Beautiful Games

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Still from Mountain by David OReilly

The latest gaming innovations are increasingly sophisticated and fantastical. A mysterious, floating, rotating mountain is the strangely beautiful new game from David O’Reilly, the digital artist who created the animations for Her. As far as gaming goes, Mountain is hardly high-octane – O’reilly calls it a “relax-em-up” – but it’s absorbing all the same. The mountain, which is generated according to the player’s drawn responses to a couple of questions, is better described as an “ambient companion”.

It continues to slowly turn in the background while you’re working away on your computer (or smartphone), but changes gradually – and beautifully – over time, as weather, wildlife and marooned objects (meteors, sailboats, giant padlocks) change its landscape.

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HomeMake by Cory Seeger and Matthew Conway

The urban dreamscapes of HomeMake were created to allow players to explore architecture. Designed by two architecture students, players complete traditional gaming elements like puzzles and quests, but the landscape is defined by the player and constantly evolves as a result.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/franklincosgrove/homemake/widget/video.html According to makers Cory Seeger and Matthew Conway: “The main gameplay mechanic is the character swap, a mind transfer between characters. Each character has a unique perception and platforming technique connected to the world, creating a different exploration experience with each character.” The game has just been successfully funded on Kickstarter and is in development for iOS, Windows and Linux.

I originally wrote this post for uniquestyleplatform.com

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The path not taken

Automated systems pretty much run our lives at this point, removing much of the need  – and the ability – to choose. They may make our lives easier, but are we increasingly offshoring our own choices? Algorithms define our Google searches, our Amazon purchases and the ads we see online, as well as things in the real world: they can create museum displays, design products and publish newspapers. They’re very clever, sure. But they increasingly define our interactions with, and understanding of, the world.

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Chairs designed by algorithm, by Autodesk

Amazon’s algorithm notices that I bought some children’s books, and then endlessly suggests kids’ products and parenting stuff as a result, in spite of the fact that they were a one-off purchase. Netflix notes that I watched some superhero film, then endlessly brings up all kinds of crappy sci-fi, in spite of the fact that the superhero film was a hungover choice that i’d be unlikely to make again. The basic premise of each of these services – If you liked that, you’ll like this –  funnels my choices into an increasingly narrow focus.

TV channels and movie studios are just as bad – if that one film was popular, lets make a bunch of sequels and prequels. If people watched that crime show, let’s make loads more like it.  What about surprise, choice, the shock of the new? And of course FOMO – what are we missing out on if we just follow the route created for us?

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Scene from the rejected pilot for Wonder Woman

A handful of innovators are looking to escape from the world of automated choices and explore the path not taken. Streaming service Screenhits is launching a Pilot Showcase, which aims to give airtime to TV shows that were rejected by studio executives. The site will offer 50 pilot shows for streaming for six months,allowing show-makers to recoup their costs, but also allowing advertisers and other studios to take on the projects and develop them into whole series.

Viewers can watch the shows for free, supported by advertising, and can pre-order any pilots that end up getting made. Shows that have been closed down by networks – such as Arrested Development and Community – have been revitalised online, so perhaps this service can lead viewers to discover new and interesting content that they actually want to support, rather than just absorbing the choices made for them.

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Death of the mallrat

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Photography by Seph Lawless

While it may seem unlikely on a packed Saturday at Westfield, the communal shopping experience of malls – going “into town” on a Saturday to find a going-out dress or new bedlinen, queueing for a purchase, cramming into communal changing rooms and battling crowds at sale time – is on its way out.With it, the icons of youthful commercialism, the Mallrats, will be a thing of the past too, as many teens’ first experience of shopping-as-pastime will be online, not in store. In the US, online shopping is taking 6% of malls’ trade, while in the UK, there’s a higher percentage of empty units in shopping centres (16%) than in high streets (9.6%).

But it’s not just the internet that is preventing people from venturing to these vast retail hubs – it’s also the effort and the cost. Why pay out for a day trip to fill your car or your arms at retail parks and mega-malls, when you can browse online stores from the comfort of your home, and get your goods delivered for free. Convenience also plays a major part, with consumers considering themselves too busy to spend time journeying to, and then traipsing around, an out-of-town shopping centre. Local shops, online stores and m-commerce offer much more appealing options for the young, super-busy, urban shopper.

Dying mall culture has already affected the fortunes of key teen brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale, which are now struggling to keep up with teens’ changing shopping attitudes. Long trading on their destination stores, their in-store experience (Abercrombie’s being the most notorious), and the cool factor of their wearing their branded tees and sweats (and, of course, carrying their bags around the mall), these mall staples are losing their lustre. Instead of buying these logo’d clothes, teens are funnelling their spending into their mobile devices. As a result, phones and tablets become their gateway to shopping experiences, keeping them away from the mall – and mall brands.

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Photography by Seph Lawless

The Retail Gazette has warned that for UK malls and retail parks, “there is a danger that larger spaces will turn into empty buildings, with only tumbleweed passing through them”. In the US, this is already happening, as shown in photographer Seph Lawless‘s eerie new book, Black Friday: Death Of The American MallThe book documents the deserted landscape of the once-bustling Rolling Acres Mall in Ohio, which had gradually fallen into disuse and disrepair. While the mall closed in 2008, some retailers attempted to keep standalone stores going until 2013, but eventually gave up the ghost, leaving these crumbling monuments to our once-beloved mall culture.

I originally wrote this post for uniquestyleplatform.com

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The Hunger Games’ fictional fashion world

Whether you’re a fan of the $1.5bn The Hunger Games franchise or not, the visual language created for the films is impressive, from the impoverished outlying districts, to the rich and wasteful Capitol. In many ways a celebration of the costume designer’s art, each district in the fictional world of Panem, where the stories are set, has a distinct palette of colour, silhouette and materials.

Poster images for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One

Teaser poster images for upcoming The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

These newly released poster images have a Soviet-style feel, promoting the heroism of the humble workers of each district, with inventive and witty use of materials for the Transport, Grain and Lumber districts.

The film-makers are adept at using social and viral media to blur the boundaries between the fictional world of The Hunger Games and the real world that it satirises. As the promotional juggernaut revs up for the forthcoming Mockingjay Part 1, out in November 2014, expect to see glimpses of Panem creeping into everyday life. Panem’s autocratic government already has its own website, which recently released this beautifully blanc new teaser trailer – the monochrome white setting adds to the chilling tone of the propaganda.

Meanwhile, the frivolous, outré style of the Capitol is glossily and excitedly chronicled at fictional fashion magazine Capitol CoutureThe site also profiles innovative real designers such as Peter Popps, Stella Jean and Lucy McRae.

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Cover Girl’s beauty collection for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in 2013

The first two films, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, have already been influential on major brands: costume designer Trish Summerville has collaborated with Net-A-Porter to bring the style of Panem to the real world, while the OTT beauty style of Capitol citizens was encapsulated by Cover Girl. Details of Mockingjay-branded collections are yet to be released, but we expect them to be equally high-profile.

I originally wrote this post for uniquestyleplatform.com

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Rise of the Peacock

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Burberry Prorsum a/w 14/15

Back from the realms of aesthetes and lumberjacks, menswear is getting a new peacockish air. In recent seasons, we have found the menswear shows more inspiring than the more dominant womenswear fashion weeks, while the current batch of graduates are showing a newly confident, even cocky, style of menswear.

We’re seeing menswear become an increasingly important part of the fashion world, as changing ideas of masculinity encourage men to be bolder with their style choices, and the saturated fashion market shifts its focus to underserved men.

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Nike Elite sports socks

According to NPD, the growth of menswear sales has exceeded those of womenswear for the last two years, while HSBC is encouraging luxury brands to focus on the Young, Urban, Male shopper (horribly dubbed the Yummy). These luxury shoppers now account for 40% of global luxury sales, but as much as 55% of luxury purchases in China. Now Prada is planning to open 50 new menswear stores in the next 3 years (up from 4 stores opened in 2013).

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Mr Porter style guide

And men are revelling in the new attention being paid to the design of their clothes, from shorter shorts and better-fitting shirts to brightly coloured socks. While high fashion is going more peacocky, many men are still used to safe, reliable classics and slowly evolving styles, but they’re dipping their toes in the water with the help of expert guides. A new wave of personal stylists for men are helping the less adventurous to explore their style, while handy guides on Mr Porter help men to be more adventurous with new trends.

I originally wrote this post for uniquestyleplatform.com

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Learning to work

Now that I’m freelance, all my writing and trending energy has had to go into client work, so i’ve had less time for blog posts.

Protein Journal - the Work Issue

Protein Journal – the Work Issue

Here’s an extract from a piece i did for the great Protein Journal, out now

The path from education to employment used to be straightforward, but with fewer permanent jobs available and a glut of graduates, youth unemployment is a now major issue.  24.4% of under-25s in the Eurozone were reported to be unemployed at the end of 2013, while in the UK, there are 3.74 times more jobless under-25s than the national average. At the same time, higher education costs are rocketing – US education costs have gone up 400% since 1980 – leading many to find new paths between learning and employment.

Gensler senior associate Maria Nesdale comments, “Students are now clients and they are voting with their feet – they’re demanding more out of their education, and will go wherever offers the best value.” According to a poll by Time magazine and the Carnegie Corporation, 80% of US adults believe that the education received at most colleges is not worth it; 41% of college presidents and senior administrators agreed.

One of the key elements of the new value equation is, “will this course land me a job?”, so brand-savvy students are looking for opportunities to bridge the gap between business and education in innovative ways. Nesdale says, “The relationship between learning and work is getting closer every year – universities are starting to adopt corporate methods, while big companies are getting more involved with learning”.

Femi Bola MBE, director of employability and student enterprise at the University of East London, is collaborating with major London businesses to give students insight into the real necessities of the modern workplace. “The skills needed by employers are rarely fostered in traditional education: they’re looking for business acumen, great written and spoken communication, and an entrepreneurial attitude”, she says.

Entrepreneurial spirit is not lacking in the current crop of university students and graduates. A 2013 survey by the Kauffman foundation found that 54% of US millennials want to start their own business or have already started one, while BMO data suggests that 46% of students want to start their own business.

Hyper Island, Manchester

Hyper Island, Manchester

Chicago’s Starter School and the Boston-based Startup Institute are reinventing traditional business schools for entrepreneurs by offering courses that focus less on management theory and more on knowledge that’s directly applicable to current market needs. Starter School’s 9-month course on the coding, design, and business skills to build web apps is not cheap at  $33,000, but still beats the six-figure fees for leading MBA courses. Both schools emphasise their connection to industry, with Startup Institute students working with real startups, while Starter School participants spend 3 days a week working on projects for businesses such as Twitter’s Bluefin Labs.

It’s not just about breaking out on your own, though: many students and graduates are looking for innovative courses that augment traditional qualifications and boost their employment options. Hyper Island and General Assembly are very modern learning institutions, offering courses in highly marketable skills including app development, data analysis, digital strategy and user experience design. The idea seems to be working: General Assembly reports that 97% of the graduates of its 12-week immersive programmes find paid work within 90 days of graduating, and it now has campuses in innovation capitals including Sydney, London, New York, San Francisco and Berlin.

Mozilla Open Badges

Mozilla Open Badges

These kinds of education incubators – to borrow a term from the startup world – are just part of education’s new guard. As Megan Cole, Mozilla’s Marketing Strategy Lead, points out, “Today, modern learning institutions are empowering learning to go beyond just the traditional classroom and thrive in the online environment. They rely on technology as a way to help extend and transform learning all across the world”. MOOCs – or Massive Open Online Courses – have been hailed as the future of education, with venerable institutions from Harvard and MIT to Princeton and King’s College London throwing their hats into the ring. Leading MOOCs include Udacity, with over 750,00 registered users worldwide; EdX, which offers over a hundred short online courses to its 1.8m students; and Coursera,  serving 4m learners.

While some of the initial excitement around MOOCs has died down, new elements are being introduced to give them greater relevance to business, from new qualification standards such as Mozilla’s Open Badges, to brand-sponsored courses. Udacity is working with six major companies, including Google and Microsoft, to create classes in high-value skills such as 3D graphics and Android app development, while branding giant Wolff Olins has partnered with FutureLearn to develop a course on The Secret Power of Brands.

Cole comments, “Learning today looks very different than previously imagined. Learning is not just ‘seat time’ within schools, but extends across multiple contexts, experiences and interactions. It is no longer just an isolated or individual concept, but is inclusive, social, informal, participatory, creative and lifelong.”

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Being Mindful

I did a little piece for the excellent The Women’s Room blog about the rise of mindfulness culture, and the best mindfulness tools – check it out here, or an extract below…

2014 has been dubbed “the year of mindful living” – mindfulness  is a kind of meditation-lite, which encourages you to focus on how you feel, what you’re doing and what you think about things.

Research suggests that it can boost the immune system, alleviate medical conditions including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and chronic pain, and also help with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, phobias and eating disorders.

Major brands and institutions are introducing mindfulness training as a way to help staff be happier and more productive, from Google and Transport for London to Nike, KPMG and the Home Office. Being mindful can be as simple as focusing on your breathing for a few minutes, or “body scanning”, which encourages you to think about how each part of your body feels.

But one of the key ways people are practicing mindfulness is through their smartphones. It seems odd that the vanguard of easy mindfulness training actually springs from the same place that causes us so much stress, but according to Nathaneal Wolfe and Walter Roth, co-creators of the Mindfulness Daily app, “Technology is a tool, and just as a knife can be weapon or an eating utensil, an iPhone can access the world of information, or be a propagator of fractured attention, weakened relationships, drain of creativity and reinforcer of introversion”. So here’s some of the top mobile mindfulness tools…

Headspace 3Headspace is probably one of the most popular mindfulness apps – it was created by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, who guides you through a course of 10-minute meditation sessions for 10 days. Headspace calls the app “mediation for modern life”, and is designed to fit into spare moments in your day.  Free for iPhone and Android.

The magnificent Arianna Huffington is a huge advocate of the benefits of mindfulness, and has launched an app, called GPS for the Soul (free for iPhone or Android), that measures your stress levels and offers expert guides to help restore mental balance. You can also choose things that can help you feel calm, whether it’s music and poetry, breathing exercises, yoga, mediation or pictures of loved ones.

Relatively new to the block is Mindfulness Daily, and my personal favourite, not only because its creators Nathaneal Wolfe and Walter Roth are so lovely. The app offers lots of different ways to get mindful, from 15-second “pauses” to allow you to focus on your breathing, to body scanning, and even “device meditation”, which uses the shape and sensations of your smartphone to help you focus and relax. Free on iPhone.

And if you really want to be totally 2014, invest in Melon, a headband that helps monitor the brain’s focus during different activities. It’s $149, but if you want to look like a futuristic hippie and know what your brain is up to, it’s priceless. Wearables + mindfulness? You cannot get more “now” than this.

 

Enviro-elitism

As the rain is pouring down and the floodwaters are creeping up, it seems that extreme weather is the new normal. Vast swathes of the US, UK and Asia are becoming inadvisable places to live if you don’t want to put up with (at best) major disruption or (at worst)  risk injury and death. Australia is increasingly getting swallowed up by the desert at its heart, while America’s eastern seaboard seems cursed with storms, hurricanes and polar vortexes. It’s starting to become clear that living in vulnerable areas could be asking for trouble, which is why a new initiative in Nigeria hopes to create a luxurious enclave safe from environmental ravages.

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The Eko Atlantic project, launched in 2003, is a man-made island off the coast of Lagos, that aims to become a shining new 10 sq km city (the same size as New York City) by 2020. It may sound like one of those construction magnate’s follies, like the Palm Jumeirah and its novelty-island kind, but the Eko has been built precisely to safeguard its well-heeled inhabitants and businesses from environmental extremes. While the rest of the coast of Nigeria is under threat from rising sea levels, Eko has its own 8km-long sea barrier to keep it safe from encroaching tides, plus an independent water and energy supply to keep it going when mainland services falter. But such a glittering metropolis is not open to all, as only the elite can afford to live on Eko Atlantic, creating what Martin Lukacs in The Guardian calls “climate apartheid” :

“Eko Atlantic is where you can begin to see a possible future – a vision of privatized green enclaves for the ultra rich ringed by slums lacking water or electricity, in which a surplus population scramble for depleting resources and shelter to fend off the coming floods and storms,” says Lukacs. “Protected by guards, guns, and an insurmountable gully – real estate prices – the rich will shield themselves from the rising tides of poverty and a sea that is literally rising.”

With my futurist hat on, it seems that safety from floods and other extreme weather effects will become a more important consideration for many people when thinking about where to live. The Location, Location, Location decisions will increasingly incorporate distance from flood plains or the coast, shelter from high winds and independent energy and water supplies, rather than the usual priorities of  proximity to transport or ability to extend property. That’s all very well and good for the middle classes, who have some flexibility about where they choose to live, but those who have little choice due to financial, work or family needs could be stuck in the danger zones because they can’t afford to live somewhere safer. The affluent are safe on their high ground while the poor must bail out the homes and fields. That’s enviro-elitism right there.

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Flawless strength

Amidst all the noise about Beyonce’s new “surprise album” is a seeming shift in policy from Queen Bey. After sidestepping the inevitable “are you a feminist” question for a good few years — disappointing cultural commentators and fans alike — she’s now smartly aligning herself with feminism without actually answering the question, by sampling author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s great TEDTalk on new track Flawless.

I’m ashamed to say i hadn’t watched Adichie’s talk before (there’s really a lot of TEDTalks and only so much time in the day!), but, led by Bey, i was captivated by it (as I’m sure many more fans will be). Powerful, thoughtful, touching and funny, the author talks about how women make themselves smaller to be less threatening to men, pretending to be less than they are and turning that pretence into an art form.

She also raises the excellent point that many of the characteristics that led men to be more prominent (such as physical strength) are decreasingly important in modern business, which instead prizes intelligence, creativity and innovation. Many writers and commentators say that these are “feminine” qualities, but I rather disagree (not least because it seems a conciliatory gesture  – “Men may rule the world, but women are creative, nurturing” etc.) Like Adichie, I believe that neither gender owns these talents or skills – they are up to an individual to cultivate and explore. Ascribing certain values to one gender or another – no matter if they are positive or not – keeps people in gender boxes, dictating who we should be rather than who we are. And while physical strength may have lost its prominence, the strength we gain — men or women — from being ourselves is an increasingly important currency. 

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Status update anxiety

Another extract from my conspicuous experience work for Viewpoint, this time looking at the downside…

With experience-driven consumption becoming the new status marker, social media, from Facebook to Instagram has become the shop window for people to sell the idea of their fabulous lives. But while consumers may feel relieved of the pressure to buy physical status symbols, they feel increasingly pressurised to showcase perfect lifestyles and experiences.

I share, therefore I am

Social media has helped shift the pursuit of experience from something personal and even spiritual to a trading card in the game of one-upmanship. And as people increasingly live online, the version of their lives that they choose to share on social networks can shape how others see them and how they see themselves too.

“Facebook has become a place where we brag”, says Nataly Kogan, founder of positivity-based social network Happier.com. “Our social circles on there are so vast and diverse, people feel like they’re on stage on Facebook”. According to a 2012 JWT survey, three quarters of US and UK consumers feel people use social media to brag about their lives, while nearly 6 in 10 felt that it was important that their social media presence conveyed a certain image about them – what the New Yorker calls a “casual predominance of personal branding”. Instagram alone has over 90m photos with hashtag #me – with a further 23m with the ultimate identity hashtag #selfie.

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With each brag, each filtered and curated experience posted online, consumers may aim to show off their lovely lives and boost their status, but they’re creating angst too. Kogan says “It makes sense that when people compare their own real life to others’ shiny, curated posts, they feel bad. While consumers know the effort that goes into creating their own perfected image of their awesome lifestyle and experiences, this knowledge deserts them when looking at others’ images.

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A study by researchers at two German universities shows that social media can be a minefield of insecurity and envy. Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction found that a third of people felt worse about their lives after visiting Facebook, especially after viewing others’ holiday photos or their social interactions and “likes”. The report also found that men and women tried to make their lives look better on Facebook by highlighting their personal achievements, social lives and their looks, but this can generate an “envy spiral” as people try to out-do each other with increasingly glowing images of their lifestyles.

A US survey by NBC’s Today show found that even Pinterest creates feelings of failure among women, who feel unable to live up to the perfect homes, crafts and kids’ parties that they see showcased on the site. 42% of mothers are stressed by trying to live up to these images of perfect family life, while the pressure to take pictures of every important family experience causes stress for 83%. Indeed, Kogan believes that rather than simply enjoying experiences, consumers are focusing on how they’ll look to their social network: “Instead of looking at that beautiful sunrise or tasting that delicious dinner, they’re trying to capture it for social media.”

Going dark

Consumers are beginning to question the way that sharing an experience can get in the way of experiencing it. Kogan believes “There is a focus shift towards appreciating what’s actually happening in our lives, not curating an epic version of it online”. One way to achieve this is for social media to stop getting in the way of enjoying experiences. A recent campaign by McCann Australia (under the guise of graduate Alex Haigh) encourages people to stop “phubbing” – “the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention”. The website StopPhubbing.com suggests that the average restaurant will see 36 cases of phubbing per dining session, with the majority of phubbers using their phones to make status updates.  My Phone Is Off For You aims to counteract the problem of distracted smartphone users, by wrapping smartphones in a “phonekerchief” that blocks network service. Spanish phone network Movistar has launched an app called app I Off You that helps people enjoy mobile-free time with their nearest and dearest. Users activate an “enjoy” button when they want downtime, and if anyone reaches for their handset, an alarm sounds, demanding that the phone be left on the table.

Phonekerchief

The jury is still out on whether wearable technology like Google Glass can allow consumers to capture their experiences without detracting from them – several fashion insiders wore them during the spring/summer 2014 catwalk shows, but the technology is not yet seamless enough to allow recording and sharing without fiddling with the mechanism.  Instead, the new wave of wearable cameras, such as the Narrative Clip or The Autographer, quietly capture moments of the user’s day at regular intervals, creating a more realistic representation of their experiences. Kogan also points to ephemeral photo messaging service Snapchat as an example of sharing true moments as they happen, without the filter of trying to perfect one’s identity.

While experts expect the drive for experiences to continue to grow, the way they are recorded and  showcased is changing. The drive to keep up with the virtual Joneses may be a part of online living, but services that empower people to share what their lives are really like and allow people to connect in a more real way, could help conspicuous experience gain a new level of authenticity – and power.

Images from top: Happier.com; Planet Fitness No Pintimidation campaign; My Phone Is Off For You phonekerchief

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