Notebook #5

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For all that the neo-con agenda is driven by ideology and class interests, isn’t there something about its leading proponents, its ideologues, that seems to transcends ideology, economics, even history? Isn’t there a essential quality to such people, a basic lack of empathy for their fellow human beings, that draws them to the camp of privilege throughout the centuries, always and forever praising the merits of the powerful?
Abraham Lincoln saw it

No atheist would wish to deny Mr. Manning his right to believe in the Easter Bunny, or Zeus, or Jehovah, or any other supernatural being that appeals to him. We simply ask for the right to express our dissent from those beliefs openly, without being threatened or censured, and we ask that Mr. Manning and his co-believers refrain from trying to inject their private religious beliefs into public institutions like schools and legislatures.
Preston Manning sees an Inquisition in science’s name

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Words of Wisdom

  • Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
  • – Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals


An updated example of chutzpah is provided by ideologues who, day after day, year after year, devote their energies to badmouthing public institutions and demanding they be stripped of resources and denied the ability to act, and who then have the gall to point to the deliberately engineered impotence of these agencies as proof that public institutions don’t work.
Neocon con game: First deprive public institutions of their ability to act, then blame them for not acting

Radical Digressions
Ulli Diemer’s Notebook #5

Comparing evils

May 14, 2008 - #

Romeo Dallaire

Senator Romeo Dallaire told a Parliamentary committee yesterday that, “The minute you start playing with human rights, with conventions, with civil liberties, in order to say that you’re doing it to protect yourself and you are going against those rights and conventions, you are no better than the guy who doesn’t believe in them at all.”

Predictably, Conservative MP Jason Kenney professed shock at the idea that anyone could compare the methods used by the U.S. in the name of "combatting terrorism" with the methods used by "the terrorists". According to Mr. Kenney, you can’t compare U.S. actions in the "war against terrorism" with al-Qaeda using “a 14-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome” as a suicide bomber.

On one level, he is correct to say you can’t compare them, though not in the way he thinks. The “girl with Down’s syndrome” claim was exposed as a fabrication within days, and quickly dropped by U.S. authorities. The bloody excesses of the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq, on the other hand, such as the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by U.S. soldiers, are well documented facts. You can’t compare fabrications with facts.

On a broader level, Mr. Kenney is wrong in saying that you can’t compare U.S. behaviour with the behaviour of “people who blow up children”. On the contrary, it is an indisputable fact that U.S. bombs have blown up far more Iraqi children than al-Qaeda’s bombs. Al-Qaeda is willing to kill large numbers of innocent people, including children, in pursuit of its goals, and the U.S. is willing to kill large numbers of innocent people, including children, in pursuit of its goals. By what standard of morality are they not morally equivalent?

Ulli Diemer

Keywords: Al QaedaHuman Rights AbusesImperialismTerrorismState Terrorism

The single-state solution

May 16, 2008 - #

Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee dismisses the growing movement for a single democratic secular state encompassing Israel and Palestine with the claim that “Jews could never feel safe in a country where they were a minority. Many will simply leave.”

Has it escaped his notice that most Jews choose to live in countries where they are a minority? Any Jew anywhere in the world is free to fly to Tel Aviv and instantly claim Israeli citizenship. Yet despite Israel’s strenuous efforts to encourage Jewish immigration, very few Jews make this choice. Most of the world’s Jews clearly prefer to be citizens of secular states like Canada, the United States, Britain, France, and Argentina, even though they are a minority in those countries.

In fact, some 700,000 Israeli Jews, around 13% of Israel’s Jewish population, have left Israel – to move to countries where they are in the minority. More than 100,000 Jews who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union have chosen to return to Russia or the Ukraine.

Indeed, the times have changed so dramatically that each year thousands of Israelis, many of them the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, are moving to Germany and taking out German citizenship. Who would ever have predicted this? Who would have thought sixty years ago that Europe, with its history of war and hatred, would one day be transformed into a single community in which long-time enemies would live together in peace? Yet it happened in Europe – and it can happen in the Middle East.

Bringing about a single secular state in which Jews and Palestinians have equal rights will not be easy, but ultimately it is the only solution to the conflict. A state based on respect for the human rights of all its citizens is a better safeguard against anti-Semitism and racism than one based on ethnic nationalism and inequality.

Ulli Diemer

Keywords: DemocracyDemocratizationEqualityIsraelJewsPalestineRogue States

From the people who rescued the victims of Hurricane Katrina...

June 2, 2008 - #

The United States – so the media report – has accused the Burmese government of “criminal neglect” in its response to the recent cyclone. The accusation is undoubtedly true, and the U.S. government is certainly splendidly qualified when it comes to recognizing criminal neglect. Still, the chutzpah is enough to turn one’s stomach.

And is there anything left to say about the blank-faced servility with which the media report the U.S. government’s statement without so much as whispering the words “Hurricane Katrina”?

Proof that leprechauns exist

June 11, 2008 - #


One David Berlinski, of whose existence I was blissfully unaware until a few days ago, has written a book attacking atheism and science. It appears he doesn’t think it’s very nice that atheists dismiss religious beliefs as illogical and unsupported by evidence.

In his book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, Berlinski deploys what he considers to be a devastating rebuttal against atheism. The gist of his argument is this:

(1) There have been atheists, such as Stalin, who did bad things.
(2) Therefore God exists.

One might be tempted to ask: Why doesn’t religion get a substantial share of the blame for Stalin, given that Stalin spent his formative years in a religious seminary?

But leave that aside. This is an old argument, but the logic of it is seductive for all that, and promises to lead us down many an attractive garden path. For example:

(1) Bad things have been done by people who don’t believe in leprechauns.
(2) Therefore leprechauns exist.

Then again, one could as easily make the point that bad things have been done by people who believe in various gods. Is that an argument for the existence of those gods, or an argument against? I’m not sure – I personally think it’s probably an argument for the existence of leprechauns. My kind of leprechauns, that is. Not those other kinds of leprechauns those heretics believe in.

And don’t even get me started on those a-leprechaunists and their scientific pretensions.

Still... I wonder how much Berlinski is making from his book...?

Keywords: AtheismLogicReligion

Lady Martha’s story

June 12, 2008 - #

Normally, I delete the spam that gets past the filter into my mailbox as quickly as anyone. Tempting though it might be to realize my innermost fantasies of losing weight and getting a degree in any field I choose while having my breasts augmented and my penis enlarged, it never quite seems like the right moment to go for it.

But I do have a sneaking fondness for those occasional carefully crafted letters that tell a complete and compelling story. Some of these are almost works of literature, little Chekovian gems in their own way. If Alice Munro fell on hard times and had to support herself writing spam, these are the stories she would tell to get her hands on our banking information.

I recently received one from a certain Lady Martha. She plunges directly into her story:

“Here writes Lady Martha Stirling, suffering from cancerous ailment. I am married to Engineer Dennis Stirling an Englishman who is dead.” You can read her whole story here.

Lady Martha is a woman I feel an instant bond with. Burdened though she is with her own woes – she has had a stroke, her doctor has told her she has “limited days to live due to the cancerous problems”, and of course there is the unfortunate circumstance of the husband who is an Englishman who is dead – she nevertheless has made the time to do something very special for me.

I think what I like about Lady Martha is that she is interested in the good in me, not the bad. Whereas most spam is designed to prey on my weaknesses – my greedy desire to make a quick killing on the stock market, my insecurities about my penis, breasts, weight, and lack of education – Lady Martha has singled me out because she knows I am a good person. She has chosen me because she knows she can trust me to use the “10 Million Great Britain Pounds Sterling” she is prepared to deposit in my bank account not for my own selfish purposes, but “to fund the upkeep of widows, widowers, orphans, destitute, the down-trodden, physically challenged children, barren-women and persons who prove to be genuinely handicapped financially.”

I almost think that it’s this blog that has finally made people far and wide realize what a kind and trustworthy soul I am. How else to explain the fact that five days after Lady Martha’s letter arrived, I received, out of the blue, a very similar letter from one Lady Karen, who is also “married to an English man who is dead”. Her story is if anything even more tragic: her husband “died in a train bomb blast in Spain when he was going for his medical check up”, and sadly she too is suffering from “cancerous problems”. You can read her whole story here.

Lady Karen will be depositing 6 million Great British Pounds in my bank account. She says that her goal is “to put a smile on the face of the less privileged.”

And you know, she is doing just that.

Ulli Diemer

Free speech for me – you shut up

August 3, 2008 - #

Apologists for censorship invariably profess noble motives. They tell us that of course they are in favour of freedom of speech ‘in principle’ – then they go on to explain that ‘the greater good’ requires denying freedom of speech to people whose views they dislike.

Donald Gutstein, writing in This Magazine (Franken-Steyn’s monster, July-August 2008) is no exception. Gutstein doesn’t like what Mark Steyn has to say, so he supports the McCarthyite human rights commissions who are ‘investigating’ Steyn’s opinions. Gutstein apparently finds it perfectly normal and acceptable – in fact desirable – for the state to appoint bureaucrats to decide what views Canadians should be permitted to read or hear.

Continue reading...

Inclusion or exclusion?

August 10, 2008 - #

I always enjoy reading Spacing, the magazine devoted to Toronto’s urban landscape. The articles are varied and usually well-written, the photos and illustrations excellent, the politics progressive, and the overall sensibility is pro-bicycle, pro-pedestrian, and against corporate domination of public space.

These are values and interests I share, yet I found myself troubled by the Spring issue’s “Placemakers” feature, headlined “Creating a Sense of Belonging”, which profiled an advocate and community organizer who was recently awarded a social justice fellowship by a Toronto foundation. I don’t want to single out this individual, who by all accounts is a sincere person working hard to do what she believes will make her community a better place. At any rate, the ideas she expresses are common currency, and what disturbs me about them is precisely that they have been so uncritically accepted by so many people.

The article’s stated theme is that we need to make it possible for Canada’s diverse “communities” to feel that they “belong”, and that “Social inclusion isn’t rearranging chairs on the Titanic. It’s building a new vessel.”

To illustrate what she means, the organizer talks about a community meeting at which a Punjabi-speaking man mentioned to her that he and his friends were limited in their use of the local park on summer evenings because the only public washroom, in the nearby library, closed at 5:00 pm. She suggested they tell the local city councillor, who was present at the meeting, about this concern. With the advocate acting as interpreter, they submitted the problem to the politician, who duly promised to see if she could do something about it.

According to the organizer, this was an empowering moment for the man who raised the problem because it showed him that, even though he doesn’t speak English, “what you say and do can make a difference.” The broader conclusion she draws is that this exchange “shows the problem of diversity and pluralism... The problem is not that people are not engaged, the problem is we are not where the engagement is taking place.” She says that the places immigrant communities talk about politics are their mosques, community centres, parks, and private homes. The organizer says that the politician who was present at this particular meeting “is a very nice person, but what difference does it make if she can’t understand her constituents?” “What I suggest,” she says, “is that rather than creating structures where you expect people to participate, that you actually do the hard work and find out where the communities are at, and listen to what they’re saying in the language they are saying it. I know it’s tough and I know it’s difficult, but hell, that’s the messiness of plurality.” Only in this way, she says, can we build a society in which “me, my kids, other immigrants and refugees, and other marginalized people and people of colour” can have a “sense of belonging”.

One hesitates to say anything negative about the feel-good moment this advocate describes. After all, many of us have experienced occasions where finding a washroom has been an exceedingly urgent priority, and most of us would agree that having more access to more public washrooms is all for the good.

But is this what empowerment is about? Telling a politician about a locked washroom, and receiving a promise that they will see what they can do about it?

Continue reading...

Diemer - Fish

Contaminated Meat, Contaminated Water: From Walkerton to Listeria

August 29, 2008 - #

On the long weekend in May 2000 I was in Walkerton, Ontario, unaware, as was everyone else, that the town’s water supply had been contaminated in the aftermath of the recent flooding. When people started falling sick with e.coli, I was shocked – and selfishly grateful that the water I had been drinking came from a spring in nearby Mildmay, not from Walkerton’s municipal supply.

Afterwards, I wrote an article: Contamination: The Poisonous Legacy of Ontario’s Environmental Cutbacks, which looked at how Ontario’s neo-conservative Harris government had systemically undermined the province’s water safety system in the name of eliminating “red tape.” I also wrote another article, Abandoning the Public Interest, which looked at a number of instances where the neoliberal drive to deregulate and privatize had cost lives internationally.

The current listeria outbreak, leading to at least nine confirmed deaths so far, has the feel, as Yogi Berra put it, of “deja vu all over again”. Once again, we are hearing about companies and industry associations lobbying for fewer inspections and less ‘interference’, and about a compliant right-wing government only too eager to give them what they want. Even some of the names are the same: three of the ministers responsible for the disasters perpetrated by the Harris government are now members of Stephen Harper’s cabinet: Tony Clement as Minister of Health, John Baird as Minister of the Environment, and Jim Flaherty as Minister of Finance.

It’s a safe bet that the outbreak will eventually be blamed on “human error“ on someone’s part, rather than on the laxer inspection standards that the federal government has instituted at the behest of the industry. In the same way, responsibility for the Walkerton disaster was pinned in part on the unqualified alcoholic who had been put in charge of running the system, with little questioning of how such a person could be hired in the first place, and then left to run the system without being monitored by the province’s water safety authorities. It’s like being told that a plane crash happened because the pilot was a drunk who didn’t have a valid pilot's license, and not asking who hired the pilot and allowed him to fly the plane.

I’ve said these things before, so in the spirit of deja vu all over again, here are the two articles, again:

Contamination: The Poisonous Legacy of Ontario’s Environmental Cutbacks

This is a story about fanaticism and death.

The dead are buried in fresh graves in the cemeteries of Walkerton, Ontario. The fanatics are very much alive, going about their daily business in the Premier’s office and the cabinet room in Queen’s Park, the seat of Ontario’s government.

Investigators are still working to determine exactly how deadly E. coli 0157 bacteria found their way into Walkerton’s water in May, causing at least seven and perhaps 11 deaths, and leaving hundreds seriously ill. The story of the Walkerton tragedy is not, however, primarily a story about Walkerton at all. This was no unforeseen accident. It was the predictable – and predicted – result of deliberate policy decisions which gravely compromised the safety of Ontario’s drinking water.

The broader story of Walkerton is the story of repeated warnings, from many different experts, officials, and agencies, that the Harris government’s environmental cutbacks were putting public health in jeopardy. And it is the story of how those warnings were dismissed or ignored.

Step by step, a disaster was being prepared. The only question was where, and when, it would happen. Unluckily for Walkerton’s citizens, it was in their town that the system broke down, with fatal results.

To understand how a government could utterly ignore, over a period of five years, the warnings of its own environmental experts, it is necessary to know the mentality of the Harris government, a highly centralized administration where all important decisions are made by Premier Mike Harris and a small group of militantly ideological advisors, and where all outside input is scorned.

This is a government which prides itself on “making unpopular decisions,” on never compromising, on never changing course. The man in charge, Mike Harris, is as determined as the captain of the Titanic, disdainfully brushing off ridiculous warnings of icebergs and giving orders to push on, full steam ahead....

Read the rest of the story here.

Abandoning the Public Interest

The date: Saturday, May 13, 2000. The weather: warm, sunny with cloudy periods.

The time: 3:15 pm in the Central European Time Zone, 9:15 am in North America's Eastern Time Zone.

Time to play outside if you’re a child. Time to relax if you’re an adult, do some housework, have a cup of coffee or a nice cold glass of water.

Time, if you live in the small Canadian town of Walkerton, Ontario, to walk down Durham Street to join your neighbours and look at the surging Saugeen River, which has flooded its banks after unusually heavy rains the previous day and night. The local park, a couple of adjacent streets, and several unlucky cars, are underwater, but, since everyone is safe, the property damage doesn’t seem too tragic.

Time, if you live on the Tollensstraat in the Dutch town of Enschede, to stop what you’re doing and watch the fire engines race by, headed for the paper factory down the street where, it seems, a fire has broken out.

Time, just enough time, to grab the children and run back into the house when two explosions at the burning factory rattle windows and send debris hurtling skyward.

Five short minutes later, time runs out....

Read the rest of the story here.

Keywords: Food safetyDeregulationPublic SafetyWalkerton

Have you heard the one about the negligent official and the obtuse columnist?

September 21, 2008 - #

The newspaper columnist Christie Blatchford, who can reliably be counted on the miss the point whenever ethical issues arise, has come rushing to the defense of Gerry Ritz, the beleaguered Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. Mr. Ritz has been amusing himself by cracking jokes about the recent listeria outbreak, which has killed 19 people to date.

According to Ms Blatchford, black humour is a perfectly normal response to grim situations, so we should lay off Mr. Ritz.

Well, yes, Christie, it is normal, and normally such jokes, told in private, wouldn’t be a big deal. But here’s the difference: Gerry Ritz and his cabinet colleagues were responsible for ensuring the safety of Canada’s food production system, and they failed to do so. On the contrary, they pushed through changes which compromised the safety of the system, over the objections of their own experts.

When people die as a consequence of your failures, joking about it just isn’t on. A pilot who makes a fatal mistake and crashes the plane doesn’t stand in front of the cameras and crack jokes while behind him the corpses of his passengers are being dragged off the tarmac. And a blundering cabinet minister whose government presided over a disaster it was responsible for preventing shouldn’t be telling jokes about the resulting deaths while the bodies of the victims are being buried.

Ulli Diemer

Keywords: Food safetyDeregulationHumourPublic Safety

Creatures of habit and adventurous spirits

September 29, 2008 - #

The scene: deep underground, on the westbound platform of Bathurst Station on Toronto’s subway system. Most of us have made our way down here by entering through the station doors, walking across the station, taking a long staircase down to the subterranean concourse, trudging to the other end of the concourse, and finally taking another long set of stairs down to the platform. There we stand, a patient flock, commuters following our fixed routines, waiting for the next train to come along and take us to accustomed destinations.


One individual on the platform, however, stands out from the tame bunch gazing quietly into space. She – or he, it’s hard to tell – has an agenda. Walking this way and that, alert and energetic, she is exploring, picking out details and opportunities the rest of us are oblivious to.

Once I spot her, I watch her for a while, full of admiration for her pluck, her spirit of adventure, and her skill at finding treasures in the unlikeliest places. Then the train arrives, and everyone except her troops on board. I look back and see her continuing her exploration of the platform, comfortable and at home, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a pigeon to make her living fifty feet underground.

Ulli Diemer

Related Reading:
Pigeons and people

If you liked Mike Harris you'll love Stephen Harper with a majority

October 7, 2008 - #

Mike Harris Stephen Harper The man with the dead eyes

“What Canadians are worried about right now is not the job situation, not losing their home like in the U.S. What they’re worried about is they see the stock-market problems. We see big drops in the stock market in the energy sector, in the commodities sector.”
– Stephen Harper, October 2, 2008

“I think there’s probably a lot of great buying opportunities emerging in the stock market as a consequence of all this panic.”
– Stephen Harper, October 7, 2008

“In terms of the unemployed... don’t feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don’t feel bad about it themselves, as long as they’re receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance.”
– Stephen Harper, June 1997

“We will oppose ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and its targets. We will work with the provinces and others to discourage the implementation of those targets. And we will rescind the targets when we have the opportunity to do so.”
– Stephen Harper, November 22, 2002

“Monopolies in the public sector are just as objectionable as monopolies in the private sector. It should not matter who delivers health care, whether it is private, for profit, not for profit or public institutions.”
– Stephen Harper, Oct. 1, 2002

“You’ve got to remember that west of Winnipeg the ridings the Liberals hold are dominated by people who are either recent Asian immigrants or recent migrants from eastern Canada: people who live in ghettoes and who are not integrated into western Canadian society.”
– Stephen Harper, January 22, 2001

“I don’t need Newfoundland and Labrador to win an election.”
– Stephen Harper, November, 2007

“Atlantic Canada’s culture of defeat will be hard to overcome.”
– Stephen Harper, May 29, 2002

“If you’re going to make a new business investment in Canada, and you’re concerned about taxes, the last place you will go is the province of Ontario.”
– Jim Flaherty, Finance Minister in the Harper government, February 29, 2008

“Westerners, but Albertans in particular, need to think hard about their future in this country. After sober reflection, Albertans should decide that it is time to seek a new relationship with Canada.... Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status, led by a second-world strongman appropriately suited for the task.... Having hit a wall, the next logical step is not to bang our heads against it. It is to take the bricks and begin building another home – a stronger and much more autonomous Alberta.”
– Stephen Harper, December 8, 2000

“Whether Canada ends up as one national government or two national governments or several national governments, or some other kind of arrangement is, quite frankly, secondary in my opinion.... And whether Canada ends up with one national government or two governments or ten governments, the Canadian people will require less government no matter what the constitutional status or arrangement of any future country may be.”
– Stephen Harper, Speech to the Colin Brown Memorial Dinner, National Citizens Coalition, 1994

“I don’t know all the facts on Iraq, but I think we should work closely with the Americans.”
– Stephen Harper, March 25 2002

“This party will not take its position based on public opinion polls. We will not take a stand based on focus groups. We will not take a stand based on phone-in shows or householder surveys or any other vagaries of public opinion... In my judgment Canada will eventually join with the allied coalition if war on Iraq comes to pass.”
– Stephen Harper, January 29, 2003

“We should have been there shoulder to shoulder with our allies.”
– Stephen Harper on the invasion of Iraq, April 11, 2003

“These proposals included cries for billions of new money for social assistance in the name of “child poverty” and for more business subsidies in the name of “cultural identity”. In both cases I was sought out as a rare public figure to oppose such projects.”
– Stephen Harper, The Bulldog, National Citizens Coalition, February 1997

“Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.”
– Stephen Harper, speech to the Council for National Policy, June 1997

“The Liberals may blather about protecting cultural minorities, but the fact is that undermining the traditional definition of marriage is an assault on multiculturalism and the practices in those communities.”
– Stephen Harper, Hansard, February 18, 2005

Keywords: Canadian politicsNeo-conservatism

Why make a fuss about the murder of a brown-skinned Muslim girl?

December 16, 2008

The November issue of Toronto Life carries an article by Mary Rogan, “Girl, Interrupted: The Brief Life of Aqsa Parvez”, which tells the story of a sixteen-year-old Toronto girl who left her parents’ home after disagreements with her father, was lured back home, and was then killed. Her father and brother have been charged with her murder.

The Toronto Life story, which characterized the murder as an “honour killing” because of the circumstances, involving clashes over the girl’s lifestyle choices – has predictably come under attack from the usual self-appointed gatekeepers of acceptable public discourse. The blinkered zealots of multiculturalism claim that the article is anti-Muslim because – wait for it – it draws attention to violence against Muslim girls.

Ironically, the dogmatists who seek to sweep this issue under the rug describe themselves as ‘feminist’, but theirs is a peculiar form of feminism, a version which condemns violence against women in principle, but seeks to silence those who speak out about violence against Muslim women.

Continue reading...

Sole offender?

December 17, 2008 - #

“The journalist who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush is being hailed as a hero by some Iraqis, but he is a disgrace to his profession and should be fired by his employer.”
– Globe & Mail Editorial, December 16, 2008

Muntadar al-Zaidi throwing shoe at George W. Bush

Let’s see now. When an Iraqi journalist throws his shoe at the commander-in-chief of the forces that invaded and continue to occupy his country, the Globe huffily calls the reporter a disgrace to his profession and says he should be fired.

Yet when journalists and editors all across North America uncritically disseminated the lies about weapons of mass destruction which that same commander-in-chief used to justify his illegal invasion of Iraq, the Globe didn’t call for anyone to be fired.

If the Globe were serious about journalistic ethics, shouldn’t it be calling for several hundred credulous journalists and editors across North America, including several employed by the Globe & Mail, to lose their jobs for their culpability in acting as cheerleaders for an invasion which caused the deaths of more than one million Iraqis?

The Iraq Crisis in Context

Keywords: Double StandardsIraq Media CoverageJournalism EthicsMedia BiasShoesFootwear

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