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 Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)

Back in ’99, I went to a mini-retreat with a small group of people in Santa Cruz. Y2K possibilities were much feared then, and over lunch outdoors at a Moroccan restaurant one of us laid out levels of concern along two axes: social disruption on one and technical disruption on the other — low and high in both directions. We were asked to place our bets in four quadrants. As I recall, I was the only one who expected close to zero, both ways. (Mostly I thought Y2K would poop the biggest New Years party in a thousand years. And, to the absent degree it mattered, I was right.)

Now I have been asked, on one of the lists I inhabit, to contemplate similar scenarios for the fate of humankind in a time of global warming. This time I’m going the other way and betting on a high degrees of badness. But my angle on the future is not one biased toward preservation of our species — or even a high degree of concern for it.

Species tend to last a couple million years, give or take. (Horseshoe crabs and other relics from the Paleozoic are rare exceptions.) On the geological scale of the Earth’s own maturation, two million years isn’t much. The genus homo has been around longer, but our current human model has only been around for a couple hundred thousand years, give or take. So who knows.

Still, humans have long been a threat many life forms, including their own, plus a number of elements in the periodic table. (Helium, for example.)  It’s not for nothing that geologists are seriously considering renaming the Holocene epoch (the latest slice of the Quarternary period) the Antropocene — for the simple reason that human agency is all over it.

Any species risks ruining its ecosystem without other forces to keep it in check. Our species, however, has mostly eliminated those forces, especially disease. Thus our natural rapacity toward other species, and toward the Earth and all its exhaustible resources, goes unchecked, while our numbers steadily increase. Our only natural enemy, it seems, is ourselves, and not just because we grow in number toward a statistical cliff. We also have a boundless capacity to rationalize killing countless numbers of our own. Our intelligence and ingenuity, in service to our own needs, in oblivity to negative outcomes, have made us the ecological equivalent of Agent Smith: a rogue program proliferating itself on the Earth’s operating system like a self-replicating virus.

The more I study geology, especially from altitude, the more I see the history of the Earth in four dimensions, and the evanescence of our present geologic time.

  • Here’s Kettle Point in Ontario, on the south shore of Lake Huron. From above you can see old shorelines written in rows of trees in forests that first grew beside retreating beaches. These rows march away from the shoreline as the land below rebounds from the relieved weight of a glacier that melted, leaving Huron as a puddle, not long before humans began building pyramids. You see the same rebound along the shores of Hudson Bay.
  • Here are the San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles’ own alps, raised in the last few million years by the crumpling of the Pacific Plate against the North American one along the San Andreas Fault. Note the empty reservoirs at the bases of ravines in the mountain front. The reservoirs are are there to catch “debris flows” and boulders that frequently break loose, like ice calving off a glacier, and roll toward the suburbs below. Few geologies short of volcanoes are more active than these mountains, which are wasting down almost as fast as they are rising up, one catastrophic lurch after another.
  • Here is the Long Valley Caldera, which I shot while skiing on Mammoth Mountain (an active lava dome with hot and toxic vents that occasionally claim a wayward snowboarder). The Caldera was produced by a “super-volcanic” eruption many times the size of Krakatoa, in the late Pleistocene. It is still active, and stars as one of the US Geological Survey’s roster of volcanic hazards.
  • Here is the seaside community of La Conchita, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, on the South Coast of California, a few days after a mudslide killed ten people there. (You can see the slide clearly in the photo.) The whole town sits on a beach below an unstable mass of land that has clearly slid before and will surely slide again — soon.

While human agency contributes to global warming in the Anthropocene, what makes the Quarternary special is its rhythmic series of glaciations. Our current warm period is an interglacial one. Ice caps will likely grow again, whether we’re here or not. The Quarternary ice age (which we are still in) is the fifth known one, and likely the last, because the Sun is heating up. A billion years from now, the Sun will have boiled off Earth’s water. But the planet will already be too hot for life in less than half that time. A half-billion years is about age of the Manhattan schist I see out my window here in New York.

At 4.568 billion years old, our solar system is about a third the age of the Universe, which has been producing and reproducing galaxies and stars at a rapid rate and with unimaginable degrees of violence. That we’re in such a relatively quiet corner of the cosmos owes to the Sun’s rank as an ordinary star. All the named stars in the night sky are bigger than the Sun, and most are much younger as well.

We should consider ourselves fortunate to enjoy a few moments late in the life of a remarkably durable set of little spheres out in a rural arm of the Milky Way. Just being here, now, is an amazing grace. But it’s going to get harder, whether we fight the inevitable or not.

My main hope toward humanity waking up and doing what it can to stop shitting up the planet is the Internet: a grace designed (at the protocol level where its means are organized) to put each of us at zero functional distance from everybody and everything else, and at zero cost. The Net is a new platform for living, thinking, talking and inventing — without having to raid the world of irreplaceable goods in the process. And I hope we make the most of it.

“In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes said. And, if “we” includes every living thing that ever walked, swam or oozed around on Earth, death has already proven to be hugely productive, as well as abundant.

It is the job of the living, in their brief hours upon the stage, to do more than strut, fret, and be heard from no more. In the long run every thing will be nothing. But we don’t need to signify that in the meantime.

Bonus linkage on Mother’s Day: Jean Russell‘s Thrivable (@Thrivable). Here’s the philosophy, the book, the blog, and herself aka @NurtureGirl. She and her colleagues are doing the Leading Work here.

In Google sets out future for Maps — Lays down gauntlet to Nokia with plans for personalized, context-aware and ’emotional’ maps in future, in Rethink Wireless, Caroline Gabriel begins this way:

Google may be feeling the heat from an unlikely source, Nokia, at least in its critical Maps business. The search giant has put location awareness at the heart of its business model, but Nokia has overtaken it in several respects with its cloud-based Here offering – based on the acquisition of Navteq in 2007 – and has also licensed its mapping platform to some powerful partners such as Microsoft, Amazon and a range of car makers.

Google is promising dramatic changes to its own maps to help fend off the Nokia/Microsoft alliance and also, in the Android segment at least, the challenge from Amazon to a Google-centric experience.

As usual with stories like this, the issue is framed in terms of vendor sports: big companies doing battle over some market category. Lost, also as usual, is what the individual user, or customer, might actually want.

That’s what I’m here for.

So let me start by saying I don’t want a “Google-centric experience,” whatever that is. Nor do I want Google’s (or anybody’s) Matrix-like approach to satisfying what its robotic systems think I might need. Here’s how Caroline explains that ambition:

Bernhard Seefeld, product management director for Google Maps, told the GigaOM Roadmap conference this week that future software will “build a whole new map for every context and every person”, incorporating all kinds of information about the individual and updating this constantly. He added: “It’s a specific map nobody has seen before, and it’s just there for that moment to visualize the data.”

Pushing a major theme at Google this year, Seefeld talks about applications creating emotional connections for users – “emotional maps that reflect our real life connections and peek into the future and possibly travel there”. This will involve context-aware maps that combine location and personal data, some of that taken from other Google apps, particularly its Google Now personal digital assistant – mainly seen as a response to Apple Siri, but in fact far broader in scope, and with a powerful artificial intelligence engine.

Context-aware is fine, provided I provide the context, and the context is as simple as, for example, “I am here” and “I want to go to this other place.” I don’t want guesswork about my emotions, or anything else that isn’t on the vector of what I alone know and want. Paper maps didn’t do that, and the best electronic ones shouldn’t either — not beyond what still feels as hard and useful as paper maps always did.

See, maps are fact-based descriptions of the world. Their first and most essential context is that world, and not the person seeking facts about that world. Yes, map makers have always made speculative assumptions about what a map reader might like to know. But those assumptions have always been about populations of readers: drivers, aviators, hikers, bike riders, sailors, geologists, etc. That they don’t get personal is a feature, not a bug.

A brief story that should tell you a bit about me and maps.

In October 1987, on the way back to Palo Alto after visiting my daughter at UC-Irvine, my son and I noticed it was an unusually clear day. So we decided to drive to the top of Mt. Wilson, overlooking Los Angeles. On the way we stopped at a fast food place and ate our burgers while I studied various AAA maps of Southern California and its cities. When we arrived at the top, and stood there overlooking a vista that stretched from the San Bernardino mountains to the Channel Islands, four guys from New Jersey in plaid pants, fresh from golfing somewhere, asked me to point out landmarks below, since I already was doing that for my son. The dialog went something like this:

“Where’s the Rose Bowl?”

“Over there on the right is Verdugo Mountain. See that green stretch below? In there is the Rose Bowl.”

“Oh yeah.”

“On the other side of Verdogo is the San Fernando Valley. South of that are the Hollywood Hills.”

“Is that where the Hollywood sign is?”

“Yes, on the south side, facing Hollywood. Mulholland Drive runs down the spine of the hills on the far side of the Sepulveda Pass, where the 405 passes through. The Malibu Hills are beyond that. You can see the buildings downtown to the left of that. Long Beach and San Pedro, Los Angeles’ port cities, are to the left of the Palos Verdes peninsula, which are the hills over there. You can see Santa Catalina Island off beyond that.”

“Where was the Whittier Earthquake?”

“Over there in the Puente Hills. See that low ridge?”

“Yeah. Wow. How long have you lived here?”

“I don’t. This is only my second trip through. I live up north.”

“Where are you from?”

“New Jersey, like you.”

“How do you know so much about all this around here?”

“I study maps.”

Of which I have many, now mostly mothballed in drawers. Maps collection on my iphoneI have topo maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, sectional charts from the FAA, maps atlases from the Ordnance Survey in the U.K., and many more. When I fly in planes, I follow the scene below on my laptop using Garmin Road Trip (an app that is sorely in need of an update, btw.) That’s how I can identify, literally on the fly, what I see out the window and later detail in my aerial photo collections on Flickr.

So, having presented those credentials, I rate Google’s Maps mobile app at the top of the current list. Google’s search is great, but substitutable. So are many other fine Google services. But I have become highly dependent on Google’s Maps app because nothing else comes close for providing fully useful facts-on-the-ground. Here are a few:

  • Transit options, and arrival times. Here in New York one quickly becomes dependent on them, and they are right a remarkable percentage of the time, given how uneven subway service tends to be. Hell, even in Santa Barbara, which is far from the center of the public transportation world, Google’s Maps app is able to tell me, to the minute, when the busses will arrive at a given stop. It’s freaking amazing at it.
  • Route options. Even while I’m on one route, two others are still available.
  • Re-routing around traffic. It doesn’t always work right, but when it does, it can be a huge time/hassle saver.
  • Timeliness. It couldn’t be more now, and a living embodiment of the Live Web at work.

I also like Here, from Nokia. (As you can see from my collection of maps apps, above. Note the second dot at the bottom, indicating that there’s a second page of them.) I also have enormous respect NAVTEQ, which Nokia bought a few years back. NAVTEQ has been at the map game a lot longer than Google, and is at the heart of Here. But so far Here hasn’t been as useful to me as Google Maps. For example, if I want to get from where I am now to the meeting at NYU I’ll be going to shortly, Google Maps gives me three options with clear walking and riding directions. Here gives me one route, and I can’t figure how to get the directions for taking it. (Both are on my iPhone, btw.)

So here is a message for both of them, and for everybody else in the mapping game: Don’t subordinate pure mapping functions to a lot of “emotional” and other guesswork-based variables that advertisers want more than map readers do.

This might also help: I’m willing to pay for the maps, and services around them. Not just to avoid advertising, but to make those services accountable to me, as a customer, and not as a mere “user.”

As advertising gets more and more personal, and more creepy in the process — without any direct accountability to the persons being “delivered” a “personalized experience” — a market for paid services is bound to emerge. I’ll enjoy being in the front of it.

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I orient by landmarks. When I was growing up in New Jersey, the skyline of New York raked the eastern sky. To the west were the Watchung “Mountains“: hills roughly half the height of Manhattan’s ranking skyscrapers. But they gave me practice for my favorite indulgence here in Los Angeles: multi-angulating my ass in respect to seriously huge mountains.

What stands out about these things aren’t just their elevations…

  1. San Gorgonio, 11,503′*
  2. San Jacinto, 10,834
  3. San Antonio (Old Baldy), 10,068*

It’s their relief. These mothers are almost two miles high: alps above low plains and hills that slope under city and suburbs to the sea. One day when I went skiing at Mt. Baldy (same mountain as I shot above, on approach to LAX), I met guys who had gone surfing that very morning, not far away.

That’s right: skiing. In Los Angeles County.

All these mountains are crumples along a seam in the earth called the San Andreas Fault. The 40-quadrillion-ton Pacific Plate is crunching up against the also-huge North American plate at a high rate of geologic speed and force. The core rock inside these mountains is about 1.7 billion years of age, but the mountains themselves are, geologically speaking, as new and temporary as waves of surf. Note the catch basins at the base of San Antonio Canyon in the shot above. Their purpose is to catch rocks rolling off the slopes, as well as rain-saturated “debris flows”: Southern California’s version  of lava.

Speaking of which, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (here’s an LA Times review), which features a long chapter titled “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains.” That anybody would build a damn thing on or below the slopes of these virtual volcanoes speaks volumes about humanity’s capacity for denial.

Well, I was gonna drive up to the top of Mt. Wilson this morning to catch the sunrise over the layer of marine fog just over my head here in Pasadena, but I’ve got too much work to do. So I’ll just enjoy orienting toward it as I drive to Peet’s for coffee, and let ya’ll derive whatever vicarious pleasures might follow along. Cheers.

[Later…] Beautiful clouds atop the mountains all day today, with showers scattered here and there, and even a bit of snow. Tonight the snow level will be about 5000 feet, I heard. Should be pretty in the morning. Alas, I’ll be arriving at Newark then.

* The photos in Wikipedia for both are ones I shot from airplanes. They are among more than 400 now in Wikimedia Commons. I love feeding shots into the public domain, to find helpful uses such as these.

It’s interesting to see where photos end up (or start out, or re-start out) when one puts them in position to be used and re-used with minimized friction. The one above, of a coal-fired power plant in Utah that supplies electricity to Los Angeles, and which I shot from a flight overhead in January 2009, appears in at least these three places, so far:

At this point 391 photos of mine have found their way into Wikimedia Commons. I put none of them there. I just post them in Flickr and license them permissively.

I just noticed that mining and power generation figure prominently in that collection. Maybe that’s because I like to shoot pictures of infrastructure, geology and both at once. Or maybe it’s because the subject is interesting enough for Wikimedians to put the shots in there. Dunno.

Oddly, I don’t see the Utah power plant shot in the midst, but maybe I missed it. More likely people using the shots have done a search-by-license on Flickr, such as this one for coal.

Driving from New York to Boston today, I heard “Summer ‘Heat Tourists’ Sweat With Smiles In Death Valley” — a four-minute feature on NPR, aired on the 100th anniversary of the hottest temperature ever recorded outdoors on Earth, which happened in Death Valley: 134° Fahrenheit, which is around 57° Celsius. The report says Death Valley routinely draws a hearty Summer crowd of tourists from colder and damper parts of the world: Belgium and New Zealand, for example.

As it happens I was just in New Zealand and Australia, where it’s Winter now. And, on the way back, on a leg between Los Angeles and Newark, I got a nice look up Death Valley from about 40,000 feet up. So I shot it, of course. And I’ve put those shots up on Flickr. If you click on the one above, you’ll see it comes with notes identifying some of the sites in the shot. Two of the most remarkable are Dumont Dunes and the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, aka T&T. The Dunes link goes to the Wikipedia article on the dunes, which is accompanied by a shot I took a few years back from overhead, using a camera I wish I still had (a Nikon Coolpix p7000), which was much better than my Canon 5D SLR at shooting stuff below the window. (Got much better sunsets and sunrises too.) The railroad was built in 1905 and abandoned in 1940. Here are some additional links:

flightawaremapYesterday we were in Melbourne. Then we flew to Sydney, got some sleep, and caught flights to Auckland, Los Angeles and Newark.

Except, we’re not in Newark. A storm there delayed things, and we’re on the ground getting re-fueled at Dulles, near D.C. This kind of thing happens with aviation and weather. That planes fly at all is a kind of miracle. That flying has become as mundane as bus travel — and far safer — would also be miraculous if it weren’t so routine. Except for times like this.

See the line of red dots over there on the right? Those are the airports with delays caused by storms that were beautiful to watch as our eastbound United 757 flew past them to the south. I got some pictures, but they aren’t very good.

Now, here on the ground, I’m watching Flightaware and Intellicast to see what’s up with aviation and weather. Flightaware is an amazing site. If you have any interest in aviation, or just need to know what’s currently screwed up with air travel, it’s the best of its breed. Intellicast has great maps, which project into the future while also running through the recent past. Right now I see by Flightaware’s map below that flights are getting in and out of Newark as the current storm (the green blotch) passes.

I also see by Intellicast that the line of storms I observed south of the Great Lakes and across Pennsylvania will arrive in New York in a few hours. So our window of opportunity isn’t large there.

It would be nice if Intellicast has links to maps, but they don’t, or I’d link to the one for New York. The good thing about Intellicast is that it is somewhat less crufty with promotional jive than Weather.com and some other weather sites.

Another passenger is grumbling about United’s flight operations. “Worst in the business,” he says. I don’t agree. After well over a million miles with United, I have no evidence that their flight operations is anything other than fine. And, given the size of the fleet they manage, that’s a compliment.

And hey, while I’d love to be in New York now, I’d rather be safe than any of the many kinds of sorry I can imagine.

Postscript: We got to Newark eventually, and then took another few hours to await a bus and a delayed subway before arriving at our place around 7:30am. This was close to 40 hours after departing Sydney. Got a little sleep, and now we’re ready to go again. 🙂

Just discovered by Antipodr that Bermuda and Perth are antipodes: located at the exact other ends of the Earth from each other.

I’m in Melbourne, Australia, which is the antipode of a spot on the h of North Atlantic Ocean on Antipodr’s map. By the end of tomorrow I’ll be back in New York, a couple thousand miles west of there, after flying most of the way around the world on four different planes and three different airlines. New York’s antipode is a spot not far southwest of Australia — maybe about as far from the coast as Brisbane is from Sydney, as you can see from the upside-down image of North America on the amazing map around which this text wraps.

The map is from Wikimedia Commons, and illustrates perfectly how little land is antipodal from other land. The sum, in fact, is just 4%. As Wikipedia currently puts it, “The largest antipodal land masses are the Malay Archipelago, antipodal to the Amazon Basin and adjoining Andean ranges; east China and Mongolia, antipodal to Chile and Argentina; and Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, antipodal to East Antarctica.”

Click on the map three times and you’ll find yourself at a large version of the map that lets you discover these other antipodes:

Those last three are the sum of U.S. antipodes, at least for the lower forty-eight. Most of Hawaii is antipodal to Botswana, while the northern edge of Alaska is antipodal to an edge of Antarctica. Same with the most northern parts of Canada.

So that’s a little fun in the early hours before my last day of meetings here. It’s been a fun trip.

A question on parting: Have the link piles been useful or interesting? They’ve been all I’ve posted on this trip, because it’s easy and I sometimes feel like sharing what I’m reading. But I’ve had just one piece of feedback so far, and it was negative. So, if you care, lemme know.

Los Angeles at nightFirst, time.

Earth became habitable for primitive life forms some 3.X billion years ago. It will cease to be habitable in another 1 billion years or less, given the rate at which the Sun continues to get hotter, which it has been doing for the duration.

Species last, on average, a couple million years. Depending on where you mark our own species start, we are either early or late in that time span.

If you mark our start from the dawn of the Anthropocene — now being vetted as a name for the geological epoch in which human agency is as obvious as that of other natural agents in Earth’s story, such as asteroid collisions, volcanic outpourings and radical weather changes — we’re about ten thousand years into this thing. We’ve done a lot in not very long.

From a pained perspective, the Anthropocene is a time of pestilence by a single species — one with an insatiable hunger for what that species calls “natural resources.” To test that pain, give a listen to “When the music’s over,” on the Strange Days album by The Doors. In it Jim Morrison sings,

What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and
Ripped her and bit her.
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn and
Tied her with fences and

From a disinterested perspective, dig Robinson JeffersThe Eye, written during World War II from Tor House, his home in Carmel overlooking the Pacific:

The Atlantic is a stormy moat; and the Mediterranean,
The blue pool in the old garden,
More than five thousand years has drunk sacrifice
Of ships and blood, and shines in the sun; but here the Pacific–
Our ships, planes, wars are perfectly irrelevant.
Neither our present blood-feud with the brave dwarfs
Nor any future world-quarrel of westering
And eastering man, the bloody migrations, greed of power, clash of
Is a speck of dust on the great scale-pan.
Here from this mountain shore, headland beyond stormy headland
plunging like dolphins through the blue sea-smoke
Into pale sea–look west at the hill of water: it is half the
this dome, this half-globe, this bulging
Eyeball of water, arched over to Asia,
Australia and white Antartica: those are the eyelids that never
this is the staring unsleeping
Eye of the earth; and what it watches is not our wars.

There is also this, from Jeffers’ “The Bloody Sire” :

Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?

Our teeth, right now, wing limbs and jewell eyes we will never see.

And the life here will end, perhaps in less time than has passed since the planet made half the rocks in the Grand Canyon‘s layer cake.

Now, space.

Astronauts speak of the “Overview_effect” that leaves them changed by seeing Earth from space.

I’ve made do with what I can see from the stratosphere while flying in commercial aircraft. It was from that perspective, for example, that I’ve documented effects of strip mining in the Anthropocene.

Ironies abound. My photo series on coal mining in the Powder River basin has been used both for pro-environmental causes and to promote business in Wyoming.

I’ve got more on this, but neither time nor space for it now.

Bonus link.

And more on the Anthropocene:

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Echo Cliffs

I say that because I didn’t find those entries when I went looking for them yesterday, when I was putting up and annotating this photo set here.

If I get a chance later I’ll put some links here.

[Later…] And now there is a Wikipedia entry, thanks to Phllip Stewart, @pmsyyz, who improves Wikipedia as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Pmsyy. I just made a few additional edits myself as well.

One day, back around 15,000 BCE, half a mountain in Southern California broke loose and slid out onto what’s now the Mojave desert. The resulting landform is called the Blackhawk Slide. Here it is:

It’s that ripple-covered lobe on the bottom right. According to Robert Sharp’s Geology Underfoot in Southern California, it didn’t just flow off the mountain, as would happen with a typical landslide. It actually slid intact, like a toboggan, four and a half miles, on a slope of only two to three degrees. It could not have traveled so far, and have remained so intact (with rock layers preserved, in order, top to bottom), if it had merely flowed.

Geologists can tell it slid because it didn’t just heap at the base of the mountain from which it detached. Instead it soared, at low altitude, four and a half miles, on the flat, on a cushion of air, out across the desert, before plopping down.

To get some perspective on this, here are two facts to consider. First, we’re talking about ten billion cubic feet of detached mountain face here. Second, in order to travel that far out onto the desert, shattered but essentially in one piece, it had to glide on a cushion of air, at speeds up to 270 miles per hour. Or so goes the theory.

One wonders if humans were there to see it happen. Ancestors of native Americans were already on the continent by then, thanks to the last glacial maximum, which still had several thousand more years to go. There may have been some ice on the mountains themselves, and perhaps that helped weaken the rock, which was already raised to the sky by pressures on the San Andreas Fault, which lies on the back side of the San Bernardino Mountains, a couple dozen miles from here.

I came along a bit late, but was glad to get my first chance to gander at the slide, the day after Thanksgiving, on a United flight from San Jose to Houston. I was shooting against the sun, and it was a bit hazy, but I was still able to get a good look, and this photo set too.

Additional links:

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