Designing Type

Designing TypeKaren Cheng’s 2005  book, Designing Type, is the third of the recent books on typography I have received*. Of the three, it is the most technical, appealing to the typophile and design geek more than the average reader. But it’s also a reference for layout and graphic artists looking to choose a specific font for a work.

If your goal is to actually design a typeface, she helps appreciate the subtleties of design that differentiate and separate typefaces and letterforms. But it’s not a book about design.

Most books on type and typography focus on the result: working for the combination of readability and legibility that create an emotional, psychological and intellectual effect on the viewer. Cheng takes us on an almost microscopic tour of type, zooming in on the minute parts.

There is a prevailing theory that type should be ‘invisible’ in that the reader doesn’t see the face, simply benefits from its effect. And, I suppose, for the average reader that makes sense. Designers usually don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by a closer examination of the font. Writers don’t want readers to lose track of the plot or theme in order to puzzle over the lack or presence of serifs. But a lot of work and time goes into creating a typeface that accomplishes that goal.

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Whatever became of that angry mob?

Defending our honourLast term, council was presented with an angry, 14-page screed from the “Friends of Central Park” (aka “Build the YMCA a Taj Mahal at Taxpayers’ Expense,” later called Better Together Collingwood…yes, you know who was behind them both!).

The mouthpiece attacked the honesty, the credibility, competence and the behaviour of the former council – all because we chose to build new recreational facilities that were not the expensive option a group of well-off residents demanded we build. And because we didn’t raise taxes or incur significant debt in our choice.

I realize it’s not often one gets lambasted by taxpayers for not raising taxes, but we were severely criticized for choosing the path of fiscal responsibility. Can’t win them all, I suppose. But I think it’s time to see if this current council – elected by that group and their minions – has followed through on the demands made of us last term.

I have deleted some of the specific rec facility-related content in the letter because it isn’t relevant any more. But I think you’ll find what remains (shown in italics) very informative and relevant. My responses follow. I’m sure you’ll chuckle over the evident hypocrisy.

That Council ask staff to report back on the following best practices in municipal good governance.
Answer: Not seen in these first 21 months in office this term. Likelihood of ever being seen: same as winning the lottery twice in a row. Municipal good governance would get in the way of personal agendas and entitlement.

I. clarify the values and respective actions that they interpret to embrace good governance and share these with the public;
Answer: Ditto. Okay, first you have to know what good governance is. The Most Secretive Council Ever has no idea because that would require coming out from behind closed doors. And learning. Toss this one in the bin.

ii. direct staff to revise the Procurement Policy to reflect more stringent guidelines and procedures reflective of other municipal, provincial and federal procedures; specifically articles on sole sourcing amongst a more robust review;
Answer: One of the very first things this council ever did was to approve a sole-source bid for a taxi contract, to the company owned by Councillor Fryer’s brother-in-law. So it’s do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do with this lot.

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Electing atheists

Anti-atheists billboard
trust meterA recent story on Religion News discusses the DNC’s concerns about former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ religion. Not that he was Jewish, but that he might be a closet atheist. And that send the DNC-crats over the roof. Scary, eh?

You can’t elect an atheist in America. You can elect liars, cheats, adulterers, misogynists and creationists (and sometimes all in the same person…). But not atheists.

Even Donald Trump, whose murky religious beliefs remain cause for much speculation, overshadowed by his overt worship of power and money, hasn’t strayed into atheism, at least publicly.

And it’s been that way since the late 1960s-early ’70s. American religion and politics somehow became entwined around then, and today they are inseparable, Constitution notwithstanding. The right paints anyone who isn’t Bible-thumping along with them as atheist, leftist, socialist or liberal (or all four…). The recent Republican presidential-candidate race often seemed more like a series of fundamentalist, revivalist prayer meetings than political debates.

Not that America is unique in this. Despite a growing percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation running as an atheist in politics taints any candidate. As the article continues:

Raising a candidate’s religion or questioning his or her faith is beyond the pale. One reason the email is so damning (pun intended) is that atheists are among the least-liked groups in America. There is a wide gap between public opinion toward Jews and feelings for atheists.
How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That’s as low as you get in public opinion.

Statistics show that roughly 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. In fact, the large majority of them believe in a deity or have some spiritual belief. A Pew Research poll suggests only 3.1% of Americans are actually atheists and 4% are agnostics.

Although 23.9% of Canadians claim to be ‘irreligious’, the list of openly atheist politicians in Canada is pitifully small (and all of them are from Quebec…).

An Angus-Reid poll also indicates the troubling notion that a lot of Canadians who consider themselves non-religious or ambivalent about religion also believe in superstitious claptrap like astrology, reincarnation and psychic powers.

Overall, though we don’t much care for prayer in public meetings, regardless of what we believe. And that’s a good thing.

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Everything Flows

Everything FlowsTonight’s book-with-wine discussion is about Vasily Grossman‘s novel, Everything Flows (New York Review Book, USA, 2009). It was his final work, and left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1964.

It’s not a difficult read, only 250 pages, but it isn’t easy. Readers unfamiliar with Soviet history, particularly the Stalin era, will not understand much of it. And it’s hardly a cheerful work. Not that everything Russian is a slit-your-wrist work, but it’s certainly Dostoevsky-like in its darkness.

Grossman was a Soviet war correspondent during WWII and travelled with the Red Army through Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk then into Eastern Europe, and finally Germany, where he covered the Battle for Berlin. He was the top war correspondent of the USSR and his articles were collected and translated in a 2006 book, A Writer at War. His pieces offer a very personal look at a side of the war we usually know more from military and official sources.

His mother was murdered by the Nazis in 1941, as they blitzed across the Ukraine. As a Jew, Grossman suffered Soviet racism and prejudices, increasing in the late 1940s as Stalin grew more paranoid and anti-Semitic. His artistic views were also molded by his war experiences and his ability to see the people in the carnage. He was among the first to see Treblinka and was one of the earliest to chronicle the Holocaust.

He was a good reporter and became a good novelist. He wrote honestly about what few of his contemporaries have dared write: life in Soviet Russia; the life of individuals slogging through an unrelenting system they didn’t fully understand, about their core of human will to survive. Honest, moving stuff. And for that he would become persona non grata, one among many artists whose work displeased the State.

After the war, he wrote two novels, both about the war: For a Just Cause (1952) and Life and Fate. The former was a fairly standard work for its day and was published. The latter has been compared to a modern War and Peace – it is huge, sweeping and complex. But because it was also critical of the Soviet government, and exposed some of the army’s atrocities as it advanced into enemy territory, it was too explosive for the then-Soviet censors (and the party’s chief ideologue, Mikhail Suslov). The government had it banned. Life and Fate would not be published until 1980, after his death.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility

Reading Letters
The human brain is truly a remarkable machine.* We can see a bunch of lines and in that same brain turn them into an M and know it’s not a V or an N or a K or W. Yet M isn’t a ‘thing’ – it’s an abstract representation of a sound that itself has no concrete meaning outside the Mmmmm of meditation.

When you mentally assemble a bunch of other lines and sticks and squiggles, those sounds form a larger abstraction: a word: MOON. Now we have substance. And that can be used to create even larger collections of abstractions – sentences – that together we ascribe a greater meaning to: THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOON.

That’s a perfectly clear sentence. Nonsensical, yes, but within a tiny fraction of a second, your brain built all the bits and squiggles into a structured concept that made some sort of sense. You can read it; every word is clear and expresses something you can picture. That’s a remarkable feat of cognition that borders on magical.

But change just one letter, replace, say an O with an R and THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MORN seems much stranger, more nonsensical. Harder to imagine. THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOOT or THE MOAN even more so. Familiarity helped us build the first; the unfamiliar – just one letter changed – made us stop and think about it. But how is it that MOON, MORN and MOOT are clear to us, even when the sentence isn’t logical, but assemblies like REET, CABIT, DRAMFIBBLE aren’t?

What about acrasial, brabeum, crocitation? Nidifice, ovablastic, patration? Saburrate, tecnolatry, yelve? Those are actually all real words, once in use, but long since fallen from use, forgotten and mostly lost to the language.

You can read these words, you can pronounce them. They obey the rules of our language construction – unlike, say pkbrynzg or tlmrifvy – but they still don’t make sense. Your brain has no familiarity, no mental foothold that lets you make sense of them because they don’t conform.

But a lost word like snobographer you can break into bits – snob and grapher – and probably work out that it means someone who writes about snobs, even if you’ve never seen the word previously. It has familiar bits.

Sophie Beier‘s 2012 book, Reading letters: Designing for Legibility is almost the polar opposite of Sarah Hyndman’s book, reviewed last week. She looks at those little sticks and lines and squiggles and explores all the science and art behind how we make abstract symbols into meaning.

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Why Fonts Matter

Why Fonts Matter
The first problem I have when receiving a new book on typography is that I spend far too much time looking up the typefaces described or sampled therein, and searching for them online, instead of reading. Then I start looking at (and critiquing) the typefaces chosen for the book itself. It’s a trees-not-the-forest kind of wonderment that comes over me.

As I am wont to do, I sit back on my deck in the evening sun, glass of wine in hand, and a large pile of previously-purchased typography books beside me, so I can make the introductions. Probably not necessary, since I suspect they already know one another. But it’s comforting to have them all together.

That’s just my own obsession with type and typography. There are, those peccadilloes aside, many great delights to be had in receiving a new book about typography. To open a page filled with characters, colours, shapes… it’s almost a childish joy. I trust some of you know that emotion, already. Sometimes I think talking about type is a bit like talking about Zen. From the outside, it seems suspiciously like mumbo jumbo that only the insiders can understand. But stick with me, grasshopper.*

Sarah Hyndman’s book, and the latest in my collection, Why Fonts Matter, doesn’t frame itself by asking if they matter. Of course they do. What she wants to tell is is how they matter, how they affect us. How they make us feel. How they direct us to buying, eating, music and other daily choices. And, of course, how they communicate their verbal and non-verbal messages. Very Mcluhanistic, the message and the medium and all that. And that’s in great part what Hyndman wants to tell us.

And like the Zen master’s stick thwacking sharply over the novice’s shoulders to spur awareness (and rouse us from sleep), Hyndman startles and awakens us. In a pleasant way, of course. A gentle stick. It’s meant as an interactive journey, not a lecture. And she has a light touch, and a mildly sardonic humour, too.

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322 reasons why we’re better off with PowerStream

$322. More. Every year.

$322. That’s how much MORE the average consumer household using 750 kW/month pays a year when connected to Hydro One, compared to the same household connected to Collus PowerStream. That means YOU will pay that much more, thanks to Collingwood Council. The Block, in particular.

And it could be higher, if you have, say, electrical heat, air conditioning, electrical stove or dryer, or a family. A lot higher.*

This council has been in secret negotiations to sell our utility to Hydro One, knowing that your bills will skyrocket. Not only will it mean higher utility bills, but you have no input into the fate of the utility YOU own. Input is not being allowed by the Most Secretive Council Ever.

In fact, they have only ever discussed our utility and selling it behind closed doors this term. Dozens of times. Until last week, of course, when they publicly announced their plan to sell it. Anyone else see this as corruption and breach of public trust?

Last term, when half of our ownership in Collus was sold to PowerStream, it was all done in public, with public input. How quickly things changed under The Block.

If you’re a senior or otherwise living on a fixed income or with typically low wages, you’ll need to come up with at least $26.80 a month more, or you’ll have to cut it from somewhere else. Like your food. Medicine. Clothes. Or heating in winter.

Plus don’t forget to add in the entirely unnecessary but burdensome tax increases this council has already put through TWICE this term. All part of The Block’s war on seniors.

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A cunning plan

Mike PenceI see Donald Trump’s plan to utterly eviscerate the Republican Party is working very well. Just look who he picked as his running mate: possibly the only white man more bigoted, vile, close-minded, racist and misogynistic than the passel of presidential candidates Trump bested earlier.* Brilliant.

You couldn’t do more than that to alienate the remaining American intelligensia, the moderates, the women, the Latinos, the blacks, the Jews, the Muslims, the gays… now pretty much every social, racial, educational and cultural group has an opportunity to be offended by Trump and his potential Veep all at once.

Now, although pretty much everyone with an IQ over 60 has long since left the party, the remainder are gathering together in Cleveland. Imagine a whole mob of America’s most illiterate, racist, gun-toting, fanatically religious wingnuts stuffed into a stadium where they can feed off each other’s ignorance and hatred.

I expect once it’s packed, Trump will have it sealed, pumped with liquid nitrogen and everyone inside frozen. It will then become a museum of American bigotry. What other choices does he have?

Trump has managed to squeeze out support from two of the top GOP weasels – Mitch Connell and Paul Ryan, whose allegiance to the NRA rises far above anything they feel for the American people or state. Tepid support, true, but if these two sellouts say yea, then you know the NRA is saying yea, too. After all, puppets only dance to the pull of the strings.

Along the way he managed to remove the spine from presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Ben Carson and get them to stand up and in Soviet-show-trial style, endorse him at the convention. A masterpiece of showmanship that even Stalin couldn’t have bettered. Genius.

All Trump needs now is uber-oleaginous Ted Cruz to endorse him, and his trap has sprung. Get Cruz and all the rest of the top sleaze to Cleveland and zzzzzzap! They’ll all be frozen in ice for all time. And good riddance, too.

Sadly, both of the former Bush presidents will be sitting out this event. One suspects George W wanted to attend, but is still trying to figure out how to work his GPS…
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Thick as a brick

You really have to watch Rogers’ coverage of Collingwood Council, July 11, 2016. Start around 2:08:00. That’s when the discussion about the upgrades to the brick at the Collingwood Curling Club begins.

Another comedic episode full of zany antics and madcap mayhem brought to you by The Block. Be prepared to howl with laughter as Councillor Ecclestone attempts to justify hiding public information from view.

Let’s pause for a moment to remind readers that these upgrades and repairs were approved last term, in 2014 and should have been completed by now. But this council and administration dropped the ball for almost two years.

The former building department official who oversaw the project when it was supposed to go ahead provided a report on the status of the building and proposed repairs in early 2015. The administration sat on the report while the snooze button kept being hit until mid-2016. But I digress.*

Finally, the work got approval to go ahead, two years after it was first proposed and approved. But better late than never, eh? Who cares if costs have risen in the interim? It’s only taxpayer dollars! There’s millions of them where they came from!

Push ahead in the video to 2:09:45. That’s when Councillor Ecclestone speaks. Be prepared to drop your jaw and guffaw aloud. He says:

In the future, I don’t think we should be making public the 15 percent, uh, contingency. I think that it, you know, doesn’t need to get out there, cause I think once you put that in there, the company then can, fffff (sic), go for the full bundle, right? So I’m just thinking that in the future we should just keep that, uh, um, not announce it to the public.

Is he kidding? Hide information from the public in an open bidding process? This is someone who claims to have been the “head of council” previously. Yet here he appears thicker than the brickwork about to be repaired.**

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Fake Ark, Fake Religion

Fairy Tale ArkWell, it finally opened: the $100 million-dollar Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky that features an allegedly life-size model of the mythological boat described in the Bible. It’s 510 feet (155.4m) long, 85 feet (26m) wide, more than three storeys (51 feet) tall, uses 3.1 million board-feet of lumber, steel and other modern materials, on a base of rebar-reinforced concrete.*

The only two materials specifically mentioned in the Biblical tale are gopher wood and pitch. But this reconstruction doesn’t use gopher wood or pitch – curiously, both are conspicuous in their absence in this modern remaking. In fact, pitch isn’t even mentioned in the website about the theme park. Details, schmeetails…

It was built using a large crew equipped with modern cranes and tools based on diesel and electrical power. Without which, a bronze-age farmer would have had a tough time building something of this scale, let alone go to Australia and New Zealand and the Antarctic and Tibet and Mongolia and Rhodesia to collect the birds and animals he was supposed to carry.

The ark under construction

Now if you know the story in Genesis, the ark wasn’t supposed to go cruising, just float. It didn’t have sails. As it points out on the Friendly Atheist blog, Ham’s ark is completely wrong in its design and purpose:

That implies that it was designed to go somewhere with a purpose. Cruise ship. Cargo ship. War ship. But Noah’s Ark wasn’t a ship. Noah had one job — to make sure the Ark floated and keep everyone on it alive. His Ark didn’t have propulsion, engines, or sails. It just had to float.
That means what Noah built was a barge. It was made to simply hold something while an external source pushed it around… what “launch” is he talking about? In the Genesis story, the Ark was built and then floated as the water rose. It was never “launched” as we would see of ships today… Also, as far as a “landing,” who cares? If Noah successfully guided the Ark to the point where he could “land,” the method of doing it would have been irrelevant since the Flood was over and everyone survived.

So basically, the look, design and construction of this thing are all made up. Imaginary. Fictional. Like all the stories and myths in Genesis itself (I’ll write more about that sometime soon, but you can already guess my approach). But let’s look at the ark itself.

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A little musical Canadiana

My Own Dear CanadaAmong my collection of many (many!) vintage song books and song sheets, I have a bundle of patriotic music from WWI. I was browsing through them again this week and found several songs written and published during the war, either as songs for the soldiers (usually cheering them on to war or hoping for their safe return) or songs for those left behind to express their patriotic fervour.

I thought it might be appropriate to show some of them to readers as we approach our 150th national birthday, in 2017.

Song NationalHere are six covers from Canadian music of that era. If you click on the thumbnails, to the right, they should open to larger scans of the covers.

I have not scanned the interiors, but if you’re interested in the music itself, please contact me. All are arranged for piano. I may have more in the collection I overlooked, and if I find more, I will either post them as updates or in the comments. If you are interested in obtaining these, or other vintage sheet music I might have, let me know.
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The raison d’etre

Maxine“Why do you do it?” A voice asked me, momentarily distracting my attention from deciding between the firm and silky tofu in the grocery store. I looked up to find a woman close to my own age in front of me. Well, perhaps she was a teensy bit older by about 20 years, but once you cross 60, age differences between seniors seem smaller. To my aging eyes, at least.

I couldn’t easily disengage since her cart was wedged up against mine, and because I needed to find my way to the sweet potatoes across the aisle, I responded, hoping to soon untangle without appearing rude.

“Why do I do what?” Always answer a question with a question, or so I was raised. Well, maybe not raised. I think I read about that tactic in a book. I was raised to be seen and not heard, which I suppose is why I’m a writer not a singer. My parents heard me sing once, and that ended my musical career pretty toot sweet.

“Write those things. Online. You know, all those nasty things about council. Why do you do it?” I didn’t think explaining about my writer-versus-singer upbringing would satisfy her, so I took another direction.

“Well, first I don’t think they’re always nasty. Sometimes they’re funny. I hope. You can never tell about humour. Didn’t any of them amuse you, at least a little?”

“I don’t read them all. Not online. I don’t have a computer,” she replied.

“Well then how do you know about them?” I asked in my best Sherlockian fashion.

“My son prints them out and brings them to me. Not all of them. Just the ones he wants me to read. The ones about the people I voted for. The nasty ones.”

Well so much for my career as a satirist, and cultural commentator. Didn’t really connect if no one read it. Maybe I could take up singing after all. You know, busk downtown. With a ukulele. But I couldn’t start my new career until this new critic finished with me. So I responded.

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We’re Screwed. Royally.

Screw the taxpayer!By now you know what I’ve been warning you about all along: Council is selling our public electrical utility. After harassing, bullying and hectoring our utility staff, they decided to simply get rid of a 150-year-old public institution that has served this town so well all this time. We’re screwed.

And you’ve had how much input on this crucial issue? Right: exactly none. And council has no intention of giving the public a say. This is a fait accompli: an autocratic act so despicable that words fail me. These people are truly evil in the fullest sense of that word. Democracy be damned, say The Block. They will do what they want regardless of the damage it does to you, to staff, to our reputation and relationships.

Everything about our utility has been done in secret, behind closed doors, with administrative staff skulking in the shadows, pulling the strings while the Bobbleheads nod in agreement to what they’re told. Never once thinking for themselves, they’ve swallowed the corporate hook, line and sinker. But that line has been tainted with untruth.

This merely ices the cake of the unmitigated disaster this term has proven. Secrecy, lies, corruption, conniving, destruction, vendettas and personal agendas. That’s the sum total of council to date. What a legacy.

And it will get worse. Much, much worse. The screwing of the taxpayer will continue until we can elect an group that isn’t ethically challenged, in their place. Collingwood deserves much better.

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Transcendance

TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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