Sunday, March 12, 2023

Speaking of Which

I opened this file on Thursday, feeling very bad about my inability to get any meaningful writing done, but having a couple of links I figured I'd note just for continuity's sake. I was feeling even worse on Saturday morning when I wrote the long comment on China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, then as I found further links wrote more and more. The Saudis, like the Israelis, have been throwing wild punches at Iran for more than a decade, and the US (especially under Trump) had so little sense of its own interests that it just let others call the shots. The agreement promises to defuse one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. And, needless to say, America had nothing to do with resolving the problem, after spending decades of trying to bully Iran into some kind of submission it couldn't recognize even when it was possible. So, tell me again, who's the world's "indispensable nation"?

And while you're at it, tell me why we have to spend $900 billion or more a year to beef up a containment barrier around China, when the latter is doing nothing beyond normal business and diplomacy to ingratiate itself with trading partners around the world? The dumbest words in the English language are: "peace through strength." Wikipedia credits the phrase to Hadrian, and I can see some merit there, in an age when wars were about nothing more than loot and plunder, to building a strong defensive barrier. However, the other examples, which are exclusively American, are hard to vouch for as defensive (e.g., the motto of Eighth Air Force in 1944, or the motto of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier).

Strength of that sort is meant to intimidate (the sophisticated term is deter), but can just as well be read as a taunt. Wars for quick spoils largely went out of fashion by 1900, if not well before: they became too expensive to fight just for the loot one could carry off. Wars for imperial glory continued until 1945, when Germany and Japan expired, although it took a few more decades for the existing store of colonies to be unwound. As Jonathan Schell put it, the world had become unconquerable.

But if that's the case, if people recognize that there's nothing to be gained by going to war, why do we need all this "strength" to intimidate or deter? Sure, there have been some cases where rulers (like Saddam Hussein) thought they could defy the odds. Israel has held onto land they seized in 1967, despite the UN finding their act "inadmissible." Some nations have claimed to be rescuing their own fellows (Turkey in Cyprus, the US in Grenada, Russia in Ukraine). And some tried to pass themselves off as liberators (the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither remotely credible). For the most part, these ventures have failed. And while some may have started off with the perception that their targets were weak, there is little reason to believe that strength would have deterred them. The US was pretty clear what the consequences of Russia invading Ukraine would be, yet that didn't stop Putin. If anything, it provoked him to overreach.

It amazes me how little Americans have learned from their many military debacles since 1945. Time and again, failure after failure, you hear the same hackneyed clichés (like "peace through strength") again. The doublespeak is befuddling: changing the War Department name to Defense Department has only resulted in more offensive wars, not less. We should be wondering what we did to get into the war in Ukraine. (I'm not excusing Putin, but he wasn't the sole author of the context in which he decided Russia would be better off fighting than backing down.) And we should be wondering where the saber-rattling with China is taking us.

Top story threads:

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia: I had this as a second section piece when I wrote the Baker comment, but then I found more links and had to promote it.

  • Peter Baker: [03-11] Chinese-Brokered Deal Upends Mideast Diplomacy and Challenges US: "The agreement negotiated in Beijing to restore relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran signaled at least a temporary reordering of the usual alliances and rivalries, with Washington left on the sidelines." Isn't this what China should be doing? (Especially given that the US has abandoned the role it could have had as a peacemaker, in favor of being the world's leading arms supplier.) Revolutionaries often imagine exporting their values, as France did after 1789, and Russia after 1917. In 1979, Iran's dominant Shiite clerics saw an opportunity to extend their influence among Shiite minorities throughout the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia offered two obvious targets: a substantial Shiite minority in the east, which has long chafed under Wahhabi rule, and the symbolic importance of the "holy cities" of Mecca and Medina, which the Saudis had long exploited to assert their moral leadership over the Muslim world.

    Since then, the Saudis and their Gulf despot allies have been uremittingly hostile to Iran, especially in the 1980s when they helped finance Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. Hostilities have heated up again in the last decade, as Saudis have intervened in Yemen against a local Shiite faction in one of the world's most brutally pointless wars. Israel has its own reasons (completely bogus, in my opinion) for implacable hostility to Iran, and the American arms industry profits from stoking both Arab and Israeli fears of Iran, so the US has had little (if any) interest in reducing hostilities. (Obama and Kerry did make an effort to work out a deal with Iran answering Israel's oft-stated fear that Iran could develop nuclear weapons, but Israel killed the deal through Trump, as much as admitting that they never had any such worry.)

    One problem is that the Saudis never got much out of fighting Iran, especially when doing so looked to make them a pawn in an American-Israeli plot they had no control over. Similarly, Iran's so-called proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen were more of a drain than a resource, and exercising them (to the extent they did, which isn't clear) just isolated them further. So it should be easy to see why China offers an exit ramp from a conflict that hurts both sides. And why is China doing this? Well, it's obviously good for business. China's a net oil importer, and has lots it can trade. While the Saudis are cash-rich, Iran is hard-strapped for finance, which China can provide. And China is a big enough market that Iran can finally see a way around US sanctions.

    As for sidelining Washington (and Israel), none of the parties are likely to shed any tears. Still, when you think of what a superpower should be doing, either on its own or through the UN, it is smoothing over conflicts and stabilizing the world market. Immediately after WWII, the US considered assuming that role, but soon got distracted by the ever-polarizing Cold War, and never extricated itself from that mentality, even after the Soviet Union dissolved itself -- partly because the arms industry had become so politically influential, and because the mass military needed threats to keep the funding going (and, of course, turning the US into a threat that stimulates more arms races, including one with China).

  • David Pierson: [03-11] China's Role in Iran-Saudi Arabia Deal Shows Xi's Global Goals: "Brokering a rapprochement between the Middle Eastern rivals underscores the Chinese leader's ambition of offering an alternative to a U.S.-led world order." Why shouldn't they? The US does two things that should bother China greatly: one is that the US divides the world into hostile camps, mostly based on whether countries buy arms (and pay other forms of tribute, like patent rents) to the US and/or its preferred companies, which almost by definition precludes countries with their own legacy arms manufactures, like Russia and China; the other is that the US is given to making arrogant moral judgments about how other countries run their business, with China a common target. (While the US likes to regard itself as a guardian of democracy and human rights, its track record shows many convenient exceptions.)

    China is far less judgmental, willing to do business with pretty much anyone (except for a rather glaring blind spot regarding Taiwan, although even that's mostly cosmetic: they actually do a lot of business with Taiwan). That clearly gave them an opening to Iran, which the US regards as treif (not just forbidden but an object of disgust). And while the Saudis have done enough business with the US (including buying arms) to grant them official wavers, they must have noticed that most Americans look down on them as well. Aside from the Khashoggi murder and the Yemen War and residual anti-Islamic bias (17 of 21, you know what I mean?), Biden got directly into their business when he pressured them to turn on their OPEC ally Russia to help keep gas prices cheap. With friends like US, maybe they should consider other options?

    It's notable that China is also floating a proposal to end the Ukraine War, which is more than the US and its European allies can say, but is more in line with what other nonaligned states (like Brazil and South Africa) are proposing. (The Ukraine War has drawn Europe closer to the US, but has estranged the US from virtually every other nation, thus opening doors for China.) It's less likely to fly because China has less to offer either side, but it's there if/when the belligerents realize they need to stanch the bleeding.

    Especially since WWII, a favorite term is Pax Americana. Like its Pax Romana and Pax Britannica predecessors, peace only resides within the imperium; the margins are still likely to flare into war, and the controlling empires had to deploy huge armed forces, even if they characterized them as defensive. If such empires were truly benign, you'd expect the margins to melt away as others sought safety from war, but they never were, and America's isn't. Rather, they are constantly engaged in border wars -- and not infrequently wars against their own people -- which they fight, like most warriors fight, for the spoils. They would have you think that a global hegemon is necessary to keep the peace, and that you're lucky it's us this time. They would also have you think that anyone who challenges Pax Americana is only out to establish their own imperium. (Hence you hear absurdities like we have to fight Iraq over there so we won't have to fight them here.)

    Such people find China alarming: they refuse to submit, then they build up defenses, then they imagine they might stave off attack through deterrence. But most alarming is when they undermine the whole game by showing that it isn't necessary, by showing that unaligned nations can cooperate and prosper without paying tribute to Pax Americana.

  • Michael Crowley/Vivian Nereim/Patrick Kingsley: [03-11] Saudi Arabia Offers Its Price to Normalize Relations With Israel: "The Saudi crown prince is seeking a civilian nuclear program and security assurances from President Biden, a steep price for an agreement long sought by Israel." If nuclear power is what Saudi Arabia is after, Iran and China offer an alternative to having to deal with an increasingly difficult Israel (and its puppet US).

  • Jonathan Guyer: [03-10] Why Iran and Saudi Arabia making nice is a very big deal: Among other things, introduces the phrase: "post-American Middle East."

  • Daniel Larison: [03-10] Why the Iran-Saudi agreement to restore ties is so big.

  • Richard Silverstein: [03-11] Iran, Saudi Arabia Renew Relations Under Chinese Auspices. This doesn't seem to preclude better relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, although just a week ago, Silverstein wrote: [03-08] US Ambassador Tells Israel "We've Got Your Back" If You Attack Iran.

  • Robert Wright: [03-10] Trading places with Xi Jinping. Wright has been pushing something he calls "cognitive empathy" -- basically, it means trying to understand someone else's viewpoint -- as a way of unlocking many of the thornier problems in American foreign policy. Xi complains that the West, led by the US, has "implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country's development." Wright gives examples, including "odd and gratuitous anti-Xi rhetoric." While you can argue that he's being a bit paranoid, you can't say there's no substance to the charges, or no menace behind them. Wright quotes Noah Smith: "What's scary to me is that we heard similar rhetoric from Germany before WWI and Japan before WW2." Wright follows up on the German case, but I've been more struck by how US sanctions against Japan provoked the Pearl Harbor attack (presumably the opposite of their intent). In both cases, fears of eventual war led to the calculation that one should attack first, while the enemy was still relatively weak. Both aggressions were unwarranted and catastrophic, which China should take as a cautionary tale, but the US should also learn a thing or two from such past misunderstandings.

  • Blaise Malley: [01-27] Can China and America Live and Let Live? Review of Van Jackson: Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of Asian Peace. I'm starting to grow tired of the word "détente," as it implies a continuing adversary relationship even if a less hostile one. While one should be able to coexist peacefully with others you are nonetheless critical of, it would be better to minimize threats than to reserve your right to oppose. I think a big problem with the JCPOA with Iran was that Obama/Kerry refused to do anything beyond the treaty's narrow aims to normalize relations with Iran. (By contrast, the Saudi-Iran agreement starts with normalization, leaving many details to be resolved in that new context.)

Trump, DeSantis, et al: Trump not indicted yet, but lots of rumors, and even more revelations that should be embarrassing. Meanwhile, DeSantis has his campaign book out.

On DeSantis's campaign book, I wrote a note for an upcoming Book Roundup:

Ron DeSantis: The Courage to Be Free: Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival (2023, Broadside Books): "He played baseball for Yale [while most were studying?], graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, and served in Iraq and the halls of Congress [not just Congress? he was a hall monitor?]. But in all these places, Ron DeSantis learned the same lesson: He didn't want to be part of the leftist elite." Nah, he wanted to be part of the far-right elite (although between Yale, Harvard, Iraq, and Congress, I doubt he met very many actual leftists. This, of course, is his campaign brief. (Amazon's "frequently bought together" offer adds Mike Pompeo's Never Give an Inch and Mike Pence's So Help Me God), so one would normally expect it to be long on homilies and short on details. Of course, his homilies are pretty dark, like "The United States has been increasingly captive to an arrogant, stale, and failed ruling class." And also: "Florida has stood as an antidote to America's failed ruling class." The table of contents not only includes chapters on "For God, for Country, and for Yale" and "Honor, Courage, and Commitment," but also "The Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism" and "The Liberal Elite's Praetorian Guard." And if you have any doubt that he's running, the books ends with "Make America Florida." All this in a succinct 286 pages. He's every bit as seductive as Satan.

Biden: Headline in Eagle on Biden's budget plan is: "Biden calls for trillions in tax hikes and new spending." That leaves out that the tax hikes are on the rich, the beneficiaries of Republican tax cuts, with few making up for lost revenues. Also that the spending, aside from more fodder for the military, offers net gains to the very people who need help most. Omitted from the headline is the deficit question, which Republicans use as a cudgel to attack any government spending that helps people, while conveniently forgetting to mention any time they get a chance to cut taxes on the rich.

Fox and Company: I'm not a fan of defamation suits, but the Dominion Voting case is prying open some secrets, as the dissembling and pandering sometimes catches them up:

A Bank Collapses: Silicon Valley Bank, in, well, you know where.

Derailing: We're not done with the toxic train derailment in Ohio. But also note a horrific train collision in Greece that killed 57.


Ukraine War:

  • Connor Echols: [03-10] Diplomacy Watch: Tensions grow in West as brutal war drags on. Lots of posturing on all sides, little if any indication that any are ready to negotiate. One hint is that both US and Zelensky are insisting on Russia being tried for war crimes, which however just in the abstract (the entire war should be considered criminal) is an indication that you're not (yet) thinking clearly about the real world.

  • Fred Kaplan: [03-06] Why the Russian Army Isn't Learning From Its Mistakes. No idea whether this is true or not (it certainly relies on a selection of reports), but I noted early on that superior numbers of tanks didn't seem to be helping Russia much, and I've wondered whether more tanks would help Ukraine much either. I can't help but think this war matters less to Russian conscripts than to Ukrainians, at least at present. Perhaps the tables will flip as Ukraine approaches territory where ethnic Russians voted to break away from Ukraine.

  • Jen Kirby: [03-09] A Ukrainian city is on the verge of falling to Russia: "If Moscow takes Bakhmut, it may be a hollow victory." Having lost territory to Ukraine southeast of Kharkiv and around Kherson, Russian forces have made Bakhmut -- formerly Artyomovsk, a city of 75,000 (70-29% Ukrainian-to-Russian) well inside breakaway Donetsk Oblast) the focus of their counteroffensive, effectively depopulating and destroying the city.

  • Anatol Lieven: [03-07] A looming crisis in Moldova's breakaway state: This is about a sliver of land called Transdniestria (i.e., the east bank of the Dniester River), The region broke off from Moldova almost immediately after independence. It has been stabilized by Russian "peacekeepers," whose position has been made more precarious by war in Ukraine.

  • Choe Sang-Hun: [03-05] They're Exporting Billions in Arms. Just Not to Ukraine. "As traditional weapons suppliers like the U.S. face wartime production shortages, South Korea has stepped in to fill the gap, while trying not to provoke Moscow."

  • Artin DeSimonian: [03-09] Ukraine war unleashed similar West-Russia divide in Georgia: Like Moldova and Ukraine, Georgia has breakaway provinces (Abkhazia, South Ossetia) that have appealed to Russia for protection. In 2008, Georgia tried to move military to recover those provinces, provoking a Russian intervention. You may recall that in the midst of his 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain wanted to go to war with Russia to back Georgia -- one of many needles leading to Ukraine. The conflict persists, although for now it's dormant. It would be smart for negotiations over Ukraine to provide a peaceful model for resolving the Georgia dispute. Author has written more on the region, where Azerbaijan is trying to take back control over the Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region: [01-11] How great power conflict is affecting the looming Caucasus crisis.

  • Juan Cole: [03-09] When We Were Vladimir Putin: "How Washington Lost Its Moral Compass in Iraq," 20 years ago. It lost its moral compass long before, but few cases are more easily comparable to Putin's invasion of Ukraine than Bush's invasion of Iraq. Both start with the arrogant supposition that one is entitled to dictate to another country, and with the belief that overwhelming force can mold others to your liking.

  • Yves Smith: [03-07] Wall Street Journal: "US Is Not Yet Ready for Great Power Conflict" Yet Still Plots Against China. Pretty much pure speculation viz China, followed by a report on the Ukraine War that is significantly at odds with official American thinking: Smith is unimpressed with Ukraine's US-backed performance, and concludes "it's hard to see any reason for Russia to end the war before its aims are met." What aims? I don't know, and I doubt Putin knows either. My view is that both sides can look forward to nothing but losses from here on out, so the only sane thing to do is to ceasefire and negotiate. Americans (and Zelensky) are deluded if they think victory is just a few tank advances away. But they're even more deluded if they think that a big win in Ukraine is going to intimidate China and back it down to an acceptable sphere of influence. Wins only breed more arrogance, until someone else knocks you down to size.

Other stories:

Ryan Cooper: [03-09] Might We See a Bipartisan Agreement to Scale Back the Bush-Obama Security State?: "Segments of both parties want to do it. But obstacles are high."

Dave DeCamp: [03-08] Sen. Lindsey Graham Says He Will Introduce Legislation for Military Intervention in Mexico. Who was it who said, "poor Mexico; so far from God, so close to the United States"? Max Boot, in The Savage Wars for Peace (2002), tried to make the case that America's "gunboat diplomacy" of the first third of the 20th century was all good, but his description of Pershing's posse chasing Pancho Villa shows both how futile his quest was and how lucky he was that it didn't turn much worse. Since the 1930s, the US has generally preferred to hire local goons to do its dirty work, but it's hard to imagine how that could play out in Mexico. Graham may be right that if you want a job done, you have to do it yourself. But he is surely wrong that the US military has the skills and resources to do it.

Jeannie Suk Gersen: [03-12] The Expanding Battle Over the Abortion Pill: "Republican state attorneys are threatening actions against pharmacies that dispense it, as a federal lawsuit challenges the F.D.A.'s authority to approve it."

Rae Hodge: [03-08] Biden's FCC nominee backs out after Joe Manchin says no: Gigi Sohn, whose nomination has been held up for 18 months. And it's not personal with Manchin: industry lobbyists hate Sohn, and he's just doing their bidding.

Ed Kilgore: [03-08] No Labels Has a Genius 2024 Plan That Would Kneecap Biden: That assumes that anyone beyond the organizers would fall for it. Their plan is to nominate a "centrist" third-party ticket for the 2024 presidential election, and put them on the ballot in "at least 23 states" (focusing on competitive ones). While approximately a third of the electorate likes to identify as independent, the actual middle ground between a rabid Republican and a relatively sane Democrat is pretty slim. For more on No Labels, see [03-08] Could these hacks really put Trump back in the White House? For one thing, this piece puts some names on the group, like Nancy Jacobson, whose husband (Mark Penn) did more damage to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign than Steve Bannon and Vladimir Putin put together.

Ezra Klein: [03-12] This Changes Everything: Bad title for a piece about AI. In many respects, it changes nothing, but it presents an image of change that can be pitched to the desires and fantasies of those in power, usually by promising them more power. Will it deliver on those promises? Or will it just expose their quest for more power to be in vain? Klein writes: "I cannot emphasize this enough: We do not understand these systems, and it's not clear we even can." I'd amend that to say: "it's clear that we cannot." I've spent 30 years struggling with the problem of how do you write computer code that works as intended. What I've found is that proving code scales with complexity by some large order of magnitude.

Given how complex AI has to be to appear intelligent, it can never be known, and can only be programmed through layers of abstraction that themselves are imperfectly known. Nor is this mere theory. We've already run the empirical test, and conclusively shown that billions of intelligent automatons create all sorts of problems beyond our capacity to understand let alone remedy. (Before I got into programming, I studied sociology.)

It's not clear how AI will change things, but unless we are very deliberate, its initial application will be to intensify relationships of power, both commercial and political. I rather doubt that AI will produce much in the way of genius breakthroughs, but what it should be able to do much better than humans is to muddle through data. For instance, it could be used to solve the surveilance problem: there are never enough people to surveil everyone, but collect the data and let computers sift through it. Is this something we really want? And who decides? (China seems to be heading that direction.) Perhaps what we should really be asking isn't what AI will change, but what we want it to be used for, and what not?

Klein is inching his way toward these same questions, even if he phrases it in one dimension ("accelerate its adaptation to these technologies or a collective, enforceable decision must be made to slow the development of these technologies").

[PS: I noticed this piece by mathbabe, which says much of what I just tried to say, and a few things I was just thinking (like if you're worried about ChatGPT-written papers, try oral exams). Final line: "Galactica can do all the easy stuff but none of the hard stuff, and so why should we be impressed?"]

Andy Kroll/Andrea Bernstein/Nick Surgey: [03-09] Inside the "Private and Confidential" Conservative Group That Promises to "Crush Liberal Dominance": "Leonard Leo, a key architect of the Supreme Court's conservative supermajority, is now the chairman of Teneo Network, a group that aims to influence all aspects of American politics and culture."

Ian Millhiser: [03-12] No one knows when it is legal to perform medically necessary abortions in Texas.

Nicole Narea/Fabiola Cineas: [03-10] The GOP's coordinated national campaign against trans rights, explained: "Republicans are unleashing a torrent of anti-trans bills at the state level ahead of 2024." Any excuse for haters to hate, and this seems to be the one Republican strategists think they can still get the most mileage out of -- not least because it takes so damn much effort to resist, especially when they are other threats that also need defense (e.g., see the child labor stories, and what the anti-abortion fanatics are doing).

Timothy Noah: [02-28] The Shocking, Sickening Reality of Child Labor in America: "Large corporations have made the enforcement of labor protections for frontline, low-wage workers other people's problem." Needless to say, Republicans are in the forefront of bringing child labor back (including one Wisconsin bill that seeks to ban the term).

Julia Shapero: [03-08] Most in new poll view 'woke' as positive term. Divide was 56-39, but the partisan split is pronounced. It's often said that Americans of all stripes live in their own bubbles, but the Republican one is pretty extreme. How else do you explain major efforts within the GOP to gain political traction by defending Jan. 6 rioters, or to vilify public health officials and make sure they can never respond to any future pandemic? Marjorie Taylor Greene tipped her hand when she revealed that "everyone I talk to" wants a "national divorce." That can't be many people.

Quinn Slobodian: [03-12] What Really Controls Our Global Economy: "After decades of giddy globalization, the pendulum is swinging back to the nation. . . . But what if globalization has progressed so far that it exists even within national borders, and we just haven't had the right lenses to see it?" Slobodian introduces us to the "zone": an enclave with rules and other perks tailored to serve businesses, one so ubiquitous that no company would even conceive of opening a plant or office without shopping it around to politicians to bid on. I see this happen with appalling regularity even in poor, backwards Kansas. Slobodian has a new book about this: Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy. After all, that's what your politicos are really sacrificing.

Jeffrey St Clair: [03-10] Roaming Charges: The Man Who Came Out of the Darkness. Opens with long-term Guantanamo detainee Majid Khan. Then he points to articles meant to provide a counternarrative to Seymour Hersch's piece on how the US Navy blew up the NordStream pipelines: the obliging publishers being the New York Times and the Washington Post (of course they were). Among many other items, there is a chart on "How much governments spend on child care for toddlers." The US is dead last. Even neo-fascist states like Israel and Hungary spend much more per child (6 times for Israel, 14 times for Hungary).

Joseph Stiglitz: [01-10] Milton Friedman Set Us Up for a 21st Century Version of Fascism: Aside from the dates, I'm not sure what's new about 21st century fascism; that is, what distinguishes it from the 20th century fascism of Pinochet in Chile that Friedman inspired and consulted in.

Katy Waldman: [03-10] What are we protecting children from by banning books? As far as I can tell, a growing interest in reading. When I was young, I had very little sense of what I was prohibited from reading, but I did quickly and thoroughly learn to hate pretty much everything I was directed to read. Fortunately, I dropped out of high school, and started reading on my own. Or unfortunately, depending on your point of view. But one thing I was left with was an intense distaste for the viewpoint that the purpose of education is to train people to follow directions and mind their manners.

Craig Whitlock/Nate Jones: [03-07] Former top U.S. admiral cashes in on nuclear sub deal with Australia.

Robert Wright: [03-09] Skeptical of the lab leak theory? Here's why you should take it seriously. Not an issue I have any particular interest in -- least of all when a Chinese and/or American origin story is presented as evidence for escalating military tensions -- but it seems pretty obvious that secret labs researching pathogens are inherently dangerous, and if justified at all should be subject to public scrutiny. Also:

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