The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume XXXVIII

Published over 1 year ago • 21 min read

Areopagus Volume XXXVIII

Welcome one and all to the thirty eighth volume of the Areopagus. I've been at the seaside this week and the ocean is on my mind. So where better to begin than with Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, first published in 1867?

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

That was just the first stanza; I thoroughly recommend reading it in full. Alas, the tide waits for no man! So said King Cnut the Great, who tied himself to a chair on the shores of his kingdom to prove that no human, however great their earthly power, can control nature. And as surely as the waves crash, the Areopagus must commence...

I - Classical Music

Miroirs III: Une barque sur l'ocean

Maurice Ravel

Performed by André Laplante / Storm at Sea by Emil Nolde

In 1905 the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote Miroirs. It's a suite for piano - suite simply meaning an ordered set of varied, usually short instrumental pieces - and has five parts, each dedicated to one of his friends and fellow members of Les Apaches. This was a group of avant-garde artists based in Paris who met weekly to discuss art, culture, poetry, politics, and all the other things you'd expect. They also wrote and performed music for one another, and it was as a tribute to this atmosphere that Ravel wrote Miroirs - one of close friendship, intellectual jousting, and artistic experimentation.

The five parts of Miroirs each possess a thoroughly different character, not only in the mood they convey but in their technical aspects and musical language. Here we can see the full range of Ravel's interests and skills on display, artfully moving from one idea to another, ever assured and always convincing in his melodic adventures. Miroirs means Mirrors in French. And so it is a reflection both of the character of Ravel's friends and of the things they spoke about and believed in as a group. One can easily imagine their delight at hearing the five movements of Miroirs, perhaps complemented by the music with which he chose to reflect them and surely excited by the new musical forms he was exploring.

But Ravel did not simply polish off Miroirs in a rush to please his friends and sate their appetite for avant-garde music. He was renowned for being a slow and fastidious composer; during his life Ravel wrote fewer than thirty pieces of music for the piano. Rather than writing everything in one burst of sudden inspiration he preferred to place each note with care, figuring out their exact relationship with one another and how they might contribute to the final, total effect he wanted to achieve. We can see why the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky compared him to the "most perfect of Swiss watch-makers".

Une barque sur l'ocean, dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes, is the third movement. Delightful. Sumptuous. Phantasmagorical. Doleful. Peaceful. Ethereal. Such are the words we might use to describe it. And with the rise and fall of its notes we can comfortably imagine Ravel's boat bobbing on the waves of a dream-like seascape, caught in the ebb and flow of these strange tides, as the shimmering light of the sun is reflected in the fluttering waters of the ocean. There is something altogether ephemeral about Une barque sur l'ocean; its notes appear and disappear like the undulating sea it seeks to emulate, glimpsed for a moment rather than captured forever in solid sound. But this was the result of careful attention; behind the facade of transience is the careful clockwork of Ravel's musical mastermind.

Ravel also wrote an orchestral version of Une barque sur l'ocean, as he did for many of his piano works. It gives a rather different impression - more mysterious and dramatic, I'd say - but is certainly worth hearing, not least to see how Ravel adapted his own music for different instruments.

II - Historical Figure

Zheng He

Zheng He was born as Ma Sanbao in 1371. Ma is the Chinese form of Muhammad; he was born to a family descended from Persian Muslims in Yunnan, a province in the foothills of the Himalayas in southwestern China. His father had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, thousands of miles away in Arabia, and it's hard not to imagine that hearing his father's stories of such a great journey must have inspired his travels in later life.

Yunnan was at that time ruled by the Mongols, who had until relatively recently ruled all of China. But three years before Ma Sanbao's birth the Ming Dynasty regained control of their country. In 1382, when Ma Sanbao was just ten years old, this reconquest reached Yunnan. Ming soldiers invaded the province and retook it. But Ma Sanbao's father was killed in the fighting and he, along with a number of other young captives, was castrated and enrolled into a Chinese army led by the Ming prince Zhu Di. At this point his name was changed to Ma He.

Ma He soon distinguished himself as a reliable young man of great energy, competence, and leadership. He worked his way up through the ranks of the military administration until he became Zhu Di's most trusted advisor. When Zhu Di led a successful rebellion against the emperor, his own nephew, Ma He supported his claim to the throne and helped to establish Zhu Di as the third Ming Emperor.

That was in 1402, and Zhu Di made Ma He his Grand Eunuch, analagous to his Chief of Staff. With this role came a new name - Zheng He - and a raft of immense responsibilities in helping to run the Chinese state. In 1403 Emperor Yongle - the official name taken by Zhu Di, meaning "Perpetual Happiness" - ordered the construction of a huge fleet comprising 3,500 vessels in all. For comparison, when Columbus sailed to America he had only three ships. This represented a shift away from the isolationism of previous Ming emperors and an embrace of international relations - its purpose was not conquest but exploration, trade, and diplomacy. The Yongle Emperor was a ruler of singular vision and one whose legacy was of colossal influence on Chinese history. Foreign affairs, educational and administrative reform, military conquest, establishing Beijing as the capital, building the Forbidden City, and reconstructing the Great Wall of China were just some of his achievements.

Zheng He was chosen to oversee the construction of the so-called "Treasure Fleet" and to be its admiral. Given the great responsibility of leading this fleet, not only for what must have been a significant financial outlay but for its broader role in the expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence, we need have no doubts about how much the Yongle Emperor trusted Zheng He.

He led seven great voyages in his lifetime, the first in 1405 and the last in 1433. Whenever Zheng He returned to China with the vast imperial fleet he brought with him emissaries, goods, gifts, and wares from lands previously unknown. He crossed the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea, leading expeditions from Vietnam to Indonesia and from India to East Africa. There are a number of countries around the world in which Zheng He was perhaps the first Chinese person to step foot. He even fought with pirates and subdued their activity all over the Indian Ocean. As an inscription left by Zheng He toward the end of his life says:

Because of this the sea routes became pure and peaceful and the foreign peoples could rely upon them and pursue their occupations in safety.

Everything the Yongle Emperor hoped for had been achieved, and the name and glory of the Ming dynasty was known throughout the world.

Contemporary accounts, including one given by an Italian merchant called Niccolò de' Conti, relate that some of Zheng He's great "treasure ships" were over one hundred metres in length. That would have made them by far the longest wooden ships ever built up to that point, and the longest until the 20th century. This may well be true. If it is, then so much more for the legacy of the Yongle Emperor and Zheng He. But it hardly matters. Zheng He's achievements are impressive and important enough regardless of the size of his ships. As another of the inscriptions he left describes:

We have traversed over a hundred thousand li of vast ocean and beheld great ocean waves, rising as high as the sky and swelling and swelling endlessly. Whether in dense fog and drizzling rain or in wind-driven waves rising like mountains, no matter what the sudden changes in sea conditions, we spread our cloudlike sails aloft and sailed by the stars day and night.

The events surrounding Zheng He's death are a mystery. It seems that he died during his seventh and final voyage in 1433, perhaps somewhere near India. Others speculate that he left the main fleet and sailed for Arabia, hoping to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and died on the way. Others still believe he returned to China and died defending it against renewed Mongol invasions from the north. Invasions which had, incidentally, put an end to the great age of Chinese naval exploration led by Zheng He. Whatever the circumstances of his death, Zheng He's life was a remarkable one, rising from captivity to the lofty affairs of state and the exploration of the world.

III - Painting

Aurora Borealis

Frederic Edwin Church (1865)

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) might just be the greatest American painter of all. He was a leading member of the Hudson River School and a hugely popular and successful artist in his own lifetime. Thousands of people - not only high society but regular working folk - queued up to see his paintings when they were exhibited. Aurora Borealis gives us some idea why that might be. It depicts a scene from the 1861 expedition of Isaac Hayes, an explorer and good friend of Frederic Edwin Church.

The Hudson River School had been founded in the 1820s by an English-born painter called Thomas Cole who emigrated to America and found in its vast natural landscapes, rugged and wild and exceedingly beautiful, a worthy subject for art. This Hudson River School was a deeply Romantic movement, inspired by ideals about the sublimity of the natural world rather than by scientific, political, classical, or intellectual heroism. Its many great artists are particularly noted for their meticulously detailed landscapes and close attention to light.

In Church's Aurora Borealis the smallness of the ship and the man with his dogsled in comparison with the colossal scale of the arctic landscape and night sky is typical of Romantic art - a representation of humanity's insignificance next to vast and majestic nature. But there's something else going on here. Whereas the paintings of another great Romantic artist, the German Caspar David Friedrich, present nature as almost terrifying in its power, Church and the rest of the Hudson River School had a more optimistic view. Friedrich's own portrayal of arctic exploration featured a ship caught and crushed in the ice: mankind totally defeated. But Church's ship, even while locked in the ice, remains intact. A tiny light gleams in one of its windows. The explorer and his dogsled are in motion, still searching for a way forward. Subdued optimism, but optimism nonetheless.

Here the beauty of the natural world is reconciled with humanity's attempt to explore it. Rather than the European Romantic view of mankind as a corrupting force, with our chimneystacks and factories and wars and destructive, beauty-sapping scientific enquiry, Church's American Romanticism seeks out a middle ground.

Most interesting about this painting is that Church seems to have never seen the Northern Lights. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised - photographs show us that they are more akin to a curtain of light than Church's celestial arch. And green is their dominant colour; Church elides it almost wholly. A description of the aurora borealis was given to Church by Hayes, who had just returned from a voyage to the arctic, and it was this that he drew on for his painting. And so it doesn't matter that Church hadn't seen the Northern Lights. His imagination was powerful enough to perceive what they must have been like and his artistic skill sufficient to match his vision. The result, even if not "realistic" in one sense, is surely a greater vision of them then any photograph or photorealistic painting could ever hope to be. For in this arctic seascape we sense not only the extraordinary beauty but the power of nature, as a gloomy world of darkness and ice is illuminated by coils of heavenly splendour. And there is humanity, minute but present, suffering but not defeated, plowing through this mysterious arctic night in the pursuit of progress. His art is no less lyrical than the finest Romantic poetry.

Aurora Borealis was unveiled not long after the end of the American Civil War. Church's art was always rich with symbolism, much of it related to American national identity, and so it seems only likely that he imbued this painting with a related meaning. Some have seen a trace of Dantean cosmology - is this the frozen ninth circle of Hell from his Inferno? Perhaps it has something to do with America's place in the world - locked in the ice of civil war and soon to be set free? Its precise meaning will never be clear. One can only imagine what audiences made of it back in 1865, looking up at this mighty and ambiguous masterpiece in the wake of such terrible civil strife. But even beyond that context the power of Church's Aurora Borealis endures.

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

Bell Rock Lighthouse

The Impossible Tower

Is engineering architecture? This question isn't as straightforward as it seems. But the two are clearly related. Vitruvius, whose two thousand year old treatise on classical architecture is probably the most influential and important architectural work ever written, was also an engineer. He wrote about the construction of walls, harbours, and aqueducts as much as the proportions of temples. And it's fair to say that he would have been astonished by the Bell Rock Lighthouse. Even the Romans, the great architects of the ancient world, never built anything quite like this.

The impossible-looking Bell Rock Lighthouse stands eleven miles off the east coast of Scotland, rising over one hundred feet out of the grey waves of the North Sea and visible from over thirty miles away. It is a marvel of engineering. And though taller and perhaps more impressive lighthouses have since been built, Bell Rock Lighthouse's construction over two hundred years ago in 1810 was a watershed moment.

The rocky reef of Bell Rock, also known as Inchcape, was a site of shipwreck for centuries. But even if those treacherous rocks had claimed thousands of lives there was nothing to be done about it. Nobody believed a lighthouse could be built there. That all changed in 1800, when a Glaswegian engineer called Robert Stevenson visited Bell Rock and became convinced that he could do the impossible. But his plans were rejected at first: they were too expensive, too radical, and Stevenson too inexperienced. Then the HMS York was wrecked at Bell Rock with no survivors. It caused a national scandal and Stevenson's designs were reconsidered. Parliament approved them and appointed a fellow Scotsman called John Rennie, the finest engineer of the age, to take charge of the operation; Stevenson would be his assistant.

You don't need to be told that Bell Rock Lighthouse was a monumental task; its presence in the middle of the ocean makes that readily apparent. But the challenge was not only to design and put together a lighthouse suited to the difficult conditions of Inchcape - actually building it would be the greatest obstacle. The rocks of Inchcape are only above water for two hours a day, and so when construction started in 1807 it was incredibly slow. They could only work during summer and getting the requisite manpower and material there was a long and arduous process. But special cranes were made and a stilted wooden house was constructed so that work could continue even when Bell Rock was submerged. By 1811 it was finished. We can hardly calculate how many lives have been saved by this remarkable project.

Bell Rock is a sea-washed lighthouse. That means it stands out at sea rather than being built on land, whether an island or the mainland. Now automated (rather than being operated by keepers) it's the world's oldest working sea-washed lighthouse. And, speaking of those lighthouse keepers, we can scarcely imagine what their lives must have been like: confined to five small rooms and the company only of one another, enduring the long, dark, and cold nights of winter, isolated and battered by the vicious storms of the North Sea which surely seemed like they might tear down the tower at any moment. But, on that last point, they had nothing to fear. Bell Rock Lighthouse has survived in essentially perfect condition for over two hundred years. The technical excellence of its construction, combined with what has been proven a spectacularly successful design by Stevenson and Rennie, means that none of its structure has been altered or meddled with since it was opened in 1811. A testament to their brilliance as engineers and the skill of the labourers who laid the stones.

The Bell Rock Lighthouse is a stirring sight and tells an inspiring story. Here, perhaps unlike in Church's Aurora Borealis, humanity has found a way to master nature's power. No wonder J.M.W. Turner painted it and Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem about it...

Far in the bosom of the deep
O’er these wild shelves my watch I keep
A ruddy gem of changeful light
Bound on the dusky brow of Night
The Seaman bids my lustre hail
And scorns to strike his tim’rous sail

V - Rhetoric

Oratory in Advertising

Harry Dry runs a marketing newsletter. It's very good. Although his focus is on advertising Harry's tips represent some of the best writing advice you'll find online. He's a real wordsmith.

In any case, I've long believed that a closer study of rhetoric would be of great benefit to many people in the 21st century. One such group is advertisers. After all, rhetoric is the study of persuasion, and what else is marketing for? Rhetoric in the Ancient World was always a highly creative and practical endeavour. It's only reasonable to suggest we could draw something of use from this immense heritage.

A few weeks ago Harry asked his readers how many rhetorical devices they could find in this simple line from an ice-cream company:

One scoop. Once a day. Every Day.

Altogether they found eight. Here's just three (with some added examples). You may recognise some of them from my previous writings about rhetoric. Altogether it's a wonderful case study of just how widely the study of rhetoric can find applications, even in the 21st century.

1. Polyptoton

The use of words from the same root, e.g. destroy, destroyer, destructive. It usually ends up being alliterative, too.

2. Scesis (or schesis) onomaton

Using sentences composed wholly of nouns and adjectives, without verbs.

3. Asyndeton

The omission of conjunctions such as and, or, and but. The most famous example is how we translate Julius Caesar's Veni, Vidi, Vici: "I came, I saw, I conquered" rather than "I came, and I saw, and I conquered." It's incorrect grammatically, but so much is true for many of the best rhetorical devices. The use of language is about bending the rules no less than observing them.

VI - Writing


One of the key parts of a Roman education was learning to debate. After all, a political career in Ancient Rome involved - after serving in the military - a series of posts in the judicial system and the civil service, along with a lifetime in the Senate. In such places one needed to be able to argue effectively, whether prosecuting a governor charged with corruption, defending a knight accused of murder, proposing some sort of new taxation, or speaking out against an impending war.

The final stage of the education of young Romans was with a rhetorician. One of the exercises they taught, with all of the above in mind, was suasoria. It might best be translated as "persuasive." These were essentially written essays, though they would also have been delivered, arguing in favour of or against a given proposition.

In Antiquity they often took the form of an address to a particular person or group, usually historical. For example, a student might be tasked with advising Leonidas and his Spartans to retreat from the pending Battle of Thermopylae against the Persians. We know, as Seneca the Elder did when he wrote a suasoria on that subject, what happened. But the purpose was to inhabit a point of view, explore its strengths, master its weaknesses, and make it as convincing as you possibly could. We can see why the Renaissance humanists found the suasoria so interesting. Erasmus, for example, wrote a suasoria about the benefits of becoming a monk. This wasn't a dialogue so much as what we would call an essay, but it still concerned a choice - whether or not one should join a monastery.

This is vital to suasoria. They weren't discussions of abstract ideas or philosophical queries - even though they could and did draw on philosophical, theological, ethical, and moral concepts - but rigorous arguments for or against a particular action. This reflects the vast majority of real debates, which concern action rather than theory. To give but one trivial example, we tend to argue about what to have for dinner rather than debate the concept of an evening meal.

I recommend writing a suasoria. It's a great way to improve not only your writing skills but also your ability to think critically. Pick anything, but make sure it's about a specific action. If you enjoy Roman history then advise Augustus about whether he should make himself emperor or restore the Republic. For something closer to home advise a friend on what to do about their relationship. Why not write a suasoria advising your national assembly to pass a new law or nullify an old one? Deal with practical issues, learn how to argue both sides, and make it as convincing as you can.

Specifically, I recommend writing a suasoria in favour of a position you don't personally support. To be able to understand a viewpoint we do not hold is of profound real-world importance. It encourages both sympathy with other people and a serious engagement with the complexities of life. People usually hold views for reason. They've put some thought into it and come to a conclusion; even if we believe they are wrong, we are much more likely to persuade if we understand. And the great felicity of persuasion is that it circumvents force. The world is a better place that way.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Thalassa! Thalassa!

In 401 B.C. a member of the Persian royal family called Cyrus the Younger hired an army of ten thousand soldiers from Greece to help him defeat his brother Artaxerxes II and claim the throne for himself. They marched all the way to central Mesopotamia, not far from Babylon itself, before Cyrus got himself killed at the decisive battle and left the Greeks stranded deep in enemy territory. Their leaders were killed in an ambush set by Artaxerxes, and it was only after a young officer called Xenophon exhorted his countrymen to action that they set off on a long and difficult journey home that would last a little less than two years.

The Greeks were constantly harrassed by the soldiers of Artaxerxes as they marched north, stalked and assaulted day and night through the vast expanse of Mesopotamia and into the mountains of Armenia. There they left behind the heat of the desert and their Persian pursuers, only to be greeted by a bitter winter and barbarian tribes. Thousands of men died during this ordeal, if not by the arrows and blades of foreign foes then from frostbite or hunger.

And then, over a year after they left Greece, there came a moment of brief but glorious respite. The army was somewhere in the mountains of Armenia, drawing ever closer to the Black Sea but still unsure of where they actually were. Here is that moment as described in Xenophon's account of this expedition, called the Anabasis, translated by H.G. Dakyns:

...they reached the mountain, the name of which was Theches. No sooner had the men in front ascended it than a great cry arose, and Xenophon, in the rearguard, catching the sound of it, conjectured that another set of enemies must surely be attacking in front; for they were followed by the inhabitants of the country, which was all aflame; indeed the rearguard had killed some and captured others alive by laying an ambuscade; they had taken also about twenty wicker shields, covered with the raw hides of shaggy oxen.
But as the shout became louder and nearer, and those who from time to time came up, began racing at the top of their speed towards the shouters, and the shouting continually recommenced with yet greater volume as the numbers increased, Xenophon settled in his mind that something extraordinary must have happened, so he mounted his horse, and taking with him Lycius and the cavalry, he galloped to the rescue. Presently they could hear the soldiers shouting and passing on the joyful word, "The sea! the sea!"
Thereupon they began running, rearguard and all, and the baggage animals and horses came galloping up. But when they had reached the summit, then indeed they fell to embracing one another—generals and officers and all—and the tears trickled down their cheeks.

In the original Greek these famous words were written as Thalassa! Thalassa! That's the Greek for sea. As soon as they saw it they knew their disastrous quest was coming to an end. Safety, at last. It didn't quite pan out that way, but the worst of it was certainly over. I can't help but feel this to be one of the greatest moments in all of literature, historical or fictitious or otherwise. Especially when you read the Anabasis in full, enduring alongside these Greeks their immense hardships, the delight of finding the shore of a familiar sea has never been more poignantly rendered.

Question of the Week

Last week I set you the mighty challenge of writing a sonnet. You were more than up to the task.

Isobel D embraced the sonnet's status as the definitive form of love poetry:

I worry sometimes that I don't know how
To love you quite as well as you do me.
For you're so generous! Invariably
You're there whenever I am feeling down.
Yet me with you - I cannot see you frown
But feel that it's my fault, so guiltily
I make things worse by making things 'bout me.
I hope you know I try, I really do.
For haven't I made pasta, just for you?
Waiting to greet you, stepping off the plane
After you've had a long, sad week away.
I really hope it makes you smile, too,
And that you will believe my love is true.

This one is by Jovette K:

She alights, delighted, hands me a shell.
Her laughter like water spilling over,
Surging from green new places, bubbling well,
Effervescent imp, my grand-daughter.
She takes my hand, leads with fierce assurance.
Pebbles like stepping stones into the waves, wait!
A puddle, a crab… She looks back askance.
The universe to know and navigate.
I place her shell atop our monument
(Wet pile of sand? No, a castle, creneled...)
With fragile hope that this perfect moment
By neither tide nor time becomes erased.
She knows nothing of the travails of time,
Relentless, if subdued in summertime.

And this is what Williams Oladele submitted. It's from his poetry anthology entitled The Juvenilia; you can find it on Amazon!

A great and ageless tussle it has been
Of Nature’s rightful place as regards man;
Of how in man’s eye, nature should be seen –
How the mortal mind ought to Nature scan.
For man’s use was Nature made, many say.
As well, for the converse, sages have fought –
Man must Nature nurture from day to day;
And to impose each view, many had sought.
So I ask: Who will Nature’s beauty praise?
And of what use, sans man, will Nature be?
As likewise, who will man’s existence raise?
And will man, a man, sans Nature still be?
Man must take care of the God-given Nature
And Nature must serve God’s replica creature.

Alan B sent in a sonnet called Richambeth. Each quatrain and the final couplet begins with a line from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth, or Richard II:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
For the years weigh heavy on my aging bones
That creak and groan with all the memories felt.
The accountant of life is calling in her loans.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
And all the yesterdays of yore combined,
Have met here in this moment and we know
That one tomorrow we’ll leave it all behind.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
And of the grand, dramatic final breath.
Let’s read ahead to the last paragraphs
To see “THE END” writ by the hand of death.
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
Let celebrations of the living chime.

And, to end, here's a sonnet by Sam J. It was submitted about twenty minutes ago:

Racing to the platform, a connection
I must not miss. The next will be a flight
Further north to a place patchy with white.
Racing then queuing, juxtaposition
Of those hurrying feet. An infection
Of my mind? Scrolling Twitter, phone shines bright.
Racing upwards, reading with weary sight.
Racing slowly on, a predilection
For distraction. Being alone strikes fear
When not rushing nowhere. Now time to feign
That I’m happy to talk to those by their
Desks and panes of glass. I don’t learn their name
In the exchange, I continue to wear
That fake smile. Will all this lead to my gain?

As for this week's question to test your critical thinking...

What is the best way to persuade a person to change their mind?

And that's all

The tides of the ocean ebb and flow, pulled by the moon first this way, now the other. Dawn breaks. Night falls. Time rolls on. And so this volume of the Areopagus has ended. Thank you for coming with me thus far; I know this adventure yet has a long way to go.

First thing in the morning I'll go for a swim in the sea. What better way to start the day and welcome (albeit belatedly) the new month of March?


The Cultural Tutor


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