BlathrWayne Lorentz

Blathring in June, 2021.

You asked for it

Wednesday, June 30th, 2021 Alive 18,327 days

My Cox internet bill, printed in Braille

In order to get the cable company to stop calling me trying to sell me TV service, last month I told Cox that Iʼm blind.

Now my internet bill comes in Braille.

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i18n_comment_snarky

Monday, June 28th, 2021 Alive 18,325 days

A failed attempt at communication from Microsoft

If Microsoft canʼt handle internationalization, what chance do the rest of us have?

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Loaded question

Sunday, June 27th, 2021 Alive 18,324 days

The New York Times app, with its pants around its ankles

The New York Times app sure knows how to load ads.

Too bad it doesnʼt know how to load the news that I pay for.

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Your time is up

Saturday, June 26th, 2021 Alive 18,323 days

A threat from the Marriott web site

“Before Time Runs Out?” Thatʼs pretty scary.

What does Marriott know about my health that I donʼt? Or maybe itʼs some kind of a threat? Why is Marriott threatening me?

I guess Iʼll stay somewhere else thatʼs less threatening.

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♫ The dream of the 90ʼs has died in Portland… Portland… Portland ♫

Sunday, June 20th, 2021 Alive 18,317 days

An ad for Portlant, Oregon

If your city has to take out an ad in the New York Times letting people know everything is not as bad as it seems, you know you have a P.R. problem.

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Sweet and smokey

Friday, June 18th, 2021 Alive 18,315 days

Maple Walnut coffee from Piñon Coffee in Albuquerque

Today's coffee is Maple Walnut from Piñon Coffee.

It's not exactly maple walnut season around here. This week has been wildfires, not fireplaces; and 117° above, instead of 17° below. But this place never sees a proper autumn or winter, so you make your own.

Like other Piñon products, it's very smooth. And when freshly ground, it smells more like maple and walnuts than the maple walnut cookies that I get from my neighbors fresh out of Canuckistan.

Why Piñon again? Because I'm a sucker for free shipping. And because I like my coffee the way I like my women: sweet and smokey.

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Good enough for owls

Friday, June 18th, 2021 Alive 18,315 days

A bag of Wise potato chips

No beating around the bush. I will just plainly state right here that Wise potato chips are the best potato chips on the planet.

Every once in a long while something goes terribly wrong with the universe and a black hole opens up, depositing Wise potato chips at a store near where I live. They are the potato bomb.

While most other potato chips aspire to be like Layʼs potato chips, these are the chips that Layʼs aspires to emulate.

The only problem is that theyʼre hard to come by if you donʼt live back east. And occasionally youʼll get a weird, shriveled green potato chip. But I eat those, too.

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Sew what?

Friday, June 11th, 2021 Alive 18,308 days

I bought a new pair of sewing scissors from Amazon. It came in a package that required scissors to open.

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Aggressive and untrustworthy

Monday, June 7th, 2021 Alive 18,304 days

Costa Rica Decaf from Mod Cup

Todayʼs coffee is Costa Rica Decaf from Mod Cup Coffee in Jersey City.

How did I end up with coffee from New Jersey? I was thinking about hipsters. Remember them? They seem to have mostly disappeared now, but I figured if there were any still around, theyʼd live in Jersey because they got priced out of Brooklyn. Yep, there they are.

Even though this coffee is decaffeinated, it still kicks. This is a manly decaf, from back when men were real men and a shoeleather steak with a cup of black coffee was considered a light lunch. This coffee is so Italian it wants to drive Panzers into the Horn of Africa. This is a coffee that will lead you down a dark back alley and kiss you so hard that you wonʼt notice it lifting your wallet. And you wouldnʼt care if it did. But thatʼs OK, because I like my coffee the way I like my women: Aggressive and untrustworthy.

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♫ Weʼre the Bank of America… Whoa-oh! ♫

Monday, June 7th, 2021 Alive 18,304 days

An error message from Bank of America

With 200,000 employees, if Bank of America canʼt keep its web site from failing, what chance do I have?

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Just go outside

Saturday, June 5th, 2021 Alive 18,302 days

The Sears Tele-Games version of Atari Basketball

I got a new Atari cart today. It's Basketball, and naturally the Sears Tele-Games version because that is the manner in which I roll.

The game is not great in a lot of ways, but it is exceptional in one — It perfectly captures the vision, abilities, and naïveté of video games in 1978.

Two years later, it made an appearance in the movie Airplane!, much to the delight of video game fans and the horror of nervous flyers.

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Youʼve been kicked out of better places

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

Wanna start a fist fight in Whole Foods?

When Rando McFreedumb asks you why youʼre still wearing a mask, look him in the eye and say, “Because Iʼm better than you.”

I donʼt think Iʼm welcome back at that Whole Foods.

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This is what P.T.O. is for

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

An Activision Space Shuttle cartridge

I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Space Shuttle by Activision.

From what Iʼve read, this is supposed to be one of the most difficult of the mainstream Atari 2600 games. Itʼs also supposed to be among the most rewarding to complete.

Itʼs supposed to be hard because the controls are very difficult. When Atari needed more buttons for one of its games, it just rolled out new controllers. Activision took a different path, and instead repurposed many of the existing switches on the Atari 2600 console to control functions of the game.

That Activision needed more buttons and levers to control this game makes sense, because youʼre flying a freaking space shuttle.

Also, from what Iʼve read, I shouldnʼt call this a game. Itʼs believed to be one of the very first consumer flight simulators, and it sounds like the sort of thing Iʼd have to take a full day off of work to get right.

Iʼm curious about how I would do with Space Shuttle, reliving the days when space exploration was about to be so common that weʼd “shuttle” people into outer space the way Pan Am shuttled people up and down the east coast. Here in 2021, neither of those things exist anymore.

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So… howʼs the game?

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

A Sears Poker Plus cartridge

I got a new Atari cart today. Itʼs Poker Plus, the Sears version of Atariʼs Casino.

This is the text label version, which is what I prefer because that means its an older version, and what I would have had in my home, if my family had this cart in 1978. But we didnʼt.

The version of this game with the Sears picture label is more unusual, but not quite what one might call “rare.” Just seldom seen for sale.

Itʼs a very minor topic of discussion in the realm of Atari nerds that Sears spent a lot of time and money making its own artwork for the Atari games it licensed. There are plenty of debates over which is better. I donʼt have a preference. But I do note that the Sears imagery is often racier than the Atari version.

Here are the Atari and Sears picture labels of the same Casino/Poker Plus game.

Atariʼs Casino
Searsʼ Poker Plus, from eBay, since I donʼt have this version

The Atari one is fine, featuring a slim young woman in a strappy white evening frock engaged in severely constrained enthusiasm. The Sears one features a Vegas showgirl wearing low-rise panties, a feathered headdress, and nothing else. Sheʼs covering her breasts with her slender arms, but not out of shame, based on her smile.

As a resident of Las Vegas, I am uniquely positioned to decide which label is more accurate. And I can tell you that the Sears version is more correct.

Not because there are lots of gregarious topless showgirls roaming the casinos of Sin City. There arenʼt. Except for street buskers, the showgirls are all gone. Itʼs Miss Atari who is wrong. The notion of Vegas casinos being populated by well-dressed, glamorous, interesting people died in the late 1980ʼs. If she was done up in crop-top football jersey with a tattooed beer belly hanging over pajama bottoms and Crocs, toting a three-foot-long empty plastic beverage container and a grudge against Southwest Airlines, then she would fit right in.

But graceful white evening dress and statement jewelry? This isnʼt Monaco.

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♫ What is it good for? ♫

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

A CBS Wizard of Wor cartridge

I remember that Wizard of Wor was a huge hit in the arcades. Now I have it as an Atari Cartridge.

I find it humorous that this is a video game from CBS, the media Goliath I would later work for, briefly. In 1982, it seemed like every big company on the planet was trying to get into the video game business. From toy companies like Mattel to movie companies like 20th Century Fox to record companies like K-Tel.

Even the arcade version from Midway seemed very primitive to me, so Iʼm not eager to try out the 2600 version, which I assume to be even worse. But maybe Iʼll be surprised by a high quality, fluid, engaging production from a company as large and resourceful as CBS.

Oh, wait. I used to work for CBS. I know better.

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Falling for it

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

An Activision Pitfall cartridge

I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Pitfall, by Activision.

This game was massive when it came out. Everyone I knew did everything they could to get a copy. But this is my first time playing it.

My parents were Sears people, and so unless I somehow came up with the money myself, they would only buy gen-you-wine Sears Tele-Games versions of Atariʼs games. And since Pitfall was Activision, not Atari, I was stuck. But not for long.

A few months later, a Commodore 64 was set up in my bedroom, and while my friends had tired of Pitfall and moved on to other games, I didnʼt care whether they lent me their cartridges or not. I had a whole new world of possibilities opening up under my fingers, right on my homework desk.

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Colorful invaders

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

An Atari Galaxian cartridge

I got a new Atari game today. Galaxian.

Itʼs colorful, modern, and very well done. Not at all the sort of thing I go in for.

Iʼm more a plodding Space Invaders kind of guy. I like a game that allows me to have a sip of beverage without penalty.

This is the first time Iʼve seen Galaxian in its 2600 form. By the time this cart hit store shelves in 1983, my interest had already moved to the Commodore 64, and so this was never on my radar.

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A BASIC IDE

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

An Atari BASIC Programming cartridge

I got a new Atari cart yesterday. Itʼs BASIC Programming.

While the word “BASIC” in the title is properly capitalized because it is an initialism for Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, the title would also work in sentence case as “Basic Programming,” because this is truly basic programming.

Lots of modern-day reviewers on the internet who are more interested in outrage clicks than thoughtful conversation deride this program as a farce or even a toy. I have the unpopular view that BASIC Programming is really quite good, both as a technical achievement and as a cultural change agent. It achieves a number of important goals:

  • Provided ordinary people with an introduction to programming
  • Provides a subset of the BASIC programming language
  • Has the ability to play musical notes
  • Has the ability to display rudimentary graphics

This is all elementary school stuff today. But when this cartridge came out in 1979, it was absolutely revolutionary. For $50, an Atari owner could get a taste of what it was like to actually program a computer. And while computers were starting to occasionally appear in well-to-do homes, they were still staggeringly uncommon, and cost about the same as a new car.

Joysticks and buttons in arcades gave wider society its first opportunity to command an electronic machine to do things. BASIC Programming gave Atari owners the ability to give an electronic machine sequences of commands, and to act on them. Moving a dot around a screen with a joystick had been done long ago through various electromechanical methods. But this was the first chance for ordinary people to actually command a machine to do more than just react to stimulus.

BASIC Programming in all its elementary beauty

BASIC Programming has a limited feature set, but itʼs still an integrated development environment, not fundamentally different from what computer programmers use today. One significant difference is that BASIC Programming managed to present a fully functional I.D.E. in a minuscule 2K of memory. Thatʼs about one sixth of the words in this article.

By comparison, the current version of Microsoftʼs I.D.E. starts at 274,000 times the size of BASIC Programming, and increases rapidly from there, depending on what language you write in.

Atariʼs BASIC Programming crosses the same ocean as Microsoftʼs VS Code, but does it with a styrofoam pool noodle instead of the Queen Mary.

In addition, BASIC Programming is user-friendly in one specific way that few computers are today. Like me, it had Sister Maria for third grade Arithmetic class, where she preached, “Anything divided by zero is zero.” Try to divide something by zero in Atariʼs basic BASIC, and it politely gives you zero. Unlike modern computer systems that fall on the floor, curl up in a ball, and start quietly sobbing to themselves when asked the same question.

The one popular modern-day gripe I agree with is that the input method is cumbersome. Itʼs a pair of keypads, one plugged into each joystick port, and then locked together. I understand why it was done this way, but that doesnʼt make it easy to use.

Still, the single keypad pair is pulling more than its weight, even for the era. It is used for:

  • The entire common English-language alphabet:
    A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
  • The numbers:
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0
  • A space character
  • Punctuation ., ,, ʼ, and
  • A set of basic BASIC keywords
    • Clear
    • Else
    • Goto
    • Hit
    • Hor1
    • Hor2
    • If
    • Key
    • Mod
    • Note
    • Print
    • Then
    • Ver1
    • Ver2
  • Mathematical and assignment operators +, -, ×, ÷, , <, (, >, ), and =
  • Cursor controls Backward and Forward
  • A Newline character
  • IDE controls for:
    • Erase
    • Graphics
    • Halt
    • Output
    • Program
    • Run
    • Stack
    • Status
    • Step
    • Variables

Just looking at the command set, thereʼs a lot of interesting points.

  • It has an else command. There are modern-day computer languages that donʼt even have this feature.
  • It has a goto command. Only recently has goto come in from the cold, and is slowly being embraced by a new generation of programmers decades after being banished to the Gulag of Oldthink.
  • Its keyboard has Control, Meta, Super, and Hyper modifiers, just like keyboards of today. On a modern-day keyboard you may know these as Control, Command, Option, and Hyper. On the Atari keypad, theyʼre color coded White, Red, Blue, and Green.
  • It has a function to slow down the execution of programs so that the programmer can understand whatʼs happening.

    Imagine being someone in 1979, who has lived his entire life with paper and pencils — someone who has never seen a computer in person before — coming to the realization that the simple little program he punched in on his Atari is running so fast that he canʼt keep up with it. This was an epiphanal moment. An awakening. A sense that the cyber-commander art work on the box wasnʼt just fantasy, but an expression of the type of power being brought to ordinary people in their dens.

In addition, when you run a program, the systemʼs cursor moves through the program during execution, allowing you to follow along with whatʼs happening. This kind of functionality is an add-on in modern systems.

On a personal note, I love the idea that it has a Halt command. It brings a lot of nostalgic feelings to my tummy. Back when computers were commanded to run and then halt because of their military origins. A time when you couldnʼt start a computer without a key. When computers had mechanical odometers behind a panel so that the IBM service guy from New Paltz could write down for how many hours you used the machine, to let Big Blueʼs billing department know.

BASIC Programming in all its constrained ugliness

Yesterday was a quiet Saturday, so I sat down with BASIC Programming and approached it with my programmerʼs analytical mind, and without the biases of modern-day development. My conclusion is that this is really quite fun.

I started by typing in all six of the programs I could find on the internet. Unlike the days of typing in program from the backs of magazines, these all worked the first time, with moving dots and pinging sounds. Then I started to experiment on my own.

The dialect of BASIC that this cartridge uses is very much of its era. Variable assignment is done with , instead of =, just like in 1960ʼs and 1970ʼs computing languages like AP/L. Goto is your friend, not your enemy. And the notion of whitespace for readability goes right out the window. This will be a show-stopper for anyone used to cruising Appleʼs internal codebase.

Iʼm not musical in any way, so naturally I enjoyed stringing along rudimentary bloops and bleeps into nonsensical songs. For an afternoon, I was the e e cummings of synthpop, but I was also doing something: I was creating. This was an a-ha moment, and I felt a rainbow connection to dads of the 1970ʼs, sitting cross-legged in wood-paneled living rooms, scales drifting lazily from their eyes as the future was revealed.

If you appreciate programming elegance, the value of simplicity, or simply dig code golf, this is your course. You are forced to think about what youʼre doing. To make choices, evaluate tradeoffs, and make do with what you have. Itʼs a lot of the brain stimulus that gets some people into programming as a profession in the first place

There are a number of people who enjoy making tiny programs. Some so small that they fit into a PC-DOS boot sector. I think a few of those people might thrive within the constraints of this environment.

The biggest limitation of BASIC Programming is memory. You can only cram a few dozen symbols into the machine. Thatʼs to be expected, since the entire console only has 128 bytes of memory. Thatʼs the reality of 1979. But today, people are able to program Atari cartridges that work with comparatively massive amounts of information. One guy even sells Atari carts that are full-motion videos of popular movies. I suspect one of those clever people could find a way to make a version of this that works around the memory limitation.

The second-biggest problem is the Frankensteinian keyboard. As an input device, it was never intended for long-form content. But the cognitive overhead of shifting modes, double-checking the screen, and the constant hunt-and-peck involved make it hard to concentrate on the program, and not on the controller. Perhaps thatʼs another throwback to 1970ʼs computing, though.

Iʼm old enough to be one of those programmers who wrote their programs out on paper first (graph paper, if you were lucky), then typed it into a shared computer, and hoped that it did what was intended. Maybe if I spent more time thinking about the code beforehand, rather than writing it on-the-fly as is common today, coding in BASIC Programming wouldnʼt be so arduous.

BASIC Programming in all its abject simplicity

Still, I think that with a bit of time, it would be possible to come up with a harness that links a standard Human Interface Design keyboard with the pair of Atari joystick ports to emulate the keypad. In my mind, it would take some kind of Arduino or Raspberry Pi device with a dozen I/O pins. Voltage might be an issue, but nothing insurmountable to todayʼs hobbiest.

In fact, using this method, one could actually load BASIC Programming programs stored in a host system through the Arduino-powered keypad interface. You could write a program in Microsoft VS Code, or Panicʼs Nova, and when you push to git, or the version management system of your choice, it could also be sent wirelessly to the Arduino, which then relays the keypresses into the Atari 2600.

Now I know what Iʼm going to do when I retire.

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Piston Positn

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

An Atari Pole Position cart with a misspelled label

I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Pole Position.

Iʼm not big on racing games, though I enjoy watching other people play them. My problem is that Iʼm not very good at racing games. The one racing game I actually like and am also good at is Ridge Racers for the PSP.

This Pole Position cart wasnʼt a deliberate purchase. It came in a box with a knot of other games, but Iʼll keep it for two reasons.

First, because I do have some nostalgic memories of playing Pole Position when I was a kid. I wasnʼt any good at it back then, either. To me, a joystick was entirely the wrong control method for this game, especially considering that every Atari console shipped with perfectly fine paddle controllers, and many people also had the racing version of Atariʼs paddles left over from other games.

The second reason Iʼll keep it is because the end label is wrong. It reads “POLE POSITN*.”

Label errors werenʼt uncommon on Atari games, and got more and more common as the years went on and the company moved from sprinting to walking to hobbling with a cane to shuffling with a walker to its inevitable dirt nap. But this is a pretty glaring error, and I do enjoy knowing that other people make mistakes, too, so Iʼll put this one in a protective sack to keep it fresh.

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So swipe the other way

Friday, June 4th, 2021 Alive 18,301 days

A malfunctioning iPhone screen

I swiped up to unlock, and instead the screen sort-of half swiped left. The lock icon, the unlock instructions, the wallpaper, and a dark overlay moved left, revealing another copy of the wallpaper underneath. Meanwhile, the time, the music panel, and the quick keys stayed put.

Fortunately, all was solved ten seconds later when the phone shit itself and rebooted.

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History Ⅱ.0

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021 Alive 18,300 days

A Breakaway IV cartridge

I got a new Atari game today. Itʼs Breakaway Ⅳ, the Sears Tele-Games version of Atariʼs Breakout.

Breakout has some interesting history behind it, which is unfortunately being re-written in the internet age. It was one of the Atari games that Steve Jobs worked on, and he enlisted Steve Wozniak to help with the project. That much is not in dispute.

However, since the death of Mr. Jobs, itʼs become common for revisionist historians on the internet to paint him as a comic book-grade evildoer. After his death, the embellishments became louder and more elaborate, as there was no living person to push back against them.

Today, if you look into the history of Breakout online, you are told that Jobs was a con man who took advantage of poor, helpless Saint Wozniak and twirled his mustache all the way to the bank.

Accounts from the time of the gameʼs development tell a very different story. But itʼs easy to slander someone after they are dead. Especially if youʼre trying to remake your own image, and benefit from internet outrage.

Another detail about Breakout that the chattering internet classes scratch their heads over is why Sears would label this game “Breakaway Ⅳ” instead of “Breakout.” The reasons are both simple.

Sears had a habit of renaming the Atari games it licensed if the names were too close to the names of other video game consoles that Sears had previously released. In the occluded view of video game history we get from the internet, consoles like the Atari 2600, the Fairchild Channel F, and the Magnavox Odyssey started it all. But there were hundreds, possibly even thousands of video game consoles before those.

The previous generation of consoles lacked interchangeable cartridges, and often could only play a single or a handful of games. But they existed. And they had names. Sears sold at least a dozen of these machines under its Tele-Games brand in the years before the Atari 2600 was invented, so in order to prevent confusion and re-using product names, it came up with new ones. For example, Atariʼs Street Racer became Searsʼ Speedway Ⅱ.

In addition, while Atari repeatedly targeted its advertising to individual game players, Sears heavily promoted its video game machines as devices to bring families and groups of people together. Breakout is one of those games that can be played by up to four people. The “Ⅳ” may be an indication of the number of people who can be brought together to play at once.

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How about “Video Pinball Ⅱ?”

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021 Alive 18,298 days

A Sears Arcade Pinball cartridge

I got a new Atari cartridge today. It's Arcade Pinball, the Sears version of Atari's Video Pinball.

It's a really good game, with just the right balance of luck, still, and action to be engaging.

People on the internet like to moan that Sears should have called it “Video Pinball,” like Atari did. But Sears was putting out video game consoles long before Fujicorp, and several of them already had pinball games, which were commonly referred to as ”video pinball.” Labeling this cart “Arcade Pinball” cuts down on confusion for those who were playing video games at home before 1977.

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♫ Jeder war ein großer Krieger / Hielten sich für Captain Kirk ♫

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021 Alive 18,298 days

A Sears Outer Space cartridge

I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Outer Space, the Sears version of Atariʼs Star Ship.

Star Ship was one of the least popular of the original Atari 2600 launch titles. The graphics are a bit crude, even for 1977, and the gameplay isnʼt much fun without a second human companion. Atari stopped making this game by 1980, while other launch titles continued for years afterward.

The Sears version is not notable on its own. The Atari version is most famous for sometimes coming with a weird label with giant yellow letters that looks nothing like any of the other Atari cartridges. The oddball label doesnʼt it more collectable. A quick scan through fleaBay shows sellers asking the same price for either version.

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