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April 2008
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June 2008

Transmission Ends

That's all from the game for now!  As you read this, I am  either sat on the beach reading The White Wolf's Son or studying the Gulf Coast fauna first hand with a snorkel and mask - perhaps I'll see Palinurus argus, the Spiny Crawfish (or Florida Lobster), who can say... Enjoy this brief respite from the game and may your blessings be numerous enough to justify counting them.

Only a Game returns in June for more nonsense.


Moorcock's Metaphysics

This serial ran from April 10th to May 15th 2008, in six parts, exploring the philosophy behind the novels of Michael Moorcock. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on part one, below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the six parts:

  1. Michael Moorcock
  2. Law and Chaos
  3. The Eternal Champion
  4. The Multiverse
  5. Jerry Cornelius
  6. The Game of Time

Anyone interested in Mike's novels can get them from the following vendors, and from the shelves of all good bookstores:


Eternal Thanks

I want to offer my thanks to all the Eternal Champions of the exceptional online community at Moorcock’s Miscellany, and especially Aurelius, John Effay, Elwher, the Governor of Rowe Island, Incredible Sulk, J-Sun, Krzysiek, Kyrinn S. Eis, David Mosley, Nathaniel, Reinart der Fuchs, Rothgo, Serpnta1267, Zaffer and to Mike himself for the odd helpful comment!

This serial is dedicated to Mike for inspiring me to take up writing – even though I have ended up more of a game designer than a writer. His novels, and his philosophy, have had a profound influence on my life and I hope this serial will bring a few more enquiring minds tumbling into the existential beauty of Moorcock’s multiverse.


Moorcock's Metaphysics (6): The Game of Time

May contain spoilers.

Multiverso_jpgBlood: A Southern Fantasy was published in 1994, incorporating stories that had been written over the previous four years. The book is set in a strange alternative United States, one in which the racial roles between black and white people are reversed, and where a strange new power source, “colour” has been discovered in isolated and mysterious pools. As the story develops, it becomes clear that drawing power from colour is creating an ever-greater rift in reality – and in particular a giant rip in space-time known as the Biloxi Fault. In effect, using colour as power is gradually destabilising this world. The setting is hypnotically engaging, not least of which because little is spelled out explicitly – it is left to the reader to use their imagination to complete their image of the familiar yet alien world.

Within this setting, we are introduced to a cast of exotic characters – Jack Karaquazian and Sam Oakenhurst are jugadors: riverboat gamblers who play “the game”, a mysterious gambling contest in which players wager psychic stakes and compete within virtual universes. Their stories develop around their respective romantic entanglements with Colinda Dovero and “the Rose”, a mysterious half-human, half-plant adventurer first introduced in the 1991 Elric novel The Revenge of the Rose. Rose has the capacity to move between worlds – to enter the mysterious “Second Ether”... In following her, the gamblers discover that the world they live within is more like the malleable universes of the jugador’s game than they could ever imagine.

Several of the interludes within Blood are written in the over-the-top style of the old pulp space operas (of which the Flash Gordon black-and-white serial reels are perhaps the most famous form). In these tales of the “Corsairs of the Second Ether” absurdly named characters such as Captain Buggerly Otherly and Professor Pop are up against impossible odds in a chaotic tempest between realities. In his early career, Mike worked on many pulp publications, and wrote a great number of comic strips for Fleetway around 1960. The “Second Ether” stories within Blood feel like a tribute to this classic form (although his wife, Linda, has described these sections as “unreadable”, only able to enjoy them when read aloud by Mike during book readings). The allusion is made tangible: Oakenhurst follows the Second Ether tales in his world, yet later discovers that the fantastical stories have a reality all of their own. This emphasises a point made earlier – that Moorcock’s Multiverse is a literary superset, every story is a world, every world a story.

The Second Ether trilogy, which begins with Blood and continues with Fabulous Harbours and The War Among the Angels, is a remarkable reworking of the earlier Eternal Champion mythology. All the elements are here, but transposed into new forms. The Multiverse is now seen as the worlds within the fractal “Second Ether”, and is expressed in more modern terminology, while the warring forces of Law and Chaos are represented by the draconian Singularity and the free-thinking Chaos Engineers. One aspect is tangibly different in the new set up – there is no longer a clear sense of there being a single Eternal Champion. If Jack Karaquazian is seen as the Champion, then Oakenhurst can be seen as the Companion, but one can equally see the Rose as the Champion, and Oakenhurst as Consort. The old forms have become fluid, and there are now many people who can influence events (a theme that was originally explored in the stories that branched out from the Cornelius novels).

These heroic figures are referred to as “mukhamir” – the players in the Game of Time. They travel between different worlds on the moonbeam paths (a reworking of the older symbol of the Seas of Fate, perhaps) trying to work influence on human history and potential. Later stories in the Second Ether trilogy tell the tales of the various mukhamir, developing the themes even further; the entire earlier Eternal Champion mythos is contained within this new mythology, yet it is also taken in new directions. These stories are more complex than a typical fantasy novel and while a few readers have found Blood to be confusing and disjointed, the trilogy is sheer joy for the avid Moorcock reader.

The themes introduced in this trilogy are further expanded in later work, in particular the Vertigo comic series Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse (published between 1997 and 1998, and cover depicted above), which complements the Second Ether trilogy perfectly, but is difficult (perhaps impossible) to appreciate without a strong grounding in Moorcock’s earlier writings.

The newer themes also make their way into the recently completed Dreamquest trilogy (The Dreamthief’s Daughter, The Skrayling Tree, The White Wolf’s Son) – an enthralling expansion of the Elric mythos developed from a plot device within Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse in which Elric undergoes a thousand year vision quest which places him within European history. I have yet to read the last of these novels – knowing it is the last of the Elric stories leaves me reluctant to rush in too precipitously, but having enjoyed the earlier two novels tremendously, my craving for resolution is hard to keep in check.

A major villain within the later mythology is the Grand Consumer, also known as the Original Insect, or (somewhat whimsically) Old Reg. The Grand Consumer is a grotesque metaphor for the greed in our Western societies, for the cold instrumental reasoning behind ruthless capitalism and “the ultimate triumph of appetite over reason”. It appears in Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse as an immense cyclopean beetle feeding upon the possibilities and raw stuff of the multiverse, wonderfully pencilled by Walter Simonson, and occurs as a metaphorical allusion within the literary novel, King of the City, a bitter, elegiac rant against the corruption of the news media and of urban society by the dominant commercial forces. (The novel compliments the metropolitan mythology of Mother London, but arguably reflects a greater degree of despair in the face of the forces now seemingly in power). In fighting against the Grand Consumer, the mukhamir of the Game of Time seek to create possibilities beyond mere vacuous consumption, to overthrow the “Prozac democracy” and restore some dignity to human society. It is Moorcock’s enraged idealism fighting a literary battle against the seemingly inescapable domination of avarice over human potential.

To a certain extent, the Moorcock novels can be divided into three eras – the Eternal Champion mythos of the 1960s and 1970s, the post-Cornelius middle era of the 1980s in which literary fiction begins to emerge alongside the fantasy novels (and the quality of the writing and the nature of the themes becomes more mature), and the Game of Time mythos which begins in the early 1990s. The writing remains inventive and (in the words of The Guardian) “restlessly original, brimming over with clever ideas” throughout, but the quality of both the prose and the narrative construction have advanced remarkably throughout this unique career.

It is a sad fact of the book market that literary novels (with a few exceptions) don’t sell as well as genre fiction, and it is perhaps for this reason that Moorcock has continued to write the two forms in parallel – fantasy for money, presumably, and literary for acclaim and creative outlet. It is possible, when looking at the publication dates, to see the stories evolving in parallel. The Steel Tsar, a fantasy about an alternative Russian revolution, was written alongside Byzantium Endures, a literary novel about the historic Russian revolution from the memoirs of Colonel Pyatt – a bombastic and relentlessly unreliable narrator whose tall tales are both hilarious and disturbing.

The Between the Wars quartet of literary novels that begins with Byzantium Endures has taken Moorcock two decades to complete, and dozens of fantasy novels have been written throughout its development, benefiting from both the research and the thematic developments. Some of his most engaging adventure stories have been written in the fourteen years it has taken to tackle the final part of the quartet, The Vengeance of Rome, which deals with the horrors of World War II and Auschwitz from Pyatt’s uniquely deluded perspective. It was a difficult book for Mike to write, but the achievement has been appreciated by the literary world. The Guardian referred to it as an “historical picaresque on the grand scale”, while another reviewer calls it “a final, breath-stopping moment of deeply ironic self-delusion at the end of a grandiose, beautifully modulated quartet.”

Michael Moorcock has been crafting his creative narratives for half a century, from inventive adventure stories through to ambitious literary sequences, his award-winning career would be the envy of any writer. Even this is not the complete measure of his achievements, since Mike has also been a successful blues guitarist, and has written songs for (and performed with) bands such as Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult. Although he has never achieved more than a modest degree of commercial success, there is a sense in which his work is stronger for having always been tied to the counterculture, kicking back against the dominant forces of our age while avoiding the easy trap of falling to the other extreme (as the radical Marxist does, for instance), and instead walking the fine line between reactionary politics and idealism.

Underneath the many faces of Moorcock’s novels lies a robust existentialism, an ethical humanism worthy of any of the great twentieth century moral philosophers, and a metaphysical perspective which crafts and endlessly reinvents a mythology for our times. He has not been a writer for the masses, perhaps, but for those of us who connect with the densely layered themes and associations of his work, who enjoy a fantasy novel that will make you ponder your own ethics while evoking wondrous and fantastical vistas, or a literary novel that draws against a deeply compassionate view of the undercurrent of humanity, Michael Moorcock represents one of the exceptional creative talents of our time.

The opening image is the cover from the graphic novel edition of Michael Moorcock's Multiverse, by the artist Walter Simonson. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

A new serial begins in June.


Plagiarism in Videogames?

Pq_vs_bj_2 To what extent is it meaningful to talk about one game plagiarising another? All games draw upon structures and mechanics that exist prior to their creation, and indeed must do so in order to be comprehensible to their audience. So what are the boundaries for theft of ideas in a medium that is necessarily derivative? In order to explore this issue, let us consider one particular case study: the popular puzzle-slash-cRPG game Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, which uses as its central element the "match 3 jewels" mechanic from PopCap's hugely successful game Bejeweled. Is this a case of plagiarism?

Firstly, I don't think there is any doubt that Infinite Interactive had seen Bejeweled before creating their Puzzle Quest game, and any innovation that can be assigned to the latter game can only be construed to originate in stealing the mechanics of Bejeweled and wedding them to a typical computer role-playing game structure. This may not seem very original, yet in videogames this kind of cross-pollination of genre elements can and is a source of originality. Puzzle Quest's design may rest upon pre-existing mechanics and structures, but the developers still made the decision to cross breed these elements, and having done so had to adapt and expand the mechanics of Bejeweled in order for them to fit into the new context. Since they did a good job in the process, to accuse them of plagiarism seems churlish and unfair.

For some time, accusations were leveled at PopCap that Bejeweled owed a debt to Nintendo's Tetris Attack videogame, which pre-dated it and is one of the first instances of a "match 3" mechanic - perhaps the very first. Yet here, claims of plagiarism would be wildly off-base. Not only is it unclear that PopCap had seen Tetris Attack, even if they had the earlier game displays none of the traits that make the later game so successful. The genius of PopCap in making Bejeweled was to create a game that could be played by anyone without any implicit stress (although a timed mode was also included for players who needed the additional excitement). This was one of the major design innovations of the last decade - a game so far from the gamer hobbyist's ideal of excitement and challenge that truly anyone could play it. Tetris Attack had none of this aspect to it - it was a conventional puzzle game, hitting all the emotional triggers of a conventional videogame. It had not innovated in the manner that Bejeweled had.

That Bejeweled is often copied is the surest sign of its success, and most of the games that copy it are strict cases of plagiarism. Goober's Lab, Sutek's Tomb and Zoo Keeper are all essentially the same game as Bejeweled, a theft of ideas that is not the basis for a lawsuit since game mechanics are not a form of intellectual property that can be protected. This is just as well - imagine how stagnant the first person shooter genre would be had (say) id Software owned a patent on the mechanics. We should be grateful that the kind of IP battles that hamstring creativity in other media do not apply to game mechanics.

Returning to Puzzle Quest, another point is worth noting: its cRPG mechanics are far more derivative than the workings of its "match 3" game, yet these aspects do not raise an eyebrow. Why? Because as a well-established videogame genre, cRPGs have already hurdled the plagiarism barrier. Once early videogames such as Ultima and Wizardry had successfully copied the major elements of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game in the early 1980s (itself owing a vast debt to tabletop wargames of the 1970s), the genre was established in its form. Now, new cRPGs may refine the details of the mechanics of these games in various ways, but few if any can claim to innovate in any major sense.

The fact of the matter is, game genres by their very nature become established because games borrow mechanics, structural elements, and conventions from earlier games. To have a videogame genre is to recognise a recurrent pattern of plagiarism that draws upon the successes of earlier games as its bedrock. This is a good thing for players: few but the most grizzled gamer hobbyists can face learning entirely original game rules every time they play, most prefer to play something that (in broad strokes, at least) strongly resembles an earlier game they have enjoyed. It means they have less to learn, and it increases the chance that they will enjoy the later game.

I work hard to come up with original mechanics for my videogames, but in doing so I risk creating a barrier between the audience and the games. Ghost Master, for instance, was highly original - but many players, trying to play it as if it were a strategy game, failed to get into what was innovative and interesting about the gameplay. My attempts to innovate had hurt the game. Similarly, Play with Fire leaves many players utterly confused as to what the play is supposed to entail (in part because of the unfortunate absence of a tutorial) because setting fire to blocks is far from an established game mechanic. With Reluctant Hero, my current cRPG project, I am attempting to walk a fine line - to innovate in the game structure and mechanics, but to do so in a way familiar enough to players that they can at least understand how the game will work. (The original PC version of this project has, alas, been suspended, but I have high hopes of resurrecting the project later this year in a new form).

It is the natural order of the videogame medium that games draw on earlier games within their genre (and from further afield!) Some games innovate, and in doing so they can attract new fans and devotees - provided the game is sufficiently familiar to spread to a wider audience. Some games innovate, but are so alien that they cannot hope to reach a wide audience. What would be considered plagiarism in other media is the backbone and lifeblood of the videogame industry, a well established system of building games from the ever-expanding toolkit of structural and mechanical devices that are the collective product of many generations of game developers. No-one owns these disparate ideas - and for this, on the whole, I suspect we should be truly thankful.


Automatic

As you read this, I am traveling south - perhaps I am already as far as Atlanta. I'm away for the rest of May, but in order that the Moorcock serial has a chance to reach its conclusion, Only a Game runs this week on automatic. Posts will appear every day, but I won't be able to check comments until later.


Four Winds

First, the North wind will take us south to Florida, for a brief holiday with my wife's family.
Next, the East wind will take us west to Colorado, to visit my brother-in-law.
Then, the South wind will take us north to Montana, to meet with a work colleague.
Finally, the West wind will take us east, across the Atlantic to the Netherlands, where I am lecturing briefly.

This is my itinerary for May, and in the interim I won't be here to run the game. But even though I am travelling as of next week, that doesn't mean that the game stops today - for as of this week Only a Game is fully automated.

Enjoy your weekends! I'll get to the comments whenever I can.


Moorcock's Metaphysics (5): Jerry Cornelius

May contain spoilers

CorneliusIt may be the case that the overall popularity of the fantasy genre has contributed to the Jerry Cornelius stories being overlooked in recent years in favour of the Elric novels, but there was a time when these four books were considered essential reading, and they have influenced an entire generation of creative talent, including Alan Moore, Jonathan Littell, and Grant Morrison, not to mention inspiring other writers from Moorcock’s own generation including Brian Aldiss, Moebius and Norman Spinrad. But what are these books, and what is the appeal?

The first novel, The Final Programme, which was written in 1965, begins with an armed raid on a remote fortress which is an event-for-event retelling of the story of Elric sacking the city of his kinsmen from an earlier story (later collected into The Weird of the White Wolf, and other volumes). It is a reference that most of Mike’s readers would recognise, since he had earlier made quite an impact in the counterculture with his albino antihero. Jerry Cornelius, the central character, takes the role of Elric, and all the major characters are neatly substituted. Jerry is clearly an aspect of the Eternal Champion, but no longer in a sword and sorcery setting. Here he is an assassin for hire, a secret agent and a bisexual playboy – he is, in effect, the Eternal Champion for the late sixties, a spy thriller for the cultural underground.

But all sense of conventional heroics gradually devolves in the central quest of the novel, which involves attempts to thwart the mysterious Miss Brunner in her attempt to build a supercomputer for nefarious ends. The story takes upon an otherworldly feeling in its descent beneath the surface of the Earth and its eventual conclusion, leaving the reader not quite sure what has happened, but thoroughly swept up in the ride. The impression one gets is that here is an expression of the Eternal Champion mythos into what was then the modern day. But this is only part of the story.

In the subsequent novels, the narrative warps and changes in strange and paradoxical manners. In A Cure for Cancer, Jerry is still a hip secret agent, but there is no clarity as to what is going on. No-one in this novel seems to really know anything substantial, other than having an awareness of the gradual decay of civilisation or something close. Jerry doesn’t even seem that interested in stopping what’s happening, even if he could, and is more involved in an aesthetic, artistic quest than a political one. The disorienting passage of the narrative is heightened by an unconventional structure, such that the climax takes place in the middle, and not the end, and the resolution of the plot happens roughly three quarters through. It’s a wild ride that whets the appetite but confounds expectations.

Even this falls short of the disorientation of The English Assassin, during which Jerry spends almost the entire novel having a serious nervous breakdown while being carried around in a coffin. The story focuses entirely on other characters, who experience a series of eight different catastrophes within their collapsing society. Jerry appears only at the end, bursting out of his coffin onto the beach in a Pierrot costume – a rustic clown character from the Commedia dell’Arte. The reader can be justifiably bemused by this turn of events, and yet anyone who has made it this far into the sequence recognises that what is going on here is not conventional fiction.

The Pierrot reference makes explicit part of what is going on in these dizzying novels. The Commedia dell’Arte was a dramatic form which reached its maturity in Renaissance Italy. The essence of the form was improvising plays from a given theme (the way children make up games, and role-playing gamers create stories). Each of the characters is a stereotype of a certain kind of person in Italian society from that era. So there is Pierrot, the sad fool who with an unsophisticated wit still manages to foil his enemies at time, Columbine, who Pierrot is in love with but will never have, Captain Fracasse, a pompous blowhard with dubious military conventions, and a host of other stock characters.

The Commedia dell’Arte provides mythology on a human scale, and this is what Moorcock weaves via a similar technique – a stock set of characters, such as Jerry and his brother and enemy Frank, Jerry’s beloved sister Catherine, the occasionally evil Miss Brunner, the grotesque Bishop Beesley and so forth, face situations on a theme – that being, the catastrophic collapse of society. This becomes explicit in the title of the 1971 collection The Nature of the Catastrophe, which featured stories by ten authors, including Moorcock, Aldiss and Spinrad, all experimenting with the technique that Moorcock was developing.

Moorcock has said on the subject of the Jerry Cornelius stories, that they are an attempt to liberate the narrative – to leave it even more open to interpretation than conventional stories. The whimsical events and references within the novels are a complex set of allusions meaningful (and explicable) to Mike but thrown together in such a way that the reader is essentially required to bring their own meaning, in a manner not dissimilar to the acclaimed but inaccessible Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, which via a constructed language invites the reader to experience something beyond conventional narrative forms.

In fact, Mike actively encouraged other authors to experiment with the Jerry Cornelius mythos in what might be considered an early open source project, the aforementioned The Nature of the Catastrophe being one product of this. (It is perhaps because this freedom had been given that Mike has been less pleased with Grant Morrison’s tributes to Jerry Cornelius – creating new characters inspired by Cornelius rather than contributing to the mythology directly). Indeed, this wider collaboration is ongoing, and Jerry Cornelius has recently appeared as a child in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and will shortly be appearing in the new comics in this series. Jerry, it seems, just won’t stay down.

The conclusion of the Cornelius Quartet, The Condition of Muzak, first published in 1977, is even more surprising than its predecessors. In this story, Jerry Cornelius is no longer a hip secret agent, but simply a confused teenager, his exploits revealed as adolescent fantasies. Society is still seen in a state of collapse – here, Europe is a surreal collection of splintered city states – but there is little doubt here that Jerry is an ineffectual nobody in this world. The climax concerns Jerry’s foul mouthed mother (a considerably more terrifying figure than the villains of the earlier stories!) revealing the twisted family history... The novel won the 1977 Guardian Fiction Prize, and was hugely lauded. A reviewer in the Times noted: “The realisation comes that Jerry is seeking sanctuary in different universes of Time in separate private mythologies. As indeed, is the implication, are we all.” It is Moorcock’s existentialism expertly rendered.

The four Cornelius novels form a sequence that begins by connecting the Eternal Champion themes into the political context of the 1960s, and then gradually plays with and deconstructs the theme of the decline and collapse of society. Eventually, the narrative has become so deconstructed that it is revealed as teenage fantasy – Moorcock has created a new superhero (or rather, antihero) for his times, then carefully and methodically exposed that hero as a fool, a harlequin and a dreamer, destroying and reinventing the very mythology he had built up.

This is not the only time Moorcock has reinvented and expanded upon the Eternal Champion mythos of his earlier work. From 1991, Mike began reimagining his existential mythology into a new form, one which complements yet expands upon its roots. It is this regeneration of themes that we shall look at in the final part of this serial.

The opening image is the cover from the 1987 Grafton Books edition of the short story collection The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius, by the artist Tim White. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Next week, the final part: The Game of Time


Transatlantic Traversals

It is with a touch of disappointment that I report that my wife and I will shortly be crossing the Atlantic ocean yet another time in order to live on the European shores once more. There are good reasons for us to move back to Manchester, including the fact we have property there, and a slew of new and exciting projects with European clients, particularly our friends at 3D People. But still, I have enjoyed my year in Knoxville, amidst the greenery and sunshine, despite developing a certain sense of isolation.

Knoxville, a charming college town on the eastern edge of Tennessee, has been a part of my life since 1997, when a friend's wedding brought me here - and led me to my wife. I appreciate the popular conception that people have of Tennessee, and for the most part it is wildly unfair. It is true that this is a fairly conservative state, one in which a conventional patriarchal version of Christianity dominates, and thus a State which prefers to support Republican over Democrat. But beyond the stereotypes of the majority lies a wealth of diversity, and this truly is a remarkably friendly region, with people who would gladly lend a hand to someone in need.

East Tennessee is the liberal side of the State, with the conservative influence being much stronger in wealthy Nashville, or densely urban Memphis. The Christian Churches here are diverse, and there are two Unitarian Churches, one of which has amicable relations with the local Pagan groups. The Pagans, alas, have been having all sorts of problems resolving tensions in their community recently, which is a shame as at its best it is a wonderfully spiritual counterculture. Many refugees from stale-minded Churches have found a home among the Pagans, although it would be wrong to presume that there are not open-minded Christians here. A friend, who alas recently moved to Cincinnati, belonged to a splinter group of Christians within her own church that explored a less traditional interpretation of Christianity in their Sunday meetings.

A fringe benefit of the strong Christian presence here: my wife and I have been able to do our shopping on Sunday mornings, when the orthodox religious community is in Church. The largely empty aisles make for a refreshingly quiet supermarket trip!

My long relationship with Knoxville is not ending - we shall be back here again, no doubt - but my residency here must come to an end. It is with sorrow that I wave goodbye to our many friends here, but it will be with commensurate delight that I greet the many friends waiting for us on the other side of the Atlantic, where we will arrive at the start of June. Until then, we will be lost between worlds, travelling and visiting friends and family.

Farewell, Knoxville! We shall meet again!


New Poll: Volume of Content

I've fallen into a comfortable rhythm now, posting Tuesday to Friday, and I have managed to cut down on the over-long posts (somewhat!) by breaking them up into serials. Now that these changes are bedded in, what do you think about the volume of content here on Only a Game? Still too much? Just right? Or do you crave the flood of nonsense we used to have in the crazy days! The poll is up now.

Have a great weekend everyone!