Australiana


Late last Saturday evening, Violet Towne and I spent several hours in an abandoned lunatic asylum. Now I know there are those among you who will feign surprise that this is anything out of the ordinary (I’m looking at you, Queen Willy) but it has been, in fact, nearly 25 years since my last Abandoned Lunatic Asylum Adventure.

The place we visited is called Aradale, formerly Ararat Lunatic Asylum, one of three asylums built in southern Australia in the late 1800s for the express purpose of accommodating ‘the growing number of ‘lunatics’ in the colony of Victoria’. Aradale is set on a small hill overlooking the Victorian country town of Ararat, a former goldrush settlement which now sports a population of about 7000 people. It’s about an hour’s drive to Ballarat, the nearest center of any significant size, and a further two hours to Melbourne.

Aradale offers three types of tours: a standard historical tour by the volunteer group The Friends of J Ward,(i) and a ‘theatrical ghost tour’ and a ‘ghost hunting tour’ run by a company called Australian Ghost Adventures

I am, as you know dear Cowpokes, quite skeptical of all things ‘haunted’, but I’m nevertheless partial to a bit of gothic fun, so VT and I nixed the straight historical tour in favour of one of the more ghostly options. Since the ghost ‘hunting’ tour sounded like it might attract the same kind of loonies formerly housed in the asylum,(ii) the ‘theatrical’ affair seemed the best bet.

In the end, it was a great choice. After leaving our motel at around 9pm (where the manager warned us that she’d once hosted a ‘total skeptic’ who was ‘completely converted’ after his visit to Aradale…)(iii) we headed out to the asylum and up the suitably forbidding yew-lined driveway.

At the door of Ararat Lunatic Asylum, we were greeted by a chap in funereal attire who enquired ghoulishly after our health, and effusively espoused the benefits of the hospital’s location, situated as it is in such a way on the hill as to take the maximum advantage of ‘the cleansing airs’ (a contrivance in keeping with the prevailing wisdom of Victorian mental health practice). He told the assembled group that, in the manner of the historical facts accumulated from patient records in Victorian asylums, about two thirds of us would be able to leave the hospital at the end of the evening, but that one third would be staying for the rest of their lives.(iv) The ensuing two-hour tour continued in a similar manner, with our guide proving to be an entertaining raconteur as he led us up corridors and down stairways by lantern light, through the length of the shadowy and labyrinthine edifice.

I fear that it wasn’t the terrifying and ghastly ordeal that some of our party expected, but for me the blend of tempered gallows humour and well-researched historical detail was just about right. I must confess that I was expecting probable episodes of faux haunting, but none eventuated, and the only notable ‘scares’ came from our guide when he appeared cadaverously from the shadows in some unnoticed nook in the corridor. The building itself was the star of this show, and those who really wanted to see ghosts almost certainly went away thinking they had.(v)

Places like Aradale are, as I’ve mentioned previously on The Cow, among the creepiest and most disturbing structures on the planet, when you consider the thousands upon thousands of suffering souls who once wandered their dark and echoic corridors. No-one needs to do much to make a tour through them a very memorable and unsettling experience.

It was pretty gloomy for most of the time we were inside the hospital,(vi) so I wasn’t able to get many good interior shots of our adventure, but there are some nice photos of the rooms and halls of Aradale on the Aradale Ghost Tours site.

And while we’re on the subject of lunatic asylums, if you’ve never heard the story I referred to up in the first paragraph, of how I was lost, by myself, in the middle of the night in an abandoned asylum in London, it’s here (and even for those of you who do know it, it’s worth a revisit – I’ve updated that post to include some more information about Stone House Asylum, and I’ve linked to an UrbEx site that has an enormous and beautiful gallery of interior photographs).

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Footnotes:

  1. J Ward is an annexe of Aradale, and is a goldrush-era high security prison that was seconded by Ararat Asylum in the 1880s as a repository for its ‘criminally insane’ inmates. It can be found in the town of Ararat, a few kilometers from Aradale. VT and I did the historical tour of J Ward on the morning after our Aradale visit. It’s also quite a grim and amazing place. []
  2. The ghost hunting tour offers all the technical accoutrements that have become associated with this contemporary folly – night-vision cameras & goggles, EMF detectors (which may as well be called WTF detectors), spirit boxes (more on those in an upcoming post), air temperature monitors and all manner of other nitwittery. It was also about four times as expensive as a result. []
  3. A claim which I took with a large grain of scoff. []
  4. He neglected to mention at this time that a good number of the patients who left the hospital prematurely did so in pine boxes… []
  5. At one stage, two impressionable women on the tour were besides themselves when they noticed a ‘chill breeze’ on their legs. Yes ladies – that would be the cool wind from outside blowing under the door into the warm room we were in… []
  6. Outside, by contrast, the skies were ablaze with the most incredible starry vistas I’ve seen in ages. []

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A little while ago, Violet Towne and I drove up to Sydney as we sometimes do. It’s about a ten hour trip and we’d usually make it in a day, but this time we decided to break it by leaving on Friday night, driving for a few hours and stopping on the way at at a motel at which we’d made an online reservation. To save the proprietors from embarrassment, I’m not naming names, or even putting a pin on the map, but suffice to say the place we chose was a sizeable establishment in a largish country centre with more than enough reason to know what constitutes modern expectations of hospitality. Somehow or other I ended up on their mailing list. I’m not really sure how this happened, as I’m usually fastidious about not handing out my personal email address unless it’s absolutely necessary. I suspect that they got it through the online booking form, even though I opted out of any email ‘notifications’ as I always do.

Whatever, I know they now have my details, because this morning I got a cheery update from them, espousing the wondrousness of their restaurant’s new menu. Viz:

Bonzo’s(i) Restaurant & Bar has recently launched the new menu with brand new dishes created by Head Chef, Hattie Bonilla(ii) and her team with an emphasis on The Grill. The Grill has a big variety of steaks in all sizes and cooked to your liking with your choice of sides and sauces to provide you with the ultimate meal.

Then follows what we must assume is meant to be a pictorial representation of ‘the ultimate meal’ (completely unaltered from how it appeared in the email):

Oh, my absinthe-addled one-legged maiden aunt. Could they possibly have made something look any less appetizing? This must surely be the best example I have ever seen of what NOT to do when photographing food. Here at the cusp of the visually hip 21st Century I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone could achieve anything quite so awful unless they actually set about it intentionally. Why, even the average iPhone meal snap looks tastier (and more professional) than this.

These two blobs of anonymous meat cuts, flanked by iridescent plasticized broccolini and a smear of… what is that – industrial sealant? Baby poo? – served up on a medical specimen tray and bleached out by a blinding flash of light on a morgue table are less a depiction of a tastebud temptation than a snap from a crime scene. And for Christ’s sake – how about a second shot to at least get the whole thing properly framed? It’s not like it will cost you anything!!!

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Footnotes:

  1. Name altered to protect the innocent. []
  2. Ditto. []

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Violet Towne and I sometimes like to venture out on the weekend to one of the many places in Melbourne-and-surrounds where we might take in some of that magical stuff which is given the name ‘art’. One of our very favourite such venues, the TarraWarra Museum of Art is not even too far from where we live, and it was there we trundled last Saturday to experience their ‘Sonic Spheres’ exhibition, “an assemblage of contemporary Australian visual artworks engaged with music, sound and voice”.

TarraWarra, a privately funded public visual arts gallery, is one of the few of its kind in Australia, and is a purpose-built art museum situated among vineyards in the Yarra Valley. It’s a lovely place. It always maintains a high standard of exhibition and as is usual, our visit there provided an appropriately diverting & thoughtful hour or so. But I am not, Faithful Acowlytes, going to pontificate on art in this post, something for which I can sense palpable gratitude out there in Cowland.

No, what I want to talk about today is the survey which were handed upon our arrival at the gallery, and which we were asked to complete on our departure.

In my experience, surveys can be divided into two kinds:

1: Surveys where the point is to find out something useful.
2: Surveys where the point is to get a bunch of diffuse and obfuscated data that can be read in any way the surveyor chooses.

You know I wouldn’t be writing this post if it was the #1 variety that VT and I faced, pencils ready, at the end of our visit. I wish I’d snaffled a copy away for accuracy’s sake, because I will unfortunately have to go from memory as I attempt to draw you a picture of the confusion that beset me as I tried to answer as truthfully as I was asked.

The first portion of the survey annoyed the crap out of me because it was full of the kinds of questions that tried to stick me in a pigeonhole as a certain kind of person:

•Would you consider yourself the type of person who visits TarraWarra art museum?(i)

Thinks: Well, no. I got lost on the road, saw the sign that said ‘Art Gallery’ and thought I’d come in to see if glimpsing a Pollock might refresh my sense of direction.

•Do you like to be among the kinds of people who visit TarraWarra art museum.

Thinks: No! I wish they would jolly well stop those people from coming here, so me and my friends could come instead.

And so forth.

But then came the section that was the kind of thing that makes my Grumpy Old Man antennae start waving around like those of a grasshopper on acid:

•If the TarraWarra Museum was a person, would you say it was (check all that apply):

Charming

Entertaining

Outgoing

Interesting

Intelligent

Acowlytes, I was forced to scribble my incredulity on the page at this point. When the creators of a survey decide that by anthropomorphising an institution this will help reveal something useful about said institution, they’ve ventured well into cloud cuckoo land and thrown away their compass.(ii)

The problem with even beginning to attempt to sensibly answer the questions posed above, is that you are on EXACT LOGICAL FOOTING with the following:

•If the TarraWarra Museum was a person (check all that apply):

Would you ask it out for a drink?

What colour eyes do you think it would have?

Should you give up your seat for it on a bus?

Do you think it would be appropriate dinner company for the Fire Station, the Public Library and the Chinese Restaurant?

It doesn’t matter how I try to frame it, I can’t see any possible way that any quantity of answers to this kind of question can provide data that might be helpful in making your art museum a better place – or even a controllably different place, for that matter. There is simply no sensible yardstick by which to measure things. Should the majority of respondents determine, for instance, that if the TarraWarra Art Museum was a person it would be charming and intelligent with a dash of insouciance, what the hell are you going to do with that information? Bash that damned insouciance out of it by removing the sand-blasted glass panels on the gift shop doors? If you thought TarraWarra-the-person was a little short on, oh, charisma, say, could you correct that by installing some crazy paving at the front entrance? You can, I trust, see my perplexity with this scenario.

And really, if you just can’t see your way around it, and you really must anthropomorphise your Art Museum, at the very least allow your respondents to have a creative personal say:

•If the TarraWarra Museum was a person:

Other (please use your own words, or make a drawing):

I imagine the TarraWarra Museum as a somewhat eccentric spinster with a penchant for French rosé. It has a good, if slightly peculiar, sense of humour and prefers chairs that face the window. It laughs a little too loudly and self-consciously at other people’s jokes, has a morbid fear of stick insects and visits a distant cousin in Ibiza every couple of years out of a misplaced sense of familial obligation.

At least reading the results of the survey would be entertaining. They might even make an amusing artwork.

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Footnotes:

  1. These questions were all couched in the wonderful ‘sliding scale’ terms that we are now so accustomed to seeing in these types of surveys, which only serves to cause me to want to unfailingly answer ambivalently in order to confuse the people trying to get some kind of useful result. If you’re asking a direct question, think about what that question should be, phrase it in a way that matters, and accept candid results. What is it with this confounded equivocating?! []
  2. Needless to say, the survey presented no check box options on this question for ‘Boring’ or ‘Irritating’ or Pretentious’ or ‘Eccentric’. You can see, I surmise, the inherent brainlessness of this pursuit. []

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The big news here in Australia – well, you’d think it was big news with the amount of press coverage it’s getting – is that mean ol’ Apple is intentionally bilking people of their money by advertising that the new iPad 3 can connect to 4G networks. Which it can, but hey. Just not, as it turns out, Telstra’s Australian 4G network.

Apple has quite obviously made a misstep here, but in my view it’s unlikely they deliberately went about exploiting their potential customers – I think we can surmise that they’re smart enough to realise that if they tried to trick people this way they’d get busted as soon as someone tried to use an iPad 3 with a Telstra 4G account.

This has not stopped Australia’s consumer watchdog, the ACCC, from putting the boot in, however. In keeping with current media fashion they just lurve the mileage they can get out of kicking Apple. The ACCC took Apple to court claiming that Apple has made ‘misleading statements’ about the connectivity situation. Apple, for their part, have very reasonably agreed to publish a clarification of the issue, and to refund the purchase price to anyone who wants to return their iPad 3.

Blah blah blah, who really cares? It doesn’t seem to me that this warrants the status of screaming front page news on just about every news outlet in the land.

This whole thing annoys me in a major way, though. For a couple of years now I’ve been having conversations with various ACCC personnel about the risible ShooTag and its presence here in Australia. Their willingness to do anything about this product has not demonstrated anywhere near the same level of enthusiasm as this sniping at Apple, and yet ShooTag is not merely making misleading claims: the ShooTag Australia site promotes outright lies (not the least of which is the bogus Texas State University endorsement which is still on the home page).

The makers of ShooTag, as you will recall, are not content to put the health of your pet at risk by promoting baseless pseudoscientific thinking, but are now promoting their product for humans, as a defence against insect-carried diseases including malaria.

I have, of course, pointed this out to the ACCC, here in a country where we have significant problems with mosquito-borne diseases, but apparently it’s much more important to protect the disposable income of affluent gadget-buyers than it is to attend to the wellbeing of pets and humans.

It gets much better press, at least.

Copyright Image Tetherd Cow Ahead

Acowlytes! Do you suffer from quivering? Nervousness? Fear? A compulsion to flee? Visual blurring? Panic? Nausea? Can you rule out having glimpsed Tony Abbott in budgie smugglers as the cause of these ailments? Then it is possible, dear friends, that you may have Wind Turbine Syndrome, or WTS. A more fitting acronym for this affliction would probably be WTF? but I digress.

Wind Turbine Syndrome is aligned with other forms of paranoia-induced woo such as EHS (electrical hypersensitivity) which evince a plethora of diffuse and non-specific symptoms(i) attributed to technology of which the sufferers (and their doctors) are afraid and/or ignorant (or just plain don’t like).

WTS is rather more irritating than EHS, though, because of its implementation in a political agenda. The story generally goes like this:

A land owner makes a deal with a power company to host (usually for a reasonably healthy figure) a bunch of wind turbines on a nice windy ridge on his/her property. Other people who are within visual distance of the turbines (and sometimes not even that) who are not making any money out of them, claim to have developed WTS. There is not one single case of WTS being developed by the franchisee of a wind farm operator.(ii)

For reasons that are not at all clear to me, many country people seem to have taken against wind turbines with an amount of vitriol that is perplexing. Personally speaking, I think the lazy rotating blades are quite elegant and attractive, and the airy whooshing sound they make fairly inoffensive.

But WTS is not, of course, about common sense. It’s about political agendas, ignorance and NIMBYism.

You will recall that the first push by objectors to wind farms took the form of ‘Oh noes!! The horrible mincing blades are killing all the birds!’ This, from people who up till then had pretty much never even noticed the green speckled parrot or the golden-throated lark.(iii) Well, it turns out that on the list of things-that-birds-need-to-worry-about, wind farms are pretty damn far down, so, with these newly-adopted eco concerns of the anti-wind lobby not getting much traction, another bogeyman was needed to put the scare into folks. They found one with WTS. Deciding without evidence that something is, a priori, bad, and then finding multiple, disparate reasons to attempt to support your supposition, is, as you will all know by now, a glittering trademark of irrational thinking.

I was going to tell you next about exactly what it is that’s supposed to be the cause of WTS, but after reading pages of print about it, I’m finding that difficult. Mostly, though, the Big Bad is infrasound: sound frequencies that are so low they are literally inaudible to humans. Other sources claim that it’s ultrasound – high frequencies that are above the range of human hearing.

Dr Nina Pierpont, a New York paediatrician and self-styled expert on Wind Turbine Syndrome (she lays claim to coining the term) says:

…infrasonic to ultrasonic noise and vibrations emitted by wind turbines cause the symptoms

To be clear, she is saying that the problem is all the sound they make, from the highest part of the audio spectrum to the lowest. This kind of catch-all generalizing should immediately ring your woo-woo alarm bells.

In The Independent where the above quote originates, Dr Pierpont goes on to say that:

…the wind turbine companies constantly argue that the health problems are “imaginary, psychosomatic or malingering”. But she said their claims are “rubbish” and that medical evidence supports that the reported symptoms are real.

‘Rubbish’? That would be an effective scientific rebuttal if ever there was one. Professor Gary Wittert, the head of Medicine at the University of Adelaide, would be one person who would take exception to to Dr Pierpont’s claims that medical evidence supports WTS. Using data from the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Professor Wittert has demonstrated that a sampled population of around 10,000 people living in the vicinity of wind farms in Victoria and South Australia shows no variation in quantities of usage of sleeping pills or cardiovascular medications from that which can be seen in the overall general population. Either people who live near wind farms aren’t seeking treatment for their WTS, or it doesn’t exist. This kind of data is, of course, exactly what would expect to see if WTS was a psychosomatic condition experienced by a small number of impressionable people rather than a discrete medical phenomenon in the community at large. Prof Wittert’s figures have still to be published and peer-reviewed, but we know that even when they are found to be solid (as they will be) the anti-wind farm campaigners will simply start crying that he’s a wind farm shill.

Copyright Image Tetherd Cow Ahead

Setting aside the statistical science for a moment, and wandering briefly into my own field of expertise, let’s consider that claim that infrasound is the cause of the WTS. First, there is no medical evidence at all to suggest that infrasound has any impact on human health. When you know that low frequency sound can be detected in your bones, it’s the sort of thing that seems like it might be possible, but that’s about it – no-one has collected data on such speculations.(iv) So to prove that wind farms are producing infrasound that affects human health detrimentally, you need to do three separate things: show that wind turbines produce infrasound in the first place, demonstrate that infrasound has adverse effects on humans and then establish that the amount of infrasound coming from the turbines is sufficient to trigger those adverse effects. So far, the data accumulated for each of these scenarios is not at all promising for advocates of WTS.

Without even doing that, though, there is a much more persuasive argument against infrasound being harmful to humans. Let’s take a situation that arises in nature where large volumes of infrasound (and ultrasound and everything in between for that matter) are generated in a constant and repetitive manner, just as wind turbines are supposed to do…

Yes, that’s right – the sea. Crashing ocean waves create at least as much infrasound as a wind turbine, probably more by several orders of magnitude. And yet, living by the ocean has not been demonstrated by any science I’ve ever seen to cause people to exhibit any of the symptoms of WTS. On the contrary, the sound of the surf is considered, by anyone who is lucky enough to have a beach house, to be restful and relaxing.(v)

Another insidious aspect of the anti-wind farm lobby when it comes to WTS is their habit of attempting to align the wind power industry with the tobacco and asbestos industries. This is, of course, the cynical employment of the logical fallacy of Weak Analogy (mixed with a bit of conspiracy-theory style paranoia). In other words, they’re saying that because the tobacco industry and the asbestos industry claimed their products were causing no human health problems and were found to be engaged in coverups, then it follows that the wind power industry is doing the same. There is no logical equation that you can make between those two things – it’s nothing more than a semantic trick designed to befuddle sloppy thinkers. What will speak here, is the science, as it did in the cases of tobacco and asbestos. So, what’s the state of the science on the side of the WTS advocates? Not very persuasive at all.(vi)

Nina Pierpont, who is a vocal objector to wind farms, bases all her science on one small self-generated study (10 families who were already ‘diagnosed’ as having WTS), that was sloppy in protocol, was based on subjective self-reporting and was not controlled. It’s the kind of experiment that would get you a C- if you handed it in to your science teacher. In the UK, the NHS found that Dr Pierpont’s study:

…provides no conclusive evidence that wind turbines have an effect on health or are causing the set of symptoms described here as “wind turbine syndrome”. The study design was weak, the study was small and there was no comparison group.

In Australia, Sarah Laurie, an unregistered doctor and ‘Medical Director’ of the climate denialist affiliated Waubra Foundation is the chief ‘expert’ campaigner for people who supposedly have WTS. Laurie claims to have conducted research into the causes of WTS, but what she offers up is embarrassingly spare and scientifically awful. This article at Crikey examines Sarah Laurie’s claims and highlights an hysterical ‘Explicit Cautionary Notice’ from the Waubra Foundation that effectively challenges wind farm companies with a series of claims that are highly dubious. It is without doubt designed as a propaganda tool rather than as a document of sincere concern. The notice refers to Nina Pierpont’s study, incorrectly endorsing it as ‘peer reviewed’ which it was not.(vii) It also raises the spectre of ‘Vibroacoustic Disease’, a malady which is not recognized by scientific medicine as any kind of genuine affliction.

Now, I want to make it clear that I do believe it is quite likely that most sufferers of so-called WTS are experiencing the symptoms they claim. Based on a rational appraisal of the science we have, though, it’s just not reasonable to conclude that those symptoms have got anything at all to do with any mechanical effects of wind turbine operation. An extremely balanced examination, by commentator Dave Clarke, sets out the state of play in the WTS debate with amazing clarity. Clarke examines every facet of the WTS phenomenon in thoughtful detail. It is effectively distilled down into one simple sentence:

It seems that complaints regarding nearby wind farms, regarding illness or simply annoyance, are often related to negative feelings about the wind farms.

In other words, for reasons that are hard to determine (but are most likely to do with politics or NIMBYism), people who don’t want the wind farms near them get stressed enough about it to make themselves ill. That is all.

At the very least, this explanation must be unequivocally ruled out before the promoters of Wind Turbine Syndrome can even begin to make claims that wind turbine technology is, by some unknown mechanism, causing the illness, and that ‘Big Wind’ is conspiratorially endeavouring to make it look like it’s not.

[Many thanks to Dr Rachael Dunlop for some of the source materials for this post]

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Footnotes:

  1. Symptoms of electromagnetic radiation sickness are for example sleep disturbances, dizziness, heart palpitations, headache, blurry sight, swelling, nausea, a burning skin, vibrations, electrical currents in the body, pressure on the breast, cramps, high blood pressure and general unwell-being.” []
  2. As far as my research has been able to determine, anyway. If anyone has heard of one I’d love to get a link. []
  3. Fictional birds because there are so many that are supposedly affected by wind turbines that you may as well say ‘any bird’ []
  4. It’s perfect territory for woo – a vaguely plausible mechanism that is ‘sciency-sounding’ enough to give it a sort of ersatz currency. []
  5. But God made the sea, right, so that’s OK. []
  6. And, like all pushers of pseudoscience, when the science is not on their side they freely wheel out the anecdotal evidence, the testimonials and the conspiracy theories. []
  7. Well, not in the properly understood scientific sense of the term, anyway. Pierpont showed her results to some friends, and then published the positive things any of them said. This is the same kind of peer review that made me Scientist of the Year in 2011. []

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This just in:

The Sydney Morning Herald is carrying this story of a bikie(i) who has been charged by police with ‘recklessly dealing with the proceeds of a crime’ after they discovered over $3000 stuffed between his buttocks. It’s bum note for the poor chap who had obviously heard that there was money in crack and was acting on that information. Word on the street is that the 24 year old ‘Rebels’ member, although sitting on a small fortune, only ever paid bottom dollar for goods.

In the opinion of The Cow, this whole affair makes money laundering seem not only an appealing concept, but one that should be made compulsory.

The question that arises from this caper must surely be, however, that if there is a legal charge of ‘recklessly dealing with the proceeds of a crime’, there must logically be an acceptable method of dispersing your filthy lucre. I hereby provide some suggestions for what might be appropriate ways to spend money you’ve hidden up your ass:

• Put it in the plate at church

• Buy a gift for your granny

• Send it to Ugandan children

• Throw a cocaine party for enemy bikie gangs, and provide the dollar bills for snorting

• Do magic tricks for kids (‘Look – nothing up my trousers’)

• Buy goodies from the Tetherd Cow Shoppe (hey, we’re not fussy).

All further suggestions welcome.


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Footnotes:

  1. That is a ‘biker’, to all you Yanks []

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