Icaruswept

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Category: Personal rants (page 1 of 58)

Decriminalizing homosexuality in Sri Lanka: Problems

homosexual (hɒmə(ʊ)ˈsɛkʃʊəl,ˌhəʊmə(ʊ)ˈsɛkʃʊəl)

So recently the government shut down yet another attempt to decriminalize homosexuality in Sri Lanka.

To wit, the bill proposed that people should not be discriminated upon based on their gender, and the old farts panicked.  We got the usual excuse that this is a Buddhist country, and this was culturally inappropriate.

This is, unfortunately, rational, if not perfectly logical. Consider the country that we live in:

  • Short skirts are frowned upon
  • Women working and not marrying before 25 is practically a source of family shame
  • We have enough trouble making multiple religions work, let alone multiple genders
  • All major religious bodies are still strongly conservative and anti-homosexuality

As a human being, I agree that this doesn’t make the slightest shred of sense. As long as there’s no rape involved, what two people do in bed is really none of my business. By all means do the wall if it pleases you.  As a Buddhist, born into a family of rather conservative Buddhists, it makes even less sense. Buddhism says absolutely nothing about sexual orientation. These morals are not Buddhist at all, but Christian ones inherited from British colonizers.

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”
(Leviticus 18:22)

For some reason, England eventually agreed that short skirts were okay and gay people were not going to hell; we didn’t. If anything, a ban on homosexuality is a regression: the ancient Greeks were okay with it, the Romans were perfectly fine with it. Even in Sanskrit literature we have terms such as ubhaya, napumsaka, or shanda — a reference to “Third Gender”, unless I’m completely off the mark here; and that makes us look positively medieval.

Unfortunately this logic only works in Colombo. At the end of the day, we are a very liberal lot: we have the advantage of being exposed to multiple points of view, multiple perspectives, and are generally able to say look, the Greeks did it, why haven’t we progressed?

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Colombo is a tiny bubble, a bubble within a bubble, perhaps ten thousand people operating within a larger framework of conservative people. The rest of the country holds starkly different morals. People here have spent their entire lives knowing that being gay is evil; that belief has only been enforced by religious systems.

If any success is to be won here it can only proceed in stages.  First must come equal rights for women. That makes sense because, like it or not, women are working, generating a sizeable chunk of the economy, and no force of old men in Parliament can stop this; the working-woman stigma was dealt with in the early 2000s.

Next we probably need a tangent; we need to dissociate religion from the control it has over who we marry and why. Religion is one the great sticky social constructs of humanity. It binds people together: useful for forming coherent communities, terribly unhelpful for social change. In this case, I feel it’s one of the big sticklers holding us back.

Historically, this seems to be the pattern of acceptance that other countries faced with this issue have followed. Once all this is done comes the acceptance of homosexuality.


Hopefully on the heels of this will come the acceptance of other gender identifications. I don’t ever see the 58 gender types being accepted. Maximising the number of options you get on an ‘About me’ page is vastly different from implementing it in a social context. For example, a man identifying as a woman walking into a woman’s bathroom would still intense discomfort; a man identifying as an Apache helicopter would, and probably should be certified insane.

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But there is absolutely no reason why a reasonable reduction of these types, plus biological permutations of gender, and sex changes, cannot work perfectly within legal frameworks. The most efficient solution is to map out, statistically, the most common variants of gender/sex and cater to them; say the top 5. It’s a reductionist approach, but can lay the start of something until we work out the rest of it.

Realistically, this battle of ideas is not going to be won overnight. It will take years.

In reality the average Sri Lankan – who does not know or care about these movements – is the idealogical equivalent of those folks from the Westboro Baptist Church.

Any attempt to topple a strong idealogical standpoint overnight will only result in violent reprisal.  It doesn’t really matter if we consider it right or wrong or a matter of fundamental human rights. Ideas aren’t like on-off switches; they diffuse into people like ink into water.  Remember that when Obama decriminalized gay marriage, he was doing so in response to decades of sustained equal rights activism; movements that have been going on since the sixties.

In the meantime, cheers to all the folks who are actively pushing for this issue. It may seem futile, but five to ten years from now, their efforts are going to be the pebbles that set the avalanche rolling.

(Note: I am neither homosexual nor of any other non-heterosexual orientation, so one might argue that being straight and male affects my thinking here.  However, if we are to accept other genders and orientations as rational human beings, then we must also drop straightness and maleness as grounds for  a flaw in reasoning). 

2016 in the mirror

It is the 30th of December, 1:30 AM. I’m sure that someone famous will have died by the time the auto-publisher sends this post live.

Good people die every year, but it seems this year really has it out for the artists and the creators. Among the golden throng I would really like to mention Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down and Shardik.

It has, I admit, been a year of loss. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost people I loved. I’ve lost absurd amounts of money. The computer that I lovingly built no longer starts. My right foot feels like someone drove a couple of nails through it. I’ve lost three phones and two girlfriends. The cat has lost every fight he’s been in.

But in retrospect, it’s been a good ride.

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In Phuket, earlier this year

In this year I have written the first? second? third draft of the book I began, 80,000 words, on schedule. I have studied literature, cryptocurrency, economics, philosophy, marketing, data science and taught myself to code again. I have read a little over sixty books, organized disaster responses, hosted events, gotten tattooed, argued in panels, explored two countries, dived in strange seas, hiked and biked for hundreds of kilometers, and, almost completely out of the blue, won a shiny gold medal.

The losses and the heartbreak balance out on the sheet as experience; the empty bank accounts into new stamps on my passport. And I am in possession of all my limbs, and still highly functional. And for all those friends I’ve lost on the wayside I seem to have come across others willing to walk with me.

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It’s not just me that’s having a good 2016. Amidst other things, SpaceX landed a rocket successfully, and we made new advancements in data storage and artificial limbs. There’s a particle accelerator project bringing back the spirit of scientific collaboration into the Middle East. There’s even a whole new theory of gravity. That’s amazing.


But most importantly, I’ve finally realized what I want to do for the rest of the foreseeable future: writing.

Everything I’ve done in my life has involved writing in some form or the other. I wrote my way through school. In 4250, the indie gamedev company I started with four other friends, I wrote the stories, I wrote every single line of dialogue, and I wrote most of the code. Later, when I started Indiegraph, I wrote. I wrote at Readme. I now write at WSO2. I’ve more or less written my way through life. It’s a terribly new life but it’s always been full of words.

This realization is important. It’s the difference between getting up because you have to and getting up because you want to. It’s one of those things that give you reason to put not just one foot in front of the other, like every plodding soul does, but to run, and keep running, and actually enjoy it.

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Writing is not the most glamorous profession – sitting still and thinking for long periods of time is hardly exciting to watch; and I’m far from being the best wordsmith in the world; but when I write I forget the world exists. It makes perfect sense to continue.


I genuinely am excited for 2017. Among other things, there’s a Mass Effect game, the Ghost in the Shell movie (starring Scar-Jo), the Circle (with Emma Watson) and a new Westworld season to dig in to. And, if I play my cards right, the book.

What’s not to like?

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Prostitution: A History of Attitudes Towards Hookers

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Not too long ago, the Sunday Leader published an article on prostitution in Sri Lanka. It was so absurd and poorly written that the Queen, had she seen that English in print, would have clawed her eyes out. In response to the outcry, and presumably to save whatever is left of the UK, the Sunday Leader mercifully took it down. My friend Senashia wrote an excellent critique on it while the rest of us were hooting at the writing.

But the purpose of this article is not (just) to slander that article. Prostitution is literally an ancient and complex social issue – for starters, it’s certainly older than journalism.  Much of what we believe are modern attitudes towards ‘the oldest business in the world’ are rooted in events much older than we suppose.

I believe that to better understand prostitution, in any context, it’s important to understand how we came it view it the way we do today.

Note: You can, in your head, refer to prostitutes as “sex workers” or “R2D2” or “Starship Enterprise” if it makes you feel more comfortable: the actual word is irrelevant as long as we’re referring to the same thing. 

 BEFORE CHRIST

In ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of civilization, there was a city called Babylon. From Babylon comes an ancient document known as the Code of Hammurabi. Lawyers  might know of this one: over 1700 years before the birth of Christ, the sixth king of Babylon set down 282 laws and just punishments for violating them. It’s one of the oldest known documents of law in the world.

It’s also a big fucking rock, seven-and-a-half feet tall, but don’t let that stop you. Somewhere on it is a list of rights of prostitutes.

Ancient laws in 10-point font!

Legal docs in 10-point font!

Here is a translation for those of us who don’t speak Ancient Rock. Note number 179:  If a “sister of a god,” or a prostitute, receive a gift from her father, and a deed in which it has been explicitly stated that she may dispose of it as she pleases, and give her complete disposition thereof: if then her father die, then she may leave her property to whomsoever she pleases. Her brothers can raise no claim thereto. 

Now, people don’t go about carving stuff for the sake of it: if they had to lay down laws regarding the rights of prostitutes, we can make a reasonable case that prostitution was a thing in old Babylon, and they approached it in the same way we approach vehicle taxes or property rights: legalize it, regulate the ins and outs and watch it prosper. Herodotus, writing in ~450s BC, talks about prostitution as a religious ritual, with many “houses of heaven” along the banks of the river.

Babylon was not alone in this behavior. Ancient Greece was famously sexually liberal, every by today’s standards. Both men and women engaged in prostitution – in fact, the Greek word for prostitution is porne, which is where we get the word pornography.

Before Pornhub. Back when you had to carve stuff before streaming it.

Female prostitutes in Greece had, as far as I can make out, two distinct classes. The hetairai were independent and sometimes influential courtesans, well educated who were required to wear distinctive dresses and paid taxes -not sort of like the Oiran of Japan (we’ll get to them in a later century).

Τhe hetairai were also the only women participated in the symposia, where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men, and also the only women who had independent control over lots of money.  Then there were the pornai , who sold sex by the act and worked on the streets or out of brothels.

Then, of course, we have Rome.  Rome celebrated practically everything about life; they integrated prostitution into everything, including religion. Roman prostitutes of the highest ranks often held significant financial and political clout – a lot like, say, a modern-day politician.

Yeap, they put it on coins.

Yeap, Rome put it on coins.

And some parts of ancient India had a tradition of Nagarvadhu, or “bride of the city”:  women competed to win the title of a Nagarvadhu, and only the most beautiful was chosen. A Nagarvadhu was respected like a queen or Goddess, and her price for a single night’s “dance” was very high; only kings and princes were said to be able to afford her. It’s basically Miss Universe crossed with good business.

I can’t statistically prove that prostitution is the oldest job in the world, but we do know that since the earliest days of civilization, what started out as a primal exchange became both religion and big business. In short, we definitely had a lot of fucking going on, and some of it was definitely paid for.

FROM CHRIST TO 1600 AD

All of this changes when Abrahamic religions began their meteoric rise to popularity. Jewish law has always been no-no on prostitution, but it’s not until Christianity took over Rome that the Word of God really began to matter on the subject.  In Rome, in about the 4th century AD, the emperor Constantine destroyed quite a lot of those sites of holy prostitution that we talked about in the name of Christianity.

Not this guy

Not this guy, but close

Religious pressure steadily increased. A little bit later down the line, the Prophet Muhammed outlawed prostitution on all grounds. Suddenly, you had the Holy Roman Empire saying prostitution was sinful; you also had the Muslims saying the same.

Even so, prostitution was tolerated, because people – get this – held that it would prevent rape, torture and murder. I quote Augustine of Hippo (aka Saint Augustine): “If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts”. That’s a very modern outlook – or rather, our modern outlooks may actually be pretty old outlooks.

In fact, prostitution was so tied to socio-economics that the Church accepted it as a lesser evil, and even the idea of prostitute saints took hold – Mary Magdelene was quite popular as a Saint of her own right in the 12th century, and was promoted heavily by the Church 1200 years after Constantine went ham.

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What of the rest of the world? Certain countries in Europe had streets where prostitution was permissible.  Even in the Arab world, prostitution – of a kind – existed. Has anyone heard of the harem? Despite the word meaning a sacred, inviolable space where women were (in Muslim households),  a different type of harem is recorded –  for instance, Sultan Ibrahim the Mad, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1640 to 1648, is said to have drowned 280 concubines from one of his harems – this implies he had a lot more. King Kashyapa, our own guy from Sigiriya, ruled somewhere in the late 400 BC and reportedly had as many as 500 women in a harem-equivalent; it was considered an honour to be a “lady of the king’s harem” in those times. 

1600 AD – PRESENT

All of this changed in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The outbreak of disease, combined with an increase in the power of the Roman Catholic Church, eventually turned prostitution from something religious and / or sacred, to something permissible, and finally something to be ashamed of and cast out. Protestant reformation and pressure from various popes and other cults built up, and eventually even Europe caved in.

Carl Spitzweg, 1863., Germany. Prostitute receiving disapproving glances.

Carl Spitzweg, 1863., Germany. Prostitute receiving disapproving glances.

The interesting thing is that economics came into play here and people began to obtain what they could not get in Europe from Asia and poor countries, especially Japan, which was now joining the world after centuries of isolation. A slave trade grew around Asia. Ironically, that’s very similar to the situation today: prostitution is illegal in many countries, and lots of people from around the world go to Asian countries to get sex.

As Britain, Spain and Portugal and other countries began colonizing and spreading their beliefs, this Christian ethos towards prostitution became the standard for most countries. Consider this anti-prostitution poster from World War II:

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Do you see a similarity here?

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Our attitudes towards prostitution – especially if you’re in a country that was colonized by a bunch of religious white dudes, like America, Sri Lanka or India – are strikingly similar to the 16th and 17th century morals of the Church and associated organs. We view prostitutes either as foul predators, plague carriers or poor creatures to be pitied (the Sunday Leader, of course, manages to fit both of these viewpoints into the same paragraph).

 Japan alone resisted, with the government-sanctioned Yoshiwara brothel district operating from 1617 to 1958. In fact, there were three major brothel districts: Shimabara for Kyōto, Shinmachi for Ōsaka and Yoshiwara for Edo. They were home to the Oiran, a sort of proto-geisha: incredibly talented and trained courtesans – very beautiful, trained in multiple arts of song, dance, calligraphy, and possessing a fine knowledge of both Japanese and Chinese literature.

In  an age and social structure where women were mostly just furniture, the Oiran were quite likely some of the best educated people in the land. 

Depictions of these courtesans by Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816, aka Santō Kyōden) emphasize the women’s academic training and intellectual lives of women in the Yoshiwara district.

Depictions of these courtesans by Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816, aka Santō Kyōden) emphasize the women’s academic training and intellectual lives of women in the Yoshiwara district.

Now this is by no means a complete history of prostitution, nor does it completely map the cause-and-effect chain; I’d need a lot more than a couple of thousand words to do that.  However, here are a few interesting points to consider:

  1. Our attitudes towards this prostitution have survived almost unchanged from the views that permeated the world in the 16th century. Almost everywhere in the world, prostitution is illegal, and even when publicly  accepted (as in Thailand), it is still viewed as morally and religiously repulsive.
  2. Attitudes that we consider liberal today are surprisingly old; Saint Augustine lived and died around the 4th Century AD, and his view that prostitution would lower the rate of crimes born of lust is an argument very much in use today.
  3. Regardless of actual legalities or moral codes, economics still continues to govern the human race in this matter: there is demand, and there was always supply.

The players on this stage are a subset of human beings.  I feel this point is important, especially in light of articles like that in the Sunday Leader. Some of the most charming, best-educated, most intelligent people were, and are, prostitutes.
In this subset that we call prostitutes you will find people, mostly women, who are doing this out of choice; who were forced into it; who like it; who hate it; who do it discreetly; who flaunt it. To repeat: they are human, and the least we can extend them is empathy and half-decent grammar. And at some point we have to get our heads out of our asses and realise that prostitution is not going to go away.

Brothel scene, 1537; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Brothel scene, 1537; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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Brothel scene, 2015; Thailand

The ripple effects of writing

When I was a child, I wanted to be an author.

Unfortunately, my father, who was a smart man, took me aside and said to me, “Son, you might enjoy reading, but you’re never going to make money writing.”

Now, years later, I’ve proven him wrong, but he had a point. The world was changing. This was the 90s: in the course of the next two decades, cell phones invade our lives and turned into smartphones, the Internet came along and wired us all up together, technology – especially consumer technology – accelerated at lightspeed.

Now I, and every other 90’s kid, had the great fortune to be born right into the era of biggest change. We’ve seen our favourite stories go from massive series of books to massive TV series. We’ve watched friends and colleagues put aside their books and blogs in favor of shorter and shorter tweets and more and more images and video from Instagram. We’ve watched video explode until YouTube became the second biggest search engine on the planet. We’ve watched the amount of attention that we give a piece of writing decrease until our favourite articles are now not New York Times articles, but cat pictures and lists from Buzzfeed.

Now of course, this sounds like terrible news for us writers. Every piece of research out there is telling us that more people prefer consuming video than text, that you shouldn’t write long articles – John Oliver, for example, now reaches more people than any New York Times journalist ever did. That’s real change. Common sense and content experts both say the written word is dead. Get on Snapchat. Get on Instagram. Get on YouTube. Or get out. Unless you’re a hot babe or a cat, you have no chance of being heard anymore.

 


 

But is that true? A year ago, I started investigating this question. Should we, as writers, give up and go back to school, learn how to crank out videos?

I found something interesting.

Despite SEO guidelines and research on attention spans, longform written content isn’t dying: it’s thriving. The New Yorker hasn’t shut down. Nor has the Guardian. Nor have longform tech sites like Anandtech or Arstechnica. Generally, businesses that depend on people reading their content are the first to adapt. Instead, Buzzfeed News now does some of the finest journalism in the world. They recently ran a massive, 4700-word investigation on a scandal involving Sri Lankan banks, done by Chris Hamby, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. The company that made short, meaningless drivel a thing is investing into actual researched, longform writing.

It’s not just news sites. Three of my favourite sites in the world are Aeon, Brainpickings  and WaitButWhy. Brainpickings and Aeon assembles the thoughts of scientists, intellectuals and prodigies on subjects. WaitButWhy picks apart ideas with precision and great clarity. Both write reams. You can easily open up any of these three and find three thousand new words waiting to be read.

It’s not even just sites. Pocket, an app designed to let people save stuff for later reading – and which I use – apparently has 20 million users who have collectively saved 2 billion articles to read on their phones. Amazon US, in January, sold over 1 million paid ebooks a day – that’s about 2.1 billion US dollars a year on books.  People. Are. Reading. As much as we love House of Cards, we also, apparently, read. And in fact, going back over my work, my most-shared articles are longform.

So are the data analysts wrong and SEO experts wrong? Are they misreading the number of people who just share memes and obsess over TV series on Twitter?

No. They’re right, too.

 


 

The way I see it, there is a polarized curve of content. On one end of this curve you find 3,500-word undercover reporting on the situation on the Palestine border. Stuff like the Panama expose, the Snowden reports, Michio Kaku’s books, they’re here. On the other side of the curve, you have celebrity gossip, click-bait SJW articles and listicles on cat memes.

content-curve

There’s no inherent good or bad, but people consume the entire curve. We know the frequency of consumption is in inverse proportion to the complexity of the subject; we also know that it gets easier to consume content as we go from the complex end to the simple end. However, where we go wrong is by assuming that because the numbers are stacked on one side, the other end is wrong. Where we go wrong is in saying things like “a successful article has to be 500 words in length, not more,” or “a successful novel has to be 60,000 words or less.” Not true.

The actual value in writing, and in writing large, long pieces of content, is that they become the source for many of what later becomes content across this entire curve. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point turned from a 1996 essay for the New Yorker into a theory of social situations.  Once you create an original, well-researched, long piece of writing, it lives on. As quotations. As influence. That’s why the 2013 report by the Guardian and the Washington Post on the NSA’s surveillance shook the entire world. That’s why we all know of PRISM and the NSA despite so few of us actually having read and shared those original articles. This is why Brainpickings and WaitButWhy are viable. Good writing is hard to produce and will be read by fewer people, but will have longer potential effects on the world. Picture it as a scientist writing a research paper. He knows only a few other scientists and a few journalists will read it, but then those journalists will decipher it, simplify it, package it and spread on the idea.

This is why, despite the mathematics of views and clicks and social media shares, longform still exists. This is why most of John Oliver’s news is sourced from investigative journalists – a fact that he acknowledged in a recent tribute to journalism.

By attempting to make that complex end of the curve bend more and more towards the averages, we’re doing it – and us- a disservice. It’s a bit like looking at the world’s population, realizing that 50% is male and 50% is female, and writing a report saying the average human has one breast and one testicle.

Confused?

Confused?

The lengthy, written word becomes a mineable treasure trove that the rest of the curve slowly unpacks, disseminating it until it becomes a meme and someone photoshops a cat next to it.


So what can we – writers, bloggers, journalists take away from this?

Firstly we need to pick where we want to stand on that curve.

We can draw a lot of lessons from the fact that the most popular sites have a lot of very shallow content.

Consider Alexa’s ranking for the top sites in Sri Lanka. Weed out the search engines, social media and porn sites, and the top sites are HiruFM, GossipLankaNews and HiruNews. All of which are little more than gossip sites blasting out crap into the ether.

Now map this onto your writing. Are we going to be a) that relatively little-read, but influential blog on, say, third-world economics and social structures? Or are we going to be b) chasing popularity? Remember that Justin Bieber has more fans  than Bach right now.

If popularity is what you're after, you're going to have to dumb yourself down a bit.

If popularity is what you’re after, you’re going to have to dumb yourself down a bit.

It’s the typical researcher / reporter analogue even if you dial into single subjects. As a researcher, very few people may read what you write; as a journalist reporting on research, many people may read your article, but what they will ultimately take away is the researcher’s message.

Einstein changed the world - but how many of us have read his papers firsthand? Most of us read the people writing about his ideas.

Einstein changed the world – but how many of us have read his papers firsthand? Most of us read the people writing about his ideas.

The ripple effects of one end of the content curve is higher than the other, but comes at the cost of clicks, views and such immediate rewards. Each of us need to pick a place on this curve that keeps us happy.

Secondly: reconsider the mediums we specialize in. Despite everything I’ve said here about the written word, nothing changes the fact that we live in a world of mixed media – podcasts and video are often as powerful text, sometimes even more. I’ve met many former bloggers who’ve just given up. Video is inherently further along the curve towards the simpler end, because it’s easier to consume; and thus makes it easier to pick up the numbers you want.

(Unfortunately, it’s still just as hard to make a living in those fields as it is to be in writing. You think your blog doesn’t make anything? Try being a YouTuber and competing with the roughly 81 million other videos online.)

The good thing is behind every great podcast and talkshow episode is a script. Behind every well-written TV series is months, maybe years of writing. Behind most John Oliver episodes are extensive articles by other journalists; in this case, they’re the researchers.


 

My conclusion is that despite the immediate popularity of shallow content, this is, now more than ever, a writer’s world. Every single day, we type out emails. We tweet. We write witty Facebook statuses that we want everyone to like. We read. We write.  The amount of text, the amount of writing, that a human being is exposed to hasn’t shrunk; it’s grown. And in this mess of tweets and 9gag memes and cat pictures, good writing, good longform writing, stands out, sending out ripple effects that spread across the entirety of that curve. The written word has been the backbone of human civilization for thousands of years – it’s not going to go away just because someone figured out that moving images are more popular.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my writing.

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