Pulp Fiction will likely hold up generations from now, but the resonance of its title may already be lost to history. Pulp magazines, or “the pulps,” as they were called, once held special significance for lovers of adventure stories, detective and science fiction, and horror and fantasy. Acquiring the name from the cheap paper on which they were printed, pulp magazines might be said, in large part, to have shaped the pop culture of our contemporary world, publishing respected authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and many an unknown newcomer, some of whom became household names (in certain houses), like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the pulps opened up the publishing space that became flooded with comic books and popular novels like those of Stephen King and Michael Crichton in the latter half of the twentieth century.
They varied widely in quality and subject matter but all share certain preoccupations. Sexual taboos are explored in their naked essence or through various genre devices. Monsters, aliens, and other features of the “weird” predominate, as do the forerunners of DC and Marvel’s superhero empires in characters like the Shadow and the Phantom Detective.
Unlike higher-rent “slicks” or “glossies,” pulp magazines had license to go places respectable publications feared to tread. Genre fiction now spawns multimillion dollar franchises, one after another, purged of much of the pulps’ salacious content. But paging through the thousands of back issues available at thePulp Magazine Archivewill give you a sense of just how outré such magazines once were—a quality that survived in the underground comics and zines of the 60s and beyond and in genre tabloids like Scream Queens.
The enormous archive contains thousands of digitized issues of such titles as If, True Detective Mysteries, Witchcraft and Sorcery, Weird Tales, Uncensored Detective, Captain Billy’s WhizBang, and Adventure (“America’s most exciting fiction for men!”). It also features early celebrity rags like Movie Pictorial and Hush Hush, and retrospectives like Dirty Pictures, a 1990s comic reprinting the often quite misogynist pulp art of the 30s.
There’s great science fiction, no small amount of creepy teen boy wish-fulfillment, and lots of lurid, noir appeals to fantasies of sex and violence. Swords and sorcery, guns and trussed-up pin-ups, and plenty of creature features. The pulps were once mass culture’s id, we might say, and they have now become its ego.
In the year 1966, “it seemed to Western youth that The Beatles knew — that they had the key to current events and were somehow orchestrating them through their records.” So writes Ian McDonald in the critical study Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. But some had been looking to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as pop-culture oracles since they put out their first album in 1963. Unlike the youth-oriented stars who came before, they fully inhabited the roles of both performers and creators. If anyone knew how to read the zeitgeist of that decade, surely it was the Beatles.
Hence the appearance of each Beatle in Melody Maker magazine’s “Blind Date” feature, which captured its subjects’ spontaneous reactions to the singles on the charts at the moment. When Lennon sat for a Blind Date in January of 1964, he gave his verdict on songs from Manfred Mann, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ray Charles, and Ricky Nelson — as well as the now-less-well-known Marty Wilde, Millicent Martin, and The Bruisers.
You can see the article turned into a full audiovisual production, complete with clips of the music, at the Youtube channel Yesterday’s Papers. There you can also compare its playlist to that of McCartney’s session just three years later, but on a transformed musical landscape populated by the likes of The Small Faces, Donovan, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Byrds.
For that last California band McCartney expresses appreciation, if also reservations about what then seemed to him their stylistic stagnation: the late David Crosby, he notes, “knows where they should be going musically.” Other than calling the then-passé Gene Pitney’s “In the Cold Light of Day” a song he’s heard “hundreds of times before, although I haven’t actually heard this record,” he keeps his assessment characteristically positive. More surprising are Starr’s harsh verdicts on the pop music of December 1964, not just the songs themselves (though the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” notably fails to impress him), but also the judgment of the audiences they target. “Being good,” he says of the Daylighters’ “Oh Mom,” “it won’t sell.”
Of Sandra Barry’s “We Were Lovers (When The Party Began),” Starr comments that it “sounds like an Englishman trying to be American, which never works properly.” Having grown up worshiping American rock-and-roll and started their own careers anxious about being received as foreign interlopers, the Fab Four show a natural sensitivity to this transatlantic dynamic in pop music. “It’s good if it’s English, mediocre if it’s American,” says Harrison of a song before finding out that the singer is his countryman Glyn Geoffrey Ellis, better known as Wayne Fontana. “Those breaks are so British,” Lennon says of a Unit 4 + 2 single of December 1965, and he doesn’t seem to mean it as a good thing. But when McCartney calls a Kiki Dee number “British to the core” the following year, it’s hard not to hear a note of admiration.
On a seemingly daily basis, we see attacks against the intellectual culture of the academic humanities, which, since the 1960s, have opened up spaces for leftists to develop critical theories of all kinds. Attacks from supposedly liberal professors and centrist op-ed columnists, from well-funded conservative think tanks and white supremacists on college campus tours. All rail against the evils of feminism, post-modernism, and something called “neo-Marxism” with outsized agitation.
For students and professors, the onslaughts are exhausting, and not only because they have very real, often dangerous, consequences, but because they all attack the same straw men (or “straw people”) and refuse to engage with academic thought on its own terms. Rarely, in the exasperating proliferation of cranky, cherry-picked anti-academia op-eds do we encounter people actually reading and grappling with the ideas of their supposed ideological nemeses.
Were non-academic critics to take academic work seriously, they might notice that debates over “political correctness,” “thought policing,” “identity politics,” etc. have been going on for thirty years now, and among left intellectuals themselves. Contrary to what many seem to think, criticism of liberal ideology has not been banned in the academy. It is absolutely the case that the humanities have become increasingly hostile to irresponsible opinions that dehumanize people, like emergency room doctors become hostile to drunk driving. But it does not follow therefore that one cannot disagree with the establishment, as though the University system were still beholden to the Vatican.
Understanding this requires work many people are unwilling to do, either because they’re busy and distracted or, perhaps more often, because they have other, bad faith agendas. Should one decide to survey the philosophical debates on the left, however, an excellent place to start would be Radical Philosophy, which describes itself as a “UK-based journal of socialist and feminist philosophy.” Founded in 1972, in response to “the widely-felt discontent with the sterility of academic philosophy at the time,” the journal was itself an act of protest against the culture of academia.
Radical Philosophy has published essays and interviews with nearly all of the big names in academic philosophy on the left—from Marxists, to post-structuralists, to post-colonialists, to phenomenologists, to critical theorists, to Lacanians, to queer theorists, to radical theologians, to the pragmatist Richard Rorty, who made arguments for national pride and made several critiques of critical theory as an illiberal enterprise. The full range of radical critical theory over the past 45 years appears here, as well as contrarian responses from philosophers on the left.
Rorty was hardly the only one in the journal’s pages to critique certain prominent trends. Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant launched a 2001 protest against what they called “a strange Newspeak,” or “NewLiberalSpeak” that included words like “globalization,” “governance,” “employability,” “underclass,” “communitarianism,” “multiculturalism” and “their so-called postmodern cousins.” Bourdieu and Wacquant argued that this discourse obscures “the terms ‘capitalism,’ ‘class,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘domination,’ and ‘inequality,’” as part of a “neoliberal revolution,” that intends to “remake the world by sweeping away the social and economic conquests of a century of social struggles.”
One can also find in the pages of Radical Philosophy philosopher Alain Badiou’s 2005 critique of “democratic materialism,” which he identifies as a “postmodernism” that “recognizes the objective existence of bodies alone. Who would ever speak today, other than to conform to a certain rhetoric? Of the separability of our immortal soul?” Badiou identifies the ideal of maximum tolerance as one that also, paradoxically, “guides us, irresistibly” to war. But he refuses to counter democratic materialism’s maxim that “there are only bodies and languages” with what he calls “its formal opposite… ‘aristocratic idealism.’” Instead, he adds the supplementary phrase, “except that there are truths.”
Badiou’s polemic includes an oblique swipe at Stalinism, a critique Michel Foucault makes in more depth in a 1975 interview, in which he approvingly cites phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s “argument against the Communism of the time… that it has destroyed the dialectic of individual and history—and hence the possibility of a humanistic society and individual freedom.” Foucault made a case for this “dialectical relationship” as that “in which the free and open human project consists.” In an interview two years later, he talks of prisons as institutions “no less perfect than school or barracks or hospital” for repressing and transforming individuals.
Foucault’s political philosophy inspired feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler, whose arguments inspired many of today’s gender theorists, and who is deeply concerned with questions of ethics, morality, and social responsibility. Her Adorno Prize Lecture, published in a 2012 issue, took up Theodor Adorno’s challenge of how it is possible to live a good life in bad circumstances (under fascism, for example)—a classical political question that she engages through the work of Orlando Patterson, Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Hegel. Her lecture ends with a discussion of the ethical duty to actively resist and protest an intolerable status quo.
If nothing else, these essays and many others should upend facile notions of leftist academic philosophy as dominated by “postmodern” denials of truth, morality, freedom, and Enlightenment thought, as doctrinaire Stalinism, or little more than thought policing through dogmatic political correctness. For every argument in the pages of Radical Philosophy that might confirm certain readers’ biases, there are dozens more that will challenge their assumptions, bearing out Foucault’s observation that “philosophy cannot be an endless scrutiny of its own propositions.”
Having been putting out issues for 92 years now, Analog Science Fiction and Fact stands as the longest continuously published magazine of its genre. It also lays claim to having developed or at least popularized that genre in the form we know it today. When it originally launched in December of 1929, it did so under the much more whiz-bang title of Astounding Stories of Super-Science. But only three years later, after a change of ownership and the installation as editor of F. Orlin Tremaine, did the magazine begin publishing work by writers remembered today as the defining minds of science fiction.
Under Tremaine’s editorship, Astounding Stories pulled itself above its pulp-fiction origins with stories like Jack Williamson’s “Legion of Space” and John W. Campbell’s “Twilight.” The latter inspired the striking illustration above by artist Elliott Dold. “Dold’s work was deeply influenced by Art Deco, which lends its geometric forms to the city of machines in ‘Twilight,'” writes the New York Times‘ Alec Nevala-Lee, which “inaugurated the modern era of science fiction.”
In the case of a golden-age science-fiction magazine like Astounding Stories, Nevala-Lee argues, “its most immediate impact came through its illustrations,” which “may turn out to be the genre’s most lasting contribution to our collective vision of the future.”
None of the imagery printed inside Astounding Stories was as striking as its covers, full-color productions on which “artists could let their imaginations run wild.” Sometimes they adhered closely to the visual descriptions in a story’s text — perhaps too closely, in the case the June 1936’s issue with H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time” — and sometimes they departed from and even competed with the magazine’s actual content. But after Campbell took over as editor in 1937, that content became even stronger: featured writers included Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and Isaac Asimov.
Now, here in the once science-fictional-sounding twenty-first century, you can not only behold the covers but read the pages of hundreds of issues of Astounding Stories from the thirties, forties, and fifties online. The earliest volumes are available to download at the University of Pennsylvania’s web site, by way of Project Gutenberg, and there are even more of them free to read at the Internet Archive. Though it may not always have faithfully reflected the material within, Astounding Stories‘ cover imagery did represent the publication as a whole. It could be thought-provoking and haunting, but it also delivered no small amount of cheap thrills — and the golden age of science fiction still shows us how thin a line really separates the two.
The fate of the visionary is to be forever outside of his or her time. Such was the life of Nikola Tesla, who dreamed the future while his opportunistic rival Thomas Edison seized the moment. Even now the name Tesla conjures seemingly wildly impractical ventures, too advanced, too expensive, or far too elegant in design for mass production and consumption. No one better than David Bowie, the pop artist of possibility, could embody Tesla’s air of magisterial high seriousness on the screen. And few were better suited than Tesla himself, perhaps, to extrapolate from his time to ours and see the technological future clearly.
Of course, this image of Tesla as a lone, heroic, and even somewhat tragic figure who fell victim to Edison’s designs is a bit of a romantic exaggeration. As even the editor of a 1935 feature interview piece in the now-defunct Liberty magazine wrote, Tesla and Edison may have been rivals in the “battle between alternating and direct current…. Otherwise the two men were merely opposites. Edison had a genius for practical inventions immediately applicable. Tesla, whose inventions were far ahead of the time, aroused antagonisms which delayed the fruition of his ideas for years.” One can in some respects see why Tesla “aroused antagonisms.” He may have been a genius, but he was not a people person, and some of his views, though maybe characteristic of the times, are downright unsettling.
In the lengthy Liberty essay, “as told to George Sylvester Viereck” (a poet and Nazi sympathizer who also interviewed Hitler), Tesla himself makes the pronouncement, “It seems that I have always been ahead of my time.” He then goes on to enumerate some of the ways he has been proven right, and confidently lists the characteristics of the future as he sees it. No one likes a know-it-all, but Tesla refused to compromise or ingratiate himself, though he suffered for it professionally. And he was, in many cases, right. Many of his 1935 predictions in Liberty are still too far off to measure, and some of them will seem outlandish, or criminal, to us today. But some still seem plausible, and a few advisable if we are to make it another 100 years as a species. Tesla’s predictions include the following, which he introduces with the disclaimer that “forecasting is perilous. No man can look very far into the future.”
“Buddhism and Christianity… will be the religion of the human race in the twenty-first century.”
“The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established.” Tesla went on to comment, “no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.”
“Hygiene, physical culture will be recognized branches of education and government. The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture will be far more important in the cabinet of the President of the United States who holds office in the year 2025 than the Secretary of War.” Along with personal hygiene, Tesla included “pollution” as a social ill in need of regulation.
“I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue. Alcohol, however, will still be used. It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life.”
“There will be enough wheat and wheat products to feed the entire world, including the teeming millions of China and India.” (Tesla did not foresee the anti-gluten mania of the 21st century.)
“Long before the next century dawns, systematic reforestation and the scientific management of natural resources will have made an end of all devastating droughts, forest fires, and floods. The universal utilization of water power and its long-distance transmission will supply every household with cheap power.” Along with this optimistic prediction, Tesla foresaw that “the struggle for existence being lessened, there should be development along ideal rather than material lines.”
Tesla goes on to predict the elimination of war, “by making every nation, weak or strong, able to defend itself,” after which war chests would be diverted to funding education and research. He then describes—in rather fantastical-sounding terms—an apparatus that “projects particles” and transmits energy, enabling not only a revolution in defense technology, but “undreamed of results in television.” Tesla diagnoses his time as one in which “we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age.” The solution, he asserts—along with most futurists, then and now—“does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.” As an example of such mastery, Tesla describes the future of “automatons” taking over human labor and the creation of “a thinking machine.”
When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.
Telsa also made some odd predictions about fuel-less passenger flying machines “free from any limitations of the present airplanes and dirigibles” and spouted more of the scary stuff about eugenics that had come to obsess him late in life. Additionally, Tesla saw changing gender relations as the precursor of a coming matriarchy. This was not a development he characterized in positive terms. For Tesla, feminism would “end in a new sex order, with the female as superior.” (As Novak notes, Tesla’s misgivings about feminism have made him a hero to the so-called “men’s rights” movement.) While he fully granted that women could and would match and surpass men in every field, he warned that “the acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women, their gradual usurpation of leadership, will dull and finally dissipate feminine sensibilities, will choke the maternal instinct, so that marriage and motherhood may become abhorrent and human civilization draw closer and closer to the perfect civilization of the bee.”
It seems to me that a “bee civilization” would appeal to a eugenicist, except, I suppose, Tesla feared becoming a drone. Although he saw the development as inevitable, he still sounds to me like any number of current politicians who argue that society should continue to suppress and discriminate against women for their own good and the good of “civilization.” Tesla may be an outsider hero for geek culture everywhere, but his social attitudes give me the creeps. While I’ve personally always liked the vision of a world in which robots do most the work and we spend most of our money on education, when it comes to the elimination of war, I’m less sanguine about particle rays and more sympathetic to the words of Ivor Cutler.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.
A signal characteristic of powerful criticism is that it keeps people talking years after the death of the critic himself. Think, for example, of Lester Bangs, who despite having been gone for nearly 40 years left behind judgments that still resonate through the halls of rock and roll. The vitality of his work wasn’t hurt by a tendency to get unusually close to some of his subjects, especially Lou Reed. “The things he wrote and sang and played in the Velvet Underground were for me part of the beginning of a real revolution in the whole scheme between men and women, men and men, women and women, humans and humans,” Bangs wrote in 1980.
Five years earlier, Bangs had called Reed “a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf,” as well as “a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer living off the dumbbell nihilism of a seventies generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide.”
All this he meant, of course, in praise. Reed, for his part, displayed such elaborate disdain for Bangs that it could only have been motivated by respect. “What other rock artist would put up with an interview by the author of this article,” Bangs rhetorically asked, “read the resultant vicious vitriol-spew with approval, and then invite me back for a second round because of course he’s such a masochist he loved the hatchet in his back?”
A magazine page now circulating on Twitter collects Reed’s own opinions on a variety of other rock acts and countercultural figures of the 1960s and 70s. The Beatles, who’d just broken up? “The most incredible songwriters ever” (though Reed’s judgment of the Fab Four would change with time). The Rolling Stones? “If I had to pick my top ten, they’ve got at least five songs.” Creedence Clearwater Revival? “I like them a lot.” David Bowie? “The kid’s got everything… everything.” Fellow Velvets Doug Yule (“so cute”), Nico (“the kind of person that you meet, and you’re not quite the same afterwards”), and John Cale (“the next Beethoven or something”) get compliments; as for Andy Warhol, out of whose “factory” the band emerged, “I really love him.” (“Lou learned a lot from Andy,” wrote Bangs, “mainly about becoming a successful public personality by selling your own private quirks to an audience greedy for more and more geeks.”)
But as a connoisseur of the hatchet, Reed also plants a few himself. Of “California bands” like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, he said “they can’t play and they certainly can’t write.” Nor, evidently, could the Who’s Pete Townshend: “as a lyricist he’s so profoundly untalented and, you know, philosophically boring to say the least.” Reed does “get off” on the Kinks, “then I just get bored after a while.” Alice Cooper represents “the worst, most disgusting aspect of rock music”; Roxy Music “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Frank Zappa is “the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life. He’s two-bit, pretentious, academic, and he can’t play his way out of anything.” Yet at Zappa’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the laudatory speech was delivered by none other than… Lou Reed. In rock, as in the other arts, resentment can become the seed of admiration.
Hydrogen-powered cars. Biological, then quantum computing. Gene-therapy cancer treatments. An end to the War on Drugs. Reliable automatic translation. The impending end of the nation-state. Man setting foot on Mars. These are just a few of the developments in store for our world by the year 2020 — or so, at any rate, predicts “The Long Boom,” the cover story of a 1997 issue of Wired magazine, the official organ of 1990s techno-optimism. “We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world,” declares the cover itself. “You got a problem with that?”
Since the actual year 2020, this image has been smirkingly re-circulated as a prime example of blinkered End-of-History triumphalism. From the vantage of 2021, it’s fair to say that the predictions of the article’s authors Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden (who expanded their thesis into a 2000 book) went wide of the mark.
But their vision of the 21st century hasn’t proven risible in every aspect: a rising China, hybrid cars, video calls, and online grocery-shopping have become familiar enough hardly to merit comment, as has the internet’s status as “the main medium of the 21st century.” And who among us would describe the cost of university as anything but “absurd”?
Schwartz and Leyden do allow for darker possibilities than their things-can-only-get-better rhetoric make it seem. Some of these they enumerate in a sidebar (remember sidebars?) headlined “Ten Scenario Spoilers.” Though not included in the article as archived on Wired‘s web site, it has recently been scanned and posted to social media, with viral results. A “new Cold War” between the U.S. and China; a “global climate change that, among other things, disrupts the food supply”; a “major rise in crime and terrorism forces the world to pull back in fear”; an “uncontrollable plague — a modern-day influenza epidemic or its equivalent”: to one degree or another, every single one of these ten dire developments seems in our time to have come to pass.
“We’re still on the front edge of the great global boom,” we’re reminded in the piece’s conclusion. “A hell of a lot of things could go wrong.” You don’t say. Yet for all of the 21st-century troubles that few riding the wave of first-dot-com-boom utopianism would have credited, we today run the risk of seeing our world as too dystopian. Now as then, “the vast array of problems to solve and the sheer magnitude of the changes that need to take place are enough to make any global organization give up, any nation back down, any reasonable person curl up in a ball.” We could use a fresh infusion of what Schwartz and Leyden frame as the boom’s key ingredient: American optimism. “Americans don’t understand limits. They have boundless confidence in their ability to solve problems. And they have an amazing capacity to think they really can change the world.” In that particular sense, perhaps we all should become Americans after all.
For short films, finding an audience is an often uphill battle. Even major award winners struggle to reach viewers outside of the festival circuit.
Thank goodness for The Screening Room, The New Yorker’s online platform for sharing short films.
It’s a magnificent free buffet for those of us who’d like nothing better than to gorge ourselves on these little gems.
If you’re not yet a fan of the form, allow us to suggest that any one of the 30 fictional shorts posted in The Screening Room could function as a superb palate cleanser between binge watches of more regular fare.
A community-supported project, starring Sutton and shot in Tanaka’s Brooklyn apartment, it’s a comedy of manners that brings fresh meaning to the semi-controversial phrase “Bed Stuy, Do or Die.”
Sutton plays a young Black artist with a masters from Yale, a gig behind the bar at Applebee’s, and a keen interest in positioning herself as an influencer, an ambition the filmmakers lampoon with glee.
When she discovers that her new apartment is haunted, she is “so freaked the f&ck out,” she spends a week sleeping in the park, before venturing back:
And it’s a studio, so it’s like living in a clown car of hell.
But once she discovers (or possibly just decides) that the majority of the ghosts are Black, she begins planning a podcast and makes her peace with staying put.
Cons: the ghost of an 18th-century Dutch Protestant settler whose white fragility manifests in irritating, but manageable ways.
Those with 18 minutes to spare should check out Joy Joy Nails, another very funny film hinging on identity.
Every day a group of salty, young Korean women await the van that will transport them from their cramped quarters in Flushing, Queens, to a nail salon in a ritzier — and, judging by the customers, far whiter — neighborhood.
Writer-director Joey Ally contrasts the salon’s aggressively pink decor and the employees’ chummy deference to their regular customers with the grubbiness of the break room and the transactional nature of the exchange.
“Anyone not fired with enthusiasm… will be!” threatens a yellowed notice taped in the employees only area.
Behind the register, the veil is lifted a bit, narrowing the upstairs/downstairs divide with realistically homemade signs:
“CASH! FOR TIP ONLY”
Like Sutton and Tanaka, Ally is versed in horror tropes, inspiring dread with close ups of pumice stones, emory boards, and cuticle trimmers at work.
When a more objective view is needed, she cuts to the black-and-white security feed under the reception counter.
When one of the customers calls to ask if her missing earring was left in the waxing room, the story takes a tragic turn, though for reasons more complex than one might assume.
Ally’s script punctures the all-too-common perception of nail salon employees as a monolithic immigrant mass to explore themes of dominance and bias between representatives of varied cultures, a point driven home by the subtitles, or absence thereof.
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