A good part of the reason I started blogging was because I went to a history conference at a UT branch up between Dallas and Fort Worth and found that, contrary to belief, many well known academic historians have found community history projects to be invaluable because of their focus and details. Photos rated high. Photos with details rate high. Interviews with participants in events rated high. Interviews with older people rated high if you cover their experience and perspective.
- Prairie Weather


“Protest works. Just look at the proof”


The last place you will hear about the new American labor movement is in big American outlets.

Via lambert, via susie. See them, their blogrolls, Twitter hash tag #1u and just about any other outlet where citizens can get the word out.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)

The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. Via.


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Big Data meets civic engagement

About a year ago the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) had an information session in Portage county about a recently permitted group of injection wells. The presentation by Tom Tomastik, ODNR’s lead geologist for the injection well regulatory program, wasn’t very helpful, but other ODNR personnel offered some useful assistance.

I spoke with ODNR’s Tom Hill about the difficulty in finding inspection reports, and he basically said requests needed to be made on an individual basis; there was no way to go online and browse them. One of his colleagues referenced a downloadable database called RBDMS, but didn’t give a location or other information. I should have pursued that a little further, but what I had been able to find at the ODNR site to that point had been sufficiently difficult to use that I didn’t think it would be worth it. A few weeks ago, though, a friend sent me a link to RBDMS, and it turns out that it’s very helpful - if you know how to use it.

The Risk Based Data Management System (RBDMS) database tracks all of ODNR’s inspections, includes each well’s information and history, and can be downloaded free at ODNR’s site. This is actually a very good and useful thing for ODNR to make available to the public. Good on them for doing it (insert golf clap sound effect). The problem, and this obviously is not ODNR’s fault, is that there’s a lot of data. If you want to look at it yourself, download the setup program - or just download the Microsoft Access database if you have Access on your PC and know the right version to grab - and then download the weekly update. Create the directory C:\Rbdms on your hard drive and put everything there.

The weekly update is around 200 MB as a zip (compressed) file, and over 1 GB uncompressed. Again, lots of data. The “setup” database is the one presented for public use, and it links to the weekly update database. The weekly update has the raw data. Use the setup DB for querying, overwrite the update DB as needed, and the new data will be visible to the setup DB. I didn’t find the setup DB very useful because I was interested in inspection reports, and couldn’t find an interface for that.

In the weekly update database (Rbdmsd97.mdb) there are three tables - “well,” “wellHistry” and “tblInspection” - recording the relevant data. Making sense of it is another matter, though. Microsoft Access is what’s called a relational database management system (RDBMS, an unfortunately similar acronym to RBDMS), which means it structures data by relationships between tables. Think of each table as a spreadsheet. A business might have, say, a Customers table with one entry for each customer. Typically each entry has a unique identifier, often an auto-number field that exists solely to uniquely identify the record. So the first entry in the table for, say, Company X would get assigned Customer ID 1.

Then you might have an Orders table, where each customer’s order is placed. The order will have, say, quantity, price, and other data - and the Customer ID number from the Customer table to identify who made the order. There will be a one-to-many relationship between the tables because one customer can have many orders. Storing only the Customer ID in the Orders table - and not the customer name, address, etc. - is a more efficient way to store the data. There’s no need to repeat customer data in the Orders table, which would only make the database larger and slower, when you can just set up a relationship between the two tables and use the unique Customer ID to identify who placed the order.

Unless you are very familiar with the tables, though, you won’t know that the Company ID of 1 in the Orders table corresponds to Company X is the Customers table. It’s possible to set up querying and reporting that will join the appropriate fields and present the data in a more intuitive way, but you need to know how to join the tables in the first place to make that happen.

That’s the challenge to anyone looking at the weekly update database. For instance, say you want to look at wells in Portage county. The very first well in the Well table has API well number 34001200010000 and 1 in the County field (CNTY). What is county 1? You need to go to the County table, and it turns out County 1 is Adams (Portage is 133). So if you want to look at inspections for Portage county wells, you need to create a query joining the API number from the Well table to the API on the Inspection table, and also joining the county field from the Well table to the County table. Then run the query where county name equals “Portage.” Nothing to it, right?

That process needs to be repeated for every related field you’d like meaningful information on, like inspection type and inspection purpose. It’s a complicated process. Having this kind of large, structured data available is a relatively new thing, and citizens (or investigative journalists) who want to navigate it need to develop the skill set. It’s very different from the skill set required for processing unstructured data like a document dump in response to a FOIA request.

Being able to navigate an RDBMS effectively allows one to query, filter and flag meaningful items. It provides a way to go through a large database and find the information one is looking for. I’m still getting my arms around RBDMS, but here’s an example of something I saw flagged as I was spot checking my work. It’s from well API 34167296850000 (NEWELL RUN DISPOSAL WELL(SWIW #10) in Washington county). Inspection date 1/26/2010, inspector 2164 (Cynthia Van Dyke), emph. added because holy crap:

Tested tubing overnight. Left 2000# on tubing overnight, next morning was 1700#. Service rig on location. OOG worried about lose, Tom Tomastik suggests just wait until it fails integrity. This day pressured up tubing back up to 2000#, held there for 15 min. with only 11# drop. Will continue to use.
The inspection did not get marked for a violation or significant non-compliance. Sure seems like it should have though. I plan to keep going through the database and hope to report on other interesting findings. Anyone who wants to do their own research can get in touch and I’ll help out as I can; no need to reinvent the wheel.

An effort like this seems very important to me - the “wait until it fails” model of regulation doesn’t seem like a winner, and I’d like to see other examples highlighted. They are buried in data, though, and ferreting them out requires new tools and new talents. Activists take note.

Phoniness, calculation, and palatable hypocrisy

The community at Corrente is now well into its second week of batting around thoughts on recent/upcoming presidential elections, so perhaps inevitably the Ralph Nader/Al Gore situation came up.

The less interesting part of that to me is the electoral calculation. Democrats like to say Nader cost Gore the election, but that’s only true if Gore was a passive figure being acted upon. If he thought Nader was costing him votes, then he could have moved to the left to recapture them. If he thought that would have cost him more votes at the other end, then he could have moved to the right. And lets face it, the universe of poachable votes from Bush was orders of magnitude larger than the universe of losable voters to Nader.

That kind of calculation, though, is not as important as the fact that Gore was phony. Now, I grant up front that phoniness is ambiguous, and what comes off as phony to me might seem genuine to you. There is a certain kind of phoniness that can be quantified though. Namely, when words are wildly at odds with actions. Gore’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention gives a great illustration of that.

It’s the most irritating political speech I’ve ever witnessed. I was incredibly put off after watching it, and it made me less inclined to vote for him, not more. The phoniness had less to do with the staged kiss with Tipper (though see below) than the vaguely populist rhetoric so plainly at odds with Clinton administration policies:

Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMO’s. Sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no - so families can have a better life.

[snip]

I know one thing about the job of the President. It is the only job in the Constitution that is charged with the responsibility of fighting for all the people. Not just the people of one state, or one district; not just the wealthy or the powerful — all the people. Especially those who need a voice; those who need a champion; those who need to be lifted up, so they are never left behind.

[snip]

So I say to you tonight: if you entrust me with the Presidency, I will fight for you.
I remember being genuinely angry as I heard that: Who are these big polluters, Al? Name three. Are they the same ones given carte blanche by NAFTA? Did gutting the safety net give families a better life? Were the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act examples of fighting for all the people? By the time he got to “I will fight for you” I wanted to throw up.

Now, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the “good soldier” argument, the idea that the vice president has to largely be on board with the president’s agenda. But a VP running for president needs either to emphasize differences with the president, or endorse the president’s approach and run on continuity.

Gore had that chance, and as his Tipper kiss perfectly symbolized, he chose to draw a contrast on matters of private sexual propriety - not policy. On the issues that mattered, Gore was a complete phony. It wasn’t that he came across as stiff or awkward, but that his rhetoric and actions simply couldn’t be reconciled. Is it any wonder why at that moment - in the full flower of DLC-endorsed neoliberal economic policy, and before the ascent of the neocon right - Nader’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” critique found an audience?

Open ended rhetoric is, to me, a key indicator of phoniness. If you believe in something strongly enough you’ll be very specific about it. That may be why the appeal of John Edwards escaped me. (Alexa put it well: Edwards “for some reason truly made my skin crawl, although I couldn’t pinpoint ‘why.’”) For all the praise he got for raising inequality with his “two Americas” narrative, he never offered the kind of detail that might have made it compelling. I felt the same way about his “somewhere in America there’s a little girl going to bed hungry” line as I did Gore’s promise to fight for me: How about some details?

The frustrating thing about Edwards is that he appeared to grasp as much - at least sometimes. In his 2004 debate with Dick Cheney he showed just how powerful specificity could be. Cheney made some generalized criticism of trial lawyers and called for caps on damages. Edwards absolutely buried him:

But we don’t believe that we should take away the right of people like Valerie Lakey, who was the young girl who I represented, five years old, severely injured for life, on a defective swimming pool drain cover.

It turns out the company knew of 12 other children who had either been killed or severely injured by the same problem. They hid it. They didn’t tell anybody. They could have fixed it with a 2-cent screw. That’s wrong.

John Kerry and I are always going to stand with the Valerie Lakeys of the world, and not with the insurance companies.
It was one of his most genuine moments on the national stage, because he basically said: Here is what I’ve done, here is why I did it, this represents the kind of values and priorities I’ll bring to the office. And he was very specific; he named names. It was an incredibly compelling argument. He never really made it a staple of his campaign style, though, either then or later. He fell back on pabulum.

But at least, unlike Gore, it didn’t seem like he would actively pursue policies that would increase inequality. If he wasn’t proposing anything substantive, at least he seemed willing to drift along if that’s where the prevailing winds blew.

That’s why one of the jobs for a voter is to decide on acceptable forms of insincerity. There’s a difference between someone who supports policies he has been actively working against and someone who supports policies he would accede to should they pass. Feeling warm and genuine kinship with a candidate is not likely to happen very often; better to figure out the kinds of hypocrisy one can live with.

Laying down markers for 2016

Over the past week there has been a spirited discussion of the 2008 Democratic primary at Corrente. One point of contention in the comments has been the way principles were invoked in the heat of the process. For instance, caucuses were heavily criticized as being too prone to fraud. I think caucuses are useful in theory because they help measure the intensity of a candidate’s support, not just breadth of it. That’s important in a general election because a motivated base is crucial to an effective get-out-the-vote effort.

In practice, though, the caucus system is unworkable because it has no transparency and no auditing. Partisans gather in a gymnasium and only the people gathered know what’s going on. Rules can be bent or broken, outright fraud can occur, and in the aftermath there are just charges or countercharges.

The party has little interest in investigating because once the nomination is clinched only bad things could come of it: De-legitimizing the nominee or further inflaming the losing side. Barring radical changes like extensive live streaming (web cams for everyone!) during the process, and an independent audit afterwards, caucus results in any close contest will be viewed with deep skepticism.

Another example of principles being hurriedly invoked has to do with the convention calendar. State parties eager to increase the relevance of their vote have frequently moved their election dates in defiance of the national party. The national party threatens sanctions, usually in the form of disallowing the delegates, and in a tight race the winner of those states will have a powerful incentive to invoke the sanctity of the vote and the specter of disenfranchisement to argue for counting the delegates.

Making these points when the stakes are so high carries more than a whiff of self-interest. It’s much more persuasive if one can point to such positions prior to the horse race. So even though we are over two and a half years from the next presidential election, right now is an especially good time to articulate some principles. Once candidates start to declare, it becomes much harder to raise them without having it perceived as being for someone’s benefit.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how I’d like to see the nominating process conducted/analyzed. Whether one intends to participate in the process or not (the comments at Corrente suggest quite a few people were sufficiently alienated by 2008 to swear off further involvement), primary season will be big news; it will be helpful to have a decent frame if only for jaded observation.

  • Caucus results should be lightly regarded for the reasons above.

  • State parties should have to live with sanctions from the national party for changing election dates. Disenfranchisemet because of that is the responsibility of the state party, not the national one. The national one, in its wisdom, sets the calendar how it likes. State parties should be expected to abide by that or suffer the consequences.

  • Debates should be open to any candidate that is actively campaigning, has field offices in upcoming (say six weeks) election states and is polling above the margin of error in at least half of the major polls. (A candidate’s internal polling results shouldn’t be used.)

  • A candidate’s position on an issue should be qualified by the nature of that position. For instance, most Democratic candidates will probably pay lip service to single payer. But there is a world of difference between “sure, I’d love for us to have it” and “this is my top domestic priority, a vote for me is a vote for single payer, and I will rally a citizen occupation of Washington starting the first day Congress is in session to make that happen.”

  • A candidate’s position should also be qualified by the ability of the candidate to make the change happen. Presidents have great latitude in executive areas like judicial nominations and federal agency rule making, less so in legislation. A Democrat who promises liberal utopia based on getting a raft of legislation through Congress - especially the House - is probably blowing smoke. That said, reality is malleable. We are told by our political betters that single payer is unrealistic, but a campaign like the one described above could make it suddenly become realistic.

  • Finally, we need a policy platform to grade candidates against. I’d humbly recommend a project I’ve contributed to as an example. Over the past few months the community at Corrente has been working on a 12 point platform, and I think it’s quite good. Here is an earlier version with a good breakdown of its different components, and here is the latest iteration. It’s been formulated outside of election season with the goal of creating a durable and just set of policies. I think it’s a fine yardstick to measure candidates against. I’m sure some will find it lacking, but the point is to have something to evaluate candidates against.

Those are my markers. What are yours?

Like the McCarthy era, except for everything

I thought I was done writing about Jonathan Chait’s efforts to stupid up America’s conversation on race last week, but clearly I underestimated the man. Over the weekend his publication went live with a long piece on the subject, and on his blog he continued to type words at critics.

His responses first to Ta-Nehisi Coates and then Jamelle Bouie studiously avoid addressing their very pointed and direct criticism by basically saying, I’m not interested in that. He accused Coates of an “aggressive misreading” and dismisses Bouie’s argument as “I wish you had written your article on a different topic.”

I won’t go over Coates’ pieces again, but let’s look at two points from Bouie’s article. Near the start of his piece Chait writes: “If you set out to write a classic history of the Obama era, once you had described the historically significant fact of Obama’s election, race would almost disappear from the narrative.”

Bouie writes in his response:

If I were outlining a racial history of the Obama administration, it would begin with policy: A housing collapse that destroyed black Americans’ wealth; a health care law attacked as “reparations” and crippled by a neo-Calhounite doctrine of “state sovereignty”; a broad assault on voting rights and access to the polls, concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. Indeed, it would focus on the deep irony of the Obama era: That the first black president has presided over a declining status quo for many black Americans.

It doesn’t seem to me Bouie wishes Chait had written on a different topic. Yet Chait just ignores it and says Bouie simply doesn’t understand Chait’s writing (which is not at all condescending).

Here’s a second quote from Chait’s article, in looking at the political evolution of the right from overt racial appeals to more subtle ones: “Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.”

Again, Bouie responds on point:

Of course, it’s not accusing conservatives of “racism” to note that particular policies - say, tax cuts to defund the social safety net, or blocking the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act - have a disparate impact. That’s just reality. And it’s not tarring your opponents to note that race plays a huge part in building popular support for those policies. But again, for as much as this is interesting as a matter of political combat, it’s less important to telling the story of race in the Obama years than, for instance, the tremendous retrenchment of racial inequality during our five years of recession, recovery, and austerity.
Agree with Bouie or not, this isn’t him wishing Chait had written something different. It’s a direct response that would seem to demand a substantive answer. He’s still waiting. (And incidentally, it’s a bit strange that a political analyst of Chait’s standing is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of disparate impact.)

Maybe it’s for the best that Chait just skates past uncomfortable areas, because boy howdy does he go overboard in his comfort zone. In his magazine piece he raises the specter of Tail Gunner Joe: “The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the McCarthy years.” He elaborated on it again in his blog post:

The most problematic part of Kilgore’s argument is his recurrent phrase “objectively racist.” It consciously or unconsciously harkens back to a chilling Cold War-era line used by conservatives, who described their domestic opponents as “objectively pro-Communist.”

It’s hard to believe that Chait has such a miserably inadequate knowledge of the McCarthy era. Let’s compare and contrast it with the current debate on race, shall we?

COMPARE: In both cases people said mean things.

CONTRAST: Unlike the McCarthy era, this era does not have racism reviews for federal employees, under which they can be fired if there is reasonable doubt as to their level of racial animus. Unlike the McCarthy era, those who (will not) lose their jobs due to harboring racial animus do not have their future employment prospects permanently ruined. (If anything, the combination of wingnut welfare sinecures and fanatical rallying to martyrs for the cause make it more likely to prosper from such an event.)

Unlike the McCarthy era, the Justice Department does not have a Racist Activities Control Board that keeps tabs on those suspected of racism. There is not a maniacal FBI director obsessively tracking racists. There is not a House Committee on Racist Activities. There is not a blacklist (HAR!). There is not a Racist Registration Act or equivalent to the Smith Act.

There was a lot more than debates over communism going on during the McCarthy years, and for Chait to repeatedly invoke that era (no weaselspeak about only mentioning “debates,” thanks) in reference to the race debate is absurd.

Also, do you know what is interesting? He invokes the ominous use of the word “objectively,” but he reaches all the way back to the 50s to find it used for vilification. It’s been used that way more recently, though. In fact, it has been used that way since Chait became a political commentator, so there’s a chance he isn’t mortifyingly ignorant on that subject.

Back when we were getting our war on in Iraq, antiwar activists had it pretty rough. Andrew Sullivan famously called the BBC “objectively pro-Saddam,” for not being sufficiently pro-war. The insult was repeatedly hurled at those who didn’t cheer hard enough. Those who didn’t get with the program faced consequences. If one wanted to examine the politically charged environment around “objectively,” the Iraq war would seem to be a much better choice.

Of course, doing so would invite people to recall that Chait wrote the seminal prewar call to arms for liberals to support the war. Then when it turned into a disaster he wrote a dyspeptic “you hippies may have been right on this one but I will be vindicated in the long run!” column, and then, eventually, a churlish non-apology. (This arc of commentary is a reason to hope he never has a change of heart on race.)

In addition to non-responsive responses and ludicrous analogies he makes other odd choices, such as soliciting the opinion of Jonah Goldberg - author of Liberal Fascism - about the dangers of cavalier use of inflammatory language. Add it all up and it seems pretty clear Chait isn’t interested in dialog or encountering contrary facts. It looks instead like he is claiming to be sympathetic on the topic but writing from an indifferent-to-hostile perspective. In other words, trolling. Perhaps that is how his fututre contributions to the subject ought to be viewed.

In any event, it seems he’s eager to be done with all this race talk as he concludes the magazine piece: “The passing from the scene of the nation’s first black president in three years, and the near-certain election of its 44th nonblack one, will likely ease the mutual suspicion.” Bouie pointed out some very specific policy issues that would survive Obama’s presidency, but never mind. Chait is not interested in racism, as Michael Kranz quipped, but “racism” - endless theorizing on what racism means for white liberals and conservatives. And unlike the community Bouie wrote about, Chait can check out of his side of that, without consequences, whenever it suits him. It’s a nice luxury to have.

Coates, Chait and the Iraq war understanding of gratitude

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait have had a fascinating exchange on race over the last couple of weeks. Chait has been arguing from a perspective of culture. Coates, while spending time on culture, has also tried to get Chait to see the connection between culture and the lived history of the African American community. And Chait repeatedly fails to even acknowledge that (large) part of Coates’ thesis.

Coates refers to the “jaunty and uplifting narrative” that Chait believes in: “One can believe in the continued existence of racism and still think that the scale of the evil has fallen enormously since the 19th century.” He has been arguing, with increasing truculence, that the story of blacks in America is one of “steady progress.” It seems to confound him that Coates does not see it the same way. But there’s no reason for Chait to be confused. Coates has laid out exactly why he feels that way, yet Chait seems literally incapable of processing the information.

For instance, on the subject of slavery, Chait has a very simplistic understanding. We “progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation” and that’s about all there is to the story. Coates responded: yes - but look at how it happened.

Our greatest president, assessing the contribution of black soldiers in 1864, understood this:
We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.
The United States of America did not save black people; black people saved the United States of America. With that task complete, our “ally” proceeded to repay its debt to its black citizens by pretending they did not exist.

Lincoln was very clear elsewhere as well: Preserving the union was his main purpose for the Civil War, and he only changed his mind on emancipation as circumstances dictated. Here’s what the Civil War was not, at least not until it was well underway: The North feeling the great evil of slavery created a moral urgency that the country, in fidelity to the soaring ideals of its founding documents, must act on immediately. Even when the issue was added to the cause, it wasn’t for those reasons. Lincoln just needed the bodies. (He did make the moral case as well though.) Chait sees it as, 1860 - slavery legal. 1865 - slavery abolished. Progress! He can’t seem to understand how Coates could see it differently.

Over and over, Coates tries to show how those who claim to be allies to the African American community have acted in ways more suggestive of political expediency than altruism. Yet instead of grappling with that, Chait just writes it off as a newfound pessimism in Coates. Of course, if that is the problem then Chait doesn’t have to engage what I suspect is an uncomfortable proposition for him: “The notion that black America’s long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant’s-eye view of history.” No, Ta-Nehisi is just feeling blue lately.

Coates has a more historically grounded view of what Chait calls progress. He looks at events not just as data points, but in the context of which they happened. Progress, such as it is, has often happened at a much slower pace and with a more brutal price because nominal allies were absent - or antagonistic. Chait seems to prefer a history with such episodes airbrushed out. Tressie McMillan Cottom characterized it thus: “Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker.”

Here’s the kicker. Chait praises himself as being concerned only with “the task of designing incrementally more just and effective policies in an unjust world.” Among those “successful anti-poverty initiatives” he numbers KIPP schools. Yet charter schools are just the latest in a long standing project to privatize schools - for profit if at all possible. Across the country - in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark and other cities - the charter movement, funded by wealthy interests, is energetically working to destroy public schools, break teacher’s unions, and replace long-term local workers with short-term temporary ones. Caretaker zeal included.

This is an example of a just and effective policy? Teaming up with wealthy neoliberals to attack one of the most important institutions in black American life? Is he unaware how unpopular the privatization project has become, or does he just think those who oppose it don’t know what’s good for them? His selecting such a contentious issue to hold up as the kind of poverty-remediating program he favors only serves to justify Coates’ and others’ skepticism. Maybe they could be excused for thinking they’d be better off without his brand of urban renewal.

Events like school closings and wholesale disenfranchisement are actual things that are happening right now, and will have a profound and negative effect on the quality of life in those communities. Instead of looking at real events, Chait invokes culture - an empty vessel into which he can pour all his predispositions. Perhaps systemic racism deserves more attention than appeals to an amorphous culture. And maybe it would be good to examine those issues in some depth rather than blandly grade today against a curve of horrific brutality. However much worse things were in the past, things are still pretty bad right now.

The whole debate has been characterized by Coates pointing out historical and contemporary examples of dubious assistance from the improvers, and Chait not noticing. From Chait’s lofty perch he just sees the arc bending beautifully towards justice. Hey, at least you’re not slaves any more (you’re welcome). Meanwhile, Coates is saying: boy it sure could have bent more there and there and there; with allies like that who needs foes? Chait can only respond by complaining that Coates has turned into a real downer - and to sound more and more like George Bush did towards Iraqis: How can you not be grateful after all we’ve done?

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