Sunday, February 03, 2019

Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author does a great job of maintaining suspense even though we know, broadly, how the story must end. Vader and the Emperor battle against the Free Ryloth movement which is engaged in open rebellion against the Empire. Since this is years before the events of A New Hope, they and their Empire obviously survive. Yet, the author creates enough tension that you almost begin to believe that Cham and his allies might succeed.

One of the most fascinating aspect of this novel is Vader. There a lot of Vader’s inner monologue. He remembers moments from the past; the pain and anger that drive him. He chafes somewhat under the Palpatine’s commands. Just as when he was Anakin and commanded by the Jedi Council, Vader is impatient and independent and doesn’t take to being told what to do that well. Well, at least inwardly. Outwardly, Vader still obeys Palpatine without flaw. This look into the inner life of Vader is disturbing and insightful. The anger and pain that has consumed Anakin is everywhere. Vader fights to suppress his memories and his past but at the same time he is both incapable of doing so and still needs this to fuel the anger that is his connection to the power of the dark side. There are many allusions to past events in Anakin’s life and foreshadowing of events we know come to past later.

Vader is the most fascinating character of Star Wars—maybe even of contemporary culture. He is evil; a murdering, unstoppable machine. And yet…and yet, he is redeemed. Unlike Palpatine and many of the imperial flunkies, Vader is not driven by a hunger for power, rapaciousness, or sadism. He wants to impose order; he wants power to make sure things work (and we see this in Anakin very early). He murders without any qualms, but he doesn’t take pleasure in it nor does he do so wantonly. We see this throughout the canon with Vader, including here in a few important scenes. It sometimes comes across almost like mercy. Almost, but not quite. It is more about what serves the imposition of order and his connection to the Force. The conflicts that Vader has in his inner monologue in Lords of the Sith shows us this. The novel shows Vader continuing to commit himself to the Emperor and the dark side primarily because he can so no other way to achieve order and serve the force. And this partly sets the stage for his redemption in Return of the Jedi.

There are also several interesting elements of the Free Ryloth movement. Cham, who fans will know from the animated series, has an important role to play here. The beginning of Cham’s transformation from a principled freedom-fighter for Ryloth to a more full-fledge Rebel is one of the sub-themes of the novel.

The execution of these thematic elements in the book was inconsistent. Not every “note” was hit as well as it should have been. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read and fleshes out important aspects of the Star Wars universe.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

People who know me, know that I love coffee. So this book was a natural. But, ultimately, I was disappointed. It is not bad, and there are a lot of interesting bits in the book. However, it gets bogged down at too many places. In particular, there is far too much focus on the intricacies of coffee businesses and international markets. Obviously, these are important aspects of coffee and its impact, but Pendergrast focuses a lot on the details that often just don't seem all that relevant.

More to the point, I was looking for much more of the ways that coffee transformed the world more broadly, per the subtitle. What the book is, is more of a history of the markets in coffee. That's fine, but not what the book is billed as. There is a lot of discussion, in general, of how these markets impacted the coffee growing countries. But even here, it veers too much to the "one damned thing after another" telling of history or makes broad generalizations about economics that, frankly, I am skeptical of. (why? they are rather general and conventional, and the author is not a trained economist). Now certainly the coffee market could be used to explore many themes (as suggested by the book description). But the book just doesn't pull this off well.

The author knows (and loves) coffee and there is some good stuff here. But the book doesn't live up to what it could be.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By the end of the book, I felt so deeply connected to Joe Rantz and his teammates that I cried as I listened to the epilogue. An incredible story, too unbelievable to be fiction--no publisher would buy it as a novel. The things that individually and as a team, the Washington Crew had to overcome to make it to the Olympics and then win them was just ridiculous. Time and time again, everything was stacked against them and it looked like their tale was over. Time and time again, they found each other and prevailed.

The story primarily follows Joe Rantz from his childhood up through the winning of Olympic Gold. I am not sure why his story was the focal point rather any of the other boys. Maybe because his circumstances were from the start the most tragic, that he had the most to overcome. (More practically, it was probably because the author was able to interview him the most before Rantz passed away in 2010).

The first third or so of the book is a little slow and less interesting. This is largely about the travails of Joe's childhood. Once he is at the University of Washington and on the team, the story gets much more compelling.

The author does a good job of keeping the story on task. There is a lot going on the 30s that could have sidetracked things. While the story has to deal with the Depression and the rise of Hitler--the author does so only so much as necessary for the story.

I would have liked even more of George Pocock, the man who designed and built the racing shells for University of Washington (and many other teams). Each chapter starts off with an epigraph quotation from Pocock and he comes across as the 'Yoda' of the crew.

Edward Hermann does a masterful job, as always, with the reading.

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Review: The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has been on my to-read list for a long time (originally it came out in 2010). I enjoy Ridley’s work, and this fits in well. There are few surprises for those who have read Ridley or similar books. Essentially: forget the day-to-day news cycle, look at the big historical picture and the data, and human life in general has been getting better and better; and there’s every reason to think it will continue to do so. But what about….Ridley probably discusses it and has an answer. Technology, wealth, ingenuity have and will continue to help us find ways to deal with problems and (and the new problems that arise from those solutions).

What makes Rational Optimist somewhat unique is Ridley’s basic argument for why humans are able to succeed: where the technology, wealth, and ingenuity comes from. Combining, as he says Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, Ridley argues that what makes the human species unique and able to prosper so well is the sex of ideas. That is, the human propensity to exchange goods also leads to exchange of ideas. This, he argues, is the root of the existence of and expansion of cultural and collective knowledge. Ideas evolve (Darwin) through interaction (Smith). Through specialization, trade, and the evolution of ideas, humans are able to adapt and achieve ever higher standards of living.

It is a fascinating thesis, and Ridley explains it in detail, going through history and pre-history to find evidence for it. The audiobook is well-produced and keeps your attention. I tend to lose focus somewhat with numbers and statistics, so the print version would be good if that is important.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Review: Without Fail

Without Fail Without Fail by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, it’s about what you expect from Child and Reacher. It’s not the best one, but it is a good read. It is slow to start, Child spends a lot of time building up one of the characters and Reacher’s relationship to her, and that ultimately makes sense. Nevertheless, the story takes a bit to get some traction. And I’m also not that comfortable with the ending. It works within the story, but it’s a bit cold-blooded for me.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

Review: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McWhorter is always interesting, entertaining, and insightful. He reads the audible book, and I like that. He has the voice for it and, since he wrote it, knows how it should sound. The one downside for me on this, and it's minor, is that since I listen to his podcast, Lexicon Valley, this did feel like a really long podcast episode.

On to the substance. The focus of the book is a critique of a kind of strict or strong Whorfianism (Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). On the strongest version of this hypothesis, the idea is that language conditions or determines how and what we think -- even what we perceive. Here are some crude examples: Russian has several words for different shades of blue, therefore Russian speakers literally see more shades of blue. Or the Pirahã language which apparently has no numbers means the Pirahã don’t know how to count. McWhorter's argument in this book is to point out how this view is empirically and theoretically wrong.

McWhorter is careful to make sure his reader doesn't misinterpret his critique as a rejection of any influence of language on how and we think. Of course there are important influences. The critique is against the strong version -- which is the one that the media and others tend to glom on to. He also discusses why the strong version is the version that is popularized, while empirically minded linguistics don't take it seriously. Language is the tool we use for thinking and communicating, and so it's important to think about it as we inquire into how we conceptualize about the world. But it doesn't determine what and how we think.

My priors are with McWhorter, so his critique and analysis make perfect sense to me. But more than that, he is careful to discuss the opposing theories and theorists with charity and integrity. He discusses the linguist evidence and what the evidence supports. He builds his case and lays out it.

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Friday, November 23, 2018

Review: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book that explains many of our contemporary social and academic ills. It argues that battles over freedom of expression, increasing anxiety and depression in youth, and political polarization are all connected to a set of ideas about childhood and educational practices. The book fits with many of my priors, so that likely colors how I think about it. Nevertheless, the arguments presented here are worth examining and exploring.

Lukianoff and Haidt identify three ideas, what they call Great Untuths, that are main culprits:

The Untruth of Fragility: the idea the kids are easily damaged or harmed. Parents and society must protect kids from any and all dangers and risks.

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings: if you feel it to be true, it must be true.

The Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. We are always pitted against another tribe that is out to destroy us.

The gist of their argument is that these untruths took root in the 80s and led parents, teachers, and even children themselves to think that kids need constant monitoring and protection from all kinds of dangers and risks. This ‘safetyism’ led to reductions in free play, making it harder for kids to develop interpersonal conflict skills, personal risk assessment, self-confidence, and self-reliance. Moreover, the actual effects of these well-intentioned motives to protect kids made them more anxious and more at risk since they didn’t learn how to deal with potentially dangerous and risky situations.

These untruths also encouraged various distorted ways of thinking about one’s self and others, leading to greater anxiety and depression, as well as a perception that disagreement about ideas and values posing a threat to one’s well-being and identity. If you think you are fragile and easily harmed, and think your feelings are an adequate guide to truth, then someone else expressing a different set of ideas can easily be interpreted as an existential threat from which you need protection.

When the kids raised under these untruths — the so-called iGen or Generation Z — went to college they bring these distorted ways of thinking and demands for protection with them. The argument continues that these trends combined with other trends in parenting, education, and various concerns about social justice is what has lead to the conflicts we see on campuses and elsewhere today. Haidt and Lukianoff marshall social science evidence to make their case, building their arguments on their respective experiences in psychology, education, and parenting. I find it convincing and conclusive, but you should read the book to evaluate their arguments yourself.

As a college educator, I see a lot of what Haidt and Lukianoff are talking about. I see it in the attitudes and behaviors of my students. I also see it in the reactions of university administration and how it tries to respond to the demands and needs of these students. And to be honest, I see it it in my son and my own parenting.

One of the aspects I like about the book is its positive outlook. Though they are diagnosing and describing disturbing trends, they don’t see impending doom or catastrophe.

They challenge us to see the counters to the untruths:

Kids are anti-fragile: they need to be exposed to and adapt to their environment so that they can deal with the inherent risks in that environment. “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”

Emotional reasoning is fraught with bias and error: we need to be careful about the judgments we make and be aware of the cognitive biases we may have.

Tribalism is a dangerous way to approach life, often leading to greater conflict. Better to learn to use our inherent tribal instincts to reduce conflict by working to see our common identity.

By recognizing these truths, Haidt and Lukianoff provide a path out of the current state of things. They leave the reader with both hope and a set of intellectual tools.

The book itself is accessible and a quick read. There is a lot of interesting and useful information, especially for parents and educators. This is not an academic book. Indeed, I think academics might find it a bit thin in some regards. There are plenty of sources and citations, but it is not written to satisfy the demands of academic rigor and comprehensiveness. But that’s not what Haidt and Lukianoff are looking to do here. It is more of a self-help guide for parents and educators. To help us see the problem and provide some advice on how to change and adjust our practices. In that regard, they are successful.

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Friday, November 09, 2018

Review: Dune

Dune Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dune is an incredible feat of imagination and writing. Frank Herbert intermingles history, religion, politics, ecology, and philosophy into an epic adventure of intrigue and revolution.

One can see the influence Dune has had on later science fiction. It’s hard not to imagine Tatooine as one reads about Arrakis. The intrigue among the great houses will be familiar to Game of Thrones readers. Equally so, Dune is itself influenced by earlier works, such as Asimov’s Foundation series.

The world created by Herbert is complex. A long history. A complicated set of mystical, religious beliefs intermixed with science and politics. Court intrigue that sets up the underlying conflict of the novel. Cultural norms and rules that are unknown. The reader is, to borrow the now hackney phrase, a stranger in a strange land. As such, one needs a little patience when starting Dune. You have to allow yourself to become familiar with this world.

There are many themes explored and played with by Herbert in Dune. To name but a few: The exploration of religion, its influence, and its institutions. The ongoing conflict of civilization v primitivism (city v country; empire v fremen). The evolution and persistence of religion and culture. Man v environment. The appeal and danger of fundamentalism and Messianism. The pitfalls of ‘Great Men’. The role of computers and technology in society.

It is fun to try to untangle and spot the real-world influences. What language is this word coming from? What religion influenced Herbert for this or that practice or mystical belief?

It is also interesting how conservative the whole galactic culture appears to be. It is a deeply aristocratic society. Women occupy traditional roles. There is little in the way of what one might call ‘alternative lifestyles.’ Like many traditional/conservative cultures, honor plays a huge part. I am sure there are many English PhDs that have made their bones chewing on all this!

If I have a criticism, it would be that the characters could be tools of the plot, rather than the driving force of the plot. The grand sweep of time moving everyone along to the conclusion. The motivations of the character could be at times opaque or hidden behind too many layers.

Dune deserves the praise it gets; it deserves its place in literary history (though maybe not quite as high as Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son would place it). If you only know of Dune because of the David Lynch/Sting movie from the 80s, it is worth reading with fresh eyes.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Review: Skinwalkers

Skinwalkers Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bringing Leaphorn and Chee together was a brilliant stroke. Leaphorn is more logical--more like a Poirot or Marple. Chee is more intuitive. Both are smart and perceptive. They respect each other and will work well together.

The mystery here was not terribly complicated, but seeing Leaphorn and Chee bring the clues together and discover the truth was masterfully down by Hillerman. And Hillerman also gives us the beautiful descriptions of landscapes of the southwest. He is able to give the reader the feel of what living in the high desert might be like. The contrast between cultures is also endlessly fascinating.

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Review: The Other Woman

The Other Woman The Other Woman by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gabriel Allon returns to do battle with the Russians again in another exciting novel by Daniel Silva. The usual cast of characters make their appearances, though the focus is mostly on Allon and Graham Seymour. There are several twists and turns in the plot that keep you guessing and thinking. Silva does a masterful job of weaving in real history and current events into his fictional world. I always enjoy reading his Author Notes after the novel to see what is based on real life and what is made up.
My last thought after finishing this was when is #19 coming out?!

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Review: Sports: The First Five Millennia

Sports: The First Five Millennia Sports: The First Five Millennia by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an ambitious project: telling the history of five millennia of sport—and doing so in about 350 pages. And ultimately, it is unrealistic. There is a lot of interesting and fascinating information here, but it is, necessarily, too often superficial, without sufficient context, and skimmed over. There are passages where it turns into the proverbial just one damned thing after another. Dates and names fly at you, interspersed with occasionally amusing or telling anecdotes. As much as I liked the idea of tracing the history of sport from prehistoric communities up to today, there was just too much information with too little space.

There are, nonetheless, many positives to the book. The author, Allen Guttmann, does a good job of including multiple perspectives. There is very rarely any sense that he has an ideological ax to grind. Guttmann also makes sure to bring in sport from a broad range of differing social classes and groups. The role of women in the history of sport was frequently highlighted—though obviously there are many more opportunities in the modern world for women in sport, women have in nearly every culture and every era been involved in some kind of sport.

I most enjoyed the first part of the book where Guttmann focuses on the sport of ancient cultures. He looks, of course, at the Greeks, but also cultures across the globe. He discusses various theories about how sport developed in these societies: from what they evolved and how they become what we might recognize as sport. This is the most interesting and recommendable part of the book. The discussion of sport in the middle ages was also intriguing. Where things start to get bogged down is when Guttmann moves more into the modern period.

Guttmann is a widely respected historian of sport, and I am certainly going to look at his more focused books. I am not sure I’d recommend this book, however. It unfortunately comes too close to turning into a fleshed out timeline.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The Old Testament

The Old Testament The Old Testament by Amy-Jill Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series of lectures on the Old Testament is very good as an overview to the history of the text and the different interpretative approaches to the Old Testament. Levine brings together, at different points, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and secular understandings of the texts. This is not a religion or theology course; there is no presupposition of the divinity of the text, but such a view, for those that have it, is not incompatible with Levine's discussions. Though I am sure those with particular views about the meaning of the Old Testament will disagree at lots of points, Levine doesn't present her interpretation as _the_ definitive one. She acknowledges the reality of many traditions and interpretations.

In 24 lectures, one can hardly get too deep into the books and stories of this text, and Levine acknowledges through out the series this limitation. Nevertheless, in the aspects she discusses, she is able to convey much of the meaning and the history.

Personally, I would have liked even more on the history of these texts, and their comparisons to other texts of the region and period. That's really a different course though.

I wish Levine had more courses at the Teaching Company--ones that individually delved more deeply into select books of the Bible. Her style is pleasant, she cares deeply for her subject, and she has an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge of it.

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Review: A New Dawn

A New Dawn A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For fans of Rebels, this is a great way to spend more time with Hera and Kanan, and to see how they first met. Like Rebels, it gives you a look at the beginnings of the rebellion. Miller also introduces Rae Sloane who goes on to play important roles in the Aftermath trilogy. She is a fascinating character. An imperial, she is not corrupt. She is ambitious, but not blindly so. She is committed to the law and order ideology of the Empire and this guides her character from A New Dawn up through the end of Aftermath. This makes her a great antagonist. She is not a monster like Vidian, Vader, or Palpatine. Sloane is understandable. She is competent, intelligent, and has a kind of integrity.

The book is a little slow to get going as it introduces the characters and the setting, but the story picks up to an exciting conclusion.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Review: Dance for the Dead

Dance for the Dead Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second novel in the Jane Whitefield series refreshingly doesn’t follow the same plot structure as the first novel. Jane still guides "people out of the world” but the reasons for the hiding are quite different, and the manner in which Jane goes about it is also different. The story has some rather dark and brutal parts. Jane continues to be an intriguing protagonist. She shows more vulnerabilities in this novel, but is still just as tough, intelligent, and component. Highly recommend this series.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Review: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fascinating and unique little book. The frame is a set of ten letters written by the author to a Palestinian neighbor. He does not know this neighbor, Halevi explains, and doesn’t know to whom to send these letters. And that is part of the story of the letters: the need for these neighbors to speak to each other, but there is seemingly infinite distance to reach each other. The letters to an anonymous neighbor express a sense of hope although one that is shadowed by the vast distance that remains: a hopeful despondence? A despondent hope?

This paradoxical situation is the leitmotif of the book. It is a deeply personal expression of paradox and ineluctable tension of ideas and people. The modern and premodern; religious and secular; Israeli and Arab; Israeli identity and Jewish identity; Judaism and Islam; East and West; the past and the future; and Jew and Jew.

As a book of letters to his Palestinian neighbor, the book is hardly directed at me and yet it is important for an American Jew to read to this book—indeed for anyone looking for some measure of insight into the Israel-Arab conflict—and also for insight into Jewishness.

Halevi’s goal here is to tell the Jewish/Israeli narrative. His hope is that if both sides can express their narratives, there can be some mutual understanding that can be the basis for moving forward. So Halevi presents his personal statement about what Jewishness is and what Israeli life is about. He talks about how these identities connect. And how this relates to the land of Israel and to the Palestinians.

Halevi is reaching out to an audience which may not and mostly will not accept it or appreciate it (An Arab translation is available free online). But he tells the narrative with the intent of trying to respect that Palestinian need for that denial while calling for them to move beyond it. He doesn’t ask for agreement or affirmation; just the space to tell his narrative. He invites Palestinians to tell their narrative and wants to grant them the same space: the space to tell each other our national narratives without dismissal or rejection. The idea is that if we can start there, we can start to see and hear each other; and then we can start a dialogue that might lead to some kind of mutual understanding.

Interestingly, Halevi is also writing to the Israeli far right. They know the Jewish narrative. But they need to see it in relation and conflict with the Palestinian narrative. Halevi is arguing that both narratives have some measure of validity and that both sides need to understand and deal with these perspectives. If we are to see each other we have to stop ignoring, downplaying and denying each other.

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Review: The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second novel in the Kingkiller Chronicle. The first novel was amazing and the follow-up is as good, if not better. It takes us much deeper into the world and culture of Temerant (and beyond). We learn more about Kvothe and see his abilities and character develop more as well. We learn more about the Adem, about naming, about the Chandrian, and about the Fae and their world.

The depth of the world that Rothfuss has created is on par with the greatest of fantasy series. He does a great job of taking the standard tropes of the genre and using them with his own little twist to make the familiar seem novel. He weaves in together many familiar elements to create something new: for example, the Lethani is a sort of mix of the Dao, phronesis, and Falun Gong. I love what he does with the Adem language and culture.

The writing is crisp and creative. Although the book is quite long, it is so well paced, it doesn’t feel long. The character development, the world development, and mythos development are top-notch. If you like fantasy, you have to read this series. It really is not to be missed.

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