Numinous Narnia

No links from me today, because this week has involved interviews for two very different jobs, in very different places. (Erm. Both of them have serious Winter. And they both involve education and learning. But that’s about it for the similarities.) Both are things I could see myself doing, but they’re totally different directions, which is quite cool. Anyway, that means I’ve been prepping for the interview yesterday (for one of those jobs) and the interview today (for the other) all week rather than doing.. well, much else.

But, since my interview today was at 2pm, and since the new Narnia movie came out, and since I am not often out near suburban movie theatres at times I could easily go see a movie, I bought a ticket online for a showing at 4pm, and had a lovely time watching it.

[momentary digression]

This is not a movie review:  I loved it, but it does not follow the letter of the book (and does, on review, mangle it in more than a few places), but does, to my mind, follow the spirit of it. It’s a distillation of essence, not a replica.  It is absolutely stunningly gorgeous and visually powerful, though the first line was not the first line it should have been. I recommend it. In part, I wanted to go see it in its first week because what I *really* want them to make is the Silver Chair, which has always been the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite. On which more in a moment.

But I am also a fairly deliberately uncritical watcher of most movies (except for picking on historical inaccuracies in movies that are trying to take themselves seriously that way and getting it wrong) because my head is full of literary analysis and musical analysis and historical costume design, and theatrical staging analysis and much more, and I have found that I need at least *one* media form where I do not cling that tightly to the analytical, and allow myself to get swept away by the pretty. And this was very pretty. Dazzling, in fact, and rich in detail.

(Also, in general, I believe that books and movies are different for a reason, and I’d rather see a movie do things that movie can do well, rather than try to do the thing that books do well and fail. Which, again, I think this managed, though at the expense of some of the things that make the book an amazing book.)

There are places where I cried, even while knowing perfectly well what was about to happen – or perhaps, because of it. The movie (all three of them now, really) get something right that movies don’t always do, which is the sensory richness of Lewis. There’s a point where he describes digging hands into Aslan’s mane, for example, or the richness of the colors, or the feeling of dragon scales being torn away. And the movie gets that part right.

Back to the books.

My copies of Narnia are well-worn, and from an edition that puts The Magician’s Nephew where it properly ought to be. (Which is to say, last.) They have dog-eared pages, and broken spines, and they’re going yellow, in the way that books that are thirty years old do.

They were not the first books I read, when I could read books like that – The Wizard of Oz wins that award. But they’re there, very early. And they continue to be there. They’re one of the series that are a repeated touchstone for me, as they have been for so many others. (And like many of my friends, I always wanted to be Lucy.)

But watching today, I thought about why that is. Part of it is that – given the series as a whole – Lewis actually does a fascinating job of telling different kinds of stories. You have The Silver Chair, which is in many ways a very medieval fable or lais. You have The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is partly ‘defeat big evil’ and partly coming of age. You have Dawn Treader which is very much a hero’s journey.

And yet – and especially if, like me, you have not only read his other fiction, but his non-fiction and his letters – what continues to fascinate me about his writing is the complexity of what lies beneath the surface. Oh, it’s possible to get irritated, as an adult reader, at occasionally heavy-handed allegory. (And of course, there are places where he is so very much writing from a mid-20th-century English male perspective.)

But it’s the glimpses of those depths – or perhaps, glimpses of the stained glass light through a cathedral window – that fascinate me. Those moments where questions of identity, of what it means to be a grown-up in the best possible ways, show through. Of whether honor is bravery in the face of danger (maybe), or whether it’s really something more: being willing to look at yourself, and to try and do better. Of looking at what we might have become, if we had not taken that one extra step forward into transformation and a new world.

It’s those questions that paved the way for so much of my adult reading, into the questions raised by the post-Great-War novels from Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy Sayers to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. (Of how to go on after tremendous loss, with something like grace and dignity. Most of the time.) It’s that exploration of the ‘what if’ moment that has guided my reading into character-drive science fiction and fantasy: into Lois McMaster Bujold, Pamela Dean, Emma Bull, and many others.

And there’s something in what it means to be responsible – the power and importance of knowing what you’re changing, when you’re king, or queen, or wielding magic – that also lies in the heart of the Narnia stories for me. And that, of course, has lead me deep into all kinds of non-fiction, and into one of the paths of the numinous in our world: connecting people with information that changes their lives.

I could stop there, but there’s one more thing. I mentioned that The Silver Chair is the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite, and I think it’s because it’s in many ways the most medieval of the lot. Lewis was, of course, a medievalist by profession, and his writing on courtly love is still some of the finest on the topic.

But what that reminds me of is something that it’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to place people in a tidy little box, and label them with something. What Lewis reminds me of – what Lewis *always* reminds me off – is of what we lose if we do that. If you read Narnia, you read richness and story, and heroic acts and growth and redemption and transformation. But if that’s all you read, you lose the moments of adult and mature grief that echo in some of his works. Of his own transformation from a determined bachelor into a loving husband. Of someone who could become his own devil’s advocate, or write letters to friends of great power and potential. And none of those truly touch his actual professional work, or the students he taught directly, or many other topics.

The Narnia stories echo all of that, but I think you have to be looking for it to see all the places those things are tucked away. But once you know it’s there, the glimmers and gleams of those other moments, those glimpses into sideways worlds, touching alongside ours as much as Narnia does, but just as distant, reward attention again and again.

Links of interest: December 6, 2010

(Yes, I try to do these on Fridays, but last Friday I had an interview, and the Friday before was Thankgiving. This week is busy too, so I’m doing this now.)

Last Wednesday and Thursday, I took part in a free WebJunction conference that focused on 21st century librarianship. There were lots of great ideas and discussions (and the WebJunction staff and software worked very smoothly). You can now see all the conference materials (including the presentations and the simultaneous chat sessions) online. I particularly liked Pat Wagner’s presentation on staying committed to great customer service, but there were lots of other good conversations.

On the topic of learning more, how had I missed the site until now? They ask experts in a field (anything from architectural history to political satire to mysteries to .. well, anything) to recommend five books that would give someone a solid understanding of the topic. And why, which is in many ways the more interesting bit.

And Discover Magazine has an intriguing article about using a simple writing exercise to vastly improve student achievement in a challenging class.

What’s the goal of being online?

Several links I’ve come across in the past week or so have talked about both the powers and perils of online interaction.

Doug Johnson revisits an old post of his from 2005 that talks about why restricting online access in schools is problematic. What I find interesting is how much is still like that – but also how much things have changed in some schools.

And I love Scott McLeod’s post about the things we’d be doing (differently) if we truly supported educational technology. (I’m glad to say I’ve done more than a few of them.)

Common advice to authors these days is to be involved online – but how? A post from Betsy Lerner (an agent) looks at a few of the complexities.

I’m very fond of Common Craft’s explanations of media and technology – and they’ve got a new one about social media and the workplace. Particularly great if you know people in smaller businesses trying to figure out where to get started with the subject.

And BoingBoing shared a presentation that makes one think about the power of online tools, and the importance of teaching evaluation skills – and common sense. (The actual combination of events is, as commenters point out, unlikely, but at the same time, I think it’s an interesting case study in looking at other ways to send a situation.)

For librarians and library geeks:

Links of interest: November 19, 2010

Still mulling over some of the other posts I want to do, but this week there are lots of lovely links!

Bullying and other relational aggression problems.

danah boyd has a great piece on how talking about bullying with teens might not be working because many teens don’t see relational aggression as bullying – they don’t call it that, but instead, as danah says, “They’d be talking about “starting drama” or “getting into fights” or “getting into my business” or “being mean.”

And, related, just published a chilling and powerful short story about the costs of seeking acceptance: “Ponies” by Kij Johnson.

Web design:

The San Jose Public Library system launched a brand new website this week, and it’s been getting a lot of attention. They’ve made some very deliberate choices.

Sarah Houghton-Jan, the Digital Futures manager at SJPL talks about the project at her blog Librarian in Black. And of course, links to the new site.

Emily Lloyd, at Shelf Check, highlights one very cool thing, where Sarah says in that post “Every single staff member at SJPL has been asked and empowered to create blog posts for the new site.  That means everyone.  No limiting by classification, specialization, or degree-holding nonsense.  We’re all smart.  We all have things we know about and want to share with our library users.  We currently have over 300 staff set up to create content and I couldn’t be happier.” They’re also not pre-moderating either posts by staff or comments by library users.

Their posting and commenting guidelines are over here, for the curious, and seem pretty solid.

And Brian Herzog has a great roundup of web design links and tips – focused on libraries, but with lots of general application.

Intellectual integrity:

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on the 12th from someone who says he’s had a quite lucrative business writing papers for pay. The article itself is interesting, but I also recommend the extensive discussion at Making Light that goes into various aspects in more depth (especially since the regular comment base includes a number of educators at various levels.)

Facebook news:

One of the big pieces of news on Monday was Facebook’s new messaging system. TechCrunch has a summary. And there’s another piece from Business Insider about how the complexity of the system might not be so useful. But if you’re still curious, Boy Genius Report has screenshots and other details of how it actually works.

There was also a bug which disabled a number of user accounts – apparently, all of women. SFGate has an overview and ReadWriteWeb has more. Boy Genius Report has some commentary, and also asked about the problematic request to submit government ID to get the account reinstated.  Gawker has a bit more. I’m seeing mixed reports about whether accounts have been reinstated, and will be keeping my eyes open for more this week.

One of the things I’m mulling about Facebook is their assumption that everyone uses the technology and tools and resources the same way. Which is. .. erm, not so much true. Even without getting into the topic of fake accounts, what about authors and artists who create under pseudonyms, those who use a maiden name professionally and a different name socially (or vice versa), people in the midst of name changes for any and varied reason. Any system that fails to allow for this is going to have problems. Ditto the thing about how people use different kinds of messaging for different reasons and with different people, and combining them might not actually work for a number of people.

General links:

The Carl Brandon Society (focused on authors and characters of color in speculative fiction) is holding a drawing for five e-readers.The funds raised will benefit the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, a fund that sends two emerging writers of color to the Clarion writers workshops annually. The e-readers come pre-loaded with an amazing array of reading material from writers of color in the speculative fiction field. More details and the link  to buy ($1) tickets at their site.

Iris at Pegasus Librarian has a great post on being a guest lecturer in a class rather than a librarian. I had another conversation this week that reminded me how powerful being there, being flexible, and not trying to do everything can sometimes be the most powerful learning experiences.

And Jenica has a wonderful post about what good service actually looks like.

Ideaplay has a detailed commentary on Nicholas Carr’s new book: The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. (Haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my reserve list at the library.)

WebJunction has a brief (5 minute) video with David Lee King from the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library system on 5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Patrons on the Web.

In the comments on danah’s post below, I discovered a new blog: Beyond Netiquette, which focuses on how we actually behave while using all these technology things, with some thoughtful posts and specific ideas.

The New York Times had a great piece on how digital resources and tools are deepening our understanding not just in the sciences, but also in the humanities, with links to some specific projects.

The EduBlog awards are out, with some great links to educational blogs asking great questions and sharing wonderful resources. Related, Doug Johnson has a really interesting post on what kind of value librarians and technology staff offer compared to, say, a slightly smaller class size. (He is a passionate advocate for libraries and technologies, but he’s also looking at the budget challenges.)

And in follow-ups from previous weeks, Cooks’ Source has apparently called it quits, according to a local area newspaper (and in fact the site is now down.) I continue to be bemused by the fact that Griggs keeps focusing on the initiating event, while ignoring the fact that a number of other pieces (including from much larger organizations) were also copied and taken without permission. I don’t think it’s fooling anyone.

Links of interest: November 12, 2010

Back for another round of links. (I do have some other things in the works, but they’re not quite gelling the way I’d like yet. I hope for next week; topics include a post on tech I use and why, and on the broad question of being a good librarian.)

I came across the In the Library With A Lead Pipe blog/journal due to their posts on librarian workspaces, but I’m thinking even more about about their post “X”, which is about pseudonymity and anonymity in professional (specifically library) communities.

Living online:

Anne Collier and Larry Magid have released a new version of their (free) Parents’ Guide to Facebook. Doug Johnson has a nice summary, with links to the PDF book. It’s got some great advice on specific privacy settings and considerations, and is well worth reading whether or not you have kids, if you use Facebook.

I caught an interesting piece on Talk of the Nation yesterday on NPR as I was driving, on how much employers can limit worker’s behavior – in particular, in online settings. You can read the transcript or listen to the piece (about half an hour) at the NPR site.

danah boyd wrote a fascinating piece on teenagers choosing risk reduction behaviors for online interaction that seem really odd at first glance (in one case, deleting everything posted after a short period of time, in another case, disabling the account entirely whenever she’s offline.) And yet, as danah points out, they make perfect sense in context.

Followup on last week’s stories about Cooks Source:

And other links of potential interest:

Links of interest : November 5th, 2010

Today is Guy Fawkes Day which always reminds me of how people interact with information, and how what we know about an event can shift with bias. (And which, if you know some of the history, is a really fascinating example of how to evaluate information about an event.)

Anybody for…? Emily Lloyd at Shelf Check (one of my favorite library comics) has a fascinating post about creating a social physical library – allowing people in the building to connect with other people who are there doing similar things, or would be interested (a spontaneous story-time, a chance to practice a language, play a game of chess, etc.) Folks in the comments there mentioned a related conversation at thewikiman, with more ideas in the comments.

Let’s try that again. Related to some of the posts last week, Iris has a post about a discussion at her college’s Learning and Teaching Center about Harvesting Our Mistakes. Both some of the specific there – and a reminder to keep up with the process of reflection and adjustment – spoke to me.

First attempts: Scott McLeod (who focuses on technology in K-12 education, and who does a lot of work with administrators trying to figure out how to implement technology in their schools) has an interesting post on how to look at the first steps of technology practice.

More things we’re not teaching: His post made me realise that I missed something in my Things we’re not teaching post: how many schools are teaching students how to find a task management technology that works for them that goes beyond “Write it in your planner”. These days, kids with access to their own tech devices (whether that’s a phone, mobile device, laptop, or home computer) have a lot more choices in figuring out how to manage deadlines and assignments – and it might be good to talk about them, show off some options, and so on.

What’s getting asked: Brian Herzog has been writing about his experience at the NELA 2010 conference, and has a great post about changes in reference questions in public library settings, based on Pingsheng Chen from the Worcester (MA) Public Library presentation.  Summary: libraries are getting fewer of the easy questions, but more of the time consuming or challenging ones. (Since people are tending to do their own searches for the simpler stuff, and only coming to the librarians when they get stumped.)

Community concerns: The Disruptive Student series at ProfHacker (a Chronicle of Higher Education blog) has an interesting post today on dealing with bullying in academic settings. While focused on teaching settings, there’s some interesting stuff in there for people in libraries to think about too.

Understanding other experiences: While browsing around ProfHacker, I found a couple of posts on dealing with students with disabilities or other access needs, with some useful information for anyone who teaches.

For another take on this situation, FWD/Foward has a post this week on how teachers and professors can help students with disabilities. (FWD focuses on an intersectional approach to disabilities.)

The problems with copying: Seanan McGuire, author of a number of books (the October Daye series, and as Mira Grant, the NewsFlesh series) made a post this week about Internet piracy and who it hurts. She has a follow-up post with a few clarifications and additional points, too.

In a related area, my reading lists have been full of people talking about a really blatant example of why copying is stupid. Author writes an article (a comparison of apple pie recipes.) A small local newspaper publishes it – without permission or recompense. Author writes politely, requesting a donation to a program of her preference, in lieu of payment.  Editor responded that, well, it was online, so it was in the public domain – and oh, by the way, she should be grateful for publication and badly needed editing.

You can guess at the outcome, but John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, has the best overview of it: The Stupidest Thing an Editor With Three Decades of Experience Has Said About the Web Today. (With links to the author’s original post about it, including a copy of the relevant email.) He has a follow-up post, too.

Dear people: stuff on the ‘Net is not automatically in the public domain. Please share with anyone who has not yet learned this.

eBook library project

I’ve offered to help a friend out with a project for her daughter’s school. Her daughter attends a charter school in the San Francisco Bay area which has no library, and no space for a physical library. My friend has a lot of experience with formatting electronic material for reading,  and wants to put together an electronic library for students and teachers to use. I’ve made some suggestions to her (and she’s really familiar with ebook resources in general), but there are also parts of this that are outside my own experience, so I thought I’d ask and see if anyone else had ideas.

The basics:

  • The school is about 300 high school students (grades 9-12)
  • 75% Latino.
  • The school has computers with internet access: they filter some sites.
  • Students are expected to have a flash drive as part of their school supplies.
  • She thinks most students do have at least some computer access at home. All of them have access during school hours.
  • She’d expect most of them to be reading on computer, not on an ereader or handheld device.
  • Books must be available for free (with clear legal permissions) and without DRM. She’s willing to see about getting permissions from publishers for specific titles that are clearly a good fit.

Other notes:

  • School assignments are sometimes ‘read this book’ (with students expected to track down a copy) and sometimes ‘read one of these five books’. The teachers are potentially open to filling those with ebook options if suitable titles are available.
  • She’d like to include a wide range of titles – some fiction, some non-fiction, some books aimed for class reading, some books to encourage kids to read for pleasure, etc.
  • She’d expect the books to live on a school server, and be downloaded to individual drives (in case the site hosting them goes down), but is glad to look at other options.

Particular questions:

Places to look for books? She’s familiar with general ebook resources (as she says, she’s checking out anything listed at the page), but she’s particularly interested in finding books that reflect the ethnic and cultural background of the students. Books in Spanish are especially great, but she’s more interested in recent works than classic literature.

Best way to organize titles? She’s looking at starting with a collection of about 500 titles, and build that up to 2000-3000 over time, but is trying to figure out the best way to allow browsing of the collection.

A pre-existing solution that works smoothly with minimal upkeep would be ideal – she’s got great computer skills in the areas of document formatting, but not so much at messing around with database installs or upkeep, or scripting, so something like Koha or Evergreen would be a bit much. A solution that allowed for tagging and full text searching of at least the records would be great. (She doesn’t need a solution that includes circulation, since a given book can be used by as many people as needed.)


If you’ve got thoughts, feel free to leave a comment here, or you can email me at modernhypatia at gmail dot com, and I’ll pass things along. I’m also glad to put you in touch with her directly if you’d like.

Links of interest: October 29, 2010

Learning outcomes : Iris Jastram talks about an insight she had about using learning outcomes to do better user instruction, and Jenica Rogers has some more ideas about applying that to the work of the library as a whole.

Technology and the librarian : Michael Stephens, on the MLIS faculty at Dominican University, has begun writing a new column for Library Journal. His first column talks about the need for library students (and librarians) to be comfortable using (and use) online communication, beyond the closed systems of classes and workplaces. Various people, including Angel Rivera have commented about it. (I’ve got more thoughts about this one, but they’re still gelling.)

Steampunk considerations: Nisi Shawl has a great article at on some of the issues of steampunk in terms of reflecting the experiences of people of color in that reimagined world. She talks about what she’s writing to explore that, and also links to a bunch of other fascinating resources.

When the library’s not handy: Hugo, Minnesota (a suburb of St. Paul) which has no town library has instituted a Library Express program: programmed lockers outside of City Hall which allow residents to pick up books they’ve reserved. A Wall Street Journal article talks about this and some other similar programs in other places, which also talks about the complications of shorter library hours due to funding cutbacks, and library patrons who still want to use resources.

Conference notes: Sarah Houghton-Jan of Librarian in Black went to the Internet Librarian 2010 conference and made lots of useful posts on presentations – everything on learning from failure to the community as center of the community, to great free tools for cash-strapped libraries.

Time-consuming reference: Brian Herzog talks about doing triage on reference questions in a public library setting. Not only having circulation staff handle some things, and then refer to reference librarians for more detailed needs (common if the reference desk is not obvious or as available as the circ desk) but also how to handle the much more complex questions that take 15 or 30 minutes to handle.

How much management is just right? Jenica Rogers has a great post on what she’s learned in her first 17 months as Director of Libraries. She focuses on the problems of micromanaging – or more specifically, how she doesn’t want to, but other people want her to give more direct guidance and direction on a day to day basis, and how that needs to be balanced against her own work.

Interesting resources:

  • Two additional ways to search Flickr: FlickrStorm goes beyond your initial search by finding other items that might fit and Compfight makes it easier to find creative commons items and original images.
  • OpenFolklore is a project of the American Folklore Society to make materials more widely available for study and learning.
  • The Wisebaden Codex of Hildegard von Bingen’s work is now available digitally. Click the manuscript page image to get into the document reader. (Things that make the medievalist bits of my brain happy!)

What we’re not teaching

I’ve been thinking for the past few weeks, reading various of the ‘back to school’ blog posts, about how much we’re still not really teaching.

What would change if we built “How do we find the online experiences we want to have, and make them work better for us?” into what we teach, and what we learn? Not the fear-based online safety lectures, not the online privacy lectures – as important as that last one is. But the bigger question: how do we do the stuff with this information source that improves our lives?

What would it look like if our information literacy classes didn’t just focus on writing an academic paper, and instead included how to find and evaluate resources for regular life tasks. Which recipe sites are good – and how do you pick a good recipe from them? Whose DIY instructions are great, and whose leave out important safety tips? Where do we go for good financial advice for a particular goal? And oh, yes – where do we find good consumer health information? Evaluating news sources, too.

It’s not that learning to write an academic paper is a bad skill: it’s worth teaching, and worth experiencing, and there are lots of other good skills and experiences it ties in with really well.

But let’s be realistic here: out of a class of 20 kids, how many of them are going to go on and write academic papers for the rest of their lives (i.e. go into academia)? Maybe one, and chances are, that one would have figured it out pretty fast with a little guidance. And how many of them are going to going to cook dinner, buy a car, need to figure out their budget, make a medical decision, or need to find out what happened in the news? Pretty much all of them.

I wonder if something’s skewed in our perspectives and proportions, and what would happen if we focused more on general evaluation of information, and brought in the academia-specific bits when they apply, rather than the other way round.

And, on that note, how often do we teach how to avoid scams and phishing online? Probably not as often as we should.

My favorite quick quiz is SonicWALL’s (found at because it includes actual sample emails. But rummaging around for that link, I came across a US government site, . They’re a little uneven in terms of their audience (some things are clearly aimed at teens, others are clearly aimed at adults), but there’s some fun Flash games, some good short videos, and some other good information.

Links of interest: October 15, 2010

General links of interest:

The ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom sponsored a machinima contest in Second Life (for those not aware, a machinima is a video or film shot using digital footage from inside a game or virtual setting.) They’ve posted the winner and two runners up.

A great resource on making a website more accessible can be found at Dive Into Accessibility.

When you delete an image, is it really gone? Apparently not on Facebook. In July 2009, the Ars Technica blog did a piece on this. 16 months later, the photo is still there.

A discussion on cyberbullying included a link to what one of the poster’s wives did when she discovered bullying in her classroom. (I can think of situations where it might not have worked so well, but in this case, it was a great solution.)

And of seasonal interest, Kerri Miller, the host of the Minnesota Public Radio show Midmorning, just did a great hour called “Vampires and Zombies and Werewolves, Oh My!” talking about the recent (and not so recent) rash of books featuring them. The link takes you to the page for this show, where you can listen or download, but you might also want to to check out the list of titles that came up during the discussion (currently the second bold heading down.)

Ask This Librarian: Reading suggestions

Next question is a great one – and I hope will fill many people’s reading lists for a good time to come:

I really want to read more sci-fi by writers who are queer and/or PoC and/or feminist besides Nalo Hopkinson, in particular more recently published stuff (i.e. definitely not the scifi canon – yet). Not picky about sci-fi subgenre. Open to multiple genres and formats: novels, anthologies, sci-fi magazines, online repositories …

May I slightly amend it to additionally specify whatever magazines or other serial publications tend to have the latest work in sci-fi? I want to be able to keep up to date with the latest developments, since the kind of fiction I want to write is more or less sci-fi. I hope that’s not too much of a separate question.

This is a huge question, but also a great one, so I’m going to take an initial stab at it, and I know that readers on my personal blog will have more comments, so I’ll come back here with a few more additions in a couple of days.

Continue reading Ask This Librarian: Reading suggestions

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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