Posted on 26 May 2014 | No responses
A liberal looks at the country and, in his eagerness to immanentize the eschaton, rejects well-functioning tradition for want of some high-theoretic World State. A conservative looks at the country and, in his eagerness to restore long-abandoned traditions, rejects much scientific and cultural progress for want of Duck Dynasty. Yet a healthy body politic needs both visions; liberals and conservatives are merely opposite lobes of Uncle Sam’s lungs, diseased though each may be in its own special way. Lose one to cancer, you lose a lot.
Lose both, though, and you lose everything. The Zombie Apocalypse test is apropos: What really matters after catastrophe strikes? Think of an event like Hurricane Katrina, when public order in southern Louisiana was shaky for several weeks and ordinary survival became a genuine ordeal. In such a climate, does anyone really care about “trigger warnings” or carbon footprints or into which cathole the transgendered person gets to pee? Almost all of the current causes célèbres of the Left are what kids these days call #FirstWorldProblems. The issues that progressives adore are so irrelevant to life on the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy that it’s a wonder so many people invest so much time into advocating for so little substance.
Yet in that Katrina situation, the Right isn’t appreciably better. The preppers hide in their bunkers while the guys with guns take stuff from the guys with yoga mats. If public order is a long way off, you’re much more likely to end up with a descent into strongman-led tribalism, with a pecking order directly related to what you can contribute to the group in terms of rare skills or biceps size.
And therein lies the rub. Neither conservatives nor liberals currently articulate a comprehensive worldview that successfully encapsulates the value of ancient knowledge and antique skills, with a respect for the sundry joys of High Culture and a sophistication for harmonizing new insights with old wisdom. Today, we can afford to obsess about Facebook offering dozens of gender options. Tomorrow, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, those same people who eagerly set their Facebook genders to “Cis Woman” or “Transmasculine” are unlikely to survive a week without dying of dehydration, injury or human-caused trauma. Today, we can afford to let conservatives be the voice of anti-elite sentiment. Tomorrow, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, those same people who disdain higher education will be the first to chuck the last copy of War and Peace on the fire when the menfolk return with a fresh kill of some endangered species.
We might get lucky; we might get a world that looks like Falling Skies, with a healthy balance between warrior and academic leading the group. But we might end up with Lord of the Flies, instead. It scares me that I can’t tell which scenario is more probable.
We could, perhaps, console ourselves with the belief that the Zombie Apocalypse — a term of art, of course, for any great civilizational catastrophe — won’t occur. But such consolation is empty given the sprawling narrative of human history. The May edition of the estimable First Things included, as a feature article, “The Great War Revisited” by George Weigel. It is a masterclass narrative in a magazine that, itself, sets the high bar of literary merit.
Weigel recounts the willful blindness of world leaders in 1914. No one could quite believe that the stability of the Westphalian system could collapse so quickly and so completely in so little time, so they acted as if it couldn’t.
Consider. On January 1, 1910, Tsar Nicholas II ruled an ancient, vast, autocratic Russian empire. Kaiser Wilhelm ruled a powerful, prosperous Germany freshly ambitious after Bismarck’s consolidations a generation before. Emperor Franz Joseph ruled the elegant if creaky Austria-Hungary — since 1848, no less. The Ottomans were in control, albeit tenuously, in Istanbul and had been for more than half a millennium. The Qing Dynasty ruled a decrepit China through a monarchy with roots two millennia old. America was quiet and disinterested in foreign affairs, with William Howard Taft presiding over a prosperous, growing but inward-looking country.
On January 1, 1925 — a mere 15 years later — the Romanovs were decomposing in a shallow grave while the Soviet Union crushed internal dissidents on Stalin’s orders. Germany was a shambles, the harsh Peace of Versailles spreading misery among Germans of every stripe and depriving governments before Hitler of any real, legitimate power … thus sowing the seeds of the next major war. Austria and Hungary were cleaved apart and the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI, had been deposed while Ataturk began his secularizing work (potentially sparking the tinder of later Islamofascism, to boot). The KMT was consolidating control in a democratic China while Japanese forces still stung by the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 had correctly gauged the exhaustion of the West and plotted accordingly. The United States, after Woodrow Wilson’s collectivist war policies and internationalist exhortations, was enjoying the Roaring Twenties under Calvin Coolidge. And families across the world were still coping with the devastation wrought by the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
All the things that looked so permanent in 1910 had been laid waste over five years of war and a decade of ill-managed peace. An entire generation had bled to death for naught on the fields of Europe, and others — India, Japan, China — took notice. The suicide of the West took some time, but each slice of the wrist was unmistakable –
- The sinking of the Titanic (1912) — we began to doubt scientific progress
- The Guns of August (1914) — we went to war because we couldn’t find a reason not to
- The battles of Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele (1916-1917) — we killed millions knowing it was futile
- European acquiescence to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (1938) — we looked away from evil
- The Yalta Conference (1945) — we let Stalin get his spoils without a fight, condemning millions
- The Counterculture (ca. 1968) — we stopped being serious about shared culture
- The War on Terror (ca. 2001) — we over-reacted to a minor threat, then under-reacted to major threats
Imagine being a normal person born on January 1, 1890. You saw the entire world change before you greeted your first grandchild. You were born into a world without widespread automobiles, powered flight or amenities like indoor plumbing or electricity; as a child, you likely heard stories from your parents of the Civil War, the taming of the American Frontier and the era of tall ships. You lived through the Great War and World War II and the Cold War. If you lived to the ripe old age of 80, you died after seeing a man walk on the surface of the moon.
Think about that.
History is replete with moments in time where everything changed within a generation and old truths and new ideas fought bitterly for supremacy. The Great War was such an inflection point. So was the political upheaval of 1848. So were the Napoleonic Wars a generation earlier and the French Revolution that lit their fuse. So was the Reformation, starting with the 95 Theses posted in 1517 and persisting through centuries of wars of religion in Europe. So was the discovery of the New World in 1492. So were the Crusades. So were the crowning of Charlemagne, the Mongol invasions, the collapse of Rome and Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.
So why do we persist in thinking that such an earth-shattering event can never again occur? Why must we be so un-serious about the future that we can relish small-potatoes political idiocy as the world smolders while waiting for the tinder for the next world-historical dislocation?
Today’s domestic politics isn’t up to the task. Neither the Right nor the Left can articulate a coherent vision for what the world ought to look like next week, let alone a century hence.
Some of today’s more enlightened pundits — I’m thinking especially of George F. Will and Peggy Noonan — correctly note that the race for 2016 is hamstrung by both the Republicans and the Democrats lacking a consistent and comprehensive message about what they want for America. Debates currently focus on irrelevant personalities (Bill Clinton, the Koch Brothers) or on issues that aren’t really significant in the grand scale of things (marijuana legalization, the minimum wage). We’re back to small-ball politics.
But while politics is about legislative agendas, ideology is about the big picture. And on that front, all the main ideological voices in America lack a conceptual coherence that applies with equal validity and rigor to life on a college campus as well as life in a post-apocalyptic village. Ideology requires a conception of the human condition that applies regardless of any individual human’s specific condition. It requires a nuanced teleology. Ideology shapes politics, so with ideologies in disarray, it’s no surprise the our politics follows suit.
Progressive ideology spends so much time on harmonizing complex identity relationships that the framework it’s built upon cannot endure in adverse material conditions — what works in faculty lounges at Berkeley won’t work in a rural farming community in Nebraska, and certainly won’t work in a long-term survival situation. It fails the test of universal relevance. Conservative ideology lacks coherence on the big questions of life and human relationships; half of engaged conservatives appear quite willing to live within Leave It to Beaver and eschew politics entirely while the other half can’t figure out if it’s for or against the NSA, for or against starting council meetings with an invocation to Jesus, for or against vaccines. The libertarians fail to concede that humans are social animals, and that eusociality imperfectly squares with contractarian principles, so they seem like the rump at a linguistics conference that really, really wants you to believe that Esperanto is a logically superior alternative if only people would abandon their native tongues and give it a chance.
(Sneaky thought: You know who actually nails the big picture effectively? Catholics and Jews, and non-radicalized Muslims.)
I want conservatives, in particular, to advance a coherent framework that tells me what kind of America we aspire to in the year 2114. Don’t recite policy — recite the principles that policy will be shaped by. That framework will give a compelling, universal why as well as a specific answer to the tough questions we prefer to elide:
- If human life is precious, will we abolish the death penalty when we abolish abortion?
- Which is better: A well-reared child attached to two same-sex parents, or a poorly reared child of two opposite-sex parents?
- Under what circumstances will we invade a sovereign state? To acquire resources? To avert genocide? Never?
- Can we force children to get mandatory vaccination against parental consent, for diseases that could devastate large populations?
- Does human destiny reside in the United States, across the globe or among the stars?
- What should be in the public square, versus entirely private, versus private but subject to government monitoring?
- To what degree should individual risk be socialized?
- What is the purpose of a well-lived life?
- Is society stronger with a Judeo-Christian worldview, with a secular worldview or with a Greco-Roman ambivalence about religion?
- To what degree should a person be required know how to change a tire, raise a garden or build a fire in the backcountry?
- What is the point at which we agree that gulf between “have” and “have not” is too wide to tolerate?
- How do we balance libertarian autonomy with the stabilizing power of society’s little platoons, without rendering either useless?
- At what point does market inequality amount to de facto duress for the economically disadvantaged?
- What is the proper response to a person who is biologically female but professes to be male in gender?
- To what degree are people free to make choices that may not redound to their long-term advantage (smoking pot, eating too many cheeseburgers, avoiding dental exams, driving without a seatbelt, etc.)?
We can hope that the Zombie Apocalypse never comes, despite history’s ample lessons. But while we maintain this foolish hope, will we think prudently about what kind of life ought to persist between our cyclical catastrophes, or will we duck our heads in the sand and continue pretend that today’s hot-button social issues really do have meaning?
Posted on 17 May 2014 | No responses
A Brief Respite …
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Posted on 14 May 2014 | No responses
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Posted on 11 May 2014 | No responses
I sometimes wonder if people are afraid to do bold things unless they obtain a commanding nod from a smiling, glittery fairy wielding a wand that’s been clearly labeled with the word serendipity.
You see it with the person who refuses to advance his career despite myriad opportunities. You see it with the good-looking person too afraid to approach someone at a bar. You see it with the person who says yes to everything because saying no is just too much of a bother.
So we act like cattle, mingling in the herd until it’s our time to become a Big Mac.
One of the reasons I’m worried about Vladimir Putin’s reckless escapades in Ukraine is because Putin isn’t wanting for serendipity. He basically lassoed the fairy and tortured her into submission. He’s doing what he likes, and the best we can do is talk about hitting singles and doubles and warning him that if he continues to pretend like it’s 1938, one of these days we might not like it. Putin can be controlled, but only if we want to control him. But we don’t, so we don’t, so Ukraine burns.
I used to think that certain things needed to align a certain way in order to clear a path of progress. Such magical thinking no longer holds much sway. Things happen for a reason, and a lack of good fortune isn’t it. Accept the consequences of what you do, and what you don’t do, and stop waiting for the magic to start.
* * *
- Spent one night in Chicago last week, to participate in a day-long emerging-competencies workshop sponsored by the National Association for Healthcare Quality.
- I received a letter from Western Michigan University officially welcoming me into the graduate certificate program in applied statistics.
- Looks like our micropublishing house idea will proceed. We’ll start with an anthology. First board meeting is in one week.
- My boss continues to be strongly supportive of my career.
- The cats have been delightfully mellow the last few days.
- I filed paperwork to run for an elected GOP precinct delegate position in Kent County.
- I rolled an updated PGP keypair — see the right margin for a link to my public key.
Posted on 5 May 2014 | No responses
My Co-Workers Have Figured Out How to Improve My Mondays
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Posted on 4 May 2014 | No responses
Oh, Donald Sterling. You are a first-class case study in what’s amiss in today’s public square.
Let’s recap. Sterling, part owner of a professional basketball team, recently came under fire for some not-exactly-subtle racist comments he made. And apparently he has a long and unhappy history of such comments.
The Universe of Right-Thinking Individuals, in characteristic fashion, decided Sterling is not one of us and therefore should be forced to sell his ownership in the L.A. Clippers, and presumably to slink under a rock until he dies in disgrace.
Here’s the catch, though. Although I personally believe Sterling’s comments are idiotic, I have yet to see evidence* that he engaged in illegal activity that warrants such strong financial sanctions.
Did he engage in behavior, motivated by racial animus, that adversely affected the players, staff or fans of the Clippers? Did he engage in unlawful discrimination? Did he do anything that would be a valid cause of civil or criminal action before a state or federal judge?
Yes? Cool. Let’s collect the evidence and take it to a jury.
No? Then what’s the problem, really?
Many people would argue that the problem is the racist sentiments themselves — that the very possibility that someone, somewhere, could hold such a disallowed opinion is justification for radical public intervention. Although I firmly believe that racism is the last refuge of ignorant buffoons, I’m wary of inflicting economic harm against anyone who holds an unpopular opinion. If it’s OK to publicly browbeat racists — obviously an easy target that garners little sympathy – who else is it OK to browbeat and financially penalize in the court of public opinion? How about people who are iffy on gay marriage? (Hello, Brendan Eich.) How about people business owners who oppose abortion? (Hello, Hobby Lobby.) What about people who use words correctly that others misunderstand? (Hello, David Howard.) Should people who are skeptical of some policy positions of climate-change activists be tossed in jail because they’re “deniers?” I’m sure most of us have an opinion about something that doesn’t represent correct thinking. Would you want to be sanctioned or face financial harm not because of what you did, but because of what you thought?
As I said: Sterling makes a great case study, because no one but a Klansman can excuse his language. I certainly can’t. I think the man is a bloody fool and that his comments are indefensibly reprehensible. If ever there were a scenario where a near-majority of the public would agree on something, it’s that Sterling is an unrepentant racist. This case is black-and-white, open-and-shut, book ‘em Danno.
But — isn’t it better to engage bad opinions than to dehumanize the people who hold them? Isn’t it better to let a jury, following due-process rules, decide whether a person ought to suffer financial penalty for committing an actual harm, rather than to let the justice of the mob inflict whatever sanctions it sees fit?
There’s an increasingly virulent strain of moral absolutism afoot in contemporary political discourse. It’s not isolated to the Left or the Right. Rather, it infests the entire debate. This absolutism casts people with whom we disagree not just as errant, but as inferior — as not deserving of basic human dignity and to whom no quarter shall be offered. The Left’s treatment of folks like Sterling and Eich and Howard is lamentable, but it’s no different in its way from the Right’s treatment of Bart Stupak or Alec Baldwin or Al Sharpton. ‘Tis easier to demean than to debate.
I abhor racism. I’m quite happy to condemn Sterling, or to debate him in order to persuade him to a more enlightened view of race relations. I am not happy, though, to acquiesce to mob justice. If Sterling is to lose his assets involuntarily, it should be the result of a court order, not a full-court press in the media. I felt the same thing about Eich.
Because eventually, the justice of the mob will move away from the black-and-white cases, like Sterling’s, and move to the grey cases for which most of us, in some way, serve as unindicted co-conspirators.
*I have been tracking the story, but not obsessing over it, so if such evidence exists, I’d welcome a hat tip.
Posted on 27 April 2014 | No responses
Sundry items of note …
Viva Lost Wages! Last month I spent three nights in Las Vegas for a little trip to celebrate the 35th birthday of Tony’s brother in law. I was comped three nights at Main Street Station and the four of us (Tony, his wife, his B-I-L and I) were occasionally joined by our friend Alasdair, a jolly chap from London. Tony and I also, finally, had the chance to enjoy a lovely aged cigar and microbrews with our friend Ted, a denizen of Sin City. The trip was a lot of fun. I flew Delta via Minneapolis and had better-than-average luck … with the airport shuttles. Gambling was a disappointment; I didn’t lose terribly much, but that’s because we spent more time playing blackjack and craps than video poker. Which, for the record: Not once the entire trip did I hit quads at VP, despite probably a dozen total hours of play and Tony’s wife hitting a royal flush and enough quads to put the Duggars to shame. Balls! But we did enjoy tasty food (Andiamo’s, Le Thai), scrumptious drinks (Laundry Room, Park on Fremont) and enjoyable sights (Mob Museum, Container Park). Most of our gaming was done at Main Street Station (3:2 pitch blackjack) or El Cortez (craps) or The D (video poker), but Tony’s coupon run meant we dropped into pretty much every casino in the vicinity of the Fremont Street Experience, including the just-closed Gold Spike and the newly opened Downtown Grand. That said, as much as downtown Las Vegas has its charms, I’m itching to return to the Strip on my next trek to The Happiest Place on Earth.
Jimmy Swap. Three weeks ago, I had a bit of rough riding with my 1998 GMC Jimmy. Slight vibration, especially on braking. Then — bam! It suddenly started clunking like a jackhammer. The pinion in the rear differential shattered, and repairs would clock in above $1,600, which was more than I wanted to pay given I just put $900 into it in January for a starter and full inspection. Anyway, last weekend, I bought a 2000 Jimmy — black, 4WD — from a young lady and sold the old Jimmy for $450 to a mechanic. I need to get the new vehicle checked out (there’s what seems like a fuel-sensor problem that needs to be fixed) but otherwise it’s a better-than-fair trade for the net price.
On the Bus! For three days, while Old Jimmy was in the shop being diagnosed, I took the bus to work. It wasn’t a bad trek; I live close enough to the bus line that runs near my office building that I could hoof it a tiny bit and not mess around with transfers. A few co-workers saw me walking the quarter-mile stretch between work and the bus stop and asked me if I walk to work. When I mentioned that I took the bus, they reacted as if I told them I have Ebola and would like to French kiss. Granted, I’m not the kind of guy who lionizes public transportation: It takes four times longer to get anywhere and you’re at the mercy of bus schedules and you must adapt to an ever-unpredictable mix of folks who happen to be on any given coach. But still, the snobbery that disdains the occasional use of public transportation did disappoint. Everyone should know the basics of the local bus or train system within their community, even if you only need to use it once every year or so. The $3 round-trip from home to office each day was a heck of a lot more prudent than a $60 round-trip cab ride (which is what I did in January when the starter got replaced) or the daily expense of a rental car.
Publishing House. My local tribe of fellow writers is exploring whether we want to establish a micropublishing house. We got the idea from a presentation at last month’s writer’s conference. The proposal I drafted goes before the gang this Friday, so we’ll see what happens.
Isle Royale. I’m now questioning whether I’ll do the Memorial Day trip back to the island. The U.P. is still covered in dense blankets of snow and Lake Superior between Houghton and the park is pretty much solid ice; National Weather Service says “wetter and colder than normal for the foreseeable future.” That gives a northern latitude a mere month to warm up enough to make a four-night backpacking trip enjoyable. Magic Eight Ball says: Not Gonna Happen, Wouldn’t Be Prudent. I’ve been invited to Louisville for a birthday casino trip with Tony and his wife. Might do that, instead, and consider an IRNP trip later in June. They promised to take me to Churchill Downs as long as I bring my “man satchel” so Jen can fill it with empty Stella chalices. Hmm.
Easter. The Easter Vigil at St. Robert went well. Fr. Len had the whole thing wrapped up in 1:47. Rob did well — he was nervous, but he had a lot of friends and family cheering him on. I didn’t even let him fall into the baptismal font! Now that Rob’s one of Us, we’ll work on getting his voting patterns into alignment. Fascinating to see the cultural difference between St. Robert and St. Anthony; the former church is very laid back while the latter spends a lot of time on prep and rehearsal.
Cats. The boy cat, as of last week, decided he wants to sleep on my lap, too, just like his sister. In addition to being a parrot who gets pony rides around the house while balancing on my shoulders. Silly beast.
Illness. Two weeks ago, I had the Death Flu. Not fun. I think it’s the first time I had the flu since the 1990s — thank you, mandatory healthcare-worker vaccination.
Bonaire? On Tuesday I had tasty BBQ with Jen, Dave and Tawnya. It looks like we’ve got a week in October slated for a trek to Bonaire for a diving vacation. Looking forward to it! I think we’re going to rent a condo for a week and split the rooms accordingly.
Posted on 26 April 2014 | No responses
Flights and duck nachos at Brewery Vivant. Mmm.
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Posted on 15 April 2014 | No responses
Last Sunday, we had a closing four-hour retreat for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Robert of Newminster. The session was pleasant and the people at that parish are really quite delightful. The experience, at the time when Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, reinforced for me a concept I don’t take seriously enough — that is, the role of religiosity in the lives of ordinary people.
The social scientists tell us that formal religious profession is on the wane. Only one in five Americans visits a place of worship in any given week. Although three-quarters of us confess Christianity, demographers project that Christianity will be a minority faith tradition by 2030 given that one-third of people under age 30 claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Yet the religious impulse, as a human phenomenon, is quite different from religious practice. For the unchurched or the atheistic, their religious impulses tend to find expression in other pursuits — sexual licentiousness, radical environmentalism, unfocused spiritualism, unfettered egoism, etc.
Look at the pseudo-messianic undertones of the climate-change True Believers. Some of them suggest that people who disagree with their interpretation of climate models aren’t just mistaken — they’re morally defective and ought to be silenced – or even put in jail. Look, too, at the furor over the departure of newly appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Some representative supporters of same-sex marriage have argued, loudly, that one man’s private donation six years ago is a public matter because he’s a public face of a company. Think what you will about climate change and same-sex marriage: The zeal to persecute non-believers is a religious impulse that goes beyond mere disagreement about facts, theories or policies.
The phenomenon is simple, really. Human nature is what it is, and that nature prompts us to seek to belong to a tribe. The evolutionary biology and developmental psychology of humankind is fairly well understood on the matter, thanks to pioneering work by researchers like Jared Diamond. Our tribes both fuel and channel our passions and inspire emotional bonds that transcend abstract, dispassionate reason.
Tribes are funny things. In simplest form, they’re society’s little platoons, the places where we discern meaning and level-set sociocultural expectations and find refuge in a like-minded community. In years past, tribes in the United States looked like ethnic bars, churches, fraternal clubs and neighborhood associations. Yet these mediating institutions, across the board, are failing. Gentrification is leading to the erosion ethnic identity for most white Americans; church attendance is on the wane; fraternal organizations are a shell of their former glory; neighborhood civic groups have been superseded by online communities.
So how do we find our tribe? How do we belong? We do it the same way we always have — we find people who “look like us” and share our worldview. Except now, we’re not finding communal solace in religion or civic virtue but rather in political and public-policy forums, and our potential fellow travelers don’t need to hail from our neighborhood but rather can come from anywhere there’s broadband access. Hence the polarization of the electorate: We’re sorting ideologically across party lines because we have fewer purely local social ties to bind us.
Religiosity, when channeled through institutions that have had millennia to develop, is mostly benign. Religiosity, divorced of anchor institutions and self-directed through political channels, is harder to manage. Harder to mediate. Without a diversity of those “little platoons” to provide a broad-based context, we fall into the solipsism of a single-issue messiah. Political activism sourced from a wholly self-contained belief system cannot be reasoned with; it can only be confronted or accommodated.
Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith compels us; even people who profess atheism nevertheless need faith in something. It’s hard-wired into us as humans. As the rich tapestry of competing loyalties — a diversity that helped to check the excesses of any single constituent part — fades for many of our fellow citizens into a single-issue monochromatic print, our faith loses its grounding.
Some may argue that religious conservatives are ignorant. Or superstitious. Some probably are. But their faith in something bigger than themselves offers their religiosity a more humble, more humane path. Those whose faith hails from their own privileged beliefs, answerable to no higher authority than their own egos, have a tougher struggle to maintain a similar humble, humane demeanor. And, in this poisoned climate, it shows.
As a Catholic, then, I must confess: I have not really appreciated the gift of faith until I finally understood people whose faith is little more than a megaphone for their own psyches.
Posted on 9 April 2014 | No responses
Thwarted from writing by my arch-nemesis, Sleeping Cat.
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