mother, cell, key

every life
is a tiny room
with one door
and one key
and one order:
never turn the key

wait, it sneers
wait until
the key is turned for you.

(Image by angus mcdiarmid)

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Having just read this book for the readathon last year and reviewed it here (though looking back it was an awful review, re-reviewing it seems kind of silly. Lord knows I had little enough original to offer in the first place - to do it TWICE? Not so much. I don't want to talk about Orlando as itself then, I would like to dicuss an interesting trend I noticed in the reviews of it.

Orlando, unlike the other two Woolf novels I've read, is funny - or to be more British about it, witty. Woolf's writing here is at time laugh out loud funny, frequently delivered with a quirking sneer you can feel stretching across her lips. The novel, after the stormy seas of To the Lighthouse, and the tidal wave of Mrs Dalloway, feels more like a fresh spanking wind over a playful sea. If you sail the seas of the other books, this book feels more like you roll up your pant legs and wade in it, or wait till noone is looking and skinny dip in it. Ms Frances over at Nonsuch Books talked about the issue behind a witty book in literary circles:

In college, fellow Woolf lovers would mock me a bit for saying that Orlando was my favorite Woolf novel. So many see it as the throw-away novel, something to pass the time in between her more serious works of literature.

I read this a few times this morning in one form or another - Woolf herself said this book was sort of her playtime after writing so many dark, heavy, carefully poetic novels.

But, as I mentioned I my previous review, I felt this novel very strongly.

Now part of this is for personal reasons not relevant to a discussion of the book, but that's not ALL part of it - Orlando, more than TTL or Mrs D made me feel like I knew something about Virginia Woolf. And I think this is inextricably linked to it's wittiness. Wittiness has a particular power that we as 'guardians of high culture' often forget - I realized this the other day, as well, while reading Plato's 'Apology', throughout which Socrates keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek. Gulliver's Travels is another example, as is Catch-22. Shakespeare was a master of this.

Of course, there is humor that is meaningless, and there's humor that is repellently arrogant. These things exist (just like there's drama that is voyeuristic and drama that is overflowing with it's own self-importance). There is two differences that make a witty work great for me: first, the author is not afraid to tell an honest story, with good and bad in it. Catch-22 is the perfect example of this. Real wit not only accepts the real world, it has real, honest human emotion in it, in all the multiple forms that human emotion takes. Secondly, true wit is not something for the author to hide behind - it makes the author more vulnerable, not less. (Honestly, and perhaps meaningfully, both of these statements could be applied to drama with very little modification).

Orlando, more than any of the other books I've read, lets me feel Virginia, rather than Mrs Woolf - tellingly, it's not that the book brings her down to my level, but rather it lifts me up to hers. It's a sort of inversion of Mrs Dalloway - in Dalloway, the author is an invisible god-like force and we drift between her various creations. In Orlando, we are invited into the kitchen of God, and chitchat with her as she cooks up a new batch. Chit-chat can be banal, sure, but it can also be honest, vulnerable, and filled with love and trust: intimate in a way that other ways of communication can't be. Mrs Dalloway, in places, serves as portraiture of Woolf - stiff and formal, carefully formed, methodically rendered. But, in Orlando, we knead bread with Woolf, hands plunged with hers into the self-same bowl.

Particularly in Modernism, the age of James Joyce who couldn't keep a straight face for 3 pages (Ok, I'm exaggerating a LITTLE), it amazes - and kind of saddens - me, how easy it is to dismiss wit and playfulness and humor as 'light', and 'charming.' Humor is a tool that it's easy to dismiss - but to do so shows a weakness in us as readers, not in the author, because humor can carry profound beauty.

Finally, just as a quick note - I don't think any of the reviewers I've read have been doing this, not at all - to the conrary, the reviews I've read have sparkled and danced just like the book did. Just that in several I felt just the slightest edge of defense, as if loving something funny had to be justified. I want to do my little bit to justify this myself, is all, because loving Orlando SHOULD be justified - or Catch-22, or Alice in Wonderland, or Edward Lear, or Finnegan's Wake. Anyway, off my soapbox for the day, and thanks to EVERYONE for the reviews today :).

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Apology and Crito by Plato

So, you may have seen my beloved wife the other day link to a list of books we got at the library sale, including a big box of old boring books from Encyclopedia Brittanica I picked up. I will not talk much about the series itself (though I could) here, but just wanted to say real quick AMANDA DOESN'T WANT TO READ ANY OF THEM AND THEY HAVE BIG MARGINS AND BEAUTIFUL PAPER SO I CAN WRITE ALL OVER THEM AND THAT TOTALLY KICKS TEH BUTT HURRAH! Okay. That's out of my system.

So, quick fact: I have never sat down and read any primary source in philosophy, ever. Not ever. This is what happens when you flunk out of college and go back for computers - you never read these things. I picked up bits, pieces, here and there, sure. But I've never actually READ a philosophy work, ever. So this is my first. So, if I talk loud and silly, plese just understand that I'm ignorant and doing my best.

Apology is actually Plato's transcription of the defense that his mentor, Socrates, made for himself before the Athenian court, where he was accused of corrupting the youth of the city. If there is a spoiler in this, here it is:

He loses. And they sentence him to death by being forced to drink hemlock.

Crito is a meeting in the prison between Socrates and his friend, Crito, who has come to say he has gathered up resources to bribe the guards so that Socrates can escape. The two discuss whether that is the best moral decision.

This sounds surreal and unrealistic, I know, two guys sitting going 'so, Socrates, do you think you ought to stay in prison or die, or leave prison, and not die? Just askin'...' But it isn't. It's actually, weirdly, human, so much so that I'm either impressed with Socrates writing skills or convinced that the transcripts are, at least in part, taken from life. There's also something immediate and powerful about reading philosophy that ISN'T just people abstractly discussing what they ought to do. The guy is living with real, palpable, extreme consequences of his convictions, and explaining why he won't abandon them anyway.

It's also creepily prescient of today. When Socrates talks about his accusers, and then about politicians, he says:

How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that they almost made me forget who I was -- so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth. But of the many falsehoods told by them, there was one which quite amazed me; -- I mean when they said that you should be upon your guard and not allow yourselves to be deceived by the force of my eloquence [when I'm obviously not eloquent]... unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for if such is their meaning, I admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!

Socrates is an interesting man to read, because one can imagine him as any number of men - arrogant or humble, pompous or self-deprecatory, playful and strident, detatched and intimate. The reason for this, is that he's none of these things: he simply always speaks the truth. When Socrates says he is wiser than the people he meets, it is, genuinely, because he met them, spoke to them,and saw their foolishness. There's no other agenda behind it, he's not trying to impress his listener, or demean the fool, he's simply stating a fact: I got a reputation for being wise, because the people I could find who said they were wise were fools and liars.

This is particularly interesting to me, because this way of living is so reminiscent of some of the powerfully intelligent left-brained people that I love in the technical industry today. I know, boring, feel free to skip this paragraph. But, the people who made the internet and technology what it is today were, in their roots, hippie philosophers (as was Socrates). Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Wall, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, the very culture of the technorati, in it's seminal, and still central, form, is very much the reasoning idealist, who believes that if humans would analyze themselves enough, they'd learn to be happy and make the people around them happy. They call a spade a spade, because there's no benefit in telling it that it's a pitchfork, no matter how much it might wish to be one. Reading the interchanges between these people, they are acerbic, playful, arrogant and humble in turns. This is why it's so easy for the media to paint disagreements as great battles, to paint leaders as jerks. IT both is and is not that simple.

The real strength, after all, of Socrates is not in his answers, but in his questions. He has certain basic principles ("I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil." or "For wherever a man's place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger;") and they are powerful principles, but this isn't the Bible, and Socrates' goal is not to lay down laws - his laws come from his secret voice, an internal compass that tells him when he is doing evil. It is his own work in the world then to analyze these laws, to understand them, and then to make good choices from them.

It is the reader's work to look at the questions he's asking, and ask them to him or herself, to look at his premises and ask if they are sound, and if they aren't, to say what is sound - to have a dialogue with Socrates, though Socrates is dead and gone. Reading Socrates logic about whether we avoid humans who do evil led me into a long reverie about why I both agree and disagree with him, and why this speaks to, for me, the impossibility of an entirely benevolent god - not probably an interesting discussion here, but the sort of question I need to ask myself sometimes, the sort of thinking that I need to do.

As a teacher, Socrates is beautiful and almost perfect. As an ethicist, as a book to live by, this endless belief in reason and absolute law that makes him such a good teacher leaves him somewhat short to me. PErhaps perfect reason can be perfectly moral, but this is the same problem that the Utilitarians run into in my book - the assumption is that we are capable of making those decisions. I don't think it's possible for us to know sufficient information to make a fully informed decision on anything, ever. So decisions are endless combinations of reason and emotion, of knowledge and intuition, simply because we are not capable of a perfection of either faculty. And in some sense, even, I wonder if Socrates was right to die. I believe for him he WAS right, but I don't believe he HAD to be right, if that makes sense. But that's the paradox that Socrates life is in my mind - how can a thing be right (or wrong) if we cannot know perfectly what it's consequences will be? If Socrates had been killed and then forgotten (which could have happened simply by luck - it happened to so many of the great thinkers of the ancient world) then would his standing for his principles have been the most good he could have done for the world? We simply cannot know - it is impossible to know. To study knowledge in a world where the most basic knowledge is impossible to pin down is both terrifying and exciting - just like to study To the Ligthhouse is an exhilerating and terrifying view of the unknowable depths of human emotion and attachment. Socrates is a beautiful man to read and learn from - as long as we don't begin to feel compelled to agree wtih them. And given the choice between a Book of the Answer and a Book of the Question, perhaps a Book of the Question is better...

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Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

(Note, I don't know how you're supposed to list comic books, so I just listed the writer, hopefully that's okay?)

A long, long time ago, I came across the second 'Sandman' story arc - A Doll's House. It still haunts me - in a good way, but also in a way that means I would need a lot of moral courage to pick up Sandman, ever, again. Or any Neil Gaiman - I've never read anything else by him except Blueberry Girl, which thankfully didn't seem to come from quite the same part of Mr G's imagination. I liked Doll's House - a lot. But the reasons I liked - it's strange ability to tap into your own subconscious, for instance - was also why I've since avoided it.

Just over the last little while, I (like probably everyone else on earth, I guess) have followed Mr Gaiman on twitter - he's an excellent tweeter, and the experience of listening to him has really made me feel like he's one of the nicest people. Twitter is nice that way, when used righ,t because it shows people for who they are, and who Mr Gaiman is, is a genuinely sweet person. Aside from seeing Coraline last year (AHHHHHHHHH!), I've thus been bombarded with the idea that maybe, just maybe I should try him again.

Well, guess what, I'm not sure Preludes and Nocturnes is the best book to convince me that I have developed sufficient moral courage to read Neil Gaiman.

I say that because there is some very, very, VERY intense ideas in here. If you do not want to be disturbed, this book is not recommended, because it is a genuinely disturbing read, particularly certain chapters of it (24 Hours! Ah!). I won't sugarcoat it. This book is hideously, deformedly ugly in terms of what happens.

And nonetheless, it was also beautiful, sweet, even playful at times. The last story has widely been hailed as the best in the book, and in the afterword, Mr Gaiman says he first found his own unique voice writing it. And he's write, I hear more of the Neil I hear twittering in this book: A little off perhaps, but clever, good-hearted, optimistic and realistic, quirky, irreverent. It's a sweet, meaningful story, not a perfect story, but a real one. And then peppered through the other stories there is tehse same bright moments. The scene with Constantine's old girlfriend was moving, for instance, and the scene in which the Martian Manhunter offers one of the other superheroes to come in and have some Oreos had that pleasantly quirky esotericism that I love in the author.

And in the darker parts, there are moments that are uniquely powerful. The disturbing stuff is, genuinely, disturbing, of course, but beyond that, he taps into some of the more subtly queasy parts of human nature. Take Dream's response to Lucifer (yes, that Lucifer), when Lucifer threatens to keep him captured in hell:

You say I have no power? Perhaps you speak truly. But-- you say that dreams have no power here? Tell me, Lucifer Morningstar... Ask yourselves, all of you... what power would Hell have if those imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?
The power of the quote - and the power of the best of Gaiman's moments - is it's duality. On the one hand, sure, the demons he's speaking to stil maintain a semblance of humanity, because a part of their soul can still dream of heaven. It is their one comfort - and even if it is the comfort that makes them continue to suffer, it's also a real, meaningful comfort, it is teh 'hope' that earlier defeats the powers of Hell, to return Dream's helmet to him.

But then, on the other side, it is that same dream - a dream that is, after all impossible to come true - that teases the demons to do desperate, terrible wickedness. Love and Hope cannot live without a dream. But neither can hate - without the dream of revenge, of return, they could have no force to hate with. So it is with humans. Take the 'American Dream' in it's various forms over the years. IT's the dream that drove Edison to make the lightbulb, it's the dream that drove American soldiers to free the concentration camps. It's also the dream that drove American soldiers to slaughter the indians, and the dream that drives the consumerism that enslaves most of the world today. Dreams are messy, amoral things - as is Dream himself. Another example of this is in the scene where Rosemary is being held captive by Dee. The force of human connection is there throughout the whole section. And it's what makes us love Rosemary - who I really did love. Say Stockholm Syndrome all you like, but reading the pages as she drove John Dee to his destination, and slowly began to pity and understand him - as a human being, instead of a monster and a criminal - I felt the best of human nature, the ability to look past anything to see and love another person. Of course, that universal human love (SPOILER!)

ends up getting Rosemary killed, when there are several points if you reread the section, when she COULD have stopped him. At one point, the gun just sits on the dashboard between them - and it's clear that Dee is both not all there and deeply distracted - and it even feels for a while as if he's feeling a little more human himself. IT would have been so easy for her to take the gun, and shoot him. And it would have saved not only her, but countless others. Love is a double edged sword, and cold reason is as well.


Of course, the search for Gaiman's voice in the book has it's negative ramifications. There are stories - and points in stories - that feel slow. Or overdone. Or hackneyed. The book is very imperfect, it's pacing is uneven and confusing sometimes, some of the stories feel gratuitous and childish, at moments. But, in a sense, I'm glad they feel this way. There is a sort of book-within-a-book, where you watch as an artist grapples with himself, with his faultless skill at mimicking other artists, with maybe even a little timidity and awkwardness over how to speak for himself, and in the end, you see him take the dangerous leap and become his own self. It's a powerful tale in itself, even if Gaiman I imagine reads through the book now and feels dissatisfied and frustrated with his mistakes.

Just as a side note, if you, like me, are a complete geek, there are fan annotations of every Sandman story at http://www.arschkrebs.de/sandman/annotations/. This can be particularly helpful if you, like me, know NOTHING about the connections made to the larger superhero world (I, for instance, had not idea who the heck the Martian Manhunter was). Sometimes the annotations are good, sometimes less so, but nonetheless, an interesting reference.

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Negritude and the Harlem Renaissance

By the end of the 1930's, the Harlem Renaissance as a cohesive cultural movement had largely run it's course. Many of the individual players continued on, of course, but the Great Depression disrupted the cohesivity of the movement in a way that was irreparable. The (approximately) 20 years of the Harlem Renaissance, then, are often treated as a sort of fluke - a bit of culture outside the ordinary stream of 20th century art. For many years - and in some ways even today - the renaissance has been painted as an essentially provincial, bordered thing, a sort of happy freak of artistry, closed in on itself, with a sharp beginning and end, the days when 'Negros were fashionable' as one commentator put it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Harlem Renaissance echoed not only through African American culture, but through the entire world for years to come. To speak about the entire legacy of the Renaissance would take a book - here I'd like to discuss just one legacy, and really only offer the barest introductions to it: the Negritude Movement.

In the 1920's, and into the 1930's, Paris was, arguably, the cultural capital of the world. The Left Bank and Montmartre parts of the city are deservedly famous for the expatriate culture of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. What is less discussed in standard American literary history is that the artists of the Harlem Renaissance visited or lived in Paris as well. The mark of this cultural cross fertilization was strong in French culture. Josephine Baker, a black music hall dancer, was among the most sought after figures in French Cabaret culture. French musicians like Django Reinhardt would define Jazz in Europe in emulation of Cotton Club alumni like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. And in literature, particularly, the work of poets like Langston Hughes had a strong influence.

France, as a colonial power, spread a vast diaspora of blacks across the globe, ranging from colonies in Senegal in Africa, to the famous Black Republic in Haiti. The diversity in these different colonial cultures was vast, but in many ways, the sheer nastiness of colonial rule gave them a certain binding identity - a history of slavery and maltreatment, of sexual pecadilloes, of inhuman, iron-fisted justice, of cultural destruction and discrimination. The legacy, in fact, continues to this day, with Algerians in France suffering blatant and miserable everyday discrimination. In the beginning of the 20th century, the diaspora began to search for a voice. A number of literary journals sprung up, featuring writing by black authors.

For poets Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, and Leon Damas, this journals didn't do enough. The writing in them was too 'assimilationist', too bourgeois. The writing in these journals, the three felt, simply acted to legitimize the injustices of the French rule. The three of them had read closely the writing of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and other Harlem Renaissance giants, and had even spoken to and listened to them in Paris. The vision of the Renaissance inspired them to think about what it was to be black, and inspired them to found their own journal, 'L'Eutdiant Noir'. It was shortly after that Cesaire wrote the defining poem of the movement: "Notebook of a Return to a Homeland". The poem begins mired in the ugliness the the colonizer forces on the 'natives':

(Niggers-are-all-alike, I-tell-you vices-all-the-vices-believe-you-me
nigger-smell, that’s-what-makes-cane-grow
beat-a-nigger, and you feed him)
among “rocking chairs” contemplating the voluptuousness of quirts
circle about, an unappeased filly
And the poem is never pretty. IT grinds along with a simmering, powerful anger. But it isn't just a diatribe, in it, he coins a new word: negritude: “my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day”. The poem is not a simple argument that the French are cruel, but rather a statement that the very thing that the French hate in the Blacks is the thing that is powerful in them, and potentially beautiful. Negritude translates, roughly, to 'blackness', but it implies a cohesivity, an identity with a past and a future independent of a colonial master and worthy of the same consideration as the whiteness of Western Europe. It wasn't an anti-white platform - the fin-de-siecle French poets, for instance, were one of the greatest influences on the movement, and Jean Paul Sartre was close to the movement as well - it was simply a statement that blackness was beautiful as well.

The movement went on to have enormous resonance across the diaspora. Cesaire became the mayor of the capitol of his home country, Martinique. Senghor was the first president of Senegal after it's independence, and one of the greatest leaders of Africa of the 20th century. The poets would inspire philosophers like JEan Paul Sartre and Franz Fanon, the arts of Haiti, and in an ironic turnabout, the black literature of the United States through authors like Richard Wright.

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Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe (NSFW)

WARNING: Hero and Leander is an erotic poem from the Elizabethan period. This review contains references to sex and frank discussion of sexuality and erotica. If this makes you uncomfortable, don't feel obliged to read this post. When I was in high school, reading Shakespeare, our teachers (all of them) pointed out the dirty jokes to us. I remember this clearly, because I remember feeling like this was a sort of pat on the head - "well, they're just kids they can't enjoy this, so we'd better at least point out the dirty jokes. They'll like that". Dirty Jokes are not rare in Shakespeare. But normally they're just that - dirty jokes, nothing more. Shakespeare is frequently romantic, but in my limited experience, never erotic. Christopher Marlowe is an entirely different ball of wax. I will admit I had never read anything by Mr. Marlowe. I knew him as that guy who got killed in a barfight and wrote poems. Hero and Leander came up as a new recording on Librivox recently, I wanted to listen to a long poem while I was driving on a trip for work this week, and the powers converged. This was NOT what I expected. Witness this scene between Neptune and Leander, the male hero:
He clapped his plump cheeks, with his tresses played And, smiling wantonly, his love bewrayed. He watched his arms and, as they opened wide At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance, And, as he turned, cast many a lustful glance, And threw him gaudy toys to please his eye, And dive into the water, and there pry Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb, And up again, and close beside him swim, And talk of love.
Or this, between Leander and Hero, his beloved, as she loses her virginity:
For though the rising ivory mount he scaled, Which is with azure circling lines empaled, Much like a globe (a globe may I term this, By which love sails to regions full of bliss) Yet there with Sisyphus he toiled in vain, Till gentle parley did the truce obtain. Wherein Leander on her quivering breast Breathless spoke something, and sighed out the rest;
The poem tells the story of two classically star-crossed lovers: the (ironically) virginal priestess of Aphrodite and Leander a man whose beauty Marlowe describes with a wanton luxury of words:
I could tell ye How smooth his breast was and how white his belly; And whose immortal fingers did imprint That heavenly path with many a curious dint That runs along his back, but my rude pen Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men, Much less of powerful gods.
They fall in love, she tells him to come to her in her tower, and they... fool around, but don't fully consummate their love. She tells him to come back the next day, but his father finds out and forbids it. Unwilling to give up his love, Leander leaps into the waters of the Hellespont that separate the two, where Neptune, mistaking him for Ganymede, the beautiful cupbearer of Zeus attempts to seduce him. Realizing that the boy is drowning, Neptune figures out it ISN'T an immortal (always a good sign of that, drowning), and after talking to him about how lovely sex between men can be, finally gives up on the boy, and Leander arrives at Hero's tower - naked. Leander flees, to the shadows. Then to her stairs. Then to her room. Then to her bed. Yes, the implication is that she's not REALLY fleeing. The two of them consummate their amours, and the poem draws to a close as the sun rises (it was probably unfinished). I could talk about the beauty of Marlowe's language, I could tell you about the imagery he used, or the symbolic nature of the poem, I could dance endlessly around the central issue, but the central issue is this: this poem is about sex, and about how wonderful and exciting it is, hands down, no question. It's supposed to be a bit of a romp, yes, and admittedly, there is supposed to a bit of humor to Neptune trying to seduce the boy, but really, throughout the work, the poem is intense, erotic, and beautiful. And this is where I find myself stymied. Ironically, while our modern day talks incessantly about sex, there is a sort of code, that we can talk about it only in one of three ways: very clinically (like it's discussed on the news), very humorously (or at least with the attempt to be so), and talking 'dirty'. Our lexicon of sex tends towards the degrading, the angry. It's no coincidence that our words for the sexual act, or for the organs involved are either meant for textbooks, or used dually as descriptors and curse words. This is how sex is in our culture - it is either something we acknowledge logically, or something we're supposed to wallow in. Sex as beautiful gets paid lipservice, and some people really honestly fight for the beauty to come back to sex. But more or less? Sex is something we snigger about. More than anything else, listening to this, I was struck by sadness of that. Sex lives in the shadows of our lives - even of our private lives. Sex is associated with words like 'naughty' and 'dirty', if it's vocalized, often even within couples who have been having sex for ages. It brings up an interesting set of questions, really. For example, why is it hard for a person to tell their lover how great their sex was without either discussing tactics (clinical) or 'talking dirty'? Why is, say, a wife making a video of herself undressing or masturbating for her husband something 'naughty'? Maybe these things should be, I don't know. I certainly am not arguing that people should talk about their sex in the middle of a crowded restaurant the way they talk about the football game, or anything. But, when did 'private' begin to equal 'dirty'? When did 'honest' begin to equal 'clinical'? I don't know the answers, I'm just chewing on the questions

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