d nearly forgotten about that video, but watching it again, I was amazed at what I’d managed to capture.

I was nearing the end of my military service in late 1997. Thanks to the entrenched seniority system tradition I had relatively few duties apart from regular training and managing our base’s Karaoke bar, or KTV as we called it. Some of the officers had become aware that in my pre-military days I had been a camera operator at a major cable network; they called on me to film some official functions and promotional videos, so I was allowed to bring my camcorder, a JVC GF500 that was already eight years old at that point, onto base for a short time.

But it seemed a shame to miss such an opportunity to record the strange, unknown world of military conscript life in 1990’s Taiwan, hidden as it was behind walls and guards, away from civilian life, so one weekend afternoon when the base was at its emptiest, I took out the bulky JVC and walked cautiously around filming things. When I did encounter other soldiers, I’d offer explanations such as “Just making sure this thing works ok” or “Recording stuff to remember this by,” etc. Many thought it was some kind of photographic device as they’d seen me taking still pictures before, something I’d been doing since my arrival at the base two years before. When I was a rookie I’d had to hide disposable film cameras, then available at convenience stores, in my uniform, but eventually I was designated the official base photographer and could take photos a little more openly.

The other soldiers, even the officers, seemed ok with me taking video on base, and I grew more confident, although still only daring to film during leisure times. I recorded the mundane minutiae of military life from a conscript’s point of view, from washing dinner trays and playing sports to guard duty, office work, equipment maintenance and even managing the various cats and dogs that found their way onto base. The KTV was featured prominently as that was my domain, and soldiers could feel a bit more free and open there.

The most interesting aspect of the video was when soldiers opened up to me about how they felt about military service, being made to sacrifice years of their lives in order to counter the threat of attack and invasion that had lasted decades at that point (and continues to this day) due to the PRC’s territorial ambitions. The sons of politicians, high-level gangsters and other rich families could often finagle their way out of service, but most young men saw it as an inevitable part of life at that point, something that could only be endured and put behind them as quickly as possible.

Years ago, when I transferred the footage to DVDs, I thought, “This would be a really interesting video.” And then I put it aside as I was busy with other projects. But recently I dug them out again and decided it was time to make something of them. My first “old VHS” videos were from college and fairly well received, but this one felt different. Surely there is no other such footage out there, I thought. First of all, there were no readily available recording devices at the time that would have been accessible to an ordinary conscript soldier. Even as recently as 2013, a soldier was incarcerated and basically killed by the punishment that caused him to experience heatstroke, all for the supposed “crime” of just having a mobile phone on base, though by that time mobile phones were already common and included cameras. Personal vendettas were suspected in that case; it resulted in a huge public outcry and criminal charges for many of the perpetrators.

Another factor in my decision to publish the video, aside from the fact that everyone in the video has likely since left the military in one way or another, is the fact that the base itself no longer exists. The division relocated at some point in the 2000’s, and the base structures lay derelict for several years, gradually being retaken by nature. I revisited it at that point, entering through a hole in the back wall and spending a few hours exploring and photographing the overgrown ruins. But then in the 2010’s the place was completely razed; nothing is left, and while there is talk of some new development, it remains too far away from Miaoli’s city center for easy access, even though a new wider highway has replaced the old winding two-lane mountain road that existed when I served there.

So earlier this year I spent a month or two going through the old footage, editing it into some kind of order, splicing in photos I’d taken on my last visit before the place was razed. Surely this is one-of-a-kind material, I thought with some amount of trepidation. My previous video about my time as a student at Tunghai University had garnered a bit of attention from the nostalgia crowd as it too is a window to another world, albeit a more accessible one. And some of my photography of military service has been criticized as being a bit too “honest” and showing a side of military life some didn’t feel “appropriate.”

I needn’t have spared the matter that much thought, however. After I uploaded the video to YouTube, there has basically been no response. Which, to be honest, is to be expected; what means a great deal to me doesn’t necessarily mean anything to others. Non-Taiwanese people most likely don’t care and can’t understand most of the language in the video, and Taiwanese viewers might just want to forget those days. Fortunately, I am not a “serious” YouTuber with flashy titles, jump cuts, soundtracks, millions of subs or the whole WHATSUP GUYS SMASH THOSE BUTTONS! shtick. That would be a lot of pressure, and even those folks are getting more desperate as their YT-derived income gravitates increasingly towards AI-generated garbage.

In fact, the more Internet companies move away from real content, and by “real” I don’t just mean non-AI-generated content but honest, candid, empathetic connections with any level of subtlety, the more I miss those days, back when I would lay on my bunk in the barracks reading articles in WIRED magazine about a dreamy, net-connected future of equality and thoughtful discourse that, almost three decades later, has disappeared into the encroaching overgrowth as inexorably as the old base itself.

posted by Poagao at 3:25 pm  
Jun 12 2023

Two Stages

So I performed on two very different stages this last weekend.

Hauling my instruments across the bridge in the wind and rain to Chez Paradise wasn’t pleasant, but we had to practice at least once before we headed down to Longtan to play a show in the large covered square in front of Longyuan Temple. Practice? you say incredulously. Yes, dear reader, although we usually wouldn’t need to go to such extremes, the Ramblers were down three players this game, as Cristina, Zach and Thumper were all off in distant lands, frolicking with familial folks and whatnot. We called upon the Auxiliary Rambler Forces, namely Sylvain and Hu Chun, who have come to our aid several times in the past, to fill in. But we needed to practice. I’d thought I was running late, but it turned out that I was the first to arrive (after David, who is house-sitting at Le Chez). Slim was under the weather and didn’t appear for another couple of hours, but he was looking sharp (if tired) when he did.

Our driver Mr. Gao, top-knot well-coifed as usual, met us in the alley; we packed into his van and headed down the jam-packed highway. Soundcheck was at 4:30, and we were met in front of the temple by Chenbl’s “Little Aunt” (his mother’s youngest sister), who is herself a famous street singer in Longtan. Her nickname is Xiao Long Nu (小龍女), known for her melodious singing voice. Everyone remarked at the family resemblance, not just in looks but in singing voice; Chenbl also loves to sing and is quite good as well…his aunt told us, “Chenbl was always singing Teresa Teng songs as a kid!” which is eminently believable. David, being the coffee aficionado that he is, had sniffed out the best coffee stand at the street market in front of the temple, so I joined him in sampling tasty some ice coffee, along with a cinnamon bun from a neighboring stall.

We went through soundcheck for all our instruments; I had clip-on mics for my trumpet and baritone, and the bass mic was booming nicely. We had to wrap up quickly as the gods, upon their palanquins and accompanied by lion dancers and various high-level officials, were returning, their imminent arrival heralded by the usual fury of fireworks. We had some time before the show, so I threw caution to the winds and left my umbrella in the temple green room, setting out for a stroll up the street and around the eponymous lake of Longtan where people were paying to take dragon boat rides across the water under the big white bridge.  I took a detour through a covered side market when it started raining again, by an old camera shop whose window contained the same camera that we had when I was growing up, an Argus Seventy-Five. It was the first camera I ever knew, and one which I was always walking around the house with, looking down through the glass viewfinder. When I got around to researching it, I found that it was actually not that great a camera, but I had fun with it before I got my own camera (a Pentax K1000) when I was 15.

Chenbl's aunt took this pic of us playing on the stage at Longyuan TempleOur show was supposed to start at 8:30, but the stage was full of Very Important Politicians/lion dancers, so we didn’t get on stage until a little later, and our show was cut so short I didn’t even play the baritone, and the trumpet for just one song (At least they didn’t cut our pay). Chenbl’s aunt sat in the front-row section reserved for Very Important People (“Everyone here knows me,” she said, and I believe her), making videos and taking selfies with us in the background, and the crowd seemed to really enjoy the music. And while we were still the Muddy Basin Ramblers, it was a rather different experience minus the missing members…softer, less raucous. Not worse, just different. Sylvain and Hu Chun played wonderfully, of course, but you can’t replace saxophone and violin with guitar and mandolin and expect the same sound.

Mr. Gao whisked us back to Xindian much more quickly after traffic had died down in the late evening, though it was still raining. I hauled my gear back to the Water Curtain Cave and went straight to bed. It had been quite a day.

Then I woke up on Sunday morning and wondered if the comedy show was going down.

Allow me to provide a little background: A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on one of the VR groups I belong to, inviting people to attend a VR recreation of the famous improv comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” called, imaginatively and no doubt for copyright reasons, “Whose Turn Is It Anyhow?” I’ve long been a fan of the show, so last Sunday morning I showed up at the space in Meta Horizon Worlds, and while talking with the organizers, was invited on stage to participate. I demurred at first, wanting to see exactly what they were doing, and although some of the younger participants had, uh, questionable taste in their choice of jokes, it was actually an interesting experiment. So when they asked me again if I wanted to go on stage, I said ok.

And I gotta say, it was a blast. They organized mostly the same games as the show, with four players on stage, and while there were some technical issues, it went pretty well. I had to really think about what I was going to say, but also react quickly. The organizers and the audience both seemed to like what I was doing and invited me back. I said we’ll see.

So, back to Sunday morning, just out of bed after a long day in Longtan, drinking coffee to revive and recover: I thought, I need to take it easy today, but…what the hell, let’s see what they’re doing. I went back to the space, inviting my friend Sean, who also grew up in Florida, and immediately felt a little foolish when we arrived as the place was empty. “I guess they’re not doing it?” I said, disappointed, thinking, but it had been such a good idea.

The Whose Turn Is It Anyhow stage on Meta Horizon WorldsThen a bunch of avatars popped in and waved to us. “You’re in the wrong instance! We’re at the new space!” Oh, ok. We ported to the new space, and it was full of people. I was curious to see if the first time had been a fluke, but no; I spent the next couple of hours on stage doing improv with the other three players, and again, it was SO much fun. We did the alphabet game, the bachelor game, and Questions Only, where I was a little too good, leaving my partner stranded on the sidelines for nearly the entire time (That was rude of me btw; I will try not to do that in the future). The organizers had wanted to do Props, but the mechanics were wonky so they held off on that one, which is a shame as that’s one of my favorite Whose Line games. One of the player’s native language wasn’t English, but despite being out of the loop regarding certain cultural references, she did a great job. The room stayed maxxed out (which isn’t saying a whole lot as the Meta Horizon rooms are only able to hold 30-something people), but someone was streaming it on Tik Tok, so there was that.  The jokes definitely got more than a little risqué, and I’m sure that the Meta staff were “observing” the space, but at no point did anyone get out of hand or disrespectful. Horizons is the best place for that kind of thing, due to the fact that the Meta avatars are better and more animated than avatars in other spaces (so far…we’ll see what happens when Apple really gets into the game; their first attempt at a headset, the Vision Pro is already amazing in so many ways, not least of all price). The way my mind works, I have been thinking of better versions of what I said on stage, which is a little concerning, but then again, probably better to be fixated on that than my usual array of anxieties.

People have told me they could never get on stage in front of people, and I get it. Slim, as animated as he usually is on the stage, is always muttering “Heebie jeebies!” before shows, even though we’ve been doing this kind of thing for literally decades. I don’t really get that nervous in either case, but it was interesting to compare the two experiences. I actually felt more exposed on the VR comedy stage than I did on the real life musical stage. Perhaps that is because I’m used to playing music on stage and more or less know what I’m doing, whereas I’d never actually done improv before this. There are also many common elements between the two, e.g. reacting to other players, coming up with new lines, responding to the audience, timing, volume, tone, etc. Both leave me feeling emotionally drained and high at the same time, weirdly.

Perhaps in the future, as more of our lives move towards online experiences, and virtual and actual worlds meld into each other with MR and AR development, the whole concept of “being on stage” will evolve into something entirely different than how we think of it now. Certainly with the disappearance of “mainstream” media as the defining factor in what and whom we chose to engage with, the way we move socially in any space is being redefined.

There is of course the potential for all of this to devolve into a massive dumpster fire, but then again it might actually bring people closer together. In any case, it should be interesting to see where all of this goes.



posted by Poagao at 3:42 pm  
Apr 24 2023

Goings On

Summer is making a grudging entrance, with sporadic heat and rain typical of spring here. I recently bit the bullet and bought a new air conditioning system, one that is not only far quieter and more efficient than my last unit (which, following some negotiation, came with the apartment when I bought it 18 years ago), but also includes a heating function so I don’t have to rely on a leaky oil heater in the winter. Looking forward to having a nice toasty warm apartment on those cold rainy days. The government also provides subsidies for upgrading to more efficient units, which takes some of the punch out of the (still substantial) price tag, which includes not only the units but the installation. The workmen who installed the unit were efficient and professional, and my place only smelled like betelnut for a few days afterward.

The article I recently wrote and photographed for Standart Magazine concerning Taiwan’s coffee culture has been published. They got in touch with me at kind of the last minute, so for a couple of weeks I spent every day going to various cafes, roasters, bean sellers, etc., talking to them and taking photos and generally learning a lot about the development of coffee in Taiwan and how it seems to parallel our democratic development, which makes sense if you consider the era of relative increase in democratic discourse that followed the advent of coffeehouses in other places. Chenbl and I traveled down to Taichung to visit a coffee expert, then renting a car to drive up into the mountains to visit a coffee farm, which was a nice change of pace. The staff at Standart, which is a European publication, were great to work with, and it was nice to have a “mission” so to speak. You can see some of the work I made during that time here.

In other news, Maciej Dakowicz recently held one of his photography workshops in Taipei. Maciej and I first met at a Burn My Eye exhibition opening at a festival in London back in 2012, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. He messaged me about shooting in Taipei as the last time he’d been here was way back in 2003; obviously a lot has changed, and I gave him a few suggestions. When the group arrived Chenbl and I took them over to Snake Alley for dinner at Wang’s Broth, and I met up with them on their subsequent excursions in Taipei and Keelung. As I observed their process, it occurred to me that how I go about engaging in my photography is quite different from most people. Then again, a workshop is not most people’s normal interaction with photography; it is deliberately more intense and action-packed, with set goals and the pressure of producing a certain amount of work. Still, they seemed surprised that I pretty much always have a camera on my shoulder and another in my bag, no matter what I’m doing. For me, unless I’m on assignment, I just go about my life and photos just kind of happen. Tagging along with their group, I felt a bit like a slacker, only taking photos I happened to see while they strode purposefully down the street, cameras held at the ready in front of them, their eager gaze hunting for targets with each step. The group certainly had talent; Maciej had showed me their Instagram feeds beforehand and they’d made some very nice work. Most, it seemed, were returning students, and after witnessing the ease and synergy in the group I could understand why.

After a week, though, the workshop was over, and they had to leave. It was nice getting to know them, and I always enjoy seeing my home through the fresh eyes of visitors. Some of the students said I should hold more international photography workshops here…it’s worth considering.

In other other news, the Ramblers played a gig last weekend at the Spring Wave music festival at a “glamping” complex in Taichung. Glamping is apparently short for glamorous camping, with luxury tents and food trucks and nice showers; the adjacent fields were covered with individual tents, and rows of food stalls lines the path between the four stages. The audience was mostly fairly affluent young people, and our show went pretty well. Little Scarlett collected quite a few interesting rocks. We’ve also been working on our latest album, recording at Cristina and Zach’s house before proceeding to an actual studio next week. Last weekend I recorded four different songs on four different instruments: trumpet, euphonium, tuba and bass; it was a very long weekend, needless to say. But the songs David’s chosen for this album are real top-tapping earworms; going back to our roots, so to speak. It should be a good one.


posted by Poagao at 11:57 am  
Apr 20 2023

Oops All Bots

In the future, we might ask: “Is that a photograph? Like, a real photograph? Did that happen?”

In the past, suspicions sometimes arose that this or that photograph was staged or composited, or if elements might have been added or removed. But now that AI-generated imagery is on the cusp of being indistinguishable from actual photography, the seeds of doubt could very well grow into a general distrust of the medium itself. It will be a sad day when we look at an image and our imagination, dulled by doubt, no longer conjures up the stories, emotions and sense of wonder at a scene we assume never happened. 

It’s not mainly photographers who are adopting botography at the moment; it’s the corporations, the bosses who can increase their profits by cutting photographers from their payroll, media outlets that desire but aren’t willing to pay for timely topical images, and, of course, individuals who previously failed to garner any attention by using cameras. This includes the usual bloggers, influencers and videographers whose content centers around photography but whose work was relentlessly pedestrian until they began to use AI to generate images they could pass off as their own work. “Are AI-generated images photography?” they pose to their chatbots with no sense of irony, as if it’s a real question, while soliciting subscriptions for their AI-themed masterclasses.

But eventually the more-oft asked question will be “Are any images photography?” as AI-generated images become so ubiquitous that actual photographs not only will not stand a chance in comparison, but any sufficiently interesting composition will automatically be dismissed as the result of a few keystrokes in an AI program. What I fear most is not that question, but that question becoming so irrelevant that it isn’t even asked. For what will be the appeal of such imagery when it is as common as cups? Will future photographers who go out into the world to make images using actual cameras be seen as the kind of people who refuse mass-produced tableware and make their own, the reaction being ok, cool I guess, but why?

After all, AI will be able to make any individual look “better” than any photographer could, more or less instantly and at a fraction of the cost. If Instagram and Tiktok have taught us anything, it’s that most people prefer to be portrayed as they imagine they look rather than how they really appear. The focus of most street photography these days seems to be clever compositions with people placed Just So in the frame, arranged among attractive colors/lights/shadows, regardless of emotional impact; this is something that AI can do with its theoretical hands behind its virtual back, with none of the controversy involving personal image rights or privacy rights. Reportage, as we’ve seen, has become nearly as vilified as street photography, and was already being dismissed as “fake news” even before the advent of AI.

Think about who is going to be using these image-generation programs and for what purpose; these programs come from the same corporate entities that have been buying off politicians, exploiting workers, eradicating entire photojournalism departments and recording us and our online activities 24/7 while simultaneously demonizing the act of individuals witnessing each other. When we abandon the act of witnessing reality, we risk the erasure of stories these entities feel we should not see, realities that, if more widely known, would threaten their hegemony. In retreating to our overpriced apartments and keyboards dimly lit by entry forms, we are abandoning the actual world, and not only will its wonders fade from our collective memory, its myriad problems will go unnoticed, unconsidered, unsolved. While the pundits rail against virtual reality apps, the actual disappearing world is happening at a much more intimate level.

It is no coincidence that the camera market is disappearing just as AI image generation is coming to the fore, that photojournalism is disappearing, or that long-established photography sites like DPreview are being abandoned by huge corporations like Amazon. Photography has always been a dangerous pursuit; showing truth to a world based on deception is one of the most perilous things one can do. But to those threatened by aspirations to speak truth to power, botography is a godsend. 

It’s been just over five years since I wrote an article called Photography Never Died, by which I meant that true photography has never been all that popular; the couple of decades from the 1990’s to the 20-teens saw the confluence of online popularity contests with digital cameras, but photography itself continued on much unchanged. But now I can’t help but wonder what bearing witness will even mean in a world full of bots, and I can imagine our future selves asking: “Did that happen?”

posted by Poagao at 4:04 pm  
Mar 27 2023

‘New’ Video: W&L Days

A while ago I transferred some of my old collection of VHS videos onto DVDs, and probably not in the best way considering I’d need as much resolution as possible to make them watchable (that would require a more serious setup than I have access to). I let them sit for years, thinking I’d get around to the rest of them someday, but lately I came across them and figured I might as well make something of them now.

The first time I ever appeared on video was in 5th grade in Ms. Vanartsdalen’s English class at Ed White Elementary in El Lago, Texas. I was horribly shy and muttered a few words of introduction into the camera, and that’s all I remember. I already posted our high-school video projects we made for Mrs. Bell’s history class. The next time I had access to a video camera was during my first year of college at Washington & Lee University. I borrowed the school’s camera during one of the breaks I spent on an empty campus in lieu of returning to Florida, filming myself practicing in my room in the now-demolished Gilliam Dorm, or my friends at the now-demolished International House (Are you sensing a trend here? Yeah, W&L is all about maintaining the history it deems worthy, everything else can GFO). I hauled the camera up to the room of one of my few good friends at the time, Will Avery, who had a room to himself due to the fact that his original roommate refused to share a room with a Black student. Another W&L “tradition” I guess.

For some reason I can’t find any tapes from my sophomore year, when I filmed a silly movie for Professor deMaria’s media course I was taking at the time. It was called “Minks” and roasted the frat system, to nobody’s delight at the time. Then I came to Taiwan, only returning to Lexington to finished my senior year, but now with my own big-ass JVC camcorder in hand. I’d picked it up in Hong Kong over the Lunar New Year break in 1990, and subsequent videos I made with it at Tunghai University and when I was doing my army service in Miaoli should be forthcoming if I ever get around to putting those together.

In any case, my senior year at W&L was rather lonely. I missed Taiwan, and most everyone I’d befriended before I’d left had graduated, though Will was thankfully still around, as well as the other Black students living at Chavis House, and one of my suite-mates, Gary Hugh Green III, was cool and fun to talk to (He went on to get his law degree from Harvard; I stayed at Gary’s empty Redondo Beach house at the turn of the millennium after finishing film school in NYC, but we’ve since lost touch). I exchanged letters (yes, letters! Remember those?) with my friend Clar, who was a student at a nearby college, came to visit and made tabbouleh in our bathroom. I had my own room in a suite in the then-new Gaines Hall, due to the fact that a white student didn’t care to be sharing a suite with someone who was a quarter Black (tradition!). The Welcome sign I stuck on our outside door, written in Chinese, was ripped off, covered in racial epithets, and thrown on the hallway floor. But I’d made friends with the Taiwanese cadets at the neighboring Virginia Military Institute, where I was taking trumpet lessons from then-Captain Brodie.

It’s not a long video, just over 15 minutes, but it is a window into my time at that unfortunately (and perhaps aptly)-named institution some three and a half decades ago. Perhaps in the future AI will be able to recreate them in better resolution, but this will have to do for now.

posted by Poagao at 11:22 am  
Mar 16 2023

In the End

The world was about to end, and here we were.

I was chatting with my friend Cassius, a music producer in the U.S. whom I’d met 41 months earlier according to the window above his head, beyond which I could see the river and mountains that surrounded the campfire, set on a grassy cliff on a bright sunny day. I’d met many of the people I’d come to call friends there, including documentary photographer Abdul Aziz and saxophonist Steven Strouble, both of whom introduced me to even more interesting places, galleries and studios where creative people could gather and talk about all the art and music being created and on display around them. So I figured the campfire would be a good place to watch the world end, as that was where I’d first experienced Altspace, a virtual reality social world that had been bought by Microsoft in 2017, saving it from dissolution. 

Now the company had decided to condemn the community to that very fate, on March 10th, 2023. We’d been told 10 p.m. would be the deadline, but then it was announced that everything would end at 2 a.m.

Naturally, everyone had showed up to watch, catch up, and just be present for what we all felt was the premature conclusion of a historic accomplishment in online social interaction. There are other VR social spaces now, such as VRChat, Horizon, Spatial, etc., but Altspace had that peculiar blend of just enough freedom combined with decent moderation and connection tools that let community events blossom. When I first encountered it in the late teens, using what now seems like a laughably primitive Samsung GearVR headset, Altspace only allowed for robots and basic Lego people-esque avatars, but these were then replaced with much more expressive representations that were cartoonish enough to avoid the uncanny valley while still providing a wide choice of attire and features that static screenshots mostly fail to convey. Mouths moved with our speech, and our eyes flicked and blinked in a realistic fashion based on the algorithm some coder at Microsoft probably worked for months perfecting. Now, of course, headsets are beginning to offer face and eye tracking to increase immersion and expressiveness in avatars. 

Alas, that was the last significant update, and as Microsoft shifted its attention elsewhere and adopted a more hands-off approach, moderators were withdrawn, leaving us more or less to our own devices. Thankfully the communities in which I was active were largely self-moderating. While I often felt uneasy in other spaces, always on alert against being surrounded by mocking children or toxic “adults”, Altspace would show me where my friends were, often all in the same space, and off I’d go to hang out and chat and learn and just feel a part of a supportive group of cool people. It was enormously satisfying to just kick back and listen, talking sometimes but often just chilling, drifting from conversation to conversation, amid a group of talented, interested, intelligent and empathetic individuals with all kinds of backgrounds and origin stories. 

It wasn’t always wonderful, of course. People still engaged in the inevitable petty beefs with the accompanying drama. Some people would get drunk and/or high during events such as the Freestyle Power Hour, where anyone could go up to the mic and rap or play or whatever they wanted. That venue was in a basement space at the opposite end of a nighttime alley from the shell of a white 1970’s Cadillac coupe nestled behind a chain link fence. I played a few times there myself, accompanying others to the netlagged beats, and while there were times the content of certain inebriated freestyling ventured into questionable waters, those in attendance were also free to call others out on their BS, and we could all talk about it. In the end, everything was cool.

Other spaces I loved: The Harlem Film House, a complex located in the middle of a street of brownstones. It featured not only a full theater, lobby and immense gallery, but also, if you knew which black wall to walk through, the Boom Boom Room, a golden, glimmering 30-era Art Deco space with piano and drums on a small stage, stately cigar bots, and chicken and waffles served at every booth. World-builder Kipp York made other vast, exotic space-based worlds that gave swank space-age vibes, planetoids floating majestically overhead. Someone made a virtual Waffle House, which had been the scene of riotously hilarious exchanges when everyone got together there. Other people ran talk shows and standup comedy events with lavishly appointed sets and audience spaces. Much more serene but no less delightful was a comfy Scandinavian house rendered in exquisite detail, its muted white and gray decor accented by the pattering of rain outside, perfect for just sitting alone and contemplating. 

I’d visited my own Altspace home, a bright loft apartment overlooking an oceanfront city, one last time earlier that final day to save some shots to remember it by after it too was gone. I’d hung up my photos there, printed large on the walls so that others could see my work properly, the only place in the world where that was possible outside of expensive and time- and space-limited gallery shows. 

After the world failed to end at 10, I traveled to one of the many apocalypse-themed events, most of them crowded to capacity. I found myself in a field of waving grass filled with sound of crickets and birds, the other people surrounded by auras of various colors. As the clock ticked down, the host warned that he would be muting everyone so they could meditate up until the end. “Whatever you have to say, say it now,” he said. 

I decided there would be more than enough silence after tonight. I tried to get back into the campfire, but it was full, and in any case I didn’t feel like ending the world in the midday sun, so I went instead to a dance club where many of my other friends had gathered for the final moments. It was a boisterous affair. I was glad to see my old friends Ty, Key, Moshef, Sasha, Blue, and Micah, all familiar faces, voices and attire, from Moshef’s wool cap and dreds and Key’s electric turquoise hoodie to Micah’s usual orange patterned shirt and trilby hat, and I was just enjoying being in their company, chatting and pretending that the world wasn’t about to end. The DJ played “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” as the clock ticked down to the last few minutes; people were trading contact information to make sure we could find each other again.

Two o’clock struck, and…we were still there. “Are things slowing down?” Micah asked. I thought the frame rate might be dropping, but I couldn’t say for sure. Three minutes passed, then four. The DJ had launched another playlist. The walls and ceiling flickered briefly. We kept chatting.

Then, at precisely 2:07, everyone stopped moving, and silence fell as the music abruptly ceased. I found myself looking around a room full of mannequins. Several seconds later, the room vanished, replaced by a text box floating in an empty space, reading: “Connecting, first attempt of 10.” Nine attempts later, the program closed. Around the real, actual world, hundreds, perhaps thousands of actual people took off their headsets, severed from their friends, their spaces, their community. 

It was over.

I put my headset away and went to bed, feeling empty but thankful that I’d at least been there until the end. The next morning I got up looking forward to joining my friends in Altspace before remembering that it was gone. The people I knew were out there, but scattered among other platforms, spaces that didn’t feel as safe or inclusive or welcoming. We might find that again, but the future of VR is perennially in doubt.

Why is that, though? Why has this form of communication always been so ridiculed? In the early days the hardware was cumbersome and the experiences less than pleasant, but those days are long gone for most purposes. The mood today for VR enthusiasts feels like being laughed at for being a nerd, being into video games and anime back in the day…now that those things are cool and mainstream, VR has taken their place. In any case, the objection would seem to be the same: “You are rejecting our presence, taking yourself out of our realm of control and interacting with people other than us, people you have chosen over us, people we can’t see, and that makes us hurt and angry.” People who want to put the pandemic behind them might have exacerbated that sentiment, VR perhaps coming to represent another vestige of those years of masks and social distancing. Or maybe they’re just still mad at those kids who elected to play D&D instead of playing with them. And as more public spaces disappear and more people move from neighborhoods designed for personal interaction to the isolation of gated communities and high-rises, I feel while text-based social media, which has proven time and again to be simply disastrous when it comes to fulfilling our social needs, is not the answer, VR very well could be.

There’s a simple reason for this: You don’t tend to find the mass hysteria encouraged by enraged text-based social media in VR; by its very nature, conversations only happen among limited groups of people, just like real life. Unlike in the physical world, however, nobody is on their phones; if you’re there, you’re engaged. If someone is bent on making trouble, things go pretty much as they do in “meatspace” minus the possibility of physical violence. And that aspect is huge – the feeling of physical presence without the threat of physical danger, something that most articles about VR completely ignore in favor of shallow discussions about resolution and polygons, but it creates the potential for more honest and compelling interaction in some ways even than physical reality, where the omnipresent specter of potential physical harm, ingrained into us over thousands of years, can cast an ugly shadow over any interaction. 

That said, while people unfamiliar with virtual reality may fear that it will replace physical reality, its true value lies in overcoming the limits of text-based interaction. VR interaction is miles away from the torrent of rage-inducing proclamations that make up Twitter/Facebook/etc. Think about it: When you see a problematic tweet, the tendency is to respond on the same impersonal level to those lines of text. If you’re talking with someone standing in front of you who wants to communicate basically the same thing, 1) they most likely won’t state it in such absolutist terms but more in the context of the conversation, and 2) your reaction is most likely also going to be different, couched in conversational terms designed to communicate with that person rather than respond merely to the statement. In other words, VR interaction represents actual people communicating with each other on a level that text-based platforms do not and cannot match. 

Unfortunately, this massive benefit most likely is what is turning off major CEOs throughout the tech industry, as the inducement of rage, i.e. what the social media companies deem “engagement” is what drives their business model; the bigwigs have decided that VR is not in their best interest. After all, their “enshittification” model has always been to dangle the tantalizing idea of meaningful interaction as bait to get us into a space and then whip it away so we can buy their shit instead. While you can see how they have been trying to use VR to that end, it doesn’t seem to be working as well as they’d predicted; people are insisting on being people with each other, not text-producing rage bots, and where’s the profit in that?

In the days after Altspace ended, I sought out other members of our now-displaced community elsewhere. Replicas of the campfire had been created in the other worlds, some better than others. Horizon’s limited world-building tools produced the poorest results, but the VRChat version was almost identical, down to each tree and log. 

Both were empty.

I traveled to a mountain retreat in Spatial to find Kipp sitting alone on a couch watching a movie on a giant screen that kept glitching its way up the mountain until he had to go fetch it back. Blue came in and we chatted a bit, but it wasn’t the same. I came across Cassius, full of his usual grand plans, in a club environment he’d created in Horizon, but the vibe was different; our sense of community had become a sense of exile. I joined some world tours in VRChat designed especially for former Altspacers, but the avatars there are either entirely unrealistic or so realistic that the lack of animation is just creepy, and people change their avatars so frequently there that there’s no consistent look to anyone, resulting in a reduced sense of presence. While Horizon is making great strides with their avatars, the worlds being created there are so far quite basic, and of course Meta’s censorship practices are problematic. 

So far no one has been able to match what Altspace had done, and now that Altspace is gone, it’s even more likely that they won’t even try.

I’m not arguing that Altspace was the pinnacle of VR social interaction; obviously we can and should do better. It just represented not only a special time and place, but a vibe that I’ll always remember fondly, a place where a group of people could come together and communicate, create and dream. What’s next should be up to us, but I fear that a future where are able to interact with each other online as people rather than through bursts of impersonal/inflammatory texts will only be fought tooth and nail by corporations that are only able to see value in our purchasing ability rather than our humanity.  

My cynicism could be misplaced, though. I hope it is, and that, in the end, everything will once again be cool.

posted by Poagao at 6:23 pm  
Mar 09 2023

In Our Likeness

Many photographers struggle with this question: How do you know if your photos are good or not? 

Perhaps you “just know” or claim not to care what other people think, but judging one’s own work can be problematic due to one’s closeness to the process and experiences involved in the production of the work. Sure, you were there and know how precious and magical that moment seemed, or how hard you worked to get it, but viewers have no clue about any of that unless it’s communicated through the photograph itself. I’ve found that not looking at photographs I’ve made for at least a month or so helps in obtaining some objectivity in assessing the work’s meaning and value, putting enough distance between the emotion and conditions of making the work that it doesn’t exert an undue influence on how I see it (also I’m lazy and do not relish the idea of spending every night downloading and transferring files). But especially in this era of cheap memory and fast frame rates, the question of which shots to pay attention to and which to ignore has become an even greater challenge.

Back in the days before social media (which if you can recall makes you old as hell), this was honestly a difficult question. Your friends and family couldn’t be expected to criticize your work honestly. Your mother would think your work was brilliant regardless, the exception being my mother, who thinks the people in my photos aren’t smiling nearly enough and wouldn’t it be nice if they were? Your friends would probably shrug and say yeah, it’s ok, uh-huh and then continue to talk about what they wanted to really talk about because damn. 

And that was usually that, unless you happened to know someone like John Szarkowski, with whom you could have lunch and chat about your upcoming exhibition at MOMA. Sadly, it just wasn’t physically possible for most photographers to be on lunch-having terms with Szarkowski, and they could only hope that, after they died, someone who knew a future version of Szarkowski would happen to attend the auction of all those shoeboxes full of your old prints and take a liking to them. They would then have lunch.

When the Internet began to be A Thing, huge amounts of photos began to become viewable by just about everyone, with no need to die and leave one’s shoeboxes to the vague possibility of a potential lunch date with a random MOMA director. The problem with this was that the ability of the general public to care about photography simply couldn’t match the amount of photos to be seen, as most photographers assumed it would. People love to post their own photos but often spend little time looking at those of others, and this began to breed a certain resentment. Phrases like “tsunami of photos” began being bantered about, as well as the now-tired “Everyone’s a photographer now.” Meaning that people, while blissfully uploading photos all day/every day, just couldn’t be bothered to look at all of these photos that somehow were just everywhere now, much less interact with them in any meaningful fashion. 

The social media companies, brilliantly, devised a way to take the onus of meaningful interaction off of viewers, with the now-ubiquitous Like/Fav/Heart/whatever button. Suddenly it was easy to scroll through a small section of the endless photos, press a button to send the photographer a simulacrum of your interest in their work, and get on with your busy day. Problem solved! Now we all knew if our photos were good or not, and we then started seeing exponential growth in the number of compelling, quality work from diverse communities in the form of series, books and exhibitions from all around the world.

Except no, that didn’t quite happen. Photographers began simply judging their work on the amount of Likes they got on social media, even though they had no idea who was pressing the button or why. Their own motivations, impulses, thoughts and ideas all went out the window in favor of the mighty red symbol. The question of “Is this a compelling image/series?” was replaced by “Will this get teh Likes?” Image feeds were mercilessly culled on this basis, and curators started demanding Like/Follower counts when considering exhibitions and publications. Can’t bring your mass of Like-smashing Followers to gofundme your project? Sucks to be you. One well-known San Francisco street photographer told me, “If a shot doesn’t immediately get at least 120 Likes on the gram, it’s gone.” And this was in 2016, so that’s like 200 Likes in today’s currency.

The system was ripe for gaming, and gamed it was, not just by gleefully cackling individuals but also their vast armies of flying monkeybots. The result was more or less a guarantee that any accounts with outrageous follower/Like counts could be reliably dismissed as pretentious claptrap, and the numbers eventually became meaningless in terms of judging the quality of the work. That didn’t matter, of course, as studies have shown that people who cheat or game systems almost invariably come to believe that they deserve their success merely because of the attention they’re getting, so with little or no consequences to deal with, they just continue doing the same thing. Quite a few books and exhibitions were produced, but a disappointingly large proportion of them were bafflingly mediocre until one realized that projects were being approved on a Like-based economy, as it were.

When you discount all the detritus left over from the damage the Like button has done to photography, not to mention other arts, we seem to have taken more steps back than forward since all this began. The value of Likes is fading as more people recoil at the rage-fueled money-making machine that social media has become, a fact exacerbated by those companies introducing pay-to-play policies such as paid “verification” schemes. 

In other words, after all of this, it’s still nearly impossible to know if your photos are any good or not. Yes, you can pay money to one of the 26 people who seem to be judging the various annual competitions to not select your work; you can also pay a “master photographer” to tell you that your work sucks, and if you pay even more, why it sucks. Otherwise, various critique groups have come and gone over the years, but most have died out as those offering critique were 1) often not very good at it, or 2) not willing to spend too much time engaged an effort with little or no reward, mainly due to 3) being raked over the coals for having the audacity to offer a critique to someone who said “C&C welcome” because that doesn’t mean you can just, like, say bad things about my photos, dude. Not cool.

So in the coming post-Like photoverse, to use a phrase I think we can all agree is every kind of awful, are there any ways to glean any information on how people (actual people, not bots) see your work? Not a lot, I’m afraid. One thing you can do is pay attention to the source of the Likes you do get, or, if you’re lucky, actual human-generated comments that don’t consist entirely of exclamation marks and/or heart emojis. If you’re still on Flickr (and if you’re truly interested in photography rather than clout, you should be), the number of Likes should be fairly manageable because so few people are still on Flickr, due to its clearly inferior Like-accumulating capabilities. Attention from photographers and other artists whom you respect should perhaps be given more weight, whereas Likes from bots and/or random people with questionable taste who happen to be in a charitable mood when they came across your photo…perhaps not so much.

It might even be a moot point as AI-generated content is being used to a greater extent, free of those pesky ethical concerns of authorship or intellectual property rights that cost companies actual money that they could be using to send their CEOs cute little gifts (“Another yacht? Well, thanks I guess”) in between buying political officials. Media sites and advertising have already taken to using such content, and AI-generated images are even winning photography contests. Eventually, human-generated content could only be notable for its relative “imperfections” that AI cannot or will not mimic. Beyond the question of whether our art is any good or not, what will art even mean in a world where you have to prove not only that you are human, but that being human has any value?

I genuinely have no idea what lies ahead; I just hope I see some neat stuff along the way.

So, want to get some lunch? 

posted by Poagao at 11:30 pm  
Feb 14 2023

Subscription or nah?

The thing about this subscription system is that I feel pressure to make each and every post somehow “worthy” of actually notifying someone about, rather than just blathering about on here and hey, if you happen to read it, great. You’d think that the quality of my posting on here would consequently get better. You’d also be wrong, because the actual result is just me thinking: Hey, I feel like writing about whatever random thought I had and just seeing where it goes, but then I’d remember that actual people have subscribed to this account, and what if they feel cheated, having not gotten anything worth their time? And I’d think: I’ll just wait until I have something worth writing about.

You can see how that’s going (not great). So the question is: Should I just abandon the subscription system and just continue to write half-assed ditherage on here? Or just let it continue with the followers I have and stop telling anyone about it? The obvious answer, some of you might be thinking, would be actually putting more effort into making better posts, but all I can tell you about that is HAHAHA…no.

I have slowly been making incremental improvements to my photography site, within the bounds of that Google Sites can provide of course. Google seems to be slowly adding capabilities to it, so I will be working on that as improvements to the design become available. It’s sufficient for now, in any case, and perfectly fine for a free service. I also spent much of January working on an actual assignment, which I’ll talk about when it’s actually published.

The Ramblers have also been busy; we’re now working on putting together our latest album, which is technically our fifth (I think). The band formed 20 years ago in 2003, though I joined the next year, in 2004 (you can read about that particular night here) around the time we began filming the Lady X movie. Last night we played on a huge stage at Taipei 101, a crowd a dancers swinging away to our music in the shadow of the former world’s tallest building, now adorned with Blade Runner-esque video ads, lasers shooting into the sky as the temperature dropped and wind threatened to topple the music stands. Chenbl came by and we went to see the PXMart exhibition on the other side of Xinyi Road, which was basically a huge maze of vivid displays. They also had snacks. I was more interested in photographing the people taking photos of the displays, but 1) they did not like me ruining their photos of the displays, and 2) we had to get back to the stage for the show.

Afterwards, after we’d all said our goodbyes and gone our separate ways, I walked back across the bridge, carrying the Bach Stradivarius trumpet that has been my constant companion for over 40 years, and thought: This is nice, this life. I have a good job, a nice Water Curtain Cave (that should be paid off soon-ish) to live in, someone who loves me and whom I love, good friends, and I live in a dynamic, democratic nation with decent affordable healthcare, generally liberal values, good public safety and infrastructure, and just a place in which I’m interested in playing a part. That part has varied greatly over the years, but they have all been meaningful, and that’s something for which I am extraordinarily grateful.

posted by Poagao at 11:42 am  
Dec 07 2022

The New 213 Biscayne

From Google Streetview I gleaned that the house where I spent most of my formative years, a two-story house built in 1960 in El Lago, Texas, has been extensively remodeled, most likely due to flooding damage as the area is pretty much at sea level and sinking. I realize I’ve written about it before, but I recently found a tour of the inside of the old house on a realty site, and hoo boy did they do a number on it.

Outside, the old cracked driveway where our 1969 Buick Electra and 1972 Pinto were parked is now newly laid white concrete. All the tudor-esque 1960’s windows have been replaced with more storm-resistant but rather boring frames. Most of the old trees in front are gone, and many of the backyard ones as well. A patch of bare grass is the only sign of the old shed and pear tree that used to stand there. The concrete semicircle that was once our vegetable garden is now full of trees; one of the photos is taken from where my old fort was located, a place where many delicious afternoons were spent reading and snacking on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches after school. The house is now painted blue, as it has been since not long after we moved away in 1981; no doubt the new owners didn’t appreciate me writing things like “Please take care of Grey Kitty” on the sides of the house, nor the mustard yellow color we painted it (believe it not, that was an improvement on the original dark brown, complete with orange front door, resulting in a very Halloween-esque vibe). Grey Kitty was a local cat who made her home with us when we lived there, and I was quite fond of her. My parents decided she wouldn’t be coming with us to Florida, but the elderly couple who bought the house from us assured us they would take care of her, and as far as I know they did. But I was a sentimental child and wanted to make sure.

Inside, as is seemingly mandatory with houses these days, any potentially offensive colors have been removed, and a few walls have been knocked down for that “open” look that is currently all the rage. Flying in the face of fengshui, the front door is now visible from the back of the house through an opening where the coat closet used to be, and the stairs, which once turned 90 degrees into the kitchen where a coffee bar is now located, now lead right into the back door, which is bad news for anyone pummeling down the stairs in the morning. The dining room, with its romanesque murals and fancy silverware, where so many people looked up at me towards the end of Christmas dinner to exclaim, “Oh that’s right, today’s your birthday, isn’t it?” is gone, turned into a home office and laundry room, which is reasonable as we mostly ate by the kitchen in what is now the “dining area” anyway. The puke-green carpet of the living room is now wood floor, no doubt an improvement visibly but much worse to sit on when opening Christmas presents, and a door to the garage has been added, which makes sense as we always had to go outside to get to the garage. All that remains besides the basic floor plan is the brick fireplace in the corner of the family room, where I used to play with my Matchbox cars, and the place where our huge Zenith TV stood how boasts a large flat screen that takes up not only that space but the space where our desk full of old National Geographic magazines and board games stood.

Upstairs, my room (formerly my sister’s room before she left for college) looks basically the same, though it’s grey now instead of bright blue. I don’t recall if the doors were cut to fit the ceiling’s crop; I wasn’t tall enough to notice then. I suspect the back of my old closet still has a secret entrance to the space over the garage. I’m a bit surprised no one has put an extra room in there. My brother’s room is also largely the same, except of course grey. There is one photo taken from my room with the door open and looking down the hall to my brother’s room, and I recall that view and listening to whatever he was playing on his stereo, which could have been anything from classical music to the latest rock. When he was practicing the flute, or I was practicing the trumpet, however, the doors would of course be closed.

It was kind of a shock to see that most everything had been cleared from the house, no reminders of the place that it once was, but then again, if it remained in the 1970’s it would be more of a museum piece than a place anyone would want to live in the 2020’s. The world is so different today! I understand why the old round-ended kitchen bar with the ceramic cookie jar that was filled with treats is gone, why the fake brick linoleum has been removed, as well as the thick rope rug where I used lay watching the Muppet Show, MASH and WKRP in the evenings and cartoons on Saturday mornings. I know why the shed is gone, that little corner of shady horror full of rusting metal lawn instruments ready to inflict tetanus on any unsuspecting intruder. I can see why the mullioned bathroom window of my parent’s bathroom is now a featureless glass square. I understand all of this; it makes all the sense in the world. But I am a sentimental man and kind of wish it wasn’t all gone.

posted by Poagao at 7:52 pm  
Nov 18 2022

Mixed messages

I had an interesting conversation with a construction site manager yesterday. At least it went better than some of the previous interactions I’ve had with them.

It was a nice, warm, sunny day, and I was wandering along Zhongxiao West Road after a pleasant lunch near Camera Street and then hanging around the North Gate watching a wedding photographer chase the retreating light around the square. “Pretend like you’re running!” he called to the prospective groom, while his bride fiddled with makeup in a tiny tent.

“Like this?” the groom lifted a leg up hesitantly. Clearly he hadn’t been expecting this, especially after putting on a fancy white-and-purple suit.

“No, you look like a dog peeing!” the photographer said, but in a nice way. “Run like a bus is about to hit you!”  This was helpful advice, as buses were indeed zooming by inches behind him.

I walked east and got yelled at by a crazy Chinese monk for taking a photo of the Mitsukoshi Building. “Don’t fuck with me! I am long exiled from Foshan!” he shouted.

I kept walking, ending up on the famous pedestrian bridge at the intersection of Zhongxiao and Zhongshan. A busy construction site where the old round City Council building used to be caught my eye, and I took a few shots from the bridge before heading down to see if the light was nicer from street level.

“You can’t take photographs here,” a site manager walked over to tell me.

“Why’s that?”

“Company rules.” I sighed. This again.

“I don’t work for your company. Your site in is public view from the public road I’m standing on, and I’m not violating any safety rules here.” The manager considered this.

“All true, but we could get in trouble if you post these photos and our boss sees them, especially if he sees our company logo.”

“Why would your boss be unhappy at that? It seems like a well-run site. This project has even been shown in the media before.”

“He might yell at us for allowing someone to take photos.”

It was a pleasant, cordial exchange, and while I did not envy this man’s conundrum, I had to tell him: “You might not have noticed, but your site is bathed in reflected light from all these glass buildings next door in the afternoon. That’s going to attract photographers. Also, you’re not only right by a pedestrian bridge that is a famous photography spot, you’re also near hotels, the Executive Yuan and the train station. That means curious tourists walking by. Photography is going to happen. If you make a big deal about hiding the site from them, there’s a chance some of them will be IG influencers, journalists or even members of foreign diplomatic groups.” Someone might even blog about it, I added mentally.

He seemed amenable to this point of view, but he was still in manager mode. “Ok, I’ll let you keep the photos you’ve already taken, including the ones from the pedestrian bridge, but please don’t take any more.”

“There’s nothing you can do about the photos I’ve already taken,” I reminded him, noting that they’d tracked me all the way from the bridge. “But I appreciate your point of view and thanks for being courteous about it.”

As I walked on, I couldn’t help but wonder why people automatically go to some imagined worst-case scenario when they see they are being photographed. Is everyone afraid that their nefarious behavior will get them in trouble? But that can’t be the case, as being recorded by the government and corporations 24/7 has become a matter of course; nobody ever even thinks about it. Then again, government and corporate surveillance is expressly put in place to catch wrongdoing, so is it that far a stretch to imagine that, as such recording becomes more ubiquitous and ever present, the general population just assumes that any kind of photography is accusatory and predatory in nature? People crave attention, but just the safe kind of attention, I suppose. Whatever that is.

To wit: I recently got back in touch with a street photographer I used to chat with back in the early days of Flickr, Joe Wigfall. He no longer even takes photos; he says it had become too much of a hassle, so he paints and writes instead. It’s a shame; he made some very good work when he was active. He noted that when he was out shooting, Black people would give him more shit for photographing them than people from other groups would, and he noticed the same for white and Asian photographers he’d go shooting with. We can give them a pass, but you’re one of us; you should know better seems to be the message they were sending.

I took the subway over to Taipei 101 and walked across Wuxing Street towards the mountains, noticing the imprints of old military villages amid the empty fields as well as the occasional illegal villas with partially demolished balconies. Brightly colored election trucks, cars, motorcycles and bicycles crisscrossed the streets with their various candidates promising various things from mounted loudspeakers. But the sun was setting, so I walked back over to the Tonghua Night Market to meet up with Chenbl for a delicious meal of noodles at a wood-paneled restaurant where the competent young staff played old and pseudo-old jazz. They knew about the Ramblers, and put on some of our music.

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
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