Tag Archives: america

Coming to America – a footnote

After more than 2 years working in the US, I will be returning to the UK in 48 hours. During those 2 years I have been asked pretty much once a week: “what is the difference between working in the US vs the UK”.

It’s a complicated question, and my experience isn’t broad enough to really put it in a neat summary, but here is a brief 5 point summary to capture some thoughts on what is most different.

1. Working: Hard vs Always

‘So, does everyone work really hard over there?’ Well, I work in advertising, and I do a lot of pitching, and I think it’s fair to say that anyone who is doing that works pretty hard everywhere in the world – and the US and the UK are probably the two most competitive markets, so it gets pretty extreme in both.

If I was to define the difference, it’s that I have yet to experience in the US quite the level of intensity and speed of collaboration that I experienced in the UK in a comparable scenario. Sometimes it feels like American groups across agency and clients take the long road – long meetings, complex processes, many disciplines creating a lot of work rather than rolling up their sleeves and committing to collectively take as many shortcuts as possible (which is one definition of working hard.)

The big difference is that apart from a few entrepreneurs and manic CEOs, I haven’t found many Londoners who view their weekends, holidays and nights’ sleep as fair game for working time. On one project I worked for 4 consecutive weekends, and regular 16 hour days – and this wasn’t viewed as a titanic individual effort, but just keeping up to speed.

In fact, my penchant for weekends free of email and 2-week holidays once a year can come across as pretty eccentric in the US.

2. Money: Embarrassment vs Riches

Londoners might stereotype Americans as pretty brash individuals who can never stop talking about money. Americans might stereotype Brits as charmingly over-apologetic Hugh Grant-a-likes. And there’s actually a lot to this comparison.

In this, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually the Brits who are a little strange in this respect – I don’t think American businesspeople have any particular compulsion to talk about money (when doing business, discussion of money probably comes with the territory.) On the flipside, many Brits seem to have a pathological aversion to even mentioning money, whether it’s budgets, salary, investment or taxation.

This is particularly a challenge in the innovation space – some Brits seem to think that the brilliance of an idea should be enough to carry it, and that is shouldn’t be sullied with commercial considerations. Whereas American innovators are much happy flitting between funding rounds and engineering scrambles. Which is one reason why the ideas:businesses ratio tends to be much healthier on the western coast of the Atlantic.

At this point, a blast of the US intro to the Apprentice as a money-flavoured sorbet.

3. Innovation: Thinking vs Doing

Within my own field of media thinking, there is no doubt that the UK leads the world. Pretty much every agency I know in New York has a British Head of Planning, Strategy or Innovation. The Brits just seem a lot more comfortable with random digression and with highly conceptual or theoretical thinking in the workplace, even in fields like advertising where it is clearly a highly valuable commodity everywhere.

The downside of this approach is that it is easy to feel that concepts are being sullied by their contact with the real world and with the action plan. This is accompanied by a fear of failure that doesn’t exist in the same way in the USA. It’s fine to try something that might be a bit wrong, learn from it, try again, fail again, and eventually strike it lucky. A four time failure who wins in the end in the UK would be perceived as a comical story of the plucky underdog. In the USA, that’s just a success story.

So innovating through thinking vs innovating by doing – it’s fair to say that a bit of both is probably the best place to be. Which, to anticipate my conclusion, is probably why teams that mix the two cultures tend to be so effective.

For a shorthand, a UK strategist is likely to say ‘I just want to think about interesting problems’ – their US equivalent is more likely to say ‘I just want to do cool shit.’

4. Job titles: Descriptions vs Definitions

Nothing is more amusing to the Brit abroad than having a meeting with a VP, and SVP, and EVP, a Managing Director and a President. In our minds, this is a shorthand for obsession with hierarchy, and whilst the UK is hardly Sweden for egalitarianism it is fair to say that the sight of a young graduate employee with their arms around the CEO is far more likely at a British Christmas party than its US equivalent (if there even is one.)

However there is a broader truth behind this – I don’t know how much of it is a function of scale, and how much is a function of culture, but US job roles tend to be a lot more specific, whether by discipline, department or hierarchy. There is also much more of an expectation that you will keep to your role, and that your work will be defined by it.

This is great for accountability, but it can be pretty inflexible when it comes to working collectively. This is why after much deliberation Jumptank elected the inscrutable, hierarchy-busting title of Partner. This came in useful many times in driving collaboration without borders.

5. Opening a conversation: Apology vs Storytelling

I have a somewhat hackneyed presentation opening/ice breaker that goes: “I have to start with a quck apology. Because I’m English, and that’s what we do.” Look, I even did it then – I totally undermined myself before I even said what I wanted to say. Now I’m going to have to think of something else, but it served its time for a few cheap laughs.

I have had UK colleagues emerge shocked from meetings at their US counterparts’ enthusiasm about talking about themselves, and had US clients totally misunderstand my stream of caveats and seek to reassure me that the work was really good and I should stop apologising. I have also interviewed candidates in New York who have spent 20 minutes telling me their life story and their many successes before I have even asked a question.

Neither of these are optimal, clearly, but one thing that has astounded me (mainly in the bar rather than the office, but it stretches there too) is the incredible ability of the average US working male for storytelling. For a Brit, a story told in public tends to last 3 minutes and end in an ironic observation about life. Here, I have been told stories that were an hour long, stretched over many years of experience and extracted at least three peaks of hysterical laughter.

This is a skill worth learning, in business as in life.

US vs UK: who wins?

If the answer isn’t totally obvious, both cultures are wonderfully mad, unique, dynamic and frustrating. If there is one thing I have learnt it is that the two in combination are a force to be reckoned with, and I am proud to have had great experiences in both countries and hopefully learnt from them too.

Goodbye America, and see you soon.

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3 unexpected ways crime drives innovation

Innovation means doing things differently to do them better. That means breaking rules and conventions. And not all rules are of the ‘wear a tie to work’ variety.

When breaking rules, always be sure to make the typefaces off-horizontal

In order to make things work better, society as a whole needs people to test and break the ‘big’ rules too. These people are criminals.

99% of criminality is of course not socially productive. But, either by intent, or by the response it provokes, it does form an essential function in helping society to innovate and improve. Here are some unlikely examples:

1. Exposing flaws in outdated systems.

When you think of a criminal, one of the stereotpyes that first leaps to mind is one that was formed in the midwest of the US in the early 1930s. Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang – a flurry of iconic figures that all derived from a very specific time and place.

This spectacular outburst of criminality derived from two seminal technological innovations – the creation of cost-accessible machine guns and cars.

But what it exposed very rapidly was the Achilles heel of the American police system – the disunity between states. As huge as the United States is, the addition of the car enabled criminals to travel between 9 different Midwestern states, and thus 9 different legal systems, within a couple of hours. Once you got over the state line, you were fine.

Have car, will travel. 6 states in 2 years. 6 legal systems.

This had some negative consequences of course – primarily the militarisation of the FBI and subsequently the police. But the real innovation that they drove, and which J Edgar Hoover used their notoriety to champion, was a centralisation of shared criminal justice data. Which was the first great data project that began to make the United States a more unified society under law.

So think about criminals as like the ultimate QA testers of a civilised society.

2. Pioneering in the grey areas of the economy.

Sometimes, the rules simply aren’t very clear, because the dynamics of society, information and the economy are changing far quicker than the ability of legal processes to catch up. Particularly in areas relating to media and technology.

For example, from the moment of the invention of the internet, the entire principle of music ownership and copyright were effectively a Wild West…which the massed ranks of copyright lawyers, record labels and music publishers had little or no interest in exploring. Then came Napster (invented, of course by Justin Timberlake).

Whatever you think, or thought of Napster (and I am sure a few Metallica fans out there thought it was a bad thing) there is little doubt that they rapidly accelerated a wonderful burst of innovation in the music and content business. And without the Napsters, or Pirate Bays, or other people who by simply not caring about the law define themselves as criminals, it is difficult to make progress.

This need for legal flexibility in the area of content, media and technology continues to flummox us. They need to be answered at some point, but rigid initiatives like SOPA are not the answer. And to even see where the lines should be drawn, you have to allow pioneers to colour in the grey areas.

3. Destroying ‘holy cow’ legacies of the past.

Lest we forget, the legal standards of the present have not always been reflected throughout history – the law is evolutionary, not absolute. Nor is it always ‘progressive’ – it frequently oscillates between extremes and loops back on itself. This can lead to some surprising results, and even very trivial crimes can have significant effects.

For a spectacular example, we can look at one of the most frequently asked historian’s questions: why did the French Revolution occur. Everyone agrees that literature played an important role. Traditionally, people thought the seminal text was this:

It turns out that the flood of cheap political pornography in 1780s Paris, depicting Marie Antoinette, Fersen and Louis XIV in unflattering sexual poses, may have contributed somewhat more to encouraging people to overcome their religious scruples towards the position of the monarchy, and get behind regime change.

Absurdly, given the neo-censorship of the web, this is the closest I can get to finding a political cartoon that was considered only mildly risque at the turn of the 19th century

Fairly trivial crimes, driven by disrespect and entertainment, can have highly constructive outcomes – when they challenge unjustifiable authorities that are holding society back.

This seems like a fertile area. Any other thoughts on the relationship between crime and innovation?

POSTSCRIPT:

Elsewhere in the history of illicit entertainment, see the development of the internet and the explosion of personal photography/video equipment…and if you don’t believe me, check out how they sold the first Polaroids:

and digital cameras:

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There is no Them. There is only Us.

People have always defined themselves by what they aren’t as much as what they are. It gets passed on from group to group: the Brits defined (and continue to define) themselves by difference to the French, and in turn Americans by difference to the English.

This person simply will not pay duties to the hated English without due representation.

Otherness is a fundamental source of inspiration and aggression. Men and women, we are told, are from different planets. National pride and xenophobia continue their uneasy see-saw relationship, despite living in an age of global media, global business and global pandemics. As soon as the psychological power of the boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire begins to lose its power, it is replaced by the power of the psychological boundary between environmentalists and Clarksonites. Everyone needs a Them.

Them has been one of the great subjects of the rise of the popular media. In particular, from the satirical pornography of the French Revolution to the neon Schwarzenneger epics of the 1980s, via rather a lot of good protest and faux-protest music in the 1960s, raw and paranoid rage against the secret machinations of those in power has been one of the driving forces of the development of what we know as popular culture.

Apparently, the presence of this hot material in Paris in the 1790s is what made revolutionaries feel it was OK to remove this woman's head

This format has been endlessly rehearsed, and forms the plot of roughly 25% of serious TV drama and 50% of Hollywood’s entire output. For me, it reached its nadir in the execrable Adjustment Bureau, on which I expended 2 hours of a recent flight that I could have better spent waiting in the endless, awkward queue for the world’s smallest bathrooms. The Adjustment Bureau was full of a ‘They’ that were all powerful and yet at the same time totally bloody hopeless.

If you haven’t seen the Adjustment Bureau, it is a longer and less good version of this trailer:

Now I realise that power continues to be distribute unevenly and unjustly, and that governments like to get away with doing things they shouldn’t be doing (or at least haven’t asked permission for, like removing the tyrannical leaders of countries.) But as I watched the Adjustment Bureau, I couldn’t help but think of the material I had read from Wikileaks, and for the most part how unbelievably banal and even mostly well-intentioned it was.

The ability of the internet to scale discoveries at lightening speed and the ubiquity of the rolling news camera have largely laid bare the secrets of government. Those that remain buried are, unfortunately, deeper buried than ever. But, for the most part, we have see all the rough edges and hidden errors of our leaders. And frankly, they mainly seem like people we would generally sooner pity than fear. FDR was able to act as President of the USA for 12 years and only two pictures were known to have been taken that showed him in a wheelchair. Whereas with Dubya, we got a pretty constant serving of this:

Now was I thrilled that this guy had his finger on the nuclear button? No. But I knew he wasn’t really a monster, because I do stuff like that all the time.

But that merely moves us from the theatre of fear to the theatre of pantomime. It takes a real work of art to remind us that we aren’t in a theatre at all, and that if we are it certainly isn’t a paranoid retro-futurist conspiracy thriller. This is I think why the Wire is such great drama – not just because of its entertainment value, but because it achieves the almost unique attribute of making every single character rounded and worthy of empathy if not always sympathy. Everyone is trying, everyone is flawed, and everyone is connected.

He allows homicidal drug dealers to die worrying about their hair:

And he allows cynical politicians to express their intentions…which are, at their root, generally positive, no matter how the system may pervert them:

This is a recognition of the reality of the world that we live in – that it is not the puppet show of shadowy cabals or machiavellian geniuses, but a totally interconnected system in which everyone, actively or passively plays their part and affects every other part of the system.

And as the world we live in begins to run on a track of behavioural data and social connection networks, the reality it that more and more the world is becoming a great big human system, in which every one of us is a working part. And the structure of that system is as fragile as it has ever been. It is harder than ever to keep any part of the system secret or separate. And the system itself is much more fragile than it looks.

It has never been so easy to round up a posse

This is a positive thing and a negative thing. It is a danger and a responsibility. It enables some people to break long-standing taboos in the name of humanitarian action, and it enables others to create a pattern of chaos and looting without a cause. But ultimately it is all a reminder that the human system is there, and that everyone is connected.

In this context, it feels like we have taken ourselves down a blind alley and created a worldview that is far too centred on the idea of ‘Them’. You can’t get rid of a sense of otherness, nor should we try. But sometimes it feels like because of Watergate, and Hackgate, and Expensegate, and because of a moviegoer-level understanding of Orwell and Dick, and because of Grand Theft Auto and gang violence and all these things that seem not to translate across generations, we are really prone to devolving to a facile games of Us and Them – which is a dismissal of both hope and responsibility.

We don’t live in the Matrix. Rupert Murdoch isn’t a Bond villain. The TV screen is not the Newsscreen of 1984. We live in the most empowered and interconnected period in history. We all have to ability to reach out to other parts of society at any moment, or at least give their point of view. We have unlimited outlets for self-expression, and a legal system that fights bitterly for our right to use them.

It took mankind a lot to get us to this point, where we have so many tools at our disposal to feed our empathy and impact on our governance. And to watch the modern world slip by us like a bad sci-fi movie or a cartoon Lord of the Flies is a terrible waste of all that effort.

 

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Lost in Meta-News

A very inspiring English Literature teacher once told me that all poems were about poetry, and all plays were about plays. Increasingly my newsreaders seems to be telling me that all news is about news.

Now I happen to think that poetry and plays should be about other things too, but what my teacher said stuck in my mind, because for literature by and large it is true.

The artistic process is inherently a meta-process, because any medium we engage, from blank page to blank canvas to blinking cursor, acts a mirror to ourselves. Ultimately when we engage with the world of imagination we only have ourselves as material to work with.

Great artistic works, like Proust, or Hamlet, or, are often acutely meta-textual, to an extent that they feel almost like organisms becoming aware of themselves. And in fact we almost define the trajectory of artistic progression as a medium’s path to supreme self-consciousness.

This is not a pipe. But it is a fantastic student poster.

But the news is different. Because the news, by and large, is one of the most essential tools we have in creating social cohesion and empathy, and to help people to understand real events in the world around them.

But it seems that finding out the news is just getting harder and harder. Because all anyone wants to tell me now is the Meta-News.

What do I mean by this exactly? Well, after reading this watch pretty much any TV news apart from the BBC World Service, or read pretty much any newspaper apart from the Financial Times, and you are likely to very quickly notice that about 50% of the airtime is devoted to coverage of the reaction to the news, or the process through which the news was obtained, or the difficulties in filming the news – with astonishingly little detail on what has ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

The modern news studio - a monument to Meta

Nowhere is this worse than in the world of 24 hour live news, in which the irregular flow of real news poses as significant threat to the much more regular flow of actual minutes and seconds. One thing that remains constant however is the speed at which people speak, film and report the news. That makes it a godsend to the rolling news editor.

This whole phenomenon went way beyond satire some time ago, though it has fed some of the very best, from Brass Eye to Charlie Brooker.

But that doesn’t make it any less disturbing to try to discover the details and impact of the Osama Bin Laden, and have to try to weed out a couple of actual facts from amongst the debris of people’s emails, footage of strange macabre people dancing in Times Square and a randomised selection of tweets.

This last area is particularly painful. News knows that email is important, and that there is every chance Twitter might be even more important. What is the response of TV news? Use it as filler. The ultimate, infinite time-filler of opinion. What’s more, a bottomless pool of opinion – which means you can easily find opinion to back the agenda of the broadcaster. Perfect.

The result – a relentless flow of jabber, which makes the angry angrier, the old-fashioned ever more befuddled, and which to the vaguely tech literate looks like an old-fashioned headmaster putting on sunglasses and trying to do some tricks on a skateboard.

All of which is silly, and infuriating, but worst of all, represents a collective shrug by the news broadcasting industry at the creative potential inherent in the most connected age of mankind, to get people to understand and empathize with news in ways never achieved before, in favour of the news equivalent of the music you hear in lifts.

It’s not all bad. Anderson Cooper on CNN is immense, and his fluency in the multi-screen world is awe inspiring – including the seamless interaction of international coverage and inside accounts on Twitter and YouTube into his reports. This is what the new golden age of newscasting could be all about.

In the meantime, the great majority of news coverage is still rather self-excited, and lost in a tedious and iniquitous spiral of-Meta News. Let’s hope it emerges soon.

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10 things Bob Dylan taught me about progress

I’m jumping the gun slightly, but Tuesday is Bob’s 70th birthday. And unlike most 70 year olds, he remains the embodiment of change. In fact, to me he seems like one of the greatest chroniclers of change – technological, emotional, social.

I think Bob is like a shark. If he doesn't keep moving forwards, he'll die. He even looks a bit like a shark.

Here are 10 things that Bob Dylan know about progress and technology that I now also know, partly thanks to him.

1. Journalists are an unreliable source of understanding of what change is really happening in society. They tend to mainly chronicle the phenomenon of journalistic interest. Or rather, they know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

2. You shouldn’t define, who you are, or what you believe, by what technology you do or don’t use. And certainly not by what other people think of it.

3. The future is unevenly distributed, and that means that there’s a lot in the past that hasn’t finished its path yet. Like Woody Guthrie.

4. Sometimes, more interesting things develop when you hand things on to someone else, rather than trying to keep control of them. The intersection between Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix might be better than anything either could achieve alone.

5. Young people are braver and faster to embrace change. But you can do things to stay young, or even to think younger than you used to, which can only lead to good things.

6. Artists may be really good at defining a vision of where society should be going, or giving shape the the collective thoughts of a new generation. That doesn’t mean they should be in charge of making it happen.

7. Hard work and creative thinking gets you a long way. But inspiration is real, and is magical. It’s where all the really big leaps come from. If you experience it, don’t take it for granted – even if you are uniquely blessed it doesn’t last forever.

8. There is nothing more destructive in the world, or more likely to hold back the invention of exciting new things, than fear. Fortunately, there is also nothing more ridiculous, particularly to a posterity who have to look back at the era of Communist fear. Not many people saw this as clearly as Dylan.

9. It doesn’t how much technology there is in the world. And how messed up your throat gets. There is still no substitute for physical performance. Just keep singing through the pain. 50 years of continuous gigging is inherently admirable.

10. Progress isn’t everything. Some things are timeless. And sometimes it can feel like the whole of history is happening at the same time, if you really use your imagination. The latest technological developments are pretty irrelevant on Desolation Row.

Anyway, thanks Bob. His music gives me inexhaustible pleasure, and I think he’s said more useful things about what changes and what stays the same as time passes than pretty much anyone else. Happy Birthday.

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Here’s to the great Indian/Nigerian trade wars of 2055

So when we tend to conceive future development, it is easy to get fixated on a US/China polarity. The new UN population projections create some pause for thought.

Looks like India will be number one by population by 2025, and Nigeria will be bigger by population than the United States by 2055.

Start looking for good real estate in Nigeria now.

Added to the news yesterday that apparently one third of Africa’s population could now economically be described as ‘middle class’, it helps to give some food for thought around future economic development.

And the UK better work pretty hard to maintain its role as an educator, entertainer and innovator…because pretty soon its population will be less than Yemen.

Plucky little island

More on this subject shortly…for the moment some useful resources…

Full data is here:

http://esa.un.org/peps/Preliminary-Results/tables/preliminary-results_2011-02-25.htm

And some visualisations here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/interactive/2011/may/06/world-population-data-visualised

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5 reasons why money can’t buy progress

I am not, despite some recent discussions, opposed to money. I like money. Who doesn’t like money? But there is danger sometimes of seeing money as an absolute, something than universally incentivises, shapes behaviour, and supports progress. Money isn’t the root of all evil. But neither is it the root of all progress. It fact often it may be a relatively weak incentive to progress…and sometimes a disincentive.

Anyway, here are 5 reasons why money can’t buy progress. And since I can’t set my blog to music, I am just going to suggest you play this for a few seconds to get you in the right mood.

1) Cash rewards can be a disincentive to performance

“For simple, straightforward tasks, rewards work. And the bigger the incentive, the more they work.

When a task gets more complicated, and requires conceptual, creative thinking (like genuinely progressive tasks) autonomy, mastery and purpose are all much better incentives than money.

…And when the profit motive is detached from the purpose motive. Bad things happen.”

2. A Fine is a Price (not a disincentive)

Often we try to use money, or more often the removal of money, to drive better behaviour. More often the opposite happens, because paying money is an excuse for acting like a jerk.

Clay Shirky spoke on this subject last week at the MIT Media Lab, describing how schools have experimented with enforcing fines for parents who are late picking up their kids. Rather than reducing late pick-ups, this fine increased them – because suddenly it was about the cost, not the basic lack of humanity towards teachers who have been cooped up with your kids all day and want to get on with their lives. And then even when the fines are removed, people continue to act like jerks.

If you want a more visceral example, spend some time in New York restaurants. People’s blood will boil with rage if you fail to leave at least an 18.5% tip for your waiter. But it is also entirely normal for people to not say thank you when waiters bring them things. Because a fine is a price.

Clay Shirky, auditioning for inclusion in watch people jump

3. The balance sheet is a scorecard, not a business plan

Every great company that I have come into contact with has a clear vision or mission that comes before everyone else. For example Google exist to organize the world’s information (and not be evil.) And IKEA have the wonderfully Swedish vision of ‘Creating a Better Life for the Many People.’

These vision-led companies are of course insanely huge and insanely profitable. But they didn’t start with the balance sheet. Their healthy balance sheets simply reflect that they are well-run companies with a powerful economic vision. Any company that starts its business planning with the balance sheet will mainly go backwards. Because the balance sheet is a scorecard not a business plan (copyright, the smartest guy I know.)

The IK in IKEA - amazing at making money, more passionate about getting well-designed furniture in the homes of low-middle income families

4. The design constraint of ultra-affordability

It is so easy to be stupid when you have lots of money. When you have no money, you have no choice but to be very smart.

Now there is no denying that some degree of resource is essential to invention, and quite a lot of resource is often essential for true innovation – because to go really big, you need some support.

But it is no accident that Larry and Sergey started in a garage, using Lego as a key building component. Or, on the flip-side, that the fat cats of tech are being gobbled up by geeks locked in basements. Starting with the assumption that money is not going to solve the problem makes you focus on what is really going to solves the problem. ie, you.

Dammit...got to buy a garage...

5. The poor man has the best tunes

Quality of creative output is inversely proportional to relative wealth status. Or…it is in your interest to keep your favourite bands small, because once they get rich they won’t be able to make good music any more.

There is a big caveat here, which is that the creative process requires freedom, basic tools etc. And DOUBLE caveat – once you get back to the beginning of this century, this is a pattern that obviously falls over. It is fair to say you had to be rich to be Proust. Or Tolstoy. Or that you had to be at least able to support a lifestyle at a royal or ecclesiastical Court to make any music or drama in Europe for many centuries. Almost too many caveats to make this meaningful…

BUT there is certainly a trend in pop culture of character learnt in adversity, great work done as adversity turns into popularity, and then decadence as wealth sets in. Because extreme wealth is distracting, isolating, and destructive of motivation. Which is one of the reasons you can go from the intensity of the band at the top of this post to the artist at the bottom in a little over a decade…

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