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Category: General

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 15

[ 30 ] February 4, 2016 |

This is the grave of William “Boss” Tweed


I hardly need to provide a biography of the man whose name is synonymous throughout the United States with political corruption. Tweed, the child of Quakers like another paragon of virtue in American history named Richard Nixon, became a machine man from a youth, where he became a volunteer firefighter known for his ax-wielding violence against competing firefighting companies. He rose fast in the Democratic machine in New York and served a term in Congress in the 1850s. Then he realized where real power was located. By 1863, he controlled Tammany Hall and used it for massive personal profit, patronage, and corruption. Of course, as the U.S. was preparing for the Gilded Age with all its corruption, Tweed worked with men such as Jay Gould and Jim Fiske to rip off Cornelius Vanderbilt through the law, for which Tweed was repaid with massive amounts of stock. After 1869, Tweed controlled all politics in New York and stole left and right from every public project he approved, at least $25 million and probably significantly more. His downfall was quite swift; by 1871, he was out of power, he was on trial in 1873, and he died in prison in 1878, after once escaping to Spain aboard a Spanish ship and after he agreed to reveal the inner workings of his ring to his old enemy and now New York governor Samuel Tilden in exchange for release, which Tilden immediately reneged upon.

There is a small bar surrounding the gravesite. There is a gate in the front. I did what any visitor should do. I opened the gate, walked in, and left a nickel on Tweed’s tombstone.

Boss Tweed is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.


The Venezuela Catastrophe

[ 132 ] February 4, 2016 |


It’s a disaster that will get worse before it gets better:

“The only question now is whether Venezuela’s government or economy will completely collapse first,” writes Matt O’Brien in a jaunty overview of this fucked up global fucked-spot. What happened? An incompetent government combined with a huge drop in global oil prices have produced an economy that is shrinking at a breathtaking clip, crumbling infrastructure, a lack of goods for people to buy even if they could afford it, and runaway inflation. (It is worth noting that the government’s top economic official “rejects some basic tenets of conventional economics, for example that printing too much money causes inflation.”) Venezuela’s oil production is falling, and oil prices are falling even faster, leaving the government woefully short on funds. They’re set to default on their national debt. Corrupt officials may have embezzled hundreds of billions of dollars. Venezuela is rated one of the most corrupt countries on earth. The nation’s biggest company is begging the government to seek international aid “to avoid the collapse of the food supply.” Unfortunately, most of their neighbors are too pissed off at them to care.

From large-scale cronyism to trying to deny basic economic realities with price and currency controls that have no chance of working, it’s an all-too-common and all-too-awful story.

How Screwed Are Democrats in the House?

[ 151 ] February 4, 2016 |


Get used to this guy

Really, really screwed.

The Cook Political Report came out with ratings Wednesday for how House elections are shaping up. The simple math: Just 33 seats out of 435 are truly competitive, including 27 held by Republicans and six held by Democrats.

For Pelosi’s plan to work, Democrats would need to hold all six of their seats and pick up all 27 from Republicans — 12 of which the Cook team says “lean Republican.” And even then it wouldn’t be enough.

It’s the latest evidence that a combination of Americans’ polarization, the concentration of Democratic voters in fewer districts, and the GOP’s overwhelming control over redistricting after the 2010 Census have made it a very tall task for Democrats to take back the House at any point this decade.

Or even, for that matter, next decade. As Aaron Blake wrote in 2013:

What redistricting also did, though, was allow Republicans to draw very favorable state legislative maps. Those maps will also make it hard for Democrats to regain control of those chambers and, by extension, overhaul the existing GOP-friendly maps at both the state and congressional levels.

Nobody is saying Democrats can’t win back the U.S. House in the coming years, but most everyone agrees that it’s significantly more difficult today than it was before and that Democrats need a sizable wave to do it. In fact, they would need to win as much as 55 percent of the popular vote, according to the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, something neither party was able to achieve even in the wave elections of 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Republicans have truly gamed the system by taking over the states. The lack of a good state strategy for Democrats is a real problem here and that’s actually where the House strategy has to start. The problem of course is that Republicans have gerrymandered the states just as badly as they have the congressional districts in those states. This is probably a multi-decade problem that only ends if a huge wave election takes place that can knock out a bunch of entrenched people and then that wave continues until the next census. In other words, very unlikely barring it happening precisely in 2020. Maybe left populist candidates can win some seats and provide a glimpse of how Sanders-power can work downballot in ways that Hillary-centrism can’t. We’ll see. There’s no reason not to be skeptical until these people win elections.

Is the New Gilded Age a Myth?

[ 66 ] February 4, 2016 |


Above: A suffering capitalist of the Gilded Age

In a bizarrely argued article, historian James Livingston says yes and that’s because capitalists were the ones getting screwed in the original Gilded Age.

The late 19th century, supposedly the golden age of laissez-faire capitalism, was actually a nightmare for capitalists. They whined incessantly about their falling profit margins and, more significantly, about how the American people didn’t appreciate their contributions to economic growth. “The manufacturers want a greater profit,” as E.S. Meade, the authority on trust finance, put it, “without such a desperate struggle to get it.” By the time the crisis of the 1890s arrived, capitalists figured they had lost the class struggle, and they were right. According to reputable businessmen, journalists, economists, and politicians, the so-called Gilded Age of the late 19th century was one long depression, and workers rather than capitalists were the principal beneficiaries.

The capitalists were, of course, poor-mouthing and propagandizing, but the numbers validate their accounting. Income shares shifted toward labor and away from capital in this period, in an exact inverse of what we have witnessed over the last 40 years (when, not incidentally, wages and median family incomes have stagnated, corporate profits have soared, and executive compensation has skyrocketed). By 1890, this possibly disturbing distribution of income between capital and labor had become so significant a public issue that the Senate Finance Committee commenced hearings to investigate it.

From the standpoint of capitalists, why did income shares perform so badly in the so-called Gilded Age? It’s all about the relation between real wages and productivity. If real wages are rising and productivity isn’t, labor’s share of national income will rise at the expense of capital’s share. That’s what happened in the late 19th century. If real wages are stagnating and productivity is increasing, capital’s share of national income will rise at the expense of labor’s share. That’s what happened in the late 20th century.

In the so-called Gilded Age, real wages increased dramatically but labor productivity didn’t, so capitalists suffered. Extraordinary economic growth happened, no doubt about that then or now, but workers were, as the capitalists complained, the principal beneficiaries. For example, real wages in the nonfarm sector increased roughly 30 percent between 1884 and 1896 (unemployment wasn’t rising), but productivity flatlined. The opposite is true of our time.

Why, then, did workers win the class struggle of the late 19th century? Not because they were represented by trade unions. Only 10 percent of the labor force belonged to such a thing. And not because they weren’t militant — between 1881 and 1905, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics kept meticulous records, the number of strikes, lockouts, establishments affected, and participants increased at a rate that would panic contemporary observers. With almost no union representation, workers won — they were the victors in the majority of strikes and lockouts measured in the late 19th century by the BLS.

They won because skilled workers, not bosses, controlled machine production in the factories — until the late 1890s, they had the decisive voice on hours, conditions, even compensation — and refused to cede that control. They won because they shared their gains with unskilled workers, who then followed their lead when bosses tried to enforce new work rules and push came to shove.

And most important, workers won because the labor movement of the so-called Gilded Age was a cross-class construction. Like the larger socialist movement, then as now, it was never the exclusive property of “the” working class, just as the pro-capitalist movements of our own time aren’t the exclusive property of people with the unlikely pedigree of Donald Trump. Workers won those strikes in the late 19th century because the local middle class — farmers, journalists, lawyers, merchants, shopkeepers — stood with them in defiance of what it perceived, correctly, as a threat to its own existence: the distant leviathan (usually a railroad company) that would cut any cost and gut any custom in the name of the bottom line.

This is quite odd. And it’s not that Livingston is a right-winger; Jacobin has published him several times. He is however a professional contrarian and fundamentalist believer in consumerism. And that’s what this is really about–Livingston sees himself as opposing the big bad historical establishment. I would say a good general rule is that when historians as great as Glenda Gilmore, Jefferson Cowie, Thomas Sugrue, Steve Fraser, and many others (including myself in the far less great category), not to mention people like Krugman and Piketty and Stiglitz, and cultural commenters around the nation and world are noting the very clear connections between the inequality, exploitation, political corruption, and corporate domination of the current United States and the manifestations of these problems in the late 19th century, that there’s probably a lot of truth to it. Contrarians love to see themselves as challenging staid establishments. The problem, as it is for Livingston, is that you have to squint really hard and look past a lot of reality to make points that might have a grain of truth in them.

To say the least, capitalists did not lose the Gilded Age. This is utterly laughable and I’d say an embarrassing argument to make. Now, you can say that capitalists often didn’t understand what was in their best interests and that the modern corporation that would maximize efficiency and long-term profits still needed to be solidified. That did take until the 20th century. And certainly skilled labor was trying–but ultimately failing–to hold onto the labor theory of value and control production. But most of the claims here are half-truths. Workers did not win these strikes in the Gilded Age. I’ve documented that plenty here. In fact, the only major strikes workers did win were those like at Cripple Creek or the Pennsylvania anthracite strike of 1902 where government intervened to mediate or stop private armies from killing the workers. The Great Railroad Strike, Pullman, Homestead, the 8-hour day strikes up to the Haymarket, the entirety of the Knights of Labor–these were all crushed through a combination of violence, hostile judges, organized anti-union business cartels, and politicians. It is true enough that real wages did grow a bit during this period, but this is hard to compare to today’s economy, because in the Gilded Age the nation was transitioning from a rural economy with a small urban population to an urbanized population with enormous industrial capacity. Moreover, it’s far from clear in the literature whether labor’s actual share of the economy grew. And skilled workers may have won short strikes to protect their control over work–but they were losing the overall war over this issue by a landslide. Livingston’s “up to the 1890s” bit is doing a lot of work here–the capitalists were wresting control from workers and succeeding by this time, something that the Taylorites would finally win decisively by the 1910s.

If Livingston wants to take the words of capitalists so seriously, maybe he should also take the words of workers and their advocates seriously, whether Upton Sinclair or Sam Gompers or Emma Goldman or P.J. McGuire. Whether anti-capitalists or pro-capitalists, workers and activists consistently talked about the great oppression faced by workers in the era. Gompers and McGuire might have focused on the decline in power among skilled laborers, Goldman and the IWW on the industrial classes, Sinclair on immigrant laborers crushed in Chicago meatpacking. But all agreed on the broader issue that industrial capitalism as presently construed was very bad for workers. Yet Livingston completely ignores all of this to make his contrarian argument. He does because you have to ignore it. And that’s the root of the problem with the whole essay–it’s cherrypicking at its historical finest.

Are Charter Schools the New Separate But Equal?

[ 105 ] February 4, 2016 |


A lawsuit in Minnesota claims they are, effectively arguing that their existence is discriminatory to children of color, even when the charters specifically target those students.

Alex Cruz-Guzman, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, lives in a poor, minority neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Determined to provide his five children with a quality education, he and his wife were able to send their two oldest daughters—who are now in college—to desegregated St. Paul schools. But it’s become more difficult to find such schools in St. Paul today, and the Cruz-Guzmans were told they would likely be unable to send their three younger children to integrated institutions, even when they offered to transport their kids themselves.

So Cruz-Guzman became a plaintiff in a lawsuit—one that may shape the future of American education. Filed against the state of Minnesota by two veteran civil-rights attorneys, Daniel Shulman and his son John Shulman, the suit accuses the state of allowing schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students to proliferate. A 2015 Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis found that elementary school students in the Twin Cities attend more racially segregated schools than they have in a generation. Children who attend such schools, the lawyers argue, achieve far less than their peers in integrated institutions. The lawyers also say that the growth of charter schools, which are even more racially segregated than traditional public schools, have exacerbated these trends.

The Shulmans are seeking a metro-wide integration plan to satisfy what they argue is the state’s constitutional obligation to prevent segregated schooling. They cite the state constitution’s education clause, equal protection clause, due process clause, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act to make their case.

Not everyone agrees that this kind of integration is legally necessary or the best way to meet children’s needs. Some see the suit as a threat to parents’ right to choose the schools that would best serve their children. This is particularly true for parents of color, who sometimes send their children to charters in the hopes of avoiding what they see as hostile traditional schools.

John Cairns, one of the most experienced charter school attorneys in the nation, is working against the lawsuit. “If the state is going to do anything, then they’d have to attack parental choice,” says Cairns. “While the plaintiffs are inexplicit about what their remedy would be, in our view, they’re explicit that their remedy would address charter school enrollments. The only way they could do that is to have some conclusion that parental choice is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Shulman sees in this argument an echo of Plessy v. Ferguson. He thinks charter school advocates are arguing, in effect, that separate schools can be equal. “We don’t think that’s true or the law. If they follow the law, they’ll say separate is not equal, and not equal is inadequate,” he says. “All the data will support that … test scores, graduation rates. School segregation is a national tragedy and disgrace.”

This is an extremely controversial issue because by saying that charter schools should be included under school integration laws, it would undermine ethnically or religious-based charters. That would upset a lot of parents of color, especially in an area with very high Hmong and Somali populations. The evidence that students in integrated schools perform better than students in schools where poverty is concentrated, including charter schools, is pretty high. The NAACP is mixed on this, welcoming the lawsuit but unsure where to stand. And of course this has led to the rise of all-white charter schools as well.

In other words, is it the state’s duty to ensure diversity with mixed-race and mixed-income classrooms? Or should people be able to opt out in self-segregation through private and charter schools? I rather strongly favor the former as a personal choice but I’m not sure entirely how to legislate it, especially given the favorability of the charter option among some parents of color desperate to avoid public schools. Certainly this is a tougher and more complex issue than the usual union-busting and privatization issues around charters.

Today In Republican Anti-Anti-Racism

[ 105 ] February 3, 2016 |


Barack Obama did something today:

President Obama Wednesday delivered the comforting sermon to U.S. Muslims that their community leaders have been requesting for years, framing Islam as deeply American and its critics as violating the nation’s cherished value of religious freedom. Obama’s comments came in his first visit as president to a U.S. mosque.

Cue the Donald:

Trump, who has long slyly suggested that Obama is not a Christian, said on Fox News on Wednesday night that Obama might have visited the mosque because “maybe he feels comfortable there.”

OK, but what do you expect from a buffoon like Trump? Let’s turn things over to the moderate, reasonable, establishment, thinking person’s Republican candidate, Marco Rubio:

“Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque,” Rubio continued. “Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s going to be discrimination in America of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. And by the way, radical Islam poses a threat to Muslims themselves.”

“But again, it’s this constant pitting people against each other — that I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly,” Rubio said. “We can disagree on things, right? I’m a Dolphin fan, you’re a Patriot fan.

“Some people believe in civil rights and religious freedom for Muslims. The President should not divide the country by implicitly opposing those of us who disagree with him in public.” And there’s nothing anomalous about this; Rubio is running at least as Islamophobic campaign as Trump.

In conclusion:

Obama and Rubio follow very different theories of the proper treatment of social minorities. One of those men is president of the United States, and the other has no business holding that position.

Talking Venture Brothers With Elana @ Graphic Policy Radio

[ 18 ] February 3, 2016 |


In my ongoing mission to corner the market on the very precise niche that is the intersection between history, politics, pop culture and comic books, I’ve started a new podcast where I’ll be talking about the Venture Brothers with Elana from Graphic Policy (and maybe some guest hosts from time to time).

In this episode, which will be airing live at 9pm Eastern, we discuss the premiere of Season 6, “Hostile Makeover,” in which Team Venture moves to New York City, and we check in on the new status quo.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 14

[ 44 ] February 3, 2016 |

This is the grave of J.P. Morgan.


The Gilded Age capitalist’s Gilded Age capitalist, J.P. Morgan was born to a wealthy Hartford family in 1837. He became a banker in London in 1857. He came back to the US in 1858 and started working in his father’s banking firm in 1860, buying his way out of the Civil War with the surrogate. He started his own firm with a partner in 1871.

Morgan became the Gilded Age’s leading financier. He had so much money that he bailed out the United States Treasury during the Panic of 1893 by selling gold directly to the government in exchange for a 30-year bond issue. Doing this undermined Cleveland’s hopes for reelection in 1896 and helped lead to the Democrats nominating William Jennings Bryan, a man not seen as in Wall Street’s pocket. Morgan did the same thing in the Panic of 1907, with Theodore Roosevelt providing legal immunity to Morgan for the antitrust deal he felt it would take to accomplish. In 1900, Morgan worked with Charles Schwab and Andrew Mellon to buy out Andrew Carnegie’s steel company. They successfully did so and created U.S. Steel, one of the largest monopolies of the Gilded Age. He bought up entire region’s worth of railroads and the coal mines to feed them, as well as the homes of the nation. He bought up insurance firms,

All because his daddy set him up in business. America, truly a meritocracy, then and now.

Morgan mostly stayed out of labor conflicts directly, unlike his contemporaries like Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and George Pullman. Instead, he focused on profiteering, having surrogates take care of labor. For example, it was Morgan’s interests that owned the Pennsylvania anthracite coal mines during the famous 1902 strike, when the coal situation became so desperate that Roosevelt intervened to mediate, not crush the strike. Morgan’s close association George Baer was the head of this side of the business, famously saying, “These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

This was the worldview of Morgan and his associates. If Morgan personally stayed in the background in labor disputes, he consistently acted in the interests of big bankers, often directly to the detriment of labor. Plus, his monopolies were so out of control that it was his Northern Securities Company that Roosevelt targeted for violating anti-trust law, giving him an unearned reputation as a “trust-buster.” In fact, Roosevelt was generally fine with monopoly and Taft used anti-trust legislation a lot more often against monopoly capitalism. But Morgan had been so aggressive that he crossed Roosevelt’s line.

The House of Morgan since 1913, J.P. Morgan is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.

Labor Conditions and Your Clothing

[ 43 ] February 3, 2016 |


As we all know, most of our clothing is now made in Asian sweatshops. The clothing companies intentionally know as little as possible about the conditions of production. They contract it out and then close their eyes. They refuse all responsibility for what happens so long as the clothes come in at price and on time. Otherwise, they don’t want to know. They don’t want you to know either, which is part of the reason why they claim that not only don’t they know, but they can’t really do much about it. This is of course a lie. In any case, what are the conditions of production in Indian sweatshops?

Among the worst of the findings in the report was that some Bengaluru factories kept women (the majority of garment workers) in hostels monitored by male security guards and severely restricted their movements. Most were allowed to leave for only two hours a week, usually on Sunday to buy groceries and other items, and only after registering with a guard. The rest of the time, women were expected to travel only to and from work, and guards recorded when they arrived at and left the hostels.

The ICN, it’s worth noting, didn’t record these practices at the two factories known to produce for H&M and C&A, though the C&A factory did employ guards. The H&M factory hostel only housed men, and they were allowed out until 11pm.

Workers could use phones to talk with friends and family, but the report points out that they had little to no opportunity to interact with labor advocates, making them more vulnerable to abuses. Indeed, some hostels segregated migrants by region, paying certain groups less. All made at least the minimum wage, though Bengaluru’s garment industry has previously been singled out for its unfairly low wages.

Many of the workers were also afraid of punishment. If a woman returned late, for instance, she could be made to wait outside the gate for hours until a guard let her in.

The report found that the hostels generally provide the bare minimum. At a hostel run by Arvind, which supplies H&M, men slept on three-tier bunk beds in large, divided halls. There are no kitchens, the water supply is irregular, and one bathroom serves 12 to 14 people. “Nothing is good,” one Arvind worker said. “But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way.” Workers also had to pay to stay there.

As I have documented over the years here and in Out of Sight (recently named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 2015–yay!), these conditions are basically the same in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. These are the clothes you are wearing today or yesterday or tomorrow. The question is what you are going to do about it? When are we going to start demanding that our politicians make these conditions a priority? When are we even going to begin questioning them about the basics? Does even Bernie Sanders have a meaningful position on global labor exploitation by American companies? If so, I haven’t heard it. We have to publicize these conditions and demand that our clothes are made in humane conditions. We have to demand that our fish is not produced by slaves. We have to at least publicly criticize the Obama administration when it reclassifies Malaysia’s human rights record just after human trafficking camps have been discovered so that it can include the nation in the TPP.

Right now, we are failing at all of this.

Climate Change and Archaeology

[ 8 ] February 3, 2016 |


Climate change, especially the large storms that result as well as rising ocean levels are both uncovering incredibly archaeological finds on coasts and also threatening to destroy them. It’s quite fascinating and quite depressing, as is so much about climate change:

Most 4,000-year-old archaeological sites don’t get dug up and moved. When the team dared to lift away the top layer of Meur, they were rewarded with another astonishing group of structures that lay hidden beneath it. There was an entire Bronze Age well, with six steps leading down into it. “This is almost unheard of, to find a whole well from this period,” Dawson says. There was a room where people had heated the stones of the burnt mound; the walls were cracked from the intense heat of the fire, and the clay in the floor was baked orange. Farther down, the archaeologists uncovered yet another well, which radiocarbon dating suggests may have been there since the Stone Age.

These rooms are brimming with information, Dawson says. For example, archaeologists hadn’t known that Bronze Age people built sophisticated wells like the one at Meur. The cracked stones hint at the intense heat of the fire—another clue that may someday help researchers figure out what the mysterious burnt mounds were used for. There’s environmental history here, too. At the bottom of the well, the team found a heap of leaves, stems, seeds, insects, and tiny bones. This debris, which tumbled into the well thousands of years ago, may tell scientists what was living nearby at that time. And the position of the site itself could reveal how sea levels have changed.

Other potential insights into the lives of ancient people are at risk of falling into the sea along with their stones and skeletons. At a site in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, archaeologists excavated a circular Iron Age building and found that its builders had buried bizarre objects in the floor: ritualistically prepared animal bones, a crucible, a handful of white quartz pebbles. No one has a clue why. “These sites are absolutely fascinating,” Dawson says. “But every single one of them is different, and every one’s got a different story to tell.”

On coastlines around the globe, other archaeologists are racing rising seas and disappearing shores to learn such stories. Ancient settlements are emerging from the coasts of Alaska. In Nova Scotia, storms are carrying off land and archaeological remains around the 18th-century Fortress of Louisbourg. At Qajaa on the west coast of Greenland, remains from three civilizations that lived there at different times during the past 4,000 years have been preserved in the permafrost but are now threatened by melting. Back in the United Kingdom, at the British site of Happisburgh, beach erosion in 2013 revealed human footprints possibly a million years old. The footprints washed away within two weeks


“Please Clap”

[ 128 ] February 3, 2016 |
How do you say "banana daiquiri"?

How do you say “banana daiquiri”?

Feel the Jeb!mentum!

Yet there are signs Mr. Bush may still have some work to do to finish in the top tier here. Speaking to a crowd at the Hanover Inn near the Vermont border during his final stop of the day, Mr. Bush finished a fiery riff about protecting the country as commander in chief — “I won’t be out here blowharding, talking a big game without backing it up,” he said — and was met with total silence.

“Please clap,” he said, sounding defeated.

The crowd laughed — and then, finally, clapped.

I’m almost tempted to feel bad for the guy, but then I remember the 2000 African-American voter purge and Terri Schiavo. So, you know, cue Nelson Muntz.

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 2

[ 44 ] February 3, 2016 |


Face front, true believers!

Welcome back to A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, where I explore how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics.

Today, I’ll be exploring how real-world politics intersected with Chris Claremont’s classic run on X-Men. Now, Claremont X-Men is some of the richest source material imaginable, given the way that the mutant metaphor has been used to address contemporary social issues facing different minority groups.

So what ripped-from-the-headlines issue will be looking at this week? Canadian politics from the 70s!

Read more…

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