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Termites as architects

first_imgWhile some power companies scour the globe for steady winds to drive giant turbines, a biologist is turning to lowly termites and their lofty mounds to understand how to harness far more common intermittent breezes, seeking ideas that could drive nature-inspired building systems whose “sloshing” air movement could provide ventilation and cooling.J. Scott Turner, a biology professor at the State University of New York, brought his termite-mound studies to Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Wednesday (Oct. 20) in a talk sponsored by Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.Turner’s topic, “New Concepts in Termite-Inspired Design,” presented the results of years of research into the structure of termite mounds in Namibia, including an extraordinary effort to fill a mound’s tunnels with plaster and then slice off millimeter-thick layers to create a cross-sectional map of the insides.Turner’s work debunked some 50-year-old assertions that termite mounds’ complex tunnel structure works to circulate air in an orderly manner from a nest chamber low in the mound, up a central chimney away from the nest, and, as the air cools, down small outer tunnels to the bottom of the nest.That understanding of termite mound function has already inspired human architecture —including a building in Zimbabwe designed without air conditioning that instead uses wind energy and heat-storing materials to maintain a moderate temperature. The only problem with these sorts of termite-inspired designs, Turner said, is that his studies show that the mounds actually don’t work that way.Deploying temperature and humidity gauges, and armed with tracer gases, Turner found that a termite mound does not regulate interior temperature. The temperature inside the mound was not appreciably different from that of the surrounding ground, rising during some parts of the year and then falling. In addition, he found that the air in the nest didn’t really circulate. Instead, it was stable, with cooler air in the nest low in the mound and hotter air in the mound’s upper portions and chimney.The same fluctuation wasn’t found with humidity, which was maintained at roughly 80 percent year-round. But it isn’t the mound or its design that does that job, Turner said. Instead, termites actively move water within and out of the mound as they transport water-soaked earth. In addition, the symbiotic fungi that live in the mound with the termites also help to regulate humidity. The fungi, which help the termites digest tough cellulose in the plant material the insects bring into the nest, form complex, folded bodies that absorb excess humidity during wet months and release water during dry months, Turner said. This helps to maintain a stable humidity, dry enough to keep moisture-loving fungal competitors at bay.“They actively regulate nest moisture, but not through design of the mound,” Turner said.So, if the mound itself doesn’t regulate heat or humidity, Turner and his collaborators wondered, what does the elaborate branching system of tunnels do?The answer came on further investigation, when researchers found that the tunnels work as an air exchange system. The smaller tunnels on the mound’s surface, used by workers to move in and out of the mound, also serve to mute the gusty, turbulent air outside the mound. Those high-energy gusty breezes are blocked in the surface tunnels, allowing more gentle air movements to penetrate the mound in a pulsing, in-and-out process akin to a breathing human lung. Through this process, fresh air is exchanged into the deepest part of the mound, “sloshing” in and out in a tidal movement that refreshes the mound’s air.“We think these mounds are quite efficient manipulators of transient energy in turbulent wind,” Turner said. “That’s how the mound breathes.”That in-and-out sloshing, Turner said, provides a model for building design. Though most people would refuse to live in a building resembling a termite mound, the tunnel structure could be replicated in building materials used in exterior surfaces, saving energy through passive air exchange systems in everyday, ordinary buildings.“There might be some really interesting architectural opportunities,” Turner said.last_img read more

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HSPH professor awarded for diabetes research

first_imgColumbia University Medical Center presented the 2010 Naomi Berrie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Diabetes Research to Gökhan S. Hotamisligil, the James Stevens Simmons Professor of Genetics and Metabolism and the chair of the Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health. Hotamisligil was honored on Nov. 20 for his important advances in understanding the molecular basis for links between obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.“Gökhan Hotamisligil’s group studies have demonstrated that inflammation plays an important role in obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes,” said Rudolph Leibel, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, and chairman of the selection committee. “This work has led to novel ideas for the treatment of these disorders and their consequences.”Established by the Russell Berrie Foundation in 2000, the award was designed to promote and reward outstanding achievement in the field, while simultaneously helping to promote important scientific collaborations across institutions and furthering the careers of especially promising young diabetes investigators. Each year, the recipient — a senior scientist outside Columbia who has made major contributions to diabetes research — is given $100,000 to support a two-year research fellowship for a student or research fellow in his or her laboratory.last_img read more

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Wise negotiator

first_imgThe key to success for any secretary of state, according to James A. Baker III, is a rock-solid relationship with the commander in chief.“You need a president who will support you, and defend you, and protect you even when you are wrong. I had that wonderful relationship with [George H. W. Bush],” said Baker, secretary of state from 1989 to 1992. “Nobody was going to get between me and my president.”The statesman was at Harvard last Thursday to receive the Great Negotiator Award. The annual honor, created by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, recognizes individuals whose “lifetime achievements in the field of negotiation and dispute resolution have had a significant and lasting impact.”During a program at Harvard Law School, Baker offered his insight and political perspective on his time as a senior government official for three presidents, a tenure peppered with delicate foreign negotiations.The Harvard Kennedy School’s Future of Diplomacy Project co-sponsored the afternoon event.In a frank conversation with James K. Sebenius, Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and R. Nicholas Burns, Sultan of Oman Professor of the Practice of International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School, Baker outlined the complexities of his time as the chief foreign affairs official under George H.W. Bush. In the first of a two-part panel he fielded questions about his efforts to help unify Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.Baker — who was also undersecretary of commerce for Gerald Ford, and secretary of the treasury for Ronald Reagan — acknowledged that the fall of the Berlin Wall caught many observers offguard.  But if the U.S. government was surprised by the rapid dissolution of the dividing line that separated East from West in geography and ideology, it was far from unprepared, he said.As early as May 1989 — six months ahead of time — the State Department was busy compiling information and discussing possible scenarios if the wall came down. When it did, officials were ready to engage in a delicate balancing act that involved Germany as well as its European and Soviet neighbors, said Baker.Not only did they have to contend with “the objection of the Soviet Union,” he said, they also faced grave concerns from the leaders of France and Great Britain who had suffered at the hands of Germany during two world wars.“They were really wary of unifying Germany,” said Baker. ‘They were worried that history might repeat itself.”Baker said the United States worried too about a unified and neutral Germany potentially “leaning eastward.”To appease all parties, Baker and his team devised the Two Plus Four Agreement, which gave East and West Germany control of the internal aspects of their unification. “The four occupying powers, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States,” Baker said, “would handle the external aspects.”Later, at a Camp David meeting, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met with Baker and President Bush. Together they agreed that a unified Germany would become part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and that the United States would agree to a special arrangement with respect to the stationing of troops on former East German soil.President Bush, said Baker, told Kohl: “Helmut, I am going to be with you on this, provided you are with us on unified Germany as a member” of NATO.“Helmut Kohl gave us his word,” said Baker, “and his word was good.”Baker’s tips on great negotiating included the importance of developing an understanding of “the political constraints,” on the person across the table. “If you can understand those, then you can work with them.”Baker said the experience of running five presidential campaigns helped sharpen his negotiating skills, and that trust has been essential to his career. He recalled his relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and their policy disagreements.“We respected each other, we liked each other. He was the one leader who would never leave. We held all our meetings with no note takers. … If you can build a relationship of trust with your interlocutor, you’ve got a lot better chance of making a deal.”Baker credited George H.W. Bush’s keen understanding of foreign affairs with his deft handling of German reunification. Bush had been the head of the CIA and ambassador to China and “was smart enough to understand” the political complexities that ensued as the wall tumbled, said Baker.Bush refused to gloat, Baker said. Instead the president realized there was still “a lot of business to do with [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Eduard] Shevardnadze,” two leading Soviet statesmen during the Cold War.Bush, Baker recalled, told reporters during a press conference, “We are not going to dance on the ruins of the wall.”last_img read more

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Daniel Aaron’s century

first_imgThere are about 500,000 centenarians worldwide, but only one is a Harvard professor who first arrived on campus in 1933, who used to correct undergraduate John F. Kennedy’s English papers, and who earned the University’s first Ph.D. in American Civilization.Daniel Aaron, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of English and American Literature Emeritus, celebrates his 100th birthday tomorrow (Aug. 4). When he was born in Chicago in 1912, bubbles had barely stopped rising from the sunken Titanic. A first-class airplane managed a top speed of 70 mph and cruised on fabric wings. Cars had names like Metz, Flanders, Acme, Speedwell, and Mighty Michigan.When Aaron arrived at Harvard for graduate school, armed with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, the paint was still fresh on Memorial Church, polo was a varsity sport, and one professor, Samuel Eliot Morison, still rode to school on horseback. The old Harvard was still evident, Aaron said in a 2010 interview. “You could feel it and see it.”After graduate studies, Aaron taught for three decades at Smith College before returning to Harvard to teach from 1971 to 1983. Along the way, he helped to found the Library of America. He acquired friendships in the heart of America’s 20th century literary world (“You met people,” he said), and he continued writing in a set of hardbound journals he began keeping in 1929.These days, Aaron still goes to his office in Barker Center every weekday, and often on weekends. His memoir, “The Americanist,” appeared in 2007. He is finishing a new manuscript, based on his journals. In his office, concessions to modernity are few, unless you count an IBM Selectric typewriter of the kind that first appeared in 1961. Earlier this week, a friend arrived carrying an iPhone. Aaron asked, “What’s that?” He conceded that his interests, values, and scholarship are largely from the 19th century — and that’s OK.Soon the gathering in his office grew to five visitors. One was a Harvard professor nervous about his coming 35th birthday. Aaron was sympathetic. “When I turned 30, I thought it was the end of the world,” he said. “I didn’t want to see anybody.”Conversation also touched on early telephones, black-and-white films of the ’30s, the Internet, and the coming age of digital scholarship. Access to knowledge so broad in devices so little reminded Aaron of the cautionary line from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”: “Infinite riches in a little room.”The professor and his visitors also puzzled over the Greek roots of the word “cynosure,” a person or object that attracts attention, or — starlike — serves as a guide. The youngest visitor looked up the answer on an iPhone.On his hundredth birthday, the modest Aaron still has no intention of being a person who attracts attention. Today (Aug. 3), he will attend a Society of Fellows luncheon. There might be a cake. And on his birthday, Aaron will have a quiet dinner with his family — after he goes to work, of course.last_img read more

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Rapid acts of kindness

first_imgWhy are people sometimes willing to put “we” ahead of “me”? Perhaps our first impulse is to be selfish, and cooperation is all about reining in greed. Or maybe cooperation happens spontaneously, and too much thinking gets in the way.Harvard scientists are getting closer to an answer, with research showing that people’s first response is to cooperate and that stopping to think encourages selfishness.David Rand, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, Joshua Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, and Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and of biology and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, published their findings in the Sept. 20 issue of Nature. They recruited thousands of participants to play a “public goods game.” Subjects were put into small groups and faced with a choice: keep the money you’ve been given, or contribute it to a common pool that grows and benefits the whole group. Hold onto the money and you come out ahead, but the group does best when everyone contributes.The researchers wanted to know whether a person’s first impulse is cooperative or selfish. They started by looking at how quickly different people made their choices, and found that fast deciders were more likely to contribute to the common good.Next they forced people to go fast or to stop and think, and found the same thing: Fast deciders tended to be more cooperative, and the people who had to stop and think gave less.Finally, the researchers tested their hypothesis by manipulating people’s mind-sets. They asked some people to think about the benefits of intuition before choosing how much to contribute. Others were asked to think about the virtues of careful reasoning. Once again, intuition promoted cooperation, and deliberation did the opposite.While some might interpret the findings as suggesting that cooperation is “innate” or “hard-wired,” if anything they highlight the role of experience. People who had better opinions of those around them in everyday life showed more cooperative impulses in these experiments. Previous experience with these types of studies eroded those impulses.“In daily life, it’s generally in your interest to be cooperative,” Rand said. “So we internalize cooperation as the right way to behave. Then when we come into unusual environments, where incentives like reputation and sanctions are removed, our first response is to keep behaving the way we do in normal life. When we think about it, however, we realize that this is one of those rare situations where we can be selfish and get away with it.”Unlike many psychology studies, which use small numbers of college students, these experiments tested thousands of people from around the world using Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online labor market that’s becoming an increasingly popular tool for social science research.The findings reveal a dark side to careful thought and deliberation. But is reflection always bad?“When it’s ‘me’ vs. ‘us,’ our intuitions seem to work well. That’s what’s going on here,” said Greene. “But what happens when people have different moral intuitions, for example, about abortion or raising taxes? When intuitions clash — when it’s the values of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ — reasoning and reflection may be our best hope for reconciling our differences.”Said Nowak: “Over millions of years we’ve evolved the capacity for cooperation. These psychological experiments examine the causes of cooperation on a shorter time scale, on the order of seconds. Both perspectives are essential as we face global problems which require cooperation on a massive scale. We need to understand where cooperation comes from historically and how best to make it happen here and now.”last_img read more

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A diverged family converges at Harvard Law

first_imgIt wasn’t inevitable that Harvard Law School graduate students Erum Khalid Sattar and Rebecca Zaman would meet so soon, or even at all. Sattar has been at the law school for three years, pursuing a doctorate in juridical science (S.J.D.); Zaman arrived in August to begin a year of study for a master’s in law (LL.M.). Sattar is from Pakistan, and studied law in London; Zaman grew up, earned her law degree and completed a judicial clerkship in Australia. Then again, they’re about the same height, with the same dark brown hair, and that might not be just a coincidence.In August, a few days into LL.M. Orientation, the two women shook hands and said hello at a Graduate Program reception. “If we hadn’t been wearing name tags, what happened next might never have happened,” says Zaman.“My surname is Zaman, and it’s a very unusual surname for a white-appearing Australian to have,” explains Zaman. “So when they saw my name tag, a lot of the Indians, Pakistanis and Middle Easterners asked how I could have this name. When I met Erum, it was very similar.  So I said, ‘Oh! My father’s father is a Muslim Indian from Hyderabad.’ And Erum said, ‘Oh, what a coincidence. My family was from Hyderabad, before they moved to Karachi after the partition.’ And she laughed, and said, ‘Maybe we’re related.’ We both laughed, and I said, ‘Maybe. It’s a strange story.’”Read the full story of the cousin’s meeting on the Harvard Law School website. Read Full Storylast_img read more

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Halloween on the move

first_imgOn the steps of the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC), in the quickly darkening gloom on Wednesday, several unusual characters began the terrifying Halloween tradition of … stretching.Approximately 30 runners gathered for the free Harvard On The Move (HOTM) run, which leaves from the steps of the MAC at 5:15 p.m. Wednesdays.  (Check the website calendar for the full schedule.) But as the evening jog happened to fall on the spooky holiday, some donned costumes for the event. Cleopatra, “HarvardMan,” and even the Dudley House Lion all turned out to run along the Esplanade.Christine Howard, partner of Dudley Athletics Fellow Seth Peabody, attended her first run with Harvard On The Move as Superperson. “It’s super, it’s empowering, it’s cheap, and it’s made of things I have around my house,” she said, laughing. “What more could you want?”Similarly, HarvardMan, Joey Wall ’14, said that his costume — resplendent with a crimson pillowcase safety-pinned at the neck as a cape — was born of necessity. “It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday, and I needed a costume,” Wall said. “Improvisation just took hold.”Adjusting his lion’s head, Peabody readied himself for the race. “I thought it would be a good boost for Dudley House to run with HOTM today,” he said. “My neck is a bit sore, but I think it’ll be worth it.”Harvard On The Move is a University-wide initiative created to promote physical and psychological wellness though noncompetitive walking and running programs. The program sponsors weekly walks and runs in addition to workshops and lectures highlighting cutting-edge research and practical hands-on information. Harvard On The Move is free and open to students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as our neighbors in Cambridge and Boston.last_img read more

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State of the Union: students weigh in

first_imgHundreds of students from both sides of the political aisle gathered at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum for a “State of the Union” watch party sponsored by the Institute of Politics (IOP). Popcorn, soda, and big-screen television aside, they were there for more than just political theater.last_img

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David Mooney receives grant to develop animal contraceptive vaccine

first_img Read Full Story The Gary Michelson Found Animals Foundation has awarded Harvard bioengineer David Mooney a three-year grant totaling more than $700,000 to pursue development of a vaccine technology that would provide a nonsurgical method for spaying and neutering dogs and cats.Mooney is the Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.Mooney’s team will use the grant award to adapt its existing work in implantable and injectable vaccines that activate the body’s immune system to attack cancer or infectious disease. This time, the team hopes to tune the technology towards targeting and disrupting a hormone crucial to reproduction in mammals.Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is produced in the brain, regulates the release of hormones from the pituitary gland that control reproduction in both male and female animals. Mooney and his team will explore how their various vaccine immunotherapies, which work by recruiting and activating the body’s immune cells to attack specific agents, could be used to target GnRH and produce antibodies against it, halting the reproductive process.“As a pet owner myself, I’m excited to receive this grant award to help develop technology that could provide nonsurgical spay and neutering methods for dogs and cats,” Mooney said. “An accessible and affordable way to sterilize pets would reduce the number of animals in shelters and prevent a vast number of euthanizations.”last_img read more

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The unheard melodies of speech

first_imgRife with symbolism as they are, public monuments and memorials often generate controversy and elicit impassioned proposals from designers.In a recent article on memorials in The Architectural Review, Catherine Slessor wrote, “Most war memorials are generally excruciating exercises in sentiment or bombast.” The problem, she argues, lies in architecture’s inability to fully grasp and articulate absence.But the most successful memorials — Peter Eisenman’s rippling field of concrete slabs at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the subgrade scar of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the stark driftwood frame of Peter Zumthor’s Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of the Witch Trials — manage to give shape to emptiness through poetic abstraction while acknowledging the historical and political contexts in which the events they commemorate occurred.Composers face similar dilemmas — and criticism — in their attempts to represent absence through sound. But unlike their more durable counterparts, musical compositions offer a more temporal glimpse into the process by which the stuff of tragedy is shaped into memory.Steve Reich’s haunting “WTC 9/11” (written during construction of the 9/11 Memorial and released on the 10th anniversary of the attacks) demonstrates the medium’s unique ability to recall not only the defining moment of loss, but the trauma that continually threatens to erase it from memory. He played the piece in its entirety to a hushed but visibly unsettled crowd during a talk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) on April 1.Reich’s visit was part of an ongoing effort to bring celebrated artists from outside the traditional design disciplines to the GSD to discuss their craft. Previous masters have included pianist and composer Philip Glass, playwright and director Robert Wilson, and performance artist Marina Abramović.“The people who work in this building deal with works of the imagination,” said Dean Mohsen Mostafavi in his introduction. “There’s a parallelism in the way Steve works — the combination of voice and music, the relationship to ambient sound, questions of duration and time — with the way architects and landscape architects think about the patterns of life and the acts of a building.”Though Reich described the work as documentary, “WTC 9/11” feels very personal. The New York City native was not at home when the attacks on the twin towers occurred, and aspects of the piece reflect both the composer’s sense of dislocation and his parental anxiety.Reich recalled that he and his wife had received a phone call from their son after the first attack. Their instructions were clear: “Don’t go out and don’t hang up.” Reich’s son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter eventually joined the couple in Vermont, where the family stayed until residents of the area were allowed to return. “We got off easy,” Reich said.Soon after, journalists began asking whether he would write something about the tragedy (1988’s “Different Trains” relies heavily on documentary material, including interviews with Holocaust survivors). Reich emphatically declined. “For [the next] seven years, I wrote instrumental and vocal music,” he said. “It’s what I had to do.”But when a commission to write a new piece using pre-recorded voices for longtime friends and collaborators the Kronos Quartet came in 2009, the composer realized he had unfinished business.Containing three movements, the 15-minute piece is built from dispatches of individuals affected by 9/11 accompanied by three string quartets (two recorded; one live). Throughout the work, Reich employs a compositional technique he calls “stop-action sound,” in which the last vowel or consonant of each spoken phrase is elongated. “This carries the end of the thought of one speaker into the next and connects them harmonically,” he said.The relentlessly dissonant piece begins and ends with the first violin doubling the shrill, rhythmic warning of a landline that’s been left off the hook. It’s a chilling reminder of the major role cellphones played during the attacks and of the many communication failures.The first movement is taut and intense, combining ambient sound with the distorted voices of air traffic controllers, first responders, and emergency dispatchers from the morning of 9/11. The second movement contains interviews conducted with Reich’s friends and neighbors in 2010. Their recollections — from the mundane “I was taking my kids to school” to the harrowing “The ground was shaking” — suggest the flashbulb memories we all have of where-were-you moments in our collective history.The third movement delves into more metaphysical terrain, featuring recordings by two women from Yeshiva University who recited psalms over the dead at the medical examiners office. The Jewish ritual was performed in shifts around the clock for seven months. The women’s voices are interlaced with Hebrew verses chanted by a cellist (who had sat Shmira elsewhere) and a cantor from a New York City synagogue.Spending 15 minutes in a packed auditorium listening to pre-recorded music could feel like an eternity. But the piece has a way of distorting time. Some moments propel the listener forward, like the staccato cello mirroring a frantic dispatcher’s refrain, “No contact / No contact with the pilot / No contact with the pilot whatsoever”; others, like the sudden silence at the end of the first movement, stop you in your tracks. Still others transport you to another time and place, like the sing-song recollections of neighbors or the drawn-out verses of Jewish liturgy lapping over one another like waves.Though the voices have been manipulated, the words remain attached to the people who said them, giving the piece a rawness that immediately puts the listener on edge. But Reich’s agenda is not purely documentary. By rendering the cadences of speech in strings, he manages to translate the material reality of 9/11 into something like pure artistic expression.This is the cosmic beauty of Steve Reich’s music. Like those first startling images of our galaxy from space, Reich’s work has a way of collapsing time, enabling us to challenge our perceptions of the past and expand our understanding of history.Providing neither scripted experience nor cathartic release, “WTC 9/11” adds new elements to the vocabulary of abstraction. Like Eisenman’s endless repetition of forms, Reich’s looping speech melodies hint at the scale of the tragedy they’re commemorating. And his intervention suggests new typologies of sound that may allow us to confront our collective memory in novel ways.Of course, listeners will bring their own experiences and interpretations to bear on “WTC 9/11,” which is exactly as Reich wants it. “If I wanted to give you a message,” quipped the 78-year-old composer, “I’d email you.”last_img read more

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