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Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2019 at 5:43 am

Posted in Writing

Code hidden in Stone Age art may be the root of human writing

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Allison George writes in New Scientist:

When she first saw the necklace, Genevieve von Petzinger feared the trip halfway around the globe to the French village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac had been in vain. The dozens of ancient deer teeth laid out before her, each one pierced like a bead, looked roughly the same. It was only when she flipped one over that the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. On the reverse were three etched symbols: a line, an X and another line.

Von Petzinger, a palaeoanthropologist from the University of Victoria in Canada, is spearheading an unusual study of cave art. Her interest lies not in the breathtaking paintings of bulls, horses and bison that usually spring to mind, but in the smaller, geometric symbols frequently found alongside them. Her work has convinced her that far from being random doodles, the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestors’ mental skills.

The first formal writing system that we know of is the 5000-year-old cuneiform script of the ancient city of Uruk in what is now Iraq. But it and other systems like it – such as Egyptian hieroglyphs – are complex and didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There must have been an earlier time when people first started playing with simple abstract signs. For years, von Petzinger has wondered if the circles, triangles and squiggles that humans began leaving on cave walls 40,000 years ago represent that special time in our history – the creation of the first human code.

If so, the marks are not to be sniffed at. Our ability to represent a concept with an abstract sign is something no other animal, not even our closest cousins the chimpanzees, can do. It is arguably also the foundation for our advanced, global culture.

The first step to check her theory was to fastidiously document the signs, their location, age and style, and see if any patterns emerged. For this, von Petzinger would have to visit as many caves as she could: archaeology’s focus on paintings of animals meant the signs were often overlooked in existing records.

It wasn’t easy or glamorous work. Gaining access to caves in France, where a lot of Stone Age art is located, can be devilishly complicated. Many are privately owned and sometimes jealously guarded by archaeologists. For the full set of symbols, von Petzinger also had to visit many obscure caves, the ones without big, flashy paintings. At El Portillo in northern Spain, all she had to go on was a note an archaeologist made in 1979 of some “red signs”; no one had been back since. At first, von Petzinger couldn’t even find the entrance. Eventually, she noticed a tiny opening at knee level, trickling with water. “Thank God I’m not claustrophobic,” she says. After 2 hours sliding through mud inside the mountain, she found two dots painted in pinkish ochre.

Between 2013 and 2014, von Petzinger visited 52 caves in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, hand stencils, something called a tectiform that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feather shapes called penniforms. In some places, the signs were part of bigger paintings. Elsewhere, they were on their own, like the row of bell shapes found in El Castillo in northern Spain (see picture below), or the panel of 15 penniforms in Santian, also in Spain.

Perhaps the most startling finding was how few signs there were – just 32 in all of Europe. For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used. This, if nothing else, suggests that the markings had some sort of significance. “Of course they mean something,” says French prehistorian Jean Clottes. “They didn’t do it for fun.” The multiple repetitions of the P-shaped claviform sign in France’s Niaux cave “can’t be a coincidence”, he argues.

Thanks to von Petzinger’s meticulous logging, it’s now possible to see trends – new signs appearing in one region, sticking around for a while before falling out of fashion. Hand stencils, for example, were fairly common in the earliest parts of the Upper Palaeolithic era, starting 40,000 years ago, then fall out of fashion 20,000 years later. “You see a cultural change take place,” says von Petzinger. The earliest known penniform is from about 28,000 years ago in the Grande Grotte d’Arcy-sur-Cure in northern France, and later appears a little to the west of there before spreading south. Eventually, it reaches northern Spain and even Portugal. Von Petzinger believes it was first disseminated as people migrated, but its later spread suggests it then followed trade routes.

The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, The First SignsUnlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them.

That fits well with the discovery of a 70,000-year-old block of ochre etched with cross-hatching in Blombos cave in South Africa. And when von Petzinger looked through archaeology papers for mentions or illustrations of symbols in cave art outside Europe, she found that many of her 32 signs were used around the world (see “Consistent doodles”). There is even tantalising evidence that an earlier human, Homo erectus, deliberately etched a zigzag on a shell on Java some 500,000 years ago. “The ability of humans to produce a system of signs is clearly not something that starts 40,000 years ago. This capacity goes back at least 100,000 years,” says Francesco d’Errico from the University of Bordeaux, France.

Nonetheless, something quite special seems to have happened in ice age Europe. In various caves, von Petzinger frequently found certain symbols used together. For instance, starting 40,000 years ago, hand stencils are often found alongside dots. Later, between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago, they are joined by thumb stencils and finger fluting – parallel lines created by dragging fingers through soft cave deposits.

Etched teeth

These kinds of combinations are particularly interesting if you’re looking for the deep origins of writing systems. Nowadays, we effortlessly combine letters to make words and words to make sentences, but this is a sophisticated skill. Von Petzinger wonders whether the people of the Upper Palaeolithic started experimenting with more complex ways of encoding information using deliberate, repeated sequences of symbols. Unfortunately, that’s hard to say from signs painted on cave walls, where arrangements could be deliberate or completely random. “Demonstrating that a sign was conceived as a combination of two or more different signs is difficult,” says d’Errico. . .

Continue reading.

I find it fascinating to actually see memes in a very early stage of their evolutionary development—and, as pointed out, these are evolved from earlier memes.

Update. I bet the very first mark was some simple shape (box or X or two parallel or zigzag lines) that conveyed a simple message: “I was here.” Cf. bear marks on a tree, dog pee on posts, and this from WWII:

Written by LeisureGuy

8 March 2019 at 2:36 pm

The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives

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Robert Caro is a great biographer. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York is a fascinating book that makes clear what Robert Moses did to New York, and also shows how it happened. Well worth reading. (That book, along with The Path to Power, the first volume of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, would be required reading for all US citizens if I had my way. Both of those are in my list “Books I find myself repeatedly recommending.”

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Caro describes how he discovered his gift:

I. Mr. Hathway

In 1959, when I went to work for Newsday, on Long Island, the paper had a managing editor named Alan Hathway, who was an old-time newspaperman from the nineteen-twenties. He was a character right out of “The Front Page,” a broad-shouldered man with a big stomach that looked soft but wasn’t. His head was shiny bald except for a monklike tonsure, and rather red—very red after he had started drinking for the day, which was at lunch. He wore brown shirts with white ties, and black shirts with yellow ties. We were never sure if he had actually graduated from, or even attended, college, but he had a deep prejudice against graduates of prestigious universities, and during his years at Newsday had never hired one, let alone one from Princeton, as I was. I was hired as a joke on him while he was on vacation. He was so angry to find me there that during my first weeks on the job he would refuse to acknowledge my presence in his city room. I kept saying, “Hello, Mr. Hathway,” or “Hi, Mr. Hathway,” when he passed my desk. He’d never even nod. Ignoring me was easy for Mr. Hathway to do, because as the low man on the paper’s reportorial totem pole I never worked on a story significant enough to require his involvement.

At the time, Newsday did not publish on Sundays, so as low man on the totem pole I worked Saturday afternoons and nights, because if a story came in then I could put the information in a memo and leave the actual writing to the real reporters who came in on Sunday.

Late one Saturday afternoon, a telephone on the city desk rang, and when I picked it up it was an official from the Federal Aviation Agency, calling from his office at what was then (because John F. Kennedy hadn’t yet been assassinated) Idlewild Airport. Newsday had been doing a series of articles on Mitchel Field, a big Air Force base in the middle of Long Island’s Nassau County that the military was giving up. Its twelve hundred acres were the last large open space in the county, so what happened to it was important. The F.A.A. was seeking to make it a civilian airport. Newsday, however, felt that it should be used instead for public purposes—in particular, for education, to allow Hofstra University to expand, and to create a campus for Nassau Community College, the only general-education public college on Long Island, which was then being housed in temporary quarters in the county courthouse in Mineola. The rooms there were already too crowded to accommodate the students, many of them from the large low-income community in nearby Hempstead. Public education for the poor: that was something worth fighting for.

I hadn’t been working on any of the Mitchel Field stories. But on this Saturday suddenly this guy from the F.A.A. was on the phone, and he says something along the lines of “I really like what you guys are doing on Mitchel Field, and I’m here alone in the F.A.A. offices, and if you send someone down here I know what files you should be looking at.”

I was alone, the only person in the city room. This happened to be the day of the big Newsday annual summer picnic on the beach on Fire Island. Just about everyone else had gone, except me. None of them had a cell phone, of course, since there were no cell phones then. I called the editor who was my immediate superior, and then his superior, but wasn’t able to reach them. When, after many calls, I finally did reach an editor, he told me to call the paper’s great investigative reporter Bob Greene, but Greene wasn’t reachable, either, and neither were the other reporters I was told to call. Eventually, the editor told me that I would have to go myself.

I will never forget that night. It was the first time I had ever gone through files. The official met me at the front door and led me to a room with a conference table in the middle, and, on the table, high stacks of file folders. And somehow, in a strange way, sitting there going through them, I felt at home. As I went through the memos and the letters and the minutes of meetings, I could see a pattern emerging, revealing the real reason that the agency wanted the field to become a civilian airport: executives of corporations with offices on Long Island, who seemed to be quite friendly with the F.A.A. officials, wanted to be able to fly in and out of Long Island on their company planes without the inconvenience of having to drive to Idlewild or LaGuardia. I kept looking for a piece of paper on which someone came right out and said that, but I didn’t find one; everything I could find talked around that point. But between all the pieces of paper I found sentences and paragraphs that, taken together, made the point clear.

There are certain moments in your life when you suddenly understand something about yourself. I loved going through those files, making them yield their secrets to me. And here was a particular and fascinating secret: that corporate executives were persuading a government agency to save them some driving time at the expense of a poor kid getting an education and a better chance in life. Each discovery I made that helped to prove that was a thrill. I don’t know why raw files affect me that way. In part, perhaps, it’s because they are closer to reality, to genuineness—not filtered, cleaned up, through press releases or, years later, in books. I worked all night, but I didn’t notice the passing of time. When I finished and left the building on Sunday, the sun was coming up, and that was a surprise. I went back to the office, and before driving home I wrote a memo on what I had found.

I had previously worked at a newspaper in New Jersey, and my wife, Ina, and I hadn’t yet moved to Long Island. Early on Monday morning, my day off, the phone rang, and it was Mr. Hathway’s secretary, June Blom. Alan wanted to see me right away, she said. I said, “I’m in New Jersey.”

“Well, he wants to see you just as soon as you can get here,” June replied. I drove to Newsday that morning, sure every mile of the way that I was about to be fired.

I ran into June just as I entered the city room; motioning to Alan’s office, she told me to go right in. Walking across the room, I saw, through the glass window, the big red head bent over something he was reading, and as I entered his office I saw that it was my memo.

He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”

Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

II. The Library

In 1976, I flew to Austin, Texas, to begin research for a biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Walking into the Johnson Library and Museum for the first time, I saw Johnson’s long black Presidential limousine. I asked the receptionist at the front desk where the Lyndon Johnson Papers were, and she said I would see them if I walked down to the end of the first row of exhibits and turned the corner.

So I did.

In front of me was a broad, tall marble staircase. At its top was a glass wall four stories high. Behind the glass, on each of the four stories, were rows of tall, red boxes—a hundred and seventy-five rows across, each row six boxes high—with, on the front of each box, a gold circle that was a replica, I was to learn, of the Presidential seal. As I climbed the stairs, there came into view more boxes, long lines of them stretching back into the gloom as far as I could see.

I took an elevator up to the library’s tenth floor, to be interviewed by an archivist and given a card admitting me to the library’s Reading Room, where researchers had their desks; the card was good for a year, and would have to be renewed at the end of that time. The archivist asked me if I thought I would need a renewal. I said probably.

I asked if I could be given a look at one of the floors of boxes, and, unfortunately for my peace of mind, my request was granted. It was like asking a doctor to be honest and give you all the bad news, and having him do just that. I started walking down an aisle between walls of boxes taller than me. It seemed like a long way to the end of the aisle.

There were about forty thousand boxes, the archivist told me; each had a capacity of eight hundred pages, but, she said, not all of them were completely filled, and some were overfilled. There were thirty-two million pages in all. I had known that doing research on a President would be a lot different from doing it on Robert Moses, the subject of my previous book, “The Power Broker,” but I hadn’t expected anything like this. I had a bad feeling: during all the years since Alan Hathway had given me that first piece of advice—“Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page”—I had never forgotten it; it was engraved in my mind. There would be no turning every page here.

But what pages to turn?

I get a sick feeling in my stomach even now as I remember how long it took to answer that question. I started by looking through the library’s “Finding Aids,” a version of a catalogue, in black looseleaf notebooks, which listed the titles of the file folders in each box. Just for Johnson’s “House of Representatives Papers,” the general files from his eleven years in that body, the time before he became a senator and then President, there were three hundred and forty-nine boxes. And those weren’t the only boxes that contained letters, memoranda, reports, speech drafts, etc., that dealt with this period. There were, for example, the LBJA files, which included documents that Johnson’s staff had, at various times, shifted from the general “House Papers” and put into other groupings—the library calls them “collections”—such as the “Selected Names” files, which contained correspondence and other material with “close associates.” At least it wouldn’t be me alone turning the pages. Working in the Reading Room with me would be Ina, whose thoroughness and perceptivity in doing research I had learned to trust.

The way things worked, you’d fill out a slip for the boxes you wanted, and in an hour or so an archivist would arrive in the Reading Room wheeling a cart with the boxes on it, and put them on a cart next to your desk, each one landing with an impressively, and depressingly, heavy thud. There was room on the cart for only fifteen boxes, and I always requested more than fifteen, so that when I returned a box and a gap appeared on my cart it would be quickly filled.

We requested a lot of boxes, looking through a lot of file folders that, from their description in the “Finding Aids,” one would assume contained nothing of use to me—and the wisdom of Alan’s advice was proved to me again and again. Someday, I hope to be able to leave behind me a record of at least a few of the scores and scores of times that that happened, some of which may be of interest, at any rate to fellow-historians; for now, I’ll give just one example. I had decided that among the boxes in which I would at least glance at every piece of paper would be the ones in Johnson’s general “House Papers” that contained the files from his first years in Congress, since I wanted to be able to paint a picture of what he had been like as a young legislator. And as I was doing this—reading or at least glancing at every letter and memo, turning every page—I began to get a feeling: something in those early years had changed.

For some time after Johnson’s arrival in Congress, in May, 1937, his letters to committee chairmen and other senior congressmen had been in a tone befitting a new congressman with no power—the tone of a junior beseeching a favor from a senior, or asking, perhaps, for a few minutes of his time. But there were also letters and memos in the same boxes from senior congressmen in which they were doing the beseeching, asking for a few minutes of his time. What was the reason for the change? Was there a particular time at which it had occurred?

Going back over my notes, I put them in chronological order, and when I did it was easy to see that there had indeed been such a time: a single month, October, 1940. Before that month, Lyndon Johnson had been invariably, in his correspondence, the junior to the senior. After that month—and, it became clearer and clearer as I put more and more documents into order, after a single date, November 5, 1940, Election Day—the tone was frequently the opposite. And it wasn’t just with powerful congressmen. After that date, Johnson’s files also contained letters written to him by mid-level congressmen, and by other congressmen as junior as he, in a supplicating tone, whereas there had been no such letters—not a single one that I could find—before that date. Obviously, the change had had something to do with the election. But what?

At that time, I was constantly flying back and forth between Austin and Washington. Papers don’t die; people do, and I was giving first priority to interviewing the men and women who, during the nineteen-thirties, had been members of a circle of New Deal insiders to which the young congressman from Texas had been admitted. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

And read The Path to Power. You’ll be glad you did.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2019 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Books, Politics, Writing

True crime and dysfunctional personalities

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This is the beginning of the introduction to The Best American Crime Reporting 2008. See if it reminds you of anyone.

A SMALL PROPORTION of human beings—perhaps 1 percent of any given population—is different from the rest of us in ways that wreak havoc on the rest of us.

The cardinal traits of this bunch include superficiality; impulsiveness; self-aggrandizement to the point of delusion; callousness; and, when it suits, outright cruelty. Truth and principle don’t intrude upon the world of the disruptors. When they don’t lapse into tell-tale glibness, the more socially adroit among them come across as charming, sometimes overwhelmingly charismatic.

They project a preternatural calm that isn’t an act. Their resting pulse rate tends to be low, they don’t sweat readily—literally and figuratively—nor do they react strongly to pain and fear.

Because of their eerily quiet nervous system, they don’t learn readily from experience.

If anyone can fool the polygraph, they can.

Intellectually, they understand the necessity for rules and regulations, but only for others. They are exempt from all that nonsense because they are special.

The smarter ones among them eschew violence. Not because they abhor bloodletting, but because they realize violence is usually a counterproductive strategy. Some of the cleverest among them run successful Ponzi schemes or engage in hugely profitable insider securities trading. Others rise to the boards of corporations where they coordinate felonies of a subtler nature.

The most ambitious and, arguably, the most dangerous among them fix their eyes on the Oscar of amorality known as political power. Chameleons adroit at tailoring their behavior to the needs of others, they often win elections. Sometimes they simply take by force. In either event, when one of them runs a country, things really get ugly.

The stupid ones, on the other hand, opt for offenses that range from petty to horrific and rarely pan out. They’re more likely to end up behind bars.

The disruptors don’t comprise the majority of incarcerated criminals. That distinction belongs mostly to people who make poor choices due to bad habits.

When the nasty 1 percent do commit crimes, the offenses are frequently stunningly audacious, cold-blooded, vicious, and terrifying to the rest of us. Because their actions are beyond our ken, we are sometimes seduced into believing the circular logic of their defense attorneys:

Anyone who could chop up six women has to be insane. Anyone who could poison her own children for insurance money must be crazy.


Insanity—a legal, not a medical concept—simply refers to the inability to understand the essential wrongness of one’s acts. The disruptors understand damn well.

They just don’t care. People who get paid to produce jargon have termed the disruptors psychopaths, sociopaths, possessors of antisocial personalities. For the most part, the labels are interchangeable and emanate from political points of view.

Psychopath implies an internal mental state. Jargonmeisters who favor an emphasis upon individual responsibility go for that one.

Those who prefer to blame an external force, typically that nebulous bogeyman known as “society,” prefer sociopath.

Antisocial personality is a stab at sounding medically diagnostic without giving away one’s bias.

“Bad Guy” would be just as good of a label.

Foolish bad guys commit the crimes that bore us.

High-level bad guys—who view crime as a job—begin their iniquitous careers with misdemeanors, but they learn quickly, zipping up the criminal ladder, because they’re smart but lack an effective stop mechanism.

The most evil among us commit outrages that enthrall, capturing our attention precisely because the internal world that motivates them is so chillingly barren that they might as well have been reared on Pluto.

The most evil among us do the stuff covered by the media genre known as “true crime.”

Back in the good old days, “true crime” meant delightfully lurid and judgmental pulp magazines, frequently marketed with covers depicting scantily-clad women in the grips of slavering brutes. Think Thrilling Detective. A secondary outlet was true-crime books, generally paperback originals, with authorial and editorial emphasis on the bloody and ghastly.

The occasional masterpiece of reporting that ventured beyond ghoulish explication of body fluids and viscera to skillfully explore the events, persona, and sometimes the sick-joke happenstance leading to “senseless” crime, did occasionally elbow its way above the slush pile. (Think the books of the late Jack Olsen.) But that was the exception; this was low-rent territory.

That hasn’t changed, but the vehicle of delivery has. Nowadays, “true crime” most frequently refers to that ironically cruel Grand Guignol mislabeled “reality TV.” And since television is a cheap, quick high for those simply interested in a violence fix, it has achieved rapid dominance. (A fact that might also be explained by the prevalence of amoral, even psychopathic, individuals in what’s known in my hometown, L.A., as “The Industry.” What better way to capture psychopaths than to have their portraits painted by other psychopaths?)

The pulps and softcover originals may not have been refined, but they did possess a certain shameless charm. Sadly, they’ve been wounded grievously, perhaps incurably, by trash TV. But the occasional full-length true-crime print masterpiece continues to surface and thrive for the same reason that high quality crime novels seem impervious to the video onslaught and remain staples of any bestseller list: a great book is able to plumb the depths of human motivation in a way that TV and movies—essentially impressionistic vehicles—cannot.

For the most part, though, the best true-crime writing of today appears on the pages of magazines.

This book showcases the best of the best.

While the ultimate goal of crime-beat reportage—understanding what drives people toward evil—is eons away from being achieved and may in fact never be achieved, the stories in this book will satisfy you intellectually and emotionally because you will be moved to think, feel, puzzle, and sometimes to self-examine.

Every one of these gems is penned by an individual with a strong, distinctive voice, leading to a varied and fascinating lot, stylistically and contextually. And the topics are a deliciously eclectic mix. Sure, there are a few serial lust killer tales. How could there not be? But each has something especially provocative to say about that most terrible of patterns.

At times, the accounts in this book explore crime in the highest of places, reminding us that a geopolitical focus should not obscure the fact that evil deeds emanate from evil people. Particularly fascinating is an account of the strategic planning leading to the capture of Islamo-fascist kingpin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—a tale that is unquestionably one of the finest police procedurals ever written.

The always provocative essayist Malcolm Gladwell has produced a compelling examination of a topic near and dear to my heart: exposure of the confidence game that is criminal profiling. But even if I didn’t agree with him completely, I’d love the piece because it’s witty, incisive, and beautifully written.

The eminent humorist Calvin Trillin abandons any pretense of levity in his fascinating look at the genesis of violence on an isolated Canadian island—one of those obscure locales, struggling for its very existence in the face of a rapidly changing world, that few of us are likely to visit. And even if we did ferry over, we couldn’t capture the place, or the people, the way Trillin does.

Two of the stories deal with life in prison. One ….

Well, it goes on. And the stories in the volume are really first-rate.

It’s just that the first part of the introduction reminded me of someone.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 November 2018 at 5:49 pm

25 Biohacks to Improve Writer Productivity

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Some time back (a decade, in fact) I blogged a post on improving writer productivity. This morning I received an email suggesting that I include this infographic (from here):

Written by LeisureGuy

29 October 2018 at 9:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Health, Writing

Also-rans in the alphabet

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2018 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Evolution, Memes, Writing

Kurt Vonnegut describes the shape of stories

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An interesting little 5-minute extract from a Kurt Vonnegut talk:

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2018 at 8:54 am

Posted in Books, Video, Writing

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