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105. Holiday Highlights…

About nine months ago I had the misfortune to spent five weeks travelling around Central America with nothing to do but eat, sleep, drink, tube down rivers, jump off bridges, see sites, meet great people and lie in hammocks in various youth hostels reading.

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It’s a hard life…

I have just discovered the notes I took from the books I read during this time, mainly in my first stop, the world-class Zephyr Lodge in Semuc Champey, Guatemala.

Friends, hammocks, adventure, sun, cheap drinks, a river, the board game Risk, and a shelf full of books to read: what more could one possibly want from life?

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The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values,’ Sam Harris

First up, a deep and fairly controversial non-fiction book, (of which this selection is mainly comprised, I notice), from atheist Sam Harris who sets out a vehement attack on the belief that atheism leads to immorality and relativism, and that only religion can tell us what is right and what is wrong. Some interesting statistics:

“…while there are probably no more than a hundred serial killers in the United States at any moment, there are probably three million psychopaths, (about 1 percent of the population)…”

(And for more on the fascinating subject of how these psychopaths may, in fact, be running the world today, see Jon Ronson‘s excellent ‘The Psychopath Test‘.)

“There are, in fact, more people in the United States who can’t read than who doubt the existence of Yahweh…”

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Manual of Mental Disorders

Harris is critical of the DSM IV definition of ‘delusion,’ which was constructed to specifically exclude any ‘article of religious faith,’ and also based sanity on being in the majority:

“Does a lone psychotic become sane merely by attracting a crowd of devotees? If we are measuring sanity in terms of sheer numbers of subscribers, then atheists and agnostics in the United States must be delusional…”

Friends with families, (or on the verge of starting them), should probably look away now, since:

“…a famous study of human achievement suggests that one of the most reliable ways to diminish a person’s contribution to society is for that person to start a family…”

and furthermore:

“most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home…”

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Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs,’ Chuck Klosterman

A hilarious romp through pop culture from journalist Chuck Klosterman:

“…what The Sims suggests is that buying things makes people happy because it takes their mind off being alive…”

There is a Tim Key‘esque section in the middle of this collection of comic vignettes where Klosterman lists “Twenty-three questions I ask everybody I meet in order to decide if I can really love them…” which had me gasping for breath with laughter:

“Number 14: For reasons that cannot be explained, cats can suddenly read at a twelfth grade level. They can’t write, but they can read silently and understand the text. Many cats love this new skills, because they now ahve something to do all day while they lay around the house; however, a few cats become depressed, because reading forces them to realize the limitations of their existence, (not to mention the utter frustration of being unable to express themselves).

This being the case, do you think the average cat would enjoy ‘Garfield,’ or would cats find this cartoon to be an insulting caricature?”

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Seriously…I’m Kidding,’ Ellen DeGeneres

I’ve never really seen much Ellen on TV, but finding this slim autobiog in a bookshop, and having run out of anything else to read, I’m glad I gave it a try:

“I’m crying so much I have mascara running down my face, And I’m not even wearing mascara…”

“Leaning forward in your chair when someone is trying to squeeze behind you isn’t enough. You also have to move your chair…”

“It’s so rare for people to actually set aside time to curl up with a book and read. By the way, I don’t know why you have to curl up to read a book, but that’s what people say. You can’t just say you’re going to read a book because then someone will ask, ‘Well, how are you gonna read it? What position will you be in?…”

Now THIS is how to curl up with a book!

Now THIS is how to curl up with a book!

I was lol‘ing so hard I was literally crying on the beach in Belize reading the fantasy holiday chapter at the end of the book:

“That sand bar incident was embarrassing. I wish I had asked more questions before I swam out there. It’s called a sandbar. Surely I’m not the first person to swim out there and expect a dolphin to make me a mai tai…”

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The Lacuna,’ Barbara Kingsolver

Having recently visited Mexico, reading this Kahlo and Rivera semi-fictional piece on politics, sexuality and Latin America was a must-read after having had it recommended to me by so many people. It was very well-written, with interesting historical insight into a period of history and geography I didn’t know enough about, but it was mainly the turns of phrase Kingsolver employs, (such as calling cigarettes ‘lipsticks‘!), and which I hope are well demonstrated by the following selection:

“He hid a scornful smile under his moustache, which is not a good hiding place…”

“…they went to bed, leaving her fluttering around the parlour like a balloon of air, let go…”

“His mother had let him carry two valises: one for books, one for clothes. The clothes were a waste, outgrown instantly. He should have filled both with books…”

(A notion I whole-heartedly approve of!)

“She’d solved the mathematical problem of age sixteen by saying she was twenty. At twenty-four she’d said the same thing again, balancing the equation…”

“Grandmothers sit on blankets weaving more blankets for other grandmothers to sit on…”

“…some typed in Russian, pages of characters in that strange alphabet lined up like rows of little men doing bending exercises…”

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Shah of Shahs,’ Ryszard Kapuściński

I am slowly but surely making my way through the complete works of historian/traveller/journalist/unpronounceable Polish legend Kapuściński’s back catalogue, and couldn’t believe my luck when I stumbled upon this slim volume on the last Shah of Iran and the subsequent revolution whilst in Nicaragua at the very end of my trip. Kapuściński’s writing and imagery is truly stunning at times:

“Money changes all the iron rules into rubber bands…”

“The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meagre and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricade. That is why you can write a novel about a man, but about a crowd – never…”

“Iran – it was the twenty-seventh revolution I have seen in the Third World…”

That last sentence says it all: look out for him in the next entry in my Top 10 Favourite Authors series, coming soon.

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Posted by on February 23, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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87. Some quotes and things…

Since I am currently travelling around Israel with my family, I once more present to you this week a selection of ideas jotted down from the many and varied books ingested over the past year or so. Preserving turns of phrase and thought-provoking comments was one of the main reasons I started this blog after all. Enjoy!
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The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim,’ Jonathan Coe
Coe, one of my favourite contemporary English writers, is the flipside of another of my favourites, Ian McEwan, reporting on everyday English life with all its awkwardness and inadequacies, but focusing on the comic side rather than the tragic.

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“I remember asking her for some pointers about books I should read: books that might potentially change my life. She told me to try some contemporary Americanfiction. ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Try getting one of the Rabbit books,’ she told me, and a few hours later, when I came back from the bookshop and showed her what I’d bought, she said, ‘Is this meant to be some sort of joke?’ It was Watership Down‘…”
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The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone,’ Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
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This was an interesting, left-leaning book of the scientific kind which I love so much, explaining why the out-of-control widening wealth gap is bad for societies.
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A quote at the header of Chapter 5 on Mental Health and Drug Use caught my eye, and my imagination:
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“‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’ {Krishnamurti}”
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On a monkey-based psychological study which I had somehow never heard of:
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“Monkeys that had become dominant had more dopamine activity in their brains than they had exhibited before becoming dominant, while monkeys that became subordinate when housed in groups showed no changes in their brain chemistry.

Photo from wikipedia

Photo from wikipedia

The dominant monkeys took much less cocaine than the subordinate monkeys. In effect, the subordinate monkeys were medicating themselves against the impact of their low social status…”

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In the same vein:.
“In a striking experiment, researchers have also shown that people with friends are less likely to catch a cold when given the same measured exposure to the cold virus – in fact the more friends they had, the more resistant they were. Experiments have also shown that physical wounds heal faster if people have good relationships with their intimate partners…”
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Finally, the best (presumably ironic) criticism of our material world I have heard in a while:
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“‘The one who dies with most toys wins.’ {US bumper sticker}”
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‘Dr.Tatiana’s Sex Advice To All Creation: the definitive guide ot he evolutionary biology of sex,’ Olivia Judson
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One of the cleverest books I have read for a while: an explanation of Darwinian theory and animal/insect peculiarities told through an Agony Aunt column for those critters! A sample question:
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“Dear Dr.Tatiana,
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 I’m a queen bee, and I’m worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?
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Perplexed in Cloverhill”
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And a selection of the fascinating, informative replies:
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“After a lengthy lovemaking session, the giant octopus, for example, hands over a spermatophore that is a huge bomb. Over a meter (three feet) long, it contains more than ten billion sperm and explodes inside the female reproductive tract…”
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“Among balloon flies – which are related to dance flies – males make the female a large white silk balloon to play with while they make love…”
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“…young male iguanas…ready to go, desperate to use one or the other of his penises (yes, like many reptiles, he has two, a left and a right penis)…”
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“Male and female orangutans stimulate themselves with sex toys they’ve made out of leaves or twigs…”
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“Unlike the Japanese cardinal fish, a species where males brood fry in their mouths, the Darwin frog doesn’t eat his children if he sees a girl sexier than his original mate…”
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(meaning, presumably, that this is something which the Japanese cardinal fish does do!)
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Finally, on a theory which suggests that nature re-balances itself when there is a shortage of either males or females:
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“…a significantly larger proportion of boys were born in the immediate aftermath of each world war than before the outbreak of hostilities. (I should stress the mechanism for this is unknown and the finding may be a coincidence rather than a demonstration of Fisher’s principle in action. But it is provocative nonetheless)…”
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If only biology classes at school had been this much fun!
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.Invisible Cities,’ Italo Calvino
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A strange, theoretical book of sketches of imaginary, often impossible places. Some parts were a struggle, but there was some beautiful use of language and imagination:
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“What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air…”
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“Paris, where millions of men come home each day grasping a wand of bread…”
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Baguette Table photo from Foodiggity

Baguette Table photo from Foodiggity

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The only way to really summarise this collection of mini-sketches, Borgesian in their absurdity and willingness to propose an idea without having to logically follow it through, (see Argia above), but full of subtle, twisted humour, is to reproduce one of the short descriptions in its entirety:
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“Thin Cities 4
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The city of Sophronia is made up of two half cities. In one there is the great roller-coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motor-cyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.
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And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them onto trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller-coaster, and it begins to count the months, and days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again…”
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Civic life and government as a travelling circus: what a beautiful idea…
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Payback: debt and the shadow side of wealth,’ Margaret Atwood
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A gorgeous, slim volume of a series of Atwood‘s speeches on the nature of debt and money.
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On a theme I had read in two or three different books in the weeks before this treatise on the moral, mythic and religious background of money and debt, most recently in the aforequoted Jonathan Coe‘s ‘The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim‘:
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“Children start saying, ‘That’s not fair!’ at the age of four or so, long before they’re interested in sophisticated investment vehicles or have any sense of the value of coins and bills. They are also filled with satisfaction when the villain in a bedtime story gets an unambiguous comeuppance, and made uneasy when such retribution doesn’t happen. Forgiveness and mercy, like olives and anchovies, seem to be acquired later…”
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(Although neither of those by me. The olives and anchovies, I mean.)
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Finally, on the nineteenth-century novel, a topic covered thoroughly a few weeks later when I read Jeffrey Eugenides‘ ‘The Marriage Plot‘:url-1
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“When I was young and simple, I thought the nineteenth-century novel was driven by love; but now, in my more complicated riper years, I see that it’s also driven by money, which indeed holds a more central place in it than love does, no matter how much the virtues of love may be waved idealistically aloft…The best nineteenth-century revenge is not seeing your enemy’s red blood all over the floor but seeing the red ink all over his balance sheet…”
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Speak, Memory,’ Vladimir Nabakov
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Not at all my favourite by one of my all-time favourite authors, but enough meat to warrant a few mentions here.
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On a topic which fascinates me, the arbitrary division of time and dates: Nabakov was born in a Russia which had not yet adapted to the modern Gregorian calendar from the old Julian one, and thus:
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“By the Old Style I was born on 10 April, at daybreak, in the last year of the last century, and that was (if I could have been whisked across the border at once) 22 April in, say, Germany…”
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On Nabakov’s synesthesia, in which each letter of the alphabet represented a different colour to him:
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“The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv…”
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Photo from The Neurocritic

Photo from The Neurocritic

“Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time…”
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On the bizarreries of some countries’ familial systems:
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“I had two brothers, Sergey and Kirill. Kirill, the youngest child (1911-64), was also my godson as happened in Russian families…”
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WHAT?!
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On the comparative status of footballing goalkeepers in different nations:
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“In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entrance small boys. He view with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation…He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender…
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But in England, at least in the England of my youth, the national dread of showing off and a too grim preoccupation with solid teamwork are not conducive to the development of the goalie’s eccentric art…”
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Ah, how I love it when erudite, intelligent people discuss football! Albert Camus, author of ‘L’Étranger‘ and one of the heroes of the French Existentialist movement, was international goalkeeper for Algeria, after all, and there is a wonderful section in a Martin Amis essay which discusses Salman Rushdie‘s rather surprising ball skills.
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Finally, a quote which perhaps reveals more about Nabkov’s fiction than anything I have ever read: literature as a challenge, a puzzle, a way to bamboozle and test the reader, and an obsession with chess, echoed in director Stanley Kubrick:
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“It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world)…”
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The Castle,’ Franz Kafka
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“There’s a saying here, perhaps you know it: ‘official decisions have the shyness of young girls’…”
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As I experienced with David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest,‘ I once again suffered the frustration of the unfinished novel, this time ending in the most abrupt, unsatisfying of manners:
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“She held a trembling hand out to K. and made him sit down beside her, she spoke with an effort, it was an effort to understand her, but what she said      “
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Bob Servant: hero of dundee,’ Neil Forsyth
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I have recently blogged on the genius first book of this genius spam-annoyer: in this slightly more parochial ‘autobiography’ of Bob Servant there were flashes of hilarity, including wonderful, almost Nabakovian, use of footnotes to undermine the main text:
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“It used to break my heart when Tonto would look over at The Lone Ranger, swish his tail and call him Kemo Sabe. *
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* Tonto did use this phrase regularly but again he wasn’t a horse…”
The Lone Ranger and the (real) Tonto, photo by Spinning Platters

The Lone Ranger and the (real) Tonto, photo by Spinning Platters

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as well as dark, dark humour:
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“I remember when my Dad died I said to my Mum that it was just me and her against the world. She agreed that things weren’t looking good for me but pointed out that it was a bit unfair to drag her down with me…”
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“In 1969 The Great Skirt Hunt came to an end when I got myself a girlfriend. Her name was Daphne but she should have been called Catastrophe and not because that sounds a bit like Daphne but because that’s what she was. She was a girl-next-door type. If you happen to live next door to a fucking idiot…”
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Slowman
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Slow Man,’ J.M.Coetzee
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To end: a single, poignant quote equating love with sickness, from Nobel Prize winning South African Coetzee:
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“All in all, not a man of passion. He is not sure he has ever liked passion, or approved of it. Passion: foreign territory; a comical but unavoidable affliction like mumps, that one hopes to undergo while still young, in one of its milder, less ruinous varieties, so as not to catch it more seriously later on…”
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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