Category Archives: Restaurants

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Filed under Africa, AI, Asia, capitalism, China, Climate change, Commonwealth, Covid-19, cybersecurity, Development, digital technologies, Disability, Education, Empowerment, Environment, Europe, Gender, Geography, ICT4D, ICTs, inclusion, India, Inequality, Internet, Latin America, Learning, poverty, Restaurants, Rural, SDGs, Sustainability, UK, United Nations

Night life at Hauz Khas

One of the many pleasures of being at IIT Delhi over the last fortnight was its proximity to Hauz Khas “village”, with its many restaurants and sites to explore.  Originally, Hauz Khas was part of Siri, the second medieval city and fort of the Delhi Sultanate, dating mainly from the 14th century, and it was built alongside the royal water tank that gave it its name, Hauz meaning “water tank” and Khas meaning “royal”. Many buildings were constructed here by Firuz Shah, including a madrasa, a mosque, his own tomb, and domed pavilions, most of which were built soon after he became ruler in 1351.  After years of decay, the area was redeveloped in the 1980s, and efforts have been made to restore the lake and its surrounding deer park as a tourist attraction and commercial area.

Hauz Khas has developed rapidly over the last decade, and is now a popular area for eating and boutique shops. After long days of meetings and teaching at IIT Delhi, it was good to be able to relax and sample the restaurants.  One evening in the pouring monsoon rain we ate delicious south Indian food at Naivedyam (dosas, oothappam and idli), and on another it was good to catch up with Commonwealth Scholarship alumni at Rang de Basanti Urban Dhaba (for a wide range of traditional food typical of the roadside dhabas of India).  My last night in Delhi on this trip was to the very different night-club atmosphere of Hauz Khas Social, where I felt the oldest person there by far!  However, the food and drink were  good, and it was nice to relax with a view out towards the lake (although the loudness of the music did make conversation difficult!).

I hope that the pictures below capture some of the atmosphere of this colourful and vibrant part of modern Delhi.

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Thanks so much once again to Anushruti Vagrani for taking me to places I don’t think I would have been likely to venture by myself!

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World Interfaith Harmony Week, 1-7 February

A chance posting by a friend on Facebook asking if anyone knew of good examples to celebrate the UN’s World Interfaith Harmony week, made me reflect on two interesting recent examples that I would just like to post here, both in acknowledgement of the importance of this issue, but also to encourage others to seek out and celebrate inter-faith dialogue.

shah-jahan-mosque-gallery_12I know that it is just a tiny drop in the ocean, but last week in the town of Woking in the UK there was a meeting of the Christian deanery synod which had invited leaders of the nearby local Shah Jahan mosque, Britain’s first purpose built mosque, to speak about their faith and what it means to be a Muslim in the UK today. The meeting was not without its challenges – I was saddened to see the Muslim speakers initially sitting at the back of the church before being invited to the platform – but if such local initiatives could be replicated and built on much more widely, we might just create a world where people can live together in greater understanding and peace.  Having lived in Woking for much of my early life, I always remember passing the mosque and being fascinated by the nearby cemetery, now thankfully restored and renovated.

Second, I was privileged recently to be invited by a group of former Commonwealth Scholars now back home living in Pakistan to dinner at Des Pardes in the village of Saidpur on the edge of Islamabad.  It is a very different and physical representation of what peaceful co-existence could be like. I know it has been reconstructed as a model village, in large part to attract tourists, but visiting there  I was particularly struck by the juxtaposition of the reconstructed Hindu Temple and a Sikh Gurdwara (until quite recently a post office) with nearby Islamic architectures, indicative not only of a past where peoples of different faiths did live (relatively) peacefully together, but also of a will to instill such understandings in the present day.  It made me think again about all of the horrors of partition in 1947, and indeed afterwards.  I hope that my pictures below capture just a bit of this very special place, shared with some brilliant people.

 

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Filed under Pakistan, Photographs, Politics, Restaurants, Universities

Auberge du Cellier, Montner

Occasionally I come across amazing hidden away restaurants, where the skills of the chef turn a meal into something very special.  One such restaurant is the Auberge du Cellier in Montner, some 30 kms to the west of Perpignan in south-west France, where Pierre Louis Marin has created somewhere to enjoy the highest quality local produce, prepared and presented with great skill and panache. Everything about the restaurant is special, from the single green chair at each table, to the welcome of the staff, to the way in which the food is presented, to the excellent list of local wines, and above the the quality of the food.

We went there last night for a very special meal, and one of our party has an allergy to cow’s milk.  Instead of just showing the items on the menu that she could eat, the chef Pierre Louis Marin, discussed various options with her, and concocted beautiful dishes especially for her to enjoy.

As well as “La Carte” there were menus priced at €32, €46, €55 or €69, all of which represented really excellent value for the quality of the food.  We particularly enjoyed:

  • a wonderfully textured melon gazpacho, with crispy pieces of ham and seeds on top
  • rich and tasty Foie gras mi-cuit maison, herbes folles, huile de noisette, truffe tuber aestivum et parmesan
  • Un tiramisu de tomates, aux variétés anciennes, tomates séchées et mascarpone – perhaps with a touch too much mascarpone
  • Fine Filet d’agneau catalan, houmous, aubergine, jus corsé au romarin
  • Mignon de porc « tirabuixo », en croûte de pain aux noix, fenouil braisé et purée riche
  • beautifully prepared Saint Honoré aux fruits de saison

The wine list was quite extensive, focusing mainly on wines from the region, with a dominance of AOC Roussillon and Côtes Catalanes.  For an aperitif, we had a local Muscat and an amazingly rich, intense and well-balanced Grenache Noir doux from Domaine Victor in Maury – am determined to visit Maury and purchase some of this most unusual and delicious wine.  And then we were recommended to try the very reasonably priced Domaine Seguela Les Candalières 2012 – which was full of delicious ripe fruit (60% Carignan, 20% Syrah and 20% Grenache), soft tannins, and of good length and depth – perfect with the lamb and pork.

The Auberge du Cellier is definitely to be recommended (1, rue de Saint-Eugénie, 66720 Montner – 04 68 29 09 78).

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In praise of the Park Hyatt, Busan

Just occasionally I discover fine wines, great restaurants and lovely places to stay that I feel I just have to write about!  On my latest trip to Korea I have found just such a hotel, the Park Hyatt in Busan.  On my last visit to Seoul, I remember above all else the hospitality and generosity of our hosts, but coming to Busan I have discovered a whole new side to the country and its people.

The Park Hyatt is without doubt one of the nicest hotels I have stayed in for a long time.  The decor is sophisticated and functional; the rooms are beautifully appointed and decorated in pale oak colours – mine looks over the yachting harbour used in the 1988 Seoul Olympics; the staff are all amazingly helpful, friendly and oh, so courteous; there are several different lounges with varying styles and colours, but all very comfortable; the food is delicious (albeit at a price); and the swimming pool is amazing.  And, having spent so much time in hotels that charge ridiculous prices for Internet access, it is so nice to stay somewhere that offers free and fast connectivity!  On arrival, one is whisked up to the 30th floor where the reception is located, and the rooms are then on the floors beneath.  This gives the lounges and dining rooms on floors 30-33 amazing views over the coast and harbour.  I hope that the images below convey something of the lovely character of the hotel.  Oh yes, and I really got a taste for Dry Finnish!

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Nowhere, though, not event the Park Hyatt, Busan is perfect!  So may I finish with just a few pleas:

  • It would be great to have some chocolate and/or cinnamon on the capuccinos in the restaurant – especially at breakfast!
  • The wine list ought to have some reasonably priced ‘house wines’ on it – fine to have the expensive classics, but a really good restaurant also has stunning reasonably priced house wines.
  • The menus look  delicious, but much of the food is available only for two people, which makes life rather difficult for solitary travellers 😉 !
  • Finally, I could not decide whether or not to post a picture, but for those of us from northern Europe who are unused to multi-functional loos, and were brought up having to urinate on the ice in the pan of the outside netty on a frozen winter morning, these devices are really threatening, and it would be great to have some instructions!  How is one meant to know which button to push: rear cleansing; soft rear cleansing; front cleansing; dryer; oscillating; pulsating; rhythm; stop?  I was too scared even to experiment!

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Majeka House – a lovely place to stay near Stellenbosch

For anyone seeking a comfortable and relaxed place to stay while exploring the wineries of Cape Province in South Africa I can thoroughly recommend the Majeka House, just outside Stellenbosch.  Hidden away in a quiet residential area, the hotel provides a wonderful oasis of luxury in which to unwind at the end of a busy day of tasting!  With a warm welcome, beautifully hand-crafted rooms, great views, a relaxing pool, and the fine Makaron Restaurant (one of the top 20 in South Africa), it is a very special place to stay.

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Breakfasts are delicious, although I definitely preferred the anti-oxidant juice to the green revitaliser!  Also, beware the white pebbles in the birdcage at dinner – I dread to think of the teeth damage if someone bit hard on them!  As the above pictures illustrate, though, the food was innovatively presented, and of very high quality.  Make sure you book in advance, because the restaurant gets very full!

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My favourite South African Wines…

ThelemaA visit to the Cape Province of South Africa last week in order to help select wines for the Athenaeum provided a great opportunity to learn something about  recent changes in the wine industry in the Cape and to taste some of the really excellent wines that are now being produced there.  It is some 40 years since I last visited Stellenbosch and Paarl, and it is great to see the quality of wines now being made in the region.

Thanks to Stuart and George who arranged the itinerary, and the hospitality of many amazing wine makers, we had the privilege of tasting nearly 200 wines from Stellenbosch, the Cape Peninsula, Franschhoek and the hinterland of Hermanus.  While this represented only a small fraction of the many wines now being made in South Africa, it did highlight three significant things for me:

  • First, the quality of the wines has improved very dramatically indeed over the last 15 or so years.  There are without doubt now some really excellent wines being made in South Africa, and they are very good value indeed, with many of the best wines being priced at under ZAR 250 (£15) a bottle.  We scarcely tasted a poor bottle, and it was difficult to choose those that I preferred best for my list of favourite wines below!
  • Second, South African wine makers have definitely learnt and understood the importance of terroir. Given my geographical wine “upbringing” in Burgundy, I have always argued that the physical environment has a very important role in determining the character of a wine, and it is good to see the increasing differentiation that now exists in the planting locations of different grape varieties in the Cape area.  Many of the wines we tasted emanated from some of the cooler vineyard locations, higher up on the mountain slopes, in windier locations, and closer to the sea.
  • Third, South Africa’s vineyards have to be amongst the most beautifully situated in the world, with many of them being in very picturesque locations, as I hope the pictures below illustrate.  Whilst leafroll virus is a serious problem for grape-growers, it does have the merit of turning vines a beautiful red colour in the autumn!

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Despite the pleadings of my colleagues, I am still not convinced by many of the Chenin Blanc wines we tasted, perhaps with the exception of some of the sweet dessert wines.  I’m sure that some of my reticence stems from tasting too many rough Steen wines when I was younger!  While I recognise that modern good quality Chenin Blanc wines are indeed being made, I simply don’t particularly like them, finding the astringent flavours that I encountered in my youth all too often still to be present.  Likewise, I have to confess not really to liking wines made from the Pinotage grape.  All too often they too retain bitter flavours, and I found many of those we tasted to be rather unbalanced and poorly structured – with one delicious exception!

So, to conclude, my favourite wines, in alphabetical order of producers were:

  • 4Buitenverwachting (with MD Lars Maack)

    • 2009 Christine – excellent open fruity nose; 14.5% alcohol; rich, rounded, soft tannins; red fruit flavours; 45% Cabernet Franc contributes to tobacco and chocolate flavours (with 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot); well balanaced and good length
  • Chamonix (with Wine-maker Gottfried Mocke)

    • 2011 Pinotage – a very unusual wine made in a similar style to Ripasso, combining fresh wine refermenting with air dried grapes; half-picked very young and undergoes carbonic maceration; other half desiccated and refermented with first picking; grown at 440 m 9on Greywacke soils; 14.5% alcohol; kept mainly in one-year-old Pinot Noir barrels; dark red with complex green and dark fruit flavours; very soft tannins.
    • 2012 Chardonnay Reserve – 13.5% alcohol; 14 months in 228 l French oak; 30 year old vines which show character and personality; 80% barrel fermented with 20% in 600 l concrete eggs, which enable wine to be oxygenated and the lees stay in suspension for longer than using other fermenters; high acidity early grapes are put into concrete, with later pickings going into barrels; always goes through malo-lactic; tries to pick fruit at lower sugar levels to make wines more in a Burgundian style; 65% new oak used for this vintage, which remains very evident; need to keep for some time.
  • 5Cape Point (with Wine-maker Duncan Savage)

    • 2011 Late Harvest Noble 8 – only made when conditions are right, with some 2000 half bottles being produced in 2011; 160 grams residual sugar; 10.5% alcohol;  Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon botrytised blend; rich balanced fruit flavours; good length; acidity balances out the rich fruit; dried apricot flavours.
  • Delheim (with Viticulturist Vic Sperling)

    • 102009 Vera Cruz Shiraz – we had the last bottle in the cellar sadly; produced from bush vines; 14.5% alcohol; rich, intense fresh red fruits on the nose; fruity flavours of plums and jam; good length and complexity; their Vera Cruz wines are only made in years when the fruit is good enough; a powerful wine to be kept for a while.
    • 2013 Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest – botrytised Riesling from Simonsberg Mountain; good acid balance; not overly rich; classic slight petrol nose, but well structured and luscious flavours of honey and apricots.
  • Glenelly (with Wine-maker Luke O’Cuinneagain)

    • 12012 Oaked Chardonnay – light golden colour; blanche toasted 500 l barrels designed to keep as much natural fruit flavour as possible; fresh with good fruit expression; distinctive pear flavour, with slight citrus touches; richer and softer than their unoaked Chardonnay; good structure and depth.
    • 2010 Syrah – designed to be like a northern Rhône wine; 100% whole bunch fermented; purple-red colour; very clean, with slight smell of bacon; white pepper and floral aromas; relatively low alcohol at 13.9%; soft tannins, but needs time to develop.
  • Klein Constantia (Wine-maker Matthew Day)

    • 22013 Sauvignon Blanc – made with free-run juice from grapes from across the property; very pale in colour; up-front nose of gooseberry and blackcurrant leaves; 4 months in steel on lees; fresh in mouth, with balanced acidity on edge of tongue; quite light and eminently drinkable
    • 2008 Vin de Constance – classic dessert wine made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, left to dry on the vine; good rich flavours of candied orange, with other fruits including a slight pineapple taste; good depth and length; balanced acidity.
  • Meerlust (with Chris Williams, Cellar Master)

    • 62012 Pinot Noir – a serious wine; lovely rich nose; has been made since 2004 on coolest hilltops, which catch the breeze being only 3 kms from the sea; vines grown on decomposed granite; picked at 4-6 tonnes per hectare; vinified in small batches, some with natural fermentation; has an interesting liquorice nose; quite soft tannins; needs keeping for several years.
    • 2009 Rubicon – excellent Bordeaux blend style wine (69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet France and 1% Petit Verdot); very rich and intense rich blackcurrant fruit flavours; complex; good length; well structured; definitely for keeping.
  • Newton Johnson (with Bevan Newton Johnson, MD)

    • 32012 Family Vineyards Pinot Noir – really good wine, clean, well structured, medium length, and rich complexity of Pinot flavours resulting from use of grapes from three adjacent vineyards (20% from Mrs. M, 30% from Block 6, and 50% from Windansea); first made in 2008/9; red fruit rather than vegetal.
    • 2012 Windansea Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir from a single vineyard which has more clay than adjacent ones, giving a deeper colour; a bit closed and more restrained than the fruitier more open Mrs. M and Block 6; well structured with good acid balance; excellent finesse; red and black berry fruits.  A really excellent wine.
  • Spier
    • 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc – hand harvested; made from grapes grown in Durbanville near the Atlantic on red gravel and clay soils; nose of new mown hay; acidity clearly felt at edge of tongue; but well structured; rich complex flavours of gooseberry and slight asparagus; 13.5% alcohol.
  • Thelema (with Cellar Master Gyles Webb)

    • 82011 Cabernet Sauvignon “The Mint” – made from the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines they planted, with eucalyptus trees nearby, which give the wine a distinctive minty nose and flavour; mid-red colour; well-balanced and good structure; will be long-lived.
  • Vergelegen (with Wine-maker Andre van Rensburg)

    • 2011 Merlot – the first 100% Merlot wine made at Vergelegen since 1998; although Andre sees himself mainly as a Cabernet Sauvignon producer, he believes they have the environment to produce excellent Merlot; lovely soft nose and very gently tannins; still a bit young, and lacking a bit in length, but overall very pleasant.
    • 72010 DNA – Cabernet Franc does well at Vergelegen, but the yield needs to be reduced down to around 4 tonnes per hectare; aim is to pick the fruit as late as possible; mid-red, quite intense colour; 65% Cabernet Franc, Merlot 21% and Cabernet Sauvignon 13%; fantastic high notes on nose; very soft tannins; not as strong a smoky nose as I would have expected with this amount of Cabernet Franc; wine is designed to be fruity rather than green.  Wine is made in recognition of Andre’s respect to Cheval Blanc, with the DNA often being thought of as being similar to terroir.  Others might think that it is short for “Dickhead ‘n Arsehole”!  Incidentally, the label is not a fingerprint, but rather the contours of a hill!

Finally, I have long appreciated the work that Charles Back has done at Fairview, and particularly his BootLeggerscommitment to social change in the region.  In 1997 he helped establish The Fairvalley Workers Association, which aims to help workers at Fairview to have their own land, and he was also the driving force behind the Fairvalley wine brand that is owned by the Workers Association, with profits from the sale of their wines (made using cellar facilities at Fairview, and FairTrade certified) being used to support community development initiatives.  Being in South Africa enabled me to access further wines that it is difficult to get in the UK, and so I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to explore the shelves of Bootleggers in Fourways Crossing and purchase additional wines, including some of Fairvalley’s remarkably good value 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was delicious with boerewors, as well as  a bottle of Fairview’s 2010 Goat-Roti (Syrah/Viognier blend) that went especially well with barbecued fillet steak!

For those looking for somewhere quiet and relaxing to stay while exploring the vineyards of the Cape, I thoroughly recommend Majeka House, just outside Stellenbosch, which also houses the excellent Makaron Restaurant!

 

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Habton House Farm Bed and Breakfast: an excellent place to stay in Yorkshire

HH2For anyone looking for somewhere to stay to the north of York,  I’m adding to my periodic comments about interesting hostelries and places to stay by recommending Habton House Farm.  This is an exquisite, hidden-away 200 year old Grade II listed farmhouse situated in the small hamlet of Little Habton just to the north-west of Malton, and not far from Castle Howard.  It makes a great place from which to visit the North York Moors and the Vale of Pickering, with both York and Scarborough each being less than an hour away.  The rooms are beautifully decorated and the quality of furnishings and services offered have been chosen with great care and are of a very high standard. I particularly liked the choice of bath oils and soaps (Bamboo from Bath House if I recall correctly) – as well, of course, as the teas!

HorsesHowever, above all this, what really makes the place is the friendly, welcoming hospitality of James and Lucy who have worked enormously hard to create this very special place to stay.  They have a really magical touch of making guests feel very much at home, getting just right that difficult balance between being open and friendly, while at the same time giving space to guests who just want to escape and be alone.

The breakfasts are also really special!  They offer a good range of delicious food – from bacon and eggs produced on their smallholding, to porridge, smoked salmon and home-made jams and marmalade; and, for the healthier minded, don’t forget the fresh fruit salads and fruit compote!  All of the guests sit around one large breakfast table – which can be a bit daunting for some – but this offers a great opportunity for interesting conversation!

HH1With only three double rooms, there are never many people staying, and there is plenty of room to relax.  Guests have use of a lovely drawing room, which has a log fire in the winter, and for those who cannot escape being an appendage to a digital device there is good quality Wi-Fi, as well as a television in each room, and DVDs to borrow in the drawing room.  Nearby are several good restaurants, and James and Lucy are always on hand to recommend somewhere interesting to explore.  We certainly had a very pleasant pub dinner at The Grapes in Great Habton!

PigsTheir smallholding specialises in breeding and rearing rare-breed pedigree Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, and has pioneered the ultimate in food provenancing by enabling people to adopt a pig, and follow it throughout its life until the time comes to enjoy a wonderful porcine feast!  Mind you, the bacon at breakfast is also very, very good!

All in all, if you are looking for a quiet, luxurious place to stay in Yorkshire, at very good value, and with really friendly young hosts, this is definitely somewhere you should get to know!  I really hope that James and Lucy make a success of this venture – and that by encouraging others to come and stay I can express something of my gratitude to them for a really lovely weekend!

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Hostageria de Poblet: peaceful place to stay to the west of Barcelona

There is always a tension in writing about hidden away places where I have enjoyed staying.  Were they to become overly popular, that would destroy much of their secrecy and solitude!  However, earlier this year I discovered somewhere really lovely, and hope that by mentioning it here others will take the opportunity to enjoy what it has to offer.

The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet in La Conca de Barberà just to the north of Reus and Tarragona, and some 130 kms west of Barcelona, is one of a group of Cistercian monasteries founded in Catalunya in the 12th century, shortly after the conquest of the province by the Catalan-Aragon monarchy.  Others  include the monasteries of Vallbona de les Monges in l’Urgell and Santes Creus in L’Alt Camp.  One day I must walk the Ruta del Coster that joins them all up!

The monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet itself had become very run down by the early 19th century.  The confiscation of church lands in 1835 and the consequent expulsion of the monks led to further decay, and it has only been in recent years that some of its character has been restored.  A community of monks returned to the monastery in 1940, and in 1991 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  Since then it has attracted increasing numbers of visitors, many of whom are drawn there by its magnificent setting among woods and streams sheltered by the Prades mountains.

In 2010 a new modern guesthouse, the Hostageria de Poblet, was built within the old walls of the monastery, and it provides a simple, minimalist place to stay. For those who like quiet, hidden away places, set amidst vineyards and rolling hills, the Hostageria is most definitely worth a visit.  As their brochure notes, “There are no televisions in the rooms to respect the silence and the living dynamics of the monastery”.  That having been said, the guesthouse does have Internet access for those who do not want to escape the modern technological world completely!  Currently, the Spring price for a double room varies between $49 and $59, which makes them really excellent value for money.

The Hostageria also has a restaurant that serves delicious local food – but do note that the lunch menu is much more extensive than that available in the evenings.  Alongside the restaurant is a culinary school, designed to provide both a theoretical and practical training for people living in the comarca of Conca de Barberà.  The Spring menu offers three courses for €20, with a typical choice being

  • Torradeta d’escalivada i formatge de cabra gratinat
  • Llom de bacallà a la mel a l’estil dels monjos de Poblet
  • Iogurt del monjos amb gelat de nata i xarrop de grosella

The monastery also has its own wines, developed in collaboration with the Cordoniú Group. Nine hectares within the walled enclosure were planted in 1989 with Pinot Noir grapes, chosen in memory of the Cistercian wine makers of Burgundy.  Although Pinot Noir is not widely grown in Catalunya, the wines from the monastery, include the 100% Pinot Noir Abadia de Poblet, as well as a lesser wine known as Intramurs, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Merlot, and both are definitely worth tasting while staying there.

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Becker Vineyards Texas Iconoclast Cabernet Franc 1995

This has to be one of the most surprising wines I have tasted in recent years.  Back in 1997 I was attending the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers held in Texas, and spent some time afterwards in Austin and visiting wineries in the Texas Hill Country – among them was Becker Vineyards, established a few years previously in 1992 by Richard and Bunny Becker.  The first harvest was in 1995 and vintages are aged in either new French or American oak, and stored in the largest underground wine cellar in Texas. I remember being very surprised to find French varietals being cultivated in Texas, but also that the wines tasted surprisingly good.

The visit of two USAn friends on Friday, who had been forced to leave Egypt because of the ongoing political unrest there, and were on their way back to Houston, seemed an appropriate occasion to open this Texan Iconoclast.  I would not normally choose to drink a 15 year old Cabernet Franc – suspecting that it would be well past its best.  However, this wine was quite remarkable – and shows how ripe fruit and careful vinification can indeed produce surprising wines in very unusual circumstances.  It retained a mid-red colour, and had much less browning at the edges than I had expected.  The wine had the distinctive tobacco nose that I often associate with Cabernet Franc, but also retained a slightly woody aroma.  The flavour was delicious, with soft tannins, good depth, and a richness that I had not anticipated – very different from many of the often light, dry Cabernet Franc wines from the Loire that I am more used to. The hot Texan summers had clearly ripened the fruit fully, giving the wine a richness and depth of body that was delicious, retaining a good balance and structure, with flavours of red fruit and tobacco.

So, if you happen to be out visiting the Texan countryside, enjoy the blue bonnets, take a detour up to Stonewall, sample the Becker wines, and put a bottle in your luggage for drinking a decade later! Thanks to Bill Fleming for persuading me to explore Austin’s music scene when I was there! I also look forward to returning to Guero‘s Taco Bar on a future visit – hope it is as good now as it was then!

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