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A Query about “Alula”

A recent inquiry comes to us from an ESTAR(SER) researcher in Japan:

In the course of a larger project investigating Ptilosis among associates/affiliates of the Order of the Third Bird in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I stumbled upon the valuable work of Waldron DeWitt Miller (1879-1929), whose tragic death in a motorcycle accident in the New Jersey Pine Barrens was a blow both to lovers of birds (in the avian sense), and to whose who knew Miller better under the Birdish sobriquet Wood Pewee. By this moniker he called countless “Actions” of the Avis Tertia in and around the American Museum of Natural History in the ‘teens and twenties (including a notorious 1922 occasion in which  a cohort of devotees attended durationally and metempsychotically upon a large Charles R. Knight painting depicting neanderthals in the act of realizing cave paintings; the resulting “graffiti” in the great hall were later determined to have been done by vandals unrelated to the Action).

Miller’s celebrated “Notes on Ptilosis, with Special Reference to the Feathering of the Wing” (Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 34 [1915]: 129-140) contains a lengthy discussion of the alula (or “bastard wing”) of the cuckoo bird (genus Tapera), which is notable for its size. The broader evolutionary/systematic significance of this characteristic may be put aside (for now), since it was my effort to follow up on Miller’s alula observations that led me to a most peculiar and roundabout “discovery” — the immediate object of the present correspondence.

Briefly, then: In the course of a set of Google searches of the term “alula,” I stumbled on what would appear to be a kind of magazine or samizdat publication distributed under that title. In itself, this elicited no surprise.  I assumed it must be a minor ornithological bulletin, or perhaps a gazetteer issued in connection with one or another of the eponymous towns of the Arab world.  But upon closer perusal, it seemed impossible to deny that this “Alula” publication has some connection to the attentional activities of the Order of the Third Bird itself! Imagine my surprise at the circuit my researches had run in this instance!  Most bizarre.  I include here two images from the website of the publication, placing in evidence proofs that it must hail from persons conversant with the usages of the Avis Tertia.  Consider:

I should add that I have written to these Alula editor/authors in the (provided) “contact” section of their website — seeking more information.  But have nothing from them yet (and am not overly optimistic).

For those wishing to consult the publication, I provide a link here.  Anyone with further information, correspondence would be welcome.

The editors of Communiqués did indeed follow up on the link, and we are in sympathy with our colleague in Tokyo: uncanny.  We would be happy to receive (and will transmit) any further intelligence.

“If you want to be a Bird…”

Work by ESTAR(SER) researchers over the last several years has brought new clarity to an issue that has long vexed students of the history of the “Order of the Third Bird” and its allied (& variant) bodies: to wit, the status of the use of intoxicants and stimulants in connection with attentional practices in the Birdish key.  A close reading of the document known as “The Goodway Speeches” (the 1977 transcript of a charivari of Plato’s Symposium, performed, apparently, as a kind of dinner-theater by a gaggle of inebriated hippie-Birds at the high-water mark of counter-culture “practical aesthesis”) reveals a stern warning that the Practice of the Order is strictly immiscible with the pharmacopeia of ekstasis.

Further detailed work on the topic is expected in a forthcoming volume of the Proceedings.  Nevertheless, the history of the Order is very definitely marked by a scintillating penumbra of practitioners who appear to have experimented with various supplementations of the disciplined transports associated with the canonical Practice (one thinks, here, in recent times, of the complex trajectory of Gonzalo Merrill and Reni Eppling, and the unfortunate rise and fall of “ESTRAS,” the so-called “Esthetical Society for Transcendental Realization and Applied Sensuality”; see Merrill and Eppling, “The Merrill-Eppling Peripatetic Peripeteia,” Proceedings, New Series 5 [June 2011]).

And in keeping with an intrepid willingness to go wherever the research takes us, we forward a recent note from an anonymous ESTAR(SER) scholar working on the filiations of Bird Practices through the youth-movements of the 1960s and ’70s.  Replies or follow-up inquires may be directed to the editors.

“In the course of research into formal practices of ‘Birdish’ attention in and around the ‘Counter Education’ circles of Los Angeles on the watershed of the 1970s, I followed up a lead that passed through Tuli Kupferberg to the Fugs, and from there to Barbara Ann Goldblatt, aka Antonia Duren — sometime songwriter for ‘The Holy Modal Rounders’ (aka ‘The Total Quintessence Stomach Pumpers,’ and, sometimes, if only in jest, ‘The Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers’ [sic/sick]). It was at this moment that I had a rather shocking realization: Duren is credited as the author of the Easy Rider soundtrack hit ‘If you want to be a bird’ (1969)! I recommend re-watching the crucial scene, which speaks volumes on what has come to be known as ‘The Disestablishment Period’ in the work of the Order.”

We append a link, for those who wish to consider:



On Robert Louis Stevenson, Pirate Birds, and the “Gaelic Negation”


The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) lived a brief and itinerant life of literary productivity and fragile health across the second half of the nineteenth century. Relegated posthumously to the ambivalent company of swashbuckling yarn-spinners from the high-water era of the British Empire, Stevenson has enjoyed recent critical reappraisals, and his works have seen new scrutiny. His links to Henry James have received attention, and his influence on Joseph Conrad, Borges, Nabokov, and other notable twentieth-century authors point to a literary importance perhaps still not fully appreciated.

Was Stevenson associated with the “Order of the Third Bird,” or one of its adjacencies? The question has been raised before, perhaps most elaborately in an essay by Reni Eppling published in the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER) entitled “Pieces of Eight: Captain Flint as a Pirate Bird” (Series II, Volume III, Issue 2; 1969). Briefly, the argument presented there amounted to a claim that the hard-swearing, doublet-wearing, two-hundred-year-old parrot named “Captain Flint,” who is the spirit animal of the pirate band in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), must be understood as an avatar of Birdishness in the book as a whole — and specifically as an allegory of the author’s relationship to the Practice of the Order across the 1870s. Without rehearsing Eppling’s rather baroque case, it suffices to mention that the parrot in question does enact a kind of “vigilance” at several key junctures in the narrative, and that its uncanny powers of attention do receive explicit mention in the book. We will put aside, here, any discussion of Gonzalo Merrill’s animadversion on Eppling’s essay, both because his counterposition (that actual pirate communities in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century were built around Birdish practices of sustained attention) can be shown to have no basis in fact, and because Sonny Kirkeyard, in editing the Eppling-Merrill materials from the late 1960s and early 1970s, came to believe that Merrill’s reply to Eppling was probably a joke (and may actually have been written by Eppling herself).

Be all that as it may, a lingering sense of Stevenson’s engagement with the Order has endured, and we have a recent query from an ESTAR(SER) researcher currently resident in Samoa (where the author lived out the last phase of his life, and died), who is apparently working on a new essay on Stevenson and the Birds. We reproduce it here in relevant part, and can facilitate any follow-up communication:

In the course of recent reading in the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, I have been struck by what appears to be a veiled discussion of a tactic for use in the phase of NEGATION, such as is practiced by devotees of the Avis Tertia. The reference appears in an 1894 letter from RLS to his cousin, the painter and critic Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson. It would seem that the latter had attempted to narrate a particularly intense Action of the Birds in which he had participated (this letter we do not possess), and that RLS, in reply, wishes both to acknowledge the account, and gesture at a (related?) form of Negation that involves the total abolition of the present tense itself. Here is the relevant passage, from the final paragraph of the letter:

To look back, and to stereotype one bygone humour—what a hopeless thing!  The mind runs ever in a thousand eddies like a river between cliffs. You (the ego) are always spinning round in it, east, west, north, and south.  You are twenty years old, and forty, and five, and the next moment you are freezing at an imaginary eighty; you are never the plain forty-four that you should be by dates. (The most philosophical language is the Gaelic, which has no present tense…)

I am hopeful that any associates of ESTAR(SER) who might be in possession of information bearing on what we might want to call the “Gaelic Negation” will perhaps be willing to share details of such usages.

Attentions in the Dark

Evidence of a Volée of German Psychophysicians c. 1860

Recently, while contributing research to a study of “Birdish” bookmarks in the Milcom Library Collection, an associate of ESTAR(SER) made a fascinating discovery. His notice on the matter has just crossed our desk, and we reproduce it here in full:

I was asked by my colleagues in ESTAR(SER) to retrieve a single quotation from the work of Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) pertaining to the historicity of the Order of the Third Bird, but in searching for it I stumbled on something that may be of interest for our collective research beyond any shorter-term projects we have. To wit, I have discerned in Fechner’s Elemente der Psychophysik (1860) evidence of a lost practice of attention under conditions of total darkness.

Fechner cites a number of earlier authors writing on the familiar phenomenon whereby someone who stays in a dark space for an extended time comes to perceive objects in that space to which a person just arrived from the outdoor light would be completely blind. Buffon, for one, describes a prisoner who after some months in a pitch-black cell was able to observe the mice he shared it with as if they were bathed in a rich luminosity.

Fechner is guardedly interested in the work of his near-contemporary Carl Ludwig von Reichenbach (1788-1869), who in his Odisch-magnetische Briefe (1859) introduces the concept of the Od. This term is derived from the Old Norse ōðr, commonly translated as “feeling,” but also having the sense of “song” or “poetry.” Reichenbach appropriates it and Germanizes it to describe a life-force that steers the body and that can be detected emanating out of it under the right experimental conditions. This od or “odic force” is conceived as something akin to both electricity and magnetism, and to this extent is but one expression of many in the era of a broad interest, best exemplified in the work of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), in explaining the activity of living bodies in terms of fundamental physical forces that were only beginning to be understood.

What interests Fechner most in Reichenbach’s work, however, is the capacity this latter author attributes to the so-called Sensitives: people who have unusual powers due to the greater share they possess of the odic force. Reichenbach’s Sensitives, Fechner observes, “see, in total darkness, a glowing, at the poles of strong magnets of flame-like appearances of light; at the north pole they perceive blue and blue-grey, at the south pole red, red-yellow, and red-grey.” Reichenbach also maintains, Fechner notes, “that they see a glowing at the points of crystals, at the extremities of living human, animal, and plant bodies, particularly at the fingertips, in metals, sulphur, and fluids that are obtained in chemical reactions or in crystallisation, and so on. The author arrives in the end at the result,” Fechner concludes, referring to volume II of Reichenbach’s Der sensitive Mensch und sein Verhalten zum Ode (1855), “that all bodies on the earth in general give off a light in the darkness that is detectable by Sensitives, only that some do so more, and some less.”*

Who are these “Sensitives”? Intriguingly, in a footnote to the second edition of the Elemente der Psychophysik (Leipzig, 1861), Fechner comments that he has heard of a contingent of Reichenbach’s followers who describe themselves by this term, and who, Fechner believes, cultivate their sensitivity even beyond their innate capacity through what he describes as Aufmerksamkeitsübungen, i.e., exercises of attention. Fechner writes: “Thus do they sharpen their sensitivity: in total darkness they direct their eyes, all together and for a fixed period of time, towards one and the same art object, until they detect its glowing. Some of them maintain that in the perception of this glowing the sensitive observer temporarily shares in the same inner nature as the observed object.”**

Could this be evidence for the existence of a volée of the Order within the cultural nexus of the not-quite-fringe yet not fully credence-worthy German psychophysicians of the mid-19th century? Clearly, further research is required.

*“Reichenbach giebt in seinen Schriften über das sog. Od an, dass gewisse Personen, sog. Sensitiven, im vollkommenen Dunkel an den Polen starker Magnete flammenähnliche Lichterscheinungen, am Nordpole blaue und Blaugraue, am Südpole eine rothe, rothgelbe und rothgraue wahrnehmen, dass sie auch die Spitze von Krystallen, lebende menschliche, thierische und pflanzliche Körper, ganz besonders die Fingerspitzen, Metalle, Schwefel, Flüssigkeiten, die im chemischen oder Krystallisationsacte begriffen sind, u. s w. leuchten sehen. Endlich kommt der Verf. (sensit. Mensch II. S. 192) zu dem Resultate, dass alle Körper der Erde überhaupt im Dunkeln Licht, für die Sensitiven spürbar, ausgeben, die einen nur mehr, die anderen weniger” (323-24).

**“So schleifen sie ihre Empfindlichkeit: im vollkommenen Dunkel richten sie die Augen alle zusammen für eine bestimmte Zeit auf ein und dasselbe Kunstobjekt, bis sie das Leuchten davon spüren. Einige von ihnen behaupten, dass beim Beobachten dieses Leuchtens der sensitive Beobachter dasselbe innere Wesen als der beobachtete Gegenstand vorübergehend teilt.”

We agree with our associate: further research is required. Anyone inclined to pursue the topic will be interested to recall that this is not the first time occult tendencies have surfaced in the historicity of the Order. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most notably, the English antiquarian (and probable Bird) Francis Douce (1757-1834) experimented on the “attentional landscapes” putatively perceived by Welsh and Irish clairvoyants blessed with second sight; subsequently, in the early twentieth-century, a cohort of figures in and around Britain appears to have formalized Douce’s esoteric methods into a “Corona of Care” protocol, the first phase of which is “Watch the Darkness.” Could Reichenbach have been aware Douce? Could the protocol be linked to Reichenbach?

We are passing the matter on to ESTAR(SER)’s “Standing Committee on Practical Auratics” for further investigation. In the meanwhile, do not hesitate to send critical responses or promising leads to the Editor of the Communiqués.


Topographic Actions?

There has never been much evidence that orthodox associates of the Order of the Third Bird have engaged in any sustained way in “Birdish” practices of attention to natural landforms — or, indeed, to “natural” objects more generally. While a number of “divergent” tendencies (one thinks immediately of the twentieth-century Russian “Korfians,” about whom Justin E. H. Smith and others have written at some length; and on the “Oannes Scrap” and the activities of M.I. Return Maycomb in the 1820s and 30s) have arisen that do indeed perform attentional rites on the night sky, the ocean surface, horizon-lines, and various other non-canonical objects, the basic widely accepted rubric for the Practice has long been that devotees attend on “objects made to be seen.”  This seems to have been interpreted widely, and admitted also of other sensory modalities.  But the notion of “intent” has been paramount.  In this context, doing a Bird Action on a natural object (a tree, say, or ordinary rock) can been understood to raise theological questions of some depth.

Working the edge of this problem has been a preoccupation of several known volées operating in North America and Western Europe since the 1960s, and we have secondhand reports (in the W-Cache and in oral traditions) of active debates around the suitability of a bonsai tree as a “Work” in the sense acknowledged by the main line of the Avis Tertia (the preponderance of collective opinion on this was affirmative).  Another striking “boundary case” has been Robert Irwin’s epochal “String Drawing – Filtered Light” of 1976 (a delimited patch of grass in the garden of the Venice Biennial, which heralded the young Irwin’s move to the thresholds of direct sensory experience via bracketed bits of the world). There has long been a rumor that a Southern California volée performs an annual Action upon a pastiche of this work installed anew every May near Twenty-Nine Palms in Wonder Valley.  There seem to be a small number of dissenters who, in a ritualized (and apparently friendly) manner, “protest” this Action every year.  Both groups finish the day with a cookout, if these reports are to be believed.

All of this makes the present photograph of interest.  It came to light in 2015, in materials related to the estate of a Los Angeles researcher long associated with ESTAR(SER).  It would appear to represent an Action of associates of the Order working in Ohio in the mid-1920s, using a “Protocol for Topography” that has not been preserved.  Anyone in possession of information that might bear on this document is encouraged to follow up with the Editor of the Communiqués directly.

An Ancient Treatise on Attention

At the time of his death in 1961, the German classicist Werner Jaeger was widely reputed to be the greatest scholar of Aristotle’s philosophy in the modern period. His reputation was secured already with the Studien zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Metaphysik des Aristoteles of 1911, while much of his later work was dedicated to the recovery and edition of lost or unknown texts of classical antiquity. These include, notably, two treatises of Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius, which he published in a critical edition in 1954. Among the papers in his considerable Nachlaß are transcriptions of three Greek texts attributed to a Pseudo-Aristotle, which is to say an author, likely of late antiquity, writing in a consciously Aristotelian style, or even in imitation of the Stagirite with intent to deceive readers. These are entitled On Napping, On Foam, and On Beans and Pulses.

A fourth text, archived along with these others at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, is found only in German translation, written out in Jaeger’s own hand, and is attributed, puzzlingly, to a “Pseudo-Pseudo-Aristotle”. Some scholarly debate over the past decades has been focused on the question whether this curiously monikered author was pretending (the common interpretation among French and Italian scholars) to be someone pretending to be Aristotle  —l’imitation d’une imitation, as Grillet (2003) wrote, evidently riffing on Plato’s dismissive characterisation of figurative art–; or whether (as Germans and Anglophones generally believe) the “Pseudo-Pseudo-” may be read as a double negation, so that the author was in antiquity falsely believed to be falsely believed to be Aristotle, which would be so much as to say, in other words, that he was Aristotle. The title of the text in question is On Attention.

We cannot resolve the question of authorship here, nor can we determine under what circumstances Jaeger acquired the text, nor what happened to the Greek original, nor indeed, with any certainty, whether there ever was one. We shall, nevertheless, here below (scroll over the bust), provide a translation of the German manuscript, supplementing it only sparingly with footnotes, where the text plainly requires interpretation, or where it evidently alludes to other parts of the Aristotelian corpus.

The “Velocispector” and the Sturgis Sorosis

In the course of a recent re-cataloguing of W-Cache materials improperly translated with the Milcom Papers during the Mana Library Installation, two members of the Trustees took note of the leaf depicted above, which represents a modification of a Sheffield “Light Car” known as the “Flyer.”  The original Flyer was developed by the Sheffield Co. of Three Rivers, Michigan in the early 1890s, though this unusual model (unlike many other Sheffield specialized railway hand cars) appears never to have gone into wide production.  It is nevertheless described in some detail, and accompanied by a print much like this one, in the trade gazetteer The Sheffield Car Co. (1894). While obviously somewhat impractical, the Flyer was reported to achieve speeds of thirty miles an hour downwind in a stiff breeze, and thus offered a nearly unprecedented somatosensory experience for late-nineteenth century thrill-seekers.

What makes this (previously unknown) W-Cache etching unique is the addition, visible in the reproduction, of a kind of easel or “display board” cantilevered out from the mast, and configured to be optimally visible to the passenger of the vehicle.

While we were initially puzzled by this peculiar adaptation, we are now in a position to offer a preliminary interpretation, one of considerable interest to those who delve the history of aesthetic experience generally (and the Avis Tertia specifically). The full story is sufficiently intricate and important that we trust it will eventually merit treatment in an article-length study in the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), but in keeping with the mission of Communiqués, we believe a concise summary of our findings is in order.  In brief, then:

1) The W-Cache contains sources that indicate that this modified Flyer was  indeed developed as a kind of private and secret “skunk-works” project by principals of the Sheffield Car Company in the early 1890s.

2) These sources further establish that the vehicle was known as the “Velocispector,” and that the purpose of the cantilevered easel was to permit experimentation with practices of sustained attention to works of art while travelling at high speeds.

3) Which is to say, the Velocispector allowed an intrepid aesthete to mount a painting, drawing, photograph, or other work of two-dimensional art of conventional size to the angled mast-board and then regard it intently as both viewer and viewed accelerated to great speed along an (unused) rail line.

4) These same sources strongly suggest that this “extreme-sport” of art-appreciation emerged out of a secretive cohort of attentional devotees active in St. Joseph’s County, Michigan at the turn of the century.

5) It is difficult to believe that these persons were not associated with a community that we would now recognize as a volée of the Order of the Third Bird — a volée experimenting not merely with the aesthetic vertigo of railway travel generally, but with specific problems of high-velocity contemplation.

6) Research to this point strongly suggests that the following individuals knew of and/or participated in this work: Edward B. Linsley and Warren J. Willits of Three Rivers, Michigan (both principals of the Sheffield Car Company, and both also philanthropic founders of the Three Rivers Public Library, later the Carnegie Center for the Arts); Evelyn B. Gray and Rose Van Burin (of the Sturgis Sorosis Club, Sturgis, Michigan, which appears to have been the nexus of the community as a whole); and Sue I. Silliman (of the Three Rivers Isabella Association).

7) At least one series of these Protocols of Locomotion (also known as Actions of the Wind) was conducted on a set of Adolphe Braun’s photographs of the Sistine Chapel, then on loan from the State Public Library.

More work is wanted, but a full treatment may be expected within the year.

Dominican Metempsychosis?

An associate of ESTAR(SER) residing in Belgium recently passed us the following short notice, which we reproduce here:

“In the course of a perusal of A.G. Sertillanges’ well known La vie intellectuelle (I was working with the edition of 1921), I found myself quite arrested by several turns of phrase in chapter 6, ‘L’esprit du travail.’  I take the liberty of including an image. It will be remarked that Father Sertillanges here suggests that ‘comprendre c’est de devenir autre’ (‘to understand is to become other’) and that this is achieved by means of an uncanny effort: ‘Essayez de penser dans l’objet de la science, non en vous-même,’ which we would render as ‘endeavor to think inside the object to be understood, and not in yourself’  (this movement of thought into the thing is likened to speaking out into the air, rather than up into one’s own sinuses). Nebbel’s 1973 essay on “Birds in Cassocks” (Proceedings, second series, Volume II, no. 3, pp. 11-28) does discuss a number of Jesuits and Franciscans working in Francophone Europe (and the colonies) in the first decades of the twentieth century who are strongly suspected of Birdish associations, but I was unaware of any links to the Dominican order. In light of Sertillanges’ striking phraseology here, a closer look would be, I think, warranted.”

We agree. Anyone with further leads is encouraged to follow up.

Something Unexpected

Quite aside from the difficulties and mysteries encountered above (in “Sanchōden: The Transmission of the Three Birds” and “The Absence of the Third Bird at Nikkō”), we would also like to share a diverting image that arrived over the transom from a correspondent who provides only a “bird name,” as traditionally adopted by associates of the Order of the Third Bird. The caption scribbled on the reverse of this photograph, taken in apparent haste, is as follows: “Workroom and headquarters, Secretary Locotenant of the Order of the Third Bird.” Many of our readers are in proud or bemused possession of one of the many contradictory and fragmentary images of the Locotenant currently in circulation. The present photograph is unusual in that it does not purport to feature the Secretary him- or herself, and also appears to be quite contemporary.

Supplement: The Absence of the Third Bird at Nikkō

While we were in the process of composing the preceding entry (“Sanchōden: The Transmission of the Three Birds”) we had occasion to consult with a correspondent presently located in Nikkō, Japan. She had become interested in the recurrent bird imagery on the third ring of walls surrounding Nikkō’s Tōshōgu temple complex, which enshrines the founding father of the Tokugawa shogunate.

The decorations on this ring of walls are composed of colorful vignettes of two birds or three, of a variety of species, possibly bearing some symbolism but on the whole – in line with the rest of the Tōshōgu complex – existing to display ornate artistry and opulence, and implicitly questioning the extent to which it is possible to torque, torture and exalt matter to proclaim, reflect and supplement the glory of a given being.

Our correspondent highlights two adjacent and very curious vignettes (reproduced here as photographed by her). The first features three ducks, one of which has slipped underwater – a common enough motif that might easily evoke to Birdish sensibilities a propensity to dip below the surface of things in pursuit of some elusive aesthesis.

In the second, the two birds that were on the water’s surface are now in flight, and the third is nowhere to be seen. This third is betrayed only by the roiling of the water, and by the gap where it should be, and is not.

The pursuit of meaning here, if meaning is to be pursued, must be something like following along the length of a single filament of spider silk – invisible to the naked eye and almost impalpable, though surprisingly robust.

As the poet Kakiaji no Seiei famously observed, if only one thread in a bolt of white cloth is blue, anyone might, upon close observation, discern it – but only a poet sees that the cloth yearns to be blue.

The craftsman of these bird vignettes at Tōshōgu – if indeed he was a conscientious adept of an Order resembling that of the present day (in Japan or elsewhere) in its sensibilities and purposes – would have been certain, here, to disguise his profession of faith and fealty as a mere absence. In so doing, he made this absence an unmistakable emblem of the very thing he had so carefully omitted.

For the third bird is in fact not there. In order to pursue it and reveal its presence, one would have literally to dive below the surface of this image, or below the surface of the matter that composes this work – which of course, save for the very particular circumstances of an Action of the Order, is quite impossible.