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June 9th, 2014

07:55 pm - Atheism vs Agnosticism
People get very heated about the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. One common pattern, usually adopted by convinced theists, is that you cannot be atheist unless you aver the non-existence of God with the same vehemence that they aver the existence of their God. If you do no, you are not an atheist but an agnostic. Now, I have never heard any atheist take such a strong position. This would be a 7 on the Dawkins scale, on which Dawkins only awards himself 6.5. This means that they can be extremely rude about these imaginary ultra-atheists while saying it doesn't apply to whoever they are talking to. This allows them to deny anti social behaviour while still ranting unpleasantly.

I would like to propose the opposite: that agnostics are the group that does not really exist, and that many people who call themselves agnostics are actually, according to their own testimony, atheist.

My simple test is to ask the question "From what do you draw your moral compass?" If you draw it from scripture or revelation, from Jesus Christ or the Prophet Muhammed, OK, you are a theist. If you draw it without reference to any God, then you are an atheist. And if you just follow social custom and don't do anything that can get you in trouble with the law, you are apathetic, not agnostic.

So I am saying that calling yourself agnostic means either that you are atheist but don't want to admit it, or you are apathetic but don't want to admit it. It is impossible to have a moral code without basing it either on the existence of a Gd, or the working assumption that God does not exist or is of so unknown a nature that you cannot build your life on it.

The set of people who are completely certain, beyond any doubt, that no God of any description exist s is the empty set, and hence not a very useful concept. Conversely, the set people who live their lives without requiring divine illumination to justify or motivate it are all atheists. You can get into hairsplitting discussions about how strongly they disbelieve the various theist propositions, but that is merely the atheist equivalent of angels on a pinhead.

And then there are the apathetic, who merely keep out of trouble. But to call them agnostic is to credit them with an intellectual rigour that they simply don't deserve. I am not saying that they are bad, or wrong. Provided they observe cultural and legal mores, which by and large they do, there is no need for them to indulge in intellectual gymnastics. But they are not agnostics.
Current Location: Afloat
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January 31st, 2014

12:39 pm - Voting rights in prison
There is an ongoing clash between the current government and the European Court of Human Rights on the subject of whether prisoners can vote. The ECHR says that the current blanket ban is too harsh, and the government must introduces some subtlety. The government has replied in strong language that they find the idea of those guilty of horrible crimes having the vote to be repellent.

My sympathies are much more with the EHCR than the government. I view the right to participate in the governance of your community as a human right, not a privilege handed out for being well behaved. Even when we have misbehaved, even appallingly, we have a right to express our opinion. Tha majority can override us not by silencing us but by casting their votes in the direction of moral behaviour. Should we ever reach the point at which the votes of criminals, should they vote in an aberrant way, outnumber the votes of well-behaved people, society is in such deep trouble that voting is very far from the major problem.

Therefore I feel that, in principle, prisoners should have the vote - on a Voltairean basis if not other. But there are practical problems. In what constituency whould they vote? We vote as part of a geographic community - where we live. A pragmatic mechanism that, though it has its faults, I would not suggest replacing until someone comes up with a better system, which they have not yet done. But putting someone in prison wrenches them out of their community. Of course, those in prison for short terms have just come from their community and will shortly return to it. They are still in touch with that community and have personal knowledge of its needs. Therefore they can still vote in that community. But long term prisoners lose touch with the community at large. Even if they are still in contact with individual family members, they are no longer in touch with the rest of the community. Any opinions they have will be based purely on their family's report. So their vote would effectively be an extra vote for their relatives.

But they are hardly part of the community where they are imprisoned. And they have been dragged into that constituency through no wish of their own, or of the constituents who surround their prison. It is hardly fair to other voters to dump on them the votes of several hundred unknown and reluctant co-residents.

Therefore I feel that prisoners should not be allowed to register in a constituency where they have not been voluntarily resident for over a year. Short term prisoners - the vast majority - would retain the right to vote, exercised postally, for between one and two years. Long term prisoners would, for purely pragmatic reasons, not have a constituency to vote in.

If there were enough long term prisoners to form a constituency (far from true), I could see it possible to form a special constituency for them - whose voting pattern would be interesting, in a way hardly likely to imperil Parliament with a single MP. But this is unlikely to happen, especially with falling crime rates if not incarceration rates. Most prisoners are inside for less that two years.
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September 28th, 2013

10:56 pm - Guard cat on duty
One of the problems of this house is the road outside. Mostly quiet, but with occasional fast moving cars. Cats think it safe, and then find out the very hard way that it isn't. We have lost eight cats to the road in twenty nine years, and the only reason we are holding off getting more cats is the danger to them of the road.

That said, our current cat Pippin, whose sister was killed on the road two years ago, is in no danger. He had a narrow escape shortly after his sister died, and obviously learned his lesson.

Now Pippin is not one of the world's great thinkers. Most of our cats have learned to pull a door ajar towards them with a paw, so they can get through. But Pippin has not learned how to push a door ajar away from him. As far as he is concerned, a door not open wide enough to walk through is a solid obstacle.

So, today we were clearing in our sadly overgrown front garden, separated from the road by about eight foot of lawn. And Pippin saw where we were - and came and yowled at us. Normally a cat of few, but not no, words, he yowled "You are in danger! What are you doing there? You will be hurt!" He was obviously most distressed - but would advance no further than half way across the garden.

So we rest assured that he, at least, is in no danger from the road. And since that is the only real danger in his life, we ae pretty confident that we will have him around a good long time.

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September 26th, 2013

12:24 am - Observations
The fake gaslights on the ends of the bridge are a spider Cold War zone. There are several spiders on each pane - all large, some larger than others. But when one gets close to another, even smaller, you can see the "You don't want to try that" preparations for total war. Collectively, they are waiting for the loot of dumb moths to fall into the man-made trap. Individually, they have territory to be fought over - to the death, but nobody wants it to come to that.

Then a bus whirrs past. A fluorescent lit cuboid with a few people who know nothing, and care nothing, about spiders. A lesson in scale - any of us could wipe out those spiders with a swipe of the hand. Indeed, I do: the boat has too many, and if I see them, I swipe them out of the way. But even if I swipe them into the river, I can watch them scrabble their way back. Water is not the same to them as it is to me.

So I walk on, and someone passes me. When I walk, I swing my arms. Perhaps one and a half feet arc. I believe there is some good reason for this - transference of weight etc. But he doesn't - his arms move only two inches at most per stride. Not saying I am right and he is wrong, or vice versa. But why? Why is that what is, to me, a natural phenomenon, not normal to him? Is one of us a wierdo? Or has one of us a strange body?

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August 27th, 2013

10:05 pm - Creationism
I think that Creationism is a weird, unfortunate, bastard side effect of science. Because science created the concept of exactness and of literal, measurable, truths. Before the invention of the scientific method, people accepted that all records were stories. Some, histories, were believed to correspond fairly closely to historical events. Others were more parables or metaphors. They were not statements about what actually had happened, but things that might have happened, or illustrate stories about things that should have happened. Even stories with a historical basis they knew had been passed from mouth to mouth, and would inevitably have become somewhat distorted. All of which was fine, because they didn't expect to know absolute truths. They didn't think that absolute truth was available to hem. They may not even have had the concept of absolute truth; they would only have thought of better or worse narrations of a distant story.

So Genesis was not intended to be an exact narration of the facts. Rather it was a presentation of the best idea so far. Things must have started out pretty chaotic, so the first thing God would have had to do was separate light from dark. OK, let us call that phase 1 - as we would put it, or the first day, as they put it. Then he would have to separate the earth and the water - phase 2. And so on. Not an absolute statement, but rather a best hypothesis so far. And a reassuring answer to the question of where it all came from, and they it was under control.

Likewise, Revelations is an extended metaphor of destruction, a promise that the bad guys will eventually get their comeuppance, not a literal prophecy. (Whether the bad guys were just the Romans, as some experts suggest, or Satan & Co, I leave to others to solve.)

But then along came science, with its penchant for exact statements and measurable facts. If science has exactness, say believers, does not the Bible have more? Would God have given us uncertain stories? They, or at least the more extreme, started investing the Bible with more exactness than it had had for 1500 years. Generations of pre-scientific people had been to accept the Bible as true in a story-like sense: a good representation in a field where there ar no absolutes.

It was only in the 18th century that people started to take the Bible literally. And, Galileo aside, it was mostly in Protestant countries that this scientific interpretation came to the fore. In Catholic communities, the Church was, by and large, able to say "shut up and don't think about it". The Church could say that such facts were to mysterious for the common thinker,shut up and believe. But Protestants, permitted to make their own interpretation of the Bible, started examining it in the light and with the tools of the scientific revolution.

And that led the Creationists to reject science - because they could not reconcile it with a scientific reading of the Bible. Those happy with a pre-scientific reading of the Bible can reconcile it with science with no problem.

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June 19th, 2013

11:41 am - Meme
Passing the time with a meme

Ganked from @rpdom

1. You can ONLY answer 'Yes' or 'No'

2. You are NOT ALLOWED to explain ANYTHING unless someone messages or comments you and asks — and, believe me, the temptation to explain some of these will be overwhelming. Nothing is exactly as it seems.

Kissed any one of your LiveJournal friends? — Yes
Been arrested? — No
Kissed someone you didn't like? — Yes
Slept in until 5 PM? — No
Fallen asleep at work/school? — Yes
Held a snake? — Yes
Ran a red light? — Yes
Been suspended from school? — No
Experienced love at first sight? — No
Totalled your car in an accident? — Yes
Been fired from a job? — Yes
Fired somebody? — No
Sung karaoke? — Yes
Pointed a gun at someone? — No
Did something you told yourself you wouldn't? — Yes
Laughed until something you were drinking came out your eyes? — No
Caught a snowflake on your tongue? — No
Kissed in the rain? — No
Had a close brush with death (your own)? — Yes
Saw someone die? — No
Played Spin-the-Bottle? — No
Smoked a cigar? — No
Sat on a rooftop? — Yes
Smuggled something into another country? — Yes
Been pushed into a pool with all your clothes on? — No
Broken a bone? — No
Skipped school? — No
Eaten a bug? — Yes
Sleepwalked? — No
Walked on a moonlit beach? — Yes
Ridden a motorcycle? — No
Dumped someone? — Yes
Forgotten your anniversary? — Yes
Lied to avoid a ticket? — No
Ridden in a helicopter? — Yes
Shaved your head? — No
Blacked out from drinking? — No
Played a prank on someone? — No
Hit a home run? — No
Felt like killing someone? — No
Cross-dressed? — No
Been falling-down drunk? — Yes
Made your girlfriend/boyfriend cry? — Yes
Eaten snake? — No
Marched/Protested? — Yes
Had Mexican jumping beans for pets? — No
Puked on an amusement ride? — No
Seriously & intentionally boycotted something? — Yes
Been in a band? - No
Knitted? — No
Been on TV? — Yes
Shot a gun? — Yes
Skinny-dipped? — No
Given someone stitches? — No
Eaten a whole habanero pepper? — No
Ridden a surfboard? — No
Drunk straight from a liquor bottle? — No
Had surgery? — No
Streaked? — No
Been taken by ambulance to a hospital? — No
Tripped on mushrooms? — No
Passed out when NOT drinking? — No
Peed on a bush? — Yes
Donated Blood? — Yes
Grabbed electric fence? - Yes
Eaten alligator meat? - No
Eaten cheesecake? — Yes
Eaten your kids' Halloween candy? — No
Killed an animal when NOT hunting? — Yes
Peed your pants in public? — No
Snuck into a movie without paying? — No
Written graffiti? — No
Still love someone you shouldn't? — No
Think about the future? — Yes
Been in handcuffs? — No
Believe in love? — Yes
Sleep on a certain side of the bed? — No

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October 21st, 2012

07:36 pm - Manufacturing vs services: A false dichotomy.
The litany of “Manufacturing or Services” has become so hackneyed that one could take the metaphor literally – an antiphonal chant of economists and entrepreneurs alternating the praises of underlying values or high added value, fundamental skills and fast responses. And yet, it seems to me, that it is a deeply flawed argument. There is manufacturing that we want, and manufacturing we don't want, services we want and services we don't want. This dividing line is not the one on which we want to be cleaving the geode of Britain's future.

Firstly, what is manufacturing and what is not is highly subjective. If a manufacturing company employs its own cleaners, their jobs are counted as manufacturing jobs, whereas if it subcontracts cleaning to a specialist company, that is a service company and the jobs are in the service industry. The same applies for many other functions, such as transport, testing, canteen, payroll and so on, all of which can be subcontracted, converting manufacturing jobs into service jobs. So the swing from manufacturing to services has probably been grossly exaggerated: the manufacturing behemoth of yore concealed huge numbers of service workers under its capacious shell.

Subcontracting to specialists has been shown to be extremely productive: managements of both contracting and contractor companies can focus on whatever it is they do, and do it better. And the contracting company can use the discipline of the market to keep their contractors in line and competitive in a way that is not possible with an in-house department, Of course, subcontracting has its costs – amongst other things, it tends to increase complexity (of which more later). But on balance, companies do better by doing one thing well and contracting out everything else to other companies - which are then called service companies if they do not deliver something you can drop on your foot.

And, for all the claimed virtues of manufacturing, there are some sorts of manufacturing we probably do not want. One is the humongous, which is often associated with basic materials. A modern steel mill, swallowing millions of tons of or and coal, and delivering millions of toms of steel for further processing, is an impressive sight. But it employs relatively few people, and tends to be quite polluting. Once upon a time, huge production meant huge employment. But power machinery and computer automation have meant that to do one simple thing takes about the same number of people whatever the scale. As the scale gets larger, capital costs rise for huge machines, and some employment may be generate in building and installing the behemoths, but once the factory is complete, employment is small. If they have done their numbers right, the entrepreneurs who built the factory may profit enormously (and the opposite if they are wrong), but in terms of generating a lively economy of producer-consumers, such simple mass bulk manufacturing is not what we want.

And at the other end of the scale there is another form of bulk manufacturing we don't want: huge quantity production of simple items, such as cheap clothes. At the very largest volume, this is largely mechanised. But at the next level, it involves huge numbers of workers (usually women) dong very boring, simple (of which more later, again) low paid work. While it provides employment, such low wage jobs again do not produce the comfortably off producer-consumers that make comfortable economy.

And on the other side, some services have a lot to offer. Armies depend on their logistics, and a common characteristic of successful generals is their mastery of the logistics problem. Ensuring that their soldiers are rested, fed and armed has always been a key to victory. Logistics is a service – yet one crucial to military success. As it is to business success. Financial logistics – banking – is also notoriously a service. But getting the bullets of business – money – to the right place is as important as getting bullets to the front line. A business marches on its cash flow.

And then there are all the businesses listed that have spun out of manufacturing, as already mentioned. When they were inside the manufacturing companies they were, by and large, doing good things. And they are probably still doing those good things now, even though they are in the service sector. (The exceptions will deservedly, have gone bust).

There is a further virtue to services: they are far less likely to involve digging holes in the ground to extract scarce resources. It is, of course, a huge and emotive argument as to how scarce some resources are, and how well the market system will work around the problems when the immediately visible resources are consumed. But it must surely be admitted that resources are finite, even if the limit is unknown, and other things being equal it would be better to leave some of them in the ground for future generations. But, though resources in the ground are finite, man-hours are not. Every hour, every worker generates about 13 minutes of work (based on 2000 working hours a year) – of variable quality, it must be admitted. If we can tweak our economic system to use more of this inexhaustible (I hope) supply, and less of whatever comes out of holes in the ground, we are increasing our sustainability.

So we have shown that the chant of “Manufacturing Good, Services Bad” is wrong. Of course, most people thought that to some extent. And of course it is not entirely wrong – we all want some manufactured stuff. But the amount we want is falling. This is similar to the fall in our demand for agriculture: once, agriculture employed more than 90% of the population; now it employs one or two percent depending on where you draw the line, and yet we are far from starving. After the Industrial Revolution, people (poor ones at least) did almost all of their own services, but wee economically visible as purchasers of manufactured goods. Nowadays many of us have more “things” than we actually want, if not the exact ones we would choose (unaccountably, I seem to lack a Ferrari). By contrast, we buy in many more services – particularly entertainment in its widest sense. We are spending more money on having fun – which is excellent. And mostly provided by businesses classified as services.

But it is easy to pick on a couple of examples of Manufacturing that we don't want. The problem is not to identify one or two outstanding cases of bad manufacturing or one or two good cases of good services. What we need is a litmus test to allow us to identify good businesses, businesses which will contribute to a stable and comfortable British economy, regardless of whether they wear the label of Manufacturing or Services.

And that litmus test is, in my opinion, Complexity. We, in the “advanced “ areas of society should be taking on complex problems, and leaving simple problems to others. The simple problems we leave can be the simple task of assembling jeans, or the simpler tasks of banking back office operations. It doesn't matter whether it is manufacturing or services, if it simple (and of the form which can be done elsewhere, unlike haircuts), we should leave it to others to do. But if it is complex, we should regard it as part of our prerogative, and take it on with enthusiasm.

Complexity is not traditionally regarded as a good thing. It is common wisdom to avoid complexity. But is is also common sense to avoid risk – but a huge part of the financial industry is based on the taking on, and managing, of risk.

Mining coal is dangerous. Unskilled miners cannot handle the danger and get killed; skilled miners learn how to mitigate that danger and extract the coal without getting killed. They do not seek out danger, but the danger offers those who have leaned to work around it a chance to profit, and to profit in a way that provides a high barrier to entry to others, and hence the opportunity for long term stable profits. The same applies to complexity: businesses that learn to manage complexity will have opportunities for profit which will be hard for others to steal.

Complexity is the common factor between the businesses in which Britain already excels. Financial products, aerospace components, leading edge medicines – the are all complex. And, because they are put a huge amount of effort into a single object, they tend not to have a very large mass for the money they generate, and hence not to have a high profile when we weigh the balance of trade. But, unlike the more massive things like cars or cheeses, they are much harder for others to copy. We can use complexity as a test for the sort of business we should be in.

Of course, complexity has its dangers. It is arguable that the sub-prime crash which triggered the 2008 recession was caused solely by complexity. The finance industry was selling products which were too complex for both buyers and sellers to understand. But if both sides had seen themselves as practitioners in complexity rather than practitioners in money, they might have thought through what they were doing a bit better. Given that complexity is forcing itself upon us, let us become specialists in it.

It is always true that if it is easy, then the other fellow can do it too. At best you will split the market, at worst he will accept a lower margin than you and put you out of business. If you want to make sustained profits, you must always be treading the narrow line between what is easy and what is impossible. And complexity is a good marker for that narrow area of profitability.

So we should be hailing Complexity and disdaining Simplicity. The hell with whether it is manufacturing or services – if it complex and hard, let us take it on; if it is simple, leave it to others. And make the neutralising and safe handling of Complexity a study and a field of excellence (our excellence) in its own right.

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August 11th, 2012

09:39 pm - Houghton Lodge Gardens
Today we visited Houghton Lodge Gardens http://www.houghtonlodge.co.uk . They have been there, and open, for all the thirty plus years we have lived here, and we have never visited them before. And boy, have we missed out.

It is a beautiful garden, in a very English, style, set in a position that ticks all the boxes for soft English tranquility. A wonderful walled garden, surrounded by a cob wall of great antiquity but, more importantly, great warmth. A flourishing herbaceous border, rolling lawns leading down to the swan spattered river Test. A small but exquisite orchid house which left me, frankly, gibbering with delight. A wonderful topiary dragon for the children, puffing scary smoke when you didn't expect it. And other wonders.

But the greatest beauty was the welcoming friendliness. No admission desk, just an honesty box. Tea shop is help yourself, make your own tea, put money on the saucer, put your cups in the dishwasher when finished. And a very positive welcome for children, an acknowledgement and a pleasure in the fact that it is a true heaven for children. From toddlers to fourteen or so, I cannot imagine anywhere better - and they give free admission to exactly those. Not that adults would be unhappy, as already described.

If you are near Stockbridge, Hampshire, visit. I can think of no better way to spend a few of the hours given to you.

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December 24th, 2011

01:32 pm - The ultimate ungrump
'Tis Christmas and, so I am told, time to put grumpiness aside. So I will attempt to do so.

On of my pet grumps is the the misuse of the word "ultimate" to mean "the very best" and not "the very last". I think the usage came from history, and particularly pop history. You can describe anything retrospective as "the ultimate" history, biography, collection or whatever as a strong compliment. It means that it is so good, there will never be a need of another. Particularly used, I think, in the exhaustive discographies of extinct groups, where every fragment of a forgotten interview has been appended to a huge collection. So if you describe anything you produce as "The Ultimate Collection" or whatever, you are in theory promising never again to produce another of the class. Buy this one, folks, there will be no more. (And the Ultimate Experience is death, after which there will be no more experiences)

Be that as it may, the word has just been taken over as as another essentially meaningless hooray word. In which form it is rapidly being devalued to meaningless, following in the steps of fantastic, terrific, awesome, wonderful and so on. But then, it was ever so. Language, and particularly English, is constantly developing, ans that development includes degradation as well as well as development. And, of course, degradation is a personal view anyway.

It only matters at all when a useful meaning is taken away. There is, unfortunately, no synonym for "gay" in its original sense of bright, cheerful, happy, carefree. It has been entirely taken over my its new sense of homosexual. And in that sense it works well, as a word with less baggage than almost any other with which to refer to and discuss a particular aspect of human sexuality. So I welcome its new sense while mourning the loss of the old.

But "ultimate" meant no more than "the very last" or perhaps "the most extreme" (Ultima Thule). Do I really have that frequent a need to refer to ultimate things that I cannot, on the occasions that I do, use the slightly longer forms? I think not. Ultimate, in its original meaning, would pass my lips but rarely. Much more rarely, in fact, than a grumpy complaint about how it is being misused. So I have decided, is the spirit of the season, to loosen up and stop being grumpy about the misuse of the word ultimate. Truly the ultimate ungrump.
Current Mood: dorky

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November 19th, 2011

01:45 pm - The Adventures of Tintin
I saw this a couple of days ago. Executive summary: Indiana Jones look-alike, but doesn't grab you like Indy did. Unless your plans demand a visit to the cinema, or you have a six to sixteen year old adventure lover to entertain, wait for the DVD.

Bit I have some theories about the failure to grab you. Most reviews have been muck like mine, but a few have been of the form "they have destroyed my Tintin". One said "This is the ugliest film ever made. Simply, it out-aestheticises Hergé and murders him." Another said that Hergé got more emotion in Tintin's two black ellipses for eyes than this film does. Wjhich is unfair, in my opinion, but worth examining.

The fidelity to Hergé's original is impressive. The characters are just as first drawn. And, as someone who has worked in video effects, the imagery is impressive. The backgrounds are rich, detailed, and credibly real-world battered, The "camera" track, pans and zooms in a way any director would kill for, and the backgrounds remain realistic. Perhaps a bit too much, but it is after all and adventure movie. The character's movements are fluid and realistic - as they should be, since they are motion captured. The faces... Aye, there's the rub. They are nearly, but not quite, good enough. They fall into the Uncanny Valley.

For the deep fans, this is sacrilege. Hergé's two black ellipses didn't have emotion, but they allowed the reader to project their own emotion. The film is too good: you have to take the emotion offered to you - and it isn't quite good enough.

And that also explains why the film doesn't grab the rest of us. In the original film's you hoped and feared for Indy. Harrison Ford was a real, and charismatic, person, Of course, in the depths of your brain, you knew that Indy couldn't get killed in a film of this sort, but you were willing to suspend disbelief (except, perhaps, for the last). But the characters in Tintin are not quite realistic enough. You don't associate with them. In fact, because of the Uncanny Valley effect slightly repels rather than attracts. So you don't suspend disbelief, and the action is always at arm's length.

Credits to Andy Serkis for Captain Haddock's softly Clydeside accent (Though how he picked it up in Hergé's transparently continental chateau is best not asked, but it fits the character perfectly). For the rest, they needn't have bothered with the big name actors. The Hergé characters totally swamp them.

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