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There's Nothing Left

 It's weird missing something that you didn't realize was there in the first place.  I don't know what it was that allowed me to write, helped me get up in the mornings, or really care at all about my life and what I'm doing.  Whatever that was, I don't seem to have it anymore.

I would hate to admit that it was money, but if I'm going to take a tally of the things I don't have anymore, that would certainly be one of a few.  No money, so no way to buy food.  I'm going through whatever remains in my fridge and in my shelves.  Most of it has gone bad, and what is still edible only remains because I couldn't bring myself to eat it in the first place.  Not much to eat means not much energy, means not much of a sunny disposition.

Which all makes it harder to write and look for work.

At this point I could invoke the metaphor of a snake eating it's own tail, but I'm not that desperate for imagery.  Not yet.

Several good opportunities have passed me by because of this slump.  Good gigs, jobs where I could be writing.  Heck, I could even be making my own opportunities right now.  Live that life, dream that dream.

I resolved to do just that, not too long ago.  I was tired of just signing up for whatever would pay my bills, I was frustrated because no matter what I was doing, I never seemed to be able to get my act together and find myself a career- a job that I wanted and wanted to do well, that I could do well.  That thought, just being able to tell myself that this is what I was going to do, made me happy.

But I have no money.  No money for food, or rent, or bills, or PAX.  So I don't have that luxury.

So here I am back at the beginning, wondering what I'm missing, and wondering how long I will last this time before I give up. Again.

Watching the Federal Election on May 2

Dear Vancouverites,

Does anyone know of any bars or public spaces that will be showing the federal election results on Monday night?

Thank you.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood Review

TLDR: This game is great, where the hell was it last year?

I love the Assassin's Creed Franchise.  There, I said it.  No, I don't love it in the way that I got the DS and PSP spinoffs, I don't dress up like Altair for PAX and I don't own an Assassin's Creed II hoodie (though it wasn't for lack of trying).  What I enjoy is the way they play around with history.  The stories take place around genuine historical events, the characters were mostly real people and they were built using real portraits and historical accounts, as were the cities.  They use these settings and characters to tell a rather unique story that blends myth, symbolism, and history.

That's AWESOME.  Granted the first game was a bit tedious in a few ways, but the gameplay felt new and I never tired of running around in the 12th century stabbing templars.  It also dealt with one of my favourite topics- the Hashashin.  I wrote a paper about this strange Islamic sect before the game came out, and was stunned to see so much of their myths in the game.  No, they didn't cut off their fingers to prove their loyalty, but according to Marco Polo they did jump off towers and were tempted to serve the "Old Man on the Mountain" by a garden full of young virgins.

Anyway, history boner.  

AC II was more of the same, but better.  The missions and side missions weren't as repetitive, the gameplay was a bit more complex, and there was a lot more game there to enjoy.  It was still steeped in history, this time dealing with the Medici family in Italy, the Pazi Conspiracy, and even people Like Machiavelli, Leonardo DaVinci, and the Borgia family.  But I found it hard to care about Ezio, the new protagonist.  I also learned to dread the 2012 cut scenes and missions.  I don't know what happened, but your supporting cast looked terrible and sounded like a bunch of whiny teenagers trying to escape from the crusty old dean.  In the original AC I found the "modern" scenes really fleshed out the plot and the relationship between the characters.  In AC II they felt like punishment for having fun.  

And now we come to AC: Brotherhood, and once again it feels like the same thing but better, a lot better.  I finished AC II a few days before I started playing Brotherhood and I could immediately notice a difference in the presentation.  The characters always looked a bit dark and unfinished in AC II, but in Brotherhood everything looks a lot crisper and cleaner.  There is still the occasional "popping in" of the background, but other then that this game can look intense.  

I'm not going to be able to do this game justice just by talking about it so do me a favour.  Go to the Pantheon.  No, no, not the real one.  If you own Brotherhood and haven't seen it yet, go there, it's near the center of Rome.  Even if you have seen it already, go back and take a look.  Take in the courtyard, the dead leaves constantly falling around you and blowing in the wind.  Now walk between those giant pillars into the church proper.  Listen to the sounds outside echoed and amplified within the giant dome.  Just take a moment and take it all in.  
If that doesn't move you, then sorry, I guess this review won't help you.  Also, if you can look at that, and then look at the original Mario Bros. games, consider the evolution required to reach this point, and then tell me that this is "just a game" and "will never be art" then I can't help you either.  

So back on track- Brotherhood picks up immediately after the close of AC II, which can be worrying for a game that could seem like it was shoe-horned into a trilogy.  There was a lot of worry that this was just an attempt to generate more revenue before the close of the calendar year, rather than actually trying to provide some substance.  I can safely say that Ubisoft have produced something that is worth your money, it is the best of the franchise.

In the closing hours of AC II I felt well... bored.  I was rapidly losing sight of why I cared about Ezio and his quest for vengeance against the templars- mostly because there was just so much stuff to do that wasn't really related to the antagonists themselves.  I swear I had a mission to assassinate someone because he was having lots of portraits made of himself in order to "skew history."  Seriously, I was being paid to murder a guy for being narcissistic.  The Assassin tombs were a neat way to get some platforming in between bloody assassinations, but they also felt like filler.

In Brotherhood everything is more focused.  Everything you do is about Rome, rebuilding it and winning it back from the influence of the Borgia- and all the gameplay elements are baked into that.  The Assassin tombs are now lairs for the Cult of Romulus and integral to the overall story.  Your sights are pretty much always on the Borgia family, a corrupt bunch of incestuous, arsenic enthusiasts torn right out of the history of Rome and the papacy.  

There are also these missions which act like little vignettes, going back into the timeline you went through in AC II that serve to fill out Ezio's character.  Flashbacks, I have found, are rarely done well in video games.  They feel forced, awkward, sometimes completely unnecessary.  This is not the case here.  

The last thing I want to talk about in this weird and poorly arranged review is the new multiplayer element.  Basically it is a typical death match scenario- you are given a contract to kill a certain player model, and other players are given contracts on you.  The level is populated with copies of your model and other player models, and so the whole point is to track down your target while avoiding your own assassin.  You get skills and perks as you gain levels, such is the New Multiplayer Commandment sent down from us from on High (Call of Duty).  So these, along with a not very accurate compass, are your only way to tell which person in the crowd of NPCs is your target.  

That and your own wits.  And it's fantastic.  

You get more points for sneaking up and your target and murdering them without their knowing.  But that can, in the familiar hyperbole of the younger generation, TAKE FOREVER.  And often in the time it takes to sneak up to your prey, moving from crowd to crowd, judging angles, distances and wind speed, someone else will come along and stab your target.  So typically there are two kinds of players in this game.  There are the ones who try for the subtle and often genuinely surprising takedown, taking their time to get kills that will net them a strong return on their nefarious investment, and the the ones who run around on the rooftops like it's some kind of reboot of the Running Man.  

I usually handle these ADHD addled villains by selecting my hidden gun and casually picking them off from a safe distance. I then turn and peer cautiously in the distance, ready to accept my next bounty with poise and professionalism.  It's usually about then that someone casually moves through the crowd and pops me like a pez machine.  

This all assumes that I have actually managed to make it into a game, which is a sincere and honest problem.  Waiting for a connection can, no lie, take upwards of fifteen minutes, which is a deal breaker these days, and sometimes won't even happen at all.  This is especially disconcerting when trying to play with a few friends, since after you set up a group and fail to immediately find a game, which WILL happen, you have to set it all up again.  It's all a huge pain in the ass, and I hope they fix it soon.

That said, it's pretty much the only blemish on this otherwise excellent video game.  The ending especially left me shocked and wanting more, which is saying something since the finales to Assassin's Creed and AC II are absolute crap.  

The Social Network Review

It's said there are child prodigies in only three areas: math, music and chess. These non-verbal areas require little maturity or knowledge of human nature, but a quick ability to perceive patterns, logical rules and linkages. I suspect computer programming may be a fourth area.
-Roger Ebert on The Social Network
 

The movie opens with a very unflattering look at the protagonist, Mark Zuckerberg, a young man with an incredibly nimble mind and absolutely no social graces.  No one in the movie ever says the word 'asperger's' but it's there, lurking and never used, because this is Aaron fucking Sorkin we're talking about here, and he would sooner die telling you something rather than showing it to you.

Let's back up.

Months and months ago I was informed that a movie was coming out about the creation of Facebook.  It would be directed by David Fincher (cool) the soundtrack would be assembled by Trent Reznor (awesome) and Atticus Ross (also awesome) and it was going to be written by Aaron Sorkin (totally boss).  In the late 90's and early 2000's Sorkin was writing the best stuff on TV (in my completely unbiased and increasingly bracketed opinion) with Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip If you don't believe me, take a look for yourself.  Or in a nutshell-

No American dramatic writer wrestles more consistently, or enthrallingly, with issues involving the remorseless hyperspeed of the communications profession. And Sorkin is one of a small handful whose mere name is enough to evoke an entire conversational style—jabbing, self-aware, propulsive. It’s the sound of characters whose minds and mouths work faster than those of the people around them, guys whose conversational aesthetic is, in Fincher’s phrase, “about the absolute total tonnage of words.”
-Mark Harris, Inventing Facebook

Honestly it didn't matter much to me who was doing the score and who was directing, Sorkin's name is enough to get me in the door every time. 

So, back to the beginning of the movie, as Mark's girlfriend storms off, fed up with his aparent inability to say anything nice or even coherent, we are given a question to ponder throughout the rest of the film.  Is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole?  As we are taken on this journey we are given many glimpses into what probably happened in the early days of this internet start-up: backstabbing, sins of omission, outright lies, money, the works.  There is plenty of reason to doubt whether what we are seeing is an accurate portrayal of what happened, but as Sorkin has said, "I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling."  The point isn't whether or not these things actually happened, the point is to tell a good story, a convincing a story, a story that will inspire people to figure out what really happened, to argue about it, to have a dialogue. 

Anyway, we get all the way to the last scene of the film before the word 'asshole' is leveraged against our admittedly anti-heroic Zuckerberg.  But this time it's less an accusation and more a piece of advice, almost an apology.  "You aren't an asshole Mark, you're just trying so hard to be one."  And he has, for the length of the film he is wanting to be part of that in crowd, part of exclusive organizations at Harvard, the stuff that past US presidents were members of.  He thinks it's a key to "a better life."  But in that last scene, after he has enough money to buy most of Harvard, after he has been friends and business partners with people like Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, and after he has, by all accounts "made it" all he can think about is that one girl, at the very beginning, the one who said he was an asshole and meant it.  As a brief synopsis of what would happen after the events of the movie is superimposed on the screen, we see Mark patiently hitting 'refresh' over and over, uncharacteristically still, hoping that the one that got away will accept his friend request.  None of the money or fame matters in the end, he just wants that connection, something genuine.

The real mark Zuckerberg has said that he didn't invent Facebook to get accepted into the clubs at Harvard, and I think on final analysis that the fictional Mark in The Social Network didn't want that either.  What he wants is to create something that will get him recognition, not necessarily into the popular crowd.  But what he ends up doing is (it could be argued) creating something just as hearltess and impersonal as the vain and inconsequential hook-ups we see being made  at exclusive parties by the "in crowd" at Harvard.  He isn't an asshole, he's just trying so hard to be one. 

Stephen Fry once said Oscar Wilde's short stories were more parables, and I think that's true for Sorkin as well.  It always seems like he his trying to get us to think about something, to build us up, rather than simply entertain.  I really like that. 






"... can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?"

Pax Day One- Part Two

For me this story doesn't begin with the start of the play, it doesn't begin when I arrived an hour and half early to find that the Enforcers were already considering cutting the line off.  It doesn't begin with the director putting on a show with less than a week of rehearsals.  It begins 6 moths ago, at PAX East in Boston, where Cameron McNary did a read through of "Of Dice and Men" with actors he barely knew just so he could have something to bring to PAX.  I kept reading the reviews that came out of that read through, wondering if this showing at PAX Prime was just going to be a bunch of guys reading from a script or if it would be closer to the real deal.  A play PAX, can you imagine?

But as the night wore on and more and more people were turned away I got a little bit more confident about my decision.  The seating in one of these rooms is abysmal for a play, and I was quickly reminded why elevated seats are so important.  We were sitting near the back and we had to do a lot of neck stretching to be able to see the actors, but in the end that didn't really matter.  We only a get a few moments into the play before we come to the first joke about D&D.  One of the characters picks up an old book, the Tomb of Horrors module for D&D, and before he can even get to the joke about how many times his character died going through that legendarily sadistic adventure, the audience is laughing. 

I don't play a lot of D&D, and neither did my friends who were with me, but that didn't matter.  We were in an audience full of players, full of people who had been at this since the first red and blue boxes, full of DMs who have been at this long enough to hate the fourth edition and to miss Gary Gygax when he died in 2008.  It was a play about D&D playing to an audience who, if they didn't spend years playing the damn thing, know enough about the genre to get the jokes.

Can you imagine? 

Maybe it was just a perfect storm- a whole audience guaranteed to give a good review to a play that depicts RPers in a positive and compassionate light, that explains the game and why people were drawn to it.  But that's the thing- it wasn't that the play did this because the audience would have forgiven any sin, that we didn't notice that it had sweeping generalities- it performed because it was a genuine and smart story about people who play D&D, a faultless plot with a climax that almost got it's own standing ovation. 

Yeah, they were preaching to the choir, but you know what?  That's how you make them sing, and by the end of the play they were singing all the way from the bottoms of their socks. 

At the end of it, once we finally got quiet, Cameron McNary stood up in front of us and said, very plainly, that he wanted to be able to tour the play, to bring it to people who don't play D&D, to expose everyone else to what we were lucky to witness.  But to do that requires money and they, very simply, didn't have enough to make that happen.  So they flashed some websites, answered some questions and... that was it.  That was the end of my first night at PAX, and one of the best plays I had ever seen.

I honestly can't get excited about a lot of nonprofit groups- I gave money to Greenpeace for a while, and then to Amnesty International but that was it.  I am genuinely upset by the fact that I can't afford to give money to these guys, but maybe you can.

Critical Threat Theatre- The theatre company behind the play. 
Of Dice and Men at Indiegogo- give money and get cool stuff too!

PAX Day One- Part One

Thinking back on Friday, all I can see is that night, what transpired that evening in the Unicorn theatre (yes, that's the kind of thing they cal the conference rooms during PAX).  It was amazing, and made me optimistic about the future of gaming culture. 

But of course a lot happened that first day- like the keynote with Warren Spector.  This was a bit different than the keynotes of the past.  Usually they are a rallying cry for gamers, which is fine, but this time Warren encouraged us to stop hating games that are trying to be more mainstream, and social games like Farmville.  These, he said, are the signs of a medium coming into its own, that games weren't just for the stereotypical social outcast.  Now, more than ever, games are something that everyone can enjoy, and we shouldn't shy away from that fact.  He encouraged us to leave PAX and instead of doning our protective, insulary gear of cynicism and superiority, we should rather share our love of games, to spread that feeling like an Exalted March, bringing more people into the fold, rather then judging them unworthy just because they enjoy their games through Facebook. 

Immediately following the keynote, as per the ancient tradition, was the first Q&A session with the creators of Penny Arcade, Jerry "Tycho" Holkins and Mike "Gabriel" Krahulik.  That moment tends to divide the crowd up into those who have come to PAX to enjoy games and those who have come to see some geek celebrities.  I'll admit, I stuck around, but it's less that I'm a fan (okay, maybe I really like the way Tycho writes, but that's hardly my fault.  I mean, he said "I could never decide if I wanted to be Douglas Adams or H. P. Lovecraft when I grew up, and now that I'm grown up, I've decided that I don't have to choose," what the hell choice did I have?)  But there's more to it than that, I just like these guys.  They're talented, smart, fun, and have a sense of humour most of us identify with on sight.  That and they have a job most of us would commit bloody murder for.  So I suffered through a couple of fanboy/girlisms, awkward questions, and some great jokes, because realisticaly, that's the only time you get with them at PAX. 

Right, here's to hoping that didn't come off as creepy.

After that was some time on the show floor, which this year pretty much passed me by like a drunken haze.  Part of that was the preponderance of games that I didn't care enough about to invest in the serpentine lines required to really experience them.  But there will be more about that later. 

That afternoon was the first of two Panels That I Absolutely Positively Had To See- Making Stories Worth Playing, a panel composed mostly of text adventure writers and some game writers, trying to weild their wit and experience against that most ellusive of beasts- a decent video game story, and how on Earth you are to wrangle that into a palatable product.  It was all kind of... meta.  It may have been the pre-PAX revelry of the night before, or the siren melody of the presenters, but most of the population of the back few rows left before the talk was over and a lot of people were nodding off.  I dunno, listen to it and you can be the judge. 

Then there was time for more of that exhibit hall spirit quest business, and a chance to drop off my free crap at the hotel before proceeding to that mysterious thing I mentioned at the beginning of the post.  At 7:30, in the Unicorn theatre at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, there was to be a play, "Of Dice and Men."  It was billed as a play about Dungeons and Dragons.  Before I go any further, I want to apologize.  I want to apologize because there will never be a way for me to fully communicate my thoughts about this play.  Like a mystic whispering his thoughts about God to the desert, my words will never be enough to explain what it was that I saw, but I'm going to do my best, because God damn.  

God damn.

(Continued in part two)





Pre Pax

There are things in this world that will take me apart.  There are places that, upon witnessing them, I will be divided into my component parts, broken down into small cubes that will fall into a pile, along with my ego and all my rationalizations, and I will be left exposed to a truly ecstatic experience.  Places like St. Peter's Basilica, or the Stanza della Segnatura in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, or things like the Gutenberg Bibles.  The simple of act of putting myself in front of these things will bring me to my knees, and in those few moments I would have no doubt of that otherwise unconfirmable Other.  They call to me, like some sinister Elder God, setting out my path towards those points, a trail I cannot help but follow. 

PAX is as close as I have ever come to that kind of experience.  It is an idea bigger than myself, a thing that I will never fully experience no matter how hard I try.  Everyone will come away with different memories, and everyone goes to it with different goals and expectations. 

Pax means peace, and that is how I prefer to place it in my mind, not as the Penny Arcade Expo. That's an arcane mismatch that doesn't fully capture the bigger idea, but PAX as peace?  That does it, that puts focus on the invisible comradry that exists in that place, that underlying certainty that anyone you turn to will smile and greet you with that familiar question,

"How is your PAX?" It's like the Muslim greeting, "As-salamu alaykum," peace be upon you.  

"How is your PAX?"  "How is your peace?"  It's beautiful when you think of it like that.

But before all of that is Seattle.  I don't know what it is about that city, but it can't help but welcome you.  The skyline, once you finally get to see the city proper, is like a giant set of open arms, stretching as wide as you can see, saying "Welcome, you will be safe here."

The first night, Thursday, before PAX, navigating around that eerily familiar city (Seattle is so like Vancouver, like an estranged friend that you used to know really well) you can't help but go nerd-spotting.  Making your way to your hotel, you'll see them everywhere.  A messenger bag crossing the street, maybe a cape, long and unkempt hair, smartphones, little LCDs glowing like the unofficial nerd patch.  The whole thing feels like a pilgrimage.  Seattle is Meccah, and PAX the Kabalah, a site of veneration for an obtuse number of people that you can only really wrap your head around once a year. 

I wonder about the people who normally live there, the rest of Seattle as she tries to go about her day.  To keep pushing the Islam simile, they probably feel like the residents of Meccah during the hajj, being invaded by thousands of people for a few very intense days.  I wonder if they get used to it. 

Peace doesn't really capture it though.  It's chaos, complete madness with a hundred things going on at once.  It isn't peaceful if you just look at it, but there is a kind of peace there, when you are in the midst of it, either when you are sitting on a bean bag, waiting in line, or playing a new game.

It's not just peace, it's PAX. 

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In Defense of Valentine's Day

This is not against any one person, more so it's an answer to the prolific anti-Valentine's Day sentiment I see every year.

There was definitely a point in my life when I shared in this yearly ritual of a hate-on for this totally transparent day of gift-giving and romance.  But that was back when I was a teenager, these days I would like to think myself a little more capable of holding slightly more complex ideas in my head.  I'd like to think that I don't need to be as reactionary as I once was, but I suppose this post is evidence enough against that.  I really just felt the need to vent tonight, so to all of those folks who think it's hot stuff to jump all over V-Day:

Get over yourself.  We all know that this is about as contrived as the Easter bunny and we know that you don't need an excuse to show your love for your partner and shower them in affection and gifts.  I get it, and I'm tired of hearing it.  Your rhetoric is just as old and uncreative as the anti-Christmas crowd, who I look forward to with the same tired and patient smile every year. 

First off, I get the hallmark thing- the argument that Valentine's day is basically perpetuated by the greeting card industry.  We can all trace back the invention and justification of anything from Christmas, Valentine's, God, Krishna, and sliced cheese.  Saying that Valentine's is a "hallmark holiday" is about as illuminating as the homeless guy outside my local McDonald's who screams at passersby about the symbolism of Grimace.  The presumption that a thinking person might have missed this part of our history of ridiculous festivals has gone far beyond the stupid and is, at this point, downright insulting.  The commercial motivation of Valentine's Day are as obvious as the abysmal advertisements that accompany it. 

And to those more enlightened few that insist they don't require February 14th to celebrate the connection they have to their paramours- well done.  Seriously.  It's good to know that there are relationships that exist which don't hinge on this date.  There are people in this world who put too much emphasis on Valentine's, and I have no trouble imagining that many a relationship is broken when someone feels that their partner did not properly observe these rituals. 

But don't go patting yourselves on the back.  All this proves is that you are not hung up on an arbitrary date.  It shows that you are not stupid, which is not something I'd wager you would write home about.

You haven't shown any sort of extraordinary behavior.  What you've done isn't virtuous, you aren't communing with the Platonic Good.  It takes quite a bit of doing to do nothing for your beloved or beloveds on this day.  Everyone is choking on chocolate and candy and flowers are coming out of everyone's ass.  And if, as you are always so quick to remind me, you can and do show your adoration to your other half at any point during the year, failing to do so on Valentine's Day doesn't mean you're a saint, it means you're lazy. 

Look, I understand that one shouldn't need an excuse to show someone that you love them, other than a genuine and spontaneous desire to do so.  But from what I have experienced people could use a little reminder every now and then.  As a general rule we get complacent, so observing things like Valentine's Day, or Christmas or even the Winter Olympics helps rekindle and foster feelings of compassion, love, empathy, and togetherness.  If you can get by fine without these sorts of things fine, good for you.  But wihout these celebrations we wouldn't suddenly free ourselves of our social shackles and start building that long awaited road to a perfect utopia.  Without Valentine's Day the romantics would still be romantics and the vain would still be vain.  Nothing would change, we would just have one less nightly theme at the strip clubs.

So we could use more of these days, not less.  Right now all we have is the one Valentine's, so here is a deal- next year we both use February 14th as an excuse to make people feel happy, rather than just complain. 

Yours,
Michael

It is no Passing Matter

I am already starting to feel at home.

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Year in review. I'd give it a seven.

This year sucked, and that is a complete lie.

If I were able to rate these chunks of my life using a more objective criteria, something like 'total amount of unique experiences acquired,' then 2009 would be an unmitigated success.  There have been some real knock-outs this past year, once in a lifetime kind of events that some people will probably never see.  I'm not trying to boast, it's just a matter of logistics that only some people will get to go through these certain kinds of things in their lifetime, and I managed to pick some up.  Predictably I can only really begin to appreciate them, well... < 1 year after they occur. 

But I tend to colour my life darkly, I remember valleys more than peaks, even when standing on some very promising vantage points.  There were moments this past year where I was genuinely scared for my own safety, and in many ways I was more of a teenager this year, between 22 and 23 years of age, than I was when I was actually a teenager.  This year I had to come to terms with my adolescence and answers questions of myself that I had been ignoring.  If I hadn't, I would be dead to me.

But out of that dreadful place, where the music sucks and the pants never fit right, I arrive here.  Next year I will be living in a new place, with two beautiful people.  Next year I will be doing my own project, the Year of Faith.  Next year I will be writing a blog, and next year I will be on my way to writing a goddamn book.

Next year, if everything works out the way I want it to?  Next year will be a 10. 

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