Archive for May 2010

Do what you want to do

May 28th, 2010 — 11:10pm

Ivan Illich is a philosopher whose work is getting a lot of play these days and is having a great influence on the Web 2.0/social enterprise crowd. He’s perhaps most famous for his 1971 book ‘De-Schooling Society’, a radical critique of education systems in Western Europe and America, in which he claims that the institutions of learning (schools and universities) make universal education impossible. For Illich, it is the nature of these institutions that prevents people from taking control of their own education and pursuing their own interests. In other words, the institution actually gets in the way, and deters the individual from learning. Instead of schools, according to Illich, learners should participate in ‘learning webs’, much more loosely structured and fluid groups who exchange knowledge on a social basis. This loose structure, he argues, would free people to learn what, and how, they wanted.

But the implications of Illich’s criticism of the institution aren’t limited to education. Adherents of his thinking have applied the lens off his forensic deconstruction of the academic system to everything from private corporations to government departments. Wherever they see ‘schooled’ behaviour, they turn to Illich to explain the ways in which the institution, the hierarchy, inhibits creative thought and initiative. As is so often the case, the specific terms of Illich’s arguments have been somewhat stretched by their transposition to different sectors and structures, but the reason they are being revived now is because of the promise of the Web to do away with traditional organisations and infrastructures altogether. The Web seems to hold out the promise of the ‘Tools of Conviviality’ Illich described in his next book, in 1973.

The question is, to what extent are Illich’s criticisms valid, and if they are, can the Web free us to create the tools and the social webs or fluid organisations that he imagined? Well, I think we all realise that large, rigidly structured institutions do have difficulty responding to rapidly changing environments and promoting innovation, imagination and flexibility (this is just as true of the private sector as the public, btw). Setting aside for a moment the irony of a former Catholic priest decrying the brainwashing/stultifying effect of monolithic institutions (the Vatican being the example par excellence, I would say, and not just because I’m a fairly low-church Anglican), one can just as easily criticise small, decentralised groups with informal leadership for their vulnerability to factionalism, lack of accountability, their inability to deliver projects at scale, and their propensity to collapse.

But I didn’t really mean to get into a huge discussion about Ivan Illich. What I am really interested in is how the organisation might be changing, and how the reasons why people join or form organisations might be changing. I think we are seeing the beginning of a huge change, just very tentative at the moment, but definitely there, from a world in which we work for organisations primarily because they pay our salaries, to one in which we join and work for organisations or groups primarily because we want to achieve something together (obviously, we still need to get paid by someone, but hear me out).

And Other Stories ( is a new publishing company. It’s a social enterprise and their aim is to publish excellent new fiction in translation from a number of languages (German and Portuguese to start, many more to follow). But they also want to encourage other publishers to publish more books in translation. In other words their mission is really to encourage the publishing of great literature from around the world. So far so right-on. But what’s even more interesting is the way they are going about this. They are not just sitting in a board room commissioning reader reports and scheduling one or two titles they like. They are opening up the whole governance of the organisation to anyone who wants to join in. At their regular meetings, they invite anyone with an interest in literary translation and publishing to turn up and have a drink and some food and join their discussion and throw their ideas into the ring.

Now, you are probably thinking: ‘it’s been done before, bor-ing’. Well, maybe it has, but I went to the last meeting, on Wednesday, at The Old China Hand on Roseberry Avenue, and had a beer, and met some nice people, and talked about some ideas for the subscriptions they could offer, the events they could run, titles they might acquire, and so on. And you know what? It was really good fun. As I walked away I thought, ‘This is great. Why doesn’t everyone run a business like this?’ Everybody was there because they genuinely wanted to be there and they had something to say. It was quite a heady experience. And all of a sudden all of that old utopian stuff about Linux and open-source communities and Ivan Illich came back to me, and I thought, maybe it is possible afterall. Maybe we will start coming together to do things we want to do, instead of just coming together to do what we have to do.

But what’s so new about this? I hear you cry. We’ve always had volunteers, and people have always gone into jobs that paid less because it was their passion, or their dream. What’s different about this? Well, this is different because for one thing it’s so much easier to organise. The Web makes it easier to find people with similar interests. It is the ultimate tool for conviviality because it allows us to build communities of interest so easily. You can easily set up informal global networks and attract large numbers of like-minded people who will give you some of their time and their ideas for little more than a free beer and a (figurative) pat on the back. Given the changes that are rapidly taking place in manufacturing and distribution as well, you no longer need to have the resources of a large institution to produce something, or to distribute it, or even to promote it. Now, small groups with limited resources can produce and achieve much more. This is what’s new.

Which really leads to another question. If it’s now possible, or at least easier than ever before, to do all this, does it mean that we can start to create a new working culture, one in which, as Illich himself might have put it, we take greater control of our own working pathways, one in which we create working webs, fluid, semi-permanent, mobile, flexible – to get things done, the things we want to achieve, not the ones we are told to? Because if we can, then that is truly exciting.

And And Other Stories is by no means the only example of a new business/group that is doing this already. There are hundreds of them, people like: School of Everything – Social Innovation Camp – Irrepressible – Freecycle – Bookleteer – FixMyStreet – Newspaperclub – and so on and so on….

Wherever you look, in response to specific challenges or problems, or even just in response to sudden opportunities, these nimble, inclusive, responsive community enterprises are springing up and creating their own solutions. And they are doing this not to make money, not to grow or to become famous or influential. They are doing it largely out of enthusiasm and a real desire to get things done. Because that is now made possible. So maybe Ivan Illich wasn’t so wide of the mark afterall. Maybe there is something in his criticism of unwieldy institutions because when we find that we can come together with a shared purpose or desire to solve a problem, that is the most powerful stimulus there is, and that is when we are most likely to generate the ideas and collaborate in ways that will work, when we are most engaged.

I know one thing, a hell of a lot of good ideas came out of that And Other Stories meeting, more fresh ideas than I’ve seen in a long time, and that has got to be good for business.

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Reading Borges in cyberspace: The Library of Babel and the Book of Sand

May 16th, 2010 — 11:08am

The Web is both the Library of Babel and The Book of Sand. It may not take the form of a book, or a library, but in many respects it resembles the infinite library of Borges’ imagination, and it changes constantly, just like the ever-changing pages of the Book of Sand. It is restless and dynamic and never the same twice.

In his story ‘The Library of Babel’, Borges describes a library consisting of an infinite number of interconnecting and identical hexagonal rooms, a world of bookshelves, in which the inhabitants, the ‘librarians’ wander around, trying to find the texts they want to read, trying to find the ‘catalogue of catalogues’ which will give them the key to the shelving system (a task, given the endless size of the library, with a statistical probability of zero). The story immediately reflects a number of Borges’ perennial concerns: with the infinite, with physical form and symmetry, with memory and the passage of time, with dreams and so on. But one of the strongest anxieties that runs through the opening paragraphs is the feeling of dread inspired by a library in which the books are not identified, in which they are all the same length, in which only a couple of characters on the spine identifies each volume, in which there is no way of knowing where to find the right book.

It’s easy to put this anxiety down simply to the rather mundane dream of an overworked librarian. Of course Borges must have had similar thoughts many times, even if they were not so lucid or rigorously logical as this story. But the insistence of this message, this fear of ignorance, of being unable to find (or even to know) what one is looking for, this should strike us especially now in an age when the sheer volume of information available online is expanding exponentially. Borges, it seems, is describing what we might recognise as ‘the problem of search’. Of course that is not all he is doing. Where would one start trying to imagine all the possible readings of such an amazing and impossibly subtle story? It would be fruitless (another implication of the story, that the search for a definitive meaning in a world of endless complexity is bound to fail). But nonetheless this anxiety of the librarian about the invisibility of knowledge, its obscurity in a world of infinite information, is relevant to our current relationship with the Web.

‘There are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.’

Google has, apparently, made search easy. Its ‘spiders’ and algorithms have replaced the card indexes and compendious scholarship of mortal librarians. By refining the terms we use we are able to find, usually within seconds, the text or site we are looking for.

‘It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe; I pray to the unknown gods that a man — just one, even though it were thousands of years ago! — may have examined and read it.’

But does this reliance on a single search engine, this faith in its wisdom, delude us? Does Google really provide us with knowledge, or contribute to our ignorance? Are we not in danger, as Borges suggests, of losing any ability to understand what we find once we have found it? In the context of the infinite library, with its infinite texts, the question of interpretation becomes infinitely complex, too.

If we could find online, as we could, eventually, in the Library of Babel, a vindication of every decision we had ever made, and a refutation of that vindication, or if we could find vindications of the actions of people yet to be born, how could we reconcile that information, and how would it increase our knowledge of anything?

‘At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future.’

The problem of search, in a world of infinite information, is immediately supplanted by the problem of interpretation, and perhaps this is Borges’ rather majestic warning to us. Information is only useful so long as you know what it means, and even the ancient librarians who have spent their lives studying the books on the shelves of the Library of Babel have been overwhelmed by its scale.

In the end the narrator concludes that the Library must be infinite, but that the number of books cannot be, so they must be repeated again and again in the same cyclical pattern. But as we know from Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar, the number of permutations allowed by our 26 orthographic symbols and our sentence structure is in fact infinite. What limits the internet is the number of physical data centres and servers needed to maintain it whereas the Library, apparently, is of divine origin and therefore physically limitless.

One of the most repeated criticisms of the internet is that it plays host to a lot of rubbish, or nonsense, that much is duplicated or simply mundane, but Borges observes that:

‘In truth, the Library includes all verbal structures, all variations permitted by the twenty-five orthographical symbols, but not a single example of absolute nonsense… No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god.’

Perhaps even this narrator would have difficulty understanding how some of the more esoteric pabulum that appears on YouTube could ‘articulate a syllable which is …filled with tenderness and fear…’ but in a universe of infinite texts and infinite interpretations, the question is, how can we be sure that it does not?

‘The Book of Sand’ (which is the title story of Borges’ late collection of stories and poems, El Libro de Arena, 1975), finds the author at his most impish and sarcastic.

The narrator comes into possession (by way of a swap deal with a Bible salesman from the Orkneys) of a book whose pages never display the same text. Every time he opens the book something is different. He quickly becomes obsessed with it, and turns into a recluse, studying the endless pages to see if the book really is infinite or whether, eventually, the same pages will recur.

‘I had but few friends left, and those, I stopped seeing. A prisoner of the Book, I hardly left my house… At night, during the rare intervals spared me by insomnia, I dreamed of the book.’

Which of us hasn’t felt, at one time or another, a similar kind of obsession creeping over us as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the internet’s labyrinth? Who has not wasted hours sifting through hundreds of pages, following links that lead, ultimately, nowhere? Who hasn’t spent a bright sunny afternoon staring into the glowing screen, feeling their eyes gradually turn square.

Like the Library of Babel, the Book of Sand has an uncertain origin. The Orkney-man purchased it from an untouchable on the outskirts of Bikaner, in northern India. The narrator finds it a ‘monstrous’ thing, an artefact which ‘defiled and corrupted reality’.

It can be seen as an allegory of infinity, of our obsession with the infinite, the absolute, and the need to abandon these futile speculations. Infinity makes knowledge impossible, or rather it makes all knowledge relative:

‘Then, as though thinking out loud, he went on.

“If space is infinite, we were anywhere, at any point in space. If time is infinite, we are at any point in time.”

His musings irritated me.’

And, Borges seems to imply, in order to live we must abandon the search for ultimate veracity. To understand life at the human scale, we have to put aside abstract speculation about the limits of the universe, or of our own knowledge. We must give up our fascination with the book that has no pages, or all of them.

Here then is another warning, and, finally, a joke. The narrator abandons the Book of Sand in the stack at the National Library in Buenos Aires. He seems to dare us to go and find it, leaving a tantalizing clue as to its whereabouts. He teases us with the idea that it might still be there, where he left it, because he knows that none of us could resist such a magical book.

‘I knew that to the right of the lobby a curving staircase descended into the shadows of the basement, where the maps and periodicals are kept. I took advantage of the librarians’ distraction to hide the Book of Sand on one of the library’s damp shelves; I tried not to notice how high up, or how far from the door.’

He feels the same pull, the same inexorable attraction to the magical book, as we all do. But he has learnt, through bitter experience, to put it aside. Technology and information is only useful insofar as it adds to our knowledge. And we should be careful not to be dazzled by its beauty. Borges does not write about technology per se, but he does make observations about our relationship with information and technology that have profound implications for us today, at the beginning of our relationship with the internet.

‘I took the cover in my left hand and opened the book, my thumb and forefinger almost touching. It was impossible: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though they grew from the very book.

“Now try to find the end.” I failed there as well.

“This can’t be,” I stammered, my voice hardly recognizable as my own.

“It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper.

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Playing with myself

May 14th, 2010 — 12:02pm

Something that has always fascinated me, or even been an obsession of mine, is the key turning points of the second world war. This fascination probably started when I was very young because I was aware of my grandfather’s role in the war (he used to lie and tell me that the dress sword on display in his study was a real weapon that he had stolen from a German officer by creeping up silently behind him in the Ardennes forest). Also, I was a small boy and fighting just seemed tremendously exciting to me (as it does to all small boys).

Since then I’ve become less interested in fighting, but I haven’t lost my fascination with the history of the war, and in particular those key turning points that were the difference between Nazi domination of Europe and the world as we know it today. What most people still don’t quite appreciate is that in any number of these campaigns and battles, the outcome really was on a knife edge, and had any of them tipped the other way (from the Battle of the Atlantic, to the Battle of Britain, to Kursk, to Alamein, to D-Day, to Normandy, to Stalingrad), Germany might well have won the war.

I’m not so interested in the ‘what if…?’ scenarios like Robert Harris’s ‘Fatherland’, or what might have happened had we lost, though that is a fascinating study in itself. I’m really interested in how and why we won those decisive battles, and how and why the Axis armies lost them. I’m interested in finding out just how close a call, in other words, it was.

Now you can read about these moments (John Keegan in particular has written brilliant military histories of the war), and you can research them, but that doesn’t allow you to play around with different scenarios. It doesn’t really allow you to see for yourself how the forces were matched, how tactical decisions affected the outcome of the campaigns, and how things could easily have been different with just a different set of orders or a different deployment (it’s axiomatic, for instance, that Hitler’s decision to order von Paulus’ 6th army not to retreat from Stalingrad cost the German army upwards of half a million men, and in the same way, Hitler’s refusal to allow Rommel to station armoured divisions on the beaches in Normandy may have proved decisive in the establishment of an Allied beachhead on D-day). So I decided that what I really needed was to make a game and try them out for myself. Games help you learn, not by simply absorbing information, but by allowing you to enter a historical scenario and explore the decisions facing commanders for yourself.

There are several WW2 games that already exist (Axis and Allies, European Theatre of Operations, etc…) but none of these really had the level of detail that I was looking for. Axis and Allies had fairly generic counters for the different armies, and ETO had a horrible hexagonal map that looked nothing like Europe. In the end, there was really no option but to build my own.

For the map, I used a very detailed view of Europe at the height of German expansion in 1942, over which I laid a simple square grid, using Photoshop. Printing the map was complicated, as I had to divide it into approximately thirty small squares so that I could print it a page at a time. Getting these to the right scale and resolution was tricky, but I eventually managed it and saved the resulting grid files in a separate folder. Then I measured two large pieces of foam board and glued the map squares to it, one by one. The glue caused some discoloration of the map in places, which was a bit upsetting, but gradually, as the glue dried, these patches tended to disappear.

Europe at the height of German expansion, 1942

Europe at the height of German expansion, 1942

Next, I needed the counters. I searched for a long time online and eventually came to the conclusion that the ETO counters would work best. Fortunately, someone had posted hi-res scans of all the counter sheets so it was a simple matter to download them, crop them to fit an A4 page, print them and then stick them to cardboard backing. Given the number of armies and units, this was a time-consuming process, but the result was a satisfyingly large array of accurately represented forces.

Counters ready to be backed with card: Russian (red), Yugoslav (purple), British (gold), German (black)

Counters ready to be backed with card: Russian (red), Greece (purple), British (gold), German (black)

As you can see from the pictures, the armies take up much of the terrain and have to be stacked, or represented by special counters for Army Groups or larger Corps.

Map with forces deployed

Map with forces deployed

The most interesting bit of course are the game dynamics, and this is where things start to get tricky. How, for instance, do your represent increased industrial output, or greater political cohesion in different countries, apart from resorting to a simple numerical modifier? How do you account for the greater combat experience of some troops or the inspirational leadership of certain commanders?

Well, since I’m using the ETO counters, I have to start with the basic combat rules from that game, otherwise the numbers would be meaningless (You can edit counters individually using Photoshop of course, but this is deeply labour intensive and quite tedious. A very instructive tutorial can be found here – )

(l to r) Armoured division, V2 Rocket, Ju88 bomber squadron, Army Group South

(l to r) Armoured division, V2 Rocket, Ju88 bomber squadron, Army Group South

The problem is that I’m not sure whether I actually want to create a playable game, or just model different historical scenarios. The likelihood of anybody else actually being sad enough to want to play this game with me is probably nil, so I’m not sure how much point there is in working out a complex set of rules. All I really want to do is to be able to appreciate from a strategic point of view how the different campaigns unfolded, and this map, and the armies and air forces and navies represented by cardboard counters, should allow me to do that quite effectively, at least to get a sense of how touch and go some of those decisive battles were.

Royal Air Force squadrons over the North Sea

Royal Air Force squadrons over the North Sea

I recently played Diplomacy, the classic game of 19th century imperial conflict, with some friends, and it manages to combine turn-based strategy with bouts of negotiations between the players, so that the game has not just a counter-moving, dice-rolling side, but also a social, diplomatic side which enlists all your powers of persuasion and deception. The fun part of the game is all about the secret meetings, forming and breaking alliances. But Diplomacy can take days t0 play out, and that’s not really what I want.

Half the fun of this exercise is actually making the game in the first place. The internet allows you to customise it to your heart’s content. You can change the shape of the map, the armies, the strength of individual units, and so on. You can borrow and adapt the best bits from the rules of other games, and combine them with some of your own invention. The board game has been given a completely new lease of life. Now it’s just as flexible, just as customisable, as anything else. Of course, you could always have made your own board games before, but it would have been inifnitely more difficult to create something so detailed, so good-looking, and so adaptable. These days, it’s dead easy. All you have to do is figure out what to do with it.  

(Next time, War in the Pacific…)

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Modern Warfare 2

May 8th, 2010 — 12:16pm

(I wrote this a while ago for another blog, so some of the references are out of date. But still…)

In case you haven’t noticed – that is, if you’ve been living on Mars for the past two weeks – today (Nov 19th 2009) marks the release of a new videogame from Activision called ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’ or MW2 for short. It’s expected to be the highest grossing game of all time, and to overtake (by many miles) the record opening weekend revenue for any film. MW2 is a follow up to the massively popular and successful ‘Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’ (which, in itself, was the sequel to three previous Call of Duty titles), and had its own celebrity-packed premiere last night in Piccadilly Circus. In the world of video games, and in cultural terms (yes, you snobs) this is an epochal event.

MW2 is a First Person Shooter (FPS – basically you get the eye view of a guy with a gun) in which you can play either as a US marine or a member of the SAS. And, to all intents and purposes, the object of the game is to run around killing as many bad guys as you can. That is what first-person shooters do – what they say on the tin. The excitement comes from seeing if you can stay alive long enough to kill them before they kill you. The genre began with a game called Escape from Castle Wolfenstein, in which you had to fight your way out of a secret Nazi installation, killing SS as you went, through the Doom and Duke Nukem franchises, growing increasingly sophisticated in terms of graphics, sound design and level planning, until today, playing a game like MW2 on the X-Box 360 or the Playstation 3, you could be forgiven for thinking you are actually there, running through the ruined cityscape, dodging grenades and taking out snipers with a blast from your AR-15. It’s so immersive it makes a trip to the cinema feel like gawping at a zoetrope.

The game has already been decried by the usual reactionary critics, like Keith Vaz MP, who called for it to be banned because of one particular level in which, as an undercover CIA operative, you are forced to accompany a terrorist leader on a killing-spree in an airport departure lounge. But the comments of Vaz and his ilk are only likely to do one thing – heighten interest in the game. Activision must be paying him commission. From my point of view, of course there’s something horribly uncomfortable about a game in which you can machine gun tourists, especially after the Mumbai attacks earlier this year, but I think the game tells us two important things:

One, it’s fantasy. We’ve not been able to get this through our heads as a society ever since literature, films, and games have been with us, and we probably never will, but mentally normal people are able to distinguish between a book, or a film, or a picture, or a game, and real life. Otherwise those works of art and imagination would not have any meaning. They would cease to exist as creative artefacts and they would not be enjoyable because they would offer no escape from the real world. I could play MW2 for months, and I would still never want to kill anybody.

No game, and no book, and no film, could make me more prepared to kill anybody or hurt anybody because they are fantasies, where there are no consequences, where no real harm is inflicted, where the violence is tidy and unaffecting. Whereas in reality causing pain is all too disturbing and horrific. Virtually everybody instinctively undertsands this, and always will understand it. There are some people, psychologically damaged people, who may find it more difficult to distinguish, or who may even become more disposed to commit violenec through exposure to violent games and films, etc… but it’s important to understand that even in these cases, it is not the film or the game or the book that makes these people commit acts of violence.

Two, the killing of innocent people is wrong and shocking. It may seem absurd that a game like MW2, which is premised upon high-intensity lethal combat, should contain some form of moral lesson, but the airport sequence is clearly designed to upset and revile the gamer, and to encourage him or her to pursue the objective of stopping the terrorist/ultra-nationalists with even greater determination. Of course, that is not to say that some players won’t just see the level as an excuse to spray more bullets around randomly and take out a few helpless civvies, but the game’s designers have surely included this part of the game to fire up some kind of righteous anger inside the player’s conscience so that they are even more stoked for the levels ahead.

The pleasure of games like this is very simple. It’s about adrenaline. It’s a rush. The art of the game designer is to make your pulse race and make you want to take out the baddies and feel in danger, on the edge of your seat, the whole time. That’s what makes the game absorbing. It activates a very basic adrenal response to danger which floods your cerebral cortex and keeps you hooked. The completion of a mission or reaching safety is accompanied by a release of endorphins (success/reward). The airport level adds to the adrenal response by heightening your sense of danger (your cover could be blown at any time) and at the same time by compounding your indignation at the callous actions of the enemy (making you want to ‘win’ even more).

What is in many ways so surpising about MW2 and other games of its kind (considered from an ideological standpoint) is just how conservative and doctrinaire they are. There is clearly a profound desire to complete some kind of ordained mission among the young gamers of the world. They like the division of the world into good and bad elements, the stultifyingly black and white narrative of global terrorism and even unreconstructed Communist radicalism. They don’t want to be jihadis, or anarchists or subversives and bring down the real power, they want to do as they’re told, go and kill ‘the other’ on behalf of their own comfortable, imperial nations. In a very important sense, they don’t question this.

Game developers, especially those who create FPS scenarios, are tapping into a very powerful set of narratives about the tribal nature of our communities and the unserved need to create a moral polarity between ourselves and those who attack us. It’s easy to assume that gamers don’t really care who’s doing the killing and who’s being killed, and often they do like to play on the other side, but the most popular games, by far, are still those in which the objectives are still backed up by some simplistic moral underpinning. You want to fight for the SAS because you can identify with them, with British forces, and you can’t identify so easily with the Taliban, or FARC, or Hezbollah.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising. But it does render these games extremely one-dimensional, no matter how good the simulated environment is. What if you were able to create your own rebel movement, based on whatever set of grievances or political allegiances you liked, and topple the governments of Europe and America? Now that, my friends, that would be a game.

Anyway, because I have a Mac, and no copy of Windows 7 to run in Boot Camp, I’ll have to wait until the heat death of the sun before Aspyr or someone ports this beauty over so I can join in the bloodletting. But it’ll be worth it, just to see the look on that back-packer’s face when I come hurdling over the check-in desk with an M-203 pointed right at him.

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