Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Books (page 1 of 17)

The Big Short in 3 quotes


1. “What needs to be remembered here,” he wrote the next day, after he’d done [the trade], “is that this is $100 million. That’s an insane amount of money. And it just gets thrown around like it’s three digits instead of nine.”


2. In retrospect, their ignorance seems incredible—but, then, an entire financial system was premised on their not knowing, and paying them for this talent.


3. The ability of Wall Street traders to see themselves in their success and their management in their failure would later be echoed, when their firms, which disdained the need for government regulation in good times, insisted on being rescued by government in bad times. Success was individual achievement; failure was a social problem.


— Michael Lewis, The Big Short


See also: “Move along, nothing to see here.”

Creativity is the long way

Reading Brene Brown’s Rising Strong, this quote surprised me:

Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration—it is how we fold our experiences into our being.

Fully agree. But I expected the first sentence to end with wisdom, not practice. Probably because my bias, whether I like it or not, is toward matters of the head. This is a blessing that can become a curse when I fail to externalize ideas and knowledge through some kind of outward expression.

It is counterintuitive that sending knowledge from the head to the heart is not the direct route it appears. To become truly meaningful, it must take the long way. Perhaps that’s why creativity is so challenging yet so rewarding.

Then again, there’s the Ron Swanson perspective:

And John Tyler too

When I realized I had yet to read a presidential biography this year, I decided to tackle one that was more obscure and therefore more likely to be shorter. For some reason, tenth president John Tyler came to mind.

I opted for John Tyler by Gary May, part of the American Presidents series of short books. I try to avoid that series because all the books are intentionally short—this one was 150 pages—and I want to feel like I’ve earned (i.e. suffered through enough pages of) every biography, you know? But I decided to cut myself some slack on this one, and I’m now 18 presidents down with 26 to go.

Tyler Who?

John Tyler proved more interesting than I expected. All I knew of him, besides “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was that he was the first president to ascend to the office due to his predecessor’s death (pour one out for William Henry “31 Days in Office” Harrison) and that he was a slaveholder who eventually served in the Confederacy.

He was also the youngest president (at 51) to take the oath at the time, had 15 kids between two wives (and two of his grandsons are still alive), was the first president to get married while in office, and the first to decline to seek a second term.

He also facilitated the annexation of Texas, which helped cause the Civil War. So there’s that.

One of the more intriguing episodes was when he resigned from U.S. Senate in 1836. He did it in protest of a resolution to expunge the censure of Andrew Jackson, which he’d earned from his conduct related to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Though a longtime Democrat, Tyler was even more strongly for states rights and therefore against Jackson’s despotism and expansion of executive power. So much so that he preferred resignation over acquiescence to federal overreach.

This also meant he was often politically homeless. Take a look at his political party affiliation history:

  • Democratic-Republican (1811–1828)
  • Democratic (1828–1834)
  • Whig (1834–1841)
  • None (1841–1844)
  • Democratic-Republican (1844)
  • None (1844–1862)

Notice he wasn’t affiliated with any party during his 1841-1844 presidential term. That’s because after vetoing several Whig bills (his own party, mind you) for being unconstitutional, which triggered mass resignations from his own cabinet (orchestrated by ol’ Henry Clay), the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. He spent the rest of his administration a free agent, exerting the little influence he had on his two primary presidential passions: annexing Texas and vetoing as many bills as possible.

Tyler’s story ended just as the country’s took a dark turn. In February 1861 he was sent as a private citizen to the Peace Conference of 1861, a last-ditch effort I’d never heard of to negotiate a compromise over slavery. It failed, obviously, but it wasn’t long before Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session began, thus denying him the opportunity of living to be the only U.S. president to formally give the finger to his erstwhile nation.

(Is that my Yankee showing?)

As a committed one-termer with a handful of goals (Texas and vetoes), Tyler reminds me of his presidential successor, James Polk, who got to fight the war with Mexico that Tyler’s backroom deal-making instigated. And this book fills in yet another gap in this era of forgotten presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. “And Tyler too” is about right.

Book Notes & Quotes: John Tyler by Gary May

  • At 51 he was the youngest president to take the oath at the time
  • Tyler’s father was Virginia governor and friend of Jefferson during Revolution
  • Attended College of William & Mary, then law school by 19 and Virginia House of Delegates in 1811
  • In spring 1813 his father died, he married Letitia, and joined militia but didn’t see action
  • Elected to Congress in 1816 at 26
  • Clay’s “American System” inspired by dismal performance in War of 1812, but states rights advocate Tyler voted against
  • Appointed to committee investigating Second Bank of the United States role in 1818’s “bank mania” of speculation and corruption; report was critical but bank survived
  • Voted against Missouri Compromise of 1820, which pushed him to not seek re-election
  • Law and farming bored him, so he won spot in Virginia legislature at 33, then became Virginia governor at 35
  • Virginia senator John Randolph lost favor, so Tyler selected for Senate in 1827
  • Hated John Quincy Adams and feared Andrew Jackson; in 1824 went Adams and 1828 Jackson
  • Went against Jackson’s despotism in nullification crisis and Bank controversy, despite supporting states rights
  • Resigned from Senate in 1836 in protest of resolution to expunge censure of Jackson’s behavior in Bank controversy
  • Despised the word “national” and what it represented
  • Whigs in 1840 had no official platform so as not to tear apart fragile coalition
  • Clay clashed with Harrison assuming he’d be subservient to Congress
  • Tyler brought 8 kids to White House, had son as secretary
  • Wife Letitia had stroke in 1839 and was invalid; daughter in law and actress Priscilla Cooper acted as First Lady
  • Clay, angling for 1844, put Third Bank of United States up for vote but Tyler vetoed
  • Whig activist Philip Hone called Tyler’s message “the quintessence of twaddle”
  • Second veto of bank triggered Cabinet resignations (orchestrated by Clay) save Daniel Webster; Clay assumed Tyler would resign but instead he found independent Whigs to serve
  • Whigs expelled Tyler from party after 1841 special session
  • Letitia died in 1842
  • Skirmish with Britain in 1830s at Maine/New Brunswick border dispute led to Webster-Ashburton treaty, border resolutions, and slave trade compromises
  • Sent first envoy to China to open for U.S. trade
  • Ardent expansionist who wanted to annex Texas, but slavery held it up
  • In February 1844 was cruising Potomac on new steam-powered USS Princeton when “Peacemaker” cannon exploded; Tyler and fiancée Julia below but casualties and carnage above, including Julia’s father
  • Calhoun “never happier than when he was philosophizing on behalf of slavery”
  • Antislavery Democratic senator leaked Texas annexation treaty; solely hinges on slavery in election year
  • Created his own Democratic-Republican party to act as spoiler; promised to bow out if assured by Polk that Texas would be annexed
  • Married Julia in June 1844 in secret; first presidential wedding in office; 30 years older than her
  • Funds to improve White House denied by Congress, so Julia’s mother contributed
  • First president to decline to seek second term
  • Signed Texas annexation resolution on March 1
  • Had 15 kids between two wives
  • 1848 election split by Free Soil Party nominee Van Buren, and combined with Mexican war spoils states led to Compromise of 1850, which Tyler supported with Clay
  • Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and attempt at arming slaves tilted Tyler toward secession
  • Even in early 1861 was looking for ways to prevent disunion: participated in “peace convention” in DC but turned when proposed amendment would limit slavery and when Lincoln signaled war
  • Oversaw transfer of Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, and served in Confederate House of Representatives briefly before death in January 1861
  • Asserted presidential power in era when Congress tried to weaken it; used veto vigorously, showed power even without congressional support or personal charisma
  • Improved Britain/American relations through Webster-Ashburton treaty, opened relations with China through Treaty of Wanghia, annexed Texas
  • Helped create “imperial presidency” through secret service contingency funds, guarding certain records, dispatching forces
  • Belief he was heir to Virginian presidents dynasty led to reckless pursuit of Texas, which led to Civil War

Today in audiobook opinions

“Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading?”

Neurologically, no, but it still counts as reading a book, and is often better than merely reading one.

“Portrait of the Voice in My Head”

Great profile of “golden-throated” audiobook narrator Grover Gardner and the booming audiobook industry:

Gardner’s advice to aspiring narrators is to take a digital recorder and a book, sit in a quiet room, and read aloud for an hour without stopping. “Then tell me if you still want to do it. The answer is often ‘no,’ ” he says. “If you had to break down all the components of what goes into quality audiobook narration, it’s staggering. All the things you’re juggling in your head, in the body, in your throat and your voice.

I never recognize audiobook narrators, but I always respect their art.

Summer assignment: visit your local library

Despite their great intentions, those “required reading” lists of books make me cringe. Required reading usually feels like work, whether they’re from a friend, a professor, or a stranger on the internet. Pleasure reading should be based on freedom and empowerment and whim, not compulsion. Use those lists as a resource, sure, but don’t feel obliged to them.

Austin Kleon gets it right by assigning not a specific book, but a way to get one:

  1. Visit your local library and apply for a library card. (Or pay your fines and renew.)
  2. Ask a librarian for a tour of the library building, the online catalog, and the digital holdings. Ask the librarian to show you how to put materials on hold, how to request materials for purchase, and how to use interlibrary loan.
  3. Check out at least one item. (So you have to return.)

My #4: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re not bothering librarians by doing so. It’s why we’re there!

I can’t tell you how beneficial these would be to you and your kids, and how happy this would make your librarians. Summer is the perfect time too; most libraries have summer reading programs for kids and adults, with prizes and fun activities.

Happy reading!

Atlas of a Lost World

We think of ourselves as different from other animals. We extol our own tool use, congratulate our sentience, but our needs are the same. We are creatures on a planet looking for a way ahead. Why do we like vistas? Why are pullouts drawn on the sides of highways, signs with arrows showing where to stand for the best view? The love for the panorama comes from memory, the earliest form of cartography, a sense of location. Little feels better than knowing where you are, and having a reason to be there.

— from Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs, a meaty and winding travelogue around North America investigating notable Pleistocene spots, like the Bering land bridge in Alaska and the woolly mammoth remains in Clovis, New Mexico.

I recently realized how fascinated I am with prehistoric people and their times: What was life like back then? How similar were Ice Age humans to us? Childs goes a long way in finding out, hiking through tundra and camping out in a polar vortex and trudging through Floridian swamps. Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, mythology, and philosophy all come into play.

“Science is useful,” he writes. “It fills in the blanks with precision, but history is ultimately more about stories and the unfolding of human whims.”

The story of a star

This was a star that had left behind the fiery extravagances of its youth, had raced through the violets and blues and greens of the spectrum in a few fleeting billions of years, and now had settled down to a peaceful maturity of unimaginable length. All that had gone before was not a thousandth of what was yet to come; the story of this star had barely begun.

― Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

I wish I’d read Clarke’s book before rewatching Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation (in 70mm at the Music Box in Chicago). It would have filled in a lot of context for the famously opaque film. For understanding how the film got made I highly recommend Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.

Do librarians read all day? Should we?

Librarians and library staff have been fighting the incorrect stereotype (among many others) that their jobs consist of reading all day long. And while I still have programs to plan, books to weed, research questions to respond to, and other things to worry about, I wonder if maybe, just maybe, we took a little time to read on the job and model the behavior we want to see, if we just might see our communities a little better for it.

— Abby Hargreaves, “Do librarians read all day? No, but they should”

I love the spirit behind this, especially for youth librarians seeking to model and encourage positive behavior. But since the whole premise of this article is that patrons assume we’re reading a lot anyway, are PDRs (public displays of reading) the best way to bust this particular myth?

If it were up to me, all librarians would be allowed to do some pleasure reading while on the clock. It directly relates to the essence of the job, even if it doesn’t specifically include readers advisory.

But to “model the behavior we want to see” would require us to read while on public service desks, and I think that’s bad customer service.

If we’re engrossed in or even skimming a book, they will think they are bothering us if they ask a question, which is another very common assumption I would love to destroy.

That said, if you can fit reading in with the other aforementioned responsibilities away from the desk, all the better! It’s a shame some managers would frown upon this. As if looking busy in your cubicle is the only metric for what constitutes good work. I find lunch breaks, pre-bedtime, and audiobooks during my commute enough for me to read 70-80 books per year, but your mileage and busyness may vary.

Perhaps a more structured “read-in” event would be another option: “Read With Your Librarian” or a kind of (not so) silent reading party. People reading in libraries is not a novel concept, but people of all ages intentionally reading their own books together with their neighbors is a photo-op waiting to happen.

Quisling: What’s in a name?

In July 2016 I visited the Norway Resistance Museum in Oslo, which told the story of Norway’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II. A name that kept popping up throughout the museum was Vikdun Quisling, the Norwegian politician who collaborated with Hitler and seized control of Norway’s government during the occupation.

I wanted to know more about the man who put himself in that position. What compelled him? What happened in an occupied country during World War II? And how did his name instantly and internationally become synonymous with “traitor”?

Luckily there’s a book on him: Quisling: A Study in Treachery by Hans Fredrick Dahl. It’s definitely niche history—I had to get one of the few library copies via interlibrary loan—but as a part-Norwegian World War II buff this happened to be right up my alley.

The crux of this story is that Quisling honestly believed he was doing the right thing. Highly intellectual, aloof, and humorless, he dreamt of establishing Universism—his homegrown philosophy combining Lutheranism and science—as the “new world religion”, with Norway as the homeland of the supreme Nordic race. In that respect, along with his anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism, his eventual partnership with Hitler made perfect sense.

Once the Nazis occupied Norway, and its King and legislature had fled London with the other governments-in-exile, Quisling and his National Union party quickly filled the power vacuum, working with their Nazi occupiers to establish a fascistic, one-party authoritarian state.

But being an occupied country that officially was neither at peace nor at war with Germany stymied Quisling’s ambitions for a “new order” in Norway. (The goal of this new order? To stamp out the “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”.) And since Hitler refused to discuss peace terms until the Axis had won the war, Quisling in his quasi-legitimate government was left to tussle with his German commissars from above and the Norwegian resistance movement from below.

Throughout it all, Quisling remained naively optimistic about leading an independent Norway into his utopian future. Even when Germany capitulated and the war was over, he assumed he’d take part in a peaceful transition back to the old Norwegian government. Instead, he was arrested, tried, and executed by firing squad at the Akershus Fortress, which, in a delightful irony, now houses the aforementioned Norway Resistance Museum.

Dahl’s book is admirably thorough, so most people will probably prefer the Wikipedia summary of his life story to a 400-page book elucidating the same. But I’m glad for such an in-depth study of a tragic figure at a crucial historical moment.

(And for the realization that one of the few spots the Quisling name lives on is in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, at the super-cool looking Quisling Clinic, which was founded by Quisling’s cousins.)

Notes & Quotes from the book

  • At military academy Quisling scored highest average examination in 100 years
  • Held high regard for Soviet organizational skills, if critical of Bolshevik policies
  • Skills were more organizational and staff-bound rather than executive and creative
  • Developed theory of Universism, which combined Christianity with modern natural sciences, especially physics
  • Original manuscript over 2,000 pages; final 700-page version from 1920s; dense and ambitious but not good
  • Dreamt of establishing Universism as ‘new world religion’, Norway as homeland of Nordic race; like “a combination of the United Nations and the Catholic Church”
  • Became a scholar of Soviet Union, studied Russian, and was appointed military attaché of Norwegian legation in Petrograd in 1918
  • Present during Terror, and sent back reports that were widely read including by the King, before he was forced home
  • Book about Russia shot him to fame in Norway, and began slide toward fascism; founded movement aimed at overthrowing Marxism, enhancing Nordic race
  • Defense minister of new Agrarian Party, then new National Union (NS) party
  • Little sense of irony, not much humor, crippling shyness, aloof, but highly respected for his mind
  • Knew Norway wouldn’t be able to remain neutral in war due to its strategic significance and low defense spending
  • Urged cooperation between British naval hegemony and German continental ambitions
  • His growing anti-semitism signaled ideological sympathy with Hitler; thanked him for having “saved Europe from Bolshevism and Jewish domination”
  • Thought Hitler was wrong to sign pact with Stalin given how advanced Germany already was, and knew Red Army was weakened by purges so wouldn’t be able to conquer Finland
  • Envisioned Germany would topple Soviet government and reestablish nation-states with German capital
  • Met with Hitler December 1939 while reported Britain to use Norway as transit country to aid Finland; Quisling offered loyalty from his party
  • Preferred neutrality but didn’t think it possible, so would act in Germany’s interest to prevent British establishment
  • Hitler saw value to occupying Norway before Britain could
  • Naval skirmishes between Germany and Britain in April: King and government relocated, but Quisling characterized as fleeing and initiated coup
  • Quisling hoped for legal appointment understanding from King, but King refused to accept man twice beaten at the polls
  • Wide campaign to get rid of Quisling as he sought legitimacy
  • Hitler supportive at first but then in setting up “government commission” put Quisling in reserve; when commission failed Hitler sent Terboven to command Norway occupation
  • Miscalculated public’s feelings and sense of morality
  • Quisling name almost immediately became international byword for traitor
  • Curried Hitler’s favor as they strategized voting in new occupation government; became prime minister due to his warning of Britain
  • Quisling’s “New Order” in Norway stamped out “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”
  • Unresolved whether Norway and Germany were at war or peace; Quisling wanted full NS government to provide legitimacy and eventually got it, though with Reichskommissar
  • Sincerely believed he was doing the right thing for Norway and eventual Nordic dominance
  • Oslo University source of strong anti-NS “Home Front” resistance, along with prominent bishop Berggrav, who had tried to broker peace in Berlin and London
  • Photos of “Fører Quisling” everywhere, became authoritarian state sans functioning legislature and King
  • Quisling sought to limit NS membership despite one-party rule to strengthen quality
  • Edict to make youth service in NS Youth Organization compulsory backfired, as did new teachers corporation; when backed by bishops, revolt began
  • Mass teacher resignations followed by large-scale arrests
  • Lobbied Hitler for peace treaty but was denied and remained occupied country, also lost direct contact with Hitler
  • Had different ideas of future than Hitler, whose world domination plans were more improvisatory
  • Began rounding up and registering Jews in 1942
  • Hitler refused to negotiate peace because then other occupied countries would want it, and Quisling’s dreams of Norwegian supremacy dashed
  • After Hitler died, naively assumed there would be peaceful transition of power back to exiled government
  • Arrested May 8; said he knew suicide would be easiest but wanted to “let history reach its own verdict”; thought he’d be deified
  • Quisling Clinic in Madison founded by cousins in interwar years; otherwise name has disappeared

A skeptic’s “Glance at the Public Libraries” of 1928, from H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury

Watch out, world: we’ve got ourselves a 90-year-old hot take!

In the June 1928 issue of The American Mercury, a periodical edited by the famous journalist H.L. Mencken, there’s an article by Fletcher Pratt called “A Glance At The Public Libraries”. I stumbled upon the issue while processing material at the Frances Willard House Museum. It was there because of the article about Willard in the same issue, but the library article was what first caught my eye.

Pratt, a writer of science fiction and history, worked at Buffalo Public Library for a time and used that experience to write this sardonic, dismissive, sexist contrarian take on the public libraries of that time.

Why read it at all? First, as a historical artifact, it provides valuable context from a different era. Second, even though it’s almost 100 years old and, to modern minds, retrograde in its view of library workers and their work, I think it’s important to read contrarian perspectives on issues close to one’s heart and mind. Librarianship is my career and one I love, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore criticisms of it.

It’s also just plain funny, in a tongue-in-cheek, insult comic kind of way. Pratt goes Don Rickles on the profession in a way only someone familiar with it could pull off.

So let’s consider what Fletcher Pratt tells us about how public libraries have changed since 1928 and in what ways they remain the same, if at all. I recommend reading the whole thing to get the full experience. But let’s take a look at some of my favorite parts:

It begins:

Every public library in the United States now places restrictions on the use of fiction.

Librarians, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Restricting fiction seems laughable now, given how popular and dominant it is in the book and library worlds.

American librarians, in fact, have become obsessed with the idea that the national literature will go to the dogs unless they persuade their customers to read something beside fiction. Indignant papers in the library journals and long discussions at librarians meetings are given over to the great question of how to keep the public from reading what it likes and how to induce it to read the moldering stacks of books it doesn’t care about.

That’s what I mean about funny.

Three classes of books—travel, biography and history—are held in orthodox library circles to be the best antidote to this depraved fondness for works of the imagination. To these the best shelves are given, for them the special bulletins are printed, and on them the lady attendant spends the best efforts of her cajolery to make her percentage of nonfiction circulation high.

A favorite device for increasing circulation painlessly is to require every reader who uses a reference book to fill out a slip for it.… Another potent scheme is to take books into the schools; a third is to offer vacation libraries of twenty-five or fifty books for the summer. Are they read? Who cares? It makes circulation, and circulation, in the librarian’s mind, is the summum bonum.

Here is where things get a little more familiar to us moderns. Circulation remains the summum bonum of the profession, however much local value and subject matter still factor into collection development. If a book doesn’t circulate, it won’t last long in a space-limited library.

Nothing is more curious to the outside observer than the typical librarians’ preoccupation with the infinitely little. Recently, for example, an angry controversy raged through the library world as to whether Radio or Wireless should be the heading under which books on the subject were classified. … In the library where the writer once worked hours of discussion at a staff meeting were given over to the absorbing question as to whether it was better to hold a book in the left hand and insert the charge slip with the right, or vice versa.

Book in left, charge slip in right. Wanna fight about it?

This tireless energy over trivialities argues that small minds are at work, and sure enough, there is a certain lack of intelligence among librarians. The reason is not far to see; intelligence follows the cornucopia, and library work is probably the worst paid of all intellectual vocations.

In our defense, tedious discussions about trivialities are hardly exclusive to libraries. But if you’re mad about Pratt asserting a lack of intelligence among librarians, you’re definitely not gonna like his reasoning:

Since girls first discovered that it could furnish them with pin-money while they waited for someone to love them, library work has been a prime favorite with the female of the species. It involves little labor, and that of a highly genteel character; it demands no great mental ability and it places the husband-hunter who enters it on public exhibition, where she can look over and be looked over by all the nubile males of the district under the most refined auspices.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest Pratt would not have fared well in the #MeToo era. Next he tackles library school:

In no case does the course extend beyond two years, and the pedagogues have had to drag in such subjects as the History and Philosophy of Printing to make it last that long. Before the schools got under way the libraries trained rather better staffs than they have now on a month’s lectures with practical experience. The truth is that there is very little to teach; any literate person can learn all there is to a library system in a few weeks. Consequently the library schools have to drill their future B.S.’s and M.A.’s in the beautifully vague principles of “library economy,” and to impress them with the importance of such details as inserting the charging slip with the right hand, or lettering the title on a thin book in the proper direction.

I’ll save the discussion about the pros and cons of library school for another post. But “beautifully vague principles” mixed with arcane details is pretty spot-on—and why I love libraries so much. He then tips his cap to Andrew Carnegie, patron saint of library buildings:

There are never enough branches to go round, but the head librarians, pushed from below by their staffs and from above by aldermen anxious for pork, do their best, and so new branches are added apace. The fund established by the obliging Mr. Carnegie makes it easy; all the city has to do is furnish the books; the Carnegie fund will put up the imitation Greek temple and even the funerary vegetation around it.

Finally, Pratt touts the Newark library as the “highest peak” of effectiveness, unlike that of its neighbor:

Right across the Hudson is the great New York Public, in any one of whose vaulted corridors Newark’s whole collection would be lost. The contrast of striking. In the New Jersey institution one watchman is at the door and a whole corps of eager assistants stand ready to help the visitor; in the marble monument to the Astors one may count a dozen policemen in neat horizon blue idling about to enforce the library rules, while one poor boy struggles vainly with requests for information.

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