Tag Archives: good news

A Tribute To Dr. Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Fed The World

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Last year, I dedicated two days to honoring two unique individuals who literally saved the world. Those individuals were Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov. Between the two of them, they literally held the fate of the human race in their hands at one point. Their ability to rise to the occasion and make the right decisions are why we’re still alive and the world isn’t a nuclear wasteland.

I strongly believe that people like that deserve recognition for doing the right thing during critical moments in our history. They embody a unique aspect of the human spirit that is worth honoring. Today, I’d like to honor another and like Petrov and Arkhipov, most people probably don’t know the name of the man I’m about to praise.

His name is Dr. Norman Borlaug. He was born on, March 25, 1914. He’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winning agricultural scientist from Iowa and what he did to earn that prize may very well be the greatest over-achievement in history. That’s because what he did for humanity cannot be overstated.

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To understand why, you need only recall the last meal you had. Whether it was a fully-cooked turkey or a frozen burrito, chances are Dr. Borlaug is partly responsible for making that food possible. That’s because Dr. Borlaug was an instrumental figure in the Green Revolution, a culmination of various scientific advances that led to a massive boost in crop yields.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you need only take a cursory glance at history to see the devastation that famine has inflicted on our species. It has defeated armies, destroyed empires, and ended dynasties. On top of that, it does so through the prolonged torture that is starvation. No matter the time, place, or people, the pain of starvation hits everyone hard.

Dr. Borlaug fought that and fought it better than anyone in history, modern or otherwise. Do you remember the last time your entire community endured famine? It’s doubtful. Mass famines have been largely eliminated in modern societies. Those that use the techniques and advances that Dr. Borlaug developed enjoy a level of abundance that’s unprecedented in history.

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Sure, there are times when it’s difficult to get food to certain areas due to war, disasters, or just plain incompetence, but the inability to actually produce that food is no longer an issue, so much so that now that most of the food-related problems we face involving having too much of it. Sometimes we eat too much. Sometimes we throw too much away. It’s still a problem, but it beats the hell out of famine.

However, Dr. Borlaug did more than just sit in a lab and do science. This man actually went out into the world, got his hands dirty, and fought famine with the ferocity of a young Mike Tyson on crack. Armed with a potent blend of science and humanitarian spirit, the old forces of famine didn’t stand a chance.

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He started off as a microbiologist working for DuPont, crafting new pesticides and preservatives for food. Regardless of how you feel about big chemical companies like DuPont, that’s an entirely noble endeavor, protecting and preserving food. That just wasn’t enough for Dr. Borlaug. You don’t win a Nobel Prize just by thinking small.

First, he traveled to Mexico, a place that had been hit hard by major crop losses in the late 30s and early 40s. While there, Dr. Borlaug helped develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. That didn’t just make up for the losses. It more than quintupled the overall harvest by 1944.

Helping Mexico stave off crop failures was an accomplishment in and of itself, but Dr. Borlaug was just getting warmed up. In the early 1960s, he moved to India, which happened to be in the middle of a major drought, and helped them increase their yields by orders of magnitude. If that weren’t impressive enough, he did all that while in the middle of a war with Pakistan. Not one to take sides, he even helped them too.

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By the late 1960s, both India and Pakistan were self-sufficient in terms of wheat production. At that point, the Nobel committee finally took notice of Dr. Borlaug’s greatness and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Short of Tom Brady’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there has never been a more obvious choice.

Unlike some recipients, there’s no question that Dr. Borlaug’s work contributed to furthering peace in this chaotic world. The man himself said it best.

“You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

Even after getting that prize, he just kept raising the bar impossibly high. In the mid-80s while Africa endured a terrible famine due to severe drought, Dr. Borlaug came out of retirement to help the governments fix a broken agricultural system. Just as he’d done before, his techniques and know-how helped crop yields soar once more.

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When considering just how much he was able to improve agricultural output and how hard he worked to promote these techniques, it has been estimated that Dr. Borlaug saved over a billion lives through his work. That’s not a typo. This man, without superpowers or help from aliens, saved a billion lives by helping mankind produce abundant food.

Unlike Petrov or Arkhipov, Dr. Borlaug wasn’t just in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. He worked hard for years on end, researching and cooperating with others to increase food production so that future generations need not starve like so many others before us. Rather than simply prevent ourselves from self-destruction, he gave us the means of prosperity.

I know everyone has a different definition for hero, especially someone who reads as many superhero comics as I do. However, such a title is almost lacking for a man like Dr. Borlaug. There aren’t many people who can honestly say their efforts saved billions of lives, present and future alike. Dr. Borlaug could make that claim right up until his death at the age of 95 in 2009.

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That’s not to say he didn’t have his critics. Even Superman has plenty of villains to deal with and if Dr. Borlaug had a Lex Luthor in his life, it was those who believed that his advances were unnatural and potentially damaging to the environment. Even today, his reputation among environmentalists and organic food enthusiasts is mixed at best.

Most of those critics, however, are not poor farmers in third-world countries who are just one crop failure away from starvation. Many are affluent enough to afford the overpriced asparagus at Whole Foods. They’ll probably never know or appreciate the abundance that Dr. Borlaug’s work has given them and how many lives are saved every day because of it.

Then, there were doom-sayers like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote a best-seller in 1968 called “The Population Bomb” that said that the rapid growth of the human population was unsustainable. He claimed that there was simply no way food production could keep up, which would result in massive war or unprecedented famine. Even by 1960s standards, this was pretty scary stuff.

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Rather than despair, Dr. Borlaug just kept on working so that we did have enough food. With all due respect to Mr. Ehrlich, his predictions failed because men like Norman Borlaug confronted these problems rather than whined about it. That’s not just heroic. That’s an important lesson that’s more critical now than it has ever been.

Today, even without Dr. Borlaug among us, we face many challenges including war, disease, poverty, and unskippable video ads. However, as daunting as they may be, we can take comfort in the knowledge that more people than at any point in history need not do so on an empty stomach.

I’ve often commented on how survival and reproduction are the two key drives for humanity. While I tend to focus heavily on the latter, I don’t often have to mention the survival part because Norman Borlaug made that unnecessary. It’s because of this man’s work that we have more food than we’ve ever had before in our history.

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His spirit lives on in the work of other researchers looking to further improve our food production. From vertical farming to in vitro meats, the promise of abundant food and full stomachs will continue as our population keeps growing.

More than anything else, though, Norman Borlaug embodied a humanitarian spirit that helped improve the human condition for all. It’s not unreasonable to say that the world is better because of him. So at some point tomorrow, March 25, take a moment to appreciate the contributions of a man whose name you probably didn’t know before now.

The next time you eat and go to bed with a full stomach, be sure to thank Dr. Borlaug for his contributions to the world. Most importantly, honor the humanitarian spirit he embodied. That’s how we’re going to make a more peaceful world.

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How I Had A Good Valentine’s Day Last Year (Thanks To My Mother)

It’s that time of year again. That’s right. It’s Valentine’s Day. To some, it’s a day where you can get away with being a little extra romantic with your lover. To others, it’s a conspiracy by Hallmark to sell more greeting cards. To people like me, namely those who are single and alone, it’s sometimes a harsh reminder that loneliness sucks and we all yearn to be loved.

I’ve talked a bit about my struggles as a single guy whose single status seems to get more taboo with age. I’ve also shared some difficult personal experiences that highlight why Valentine’s Day has been my least favorite holiday over the years. For someone who claims to be such a big fan of romance, I imagine it sends mixed messages.

I still consider myself a fan of love, intimacy, and everything else Valentine’s Day stands for. I gladly cheer those who have someone special to spend this day with. It’s just tough when you’re stuck spending this couples-friendly holiday by yourself. Most people who know me tend to understand I’m a little jaded this time of year.

However, there have been times when I’ve had a genuinely good Valentine’s Day while still being single. One of those times actually happened last year. I didn’t share it because I didn’t know whether it was worth sharing. Now, as I’ve come to appreciate that day more and more, I feel like this is something I should put out there on a day like this.

Around this time last year, I was planning to spend much of my Valentine’s Day alone again, either writing sexy novels, reading comics, or just doing whatever it took to distract myself. I had gotten so used to spending this romantic holiday that I was kind of resigned to my fate.

Then, I went out to get the mail and got a letter. It wasn’t a bill, a coupon, or an ad. It was a letter from my mother. Curious, since she usually texts or emails me when she wants to talk, I opened the letter and found this card inside.

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I’m not going to lie. I had the biggest, goofiest grin I’ve ever had outside of a comic book store or a donut shop when I saw it. My mother had actually gone to the effort of finding me a card, stuffing it in a regular envelope, and sending it to me, postage cost and all. It would’ve been easier to just send a few texts with some funny gifs, but my mother is someone who goes the extra mile.

In addition to the card, there was a note on the back. Since it’s somewhat personal, I won’t recite it word for word. That’s between me and my mother. What she wrote, though, really made my day and warmed my heart. She reminded me that, even when you’re alone on Valentine’s Day, you can still feel loved.

I needed that reminder. I needed it more than I cared to admit. Once again, though, my mother proved that she knows me better than I know myself sometimes. She understands why I’ve struggled to find love and how hard I’ve worked to overcome those struggles. She and the rest of my family have helped me every step of the way. Most importantly, though, she always made sure I felt loved.

I still have this card. It’s one of those special little mementos that I can turn to whenever I’m feeling miserable, restless, or unloved. On a day like this, though, it carries an even greater meaning. It’s a meaning that helps make Valentine’s Day feel special, even when you’re single like me.

Now, I know I’m exceedingly bias in this sentiment, but I don’t care. I’ll say it anyways.

MY MOM IS THE ABSOLUTE BEST!

Yes, I used all caps. Yes, I’m shouting that as loud as my computer will allow me. No, I don’t care if you disagree or think that’s childish. It’s a sentiment worth sharing on Valentine’s Day and I gladly share it with everyone, single or otherwise.

Also, I know my mother is a regular reader of this blog. Even though it sometimes discusses sexy and exceedingly unsexy issues, she supports me in everything I do and encourages me every step of the way.

With that in mind, I’d like to thank my wonderful mom for making Valentine’s Day great for me again. Mom, I know you’ll probably read this at some point, but I mean it. You’re the best! Thank you for being the best Valentine that a single guy like me can hope for.

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Finding Greater Hope In Disturbing News

Every now and then, there’s a news story that comes along that’s so disturbing, so horrific, and so utterly offensive to every level of decency that it makes me question the faith I have in humanity. I know I’ve said before that I genuine believe that people are naturally good, at heart. I’ve even shared stories about how I came to believe this. However, there are times when that believe is tested.

Last week, I got an unexpected test in the form of one of the most disturbing news stories I’ve heard that didn’t involve a mass shooting. At least with mass shootings, it presents the opportunity for good people to show their strength in the face of those who are truly deranged. In this case, there were many of those opportunities to say the least.

While the story is still unfolding with each passing day, it has already made national headlines. It involves the now-infamous Turpin family and the unspeakable horrors they inflicted upon their own children. To those of you who haven’t heard this story, consider yourselves lucky. This is one of those stories that tests both your stomach and your soul.

The details are disturbing to recount. They involve abusive parents, abused kids, gross neglect, intentional malnourishment, and all the disturbing forces in between that drive such deviant behavior. The full story is still unfolding, but accord to a report from ABC News, these are the current facts:

An investigation is underway in California after 13 siblings – ages 2 to 29 – were allegedly held captive in a home, some “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks,” the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.

Parents David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested in the alleged torture and child endangerment case in Perris, California, about 27 miles south of San Bernardino.

The investigation began early-Sunday morning when a 17-year-old girl apparently escaped from the home and called 911, saying her 12 brothers and sisters were still being held captive there, the sheriff’s office said.

Responding officers said the teen “appeared to be only 10 years old and slightly emaciated.”

Inside the home, several children were “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings,” the sheriff’s office said. “The victims appeared to be malnourished and very dirty.”

Seven of the alleged victims were adults, ranging in ages from 18 to 29, the sheriff’s office said. The others were children as young as 2. The siblings – who authorities say claimed to be starving – were given food and drinks and interviewed, the sheriff’s office said. They were then hospitalized for treatment, the authorities said.

I’m not going to lie. I felt sick to my stomach reading this story. The idea that anyone, let alone parents, would do these sorts of things to children is pretty disturbing. While there are all sorts of crazy theories circulating about the psychology behind such sadistic behavior, the full truth will probably never be known. Besides, the damage has been done. These children will probably carry some deep scars for the rest of their lives.

News stories like these often remind us that as amazing a species we are, there are still parts of it that are undeniably devious. While I prefer to emphasize the good in people, as well as the progress we’ve made, it’s neither logical nor just to ignore the bad. Parents torturing, neglecting, and abusing their children is objectively bad by any sane measure.

As awful as it is, however, it’s still important to balance out the terrible with the hopeful. In most great atrocities, there are often glimmers of hope. That may seem impossible for a story like this, but it is there if you look. The horrors of the holocaust were undeniable, but even that darkest of periods can reveal moments of true heroism and inspiration.

Even with that in mind, how could anyone find such moments in a story like this? Something this atrocious makes that difficult. However, the moments are there. Even if the worst of this story has yet to come out, there are some powerful lessons to be learned. Here are just a few.


Bright Spot #1: Atrocities Rarely Stay Hidden (Especially These Days)

There was once a time when it was much easier to hide from the authorities and public scrutiny. A truly sadistic person could take their victims out into the vast wilderness, away from prying eyes, and commit their atrocities without much risk of getting caught. For most of human history, that was the norm and not the exception.

It’s different today. Thanks to modern infrastructure, the media, and mass communication, it’s much harder to hide these sorts of atrocities from the public. That’s especially true in a modern, industrialized country where we have internet, emergency services, and a semi-functional justice system.

If the Turpin family had lived in a less developed country, chances are their crimes would’ve gone unpunished. Even if one of their children had escaped, they probably wouldn’t have been able to get proper help or convince the authorities to aid them. In some parts of the world, those authorities don’t even exist.

Say what you will about the state of the industrialized world. It certainly has its flaws. However, when it comes to committing atrocities on children, those crimes are hard to hide and are rightly condemned. That counts as both progress and justice.


Bright Spot #2: All That Abuse Did NOT Prevent The Children From Escaping

Even though the Turpin family couldn’t hide their atrocities forever, they still managed to hide them for much longer than most people will ever be comfortable admitting. One of the ways they hid it was to condition and control their children to an extent not seen outside of a North Korean prison camp.

Stories of the sheer breadth of the neglect these children suffered are still coming in, but one thing is clear. The parents of these children worked tirelessly to control every aspect of their lives. They were sheltered, starved, restrained, and completely cut off from the outside world. By all accounts, there was no outside world, except the world their parents wanted them to see.

Despite all this, though, one of these kids still found the strength and the will to escape. The only reason these crimes were even exposed was because the 17-year-old daughter climbed out a window and managed to call 911. The fact that this girl, despite all the abuse and deprivation, still found the will to escape says a lot about her and the human desire for freedom.

As repressive as these parents were, it still wasn’t enough. They still sought to escape. The strength of the girl who managed to escape cannot be overstated and it highlights, what I believe, is the biggest takeaway from this otherwise horrific story.


Bright Spot #3: It’s REALLY Hard To Control/Break Someone

 

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No matter how disturbing this story gets or what kind of horrific details emerge in the coming weeks, there’s one important lesson we should all take from such a disturbing crime. No matter how much a person is abused or how much someone tries to control them, it’s extremely difficult to completely break them.

These children, including the girl who escaped, were conditioned from birth to live under their parents’ authority. They grew up literally not knowing any other way to live. As far as they knew, the idea of not being controlled by their parents was an alien concept. In terms of controlling and/or breaking someone’s will to resist, the parents had every circumstance working in their favor.

Despite all that, they still failed. They still could not completely control their children because they still tried to escape. It only took one of them to succeed to make the point. No matter how strict the control or hard the abuse, they can’t subvert the natural desire to be free. If nothing else about this terrible story inspires you, let that be it.


I don’t wish to dwell too much on this story, if only because much of it is still playing out. While we shouldn’t discount the horrors involved, there are some small bits of hope that we can glean from such a story. It may not completely overshadow the breadth of the atrocities, but it should remind us that as flawed as the human race may be, we will fight such atrocities when we confront them.

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Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History (Seriously)

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These days, being an optimist is hard. In some cases, you’ll get laughed out of the room for not thinking the world is on a steady descent into a dystopian hellscape in the mold of “Mad Max,” “1984,” or “Idiocracy.” I don’t deny that current events, especially after the 2016 Election, have made optimism difficult. However, that’s exactly why it’s worth talking about.

I do consider myself an optimist, at heart. I sincerely believe that, on the whole, things are getting better for the world, the human race, and everything in between. I’ve even tried to make my case through personal experience and through empirical data. I don’t imagine I’ve changed too many opinions, but I still think it’s important to put that perspective out there.

With a new year upon us, I think that perspective is worth belaboring once more. This time, however, I’m not alone in my optimistic sentiment. There are others who share in my optimistic outlook. Some of those individuals are far smarter, far more accomplished, and far more charismatic than I’ll ever be.

By those standards, Steven Pinker checks all the necessary boxes. While he’s somewhat of a controversial figure in some circles, the man has some solid credentials. He’s an accomplished professor at Harvard and has written multiple books on issues ranging from language to psychology to human nature.

His seminal work, though, is his book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature.” If you want a compelling reason to believe that the world is getting better by most measures, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s not just about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Mr. Pinker provides real, verifiable information that the world is getting better and human nature is far better than we give it credit for.

Beyond his books and his famous TED Talks, Mr. Pinker continues to make his case for a more upbeat outlook in various ways. Recently, his work was cited in an op-ed article in the New York Times entitled “Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History.”

Granted, a title like that is a bit heavy on hyperbole, but the writer, Nicholas Kristoff, is dead serious in making that case. Link Mr. Pinker, he doesn’t just interpret all the ongoing trends in the world through the mind of a stoned hippie. He puts the state of the world into a context that goes beyond all the horrible headlines we saw in 2017.

He, and other optimists like him, tend to look at the broader trends in human society. The data is out there, but it’s hard to put into a compelling headline. That doesn’t stop men like Kristoff and Pinker from making a concerted effort, though.

We all know that the world is going to hell. Given the rising risk of nuclear war with North Korea, the paralysis in Congress, warfare in Yemen and Syria, atrocities in Myanmar and a president who may be going cuckoo, you might think 2017 was the worst year ever.

But you’d be wrong. In fact, 2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.

A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.

Again, these trends are hard to see and harder to report on because they don’t happen all at once. If tomorrow, all poverty was magically wiped out, that would be a big news story. However, human progress doesn’t work that way. It’s slow, gradual, and sometimes boring. It does happen, though. The events of 2017 were no exception.

Violent went down. Poverty went down. In fact, they went down to their lowest levels in modern history. Compared to a year ago, 5 years ago, or 50 years ago, the trends we saw in 2017 were all improvements by most objective measures. A lot of these trends are things Mr. Pinker has been talking about for years. Mr. Kristoff simply builds on them.

Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

For most individuals, these trends are difficult to notice. That’s largely because they’re driven by forces that most people don’t notice or understand beyond their personal existence. Even in a world that’s so connected and becoming more connected with each passing day, it’s easy to overlook this kind of progress.

It’s also a lot harder when the news is largely dominated by negative headlines that highlight how dissatisfied the general public is with the direction of society. Again, there is a context here and one that I’ve tried to point out before. It’s one of the first lessons I learned in college when interpreting media of any kind, be it the news or superhero comics.

The reason why all these negative headlines are headlines in the first place isn’t because they’re common. It’s because they’re so rare. Stories such as mass shootings, brutal murders, and war crimes make the news because they don’t happen every day. That’s why they qualify as news. They’re aberrations and not normal occurrences.

Conversely, good headlines rarely make the front page because they lack the same novelty and emotional impact as bad news. Naturally, people are going to react more strongly to a horrific headline because our survival instincts compel us to devote more energy to the bloodier, more dangerous information.

That’s why, even if 2017 was the best year in the history of the human race, our caveman brains aren’t going to process that because it’s so focused on all the negative news that came out over the past year. That news may very well be a tiny sliver of the events that transpired in 2017, but that news will still garner more attention, especially in the current digital economy.

We can still take comfort in the progress that happened in 2017, though. No matter how many negative headlines there were, that doesn’t undo the genuinely good things that transpired in the past year. Mr. Kristoff even went out of his way to provide an anecdote, of sorts, that highlighted just how much good can come from even the worst parts of the world.

Granted, this column may feel weird to you. Those of us in the columny gig are always bemoaning this or that, and now I’m saying that life is great? That’s because most of the time, quite rightly, we focus on things going wrong. But it’s also important to step back periodically. Professor Roser notes that there was never a headline saying, “The Industrial Revolution Is Happening,” even though that was the most important news of the last 250 years.

I had a visit the other day from Sultana, a young Afghan woman from the Taliban heartland. She had been forced to drop out of elementary school. But her home had internet, so she taught herself English, then algebra and calculus with the help of the Khan Academy, Coursera and EdX websites. Without leaving her house, she moved on to physics and string theory, wrestled with Kant and read The New York Times on the side, and began emailing a distinguished American astrophysicist, Lawrence M. Krauss.

Think about that story, for a moment, and reflect on how 2017 made it possible. Thanks to all the progress made in global communications, a woman in Afghanistan in 2017 was able to pursue opportunities that would’ve been impossible a mere 20 years ago.

This woman, despite living in one of the most war torn parts of the world, still managed to gain access to the kind of education and informational resources that were once reserved for aristocrats and academics. That, by any measure, is an astonishing accomplishment for humanity.

In many respects, 2017 was the best year ever because it continued the trends had been going on for years. As a result, more people have access to information, education, and the basic necessities of life than at any other point in human history. That, more than anything, is why it’s not unreasonable to say that 2017 was the best year ever.

The fact that concerns over celebrity scandals is a greater concern than poverty, war, or famine shows that we are making more progress than we think. It also bodes well for 2018 being an even better year than 2017. Despite what negative headlines may say, the human race is on an unprecedented winning streak and I hope, along with men like Mr. Pinker and Mr. Kristoff, that the streak continues into 2018 and beyond.

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