Category Archives: Trivia

The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity

alex atkins bookshelf cultureOn April 10, 2019, the world was mesmerized by the spectacular first-ever photo of a black hole, providing the first visual evidence that black holes actually exist. The black hole is located at the center of the galaxy named Messier 87 (M87), about 55 million light-years from Earth. The black hole has a mass equal to 6.5 billion times that of the sun. The photo was the result of a ten-year collaboration of more than 200 researchers using a global network of eight radio telescopes, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT), to combine all their observations and data (5,000 trillion bytes over two weeks) in a supercomputer to create the virtual image. Shepard Doeleman, director of the EHT, proudly proclaimed: “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.” This is truly a remarkable, monumental photo. But there is another stunning photo that we should not forget…

Five years ago, Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist and a fellow member of the EHT, remarked that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as a photo known as the “Pale Blue Dot.” That photo, taken almost 30 years ago has slipped from the public’s collective memory. But it shouldn’t — because that photo is a truly remarkable technical and astronomical achievement. Let’s take a trip back into time, going back 42 years ago…

Way back on September 5, 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched by NASA aboard a Titan IIIE rocket. The space probe was designed to study the outer solar system, flying by Jupiter, Saturn, and then flying through the heliosphere, and eventually into interstellar space. At a speed of about 38,027 mph, the intrepid Voyager 1 covered a distance of about 325 million miles per year. And remarkably — 37 years later — the spacecraft is still sending data to NASA (messages from more than 12 trillion miles away take about 17 hours to reach Earth). Back in 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager’s imaging team, persuaded NASA to send commands to turn the spacecraft’s camera around to take one last photo of the Earth from the edge of the solar system (at a distance of about 3.7 billion miles away). The final image shows the Earth as a mere speck (less than 1 pixel) suspended in a brownish band of light, surrounded by the blackness of space.

The spectacular photo inspired Sagan to reflect eloquently on the significance of life on this tiny planet, a pale blue dot, dwarfed by the mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos: “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

These two photos — the first-ever black hole of M87 and the Pale Blue Dot — could not be more different, occurring at such amazingly different chapters in the history of the world, but they are a singular and profound reminder of just how insignificant our existence is in the context of an infinite, ever-expanding cosmos. And as we ponder these photos, signifying our place in the universe, one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of humility that they elicit.

Read related posts: How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

For further reading: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books (1997)
Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ballantine Books (2013)
Universe by Robert Dinwiddle, Philip Eales, David Hughes, and Iain Nicolson, DK (2012)
http://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/magazine/how-do-you-take-a-picture-of-a-black-hole-with-a-telescope-as-big-as-the-earth.html
http://www.cnn.com/2019/04/10/world/black-hole-photo-scn/index.html

 


How Blindness Shaped a Famous Author’s Career

alex atkins bookshelf literatureHe was born into a prominent highly-educated British family. His father was a writer and schoolmaster; his mother, a founder of a school, was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold; his grandfather was a well-known biologist and passionate advocate of evolution. But this young man wanted to be a medical doctor. His life changed dramatically when he turned 17. He contracted keratitis punctata, a painful condition where the eye’s cornea becomes inflamed and leads to temporary or permanent blindness. In the case of this person, the condition left him completely blind for two to three years. His brother wrote: “I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking medicine as a career… His uniqueness lay in his universalism, he was able to take all knowledge for his province.” As the author later explained in an interview: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it.” He did learn braille in order to read. Fortunately, over time by using a magnifying glass and eye exercises, he was able to regain most of his eyesight in the left eye. (He wrote about this process in his book, The Art of Seeing, published in 1942). He went on to study English literature in college, edit the poetry magazine, and graduate with honors.

So who is this remarkable young man? His name is Aldous Huxley, one of the most successful writers and social satirists of the 20th century. He wrote several novels, Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, Point Counter Point, but it is his fifth novel that is the most recognized: Brave New World, published in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s to become a successful screenwriter, writing screenplays for Madame Curie, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In 1952, Huxley spoke to a crowd at a Hollywood banquet. Editor Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, recounts the author’s ordeal: “[Huxley was] wearing no glasses and apparently reading his paper from the lectern without difficult. Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn’t reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn’t read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonizing moment.”

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First Typewritten Book

For further reading: http://mentalfloss.com/article/83243/10-dystopian-facts-about-aldous-huxley
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldous_Huxley


How Reading Makes You Smarter

atkins-bookshelf-booksA few years ago, the Pew Research Center published a report on the reading habits of Americans. The study focused on how often adults (aged 18 and older) read print books, audiobooks, and e-books. Unfortunately the results were not promising: the number of people who are not reading any books has tripled in the past three decades. Specifically in 1978, 8% of American did not read a book within the past year. In 2002 that number jumped up to 18%; and in 2014 that number increased to 23%. What those individuals don’t know, and dedicated readers do know (at least intuitively), is that reading makes you smarter and has several beneficial effects on the brain. Here are seven ways that reading makes you smarter:

1. Reading encourages empathy. Studies indicate that reading literary fiction increases empathy and sympathy as readers respond to the struggles of a protagonist. Reading allows the reader to step into the life of the protagonist and imagine what it would be like to have those experiences.

2. Reading poetry encourages deep self-reflection. Studies show that reading poetry activates areas of the brain that are associated with introspection and autobiographical memory.

3. Reading improves memory. Reading activates the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In one study, readers read simple descriptive phrases (like “dark blue carpet”) while placed in an MRI machine. The MRI indicated that these simple phrases were enough to activate the hippocampus. Using fewer words encourages readers to use their imagination to “fill in the blanks” and create a virtual scene or world.

4. Reading improves decision-making and emotional processing. Researchers have found that reading activates key parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex, lateral temporal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobe. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved with decision-making and memory recall. The lateral temporal cortex is responsible for emotional association and visual memory. The posterior cingulate cortex is involved with episodic memory recall. And finally, the inferior parietal lobe is responsible for understanding emotions and interpreting sensory data.

5. Reading improves your verbal skills and vocabulary. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between verbal skills and reading. As most readers know, reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary by looking up new words you encounter. The more you read, the greater your working vocabulary will be. Reading also helps discover new ways of describing situations, feelings, and places as well as creating images in the mind’s eye.

6. Reading strengthens the mind. The brain is not a muscle, of course, but studies suggests that mind-building (mental exercise) is analogous to body-building. In another MRI study, researchers found that brain retains activity for as long as five days after reading a book. MRI of subjects revealed increased activity in the left angular and supra marginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri areas of the brain that are associated with comprehension.

7. Reading helps slow down mental aging. Studies show that reading improves memory and sentence processing in older adults. The steady exposure to literary ingredients that encourage imagination (eg, metaphors, imagery, abstract ideas, etc), the brain gets mental exercise, remaining active and healthy.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up a book and start getting smarter.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
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For further reading: https://www.dailyinfographic.com/what-reading-does-to-your-brain?


Profile of a Book Lover: Karl Lagerfeld

atkins-bookshelf-booksWhen you walk into Karl Lagerfeld’s spectacular library of 300,000 books you are in book heaven — unless, of course, you are Marie Kondo and the overwhelming quantity of books leaves her head spinning: “You have to put all the books in one big pile,” she says, “and choose only the ones that spark joy.” Nonsense! Take a hike sister — for a bibliophile like Lagerfeld every single one of those books sparked joy: finding them, buying them, holding them, reading them, and just looking at them organized neatly in their custom bookshelves. To give you a sense of the scale of that size of a personal library: if you purchased one book a day, it would take you more than 821 years to complete a library of that size! You would also have to have really deep pockets. Assuming that the average art book costs $40, you are looking at an expenditure of more than $12 million (excluding tax and shipping fees)!

As you may have read, Lagerfeld, the world-renowned fashion designer, artist, creative director, and photographer, passed away on February 19, 2019 at the age of 85. For more than five decades, he was creative director at the Italian fashion house Fendi; and spent four decades in the same capacity for Chanel, as well as his own fashion label, Lagerfeld. And like acclaimed American author and journalist Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with another famous American author, Thomas Wolfe, who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward Angel), Lagerfeld subscribed to the code of eccentrics that asserts that if you are an artist, you must really look the part. For Lagerfeld that meant dark sunglasses (day or night), fingerless gloves, and high, starched while collars that wrapped around his neck like a neck brace. He wore his shocking white hair pulled back tightly in a pony tail. You might say he dressed like a quintessential James Bond villain. (Compare that to Tom Wolfe’s signature look, that of the Southern gentleman: a white suit accessorized by a white homburg hat, white tie, and traditional two-tone shoes.) If his wardrobe didn’t put you off, many of his controversial fashion shows and personal views would. But we digress…

At heart, Lagerfeld was a passionate and consummate book collector — the bibliophile’s bibliophile, as it were. The first thing you will notice when you walk into his spectacular library is that the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are incredibly unique. Rather than lining books vertically (spines perpendicular to the shelves) like most people, Lagerfeld had custom shelves made so that the books are arranged horizontally, lying flat, with the spines parallel to the shelf. In other words, as you look across a layer of bookshelves, you see a neat arrangement of stacks of books, each about 10 to 12 books high. The second thing you will notice is that he collects large format art, design, architecture, and photography books. And nestled in between these stacks of large books, as if to plug in the holes, are smaller books that are placed vertically. Lagerfeld was immensely proud of his library (as he should be). You can imagine how many times he had to answer the question: “Have you read all these books?”

Now I know what you are thinking… what if you want to view a book at the bottom or near the bottom of a stack. There’s the rub. You would have to either use brute force to pull the book out (and risk damaging the book) or lift a group of books and place them somewhere, recreating a stack there, until you got to the book you wanted. A supreme hassle, for sure. But apparently this was one huge concession Lagerfeld was willing to make to have books displayed “his way,” that is, to have the spines reading left to right so that you don’t have to tilt your head.

Regardless of the orientation of the books on the shelves, the library is stunning. The rooms are minimalist in design — white walls, with understated, modern chrome chairs (gray or black), and glass tables sitting on beautiful parquet floors. One room is a two stories, with an iron catwalk that wraps around the room, reached by a sleek, modern spiral staircase. The catwalk is about 12 feet high, which means that the stacks below the catwalk extend more than 10 feet. To access the upper stacks, one has to use a custom ladder, that slides along the bottom, that has a leather chair at the top. You can see some of the photos at My Modern Met.

Not surprisingly, Lagerfeld also owned a bookstore: The 7L Bookshop in Paris, located at 7 rue de Lille, in the 7th district of Paris, not far from two of the most famous museums: the Louvre and the Orsay. And just like his personal collection, the bookshop focuses on fashion, photography, design, architecture, interior design, landscape design, as well as cookbooks (this is Paris, after all). Moreover, the bookshop features books written by or edited by Lagerfeld.

So what will become of Lagerfeld’s incredible library? The usual scenario is that the executor will donate some portion to universities, art or fashion schools; the rest will be inventoried and broken up into smaller lots and sold at auction; perhaps some will end up at his bookshop.  Most mortals will never own a collection like this, but what an inspiration… There is an old adage that says: “you can’t take it with you.” But the bibliophile’s response is always the same: “it doesn’t really matter — the joy is in the building of the library, building it one book at time; feeling that tremendous sense of elation when you find a special book that you connect with; and that book inevitably leads you to another one, and so forth.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: https://mymodernmet.com/karl-lagerfeld-sideways-library/
http://www.librairie7l.com/the-7l-bookshop-in-paris.php

 


What Is “Mrs.” Short For?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsMost people know the “Mrs.” is the title (“honorific” or “form of address” in linguistics jargon) used for married women. But what most people don’t know is that “Mrs.” is not an abbreviation of anything. Surprising, but true! It is never spelled out in written form; however, it is spelled out phonetically as “missis,” “missus,” or “missess” when it appears as dialogue. “How can this be?” you ask incredulously. For the answer to this linguistic mystery we need to travel back into time more than six centuries. Hold on tight…

We have arrived in the mid-1400’s, when a married woman is addressed as “mistress,” the feminine form of “master.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the earliest recorded use in 1463. Over time, “mistress” is abbreviated as “Mrs.” Now let’s fast forward 300 years.

Arriving in late 1700s, we discover for reasons that are not entirely clear, that “Mrs.” is no longer pronounced as “mistress” but rather as “missus” — this change is perhaps analogous to the great Vowel Shift of the 14th century. Therefore, in the 18th century, a married woman is introduced as “Missis Jane Smith” rather than as “Mistress Jane Smith.”

Fast forward once again — more than a century later and we discover that the word “missus” becomes a noun. The OED records one of the earliest uses in 1833 by Charles Dickens in a private letter: “Hint this delicately to your Missus.”

Similarly, the title “Ms.” used to address a married or unmarried woman, that was introduced in 1901, does not stand for anything. It is essentially a blend of Mrs. and Miss and pronounced “mizz.” And like “Mrs.” it is never spelled out in written form. The word is used in an article in the Springfield Republican, a newspaper that was founded in 1824 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The relevant passage is: “The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz’, which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

So the next time you are out with a group of people, impress them with this fascinating bit of trivia — ask them “so what is Mrs. an abbreviation for?” However, googling the answer is not permitted. Let’s see how well they do, Missy.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
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For further reading: The Oxford English Dictionary
Critical Pronouncing Dictionary by John Walker

https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/02/what-are-mrs-and-ms-short-for/


What is the Least Trusted Profession in America?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureSince 1976, Gallup has surveyed Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of the most common professions in America. et’s begin at the top of the list. For the past four decades, Americans have rated the following professions as the most honest and most ethical, and thus the most trusted: nurses, medical doctors, pharmacists, and high school teachers. In the most recent poll, conducted in early December 2018, respondents were asked: how would you rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields? The top five are:

Nurses: 84%
Medical Doctors: 67%
Pharmacists: 66%
High School Teachers: 60%
Police Officers: 54%

Now let’s direct our attention to the bottom of the list. Any guesses? Here’s a clue: recall the recent hearing of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s long-time personal attorney, before the Congressional House Oversight committee on February 27, 2019. Over several unbearable hours, the media presented viewers with a group of perfidious, sycophantic liars that interrogated a convicted liar about a pathological, narcissistic liar — a classic example of the kettle calling the pot calling um… another pot… black. The circus-like hearing (including obligatory animals, like elephants, donkeys, rats, as well as plenty of props and exhibits) was conducted against a backdrop of some rather silly posters (one read “liar, liar pants on fire”) punctuated by cringe-worthy behavior befitting unruly school-aged children: Pecksniffian fingerpointing, churlish name-calling, sanctimonious speeches, melodramatic tirades, mock indignation, shameless sniveling, and surly playground taunts. If you haven’t guessed it already, the least trusted profession in America are members of Congress. Americans consider members of Congress less ethical, and thus less trusted, than car salespeople and telemarketers. Ouch! Come to think of it, Holden Caulfield would have a field day with this gaggle of phonies.

Remember that age-old adage, “it takes one to know one”? That might explain why so many members of Congress aren’t troubled with the 8,158 verifiable false and misleading claims that President Trump has made since his inauguration (according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s Database). Or why so many of them acquiesce so willingly to a capricious, vain President with despotic tendencies rather than do the job they were elected to do — namely, uphold and protect the Constitution, serve as a check on abuses of power, and passing legislation that serves the common good. But of course, these important tasks require intelligence –not to mention, an actual spine… Getting back to the last Gallup survey, the bottom five of the least trusted professions are:

Stockbrokers: 14%
Advertising Practitioners: 13%
Telemarketers: 9%
Car Salespeople: 8%
Members of Congress: 8%

The Gallup report makes two interesting notes about the shift of journalists (ranked at 33%) and priests (37%) in the context of recent world news: “Although journalists’ 33% very high/high rating is not outstanding relative to many of the other professions, it marks a 10-percentage-point increase from two years ago and now matches their record high, last recorded in 1977… While journalists have experienced a surge in positive ratings, the opposite is true for the clergy. Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985.”

Lets turn back the clock to 1952, when Ed and Patsy Bruce released their hit single, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies to Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Almost two decades later, the song was covered by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and once again the song climbed up the charts. Perhaps it is time to update that song to reflect the sentiments of the country; the revised title should be “Moms Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to be Congressmen.” Music to our ears…

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
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For further reading: https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx
https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/21/president-trump-made-false-or-misleading-claims-his-first-two-years/?utm_term=.5cb07338e97e
https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/waylonjennings/mammasdontletyourbabiesgrowuptobecowboys.html


Valentine’s Day by the Numbers: 2019

alex atkins bookshelf cultureDid you hear the story about the wife who sent her husband a text that read: “I’ve just got you the best Valentine’s Day present ever! xox” When he read it, he turned to his colleague at work and said: “I really hope she misspelled ‘Xbox.'” So what is Valentine’s Day without rampant, over-the-top consumerism?

Consider that this year Americans will spend $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day — and that accounts for only 51% of Americans who actually celebrate it. (Apparently love is on the decline, since last year 55% of Americans celebrated Valentine’s Day.) And sadly, many gifts that will be purchased with the very best of intentions, will end up in the recycling bin: $9.5 million will be spent on unwanted gifts. What a shame — but perhaps an unwanted gift is better than no gift at all, since according to a recent survey, 53% of women expressed that they would end their relationship if they didn’t receive a gift on Valentine’s Day. Can you say “tough love”?

Ironically, about 41% of women in a relationship dread Valentine’s Day (perhaps they are afraid of getting those unwanted gifts or being disappointed by their partner). However, over on the opposite side of the love spectrum, singles really look forward to Valentine’s Day — with good reason — since about 9 million marriage proposals are made on that special day.

So how do Americans say “I love thee?” Let us count the ways:

Total amount spent by consumers in U.S.: $20.7 billion
Average amount spent by consumer: $161.96
Amount average male will spend: $229.54
Amount average woman will spend: $97.7

Amount spent on unwanted gifts: $9.5 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase candy: 52%
Amount spent on candy: $1.8 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase greeting cards: 44%
Percentage of cards bought by women: 85%
Amount spent on greeting cards: $933 million

Percentage of consumers that will purchase flowers: 35%
Amount spent on flowers: $1.9 billion
Percentage of consumers that will take their partner out to dinner: 34%
Amount spent at restaurants: $3.5 billion
Percentage of consumers that will give jewelry: 18%
Amount spent on jewelry: $3.9 billion

Percentage of consumers that will purchase gift certificates: 15%
Amount spent on gift certificates: $1.3 billion

Percentage of Americans NOT celebrating Valentine’s Day: 49%
Of those, 49% of women and 40% of men will treat themselves to jewelry, apparel, or a spa service
Of those 32% of women and 41% of men will plan a get-together with friends or family
Of those about 10% will purchase an anti-valentine’s gift

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: https://www.dailyinfographic.com/astounding-price-love-valentines-day?


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