RL216 - You Could Do Less Magic

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: You’re their Guy Fieri, referring to Merlin not liking the personality of Guy Fieri although he is a nice guy. Some people just don't like you, no matter what you do.

The show title refers to Merlin not wanting the performer on stage change their performance just to please him. If it is a magic show and he doesn't like magic, the performer could do less magic, but that is not what Merlin wants.

It is a little early, they are starting 3 minutes early.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Merlin’s neighbors (RL216)

Merlin's neighbors next door have been renovating for the last 3 months and there is some banging and noise going on. Merlin will use his usual poor attempt to mute, but it is a shit show! They are tearing stuff and the contractors they got might be a little off the books. They have torn up a bunch of the floor and there are pools of water up to a foot deep, which doesn’t seem normal. Also part of their orange heavy-duty extension chord is sitting in that pool of water, which might not be best practice in construction.

Merlin paying attention during the show (RL216)

Merlin forget to get his non-clicky keyboard, but John encourages him to use his clicky keyboard. When Merlin is typing while John is talking, it doesn’t mean Merlin is bored, but it is his job to make the show go and he is doing show things that sometimes require typing. Merlin couldn’t let his guard down for a second, get bored and start surfing the Internet, because he might come back into the conversation when they are all the way out talking about which dog is which Beatle (Dog Beatles in RL150).

The reason people listen to this program sometimes 4 to 5 times is that the first time they listen is in their car, but they won’t get all of it, the second time they are doing their dishes, the third time they are sitting in their living room staring at the speakers and they realize that wasn’t enough either. By the 6th time you presumably have a transcript in your hand and you are listening eyes closed in front of a speaker. You can not check your email while you are listening to this show!

Giving a talk at XOXO 2016 and a discussion about privilege (RL216)

This past weekend John was at the wonderful XOXO conference run by the wonderful Andies. Every single person there was a maker or a creative of some kind and there were a lot of podcasters and podcast consumers. In a way it was a podcast trade fair with a lot of booths where you could pick up swag. Many people wanted to talk to John about Merlin, like ”Oh, Merlin Mann, is it true that…” and John stopped them and said ”Probably!”, or they would ask ”What does Merlin mean when he…” and John stopped them and said ”I have no idea!” This is Merlin’s nightmare, but John found it wonderful because so many Merlin-fans out there are starved for Merlin-time and that is what John is there for.

John was talking to other podcasters about their podcasting experience, sitting around a big table with a big roast in the middle, a candelabra burning, some wine flowing and somebody is playing a lute. Everyone has a different experience because everyone does a different kind of podcast. It was a situation where one person’s podcast should be instructive for another person doing a podcast, but really every podcast is different, like in life where people are trying to give you advice because they went through the mouse maze in this given way and they found cheese and didn’t die, so they think they should write a book about it, and then ”Who moved my cheese?” became an international bestseller.

A lot of what people wanted to talk about is how you can make a living with your podcast. John wanted to talk about why podcasting is still such an illegitimate art form. Merlin saw many notes and quotes on the Twitter, meaning that John did a talk that many people liked. It also sounded like John pushed back against the idea of doing this because it felt too easy.

Extemporaneous performance comes very natural to John while for a lot of people it is very hard. Everybody’s nightmare is to be pushed out on stage unprepared. Americans’ second greatest fear is death and their first greatest fear is public speaking. Add to that going out and winging it! While watching people at this conference getting up and giving speeches it became obvious that a lot of the speakers, even though they were professionally very accomplished and everybody was very interested in what they had to say, were full of anxiety about the performance of their talk. They have a PowerPoint and they have a script that was scrolling on a TV at their feet, and even though they are very naturalistic, it is a prepared text word for word.

John had done little preparation about what he was going to say. If he had looked over to the side of the stage after his 20 minutes were done and somebody would have been holding a sign asking him to stretch it for another hour, that would have been great! It is not like he was playing at the opening of a mall (see RW3) and Cirque deSoleil wasn’t repelling while John was playing with no monitors at 7am, but this was just like talking to Merlin about stuff and John could do it for hours.

The fact that it is everyone’s greatest fear and incredibly difficult to do for most people doesn’t impart any sense that doing it is a technical skill that should be rewarded commensurate with its difficulty. If you are a mathematician, everybody recognizes that it is very difficult because they don’t know how to do it and you should be rewarded with pay or stature. If you are running a 4-minute mile you get a medal and everybody applauds, but if you can get up and wing it, there is a sense that you are getting away with murder, because you didn’t try very hard. The person who slaved for weeks over their PowerPoint demonstration in order to control their anxiety enough to give a kind of stilted performance has done more work and therefore their performance is more valid than the person who can get up and give an entertaining talk without notes.

John is always wrestling with this! The most fun he has is doing this podcast and it might be the thing he is the most proud of, but he and Merlin are winging it every week and therefore it feels illegitimate to be rewarded for it or for it to be considered a job. It is just two guys jacking off, but it is a skill set and it is just as difficult as being a good painter!

John wanted to talk about that, but when he got up on stage, he just did 40 minutes of Portland jokes, flipped the audience off and got a standing ovation. This is John’s brand! That is why people come and that is what they expect. When Merlin was performing with You Look Nice Today, on Adam’s request they swore that they wouldn’t make poop jokes and at Scott’s request they swore they wouldn’t make Portland jokes, but Merlin did about 40 minutes of Portland- and poop jokes. You can’t help yourself!

If it is something that is easy and feels good to do, people are suspicious about it, which is a very privileged thing to say. There is this Midwestern feeling that if you are happy, you are probably doing something wrong. There is stress involved in getting up and giving speeches because the atmosphere around mansplaining, particularly middle-aged white men explaining, is so fraught. There are camps for which John’s presence at an event is already problematic.

When standing up on stage in front of people and being his natural self, saying ”Hello everyone! I am a big middle-aged white guy with things to say about stuff! Nice to meet you!” there is now an inhibition that some people in the audience will be primed to be looking for a problem. At this XOXO there was a person who very clearly came already angry and who tweeted halfway through his presentation about his unexamined privilege.

She probably came into the conference having already underlined John’s name in order to do a critique on this topic and she was already mad that he was there. Someone confronted him later and yelled at him in the audience because he got up at the end of someone else’s presentation (see also RW110) and did a little bit of a Kanye, like ”Taylor, I’m going to let you finish, but I have a little bit of an anecdote here” This person came over and gave John an exaggerated stage whisper which was trying to draw attention to herself, a lecture about how rude he had been in standing up and making a comment to the room.

There is a certain amount of that whenever John is giving a talk. He always wonders if there is something in his person that someone in the audience might get triggered by, like the way he is carrying himself, his voice, his casualness, or the very fact that he is comfortable standing up in front of a room. That alone is evidence of his status as a white male in a patriarchic culture and his comfort is a-priori an offense. Reflecting on his comfort in anything other than an apologetic tone for its very existence is an offense!

John has this ability to extemporaneously entertain an audience or to begin a story, take it through a journey, down a set of rapids and at the end of the story have performed an arc with some resolution to make it feel like a complete work. He doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night thinking that he might not get halfway through and blank. That stuff doesn’t really worry him! He has died 1000 deaths in front of a crowd and he is not scared of it. If the laughter is tepid and he feels like he has lost this audience a long time ago, he can still get them back simply by saying ”Boy, I lost you guys a long time ago”

There are always going to be people who just don’t like you. It doesn’t make them a bad person or prejudiced, but for example Guy Fieri seems like a genuinely nice guy, but his persona bugs Merlin. Merlin would not seek out his programming and that is why Guy Fieri sometimes gets to be a joke on their podcast. Merlin is not the biggest fan of magic tricks and illusions, but he would never wanted to go to a show where the person on stage decided to do less magic in order to make him happy, because that is not what the show is about.

XOXO is a place where the temperature has turned up a little bit. John was talking to a group of people that were largely his peers and the stakes in the room are one thing, but it is also going on the Internet and it is never 100% clear what the ”of the moment”-issue will be right now. You see it all the time: Someone goes up and gives what they think is an innocent or innocuous presentation that they are expecting is going to be received a certain way, or they even took some pains to make it not be something broadly offensive.

But even if you feel you have prepared for that, you can’t really be prepared for that. You can do less magic, but if you are trying to do something original and unusual, something within your character where you are pushing boundaries which you always need to do as an artist because that is the game and that is how you advance the whole human story, you will get into a posture where respecting boundaries is a prime directive. Respecting boundaries and pushing boundaries at the same time is something that every person is trying to do in a different way.

What you can never know is whether your off-hand comment, your awkward attempt to recover from a joke, your panicked response to an ejaculation from the crowd that caught you off-guard and that you didn’t expect, is going to be looped, put into the world and you are going to be the next one who is going to be pilloried. All you can do is trust that all the years you spent learning how to do gymnastics on the balance beam is going to save you in that moment.

Some people take the stage and their panic is not just that they might look down on themselves and notice that they are not wearing any clothes, but what if they say the wrong thing in the middle of a thing that his going great, either because it is written in their speech and they didn’t realize that the word the chose is a word that two days ago became incredibly fraught, or because somebody in the crowd goes ”That’s not funny!” and they reply to them in the spirit of the moment. Even if it worked in the room, if this was the one person in the room who wasn't going to like you no matter what, you are their Guy Fiery.

If that person came with a plan to tape-record you and put it online, either in context or out, although they might have put your comments completely in context, they might still put a scroll underneath it saying that everything you said is offensive. They can change the context just by captioning!Watching a video without any background music might make you think about it as an interesting scene, but when there is background music in the form of critical context, all of a sudden these words are now offensive or have a different meaning.

The potential stakes have changed for every kind of these things. John is not worried about it in his core, but there is a very real risk and he felt it between him and Merlin and everybody within their peer group of white middle-aged guys making things. At some point or another they might be up on the cross! It is part of the new reality and a lot of people have spent a lot of time on the cross in the past.

The change in the media landscape (RL216)

We used to live in a world in which the media ostensibly tried to be non-partisan, fair and balanced. Now there is a ton of media critique that explained to us over the past years that the media was no longer fair and balanced, but the mainstream media was operating in a closed system. In older times people were not reporting on Roosevelt's health state or Kennedy’s Addison’s disease, while the presumption of the world we are living in now is about a lot more access and being able to see more deeply. You could not hide Kennedy’s Addison’s disease now, because people are not just part of a tiny little club anymore who would decide if it was newsworthy and who would be capable of reporting on it.

Media prognosticators 25 years ago could not have foreseen the degree to which every single media outlet today is deeply and universally biased! Nobody is even pretending to be unbiased anymore, quite the opposite: Everybody is being a reporter and everybody is putting their stamp on it. Is universally biased media in some ways accomplishing a lack of bias if you take everything as a whole? If you are trying a more nuanced idea of what actually transpired as accomplishable you can look at all of the reporting across a wide spectrum and maybe even get a better picture of what happened than if you had 5 people trying to be unbiased.

The papers in the UK have always been more openly contentious, but you needed resources to get heard and resources always come with strings attached. Now that is no longer true and you don’t need any resources anymore. If you are the one person sitting there with your cell phone when a comet streaks across the sky, your footage will find a place in the world and will be on the news tomorrow, even though you are not a reporter and even though you are not out there working your beat.

Is this a transitional moment? Is this a 5-year blip? Or is this the beginning of a new thinking? In most cases it is both. Everybody is a pundit now and everybody thinks that their hot take is newsworthy, which is what makes this moment so pregnant! John thought of this when this woman came up to him from the audience at XOXO, dressing him down for a thing. John did a performance and she didn’t like it. You don’t have to be liked by everybody, but her sense of her own importance and her role in that situation was not ”I didn’t like that performance”, but her job was to school and shame John to correct the wrong.

She had no agency there, she wasn’t a stakeholder, but she was just an observer, but all of a sudden it was her responsibility on behalf of the people on stage, John’s fellow performers, to right this injustice. That is new! In the past you would go home to write a blog post or an article for the local newspaper, saying that this performance was bad, but now you add an element of ”I am a crusader personally”, both working as a media member, but also as the person picking up the first stone, almost.

Everybody fears being oppressed (RL216)

It is very clear to members of the Left community that we are living in a world in which Blacks, Hispanics, Women and Transgender people are being oppressed by a white patriarchic uber-culture. Trump-supporters are equally convinced that White Christian America is being violently oppressed by the Moccachino coalition of liberal intellectual media. Hollywood and the Left are a mega-culture in the majority and White Christian America is being increasingly violently suppressed.

Every single person, every single group and every single entity in the US has now a narrative in which they are being victimized and oppressed by a majority. Not every group in America can be simultaneously oppressed by a majority, but that is the current heartfelt belief! From our side it becomes very clear in the minutia of each individual case of police brutality, of all injustices, and of rape culture etc. It is very clear who the oppressor is and what our job as the representatives and allies of the oppressed should be. The other side of the isle has exactly the same conviction in the specificity of their oppression. In this and that instance the oppression is so clear and so dramatic and so threatening! They are stringing together a narrative that is extremely compelling to themselves and the specificity of those things spells a widespread culture of intolerance.

People have done this already in the civil rights movement and the anti-war-movement. They have chained themselves to the gates of the weapon’s plant and that was absolutely people’s perception of the work they were doing, but it got more and more granular all the time until you meet people like this woman at XOXO. She was a white woman at a conference where you have to apply to attend and that costs a lot of money to attend. She was perceiving herself not only as a victim, but also as a defender of other people that she was imposing victimhood on.

John didn’t read her Twitter feed and doesn’t know if she did the same thing to others as well, but her comments in both instances pre-supposed a truth that didn’t exist. She was judging him based on his appearance and presumed from his appearance and position at the festival that he was all the things that she was against. She came into the festival already against these things and she found a way to fit John’s behavior into that matrix, however little it resembled what she thought it was.

The same kind of confident indignation from people that John totally disagrees with is present in the current political situation. People think the white race is under attack, but the tone and the victimhood is note for note coming from the same emotional place. That is why John feels that this is a transitional moment! We cannot continue along a path where we each individually become more and more convinced that we are being assailed by every other group of stakeholders. It is not sustainable!

Acknowledging our privilege (RL216)

As part of acknowledging their privilege, each individual group has to start acknowledging their own power in its appropriate context, understanding that they are not a victim, but that they are empowered. Yes, there are challenges and they feel disenfranchised, but there is no massive conspiracy to disenfranchise them, but they are simply encountering people who disagree. They actually have a lot of power because they are a middle-class university student or a successful business person or they are just a blogger but their voice is heard while in the past no-one of their statue could have been heard. That is the next level of examining and acknowledging privilege!

From Merlin’s perspective from a remove it has been very interesting to watch the evolution and discussion about feminism, which started out a long time ago by white women and their allies. Over time there was a different strain of black feminism and a very different strain of Latina feminism. Just consider the idea that feminism is not some sprawl-on approach to equality, but it is actually a fundamentally different approach to think about the world! The most important part of it is that white guys learn to suck it up and realize they are not the king of everything.

It doesn’t stop there by any stretch and if there is anything that is damaging and destructive, it is to sit on a perch and feel that we finally understood how a situation works. There is still a tremendous defensive energy within white feminists when confronted by feminists of color. The tension within feminism is fascinating to watch. In this cultural moment we need to acknowledge our privilege, but we are being ashamed of that first moment when we didn’t know how much privilege we had, thinking we had the same challenges in the world as everybody else did, while in fact we had quite a few advantages that just never occurred to us. It is important to take away the element of shame about it!

Each individual person has advantages, even out of a cultural context, but none of us was taught to think that way. We don't wake up in the morning and count our advantages and acknowledge gracefully and with humility that not everybody has those advantages. Those advantages are not limited to gender or race! We are on the path to a much more spiritual culture, but right now we are in a moment where a lot of our intellectual capital is expended on both pillorying other people for a privilege that they aren’t acknowledging, and on ourselves for privilege that we are now trying to address at all times to the best of our ability.

Machiavelli said you can’t seed power, but you have to take power and that is not untrue! Power that is given to you by somebody else is power that they still hold. If it is being granted to you, it doesn’t belong to you. Real power is something that you cease and hold, both individually and in cultures. If we say that the White Christians have all the advantages and they are ostensibly the majority, then oil workers down in Luisiana who are living on food stamps are like ”What the fuck are you talking about?” They feel assailed at every level and part of their acknowledgement of their privilege is also to acknowledge their lack of it, and that it is not confined.

John reflects on his own privilege every day and he reflects on the many ways that every person, even the richest guy in Seattle, somehow feels under assault. Nobody had a good day yesterday! Bill Gates’ day yesterday was probably pretty hard. Part of being a successful human is to accept that and to have sympathy for him and for everybody you encounter. That is why you don’t say shitty things to people on the Internet and why you are not a Gamergater. It is important to not wake up in a feeling of hyper-righteous liberal superiority, because everybody is having a bad time.

Merlin’s favorite topic has been for a long time that there is a very strong culture of people telling you what you are doing wrong. The Internet is constantly telling you that you are enjoying life wrong. One downside of that culture is that the stakes for changing have become a lot higher and there is less and less incentive to want to fix something about yourself, because it makes you look like a flip-flopper or like you are being disloyal or capitulating. By admitting that there is anything you could do better you are making yourself publicly vulnerable.

As long as there are such potential giant stakes to trying on ideas like a suit it will be hard for anybody to talk honestly and to say that they got something wrong. Even if you are wrong about the other person being wrong, are you going to admit that? You are just as invested in that as the other person who now has doubled down on their investment on that thing. That doesn’t get us anywhere! It is why this election year was so disgusting and hard to watch: Nobody is allowed to be a bit broken for a while in the service of getting fixed.

This might be a momentary space because what is the end game in calling attention to people’s privilege? It might be to create a world where there is no privilege and no group of people has an advantage over any other group of people. If we call it out, we can redress the systemic, institutional way in which certain groups of people are privileged over others. Right now we are addressing privileges of massive scale, but it is very easy within that overarching rubric to be attacking people on a personal level for much more personal privileges.

You can critique John’s ability to get up on stage and extemporize purely as the result of him being a white male. From John's world of feelings this ability feels like a talent he is gifted with, just like the ability of some people to run a 4-minute mile. Anybody who has raised a child will recognize that you can do a lot of work trying to correct what you perceive to be the cultural tentacles that are part of a child’s upbringing, but you will also see that a child is already exhibiting personality, talent and predilection at 6 months old that nobody had anything to do with. It wasn’t cultural, but it was innate in them a priori! John’s ability to stand up and confidently take charge of a room is a thing that was already in him when he was 6 months old!

John is vulnerable to being critiqued purely as the product of a social construct. One potential end game of the conversation about privilege could be the ability for different groups of people and different actors, both macro actors and micro actors, to say: "Here are our talents, here are the things that my group is good at, here are the privileges that we are capable of bringing to bear to collectively solve problems better."

There are groups of people with cultural, economic or innate skills or talents, or who were raised with a silver spoon in their mouth which gave them a certain agency and ability in the world, but the ultimate goal is to learn together to not be greedy and to enact our privilege on behalf of others. If the goal is to level all privilege, then that would be a political movement we also need to call out. That isn’t benign, necessarily!

John getting invited to a getaway for designers (RL216)

An invitation that has been tendered to John by a firm that calls itself a design firm but is more an advertising firm. John doesn’t know what design firms do and how they are differentiated from advertising firms. Their chief creative officer, a person John has never heard of, was inviting him to a design gathering, ”a few days to get away to somewhere else and be more and different. Here is a link to a video that gives you a little taste, but promise no trust circles. There is a talent show, or maybe called a no-talent show more aptly, where everyone goes up on stage and does stuff where others feel embarrassed for them. Otherwise we tackle a problem social, community, creative, where we use our creative brains in a different way. We want to invite you up to this resort where you can see the stars and hear nothing. We have a musical performer join us to tell us their story, their passion. Look at it as storytelling accompanied by songs. Please bring your family and hang out with us, observe, participate or just explore the area one night you are invited.”

John wrote back to clarify because it sounded like they wanted John to perform. Is this a paying gig or is this an experience? The reply was that it is kind of all of the above: Acoustic storytelling with a small stipend and a family getaway. John replied that it sounds very much that he is being asked to perform a show, because he is not just a guitar strummer, but he is also a storyteller. Even if they say ”Play a few songs, tell some stories”, one thing doesn’t mitigate the other and storytelling isn’t something that causalizes guitar playing.

They were framing it in a way that John was very fortunate to be invited to this particular Teddy Bear picnic, because it is an experience and he can bring his family. By the way, they would be giving him some gas money to get up there. This company has 40+ employees and they are taking over a big resort up in the mountains for this event. Everybody is kind of a chief something officer and you get the impression that the lowest paid person at this place makes $85.000 a year and it goes up from there to $250.000 a year. John hasn’t heard back what the small stipend is, but he is guessing $250, which is like a per-diem.

John ran this email by all the other podcasters at the XOXO festival who are all people who routinely get asked to give this kind of thing. ”Hey come on out to our event! You will have an uncomfortable bed in a weird room, you will be on stage basically the entire time because everybody else are workmates who are bored of each other and we are inviting you because everybody knows you and you are on top of the list of people to invite.

From the moment you wake up in the morning you are going to be performing and then you are going to put on a show for us and it is going to be great! You don’t drink, but there will be some Martinelli’s Apple Juice there for you while we all get drunk around the camp fire. It is going to be amazing! You bring the guitar out with you and if you say no, everybody is going to say Ohhhhhh and hopefully somebody else will also play the guitar and we will get drunk enough that you can hand them the guitar”

The event is in Washington State, maybe 1.5-2 hours away. There was a time when Merlin would reply to something like this with: ”Would you do this for the same amount of money?” and if they say ”Yes, I absolutely would!”, Merlin would say ”That is even worse! You really don’t value your time and you must not realize how much money you should be making at what you are doing if you would do that, so now you are a dingeling and you are a little dishonest.” For a while, Merlin was the go-to-a-conference guy who gave talks, but that still got his dander up! Why don’t we have a conversation like adults about this? If you want to hire me, why are we not having that discussion? The fact that they are bringing it back to their campfire spaghetti party (see RW69), forget it!

Everybody John asked about it rolled their eyes, because this is not a new conversation. We all get hilarious letters all the time, asking us to perform for free, often at a thing like this where they are going to pay $25.000 for food and sundries alone. It is a getaway for the staff and the presumption is that John is going to get as much out of spitballing with them about creative stuff as they are going to get out of spitballing with John.

An advertising agency owned by some friends offered John ”What if we just gave you a desk here?” They wanted to give him a desk up here at the executive level and he could come and use the space, be around and hang out. They were not offering him a job, but they had extra space and John could come, they could sit around with their wheely chairs, wheeling around and throwing pencils at the ceiling and it would turn into a big ad campaign for them while John lucked out in having a desk.

Every time John would go there, they would ask him about his opinion of their latest campaigns and John would say ”That word right there is a little corny or did you ever consider this or that” and they would be like ”Nice!” There is a reason they would want John there and give him a free desk, but because we are all creatives, let’s just get into a creative space and create-o-rama!

If John would go up to this mountain event, would they be brainstorming together about some creative shit? John would be helped by sitting in a room with his guitar and write some songs, that is what he needs! David Rees said he would ask for $10.000 and settle for $7500. $10.000 is the ”Go fuck yourself!” line, unless they come back and say ”Oh, you have now made us realize what this actually is!”

Then John will be the asshole, because he was invited to Thanksgiving dinner and he wants to send them an invoice. What a dick! He was allowed to bring his family, they could all stay in one room with two twin-beds, it would basically be a free vacation. John would never write this in an email to them, but if they were listening to the podcast, he would say that he is perfectly capable of finding his own way to vacation with his family and he does not need that opportunity in lieu of money.

The invitation did not even come directly from the chief creative officer to John, but he knows a friend of John in the show business and he sent it to her and she sent it to John with her own little ”I don’t know if this is up you alley, but this sounds like a fun opportunity” or something. John is not replying to him, but he is replying to her, not only with the potential to alienate the guy, but also to alienate his friend, because he asked her ”Hey, can you use your magic to get John Roderick?”

Merlin says that if they were a public library, a Macintosh user group or St. Jude’s, they could write to John Roderick and say ”Look, would you want to come here and play some music? We don’t have any money, but we would love for you to come!” Merlin doesn’t mind getting that from somebody who admits what it is about, but what he doesn’t like is being made to feel like a turd because they are trying to do a business negotiation as though they are his brother in law, which is so fucking weak sauce! They are going through somebody else and have an interlocutor on the line. The more John reads this, the more it sounds like they want him to perform, which is what he does professionally. Storytelling is actually his job as well, it is not a fun thing that he is just going to throw in between his songs. Now John sent another email to her and didn’t hear back yet, maybe because she is too busy to deal with this.

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