Life: The joy of walks edition

The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub; in fact, the original ‘eureka’ moment—Archimedes hitting upon a way of measuring the volume of irregular shapes—occurred in a bathtub.) The shower or stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn’t I think of that before.

—Steven Berlin Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

One danger of  cell phones might be the way they keep you immersed in “the task-based focus of modern life,” at least if you let them; Johnson wrote Where Good Ideas Come From in 2010, and at the time smartphones weren’t ubiquitous.

George Packer’s Silicon Valley myopia

It’s ironic that George Packer’s New Yorker article about the tech industry’s supposed political insularity is itself hidden behind a paywall (if this were a New Yorker article, I would cite statistics demonstrating the wealthy demographic served by the magazine and mention a telling detail about the luxury watches advertised within, perhaps with with the cost of the watches as a percentage of median household income used as a comparison). Packer makes a lot of noises about concern for the poor, but genuinely poor people might not be able to afford the magazine and now can’t even read the article about how San Francisco is alluringly pricing them out San Francisco for free.

Perhaps the weakest part of the article comes from references to housing prices, like “the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing.” But he doesn’t explain how limited supply in the face of increasing demand raises prices, as Matt Yglesias does in The Rent is Too Damn High or Edward Glaeser does in The Triumph of the City. There is a simple solution deploying century-old technology that can ameliorate San Francisco’s housing crisis.

Both Glaeser and Yglesias correctly observe that many urban jurisdictions prevent housing from being built; as a result, prices rise. But it’s not primarily tech companies or their employees who have driven housing prices in Silicon Valley: it’s residents themselves, and the courts that have given residents and politicians extraordinary powers to block development. That’s why “San Francisco is becoming a city without a middle class,” as Packer says in the article.

My own family was part of that exodus: my parents moved us from northern California to suburban Seattle in 1994 because housing prices were unreasonable and because California was becoming an increasingly bad place for middle-class people. Since then, housing prices have continued to drive most population growth towards places like Seattle, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and many of Texas’s cities, especially because urban development is easier in Sun Belt cities. Seattle, unfortunately, appears to be following in California’s footsteps by restricting the growth of housing stock and thus causing prices to rise.

The housing-price thing is one of my own pet peeves, since so few people connect supply restrictions, demand, and pricing; even Steven Berlin Johnson’s otherwise interesting rebuttal buys into Packer’s economic illiteracy. Beyond the housing issues, Packer writes:

Joshua Cohen, a Stanford political philosopher who also edits Boston Review, described a conversation he had with John Hennessy, the president of Stanford, who has extensive financial and professional tides to Silicon Valley. “He was talking about the incompetent people who are in government,” Cohen recalled. “I said, ‘If you think they’re so incompetent, why don’t you include in a speech you’re making some urging of Stanford students to go into government?’ He thought this was a ridiculous idea.”

Hennessy is more right than Cohen: if the system itself doesn’t work, why would anyone want to join it? Few highly competent people want to be ruled by incompetent people, and in government seniority rules. There’s often no way to make important changes from the bottom and no way to reach the top without going through the intermediate layers. That’s presumably why Hennessy doesn’t urge “Stanford students to go into government.”

In tech startups, if you think your company is doing something stupid and everyone ignores you, or ignores an obvious opportunity, you can leave and start your own startup. If you start your own version of government within the U.S., men with guns will show up to stop you.

Although Hennessy might not put it the way I have in the above paragraphs, such thinking is probably behind his statement (assuming, as I do, that Cohen is expressing it reasonably well). I’m writing this as someone whose business is to deal with various sections of federal and state government. It’s hard to imagine that Packer has this kind of experience; if he did, I doubt he’d have the worldview he does.

Packer does note that government investment in technology and research is partially responsible for the Silicon Valley of today (“The Valley’s libertarianism—which ignores the federal government’s crucial role in in providing research money—is less doctrinal than instinctive”), and that’s an important government contribution. But today, spending on science and medical research occupies about 2% of the federal budget; by contrast, spending on old people in the form of Social Security and Medicare occupies about 30%. Warfare, formally known as “Defense and International Security Assistance,” occupies 19%, and some of that goes to R&D of various kinds.

If federal R&D spending were higher as a proportion of the federal budget, Silicon Valley types would probably be much more pro-government. Note that this is a positive statement more than a normative one—that is, I’m not trying to argue that more money should be allocated to R&D and less to old people, but I do think we’d see a more positive view of government among Silicon Valley-types if we did.

There is this comment, which is somewhat myopic and somewhat accurate:

Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value

Regarding “larger issues of justice and fairness,” 300 years ago people who couldn’t work starved to death, median life expectancy was low, and numerous infants died of now-preventable diseases. Until the Industrial Revolution, starvation was a reasonably common and regular occurrence. Today, no industrialized countries have mass starvation, and that’s largely because of the technological and scientific progress that enables the social and monetary surpluses to provide important safety nets that Packer now takes for granted. “Political problems” are still real and still important, but so is a sense of progress that has enabled society, collectively, to worry much more “about issues of justice and fairness,” instead of working continually on farms. Technology actually has a lot “to say about large issues of justice and fairness,” because technology has given us the leisure to think about those issues and the wealth with which to address them.

In addition, Packer is mixing up questions about “fairness,” but, as as Roy Baumeister writes:

Fairness is important in all human social relations, whether large or small. But there are two different kinds of fairness. Experts call these equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same (obviously). Equity means giving out rewards in proportion to what each person contributed. Under equity, the person who contributes more or better work gets a proportionately bigger share of the reward (97).

Packer is focusing on equality, as he does throughout the article, but equity is important too, and New Yorker and New York Times articles almost always ignore this in discussions of “justice and fairness.” Fairness has to balance how rewards accrue to those who have made outsized contributions versus those who haven’t. That Packer doesn’t even acknowledge this distinction tells us a lot about the political glasses that color his world outlook but very little about how to think about the trade-offs involved with equality versus equity. There is a reasonable argument to be made about how governments should take more from major economic winners and give that to those who aren’t producing much of economic value, but Packer doesn’t even acknowledge these issues.

The Steve Jobs Biography

Like everyone else, I started Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography today. It’s wonderful. In the first pages, Isaacson gives a sense of how Jobs both viewed himself and was viewed in his place at Apple: “When he was restored to the throne at Apple [. . . .]” How many companies could see their CEOs as occupying thrones? Almost no one has or had the medieval level of control Jobs did over Apple. But he didn’t exercise that control capriciously: he used it to make things people want. Lower on the same page, Isaacson describes his unwillingness to write on Jobs at first, but he says that he “found myself gathering string on the subject” of Apple’s early history. “Gathering string:” it’s something I do all the time, using the methods Steven Berlin Johnson describes in this essay about DevonThink Pro. One imagines the string eventually being knit into a sweater, but first one has to have the material.

A page later, Isaacson says “The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality was the topic that most interested me in my biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century.” By now, such an assertion is almost banal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right and doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be asserted. Whenever you hear someone creating the false binary C. P. Snow discusses deconstructs in Two Cultures, point them to Jobs, who is merely the most salient example of why there aren’t two or more cultures—there’s one. You can call it creative, innovative, human-centered, discovery-oriented, bound by makers, or any number of other descriptions, but it’s there. It’s not just “a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century,” either. It’s a key to being.

One more impression: while discussing the Apple II and the role of marketing guy Mike Markkula, Isaac describes the three principles Markkula adopts: “empathy,” “focus,” and, most interesting to this discussion, the “awkwardly named [. . .] impute.” The last principle “emphasized that people form an opinion about a company or product based on the signals that it conveys. ‘People DO judge a book by its cover,’ he wrote.” He’s right, and that brings up this book as a physical object: it’s beautiful. A single black and white picture of Jobs as an older man, still look vaguely like a rapscallion, dominates the cover. Another picture of him, this time as a younger man, dominates the back. The pages themselves are very white, and the paper quality is high; ink doesn’t bleed through easily, and the paper resists feathering. Jobs agreed not to meddle with the text; Isaacson says “He didn’t seek any control over what I wrote.” But he did meddle around the text, however: “His only involvement came when my publisher was choosing the cover art. When he saw an early version of a proposed covert treatment, he disliked it so much that he asked to have input in designing a new version. I was both amused and willing, so I readily assented.”

Good. I wonder if Jobs had “input” in the paper quality too. Sometimes I wonder if publishers are themselves trying to encourage people to adopt eBooks through the use of lousy paper stock and spines in books, especially hardcovers. Take Steven Berlin Johnson’s excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From. The cover is black, with yellow text shaped like a lightbulb. Excellent design. But the pages themselves are a brownish gray, like newsprint, and the glued binding feels flimsy. The paperback is probably worse. It’s not the kind of book one would imagine Steve Jobs allowing, but the state of Johnson’s book as a physical object indicates what publishers value: cutting corners, making things cheap, and subtly conveying to readers that the publisher doesn’t care enough to make it good.

Publishers, in other words, are ruled by accountants who probably say that you can save $.15 per book by using worse paper. Apple was ruled by a megalomaniac with a persnickety attention to detail. People love Apple. No one, not even authors, love publishers. The reasons are legion, but when I think about what a lot of recent books “impute” to the reader, I think about how Steve Jobs would make them do it differently if he could. If you’re reading this in the distant future, the idea of reading words printed on dead trees is probably as strange to you as riding a carriage would be to me, but for now it matters. And, more importantly, I think books will continue to exist as physical art objects as well as repositories for knowledge as long as the Jobs and Isaacsons of the world make them.

I’m not far into the biography and feel the call of other responsibilities. But I leave Steve Jobs reluctantly, which happens to too few books of any genre. And I have a feeling that thirty years from now I’ll be reading an interview with some inventor or captain of industry who cites Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs as inspirations in whatever that inventor accomplishes.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Berlin Johnson's new book

I already pre-ordered Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, but if I hadn’t, this video would have convinced me to:

Sounds like an excellent complement to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, since both are about structuring lives and minds are ideas and their implementation. This is an obvious topic of interest to novelists and academics, since both require a) lots of ideas and b) even more implementation of those ideas.

One thing I’ll be watching for closely in the book: around minute 3:30, the video says that the Internet isn’t going to make us more distracted in a bad way—it will make us more interconnected so that hunches and combine into ideas faster. That implies Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is mostly wrong, which is an argument I’m skeptical about: I suspect that we need a combination of quiet, contemplative space of the sort the Internet is driving out along with the combination of ideas that originate from various sources. If one side becomes too lopsided, the creativity equation fails.

To be sure, it’s unwise to judge a book before reading it, and I want to see how the debate plays out.

Regular readers probably already know Johnson through my repeated references to his essay Tool for Thought, which is about Devonthink Pro and changed the way I work. I regularly tell my better students as well as friends to read this essay and use DTP in the way Johnson describes if they’re at all interested in ideas and writing.

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book

I already pre-ordered Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, but if I hadn’t, this video would have convinced me to:

Sounds like an excellent complement to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, since both are about structuring lives and minds are ideas and their implementation. This is an obvious topic of interest to novelists and academics, since both require a) lots of ideas and b) even more implementation of those ideas.

One thing I’ll be watching for closely in the book: around minute 3:30, the video says that the Internet isn’t going to make us more distracted in a bad way—it will make us more interconnected so that hunches and combine into ideas faster. That implies Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is mostly wrong, which is an argument I’m skeptical about: I suspect that we need a combination of quiet, contemplative space of the sort the Internet is driving out along with the combination of ideas that originate from various sources. If one side becomes too lopsided, the creativity equation fails.

To be sure, it’s unwise to judge a book before reading it, and I want to see how the debate plays out.

Regular readers probably already know Johnson through my repeated references to his essay Tool for Thought, which is about Devonthink Pro and changed the way I work. I regularly tell my better students as well as friends to read this essay and use DTP in the way Johnson describes if they’re at all interested in ideas and writing.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — Nicholas Carr

One irony of this post is that you’re reading a piece on the Internet about a book that is in part about how the Internet is usurping the place of books. In The Shallows, Carr argues that the Internet encourages short attention spans, skimming, shallow knowledge, and distraction, and that this is a bad thing.

He might be right, but his argument misses one essential component: the absolute link between the Internet and distraction. He cites suggestive research but never quite crosses the causal bridge from the Internet as inherently distracting, both because of links and because of the overwhelming potential amount of material out there, and that we as a society and as a people are now endlessly distracted. Along the way, there are many soaring sentiments (“Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book”) and clever quotes (Nietzsche as quoted by Carr: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”), but that causal link is still weak.

I liked many of the points Carr made; that one about Nietzsche is something I’ve meditated over before, as shown here and here (I’ve now distracted you and you’re probably less likely to finish this post than you would be otherwise; if I offered you $20 for repeating the penultimate sentence in the comments section, I’d probably get no takers); I think our tools do cause us to think differently in some way, which might explain why I pay more attention to them than some bloggers do. And posts on tools and computer set ups and so forth seem to generate a lot of hits; Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have is among the more popular Grant Writing Confidential posts.

I use Devonthink Pro as described by Steven Berlin Johnson, which supplements my memory and acts as research tool, commonplace book, and quote database, and probably weakens my memory while allowing me to write deeper blog posts and papers. Maybe I remember less in my mind and more in my computer, but it still takes my mind to give context to the material copied into the database.

In fact, Devonthink Pro helped me figure out a potential contradiction in Carr’s writing. On page 209, he says:

Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies […] every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.

But on page 47 he says: “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to. Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.” So if “sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” then is it true that “The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function?” The two statements aren’t quite mutually exclusive, but they’re close. Maybe reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and Graham Harman’s Tool-Being will clear up or deepen whatever confusion exists, since he a) went deep but b) like many philosophers, is hard to read and is closer to a machine for generating multiple interpretations than an illuminator and simplifier of problems. This could apply to philosophy in general as seen from the outside.

This post mirrors some of Carr’s tendencies, like the detour in the preceding paragraph. I’ll get back to the main point for a moment: Carr’s examples don’t necessarily add up to proving his argument, and some of them feel awfully tenuous. Some are also inaccurate; on page 74 he mentions a study that used brain scans to “examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction” and cites Nicole K. Speer’s journal article “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences,” which doesn’t mention fiction and uses a memoir from 1951 as its sample text.

Oops.

That’s a relatively minor issue, however, and one that I only discovered because I found the study interesting enough to look up.

Along the way in The Shallows we get lots of digressions, and many of them are well-trod ones: the history of the printing press; the origins of the commonplace books; the early artificial intelligence program ELIZA; Frederick Winslow Taylor and his efficiency interest; the plasticity of the brain; technologies that’ve been used for various purposes, including metaphor.

Those digressions almost add up to one of my common criticisms of nonfiction books, which is that they’d be better as long magazine articles. The Shallows started as one, and one I’ve mentioned before: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The answer: maybe. The answer now, two years and 200 pages later: maybe. Is the book a substantial improvement on the article? Maybe. You’ll probably get 80% of the book’s content from the article, which makes me think you’d be better off following the link to the article and printing it—the better not to be distracted by the rest of The Atlantic. This might tie into the irony that I mentioned in the first line of this post, which you’ve probably forgotten by now because you’re used to skimming works on the Internet, especially moderately long ones that make somewhat subtle arguments.

Offline, Carr says, you’re used to linear reading—from start to finish. Online, you’re used to… something else. But we’re not sure what, or how to label the reading that leads away from the ideal we’ve been living in: “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

Again, maybe, which is the definitive word for analyzing The Shallows: but we don’t actually have a name for this kind of mind, and it’s not apparent that the change is as major as Carr describes: haven’t we always made disparate connections among many things? Haven’t we always skimmed until we’ve found what we’re looking for, and then decided to dive in? His point is that we no longer do dive in, and he might be right—for some people; but for me, online surfing, skimming, and reading coexists with long-form book reading. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to get through The Shallows.

Still, I don’t like reading on my Kindle very much because I’ve discovered that I often tend to hop back and forth between pages. In addition, grad school requires citations that favor conventional books. And for all my carping about the lack of causal certainty regarding Carr’s argument, I do think he’s on to something because of my own experience. He says:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.

He says friends have reported similar experiences. I feel the same way as him and his friends: the best thing I’ve found for improving my productivity and making reading and writing easier is a program called Freedom, which prevents me from getting online unless I reboot my iMac. It throws enough of a barrier between me and the Internet that I can’t easily distract myself through e-mail or Hacker News (Freedom has also made writing this post slightly harder, because during the first draft, I haven’t been able to add links to various appropriate places, but I think it worth the trade-off, and I didn’t realize I was going to write this post when I turned it on). Paul Graham has enough money that he uses another computer for the same purpose, as he describes in the linked essay, which is titled, appropriately enough, “Disconnecting Distraction” (sample: “After years of carefully avoiding classic time sinks like TV, games, and Usenet, I still managed to fall prey to distraction, because I didn’t realize that it evolves.” Guess what distraction evolved into: the Internet).

Another grad student in English Lit expressed shock when I told him that I check my e-mail at most once a day and shook for every two days, primarily in an effort not to distract myself with electronic kibble or kipple. Carr himself had to do the same thing: he moves to Colorado and jettisons much of his electronic life, and he “throttled back my e-mail application […] I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that still created too much of a distraction, I began to keeping the program closed much of the day.” I work better that way. And I think I read better, or deeper, offline.

For me, reading a book is a very different experience from searching the web, in part because most of the websites I visit are exhaustible much faster than books. I have a great pile of them from the library waiting to be read, and an even greater number bought or gifted over the years. Books worth reading seem to go on forever. Websites don’t.

But if I don’t have that spark of discipline to stay off the Internet for a few hours at a time, I’m tempted to do the RSS round-robin and triple check the New York Times for hours, at which point I look up and say, “What did I do with my time?” If I read a book—like The Shallows, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I’m most of the way through now—I look up in a couple of hours and know I’ve done something. This is particularly helpful for me because, as previously mentioned, I’m in grad school, which means I have to be a perpetual reader (if I didn’t want to be, I’d find another occupation).

To my mind, getting offline can become a comparative advantage because, like Carr, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,” and that someone is me and that someone is the Internet. But I can’t claim this is true for all people in all places, even as I tell my students to try turning off their Internet access and cell phones when they write their papers. Most of them no doubt don’t. But the few who do learn how to turn off the electronic carnival are probably getting something very useful out of that advice. The ones who don’t probably would benefit from reading The Shallows because they’d at least become aware of the possibility that the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that might not be beneficial to us, however tenuous the evidence (notice my hedging language: “at least,” “the possibility” “might not”).

Alas: they’re probably the ones least likely to read it.

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