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Could sea creatures unlock the origins of the mind?

When it comes to understanding the mind, philosopher, writer and diver Peter Godfrey-Smith suggests marine life may hold some illuminating answers. Among the vast array of marine life, shrimp, coral, and cuttlefish exhibit amazing levels of consciousness and the octopus with its many tentacles and 8 limbs-- functions as a creature with multiple “selves.”  What can we learn from the way these animals experience the world? Could sea creatures unlock the origins of the mind?

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Peter Godrey-Smith about his new book “Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind” about his exploration of levels of consciousness and “self” among some of his favorite undersea creatures.

Is there this problem of projecting our human way of thinking, our human way of understanding self on to these creatures?

Godfrey-Smith: “There is a problem there and this is a good point to talk about the octopus. One of the reasons octopuses are an important case in the story, is the fact that there's a kind of ‘centeredness of self’ that we humans, and probably lots of other mammals and vertebrates have as a consequence of how our nervous systems are set up and our bodily organization There's a ‘centeredness of self’ that might be absent or very different in some animals with different organizations and the octopus is the outstanding case, because most of its nervous system is not concentrated in the head between the eyes but spread through the body, especially in the upper part of the arms. There's a gigantic network of control devices and sensors in the arms, which is larger than the central brain.

So when we look at an octopus and try to imagine what it's experience is like, one of the big questions is how we should tackle these differences in organization that might imply differences in the kind of “selfhood” that's present there. This is another question, which I'd love to give a definitive answer on how to handle this but I think it has some very puzzling features.”

Food for thought? French bean plants show signs of intent, say scientists

...Together with Vicente Raja at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy in London, Canada, they used time-lapse photography to document the behaviour of 20 potted bean plants, grown either in the vicinity of a support pole or without one, until the tip of the shoot made contact with the pole. Using this footage, they analysed the dynamics of the shoots’ growth, finding that their approach was more controlled and predictable when a pole was present. The difference was analogous to sending a blindfolded person into a room containing an obstacle, and either telling them about it or letting them stumble into it.

“We see these signatures of complex behaviour, the one and only difference being is that it’s not neural-based, as it is in humans,” Calvo said. “This isn’t just adaptive behaviour, it’s anticipatory, goal-directed, flexible behaviour.”

The research was published in Scientific Reports. “Although the research seems sound, it is not clear that it teaches us much new about plant sentience or intelligence,” said Rick Karban, who studies plant communication at the University of California, Davis. “For more than a century, scientists have been aware that plants sense aspects of their environments and respond, and understanding how plants [do this] is an active area of current research. Whether you choose to consider these processes sentience or intelligence depends entirely on how to choose to define these terms.”

Calvo acknowledges that this experiment alone doesn’t prove intent, much less consciousness. However, if plants really do possess intent, it would make sense. All biological organisms require the means to cope with uncertainty and adapt their behaviour to pass on their genes, but the timescale on which they operate makes this particularly imperative for plants: “They do things so slowly, that they can’t afford to try again if they miss,” Calvo said.

One possibility is that this “consciousness” arises out of the connections between plants’ vascular systems and their meristems – regions of undifferentiated dividing cells in their root and shoot tips, and at the base of leaves.

In a separate paper, Calvo and his colleagues set out a theory of plant consciousness based on integrated information theory (IIT) – a leading theory of consciousness – which posits that we can identify a person’s (or any system’s) level of consciousness from the complexity of the interactions between its individual parts.

Others rebut such claims. IIT is based on an assumption that everything material has an element of consciousness, even nonliving complex systems: “It cannot have any special significance for plants,” said Jon Mallatt at the University of Washington, US. He believes claims about sentient plants are misleading, and risk misdirecting scientific funding and government policy decisions.

Calvo said he was happy to be disproved, but experimentally, rather than on theoretical grounds. In another paper scheduled to appear in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, he proposes a set of experiments which may settle the matter once and for all. “If successful, these experiments could position plants as the next frontier in consciousness science, and urge us to rethink our perspectives on consciousness, how to measure it, and its prevalence amongst living beings,” he said. The gardening gloves are off.

Can Self-Replicating Species Flourish in the Interior of a Star?

The existing view of biological life is that it evolves under suitable conditions in the low-temperature world of atoms and molecules on the surface of a planet. It is believed that any plausible extraterrestrial form of life must resemble the life on Earth that is ruled by biochemistry of nucleic acids, proteins, and sugars. Going against this dogma, we argue that an advanced form of life based upon short-lived species can exist inside main-sequence stars like our Sun.

PBS Space Time throws a bit of cold water onto this idea of sidereal ecosystems, bringing us back down to Earth.

Birds Have a Mysterious 'Quantum Sense'. For The First Time, Scientists Saw It in Action

Mike McCrae

Importantly, this is evidence of quantum physics directly affecting a biochemical reaction in a cell – something we've long hypothesised but haven't seen in action before.

Using a tailor-made microscope sensitive to faint flashes of light, the team watched a culture of human cells containing a special light-sensitive material respond dynamically to changes in a magnetic field. The change the researchers observed in the lab match just what would be expected if a quirky quantum effect was responsible for the illuminating reaction.

This could be a game changer, proof of natural selection being able to exploit quantum phenomena...or so it seems to me?

(I do recall photosynthesis but my understanding is that while this was initially thought to be a utilization of superposition this has been cast into doubt?)

Is there Ultimate Stuff and are there Ultimate Reasons?

In this essay, we reflect on two fundamental assumptions, the one philosophical and the other scientific. The first has been called the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). This encapsulates the idea that there is (at least in principle) a complete explanation for everything that exists or happens. We argue that recent attempts in philosophy to undermine the PSR should be rejected on a combination of philosophical and scientific grounds, and PSR should be upheld. Secondly, we argue, from the assumption that PSR is true, that the quantum vacuum (QV) is not the most fundamental stuff that exists, and moreover that we can say something positive about the nature of the “more fundamental” stuff. We argue that these conclusions follow from the implications that PSR carries for the nature of scientific explanations applied within the framework of the model of Nature indicated by Systems Philosophy. We show that under PSR the indicated substance underlying the QV has promise for developing solutions to certain fundamental empirical puzzles in science such as the nature of dark energy and the foundations of consciousness.

Dr. Johannes Kleiner: Why the universe might be conscious

This is a pathbreaking conversation with Dr. Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician and physicist at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy. He works at the cutting edge of an ever urgent question — is the universe conscious? He explains to Grin why the answer could well be, yes.

The crucial ingredient in constructing and studying mathematical models of consciousness is to represent conscious experience in mathematical terms. This is what makes mathematical models of consciousness so powerful. One can use what is called a ‘mathematical space’ to represents the content of conscious experience. Once provided with some mathematical description of the physical domain (e.g. of the neural network in the brain), on can then apply a model of consciousness to calculate which conscious experience it would have.

    Now the crucial ingredient here is that any physical system that can be represented mathematically (in principle) can be ‘plugged into’ a model of consciousness to calculate the conscious experience of that system according to that model. Next to brains, this could be a mathematical description of a computer, a large network or even a approximate mathematical description of the universe.

This is where the headline you have quoted above comes from. Mathematical models of consciousness allow us to calculate the conscious experience of all sorts of systems. And while a final verdict is still pending of which model of consciousness describes reality correctly, it is a possibility that the universe as a whole has some conscious experience.

Philosophy & Science / The Three Holograms
« on: May 15, 2020, 05:36:15 am »
Physicalism proposes that the relational realm is mindless. There are many versions of this  proposal.  The  one  most  influential,  at  present,  proposes  that  the  basic  building blocks  of  the  relational  realm  are  the  particles,  fields,  and  other  entities  within  the province of microphysics. The behavior of these entities is mindless, governed entirely by probabilistic laws.

Idealism proposes that the relational realm is made of minds. It may be one mind, as in Berkeley’s  proposal  that  it’s  the  mind  of  God,  or  it  may  be  many  distinct  and  finite minds in interaction. In the latter case,  the behavior of these  minds has also been described by probabilistic laws.

Dualism proposes that the relational realm is made  both of minds and mindless entities. There are probabilistic laws governing the minds, the mindless entities, and the interactions between the two.
   --Peeking Behind the Icons

The Three Holograms

What the Idealist tells you stuns your mind. He reveals that the year is 2212, and that you’re part of a hi-tech experiment designed to solve the problem of consciousness once and for all. Then he says enigmatically, “The wires funneling through the wall are as much a part of your mentally-projected reality as the walls and the desk are. But these wires feed into your brain to generate that perception of reality!”

“What does that mean?” you ask.

The Idealist smiles, and says, “It means that those so-called physical components, the wires that project your mental reality into you, and so are entirely responsible for the creation of your experience, are as much a part of that mental reality as the thoughts in your head. All that exists here is entirely mental.”

“But, what does that mean?”

The Idealist chuckles merrily, “It means that there is no direct evidence in your experience of any connection to a physical realm, simply because what you would call your mind’s physical connection to the so-called physical world is just as much a part of your experience as the chair you’re sitting on. What you are experiencing now is a purely mental reality.”

Pleased by your joyous visitor, you laugh – but your laughter is interrupted when the Idealist suddenly becomes grave, danger looming in his voice. He intones, “I must warn you – I am not the only holographic being who will visit you today. Two more holograms are on their way. Their messages will be fallacious. However, the final hologram’s message is by far the most misguided. I warn you, no matter what he tells you, don’t listen. If you listen, it might cost you your life.”

The Conceivability Trap: Analytic Philosophy’s Achilles Heel

...Since our empirical experiences are always perspectival—after all, each of us operates through a unique point of view or window into the world—the achievement of objective knowledge is contingent upon a procedure meant to distill objectivity out of perspectival subjectivity. In science, Karl Popper offered the following: “the objectivity of scientific statements lies in the fact that they can be inter-subjectively tested” (emphasis added). In analytic philosophy, however, issues often cannot be settled by experimental testing, so a different form of procedural objectivity is required. In this context, Bertrand Russell held that there are a priori principles of logical reasoning—not contingent on the idiosyncratic perspectives inherent to empirical experience—which, if properly applied, render objective conclusions possible.

Even philosophers of mind, whose object of study is that most subjective of all things, aim for objectivity. Expressions now common in the community—such as ‘what it is like to be (something or someone)’ to define the presence of experience—as well as words such as ‘phenomenal’ and ‘access’ to qualify consciousness, reflect an effort to objectify what is essentially subjective.

But can the ideal of full objectivity ever be realized? For as long as analytic philosophers are fallible human beings, instead of computers, it surely can’t. Their conclusions, too, are inevitably a function of the variety and metacognitive depth of their personal experiences. It is more productive to acknowledge this fact and respond accordingly, than to pretend otherwise.

For instance, the notion of conceivability—which is often appealed to in modern ontology and philosophy of mind to establish or refute metaphysical possibility—relies on the particular set of subjective experiences a philosopher has had in his or her life. Therefore, it is naïve—perhaps even pretentious—to assume that one’s personal inability to conceive of something entailed or implied by an argument positively refutes the argument. For not only in continental, but also analytic philosophy, one’s conclusions reveal perhaps as much about oneself as they do about one’s object of inquiry.

Indeed, even language itself—an indispensable tool not only for communicating, but also formulating our thoughts—is based on shared experience. Words only have meaning to us insofar as their denotations and connotations are experiences we’ve had ourselves. For instance, because you and I have experienced a car, the word ‘car’ has meaning for both of us, and so we can use it in a conversation. Similarly, because the word ‘color’ denotes an experience I’ve had, I can use the concept of color in my own meditations about the nature of mind.

As a matter of fact, the concept of a color palette occupies center stage today in philosophy of mind. Analytic philosophers who adhere to constitutive panpsychism use the concept to conceive—by analogy—of how a limited set of fundamental phenomenal states could be combined—like pigments in a palette—to constitute our ordinary experiences. The conceivability of this very notion rests on our shared experience of colors and how they can be combined to form other colors.

Now imagine Helen Keller as an analytic philosopher. Born deaf and blind as she was, she didn’t share with sight-capable philosophers the experience of having mixed watercolors in kindergarten. As a matter of fact, she didn’t even know what a color is. The very notion of a palette of fundamental experiences that could be combined to form meta-experiences wouldn’t be conceivable to her. And yet, the rest of us knows it is perfectly conceivable. Conceivability is thus not an objective notion, but an inherently subjective one....

Philosophy & Science / Peeking Behind the Icons
« on: May 10, 2020, 10:24:26 pm »
Peeking Behind the Icons

There is a relationship then, in the normal case, between what you see in the phenom-enal and relational senses. What you see in the phenomenal sense is a useful and sim-plified interface to  what  you  see  in  the  relational  sense.  It  summarizes  a  myriad  of complexities in  a way  that  lets you  interact  with  that  complexity  without  tedium and distraction. What it provides you is indeed phenomenal — a phenomenal interface. So the answer to your first question — Are we seeing and playing with the same volleyball? — is both yes and no. No, you each have constructed  your own volleyball experiences. And yes, you each are interacting with the same hidden world of circuits and software. There are as many phenomenal volleyballs as there are players. There is only one rela-tional volleyball, and it doesn’t resemble a volleyball at all. That first question took you to unexpected places, so you try another. Is the volleyball still there when I don’t look? Again  the  answer  depends  on  the  volleyball.  Your  phenomenal  volleyball  is your  con-struction.  When  you  don’t  look  you  don’t  construct  it.  So  the  phenomenal  volleyball isn’t there when  you  don’t  look.  However,  the  relational  volleyball  doesn’t  depend  on your constructive powers for its existence. The relational volleyball is just the circuits and software. So the relational volleyball is there when you don’t look. It just doesn’t re-semble a volleyball.

Which brain creates all my conscious experiences? The phenomenal brain or the relational brain?

The brain you just experienced in The Virtual Brain was of course a phenomenal brain. Indeed, The Virtual Brain headphones told you that this phenomenal brain was indis-tinguishable from the phenomenal brain you would find if you opened up your skull. So is it this phenomenal brain that creates all your conscious experiences? No. The phenomenal brain, with all its phenomenal neurons and synapses and neural net-works, is your constructed experience, just like the phenomenal volleyball. If you don’t look, it’s not there. And if it’s not there, it can’t do anything. But you have conscious experiences even when you don’t see your phenomenal brain. In fact, until just a few minutes ago, you had probably never seen your phenomenal brain. So the phenomenal brain can’t be what constructs your conscious experience.

That leaves your relational brain. If it’s true that your brain creates all your conscious experiences, then it must be your relational brain, not your phenomenal brain, which is the creator. But what is your relational brain? Does it resemble your phenomenal brain? There’s no reason to suppose it does. In fact, as we saw with the volleyball, there’s no reason to suppose that the nature of the phenomenal brain in any way constrains the nature of the relational brain. Your phenomenal brain is simply a graphical interface that allows you to interact with your relational brain, whatever that relational brain might be. And all that’s required of a graphical interface is that it be systematically related to what it represents. The relation can be as arbitrary as you wish, as long as it’s systematic. The trash can icon on your computer screen is a graphical interface to software which can erase files on your computer disk. The trash can icon is systematically related to that erasing software, but the relation is arbitrary: the trash can icon doesn’t resemble the erasing software in any way. It could be any color or shape you wish and still success-fully do the job of letting you interact with the erasing software. It could be a pig icon or a toilette icon instead of a trash can icon. All that matters is the systematic connection.

You can’t help yourself. You have to ask the question. Which circuits and software make it all possible? The phenomenal or the relational? By  now  this  question  is  easy.  It’s  not  phenomenal  circuits  and  software  that  make  it possible, say, to spike a virtual volleyball. It couldn’t be. There need be no phenomenal circuits and  software,  for  you  or  anyone  else,  when  you  spike  the  volleyball,  so  there-fore phenomenal circuits and software can’t be what makes that spiking possible. The answer must be that it’s the  relational circuits and software that make it possible to play virtual volleyball. But of course this raises another question. What are relational circuits and software? We know that they needn’t in any way resemble the phenomenal circuits and software that we experience. But what more can we say about them? This raises a general and important question. If the relational realm needn’t resemble the phenomenal, then what can we safely say about the nature of the relational realm? Not much. However,we can propose theories and see how they stack up against our ex-periences. This is an intriguing enterprise, and one that has attracted lots of attention. There  are  now  many  theories  of  the  relational  realm  that  are  compatible  with  all  the evidence we have from the phenomenal realm. These theories come in three basic kinds: physicalism, idealism, and dualism.

Physicalism proposes that the relational realm is mindless. There are many versions of this  proposal.  The  one  most  influential,  at  present,  proposes  that  the  basic  building blocks  of  the  relational  realm  are  the  particles,  fields,  and  other  entities  within  the province of microphysics. The behavior of these entities is mindless, governed entirely by probabilistic laws.

Idealism proposes that the relational realm is made of minds. It may be one mind, as in Berkeley’s  proposal  that  it’s  the  mind  of  God,  or  it  may  be  many  distinct  and  finite minds in interaction. In the latter case,  the behavior of these  minds has also been described by probabilistic laws.

Dualism proposes that the relational realm is made  both of minds and mindless entities. There are probabilistic laws governing the minds, the mindless entities, and the interactions between the two.

It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.

Alexander Wendt is one of the most influential political scientists alive. Here’s his case for taking UFOs seriously.

So in an attempt to force a UFO conversation into the public discourse, I contacted Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at Ohio State University. Wendt is a giant in his field of IR theory, but in the past 15 years or so, he’s become an amateur ufologist. He wrote an academic article about the political implications of UFOs in 2008, and, more recently, he gave a TEDx talk calling out the “taboo” against studying UFOs.

Wendt is about the closest thing you’ll find to a UFO expert in a world in which ufology isn’t a real science. Like other enthusiasts, he’s spent a lot of time looking at the evidence, thinking about the stakes, and theorizing about why extraterrestrials would visit Earth in the first place.

In this conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity, we discuss why scientists refuse to take UFOs seriously, why he thinks there’s a good chance ETs are behind the aircraft in those videos, and why he believes the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be the most significant event in human history.

New findings suggest laws of nature 'downright weird,' not as constant as previously thought

Lachlan Gilbert

Not only does a universal constant seem annoyingly inconstant at the outer fringes of the cosmos, it occurs in only one direction, which is downright weird.

Those looking forward to a day when science's Grand Unifying Theory of Everything could be worn on a t-shirt may have to wait a little longer as astrophysicists continue to find hints that one of the cosmological constants is not so constant after all.

In a paper published in Science Advances, scientists from UNSW Sydney reported that four new measurements of light emitted from a quasar 13 billion light years away reaffirm past studies that found tiny variations in the fine structure constant.

Does Time Really Flow? New Clues Come From a Century-Old Approach to Math

Natalie Wolchover

However, she said, “if somebody is called on to reflect a bit more deeply about what the block universe means, they start to question and waver on the implications.”

Physicists who think carefully about time point to troubles posed by quantum mechanics, the laws describing the probabilistic behavior of particles. At the quantum scale, irreversible changes occur that distinguish the past from the future: A particle maintains simultaneous quantum states until you measure it, at which point the particle adopts one of the states. Mysteriously, individual measurement outcomes are random and unpredictable, even as particle behavior collectively follows statistical patterns. This apparent inconsistency between the nature of time in quantum mechanics and the way it functions in
relativity has created uncertainty and confusion.

Over the past year, the Swiss physicist Nicolas Gisin has published four papers that attempt to dispel the fog surrounding time in physics. As Gisin sees it, the problem all along has been mathematical. Gisin argues that time in general and the time we call the present are easily expressed in a century-old mathematical language called intuitionist mathematics, which rejects the existence of numbers with infinitely many digits. When intuitionist math is used to describe the evolution of physical systems, it makes clear, according to Gisin, that “time really passes and new information is created.” Moreover, with this formalism, the strict determinism implied by Einstein’s equations gives way to a quantum-like unpredictability. If numbers are finite and limited in their precision, then nature itself is inherently imprecise, and thus unpredictable.

Philosophy & Science / The secret life of plants
« on: April 08, 2020, 09:20:16 pm »
The secret life of plants: how they memorise, communicate, problem solve and socialise

Amy Fleming

Mancuso and his colleagues have become experts in training plants, just like neuroscientists train lab rats. If you let a drop of water fall on a Mimosa pudica, its kneejerk response is to recoil its leaves, but, if you continue doing so, the plant will quickly cotton on that the water is harmless and stop reacting. The plants can hold on to this knowledge for weeks, even when their living conditions, such as lighting, are changed. “That was unexpected because we were thinking about very short memories, in the range of one or two days – the average memory of insects,” says Mancuso. “To find that plants were able to memorise for two months was a surprise.” Not least because they don’t have brains.

One of the most controversial aspects of Mancuso’s work is the idea of plant consciousness. As we learn more about animal and plant intelligence, not to mention human intelligence, the always-contentious term consciousness has become the subject of ever more heated scientific and philosophical debate. “Let’s use another term,” Mancuso suggests. “Consciousness is a little bit tricky in both our languages. Let’s talk about awareness. Plants are perfectly aware of themselves.” A simple example is when one plant overshadows another – the shaded plant will grow faster to reach the light. But when you look into the crown of a tree, all the shoots are heavily shaded. They do not grow fast because they know that they are shaded by part of themselves. “So they have a perfect image of themselves and of the outside,” says Mancuso.

Another misconception is that plants are the definition of a vegetative state – incommunicative and insensitive to what is around them. But Mancuso says plants are far more sensitive than animals. “And this is not an opinion. This is based on thousands of pieces of evidence. We know that a single root apex is able to detect at least 20 different chemical and physical parameters, many of which we are blind to.” There could be a tonne of cobalt or nickel under our feet, and we would have no idea, whereas “plants can sense a few milligrams in a huge amount of soil”, he says.

Philosophy & Science / Gravity: The Popper Problem
« on: March 30, 2020, 11:24:48 pm »
Gravity: The Popper Problem

David Merritt, Astrophysicist and professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology

The universe is expanding, and Einstein’s theory of gravity makes a definite prediction about how the expansion rate should change over time: it should decrease, since the gravitational attraction between all the matter in the universe continually opposes the expansion.

The first time this prediction was observationally tested, around 1998, it was found to be spectacularly in error. The expansion of the universe is accelerating, not decelerating, and the acceleration has been going on for about six billion years.

How did cosmologists respond to this anomaly? If they adhered to the ideas of philosopher Karl Popper, they would have said: “Our theory of gravity has been conclusively disproved by the observations; therefore we will throw our theory out and start afresh.” In fact, they did something very different: they postulated the existence of a new, universe-filling substance which they called “dark energy”, and endowed dark energy with whatever properties were needed to reconcile the conflicting data with Einstein’s theory.

Philosophers of science are very familiar with this sort of thing (as was Popper himself). Dark energy is an example of what philosophers call an “auxiliary hypothesis”: something that is added to a theory in order to reconcile it with falsifying data. “Dark matter” is also an auxiliary hypothesis, invoked in order to explain the puzzling behavior of galaxy rotation curves.

Philosophy & Science / Therapy that sticks
« on: March 29, 2020, 05:57:37 am »
Therapy that sticks

Linda Michaels

Juxtaposed with this mental health crisis, news media and headlines tout the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), explicitly recommended as ‘evidence-based’ and said to work rapidly, especially when combined with drugs such as antidepressants or mood stabilisers. Varieties of CBT apply to a host of different diagnoses: dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) for personality disorder; cognitive processing therapy (CPT) for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); interpersonal therapy (IPT) for mood disorder. The list goes on: 50 per cent of therapists now define themselves as fitting in the cognitive-behavioural lane, compared with none 50 years ago. People seem to be absorbing these messages with more of us on medication than ever; antidepressant use alone went up 64 per cent from 1999 to 2014. The increase is so steep that an estimated 13 per cent of the US population now take the drugs.

What is wrong with this picture? Why do modern ‘evidence-based’ treatments fail to produce better outcomes? Indeed, why do things seem to be getting worse, with many forms of suffering, even suicide, on the rise?

My conclusion: the biomedical model (favoured by psychiatry) and the short-term, structured therapy model (favoured by psychology) don’t work as well as they should. These treatments seem easy to administer, but is a ‘quick fix’ really what’s called for when addressing complex problems in life? Is it possible that one type of therapy – CBT and its family of treatments – can work for nearly every person and every problem so successfully?

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