Archive for March, 2010

I kind of got married on Saturday.

But I should emphasise the ‘kind of’ part of that statement. Habiba and I and a couple of friends went to see a half-price performance of Nanta (half-price because of a special ‘brunch’ event that cost half the usual 60,000 if you came in a group including at least one foreigner and one Korean). Nanta is a very successful Korean show, vaguely along the lines of Stomp or the Blue Man Group, which consists of a combination of drumming, dance, comedy and audience participation.

The stage is designed to be a kitchen, and the story line (expressed here in knowingly cute Konglish) involves four cooks – the master chef, the ‘sexy guy’, the ‘female’ (seriously – that’s how the character was described on photos in the lobby) and the owner’s nephew – having to prepare a wedding feast for ‘seex-o’-cla”.

The whole thing was hugely entertaining – the main four actors are very fit, very agile and very funny. There was lots of drumming with improvised drums and sticks – one memorable sequence involved sometimes-synchronised, sometimes-competitive drumming with pairs of big knives on chopping boards. The final set piece had the actors pounding away thunderously on large food drums.

The humour was very Korean – quite broad, lots of mugging, lots of slapstick, lots of caricaturish character interaction, a small dose of bum-related jokes (one character gets a brush handle accidentally shoved up his arse). It sounds annoying, but the actors’ charisma and the positive atmosphere in the theatre made it all work, and work well.

At one point, the characters were tasting a soup they had made, but the cooks couldn’t agree with the owner, so they brought a couple of people down on to the stage – one of those people was me. I was audience participated. I was quickly dressed in a traditional Korean hat and coat-thing. A young woman had been brought down from the other side of the audience and similarly attired. We had to taste a thick, creamy soup. The characters soon got distracted by a fly buzzing loudly around the kitchen. As they tried to deal with it they kept motioning for us to continue tasting the soup.

Then the fly landed on my hat. There was a moment where everyone froze, then crept towards me. They bonked me on the head. Then they hypnotised me. Then we all pronounced judgment on the soup. And the other audience victim and I had to link arms while the ‘Wedding March’ played and rice rained down. And that’s how I got married.

Later in the evening we spent a few hours playing Monopoly (finally – it’s the first time I’ve used my Monopoly set).

The following day was Habiba and my first anniversary. One year since our first real date, going to watch Burn After Reading up in Nowon. We slept in somewhat, then exchanged gifts. She made me a wonderful poster and card set, the former showing the stages of a seed sprouting, becoming a sapling and finally a strong tree; the card compares our love to that process. The poster is very impressive – all the images are cut from paper and the tree is home to a few golden birds.

I gave Habiba a box set of Meerkat Manor, which I’d wrapped up and decorated with a few paper flowers and leaves. We’ve been watching a lot of meerkat antics in the last few days. In the evening on Sunday, I took Habiba to a ‘Korean traditional vegetable restaurant’ called Pulhyangi. It was a very nice place and our meal consisted of lots of tiny dishes served almost constantly. Good food was eaten.

Today, I took my passport to Immigration and applied for an Alien Registration Card, as, just like Quentin Crisp, I’m now a legal alien (only not in New York). I should get it and my passport back on the 12th of April. Not quite all the way there, yet, but I’m close to being totally settled.

The other anniversary of note is this very blog’s fourth birthday. Yes, I started my blog out of sheer boredom four years ago today at my intensely crappy temp job in the Facilities Office of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Page Street in London.

Here’s to many more years of Sean and Habiba – and writing about it.

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Down and out in Osaka

On my first Saturday in Japan, I didn’t do a whole lot. Walked around for a few hours (again), heading up to Namba Station and not finding much there apart from a big golden concert hall or something. The weather was also crappy – overcast and spitting on and off.

On Sunday, the weather was extremely pleasant, so I took advantage of the bicycles for hire at the hotel and rode to Osaka Castle. The central keep is a ridiculously beautiful building sitting in the middle of two concentric moats. Except for the keep, the whole area is open to the public free of charge and constitutes a very nice park.

The keep is a museum and costs ¥600 to get in (that’s about £5). The museum isn’t terribly interesting – nor does it seem at all like the inside of a castle, apart from the cramped, square layout – but the top floor has a balcony all the way around which gives some good views of the city.

On Monday, I went to see Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which – apart from being ridiculously expensive (about £15) – was entertaining and an interesting update of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Robert Downey, Jr doesn’t look at all like Sherlock Holmes, but still he did a decent job. The Holmes on display here was very childish in some ways; he also like to spend time bare-knuckle fighting between cases. Both facts are, if you think about it, realistic elaborations on the character.

On Thursday, I spent a bit of time in a shopping mall near Namba Station (when I explored that area on Saturday I completely failed to find the main shopping area – basically because there are two Namba Stations) called Namba Parks. It’s a very modern building consisting of two parallel wings and not a single straight line in sight. As shopping malls go, it’s very pleasant. There are several bridges from one side to the other of the eight storey structure, most with a few seats. People seem to use them to take it easy for a while, read and so on. So that’s what I did, The Gathering Storm on my lap.

Also on Thursday I heard from my colleagues that I might get my visa issuance number on Friday. We were hoping for it on Thursday, which would have meant I could have been home on Saturday, but, in the event, it came on Friday and this meant that with one day’s processing time, I could make it back to Korea until Tuesday. Saturday the 20th of March was the vernal equinox, so the Japanese had a day off on Monday in lieu of that.

I needed to get some more money and book a few extra days at my hotel. The place I’d been staying at, Hotel Raizan South had no rooms free on the Saturday, so I asked in some of the neighbouring hotels and ended up at the Shinbashi in a slightly more expensive room (¥2500 a night). I tried both my Korean bank card and my Lloyds TSB credit card in a few cash machines I found in the nearby Tennoji area, but with no joy. On Friday morning, after I’d moved to the new hotel, I set out to find a Post Office, which I’d discovered accepted MasterCard cards. I was helped by a greeter at a bank called MUFG (which doesn’t stand for Manchester United Football Glub – but which does stand for Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group).

For the rest of my time in Japan I concentrated on finishing The Gathering Storm, uploading photos to my Flickr page and not spending too much money … no more Starbucks for me (until Tuesday, when I found I had a yen to burn). I dined regularly at a place called Yoshinoya, which serves simple rice and beef dishes, with side dishes if you pay extra; I also ate a lot of ramen and a fair number of bananas (which I found at a cheap little greengrocer, and which Habiba doesn’t let me eat at home).

On Tuesday, I checked out of the Shinbashi at half nine and headed up to Namba. I was expecting to collect my newly envisaed passport from the consulate at one thirty and then to have to hurry to the airport to catch a flight at three fifty-five. That wouldn’t leave a lot of time to get from the city centre to Osaka Kansai.

However, I got messages from my colleagues in the morning saying that they’d spoken to the consulate staff and asked them to hurry my application. I was told I could pick up my passport at eleven and that I should ‘thank’ the woman who was dealing with my application (the inverted commas are mine). Andrew explained helpfully that I didn’t need to tip her or anything, just make sure I thanked her because she was doing us a favour. I texted back to say, So I don’t need to have sex with her, then. Andrew replied, Well, you’ve got some extra time to kill now. …

Anyway, I ‘thanked’ the visa woman right there in the consulate front office (I’m using the literal meaning of ‘thank’ … meaning I said, Thank you. … Just in case there was any confusion). And my new visa, the third I’ve had for Korea, was there in my passport all present and correct. I wandered around for a bit, bought a couple of things for Habiba (a pair of jars of Thai food paste, a dark Toblerone and some random Japanese snacks). At the airport I bought myself some presents – four tiny, nearly spherical waving cat figures.

And then I flew home to Korea.

All in all, it was a pretty tedious trip. I was minutely worried about the success of my visa application, but mostly I was just concerned about spending oodles of money. However, you can’t complain too much about having nearly two weeks off work. (Although I now have a pile of proofreading to do.) I still need to go to the Immigration office and pick up my Alien Registration Card and my workplace has to register me as a teacher. I also need to get my health insurance up and running – that will be, perhaps, the major benefit of getting my visa sorted out.

Everybody at work made a point of welcoming me back. One of the team leaders – a guy who has very little English but is friendly and likes to try to talk to me – introduced himself to me, as if we were meeting for the first time. I feel that I’ve been a bit distant or grump at work. This is largely due to still being tired from the trip disrupting my circadian rhythm, but I think there’s also an element of being emotionally drained by the whole affair.

Hopefully, everything will be back to normal (or better) in the very near future.

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Well. For those ignoramuses among you who don’t know, The Gathering Storm is book 12 of The Wheel of Time, the grand epic fantasy started by Robert Jordan about twenty years ago. A few years ago, Jordan was diagnosed with a serious illness similar to leukemia – and it killed him in 2007, with the promised final volume of TWoT no where near finished. Brandon Sanderson was chosen by Jordan’s wife and editor, Harriet McDougal, to finish the series. However, that promised final volume was so ambitious, he felt it needed to be three separate books – and The Gathering Storm is the first of those, released late last year.

I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time since not long after the first book came out in the early nineties; it was a key part of my growing love of the fantasy genre. The first three books are classic fantasy; the next three books built on their predecessors, adding greater breadth and depth to the world described, especially in terms of politics and intrigue. The three books after that were good, but the series showed signs of attenuating, being stretched too long and thin. Book ten was a travesty – a novel where nothing happened. Book eleven patched some of the damage done, but I didn’t enjoy reading it anywhere near as much as the first nine volumes.

And so book twelve has, simultaneously, a lot to live up to and little to lose … and I’m happy, almost emotionally happy, to report that TGS is a more than worthy continuation of the series.

It’s something of a whirlwind ride, in fact. A number of major sub-plots are developed and concluded. One of two overarching stories in this particular volume, however, is that of Rand’s madness. Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn, the man who must lead the world into battle against the Dark One at the Last Battle, a man who has an insane remnant of the previous Dragon muttering nearly constantly in his mind, a man who was doomed to madness and rotting sickness because of the taint on the male half of the One Power, until he cleansed it in Winter’s Heart, a man who is pulled this way and that by friendships, love, hate, loyalty, need, factions, memories that aren’t his own.

There are a couple of scenes where Rand’s sanity is directly and dangerously challenged – and they are two of three highlights of the book (the first being a confrontation with an enemy, the second being a confrontation with someone who should be very much the opposite of an enemy). They are both chilling in the possibilities they raise, and one contains a major plot twist that will doubtless play out in the remaining two books.

The resolution of this particular story leads directly on from one of the confrontations I mentioned. But that final scene of Rand’s story in this book didn’t at all work for me – it’s a kind of one sided confrontation, which was evidently supposed to be the most disturbing of them all. However, I found it all a bit overwrought and ludicrous. The resolution, when it occurs, is exceedingly convenient and the way it is worded prevents any recurrence of that particular plot thread – which I find a shame, as it’s been one of the most interesting aspects of Rand’s character.

The other main story is that of Egwene and the two White Towers. There have been liberal hints earlier in the series about what was going to happen and in this book, it happens. There is one major surprise in Egwene’s story – revelations from a longstanding minor character – but that aside it plays out exactly as one would expect. And, it turns out, there’s nothing wrong with that. Egwene al’Vere, the innkeeper’s daughter from the same out of the way village as Rand (and Rand’s sweetheart from way back when), is portrayed as a woman wise beyond her years, the moral superior of women with decades more experience. It possibly should be ridiculous, but it works. The third highlight of the book for me was the spectacle of Egwene defending the White Tower from Seanchan attack. Although dosed with forkroot to dull her ability to channel, she links with a group of novices and wields the Tower’s most powerful sa’angreal – and kicks arse.

Many of the other main characters in the story are present in the narrative, but have a much lesser role to play than Rand and Egwene. Mat has a gruesome adventure that doesn’t appear to advance the plot any. Perrin broods – as he is wont to do. Nynaeve gets angry. Elayne plays no part at all in this book. There aren’t many point of view scenes involving those who are dedicated to the shadow – but, as the title implies, the storm is but gathering, and has yet to break.

For the most part, Sanderson has done an admirable job of adapting his style to The Wheel of Time – all the WoT clichés are there: women sniffing to show annoyance, Rand, Mat and Perrin each thinking the others must have a much better deal, Nynaeve tugging her braid, Siuan using lots of fishing-related sayings. The more important aspects are there too: there is a near perfect balance of dialogue and introspection, action and intrigue. The characters haven’t changed. (Perrin might have seemed a little off, but he is given so little page time it’s hard to be sure. Mat seemed a tiny bit more uncouth than I remember, but I would need to reread the whole series again to say for sure that he’d changed.)

There are a few flaws. The most annoying of these being some of Sanderson’s lexical choices. Specifically, he uses words like ‘homicidal’ and ‘mountaineer’, which are very modern words – mountaineering didn’t exist before the twentieth century, for instance, before then, people might have climbed mountains to explore, but they didn’t do it for sport. Such vocabulary doesn’t have a place in a quasi-medieval or -Renaissance setting. I also have an issue with the expression ‘I guess’, which also sounds to modern and, frankly, too American, and with saying ‘speak with’ (which really ought to mean ‘speak at the same time as’) instead of ‘speak to’ and ‘meet with’ instead of, simply, ‘meet’.

Another, much more minor nitpick is the amount of recapping. Having not read any of the other books since the previous one came out four years ago, and having not embarked on a reread for longer than that, it was actually helpful to have the author redescribe and the characters remember various aspects of what had gone before. But I think it also detracted from the narrative.

The amount of subplots tied up, done and dusted in this book also feels … strange. In a series that has become famous for its refusal to end – even with the death of its author – it actually doesn’t feel quite authentic to have so many parts of the story (seemingly) definitively concluded. On the plus side, this means that the story fairly trots along; Brandon Sanderson was not lying when he said that his task could be achieved in the confines of a single volume. Sadly, this also implies that Jordan himself might have written another six books in the main series, compared to the three that I’m reasonably certain Sanderson will stick to.

I couldn’t get enough of this book, and I’m really lucky to have had the chance to take time off work (to go to Japan to get a new visa for Korea) to dedicate myself to reading it. Although there are plenty of writers I would rate higher than Robert Jordan, the depth, complexity and vibrance of the world of The Wheel of Time are really second to none. Despite the fact that I like and respect other stories more than TWoT, it’s the series that I have most affection for (The Lord of the Rings might give it a run for it’s money, though).

I look forward eagerly to The Towers of Midnight and, beyond that, the series conclusion – A Memory of Light.

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Exchange rate watch

1 GBP = 1725.841 KRW
1 GBP = 1.1182 EUR
1 GBP = 1.5291 USD

Bonus Exchange Rate

1 GBP = 137.9281 JPY (Japanese yen)

The pound is at the weakest I’ve ever known it against the won – which is good for me (at least it would be if I transferred money to my UK account). Hopefully this will last for a while and I can move some of my ill-gotten gains into my savings account. (I haven’t been able to do this recently because you need pay statements, and, not working strictly in accordance with the law, I don’t have any pay statements for my new job yet. Soon, though, with any luck.)

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Iain Banks’s most recent book is a science fiction novel – even though it’s published under his non-sf nom de plume. I suppose this is a marketing thing, but maybe he’s just decided to do away with his sf pseudonym, Iain M Banks.

Unlike just about all of his science fiction books, it’s not a space opera, nor is it a Culture story; it’s also very much Earth-based and flashback-laden. It is, therefore, superficially a lot like his literary fiction novels, but it is definitely sf.

It’s about the Concern, or l’Expédience, a multiple reality-spanning organisation based on a version of Earth where everyone (or a sizeable minority of people) are Aware, able to travel between realities and into host bodies with the aid of a drug called septus. The Concern’s business is, on the face of it, benign: saving the lives of people who will be important in the future, assassinating unsavoury characters, providing the odd nudge here and there for the good of mankind. Whether this mission is the Concern’s true concern is part of the story that unfolds.

Each chapter is divided into a varying number of sections, each coming under the heading of the name or a description of the character who is the focus of that section. The main characters thus described are Patient 8262, the Transitionary (transitionary being a term for someone who can jump into other bodies in other realities), the Philosopher, Adrian and Madame d’Ortolan. As you’d expect from an Iain Banks novel, the titles of the first three characters are deliberately used to conceal their identities.

Each of the main characters (except d’Ortolan) is written in first person persective, present tense. There are so many flashbacks in the story that it’s often difficult to remember that the characters are speaking in the present tense. There are also a few sections where the first person is replaced by the third. There’s one part where this makes sense, but on other occasions I didn’t see the logic of it.

I started off enjoying this book immensely. The classic Banksian techniques and style and the fascinating scenario really hooked me. The writing is efficient and engaging all the way through. The use of concealed identities, multiple viewpoints, mulitple timelines and the slow revealing of information created an impression of layers of intrugue, both in terms of the plot and the reader’s understanding of the plot.

There are some wonderfully intense passages. The part where the Philosopher describes his family – how his abusive father rapes his mother just after she’s come home from giving birth to the character’s sister – is utterly chilling – as is the Philopher’s subsequent life and career. Patient 8262’s descriptions of the assissinations he’s committed are classic Banks – creative and sadistic.

Ultimately, however, despite everything it has going for it, the book didn’t fulfil its early promise. Concealing the identities of the characters turned out to be pointless. Structurally, the book resembles Banks wonderful Use of Weapons and I think he was trying to pull the same trick, but when the truth was revealed it didn’t have any force. I feel that one of the viewpoints – maybe a fifth of the book – could be completely excised at no loss to the story.

The pacing didn’t feel right at a crucial point in the story. More than halfway through, there is an important turning point. The next two or three chapters are full of things that happened in the past. The reader is left hanging in a most annoying way. Then the main character develops superpowers akin to Paul Atreides at the end of Dune and in Dune Messiah. And the most important character in the story, the one who understands everything and who finally solves the issue isn’t a viewpoint character, but someone who turns up every now and then.

I almost feel that Iain Banks spoiled this novel by wanting to write it like Iain Banks. It wasn’t bad – it certainly had some great elements, not least the world-building – but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it should have been.

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I wouldn’t normally write a review of a book I’ve done with students in the course of my job – I’ve certainly never done it before. Most of the so-called novels read by kids studying English in Korea are abridged versions of classic literature and have little appeal to anyone. I’m still teaching some classes with books like that, but I also have the privilege of teaching a number of reading classes, two of which are doing Louis Sachar (pronounced ‘sacker’) books.

Holes is the story of Stanley Yelnats (whose name is the same backwards as forwards). He gets sent to a juvenile detention centre, Camp Green Lake, for a crime he didn’t commit (stealing the stinky secondhand shoes of a famous baseball player) where his past catches up with him. Not his own past, actually. His story doesn’t start with being sent to the dried up lake in the middle of the desert, nor does it start with being hit on the head with a pair of sneakers that fell off a bridge.

It starts in the nineteenth century with Stanley’s no-good-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather, Elya. A local gypsy woman, Madame Zeroni, helps him have a chance winning the hand in marriage of a young woman who’s just about to turn fifteen. Unfortunately, Elya forgets to honour his side of the bargain, so he and his descendants are cursed. Elya’s son, Stanley Yelnats (the present day hero of the novel is the fourth to bear that name) is robbed of all his money by an outlaw named Kissin’ Kate Barlow. She used to be a teacher in the town of Green Lake (in the days when there was a lake), but love turned to tragedy, which turned her to crime.

I don’t want to seem like I’m giving away all the plot, but the interaction of the plot and the backstory is part of what makes Holes such a great novel. One of the vocabulary words I picked out for my students was ‘interwoven’, and that’s exactly how the book is. Everything is significant – location, names, history.

It’s also very moving and honest, without being excessively brutal. It is fairly brutal in places – the warden paints her nails with varnish mixed with rattlesnake venom (and uses them), one of the camp counsellors gets smashed in the face with a spade (and deserves it). It’s also a story of redemption for Stanley and his family and for the friend he makes at Camp Green Lake.

The only not so good thing about the book was the ending – it was cloyingly cheesy.

That aside, this was an excellent book, winner of numerous deserved awards, and not just a book for kids.

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This is the second volume in the Otherland series, and, just as the first one was entertaining and interesting, so was this one. The stories of Renie and !Xabbu, Orlando and Sam, Paul, Dread and Jongleur continue, and are joined by a few other protagonists.

Now trapped in the Otherland network – a series of ultra-realistic virtual realities linked by portals – the first four of the protagonists mentioned above flounder about, get separated from their companions and slowly start to piece together the purpose of Otherland. The bad guys have their own problems as the network displays signs of instability, but this side of things is not given much page time. Dread becomes a murderer in the network as well as in real life, but the identity of his avatar is concealed from the reader, making this book into something of a mystery novel.

This book continues the good work of the first, so there isn’t really much for me to add beyond what I wrote a few weeks ago about City of Golden Shadow. Throughout the course of volume two, the characters slowly start to find their feet and, by the end of it, you get the feeling that they will start to be the masters of their own destinies in book three.

I look forward to reading it.

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To Osaka

I’m in Osaka. The reason for this being my need to get a new visa. It should have been child’s play to get my previous visa sponsor changed, but with my original employer not existing any more and the subsequent employer not being bothered with trivialities like Immigration Law, that wasn’t possible (or it was too much trouble, anyway). So, we’ve submitted a whole new batch of visa application-related documents and I’m now in Japan to await a visa application number so I can pick my new visa from the consulate here in Osaka (wherever that might be – I’ll have to look into that).

On the way over, I was worried that there might be a problem exiting Korea. I have, after all, not been resident there strictly legally for the six months. But, when I got to the Immigration control, the female officer did the usual stuff, scanning my passport and so on, then let me go through. Before I did, I gave her back my Alien Registration Card and she asked, ‘Finishy?’ (she seemed to pronounce the f correctly, but added the extra syllable at the end). I said, Yes, she took the card off me, stamped it and that was that.

The flight over was unremarkable. There were no problems at Osaka Kansai Airport, except for getting away from it. My colleague Seong-uk had recommended that I get a travel pass. It cost £40 for three days, so I decided I’d give it a miss. After wandering round for a long time thinking about it, I finally bought myself a ticket for the train, went through the ticket gates and got on the one that was waiting to leave.

I didn’t think much of the rail line. It was old and badly signed. Nevertheless I got to my station, Shin Imamiya, and, after consulting various maps, headed off to my nearby hotel, the Ranzai South.

If you’re wondering where the Raizan North might be located, the answer is simple: the North and South hotels are two halves of the same building. I’m guessing one is singles and the other is doubles – or there may be some other basic differentiation.

The guys at Reception have been very helpful and informative. They seem to have a set routine of information they give each guest: key deposit (¥1000, about £8), location of facilities, how to get in and out late at night and so on. The room is tiny. There are hotels in Japan called capsule hotels, in which the rooms are about the size of a single bed, with enough room to sit up but no more; they’re stacked two high on each floor. My room at the Raizan is bigger than those, but not by much. It’s about 10 feet long, 6 feet high and 5 feet 8 inches wide. I can estimate this latter dimension accurately because I turned sideways on my bed and had just enough space to fit my 5′ 7″.

There’s a TV, but it has very few channels – none in English – one of which was showing porn when I tried it, but with the best bits pixellated out. There’s also a small fridge. I unplugged the TV and video (there’s a big selection of VHS tapes in various languages down in the lobby) and plugged in my (Habiba’s) adaptor. The place is costing ¥2200 a night, about £17.

The silly thing about my stay here is that my colleagues believed I needed to leave the country (Korea) expeditiously because Immigration were only going to start processing my new visa once I’d left. My first two full days here will be Saturday and Sunday – and no one’s going to be processing anything at the weekend.

My colleagues booked my flight over, but I paid for it. I’m going to be reimbursed for that (about £220), but all my personal expenses while I’m here will be coming out of my own pocket (and not being reimbursed). I’m also not going to be paid for the time I’m missing – and I have to teach some of the classes I’ll be missing next Saturday (in return for which I’ll get some time off the following Monday).

I don’t really have any idea how long I’ll be here. It all depends on how fast my visa issuance number is issued and how quickly my visa itself is issued. Everyone’s hoping/predicting I’ll be back by the end of next week.

I’ll let you know.

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