Non-Fiction

Heavier Than Air

23 September 2018

Not exactly to do with writing, but from an era when the articles in The New Yorker was somewhat less political than they are today.

And paragraphs were longer.

From The New Yorker, December 13, 1930:

The first man ever to fly an airplane is a gray man now, dressed in gray clothes. Not only have his hair and his mustache taken on this tone, but his curiously flat face, too. Thirty years of hating publicity and its works, thirty years of dodging cameras and interviews, have given him what he has obviously wished for most: a protective coloration which will enable him to fade out of public view against a neutral background. Orville Wright is not merely modest; he is what the sociologists call an asocial type. Bachelorhood is one evidence of this. You might discover another yourself, by searching the back files of newspapers for photographs of him. You would find fewer than you expected, and almost all of those you did find would be of his back. Temperament is doubtless partially responsible for making him thus. So, doubtless, is the way the world has treated him as a pioneer.

December 17, this year, is the twenty-seventh anniversary of the day when the younger of two of the sons of the Reverend Milton Wright, Bishop of the Church of the United Brethren of Christ, flipped a coin with his brother at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and, having won the toss, climbed into a motorized orange crate which slipped crazily forward—and left the ground. Orville and Wilbur Wright had for almost three decades looked toward this moment, and during most of that time they had shared the secret of their ambition with only one other person, a sister. Then, as they grew up in Dayton, Ohio, they had to take their experiments into the open. They flew odd kites before groups of raucously unsympathetic townsmen who asked what kind of business this was for grown men. They were going to fly!—and at a time when Samuel Pierpont Langley was falling into the Potomac River near Washington demonstrating that man could not fly, and when the joke of the day was that flying machines ought to be launched upside down so that they might soar, not fall. Then followed the immediate aftermath of their success, and its psychological effect. After Kitty Hawk the Wrights had returned to Dayton, which couldn’t realize that the two boys who ran the bicycle shop had flown. They tried a public flight for the townspeople, and when it was unsuccessful the newspapers printed funny stories. Thereafter, Dayton could see the Wright plane in the skies, and hear the uncertain musketry of its engine, and still not believe that anyone had accomplished power-driven flight. An old farmer expressed the general local opinion when he said: “There’s no use fussin’ with that thing, Will. It’s against Nature to fly, and even if anybody does, it won’t be anybody from Dayton.” Nor did the rest of the country show much interest. It wasn’t until 1908, two years after Europe had accepted the success of emulators of the Wrights, such as Santos-Dumont and Bleriot, that this nation came to suspect that the machine made by the bicycle-repairmen was a reality, perhaps even a success.

Now you find Orville Wright, when you confront him in his workshop, a timid man whose misery at meeting you is obviously so keen that, in common decency, you leave as soon as you can. He is to be found in his office, if you intrude, in a small brick house at 15 North Broadway, Dayton. It has two stories, a few yards of frontage on the street, and an ell that vanishes somewhere in the rear. In only one way does it stand out from the run of buildings along the street. It is not the ugliest house, nor the handsomest, nor the most sinister, nor the most inviting, nor the most well-kept, nor the most ramshackle. It is simply, by a long shot, the most undistinguished. By no stretch of the imagination would you suspect it houses fame.

The interior furnishings carry out the same motif. The front room is a spare box. There is a thin, faded rug on the uneven floor. The walls are bare of pictures. Not a memento is to be seen. There is a roll-top desk against one wall and a small table against another. There are three chairs, thin chairs. The gentleman opposite you is a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, a doctor of technical science of the Royal Technical College of Munich; he holds almost every honorary degree that a university can award; he owns enough medals to entomb him completely if he ever wore them all at once; he is an honored member of every association of aëronauts in the world; but on rainy days the roof leaks and he winces faintly when, every nine remorseless seconds, a drop of water flashes past the pale light of the window into the little pool on the floor.

He has been victimized and distorted by the written word ever since his first flight in 1903, when a reporter swiped a telegraphic message telling his father, the Bishop, that the machine had flown, and, knowing no fact but that, wrote what seemed good to him—a long, richly embroidered piece of imaginative prose describing in detail a flight of a virtuosity to which no plane has yet attained. He hates to have anything written about him, especially the conventional struggle-and-success story in which he has almost always been publicly presented. He regards his and Wilbur’s early work with a kind of religious pride, and would have it understood clearly and without gush that there were no melodramatic heartbreaks in learning to fly—save the inevitable financial ones. He insists that neither he nor Wilbur ever tried anything until they had worked it out first on paper and then in the laboratory, and that on the field, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that which was planned to happen happened. By this logic he insists there was no thrill whatever in leaving the ground on the first successful flight, in 1903. He was too sure he would fly to be excited. He says he had only one thrill in aviation: the moment when the bare idea of flight came to him as he lay abed at night as a sleepless small boy. He has almost never written for print and he refuses to write his autobiography. The persuasive demons who have put John D. Rockefeller, Colonel House, and the Pope into the sound movies will never triumph with him. “The only birds who talk are parrots, and they are not birds of high flight,” once said Wilbur, who had a certain flair for epigram. His brother’s interest in aviation is now only that of a bystander. He occupies himself now largely in “putting some of Will’s papers in order,” so that the amazingly exact early data of aërodynamics which the brothers worked out in the eighteen-nineties will not be lost. He serves on a few aëronautical committees. Curiously, although he never entered aërial sporting events in the earlier days and frequently evidenced his dislike for them, the post in which he now takes the greatest interest is the chairmanship of the contest committee of the National Aëronautic Association.

. . . .

The thoughts of Orville and Wilbur turned to flying in 1878, when Orville was seven. The Bishop, their father, had bought them a toy helicopter and from it they visioned a machine which would carry people. It was a boyhood dream which persisted into manhood. Years later, as young men, Orville and Wilbur found that the larger you built a helicopter the harder it was to make it fly. They turned to kites and gliders and had only a half-hearted interest in following their elder brothers to Yale or any other college. An accident suffered by Wilbur on a hockey rink settled matters. It made him a semi-invalid for a time, and helped to reconcile their family to this unconventional decision. For a livelihood they opened the Wright Cycle Company in West Third Street, Dayton. Their spare time was spent in building gliders on the biplane principle of Octave Chanute, and flying them as kites. They were so successful that soon they were riding aloft in them. For two years they studied complicated questions of stability. They had almost no previously assembled data to go on. They built themselves a wind tunnel and spent months in calculating the lifting power of different wings. By the time they were ready to apply power they knew enough of stability to be reasonably certain that they would not kill themselves.

The application of power was almost hopelessly baffling. How could anyone design an aërial screw for them when, in the year 1901, marine engineers were vague as to the principles by which a marine propeller drove a ship? How could they hope to buy a gasoline engine light and efficient enough to be carried aloft when the best automobile motor could drive a car at but fifteen miles an hour and weighed a cumbrous ton? The answer is: they couldn’t. The Wrights designed their own propeller from their own data and smoothed it down with a spoke-shave. They forged and hammered and cast their own engine in the Dayton cycle-shop.

. . . .

Now Orville stays in Dayton and the longest trip he is apt to make is from his home, where he lives with two servants, to his office, where he works with one secretary, seeing no one if it can be avoided, saying nothing if he can help it. He does not now concern himself with the company which bears his name. None of the millions which have gone into aviation has found its way to him. He certainly hasn’t the talent for acquisition. In the early nineteen-tens capitalists who sought to promote his and his brother’s patents found the pair indifferent and dreamily impractical. Or so they said. One must remember, however, that some years before this the brothers had sought financial backing and then had found the capitalists indifferent and dreamily impractical. At any rate, when the war started, Orville was merely running a flying school, and that on no high business basis. He lives in comfort which is adequate for him.

He still receives letters by the hundreds. Answering them all would keep a score of secretaries busy. Boys write to him for advice on models. Inventors try to interest him in their ideas, reminding him of his early battle against prejudice. But Will’s papers must be put in order. This he finds as much of a draft on his time as he can meet. He looks tired, his voice is almost listless; unquestionably he is in some physical pain. The mail accordingly is neglected.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Missing the Dark Satanic Mills

16 September 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

Practically from the start of industrial manufacturing, gawkers appeared to marvel at the sight. The cotton mills of sooty Manchester were an obligatory stop for every clued-in visitor to that city. In the summer of 1915, Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory in Michigan, the first with a continuous assembly line, drew three to four hundred visitors a day. So prominent a feature of the industrial landscape were factory tourists that Diego Rivera painted them into his mural sequence Detroit Industry (1932–1933). In one panel, the throngs at Ford’s River Rouge plant (young, old, women, men, Dick Tracy among them) look on, their mouths downturned, as the line of chassis—pierced by steering wheels and ministered to by bent-over, jumpsuited workers—rolls by. In 1971, 243,000 people visited River Rouge. Later that decade, the Commerce Department’s USA Plant Visits, 1977–78, a compendium of factories that offered tours, ran to 153 pages.

Although American manufacturing output today is near a historic high, the percentage of manufacturing jobs drifted steadily downward in the decades after World War II, and then in 2000 plunged sharply. Factories currently employ less than 8 percent of the American workforce, a consequence of offshoring as well as automation. Perhaps because there is not much romance in watching robots go about their day, the factory tour pickings are now more meager. In the Chicago area in the 1960s, you could have seen how steel, furniture, newspapers, pottery, automobile parts, hosiery, and, yes, sausages were made. Today, the only factory tours left in the city are epicurean: craft distilleries, artisanal chocolateries, and a popcorn factory. If you want to have a look at manufacturing of the Make-America-Great-Again variety in Illinois, you will need to drive nearly two and a half hours to Moline, where the John Deere company, headquartered there since 1848, still provides free tours of the harvester works.

With nostalgia for manufacturing jobs now thoroughly weaponized in American politics, Joshua Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is timely. Freeman, a historian of American labor and the author of American Empire, the Penguin history of the post–World War II United States, takes as his subject huge factories, the behemoths of his title: River Rouge; the Soviet steel complex Magnitogorsk, east of the Urals; and China’s Foxconn City, with its hundreds of thousands of workers, arguably the largest factory ever in operation. Focusing on these giants, Freeman suggests, reveals what happens when concentrated production and economies of scale are taken to the showiest extreme. It also helps to explain the hold that factories have had on the imagination over the past 250 years: the promise (largely delivered on) that industrialization would lift billions out of poverty, competing with the fears (also realized) that it would wreck the environment and sharpen social conflicts.

. . . .

The rise of the factory was the consequence of three interrelated developments: machinery that was so large or expensive that production could not be carried out at home, technological expertise that similarly exceeded the capacity of the individual household, and entrepreneurs who wished to directly supervise their workers. By the time factories appeared in Lancashire and the East Midlands, the transition to an industrial economy was already underway, and the task of making sense of this new system of manufactures fell first to the British. The perils were apparent: the exploitation of child labor and the thick forest of chimneys pumping out smoke and gasses, the filth of the overcrowded cities and the subjugation of workers to new forms of discipline that critics likened to slavery.

But just as obvious was the wonder. It was not simply about the goods produced—a quantity of textiles measured in miles rather than yards—but the factories themselves, of which Joseph Wright’s 1783 painting of Richard Arkwright’s cotton mills at night provides a glimpse. Outshining the moon in Wright’s picture is the factory, each one of its rectangular, symmetrical windows ablaze, a scene of harmonious, heavenly creation in the Derwent Valley. To describe what they were seeing, writers pressed far-fetched metaphors into service: Robert Southey thought the new factories looked like convents, Alexis de Tocqueville called them “huge palaces,” while Charles Dickens, describing the steam engine, likened its pistons to “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness” and the smoke it produced to “monstrous serpents.”

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

When he was much younger, PG enjoyed factory tours. His favorite was probably the printing plant of a couple of large Chicago newspapers. Lots of moving machinery, huge rolls of paper and streams of uncut newspapers going all over the place. And some of the press workers wore little caps made from folded newspaper.

His tour through a large meat processing plant was less edifying, although that’s where the beef and pork many people enjoy is produced.

One summer, he worked in a small soft drink bottling factory and it was pretty boring.

 

The dark history of our obsession with productivity

12 September 2018

From Fast Company:

You know it’s bad when you start typing “obsession with” in the Google search bar and the first auto-completion prompt is “productivity.”
As workers, we are obsessed with getting stuff done. No wonder there seems to be a bottomless well of advice, filled with evangelists, gurus, and thought leaders proferring hacks, tools, tricks, and secrets to help us pack more output into the waking hours of our workdays. Productivity software alone accounts for an $82 billion market, according to IBISWorld research.

But where, exactly, did this lust for wringing greater efficiency from every possible second originate?

. . . .

There’s no definitive source, but we start to see historical mentions of productivity in that classic economics text Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith in 1776. In it, Smith contended that there were two kinds of labor: productive and unproductive.

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed; there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labor. Thus the labor of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing . . . A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers; he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants. The labor of the latter, however, has its value, and deserves its reward as well.

Benjamin Franklin, a contemporary of the Scottish economist with plenty of productivity theories of his own, put forth what might be considered the first “to-do” list in 1791. The productivity measure in Franklin’s list of tasks (wash, work, read, work, put things in their places) was less likely to be measured in hard numbers like Smith’s. Franklin’s assessment was simple: Start the day asking what good shall be done, and at the end of the day evaluate based on what was accomplished. Lofty, to be sure, but an interesting measure nevertheless.

. . . .

The notion of planning’s role in increasing productivity was enjoying a moment during the rumblings of the Industrial Revolution. A Boston Globe report reveals that by 1850, day planners were not only proliferating, their makers were making bank. An 1844 list of wealthy taxpayers shows that among the two Boston businessmen with $100,000 or more was a blank book manufacturer. Productivity became inexorably linked to the virtue of working hard at this time, too. Etiquette manuals of the era suggested that the daily planner was a means to self-improvement.

Although the 20th century was rocked by two World Wars and the Great Depression, productivity was a focal point for manufacturing of goods needed to support military efforts and later, to satisfy the demands of the U.S.’s growing middle class.

. . . .

So it was ripe for the rise of the earliest efficiency expert, an industrial engineer from Philadelphia named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Nicknamed Speedy Taylor, he would get himself a consulting gig with a company, observe its workers, and calculate how they could do their jobs faster (and then charge a hefty sum for the report).

. . . .

Let’s not forget Bill Smith, an engineer at Motorola who introduced Six Sigma in 1986 as “a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects (driving toward six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit) in any process–from manufacturing to transactional, and from product to service.”

According to Six Sigma, “Productivity is much more important than revenues and profits of the organization because profits only reflect the end result, whereas productivity reflects the increased efficiency as well as effectiveness of business policies and processes. Moreover, it enables a business to find out its strengths and weaknesses. It also lets the business easily identify threats as well as opportunities that prevail in the market as a result of competition and changes in business environment.”

. . . .

The thing is that in the frenzy to be more productive, we as a nation have become a little less so. Economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University chalks this up to the fact that we are using methods and procedures that are over a decade old. He told the Atlantic, “We had a great revolution in the 1980s and ’90s as businesses transitioned from paper, typewriters, file cabinets to personal computers with spreadsheets, word-processing software. And then that revolution was accompanied in the 1990s by the internet, by free information through search engines, through e-commerce, and doing away with paper.”

. . . .

As Leila Hock points out: “It’s not hard work–work is work, and yes, some work requires more brain power, but most of us smart people like that and want more of it, so let’s stop calling it hard. Let’s call it productive. Effective. Valuable. Anything that speaks to nature over quantity, because that’s what we need more of.”

Link to the rest at Fast Company

Aquarius Rising

9 September 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

Certain years acquire an almost numinous quality in collective memory—1789, 1861, 1914. One of the more recent additions to the list is 1968. Its fiftieth anniversary has brought a flood of attempts to recapture it—local, national, and transnational histories, anthologies, memoirs, even performance art and musical theater. Immersion in this literature soon produces a feeling of déjà vu, particularly if one was politically conscious at the time (as I was).

Up to a point, repetition is inevitable. Certain public figures and events are inescapable: the tormented Lyndon Johnson, enmeshed in an unpopular, unwinnable war and choosing to withdraw from the presidential stage; the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; the intensifying moral challenges posed by Martin Luther King; the assassinations of King and Kennedy; the racially charged violence in most major cities; the police riot against antiwar protesters (and anyone else who got in their way) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the emergence of right-wing candidates—George Wallace, Richard Nixon—appealing to a “silent majority” whose silence was somehow construed as civic virtue. And the anticlimactic election: the narrow defeat of Hubert Humphrey by Nixon, who promised to “bring us together” without specifying how.

What togetherness turned out to mean was an excruciating prolongation of the war in Vietnam, accompanied by an accelerating animosity toward dissent. The effort to satisfy the silent majority by exorcising the demons of 1968 would eventually lead to the resurgence of an interventionist military policy, the dismantling of what passed for a welfare state, and the prosecution of a “war on drugs” that would imprison more Americans than had ever been behind bars before.

Revisiting this story is important and necessary. But difficulties arise when one tries to identify who those demons actually were. The conventional accounts of radical protest all feature the usual suspects: Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, the Maoists, the Yippies, the devotees of Che. According to this narrative, nearly all the white protesters are privileged draft dodgers from a northern tier of universities that stretched from Cambridge and New York through Ann Arbor and Madison to Berkeley. As hopes for electing an antiwar president fade, they descend into pseudo-Marxist posturing and self-destructive fantasies of violent revolution. A few hapless Weathermen, sectarian spinoffs from the SDS, provide a coda to this story by blowing themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970.

This account provides a comforting balm for supporters of status quo politics, but it misses the larger meanings of radical protest—its pervasiveness, its heterogeneity, above all its religious roots and significance. The religious dimension of American radicalism was what separated it from the student uprisings in Paris and other European cities during the spring of 1968. American radicals lacked the anticlerical animus of Europeans; priests, rabbis, and ministers enlisted in the front ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements. King’s decision to bear witness against the war was central to legitimating resistance to it, while provoking government counterattacks as well as denunciations from both liberals and conservatives.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Perhaps he’s not accompanied by many, but for PG, 1968 was anything but numinous.

He could go on for a long time, but the end of the Johnson presidency and the beginning of the Nixon presidency, the death and mental destruction of friends in Vietnam did and do not give PG warm fuzzies. For him, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius seemed like a product of a drug-filled party that lasted too long and became really weird at the end.

But others remember the time differently.

840 new dictionary entries to help you speak better gen Z

4 September 2018

From Fast Company:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has just added 840 new entriesto our ever-expanding language, including adorbs, Instagramming, rando, TL;DR, GOAT, Latinx, avo, bingeable, time suck, hangry, salty (as in, salty), bougie, and CBD. Basically, every word that you need to keep up a convo with the gen Z kiddos in your life—and generation Z was added to the dictionary, too.

There are also a bunch of new foodie terms to play in Scrabble, including guac, mocktails, zoodles, gochujang (that’s the Korean chili paste that accompanies bibimbap), mise en place, the French term familiar to anyone who watches Hell’s Kitchen, and flight, as in the craft beer tasting menu that your favorite hophead downs at the brewery.

The dictionary isn’t just an internet translation guide for the Olds, though. It has also added an important batch of science terms like acephalgic migraine, bashful bladder and shy bladder, biohacking, fintech, nanobot, and parusis, and haptics, which is the science of touch, which is behind the good vibration of a smartphone responding to your finger touch.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

The 22-Year-Old Who Wrote Barack Obama’s Letters

29 August 2018

From The Atlantic:

In a small office on the top floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a young woman sat at a desk covered with letters to the president of the United States. There were hundreds, each stamped with back from the oval and crowned at the top with “Reply” in Barack Obama’s handwriting.

Most White House staff members didn’t even know of this tiny office, accessible primarily by staircase and home to the writing team for the Office of Presidential Correspondence (OPC). Composed of nine staff members—a very small portion of the overall OPC—the writing team was in charge of answering the 10,000 letters and messages that arrived each day for the president.

While the majority of these letter writers received personalized form letters, 10 of them were chosen for Obama’s daily reading and, depending on the president’s wishes, required a personal reply, a process Jeanne Marie Laskas describes in a new book, to be published next month, To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope. Laskas pulls back the curtain on this impressive letter-writing machine to reveal not a wizard but a would-be Dorothy, Kolbie Blume. In her first job out of college, swamped at her desk with letters to the president in need of reply, Blume served as the president’s voice.

Her job, as Blume explained to me in a recent interview, was to understand not only the letter writer, but also how the president must have felt reading the letter, which she often gathered from punctuation he added or sentences he underlined. She didn’t consider herself “the voice of the president,” but rather someone who pulled together Obama’s language from his books, speeches, letters, and other material, trying to achieve a tone, not unlike her own, that combined the president’s idealism and humility. Her official bureaucratic title, from August 2015 to the end of Obama’s second term, in January 2017: director of writing for sampled correspondence. In other words, Blume wrote personal letters to citizens on behalf of the president, responding to the sacred 10 letters a day, or 10lads in the parlance of the OPC, that Obama read religiously each night.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Dance Halls, Derelicts and Condos

26 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

A musical that opened on Broadway in late 1891 featured a song about a notorious stretch of Manhattan where, as the lyrics went, “I had one of the devil’s own nights. . . . The Bowery! The Bowery! / They say such things and they do strange things.”

The ditty took America by storm, according to “Devil’s Mile,” an intermittently engaging cultural history of the Bowery by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, the author of a previous book about the Flatiron building. Fans snapped up the sheet music and danced to the song in dives and drawing rooms.

It became too much for certain Bowery merchants, who insisted the tune was scaring customers away and futilely petitioned New York’s Board of Aldermen to change the street’s name. Cooper Avenue and Central Broadway were rejected. “Wot’s der matter wid der ‘Bowery’?” a local denizen demanded of a New York Times reporter. “I suppose you guys would like ter see it called der Foubourg St. Germain?”

The street wasn’t always a synonym for dissipation and degradation. The Bowery—both a street and a neighborhood in the southern part of Manhattan—began as a footpath marked out by the Lenape Indians. When, in the 1620s, the Dutch came ashore to found New Amsterdam, they widened the path for use as a highway and built farms nearby. The name “Bowery” derives from “bouwerij,” the old Dutch word for “farm.”

. . . .

Composer Stephen Foster has a cameo role in “Devil’s Mile,” as a sometime Bowery resident and as the composer of a song (“Swanee River”) that accompanied a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at a Bowery theater. So does Charles Dickens, whose “American Notes,” an account of his travels in the U.S., included a visit to the Bowery, where he was gobsmacked by the moves of William Henry Lane (known as “Master Juba”), a seminal figure in the creation of tap dancing.

As time went on, the Bowery became, by day, a place to buy inexpensive household goods; by night it was an adult playground. Beer gardens, dance halls, dime museums and shooting galleries proliferated, and love, whatever your inclination, was for sale. The street was lined with flophouses and soup kitchens, the last stop for the downtrodden and down-on-their-luck.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Bowery Theater

The Bowery Theater after its rebuilding in 1845

Elevated railroads in the Bowery, 1896

profundify, v.

22 August 2018

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

profundify, v.

. . . .
To make intellectually profound.

1821 – Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. May 198/1   They are provoked by droppings of inspiration from a stone, in which the measure and the meaning are most happily profundified.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

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