Jacob Weisberg – “The Genius Cabinet” (2008)

November 16, 2008 at 1:20 pm (Life & Politics)

Article written yesterday (Nov. 15th) for Slate magazine…

Why the president-elect should surround himself with brilliant—albeit prickly, semi-autistic, and egomaniacal—thinkers.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Barack Obama should pick the smartest people he can find for his Cabinet.
Brilliance has sometimes been a criterion in presidential appointments, of course, but seldom the major one. It usually takes a back seat to rewarding friends and backers, playing congressional politics, seeking diversity and appeasing industry and interest groups. Presidents also feel obliged to avoid too many retreads and place a high premium on personal loyalty.
Obama can’t avoid such considerations, of course. He needs to cultivate his congressional relationships, avoid alienating allies where possible, and rely on people he trusts. President No Drama doesn’t want a Cabinet full of undisciplined prima donnas. But it makes sense for Obama to give greater weight to intellectual acumen and subject-specific knowledge than his recent predecessors have, both because of the depth of the problems he faces and because of his own style as a thinker and a decision-maker. Bush, whose ego was threatened by any outburst of excellence in his vicinity, politicized all policymaking and centralized it in the White House. Obama, happily, has the opposite tendencies. He is intellectually confident, enjoys engaging with ideas, and inclines to pragmatism rather than partisanship. He can handle a Lincolnesque “Team of Rivals” or a FDR-style brain trust. And he’s going to need one.
The issue starts at the Treasury Department, where the best choice would be former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Summers is the outstanding international economist of his generation, someone whose brilliance is immediately evident in any conversation. I happened to run into him at a dinner in New York a couple of days after Lehman Bros. was allowed to collapse. Summers analyzed the situation, which he said had suddenly become far more dangerous, with a clarity I haven’t heard from anyone else since. He explained that it was simultaneously a crisis of liquidity, solvency, and confidence and that the government would ultimately have to inject capital into financial institutions and not just buy up distressed assets. It took Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson another three weeks, a defeat in Congress, and a jump-start from Gordon Brown to find his way to a similar conclusion.
Summers can also be arrogant and politically incorrect. He sometimes does a poor job hiding his contempt for lesser intellects and loves to play the intellectual provocateur. Socially, he can be a bit autistic. But these are the defects of a superior mind, and they are a small price to pay for getting the person most likely to maximize our chances of avoiding a full-scale global depression. To say that Summers is the best person for the job of treasury secretary is no knock on others frequently mentioned, including New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, both of whom are highly qualified. But if chosen, the first thing either of them would do is call Summers for advice.
It’s a similar story at the State Department, where the Great Mentioner has dropped a number of plausible names, including those of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Either would be a good choice, if it didn’t mean passing over the person they both get their best foreign policy advice from, Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke dominates the field like no one else on the Democratic side. He has a quick and supple mind, understands all the issues, knows the leaders, and has a proven record as a diplomat and peacemaker. At Dayton, Holbrooke single-handedly ended the war in Bosnia by sheer force of personality.
Holbrooke has some personal defects, too. He is legendary for his relentless ambition and self-promotion. To say he rubs some people the wrong way puts the proposition mildly—he’s a handful. He also backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. But as with Summers, Holbrooke’s flaws hardly rate in the context of the urgent need to rebuild relationships, manage complex security threats, and develop a tough-minded liberal vision of American’s role in the world. The president-elect should pick Holbrooke simply because he’s the best available player at a hinge moment in history.
The genius principle should also be applied to the lesser agencies, where many of the names being trotted out have a dreary, box-checking quality. Obama says transitioning to renewable sources of energy is his second-highest priority after saving the economy. So why not talk the brilliant, socially awkward Al Gore into taking the job of Energy Secretary? Following the anonymous Samuel W. Bodman might seem like demotion for the former vice president and Nobel Prize winner, but it would give Gore a chance to accomplish his life’s mission by addressing climate change (and make up for his neglect of the issue when he was vice president). If the president wants a first-class legal thinker to help him clean up the Justice Department, he can’t go wrong with his old Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, his University of Chicago colleague Cass Sunstein, or Stanford law professor Kathleen Sullivan. For Education, he might choose Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City school system. Klein has not gone through life making friends, but he has shown himself an unusually shrewd and committed thinker about educational management and reform. Better yet, what about getting Bill Gates to tackle the problem?
Among the intangible tasks Obama faces is vanquishing the anti-intellectualism of the past eight years, the prejudice that serious policy discussion is too effete for the Cabinet Room or the Oval Office. If he really wants to bring change to Washington, the new president should start by putting a sign in his window: No hacks.

Jacob Weisberg

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Tom Jones – “24 Hours” (2008)

November 16, 2008 at 12:05 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Not sure who wrote this article but it was re-posted by TishaTOMAddict for TomJones.com (Sept. ’08) from the Female First website… 

Tom Jones is set to make a comeback with what could be the defining album of his career; 24 Hours. Intimate, personal, moving and full of fire this is the first time Tom has had a major hand in the songwriting – and the result is a work of revelation from one of the biggest-selling artists of all time.
“It’s all very well just singing songs,” says Tom, “but for this record I really wanted to get properly personal. I’ve been getting reflective recently, looking over my journey through life, and I wanted to get that down on song. This time I wanted to make something that was all about me, my stories, my life. In other words, you listen to this album and you get the real me.” 
24 Hours was recorded in Los Angeles throughout last year, and was produced in the main by Future Cut, the drum ‘n’ bass outfit who have previously worked with Lily Allen, Dizzee Rascal, Estelle and Kate Nash. While the production references the impassioned cinematic classics of his early career mixed with a current cross-genre template, the performances deliver the unique power and iconic sound of Jones’ voice as he sings the tale of a mature man who has lived it large and full. The collection includes the sophisticated soul of first single ‘If He Should Ever Leave You’, the shirt button-popping cover of the Tommy James and the Shondells classic ‘I’m Alive’, the cool Latin beats of ‘Style and Rhythm’, the raw, contemporary statement that is ‘Feels Like Music’ and the pop genius of ‘Give A Little Love’. 
However 24 Hours is much deeper than the upbeat pop blasts described above. One song that perfectly encapsulates the intimate tone of so much of this record is ‘The Road’, a wonderfully impassioned ballad about man’s one true love, Tom’s voice filling every note until it comes close to cracking. Meanwhile Tom’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Hitter’ is remarkable, the sad tale of a boxer on his last legs, Tom conveying the man’s broken resolve with a sense of drama redolent of Richard Burton at his Shakespearean best. 
This air of reflection continues with perhaps the album’s pivotal moment, a song called ‘Seasons’ in which he confronts his past with an unflinching eye. “There’s a reason for passing time,” he sings. “These are the seasons of my life.” And the sense that this is an historic Tom Jones album, one that brings the true substance, grit, strength and age of the man is best exemplified by the title track itself; a spine-tingling gaze into the abyss, delivered with sublime gravitas. 
Tom Jones’ influence is all around us today in the likes of Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Duffy and more, and his voice is one of the great soul instruments. At the age of 68, and a recently anointed knight of the realm, Sir Tom Jones is still firing on all cylinders, still a huge music fan, still a genuinely great artist. 24 Hours is about to send him back up to the top of the charts, and bears witness to the incredible creative rebirth that comes as an artist looks back over their life and discovers through the ageing process what it means to be alive.
Or, in his own more humble words, “I’m just opening up shop again. Let’s see who comes in through the door. “

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“The Onion Movie” (2008)

November 16, 2008 at 9:35 am (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

Written June 22, 2008… 

I am very surprised by the mostly poor reviews this movie is getting. I had never heard of it until I went to my friends’ house last night and watched it. The three of us were laughing out loud almost from beginning to end. The skits are hilarious. And the movie is basically a highly scathing indictment of idiotic American culture and vapid tabloid “journalism.” Anyhow, don’t believe the poor reviews. This movie is definitely worth owning. Yes, some of the humor is a bit obvious at times, but that doesn’t make it any less funny. Don’t miss it.

Jay Mucci

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Charles Bukowski – “death wants more death”

November 16, 2008 at 8:59 am (Charles Bukowski, Poetry & Literature)

death wants more death, and its webs are full:
I remember my father’s garage, how child-like
I would brush the corpses of flies
from the windows they thought were escape-
their sticky, ugly, vibrant bodies
shouting like dumb crazy dogs against the glass
only to spin and flit
in that second larger than hell or heaven
onto the edge of the ledge,
and then the spider from his dank hole
nervous and exposed
the puff of body swelling
hanging there
not really quite knowing,
and then knowing-
something sending it down its string,
the wet web,
toward the weak shield of buzzing,
the pulsing;
a last desperate moving hair-leg
there against the glass
there alive in the sun,
spun in white;
and almost like love:
the closing over,
the first hushed spider-sucking:
filling its sack
upon this thing that lived;
crouching there upon its back
drawing its certain blood
as the world goes by outside
and my temples scream
and I hurl the broom against them:
the spider dull with spider-anger
still thinking of its prey
and waving an amazed broken leg;
the fly very still,
a dirty speck stranded to straw;
I shake the killer loose
and he walks lame and peeved
towards some dark corner
but I intercept his dawdling
his crawling like some broken hero,
and the straws smash his legs
now waving
above his head
and looking
looking for the enemy
and somewhat valiant,
dying without apparent pain
simply crawling backward
piece by piece
leaving nothing there
until at last the red gut sack
its secrets,
and I run child-like
with God’s anger a step behind,
back to simple sunlight,
as the world goes by
with curled smile
if anyone else
saw or sensed my crime.

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Ron Rosenbaum – “The Return of the Doomsday Machine?” (2007)

November 16, 2008 at 8:55 am (Life & Politics)

Written Aug. 31, 2007 for Slate magazine, this article talks about the still-real possibility of nuclear war concerning the United States and Russia, despite the Cold War officially being “over”…

Please don’t count on me to save the world again.

“The nuclear doomsday machine.” It’s a Cold War term that has long seemed obsolete.
And even back then, the “doomsday machine” was regarded as a scary conjectural fiction. Not impossible to create—the physics and mechanics of it were first spelled out by U.S. nuclear scientist Leo Szilard—but never actually created, having a real existence only in such apocalyptic nightmares as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
In Strangelove, the doomsday machine was a Soviet system that automatically detonated some 50 cobalt-jacketed hydrogen bombs pre-positioned around the planet if the doomsday system’s sensors detected a nuclear attack on Russian soil. Thus, even an accidental or (as in Strangelove) an unauthorized U.S. nuclear bomb could set off the doomsday machine bombs, releasing enough deadly cobalt fallout to make the Earth uninhabitable for the human species for 93 years. No human hand could stop the fully automated apocalypse.
An extreme fantasy, yes. But according to a new book called “Doomsday Men” and several papers on the subject by U.S. analysts, it may not have been merely a fantasy. According to these accounts, the Soviets built and activated a variation of a doomsday machine in the mid-’80s. And there is no evidence Putin’s Russia has deactivated the system.
Instead, something was reactivated in Russia last week. I’m referring to the ominous announcement—given insufficient attention by most U.S. media (the Economist made it the opening of a lead editorial on Putin’s Russia)—by Vladimir Putin that Russia has resumed regular “strategic flights” of nuclear bombers. (They may or may not be carrying nuclear bombs, but you can practically hear Putin’s smirking tone as he says, “Our [nuclear bomber] pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start a new life.”)
These twin developments raise a troubling question: What are the United States’ and Russia’s current nuclear policies with regard to how and when they will respond to a perceived nuclear attack? In most accounts, once the president or Russian premier receives radar warning of an attack, they have less than 15 minutes to decide whether the warning is valid. The pressure is on to “use it or lose it”—launch our missiles before they can be destroyed in their silos. Pressure that makes the wrong decision more likely. Pressure that makes accidental nuclear war a real possibility.
Once you start to poke into this matter, you discover a disturbing level of uncertainty, which leads me to believe we should be demanding that the United States and Russia define and defend their nuclear postures. Bush and Putin should be compelled to tell us just what “failsafe” provisions are installed on their respective nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines—what the current provisions against warning malfunctions are and what kinds of controls there are over the ability of lone madman nuclear bombers to bring on the unhappy end of history.
As for the former Soviet Union, the possible existence of a version of a doomsday machine is both relevant and disturbing.
In the Strangelove film, the Soviet ambassador tells the president and generals in the U.S. war room that the device was designed to deter a surprise attack, the kind of attack that might otherwise prevent retaliation by “decapitating” the Soviet command structure. The automated system would insure massive world-destroying retaliation even if the entire Soviet leadership were wiped out—or had second thoughts. As a result, some referred to it as the “dead hand” doomsday device.
It is Dr. Strangelove himself, the madman U.S. nuclear strategist played by Peter Sellers, who detects the flaw in this plan. After being apprised of the system’s existence by the Soviet ambassador, and the likelihood of its being triggered by a U.S. bomber on an unauthorized mission to nuke its Soviet target, Dr. Strangelove exclaims:

Yes, but the … whole point of the doomsday machine … is lost … if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?

In other words, a doomsday machine kept secret is no good for deterrence, only for retaliation by extinction.
Did the Soviets actually design a variation on a doomsday device and not tell us about it? And could an accidental or terrorist nuclear attack on Putin’s Russia (by Chechens, for instance) trigger an antiquated automated dead-hand system and launch missiles capable of killing tens, maybe hundreds, of millions at unknown targets that might include the United States?
Up until Aug. 10 of this year, I would have thought these questions were best consigned to the realm of apocalyptic film fantasy. But on that day I came upon a startling essay in the London Times Literary Supplement. It was a review (titled “Deadly Devices”) of a book recently published in the United Kingdom: “Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon” by nuclear-age historian P.D. Smith of University College London. (It will be out in the United States in December.)
The TLS reviewer, Christopher Coker (who is on the faculty of the London School of Economics), asserted that the book demonstrates that “only after the Berlin Wall had been breached and … the Cold War began to thaw did military analysts realize the Russians had actually built a version of the [doomsday] device. The details of this top-secret Soviet system were first revealed in 1993 by Bruce G. Blair, a former American ICBM launch control officer, now one of the country’s foremost experts on Russian arms. Fearing that a sneak attack by American submarine-launched missiles might take Moscow out in 13 minutes, the Soviet leadership had authorized the construction of an automated communication network, reinforced to withstand a nuclear strike. At its heart was a computer system similar to the one in Dr. Strangelove. Its code name was Perimetr. It went fully operational in January 1985. It is still in place.”
Wait a minute. Still in place?! How is this possible?
In the endnotes of Smith’s book (which turns out to be an illuminating portrait of the Doomsday weapon concept and its cultural implications), I found a reference to a further description of the Perimetr system in a 2003 Washington Post op-ed by Bruce G. Blair, the former Minuteman ICBM launch control officer who first revealed the existence of the program. (When he wrote the op-ed, he was a Brookings fellow; he is now head of the World Security Institute in Washington, a liberal think tank.)
The op-ed offers a far more detailed and chilling picture of Perimetr than the brief mention devoted to it in the book and review:

Die-hard [U.S.] nuclear war planners actually have their eyes on targets in Russia and China, including missile silos and leadership bunkers. For these planners, the Cold War never ended. Their top two candidates [i.e., targets] in Russia are located inside the Yamantau and Kosvinsky mountains in the central and southern Urals.

Both were huge construction projects begun in the late 1970s, when U.S. nuclear firepower took special aim at the Communist Party’s leadership complex. Fearing a decapitating strike, the Soviets sent tens of thousands of workers to these remote sites, where U.S. spy satellites spotted them still toiling away in the late 1990s.

Blair sources his information on these command bunkers to “diagrams and notes given to me in the late 1990s by SAC [Strategic Air Command] senior officers,” men in charge of targeting our missile and bomber forces.
From them, he paints a Strangelovian picture:

The Yamantau command center is inside a rock quartz mountain, about 3,000 feet straight down from the summit. It is a wartime relocation facility for the top Russian political leadership. It is more a shelter than a command post, because the facility’s communications links are relatively fragile. As it turned out, the quartz interferes with radio signals broadcast from inside the mountain.

A quartz nuclear-war mountain! Something phantasmal about it, like a satanic big rock candy mountain. But the quartz mountain melts in comparison with the Perimetr dead-hand system at Kosvinsky.
“Kosvinsky,” Blair tells us, “is regarded by U.S. targeteers as the crown jewel of the Russian wartime nuclear command system, because it can communicate through the granite mountain to far-flung Russian strategic forces using very-low-frequency (VLF) radio signals that can burn through a nuclear war environment. The facility is the critical link to Russia’s ‘dead hand’ communications network, designed to ensure semi-automatic retaliation to a decapitating strike.”
Of course, there’s a world of difference between a “semi-automatic” doomsday device and the totally automatic—beyond human control—doomsday device in Strangelove, something that Blair is careful to note. The Soviet facility does require a human hand for the final fatal push of the button. But Blair believes that the human brain behind that hand has not been programmed to suddenly turn peacenik. And the details of the device are far from reassuring.
“This doomsday apparatus, which became operational in 1984, during the height of the Reagan-era nuclear tensions, is an amazing feat of creative engineering.” According to Blair, if Perimetr senses a nuclear explosion in Russian territory and then receives no communication from Moscow, it will assume the incapacity of human leadership in Moscow or elsewhere, and will then grant a single human being deep within the Kosvinsky mountains the authority and capability to launch the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal.
“Kosvinsky came online recently,” Blair wrote in 2003, “which could be one explanation for U.S. interest in a new nuclear bunker buster.”
Blair also suggested that the Bush administration’s recurrent interest in funding the development of nuclear “bunker buster” bombs was at least in some respects designed to give them the capacity to destroy the dead-hand device buried deep in a Kosvinsky bunker, an argument that, if true, would suggest the dead-hand doomsday device was still thought to be operational. And perhaps you’ve heard something about its deactivation, but I haven’t found any evidence of it.
Blair, who has written previously on the extremely rickety structure of presidential nuclear decision-making, believes that the current U.S. contingency plan is itself a “doomsday strategy”:

President Bush’s nuclear guidance doubtless instructs the Pentagon to plan the destruction of Yamantau and Kosvinsky, along with 2,000 other targets in Russia and hundreds more in China. But such targeting requires very high-yield weapons, typically 10 to 100 times more destructive than the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. We are talking about a doomsday plan in which Yamantau and Kosvinsky are struck as part of an all-out nuclear exchange that would kill hundreds of millions of people.

There’s some ambiguity in Blair’s use of “doubtless”: Does it imply that Bush’s “nuclear guidance” includes only one all-out, 2,000-target response, or “merely” the capability of it? But shouldn’t we know at least that in a genuinely “doubtless” way?
Blair’s primary recent concern is not the prospect of a deliberate, ideological, Cold War-type nuclear war, but accidental war caused by the continued deadly presence of all-too-easily triggered Cold War arsenals. In four fascinating papers on the subject (all available online, and well worth reading), Blair describes the “launch on warning” bias built into our nuclear command structure, and foresees the possibility of a doomsday that results from our attempt to pre-empt their doomsday plan, all of which might be touched off by accident, mistake, or malfunction on either side.
Blair is not a wild-eyed Cassandra raising unsupported suspicions. Colleagues in his field regard him as a serious and cautious scholar raising real questions. Stephen M. Meyer, an expert on the Russian military at MIT, told the Times that Blair “requires of himself a much higher standard of evidence than many people in the intelligence community.”
Blair’s troubling papers, along with his book “The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War,” serve as a reminder that the illogic, irrationalities, and vulnerability to catastrophic error of our Cold War nuclear war command and control mechanisms were never resolved or fixed, just forgotten when the Cold War ended. His analysis suggests that during the Cold War, we may have escaped an accidental nuclear war by luck rather than policy.
It was Blair who pointed out, in congressional testimony, another continuing problem with nuclear launch posture, this one involving the much-ballyhooed “de-targeting”—a process by which the United States and the former Soviet Union purportedly reduced the risk of accidental nuclear war by insuring that their missiles were—after the fall of the Soviet Union—not still targeted at each other. Blair told Congress that, especially on the Russian side, detargeting was only “cosmetic and symbolic,” and easily reversible, implemented in name only.
What drove Blair? I was particularly fascinated by one of Blair’s other papers, his more personal “Nuclear Recollections,”  which might have been called “Memories of a Minuteman Missile Crewman,” and describes his period of service in a missile silo at the Malmstrom, Mont., Air Force Base, hundreds of feet beneath the Great Plains.
Especially because I’d been there! Down in one of those silos, under the bleak landscape of the Great Plains (this one in Grand Forks, N.D.), interviewing missile commanders like Blair (for a Harper’s story), only a few years after Blair resumed life aboveground and retired.
In the course of talking to Minuteman commanders down in their underground launch capsules, I’d glimpsed what they might be called upon to do. They had the ability to launch from their underground pods up to 50 missiles able to kill 200,000 or 300,000 people each. You do the math.
They certainly had, and it showed beneath their black-humored jokes about coming above ground after a nuclear war and finding “only huge mutant bunny rabbits alive.”
They were, thank God, not automatons. As Blair points out, their training system was designed to turn them into automatic button pushers, but the ones I spoke to retained a sharp sense of skeptical individuality. About the gravity of their “mission”: killing that many people. And about the sketchy mechanics of it.
One crew member even disclosed to me a flaw in the “command and control” “permissive action” system that was supposed to prevent a madman missile commander from launching his “birds” and starting an apocalyptic nuclear war all by himself. The flaw: the system’s susceptibility to the “spoon and string” improvisation.
So much focus has been placed—in film, fiction, and nonfiction—on our supposedly “failsafe” barrier to a lone-madman launch. We’d been told that to launch a missile, two keys must be inserted simultaneously into their slots by two separate launch officers, and that the slots for the keys were located at a sufficient distance from each other that one madman couldn’t, say, shoot the other crewman and then use both his arms to twist both the keys simultaneously.
But the missile crewmen I talked to told me they’d figured out a way to defeat that impediment with a spoon and a string. Not that they were planning to do it, but that they knew someone could do it.
You just shoot the other guy and “rig up a thing where you tie a string to one end of a spoon,” he told me, “and tie the other end to the guy’s key. Then you can sit in your chair and twist your key with one hand while you yank on the spoon with the other hand to twist the other key over.”
American ingenuity! Can’t beat it for finding a new way to end the world.
I always wondered if I should follow up on what happened after I published this information. (In a piece reprinted in “The Secret Parts of Fortune,” I assumed the flaw had been fixed somehow, and have long credited myself with saving the world. Kidding!)
I actually turned down an invitation to lecture about such matters from the Air War College in Alabama (because of my peacenik inclinations at the time), and assumed that if they read the article, they must have taken action to save the world from a lone madman with a spoon and string, to whom I’d in effect given instructions for an unauthorized missile launch that could destroy the world. (Hmmm, maybe I’d come close to destroying the world, rather than saving it. Sorry about that.)
But it’s clear from Bruce Blair’s “Nuclear Recollections” that the experience of holding the lives of tens of millions in his hands when he held those keys left a profound mark on him. I know that when the missile crewmen I was interviewing let me hold the keys, even twist them into the (deactivated) locks, that it had a profound effect on me. The keys to Kingdom Come!
And while I may have abandoned my responsibility for too long, I was grateful that Bruce G. Blair was still on the case, raising the right questions. In fact, he’s devoted his subsequent life to raising the alarm about our flawed nuclear alarm and launch system, using what an actual missile commander learned about its dysfunctions and biases.
Blair’s work continues and I think it’s urgent, now that Putin’s “nuclear bombers” are flying again, that Congress re-examine the whole issue and take seriously Blair’s warnings about the variations of doomsday we still face.
Pay attention to Blair. You can’t count on me to save the world again.

Ron Rosenbaum

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