The Girl with the Tasteful Tattoo

As a teacher it is always inspiring to be on the other side of a classroom and to get taught well. Recently I found myself a student again at a conference about how my organisation can apply social media. I have always believed that learning has a law of three. The three things required for learning to take place. It has to be the right time, the right place and the right person. If only one of those is absent learning doesn’t happen and it’s nobody’s fault. As soon as the missing piece or pieces drop into place it happens. An empowered team of digital natives directed by the girl with the tasteful tattoo aided by representatives from Australia’s new Twitter team and from LinkedIn Australia, we were guided back to the Future.

Now I have two traffic lights between me and my workplace. If any of them are red I’m likely to have an instance of male menopausal road rage. So Sydney is not a place I could live in again. Never the less it is truly a beautiful city. When I lived there a Sunday afternoon at an intimate little pub in the Rocks, with jazz notes drifting in on the wind and coffee brewing in the distance, was just the best day. It’s even better down there now, the Sydney foreshore by night in the middle of the Vivid festival took me back down the years to the Sydney citizen I once was. I walked all the way from the Opera House to Darling Harbour and on up to Central Station. The city has done a great job. It’s a beautiful walk especially at night. A walk with the new and the memory of places that have stayed the same.

It got a bit scary at Central Station, 11 o’clock at night. Walking head on into a drunken mob with breaths that were incendiary, I nearly freaked out until I noticed red and white scarves. I yelled out “Up the Mighty Swanees ……. Mate I’m from the bush, where the “f###” is the platform to Cronulla?” Well the lads bundled me up and deposited me down, on the right platform, slapped my back, shook my hand and were gone with comments about how good it was that we kicked Geelong’s arse.

No one told me there are three thousand stops between Central and Cronulla. What’s more the train seats just don’t smell the same.
In my youth I lived with two other uni students in a flat near the Cross. One of them, Rod was going out with a very straight girl. In the middle of the sexual revolution he is going out with a girl who will only let him kiss her once on the doorstep of her parents’ house on a Saturday night.
Dump her I used to say. Back then I could be insensitive sometimes.
They would go to a movie, rush to catch the second last train to Southerland, walk a million miles, sweaty hand in hand, catch a kiss on a cold front porch, run to catch the last train back, fall into an exhausted sleep of unfulfilled lust and go around and around the city circle all night. He would stagger back into the flat early next morning smelling like a train seat. Well Rod after all these years I finally realise the hell you went through. I did the second last train to Cronulla.

It’s extraordinary that for the first time in human history desktop PC sales have dropped the last 2 years running. Every presenter from the Social Media companies showed us stats’ ranging from 60 to 80 percent of all social media content is currently being consumed on mobile devices. I learned that one minute of video is equivalent to 1.8 million words. I was encouraged to make my content relevant (so much for this post), make it local, mobile optimised and use multimedia that’s multi directional and above all embrace conversation and don’t be afraid to let that conversation have a life of its own.

Related Information
Buzz Numbers
Twitter Australia
Darren Keppie (LinkedIn Australia)


Thanks and Best Wishes

I would like to take this opportunity to extend my best wishes for the Festive Season, whether you are Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Rastafarian. In particular I extend my thanks to you all for reading my blog this year. The support, encouragement, ideas and feedback I have received from everybody has been truly gratifying. My posts have been few in the last two months due to an overload of public service paperwork required by my profession as a teacher. Because of your fantastic support I will aim for one or two stories per week in the New Year.

I failed miserably with my class of wonderful Danish students from Aalborg in two things. First I totally failed to convert them into happy little vegemite’s.  Universally they hate it. They think it tastes like shit. In fact that was my first Danish word, “Lort”. It tastes like lort with salt they said. One of them wanted to take a few jars back as presents to reek revenge on friends. Another thought it was illegal in Denmark and if it wasn’t it should be.

They arrived 18 weeks ago, milk white and freaked out to be in a country that has more poisonous snakes and spiders than anywhere else in the world. They left bronzed beach lovers still confused by Australian slang. Was a “good piece of crumpet” a breakfast food or a pretty girl? It’s both mate didn’t help. They left in board shorts, thongs (not the underwear kind) and T shirts to arrive home to minus five degrees. It doesn’t get that cold in the average Australian refrigerator. If you want a piece of Denmark this time of year sit in your fridge for 30 minutes. A form of extreme bonding.

My next failure was to excite them about cricket. No matter how hard I tried I could not excite them about our wonderful summer game. Best of luck today everybody in your back yard test matches. When I told my nephew I reckoned I could still take him down like I could when he was a little kid I got this reply:

“HaHa, merry Xmas to you numb nuts. I hereby accept your backyard cricket challenge and will commence bodyline training immediately. All challengers will be required to bring their own bat and ball and I recommend you bring a box uncle. “

I couldn’t entice the Danes even with the mathematics of Mitchell Johnson bowling at 155 kilometres an hour over 22 yards. The batsman has milliseconds to decide whether to play the ball forward or back. Nah it’s boring they said. How can you play a game that takes five days to play and even then its likely nobody wins? Trying to describe the variable unknowns of a wickets wear over the five days of a test match being a highly strategic part of the game was totally lost on them.

I will try harder with next year’s group. Thank you once again, one and all.

When it Started Not with a Bang but a Dice Roll

You had two choices. Either green or amber on black. Your incoming enemy was a dot of green or amber on a black screen. “Cant you see? its coming at me from behind and to the left, I am doing a spiral turn up and to the right so I can come in from behind and get my missile away.” My friend said.
“No all I can see is f***ing green dots!

Until you started to play the game yourself. You died while they were still dots but suddenly your brain flipped and you got spatial imagination. It just seemed to happen. Your brain got it and you were suddenly in 3D space, doing a spiral turn to the right to get in behind an attacking dot that was not a dot but an enemy galaxy class star fighter. I had no idea then of how important that skill would become later. That was my first encounter with star trader. We had heard a new monitor with four colours was on the way, an EGA monitor, but it was very expensive. In the meantime fun was had with green on black believe me.

Back then computing capability was doubling every two years and so were games but the first expressed parental concern with game addiction was not these new computer games but a board game called Dungeons and Dragons, a role playing game or “RPG.” There were newspaper reports of kids who should have been sustaining brain injuries playing football like normal kids but were dressing up in medieval costumes, spending hours madly mumbling and rolling dice under the mind control of some manipulative Machiavellian “Dungeon Master.” Parents were concerned, this was not natural behaviour. I can find no evidence of parents freaking out about playing Monopoly for too long, but Dungeons and Dragons was considered dark and devilish and messing with young minds.

Then Dungeons and Dragons went digital and this new genre of role playing games or RPGs has captivated and engaged players and concerned parents ever since. Back in the city the boys had moved on from “Space Invaders” and were now playing “Wizardry
The first Wizardry was one of the original dungeon-crawling role-playing games, and stands along with Ultima and Might & Magic as one of the defining staples of the genre.” – Lara Crigger.

Watching my friend I marveled at his mastery of this game. How did he know where he was going in that maze of levels and corridors? He had just got to level 20 and his main character “Bilbo” was at the highest level a character could attain, hours of painstaking work. Mazed out he went to bed leaving the PC unattended. His house mate said why don’t we get Bilbo and the rest of the party and have a quick look at level 20. As soon as we stepped out everybody died. You took your dead party back to the shrine and paid game money to resurrect them. When we got to “Bilbo” we got the message “Oops Ashes.” He was gone. Yes I mean really gone, digital dust, no backup no reboot, gone forever like real life. Can you imagine that happening in a game today? There you are with a fully geared up level 95 World of Warcraft Paladin, get killed and really die, I don’t think so. We tried to break the news with the old tried and true “We have some good news and some bad news”, but it didn’t work. He didn’t speak to us but thankfully 40 years on he no longer holds it against us.

I went straight home and bought that game and played it obsessively. It was my first confrontation with digital addiction and I badly beat myself up over it. There I would be late Sunday night after a lost weekend down in the dungeon painstakingly plotting my location on a piece of graph paper. Its only 2 o’clock in the morning, one more level before bed, tomorrow it’s only work. While I was at work I was thinking about the game and while playing the game I never thought about anything else. Continual mental beat-ups, “I’m just wasting my life away”, “what am I doing with my life?” came thick and fast, self administered guilt.

Until a really big job came up at work. The programmer had totally stuffed up an amalgamated accounting application for three large companies. Nothing was dropping into the reports correctly. To solve it you had to zero out everything, drop a dollar into one of the expense accounts and painstakingly follow it until it dropped out into one of the reports, follow it back and correct it. At first “smoko” on the first day the others asked me how many reports I had fixed. I had fixed ten to their two. They looked at me with awe. I had become a legend in my own lunchtime that day. I realised it was because I was capable of keeping a three dimensional twenty level maze in my mind, picture perfect. The accounting package problem was small change in comparison.

As a consequence I have never beaten myself up over the time spent playing a computer game. I have learned many other applicable skills gaming.
Is there such a thing as a destructive addiction to gaming?: Yes!
Am I attempting to trivialise the problem?: No!
Should parents become concerned over addictive gaming behaviour?: Sometimes.
Have I displayed addictive behaviour since?: Absolutely, but I get over it.
Its a phase thing. In the beginning you can’t get enough but then as time goes by you put it into perspective with the rest of your life. It’s either that or start going out with someone who games.

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When Games were Words

Every morning when I went into my friends terrace house next door he was having breakfast and reading the morning paper. He had book cases with books however it took me two years to realise he couldn’t read. As far as the government was concerned he could read. He could fill out a tax form, census and voting slip and pick up the gist of the news from the headlines. I think reading has to become intuitive for the pictures to come. The mental pictures I mean. I gave my niece a copy of Lord of the Rings when she was little and would read it to her when I visited. She went on to read it 17 times. When Peter Jacksons movie came out I rang my niece and told her I would not see the movie unless she told me my mental image of Gollum from reading would not be spoiled. She said see the movie. When Gollum came creeping down that cliff he was as I always imagined him to be from the words I had read. How did I find out that my friend next door couldn’t really read? We were both off work sick and he came into my place to hang out in mutual suffering. I was reading “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and having to put it down every few minutes to belly laugh. I mean really crack up, tears down the cheeks laughing. His look of pure perplexing confusion that words could be that funny made me realise he couldn’t really read. I started to read that book to him. I read to him all that day. The warmth of his reaction was a wonderfully rewarding experience as it also made me appreciate what a gift reading is when it is intuitively linked to imagination.

The first real games for a PC were text games. The first famous one was Zork in 1980.
West of House
    You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
    There is a small mailbox here.
So what are you going to do? “Look in the mailbox.” To do that you had to be able to write and spell.

I was working for a welfare agency dealing with unemployed youth. Many of them had very low literacy and numeracy skills. The only way to get them into literacy courses was to make them compulsory and not pay the unemployment benefit if they did not attend. You quickly learn that an illiterate adult hates to admit the fact. If they put the effort they put into hiding their illiteracy into becoming literate it would not be such a daunting task. At the start of each course you had a seriously hostile audience who already hated you. Consequently no one wanted to teach it, unless you were the newest employee and were ordered to. That was me. What saved me was a text computer game called “The Hobbit” running on a tape loaded Sinclair Spectrum personal computer.

From the very first lesson I never mentioned the word literacy. “I know none of you want to be here so we are going to spend the time playing a computer game, but you are going to have to do a little test at the start and the end.” My Dads expression “There is more than one way to skin a cat” is essential for any teacher with a hostile audience. They grumbled through the literacy test on that first day and then we got into the game. The first thing I learned was computers are non-judgemental. When you stuff up, only it and you know it and it is not telling anyone. So instead of getting hung up on stuffing up you will give anything a try.

When I got to work they would all be waiting at the door. If I was two minutes late I got a really hard time. “Where the f**k have you been? Johnny thinks he knows how we can get across the river!” It was fantastic, they collaborated, problem solved, argued and sometimes came close to punching each other’s lights out but we successfully completed the game. The text screen at the end simply saying “Congratulations” came nowhere near reflecting the sense of achievement we all felt. And guess what, the literacy test I gave at the end proved everyone had greatly improved over the time without ever having to do anything obviously literate.

The text game I played and remember with the greatest affection was “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” I had already loved the book, radio program and TV show for being so disarmingly different and uniquely funny. The game reflected all that and more. My problem was I never got to finish it. I hit a problem I couldn’t solve. Me and Marvin the manically depressive robot got to this door. The door asked me to prove I was intelligent before it would open and I never could. To this day I have no idea what is beyond that door. There was no world wide web, no Google to find a cheat. I tried many a bulletin board but no luck. I can’t imagine a game release now that would be designed to be too difficult for the majority of its player base and still be hugely successful. Pay $90 to never finish I don’t think so!

Down in the dusty and mouldy archives of my computing life is a saved game file still stuck at that damned door. The door had serious attitude problems and had mean and nasty ways of rubbing in the fact you were nowhere even close to proving yourself intelligent. I know I could now find the cheat but I would rather leave it be with the memories of me and Marvin outside the door.

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When the Games Began

Do you remember the first computer game you ever played? I lived in a world before computer games. What was before that you might ask? Not much, nothing in fact, especially in our little town. In our Cafe we had a couple of pinball machines, a pool table and one of those mechanic soccer player machines with a plastic player on each metal bar. To be a really great pinball wizard you had to always play on the edge of a “Tilt“. If you grabbed that old pinball machine and physically nudged or tilted it to make the ball roll your way you got the big score, if you nudged too far it would flash “Tilt” and you got no score. It no gamed you. I saw people curse and attack pinball machines over a Tilt. I mean its an inanimate object! When was this? When TV was so new you watched the “test pattern.” It was pretty new if you would watch nothing. My brother did. He sat watching nothing but the test pattern, wearing these stupid plastic mouse ears, waiting for the “Mickey Mouse Club” to start at 4:30. Not me I was on my horse, my dogs let loose, my Winchester pump action 22 rifle loaded in my hand. Off to nail a feral fox or two before sundown. I must admit I was 15 so I did watch the opening dance before I left. Particularly the female mickey mouse musketeers to see if anything moved. Nothing ever did. They must have made those girls wear caste iron bras back then. Even so it was worth waiting for. After that I was gone. Who would want to stay in a house in daylight with a 2000 acre farm and hundreds of miles of state forest on your doorstep? Not me, but I digress.

You have to be very careful about making friends with people who are in Rock bands. Especially when you come from the country and wear white socks and white leather shoes. They gleefully lead you astray, they really do. When they do and leave you morally stranded they laugh rather than apologise. The more you protest the more they laugh. Also they are really good at managing idle time. If you hang out with them long enough you too will become idle. While I was being idle with them I discovered the forerunner of the first computer game in a Cafe they took me to on Bondi Beach. Its the only thing I do remember from that holiday in the city with the boys in the band. I discovered “Space Invaders” in that Cafe. There were so many people playing you either sat in the place for hours waiting your turn or rang up to see if a “John Wayne” was still at the machine. A “John Wayne” was someone who got a perfect score every time and so a free game every game. But every “John Wayne” had to take a piss sometime. Everybody had their 20 cents lined up in order and in a line leading up to the coin slot. “Space Invaders” was my first exposure to the addiction of electronic engagement. I was a “Greenhorn”, never got a free game but still I loved it, never looked back, a gamer from that day to this.

The story of the first Arcade and tape loaded PC game is one of insight and serendipity. Nolan Bushnell  while studying at Utah university was looking after a DEC mainframe with a friend. A primitive coded “Ping Pong” game was on the mainframe and the two of them spent late night idle hours in monotonous maybe maintenance playing “Pong”. Bushnell’s friend commented that if someone could put this game in a cabinet with a twenty cent coin slot and place it in an Arcade they would make a fortune. His mate did nothing about it but Bushnell did and he is now considered by Newsweek as one of the “50 Men Who Changed America.” While at Atari Bushnell was involved in a release of a version of the original arcade game “Space Invaders” designed by Tomohiro Nishikado.

I was given a very challenging teaching task when I was employed to do some one on one teaching with a 14 year old boy Danny. Danny had cerebral palsy and intellectual impairment and spent a day at the Challenge Foundation each week. It was a wonderful organisation helping kids with severe disabilities. They had just bought one of the early 286 IBM clone computers and thought it might be used to improve the motor skills of kids like Danny. Danny couldn’t manage to touch an individual key on a normal keyboard. I hunted all over the country until I found a company in Melbourne who sold huge keyboards with big keys for disabled kids. I remembered “Space Invaders” and bought the Atari version. We didn’t do too good at first but behind that kids hunted and haunted eyes was a steely determination. Every week for six months we tried and failed but still had a lot of fun. Despite no real means of communication other than mutual affection we became close. Then one day he nailed one. Caught us both by surprise. The look on that kids face is still one of my finest teaching moments. His face lit up, I danced a jig around the room and word spread like wildfire through the joint. Everybody came in on the cry “Danny got one.” His beaming smile was in the centre of everyones hugs, back slaps and high fives. The thing is once he got that first one he got more every week. He got in that wonderful gamers zone of focus, attention and dexterity. Running on a human algorithm.

I don’t know what happened to Danny. The funding ran out and the place closed down. However it was the start of my belief that computer gaming is good. Its a theme I will be returning to, so watch this space!

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Why we have Different Resumes

As a teacher it’s obvious that you are always fascinated and inspired by the nature of learning itself. I have determined a bit of a theory from all my years teaching. Learning has a law of three. To happen it has to be the right time, the right place and the right person. If one of these elements is not present learning doesn’t happen. It’s not anyone’s fault and it doesn’t mean learning won’t happen when the missing pieces drop into place one day. Walking down the street and have that light bulb moment on what your teacher was on about, all that time ago. It doesn’t have to be the right time, place and person at the same time. It can happen over time and in any sequence.

The community and the value it places on education determine the importance its people will place on it. During the time of my teacher training I travelled to Bali. It was 1972 and Kuta Beach had no tourists. A bar called “Poppies” was the only place you could get a drink and a joint called Dayan’s had the closest thing to western food and served something resembling a steak which was cut from a dairy cow . I went to the local school, made myself known to the teacher. It was only a single teacher school back then. He wanted to improve his English and translated my stories of Australia to the children. They were beautiful children, respectful and obedient yet at the same time inquisitive, cheeky and cheerful. They could take all you had and were still ready for more. I couldn’t convince them that a platypus was real however. A very funny failure.

I found out it was only one child per family that could afford to be sent to school. School finished at 2 pm and that child went home and repeated the lessons to everyone else in the family from grandmother down. They really valued education as a pathway out of poverty. When I asked the teacher how he handled discipline problems he looked at me as if I was nuts. He didn’t have discipline problems. Back in Australia the value of a teacher on the respected professions list had just slipped under that of a lawyer (God forbid) after being second only to doctors ever since the great depression. Back in my classroom I had to continue implementing behaviour negotiations with kids who either didn’t value education, took it for granted or didn’t want to be there. Dreaming of teaching in Bali with kids who did.

In this third post dedicated to the insights of Sir Ken Robinson I come to his last reason why human life evolved to flourish. Those so far:
•    Firstly “Humans are naturally different and diverse.”
•    Secondly “What drives human life to flourish is curiosity.”
The third principle is: “Human life is inherently creative.”

It’s why we have different resumes. We create our lives and we can recreate them as we go through them, it’s the common currency of being a human being.” – Sir Ken Robinson – “We all create our own lives by this restless process of imaging alternatives and possibilities and the main role of education is to awaken and develop these powers of creativity.
All successful educational environments individualise teaching and learning, recognise it is students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality and their creativity. That’s how you get them to learn.”

Successful schools support their teachers, select inspired people, give them first class support and professional development. As a mentor to trainee teachers I would ask these simple questions. Are you using teaching as a stepping stone to another career? If so forget it and go somewhere else. Do you like kids? If so, “so far so good” I would say. Children intuitively sense if a teacher likes the company of kids. “Did you have a teacher you hated? If so, don’t do what they did. Did you have a teacher you loved? If so, do what they did. After their six week practical you could mostly tell if they were going to cut it, and those who would view teaching as a vocation or a career.
There is no system in the world or no school in the country that’s better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of a schools success, but teaching is a creative profession, teaching, properly conceived is not a delivery system.” Sir Ken Robinson – “Great teachers mentor, stimulate, provoke and engage. In the end education is about learning. If there is no learning going on there is no education going on.

Education cannot be decided in committee rooms. It is not an industrial process that can be understood by data mining methods to create some perfect algorithm for success now and in the future. It doesn’t work that way. Teachers and students do it in classrooms in ways difficult if not impossible to measure.

Education cannot be a command and control centralised model.
If you remove their discretion it stops working. Education is an organic system, in many places they are not dead they are dormant. Right beneath the surface are the seeds of possibility, waiting for the right conditions to come about and with organic systems if the conditions are right life is inevitable. You take an area, a school, a district, change the conditions and give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, offer people discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do and schools which were once bereft spring to life.”  – Sir Ken Robinson

No two people are the same. Curiosity can be sparked but not faked. Creativity can’t really be taught but can be nourished, supported and applauded. This is the stuff of a teacher who sees the job as a vocation and not a career. Parents hope that their children will be taught by at least one of those teachers in their schooling just like they probably were. No matter how old they are, they will not have forgotten that teacher who touched a part of their being which had hitherto remained untouched. Those of you that say if you can’t do it in real life, you go and teach it, screw you. You know nothing.

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It’s Crap about Curiosity and the Cat!

In the last post I stated that Sir Ken Robinson believes that three things are unique to humans and learning and the first is “Humans are naturally different and diverse.” The second is curiosity.
“The second principle that drives human life to flourish is curiosity” – Sir Ken Robinson “If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child they will learn without any further assistance very often.”

A traveling group of medieval reenactor’s came to our little country High School to do a show. A committed young History teacher hired them because he wanted to make history live for his students. Not just the dates and times stuff.  The whole school went to watch on our football field. They had costumes, armour and weapons. They were great teachers in the way they sparked our curiosity. Sir Ken says it all, curiosity is sparked, and it can’t be faked. It’s true you never know when, why or how that spark will be lit. He makes one thing clear about learning, if your curiosity is sparked, the learning is easy. Often it’s the birth of a magnificent obsession. It can be weird like getting a curiosity for barbed wire and going on to get the biggest collection of barbed wire in Australia and traveling around country shows exhibiting and giving lectures about your barbed wire collection. Even more curious is that crowds probably flock to see it. Curiosity not only can be weird, it can be wonderful. A magnificent obsession born out of a human need to satisfy curiosity can and has changed the world.
The reenactors first sparked our curiosity by asking this question: How was it possible that 300 Spartans held off 60,000 Persians at the pass of Thermopylae for 3 days? I mean “Mythbuster” material. We had some wild stabs in the dark but both teachers and students alike didn’t have a clue. They called out all the boys from the front row of our football team, dressed them in armour and asked them to try and run around the football ground four times. It was in the middle of an Australian summer. A lot of those tough lads didn’t make the four laps. One of the reenactors explained that Darius had pushed his Persian army too fast for too long during a searing summer in full armour. Few of them were capable of fighting a battle by the time they got to the pass, exhausted and mostly out of water. It gave the Spartans the breathing space to be able to hold out for as long as they did. Admittedly the narrow pass did help.

Then they gave us a demonstration. One of them had an English Longbow and the other had a blunderbuss, one of the first known firearms. Each had a target and a three minute time limit. The archer put twelve arrows in the target in the three minutes. The Blunderbuss dude loaded and fired twice, missed both times and covered the entire football ground in dust and smoke. We all laughed.
The question posed was: If the longbow was so obviously superior why was it replaced by the blunderbuss? Once again we had NFI (no f***ing idea) They told us it took 12 years training to come even close to the proficiency of the experienced English long bowman of his day, with a few campaigns and dead Frenchmen under his belt. English bowmen were feared by all the armies of Europe.
It took 12 minutes to train some “dickhead” to fire a gun. Even when it blew up in his own face, no fault of his own, there was always plenty more where he came from.  It was all in the numbers and the bowmen died out and the guns got better.

The teachers and the 350 students in that small school in the middle of an Australian nowhere never forgot the day of the medieval display. We all talked about it for a long time afterward. I’ll wager any teacher or student who was there on that day remembers it as well. We had our curiosity sparked, lived history for a day and learned without learning.

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