Archive for the ‘2020 class summaries’ Category

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Class 8: Walking away…?

November 26, 2020
Map of the island, Utopia.

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Talking about Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas always brings some surprises and new ways of looking at the world and ourselves. We began, as usual, by considering the context and the time in which the story was written, the US in the early 1970s: The Vietnam war is in full flight; the Civil Rights movement remains active with demonstrations and race riots; the Watergate Crisis leads to Nixon’s resignation; terrorist activity in pursuit of political goals emerges around the world; the cold war between the US and Soviet Union is raging quietly; the oil crisis leads to severe shortages of petrol in the West; flower power and the hippie lifestyle were presented as idealistic anti-violence alternatives to post-war society norms. In sum, the apparently idyllic sixties were over and a new realisation around the challenges of global society was about to dawn on the Western world.

The opening of Le Guin’s story is clearly drawn from the hippie movement and festivals such as Woodstock in 1969. The Eden-like city of Omelas and its surrounding hinterland is presented as a form of Utopia. However, our contemporary familiarity with perfect places in fiction (since Thomas More’s publication of Utopia in 1516) has led to it becoming a trope – we are immediately suspicious: alert to the revelation of a flaw in this seeming idyll.

The form of the story is also interesting to explore more deeply. While clearly allegorical the narrative is open to many interpretations. Is it describing contemporary society? Perhaps it is a retelling of the Adam and Eve mythology? Maybe the fundamental paradox of the human condition is at the heart of the story? Le Guin shifts the perspective of the narrative from third person to first person throughout. She also ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by addressing the reader directly on several occasions; disrupting the illusion by suggesting that the story might become more believable through the introduction of the dark twist:

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

The story also has some bold philosophical propositions weaved into the text. It is never clear if they are held by Le Guin herself, or merely the narrator… just as it is never clear what the relationship between author and narrator might be. Is Le Guin proposing fundamental truths about human nature and society?

Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

Her fiction was influenced by cultural anthology, feminism and Eastern spiritual philosophy and explored gender and sexuality (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969), political systems (The Dispossessed, 1974) and moral development. The final twist in this story presents a stark moral dilemma which Le Guin characterises in the decision of some citizens to walk away from the land of plenty.

We wondered if we were presented with the choice would be stay or go. Would our complacency and moral ambiguity lead us to accept the justifications for keeping the child in the cellar or would we have the courage to walk away? It is interesting to note that the option of remaining in Omelas and seeking change seems to be ruled out in the story but, does that mean it is ruled out for us in our lives?

Ultimately, it may be that the purpose of the story is to have us consider our own personal responsibilities as members of the human race.

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

November 19, 2020
Class field trip to Virtual Ability Island

Mook Wheeler (second from left) introduces Virtual Ability Island to us. Sitearm Madonna is on the extreme left and Gentle Heron on the extreme right with the two Marias beside her.

 

John began the class by talking about the feedback for the assessment of the Website Blog, part 1, which was circulated earlier. He spoke about the importance of beginning now to write more reflectively on your experiences in SL and on your teams. Think about what you are learning and how your perception of working online is developing. You should also refer to the reading and viewing material given to the class when writing your posts. Consider how your experiences either support or contradict what others are saying. Your view is valuable once you are developing it in that context so, your posts may become a little more like short academic papers from here on.

John also emphasised the importance of reviewing the assessment criteria for the Website Blog, part 2. Take careful note of the descriptors in the assessment grid so that you know what to aim for. This is also important for the Team Project. Remember, the brief is to stimulate hard-nosed executives. You need to be creative to attract and maintain their attention.

Then we teleported to Virtual Ability Island (VAI) to meet the community led by Gentle Heron. Unfortunately, Gentle’s internet connection was playing up so she was not fully with us at the start. However, Mook Wheeler, a long-standing friend of this module, was on hand to do the introduction. She explained that VAI is an international cross-disability peer support community of over one thousand members, who may have physical, mental, emotional, developmental sensory (deafness or blindness) or multiple disabilities. About a quarter of the membership does not (yet!) have a disability and they are referred to as Temporarily Able Bodied (TAB). They may be a parent, spouse, child, friend or care-giver.

For a more detailed report on the presentation see the post from the visit to VAI earlier this year.

Mook then introduced herself saying she has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is a former academic who first discovered SL in 2006 at the peak of its media exposure. She continued:

This discovery was a blessing for me, because SL provides methods of interacting with people that do not carry the high stress that face-to-face, eye-to-eye and voice-to-ear interactions do. In the physical world, ‘socialisation’ exhausts and stresses me. In SL, it can invigorate and lift me. I consider SL essential for my mental and emotional health. Because interaction in SL does not carry the stress it does in ‘RL’ (‘Real Life’, or the physical world), I discovered that the ‘SL me’ is very different to the ‘RL me’! The ‘SL me’ is calmer, steadier, more rational. The ‘RL me’ is much more of a reactive creature, buffeted by sensory input and constantly set back by ‘incorrect’ social input and output. Offending and getting offended is an unfortunate constant of my ‘real-life’. When around people, the ‘RL me’ is hardly able to think. When around avatars, the ‘SL me’ does not have this problem.

She shared notecards which give more details about online communities and Virtual Ability; how SL’s communication methods support her needs; and digital citizenship.

Maria Wirsing has very low vision so she uses two avatars and two SL viewers. One supports the visual and the other converts text to speech using optical character recognition (OCR). She has many friends in SL and interacts with people from all over the world.

We then opened the discussion to questions from the students. HannahSimoneNathalie started be asking if SL had impacted in unexpected ways? Gentle explained that she had not anticipated how intertwined SL and RL would become and she now doesn’t see a separation between them. xtrashot wondered how everyone had heard of SL? Gentle first heard of the world from an online chat room and was immediately attracted by the immersive nature of the virtual world whereas Mook discovered it through her research activity and Maria was introduced by an online group that was developing a presence here. Once she arrived she didn’t leave. John wondered how much time community members spend in SL every day and the answer is anything from two to eight hours normally but maybe as long as fifteen hours when involved in conferences.

ianjkelly noted that the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an increase of online activity and asked if this was also the case for VAI? It seems not, for the most part, although Gentle commented that she is noticing it in the less disabled folks. For the members who are used to social isolation prior to COVIDS-19 there has been little change. pastelmoon19 asked if it took a long time for them to enjoy SL or was it something they loved from the beginning. Gentle remembered that she spent her first few weeks sliding on every waterslide she could find! She loved it. For Mook the first day was full of shocks of all kinds but, after the first week the risk was becoming addicted. John said he spent long hours immersed in SL when he discovered it in 2007, only emerging for food and sleep! Sitearm admitted that he got over it after the first five years! For Maria it took three minutes to ‘fall in love’ with SL, and she hasn’t looked back.

Gentle invited the class to remain on at VAI, or return later, to explore the range of activities and sights. She thanked the students for their attention and their interesting questions. John concluded by thanking Mook for stepping into the breach unexpectedly and so capably. He also thanked Maria for sharing her insights this evening. Gentle Heron has been involved with the module since it commenced over eleven years ago and has always been extraordinarily generous with her time and sharing her not inconsiderable experience. John thanked her for her continuing support. He also thanked Sitearm Madonna, who has also been involved since the beginning, for making the arrangements for this field trip. The students echoed their thanks saying they enjoyed the session finding it really insightful and interesting.

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Class 6: My Avatar and Me – virtual identities

November 12, 2020
Real face merging with avatar

My avatar and me.

 

To establish some common ground for this complex subject John asked you all to think about how you would answer the question ‘who are you?’ in the context of the propositions put forward by Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers in the videos set for viewing in advance of the class. ‘How do you describe yourself?’ After you had given some thought to this we considered further questions: ‘Are your descriptions real?’ ‘Is it an illusion?’ ‘What makes yourself real?’ as we attempted to co-create an understanding as a group.

We acknowledged that how we present ourselves depends on the circumstances or the environment. So, the person we are at home is somewhat different from the person who goes into work or college, or who socialises with friends. Does this mean we have multiple personalities? This led to thinking about the difference between our ‘self’ and our ‘identity’ and the importance of establishing your ‘self’. The deep philosophical nature off this question is at the heart of what it means to exist, to be alive in the world, to be human.

It is also important on a more prosaic level. How we might wish to present ourselves professionally is important for our career development. It starts with coming to an understanding about the kind of image we decide to promote and then consciously projecting that through not only our work but also our professional engagements of all sorts. Social media is a key tool in this context – something we are all acutely aware of in the current situation where we are almost totally dependent on it.

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Class 5: From Hammer to Pixel

November 5, 2020

The class discussed the reading material about Marshall McLuhan’s mid 20th Century book The Medium is the Massage and the ideas springing from it. Beginning with the title (and the peculiar substitution of Massage for Message) there was a lively exploration of what McLuhan was getting at which threw up many questions. What did he mean by medium? How could the medium be more important than the information being communicated? How has media developed since McLuhan wrote the book? Does his thesis have any relevance today? Did he really anticipate the internet? This led to a brief look at some of the media that produced step-changes in human society through the ages, from the development of writing, printing, radio, television and the worldwide web.

John reminded us of McLuhan’s student who remarked that ‘we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’. When we look at tools as an extension of the body and our way of interfacing with the environment is seemed easier to understand the symbiotic relationship.

It is more challenging to think about putting this knowledge to use. While it is clear to us in hindsight how new technology led to the development of human society it is not so easy to see the outcome of contemporary developments. What we can do is maintain a critical awareness and vigilance while taking nothing for granted.

Selection of newspapers

Is the medium the message or the massage?

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Class 3: Teamwork and Collaboration

October 29, 2020

This class is normally given by Sitearm Madonna but, regrettably, John was unable to make the arrangements in time this semester. So, he reviewed the key points in the hope that it might be possible to have the full presentation from Sitearm at a later date, perhaps with some students from other universities teaching in SL.

Poster showing theory of teamwork

Sitearm placed convenient posters around the classroom (check the roof also).

Sitearm had placed some very useful posters around the room which helped illustrate the dynamics of teamwork which, he suggests, is like breathing: more of a process than a one-time event. There are four aspects to understanding how teams function. Firstly, teams have effective members. Each of us brings some commitment and some level of competence. You can compensate for the lack of either in team mates to ensure a positive outcome. Secondly, effective teams develop in stages. Starting with the forming stage where members are getting to know each other and find their place before moving onto what can be the most difficult stage known as storming. This is where everyone is pitching ideas and working out how to proceed. Then teams usually move on the norming stage when the members are beginning to work together comfortably and settle down to performing and getting the project done.

Thirdly, effective teams use best practices. For example, using brainstorming to generate ideas and then agreeing a protocol for deciding how to progress: majority vote, consensus or some other way. You will find that you move back and forth between brainstorming and deciding until the project begins to take shape. When you meet in your teams get into the habit of briefing yourselves. Ask questions like: what are we going to do in this meeting? Then do it. At the end of the meeting leave some time for debriefing: record any decisions made or what happened. Also ask each to member to say what they liked about the meeting and what they wished had happened. This helps your team meetings to become more efficient, effective and enjoyable.

Finally, effective teams share roles: research shows that there are nine key roles for highest performance and success in teamwork. As many teams don’t have nine members it is often necessary for people to take on more than one role. Each of us has a natural affinity to some roles but you can practice taking on new roles also. The disadvantage of this is the discomfort as you move into unfamiliar territory and the extra work involved but the advantage is seen in performance and success on both the personal and team levels.

Collaboration is a technology – proven and time tested with a vast number of academic papers describing the process. Think of it like that and you will find it less daunting.

John reminded the class that it is very important to practice your presentation before the final delivery. You need this dry-run to iron out any difficulties that may arise in moving from a plan or script to the real presentation. Working with technology is not always reliable so it is a good idea to expect catastrophe and have at least one back-up plan, if not two: don’t get caught out! Prepare fully and you will be successful no matter what happens.

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Classes 2 and 4: Blogging and Project

October 22, 2020
Student teams for the project

Student teams for the project Fresh World

In accordance with John’s decision to bring the Team Project briefing forward we covered the content for Class 2: Blogging to the World and also Class 4: Team Project this week.

Three of you have started your blogs and there are links to them in the column on the right, page 9 Student blogs. For those who have not yet sent a link to your blog to John please do so now. Don’t forget that the first assessment of this work will be taking place the week after next. It is also useful to ensure that comments can be made to your blog to encourage the conversation. The three blogs that have been submitted are off to a great start with good reports on your exploration of SL and copiously illustrated with photos.

You all confirmed that you had read the Team Project brief – Fresh World and we discussed the detail of the project. John identified the team members as given above. We also discussed the importance of knowing the assessment criteria and keeping them to the fore while working on the project. Ensure your work is on point and relevant so that it contributes to your final mark.

Finally, John asked you to familiarise yourselves with the module in Brightspace. Your assignments each week are given there, along with reading lists, summaries and full details of the assessments.

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Class 1: Welcome to Second Life

October 14, 2020
Class photo

Hannah impresses the class not only by arriving on horseback but also riding side-saddle.

The electives all started a week or so later than usual this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The fact that all students are participating largely online for most classes already has also eliminated the unique aspect of this module: totally online classes. Nevertheless, let’s hope that the novelty of Second Life (SL) as a learning environment will maintain everybody’s engagement and attention. It will also be interesting to engage with class through an avatar rather than the usual way of using Bongo, Zoom or Teams.

The class this semester is much smaller than usual with ten signed up but only six making an appearance for the first class. John suggested that it would be useful to review the content of the module in light of our current situation. Some of the classes will be combined so that we don’t overrun the semester and the focus will be on independent engagement between classes. John will present the team project in the next class to allow you all more time for collaboration – working together from the get-go should support a more engaged experience.

As we settled into class John asked that everyone friend each other and all were invited to join the module group, which will facilitate remote and private chatting. Some participants had difficulty getting voice activated but with innovative use of other apps we all managed to tune into the discussion. John told the class that a link to Brightspace will be circulated after class. This contains summaries of all classes and the reading/viewing list. It is important to put in the 30 to 40 minutes of preparation before class so that our discussions can be well-informed and relevant rather than a simple sharing of uninformed opinions. If the prep is not done we can assign the first half hour of class to doing it and push the finish time out to 9.30 pm.

The assignment for next week is outlined in detail in Brightspace. You are to explore SL and visit at least three different locations. Be careful doing so and approach the task as if you were visiting a new city. Remember, SL is just like Real Life (RL) and you will meet pleasant, friendly people but, also perhaps, some unpleasant individuals. If you feel unsure or uneasy just Quit SL immediately. Don’t worry about being rude!

You should also set up a new wordpress blog in the name and character of your avatar. You will be expected to write a post to this blog every week. The combined posts will be the equivalent of an academic paper for the purposes of assessment at the end of the semester. The first post will be a description of your SL explorations.

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Class 12: Team Project presentations

May 7, 2020

Twelve weeks after we began the module it is now time to see your Team Project presentations. Sitearm Madonna joined us to record the presentations, along with Locks Aichi and Wisdomseeker who came to support you. The brief for the project Future Direction was explored in Class 4. Assessment criteria can be found on page 6. Each team presented their project which was followed by some comments from the floor. First to go was the Green Team.

 

Next up was the Red Team.

 

And finally, the Yellow Team.

 

And a few closing remarks from John (aka Acuppa Tae).

Each of the three teams made excellent presentations which were complimented by John, Sitearm, Locks and Wisdomseeker. Wrapping up the final class of the semester, John reminded you to ensure you made the final post to your blogs. He wished you well in all your assessments and thanked you for your attendance during what turned out to be a difficult semester. When it started nobody expected to be locked in their homes before it concluded. John also thanked all the guest speakers and hosts for field trips over the last few months.

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Class 11: Warning!

April 30, 2020

The issues around bandwidth and connections continued this week as the class discussion moved between voice to chat but, we managed to get through the final class of the semester. John began by asking for your responses to the two videos you were asked to watch, both taken from the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland in 2018. The first was an address by David Attenborough on behalf of the world’s people, telling world leaders that the ‘continuation of civilisation is in your hands’. The second an address by Greta Thunberg telling them ‘you are stealing our future’ and condemning inaction on climate change.

Caoimhe referred to the Michael Moore produced documentary Planet of the Humans which she found very worrying because it suggested that many of the actions being taken to address our impact on the planet may not be working. Sitearm urged caution and told us that when he was doing postgraduate study many years ago he worked on the first climate model that predicted we would all be dead from starvation twenty years from then. The problem with this, and indeed all models, is that it is difficult to take all the relevant factors into account. He also worked on the second model which attempted to incorporate uncertainty suggesting that while not necessarily accurate such models are extremely useful, even if they don’t tell the whole story.

John proposed that three significant changes have occurred in the world since the conference in 2018. Firstly, US President Donald Trump pulled the country out of the 2016 Paris Agreement. The agreement, within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change deals with greenhouse gas emissions and, historically, bound all signatories to reduce national emissions. For the first time such an agreement included most countries of the world and therefore carried significant weight as a very real ‘global’ agreement, bringing nations together in a planetary union. The withdrawal of one of the most influential players on the world stage is a significant blow to that unity of purpose.

Secondly, the UK withdrew from the European Union. The EU arose in response to the Second World War: to ensure that the almost continual state or warfare in Europe over the centuries, that eventually led to two world wars, would never happen again. The importance of the various treaties establishing the coming together of so may nations for the greater good of the people can be seen in the relative peace and prosperity since 1945.

While neither of the agreements was perfect they did signify the capacity of humans to negotiate a better approach to social development and the care of our environment. The deliberate withdrawal from such institutions by significant participants places the world on an even more unstable footing than it was in 2018. We now find ourselves in a completely different political and social context. The return to national boundaries, protectionism and inward looking societies may well bring about the destruction of our planet.

The third significant change is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic that has changed our world utterly.

Nevertheless, the darkest hour is before the dawn. We may be on the cusp of a change in our behaviour that is forced on us by external forces over which our control is limited. Clearly, it is only through collaboration that the threat to our planet and our continued ability to survive here can be addressed.

And so John asked ‘how do you feel, as young people about to take your place in society and who will determine the future development of our world? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Scientists have proposed that the current era be named the Anthropocene because for the first time humans are having an impact on the planet that previously was made only by geological phenomena. There are arguments about when this started, ranging from the beginning of the industrial age to the development of nuclear power but, the key point is that our impact as a species, on our home, is irreversible. John recommended that in this context you consider the approach of individuals like the French intellectual Bernard Stiegler. He proposes that technology is a ‘pharmacon’, in other words it is both the root of our ills and the cure for them. This echos the proposition of Marshall McLuhan (who we considered in Class 5) that we build tools that end up shaping our society. Stiegler is actually developing approaches to redress the imbalance in society that results in exploitation without sustenance. If you haven’t already done so it is worth viewing Welcome to the Anthropocene featuring Stiegler explaining his unique approach. This should be a cause for optimism in the future and provides a pathway for the development of society the does not ‘cost the earth’.

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Class 10: Inspiration Island

April 23, 2020

In a change to the advertised class this week we visited Inspiration Island at the invitation of Lissena Wisdomseeker, the founder and CEO. When we arrived (accompanied by Sitearm Madonna, who graciously arranged the field trip) we were welcomed by Lissena, Francisco Koolhoven and Thuja Hynes.

Our gracious hosts on Inspiration Island: Tooyaa, presenting; Liss, right and Fran on her left.

Lissena told us that Inspiration Island is the home of a programme called Whole Brain Health. Their purpose is to improve the quality of people’s lives through Interactive, Innovative, Inspiring activities and programmes. The intention is to support participants in positive personal development—both in-world and outworld. The programmes are based on a scientifically-sound, holistic approach to well-being—nurturing body, mind and spirit. There are currently about forty avatar-volunteers of all ages building facilities such as a 3D Maze, an Art and Music Park, a Covid-19 Information Centre created by a member who is a medical librarian. They facilitate programmes like Muscle Relaxation, Relationships in SL and Beyond, Drum Circle, The Wisdomseekers and Hero Walk. Lissena gave us globe teleporters that contained a menu of over thirty different places to visit. The place where we had the class, called Sunvibes, was built by Szavanna who lives in South Africa after emigrating from Hungary over twenty years ago. She is a DJ here and finds little-known world music from Africa, India, the Middle East among others, for dancing every Tuesday at noon SLT. The social interaction as people use dance animations, dance at home and chat in text is a fun experience with several benefits.

The Island comprises four levels to almost four-thousand meters over four full sims. Francisco Koolhaven, known as Fran, is the estate manager, media director and all-round problem solver. He told us that during the week he had to deal with the fallout from a cut fibre cable on the internet that caused problems for people trying to log in. At such times it is important to notify visitors that programmes have been cancelled or rescheduled. Other times he might be dealing with people who are unable to hear voice at an event and need tech support. Much of his time is spent behind the scenes ensuring a seamless experience at events of all sorts so he also has a security brief which occasionally results in ejecting troublemakers, adjusting group and parcel settings to prevent outsiders from making unauthorised changes and so on. As media director he has responsibility for filming and creating videos of events held here.

Fran has considerable experience in scripting, which means programming objects in SL to do various things. He has built a number of scripted object and demonstrated a calendar that works dynamically in-world. The calendar is also available in the SL Marketplace maintained by Linden Lab for sellers to list products for sale in SL. You can see the calendar by clicking here.

Fran explained how the development of tools in SL over the last ten years has introduced the ability to bring in objects created outside the platform using 3D editors such as Blender. The ‘mesh’ items give a much more realistic look and feel to SL, making for a more realistic experience. To show the extent of what can be done with mesh he showed us two animated sculptures that produce the same movements as avatars.

Fran demonstrated his scripting skills by showing us this sculpture of Daenerys from Game of Thrones behaving as if she were a genuine avatar.

Finally, Fran gave us all a copy of the Inspiration Island map teleport which allows you to visit any part of the island simply by clicking on it in the map – how handy would that be in the physical world?!

Lissena then introduced Thuja Hynes, Associate Director, to tell us about an exciting project. Known more informally as Tooyaa, she hosts or co-hosts Drum Circle, Firekeepers, Hero Walk, Simply Impossible and Women in STEM. She has designed a number of interactive, immersive and interpretive experiences on the Island, including the Multiple Intelligence Experience and Journey to Whole Brain Health, along with a series of ‘waypoints’ which delve into aspects of wellbeing, both personal and global. Tooyaa said that SL can allow learners immerse themselves in science and maths education in an interactive environment and also allow them practise coding. She gave us a reference to a landmark paper published in 2014 Second Life as a Platform for Physics Simulations and Microworlds: An Evaluation on the topic. From this perspective SL can be seen more as a simulator rather than a game. Tooyaa said that in addition to using script functions to enrich the Newtonian physics experience she enjoys constructing working machines without scripts, simply the serendipity of unexpected consequences. For example, she re-learned recently the word ‘osculation’, meaning ‘kiss’, as in when two objects come in contact such that their point tangents are aligned. She went on to demonstrate this osculation in avatars and a range of objects located around the area, exploiting the physics of SL’s basic programming.

To close she gave us all a gift of a Brain Quester hat which floated a translucent brain above our avatar heads, and lit up with coloured bulbs when we moved! On behalf of the class John thanked Liss, Fran and Tooyaa for their generosity—it was a fascinating experience and we are all grateful to them for hosting us. John also thanked Site for making the introductions and arrangements.

We all left Inspiration Island with bigger and more colourful brains than when we arrived.

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