Charlie Stross: August 2006 Archives

Home Office coughs to five database breaches (from The Register).

Security at the British Home Office's Identity and Passport Service (IPS) database has been compromised four times, with individuals' data used inappropriately by Home Office employees and contractors. A fifth breach has hit a Prison Service database.
In three of the cases workers were able to access data they had no authority to use and in the fourth a worker who did have authority to access data used it inappropriately. The fifth case involves a worker accessing the Prison Service sentencing database, a Home Office spokesman said.

Do I have to repeat myself?

In the first extensive study of the causal/correlative relationship between the use of pornography and sexual offenses, researcher Anthony D'Amato (of the faculty of law at Northwestern University) has concluded that rape statistics have declined 85% while availability of pornography rose significantly throughout the USA over the preceding 25 years. The Reagan-era Meese commission failed to derive a causal link proving that pornography caused sexual offenses; this appears to be a study proving the exact opposite — that availability of pornography reduces the incidence of violent sexual assaults. (Possible explanations are considered; follow the link for details.)

So it is quite interesting to see that the British government has decided to respond to this study by cracking down on pornography in a manner likely to backfire quite spectacularly (as well as infringing seriously on the right to freedom of speech). More details at the Prattle (thanks to Feorag) via the link above. (Home Office consultation process report here; more details on the origin of a stupid moral panic scare campaign here. (It appears the conviction of the man accused of murder that provided the impetus for the campaign has been referred back to the Court of Appeal.)

This government has created an average of one new criminal offense for every day it has spent in power — and it's been in power for nearly a decade. I am getting more than a little sick of these control freaks ...

Caution: author about to express political opinion! (Flee for the hills, if you don't approve of that sort of un-authorly behaviour.)

Dr Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary (new touchy-feely cabinet ministerial post) has just called for the closure of Islamic schools that promote isolationism or extremism.

She said the government had to "stamp out" Muslim schools which were trying to change British society to fit Islamic values.

"They should be shut down," she said. "Different institutions are open to abuse and where we find abuse we have got to stamp it out and prevent that happening."

Yes, indeed, she's quite right.

And while she's on the subject, perhaps she'd like to enhance her credibility by doing something about the overwhelmingly Christian fundamentalist faith schools that have been springing up like toadstools under the Blair government (42% of the City Academies trumpeted by Kelly and Blair are avowedly Christian Fundamentalist institutions which in some cases teach creationist nonsense in biology classes) and that two thirds of the UK's population are opposed to?

Certainly one might have fewer grounds for accusing Ruth Kelly of partiality if she applied her criticism of extremism across the board. But given her own religious affiliation (and Tony Blair's notorious piety) that's not terribly likely ...

Authorial opinion: There's a big difference between the new fundamentalist brainwashing academies and the old-school going-through-the-motions religious curriculum that was standard (and slept through) in all English schools back when I was subjected to it. The atmosphere of an avowedly religious institution is inimical to the development of cross-cultural tolerance; teaching kids in an environment in which One True Faith is exalted and all deviation is sneered at as Error is a sure-fire way to inculcate intolerance and hostility.

We need to get religion out of education in the UK and adopt the French model of strict separation right now, before we find ourselves drowning in brainwashed extremists of whichever stripe. The only way to do it is to do it even-handedly — simply banning Islamic schools at this point would inflame the extremist sentiments Ruth Kelly is so keen to stamp out — so a complete ban on all religion in schools is at this point the route of least resistance.

And let's face it, every cloud has a silver lining: the extra teaching time freed up by ditching dogma could be usefully used to improve the dismal standards of mathematics and grammar in school leavers.

1. In astrophysics, the elements consist of: Hydrogen, Helium, and Metals. (The relative abundance of elements in the cosmos being something like: Hydrogen 95%, Helium 4%, and Everything Else, 1% — thus, the "everything else" category is lumped under a single name.)

2. "The most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity" — Harlan Ellison.

It therefore follows that stupidity is either Helium, or Metal. We can test the former option by saying saying "Helium is stupid" — which, on the face of it, is pretty damn stupid. Which leads me to conclude that the other possibility is the only reasonable one. Stupidity is clearly Metallic.

(Unless it's dark matter.)

In next week's thrilling episode we examine: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and on the basis of this observation, whether divine beings are Bosons or Fermions.

I will confess at this point to feeling slightly nervous about tonight. It is now 7:20pm over here; in about eight hours the Hugo ceremony will be under way. The "best novel" Hugo is handed out last, so I won't hear the result until after 4am, win or lose.

As for the Hugos, here's my subjective assessment of the novel category (now it's too late to influence anyone):

I'm not going to win. Period. "Accelerando" is a little too bitty, episodic -- and has the bad luck to be on the shortlist the same year that Robert Charles Wilson has coughed up the best novel of his career, namely "Spin". He bloody deserves a Hugo for it, if you examine the book in isolation, i.e. without reference to the fact that this is basically a beauty show and the winner's quality is defined in terms relative, not absolute. (Personally, my big disappointment is that "Lobsters" didn't win in 2003 ... but it had the bad luck to come out the same year that Ted Chiang published "Hell is the Absence of God". So it goes.)

The other novels ... well, I haven't read the GRRM series, so I can't comment on his current book; but there's a huge bandwagon behind it. Then there's Ken's "Learning the World". It's a cracking good novel, stimulating in all the right places, and only a few whiskers behind "Spin". Finally, there's "Old Man's War". I confess: it's a light, easy read -- precisely the gateway drug John set out ot write -- and I think he'll win a Hugo eventually, but I'm somewhat surprised it's on the ballot. However, Scalzi, too, has a bandwagon rolling behind him.

Who would I vote for? Well, I'm not a member so I don't get a vote this year, but if I was voting, then (after drawing a polite veil over whether I'd vote for myself) I'd rank "Spin", "Learning the World", and "Old Man's War" in that order. (Although I suspect I'd have made more of an effort to re-start "A Game of Thrones" so I could honestly rate the other nominee.)

As for why I'm not in LA right now ...

Late in June, before I headed off to Australia, I tied myself down with an Edinburgh Book Festival event (last night) precisely to stop myself dashing off to LA at the last minute.

I've been home from Australia for only about 2 weeks, I -- predictably -- brought a chest bug home with me (and a nastier one than usual, it seems), and I'd be stressing myself out with thoughts of stuff I ought to be working on if I was there instead of here. (The to-do list for next week includes: working on a novel, getting my accounts done, visiting relatives, and talking to a surveyor and a lawyer. All the while lazing languidly on my lounger while scantily clad beauties drop peeled grapes in my mouth.)

While the con itself is only five days long, which doesn't sound so bad, the flight over would take another day, the flight home and immediate jet-lag would take two days, and the temptation to spend a few extra days on the ground (I've never visited LA, and I have some friends who live there) would ultimately bloat such a last-minute trip up to a two week junket. On top of the Oz trip, I'd end up spending less than two weeks at home out of a two month stretch of wall clock time. And unlike some, I don't work effectively when on the move. All of which went to make a trip to LACon IV look like a really bad idea to me at the time when I was juggling my schedule.

But I'm still missing the worldcon, dammit. And it feels wrong. The urge to be sitting in the front row at that awards ceremony -- even though I know I'm not going to win one this time round -- is to me much as the eternal search for brains must feel to a zombie.

I suspect I may be in the pub later tonight. If you catch me shambling from table to table with arms outstretched and a glassy-eyed expression, muttering "hugo ... must have hugo ..." please put a pint of beer in my hands.

I have an occasional low-key multitool habit; at least two Swiss army knives, a couple of Leatherman tools, and a credit-card-sized multitool in my pocket whenever I'm not going through airline security checkpoints.

But this has to take the ... well, first I'd need to get a bigger pocket to carry it in: it weighs over a kilo, has 85 tools, and Wenger will allegedly sell you one for US $1200. I wonder if they'll let you check it as a piece of hold luggage?

(warning: annoying ads on website )

Looks like there is now some hard evidence for dark matter. More commentary and explanation here. (Apparently it doesn't rule out MOND, but it does confirm that dark matter exists, which has been one of the most embarrassing questions in physics for a couple of decades now — given that visible matter accounts for only about 4% of the energy density of the universe, where is the rest hiding?

The two big question marks in our knowledge of what the universe is made of are dark matter (which doesn't interact with the type of matter we're familiar with, but which clumps gravitationally) and dark energy, which I can't get my head around (how the hell does something have negative pressure?). Dark matter appears to account for 22% of the universe, with dark energy making up the other 70-something percent (darn it, why is the universe seven-tenths made up of something I don't understand even the layman's definition of?). And today it looks like we're down one question mark.

Why is Charlie not posting on his blog this week?

... Succumbing to the inevitable post long-haul flight chest infection.

... A massive blitz on the house-work (in preparation for a possible change of address).

... Working busily on a novel, trying to make up for lost time spent in mind-expanding travel.

... Nothing insightful to say that's fit to be let out in public.

... All of the above.

(Whichever of these reasons you ticked, pat yourself on the back and give yourself one point. Points may be redeemed at the cashier's desk for one (1) incremental unit of self-esteem. Normal service will be resumed when I'm feeling better/when I've sold the house/when I've finished the book/when I have something to say.)

Last week, the International Astronomical Union began work on a rather important counting-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin exercise: defining precisely which bodies orbiting our sun qualify for the appellation of "planet". Naturally, this has provoked considerable controversy, and I've been watching the ongoing arguments with amusement (especially the debate between SF writers John Scalzi and Scott Westerfield, who are both jolly excellent chaps, if a trifle over-excited right now — I blame the brain-eater).

One of the causes of controversy is the dubious status of Pluto. Pluto is way smaller than Mercury — indeed, it's smaller than Luna — and orbits the sun in a rather eccentric catch-me-if-you-can way. Back in 1930 a case was made for it being a planet before its size was established, but these days it's clearly just one of the easiest to see among a whole pack of also-rans, including Ceres (in the asteroid belt, over there), Charon (which it co-orbits with), Xena, Quaoar, and a bunch of other large Kuiper belt bodies. Rather than demote Pluto to the status of a mere chunk of rock like any other KBO, the IAU has compromised by defining a new class of planet, called a "Plutonoid".

This is bullshit. We all know that the only real planets — the big ones that accreted from the solar disk right at the beginning — are Jupiter, Saturn, Nepture and Uranus. They're self-accreting bodies that aren't massive enough to undergo fusion and that formed in orbit around a star. OK? That's a planet.

Naturally you're biased: you live on Earth after all. But I have to tell you, these days we have this theory called the heliocentric model that holds that Earth isn't the centre of the universe. Guess what? Earth isn't a real planet, either. It's just a ball of rocky left-overs that didn't get its fair share of gas when the accretion disk was still swirling. Indeed, the same goes for Mars, Venus, and Mercury. These tiny rocks (Earth, the largest, is barely a thousandth the mass of Jupiter) orbit in the wrong damn place, far to close to their primary star to have any hope of hanging onto a volatile envelope of hydrogen and a bit of helium. In fact, I think it's about time the IAU bit the bullet and admitted that these dwarfish rocky cores are just that, and introduced a new category, "failed planetary nuclei", to define the rocky Earthlike bodies of the inner solar system.

Given that the "Plutonoids" are believed to be mostly condensed gassy stuff, we can (subject to confirmation) then redesignate them as "failed planetary atmosphere fodder". The asteroids and small KBOs can then be allocated to one group or the other, or a fourth, catchment category: "irritating little shit". And the rationalization of the solar system is done.

It'll be so much easier to teach kids the names of the planets when we've pruned them back to four!

Ah. So the details of last week's horrendous "worse than 9/11" conspiracy are now coming out piecemeal.

It appears that none of the conspirators had assembled any bombs or bought plane tickets. Several of them didn't even have passports, making it rather unlikely that they'd be able to smuggle an imaginary bomb onto an imaginary flight.

And they'd been under surveillance for up to a year before the sudden arrests, prompted by the confession of one man who "broke under interrogation" in Pakistan, a country notorious for torturing confessions out of prisoners.

(This rubbish is used as the basis for mass arrests and a huge security clampdown that results in close to 30% of all commercial flights in/out of British airports being cancelled for a week.)

Meanwhile, our glorious Home Secretary, John Reid, is saying "people don't get it" and that he's going to introduce a new anti-terrorism bill into parliament in the next session.

I'm afraid some of us do "get it". And we're not impressed.

Anyone got a photograph of Emmanuel Goldstein for me to link to?

An acquantance of mine mentioned in his blog: "just once, I'd like to see a zombie movie with competent soldiers".

He's right, you know. In zombie flicks, the soldiers always act like undisciplined idiots until their brains are eaten. (Except in Shaun of the Dead, which Doesn't Count.)

I suddenly had a vision of a zombie movie with competent, properly trained, well-disciplined soldiers. Say, a platoon of Territorial SAS. (Not a bunch of guys you'd want to mess with.) How would you sustain the dramatic tension when the soldiers in question are experts in taking apart anything that moves? Obviously, you'd need lots more zombies than usual. Lots more zombies. Like, more zombies than the soldiers have bullets. In fact, you'd need the same CGI battle simulation tech they developed for Lord of the Rings just to survey the seething army of undead. It doesn't hurt to make the zombies soldiers, too. And then, you need to steal a skeleton to hang it off (sorry) from another runaway success of days gone by. There's one obvious historical incident — and the big-budget war film based upon it — that's a must for a zombie flick: I think it's just incomprehensible that it's never been done before. And so, I proudly present to you (as a random idea I'm too damn lazy to write the script for):

An SAS unit on a covert mission in central Asia (probably hunting down a Taliban force somewhere in the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) runs across an ancient battleground. One of the Taliban leaders utters a foul curse as he's dying. A long lost army, probably owned by Alexander the Great — who passed through Afghanistan in a bloody hurry 2300 years ago, he was too smart to stop and pick a fight there — begins clawing its way out of the dust. Meanwhile, a serious dust-storm has grounded their air support and is hampering communications. Cut off, they go to ground in a farmstead at the bottom of a valley, hastily dig in, and await the helicopters. Meanwhile, the skeletal remains of an ancient Macedonian general sends wave after wave of zombies shambling towards them, testing the mettle of their strange weapons, probing for a weak spot as the greek fire arcs towards the kraal farmstead ...

Yep, it's Zulu, with Zombies! Phalanxes of zombies carrying 20-foot-long spears! Zombies in war chariots! And a finale involving Harriers, helicopter gunships, and blowing shit up!

Sometimes, just once in a while, I wish I was in Hollywood.

"Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts."

For full details, see this paper ("A False Sense of Insecurity (PDF)", John Mueller, Ohio State University.)

This is nothing new. Here in the UK we've lived through 30 years of terrorist insurgency in Northern Ireland; it only ended recently, and it claimed 3000 lives — a per-capita death rate for the UK roughly five to six times higher than 9/11 (for the UK as a whole — it's much higher if you consider only Northern Ireland). Guess what? More people died in car accidents in NI during the Troubles than in the Troubles themselves.

It used to be said that patriotism was the first resort of the scoundrel. Now terror-mongering is giving it a close run for its money. When someone tries to scare you, the first question you should ask is "who benefits?" Al Qaida and their friends carry out terrorist actsin order to terrorise you, with a specific political agenda in mind. Why are the US and UK governments trying to do the terrorists jobs for them? And what is their fear-facilitated agenda?

I'm back home now. My body is telling me it's 3:30am tomorrow rather than 6:30pm today, and I've got a whole load of stuff to deal with (personal, professional, and just plain mundane — "the car won't start" kind of stuff that needs sorting out).

Will check in later ... for now, let's just say that I've survived 24 hours on a 747-400 intact, although my sinuses are aching from the aridity of the air conditioning and I keep going cross-eyed. Hmm. I'm probably so jet-lagged I don't even feel jet-lagged any more. Scary!

Oh yeah: the trip home was more or less ordinary — heavy turbulence over the Straits and Afghanistan (I managed to sleep through much of it but dreamed I was flying through heavy turbulence in a different aircraft), an arrivals cock-up at Heathrow (what genius decided to offload a full Jumbo using a staircase and a fleet of busses at the far side of the terminal from arrivals?), and lastly ... sundogs seen over the Scottish borders! I wish I'd thought to take a photo but I was too entranced by the sight of a circular rainbow with the shadow of a 757 at its heart scudding across the cloudtops.

Later I'll try to write something about Oz. But right now, I'm too drained.

UPDATE: I seem to have gotten home about twelve hours before the shit hit the fan (and via a flight that wasn't directly threatened). It will be interesting to see if there really was a plot to blow up a bunch of airliners flying from the UK to the USA, but I'm glad I managed to miss the resulting cock-up (twelve hour waits at airports, a total ban on hand luggage, and so on).

If you're in Melbourne (that's in Australia, not some town of the same name on any other continent), I will be hoisting a pint of beer in Transport on Federation Square from 8pm tonight. Feel free to drop by and say hello.

(Tomorrow I'll be flying out, arriving back in the UK late on Wednesday. Ain't time zones wonderful?)

Being on vacation (more or less) has given me a lot of time for reflection. It's also given me a little time to catch up on my reading — beach books, or what passes for them in my universe. I'm quite capable of immersing myself in trashy brain candy — indeed, of wallowing in it to excess — and that's pretty much what I've been doing (with a few notable exceptions).

Actually, that's a little bit unfair. "Trash" is probably the wrong word for any kind of literature; it's just a convenient (and somewhat condescending) shorthand for easy reading — stuff that is undemanding, and doesn't expect too much of the reader. Within any given genre, there's a certain body of work that conforms most closely to the expectations of the readers — the normal patterns and preoccupations of their particular field. It's not transgressive, it doesn't question the normative expectations, it shares the collective cultural outlook, etcetera. Nevertheless, it performs a vital task for those of us who aren't content to go with the flow: it tells us where the flow is.

Talking about genre ... I work in three roughly overlapping areas: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (I also occasionally make excursions into the undergrowth of technothrillers and even romance, but those aren't my main stomping grounds — they're not how I'm perceived by readers.) Of these fields, fantasy out-sells SF by a factor of 2:1, and has done for most of my life. Horror used to sell well, but crashed and burned around 1990. There's recently been a tenuous recovery. Where you draw the dividing line between these fields is a matter of some debate, especially among the more tiresomely obsessive-compulsive fans — the rest of them (myself included) just go with the old judicial definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it".

So what can the lightweight normative exemplars of these genres tell us about the state of the reading public?

For starters, the strange rebirth of the horror field is quite illuminating. We used to know what horror was about — it was about Killer Whelks menacing a quiet English seaside town, from which a strong-jawed but quiet fellow and a not-totally-pathetic female lead might eventually hope to escape with the aid of a stout two-by-four and a lot of whelkish squelching after trials, tribulations, and gruesome scenes of seafood-induced cannibalism. Then Stephen King came along and transcended, becoming a mini-genre of his own. Attempts were made to replicate the phenomenon, but instead the bottom dropped out of the market.

The new horror isn't about whelks, killer or otherwise: it's about vampires, werewolves, and middle America. With police and detectives. Hell, you could even call it cop/vampire slash and have done with it, except that you'd be missing out on the tedious Manichean dualist drivel into which all these series eventually descend (unless they end up as soft porn instead — a very lucrative market, as Laurel Hamilton and her imitators have discovered — call it the fang-fucker subgenre). For the sad fact is, there seems to be some kind of law about contemporary American horror getting into furry sex by volume three then suffering a fit of remorse and going all god-bothering and Jesus-fondling by volume six. It must be all the crosses and holy water they need to fend off the blood sucking fiends, I suppose, but the endless re-hashing of tired old religious-sexual neuroses is getting to be a stereotype of the genre, and it's not healthy. Horror isn't about being born-again: it's about bloody screaming catharsis, not a warm security blanket of belief that blocks out all menaces. But in the new horror, if the bloodsuckers are remotely sympathetic the story turns into some kind of supernatural redemption epic, and if they're not, the protagonist eventually goes all googly-eyed and born-again. (Or the author does — I'm thinking of Anne Rice here, you understand.) It's enough to make this old-time atheist throw the book against the wall. I mean, these are meant to be horror novels! Where's the sense of dread in living in a universe where there's a cuddle and a warm glass of ambrosia waiting for us all in heaven?

(Parenthetically speaking, one of the reasons I'm so pleased with Liz Williams' recent foray into the supernatural detective field is that her two novels, The Snake Agent and The Demon in the City have nothing whatsoever to do with warmed-over Christian theology. They're straight Confucianism all the way, and when one of her demonic protagonists discovers that he has a conscience this is cause for regret rather than redemption. The result is oddly like Chow Yun Fat trying to make a supernatural kung fu action movie version of Miss Smila's Feel for Snow. If the rest of the pack would follow suit, my vacation reading pile would be a lot less predictable ... but I digress.)

Enough about the crap new horror, now for the crap new SF.

Probably the fastest-growing sub-genre in the swamp is alternate history. I've been known to dabble in it myself, I hasten to admit: it can be fun and educational, a desert topping and a floor wax. But mostly floor wax these days, I find, because a lot of authors who should know better are turning to it in a mad collective ostrich-head-burying exercise rather than engaging with the world as it is.

Science fiction is almost always a projection of todays hopes and fears onto the silver screen of tomorrow, and so you get such excesses as the cosy catastrophe genre in British SF, 1947-79 (in which all those annoying Other People get put away in their box — six feet under — while the protagonists have post-fall-of-civilization adventures, all with a bone china tea-set: John Wyndham was of course the master) or the sixties counterculture and lysergide fueled paranoia trips of Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs — and the deafening silence about the future that is radiating from the United States today.

Oh, there are exceptions. Vernor Vinge is swimming strongly against the flow in "Rainbows End", where he envisages a future just a couple of decades hence where the machines dance. Peter Watts is doing stuff with the genre that just shouldn't be possible (evolutionary biology, exobiology, and vampires in spaaaaaace — all done with a deft touch of plausibility and a refreshingly pleasant dose of bleakly nihilistic existential despair). And there are a few others. But for the most part, the loudest movement in the genre has been the buffalo stampede over the cliff of historical might-have-beens. Our field's strongest energies are going into tiredly re-hashing the US Civil War, the Second World War, the War of the Triple Alliance, and the Russian Revolution. And they're not even Doing It in spaaaaaaace. Well, some of them are: if I see one more novel about the US Marine Corps in the Thirty Seventh Century (with interstellar amphibious assault ships and a different name) I swear I'll up and join the Foreign Legion. Folks, the past is another country, and you can't get a visa. Ditto the future: they speak a different language and they get capitalism and the war on terror and the divine right of kings confused because they slept through history class. (Just like half the folks writing alternate history epics — and the other half ought to know better.)

This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century. The Brits aren't drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it's not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren't doing that is interesting.

American SF was traditionally an optimistic forward-looking genre, the marching music of the technocrat movement (which, thankfully, withered up and blew away before it got a chance to build any mountains of skulls, thus providing us with the luxury of a modernist movement that we can remember fondly). Now the whole space exploration thing has dead-ended and the great American public have shuddered in their political sleep and realised — crivens! — that not everybody likes the way their lords and masters have been carrying on for the past five decades — the fragile optimism is lacking. So where better to flee than into the nostalgic past, to fight Nazis and communists and slave-trading aristocrats?

Finally, there is the blasted heath that is fantasy. At least the two decade long post Lord of the Rings hang-over is mostly over, and the post-movie-trilogy bean fest has faded somewhat. There's some really interesting stuff going on there (paging Paul Park, Paul Park to the white courtesy phone — or Steven Brust, at a pinch). But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn't really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another.

This hotel has ethernet. (Not to mention a comfortable climate — Melbourne is cooler than Sydney, which was almost uncomfortably hot when it wasn't raining.) So watch this space ...



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in August 2006.

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