Sunday, 24 May 2015

OPEN FOR COMMENT. Picture Post No. 3: A Country Burial

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t that which they seemed to be, neither will they become that which they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough.

At the graveside, Middelplaas, South Africa

A burial at Middelplaas, near the village of De Rust, in South Africa. A large crowd gathered around a grave, to pay their last respects to Sanna. Her husband, Andries, stood almost unnoticed at the back of the crowd, grief-stricken. From the other side of the grave, I took this photo over mourners' heads.

A nurse at the local clinic in De Rust had been negligent in ordering Sanna's medication. Sanna was furious. She said that she would travel to Oudtshoorn – the nearest big centre – to fetch it. But too late. Without her medication, she died in the night, at 50. A doctor, said Andries, had said that he would take the nurse to task. 
Assuming Sanna's death to be what it seems, is the nurse responsible for failing to control stock, or is she responsible for a woman's death? If a burglar invades a home, is he responsible for items taken, or for rending the fabric of society? If a man kills a rhino, is he responsible for its replacement cost, or for obliterating a species? Should one judge a deed on what one sees in front of one, or on its widest implications? 

The nurse in De Rust did not witness this scene at the graveside – nor anything surrounding it, before or after. What would she have replied, if she had? 

Monday, 18 May 2015

A New role for wikis? How collaborative spaces could revive the wiki ethos.

Why social media, after contributing to the decline of Wikipedia, could need new forms of Wikis

By Pierre-Alain (Perig) Gouanvic

A little commented upon, but very significant, milestone was passed somewhere in the middle of the noughties (2000-2009), when the number of new accounts being born at Wikipedia became inferior to the number of ones marked as "deceased" — that is, accounts of Wikipedians who had grown angered, bored, or otherwise uninterested by the project. This invisible trend coincides with the rise of social networks and blogs. All other attempts to recreate online collaborative encyclopedias failed. Citizendium is a legendary failure to be remembered in the textbooks.

Blogs, as well as, later and to a greater extent, social networks, made possible the encounter of more-or-less like-minded people, from low-life bullies to high ranking academics (both qualifications not being mutually exclusive). What happens on a social network, and increasingly in all digital versions of newspapers and many websites, is that commenting and arguing have found a new home, after it has become obvious that the number one search engine result for most things, Wikipedia, has become policed and sterilized by rules and oligarchies. Most websites have their comments sections, often in communication with one of the two major social networks.

In the process, the Web has matured into its predicted second phase, Web 2.0, wherein spectators have become actors. Not to say that they are autonomous, free, and emancipated. Rather, readers are used to create content that they will consume and comment on: everybody is naturally (and without pay) contributing, through web visits metrics, content sharing, "citizen journalism" (proletarian journalism in fact). The most popular of public intellectuals are constantly fed with news and insights by their readers, so that they are better able to feel what will most please their audience.

Now on to Web 3.0. Or, in other words, what's next, to avoid pretentious terminology. The next stage is perhaps closer than we think. Perhaps it's already there and, far from being this "semantic web" so many technicians dream about, perhaps it is, after the transformation of people by the web and the transformation of the Web by people, the webbing of people. Of people who have been exposed to the Web and have lived the pain of becoming a drop in the furious ocean of information. What Theodore Sturgeon called "bleshing".

Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned the Encyclopedists of the precise problems that later rampaged freely through Wikipedia (and Citizendium, and other knowledge oligarchies): specialization and a thrist for power, in a place like an Encyclopedia, will make "Men" even more evil than if they were ignorant. Diderot's answer back then was that what would prevent his Encyclopedia from such catastrophe would be friendship.

(Of course, he was not speaking of the alienated, private and exclusive version of friendship that has become the norm nowadays. Perhaps "solidarity" is a closer modern equivalent. But this word is mainly used to describe friendships or alliances in the context of repression or other hardships. It is a close parent of (another buzzword) "resistance".)

Diderot's view of friendship was dignified: exalting knowledge and passion, art and ethics, universality and practicality. One can witness instances of this friendship in social networks, where there is no requirement to create a well-regulated and policed collaborative encyclopedic page.

But what is lost, in those spontaneous spaces of shared understanding (of each other and of some stuff) and shared ignorance, is permanence. Wikis offer permanence and, at same time, the type of flexibility that is required for a number of different persons to coexist and blesh.

However, such powerful structures have one inconvenience that stems precisely from their strength : these micro-Webs evolve in relative autonomy from the larger Web, and especially from the more labile social networks.

Perhaps collaborative spaces with an ethos like Diderot's are needed by "socially networked" people for them to really achieve what seems to be a constantly disappointed hope. Perhaps PI is one of them.

Monday, 11 May 2015

What is a philosophical problem? The irrefutable metahypothesis

By Matthew Blakeway

If we ban speculation about metahypotheses, does philosophical debate simply evaporate? 

Karl Popper explained how scientific knowledge grows in his book Conjectures and Refutations. A conjecture is a guess as to an explanation of a phenomenon. And an experiment is an attempt to refute a conjecture. Experiments can never prove a conjecture correct, but if successive experiments fail to refute it, then gradually it becomes accepted by scientists that the conjecture is the best available explanation. It is then a scientific theory. Scientists don’t like the word “conjecture” because it implies that it is merely a guess. They prefer the word “hypothesis”. Popper’s rule is that, for a hypothesis to be considered scientific, it must be empirically falsifiable.

When scientists consider a phenomenon that is truly mystifying, it seems reasonable to ask “what might a hypothesis for this look like?” At this point, scientists are hypothesising about hypotheses. Metahypothetical thinking is the first step in any scientific journey. When this produces no results, frustration gets the upper hand and they pursue the following line of reasoning: “the phenomenon is an effect, and must have a cause. But since we don’t know what that cause is, let’s give it a name ‘X’ and then speculate about its properties.” A metahypothesis is now presumed to be 'A Thing', rather than merely an idea about an idea.

The problem is the irrefutability of its existence. X is a metahypothetical idea, and until we have a hypothesis, we don’t actually know what we are supposed to be refuting. Popper would say that it wasn’t scientific, yet it sprang from a scientific speculation. There is a false impression of truth that actually derives from a misrepresentation of axiom. “X is a thing” actually means “’X’ is a name we have given to an idea where we don’t even know what the idea represents” and the confusion between idea and thing is born. A false logical conclusion arises, not from truth, but because incoherent statements are irrefutable by their nature.

We can trace this through the history of philosophy. Most of it can be reduced to the following two questions:

• “What is X?” and
• “Does X exist?”

- where “X” is a metahypothetical idea that sprang from a scientist speculating about a cause of an unexplained phenomenon. The “X” could represent: God, evil, freewill, the soul, knowledge, etc. Each of these is a metahypothesis that originated with a scientist seeking to explain respectively: the existence of the universe, destructive actions by humans, seemingly random actions by humans, human actions that no one else can understand, human understanding.

The question “what is knowledge?” led to thousands of years of debate that ended when everybody lost interest in it. And I'm sure that the questions “what is freewill?” and “do humans have it?” are currently going through their death throes – again after a thousand years of debate. Or take the statement: “Evil people perform evil actions because they are evil.” If you are reading this blog, you will recognise that as so incoherent that it is barely a sentence, yet the individual components of it frequently pass as explanation for human actions that we don’t like. The idea of “evil” being some sort of thing is irrefutable despite being meaningless. What is there here to refute?

The sheer persistence of any proposition concerning a metahypothesis represented as 'A Thing' is illustrated by a real debate recently. The British actor, Stephen Fry,  gave an interview with Irish television in which he argued that if God exists, then he is a maniacal bastard. [To paraphrase!]

Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist.

Giles Fraser, a Christian, responded with an article “I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either.”

If we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering.

I expect that you are positively itching to take a side in this debate. But resist the urge! Instead imagine that you are a Martian gazing down at the tragic poverty of the debates of Earth people. Fry is taking a literal interpretation of God and thereby is converting a metahypothesis into a hypothesis, but he is doing this purely with the intention of refuting it. Deliberately establishing a false hypothesis is a good debating tactic, but a dishonest one.

Fraser responds by taking the literal interpretation and passing it back into the metahypothetical – an equally dishonest tactic of making a debate unwinnable by undefining its terms. It’s like stopping the other team winning at football by hiding the ball. The effect of debates like this is to create an equilibrium stasis where the word “God” is suspended between meaning and incoherence. If it is given a robust definition, it becomes a hypothesis and is empirically refutable. And since its origins were in our inability to explain phenomena (the origin of the universe, life, etc.) for which we now have decent scientific explanations then it is pretty certain that it will indeed be refuted. But if the idea is completely incoherent, then it isn’t possible to talk about it at all. So the word exists – fluidly semi-defined – in the mid-zone between these two states. The concept “God” is an idea about an idea about a cause of unexplained phenomena. It is therefore itself unexplainable.

We can examine the birth of a metahypothesis in real time. Richard Dawkins asked in The Selfish Gene what caused cultural elements to replicate. He speculated that it needed a replicator like a gene:

But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.

An effect needs a cause. And since we don’t know what that cause is, let us give it a name and then speculate as to what its properties must be. It is beyond funny that the world’s most famous atheist is here caught employing the same method of reasoning that gave birth to the idea of “God”. We will now debate for a thousand years whether memes exist or not. However, the idea is incoherent despite sounding convincingly sciencey. The idea of the “soul” sounded pretty sciencey in Aristotle’s day. Dawkins speculates that the idea of God is a meme, but he fails to notice that the idea of a meme is a meme, and therefore he is trying to lift himself off the floor by his bootstraps.

So... if we ban speculation about metahypotheses, does philosophical debate simply evaporate? Maybe! But it would probably also stop scientific progress in its tracks. If you are in the mood for a brain spin, you might consider whether the idea of a “metahypothesis” is itself a metahypothesis.

Taking this further, if we cannot hypothesise about hypotheses, then does science evaporate too?

Monday, 4 May 2015

Poetry to Refute Dawkinsism

A special poem by Chengde Chen to launch the new blog


How to Refute Dawkins’ Atheism


Dear Professor Dawkins, 

Yes, your bestseller, The God Delusion, is bought by millions;
more so your TV debates taking on archbishops, hotly YouTubed.
“No belief without evidence”, your atheist crusade is convincing,
like sounding the new death-knell of religion, with web power.

When the believers defend faith with Scripture,
you dare them to “walk on water” or “turn water into wine”.
When they count the moral good religion brings,
you attribute enough wars and scandals to the Church.
When they’re lost for words, or deeds, and God is laughed at,
you harvest applause, like the invincible spokesman of reason.

However, let me ask you a hypothetical question: 

“If you knew it was the case that, without the fear of God,
human society would collapse, would you still reject religion?”

If you say “yes”, surely you would see how irrational you were –
worse than cutting off a man’s head to treat his headache.
A rational person, as you firmly claim to be, has to say “no” –
doesn’t this mean faith could be justified without evidence?

Reason has two functions: seeking truth and weighing expediency;
if we can’t tell if it’ll rain, we’ll carry an umbrella as a precaution.
Since “God’s existence” can neither be proved, nor disproved,
it’s reasonable for man to discipline himself with the imagination,
which wasn’t a “delusion” that happened to occur in all cultures,
but a spiritual organ driven by the evolutionary need to coexist.

Without the simple idea of the-Almighty-for-good-and-against-evil, 
what could have turned a race of jungle animal into a moral being?
True or not, the great invention of man’s “second heart”
deserves Nobel returning to history to award his best prize! 

 Yours sincerely, 

     An agnostic-who-explains-religion-with-evolution

Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here

Monday, 27 April 2015

Flat Earthers - exploring human nature

 Can graphic art offer unique and particular insights that words alone may miss?

By Tessa den Uyl

Click to expand

I believe that they can. It was as a result of working on a project to create an animated film about the processes of the imagination that I came to the idea behind these images...  And so, the drawings here (part of a longer series) are a kind of path that I followed in a bid 'to solve' a particular philosophical question

'Flat Earth' was conceived as a kind of platform to display aspects of imagination, modesty, and alertness envisioned within a character who inquires into himself about how language games determine his ways of thinking.

This central character tries to understand in what kind of landscape he sees his habits, and whatever he produces materially within that created world is not merely the reflected image of the creation that he imagines, but instead what he perceives is a privileged space, where an image becomes an epiphany, and it is in that space that he can develop his imagination.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Particles Dreaming

 By Pierre-Alain Gouanvic

What do particles know?

The original intution of Thomas Young (1802) was to reproduce the cancellation of water waves, but with light; the double slit was simply used to yield two exactly identical light sources (the same, divided in two). Notice the straight lines that seem to radiate from the source of the water waves: they are made of the cancellation of each other, and are analogous to the dark regions on the five-step picture on the right, a true depiction of the impact of electrons in an experiment made by Tanamura.

The double-slit experiment is a demonstration that light and matter can display characteristics of both classically defined waves and particles. It is also said that it displays the 'fundamentally probabilistic nature' of the universe at the quantum scale.
In the Bohm interpretation of quantum physics, the reason why single particles seem to interfere "with themselves", in other words, the reason why, in the double-slit experiment, even single particles ultimately form a figure of interference despite of the fact that they are not emitted as beams but one after the other (see the 5-step process, right), is because each of these particles have a kind of pilot wave which does interfere with itself in some circumstances like the double slit apparatus. The analogy of the sonar helps to explain the phenomenon : picture a dolphin who would have to echolocate through two holes and you get the picture!

Bohm had many analogies for the quantum potential, his revised version of the pilot wave. The sonar is one of them. The information given by the surroundings guides the dolphin, it is called 'active information'

However, what this analogy leaves unattended is the fact that particles do not "send" signals to the surrounding and do not "wait" for this signal to bounce back. Another analogy far remote from the sonar one, was given by Bohm : each particle is like a piece of an hologram, each contains information about the whole, but each is concretised in a specific context.

The 'echolocation' process would be more like a pulsation between the particle as a located entity and the particle as one concretion of the whole. Pulsating infinitely rapidly between being-discrete and being-the-whole, the particle would be more like a process taking the form of an object.
What kind of "thing" can be everything half of the time and something the rest of the time?

Humans, for starters. We, as particles, tend to forget that we also are the whole, each night. We dream.

Monday, 13 April 2015

A Philosophy of Gestures

By Thomas Scarborough


A weighty philosophical tome it may not have been, nor a seminal paper, nor a famous meeting which made the greatest contribution to modern philosophy, but a single gesture. Unusually, for a gesture – since gestures are so quickly lost in the tumult of our daily life – it was one of the best recorded gestures of time. 

Piero Sraffa – otherwise known for his lectures on economics at Cambridge – impulsively brushed his chin with his fingers. So important was Sraffa to Ludwig Wittgenstein – above all, it would seem, through that single gesture – that Wittgenstein acknowledged Sraffa in his Philosophical Investigations. The same Wittgenstein, that is, who wrote to his professor G.E. Moore: “Dear Moore,... the whole business [of acknowledgement] is too stupid and too beastly.” For such sentiments, Wittgenstein was denied his BA degree. Citations, at Cambridge, were required by the regulations.

Wittgenstein finally wrote acknowledgements in his Philosophical Investigations, but not to his mentors Gottlob Frege, or Bertrand Russell, nor to any of the luminaries he there refers to merely as “other people” – only to Frank Ramsey and Piero Sraffa. The acknowledgement to Ramsey seems somewhat cursory: through him, he “was helped”. But his acknowledgement to Sraffa is profound: "I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas in this book". And “this book”, in turn, arguably had the most consequential effects of the century, in philosophy. While it is not known which stimulus it was that Wittgenstein refers to in his book, it is generally assumed that the gesture encapsulates it all – followed by Sraffa's interrogation of Wittgenstein: 
“What is the logical form of that?”  
Sraffa need not have brushed his chin with his fingers. It might as easily have been a punch. “What is the logical form of that?” Or a hug. Even a jig. Or, for that matter, a legacy, or a rampage. President Kennedy's visit to West Berlin, we may suppose, was a gesture. The Bomb under Mururoa. The independence of East Timor. The destruction of the Twin Towers. In their broadest sense, these are gestures all. They are actions, that is, performed to convey a feeling or intention.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Monday, 30 March 2015

Plato, Democritus and Alternative Medicine

Could the history of philosophy, and in particular the unresolved debate between Plato and Democritus, explain the present debate between alternative and conventional approaches to nature and health?

'Alternative Medicine' is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "any of a range of medical therapies not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession", citing chiropractic, faith healing, herbalism, homeopathy and reflexology as examples. 1 Yet a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over one third of people preferred alternative medicine to conventional methods, citing the medical establishment's emphasis on diagnostic testing and drug treatments that did not consider the patient's well-being and health as a whole.2 Edzard Ernst, a Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter in the U.K puts usage even higher, saying that "about half the general population in developed countries use complementary and alternative medicine".3 And in some countries, notably China and India, what are considered 'alternative' treatments are central to government health strategies. 4 In fact, there are social and cultural dimensions to health policy as well as scientific and historical ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the response and acceptance of so-called 'alternative' health treatments.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Aspects of Mind

by Thomas Scarborough

Part I. Mind and Matter

I tap my finger on a table-top. I drink a glass of milk. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Such experiences seem perfectly real to me. So does the passion I have for my diesel pick-up, my grief over my grandmother's passing, or the fact that I am a Yorkshireman. Which means that, on the surface of it, my life seems real to me, through and through.

Now consider what this means to me philosophically. It seems to me, therefore, that I am living in a real world. It is not imagined, or illusory. Further, it would seem to me that I am an observer of this world, not merely a “robotic” presence there. And on this basis, it would seem to me that I have a mind which observes reality: mind here, reality there, which separates my mind from the matter which it observes.

If it were so simple. As to what reality really is, is another question. It is a problem which has become acute in recent generations. Three things in particular have changed. Firstly, the natural sciences have enabled us to get behind our surface impressions, to understand that the physical world is no more than it seems to be to me. Secondly, psychologists have discovered that our senses can all of them without exception be wrong: sight, smell, touch, and all. And thirdly, an increasingly materialistic outlook has led us to wonder whether there is any mind at all: the mind, said D.M. Armstrong, is nothing but the brain.

What should we do, then, with the old intuitive view, which leads us to set our mind apart from matter?

Monday, 16 March 2015

BBC propaganda

BBC propaganda

An alarming insight into how the BBC operates?


  Who's Churning the BBC Machine?

 • 'How the BBC became a propaganda machine for climate change zealots 
 - as recounted by its former news frontman, Peter Sissons

Based on  the Daily Wail story which in turn drew on Peter Sissons's memoirs, with additional comments by Pi editors.

Sissons diagnoses it as 'political correctness'. Worrying about manmade climate change was an incontrovertible duty - a view also taken, for example, at the Guardian and the Times newspapers. But Sisson's writes:

'From the beginning I was unhappy at how one-sided the BBC's coverage of 
the issue was, and how much more complicated the climate system was than 
the over-simplified two-minute reports that were the stock-in-trade of 
the BBC's environment correspondents.

These, without exception, accepted the UN's assurance that 'the science 
is settled' and that human emissions of carbon dioxide threatened the 
world with catastrophic climate change. Environmental pressure groups 
could be guaranteed that their press releases, usually beginning with 
the words 'scientists say..'. would get on air unchallenged.

On one occasion, an MP used BBC airtime to link climate change doubters 
with perverts and holocaust deniers, and his famous interviewer didn't 
bat an eyelid.

On another occasion, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as president in 2009, the science correspondent of Newsnight actually informed viewers: 
'scientists calculate that he has just four years to save the world'. What she didn't tell viewers was that only one alarmist scientist, NASA's James Hansen, had said that.

My interest in climate change grew out of my concern for the failings of 
BBC journalism in reporting it. In my early and formative days at ITN, I 
learned that we have an obligation to report both sides of a story. It 
is not journalism if you don't. It is close to propaganda.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Aries: A Philosophical Ramble

Posted by Mark Shulgasser


IS IT NOT SURPRISING that the birthday of each of the following Four occurs under a single zodiacal sign: Aries, the sign of Mars, God of War?

Richard Dawkins - March 26, 1941
Daniel Dennett - March 28, 1942
Christopher Hitchens - April 13, 1949
Sam Harris - April 9, 1967

In the ravings of St. John the Divine the quadriga-drawn chariot of Mars Victorious is transformed. Classical gods are overthrown and the four horses are individualized: white, red, black and pale. Each receives its own rider, but the entire figure turns from glory to destruction. The riders bring not victory but horror: sword, bow, famine, pestilence, savagery, chaos and death. This ghastly archetype, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, has been revived in the media-friendly crew known as the Four Horsemen of some sort of Atheism . . . new, militant, apocalyptic, even.

The chances of any four random individuals being born under the same sign of the zodiac are about seventeen hundred to one against. Skeptics are quick to point out that seemingly improbable things happen all the time. But the traditional association of Aries with bellicosity is too apt ignore. A crumb of possible meaning suggests the coincidence is not entirely without cause. Moreover, the traditional astrological association of Aries with things martial can be upheld.

No need to dwell again on Christopher Hitchens’ drunken belligerence. Richard Dawkins, for the Observer, is ”above all, an intellectual pugilist,” while in the Spectator,
“to be Dawkinsed . . . is to be squelched, pulverized, annihilated, rendered into suitably primordial paste.” 
Tales of the less flamboyant Daniel Dennett’s contentiousness have been scrubbed from the Internet; his newest book is an image changer about how to argue nicely. Still, Dennett’s name remains a sock puppet for anonymous atheists too spittingly angry to use real names.

Sam Harris, chin out the farthest, is a martial artist, who left this impression on an interviewer last year in an article titled “The Atheist who Strangled Me”: “Harris thinks about violence more than almost anyone else I have ever met.” (It’s worth mentioning that the interviewer, Graeme Wood, has been covering the mid-east on the ground for a decade, and presumably has met some violent people.)

As distinguished from peaceable freethinking, the militant or crusading faction of ‘new’ atheism construes God as the personification, and religion the institutionalization, of simple, demonstrable lies: evil antagonists who must be defied and exposed. The association of the Horsemen with the Ram and Mars spotlights their aggression; but more pertinently, their Islamophobia, which was recently challenged by Glenn Greenwald: “That is the hallmark of this New Atheist movement: exploiting rational atheism to support and glorify US state power and aggression; they have become a prime source for pseudo-intellectual justification of US government conduct.”

With respect to Harris and his supporters Greenwald wrote: “I can say that I haven't encountered such religious-type fervor and jingoistic and tribalistic self-love (My Side is superior to Theirs!!) in quite a long time.”

Salon’s recent “Confessions of a Secret Muslim” by Sarah Harvard was chilling reading. Ten-year-olds are being taught the preposterous and medieval notion that one quarter of the world’s population worships evil, and many educated adults agree, well-supplied with arguments by the Horsemen. Casual bigotry is sufficiently widespread now that American Muslims who can ‘pass’ do so, out of fear. The potent polemic against Islam coming from militant atheism serves this situation well. That four Aries natives galloped to the leadership is an alarm bell, because Aries natives have played a leading role in the history of modern violence.

As rainbows only occur under special circumstances on special occasions, so the role of Aries natives in generating a discourse of violence is now, thanks to the Four Horsemen, a special vantage point from which even those who are resistant to the idea may catch a glimpse of astrological meaning.

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