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Friday, March 12, 2010

IDES OF MARCH - 2010

I have celebrated The Ides of March as the political holiday for more than two decades now. It is a day to commemorate our entertainment and edification by political hacks from Pericles to Eric Massa. In doing so we annually mark the day 2,054 years ago now, when the Roman Senator Gaius Cassius Longinus brilliantly settled a political standoff by imposing term limits upon Julius Caesar. As the original winner of the first “Laurel and Dagger” award, Caesar exemplified the combination of professional arrogance and moral ineptitude required to win the “Knife-in-the-Back Plaque”
Having already won immense wealth from power, Caesar hungered for more of both. Warned of the consequences of this policy by pundits, allies and enemies alike, Caesar remained adamant that he was not only smarter than all of them, but that his boldness compensated for his failings. He was not and it did not. What had been bold in a thirty year old enigma was clumsy in a fifty year old familiar opponent. And as behooves a “Senatorial Shiv to the Solar Plexus” at the moment of his demise Caesar was surrounded by his political allies - who were all wielding knives. For if politics is based upon loyalty, then it is also true that no politician ever gets ahead without sacrificing a few friends now and again, and the only difference between a good politician and a great politician is the quality of the friends they leave “twisting slowly, slowly in the wind”, to quote Nixon hit man Charles Colson.
Each year’s winner is the politician who over the previous twelve months best exemplifies arrogance and blindness to danger, such as last years surprise winner, Governor Milorad “Rod” Blagojevich, who continued to conspire to commit illegal acts on telephones he publicly alleged were “tapped” by the FBI. They were. Or consider the example of the pervious winner, New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, who was elected on a promise to “change the ethics of Albany”, while remaining in good standing as Client Nine, who spent $15,000 on employees of the Emperors Club prostitution ring.
This year’s nominees included the Republican Congressional Caucus, which is doggedly pursuing a policy of diminishing options, leading to an increasingly certain political dead-end. There was also Michele Bachmann and Elizabeth Cheney, each of whom displayed a consistent inconsistency which seemes destined to drown her in her own cacophony of contradiction.
Also in the running was Democrat John Edwards, carrying the mantle of Gary Hart, who  invited the media spotlight while committing personal transgressions best commited in the shadows. But this year's winner has managed, in an increasingly bizarre political universe, scored on two of the three options at the same time.
But who will be awarded the Grand Prize this year? There were several possibilities, and a recent poll conducted on The Daily Kos offered the award committee (me) several viable nominees. But this year’s victor, although a late entry, was a stand out doody-head, a politically deaf and dumb arrogant jerk who has angered friends and embarrassed allies in the true spirit of Julius Caesar. He missed only by displaying no sexual picadilos, for which I am grateful. Still, this year’s champion chump is a man who by his grandstanding strike against those he believes betrayed him. has also irreparably damaged his own reputation while simultaneously raising the real possibility that he may spend his final years in debt and in jail. This year’s winner of the Ides of March L and D Award is that pompous and prideful two term senator from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Jim Bunning.
Who is this man? He was a professional baseball player for 17 years. Not surprisingly he batted right and threw right. And Jim Bunning is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he failed to make it into the hall during his 20 years of regular eligibility, and was saved from obscurity in the last possible year by the Veterans Committee.
There may be a couple of explanations for this slight toward a man who pitched two no hitters (one in each league) and a perfect game. First, there is the curious fact, pointed out by Kieth Olbermann on his MLB Blog, that “….not once in four pennant sprints did he finish strongly.” And then there is one other odd statistic. Over his career Bunning faced 15,618 batters. And he hit 160 of them, earning him the title of “Beanball Bunning”.
That number, 160, ranks Bunning 13th on the all time list of pitchers who hit the most batters. Nolan Ryan, also known as a control and intimidation pitcher, faced 22,575 batters (44% more than Bunning) and hit only 158, two less. Jim Bunning did not throw at batters to intimidate. He threw at batters to punish. If your team was getting hits off of Bunning, he would make you pay for it. And it was his “reputation for throwing inside”, and as “one of the few men ever to get Mickey Mantle mad enough to charge from the batters' box” that kept Bunning out of the Hall of Fame until 1996.
Bunning retired as a player following the 1971 season. Philadelphia hired him to manage a Double A minor league team, but he never rose any higher in the organization, and was fired in 1976. Bunning then paid the owners back for this insult by becoming an agent, and negotiating expensive contracts for a half dozen of Philadelphia’s minor league players. Firing Bunning cost the Phillies a couple of million dollars.
In 1977 a funeral director named Fred Earschell paid a visit to Bunning’s home in the upper class enclave of Fort Thomas, a Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati, and urged him to run for the city council. Despite Bunning’s claim that he “never had a desire to be in politics”, he easily won election from a field of 13. And that victory seems to have changed his mind about politics. Bunning served just two years on the city council. He then won election to the Kentucky Senate, and was made minority leader. He lost an election for governor in 1983, but in ’86 he won election to the U.S. 4th District House seat, in what was called the most Republican district in Kentucky. President Bill Clinton said of Bunning, “I tried to work with him a couple times, and he just sent shivers up my spine....this guy is beyond the pale” In 1999, Bunning won election to the United States Senate. He was now 67 years old.
And upon reaching the Senate, something changed in Bunning. Unfortunately, it was not his personality. It was his work ethic. To quote a liberal blogger, as a senior member of the ruling party, “In 2001, Senator Bunning voted for the first round of Bush tax cuts that weren`t paid for. Two years later, he voted for a second round of Bush tax cuts that weren`t paid for. That same year, he voted for the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit that, you guessed it, wasn`t paid for.” At the same time his popularity in Kentucky was beginning to fade.
Bunning entered the 2004 election with a $4 million campaign war chest. His Democratic opponent had only $600,000. Then it became public that Bunning was touring the state with an extra large tax payer funded security detail. When questioned, Bunning warned, “There may be strangers among us.” Bunning claimed that his wife had been physically attacked by Democratic Party workers, but no proof was ever offered. When these flashes of paranoia caused his poll numbers to slip, his response caused them to slip even more. He told a local reporter, “I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper. I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.” Bunning finally agreed to a debate with his opponent, but insisted that it not be televised live. Even then, at the last second, he flew to Washington and made his debate appearance via satellite from the RNC offices, reading his responses off a teleprompter. Things got so bad that in the last weeks of the election Bunning was forced to spend $800,000 of his own money to buy television ads. Bunning won by just one percentage point.
In 2006 Time Magazine tagged Bunning as one of America’s Five Worst Senators, noting his “lackluster performance” and that he showed “little interest in policy unless it involves baseball”. It also mentioned his hostility towards his own staff and his fellow Senators, and his “bizarre behavior.” A September 2009 statewide opinion poll gave Bunning an approval rating of 35%, with a disapproval rating of 55%. That same year, the Congressional Quarterly ranked Senators, giving the most powerful a rating of 1. Bunning was ranked at 78.
Bunning was AWOL for most of January 2009, and when reached by phone he refused to tell the reporter where he had been or was. As of April 2009, Bunning had $263,000 in his war chest, three-quarters of which came from outside of Kentucky. His approval rating in the state was down to 28%. Kentucky Secretary of State Republican Trey Grayson smelled blood in water and announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for Bunning’s job. In a speech on May 8, Bunning announced, “The battle is going to be long, but I am prepared to fight for my values.” And ten days later he announced, “If Mitch McConnell (Republican Senate Minority Leader, also from Kentucky) doesn’t endorse me, it could be the best thing that ever happened to me in Kentucky.” Then he threatened sue his own party if they ran somebody against him. When the chairman of the RNC publicly assured Bunning they would not be supporting any Republicans other than him, the Senator made more friends by telling the Louisville Courier-Journal, “I don’t believe anything John Cornyn (RNC Chair) says."
Finally, in July of 2009, Bunning was forced to bow to the inevitable. He announced that he was giving up his hopes for re-election because he could not raise enough money to be competitive. The only question left was how he intended upon making the Republican Party pay for not supporting him. And in February of 2010 we found out. By staging a one man filibuster Jim Bunning decided to cut off unemployment benefits for 300,000 Americans, and cut off payment to Federal Inspectors, without whom a dozen highway projects could not continue, killing even more jobs. The Democrats were outraged. The Republicans were appalled. Buunning justified his actions the guise of protesting deficit spending, something he had showed no interest in from his first appearance in the Senate in 1998, to just days before his filibuster when he did not even bother to show up for a vote on a “Pay-as’you-go” measure.
To “Beanball Bunning”, a few hit batters is the price you have to pay to get your revenge. And he considered that hitting the 60,000 unemployed Kentuckians left without cash to pay their grocery bills as the batters on the opposing team who had to take the hit to punish the Republican Leadership for not supporting him. And with any luck and if the Democratic Party ever decides to fight for something, they will accept Bunning’s gift and bean the “Party of No” right in the head with Bunning's pitch. Which was "Beanball's" intent.
The problem for Bunning himself is that his notoriety has drawn attention to his own Achilles Heel, the tax-exempt Jim Bunning Foundation, which has a bank balance of $146, 342. Three people sit on the board that runs the foundation, Bunning, his wife, and a Cincinnati baseball memorabilia collector. The foundation has only one employee, Jim Bunning. He works for the foundation for one hour a week, signing memorabilia, for which he is paid $13,000 a year, 36% of the foundations annual outlay.
According to the Louisville Courier, the Bunning Foundation “…divided $18,200 among 25 recipients. Bunning's current church…received $5,250, by far the largest single donation…"  Melanie Slone, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, described the ratio of Bunning's salary to gifts by the Bunning Foundation as “…very troubling.” And Daniel Birochoff, President of the American Institute if Philanthropy said, “"For (Bunning) to be taking more for himself than he gives to the charities just doesn't look good, no matter how you cut it. The IRS doesn't want people to just set up their weekend hobbies as nonprofit foundations so they can take advantage of the tax-protection rules.” And yet that is exactly what Bunning has done, secure that as a Senator he will be not be treated like an average tax payer.
As "Beanball" Bunning moves into retirement, he will receive $83,000 in tax payer funded retirement each year, plus full benefits, including the generous health care plan that his party is determined the average American shall be denied access to. So for the inequity and the outrageous arrogance of his actions, for the selfish foolhardiness and mean spirited greed he has always displayed, the obvious choice for the 2010 winner of the Laurel and Dagger Ides of March Award is Senator Jim Bunning, selfish greedy political hack desguised as a conservative. Congratulations, Senator!
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

PI ARE VERY HIP

I suspect the problem begins with the oft quoted but not well understood phrase, “pie are squared.” In the first place, it’s not. In fact, you cannot square a circle, and yet it is done everyday, out of sight for those of use who are math-impared. This is so becasue  pi is the relationship between the length of the line forming a circle, divided by the distance across that same circle. And this somehow always works out to be 3.141592653589793238…etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitas, infeliciter, and never repeating. This makes Pi an irrational number, which is confusing again because I find all numbers irrational.
To find the area of a living room you simply ask a realitor, and then subtract 10%. But to find the area of a circle you nust  multiply pi times the radius of the circle squared, or to put it another way, the radius of the circle times the radius of the circle. In the shorthand of math-speak that beomes, A(rea)= piR squared. This is true math-media.
What this mystery formula really means is that you can never turn a circle into a square of the exact same size: close, but never exact. And it doesn’t matter if it is a great big circle or an itty-bitty one. Pi is always 3.141 etcetera, etcetera.
If you are a math freak this is obvious, while the rest of us have to be satisfied with accepting that Pi is an irrational number and live with it. But I ask you, what is the value of knowing pi?
I had a fourth grade teacher who was so obsessed with having her students memorize the value of Pi to twenty decimal places that she had us memorize the following poem: “Sir, I send a rhyme excelling, In sacred truth and rigid spelling, Numerical sprites elucidate, For me the lexicon’s full weight”. Each of the 20 words of that poem has the number of letters required to read out the first twenty digits of pi. I had to memorized that poem again in my thirties because as a ten year old I couldn’t spell the word Nantucket, and as a sixty year old I rely upon a spell checker to detail any word that rhymes with  “elucidate”. So this poem was as much a mystery to me then as the number Pi remains today.
But I am older now and I have made a fool of myself in front of an innumerable people, and have grown so used to making mistakes in public that I hardly notice the embarrassment anymore. So I openly admit that I still find pi a puzzle. Besides, every time I make a mistake, I learn something new. Things my mistakes have taught me so far include, never turn down a chance to use the bathroom, never loan money to attractive women, never invest in a Nigerian lottery ticket, never give out my social security number over the net, and never question the value of pi.
Legend has it that the great Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse was struggling over the solution to pi when a Roman soldier blundered into his garden. The old man supposedly snapped, “Don’t touch my circles!”, whereupon the chastised legionary pulled his Gladius and separated Archimedes’ head from his face. I suppose that if Archimedes had been sitting in his bathtub, as he allegedly was when he discovered that displaced water could be used to measure density (Eureka!), something else might have been separated. But, suffice it to say that before computers, finding pi was a great big pain in the Archimedes. He managed to figure out that pi was somewhere between 3 10/71 and 3 1/7. He might have done better if he had invented the decimal point, first.
About the year 480 CE the Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi figured out that pi was a little more than 3.1415926 and a little less than 3.1415927. After that the decimal point zealots took over. The German mathematician and fencing instructor Ludolf van Ceulen worked out pi to 35 decimal places. And in 1873 the amateur geek, William Shanks, worked it out to 707 decimal places. But William made one tiny little mistake in the 528th number and that threw everything else off. But it was such a good try that nobody noticed his screw up until 1944. Today computers have figured pi out to one trillion digits to the left of the decimal point and still no repeatable pattern has been detected. It is still a little bit less than 3.15 and a little bit more than 3.14. All that has changed is the definition of “a little bit”. It keeps getting smaller and smaller but it will never be zero.
Still, pi remains the “admirable number” according to the devilish little Polish poetess Wislawa Szmborska. While being infinitly long it includes “…my phone number your shirt size, the year nineteen hundred and seventy-three sixth floor, number of inhabitants sixty-five cents, hip measurement two fingers a charade and a code, in which we find how blithe the trostle sings!” (…and no, I have no idea what or who the hell a trostle is. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t either. Do you?)
Daniel Rockmore, in the pages of "The Chronicle of High Education" for March 12, 1999, wrote that Pi was "Foreign, unpredictable, otherworldly, yet as common as a circle...it's easy to find, but hard to know. Why, among mathematicians there still rages a fierce, unsettled debate about whether pi is a "normal" number--that is, whether the digits 0 through 9 each occur on average one-tenth of the time in the never-ending decimal expansion of pi. The questions that surround pi's normalcy make it a veritable poster number for the fashion world's ambiguous and androgynous advertising campaigns."  And you thought mathamatics was not sexy.
A physician and crackpot amateur mathematician from Solitude, Indiana named Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin thought that he had “solved” pi to the last digit - and none of this irrational numerical horse feathers for him! He decided to make Pi his own personal private property by copyright it. But in order to profit from his discovery (you know how wealthy the Pythagoras estate is) Dr. Goodwin needed a legal endorsement. And rather than subject his brainchild to the vagaries of the copyright peer review, the good doctor instead offered his theory as an accomplished fact to the local politicians. The proposal, Indiana House Bill 246, “…an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered…to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost…provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature…”. This actually made it through the Committee on Canals and Swamps in record time, and was passed by the full house on February 5, 1897, by a vote of 67 to 0.  Who says politicians don't spend time on important issues?
Unfortunately, in the Indiana Senate some wiseacre showed the bill to a visiting Purdue party pooper, Professor of Mathematics C.A. Waldo. And now we at least know where Waldo was in 1897. The lawmaker asked if the professor would like the honor of meeting the amazing Dr. Goodwin, and Professor Waldo replied that he already knew all the lunatics he cared to know, thank you very much. And with that comment Dr. Goodwin’s brief bubble of fame was burst. On February 12, 1897 any further vote on the bill was postponed indefinitely.
It was not a victory for logic so much as an avoidance of a victory for ignorance, which is pretty much the same thing that happened in Tennessee about 30 years later when they tried a man for teaching evolution.
Still pi remains one of the most popular mathematical equations, if mostly poorly appreciated by those of us who aren’t trying to generate a random number or navigate a jet plane across the North Pole, or predict the next stock market bubble, or launch a satellite, run a radio station, process an X-ray or a Cat-scan, drive a submarine, drill for oil, purify gold or etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitas, infeliciter.
Just trust me, and always trust pi. It lifts your spirit, gives you a sense of security and keeps your circles on the square. To share it just try singing..."Pi, Pi, Me oh my, Nothing tastes sweet, wet, salty and dry, all at once, ...oh my, I love pi!
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Sunday, March 07, 2010

BATTLE OF THE NATIVITY

I am tempted to call it a primeval struggle, drenched in antiquity, shrouded in religious fervor and destined to feed future conflict until come judgment day, whenever the heck that may  be. Except it just ain’t so. It is much simpler than that. The day after Christmas 2007, two rival gangs got into a dispute over turf and started to rumble. Somebody called the cops, who managed to separate the combatants, The Jets (AKA the Greek Orthodox Priests), and the Sharks (AKA the Armenian Apostolic Priests) were battling inside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birth place of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem, Israel, Palestinian Territories. And nothing about this melee made any more sense than a street brawl. And yet I blame the French Emperor Napoleon III for the entire mess.
First, a word about all that antiquity – it does not appear to have happened where everybody now thinks it did. Roman census or no census, there was no reason for a pregnant Mary to be making a 90 mile donkey ride from Nazareth, on the Galilee plain of northern Israel, to Bethlehem in the mountains just south of Jerusalem, in the west center of Israel. Being the man, Joseph was expected and qualified to speak for his entire family. He would have been the only one required to travel. But why require anybody to travel? The Romans census did what we still do today - they counted people where they were. That would was where their property was, and where their money was. Why disrupt business all across a rebellious province, in the name of counting people where they were not? It makes no sense.
And there is another problem, an archeological problem. There is no archeology in Bethlehem from that period. The ground under today's Bethlehem contains Iron Age artifacts and Byzantine artifacts, but nothing in between, nothing from the age of Jesus. The village outside of Jerusalem did not exist on the night that Jesus was born.. However, there was another Bethlehem, “Bethlehem HaGalilit”, Bethlehem of Galilee, just about 7 miles to the west of Nazareth. It seems far more likely that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem HaGalilit, than in Bethlehem, Judea. But because that Bethlehem HaGalilit no longer existed in the fourth century of the common era, when the Byzantine Christians came looking for Jesus' birthplace, they jumped to the wrong conclusion and picked the wrong Bethlehem. So did the followers of Islam, when they first captured the region in year 627 B.C.E.
Well, after the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land in 1187 the Muslim rulers did not trust the Roman Catholics, who had invaded them and now made up a majority of Bethlehem’s population. So they split contnrol of the profitable tourist sites in Bethlehm between the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches, in particular the church built upon the “traditional” site of the birth or Jesus. The Greek Orthodox were given control of one part of the building, the Armenian Orthodox control of another part. This allowed the Ottomans to play the two Christian sects against one another, and to play them both off the Roman Catholics, who were now the poor relations in town.
And here some calm was achieved in a region not famous for calm, until 1852, when a “firman” (or edict) was issued by Abdulmecit I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the Muslim World. Abdulmecit issued this edict because…well, because first, in 1847 some thug stole the silver star which marked the “traditional” spot of Jesus’ birth, in the floor of the Church of the Nativity, and, more importantly, because the Sultan was weak and because Louis Napoleon III of France was a pompous political hack, who believed that he had been chosen by God to fix, first France, and then rest of the world.
Louis Napoleon was elected to a ten year term as the first President of the Second Republic of France in December of 1848. He immediately started plotting to follow in his uncle’s imperial boot prints. By early in 1852 Louis had helped to restore the Vatican’s independence in Rome (which pleased French Catholic voters), but he had also insisted that the new Papal government be drawn up along “liberal” lines, to placate the liberal (meaning non-Catholic) French voters. But the Catholic Church never likes to be lectured about liberal policies from secular politicians. Just try it some time and see.
In an attempt to placate the now angry Catholic voters Louis suggested that the theft of the star from the Church of the Nativity (five years earlier) proved that the Church of the Nativity was no longer “safe”, and control should be handed over to the Roman Catholic Church for protection. This pleased Pope Pius IX., who had come to the conclusion that Czar Nicholas I was intent upon wiping out Catholicism in Russia. (Which he was.)
Louis' demand also pleased Abdulmecit I, because Albdulmecit had the distinct feeling that Nicholas was about to invade Turkey. (Which he was.) So under Abdulmecit's edict, the keys to the Church of the Nativity were now handed over the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. But the edict also required the Vatican to maintain the church “in statu quo res errant”, or, “as it was before”. This edict was the popularization of the phrase in English “status quo”.
Now, all of his life Russian Czar Nicholas I had been told that Russia was a military superpower and protector of the true faith, that faith being Christian Greek Orthodoxy. And Nicholas was not about to allow a mere “politician”, least of all a trumped up “Bonaparte”, to usurp his regal and holy authority. Nicholas demanded the keys to the Church of the Nativity be returned to the Armenian and Greek priests. And when they were not, he declared war on Turkey. (Of course, he had been planning on doing that anyway.)  Britain and France came to Turkey’s defense. And so Louis’ gambit to impress French voters led directly to the Crimean War, and 118,000 dead; of whom 20, 000 were French, and 73,000 were Russian.
In his rise to power Louis had shamelessly played one political faction off another, eventually abolished democracy in his own state, created a throne for himself, invaded Algeria and Vietnam (both of which came back to haunt France a century later) and was finally goaded into the 1870 Franco-Prussian War which resulted in his humiliating defeat, the creation of Germany, Louis’ own overthrow and death. This guy was the George Bush of 19th century France.
The Crimean War also cost Nicholas I his life. While on campaign he caught a chill and died of pneumonia on March 2,1855. The Sultan, Abdülmecit, lived long enough to see his nation plunged into debt by that same war. And by his death from tuberculosis in 1861, Turkey was flat broke. His succesor was dethroned.
And Pope Pius IX, was just angry. Despite the support of France, because France was distracted by the Crimean War, the Catholic Church lost control of Italy in 1860 to Victor Emmanuel, who established the modern nation of Italy. But Pius achieved his revenge in the religious sector, which he still controled. In 1869 he issued the decree of Papal infallibility and the dogma of Immaculate Conception. Together these meant that Mary, mother of Jesus, was without sin because the Pope said she was without sin. And the Pope was never wrong, because he said he was never wrong. That was not church dogma until 1869.
But, let us finally return to the Church of the Nativity on December 27, 2007. According to the Associated Press; “Yesterday, dozens of priests and cleaners came to the fortress-like church to scrub and sweep the floors, walls and rafters ahead of the Armenian and Orthodox Christmas, celebrated in the first week of January. Thousands of tourists visited the church this week for (Catholic) Christmas celebrations. But the clean-up turned ugly after some of the Orthodox faithful stepped inside the Armenian church's section, touching off a scuffle between about 50 Greek Orthodox and 30 Armenians. Palestinian police, armed with batons and shields, quickly formed a human cordon to separate the two sides so the cleaning could continue...Four people, some with blood running from their faces, were slightly injured.”
Traditionally both the Orthodox and Armenian churches have recruited their priests for this sacred post from tiny isolated villages scattered across Greece and the Balkans, where Christians (and Muslims) have been slaughtering each other for a thousand years. These naive young men now suddenly found themselves working in intimate contact and sharing the most precious artifacts of their faith with heretics. Nothing in their lives or their training prepared them for that kind of peacful coexsistence.
And the whole thing was Louis Napoleon’s fault. But try explaining that to a bunch of foreigners.
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