In Praise of Punting

A rather odd thing happened to me at the weekend on the river Cherwell in Oxford. I rediscovered a love of punting. Not, in the greater context of things, anything earth shattering or even remotely important, but it made me smile then and it still does.
To be fair, I am not sure that “rediscover” is the correct term. In fact, I do not recall liking to punt at university at all. I do recall that languishing in the bottom of the punt with a beer letting someone else do all the hard work was enjoyable enough. As far as my own attempts to wield the pole however all I seem to remember was being constantly stuck on the bank after yet another failed attempt to direct the boat down the middle of the river. The only achievement, punting wise, that I recall was the simple lack of falling in (a good thing to avoid on the Cherwell, whose waters are less crystal clear and more past its sell by date pea soup).
It did not bode well to start with, as my usual combination of clumsiness and timidity meant that getting into the punt was a struggle in the first place. I took up where I had left off, and firmly positioned myself as far from the business end of the boat as possible. There I intended to stay – casually and magnamously waiving offers to take my turn – ‘no, no, its fine, I’m rubbish anyway and you look as though you are enjoying yourself so much’ – being the intended mantra. And it worked on the way out. (Incidentally, for those who have not had the pleasure, this being in Oxford you are standing in the sloping prow – actually in the boat – to punt rather than balanced precariously on top as they down in the place in the Fens).
After a stop for a fine spread of cold meats, cheese and other fine fare, washed down by some very nice champagne (I have good friends), it was time to begin the journey back. Maybe it was the champagne in the end. Possibly a posh version of the beer and pool playing correlation, where a few beverages improve the ability of bad players just a little before you cross the inebriation threshold into even worse than stone cold sober. Or maybe, since punting is hardly the activity you expect the majority of people to put high on the list of activities they do regularly, the similar exclusiveness of really good champagne makes it some kind of magic juice allowing even the most commonplace of folks (i.e. me) to suddenly be a dab hand at the task. It could have been the outfit I suppose – white linen, blazer and hat, the padded Lycra cycling shorts of the punting gentleman.
Whatever the reason – suddenly I had the pole in my hands and to my shock, seemed to be able to do a fair impression of using it effectively. Not just moving the boat, but actually controlling that movement (again, for the uninitiated, punting involves getting propulsion from pushing the pole against the river bed and then using the pole as a rudder to stop you crashing into trees/riverbanks/other punts/hippos.).
I was failing to make a mess of it and positively enjoying myself. This was most odd. I could see suddenly that punting was actually more relaxing when you’re in control. A bit damp, yes, with the shower of pea soup every pull and thrust, but you control the pace and the direction. Unlike other means of self propulsion it is also something you do and do not get yourself worked up into a sweat. If you do, you are trying too hard. Don’t try and punt to a deadline, it defeats the object of the exercise. Concentrate on the task, punt yourself off too get that impetus and make slow, unhurried adjustments to avoid the collisions and get you to your destination.
All this had me thinking then in the direction of a couple of conclusions. One is what else do I remember being rubbish at that maybe I should have another go at because miraculously after twenty years of absolutely no practice at all I have suddenly improved dramatically. The other was whether this is because I’m now grown up enough (I’ll avoid the work old, if you don’t mind) that I now understand patience and the need to be calm and still sometimes in life rather than constantly rushing through every part of my life.
In all seriousness, I wish I could punt to work. I think I would be happier if I could, and while it may rain and it may be slow, it would probably still be faster than my M25 commute.

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Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Recriminations

‘I can’t believe you just let him take her!’ Calgacus slammed his fist down on the table so hard it even made Senodo wince.
Exuperatus did not flinch and looked the red faced younger man straight in the eye.
‘There was nothing I could do,’ Exuperatus said simply,’ I couldn’t just run out and assault someone working for an Imperial official.’
‘I would have. To save her,’ Calgacus said.
‘That’s because you’re a young hothead and an idiot,’ Exuperatus held up his hand to stop the next protest,’ listen to me, please. I cannot say I was overjoyed to have her here in the first place, but she was a good worker and I’m sorry to see her go…’
‘I don’t think you are helping,’ said Senodo quickly, before Calgacus could explode again. He turned to the young builder.
’Calgacus, calm yourself, please, you won’t help Vita by raging at my friend and colleague here. Life had made us hard. We don’t feel it in the raw way you do, but it doesn’t mean we don’t care.’
‘Speak for yourself,’ Exuperatus spat, ‘I stopped caring about other people years ago.’
‘Will you just shut your smart mouth for once?’ Senodo bellowed.
It was not clear who of the other two men was more shocked. Silence reigned for a moment.
It was Calgacus that spoke in the end.
‘What happens to her now, do you think? Will they beat her? Torture her?’
‘I don’t know,’ Exuperatus admitted,’ depends on whether they think it would be fun to beat a little girl. From what little I’ve gleaned about the man Aquila I doubt it. The soldiers seem to think he is pretty straight. His man… I would not trust him, but I do not think he would go against any standing instructions.’
‘I would guess they would question her, and then hand her back to her master,’ Senodo said sadly,’ that’s when she will really be in danger.’
‘He’ll kill her, won’t he?’ asked Calgacus, his voice hollow.
‘I would,’ Exuperatus said.
‘Exuperatus!’ Senodo exclaimed.
‘What? I’m just telling the truth. Face it. She’s gone. We’re lucky we have not already been raided and carried off ourselves. If it wasn’t for the impending Iceni attack we’d all be nailed up in the Forum by now.’
Exuperatus got up from the table.
‘Right… That’s enough talking about the girl… We need to commend her soul to Hades and get on with our own lives. Which are about to be brutally cut short in a day or less when your savage relatives arrive.’
‘What are we going to do?’ Senodo said.
Exuperatus shrugged.
‘The plan hasn’t changed. We gather together the bare essentials – i.e. my money – and use our escape route out of the city, preferably before the attack hits.’
‘What escape route?’ Calgacus said quietly.
‘The one you said you had arranged. In the bath house construction site,’ Exuperatus snapped,’ don’t play me for a fool.’
Senodo put his head in his hands and shook it sadly.
‘Please…’
‘No, it’s alright Senodo,’ said Calgacus,’ let’s make this clear gentlemen. My memory can be vague. Maybe the presence of a certain young girl might help me remember where I have hidden the way out.’
‘Don’t you dare try and blackmail…’ Exuperatus began.
‘But I do dare, Exuperatus,’ Calgacus said, and this time with a grim smile,’ because either Vita goes with us or none of us go. ‘
‘That wasn’t the deal!’
‘The deal appears to have changed,’ admitted Senodo,’ and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take my chances with British tribesmen caught up in an orgy of triumphal bloodlust. So we at least try and help her, yes?’
Exuperatus said nothing but looked stonily at Calgacus.
‘You’ll regret this boy.’
‘Exuperatus?’
‘Damn you both to Hades and may the harpies pluck out your eyes and liver.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes.’

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

On Friday I underwent an intensive afternoon of indoctrination.
On Sunday as well to some extent (at the very laid back Folk by the Oak at Hatfield House) although that was several hours of fiddles and stranger musical instruments persuading me – fairly effectively – that with a beer in the hand and the sun beating down folk music can be rather fun.
On Friday, however, I attended “Go Local” which was a (not quite as well organised as it thought it was) concert thing that took place in the nascent beginnings of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Part of the legacy programme for the Olympics (was it really a year ago?) includes making use of what my company tended to spout as its most valuable commodity – people. Or in this case the thousands of volunteers of various garish colour of uniform that made everything work pretty smoothly at London 2012.
Personally I was one of Boris’ men, as a London Ambassador, and had a whale of a time, and I think that was most people’s experience of volunteering at the events. Tiring, sometimes frustrating but still something that put a spring in your step because you were part of something greater and “giving something back”.
So the point of this event was to launch the legacy volunteering project Join In (https://www.joininuk.org/) both to get those who might have picked up the volunteering bug in the Olympics/Paralympics and be looking to exercise it again and more pointedly to get the already converted to twist the arms of their partners/families/friends to get out and do something too.
Now, I volunteer once a month at an English Heritage property so I am kind of in the “already working but could always do more category”, but I think after an entire afternoon of Lord Coe, Eddie Izzard, and a (really on form at his bumbling best) Boris extolling just how wonderful we were last year and just how amazingly important it was to sign up to do something ongoing in our local communities I was starting to feel a little bit like a goose being force fed to provide a rich pate of philanthropy.
And by the way had we signed up? We wouldn’t be allowed to leave until we did, we were told.
It turns out they were actually joking about that one but at times I was not quite sure and I had wondered if I had in fact brought the lovely wife to some sort of new cult initiation ceremony where we finish by burning an effigy representing the final death of public funding (for anything).
I think that this member of the choir being preached to is sold on volunteering in any capacity for any cause that drives you.
I find doing anything – even if it is hard work – because you want to rather than have to, and that, in theory, you can walk away from it at any time is very relaxing and affirming. I’d encourage anyone to find something and find the time to lend a hand. It does not have to be a big commitment – I guess for me, my Wrest Park work is half a day once a month. However, not everything can be backfilled by the voluntary sector. You need to still fund the backbone of any key services, and have a structure in place where people are actually held accountable for that service. At Wrest Park, the volunteers are there to be friendly and helpful. The employed staff is there to take the money and handle complaints and policy questions in addition to being a welcoming smile. We are told specifically not to engage in any of those activities – we are not qualified to do so.
If you take other sectors that certainly could benefit from more bodies lending an hand (such as health, education, prisons etc) it becomes even more important to have the professionals qualified and funded and doing the jobs that they only are qualified to do as unfortunately many volunteers – enthusiastic and wonderful though they may be -might just not be the right people for a particular role.
I certainly do not want to be negative, and I am looking forward to a time in retirement that I can help in other areas that interest me, for example in youth mentoring. But while it is right to encourage people to engage in their communities a bit more, the voluntary sector is not a panacea and there has to be the right balance with a formal structure.
As I say, they did let us out in the end and the only burning was on those who forgot to apply the SPF 30.
And it was an experience to witness the spectacle of poor McFly getting dragged off stage before the end of their (up to then excellent) set through no fault of their own, the previous brainwashing sessions having taken the event well over an hour over time. Maybe they need a professional timekeeper.
It would never have happened at a folk festival.
(And by the way, thanks to Heather Small for the title, I’m still hugely sucked in by the 2012 bid promotional video http://vimeo.com/28381929, especially in retrospect.)

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Interrogation

‘Thank you for finally giving up trying to cripple my right hand man,’ Aquila noted drily to the short haired girl that sat opposite him.
Castor had suggested that it would be safer to have Vita bound, but Aquila thought that was unnecessary. It was not so much that the fight had gone out of her; more that she seemed calmer now. She almost seemed curious in what was going to happen next.
‘Why have you not taken me back to Miletus?’ Vita asked.
Aquila thought for a moment before replying. He tried not to smile. Normally when under interrogation by an Investigator people turned sullen and unresponsive or otherwise started to beg. Instead, here she was expecting him to justify his actions.
Well, Aquila thought, let’s try a direct approach and see where this goes.
‘I wanted to talk to you first. Magistrate Miletus has spent a lot of time and money tracking down a runaway slave.’
‘He’s a fool,’ Vita said,’ he could have had any number of girl slaves for what he spent on finding me.’
‘Ah. But you see, girl,’ Aquila leant back on the garden bench and folded his arms behind his head,’ Miletus is not a fool. There is something about you that is special. Now,’ he unfolded his arms and leaned forward,’ what might that be… perhaps you have a special talent in the bedroom?’
Vita blushed.
‘I’m a virgin,’ she said simply.
Aquila just nodded.
‘Where do you come from, girl? You are a bit pale in colour for the locals here.’
‘Mother was of the Brigantes,’ Vita said,’ that’s all I know about her.’
‘That’s a long way to travel,’ Aquila raised an eyebrow,’ this place is a long way from the cold North.’
‘I told you, I don’t know why. I always assumed that she was following the army as a lot of women do that. They’re hoping for somewhere to settle down with an old soldier. To get some level of social status somewhere warmer in the Empire. A lot of women are very dumb. ’
‘I think desperate is probably a more reasonable explanation.’
Vita shrugged.
‘Whatever.’
‘Sir,’ said Castor’s voice from behind him,’ Sorry to interrupt but I have some disturbing news.’
Aquila turned.
‘Go on?’
Castor said nothing but gestured at Vita who was watching intensely.
‘I wondered if you minded me speaking about the bigger situation in front of the girl,’ Castor said, ‘I am not sure she needs to know.’
‘Oh just get on with it. I haven’t the time for protocol at the moment.’
‘Very well,’ Castor sighed,’ the good news is that Paulinus has returned with the legions.’
‘Excellent.’
Castor coughed.
‘The bad news is that they are not going to defend the city.’
‘What!’
‘According to my sources they are holding their positions further up the Watling Street to maximise military advantage. They’ve given up on Verulamium, sir. They are leaving it to burn for the good of the province as a whole.’
Aquila thought for a moment.
‘Very well, we will leave at once. My Imperial pass will get us past the guards on the gate.’
‘I would prefer to tie up the loose ends here first, sir. Don’t worry about me. I have my own, more unofficial, arrangements for exiting the city before the mass slaughter begins.’
Aquila turned to Vita
’Well, you heard him, girl. We are about to be attacked by blood thirsty members of your own people. We have very little time and I think that I now have run out of patience.’
‘The Iceni are not my people – any more than you are,’ Vita retorted.
‘Indeed… So I guess that if you want to live you need to tell me what you know. Stop being evasive,’ Aquila sighed,’ or I’ll have to let Castor here play with his knife. But believe me, despite his skill, I’d rather avoid that.’
Vita suddenly looked a little pale.
‘I saw… documents. When Miletus took me into his bedroom there was an iron chest that was open. He shut it quickly… I don’t think he wanted anyone to see what was there,’ Vita paused,’ it was then I hit him on the side of the head with a Household god and ran for it.’
Behind Aquila, Castor began to chuckle at this.
Aquila ignored him.
‘What did the documents say?’
‘How do I know? I’m a slave, and a girl. I cannot read.’
‘What did they say, Vita. If you cannot read, why would Miletus be at all concerned? So stop lying and tell me.’
Vita sighed.
‘It was a mixture of documents, but some of them certainly looked like accounts, money lending agreements – that sort of thing. The numbers were large ones.’
‘As you suspected, sir’ Castor said.
‘Hmmm. Hearsay is not good enough. I need those documents. Castor, see to it.’
Castor came past Aquila and stood in front of the girl. A knife was loosely held in his left hand. Vita tried to recoil but here was no where really for her to go.
‘Vita,’ Castor said calmly,’ you have a choice. I will take you back to Miletus and you can get those documents for my employer here,’ he laid the knife gently against her neck, ’or I slit your throat now. What is it to be?’

It’s good to talk

My lovely wife and I tend to bicker with each other rather than row. Neither of us can stand to let a dispute last more than a few minutes, but then that is the kind of people both of us are. It works well for us, but it is not a model for everyone. We have friends who seem to positively enjoy a bit of explosive banter on a regular basis and a running verbal battle over several hours. But the common point in both relationships is that in both cases there is plenty of dialogue.
I was listening to a talk recently (from Peter Marsden, who works for Concordis International http://concordis-international.org/ ) that looked at how you can try and bring peace into conflict situations, whether these be between tribes, countries or in a relationship, and it was rather scary to see how these situations can arise and intensify so easily.
Conflict and argument are not bad things as they stand and can arise for any reason, many bad, but some with positive outcomes. We need to argue and question things in order to attempt to get at the truth of any matter – I recall Plato is very keen (and extremely annoying) on that question, question, question thing, in the understanding that if something is true, it should hold up to any amount of questioning – or that the questioning will go onto expose the real truth. In Jewish tradition part of worship is to argue about the Talmud and its meaning again in a belief that new insights into God’s Word will come out of that discussion. So in lots of areas of life a good argument is not a bad thing.
But power, resources, fear and just plain ignorance are far too common and when it gets nasty then there is increasing separation from each of the participants in the discussion, to the point when they turn their backs on each other and stop listening.
I find this interesting because I can think of times in my life that I have done this, gotten so fed up with someone or a particular argument that you just give up talking to them. After all, there are plenty of other people to talk to and you are getting nowhere (The Smiths “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is going through my head). So I turn my back. Listen to the hand. Oh dear.
Now cut off from any sense of balance, you then start to warp the whole affair into your own image, your own version of reality which continues the separation. This is also the point where we become vulnerable to third parties with their own agendas – “he said that you…’, ‘You know what he did?’ etc – stories that you cannot verify because you no longer talk to the other side. OK, we might not believe the vehement denial, but at least we can judge the response, maybe see the confusion that actually reveals what was a lie or exaggeration. Sadly in any conflict there are those who want to help, and those who want to maintain or even inflame the situation.
So do we have a solution for world peace yet? Sadly not, but we are not getting anywhere near it if we stop talking to each other. We don’t have to agree, we just need to first better understand the issues that each side have, look for some common ground and maybe there is a solution that can be used to moderate if not resolve the conflict. But I need to start at home, as with some many other things.
It appeals to me as I have found out over the years that I am a conflict avoider and would like to see everyone get on. So I find special shame when I cause conflict, usually over the silliest things (in retrospect).
Apparently this is quite normal, and that people act disproportionately in an act or word of retaliation to what can appear a relatively small thing. The suggestion for why this might be is that the slight, whatever it is, has hit us in a personal soft spot, something we feel unsure or uncomfortable about, something we may or may not have been deliberately hiding. For example, when I periodically feel bad about my body image (very often, unfortunately), a shouted insult is deeply upsetting, even if in a rational examination afterwards I know deep down it means nothing. So I am going to try and keep calm (and not go over and land a punch, which is honestly what in the moment I feel like doing), have a cup of tea and think about what is it about me that made that thing upset me quite so much and why someone feels they have to act like that in the first place – what’s eating them? And if I can fix that problem in myself then maybe the world will be a (very slightly) peaceful place.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Partings

‘Well?’ Aquila asked.
Castor shook his head.
‘My scouts have not returned from Londinium, so put that with the refugee influx and…’
Aquila sighed.
‘Then we have to assume the city has fallen, and the Iceni are now on the way here.’
Castor nodded.
‘Yes, straight up the Watling Street at full speed most likely. Very nice of us, I think, to provide high speed transport links between their targets,’ Castor paused, ‘we’ve very little time, Sir, no more than a day perhaps?’
‘I know,’ Aquila looked at his old friend,’ you should get out of here now, Castor. Go down South perhaps, towards the coast. I have no doubt that Paulinus will be able to crush this revolt, so it is a matter of staying alive until then.’
‘I’ll stay for now, Sir. I’m very good at hiding. Actually, shouldn’t we make to join with the Governor’s forces? They must be on their way now. I would say that is the safest place to be on this island at the moment.’
‘You’re right Castor. That does make some sense. I just feel that I am not doing my duty leaving the city in the hands of these corrupt incompetents.’
‘Surely it is not that bad, sir?’
‘They underestimate the power and ferocity of their foe. The Iceni are on a roll – to start with it was probably discontent, but after already scoring two major victories their confidence is high. They’ll continue to push on until they are given a bloody nose.’
‘Or the weather gets really bad,’ suggested Castor drily.
‘Ha – yes, true. And what have we got,’ Aquila lifted his hands to lift the blue sky above him,’ and overdose of Apollo’s chariot.’
‘So what do we do?’
‘I will go and try and reason with the idiots again, and if they don’t listen then I will set off towards Wales to brief the Governor. I know the Iceni and how they fight. You can come with me…’
‘If I may, I would like to resolve some other matters first,’ Castor interrupted,’ my curiosity is not yet satisfied.’
‘Not the girl, for the sake of Diana!’
‘Not so much the girl; more that man Miletus. I would like to know the truth.’
‘Well, so would I, but they’re all likely to die soon anyway at this rate… Very well, Castor, do what you must. But I would rather not lose you – good secretaries are very hard to find.’
Castor smiled.
‘I understand, sir.’
Night was falling as the grizzled man carefully picked his way through the streets towards the bar owned by the two Gauls. He wanted to talk to the boy, as his gut told him that it was possible he knew something about the girl Vita. As he approached the boy came out of the front door, looked around a little furtively and then vanished off behind the tavern into a narrow dark side street.
Fortune smiles on me, Castor thought, making his way through the shadows in pursuit.
He caught sight of the boy stop and look around to see if anyone was watching. Castor stood still and waited to see if he had been spotted. It appeared not, as with a quick movement the boy squatted to pee.
The boy had squatted to pee.
Castor had to use every bit of self control he had not to laugh. She had been hiding under his nose all the time. He was impressed rather than angry. It was a shame really, because he could do with someone young who could do subterfuge that well.
The “boy” finished and relieved began to jog back towards the bar. As she passed him Castor struck, binding her small body with one arm and clamping his other hand over her mouth. His grip was like a vice. To her credit her feet struck out at every possible soft or vulnerable spot. They all missed, however.
‘Quit struggling girl, you’ll only get hurt. You’re dealing with a professional.’
After a few more attempts, Vita finally gave up. Now limp and unresisting Castor carried the girl away into the night.
Focussed on his prize, Castor did not see the figure that watched him from the tavern doorway.
Exuperatus watched the Investigator’s man leave with the girl and sighed. Too bad, he’d almost started to care about the girl.
He slowly went inside and closed the door, slamming the locks firmly in place.

Voluntary separations

Andy Murray – well done you!
And now of course (Sir) Andrew Murray will be considered fully British again too, no more will he be that dour Scots bloke that never smiles but is quite good at tennis.
I remember the time before last year’s Olympics when he was not a Grand slam winner and too many people in the more Southern sections of this Island were happy to regionalise the poor man.
Now of course we all love him. I have to confess I was never a fan myself until I watching him play in the mixed doubles at London 2012 with Laura Robson. For me that silver medal performance was a much greater sign that he had reached a different place in his attitude and maturity. In that pairing he had to play the experienced older hand, supporting, coaching and encouraging the younger player and doing a great job of it. It was fun to watch and I think that experience has been really helpful for both players. Not that I know anything at all about tennis; but I think I know as much as the next man about people and I think both players learnt a lot in that competition. If I am right in that then it goes down as another one of those unexpected pivotal moments as they were last minute entrants to the mixed doubles as it was.
Going back to the British/Scottish debate it can be something I find quite distasteful as I have an aversion to being tribal. It is too much a natural condition for us as humans to split ourselves into tribes and us and it never ends well because we are not very good as a race in keeping it within the boundaries of good natured competition. It doesn’t matter if it is country, football team, religion (or indeed religious denomination with a particular religion where the tribalism can be even worse), or whether we are convinced Star Trek is better than Star Wars. It saddens me to see people get so worked up about something – often something that doesn’t really matter in the greater scheme of life and death – that they can descend into out and out hostility at the drop of a hat (and possibly the downing of too much beer, though it is a bit easy to blame alcohol alone, it is just a facilitator in some contexts). I wish we could just agree to differ and stop making it into a “You are either for us or against us” scenario and enjoy making fun of each other more rather than trying to prove we’re better or something and recognise we are all different and frankly weird in our own ways. I have a friend – she knows who she is – that hated Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi (sic) not because of musical tastes reasons but because it implied you could not like ballet and Iron Maiden at the same time. She has a point. I like both Star Wars and Star Trek franchises though I think Doctor Who is better. But I don’t feel I need to prove the point (ever).
In the end I hope Scotland doesn’t split from the UK. I don’t see what that is supposed to achieve apart from giving politicians more job opportunities to massage their egos and continue to promote out of date insular thinking. It is certainly not going to help anyone in Scotland with most of our global issues (there is a clue there in the term). If we are ever going to get a handle on the world’s problems we have to come together, not build new borders (or rebuild old ones that have been managed without for centuries). In reality, most of Europe is pretty fragile and federalist in structure and you lose count of the regions that want their own “independence”.
But like a child leaving home as a new adult “independence” also brings responsibility and not just towards your own people but to the greater global community.
That said it is fair to be worried about us all becoming a bit bland. But that’s a different “I” word to my mind, to campaign on that off Identity (and culture) rather than Independence. We should treasure the things that make that part of the world special and unique.
That is about people and what is important to them, it is not something that is preserved by border posts and political separation. I really wish sometimes that we all – and I include myself as I am subject to this sometimes despite having a rant today – could just grow up, embrace and enjoy our diversity for the gift it is (without it we won’t survive and get thoroughly bored). I keep thinking that true independence means consciously acting as a cooperative unique individual within a local and global community and not allow ourselves to enslaved yet again by a mob, albeit often a mob of our choosing.