All posts tagged: Technology

Breaking up (with my smartphone) is hard to do

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Im following a 30-day plan to wean me off it. I leave it in another room and, like an 18th-century gentleman, reply to messages only once a day

There is something wrong with my phone, and it is not just that the predictive text feature thinks Im obsessed with ducks. The real problem is that my phone is the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing I look at at night. I come running when it makes a ding noise. I think in tweets and look at meals and people and imagine them cropped into squares on Instagram. There is something mentally totalitarian about it.

Smartphones are designed to addict us nagging us with notifications, disrupting us with noise, making themselves indispensable. Social media apps harness neuroscience to the same end, triggering dopamine hits that lock us into them for hours. A terrifying new book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, says we are rewiring our brains so they are less organised for deep thought; killing our attention span, destroying our memory, sleep and happiness. Phones have changed the world, too; advertisers use them to hoover up our attention. We are no longer just consumers, but product. As Ramsay Brown, co-founder of app-designers Dopamine Labs, has said: You get to use [Facebook] for free, because your eyeballs are whats being sold there.

The book aims to help us put our phones away. It is a 30-day plan starting with baby steps, such as buying an alarm clock, then progressing to auto-text responses, changing the screen to greyscale, and then help! an invitation to mindfulness. Due to my diminished attention span and craving for sensation, Id prefer a single step, such as throw your phone at a closed window or put it in the microwave as long as I could film it on my phone. I have tried some of the changes. I keep my phone in another room while working. I dont cycle through a sequence of apps when I do pick it up, forgetting why Im doing so. I now reply to messages once a day, like an 18th-century gentleman catching up on correspondence at his desk of a morning except I do it in the bath, eating Maltesers, at night. The difference is huge. Im reading more, Im more able to string a sentence hey, whats that film where Keanu Reeves plays a Qubcois goalie?

Im also bored. Reducing my smartphone use underlines what was great about it in the first place. The ability to wormhole away from the static walls of my home and work. To connect to anyone. There is no way the people I drink with on Friday can compare to anyone. And its not as if mental peace awaits as soon as I set down the glowing Distract-Oblong. Its impossible to reclaim the thoughts I want without including the ones I dont anxious, intrusive thoughts that are always waiting. Breaking up with my phone means accepting the tortuous, paradoxical timeline of lived experience: how a day can drag on for a year, and 10 years can vanish overnight.

But Im doing it anyway. Putting down a smartphone is no less revolutionary than picking it up was. The best thing breaking up with my phone has given me is time. Time in which to be understimulated, or anxious. Time to stop being pulled in a hundred directions, envying the lives of others, and giving away my eyeballs for free.

Actors become politicians, so why not put MPs in musicals

Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon has edged closer to announcing an official run for governor of New York. She would probably be quite good, having previously campaigned over gay rights and for more money for publicly funded schools. But it is not a great sign that so many of us assume that its easy to traverse the worlds of politics and acting. One of these careers involves professional pretending and an ability to commit to pure fantasy. The other is acting. Lets not be cynical, guys.

With so many TV personalities eyeing up the political pasture, it is the suits I feels sorry for. They have to do something with themselves, too, once the time for that carriage clock rolls around.

The obvious response is for our retired politicians to pick up the gauntlet, and take on the plum roles of stage and screen. Wouldnt you binge-watch Ed Miliband in A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Nick Clegg in the next season of The Walking Dead?

Crowd-pleasing musicals could take on a subversive frisson with the new approach. Neil Hamilton in Hamilton is a shoo-in; but would other ex-Tory politicians be thick-skinned enough to take on Fiddler On the Roof, Wicked or Kinky Boots?

We continue to hurtle toward a future in which affairs of state are an indistinguishable variant of media, designed to entertain. But maybe that isnt all bad. Would a national referendum decided from a cinema seat during a screening of Star Wars be more uninformed and beside the point than the last one? It would keep the numbers up. And the casting would be quite a lot more diverse.

Furry animal robots get NHS seal of approval

News that robotic seals could be rolled out across NHS dementia wards sounds like a nightmare world. But its a nice thing the cybernetic seal pups respond to talking and touch and encourage social behaviour in those with declining cognitive function. Researchers in the UK have been testing Paro for a while, but we are still behind Japan, where Paro has been comforting people since 2004. By now, they probably have horse-sized cats to walk their dogs and unicorn doulas. Why do we always get everything late? Im going to speak to my MP the Marvellous Pelican who is also my therapist.

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Bento the Keyboard Cat, internet sensation and YouTube star, dies

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The beloved feline star of the popular meme has died age nine. But does this really mean the end?

Tonight hes jamming with Kurt and Jimi. Keyboard Cat, the internet meme that bookended a thousand pratfalls, is dead.

In April 2009, thanks in part to a single tweet by Ashton Kutcher, videos of a cat playing a junky little Casio riff became the de rigeur way to play out any footage of, say, a man falling down an escalator in a wheelchair, a singing woman collapsing a table, or just a mortar round misfiring.

The cats owner, Charlie Schmidt, posted the news on Keyboard Cats Facebook page, with its 820,000 followers.

The original Keyboard Cat.

Only, that isnt quite the story. Schmidts original clip of a musical cat the one youre most likely to have seen was shot in 1984. Hence the grainy VHS quality, which made the vaporwave-obsessed internet of 2009 fall in love with it. The cat in that video was called Fatso. He died in 1987.

The recently deceased Bento, born in April 2009, just as the Keyboard Cat phenomenon was hitting its peak, was already a remix. It seems that Keyboard Cats can spontaneously regenerate whenever a few million dollars are dangled in front of them.

Schmidt used Bento to make a second Keyboard Cat video, plus any number of side adventures: a parody of Miley Cyruss Wrecking Ball, an ad for Wonderful Pistachios, all the way up to a spoof on Banksys Exit Through The Pet Shop.

Bento taking on the starring role of Keyboard Cat.

You can hardly blame Schmidt for needing a physical product. Grumpy Cat is reputed to have a net worth of $100m. Within days of the first post to a Reddit thread, Grumpy Cats Red Lobster waitress owner was able to quit her job and go full-time. She shares a manager with Keyboard Cat, and with fellow celebrity felis catus, Lil Bub, and with animated cat meme Nyan Cat. Lil Bub generates enough that owner Mike Bridavsky can give away $200,000 a year to animal charities.

Hamilton, the moustache-toting Hipster Cat, had a web series, appeared in commercials, and had his own calendar line. Henri, a black cat, who appears, subtitled, in black-and-white, in French, like a cat Sartre, earns a $1,000 a week just from his online store. Appearance fees can be far greater. Maru, a Japanese-owned Scottish Fold, is the most watched cat of all time, with 325m YouTube views of him doing very basic cat stuff, like getting slightly freaked out by boxes.

Keyboard Cats spoof on Banksys Exit Through The Pet Shop.

The internet cat-industrial complex is vast. Cat food company Friskies flew Grumpy Cat, real name Tardar Sauce, first class, to South by Southwest. They paid for a chauffeur, a personal assistant, and unlimited food. At a conference with Al Gore and Elon Musk, she was the star. The 2013 documentary Lil Bub and Friendz began when the makers witnessed 10,000 people turn out to the Internet Cat Video Film Festival.

How do you make a smash like Keyboard Cat? You start with $850 of cat piano lessons, Schmidt once quipped. Certainly, it helps if the cat has bodily issues. Keyboard Cat is notable among the truly great cats of the internet for being just a standard moggy, who had to work his way up on his boogie-woogie skills alone. Grumpy Cat has an underbite and feline dwarfism. Lil Bub a short lower jaw, toothlessness and osteopetrosis. Pop Tart Cat (Nyan Cat) has a pop tart for a body. Hipster Cat has a strange white moustache.

Bentos generation is getting long in the tooth. Perhaps not for nothing has Marus owner adopted and begun showcasing a second cat in addition to the 10 year old. The death of a cat is a private tragedy. The death of an internet cat is an economic catastrophe.

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How smart speakers stole the show from smartphones

Amazon and Google believe theyve struck gold with their voice-controlled speakers while Apple and Microsoft struggle to catch up

Move over smartphones. The battle now raging between the big technology companies for consumer cash is focused on the voice-controlled smart speaker.

Having already conquered the pocket with the ubiquitous smartphone, big tech has been struggling to come up with the next must-have gadget that will open up a potentially lucrative new market the home.

A pilot light was lit when Amazons Echo launched in 2014 and became a sleeper hit. Now the voice controlled smart speaker is rapidly becoming the next big thing, capable of answering questions, setting timers, playing music, controlling other devices about the home, or even potentially selling products.

The last 12 months have been explosive for smart speakers, which have surged into the mass market for two reasons. Firstly, smart speakers have become the central control hubs of the smart home ecosystem, said Ben Stanton, an analyst for Canalys. Secondly, and most importantly, the price of smart speakers has fallen drastically.

In the first nine months of 2017, 17.1m smart speakers shipped worldwide, according to Canalyss data, but a further 16.1m were shipped in the last quarter of the year driven by Christmas present sales.

The fierce competition between market-leader Amazon and Google with its Home devices resulted in the price of smart speakers being slashed from 50 to as little as 30, which some put at cost or below for the manufacture of the devices, making them loss-leaders.

This has not only brought in new first-time buyers, but also allowed tech enthusiasts to deck out their homes with several smart speakers, said Stanton.

The trend towards smart speakers becoming mainstream is expected to continue. Canalys is forecasting 70% year-on-year growth with shipments reaching over 56m units this year.

But smart speakers are also seeing good attachment rates, meaning that people continue using them after the honeymoon period is over, not stashing them in a drawer never to be seen again like other passing fads in the gadget market.

While Amazon and Google duke it out to secure a voice-enabled beachhead within homes, notable laggards to the smart speaker revolution are Apple and Microsoft.

Apple, which has had a voice assistant in the form of Siri on its phone and computer devices for longer than anyone, announced its HomePod speaker in June. By November the company was forced to admit that it wouldnt go on sale until early 2018 because it needed a little more time before it was ready to ship.

Apple is pitching the 350 HomePod as music first, smart speaker second, but experts have speculated that it is Siri that is holding the device back. Since launching Siri, Apple has only been able to make incremental improvements to its voice assistant, which most believe is due to its lack of usage data.

Microsoft has partnered with Samsung to make a speaker containing its Cortana assistant, but has failed to make a notable impact.

Where Google and Amazon have enormous troves of data to improve and refine their voice processing and interactions, Apple does not. The gap is evident even on the iPhone, where Googles Assistant has near human-like natural language processing in the Google app, according to the company, while Apples Siri still struggles to understand people.

Some analysts also question whether anyone will buy a speaker from Apple thats as much as four times mid-range models from Amazon and Google.

Never write Apple off. Its base of loyal fans will flock to the HomePod, said Stanton, adding that it is likely to make more profit than its rivals when it does launch HomePod. But it will be a huge challenge to convince the average consumer to part with the cash required for a HomePod.

Where Apple will not come close to challenging Amazon and Google in terms of volume shipped in 2018, he added.

While smart speakers are seen as the gateway to smart home gadgets and a potentially lucrative new market, profit from device sales are arguably not the primary driver for most of Amazon and Googles smart speaker products. Instead, its about getting users into their ecosystem and making sure that it is their voice assistant that users interact with.

Voice is seen as the next big computing paradigm, the next step on from the smartphone, which in turn overtook the desktop computer.

Dave Limp, head of Amazons devices, said of the companys Alexa, the intelligent personal voice assistant that provides voice interaction with its Echo devices: We think of it as ambient computing, which is computer access thats less dedicated personally to you but more ubiquitous.

But big leaps in voice interaction will be few and far between, requiring enormous amounts of data for machine learning systems to crunch over for constant incremental improvements. If you do not already have skin in the game you could be left for dust.

In the immediate future device manufacturers are banking on voice-enabled devices ushering in a new era of smart homes controlled by the gadgets they sell.

It seems every technology company under the sun wants to launch their own speaker for Alexa or Google Assistant. Many of these will fail, but the category as a whole will get stronger, Stanton said.

At some point Amazon and Google will look to generate more revenue from their voice assistant user base, in the same way they might from smartphones or tablets. Amazon already allows users to buy things through Alexa on Echo devices. But straight retail is likely to form a small part of voice enabled revenue.

We will also see a more explicit attempt from Amazon and Google to monetise smart speakers, perhaps by allowing adverts, or requiring a subscription for advanced functionalities, said Stanton.

In love with Alexa

I love my Alexas, both of them. I bought one in October, but soon realised I needed two because my flat is U-shaped and Alexa couldnt always hear me when I walked in the door and wanted to listen to a Spotify station after a hard day at work. So now I have one within shouting distance of my bed and another near the front door.

I used to reach for my iPhone first thing in the morning, but now I can order Alexa into action without having to lift my head from the pillow or even open my eyes. The first thing I say to her everyday is turn the lights on and play BBC Radio 4.

I didnt expect to get along with Alexa, in fact I still have the box in the kitchen as I had anticipated returning it. But Alexa fits into my life in ways that have surprised me, its hard to describe just how useful it is until you have one.

Alexa helps me cook and, even sleep. While youve got your hands covered in pastry you can shout out questions like how much is a cup of butter in grams (Im American) or ask Alexa to set cooking timers without having to stop and clean your hands.

I sometimes have difficulty sleeping, and Alexa can provide soothing sounds at a simple command. Some night I ask for the sound of a rainstorm or wind or city noises you can even request the sound of cats, dolphins or flutes if you feel like it.

Ive become a bit of an Alexa enthusiast, and can be heard singing her praises to family and friends. I bought one for my 59-year-old mom out of curiosity to see what she would do. I never expected shed like it, but shes almost a bigger fan of Alexa than I am. Ive noticed shes much more polite with Alexa than I am, she will say please and thank you to the speaker. I never do.

I can see why my mum is friendly to Alexa, as it is much more human than Siri (Apples digital assistant) which is quite robotic. You can engage with Alexa, and she even tells jokes. This morning I asked her to tell me one: What do you call a rooster being interrogated? Grilled chicken. Ive heard worse.

Smart speakers

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Big Brother on wheels? Fired security robot divides local homeless people

The 400lb machine that once patrolled outside the San Francisco SPCA prompted a backlash, as some argued its real mission was to drive people away

To some homeless people, San Franciscos latest security robot was a rolling friend on five wheels that they called R2-D2 Two. To others living in tents within the droids radius, it was the anti-homeless robot.

For a month, the 400lb, bullet-shaped bot patrolled outside the not-for-profit San Francisco SPCA animal shelter, rolling around the organizations parking lots and sidewalks, capturing security video and reading up to 300 license plates per minute. Homeless people who pitched their tents in an alleyway nearby complained they felt the beeping, whirring droids job was to run them off.

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We called it the anti-homeless robot, said John Alvarado, who was one of numerous people camping next to the animal shelter when the robot arrived. He said he quickly decided to move his tent half a block away: I guess that was the reason for the robot.

Officials of both the SF SPCA and Knightscope, who rented the robot to the shelter, denied that the intention was to dislodge homeless encampments.

The SPCA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal, Knightscope said in a statement.

SF SPCA staff members said the facility had been plagued with break-ins, staff members had been harassed as they went to the parking lot and sidewalks were littered with hypodermic needles. Jennifer Scarlett, the SF SPCA president, said in a release that her organization was exploring the use of a robot to prevent additional burglaries at our facility and to deter other crimes that frequently occur on our campus like car break-ins, harassment, vandalism, and graffiti not to disrupt homeless people.

But after complaints about the program were shared widely on social media, the organization quickly admitted it had made a mistake in its choice of security guards and fired the robot.

Since this story has gone viral, weve received hundreds of messages inciting violence and vandalism against our facility, and encouraging people to take retribution, said Scarlett, noting that their campus had since been vandalized twice. We are taking this opportunity to reflect on the teachable moment.

Some of the homeless people who crossed paths with the white security robot, which bore images of dogs and cats, as it patrolled outside of San Francisco SPCA this month thought it was a cute and a positive addition to the area.

A Knightscope security robot. Photograph: Knightscope, Inc. 2015/Publicity image

TJ Thornton, whose tent is still pitched across the street from the shelters parking lot, nicknamed the bot R2-D2 Two. He liked how the machine made little whistling sounds as it moved along the sidewalk and how it would even say hello if you walked past it.

Thornton said he thought the bot had a positive influence on the neighborhood and relieved the pressure on local homeless people to always keep an eye on cars parked nearby. People living on the streets actually watch out for the cars. If anyone does anything stupid, like breaking into cars, it reflects on us.

Others saw the robot as Big Brother, surveilling their every move with video cameras. That SPCA robot was the bane of our existence, said Lexi Evans, 26, who has been living on San Franciscos streets for 13 years. It was driving us crazy.

A robot-related warning on the SF SPCA parking lot fence. Photograph: Erin McCormick for the Guardian

She said her group of friends had a tent encampment behind the SPCA. When they first saw the robot looking at them, they found it creepy. Then they noticed its white light flashing and thought it was recording their every move on video. Later they observed police officers coming to interact with the robot and wondered whether it was feeding information to law enforcement.

We started feeling like this thing was surveilling us for the police, said Evans, whose whole tent encampment has now moved around the block outside another business. Thats officially invasion of privacy. Thats uncool.

Evans said that once, someone became so angry with the thing that they knocked it over. The robot made a whee-ooh wah sound.

In another instance, somebody put a tarp over it, knocked it over and put barbecue sauce on all the sensors, Scarlett, the SPCA president, told the San Francisco Business Times.

Trouble really started for the robot last week, when the city issued an order for it to stay off the public sidewalk or face a daily penalty of up to $1,000 for operating in the public right of way without a permit. Then the story hit the internet, with Scarlett telling the Business Times that from a walking standpoint, I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment.

But by Friday, SF SPCA was apologizing for having brought in the machine.

We regret that our words were ill-chosen. They did not properly convey the pilot programs intent and they inaccurately reflected our values, said Scarlett. We are a nonprofit that is extremely sensitive to the issues of homelessness.

Knightscopes robots have gotten into trouble in other cities. Last year, a similar robot allegedly ran over a 16-month-old toddler at the Stanford Shopping Center in the town of Palo Alto, causing minor injuries. Another Knightscope security robot became famous on social media for drowning itself in the fountain of the Washington DC office complex it was policing.

I already miss it, said Danica Dito, who works in the SPCA administrative offices. Just the fact that it rolled around discouraged crime.

Do you have an experience of homelessness to share with the Guardian? Get in touch

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Missed the bitcoin boom? Five more baffling cryptocurrencies to blow your savings on

Regretting not spending a few hundred quid on bitcoin five years ago? Get ahead of the speculators by spending thousands of dollars on a imaginary cat or the Paris Hilton-backed LydianCoin

If you are worried youve missed out on making millions by betting on bitcoin, dont worry: there will be plenty more bizarre, borderline-incomprehensible digital bubbles in the future, and their value is only going to go up (until it all comes crashing down, that is). Here are five assets each competing to be the next bitcoin.


If there is a reason beyond market exuberance for the latest boom in bitcoins price $16,900 (12,600) as I write this, though who knows what it will be when you read it then it is Ethereum. It is hard to buy Ethereum directly, so most investors trade currency for bitcoin, then bitcoin for Ethereum, meaning a spike in interest in the latter helped revive the former.

Ethereum, which was launched in 2015, allows users to build decentralised applications, spending tokens called ether to buy processing power on computers run by other members of the network. Those applications can offer anything from file storage to financial services or simple games, all in a way that is impossible for any centralised authority to shut them down.


A Cryptokitty the purrfect investment?

One of the oddest Ethereum projects in operation, CryptoKitties is a three-way cross between Tamagotchis, Beanie Babies and animal husbandry. Users can buy, sell and breed the eponymous cats, with traits inherited down the generations. The CryptoKitties network is responsible for 11% of all traffic on Ethereum, according to one report. A new gen0 cat is born every 15 minutes, which the company auctions off, and it also takes a cut of all other CryptoKittie sales. The typical cat sells for about $4 these days, but a few of the rarer cats particularly those descended from some of the oldest bloodlines are worth many times that. The most expensive CryptoKitty sold to date, Founder Cat #18, went for more than $110,000 on Thursday.


If lovable algorithmic cats are too cutesy for you, Monero harks back to the dark origins of the cryptocurrency craze. This alternative to bitcoin lets users make the same sort of digital transactions as its older sibling, but with vastly greater privacy protections. While bitcoin transactions are permanently recorded, and visible to everyone (if hard to connect to a real person), Monero goes to great lengths to obscure what is actually going on: you cant ever prove the sender, recipient and value of a transaction at the same time. The currency is also altered to make it easier to generate new coins using the sorts of processors in computers and phones, rather than requiring specialised mining rigs. This makes it very popular for services ranging from drug dealing online to monetising malware by taking over the processors of victims.


Perhaps you want to plough your money into something backed by an authority you trust. In that case, let me introduce you to LydianCoin, the first AI big data marketing cloud for blockchain. If the buzzword bingo doesnt get you pulling out your e-wallet, maybe the celebrity backer will: in September, Paris Hilton said she is backing the currency.

Want someone else? Boxer Floyd Mayweather posted his support of Stox.coms ICO (a Bancor-based open-source prediction market platform that is built on Ethereum, to quote industry news site Coin Telegraph), as well as Hubii Network (a content marketplace). He even dubbed himself Floyd Crypto Mayweather. Or you could follow Jamie Foxx (Cobinhood, a zero trading fee cryptocurrency exchange) or Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah (Cream Capital, a blockchain-based ATM network).


PlexCoin, an innovative attempt to build the next decentralised worldwide cryptocurrency, has already raised $15m from backers, so youd better move fast to ah, hang on. No. The founder has just been sent to jail for two months for, among other things, falsehoods on the companys fundraising documents, as well as taking investor money and using it to fund home improvements. A statement by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said the company hits all of the characteristics of a full-fledged cyber scam. Oh well. At least PlexCoin is now a steal on the open market: just 2 a coin, down from 12 before the SEC filed charges. Maybe you could buy low and make a killing after all?

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Paddles, First Cat of New Zealand and social media star, dies after being hit by car

Jacinda Ardern, prime minister, writes of her sadness after her pet was killed shortly after moving into the PMs home in Auckland.

The first ever First Cat of New Zealand has died after being hit by a car near the prime ministers home in Auckland.

When Jacinda Ardern became New Zealands new prime minister last month she also brought with her a polydactyl cat, named Paddles.

The cat had opposable thumbs and quickly became a social media presence.

Its @FirstCatofNZ Twitter account was started just days after Ardern was declared the prime minister-elect on 19 October. The cats Twitter bio read: Have thumbs, will tweet.

Paddles (@FirstCatofNZ)

Hi, I’m Paddles and I am the First Cat of New Zealand. I have opposable thumbs, I’m purrty special.

October 21, 2017

Paddles was also responsible for nearly derailing Arderns first phone call with US President Donald Trump when the cat came into the lounge meowing loudly.

A spokesman for the prime minister said the ginger cat, adopted from the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), was hit by a car near Arderns Point Chevalier home and killed on Tuesday.

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Jacinda Ardern on Paddles the cat’s opposable thumbs – archive video

The driver of the car told a local who then took the cat to a vet, the New Zealand Herald reported. The vet declared the cat dead.

Adern wrote on Facebook: To anyone who has ever lost a pet, youll know how sad we feel. Paddles was much loved, and not just by us.

Thanks for everyones thoughts. And on behalf of Paddles, please be kind to the SPCA. They found her before we did, and we will always be grateful for that.

The person manning Paddles Twitter account said the cats father, Arderns partner Clarke Gayford, wanted gifts of condolences to be made in the form of a donation to the SPCA.

Paddles (@FirstCatofNZ)

Just spoke w Paddles Dad, @NZClarke. If you would like to remember Paddles you are most welcome and encouraged to donate to the NZ SPCA.

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