May 24, 2016

Metaphysical poetry as explained by Florence + the Machine (part 2/4)

paradiso(For the introduction to this series, see here)


“And I had a dream/ about my old school”

Dante’s journey through hell and most of purgatory is guided by the great poet Virgil, who he credits as his mentor. When they first meet on the outskirts of hell in Inferno Canto 1:61-99, Dante proclaims the deep tutelary impact that Virgil has had on his career: “Are you then that Virgil, and that fountain, that pours out so great a river of speech?…You are my master, and my author: you alone are the one from whom I learnt the high style that has brought me honour.”

“And she was there all pink and gold and glittering/ I threw my arms around her legs/Came to weeping”

The other source of edification who leads Dante through the remainder of purgatory and finally into heaven is none other than Dante’s idolized muse, Beatrice. And while she is not described as gilded, pink, and glittering, she pretty much has some of the most fabulous entrances ever described in both The Divine Comedy and The New Life.

In Purgatorio Canto 20: 1-48 she takes over from Virgil, emerging in a cloud of flowers, carried by angels, dressed in “colours of living flame,” and crowned with a wreath of Minerva’s olive leaves set over a white veil. In response, Dante quakes in awe and turns to tell Virgil that “There is barely a drop of blood in me that does not tremble.”

Beatrice’s appearance in Dante’s vision in The New Life is equally as grand: an unknown figure identified as Dante’s master carries her as she eats Dante’s flaming heart while clad in nothing but a crimson cloth. It’s curious how Dante always seems to attire her in red when he claims to despise the colour in Inferno Canto 14 because it reminds him of Bulicame, a hot spring known as much for its trail of red clay as it was for its usage as a source of bath water for prostitutes.

“And I heard your voice/ As clear as day/ And you told me I should concentrate/ It was all so strange/ And so surreal/ That a ghost should be so practical”

Beatrice’s first words to Dante are unfortunately not tender ones. Although she is obscured by her veil, she speaks in a clear and severe voice, first telling him that he should not weep for Virgil’s disappearance because he should save his tears for what is about to happen next. She then admonishes him for being unaware of his unworthy placement in heaven:

“‘Look at me, truly: I truly am, I truly am Beatrice. How did you dare to approach the Mount? Did you not know that here Man is happy?’ My eyes dropped to the clear water, but seeing myself there, I looked back at the grass, so much shame bowed my forehead down. As the mother seems severe to her child, so she seemed to me: since the savour of sharp pity tastes of bitterness.”

“And my body was bruised and I was set alight/ But you came over me like some holy rite/ And although I was burning, you’re the only light”

As a mere mortal wandering through otherworldly places, Dante endures his fair share of emotional and physical discomfort throughout his journey towards heaven and Beatrice, who symbolizes the path to God. Luckily for him, his guides, along with other blessed creatures, ensure that he is not too badly affected. For instance, in the seventh circle of hell’s third ring, large flakes of fire fall from the heavens to burn the naked sinners below. To protect Dante, Virgil instructs him to walk along the edge of the sand, lest his feet be burned.

Even more uncomfortable is Dante’s crossing onto the shore of the Blessed. In Purgatorio Canto 31, the lady Matilda submerges and pulls him by his head along the river Lethe in such a way that sounds like drowning. He swallows water but is eventually fished out and declared cleansed to satisfaction.

“And the grass was so green against my new clothes”

When Dante asks Matilda where Beatrice is in Purgatorio Canto 32, she replies, “See her sitting under the new foliage at its root.” In fact, the entire expanse at which they stand at the foot of heaven’s door is a woodland covered in lush grass and greenery. It is there that Matilda draws Dante across the stream of forgetfulness and where he also drinks from the river Eunoë. These waters essentially prepare Dante to venture into heaven through their transformative powers, and he describes the experience as one that renders him anew in Canto 33:103-145: “I came back, from the most sacred waves, remade, as fresh plants are, refreshed, with fresh leaves: pure, and ready to climb to the stars.”

Although there is no specific mention of whether this transformation applies to his superficial trappings (i.e., clothes), Dante’s preparation runs parallel to the biblical allegory of the Church in its preparation as a bride for Christ. In that allegory, as described in the book of Revelation 19:7-8, the bride is given fine, bright linen to wear, thereby illustrating the biblical importance of cleanliness and newness vis-à-vis the ascent to paradise.

Next (part 3/4): Milton’s Paradise Lost as set to “Cosmic Love”



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May 3, 2016

Metaphysical Poetry as Explained by Florence + the Machine (part 1/4)

florence                                                       Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine

A few years ago, The Atlantic came out with an ingenious article by Matthew O’Brien on how Carly Rae Jepsen’s song, “Call Me Maybe” could explain the Euro crisis. By selecting certain lines from the song’s lyrics and linking them to the situations of various EU countries, O’Brien illustrated Jepsen’s accidental macroeconomic profundity as distilled in her catchy pop song.

It was such a good idea that I decided to steal it and apply it to my own interests here—more specifically, in relation to Florence + the Machine and how their song lyrics could be read as iterations of passages in metaphysical poetry. Through three of their songs, I hope to frame the attitudes presented by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), John Donne (1572-1631), and John Milton (1608-1674) toward the supernatural.

The reason why O’Brien’s approach is so brilliant is because it highlights an axiom of contemporary society—namely, that most song lyrics today are hardly scrutinized for the depth of their content. And while that stance is certainly valid, it wasn’t always that way. It’s largely due to our belief that there now exists a wide divergence between poetry and song, the latter of which is considered subordinate to the former.

This is a far cry from our attitude to the fact that the roots of literature were born in song, prayer, and legend. Verse always precedes prose in the creation of a national literature and, as such, early epic poems and ballads (which were often sung) are revered as the revolutionary texts that sanctioned a language’s right to acquire the status of literature. While it is true that not all songs have been respected equally throughout history, the rise of popular culture and ubiquitous pop music has been roughly concomitant with our decline in regard for song lyrics as a literary form.

But I’d like to think that every once in a while we can still find higher thoughts in the manifestations of popular music. And, through the lens of Florence Welch’s fascination with the occult and the sacred, I’d like to explore the extent to which her songs can find communion with the great metaphysical poets of yore.

Next (part 2/4): Dante’s journey through heaven, hell, and purgatory as set to “Only if for a Night”



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April 13, 2016

A history of the colour pink in Japan

image1{The Meguro River (目黒川) at 中目黒 in Tokyo}

After my recent visit to Japan, which felicitously coincided with the cherry blossom season, I thought I’d spend a little time covering the history of the colour pink in that country. Compared to other languages (such as certain ones in Europe), the colour pink in East Asia does not nearly have as long an etymological history as other colours in terms of being recognized as a distinct colour in its own right rather than as a derivative of ‘red.’

However, in the case of Japan, ‘pink’ has a rather long history—as is fitting for the country with a famously deep appreciation for cherry blossoms. As far back as the 8th century during the Nara period, ‘pink’ or「桃花褐」was found in Manyōshū (万葉集- Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest surviving compilation of poetry in Japanese. In it, the colour is used to analogously compare the impermanency of a pink stain to the shallow feelings of a woman:


Here, the colour has been transliterated as ‘tsukisome,’ and while there are other variations on this word that involve the Chinese character for ‘peach’ (桃)*, they all denote the same colour: pink. In addition to the words for ‘pink’ that involve the character for ‘red’ (淡紅色、退紅), this raises the total number of possibilities to one that far outnumbers any imaginable counterpart sum in English.

Now, of course, the Anglicized pronunciation of ‘pink’ (ピンク- pinku) is most commonly used in spoken Japanese. And while the majority of other words for ‘pink’ are considered obsolete today, the range of ways in which this colour has been described indicates how much the concept of pink has been contemplated in Japanese thought throughout its literary history.

* 桃花褐(あらぞめ、つきそめ) 、桃染(つきそめ)、桃色(ももいろ)


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April 3, 2016

Book review: malala’s book from a TCK (third culture kid) point of view


After years of putting it off, I finally got around to reading Malala Yousafzai’s book, which is every bit as inspiring as the reviews say. It exceeded my expectations in that I found it much more gripping than I anticipated, and I was surprised at how much the book documented her and her father’s journey of activism long before the Taliban targeted them.

I also didn’t expect the lengths to which she expressed her deep love for the Swat valley and her identification as a Pashtun first and foremost before as a Pakistani. Indeed, Malala reveals a great deal about the dual nature of Pashtun culture: on the one hand she describes her people as hospitable, generous, and fiercely loyal. For instance, they apparently seldom say manana (‘thank you’) because they believe that kindness can only truly be repaid with more kindness. However, the same principle holds true for offenses, because on the other hand, they have also been known to hold grudges for astounding amounts of time and see no expiry date on when one can exact his revenge. This sort of behaviour is responsible for many of the feuds that have pervaded Pashtun history.

With this notable concept in mind, I was initially thinking of writing a post that compared different cultures in which feudalism has played a key role in shaping normative behaviours. But instead, I’d like to reflect on Malala’s deep ties to her homeland of the Swat Valley from the perspective of someone who has never felt a strong sense of belonging to one particular place. As a third culture kid (see definition here) of mixed heritage who grew up between different cultures and countries, I’ve always been secretly a little envious of people who have a definitive place to call ‘home’ and find security in being bonded to it. And so passages like the ones below that convey Malala’s intense identification with her homeland and the homesickness that she feels while being away from it move yet do not relate to me:

“…when you are exiled from your homeland, where your fathers and forefathers were born and where you have centuries of history, it’s very painful.”

“…we might be the world’s best-treated refugees, in a nice house with everything we need, but we still yearn for our homeland.”

“No Pashtun leaves his land of his own sweet will…either he leaves from poverty of he leaves for love.”

Still, the fact that I find difficulty in empathizing with Malala’s longing for the Swat Valley doesn’t detract from my overall ability to imagine her pain. In fact, the entire book is full of details that are hard to relate to for many people, which is her whole point—namely, that basic rights such as education are still denied to many girls around the world.

Malala’s account certainly inspired me to be appreciative of what I have while striving to make the world better, and I highly recommend it!



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February 5, 2016

Favourite dishes created during dire times (part 4): carrot cake


Although carrot cakes have existed since medieval times in Europe, they only gained lasting popularity in Anglophone countries during the post-WWII period. As carrots contain more sugar than any other vegetable apart from the sugar beet, they have long been used as sweeteners in cakes during times of scarcity– hence their usage as such during the Dark Ages.

Due to the rationing of food in Great Britain during WWII, recipes were recommended by the Minister of Food, Frederick Marquis, 1st Lord Woolton (1883-1964), and published in newspapers and booklets for the public to follow. One of the most popular recipes was for carrot cake, and although the majority of wartime austerity recipes were happily forgotten once the war ended, carrot cake endured as a favourite dessert. Soon afterwards, the dish caught on in the United States, and by the 1960’s it was a dessert that was commonly found on restaurant menus. To this day, carrot cake is still widely enjoyed by the British public. In 2011, a survey in the Radio Times reported that it was voted the most favourite cake in the United Kingdom.



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January 25, 2016

Favourite dishes created during dire times (part 3): Budae jjigae


As a soup invented during the Korean War, budae jjigae perfectly qualifies as yet another dish that was created under distressing circumstances. Budae jjigae literally means ‘troop stew,’ and includes U.S. food items that were made available through the U.S. military such as spam, hot dogs, baked beans, and macaroni. These ingredients, combined with the Korean kimchi and gochujang (chili paste) made for a decent meal in light of the harrowing political environment that this dish was conceived in. The history of budae jjigae is well-known in Korea and its association with the U.S. military is strong. In fact, Uijeongbu, a city that borders Seoul to the south and is known for  its many U.S. army bases is famous for its budae jjigae.

Budae jjigae is still widely popular in Korea as a communal meal that is usually enjoyed by a group of people. Since its creation it has undergone several modifications to suit the more prosperous situation of the country: dduk (glutinous rice cakes), American cheese slices, tofu, instant ramen, and fresh vegetables are now often featured in this dish alongside its original ingredients.



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January 14, 2016

Favourite dishes created during dire times (part 2): lobster


Long before becoming a delicacy on the east coast of the U.S., lobsters were only eaten by members belonging to the lowest rungs of society. In fact, prisoners in the 1800s complained about the inhumane treatment they received by being served these crustaceans for meals.

A large part of their disgust had to do with how society looked at lobsters: nicknamed ‘cockroaches of the sea,’ these creatures looked like insects, and, coupled with the fact that they were known bottom-feeders, made people feel repulsed at the mere sight of them. Thus, the idea of ingesting lobsters as well any forms of waste that those lobsters might have eaten prior to being served made these crustaceans unappetizing, to say the least. It just goes to show you how much social conditioning can change the way we regard certain animals. Guinea pigs, hamsters, cats, and dogs might make for adorable pets now, but that certainly wasn’t always the case in many countries, especially when there were large amounts of these animals and they became pests to the local populace.

This is another reason why lobsters weren’t initially received with such enthusiasm: in the early 1800s there were so many of them that could be found along the east coast that fishermen regarded them as either a nuisance to their fishing or as an easy way to earn a bit of money by selling large quantities of them to fertilizer companies that would grind them up.

Therefore, for your average prison warden, these animals were a cheap way to sustain his prisoners. Luckily for those jailed in certain states, however, there were apparently laws that prohibited the serving of lobster for more than once a week because such treatment was seen as so cruel.



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January 5, 2016

Favourite dishes created during dire times (part 1): Feijoada


For a while now I’ve been thinking about doing a series on beloved dishes around the world that were conceived under harrowing circumstances. It’s an appropriately uplifting first post of the new year because to me, this idea that certain culinary feats were achieved during times of scarcity and despair is an apt example of the human capacity to produce great work even under extreme duress and with little to work with—the ultimate test of which being the test of time: the fact that these dishes are still enjoyed during times of abundance shows how clever their inventors were.

In today’s health-conscious age of encouraged organic eating, I think it’s easy to forget how often in history people were forced to work with lesser ingredients because they didn’t have access to many of the resources we have now. And while it’s true that a large part of what constitutes ‘good’ cooking comes from the ability to work with fresh, seasonal ingredients, our attitude toward ‘good’ cooking today often ignores the fact that great dishes were not always created as such. People in the past regularly had to be creative in defying the seasons and their lack of resources by dint of necessity; ‘healthy eating’ was the last thing on their minds. And yet, these dishes ended up being nationally treasured just as much as the ones that were invented in restaurant kitchens with first-rate ingredients.

One such dish that has endured as Brazilian favourite is feijoada, a meal created by slaves who were forced to work with food scraps because their cruel masters reserved for them nothing else, according to lore. The word feijoada comes from feijão, the Portuguese word for “beans.”Although the recipe also exists in other former Portuguese colonies and varies from one country to another, it basically consists of a thick stew served with rice and sausages. The stew’s standard ingredients typically include beans, pork (or beef), and vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage, and carrots.

An interesting feature of this dish is the soporific effect that it tends to induce in eaters. Even though the dish is not particularly high in calories (1/2 cup of feijoada roughly equates to 186 calories), it is apparently very filling. In fact, in Anthony Bourdain’s São Paulo episode of his series, The Layover, there is an entire montage featuring various locals attesting to how sleepy one gets after eating feijoada.

For a video overview of that episode, see here.



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December 13, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 4/4)


GogolStaleyNikolai Gogol (1809-1852); Layne Staley (1967-2002)


Gogol’s relationship with the Russian language differed slightly from Lermontov’s and Pushkin’s in that he grew up in a household that spoke multiple Slavic languages: his mother was Polish and he was born and raised in a Ukrainian Cossack village that was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Consequently, scholars of both Russian and Ukrainian literature have long debated his literary identity. Alongside the likes of Pushkin, Prosper Mérimée (author of Carmen), and Edgar Allen Poe, Gogol is considered one of the first masters of the short story. The Nose, arguably his most famous work, was converted into an opera that is still widely enjoyed in theaters today.

Even from the beginning of his writing career in university, Gogol developed a secretive yet ambitious personality that was heavily punctuated by a painful degree of self-consciousness. His first, self-published poem about idyllic German life entitled, Hans Küchelgarten, was criticized by every magazine that he sent it to. As a result, he bought all of the remaining copies, destroyed them, and swore never to write poetry again. This chronic anxiety about how well his works were received would eventually be the death of him.

After his career took an upturn with the great success of The Government Inspector, a satire of Russian beaurocracy, his concomitant realization that satirical comedy was his literary forte led to his widespread fame and further acclaim. Dead Souls, The Nose, and The Overcoat are among his best works that exhibit his sardonic wit and insightful social commentary on issues pertaining especially to Russia under the rule of Czar Nicholas I.

Throughout his career, however, Gogol remained prey to the opinions of others, internalizing their criticisms and chastizing himself in harmful ways. In particular, the judgement of Matvey Konstantinovsky, a spiritual elder who Gogol constantly consulted during his last years, instilled such a strong sense of self-loathing in Gogol that it convinced him to despise the fantastical elements in his work as a mark of sinfulness. At the same time, Gogol was experiencing maddening writer’s block in trying to complete the second half of Dead Souls. Out of frustration, he burned many of his manuscripts containing its contents, blamed this act on the Devil possessing him temporarily, and fell into a deep depression. For nine days afterwards, his extreme ascetic practices led him to refuse all food in self-chastisement. Finally, he died in agony of starvation.

Staley also died in isolation after a long period of self-loathing, in large part brought on by his addiction to drugs. Having been discovered for his talent from when he was a teenager, Staley’s involvement with drugs went hand in hand with his rising star status in the Seattle grunge movement of the early 1990’s, which changed the face of rock music. Among hits such as “Man in the Box,” “Hate to Feel,” and “Angry Chair,” he wrote many of Alice in Chains’ most popular songs and imbued them with the distinct voice for which he was well known. On the tenth anniversary of Staley’s death in 2012, The Atlantic paid a tribute to him written by David de Sola, who noted that, “The Seattle grunge scene…produced four great voices, but the most distinct among them belonged to Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley…His ability to project power and vulnerability in his vocals… made for a style that would get copied for years after Alice in Chains became a household name.” Many of the lyrics in his songs aptly bring out the feelings of helplessness and depression that often accompany drug addiction.

One of the other three great voices referred to by Sola included Kurt Cobain, who was known as a friend and respected contemporary of Staley’s. In fact, a picture of the two of them was included in Alice in Chains’ music video for “Voices.” Similar to the way in which Gogol and Lermontov were affected by Pushkin’s death and compelled them to write Dead Souls and Death of a Poet, respectively, Staley was deeply saddened by Cobain’s death in 1994 and was jolted enough to make a surprising stage appearance shortly after the band had announced their intended hiatus—a decision due to Staley’s flailing functionality and need for drug rehabilitation. Although the concert was in May, Staley showed up in a ski mask, apparently to hide his sickly and deteriorating appearance.

The remaining years of Staley’s life became increasingly shrouded by his addiction, withdrawal from the rest of the world, and refusals to interact with even his fellow musicians. His slow decline in all abilities was noted by the few who did see him occasionally. From 1999 to 2002, Staley barely left his apartment and was finally discovered dead there by the police weeks after his actual death. According to the report, they found him with a syringe in his leg, a loaded syringe in his hand, and next to several bottles of spray paint, two crack pipes, and a stash of cocaine. At 6 feet tall (1.83m), he only weighed 86 pounds (39 kg) by the time he died, rendering him as emaciated as Gogol was after he starved himself to death. In an eerie coincidence of events, Staley also died on April 5, the same day of Cobain’s death.

Back (part 1/4): Introduction



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November 27, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 3/4)



Amy Winehouse (1983-2011); Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)


Like Pushkin’s character, Lensky, Lermontov was also a romantic poet who died very young in a duel, in his case at the age of twenty-six. His career is as remarkable for its brevity as it is for the incredible literary contributions he made during his short life, which earned him both the title of “The Poet of the Caucasus” as well as his reputation as the greatest poet after Pushkin. Lermontov showed great promise from an early age; he composed poetry from the age of thirteen under the influence of Byron, who he greatly admired alongside Goethe and other members of the Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Urge’) movement. Although he was a sickly youth and suffered from a permanent limp due to a horse-riding accident, the events leading up to his death had nothing to do with his physical afflictions and almost everything to do with the consequences of his intense personality.

His passionate behaviour included recuperating from his work with the same degree of intensity that characterized his work ethic itself. According to Lermontov’s biographer Alexander Skabichevsky, “In the mornings he was writing, but the more he worked, the more need he felt to unwind in the evenings…‘I feel I’m left with very little of my life,’ the poet confessed to his friend A.Merinsky on July 8, a week before his death.” During his years in the military especially, Lermontov not only gained a reputation for his whoring and drinking sprees but also a number of enemies due to his characteristic cruel wit and caustic humour. His lack of social pleasantries would eventually be the reason for the duel that killed him. In a letter dated to 1833, he admitted his impulsive proclivities: “Now I want material pleasures, happiness that I can touch, happiness that can be bought with gold, that one can carry it in one’s pocket as a snuff-box; happiness that beguiles only my senses while leaving my soul in peace and quiet.” Despite all of this energy expended on indulgent behaviour, however, Lermontov was extremely productive in writing and receiving publication.

Perhaps the act that best exemplifies his ability to create brilliant work under extreme duress was his creation of the poem dedicated to Pushkin that propelled him to fame, Death of a Poet. Following Pushkin’s death in 1837, Lermontov was severely distraught and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet despite his disfavour at court, impending exile, and fitful condition, he composed Death of a Poet, which enjoyed mass circulation among the Russian intelligentsia within only a few days. Its final part, in fact, was written impromptu within just a few minutes before being disseminated. Such was Lermontov’s gift.

Parallel to Lermontov, Amy Winehouse was also a young star prone to working and playing hard. In a 2007 interview, she remarked, “…Maybe I’m a bit resentful because all I do is work now. If I’m not working, I’ll be up for three weeks at a time, just like the old me.” In short, her idea of rest and relaxation was staying awake for three weeks in order to recover from working non-stop.

Only a year older than Lermontov was when he died, Winehouse was notorious not only for her involvement with drugs and alcohol but also for her disastrous love interests in a similar way that Lermontov’s personal life was remembered. It was in fact these tumultuous relationships that provided rich fodder for many of her song lyrics that mention being helplessly part of a toxic couple locked in a cycle of self-destruction. Lermontov’s romantic life was equally as chaotic. In his 1982 biography, author John Garrard mentioned that, “The symbolic relationship between love and suffering is of course a favourite Romantic paradox, but for Lermontov it was much more than a literary device. He was unlucky in love and believed he always would be: fate had ordained it.”

Fortunately, despite the frequent catastrophes that plagued them throughout their careers, both Lermontov and Winehouse at least lived to see the measure of their great success. Amy Winehouse, in a 2007 interview, remarked that although her greatest fear at one point was dying without being acknowledged for her contributions to music, her worldwide acclaim ultimately reassured her that “If I die…I would still feel fulfilled in a way.” By the time she died, Winehouse had received twenty-four awards from sixty-two nominations within a span of five years (2004-2009), including five Grammy awards in 2008. Her twenty-fifth and last award was a Grammy granted post-humously in 2012 for “Body and Soul,” her final recording done four months before her death.

Lermontov, by the end of his life, had earned the reputation as ‘Pushkin’s heir,’ not just for his admiration of Pushkin, but also as a brilliant novelist, poet, and founding father of Russian literature in his own right, alongside Pushkin. His interest in the culture and landscape of the Caucasus introduced new forms of literary thinking into the early development of his nation’s literature, and he invented the intonations of what was later termed ‘iron verse’ for its vigorous sounds and high energy of powerful expressions.

Next (part 4/4): Layne Staley and Nikolai Gogol



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