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Cats, and Invisible Souls

As I sit here working, I can see a cat out of my window. This is actually quite rare. Santa Cruz is a pretty doggy place. From hulking Hispanic dudes squiring minuscule Chihuahuas, to petite West Side moms out jogging in the company of a Wolfhound, the canine world has a big paw print in this town. I can understand why. People here like to exercise and go to the beach and hike and stuff, and dogs are totally up for that, especially if they get to madly dash about to no discernable purpose. Imagine the response of a cat to being told it was going running, or to the beach. It wouldn’t have to say anything. The look on its face would be enough. Now, I don’t mind dogs. I can see the point of them, and since arriving have struck up affable acquaintanceships with a few belonging to friends. I am, however, a cat person. Inveterate, long term, through and through. A big cost of coming to live here in California, however, has been saying goodbye — or at least au revoir — to my own.

Quite soon after we got together, my wife and I traveled to Scotland to acquire a cat. We didn’t do it that way just to make our lives difficult, but because we’d encountered the Burmilla breed courtesy of my editor and thought we might like to have one. On being confronted with a room full of kittens our initial resolve crumbled and we wound up leaving with two, a brother and sister we called Spangle and Tilly.

Tilly was — and remained — tiny and feisty, the first of the litter to be born; Spangle was far more shy, and larger, the last of the same litter. They were white and grey, yin and yang, and for seventeen years these cat people enlivened and enriched every moment of our lives. There were downsides, like the fact their housecat status (for a long time we lived in flats, and neighborhoods where the feline territory wars were fierce) meant we could never leave doors or windows open, and the amount of fur shed per unit time eventually gave my wife a lasting allergy. Both cats came into the study to work with me every day, however, and hung out with us on the sofa in the evening, and slept next to our heads every night. I loved them both, but Spangle is as good a friend as I’ve ever had.

Then we discovered Santa Cruz and realized that’s where we needed to live. Concern about the cats was wound into this decision from the very first, and we came out here for an exploratory year on the strict understanding that, once we’d found our feet, the cats would follow. We had someone they knew house-sitting our property in London, and looking after them, and so — while I know they missed us — their life went on pretty much as normal.

Until, after three months, Tilly died.

She’d been ailing for a year or two, and we’d been dripping fluids into her on a weekly basis for eighteen months before we left. Finally it got too much for her, and she went. Anyone who’s lost an animal, especially after so long, and when you weren’t able to be there at the end, will be able to guess how that felt.

They will probably also be able to understand my feelings on realizing that Spangle, now eighteen, is simply too old to fly. You can’t transport animals across the Atlantic in the cabin. They have to fly in the hold. They travel in custom-made crates and every effort is made to protect their wellbeing, but I’m not putting my old friend Spangle through that. Instead he’s gone into retirement with my widowed father, and the arrangement seems to be working very well. Both are happy, and look after one another.

It’s hard, though.

Jean Cocteau said “I love cats because I enjoy my home, and little by little, they become its visible soul”. That’s both beautiful and true. The house we’re living in now, though good and comfortable, feels a little empty without a feline presence — especially the presence of our own particular cats.

Life costs, I guess, and rates of exchange are hard to fathom.

The cat I glimpsed earlier is still out there. I’ve no idea who it belongs to, and he's not doing much of interest, just staring vaguely in the bushes. It’s strange how much difference his presence makes, even though he doesn’t know I’m watching.

I miss my cat.

We’ve finally gotten to the point of wondering whether we should encourage some local felines to come and share our lives here, not least because I think my son needs a pet, as all children do. If we go ahead, I’m sure it will be a good thing, and that our lives will be enriched in the way that only those creatures are capable of.

But I still miss my cat.

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The Wall of Annoying Words

I’ve already banged on about some of the words below, but you know what? — you haven’t stopped using them. I’m going to keep banging on until you do. I’d like to encourage you to add some of your own, in fact, so that we can over time generate a useful list of banned expressions that we can hand over to the authorities. I will, of course, have ultimate say about whether a word gets onto the wall of shame. No-one said this was a democracy. Minimalistic The word is ‘minimalist’. Don’t put -ic on the end of what’s already an adjective. Why would you do that? Why? Isn’t it a bit stupidalistic? As people on Twitter pointed out when I muttered about this before, there’s something especially dumbalistical and ironicalisticallynessish about making the word ‘minimalist’ longer.

Simplistic This is actually a perfectly good word. The problem lies in denizens of the Internet habitually mis-using it. It does not mean a pleasingly focussed feature set, which might be a GOOD THING. ’Simplistic’ is a pejorative term meaning ‘excessively simplified’, and is therefore a BAD THING. You’re using the term perfectly wrongly, do you see? Well, do you?

Chillax For Christ’s sake. There is no better way of making it clear that you’re an utter tool than by using this ‘word’. Just stop it. Even deploying it ironically is on a knife-edge, so don’t take the risk. Either say ‘relax’, or ‘chill’ (if you must). Or preferably bugger off back to your ‘crib’.

Functionality What does this even mean? It’s used in sentences like ‘For a version 1.0, this software has impressive functionality, but...’, where it appears to indicate… it’s not total crap. If you’re reviewing something and you’ve used this word, try cutting out the sentence it appears in, and see if you’ve lost anything of value. Ten bucks says you haven’t.

Form factor You don’t mean ‘form factor’, you mean ‘shape’. No, really, you do.

Piracy As used in relation to software and TV shows and music and books. ‘Piracy’ sounds jaunty and daring and as if you're doing something rather cool and dashing and should be played by Johnny Depp. You're not — you're being played by that fat, sweaty guy who hangs out round the back of the KFC and always looks like he’s just hurriedly re-done up his flies. You're stealing. At least have the balls to acknowledge that and come up with some half-assed rationale.

Writer Specifically when proceeded by the word ‘virus’. Listen up, you little ****ers, producing viruses is not ‘writing’. It’s ‘exuding’, as one might exude pus from a badly-infected sore occasioned by seedy sexual exploits powered by precisely the kind of knock-off Viagra you’re trying to peddle. Using some piece of software to exude crap that starts "eval(gzinflate (base64_decode ('tVh7b9pYFv87I+” isn’t creation. It’s destruction, it’s a criminal waste of everyone’s time, and it’s ****ing annoying, so stop it for the love of God, before I call down upon you The Curse Of The Busy Man Who Does’t Have Time To Rebuild His Sodding Website Every Few Weeks, You Assholes.

Workflow One irritating thing about this word is that I can’t think of a concise synonym, which usually proves a word is worthwhile. It's still annoying, though, possibly because when people write about a piece of software ‘fitting into their workflow’, it seems their ‘workflow’ only ever involves writing blogs about software that may or may not fit into their ‘workflow’.

Curating I go back and forth on this one, but currently it’s on the outs. You have not ‘curated’ a selection of links to interesting or cool things on the web. You’ve ‘chosen’ them. Actually, you’ve just ‘shared’ your bookmarks (and trust me, ‘sharing’ is in the bullpen for this list). Obviously some degree of choice has taken place — otherwise you’d have linked to absolutely everything, in which case you’d merely be the Internet, duplicated — but that does not put you on a par with someone who’s selected just three tea-cups from the entire history of domestic potteryware over the last five thousand years for a high-profile four-month exhibition at MOMA or the V&A. Here’s a deal - you can call yourself an Internet curator if you also wear a little bow-tie and a green cardigan all the time. And shave your head but grow a beard. Even if you're a woman. Okay?

Momtrepeneur I only learned this one recently. As a snappy term for the vogue for moms to roll up their sleeves and start micro-businesses specialising in decorative geegaws fashioned from recycled ballet shoes, or tiny pots of organic canapés for dogs, I guess it kind of works (though it seems a tad sexist and patronising). It’s still annoying, though, probably because it’s one of those arch little neologisms — ‘staycation’ is another — cooked up by slackers to legitimate writing endless screeds of unnecessary text about something zeitgeisty.

So — what are the words that cause your brain to seethe and make it impossible for you to chillax? I’m not talking about the obviously appalling collections of letters like ‘twitterverse’ or ‘whatever’ or ‘Russell Brand’, I mean the ones that make you want to start sharpening pointy sticks and hunting down the perpetrators with deadly intent…

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The Anternet

One upside of my recent battles with ants - which are going passing well, thanks for asking: a combination of bait traps, orange oil, cinnamon barriers and no-holds-barred squishing (combined with finding the tin of not-quite-closed Golden Syrup which had evidently acted as their Mecca) has for the time being reduced them to the level of Minor Crisis - is that I’ve finally understood how the Internet works. Something I initially found freaky about ants - and still find freaky, now I've come to consider them properly for the first time in many years - is their operational model. They're really tiny, taken as individuals, especially these Argentinian ones I'm dealing with — minute little beats of life that go out into the world and explore, apparently at random. One goes this way, another goes the other, until finally one scout happens upon something worth taking an interest in, at which point said plucky ant goes bombing back to the colony and (how, I'm still not sure: by waving its antennae or pumping out pheromones or something) says "Holy cow, dudes, you'll never believe what I've found. They’ve only left a tin of liquid sugar open, way in the back of a cupboard. No, seriously! It’s the motherlode!”

At which point I guess he leads them back there, or some of them immediately scuttle back along the squirts of chemical the scout exitably left on his way hoe to break the good news, and later they return to the nest with confirmation in the shape of little dabs of sugar on their feet, and many more go back the same way... until finally there’s a bloody superhighway of ants marching back and forth across your kitchen. I’m sure any entomologists out there may be wincing at this description, but it seems to boil down to something along those lines.

Now. Yesterday afternoon I was sitting finishing off a short story when a text message came in. Neither I nor my phone’s address database recognised the number, which had a 618 code. The SMS simply said:

Hi ;D

Confused — this isn’t the way any of my friends would normaly greet me, even if they’d got or borrowed a new phone, I replied:

Hi to you, too. Um, who’s this?

The response came back:

How about we catch up on Ya-H00 IM User-name is annagirly03

So, unless this is someone delightful that I’ve met one evening while unusually drunk (note to wife - that’s a joke) it’s SMS spam. But how’s it supposed to work? I have to make the effort to go to the computer, find a way of using Yahoo IM — which I’ve never done before — and speculatively send out a message to annagirly03 in the hope of either clearing up a confusion or meeting someone? What happens if I do? Does whatever vague entity commands that handle then try to reel me in on some scam? What are the chances of me being dumb or bored enough to fall for that? About the same, I suppose, as me responding positively to a Nigerian plea for assistance in banking $72M, or clicking on what purports to be a receipt for a piece of hardware I know I haven’t ordered, or being stupid enough to click on a missive from PayPal or a bank I don’t have any money lodged with, saying my account’s in suspension... without hovering my cursor over the action link to check it first, in the full knowledge it will be “www.thievingrussianbastards.ru/scamfest2013/moohahaha.php”

I realise now that the chances don't have to be high, because each of these pieces of spam are scout ants, of course — sent out in their hundreds of thousands, randomly crawling across the vast kitchen of the internet in the hope one of them will find a pot of sugar. Clicking on a link is like sending the scout back to the colony with good news — we’ve found a sucker — and concerted attempts will then be made to relieve me of my money. Never mind the fact that had someone’s wife or girlfriend found the SMS message I received above, and been of a suspicious frame of mind, an apocalyptic fight might have ensued. Ants don’t care about you, you see. They don’t even really understand that you exist. Spammers and phishers are the same. They’re not the same as us. They’re a different species that just happens to look similar. They are aliens who steal.

It’s bigger and more generalised than this, though. For years my in-tray was blissfully free of spam (I’ve long had a .mac account, and that alone was well worth paying the sixty quid a year that people used to bleat about). At some point in the last few months, however, I’ve evidently given my address to some site or piece of software that has passed it on - squirted a trail of pheremones leading to me, in other words - and now I spend a small portion of each day deleting or unsubscribing from spam lists, like squishing ants (and yes, I’m fully aware that hitting “unsubscribe” on especially unscrupulous pages is just a way of confirming that your email address is live). Just to be clear, if they’re listening, I really don’t want to join your site, Christian Singles dating agency — and I don’t actually think you want me on your books, either. And what would Jesus think if he knew you’d been spamming people? You should be ashamed of yourselves. You just wait until your God gets home.

But this isn’t the end of it either, of course. Use Facebook? Every time you “Like” something — especially on a commercial site — you’re prising open a little pot of sugar. Little advertising ants will come and roam around your home page forever more. Use Google search or Chrome without taking the precaution of turning off your history? You’re leaving a phereomone trail that will lead scout after scout into your virtual kitchen until the end of time. In both cases the Queen sits back in her lair in Silicon Valley, watching her colony getting bigger and bigger and more and more successful and rich.

The accumlation of Argentinian ants along the Californian coast I mentioned in the last post must include a truly vast number of the little buggers, but it’s only 500 miles long. The internet behemoths cover the entire world. We’re surrounded by them, all the time.

We all live inside the colony now.

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Antmageddon

When we first moved to Santa Cruz we lived over on the east side, in the Live Oak district. We were a short block from the beach and thus enjoyed regular sightings of sea otters, occasional trios of dolphins and even two days of hump-backed whales. Squirrels of many different hues gambolled on our deck, and there was a profusion of bird life to observe, too. A few months ago we bought a house on the upper west side, however, and while there’s definitely wildlife lurking around — a few spottings of deer, and a skunk who insists on digging up one of our lawns in pursuit of some kind of grub or other — we don’t get the otters, or many birds, or any squirrels at all in our yard, for some reason. What we have instead… are bugs. Spiders, in quantity. Crane flies with the wingspan of eagles.

And now… ants.

The first episode occurred just before Christmas, when I noticed a few very tiny little ants parading around the counter in the kitchen. I squished them but they kept coming back, and after a few days their numbers — while still small — were sufficient that I decided to get serious about it. I painstakingly tracked down the point of ingress (they’re wily little bastards, and it’s not always obvious where they're coming from)  a hairline crack in the sealant around the sink. Using a degree of resourcefulness which is quite unlike me, and made me feel as can-do as all get-out, I sealed it with a dab of what in England is called Liquid Paper (I believe it's known as White-Out, Tippex or Twink in other climes). It worked. The ants stopped getting in. I felt justifiably proud of myself and received props from both wife and child. Dad, it turned out, wasn’t the complete muppet he might at first appear.

Cut, however, to a month later. Suddenly last week we had ants back, and in larger numbers, this time under the sink. Tons of the little bastards. At first I thought they were getting in via a tiny crack in the back left corner of the cabinet, and so I deployed the Liquid Paper solution again. It didn’t work, and after sitting and observing them for half an hour (yes, I am supposed to be writing a novel, and what of it?) I realised they were in fact entering via the joins where various pipes went out through the back of the cabinet — i.e. in about five places. I tried Method Two, which involves mixing orange oil with vodka, putting it in a spray bottle, and liberally applying it. This worked briefly but they soon regrouped and started doggedly coming back in again, coughing and smelling of orange. So then I got a roll of parcel tape and bloody-mindedly sealed off the tiny gaps around the pipes with several layers of tape. It took a while to track down all the stragglers who’d already made it into the cabinets, but eventually all was still once more.

Until the next afternoon, when I came in the kitchen to find a little hoard of them swarming around the opening of the dishwasher, which is positioned next to the sink. Evidently they’d just patiently moved along and found the next crack. I zapped them with orange spray again but was beginning to lose heart. You can’t find every infinitesimal crack and seal it with Liquid Paper, and we were running out of orange oil (and vodka). I’d also been somewhat daunted in the meantime to establish that what we’re dealing with are Linepithema humile, commonly known as the Argentine ant, a worryingly successful brand that tends not to compete with each other because of genetic similarity, and joins together into a mega-colonies including one that stretches five hundred miles — for the love of God — along the coast of California.

Unnerved by this news, I methodically sprayed again later, and continued my policy of squishing every single ant I saw. I’m about as life-preserving as a man can be who loves burgers, fried chicken, roast turkey, lamb shanks and bacon — i.e. an enthusiastic carnivore — but I draw the line at ants. They may well be a miracle of social organisation but as far as I’m concerned they’re freaky little robot bastards. I have a video I took on my phone several years ago of an ant that appears to be broken, in fact. It was out on the patio of our then house in London, going round and round and round in a circle about two inches in diameter. I watched it for about half an hour (yes, I think I was probably supposed to be writing a book then, too). So I continued to squish each ant I saw in the hope that eventually word would get back to ant HQ via word of mouth. I picture it like this: (in my mind, every ant is named “Bob”. I don’t know why)

BOB 1: “’ere, Bob - have you seen Bob recently?” BOB 2: “Nah, mate.” BOB 1: “He went in that crack, didn’t he? The one that goes into that bloke’s kitchen.” BOB 2: “Oh yeah, that’s right. But he didn’t come back.” BOB 1: “Hmm. Oi - Bob?” BOB 3: “What?” BOB 2: “Go have a look in that crack, will you?” BOB 3: “Right-o.” PAUSE BOB 1: “He hasn’t come back either.” BOB 2: “Reckon he’s been squished?” BOB 1: “Could be, Bob, could be. Oi, everyone!” BOBS 4 − 258,764,839,873,648,763: “What, Bob?” BOB 1: “Stop going through that crack. Bob did, and he didn’t come back. Or Bob neither. Could be dangerous in there. Let’s try somewhere else”.

The problem being that if there’s five hundred miles worth of the little bastards, Bobs are cheap. The spraying and the squishing seemed to be just about holding them at bay… but then two mornings ago we woke up to find a bloody army of them. Overnight they’d changed behaviour, too: coming in at the invisible crack near the dishwasher, but then going right to the other side of the kitchen by hugging the skirting board, then crawling seven feet up a wall and disappearing into a cupboard — where they seem to be disappearing into another crack and thus presumably into the innards of the house. There’s just too bloody many of them to squish or spray. Once in a while I attack the column with a dustpan and handbrush, sweep up a couple of hundred or so and throw them outside, but I have a horrible suspicion that they just patiently make their way back in again. I can’t be sure without painting numbers on their backs with Liquid Paper (which would be BONKERS) and so I don’t know. I don’t even know why they’re coming in — it doesn’t seem to be related to food or water, as for the most part they blithely march past examples of both that I’ve put out as an experiment. Which was actually a bit hurtful, as the food was a dab of a rather decent pork rillettes I made the other day. (I didn’t make it actually for them, obviously. That would also be BONKERS).

I have some bait stations on order, but it may be too late. I’ve tried to trace the line of ants I’ve subsequently found outside the house, but I can’t work out where the nest is and I can’t souse the entire garden in boiling water. I’ve also just noticed that there’s a second line starting to coalesce indoors, right the other end of the kitchen to the first line. Why the hell are they doing that? Why the hell do they do anything? Does our kitchen just happen to be on the route of some massive migration, a rest stop on the ant superhighway, or are they gearing up to invade? Am I going to be sitting at the counter blearily drinking my cup of tea one morning and look up to see myself surrounded? Will they carry me off, sniggering tiny sniggers, bearing me to some spot in the woods where a vast super-ant will come and squish me with one of its enormous feet?

Hopefully not. But if you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know what happened.

 

 

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The Paperless Trail

As someone who’s spent the last three weeks packing up a house ready to move — and has another two weeks of it to go — I feel compelled to share some weary pieces of advice with you. 1. Throw everything away, immediately. The instant someone gives you something, or you buy it, or an object in any other way intersects with your life, get rid of it. By all means sell or re-cycle or hand on (the charity shops of North London should be letting off fireworks every night, given the cubic yards of stuff they’re getting from us), but GET RID OF IT.

2. Don’t stow something large, heavy and cumbersome in depths of the attic unless you’re prepared for yanking it back out again on a hot, humid day when you’re ten years older than when you put it there. Instead, see (1).

3. No, that [insert object name] will not ‘come in useful at some point’. It’s a piece of crap, otherwise you’d want it now. See (1). 4. Point (3) especially applies to computers or bits of technology being sidelined because you’ve bought a new one. That just-replaced laptop will not mellow with age. Get rid of it now, while it might conceivably still be of use to someone.

5. Any box you find which hasn’t been opened since the last move should be thrown into a skip immediately, without opening. (Unless, apparently, it contains a wedding dress. I’m never going to hear the end of that one).

6. The bloke who came to do a quote for our shipping spoke darkly of the tendency of hitherto-unnoticed objects to ‘come out of the walls’ during the packing process. He’s right. They do. Therefore...

7. Buy at least twice as many cardboard boxes as you think you can conceivably use, even if this requires going against the strident counsel of your partner. The same applies to bin bags, and you don’t want the rubbish flimsy ones.

8. If you have sets of things that are no longer mission critical — magazines, VHS videos, baby clothes — pick one symbolic item of each to keep, to ease the realisation that your life has moved on, and the rest... See (1).

9. The days when you could just ‘throw stuff away’ are long gone, my friend. Unless you want to spend all day, every day trolling back and forth to the dump and recycling centre,  talk your neighbours into having major building work done, and make covert use of their skip.

10. You already have enough clothes, notepads, shoes and tins of sweetcorn. Never buy any of these ever again.

 

There are doubtless a thousand more, but I’m too knackered to remember them. Something else that has struck me forcibly, however, is that the next time I move (which will be NEVER EVER EVER), one type of object will not have increased in number, and that’s paper, in the form of letters, souvenirs and momentous of days gone by. A few examples:

For every novel since SPARES, I’ve presented the first laserprinted copy to my wife, my first reader. She has all of these, each in a file box, as presented. Taken together they’re really heavy and take up a non-negligible cubic footage of space, but she seems unwilling to let them go. With the novel I’ve just finished, however, I shot her a pdf and she read it on her iPad — so that’s the end of that.

Correspondence, too, whether it be to do with work or friendship — all that’s gone virtual. Yes, the emails I receive are filed (I’m dogged about this, and only feel relaxed when my inbox is empty apart from a couple of things left as To Do items or memory-joggers) — but that’s not the same, somehow. There’s also the issue of forward compatibility. For a long time I slogged along with Microsoft Entourage (mainly because I liked its PIM-like integration of email, diary and contacts, an approach Apple remains resistant to, for reasons I cannot fathom). My databases from those years are stowed on backups somewhere, I think, but I’m not sure I have a copy of the application any more, and there will come a time when re-accessing those old emails would be far more trouble than I or a descendent might wish to spend on the task. I’m certainly never going to simply happen upon them, in the way that last week I came across the very first letter I was sent by the woman who’d go on to be my wonderful editor for over fifteen years, in response to my enquiry as to whether she’d fancy publishing a short story collection (her letter was remarkably polite).

To Do lists are now stored in an ever-evolving personal ecosystem of apps. Notes and planning thoughts are most often now jotted straight into a computer... All these shards and leavings of a life of work have departed the concrete world of bits of paper, and are now digital.  Reviews, too — no longer do I see these as hard copy, but as pdfs emailed by the publisher. If I attend a convention or other event, chances are most of the information will now be accessed via pdf or Web site or app. I file these digitally, of course. But neither I nor some vaguely-interested relative are going to come across them accidentally after I’ve gone, just as family photos sturdily filed away in iPhoto or Aperture libraries are not present in the world, there for idle perusal, in the way they would be in an old skool photo album on the shelf. They’re doubtless safer, as they can be backed up hither and yon, but they’re not as accessible. They’re not there: they’re somewhere.

It’s not just work stuff, either. I found a file box from our honeymoon, which contains everything from a cork popped at some point, to travel itineraries, receipts from restaurants and hotels, and airline tickets (sentimental, I know, but it was my bloody honeymoon). When we travel now I get hotel bills emailed to me. Airline and car bookings and just about everything else is stored up in the Cloud, courtesy of TripIt and allied/compatible iOS apps.

Rather than being simply there, even if ‘there’ means ‘in a dusty and damp box full of mouse poo, shoved way in back of the attic’, all these things are now invisibly sidelined into backup drives or thrown up into the Cloud. They will never be seen by accident or happenstance but only as a result of focussed effort, and who has time for that these days? The Cloud has a lot to live up to, if it’s truly going to replace the dusty shoeboxes of yesteryear.

We used to leave a physical trail as we wandered through life, something that others — and ourselves — could look back and witness, like the fossilised prints of dinosaurs on a long-vanished shore. It doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case for much longer. I’ve no idea what to take from this, except to think that maybe it’s even more important than ever that we’re fully aware of things as they’re actually happening.

In the shoebox of the soul paper never fades, and it’s always now.

 

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