From Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo Galilei (July 2018)

When we booked a flight to Rome, I realised that we would arrive very late and the public transport connections to the city and our hotel would have closed down for the night. So I booked a pick-up service called Welcome (!) and was informed that Marco Astrologo (!) would be our driver. As it turned out our flight was a bit delayed, the baggage delivery at Fiumicino airport was very slow and Mr. Astrologo had been replaced with another guy whose name I didn’t catch. But at half past midnight we were happy to sink into the comfortable seats of a Mercedes for the 45 minute ride along the autostrada. The driver was initially quite chatty, but we were tired and I was lost in memories of the 1991 film called Night on Earth directed by Jim Jarmusch. There’s a sequence in which Roberto Benigni drives a taxi around Rome late at night with a bishop on the back seat having a heart attack. Not to be missed!

IMG_3124Rome is rather overwhelming and full of tourists in July (not surprisingly…). Many of the massive monuments testify to the power of both the Empire – which expanded beyond the Roman Republic and lasted from 27 BC to 1453 AD – and the Catholic Church. These are not amongst my favourite institutions: widespread slave labour and violence characterised the former and assorted forms of abuse have been common features of the latter. However, with some care it is possible to locate attractive sites in Rome and I was very happy to see the 13th Century mosaics in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere (in the ‘photo above), the market at the Campo di Fiori (where there were surprisingly few flowers on sale) and the Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps). We also checked out the very impressive Pantheon, a 43 meter spherical temple completed by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century, which has a 9 meter hole in the roof to let the sunshine in and dazzle the assembled populace with the light and power of the sovereign.

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We stayed on the Aventino Hill near the church and monastery of the Knights Templar (or Order of Malta) where a keyhole (“serratura”) offers an extraordinary view of St. Peter’s Basilica and where the orange gardens of Santa Sabrina overlook the River Tiber; these are pictured below, by night and by day, with the vast Basilica visible in the background. We ate meals in the Testaccio district, which is far from the main tourist zones and boasts a market with what may be the city’s best pizzeria! On our third and last evening we sat by a busy road junction at a café called the Tram Depot and watched groups of modern Romans chatting and drinking…

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Four days of our trip were spent in the countryside close to Assisi in Umbria. We joined a large group of Danes celebrating a sixtieth birthday. During our stay we had an opportunity to visit the town of Saint Francis and Poor Clare, enriched with explanatory notes by Francesca a knowledgeable local guide. These two dropouts from the merchant and noble hierarchies of the early 13th Century had a big impact in terms of broadening the appeal of the church with their inclusive “pro-poor” messages. There are extraordinary frescos by the early 14th Century artist Giotto and his team showing the life of the saint in the upper church of the enormous San Francesco Basilica. Clare’s remains are kept in a crypt under the church of her name (Santa Chiara).

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The simplicity of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares is largely obscured by the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church. The smell of hypocrisy is in the air around the ubiquitous collection boxes and requests for donations. As I remember, the contradictions reached a peak in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher quoted lines that have been attributed to Saint Francis – “where there is discord, let there be harmony”, etc. – in her inaugural speech as she prepared to launch the Tory onslaught on the rights and welfare of British citizens.

The history of architecture as well as political and social organisation is also on display in Siena, where we stopped for an all-too-brief visit en route to the Arno Valley. The Romans and the Tuscans knew a thing or two about building for longevity and it is fascinating to wander around the medieval city and admire the red brick buildings and the sloping Campo in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, which housed the Republic of Siena’s administration. There’s also an incredible cathedral (Duomo). But I had forgotten to check any guides before we got to the city. So we missed an opportunity to take a look at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a series of frescos in the council hall painted in the mid-14th Century just before the population was decimated by an outbreak of the Black Death (plague).[1]

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Lucca is another of the old city-states famous for its fortified and well-preserved walls. We went for a day trip in the sizzling sunshine and enjoyed strolling the stylish, narrow streets and large squares, looking at the impressive churches and particularly the Torre Guinigi, which has a hanging garden of Tuscan oaks at the top. By way of a total and refreshing contrast, the Contemporary Arts Center in Lucca was exhibiting black and white photos of America taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson during trips between the 1940s and the 1970s.

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The northern Tuscan hills were also refreshing, even though the temperatures were in the lower 30s (degrees Celsius) during our stay. We drove winding roads to places with names like Buggiano and Piteglio from our base in Massa e Cozzile. Every village seems to be surrounded by thick walls and at each central piazza there are tiny churches with tall towers.

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When we tired of exploring the hillside villages, we went to Montecatini Terme, a spa resort in the Arno Valley. The town is famous for thermal waters, which we tested during a swim at one of the baths. But it has an odd atmosphere, seemingly trapped in an era when such spa towns were in vogue amongst the leisured classes. Every other building is a hotel, but mostly they’re empty. The guests have moved on, seeking wellness and fitness in other surroundings, or simply heading for the Mediterranean beaches to join the summer crowds.

We ended our trip on the autostrada again, early in the morning driving to Pisa airport for the flight to Copenhagen. Fuimicino airport in Rome is also called Leonardo da Vinci and Pisa airport is named after Galileo.[2] Modern Italians are aware of their rich history…

PS Reviewing these notes and pictures I realize that there’s a sub-theme in this record of our trip: towers. Italy is full of them! So is the city where I work, as I discovered a couple of years ago when I was a given a book by Peter Olesen called “Københavns Tårne” (the Towers of Copenhagen, Gyldendal, 2013). Builders through the centuries and all over the world have been reaching for the sky, getting closer to God…

[1] http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/ambrogiolorenzetti/goodandbadovernment.htm

[2] Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the big name of the artistic renaissance in Tuscany. He was also an engineer and a scientist, claiming in his “treatise on painting” (published after his death): “no human investigation can be termed true science if it is not capable of mathematical demonstration.” In arguing for the Copernican model of the earth moving around the sun – in a ”heliocentric” manner – the Pisan native Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) got himself into deep trouble with the Catholic Church and ended his life in house arrest in a Tuscan village. Much has been written about these giants of discovery and imagination; see, inter alia: David Wootton (2015) on the ”Invention of Science” (Allan Lane).

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Nicaraguans get fooled (and killed) again, July 2018

Over the past 3 months there have been many tragic reports from Nicaragua, where the erstwhile revolution has gone right off the rails. In what seems like a remote and distant past – 39 years ago in July 1979 – Sandinista Commandante Daniel Ortega drove into Managua on a pickup to announce the end of the Somoza family dictatorship after very bloody uprising. But in the spirit of cold war tension the US government didn’t much like the new rulers in Nicaragua and a ”contra” armed conflict was launched from bases in Honduras. Thus, in the 1980s thousands more Nicaraguans died in the struggle, which culminated in a Central American brokered peace agreement and elections in 1990. The Sandinistas lost power; the people were weary of violence and hundreds handed over their weapons to create a sculpture of rifles in a central square in the capital.

In contrast to the neighbouring countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – Nicaragua has been relatively peaceful since 1990 and relatively unaffected by the drug dealing cartels and gangs which have wrought havoc in the region. Modest economic growth ensured that living standards improved in both rural and urban areas. But when the Sandinistas regained power at the 2006 elections, Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario decided that their family was destined to run the country, subsequently muzzling or buying off any opposition and gaining the backing of the powerful Catholic Church. As born-again Christians, their revived revolution entailed banning abortion under any circumstances and attempting to pacify the citizens with symbols of the good life such as bizarre religious inspired decorations in the streets of the capital.

Many students and young people were not taken in, however. In April 2018 protests erupted after the government tried to introduce a pension reform, which meant that contributions would increase and payments would be reduced. When thousands of people marched in opposition to the new measures, pro-Sandinista mobs and militia were mobilised to attack them. These thugs and sections of the police have killed some 400 protesters since April, many of them in their teens. The students have occupied schools and colleges, as well as the town of Masaya, some 30 kilometres from the capital.

The protesters are demanding that the Ortega clique be removed from power and elections held. Many church leaders and Central American human rights organisations support them. But the Sandinistas, like the Somocistas in the 1970s, refuse to negotiate and prefer to behave like a sect of aging authoritarians denouncing the young people and students as ”coup makers” and rebels.[1] A stalemate seems to have ensued, in which neither the Ortega clan and their followers, nor the students and protesters are willing to give ground. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” sang The Who in the 1970s. In Nicaragua the wheel has turned full circle, the revolutionaries have been corrupted by power and have tried to fool the people into submission. When that wasn’t enough, the government has used the full force of armed repression against “el pueblo.” But the outcome of the struggle hangs in the balance…

PS We lived in Managua from 2002 to 2005 and were able to observe the intrigues and political manipulation by the Ortegas as they prepared to re-assert control. In a strange echo, we have also lived in Ouagadougou the capital of Burkina Faso, where a similar “semi-dictator” Blaise Campaoré, clung to power until a wave of popular discontent (street protests) in 2013-14 finally led to his downfall after 27 years as President… He escaped to Côte d’Ivoire. Where will the Ortegas go?

[1] The Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa has published an article comparing the Ortegas and the Somozas to determine which gang was worst: https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/07/19/politica/2450760-es-daniel-ortega-peor-que-anastasio-somoza

Brief glimpses of urban and rural life in South Asia

At the end of May I flew to Dhaka for a short visit, returning for the first time since 1997. In the intervening 21 years the population of Bangladesh increased by around 50 million! With a total of over 165 million inhabitants and a density of about 1100 people per square kilometre, the country is bursting with human enterprise in all shapes and sizes.

I stayed in Gulshan, the upmarket district of Dhaka, in a mini skyscraper hotel with fine views across the city’s rooftops. Construction is the name of the game in the capital, where buildings are zooming upwards as land is scarce. I watched the sunset and the moonrise through the haze of air pollution next to an odd little infinity swimming pool on the 9th floor.

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During my days in the city preparing an evaluation of development assistance I attended a series of meetings with representatives from different agricultural organisations. Going to and from the sessions in slow moving traffic I was occupied from dawn to dusk. But I also had an opportunity to spend a long day in a couple of villages 50 kilometres from the capital.

We left the city in the early morning when the air was relatively fresh and cool. On the way eastwards we took a wrong turn and found ourselves paying a road toll extracted by an elephant blocking the road. Our driver found some notes and placed them between the folds at the end of the animal’s trunk! I was too surprised to remember to grab my camera…

Bangladesh is a rice economy par excellence; tens of millions of farmers subsist on small plots of land on the fertile flood plains of the rivers flowing from the Himalayas through the delta into the Bay of Bengal. Over recent decades, yields and output have increased significantly, resulting in “food self-sufficiency” (in terms of rice) and higher standards of living. However, the poorest, marginalised farmers have a tough time making ends meet. So farm management training in better production practices, improved nutrition and more effective crop marketing is organised through so-called ”farmer field schools.” Despite the losses in translation from Bengali to English, it was interesting to gain some impressions of progress in the farming communities, not least for the women who bear the main burden in rural households.

Milk collectors and an agricultural adviser

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Children, baskets of brinjal (aubergines) and mobile ‘phones

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Some women show the proceeds from the sale of vegetables

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Paddy fields in the heat of the midday sun

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Women farmers explaining about what they have learnt at the field schools

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Men listening during the question and answer session

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The world is increasingly full of people it seems. But the biggest problem is the global transformation from low income, subsistence economies to middle class consumerism on a giant scale. On my way back to Copenhagen from Dhaka I spent a couple of hours in transit at Dubai airport. The phenomenal growth of trans-continental travel is on display at the sprawling airport, where streams of Asian tourists are heading west while the Europeans go east in enormous numbers. Emirates Airlines operate mostly Airbus 380 aircraft, which pack well over 400 people per flight and generate a significant cloud of greenhouse gas emissions. Embarking on a fully booked flight I reflected on how my carbon footprint is swamped in the stampede…

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Noam Chomsky’s howl

Recently I discovered that the 89 year old American MIT linguist and leftie Noam Chomsky has been lecturing on the big issues of our time: notably the escalating risks of nuclear confrontation and the disturbing denial culture amongst large segments of the population when the problem of climate change is mentioned. Listening to his analysis it is hard to conceive that our species will avoid annihilation one way or another within a foreseeable future. The Republican Party in the USA is given a central role in Chomsky’s analysis: as the greatest criminal organisation the world has ever known, whose members and leaders are determined to make short term profits while ensuring the ultimate destruction of the planet.

Check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwTQsvhq3ew

and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

 

An artistic excursion, escaping everyday life

Giving up on several attempts to review my fuzzy memories of May 1968, I turn to my pictures from a recent trip to Jutland. Volumes have been written about the “soixante-huitards” as the French say when referring to my generation, including the causes and consequences of the rebellions in the 1960s in which post-second world war North American and European material wealth contrasted with ferocious de-colonisation struggles in Africa and Asia. I don’t think I have anything significant to add.

Nonetheless, it has been interesting to look at analyses re-visiting the revolution of everyday life, the student demonstrations and the challenges to complacent authorities and repressive norms and values that characterised an era around fifty years ago. In some ways the world was turned upside down. The wide-ranging critiques put forward by a movement of avant-garde artists and social revolutionaries called the “Situationist International” (SI) particularly resonated in my late teenage years in the mid-1970s; when we found out that the personal was political, to coin a phrase…[1]

So it was a surprise to find on the trip to Jutland in April 2018 that Asger Jorn the only Danish member of the SI is honoured at a museum built next to the river in the little town of Silkeborg. After driving through spring forests with beech trees bursting green leaves against a backdrop of rolling hills and beautiful lakes, we spent a couple of hours absorbing the chaotic colours and contortions of Asger Jorn’s ”oeuvre.” Pride of place in the museum is his great howl at the destruction in Stalingrad where Hitler’s and Stalin’s armies slaughtered hundreds of thousands during a winter of combat reducing the city to nothingness: ”no man’s land or the mad laughter of courage.”[2]

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Some Scandinavians like to draw comparisons with Guernica. Asger Jorn (1914-73) was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso and worked briefly with the “brutalist” Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1930s. In the museum Jorn there’s a little painting on a ceramic bowl by Picasso, which radiates the master’s charm. It is called: ”hands and fish.”

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From Silkeborg we drove to the North Sea coast in Thy. It is a wild region of sand dunes and windswept beaches. There’s a small-scale fishing trade in the tiny hamlets and I like walking around the boats dragged up on the sand where fishermen sell the catch of the day.

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Returning across Jutland to Aarhus, we spent an enjoyable morning at ARoS the modern art gallery. We started on the top floor, where there’s a spectacular rooftop rainbow designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Walking through the multi-coloured structure and gazing across the buildings below in effect turns the whole city into a work of art.

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Descending from the roof we continued wandering through the galleries. Amongst the exhibitions on the lower floors, I particularly appreciated a series of huge pop art paintings by an American called James Rosenqvist, including an enormous image of a meteorite crashing into Monet’s water lilies! That’s what the artist called the painting, believe it or not…

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To follow up we also went to the hothouses in the botanical gardens. Strangely, the lilies in a pond under bright yellow light recalled the pop art exhibition. And the hothouses were drenched by an unusual, almost tropical, spring thunderstorm rumbling across the city for a couple of hours.

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Back at home it was time to contemplate nature’s artworks in our own garden. For a few days at the beginning of May every year pink blossoms are splashed across the canvas of a giant copper beech in the corner by the hedge. It’s a wonderful spectacle…

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Happily there’s plenty to admire from my caravan and through the windows. As the revolutionaries wrote on the walls in Paris in May 68: Nous ne voulons pas d’un monde où la certitude de ne pas mourir de faim s’échange contre le risque de mourir d’ennui…

[1] A key tract by members of SI that provided the arguments underpinning the uprisings and occupations at Nanterre and the Sorbonne in May 1968 was circulated at the University of Strasbourg one and half years earlier. It was called: ”De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et quelques moyens pour y remédier” (Mustapha Khayati, AFGES, 1966). For a comparison between the students’ angry protests and unrest in Paris in May 1968 and the political agenda in Macron’s France in May 2018, see: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/01/paris-student-protesters-raid-1968-uprising-antoine-gerard-guegan

[2] 1968 was also the year of the ”Prague Spring”, when the Czechs and Slovaks tried to develop alternatives to communist party orthodoxy, but were crushed by the Warsaw Pact (Russian) invasion in August. In my old diaries I keep a cartoon from September 1973 showing a wreath sent by Alexander Dubcek to Salvador Allende after Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile…

Collapsing – an April blues

Although it may be a bit exaggerated, I find myself increasingly unable to listen or watch news bulletins, particularly on the mainstream media. The drone of right wing nationalists and the vacuity of centre-right politicians fill me with a mixture of disgust and despair. Many of the views and opinions turn me so far off that I turn off.

But I know that this response gets me nowhere. Knowing your enemy is useful advice. Yet in these murky times it is not easy to figure out what to do with such knowledge. I have minimal power and influence anyway.

As scientists document the decay and destruction of nature, the media focus on absurd cultural phenomena and entertainment – royal families, celebs and such like – wasting our precious time and insulting intelligence. On another level leaders in America and in Britain are floundering around in their nostalgic fantasies of greatness, retreating from international cooperation and re-establishing barriers to trade. In Russia, Turkey and elsewhere strongmen flex their muscles and assassinate or intimidate dissenters. In other parts of the world military budgets are increasing and the space for civil society and human rights organisations is shrinking. I recently attended meetings with Tanzanian researchers who are afraid of investigating potentially sensitive subjects – the factors driving high teenage pregnancy rates for example – as politicians threaten repressive measures against those undermining “traditional values.”[1]

At the heart of the matter are a series of primitive tribal instincts, which seem to be getting out of control in many regions. The Hungarian general election this weekend exemplifies the unfortunate (misguided) direction many European countries are taking. Sadly, according to opinion polls, thousands of people are prepared to vote for an ugly assortment of neo-fascist tough guys who promise to keep all the baddies away and are hell-bent on dismantling the ”liberal and democratic order.” What will replace it? I fear the prophecies of George Orwell, with boots coming down in human faces forever. Meanwhile in the US of A the “administration” is mobilising the national guard to defend the border with Mexico against “caravans” of destitute central Americans…

Although some global institutions seem to be collapsing, from readings of world history it would appear that the ebb and flow of stability and order have been commonplace over the centuries.[2] So I pin my hopes on new progressive movements confronting the old men in power and their barren ideologies. As the #me too movement against sexual harassment has shown recently, even the social media can be harnessed to enlightened causes. Surely, as the rapid spread of distress and stress amongst the web-fixated, twittering, instagram generation flashes warning lights, there are alternative possibilities for making use of these powerful communication tools, ensuring that they contribute to exchange of ideas. It is necessary to counter anti-democratic manipulation and thought control; as illustrated by the disturbing discoveries of Facebook in cahoots with the sinister “Cambridge Analytica.”. Some economic policy reforms for getting to grips with inequalities wouldn’t be a bad idea either!

[1] The Economist laments the latest developments in Tanzania in the 17th March 2018 issue: https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21738919-strong-constitutions-matter-tanzanias-rogue-president

[2] See for example: ”The Silk Roads – a New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, 2015).

On the shores of Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean (March 2018)

In March I went to the rock city, Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The purpose of the trip was to gain an impression of two research projects: investigating HIV and associated illnesses such as diabetes; and the economics and ecology of fisheries on the lake. I travelled with members of a consultative committee for development research and spent two days engrossed in discussions with two enthusiastic research teams.

En route to the lake we spent a night at a hotel near Kilimanjaro and ate breakfast on a terrace with fantastic views towards the mountain. It is strange to be at the equator and gaze at a snowy scene!

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In Mwanza we visited laboratories and clinics where the team from the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) are working. Around 5-7 per cent of the population are HIV positive and the research project is designed to determine their susceptibility to other diseases, as well as treatment. It was interesting to get some insights into a subject that I know very little about.

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We stayed at a giant monstrosity beach resort hotel, with water lilies and frogs in ponds.

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On the second day in Mwanza we met the fisheries research team, initially at the fish control lab on the outskirts of the city. Samples of fish are inspected and tested in order to ensure that they are free of diseases and that pollution levels are within limits. The lab was funded by the EU as a trade promotion initiative.

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Then we went to a beach landing site where we learnt about the fishing and processing techniques. Drying small sardines on beaches is common, but very primitive. The researchers are helping to introduce more efficient technologies that will increase the value of the catch.

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Our discussions concluded at the fish market in Mwanza where buyers gather from all over the region, coming from as far away as the DRC and South Sudan.

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Early in the morning of the third day we were booked on a flight to Dar es Salaam. But there were some delays caused by a spectacular tropical downpour with impressive thunder and lightning. Later as the “Fastjet” plane descended to land there were fine views of the Indian Ocean and the ”haven of peace.”

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Driving around the city I noticed that Tanzanian artists amuse themselves by painting mobile murals, such as this “photo shop style” image on the back of a bus, depicting Gaddafi and Saddam with a female gun-waving figure in between. The bus was in a traffic jam outside one of the largest shopping malls in Dar.

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It’s not easy to determine what the message is!