Archive for August, 2013

“Brave thinking about truth is the secret to happiness”

August 31, 2013

Younger Daughter returned yesterday afternoon after two nights away in the woods with her High School freshman class. With Older Daughter now firmly planted in college  (she sent a proud pic of herself hauling out the garbage from her dorm room: “see, I am learning something here”) it was a foretaste of the empty nest. What was it like? Very quiet.

The 9th graders were supposed to be “bonding,” building a body of intense communal experience and mutual trust to solidify their shared sense of themselves as uniquely in a class of their own. The classy class of ’17.

Didn’t work, she says. “There was no ‘bonding,’ there were just tics and bee stings and all the girls were getting their periods and all the boys were weird…” Reality can be harsh. But I’ll bet more bonding went on than she yet realizes.

Reality. What a concept. Her movie night request, to break the media-starvation retreat diet, was The Great Gatsby (Leo & Jay-z version). Pretty unreal. But I think I get it. “Born back ceaselessly into the past we beat on…” Look for the green light. Go, man. Hope springs eternal, even if your’re funding it with gangsta capital.

But what is real? The philosophers I like most are the ones who say reality begins with experience. That’s why WJ called the defense of experience against philosophy (what a thing for a paid professional philosopher  to say!) “my religious act.” But sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief, right? And dogmatic philosophers, no less than dogmatic religionists and ideologues in every domain, steal the meaning of personal experience. Good philosophers defend the meaning of personal experience, in fact consider it constitutive of its own tiny part of the big total picture. Part of reality.

The opposite of experience in this context is not “reality,” then. It’s dogmatism, a priorism, ideology, close-minded self-certainty, “blindness,” refusal to listen or hear…

These reflections may be useful in addressing some students’ overt and conspicuous religiosity in the philosophy classroom, which I sometimes suspect has been coached from home or church or even some other corner of the university. (“Take philosophy, but stand up and witness to it.”)

My quarrel with personal professions of religious faith in philosophy class is the same as my rejection of appeals to authority generally. If you believe X because dad or preacher or bible or teacher or tradition or a little voice told you so, that’s unphilosophical. If you believe it because you experienced something that you think supports it, and are prepared to discuss that experience and that belief, then we can reason amicably together. 

As Socrates said to Euthyphro

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy [or good] is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

And as “Mo” said to “Jesus,”

If something is good because God commands it, then morality is totally arbitrary-God could make anything good just by saying so.

“Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality,” whichever of the nine billion or so names of god you invoke. 

[full textLast Days of SocratesWoody’s Apology]

The only condition for the successful conduct of the kind of co-philosophizing we try to do in my classes is not to check your religion entirely at the door, or your irreligion, or any other heart-felt markers of who you think you are. It’s just that you agree patiently to listen to others when they describe different experiences, different lines of thought and belief from yours. Listen. Then speak. Ask questions. Then listen again. Take some notes. Give it all some quiet attention. Give yourself permission to think. Consider. Be prepared to draw a different conclusion than you drew yesterday. At least be prepared to think better of those who don’t see the world the way you do. Philosophize, don’t dogmatize.

Sound easy? No, not really. But it can be fun. It can open your eyes like nothing else. As Jennifer Hecht says, we philosophers are “convinced that thinking about these big ideas, just the pure process of mulling them over, does a person a world of good.”

And, “brave thinking about truth is the secret to happiness.”

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Choosing to like it

August 30, 2013

Still puzzling over Gretchen Rubin‘s assertion: “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you LIKE to do.” 

True? I’m still not convinced. Oh sure, whenever I exercise impulse control and (for instance) refrain from clobbering the lip-smacking gum-popper seated next to me on the commuter train, I’ve chosen to suppress an overt expression of what I’d like to do about one of the trifling annoyances of social existence that I despise beyond reason.

And sure, it feels like my preference for chocolate over vanilla is a given and not a choice. Or for baseball over football. Philosophy over concrete management studies.

Obama over Bush? I suppose I can believe that our politics partly reflect predispositions and attitudes that run deeper than reflective intelligence. But we stand to lose a lot, if we start thinking of the ballot box as just a collective mirror of antecedent and extraneous factors and not the great locus of our unforced freedom.

Joy over suffering? Happiness over misery?

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Why? No sane, sensible non-masochist would choose to push that accursed rock endlessly, nor like it. But as someone pointed out in HAP 101 yesterday, you learn to like doing the things you’ve come to understand as prerequisite to the satisfaction of other things you do like. (Like feeding your kids and watching them grow.) You cultivate the like attitude, because if the rock (the job, the marriage, the health challenge,…) is onerous and heavy enough the alternative is to hate your life and possibly end it. Sisyphus didn’t end it.

Amor fati? No, this isn’t about fate or recurrence or embracing your pain and suffering. It’s about loving your lucky life. We’re the lucky ones, one day we’re going to die takes on a different aspect, in this light. We’re even luckier if today is not that day.

But it’s always useful to remember, whether you’re Sisyphus or someone luckier, that the death clock is ticking down. It’s not stopping, while we’re killing time. Our search for meaning is now or never.

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Happy go lucky

August 29, 2013

Sissela Bok commences her exploration of happiness with a nod to luck and gratitude.

one of us had of being born, able to relish even the slightest glimmer of 
happiness… Were it not for my young mother’s newfangled ideas about happiness, I would never have seen the light of day.

She goes on to describe the extreme contingency of her own existence, predicated on her mother’s decision (supported by her father) to risk a dangerous pregnancy and trust “magical luck.” (They were the famed economist and sociologist Myrdals.)

I think we could all tell a similar story about the improbable odds against us. My own family lore notes the undesired ten year delay in my arrival on the planet. They almost gave up waiting on me.

Happiness is a HAP, subject to happenstance. You have to luck out, to get happy. In the largest sense, since we’re here, we all did. It’s cliche to say our happiness is a choice, and I don’t disagree that in many respects it is. But who really chooses to be born? Our real choices comes later, when trying to decide how we feel about being here. “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you LIKE to do,” said pop-HAP guru Gretchen Rubin. I’m not sure that’s not exactly backwards.

Nobody tells the story of our existential good fortune better than Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow:

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

I know I do. Well, maybe “spring” is not quite the word. But shouldn’t we open our eyes to the light of day and the pitch of midnight, and all be happy just to be here? Happy for the opportunity to experience happiness, unhappiness, and all points in between?

Well, if ought really implies can we need to turn our gaze back the other way. What happens to happiness for those whose experiential machinery goes haywire? That’s the big question in our novel (that I remind students to jump on early).

“No free lunch?” asks Richard Powers’ Happiest Girl in Generosity. It’s all a free lunch. We shouldn’t even be here. But Thassadit Amswar is not by birth or upbringing a first-worlder, she’s from Camus’ Algeria. That doesn’t stop her from beaming, until she falls into the clutches of American biotech profiteers. (I’d better stop right there. Read the novel please.)

Still, it’s too easy for we complacent children of western privilege to say life’s a gift and a joy on even the worst days. If every day were a struggle of survival and a battle against disease and oppression, one might think oneself happier not to have landed on this orb. This is an illusion of course. Oblivion enjoys no state of mind or soul whatsoever. Gratitude does not arise for the unliving, at either end of life’s brief span.

That’s been called a comfort, by everyone from Epicurus to Twain. I wasn’t perturbed about not living before, why should I fret about the prospect of it after?

And there are many more good questions previewed in Bok’s opening chapter on luck.

What are the wisest steps to take in the pursuit of happiness? What moral considerations should set limits to such pursuits? What else should matter in human lives aside from happiness? How should we weigh our own happiness against that of others in a world where we are aware, as never before, of extremes of misery and opulence? How might we best take into account what we are learning about the effects of our individual and collective choices on the prospects for the well-being of future generations? And how should we respond to individuals and groups advocating intolerant or outright inhumane conceptions of happiness or well-being?

Tip of the ice-berg.

Here’s Sissela and her husband the former Harvard president, eagerly discovering and understanding the universe of human flourishing.

HAP 101: our first class was a near-model in civil exchange, despite evidently sharp differences of perspective amongst some of us. There was just the hint of a little dust-up after class, which prompted my light comment here (2d paragraph).  Remember: a good argument isn’t just saying “no it isn’t,” and it’s not an ad hominem questioning of others’ motives or credentials (or an appeal to the special authority of one’s own). Let’s all continue to do what almost all of us did last time: play nice, be respectful, disagree agreeably. Have fun. Be happy. Speaking of which, I have Happy news! Carlin Romano’s coming to visit our department, on November 8, as the inaugural Fall Lyceum speaker! Watch for details. Now,

ready for our first Happy Hour, HAP 101? Look for the Dean of HH at Boulevard B&G shortly after class. I’ll join you soon as I return my MTBike to the Rec Center.

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“Who’s your favourite philosopher?”

August 28, 2013

That’s the Philosophy Bites question we take up today in CoPhi. If you think it puts Descartes before the horse you can revisit What is Philosophy? first, as we did last year. (That was the first bad phil-pun I heard, first day of Grad School. Not the last. Blame it on Cogan.)

We don’t all agree on what philosophy is. Not even we “Americanists,” amongst ourselves. But we try to disagree agreeably. A little post-HAP 101 exchange between a pair of students threatened for a moment to become disagreeable (unlike the class itself, which was thrilling in its impassioned civility). May have to make them watch the Argument Clinic. “An argument isn’t just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes,” etc. etc.  But I don’t want to argue about that.

I don’t have a “favourite”… but my favorite (as I’ve already told my classes, on Day #1) is of course William James.

It’s no surprise that David Hume outpolls everyone on the podcast, given its Anglo-centric tilt, or that Mill and Locke pick up several votes. They’re all on my short list too, as is Bertrand Russell. (I notice that my Vandy friend Talisse is one of the handful of Americans here, and he, like Martha Nussbaum, picks Mill. Sandel picks Hegel.) Other big votegetters: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.

No surprise either that James, Dewey, Peirce, Santayana, Rawls, and other prominent Yanks don’t win wide favor across the pond.

I did hear a British philosopher praising James once, on the BBC’s excellent “In Our Time.” But generally they prefer William’s “younger, shallower, vainer” brother Henry, who lived most of his adult life in Sussex.

The British roots of American thought do run deep. Stay tuned for info on our Study Aboard course, as it moves from drawing board to future reality.

Why do I find WJ so compelling? Hard to put my finger on a single reason, there are so many. I was first drawn to him through his marvelous personal letters. Then, his essays (“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” “What Makes a Life Significant”) and lectures-cum-books (Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe). His warm, charming, playful, disarming, sympathetic personality shone through all. He was so great at tossing off wit, profundity, and practical wisdom with seeming effortlessness and concision. A born tweeter. But his health, physical and emotional, was a lifelong challenge. He expended vast effort to become William James.

The thing James said that’s stuck with me longest and made the most lasting impression, I think, is the little piece of youthful advice he once wrote to a despondent friend. I mentioned this in HAP 101 yesterday. I’m not quite sure why, but it lifts my mood every time I think of it:

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Is this true? Maybe. Is it useful? Definitely.

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Happy days are here again!

August 27, 2013

So happy to be teaching HAP 101 again, as of this afternoon!

Each time’s different. (Well, duh! someone’s thinking.) But I mean that each time has a different hook, and a mostly-different set of texts. (Only Jennifer Hecht keeps recurring, she’s just so smart + funny and multi-thematic that I can’t give her up.)

The hook this time is meaning: to what extent, if any, is genuine happiness and flourishing possible in the absence of a correlatively-robust sense of meaning, purpose, telos,  or goal-directedness? If we agree with Aristotle that happiness is the one great intrinsic good in life, are we also committed to his view that happily-meaningful lives must be assessed in toto and post facto? Can a meaningless life be happy in any meaningful sense? Can a profoundly meaningful life ever be truly unhappy? And were Woody Allen and Bertrand Russell and Douglas Adams right, that the meaning of things is forever so elusive that we should just “hang the sense of it” and get on with finding personally-meaningful “distractions” to divert our attention from the truly terrifying nullity at the base of existence?

We’ll think of a great many more questions, related and tangential. Some of us might even answer a few of them, if only to our own provisional and fleeting satisfaction.

I think our Happy Hour Chairman-by-acclamation, Dean (let’s just call him Dean of Happy Hour) has given us a good taco-inspired slogan: Live mas!

Isn’t that precisely what the pursuit of happiness aims to corral? Life, the more the better? I keep coming back (as some of you know all too well) to William James’s perspective on all this. He was talking about religion, but more broadly he was speaking of our compulsive human thirst for happiness. “Not God but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is… the end of religion.” It is its own end. That’s why I repeatedly bend so far against my own personal sense of life’s greatest meanings, which are invariably evolutionary and progressive, to try and accommodate varieties of religious experience I can never share (nor want to). “The pluralist form takes for me a stronger hold on reality…”

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You don’t have to follow me

August 26, 2013

It’s Opening Day!

Not only that, it’s also my first time in Forrest Hall, the ROTC Building on our campus. (They turned the classroom across the hall in our building into three new offices and a conference room. Must keep reminding myself: Growth and change are good!)

Above the door in FH 203 it says high standards are “ruthlessly enforced.” And on the rear wall it says “Follow Me!”

Perfect excuse to pull out one of my favorite Opening Day routines, from the Pythons:
And, perfect excuse to bring my own “terrible swift sword” prop to class. I’ll brandish it pseudo-savagely, to reinforce Brian’s point that in fact “you don’t have to follow me, you don’t have to follow anybody!” We’re all leaders here, in voicing our own views and giving a respectful hearing to others’ in turn.
And we’re here to wonder, with the whale, what’s next.

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Our chief weapons

August 24, 2013

The annual Fall Faculty Meeting in Tucker auditorium yesterday felt to some of my colleagues less like the falsely flattering pep talk it usually is, and more like a public scolding by our university president for the benefit of those tight-fisted GOP state legislators sitting just before him in the front row. They must’ve loved seeing Bill Ford, proud adviser to the Young Republicans and past scourge of our philosophy department, receive his lifetime achievement award. Graciously too, I must admit.

“If students interrupt your day you’re in the wrong profession!” True enough. Teaching at every level should always be “student-centered.” So should research, at least in the sense that it (like the best teaching) is ultimately auto-didactic.

But the new public university mantra “retention and graduation” began after awhile to remind me of MLK’s alliterative allusion to George Wallace, “lips dripping with nullification and interposition.” Of course we want to keep our students for four good years and then send them into the work-world with minds made full and curious and compassionate (as described in that wonderful Rhodes vision statement).

We also want to be sure our students are not just racing through a curriculum modeled on the industrial assembly line. I’m uncomfortable when my president speaks of the library, for instance, as a mere source of “input” not to be allowed to interfere with churning out our “product” (a degree-holding and employable new worker for the 21st century) on deadline.

“We can philosophize all we want” about this results-oriented  approach, President McPhee allowed, but the “reality” is that public higher education now must deliver the goods. And to underscore the point, he held up the morning’s newspaper with its headline about the Tennessee approach being applauded by President Obama as a possible model for the nation. He looked just a bit like Harry Truman in 1948.

And he’s right, there’s nothing more important in education than student success properly defined. And yes, again, the cost of higher ed is shameful. It can’t be lowered soon enough (especially for those us with kids in college.) We can’t fix a broken system or insure student success, though, guys in the front row, without taxpayer support.

But OK, I’m ready. After lunch in the shiny new grand ballroom of the shiny new Student Center (speaking of student-centered learning at all costs) with grousing colleagues from other disciplines (those from mine bailed, but I never skip a free lunch) I stuck my head into the bookstore and confirmed that all my books are indeed on the shelves, waiting to be whisked up by knowledge-hungry young minds.

(So students, please do your jobs: acquire and read them: HAP 101 top right, CoPhi bottom left.) One distressing feature of the new student-centered paradigm has been a greater administrative tolerance for those students who report that they just don’t like to read. Despite current trends, though, I’m not an administrator.)

Then, I popped over to Forrest Hall. It’s the ROTC building on campus, and (since we lost our old classroom across the hall) the venue for my first class of the new semester Monday.  The walls of my new classroom are a little scolding, too.

Yes, our chief weapons include a ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the, umm, Provost? Gotta love this new era of accountability.  Don’t forget fear and surprise.

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The best prescription

August 23, 2013

“What else?” That was Dr. S’s repeated prompt, at my annual physical exam. What used to be a quick formality to appease the insurance overlords has become an extended exercise in complaint. Mostly hypochondriacal, I suppose. But I don’t make fun of hypochondriacs anymore.

The doc didn’t say my complaints were misplaced. He did say he had no magic bullets to address any of them. The blood work results will tell the rest of the story. The good news, meanwhile, is that BP’s low, BMI’s above average, the prognosis is generally positive. “Keep your health, your Splendid health…”

I went straight from my exam to the Opening Day event sponsored by the local chapter of Older Daughter’s new school’s alumni association, and there met a parent approximately my age who also talks for a living, and who’s just come through the nightmare of tongue and throat cancer. His speech was obviously altered, and so was he: evidently for the better. Surviving a mortal scare can be uplifting and inspiring. Congenitally healthy people may lack a proper appreciation for the simple ability to draw one breath and then another.

The perceptive Richard Ford has written that there eventually comes a time in every long life when you can spot the very thing that’s going to get you, on the distant horizon. It keeps coming closer and closer, and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Oh, you can waive a flag and worry and complain, but it’s coming. Better not to worry, just look for ways to enjoy and optimize the day before you.

Isaac Asimov said if he received a death sentence he’d just type faster.

George Santayana said there’s no cure for birth and death except to enjoy the interval.

And Dr. S finally said the best medicine he could prescribe for my aching joints, tired muscles, chaotic colon, eccentric alimentary  system, and all, was just to keep on doing what I do: walk daily, swim, hike, and bike frequently, and stop in for a friendly chat with my GP annually.

What else?

Don’t worry too much about what else might be coming. Type faster.

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Keeping in touch

August 22, 2013

When Older Daughter was still toddling I introduced her to the big rollerball computer mouse, the one designed for tiny undexterous hands, and set her up with a bunch of CD-ROMSs like JumpStart Toddler, Freddy Fish, & Little Critter. That’s probably why she says I’m the guy who made her the way she is today, and that a lot of people have a bone to pick with me over that. But I think she’s turned out pretty well.

One of her first CDs was “Get Ready for School, Charlie Brown!”

Why am I thinking about that this morning? Well, because yesterday was her first day of college. I’ve already been mildly upbraided for texting at inopportune moments, over-monitoring her status as I suppose a parent’s expected to do. We didn’t have to deal with texts or emails or skypes or facetimes or facebooks or tweets or whatever,  from our parents. Mine barely called or wrote at all day-to-day in ’75, as I recall… though Mom did come racing up the highway with her nurses’ kit early in my freshman year, when I complained on the phone of an upset stomach.

And Dad was a fairly frequent visitor too, come to think of it. He liked to drop in on Wednesdays, his day off, with tools. (I was living in an old house off-campus, he was honing his landlord fix-it skills.)

Well, Older Daughter, don’t worry. You’re twice as far from home as I was, I won’t be turning up on your doorstep unannounced. But, when’s Parents’ Weekend again? (Just kidding. I know exactly when it is. Better get started tidying that dorm.)

I will however be thinking of you, and dropping the random “Forever”-franked postcard in the mail. Like the one in my pocket…

THUR, AUG 22, 5:30 AM. This is quiter & less obtrusive, & more fun, than a text. No? Went to the Nashville chapter alumni event at Bosco’s last night, met some nice parents of other frosh like yourself… & a young woman, class of ’08, who lived in the dorm room across from yours. An English major, then (without premeditation) a law student at Ole Miss, then hired to work in D.C. Had said she’d be done with Tennessee, when she got her degree. Her friend & classmate made roughly the same circuit, via Chicago. And here they (happily) are. So, as the old Cards’ pitcher Joacquin Andujar once said (employing his “favorite English word”): Youneverknow. 

Sure is quiet over on the other side of that wall behind me. Hope your 1st day was great. Love, Dad

I also hope she’ll save these postcards, I have enough to get us through four years and a nice collectors’ box to return ’em to, in what only feels like the far future of 2017.

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The art of looking

August 21, 2013

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” And that’s why you need a liberal education. You don’t just want a job and a paycheck, you want a meaningful and rewarding vocation. You want a good life.

Andrew Delbanco was quoting a colleague in his book about what college was, is, and should be. I’m stealing the line, it’ll be useful in recruiting travelers for our Study Abroad course in Oxford and environs.

We had another very encouraging meeting about that yesterday with representatives of ISA, who say they’ll be happy to help us build and customize our course. We’re on track to go over and scout locations next summer, before rolling out the course in the summer following. 

It’s going to be a walking course, in the noblest peripatetic tradition. And so it was more than fitting that my colleague and I had a productive brainstorming conversation about how we’ll do it as we ambled back from the Student Center to our building on the other edge of campus. 

We’re thinking the way to go, at least part of the time on the ground in Britain, will be to break ourselves and our students into a pair of smaller herds. We’ll walk-and-talk independently, in the process “customizing” our general theme (how British “roots” influenced the development of American philosophy, and reciprocally how American ideas have subsequently “branched” into the Anglo/European environment) in our own ways.

By the way, English majors and other humanities types: we’re not taking a narrow path here. The literary, cultural, and historical (as well as philosophic and scientific) “milieus” will matter deeply, in our course. We’ll plan an outing to William James’s “younger, shallower” brother Henry’s home in Rye (Sussex), we’ll look for the trail of Dickens (who famously perambulated in London after midnight)…

 In short, we’ll take to heart William’s familiar observation that our experience is what we agree to attend to. We’ll attend to as much as we can, and will have a richer learning experience for it. We’ll really look at, and into, and behind, our surroundings.

That’s the message in a recently celebrated book called The Art of Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz.

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you… A better way of thinking about attention is to consider the problems that evolution might have designed “attention” to solve. The first problem emerges from the nature of the world. The world is wildly distracting. It is full of brightly colored things, large things casting shadows, quickly moving things, approaching things, loud things, irregular things, smelly things.

Right. Henry James said his challenge as a writer was to be one on whom nothing was lost. That’s impossible, but it’s a worthy aspiration for our course and our trip. And our lives.

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