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Date: Sat, 18 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry


Here's a question for you:

Is the concept of criticality as applied to nuclear reactions (see below) in any way similar to the concept of criticality as applied to the arts? Can one speak of the two systems sharing a similar grammar?

I can see similarities between sub-critical and super-critical chain reactions and (for example) the memetic transfer of ideas. But I'd like to see if the similarities can be elaborated and extended further. For example in thoughts about 'emergent' forms of control of chain reactions through modifiers and inhibitors, forms which ensure a 'steady burn' or release of a culture instead of its rapid withering away (one future) or explosion (another future).

I'm putting this question initially to a handful of people and will crosspost all replies. If you can imagine anyone who might further the discussion please feel free to forward this post.


A unique feature of nuclear explosions involves the concept of criticality. A very small amount of pure plutonium-239 or uranium-235 will lose so many neutrons to the space beyond it that the nuclear chain reaction cannot be sustained. In other words, from each fissionable event there will be on the average less than 1 additional neutron available for another fission, so the amount of energy released cannot increase. There can be no chain reaction.

As we consider larger and larger pieces of plutonium, however, there will eventually be a size at which, since neutrons are only lost from the surface, the rate of neutron loss will just equal the rate of generation. This is known as the 'critical mass' or 'critical size'. Above this size, neutron multiplication increases extremely rapidly. Below it there is none.

A piece of plutonium below the critical mass can be safely held in one's hand, but if 2 such pieces are suddenly put together and add up to a size above critical mass there will be an instant and enormous generation of energy. This is the basic principle of a nuclear bomb. It is the sudden assembly of a larger than critical mass from previously subcritical masses. There must also be a way to contain the energy build up long enough to generate the incredible explosive power of a large nuclear weapon.

The specifics of how this is done are still secret, but two fundamentally different principles have been used. In one type, 2 or more subcritical masses are fired at each other to form the supercritical mass, and large surrounding masses of heavy material such as natural uranium are used to provide the containment pressure. These are referred to as 'gun type' weapons, a term not meaning they are used as artillery shells.

The second type involves another new term, 'implosion'. In this type a subcritical piece or carefully spaced pieces of fissionable material are surrounded by explosives focused inward towards the fissionable material at the center. When the explosive charge is fired, its force is not dissipated outwards as in an explosion but is concentrated inwards, i.e., 'implodes' on the fissionable mass at the center. This is compressed from all sides to become a supercritical mass and instantly generates a huge quanitity of energy. The initial implosion acts to contain the nuclear explosion long enough to let it achieve its enormous maximum force.

-- Lillie, David: Our Radiant World (1986)

Date: Tue, 21 Apr 1998
From: Arjen Mulder

Hi Paul,

>Is the concept of criticality as applied to nuclear reactions (see below)
>in anyway similar to the concept of criticality as applied to the arts? Can
>one speak of the two systems sharing a similar grammar?

1. General remarks.

My theory is that the normality we live in (normality = that part of life / society you don't have to think about because it works, it functions) can be experienced as normal because it is organised according to a model that was the ruling model in an earlier phase of society. McLuhan said that the content of a medium is the previous medium (content film = photography: a filmstrip is basically a series of photographs on a strip of celluloid). I think the content of the model of our reality/normality is the previous model of reality/normality.

The model that was prevailing well into the 20th century was the model of the island: every person, every living being, species, object, society etc could only be understood as an island - an ego of personality or individuality, a living being trying to survive, a species trying to stay a species through its fittest members etc. The model of the island is replaced by the model of the network in the course of the 20th century. That democracy (as a political system based on the rights of the individual, the island-citizens) became the ruling model for the political organisation of society was because the content of this model is the island (citizen), but the structure of the model itself is the network. The same applies for free market trade etc.

From the second world war onwards a new model emerged, from the model of the atom and hydrogen bomb: the model of the chain reaction. That we consider the network as our normality, as the model according to which everything should be and is organised (see Kevin Kelly as the prophet of network thinking) is because the actual model that organises the planet / our lives is the chain reaction. You find the chain reaction everywhere: from the hole in the ozone layer, the amount of people living on earth, the amount of information on earth, the distances that people travel today, the violence in cities and in states (Cambodja under Pol Pot, Ruanda), cancer, aids et cetera you find these chain reactions which set in and go on without anybody knowing how to stop them, until the material is exhausted.

What I like about your approach is that you seem to consider ways of containing the chain reaction - not the model of the A or H bomb, but of the nuclear power station. This suggests a new model that can have wild chain reactions as a content, but is itself different: the chain reaction is the normality that can be lived within this model, but the model itself is beyond the chain reaction. This seems to me to be a reason for the optimism you are stressing so much. Containing the chain reaction opens a new space for responisibility. Adrien Turel, the Swiss philosopher I mentioned, wrote after the explosion of the A bomb and H bomb that humanity had entered the phase of what he called the 'Ultratechnoicon': man had won the power over the entire earth and from now on it was no longer God's or Nature's duty to keep it going, but ours. He could come up with this notion, because he knew that the chain reaction could end life on earth, yes, could end earth as a planet and turn it into a nova.

>I can see similarities between sub-critical and super-critical chain
>reactions and (for example) the memetic transfer of ideas. But I'd like to
>see if the similarities can be elaborated and extended further. For example
>in thoughts about 'emergent' forms of control of chain reactions through
>modifiers and inhibitors, forms which ensure a 'steady burn' or release
>of a culture instead of its rapid withering away (one future) or explosion
>(another future).

2. Specific remarks.

In art a certain approach, a certain view became an 'ism' as soon as the critical mass of works made that way was reached: impressionism, cubism, popism et cetera. One or two impressionistic works don't mean much, except an eccentric painter. But mass production of them means something completely different. I think the 'hype' is a form of a non-contained cultural chain reaction.

After the hype the phenomenon either withers away or finds a form of super-criticality, as you called it. How does this happen? Is a new model emerging in which the hype is just another normal phenomenon (i.e. no longer a hype, but a normal practice)? If this is true, I think your inhibitors and modifiers are part of that new model.This would suggest a way to contain hypes: find the necessary cultural inhibitors and modifiers. On the other hand, critics who don't want to surrender to the hype have to keep up a certain kind of sub-criticality. This can be done by using the tradition, of the older 'normal art' as inhibitor, or use a different medium (for example language in stead of images) to modify the material of the hype into a phenomenon that can be dealt with without mass hysteria etc.

I think the art world still uses the model of the hype a lot. Not so much for individual artists, but for themes. In the beginning of the nineties it was the body: hundreds, thousands of artists and artworks (from performances to photographs et cetera) dealt with the body. Today we are witnessing the emerging of a new hype theme: art and science. And that's just what your project is about. So, what point of view do you prefer: the sub-criticality of the science commission that worries about matters of public relations and action groups, or should you look for a super-critical approach, that will overrule the sub-criticality and the critical mass of hype through media exposure. This seems to me the point now. What are your modifiers and inhibitors of the sort of art theme you are into right now? I wonder what you feel of this.

Okay, enough for tonight.

Bye, Arjen

Date: Thur, 23 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry

Hi Arjen,

Here's a partial reply to your post. More this afternoon and this evening.

>I think the 'hype' is a form of a non-contained cultural chain
>reaction. After the hype the phenomenon either withers away or finds a form
>of super-criticality, as you called it. How does this happen? Is a new model
>emerged in which the hype is just another normal phenomon (i.e. no longer a
>hype, but a normal practice)? If this is true, I think your inhibitors and
>modifiers are part of that new model.This would suggest a way to contain
>hypes: find the necessary cultural inhibitors and modifiers.

Boy- I asked for analogy and got it. Arjen you suggest hype as the cultural equivalent of a 'non-contained' chain reaction. Following your thought I can imagine hype as a sort of 'fuel injection' - an energy 'subsidy' that is externally applied to a process. When measured in money hype is venture capital, when measured in attention hype is media coverage. Hype is not and can never be sustainable - external energy simply costs too much to maintain and the ecology of hype *requires* that it move constantly from object to object. So hype withers away (from its object) on its own. Sooner or later.

Reactor Space:

I like your distinction between contained and non-contained chain reactions. Contained reactions occur in a reactor. Bioreactors (such as I used in Maastricht) control the proliferation rate of cells, nuclear reactors control the release of energy. The biological cell and the body and the city are all reactors. Contained by cell walls, skin (and identity papers), and cultural rules and laws. The reactor consists of a number of parts:

1) The containment
2) The fuel
3) The control materials (control rods, moderators, inhibitors etc.)
4) Waste (the heat conducted away by coolants, reaction products etc)

It is interesting to see that the reactor model holds for either entropic or extropic (up the entropy slope) reaction chains. An example of an extropic reaction in nuclear engineering is the 'breeder' reactor.

Up next: The design and engineering of cultural reactors...

-- Paul

Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998
From: Arjen Mulder

Hi Paul,

I'm a bit exhausted, but I'll try to write something. I was wondering about a cultural equivalent of this extropian approach of the decay chain the other way round. You start with inert, stable material (lead) and then you do something: you have to put energy in it, and you have to shoot particles at it so that these can be absorbed by the inert material. And then the material comes alive, and reaches, finally, through these 15 stages, the phase where it has a half life of over 4.5 billion years - longer than the earth exists - immortality.

Well, that must be a metaphor for creating a work of art, don't you think? Inert - energy input - particles (ideas, other materials) - finished work (an effort to reach immortality). So are we describing or exploiting the 15 stages you have to go to in order to make an ever lasting artwork? What is the reactor here? The artists mind? His medium? Is his medium different from the inert material he starts with? I guess so? Or is the medium one of the 15 stages towards immortality? My gut feeling is that the medium = the reactor. But I'm sure a Sufi would think differently. I mean, wait - the singularity (stage -2) - is that where the extra-medial comes in/gets out?

So there is the inert material, the medium/reactor, the energy of artist + commissions, moneymakers etc - what are the particles? How do you know which particles to shoot - if you do it wrongly you can create heavy poison, man. This is where my thoughts run dry. I'm going to sleep.

Bye, Arjen

Date: Fri, 24 Apr 1998
From: Paul Michael Perry

Hi Arjen,

Yesterday afternoon I received the university's final decision concerning my work 'Nuclear Garden'. They will not allow me to realise the work in the arboretum. The university decided in the end to censure the work out of their fear for an adverse public reaction towards the work and (by association) towards themselves.

They are afraid of the media.

A number of parties feel that there should be a public discussion about this incident. If there is to be a discussion I believe that it should be well grounded and informed discussion - where the various positions and perspectives are laid out in a broader context (science in respect to uninformed public opinion, art in respect to science etc.)

Yesterday evening Jouke mentioned the essay 'Culture Inc.' as an example of such a ground for debate and Ronald van Tienhoven suggested that I get in touch with Henk Hofland from the NRC as someone who could address this question.

Our book(let) now seems more important than ever. I still feel that it is not necessary in the book(let) to include any mention of what has happened. The book (let) must be about the work realised.

As you can imagine, I've got a tough decision to make: do I compromise the work (show it in an incomplete state) or withdraw it completely from the exhibition.

Yesterday evening I called many of my colleagues to ask their advice about this decision. As a consequence I did not work very much on either the outline or our correspondence.

Position nr. 1 in the 'Evolution of Uranium' is Lead 206 a.k.a. the Human Condition. For the moment I consider the following 40 year old text from Hannah Arendt our starting point. (Celia Green should also fit in here very well).


In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies-the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company.

This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which filled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the "first step toward escape >from men's imprisonment to the earth." And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obeslisk for one of Russia's great scientists: "Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever."

...The banality of the statement should not make us overlook how extraordinary in fact it was; for although Christians have spoken of the earth as a vale of tears and philosophers have looked upon their body as prison of mind or soul, nobody in the history of mankind hs ever conceived of the earth as a prison for men's bodies or shown such eagerness to go literally from here to the moon. Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the mother of all living creatures under the sky?

The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the unviverse in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice. The human artifice of the world separates human existence >from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also "artificial," toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature.

It is the same desire to escape from imprisonment to the earth that is manifest in the attempt to create life in the test tube, in the desire to mix "frozen germ plasm from people of demonstrated ability under the microscope to produce superior human beings" and "to alter [their] size, shape and function"; and the wish to escape the human condition, I suspect, also underlies the hope to extend man's life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.

This future man, whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannnot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.

-- Arendt, Hannah: The Human Condition (1958)

Date: Fri, 24 Apr 1998
From: Arjen Mulder

Hi Paul,

I remembered a quote on reactor: medium or mind of the artist. It's a poem by Hoelderlin, the German poet on Naopleon Buonaparte (first in German, than I'll try to translate it):

Heilige Gefaesse sind die Dichter,
Worin des Lebens Wein, der Geist,
Der Helden, sich aufbewahrt,

Aber der Geist diese Juenglings,
Der schnelle, muesst er es nicht zersprengen,
Wo es ihn fassen wollte, das Gefaess?

Der Dichter lass ihn unberuehrt wie den Geist der Natur,
An solchem Stoffe wird zum Knaben der Meister.

Er kann im Gedichte nicht leben und bleiben,
Er lebt und bleibt in der Welt.

This is a poem about a non-containable chain reacting (Napoleon - this poem was written around 1797) and the poet as reactor. I would translate it as follows:

Holy reactors are the poets,
In which the wine of life, the spirit
Of the hero, is kept alive.

But the mind of this young man,
The fast one, isn't he going to blow it,
When it tries to contain it, the reactor?

The poet shouldn't bother him, just as the spirit of nature,
Confronted with such material the master becomes a boy.

He cannot live and be held in poems
He lives and stays in the world.

Hoelderlin understood the problem already, apparently.

Bye, Arjen

Date: Fri, 24 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry

Hi Arjen,

You're running way ahead of me - can we please go back to your 'General remarks' from a few days ago? You said then:

>My theory is that the normality we live in (normality = that part of life/
>society you don't have to think about because it works, it functions) can be
>experienced as normal because it is organised according to a model that was
>the ruling model in an earlier phase of society. McLuhan said that the
>content of a medium is the previous medium (content film = photography: a
>filmstrip is basically a series of photographs on a strip of celluloid). I
>think the content of the model of our reality/normality is the previous
>model of reality/normality.

I must admit I was at first quite mystified by your use of the word 'content'. I've always understood 'McLuhan' to mean that new media always start their 'lives' by simulating old media- the reason for this being they just don't know any better. Computers, for example, must simulate typewriters, painting and drawing, cameras and darkrooms- the traversal of the new possibility space starts where the old possibility space ended. Exploration and expansion across the new possibility space take time.

Mystified, I dug out my copy of 'Understanding Media' and found the following:

(In which film did Woody Allen settle an argument between two New York intellectuals who were arguing McLuhan - by producing the real McLuhan?)

"The medium is the message" means, in terms of the electronic age, that a totally new environment has been created. The "content" of this new environment is the old mechanized environment of the industrial age. The new environment reprocesses the old one as radically as TV is reprocessing the film. For the "content" of the TV is the movie. TV is environmental and imperceptable, like all environments. We are aware only of the "content" or the old environment. When machine production was new, it gradually created an environment whose content was the old environment of agrarian life and the arts and crafts. This older environment was elevated to an art form by the new mechanical environment. The machine turned Nature into an art form. For the first time men began to regard Nature as a source of aesthetic and spiritual values. They began to marvel that earlier ages had been so unaware of the world of Nature as Art.

Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.

-- McLuhan, Marshall: Understanding Media, Introduction to the Second Edition (1964)

Hmmm. Nothing today is seen as more corrupt and degrading than a nuclear reactor. Wouldn't you agree? And a few weeks ago I realised that if I didn't get to do my Nuclear Garden now it would inevitably be done sometime in the future by a Japanese garden designer.

Wow- my bookshelf is allowing me to feel vindicated. McLuhan goes on:

As our proliferating technologies have created a whole series of new environments, men have become aware of the arts as "anti-environments" or "counter-environments" that provide us with the means of perceiving the environment itself. For, as Edward T. Hall has explained in 'The Silent Language', men are never aware of the ground rules of their environmental systems or cultures.

-- McLuhan, Marshall: Understanding Media, Introduction to the Second Edition (1964)

What you are calling normality, McLuhan calls the environment and I like to think of (at least in this case) as the Human Condition. The Human Condition is our medium. Like water is to fish, the medium is to us largely imperceptable - but it is nonetheless the baseline from which we take measurements. We measure backwards - looking ahead is very difficult for us.

Have you read Celia Green yet? I believe that her description of the human evasion of failure and death jives perfectly with your definition of 'normality'. She calls it (very ironically) 'sanity' and I'm going to call it 'background radiation'.

Human beings are oppressed by their finitude, but can't bear to think about this for too long, so they attempt not to mind, or to avoid being reminded of it at all. This is achieved through the cultivation of indifference to most of reality and obsessional interest in human society. As a result, when their frustration with being finite surfaces, it is expressed as hostility towards each other, rather than hostility towards the human condition itself.

-- Porter, Mitch: Introduction to Celia Green for Interzine


-- Paul

Date: Sat, 25 Apr 1998
From: davidkremers

> hi paul...

> >think the content of the model of our reality/normality is the previous
> >model of reality/normality.

...the moral discussion of genetics is being used as an emotionalsubstitute for a genuine understanding of you know what i mean...

> (In which film did Woody Allen settle an argument between two New York
> intellectuals who were arguing McLuhan - by producing the real McLuhan?)


> "The medium is the message" means, in terms of the electronic age,

...this is why in the last few months i've been rethinking our time in terms of electricity and electronics...

...i always think this quote expresses the fish idea quite poetically......

a fish that lives in the water, he can see up on the land, but
he doesn't have any idea as to what's involved in living there. there
will be new fears, for example. fear of falling doesn't mean anything
to a fish, but it will mean something if he comes up out of the water.

-- Burroughs, William

and finally...if the rector is a scientist then i don't want to be introduced to him...because of a quote from cp snow which i'll have to reference for you...

the only thing that makes science possible is that the truth must be told all the time. [something about to supress a truth is to publish a falsehood] and if we don't punish the publication of a falsehood by accident then we allow for the publication of falsehoods by intent which undermines the entire endeavor...i'll look it up for you on monday...


Date: Sat, 25 Apr 1998
From: Paul Michael Perry

Hi Arjen,

I'd like to continue from where I left off last night, with Celia Green's observations in respect to the 'Human Condition' and my suggestion that what you are calling normality can be seen as 'background radiation'.

Let's think about the 'Human Condition' as an 'attractor'(1) within the 'basin'(2) of our current environment or culture (media, technology level). Throughout human history the possibility space of this attractor has been defined by the earth. "The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition" as Hannah Arendt put it. That is to say the earth is the master containment for humanity and each historical 'bifurcation'(3) has occured on this planet and within its rule system.

(1) attractor: Region in the domain of a dynamical system that attracts all nearby states.
(2) basin: The set of all initial states that share one attractor as final destination.
(3) bifurcation: Significant change in the portrait of attractors and basins of a dynamical system, as its rules are changed.

Humanity's master containment is a physical, psychological and spiritual gravity well. The 'Human Condition' is as heavy as lead.

I've re-read the Hannah Arendt citation that I mailed you. In the preface to her book Arendt discusses the implications of sputnik to the 'Human Condition' and exposes the hidden desire of those that saw it as the "first step towards escape from (mankind's) imprisonment to the earth."

A few folks 'rage against the machine'. Most gave up a long time ago.

Celia Green:


Human beings live in a state of mind called 'sanity' on a small planet in space. They are not quite sure whether the space around them is infinite or not (either way it is unthinkable). If they think about time, they find it inconceivable that it had a beginning. It is also inconceivable that it did not have a beginning. Thoughts of this kind are not disturbing to 'sanity', which is obviously a remarkable phenomenon and deserving more recognition.

Now sanity possesses a constellation of defining characteristics which are at first sight unrelated. In this it resembles other, more widely accepted, psychological syndromes. A person with an anal fixation, for example, is likely to be obsessional, obstinate, miserly, punctilious, and interested in small bright objects. A 'sane' person believes firmly in the uselessness of thinking about what he does not understand, and is pathologically interested in other people. These two symptoms, at first sight independent, are actually inextricably related. In fact they are merely different aspects of that peculiar reaction to reality which we shall call the human evasion.

As I shall be using the word 'reality' again I should make it plain at once that I use it to mean 'everything that exists'. This is, of course, a highly idiosyncratic use of the word. I am aware that it is commonly used by sane people to mean 'everything that human beings understand about', or even 'human beings'. This illustrates the interesting habit, on the part of the sane, of investing any potentially dangerous word with a strong anthropocentric meaning. Let us therefore consider the use of 'reality' a little longer.

It is first necessary to consider what might be meant by the word 'reality' if it were usually used to mean 'everything that exists'. It would have to include all processes and events in the Universe, and all relationships underlying them, regardless of whether or not these things were perceptible or even conceivable by the human mind. It would also include the fact that anything exists at all -- i.e. that there is something and not nothing. And it would include the reason for the fact that anything exists at all, although it is most improbable that this reason is conceivable, or that 'reason' is a particularly good name for it.

In fact it is quite obvious that to most people 'reality' does not mean anything like this.

Particular attention should be drawn to the phrase 'running away from reality' in which 'reality' is almost always synonymous with 'human beings and their affairs'. For example: 'It isn't right to spend so much time with those stuffy old astronomy books. It's running away from reality. You ought to be getting out and meeting people.' (An interest in any aspect of reality requiring concentrated attention in solitude is considered a particularly dangerous symptom.) This usage leads to the interesting result that if anyone does take any interest in reality he is almost certain to be told that he is running away from it.

-- Green, Celia: The Human Evasion (1969)

Reality is radioactive. The universal master containment contains traces of the universe's origin, what we term today 'cosmic background radiation'. Is reality the ultimate imperceptable environment (McLuhan)? Beyond human understanding?

This mail is becoming a chain reaction of citations and quotes -- here's one from the Relic Radiation Site at Cambridge University:

About 100,000 years after the Big Bang, the temperature of the Universe had dropped sufficiently for electrons and protons to combine into hydrogen atoms, p + e --> H. From this time onwards, radiation was effectively unable to interact with the background gas; it has propagated freely ever since, while constantly losing energy because its wavelength is stretched by the expansion of the Universe. Originally, the radiation temperature was about 3000 degrees Kelvin, whereas today it has fallen to only 3K.

Observers detecting this radiation today are able to see the Universe at a very early stage on what is known as the `surface of last scattering'. Photons in the cosmic microwave background have been travelling towards us for over ten billion years, and have covered a distance of about a million billion billion miles.

Looking backwards is much easier than looking forwards.

-- Paul space picture

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