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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Apropos of nothing

Are you better off than you were one year ago, now that:
- South Korea has a new president,
- its dark half has a new wonsu,
- Seoul has a new city hall,
- and Gangnam has a new jockey?

If yes, consider yourself lucky: this is a country where one in four youngsters has considered suicide, and where every other elderly lives in poverty... which puts your favorite K-pop star's latest hair disaster into perspective.

Seoul Village season VII will start pretty soon, and since true love requires some level of truth and soberness, I'm afraid there might be more episodes* about the less bright side of my beloved inhuman, all too human Seoul and Korea... which, as you well know, doesn't mean you should expect truth or sobriety from these pages.

So happy new year, and "best pants" to you all:

Seoul Village 2012
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* more racism? revisionism? creationism? mirages? masquerades? ghost neighborhoods? flying rats?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Anipang Election: Park wins big, but who won?

According to Mayans (solar calendar), the end of the world is for tomorrow, but in Korea (lunar calendar), MOON crashed yesterday.

Actually, MOON Jae-in never had the opportunity to take off*. AHN Cheol-soo did, but he blew it** (yeah, he eventually took off yesterday, but after casting his ballot, and at Incheon Airport, in a plane for the States).

So from the start, it's always been about PARK Geun-hye cruising towards a surprise-less win in a debate-free campaign against non-existent opponents.

Her victory is not a lackluster win, but a very clear democratic triumph. Yet I'm still wondering about who won the elections.

PGH's website this morning

Korean democracy chose an indisputable winner...

a very strong turnout: 75.80%, the biggest since the 1997 clash between Kim Dae-jung and Lee Hoi-chang
- a clear majority: 51.6% vs 48.0% (NB: small candidates were really garden gnomes this time)
- reaching beyond the usual geographic divides: we didn't skip the traditional strongholds (MOON rocked Honam, scoring 86-89% in Jeolla and 91.97% in Gwangju, PARK claimed Yeongnam, with a 80.4% peak in Daegu), but color-wise, the map is very far from the 1997 or 2002 East v. West split, and much closer to LEE Myung-bak's 2007 landslide victory. MOON claimed Seoul back, but barely. PARK's victory seemed inevitable very early, when the first Sudogwon results showed her ahead in Incheon and Gyeonggi-do, and very close to MOON in the capital city. Note that Korean expats voted 56-42 in favor of MOON.
- and even beyond the expected generational divides: yes, seniors massively voted PARK, but she didn't fare that bad at the other end of the spectrum, with one third of the youngest voters. And who ruled in social networking? The seniors, who literally kakaotalked each other to a whopping 90% participation rate.

... but who won these elections?...

For international observers, the big news is a combination of two events: a woman becomes President of the Republic of Korea for the first time, and the Korean democracy elects the offspring of a former dictator.

But I don't think the key issue in Korea was gender, or a referendum for or against PARK Chung-hee. And of course, I know constitutional values were not "top of mind". To me, it was about fears, uncertainties, and change.

And conservatism won.

Everybody knew that the situation was bad, and that something needed to be done. Both candidates promised similar reforms (less power for chaebols, more welfare for the powerless), but both inspired doubts: PARK regarding the balance of powers, MOON because his party was not ready to govern. And even when voters projected themselves in a country ruled by their own champion, they felt uncertain for the future. Fear clearly prevailed over hope, and both MOON and PARK spent their time reassuring voters - at this little game, conservatism usually wins.

And PARK followed the script perfectly, positioning herself as a mother for all citizens, softening her stance on reforms (like: yes chaebols have too much power, but in time of crisis, you cannot weaken the drivers of our economy). And as usual, she never gave the impression of speaking her own mind, always calculating her words, always speaking with the voice of the wary, risk-averse but confident ajumma.
So Koreans chose change without change, and the ruling party will keep ruling. But the official leader has really changed. LEE Myung-bak received a clear mandate for reforms, and he had credentials as a doer and a leader. PARK Geun-hye's more into backstage politics, and the only reforms she's carried out so far are rebranding her own party, replacing a few extra actors, and wishing very hard that corruption would stop***.

But PARK Geun-hye's been here forever, and everybody knows her story. She didn't chose to be the daughter of a dictator, and you can't expect a kid whose parents got murdered to grow into an adult like all others. She eventually distanced herself from her dad's regime, and she has no risks of favoring kids of her own since she doesn't have any. Bonus: unlike her predecessor, she (officially at least) doesn't run for any religious group. So why not give her a chance? Even if she only criticized her dad indirectly, reluctantly, and faintly. Even if, to this day, we still don't know what she truly thinks. Even if we can't tell if she's running her own show.

Yesterday, when her time to shine came, PARK Geun-hye somehow managed to dodge the call again. She certainly didn't deliver an inspiring acceptance speech: only a few word at her headquarters to announce that she'd go to Gwanghwamun... where she didn't take the stage but received a bouquet before answering a quick victory interview. KIM Yu-na style. The scene should have taken place in Seoul Plaza with the ice rink  in the background instead of King Sejong's statue.

So who stole the TV show yesterday? Gwanghwamun, CHUNG Mong-joon, and Anipang.

. Gwanghwamun? On her way back to Cheong Wa Dae, PARK left her Gangnam base to pause at party HQ, and ultimately Gwanghwamun, the gate to the main palace. All symbols of power were covered, but if anyone doubted it it's now official: Gwanghwamun has reclaimed its status as the ultimate symbol of power for Seoul and Korea. Special mention for King Sejong: his statue seemed to overpower the new president when she made her quick apparition, and his name has also become a political prize in itself (Sejong City, not yet a symbol of power, but the latest province-level, special self-governing city).

. CHUNG Mong-joon? Like King Sejong but sans the smile, he remained seated and silent all the time, yet his giant meditative face dominated the screen. PARK's short presence not even a distraction.

. Anipang? I didn't watch an election night on TV but a silly video game with a screen split between neat rows of Saenuri and DUP characters, and cute PARK and MOON animations reacting to the scores. And when I say "scores", it's just the plain, basic count of votes. The only humans you see are non-expert TV presenters announcing lists of results. Forget about analysis. Forget about pundits and spin rooms. Forget about exit polls telling differences in segments or motivations. It's just a stupid TV show, a countdown where the aim of the game is to guess at what time we have an official winner. I zapped through all the channels and they all did the same, competing only on their 3D animations. They all tried cute things, like that big giant teddy bear walking across Korea (straight from Tottoro), except SBS, which dared a weird concept, travelling through a derelict Korean village abandoned after a war, almost like a shoot'em up scene after all players are gone. Here's newsY's take at Moon discovering his score:

Now what?

In other words: we haven't seen nor learned anything so far. Neither during the campaign, nor afterwards.
And we have to give PARK Geun-hye the benefit of the doubt.
It's up to her (or to the people who drive the vehicle) to decide where to lead the nation, and what kind of final legacy she wants her family to leave.
Let's see how this blank page evolves.

And how history is being written. Including and particularly the past, in school textbooks. 

(ADDENDUM - post egalement repris en Francais sur mes blogules en VF: "De quoi PARK Geun-hye est-elle le nom?" et sur Rue89)

Seoul Village 2012
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*  see "Time is up"
** see "Scratch that: Dynasty, Dallas, or the Twilight Zone?"
*** see "25 years later"
****  see "Saenuri, a brand "new" wor(l)d"

Monday, December 17, 2012

Time is up

Korea votes tomorrow, but the campaign only started Sunday with the end of the primaries, and the first debate.

Officially, it was the third debate, and MOON Jae-in won the Democratic United Party primaries three months ago, but he had first to wait for the outsider AHN Cheol-soo to bow out*, and then for Democratic Labor Party candidate LEE Jung-hee to let him square off one-to-one with PARK Geun-hye.

And even then, the left-wing activist waited until the last hours before the final TV debate, leaving an empty chair at the table for all to see. Thankfully, neither PARK nor MOON tried to talk to the chair the way the ghost of Clint Eastwood did during the last Republican Convention. But anyway and unfortunately for MOON, after the two dulls featuring LEE, only few people watched this show where (judging at least by the body language) only he was in a mood for debate. 

So this debate never happened, time is up, and next time will be too late to vote for economic, political, or social reforms. The system is simply not sustainable, and the demographic equation keeps making things worse every year. Helped by a - to say the least - not always constructive opposition, LEE Myung-bak leaves a nation far more divided than when he took office. And if his government prevented Korean economy from collapsing at the peak of the crisis, when speculators went at its throat from overseas, it let Korean society as a whole be undermined by its old demons from within, weakening an already fragile balance of powers.

Of course, this election is not just a question of turnouts among specific segments (young adults, female seniors, Korean expats...).

I already said it (six month ago to the day in "25 years later"), this moment is all about constitutional values. So if they're still hesitating, Korean voters can consider this election as if it were a referendum for their constitution, and chose their next leader according to what they believe they truly stand for, regardless of who they will face in North Korea, China, or Japan.

It's not about what Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, or Shinzo Abe will do, but about how Korea defines itself.

Seoul Village 2012
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* "Scratch that: Dynasty, Dallas, or the Twilight Zone?"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Welcome to Korea

You simply can't sum up a country in a book.

Yes, the CIA pretends to do just that in a couple of pages, every year, with its World Factbook, but look at the mess...

Daniel Tudor clearly doesn't pretend to sum up Korea in his first book.

To start with, "Korea: the impossible country" is not a guide. And "pretentious" is the last word that comes to mind when you meet such a nice guy. How could you not like someone with a contagious smile, and a true love for Korea (it goes without saying that Tudor's not a great fan of K-pop)? And if you believe his background looks too serious, think twice: here's an Oxonian (like Oscar Wilde or Aldous Huxley) who works for the only satirist magazine that tackles business (The Economist).

Speaking of tackling: the man even likes football! I mean real football, the sport known as 'soccer' in the parts of the world where 'football' apparently refers to a computer game for geeks with a short attention span and featuring cyborgs making the most of subliminal breaks during TV commercials. Did I mention the fact that Tudor was born with the name of a King? Daniel, a Mancunian of the Red variety, changed his family name from Cantona.

Well. I'm not sure about that last one but hey, I'm not a journalist, fact checking's not my forte, and I didn't even read the book ahead of this 10 Magazine Book Club event! Sue me. In my defense, "Korea: the impossible country" was only released a couple of weeks ago. I must say that because you must think I never read anything: this week, it's the second time I attend a book meeting without reading the said book in advance*.

When asked by a large and friendly book-loving audience about his own reading habits, Daniel Tudor answered that he didn't read as much as he'd like to (something to do with him being a journalist, upcoming elections, and upflying rockets, I guess). But he does read. And yesterday, he repeatedly praised a book that inspired him and helped many people better understand Korea. If you can't sum up a country in a book, you can give outsiders precious keys, and Michael Breen opened the way in 1998 with "The Koreans"**.

In his own impossible portrait of the impossible country, Tudor decided to start with the foundations, and to combine his brush strokes with other voices, that of Korean personalities he interviewed. Could he keep all the material he had in the book? Of course not, just like the lively discussion at the Book Club could have continued for hours. Does that leave room for the unexpected? Of course, just like this activist with a megaphone down the street, who chimed in at the very moment Daniel was talking about the presidential campaign!

For all of the nation's political, economic, and social divisions, Daniel Tudor remains confident in Korea's ability to come together, to bounce back, to be fun, and to surprise us again. Maybe because, even when it has nothing else, Korea always has the Koreans.

The author introduced "Korea: the impossible country" as a "welcome to Korea" book, but it also seems to be a love letter to this impossible country, to its wonderful people. A love potion for those who have yet to discover both?

* Get the book: "Korea: the impossible country"
* Join The 10 Magazine Book Club on Facebook:

Seoul Village 2012
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* in my defense - continued -, the other book was a Korean edition (see "Hell is other Democratic People's Republic of Korea")
** BTW - Michael (also the author of "Kim Jong-il") is the guest of the next 10 Magazine Book Club meeting, in January

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hell is other Democratic People's Republic of Korea

I attended an invigorating book launch at the Asan Institute yesterday: the Korean edition of "No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security", by Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution Jonathan D. Pollack. Much more people turned out than for the launch of the previous day, precisely from North Korea (an ICBM? a satellite? a bird? a plane? Superkim? a UFO?).

Jonathan D. Pollack with Asan Institute President Hahm Chaibong

Pollack titled his book - which I haven't read so far - after Jean-Paul Sartre's play, "No Exit" - which I read so far in the past my memory of it is as wall-eyed as the existentialist author. Note that Sartre's original title, "Huis Clos", literally means "in camera", an expression that generally refers to trials behind close doors, where neither the press nor the public are allowed.

To add to the resemblance to North Korea, the characters in the play are bracing for torture and mistreatments. Except they're already dead. Anyway, they realize that actual hell, and the worse torture that could ever be inflicted to them, was facing themselves through the prism of judgement from fellow human beings. "Hell is other people".

Of course, the North Korean regime is rather "survivalist" than "existentialist", more into "appearance" than into "being", and certainly more into "nail-pulling autocracy" than into "hair-splitting philosophy".

And of course, our expert in Asia-Pacific studies didn't write a play. But he tried to decypher the intriguing tragicomedy North Korea has been playing over the past decades by empathically browsing through the regime's own words and actions, cold war archives, propaganda material, testimonies...

Like most observers, Pollack is at the same time appalled and fascinated by this country that "defies the laws of economic and political gravity", convinced that it won't last, conscious of the fact that China's influence has considerably grown over the past few years, and sure that South Korea as well as the US could do much better than what they've been doing so far.

When the  says "our toolkit failed", Pollack naturally refers to failed policies, not just to the latest intel fiasco (the rocket launch occured just hours following Seoul declarations that reparations would delay it for at least a couple of days). He also denounces the risks of underestimating or overestimating, and the tendency to portray the North Korean regime as a simple caricature*.

Ideally, the US and China should sit down and sort things out together, but that sounds a bit optimistic considering the go game they're playing across the region. I'm not sure this latest missile launch is the potential game changer Professor Georgy D. Toloraya wished it could become, but I think Russia does have a very interesting card to play because it's not caught in that gridlock, and because it's got the best potential win-lose ratio among the six parties.

I won't state again my positions about North Korea, my base case "Hanschluss Scenario" et al, but as is the tradition following a conference on the issue**, I'll drop my two KRW into the pig bank, this time with a focus on this program that has never been about civil nukes, never quite fully been about military nukes, and could even be lampooned as being about dynastic / familial nukes.

1) Nukes remain the ultimate proof of concept for the Incredible Shrinking State of Kimland:

The Juche ideology failed, the propaganda failed, and the country's leaders have become laughingstocks even at home. The only story that somewhat keeps standing is the nuclear / space program. As if Sun-God KIM Il-sung had achieved His ultimate mutation, now radiating across the globe for the next hundred thousand years and beyond. As if nuclear deterrence were the perfection of Juche. As if the recurrent tales about nuclear and space progresses were the proof that propaganda is not just an empty shell.

The nuclear nation status is key to the regime's legitimacy and allows North Korea, as Pollack puts it, "to punch above its weight" at the international level. Nothing new under the sun, but South Koreans sure didn't like the way their brothers batted their gizmo into orbit at the very moment their own Naro rocket was sent back to disabled list.

2) Can you expect the NK regime to renounce this program without renouncing its very existence?

Unless the rules of the game are changed, the regime will keep posting every now and then nasty status updates on its Facebook wall.

But such statements are costly, and the country's limited resources have been stretched very far. And North Korea can only count on its friends up to a certain point. China puts thumbs down to anything involving nuclear tests, and Tehran is not much more than Pyongyang the picture of a sustainable regime.

Furthermore, managing such a program demands in itself an ever increasing level of organization, not very compatible with a leadership stripped bare to its smallest circles and alienating even within military ranks. Nukes actually give the perfect alibi to distance oneself from a leadership that choses a universal repellent over the country. Building the nation around the nuclear fortress is actually dismantling the nation, separating even more the regime from its propellers.

If the North Korean regime doesn't renounce the program, North Korean elites will eventually renounce the regime - unless one of the regime's last friends steps in and does it all by itself.

Maybe this nuclear program should be named after that other work of Sartre's, "Being and nothingness".

Seoul Village 2012
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* (UPDATE 20121215) I fully agree, but without caricature, where's the fun? Speaking of toolkit and North Korean watch, and on an even lighter note, here's my embarrassing take at the most strategic question raised by this "ICBM" launch: "how to wear binoculars properly?"

(for those who are not familiar by that other terrible blog of mine, "blogules" are self-proclaimed "Weapons of Mass Disinformation" - history proves politics and nukes are too important issues to be handled by or handed to serious people)

** see for instance:
. "Re-engaging North Korea - A Four Party Talk" (following the North Korea Policy Forum conference "Responding to the Consolidation of Economic Cooperation between North Korea and China", 2011/04/11)
. "NK and nukes: back to the (dolsot curling) stone age?" (following the Asia Institute Seminar "Revisiting Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Security in North Korea" 2012/03/22)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Naneun nangman gangaji

To the risk of infuriating many friends, I must confess I'm rather a "dog" than a "cat" kind of guy. I do like both, and had a purr-fect fit with many felines, but I enjoy much richer conversations with members of the canine family.

I grew up with a peaceful dog who barked only in case of clear and immediate danger - typically, when I played music, or when gangs of cats squared off at our place (Sharks from the South, Jets from the North). But that was in Paris, and here in Seoul, even if I don't have pets, I clearly live on cat territory.

In our neighborhood, the capo de tutti gati is a grey male, or rather the orange female who delivers every six month or so a couple of utterly cute kittens donning coats matching exactly the same grey or orange. This mob owned the place before we did, and they've made it clear to everyone ever since we moved in: each time new faces come to visit us, they pass by just to check them out, and to let themselves be noticed.

Each attempt of insubordination is followed by displays of power so spectacular that I sometimes provoke them just for fun. For instance, when I look at the cat the wrong way as it passes by the window, it will quietly stop, lazily stretch its body, ostentatiously lick its armpits and genitals, re-stretch in a jaw-breaking yawn, and before resuming its walk stare at me for a whole minute with medieval murder in its eyes. And the next day, if I'm not here when it passes by, it calls me so that I don't miss the show.

If these scavengers rule over the neighborhood, they can't expect food from us: I don't collaborate with the Occupant. Okaaay... last summer, I did leave some water for their meltingly cute kittens to lap, but not doing so would have been an outright crime against felinity. And yes, I did rescue an orange kid a couple of times but hey, when they Puss-in-boots-eye you up, you are the one begging for mercy.

So just like I pretend not to collaborate, I pretend to resist when they cross the line a triffle too far. For instance, I let them patrol at a safe distance, and even train their kids around when they're old enough to tour their kingdom, but I barked them out of their project of building a new home on our ground.

Not much of a sabotage, I know, but we dogs have to maintain some boundaries if we don't want to lose face.

Seoul Village 2012
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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Saving Korean cinema... and even Chaebolplex

Evolution doesn’t teach us that only the fittest survive, but that even the strongest can’t survive when diversity is threatened, and that inbreeding is by no means a way out of extinction.

Last September, I stated my worries about cultural content diversity in Korea, particularly in a movie / broadcasting ecosystem dominated by chaebols ("Korean culture or Hallyu, Cultural contents or discontents"). And this morning, Korea JoongAng Daily published a focus on how 'Conglomerates direct Korea's film industry', which ended in similar calls for quotas supporting independent movies.

Data from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) confirm the trend, the Korean market has become an oligopoly that all but banned independent movies from their multiplexes:
  • In September 2012, the Big 4 claimed 93.1% of the distribution: 28.3% for Showbox Mediaplex (Orion Corporation), 24.2% for CJ EM, 21.0% for Next Entertainment World (the Twilight saga), and 19.6% for Lotte Entertainment
  • Between 2008 and 2011, the top 3 CGV (CJ EM), Lotte Cinema, and Megabox (Jcontentree - JoongAng Group) raised their share of screenings from 62.2% to 86.7%. 
  • 2 years ago, multiplexes devoted between 6.5 and 9% of their screenings to indie movies, and now they don't let them even reach 2% (of course never on prime time or prime locations):

Even KIM Ki-duk's award winning "Pieta" didn't get the exposure it deserved in multiplexes, in spite of excellent occupancy rates. And the victims are not only local indie productions: even international critic's darlings can’t make it there.

Yes, 2012 is a record year for Korean movies, and for the first time, the 100 M views barrier has been smashed. And of course the winners are well marketed, deja-vu blockbusters: 'The Thieves' (Showbox), 'Masquerade' (CJ EM), and 'A Werewolf Boy' (CJ EM), respectively a Gangnam Style 'Ocean's Eleven', a Joseon-times 'Dave', and a more elaborate 'Nell'-'Wolf' bibim. Needless to say, the government is not considering any regulation to tame what I call "chaebolplexes": the "Pieta Law" mentioned in the article sounds like charity for art-house theaters, and absolution for big complexes.

The big fishes think they're protecting themselves. As if an indie success could threaten them, or alter the overpowering image they project to their audiences. I'm using the plural, because these guys target not only movie goers, but also the developers who consider a multiplex to sex up their latest project (build a multiplex and they will come - Who? Why, the S.P.A.s and family restaurants those investors couldn't convince to sign for their mall, of course).

Make no mistake: the recent boom in multiplexes is not just about conglomerates claiming the lion's share of Korean cinema after noticing the first national blockbusters at the turn of the millenium - you're in Korea, it's the real estate, stupid!

And just like with coffee franchises*, you don't always consider supply & demand issues before opening shop. Except the entry ticket is much higher, and operators have to know a thing or two about yield management. And they'd better know where they're going when they multiply the number of big screens at the very moment movies get available anywhere anywhen anytime.

At the "hardware" level, they want to make the moviegoer's experience special: even your latest home entertainment system can't propose you a full "4D theater" experience, and even your comfiest la-z-boy can't beat the new "lounge" reclining seats (better than first class travel, twice the normal fee). But Starbucks learned the hard way that offering free wifi everywhere didn't mean anything if they forgot their core business: offering good coffee.
Korean operators are the only ones in the World who seem to believe the multiplex concept can survive without content diversity. It's exactly like operating a hypermarket and referencing only 4-5 items: that's not only bad business and terrible risk management, but also the very negation of your customer and your own future. You can't at the same build more theaters and reject diversity, get viewers addicted to blockbusters and expect high occupancy rates in the future. You think you're driving generations to your theaters, but you're killing the golden goose. You think you're building a market, but you're milking it at all levels without any vision whatsoever. And if you think you can guarantee diversity all by yourself, even by betting on your closed circle of fellow majors, you should know it simply doesn't work, particularly not in this country.
The inability to operate even partially open systems is a key factor of failure for Korean chaebols. Look how SK Telecom lost its global leadership in innovation in the early naughties when it sticked to a doomed ambition of controling the whole value chain instead of evolving and nurturing a more open and sustainable ecosystem. Look how Samsung lags behind in soft power and value aggregation beyond in-house solutions. Look how the Korean government struggled when it came to bringing together conglomerates and small players in the innovation process that could guarantee Korea some competitivity in the future. Look at those innovative start-ups wilt as soon as they're absorbed by organizations unfit for the new millenium. And look at those absurd award nights, when, every year, each major TV channel distributes glitzy prizes among its own drama shows in a parody of competition.

So yes, regulations are needed, and yes, truly independent movies (i.e. not from your usual masqueraded subsidiary or outsourced slave) must be given fair chances in multiplexes, including on prime time and in prime locations. Just like broadcasters must nurture the indie ecosystem. It will spur creativity and competitivity across the whole industry, help it source new talents, reach new viewers, and anticipate evolutions. Majors cannot achieve sustainability and international competitivity without it.

But the real change must also come from the chaebol themselves, and I'm sure that, in each of their top strategy teams, you can find at least one person who's perfectly aware of the fact that they can't postpone the cultural revolution anymore.

The first one to open up will be the true leader.

Seoul Village 2012
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* see "Brews and bruises" followed by "500 m, 80%, 100% urban crappuccino"

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