Intentions


The Olympics are about collaboration as much as competition

At Idealist, the sporting world is not our usual beat. The Olympic Games, however, hit us where we live as an inspiring, international gathering of outstanding individuals and teams. So we’re taking this opportunity to pay homage to excellent athletes, winter beauty, fun games, and a host of other concepts we could tie (even tenuously) to Sochi. Welcome to Olympics Week on Idealists in Action.

When you think of the Olympics, you probably don’t think of international collaboration. In fact, many of the most famous moments from past Olympic Games are competitive struggles between two nations.

However, the Olympics would never be possible without an impressive effort by each country involved to set aside their differences and come together for two weeks every four years.

This year, the Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi, Russia. Amidst the controversy surrounding the current games, it’s easy to forget that multiple Olympics have been boycotted for various reasons. In recent history, the United States and its allies boycotted the 1980 Olympics held by the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union and its allies returned the favor when Los Angeles played host in 1984.

Adorable bear mascot or not, Jimmy Carter definitely boycotted the 1980 summer games in Moscow because of US/Soviet relations.

Adorable bear mascot or not, Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 summer games in Moscow due to poor U.S.-Soviet relations. (image vis Dmitri Melnik/Shutterstock)

In short, it takes a massive amount of compromise, understanding, and cooperation to host the Olympics, and we at Idealist would like to celebrate Russia for taking on the task. Yet we know this endeavor is just one collaboration taking place between our two former-enemy countries every day, and we thought we’d take this opportunity to highlight another excellent example that’s about to get underway.

The National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) is a combination museum, exhibition space, and research organization based in Moscow. It was established in 1992, around the same time the Russian Federation was created from the fall of the Soviet Union. Its mission is to aid the development of contemporary Russian art within a global context.

To do this, the NCCA often partners with arts organizations from other countries. On February 23rd, the last day of the Olympics, the NCCA will welcome the venerable experimental, collaborative new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars to Moscow. These visitors from New York City will participate in a five-day residency with 11 Russian artists in a partnership they’re calling the Bang on a Can Institute. If you’re in the Moscow area around the end of this month, you can check out one of the group’s performances.

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Experimental music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars will be welcomed to Moscow for a five-day residency immediately following the Olympics. [image via Stereogum]

By entering into this collaboration, all the musicians involved will learn something new and have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of their craft. Just think of the many other masterful musical collaborations that have taken place through the ages (particularly in the 1980’s)! Of course, regardless of what these musicians compose together, the cultural interchange will be worth the effort.

So when you’re watching the Olympics over the next two weeks, remember that the games aren’t just about getting a gold medal. They’re also about international unity, and about the hope that we can create a better world by interacting with and learning from people that come from different nations and cultures.

And, of course, they’re about curling.

What are some of your favorite international collaborations?

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People in the Global South are wearing impossible t-shirts

Following last Sunday’s punishing Super Bowl, we came across this interesting Mental Floss article that gave us pause. It begins:

After a Big Game in any sport, fans and players are going to be clamoring for commemorative merchandise, often just minutes after the game ends. To meet this demand and cash in on the wallet-loosening “We’re #1” euphoria, manufacturers and retailers produce and stock two sets of t-shirts, hats and other merchandise, declaring each team the champ.

Huh! So that means the world is now in possession of a great grip of “Broncos: Super Bowl XLVIII Champs”-printed textiles, yeah? What on earth can be done with them?!

Apparently, until 1996, the suckers were just incinerated. What a waste! But since then, the nonprofit World Vision has been collecting and distributing the swag to less affluent people overseas.

This interesting infographic tells the tale:

nfl infographic updated1 Where Does The Merchandise Go From Losing Super Bowl Teams? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Interesting infographic courtesy of Blue Soda Promo

The recycling/waste-not-want-not aspect of this strikes us as pretty cool, but it’s also a bit weird, isn’t it? Or at least a bit surreal. All over the world, every year, more and more people are wearing clothes that appear to be commemorating major American sporting events—but they’re all completely fictional.

What’s your take on all this? Tell us in the comments.

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Floating the idea: Weather balloons spread uncensored information to North Koreans

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.

At Idealist, we envision a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives, and we support everyone’s right to help others. So we were interested to learn about the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF’s) recent effort to spread information to North Koreans living under censorship.

“These balloons are an information lifeline to ordinary North Koreans, who have no means to learn about the world beyond the lies of their government,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen in a press release.

“The international community often focuses on how little we know about life inside North Korea—but the real story is that North Koreans know little to nothing about the world we live in,” he continued. “Most are unaware that there is an alternative to repressive tyranny. We are helping to change that.”

Information: up, up, and away!
(image courtesy HRF)

The creative campaign made use of 20 large weather balloons that distributed information from the outside world directly to North Koreans. On January 15, the balloons traveled over the border between South Korea and North Korea, and carried leaflets with information about democracy, along with transistor radios, USBs loaded with the entire Korean Wikipedia, and even DVDs of South Korean soap operas.

The Human Rights Foundation worked with a group called Fighters for a Free North Korea to pull the launch together. A previous attempt was made in June last year, but was canceled at the last minute for fear of retaliation. At the time of this writing, it was unknown how many of the materials actually found their way into the hands of North Koreans.

Read more about the Human Rights Foundation’s launch here.

What other information-spreading efforts do you know about that have a dangerous side?

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VIDEO: Portland rocks the MLK Day of Service

This past January 20th, the Idealist video team traversed the neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon to visit some awesome service activities happening as part of the MLK Day of Service. The thousands of volunteers they encountered clearly did a lot of good for the organizations they were helping, but they also told us it wasn’t just about giving back—it was also a fun, easy, rewarding endorphin rush.

 

 

It’s always great to serve on MLK Day, but remember that orgs need help all year long. You can search for thousands of ways to give back in your community, while getting some ‘good’ yourself—just visit Idealist.org/act.

How did you serve on MLK Day this year? Would you describe it as easy and fun?

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All-male, gender-bending, Deep South dance troupe prances right into our hearts

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.
As Prancing Elites‘ captain Kentrell Collins says, “It’s OK for a woman to put on tights and play football, but when a man wants to put on a leotard and tights, it’s a problem.”

So what’s an all-male, gender-bending dance troupe from Mobile, Alabama to do?

WERK.

Photo-of-The-Prancing-Elites-Alabama-All-Male-Cheerleading-Team

Prancing to glory!
(photo via MemphisRap.com)

Prancing Elites have worked super hard in the almost 10 years since their founding: bringing their life-affirming art to new audiences; helping people rethink stereotypes about men, the South, and Spandex; and bringing back J-Setting just in time for Beyoncé to make the “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video.

Along the way, they’ve garnered a lot of Idealist-approved street cred. Highlights include:

  • Getting tweeted about by fan Shaquille O’Neal, who sent 200,000 people to a YouTube video of theirs in 48 hours.

Today, we celebrate Prancing Elites’ continuing dedication to their ideals, art, and individuality—whether the reception they face is happy or hostile. Go, guys!

Has your self-expression ever caused a stir? Tell us about it in the comments.

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The myth of “stranger danger” (and what to do about it)

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Seems like it should be easy enough to make a new friend in the comfort of our own city or town, right?

Many of us encounter hundreds of people over the course of our day, but how often do we actually say hello and make conversation? If you’re like me, probably not very often. Most people (myself included) can be shy about interacting with strangers, because we fear we might somehow be taken advantage of.

But do we really have reason to be so concerned?

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“Hey, is that tea good?” Why not strike up a conversation with a stranger and see if you can make a new friend?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

In 2010, at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers Detlef Fetchenhauer and David Dunning created an economic game that required people to accurately judge the trustworthiness of strangers in order to win. They found that participants considered 52% of strangers trustworthy, even though a whopping 80% of strangers were actually deserving of their trust.

The big takeaway for me here was that the chances of encountering a trustworthy person are much greater than the chances of meeting someone who wishes you harm. If you’re super-cynical or risk-averse, you might say you’d rather practice caution than encounter someone with ill intentions. That’s fine, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll miss out on meeting the 80% of strangers who are awesome.

If that’s not enough reason to reach out, consider this: the same study also confirmed that the biggest root of our cynicism is a lack of experience with strangers. What does that mean? Well, we established that approximately 80% of people are trustworthy, but if your first few encounters with strangers involved the 20% of untrustworthy individuals, then you’ve probably become skeptical about forging new friendships with mysterious people. On the other hand, if you’ve mostly encountered strangers from the trustworthy 80%, then every stranger is likely to seem more like a potential friend than threat.

Either way, remember that the odds are in your favor. If you’ve had some negative experiences with strangers, try reaching out and increasing your sample size—you’re due for an encounter with someone belonging to that 80%.

Turning strangers into friends is easier done than said. Read that again—it’s not a typo! This is thanks to the handy-dandy method I’ve drafted for creating a more stranger-friendly community wherever you call home. Caution: it sounds a little more like a dance craze than a fail-proof method for making friends, but bear with—it is tested and true.

My prescription for stranger-friendly cities is called the “UP, down, side to side method.” (No worries if you still prefer UP, down, side to side as a dance craze—feel free to bust the moves while walking down the street. No judgment here.) However, it has little to do with shaking-it-up or shimmying-it-down and everything to do with how you interact with your surroundings:

  • Enjoy the ride. Stop thinking about transit strictly in terms of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Give yourself time to travel through your neighborhood, and as you walk, bike, bus, or drive, take in your surroundings. Look UP, down, and side to side as you journey, and consider how you might add value to your community. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, or take note of a new business in the area and plan to stop in.
  • Take a walk. Luminary author Henry David Thoreau said that an early morning walk is like a prayer for the entire day. I ‘Thorealy’ agree!, but I also go a step further and assert that walking has great value at all hours. Walks allow us to look UP, down, and side to side as we commune with our surroundings, and solo sojourns especially provide us with an opportunity to think about our communities and observe the small things that make our neighborhoods special. Try a croissant at the local bakery and leave a tip. Make conversation with your waiter. Find out when the coffee shop has poetry readings and go listen to what some “strangers” in your ‘hood have to say.
  • Commit random acts of generosity. Investing your time and energy in another human being—even a stranger—almost always provides a positive return. When we look UP, down, and side to side, we find little ways to make life nicer for the people around us. Does the woman checking out ahead of you at the grocery store need a dime so she doesn’t have to break a $20? Give her one from your pocket. Does that elderly man look like he could use a little help crossing that icy street? Offer him your arm.
  • Invite someone to dinner. If you’ve ever lived alone, you understand how difficult it can be to cook for just one. Two can even be trying, as many recipes are written for families of four. So instead of dividing a recipe, why not invite the neighbors to dinner? Even (or especially) if you don’t know them well. If nothing else, it will save you the headache of division! And now—I don’t even need to say it, do I?—pause before you start cooking, look UP, down, side to side, and consider who else could be sitting at your table. Then call them. All of them.
  • Say hello without words. A welcome mat is a quick and easy way to welcome visitors and passersby even when you’re not home. If welcome mats could speak, they would say, “Hello friend! Welcome to this house. Please come inside and get cozy.” Even the humble welcome mat is aware of the importance of creating a warm community vibe. Look UP, down, side to side and figure out the best place to put that mat (probably in front of your door, but you do as you like).
  • Connect with the inspired. The Web makes it easy to contact almost anyone you admire, whether you’ve actually met them or not, so why not send a quick note to someone you think is doing good work? We can go digital with the UP, down, side to side method, too, if we use email to send kind words to deserving people. As an added perk, this kind deed helps you network with the people that inspire you the most.

My final plea comes even more directly from the heart: I ask you to be the type of person that shows others how kind strangers can be. We know that the most despairing communities and hardened individuals need kindness the most. So why not break the cycle and show them some goodness? Go ahead and get started with a little UP, down, and side to side action. It’s great for making friends out of strangers (and can also provide a nice little cardio workout).

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Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. She’s written about happiness experiments and proliferating kindness on Idealist, and is always cooking up something on her blog, Apartment Wife.

 

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Go ahead, keep your desk messy—science says it’s okay

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Research suggests that having a messy desk might make us more imaginative.

When it comes to workspaces, whatever works for you is best.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

As a generally unkempt person, I tend to take issue with the “messy desk, messy mind” principle that tidy folks occasionally bring up (usually with one eyebrow cocked). But it turns out that science is on my side.

New studies are showing that it’s less important to rid your workspace of clutter than it is to design and organize a space that fits with your personal tastes. When we have control over the look and feel of our workspaces, it increases our productivity and all-around efficiency.

Psychologist-turned-writer Dr. Christian Jarrett explains this—and other new workspace organization research—in the 99U article “The Perfect Workspace (According to Science)“.

Though he asserts that individual tastes rule, Jarrett does have some decor ideas that work well for most people. Try working these into your own personal decorating scheme:

Choose rounded furniture and arrange it wisely

If you have the luxury of designing your own workspace, consider choosing a layout and furniture that is curved and rounded rather than sharp and straight-edged.

Creating this environment has been linked with positive emotions, which is known to be beneficial for creativity and productivity (added bonus: there’s also less chance of knocking an elbow or knee on a sharp corner).

Take advantage of color, light, and space

Choosing the right color and lighting scheme for your office is one of the simplest ways your environment can enhance your performance.

For instance, exposure to both blue and green has been shown to enhance performance on tasks that require generating new ideas. However, the color red has been linked with superior performance on tasks involving attention to detail.

Make use of plants and windows

If you only do one thing to optimize your workspace, invest in a green plant or two.

Research has repeatedly shown that the presence of office plants has a range of benefits including helping workers recover from demanding activities and lowering stress levels.

But however you decide to decorate or organize your space, says Dr. Jarrett, the most important thing is to do whatever you can to create “an office space that you feel happy and comfortable in.”

Messy desk, it is!

What kind of space do you do your best work in? Share with us in the comments.

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Why I bought a house in Detroit for $500

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Photo by Mike Williams (via Buzzfeed)

Drew Philip boarding up the windows of his house in Detroit.
(photo by Mike Williams, via Buzzfeed)

Drew Philip was 23 years old when he bought his home in Detroit for $500 at a live county auction.

This powerful essay, originally published on Buzzfeed, chronicles how the author rebuilds his house—and makes himself a home—out an abandoned building filled with plastic bags, rotting carpet, and broken car parts.

Although Detroit has been talked about a lot lately—both as an almost post-apocalyptic cityscape of decay, and as a new hotspot for young, poor, (usually) white artists—the author describes the community he’s discovered there in terms of its kindness:

It’s been happening quietly and for some time, between transplants and natives, black and white and Latino, city and country—tiny acts of kindness repeated thousands of times over, little gardens and lots of space, long meetings and mowing grass that isn’t yours. It’s baling hay.

It’s the Detroit that’s saving itself. The Detroit that’s building something brand-new out of the cinders of consumerism and racism and escape. I’ve attended a four-person funeral for a stillborn baby that could have been saved but for poverty. I’ve nearly been shot by the police during a stop-and-frisk. I’ve seen three structure fires within a block of my house. But I’ve also walked out of my house to see hundreds of tiny snowmen built by neighborhood children. I’ve seen tears in the eyes of a grown man releasing a baby raccoon into a city park that he had saved from being beaten to death by teenagers.

Some scrappy teachers just opened a school in a formerly abandoned building behind my house. I stretched a ladder through the missing window of the abandoned house next door and nailed it to the kitchen floor to reach the peak of my own roof.

Read the full essay here.

Have you ever taken on a tough project that’s brought you a better sense of home? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Global aid workers need aid, too

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and people across the U.S. come together to help each other and work toward solving our common problems, we’d like to pose the question: what exactly is social good?

Coincidentally… Welcome to Ideal-to-Real Updates, a series where we check in with idealists taking action on their good ideas to see what they’ve been up to and what gems of wisdom they’ve been learning.

Last July, we wrote about Shannon Mouillesseaux, a New York state native with a passion for international development.

At that time, she shared with us her idea for a penpal and travel exchange project that would match at-risk students in the U.S. with kids in developing or war-affected countries.

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Shannon with a family in rural Oman.

We recently caught up with Shannon again to ask about the status of that project, and what else she’s been up to in the past year and a half. She wrote to us from her current post as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protection officer overseas, assisting refugees and helping advocate for those who are unlawfully detained.

Through the Idealist blog, I learned of a great project already underway, which has a strikingly similar objective and approach to what my project aspired to do. It’s called Project PeacePal. The executive director Sarah Wilkinson and I connected and have remained in touch to support one another. For one, I was able to refer another Idealist member who had connected with me, following the blog post, to PeacePal to assist Sarah with social media efforts.

Shannon would love to collaborate with PeacePal in the future, but she’s currently involved with all sorts of other projects: setting up iSurvived, an advocacy and support group for UNHCR staff who have survived trauma; creating a website to connect and support global aid workers around the world; and writing a children’s book series to encourage cultural and humanitarian awareness.

I am *always* working on what I call “my personal projects” on the side of my work. Most of them have a similar theme: to educate people about realities in the global South, advocate for aid workers, and help improve our development models and systems, which I think are largely outdated and in need of retooling.

I feel propelled to act on behalf of other humanitarian staff in order to better protect and support them. After all, how can we expect to be effective in our roles as development workers if we don’t first ensure that we are healthy and adequately supported? As the environments in which we work become decreasingly secure, our organizations need to take action to better prepare us, protect us, and support us. We each have a role in advocating for this, too.
Go Shannon! We’re rooting for you. Looking forward already to checking in next year.
If you’d like to help inspire young people around the world to become peace builders, connect with Project PeacePal. To learn about and support the international aid worker community, visit global aid worker.

 

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Indian Designer Sees The Dreamer In Everyone

Sonia Manchanda and the DREAM:IN project started with a simple idea: instead of asking people about their needs, find out their dreams.

As a co-founder of Idiom Design and Consulting in Bangalore, Sonia thought the design thinking approach, where solutions arise from human needs, was too simplistic and too top-down to create new value and meaning, especially in emerging nations.

People are more complicated than a list of needs, after all. And for the complex nation that is India, with its great divides between rich and poor, marginalized voices often go unheard. Empowering people to dream reveals what is truly meaningful in their lives.

“If you can hold a mirror up to people and ask them about their tomorrow and understand the future they’re imagining, then you’re actually doing a good job already,” Sonia says.

In 2011, in collaboration with Carlos Teixeira of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, the team trained 101 youth from all over India to go to its smallest towns and ask people what they want for themselves, for their communities, for the world.

They traveled 15,000 miles by road and rail and filmed thousands of conversations with people from all walks of life. The DREAM:IN “imagination network” was thus born.

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Sonia holding “dreamcatching” conversation cards
(photo via yourstory.com)

The “dreamcatching” methodology seamlessly combines ethnography, design research, and filmmaking. It goes like this: a facilitator holds up a series of conversation cards that feature images from advertisements: a date with a Bollywood starlet, driving a fancy car, etc.

Once people can laugh about the things society wants them to dream about, they’re encouraged to let their imaginations loose and get to the heart of what they really want. The ultimate goal is to move past the fears that so often freeze us.

“A lot of people may think, ‘I may hate this job that I am doing, but if I don’t go outside and carry bricks on my head and help build this house and get my daily amount, then I’m not going to survive. I don’t have the time or the right to dream. I shouldn’t be dreaming,’ ” Sonia says. “So there are all these fears and anxieties, and there’s nothing worse than the death of dreams.”

DREAM:IN shows that dreams are alive and already inside of people—you just have to want to discover them. What the group has found is a beautiful array of humanity at its most hopeful, with dreams ranging from opening a museum to creating a newspaper for rural communities to seeing a tobacco-free India—and much more.

And the team doesn’t hit the snooze button there. Once dreams are collected, they share the data with design scholars, business leaders, change agents, thought leaders, bureaucrats, venture capitalists, and others to inform future development in the country.

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Dreamcatching boards. To date, 1901 dreams have been captured.
(photo via DREAM:IN on Flickr)

Since its founding, DREAM:IN has morphed from a project on the fringes of Idiom into an independent venture centered around open innovation. The ultimate goal? A dynamic database of dreams and a global network to help bring those dreams to life.

One of the ways DREAM:IN is getting there is by putting select dreamers and seasoned entrepreneurs in the same room for a series of Dream Camps—where things like start-up advice, ideas for funding, encouragement, and connections are shared—to help transform dreams into reality.

“Start early, prototype fast” is the guiding principle. Young entrepreneurs are trained in Dreamscaping, a scenario methodology, and the Dreamplan, a business plan tool.

“It’s good to have your head in the clouds and be imaginative, but also have your feet planted firmly and moving steadily on the ground,” Sonia says.

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Dream Camp 3 held last April to help people “dream, believe, and realise.”
(photo via DREAM:IN Facebook page)

Despite societal challenges—older generations conditioned to rigid ideas regarding jobs and social mobility, for example—many dreams have already taken flight thanks to DREAM:IN. Youth, especially, are inspired to see local problems as opportunities.

One young boy invented a machine to incinerate sanitary napkins that often get clogged in toilets, which is starting to be installed in colleges. A law student who had long dreamed of becoming a small business owner changed his professional course and opened a canteen. Another duo created a reusable water bottle for attendees of rock shows.

DREAM:IN has already been replicated in six universities in Brazil and three in China. And this year, they’re launching a product brand with farmers in Tumkur and creating a groundswell of entrepreneurship across South India with over 100 academic institutions. They also plan to create tools and educational materials based on their methodology for people to copy and encourage more dreamers in communities around the world.

This openness, Sonia believes, is ultimately at the heart of good, lasting, and scalable innovation.

“At the same time you have a dream, it’s already somewhere out there in the universe,” says Sonia. “It’s a shared thought. So it’s better you go do it, do it openly, and include all the others who may think similarly to what you’re thinking and make it a big shared dream.”

Share your own dream and help others by joining DREAM:IN. What are you waiting for?

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