Category: opinions

Never Jam Today: a little something for Halloween …


Image result for we are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time alan watts

Ah, I thought, after reading this – so that’s why I’m finding it hard to come up with a new blog-post!

Once upon a time is out of bounds because it’s all done and dusted. What if can’t be imagined because it’s too damn scary. Now is being squeezed to death by all those memories and expectations. And to cap it all, my conscious mind is nothing but a helpless hoarder who can’t see through his windows for mounds and mounds of useless clutter.

Actually, it comes as something of a relief to know this. Turns out it’s not my fault at all. Living in such a crap culture, well, it’s only to be expected! And at least that means it’s not just me. Now, all we need to do is find the hypnotists who have turned us into preoccupied zombies and get them to click their fingers. Snap out of it, they’ll say, and we will … won’t we?

Or maybe it’s like one of those dreams where you know you’re dreaming and want to wake up but you can’t. Or, worse, one of those dreams where you think you’ve woken up but you’re still dreaming. My favourite film version of Alice in Wonderland was directed in 1966 by Jonathan Miller, who captured this uncertainty to perfection. Where does reality end and dreaming begin?

Ha, if I knew that, I’d be able to write this post … wouldn’t I? Perhaps this clip will shed some light …

Lewis Carroll’s satirical genius was to reflect the topsy-turvy illogicality of Victorian adults as if it was no more than a strange dream.

“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Two pence a week, and jam every other day.”
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire me – and I don’t care for jam.”
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

from ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’

Thank goodness the adult world is so much more sensible nowadays!

Mind you, there are still one or two little confusions that need explaining. Two world wars, for starters, the first a mass sleepwalk into jingoism and the second a nightmare of political extremism. Since then it’s been communism versus capitalism – collectivism versus individualism – and the dubious triumph of neo-liberalism and rampant globalism. (That’s enough ‘isms’! Ed.)

Aw, one more, please! Always room for a little idealism, surely? A world where freedom, equality and solidarity co-exist. Nothing airy-fairy about that, I hope. But getting there will take some hard thinking and plain speaking. And if the price of liberty really is eternal vigilance, we should be on our guard against …

… those who conjure a mythic past that has supposedly been destroyed. Such myths rely on an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a past that is racially pure, traditional and patriarchal. Beware those who position themselves as father figures and strongmen who alone can restore lost greatness.

… those who sow division; they succeed by turning groups against each other, inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatreds for their own advantage. Social divisions in themselves—between classes, religions, ethnic groups and so on—are pre-existing conditions. Opportunists may not invent the hate, but they cynically manipulate it: demonizing outgroups, normalising or naturalising bigotry and stoking violence to justify … repressive ‘law and order’ policies, the curtailing of civil rights and due process, and the mass imprisonment and killing of manufactured enemies.

… those who attack the truth with propaganda, in particular a kind of anti-intellectualism that creates a petri dish for conspiracy theories. For such people, truth doesn’t matter at all.  In such an atmosphere, anything is possible, no matter how previously unthinkable.

Actually, after that little lot, a dose of gothic horror comes as light relief!

Happy Halloween, folks!

 

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Image: Freepik

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Vault Finding #7

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.   –  Joan Didion

Stories give our lives shape and significance. They connect us with others – family, friends, workmates, community members. I read somewhere that there may be an upper limit to the number of people with whom I can maintain stable social relationships – relationships where I know who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. The number suggested was 150.

Not sure where that leaves me when it comes to social media! I have 238 Facebook  friends and 649 WordPress followers so, statistically-speaking, I’m way out of my social depth. In practice, of course, Facebook’s main attraction is private messaging and only a small fraction of my WordPress followers ever respond to my posts. My circle is surprisingly – and perhaps comfortingly – intimate.

Beyond that, I view social media as an extra pair of eyes (and ears) to tell me more about the book of the world – to discover stories that help me find my place on the page. And maybe tell a few of my own.

My previous post told the story of how I responded to a story on Facebook with a different story of my own. If stories seek to shape us, we can shape stories. Our online world may be heating up – verbal warming, you could say – but story competitions are as old as the hills.

When you’re in a bar or café, listen to any group of friends trying to top one another’s anecdotes and it’s easy to envisage a similar healthy rivalry between our hunter-gatherer ancestors around the camp fires. Who has the best stories, the ones that capture past and future in a timeless moment? Who can perform magic and banish, if only for a while, the dark?

The brighter our lights, however, the darker appears the night. Michelle at The Green Study ended her response to my previous post with a resonant thought:

I feel strongly that we must curate what feeds our minds, lest we fall prey to the same ignorance and ugly strategies.

This reminds me of something Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.

We think best by constructing stories – our own accounts of how the world works. Every sentence contains the germ of a story that could grow into a whole world. Try it with any of those I’ve quoted. As Fitzgerald implies, storytelling is like a muscle that weakens with disuse. We can forget how to tell good stories and also how to tell whether other people’s stories are any good.

Looking back through my unused drafts, I found this wonderful little video of a storytelling master sharing a few secrets of his craft. No jargon and no jiggery-pokery, just a piece of chalk and some cheeky humour.

How good a writer is Vonnegut? One of my favourite passages comes from his novel Slaughterhouse Five, loosely based on his experiences as a prisoner-of-war:

It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

Fact or fiction? Like many either/or questions, this presents us with a false dichotomy. The phrase true story is itself an oxymoron. Vonnegut offers an untruth but, by running factually accurate events backwards, he presents us with a deeper truth.

You can always trust Friedrich Nietzsche to muddy the waters still further. He believed there are no absolute truths, just different perspectives:

There are no facts, only interpretations.

To take a topical example, a climate scientist who maintains that global temperatures should not rise by more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels might raise an eyebrow over this – but even science is a story constructed around observed evidence. I should add, in the interests of balance, that other stories are available.

The question is, however, whose story do you believe?

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Our common sense, allied to a skilled reading of stories, rejects this ludicrous scenario – unless, of course, we have shares in fossil fuels …

Complacent? You betcha! Almost certainly, my pension depends upon investments in all manner of dodgy doings. The complexity of the modern world means we’re all complicit in catastrophe. This morning I heard climate-change activist and former Ireland president Mary Robinson admit that she was ‘a prisoner of hope’ in her belief that we can avoid disaster. Everything, it seems, depends on the story you choose to believe.

To end this ‘story’ on an upward curve, I’ll end with two amusing ‘stories’ from Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner:

Xenofuturists unite! Join the Antivoid Alliance in the pink space of fugitive rationality. Explore how technology, inhumanism and the agency of noise meet a burning demand to re-open the possibilities of a divergent now.

                                     from the Hastings Arts Festival programme

 

Amelia Singer will offer guests wines that have been specially paired with sections of Sue Prideaux’s upcoming biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘I Am Dynamite!’

                               a wine-tasting event at the publishers Faber & Faber

I’ve signed you up for both of them, OK?

Snowflakes

How do you feel about Facebook? Is it a wonderful gift to improved human communication or a divisive force that’s driving us all into echo chambers and filter bubbles?

It’s certainly getting more hectic. At least, my feed is. I’ve never ‘unfriended’ anybody, you see, so get to read stuff from all sides of the political spectrum.

Most of the time I’m just a spectator, watching the clumsy wrangling and immature name-calling unfold like a slo-mo pie-fight – or else a desperate scrap in the dark that makes me feel somewhat nostalgic for my old school debating-society with its dignified dance of thrust and counter-thrust. A choreographed verbal joust conducted face-to-face and a friendly handshake at the end …

Maybe I’m looking back through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s tempting to paint our youth as a golden age when everything was hunky-dory, buffeted and bruised as we are by an ever-changing present. Something of this same injured innocence fuels the following Facebook post – received yesterday – although its increasingly bizarre and highly unlikely turn of events reveals the underlying message to be anything but innocent:

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Phew! Where on earth does one start? Well, we are expected to sympathise with the protagonist – a poor martyred victim of ‘political correctness gone mad’ – when the reality this implausible fable seeks to obscure is almost its opposite. In real life the social groups mentioned are victims of inequality, yet here they are implausibly caricatured as oppressors in a sinister conspiracy. If there’s anything truly sinister going on, however, it lurks between the lines of this hysterical little story.

That’s between you and me, of course. In the public arena of Facebook the mask must remain in place. Sometimes it seems that only two questions are permitted:

  • What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?
  • What’s the matter, can’t you feel my pain?

Oddly, the passive-aggressive post above managed to combine them both. This stuff is fiendishly difficult to answer because it’s quite artfully done – it may be that art itself is the answer. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Let the battle of the stories commence!

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Bearing this in mind, I responded with the following Facebook reply:

By a curious coincidence … made a group of snow figures holding hands to represent tolerance between people of different genders, races, faiths, nationalities, political viewpoints and sexual orientations. Just woke up after a well-deserved nap and looked out through broken windows to see they’d all been flattened. Left here wondering who I could have offended …

So far, I’ve got one Like. Not being dramatic – well, OK, being dramatic! – that’s somebody else who’s stumbled into the soundproof silo … sssh! … perhaps another snowflake. Nothing wrong with snowflakes. I hereby take the word as a badge of honour …

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My favourite riposte to the derogatory use of this word came from comedian John Cleese:

After one unamused follower used the term ‘snowflake’ as an insult, Cleese, 78, couldn’t resist tweeting a response. Adding his trademark humour, of course.

In his cutting reply, Cleese said: ‘Yes I’ve heard this word. I think sociopaths use it in an attempt to discredit the notion of empathy.’

Next post: How to Tell a Good Story!

Vault Finding #5

In this raid on the archives, I’ve paired one of my earliest posts with an unpublished draft on the French Situationists. With a bit of luck, you can’t see the join!

Image result for you can't see the join morecambe and wise I find it sad that children today don’t occupy the streets and open spaces like we did when I was young. There have always been risks in such freedom but we made a habit of going around with our friends, rarely if ever alone. We knew the dangers and were able to avoid them. So many kids were out and about, there was safety in numbers. With more adults around, too, we behaved ourselves most of the time because we didn’t want to get into trouble. In this way, we learned how to take responsibility for ourselves.

Sitting alone in your bedroom is not a healthy substitute, especially when you factor in the online risks and bad cyberspace influences that would shock many parents. It’s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, I’m afraid. Let’s make the open air a place for youngsters again, providing proper facilities and a sensible but not stifling adult presence. It would be quite a challenge but I can’t think of a better way to create the communities of the future …

Well, I said we behaved ourselves but we probably weren’t above adding the occasional daft moustache or blackened tooth to advertising hoardings that showed people leading impossibly perfect lives. We might even have changed the odd word here and there … 

That ever-perceptive poet Philip Larkin captured the historical moment much better than I can:

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards.

from ‘Essential Beauty’

That small cube? Oxo, of course, the magic ingredient without which family life was incomplete … nay, inconceivable! 

Image result for oxo advert

Image result for oxo advert

Surrounded by such propaganda, how could us kids have known that while we roamed those 1950s streets a bunch of French intellectuals were turning our natural instincts into a whole new heavyweight philosophy?

We didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia, of course, without which the following mock-academic account could not exist:

With cultural roots in Dadaism and Surrealism – and political roots in Marxism – the Situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly-lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires, towards individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.

Another important concept of situationist theory was the need to counteract the spectacle – essentially the mass media that reduces free citizens to passive subjects who  contemplate the world as no more than a consumable resource. The method the situationists adopted was the construction of situations – moments of life deliberately contrived for the purpose of reawakening authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life as adventure and the liberation of everyday existence.

The dérive – a French word meaning ‘drift’ – is a revolutionary strategy originally put forward in 1956 by Guy Debord who defined it as “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

It involves an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Though solo dérives are possible, Debord indicates that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking these different groups’ impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions.

The dérive‘s goals include studying the terrain of the city (psychogeography) and emotional disorientation, both of which lead to the potential creation of Situations.

A détournement‘rerouting or hijacking’ in French – is a technique developed in the 1950s and defined in the Situationist International’s inaugural 1958 journal as “the  integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”

It has been defined elsewhere as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” – as when slogans and logos are turned against their advertisers or the political status quo.

Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political hoaxes and stunts, an influential tactic called Situationist Prank that was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s and inspired the anti-consumerist culture-jamming movement in the late 1980s.

Its opposite is recuperation, in which radical ideas or the social image of people who are viewed negatively are twisted, commodified and absorbed in a more socially acceptable context.

Yeah, don’t get me started on how Tin Pan Alley moguls turned the exciting runaway underground of 1960s sounds into the long slow mogadon-music snooze of the 1970s. You’ll never hear the end of it …

I’ll end with a short clip that shows how people behave online compared with face-to-face!

 

Vault Finding #2

Continuing my trawl through old unpublished drafts, here are some random thoughts on the rules of arguing that still seem timely and relevant:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”Arthur Martine

Worth remembering, I believe, especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” is too often a menace of reacting rather than responding but it needn’t be this way. We can be critical while remaining charitable, aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett – the American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist – questions our current everyone-is-a-critic culture.

In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking – noteworthy for the significant value it places on ‘the dignity and art-science of making mistakes’ – he offers what he calls ‘the best antidote [to the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent’:  a list of rules formulated decades ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments. There is far too much shouting from the battlements. Comments that wholly diverge from the above code can and should be ignored, I believe, but merit response if they show understanding – or at the very least acknowledgement – of other points of view.

To anyone who views this as an unrealistic and naively utopian approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing – it transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion. When commenting on students’ written work, I tried to start with something I’d liked – it opened them to criticism.

A polite preamble means we don’t have to hold back when it comes to expressing our own disagreements. When the gloves come off we can employ Susan Sontag’s three steps to refute any argument – find the inconsistency, find the counter-example and find a wider context.

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There’s a worrying lack of evidence behind much that is published online.

“Fake news is a real cause for concern on social media, particularly on Facebook, where unverified information and outright lies can swallow up facts and truth. That’s a frightening concept when 62% of American adults access news through social media.”

Iman Amrani, Guardian, 26.11.16

But it’s not an entirely new phenomenon.

“Back in the 1990s, the internet pioneer Josh Harris tried to sound a warning – but at that early utopian stage, when the web was assumed to be decentralising, democratising, enlightening, almost no one understood what he was saying. Later, in 2002. George W Bush’s own Voldemort, Karl Rove, chided a reporter by saying: ‘People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of the discernible reality. That’s not the way the world works any more.’ The gnomic taunt caused more bemusement than consternation at the time, but Rove was ahead of the game.”

Andrew Smith, Guardian, 26.11.16

This article goes on to talk about ‘post-truth’ where ‘facts become secondary to feeling; expertise and vision to ersatz emotional connection’ and ‘retro-truth’ where ‘a proposition is judged not by whether it is true or false when stated, but whether it has the potential to become true – like energy waiting to be released from the atom’.

I am the master of the universe.

(Well, thought I’d run it by you again to see if there was any take-up. Some of you might care to get a little campaign going on my behalf. I wouldn’t acknowledge it at first, of course, but don’t fret – in private there’ll be plenty smiling and waving practice!)

Yes, I jest, though my hectic humour hides a serious point. More and more these days I find a purely rational response insufficient. To inoculate myself against the poison I must infect myself – a small dose in the relatively safe form of art to build up my immunity. Art is ambiguous – no easy answers to be found there – but dives below the surface where fake news floats.

Listen, if you like, and maybe read …

 

I am the centre of this universe
The wind of time is blowing through me
And it’s all moving relative to me
It’s all a figment of my mind
In a world that I’ve designed
I’m charged with cosmic energy
Has the world gone mad or is it me?
I’m the creator of this universe
And all that is was meant to be
So that we might learn to see
The foolishness that lives in us
And stupidity that we must suss
How to banish from our minds
If you call this living, I must be blind
Songwriters: David Brock / Nik Turner
Master of the Universe lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Images: Brain Pickings & Wikipedia

A Change in the Weather

With a little help from online friends, I’ve figured out that the glitch in my blog-post production-line is down to disappointment with the world.

Not the natural world, of course, but the rowdy human element that threatens its stability. Crown of Creation, my arse! Oh, we know enough as a species to make things better but currently we seem hell-bent on making them worse. We resemble nothing so much as a bunch of toddlers throwing our toys out of the playpen.

I say we but too often it’s us and them as our much-vaunted global communication network splinters into weird cabals, soundproof silos and oddball obsessions. Knowledge itself is under attack, with truth obscured beneath a toxic cloud of clueless prejudice and wilful falsification. Once upon a time rules governed what was published. Nowadays, it seems, anything goes! I suspect today’s most widely-read author is named Anon.

As a matter of indisputable fact, I have just become ruler of the universe and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it …

Fake news, of course, because Donald Trump beat me to it. Probably.

As to genuine tidings, here’s an update. My loss of voice – notwithstanding this hysterical babble! – is really dismay that nothing I can possibly come up with will make a blind bit of difference. My mum’s withering comparison for something – or someone – utterly useless springs to mind:  like a fart in a colander!

Come to think of it, that’s a handy descriptor for a fair few things you read on social media. Wind and hot air. Let’s hope the warming doesn’t go global … whoops, too late!

Ha, now there’s an example of my problem. Everything, it seems, plays out on the big stage. And here am I, waiting in the wings for a walk-on part afraid of fluffing my only line and dropping my spear.

Those encouraging responses to my cry for help previous post come back to me … start from where you are … stick to what you know … keep it short and sweet … write what makes you happy … all of them solid-gold suggestions when the currency of public discourse is so debased. A world in uproar is a good place to set your own house in order. Home truths hit hardest, they say, and shine brightest … enlightenment is the only thing denialists truly fear.

This isn’t to limit what you can write about. Reading some short stories by Herman Hesse, I learn that his childhood ambition to be a magician stemmed from a dissatisfaction with what people conventionally called ‘reality’. Later in life, by magic he came to mean the transformation of reality – the creation of a wholly new reality – in his writing. Northrop Frye observed that ‘fantasy is the normal technique for fiction writers who do not believe in the permanence or continuity of the society they belong to.’ JRR Tolkien defined fantasy as ‘the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds’ and Hesse’s stories often display the ‘arresting strangeness’, the ‘freedom from the domination of observed fact’ that Tolkien called the essential qualities of fantasy.

All of that leaves plenty of wriggle-room, I reckon. Truth doesn’t have to be mundane. The other day I was puzzling over my very young grandson’s invariably scatological response to perfectly reasonable questions like Who did you play with at nursery today? and What would you like for your dinner? Instead of admonishing him, I decided to have a little fun myself. Adopting a cod French accent, I would launch into something along these lines:

Ah yes, your words, zey take me back to zose far-off times in gay Paree – in 1923 – ze Café Royale in Montmartre – oh, such music, such dancing! – and ze most beautiful dancer of zem all, ze leetle French ballerina Pupu – what was eet we call her for short? – ah yes, Pu – and Oui we cry as her lurvely leetle dance ends Oui Oui Encore Une Fois Pupu Oui Oui …

You get the idea. It wasn’t long before my peculiar little outbursts started to do the trick. Now he gives a straight answer, more often than not. Like most audiences, he may be aware something has gone on but he won’t know exactly what …

 

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Image: Amazon.ca